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
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  • Published:
    Sep 2006, 288 pages

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When the opponent knows how to fight, it is quite another matter. Another gang of carters declares war on our guys. A battalion of enemies enters the courtyard. Our carters, Jews and Poles, confront the danger together. At first they fight with fists and feet. Then they grab sticks and chains. When these weapons fail, they pull out knives. The fighting lasts all night long. At dawn, we hear gunshots. My mother forbids me to go near the window, because of stray bullets. Once the fight is over, the police come to pick up the wounded and the dead.

Stray bullets are very dangerous. Mazik, the carters’ leader, is a real thug. He levies his share of the cartloads, carries and resells stolen goods, extorts money from peasants who want to get a spot in our courtyard on market day. Sometimes he drinks so much he becomes crazy. He screams, waves his handgun, shoots everywhere. In the end, he puts his gun in his pocket and falls to the ground, dead-drunk. Then people find another body lying on the ground. It so happens that it is one of Mazik’s enemies, someone who insulted him or didn’t pay his due. The witnesses report the events to the police: Mazik was beyond himself, he was shooting without aiming. What could they make of it? The victim was killed by a stray bullet. Me, sitting near my window, I often see Mazik shooting at a target for practice. He staggers and lurches and waves his arms like a windmill. . . . A shot in the air, a shot on the ground, a shot in the center of the target!

Our Praga neighborhood is very poor. Everybody says it is a thieves’ nest. From my window, I watch pickpockets at work on market days. You need good eyes to see more than a peasant jumping and hollering because his money has vanished. The pickpocket’s hand is so fast. . . . It dives into the peasant’s pocket and comes out holding a thick wallet. I see it! I also see something strange: just before the pickpocket acts, a man in a hurry jostles the peasant. After watching for weeks, I can follow the whole scene. The pickpocket needs three partners. Two of them shout at each other and trade insults, then pretend to fight. Gawkers gather right away. The third partner elbows his way through the crowd to reach the front row. As he pushes the peasant aside, he gives him a nasty poke in the back with his elbow. The peasant screams. He looks for the brute who hurt him so he can curse at him. He focuses his attention on the pain in his back. He doesn’t feel the crafty caress of the pickpocket’s hand.

Some robbers wait for the end of market day. Having sold all his vegetables, the peasant is going back to his village. He has bought cigarettes, candles, and other goods that the villagers have ordered. The robber jumps onto his cart noiselessly, rustles around in the bags to feel what they contain, then throws cigarettes packs and candles to his accomplices. There is a saying in Yiddish: “The robber is so skilful that he would steal the crack of your whip.”

As soon as my legs are strong enough, my brother Anschel finds work for me.

“You know all the thieves, Moshe. I’ll introduce you to a peasant who’ll give you a job as a guard.”

“If I see a thief, I give him a butt with my head!”

“You’d better not. You pull the peasant’s jacket and show him the thief, that’s all.”

The peasant’s eyes widen when he sees his new guard. I am five years old, but I am very small.

“This runt will protect my goods?”

“That’s the whole point. The robbers won’t notice him. They won’t be very cautious, so he’ll be able to spot them easily.”

As I perform my task quite well, the peasant gives me three potatoes. A real treasure!

Resourceful Anschel has found an unlimited stock of food:

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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