Abke the Chewer’s troubles began when he tried to do a good deed. He got himself into trouble and was thrown into prison. Not just for a summer, a winter, and then out, but for a good long time.
It was like this. One summer evening, when Abke the Chewer was walking down Daytshe Street, he happened on a guy hanging around the church. The gate to the German church was a regular meeting place for late night rendezvous. At first Abke didn’t pay much attention to the skinny suitor standing under the electric lanterns in a wrinkled jacket and worn out shoes. He figured the guy was probably waiting for a waitress from one of the nearby restaurants so he could take her to the little park on Troker Street.
Abke was on his way to Itske the Redhead’s tavern. They had managed to interest a gambler from other parts in an illegal game of poker and they needed a fourth hand to really sink their teeth into him. This definitely had to be Abke because Abke had expert hands --- not for working of course, but for shuffling cards. He was famous for his shuffling --- he always held onto two aces. But bad luck got in his way when the young man who was hanging around the church tried throwing a piece of cloth over the electric wires under Abke’s very nose. Abke had no doubt but that this had to be a red flag. What else would someone hurl up on the wires late at night? Obviously not a shirt that had been washed and needed drying.
The thrower was clearly still an apprentice in this particular trade. The piece of cloth soared into the air a few times and fell back down like a bird that had been shot. The kid was completely incapable of throwing the flag over the wires.
Abke fumed. “Look at the useless guy they sent for the job.” He ran up to the kid and hollered, “Run home, you bearded numbskull. If you can’t do a job, keep your nose out of it.”
The revolutionary acted like a big hero. “It’s an order from the party.”
Abke demanded, “Do you want to rot away in silence?”
“In prison, you dope.”
The young man wasn’t put off in the slightest. “We have to rally the masses.”
Luckily the street was quiet. There was only one carriage filled with drunks clip-clopping over the cobblestones. Abke cursed his fate. He couldn’t stay there with the kid; he couldn’t leave him. After all, this was a Jewish child. What could Abke do? Give him a shove in the head; that would be God’s mercy. Abke had a good look around to make sure no one was looking, grabbed the flag from the young man’s hand, and easily threw it over the wires with one toss. It hung without a single wrinkle, the edges spread out like the wings of a bat.
The young man stood there with his mouth open, craning his neck up at the flag. He wanted to deliver a speech and thank Abke in the name of the Vilna party and the world revolution, but Abke gave a low hiss, “Get lost. Scram.”
The kid didn’t have to be asked twice. He had already noticed a man pursuing them from Gitke-Toybe’s Lane a moment before Abke had spotted him. The kid disappeared between two houses and from there, through a fence and onto another street. Abke didn’t even try to disappear.
Because of his flat feet, he couldn’t run like the kid so he just stood there, ready to take whatever God doled out. Breathless, Susilo the Snoop pinned Abke to the wall of the church and handcuffed him.
Susilo, who was in the secret police, knew the entire city and the entire city knew him. He spoke perfect Yiddish and ate cholent on Shabbes at Velfke’s restaurant on Yiddishe Street. Susilo was hand-in-glove with the underworld and knew everyone by their nickname.
Susilo could not believe his eyes. The agent knew Abke from a series of pathetic little deals like selling a glittering ring to a poor peasant as real gold or taking someone’s fur coat after a billiard game at Shtral’s Café. But hanging anti-government flags? Susilo had clearly seen Abke do it. He had purposely lain in wait behind the corner of the lane to catch them in the act. Abke’s excuses didn’t help, “Mister Susilo, I swear to you, I was on my way to a poker game. You know me . Am I the type to . . ?” Abke carried on all the way to the central police station on Ignatover Street, the headquarters of the secret police. As soon as they arrived, Susilo telephoned the firemen to immediately take the illegal flag down from the wires.
In the morning the masses walked through Daytshe Street. Women bought buttons at Sarah Klok’s sewing notions shop. Hucksters dragged customers into the second hand clothing stores, praising the pants and jackets to the skies. And the flag, the red flag that was so important for rallying the masses, was nowhere to be seen. Instead they were rallied by the mild sun, the blue sky, and a feathery cloud as white as snow.
In the central police station, they treated Abke like a regular. The agents barely paid any attention to him. But when Susilo explained why he had arrested Abke, there was a hullabaloo in every room. The agent on duty pinched Abke to make sure it was really him.
Susilo sat at the table amusing himself by playing with the keys for Abke’s handcuffs. Had it not been Abke, who was a regular there, they would have slugged him right on the spot. But they simply emptied Abke’s pockets, pulled out his shoelaces, and shoved him into an out of the way cell until morning, when Pendzik the Cripple, the Magistrate for Political Affairs, was scheduled to show up.
Abke didn’t shut his eyes all night. Usually he slept during his arrests. He knew almost all the legal clauses and what was coming to him. They never investigated him, but simply made a report and sent him to the prison on Stephan Street. Abke felt at home there. He never acted like a big shot, so they took into account the time he had served before trial. The sentence never seemed that long: a month more or less. But this was not such a simple matter. Abke drove himself crazy trying to figure out what to say the next day. When dawn came, he still hadn’t figured anything out and decided it was best to remain silent to buy time.
Abke was just dozing off on the bare planks when an excuse hit him right in his thick skull. He would claim that the kid had offered him money to hang the flag. He had needed the money for a big game of poker, and so had allowed himself to be persuaded. Susilo had scared the kid off and he had escaped. Abke hoped Pendzik would swallow the story and book him on a criminal charge. If so, once he got himself out from behind bars, he would make sure he didn’t mess with politics ever again.
But Pendzik did not swallow the story. After Susilo reported in detail to him, Pendzik came to an entirely different conclusion about Abke. First thing in the morning Pendzik was never in a good mood. Before he even sat himself down behind his desk, he was already furious with the entire world. Because of his lame foot, his nights with his wife were not the best. She was from the village: young and good-looking, with plenty of flesh on her bones. Pendzik wasn’t man enough for even one of her teeth. It was lucky that Susilo was a regular guest at their house. From time to time he bedded down there during the day while his boss was absorbed with defending Poland from the red scourge. As a result, peace in the home was not disturbed. Every Sunday Pendzik was able to proudly limp to the Church of the Holy Anna next to the Vilenke River with his beautiful wife on his arm, all the while hoping all the other men would drop dead from envy.
Abke sat opposite Pendzik with his head shoved between his narrow shoulders. He tried to read Pendzik’s thin determined lips for a response to the story he’d hatched early that morning. Pendzik’s office was bathed in summer sunlight. The windows were open. A green branch peeked in from outside. Chestnut trees grew in the closed courtyard of the central police station. A sparrow jumped up defiantly on the window ledge as if to remind Pendzik that the entire world was not sitting in the palm of his hand. Aside from the bars on the windows, everything seemed so peaceful.
As well as Communists, Pendzik also hated Jews. Why, even he didn’t know. Now that a Jew who was no doubt also a Communist sat across from him, his hatred transformed the room into a closed jar containing a spider and a fly.
Abke gave Pendzik the details about the incident from the day before. Polish was not Abke’s language. Pendzik called in Susilo so that Abke would be able to speak Yiddish and the investigation could proceed more quickly and efficiently. It didn’t help. Abke stuck to his story. Susilo translated everything and Pendzik didn’t believe a single word. Finally, the magistrate gave Susilo a wink and they left the room together. When they returned, Abke still hadn’t figured out anything new to say.
Susilo took charge of the situation. Before he began to break Abke, Susilo stroked his sparse, carefully groomed whiskers, adjusted his thick forelock, and buttoned his jacket. He looked very elegant, with a sharp crease in his well pressed trousers. The agent wanted to appear serious to make an impression on Abke and win the trust of the arrested man. He pushed down the lower brow of his left eye with his index finger, an international sign that someone is in the criminal underworld and understands things with no more than a wink.
“Abke, don’t waste any more time. Stop stringing us along. You’re trying to create a smokescreen with this story of the money, but you’re just making a fool of yourself. You didn’t ask for the money in advance, eh? Are you so trusting in poker?”
Abke groaned. “You’re right. I was a real idiot. I should have insisted he lay out the money in advance.”
“The same lie again. I’ll knock out your last pair of molars.”
Trying to avoid a smack in the face, Abke burrowed his head even deeper between his shoulders and sighed, “I was really duped.”
Susilo straightened the knot of his tie and continued, “Abke, come on. Be reasonable. Tell us the guy’s name. Give us addresses. Who recruited you into the party? Tell us everything and we’ll return the favor. If not, things’ll go very badly for you. You’re a young man right now, but I’m telling you; you’ll leave prison with a white beard.”
“I know nothing. I swear on my freedom.”
“Stop telling stories. Your stubbornness is not the behaviour of a criminal. You’ve obviously been well trained in the party. And for many years.
Your card playing, the petty theft, it was all a front to hide your political work --- helping the Bolsheviks seize Poland.”
Abke couldn’t stand it any longer. He leapt from his chair and with a dignity that neither Pendzik nor Susilo expected, proclaimed, “Aside from what I do for a living, I am an honest citizen. I have nothing against Poland.”
Susilo almost split his sides with laughter. He was barely able to translate the few words for Pendzik. Pendzik was enraged. “You have nothing against Poland, eh? Well Poland has something against you, Bolshevik!”
Abke had something else to say, but he couldn’t manage to get it out. Pendzik rained down blows on Abke’s shoulder with his cane until Abke lay on the floor. Still Pendzik continued to hit him. Susilo grabbed his boss by the hand and tore the cane from his hand. Susilo was certainly a snoop, but he wasn’t a murderer like Pendzik the Cripple who, in beating Communists was searching for a remedy for his own weakness. Susilo was as strong as a horse and took pleasure in Yiddish, cholent, and Pendzik’s wife. That’s why he saved Abke.
With his head split open, his shoulder cut to ribbons, and a swollen face, Abke was not taken to Stephan Street, but to the Lukishke prison where political prisoners were held.
In Lukishke prison, an arrested man lived in luxury with a straw mattress and a bed sheet. Abke lay stretched out like a count. They had bandaged his head and smeared iodine on his wounds. It had been written in the court record that Abke had resisted arrest. The prison doctor proposed that Abke be placed in the hospital ward, but the prison doctor wouldn’t allow it. “A Communist is better off in a cell. There he talks to the walls.”
Abke ended up in a cell with two other political types: Rulek Rafes and Mendel Kvartatz. They had both been caught with illegal literature and were awaiting trial. By the time the swelling on Abke’s face had gone down and the wound on his head had healed, both Rulek and Mendel knew, by way of a note smuggled into the prison, that class consciousness had been awakened in Abke the Chewer. He had contributed to the general struggle by putting his particular talents to work one dark night and hanging the flag of a bright tomorrow. The illegal note also included instructions to greet Abke officially as a new member of the highest level of the revolutionary avant-garde.
Abke was not used to this kind of prison. At Stephan Street, there were about thirty men to a cell. Peasants who had been arrested for stealing wood from a landowner’s forest told stories about she-devils, mossy creatures with three breasts. City pickpockets taught each other new tricks for taking a wallet out of someone’s breast pocket using only two fingers, so the victim didn’t feel even a tickle. On these subjects, Abke had plenty to offer.
But here in Lukishke, he had nothing to say. Politics was just not his area. Rulek and Mendel fought about these things all day long and Abke couldn’t slip in even a single word. Aside from the half-hour break to walk in single file in the prison courtyard, from early morning on unknown names, slogans, and nasty expressions flew around the cell, and Rulek and Mendel’s tongues were on fire with the word “revolution.” There was no place in the discussion for even the faintest smile. Abke felt very gloomy.
Abke was indeed gloomy, but nonetheless he lent an ear to their talk. He marvelled at their knowledge; young scamps and yet they knew so much. How easily they assailed each other with those long words.
It was understandable that the arrested men wanted to improve things, but the capitalist world would not take their advice. As far as Rulek and Mendel were concerned, there was no spot in the world worth thinking about except for the Soviet Union, which was a Garden of Eden for the downtrodden.
Not long before, Gorgeous Grishke who “works” on the trains, had told Abke a story about following a landowner with two suitcases. He had no success with the rich man’s valises; the man had refused to doze off. That is how Grishke got to see Switzerland. He had explained to Abke,
“Shleymke Peyske’s restaurant in Vilna is a barn compared to the restaurants there. And if you want poor people, you have to send for them from Vilna.”
“Now Switzerland sounds like a real paradise,” Abke thought. “What’s so great about the Soviet Union compared to Switzerland?” But if Mendel and Rulek thought the Soviet Union was so wonderful, then maybe there was something to it. Abke tried to ask them about conditions there for thieves, but they just shot him a dirty look.
Abke lay on his straw mattress at night, but he didn’t sleep; he thought. His cellmates had totally confused him. Both Rulek and Mendel were boys from fine, upstanding homes. You could say homes with prestige. So what drove them to stick up for the entire world and languish in prison? Maybe too much luxury. You could see from the packages they got that they lacked for nothing at home. Salami, challah, apples, plums. Life was obviously good. But not to them. They wanted a revolution.
The more he thought about it, the more Abke liked the situation. The well-fed sons of wealthy men who never had to eat bread earned from a game of billiards or from cards played with a rigged deck wanted everyone to live well. For that, they sat behind bars and it didn’t bother them as long as it hastened what they called “the bright tomorrow”.
One day Abke was taken to the prison office. The lawyer Tchernikhov had come to see him. Here Abke had been thinking that everyone had completely forgotten about him and then out of nowhere, who shows up to meet him but the lawyer who took on the most important political trials in Vilna. Abke had never in his life had a defence lawyer. He usually just stood in front of the Justice of the Peace with a hangdog look, listened to the litany of charges against himself, and sat out the few months of his sentence. The judge always grumbled and threatened him with years in prison for coming before the court so often. No one ever threw in a good word about him. And here was Tchernikhov himself. Abke was very impressed.
Tchernikhov was always busy. Aside from the local court with its documents and appeals, he was busy with other matters from which he derived only headaches, heartache, and grief. He was president of the Freeland League, which was searching for a corner of the world where Jews could be their own bosses and put an end to their troubles. The Zionists wanted to eat him alive. “How is it possible,” they argued, “that a Jew like Tchernikhov, with his talents, doesn’t understand that we don’t have to search? There has long been just such a place --- Palestine.”
But Tchernikhov argued that before the British finally let Jews in, everyone would have breathed their last. So he dreamt about a territory where everyone would speak Yiddish, even the Supreme Court judges.
The prison director led Tchernikhov to a room with iron bars where he could spend a few minutes alone with his client while the authorities kept an eye on them. Abke didn’t dare sit down. Such an honor.
Tchernikhov asked Abke to take a seat. He took a piece of paper from his briefcase and immediately got down to business. “You should be aware of the fact that Pendzik himself submitted an entire novel about you to the public prosecutor. They want to try you with your neighbours, Mendel and Rulek, and cause a sensation. You are going to be charged with undermining the regime and trying to tear western White Russia from the Polish Republic.”
Abke grabbed his head. “What are you talking about, Mr. Tchernikhov? What do I know about things like that?”
“You don’t need to convince me you don’t know anything. I take you at your word. But court is a different matter. I thought I’d claim that you’re insane, but that won’t work.” Tchernikhov rifled through his documents, pulled out a piece of paper, and read, “The accused, legally registered as ‘Abbe Srogin’ and nicknamed ‘Abke the Chewer’ is very dangerous to society because of his quick reflexes and traces of intelligence. He demonstrated this when he used his weak Polish to convince the peasants at the Casimir fair to participate in an allegedly innocent betting game with three ladles and a pea. After a skilled juggle before their very eyes, the peasants had to guess under which ladle the pea lay. The honest farmers didn’t stand a chance. The accused cheated them out of tens of zlotys.
Tchernikhov lifted a pair of smiling eyes. “After feats like that, I can’t argue you’re insane. I’ll have to find another way to set you free. I think the best route is to talk about all your past deeds. It’ll convince the judges that you’re not the right person to accuse of liberating White Russia.”
Abke began to wriggle around on his chair. “Mr. Tchernikhov, I beg you, don’t talk about that in court. Because of Mendel and Rulek. They’re going to try us together.”
“I won’t have any choice.”
“They treat me like an equal. Thanks to Rulek, I’ve even stopped chewing my fingernails. That’s how I got my nickname, Abke the Chewer.”
“Why thanks to Rulek?”
“He said a habit like that is decadent.”
Tchernikhov forgot he was in a rush. It had been a long time since he had enjoyed himself so much. He stroked his goatee and choked down his laughter. “So did Rulek at least explain to you what decadence is?”
“He explained, but I understood only a bit. I know it’s not a great thing because of the faces he made.”
“Okay, Abke, I’ll do what I can so you don’t look bad. We’ll talk again soon.”
“Mister Tchernikhov, I’m totally broke right now. They squeezed me dry in a poker game I thought was a sure bet. I have no rich relatives. No poor ones either for that matter, but I’ll pay you back.”
“In such cases, we don’t talk about money.”
“But this is your bread. Why else would you do it?”
The lawyer was envisioning the scene in his home during the coming midday meal when he would relate this conversation to his wife and son. As if Abke had read his defender’s thoughts, in place of a fee, he set out to provide material guaranteed to produce resounding laughter in
Tchernikhov’s dining room. Abke stammered. “No matter which way the cards fall, you owe me a little something.”
Tchernikhov made a serious face. “Really. Let’s hear.”
“Do you remember two years ago when someone took a garret full of wash from you?”
“And they came to you promising to return it all for three hundred zlotys.”
“Right, I remember.”
“And your wife insisted, only two hundred.”
“I told the fence to make a deal. Because I was the . . . It was my merchandise.”
Tchernikhov decided to play along to make the arrested man feel better. There were harsh times awaiting him. The lawyer got up from his chair, gathered his documents, closed his briefcase and solemnly declared, “Abke, that good turn will serve you well. I’ll do everything I can to save you from serious charges. But you won’t get off completely free.”
“Who’s talking about free? All I want is a fair sentence.”
The lawyer wanted to give the guard a wink to indicate that he should open the door with its iron bars, but Abke stopped his attorney. “Mr. Tchernikhov, do you have another minute? I want to ask you something.”
“Tell me, who is this Trotsky, who Mendel and Rulek are so mad at, as if he spits in their food? If they could, they’d tear him to pieces like a herring.”
“Trotsky? Forget it, Abke. It would take forever to explain.”
Tchernikhov thought for a moment before he spoke, “Since we’re asking, I have a question for you. Tell me, why did you do it? Why did you throw the flag over the wires?”
Abke took a deep breath as though dropping a heavy load from his shoulders. “The guys determination got to me. He looked like he’d been through the ringer, like he hadn’t eaten a solid meal in over a year. But instead of breaking someone’s lock to set himself up or going off to have a good time, he risked his freedom for some crazy idea. That’s why I helped him.”
During the trial Tchernikhov had to give some explanation about the nature of Abke’s background and work. If he hadn’t, they would have sentenced Abke unfairly. It’s true the judgement was longer than Abke’s previous sentences, but it could have been worse: two years. Mendel and Rulek each got five.
The public prosecutor was a different breed than Pendzik the Cripple. He was no less loyal to the state than the magistrate from the central police station, but he had a sense of humor. He was also an ardent poker player. During one of the breaks, when Tchernikhov told him about Abke’s talent at shuffling cards, he was very impressed.
A few days after the trial, the prison director informed the men that they would be transported deep into Poland to the Ravich prison to serve their sentences. Following prison regulations, all three men stood at attention opposite the prison director and listened silently to the edict. He asked them, as one does with political prisoners, if they had any special requests. Rulek, who knew Polish well, proclaimed, “I ask that you take me to Ravich shackled together with Abbe Srogin.” Mendel smiled and nodded his head, pleased with his friend’s gesture.
And that is indeed what happened. Rulek and Abke marched in front shackled together. Mendel walked behind them with cuffs on his hands.
Casimir Fair: St. Casimir’s Fair “is a large annual Lithuanian folk arts and crafts fair dating to the beginning of the 17th century. It was originally held at the two main markets in Vilnius as well as in the city streets” (Travel Agency Visit Lithuania. http://www.visitlithuania.net/index.php/component/content/article/108-other-events/349-st-casimirs-fair-weekend.html, accessed August 8, 2011).
Cholent: a baked dish of meat, potatoes, and legumes served on Shabbes (the Sabbath), usually kept warm from the day before in the communal oven.
Daytshe Street: German Street.
Freeland League: “Founded in London in 1935, [the objective of the] Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization was to procure a sizable tract of land for agricultural and industrial colonization in an underpopulated area of the world where East European Jews could settle. . . Its members. . .aimed to build a secure foundation for the continuity of their socioeconomic life and culture (including the Yiddish language)” (YIVO Encyclopedia, ed. Gershon David Hundert. 2010. http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org:80/article.aspx/Frayland-lige, accessed August 08, 2011).
Shtral’s Café: “The Shtral’s were a prosperous family in Vilna. I don’t remember whether they were German or Polish. They owned three different restaurants, der vayser shtral kafe/ the White Shtral Café, der royter shtral kafe/ the Red Shtral Café, and der griner shtral kafe/ the Green Shtral Café. Mrs. Shtral helped her Jewish neighbors during the Nazi occupation by supplying Jews in the ghetto with food” (Interview with Fanya Brancovsky, Yiddish Institute: August 2010).
Tchernikhov, Joseph (1882 – 1941): Tchernikhov was a well-respected lawyer in Vilna “with a golden tongue” who “defended needy individuals who had unintentionally come into conflict with the law.” He specialized in political cases. “Thanks to his aggressive militancy, a number of Polish-Jewish Communists were saved from police “justice” and, in some instances, from the gallows.” Tchernikhov “frequently conversed audibly in Yiddish with his clients and others, something that was previously unheard of in court.” He was one of the organizers and leaders of the Freeland League in Poland (see below) (Abramowicz, Hirsz, Memoirs of East European Jewish Life Before World War 11 (Detroit, 1999, Wayne State: 285-8).
Velfke’s restaurant: Velfke’s restaurant: “Golf(Wolf) Usian owned a restaurant on Daytshe Street...which served as the meeting place for the entire (Yiddish) literary and artistic world. . .” The restaurant was also a meeting place for people from different worlds. (Turkov, Yanos. Farloshene Shtern. Edited by Mark Turkov. Vol. 1. 2 vols. Buenes Aires: Tsentral-Farband fun Poylishe Yidn in Argentina, 1953, p. 192-193.)
Vilenke River: a tributary of the Vilye River which is now called the Neris River.
Copyright © Helen Chava Mintz 2012
Published in Yiddish as Oyf Vilner Gasn/On Vilna Streets, by Di Goldene Keyt, Israel, 1981.