1. Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania. July 1941
Motl. Jewish cowpoke. Brisket Boy. My grandfather.
As usual, he was bent over the kitchen table, his mottled and hairy nose deep in the pale valley of a book, half-finished plate of herring beside his elbow, half-eaten egg bread slumped beside a Shabbos candlestick. His old mother was out shopping for food while she still could.
So, this Motl, was he a reader?
If the world was ending, he would keep reading.
The world was ending. He was still reading.
So, what was this book he had to read despite everything?
One of the great westerns of the American frontier, of course. Even though he knew that Hitler adored them.
“The master race should be brave as Indianers,” Der Führer had said, and sent boxes of Karl May’s Winnetou noble savage novels to the eastern front to inspire his troops – those same manifest destiny soldiers crossing the country with orders to kill Motl, his mother and all the other Jews.
Did Motl intend to do something about this?
Yes. He would sit at the table, his shlumpy jacket turned up at the collar, his hat like a shroud of mice askew on his sallow head, and read.
Was Motl a man of action?
“If parking his tuches all day and all night on a chair doing nothing but reading is action,” his mother would say, “he’s a man of action. Action, sure. Every day he gets older and more in my way.”
Why was he still reading this western?
Because Motl, this Litvak, this Lithuanian Jew, this inconceivable zaidy, my grandfather, this citizen of the Wild East—that brave old world of ever-present sorrow, a sorrow that had just gotten worse—had chosen the life of the cowboy.
He would be that hombre who sits on his chair and imagines being calm and steady and manly, speaking only the fewest of well-chosen words, doing only what he wanted and what he must under that vast, unpatented western sky.
“And why not?” he would say. “Should my life be nothing but the minced despair and boiled hope of an aging Jew, too thin to be anything but borscht made by Nazis? I choose to think myself a Paleface chuck line rider of the doleful countenance, a Quixotic Ashkenazi of the bronco, riding the Ostland trail. Like my mother said when I told her I wanted to be a doctor, ‘Mazel tov, Motl. Nothing is impossible when it’s an illusion.’”
He would say, “What’s the difference between a Jewish cowpoke and beef jerky? It’s the hat. And feeling empty as a broken barrel. Jerky don’t never feel such hollowness, least not by the time it’s jerky. But the cowboy, the cowboy keeps riding. He don’t look back. Eventually, if he’s lucky, he too becomes leathernand feels only what jerky feels.”
Motl. Citizen of Vilna. Saddlebag of pain. Feedbag of Regret.
At forty-five, he had a history. As a Lithuanian Jew, he was pickled in it.
But though neither he nor his mother knew it at the time, something had changed. Somewhere, deep down in the overworked mine shaft of his imagination, it had been determined that he would set out on a perilous adventure, this time of his own choosing. He would get up on his horse and ride.
And he would have a child.
At his age.
And avoid being killed. Sometimes you have to save your own bacon, when you’re a Jew.
The next day, he went to the barber’s. Even a grown man will cave in to his mother’s demands that he groom if she won’t make food for him. Eyes closed, a Texas reverie floating through his mind like the scent of campfire, Motl lay back in the red chair and awaited his shave.
“Under a hot towel, a cowpoke can think big thoughts, but to act he must stand up,” he said.
He stood up.
For a moment, the towel hung from his jowls, the Santa beard of a Hebrew god. Then it fell away.
“Barber,” Motl said. “I must seize these last days while the possibility of life remains.”
The barber said nothing, wet blade held between trembling fingers.
“The kabbalists speak of repairing the world, healing what is broken. It’s my time,” he said, looking round that hair-strewn palace of strop and whisker, that little shop of Hebrews.
“Barber, I thank you, for I have learned much under your towel.” Shave and a haircut.
Did the barber, Shmuel, expect payment? Two bits.
Did Motl toss him these two coins before his impromptu departure?
Having had neither shave nor haircut, he only waved, then hightailed it into the bright sun of Shnipishok, that region of Vilna whose name sounds like scissor blades. He ran through its streets, feeling open to possibility and getaway.
Did Shmuel chase him with his blade?
Let’s say it was a close shave.
2. Siberia, August 1915. Twenty-six years before.
The First World War. Blood, fire, and rising smoke. Like many Litvaks, nineteen-year-old Motl and his family were exiled to Siberia, far beyond the Pale. Chaos and dismay on leaving. Litvaks in shtetls and towns were given orders to be gone by daylight, or else be shot. The panicked packing. The search to find wagons. Everything stacked into rented peasant wagons. Motl was sent to rescue Torah scrolls from the study house, from the synagogue. Torahs were wrapped in the coats of dead relatives, then buried under the exiled family’s possessions. Hand-wringing. Weeping. His mother lamenting, wringing her hands. Lamentation from every house. Finally, at the train station, they were loaded like premonitions into cattle cars. Disease and starvation on the journey. Children, the old. Parents. Children. Their houses burned down behind them.
“Sometimes I think it’d have been better if we Jews had never been born,” Motl would say. “But who has that much luck – maybe one in a million?”
Welcome parties on arrival: pogroms.
But some survived. Motl survived.
The Ural Mountains. The edge of Siberia. A thousand miles to the east. Motl and his family lived in an incapacitated shack, sleeping together in a gap-toothed single room as if in a cabin on the prairie. Motl, his mother, father, his sister Chaya, his cousins Hershel and Pinchas, his aunt Anya. Each morning, his grandparents Abe and Faigel hacking awake with blood and phlegm, sputtering their Model T lungs.
“Oy, Gott, if you’re punishing me, at least remind me why, so I could enjoy the memories,” Abe said.
Other cabins crowded round and only squirrels outside, the wind inside, cold blades slicing through the slats. Not the lonesome prairie, except far from home.
Motl, gangling and uncertain, sits in the sun beside a wending river, reading a western. A village youth wanders by, lifts a thick stick from the stick-covered ground, raises it behind Motl’s head, intending to acquaint Motl’s brain with the outside air.
A shadow crosses the page. A circling vulture? An editor’s too late hand? Motl twists in time to raise his own hand, the stick a downward blur snapping into his open palm. Motl stands, turns, wrests the stick from its owner, loses his balance, topples toward the youth, knocks him down. Motl, falling, thrusts his arms out to catch himself, and the stick, still clutched between his hands, spans the villager’s spindly throat, a one-finger cutthroat sign.
Motl, finding himself part of this deft accidental choreography, pratfall as martial art, gazes into the youth’s eyes, surprised and fearful, recalls the hero’s droll words from the western, now toppled in the grass like an injured bird: “A warrior should suffer pain in silence. But you . . . you may scream if you’d like.”
The gasping villager was unable to exercise the option. Then, from the path, a soldier in a greatcoat.
“Yes . . . I . . .”
Single words, unless spoken in the throes of passion, seldom result in happiness.
“Stand. You go see Golubkov now.”
Motl rose and brushed the dirt from his debilitated trousers. Was he to be hobbled or hog-tied only to be scranched and boothilled in a lock-up by these Czarist brutes? He left the young villager with the stick now delicately balanced across his skinny gizzard. Dead? Unconscious? Only the vultures knew for sure.
The soldier led Motl along the riverbank to a squat stone building, outside of which sat a Russian captain, drinking tea at a small lace-covered table.
“Who is this?” the captain said.
The soldier saluted then muttered a few words at close range into the captain’s fleshy ear. Then he pushed Motl forward.
“Golubkov,” the captain said, introducing himself to Motl. The patronizing greasiness of his voice made Motl feel the urgent need to wash. Golubkov lifted a teacup to his fuchsia lips, his dainty slurps like the death throes of a drowning fly.
“Perhaps I will send you where the peckersnot will freeze in the spout of your little Hebrew samovar. Or perhaps,” he said, placing the teacup on its saucer with a clatter, “you could be useful. We don’t like Jews to create trouble. Unless we ask them to.
“So,” he said, pausing to lift the lid of a squat silver sugar bowl, silting up the liquid of his cup with heapfuls of sugar. “In two weeks, enemies—enemies of Czar Nicholas and of our Mother Russia, enemies of this necessary war—will gather in a village far from here to hiss and mutter. They will attend a secret socialist conference to plot the demise of Europe. Secret except our intelligence reaches even into the mountains. They will meet in Switzerland—in Zimmerwald—in the shadow of the Alps where robins and skylarks sing. These execrable Marxists will pretend to be ornithology enthusiasts attending a conference of birds. You will travel there and kill who you can. There is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known as Lenin, and there is Trotsky.”
“But what do I know of killing? Why choose me and not a soldier or spy?”
“You’re not important, so I have nothing to lose,” the captain said. “Except money. I have staked money on a little wager. Last night at the officers’ club, I bet that anyone, anyone at all, even a Jew, could assassinate one of these Bolshevik eggheads—they’re more manifesto than man. And you, my friend, are just the kind of anyone I was looking for. The private here tells me you handle a stick with surprising expertise. I’m counting on you to be successful so I win my wager. And so is Mother Russia. But of course I sent others this morning. Many hunters and one goose guarantees a good supper.
“Understand that we are very interested in these socialists. We are very interested in having them shot. And know this, my young comrade,” he said. “If you’re not successful, we’ll murder your entire family.”
Again, the fuchsia suction as Golubkov raised the slurry of tea to his lips and waved them away.
3. In Ponary, Lithuania. Autumn, 1941. With Esther, his companion.
Motl lying in the dark, listening to the twitching around him, rodents, Esther, trees, restlessness. Outside, the defeated exhalation of the wind. What could it do? If it lifted the killers up, it’d have to put them down somewhere.
A creak, likely one branch rubbing against another. The sound, vivid as scent, twitched in his mind. The scrape of a violin. A memory.
He was a small boy and someone—was it Hershel, the neighbour?—had brought an illicit fiddle into the kitchen. Its voice was like his grandmother’s, raspy and indomitable. But it rocked and swayed, whereas old Faigel’s jowls were the only thing that moved unless she was cheek-pinching or sighing the pains of her ancient bones.
They’d pushed the chairs aside, along with the Shabbos table with its white cloth and braided loaves. The silver-bright candlesticks burning low.
His father began to croak his own song along with the fiddle.
Ay yi yi.
Oy yoi yoi, he sang, and rocked back and forth.
He was short and squat, with thick blacksmith arms and a white, trimmed beard below his round spectacles, which glinted in candlelight. He had cleaned the soot and ash and grime of the forge from his hands and arms and face and wore a fresh new apron as if he would spend his day of rest ostentatiously demonstrating his worklessness.
Lili lili lili li, he sang with the fiddler, who sawed a roiling nigun, a wordless song, or rather one to be sung with only lilting syllables, each sound meaningless individually but, taken together, able to carry whatever burden of joy or sorrow the singer wished.
Then his father reached out for his mother, sitting stolidly at the table beside her own mother.
“Gitl,” he said. “Even though it’s Shabbos, there is fiddle music, so let's dance.”
“I look like a girl? A maideleh with a figure like a sapling, maybe?”
“You do to me. At least when there’s music.”
Ay yi yi yi. And he took her hand in his and pulled her toward him. Nijinsky and Pavlova they were not. More like Wild Bill Hickok and Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel and Calamity Jane.
For one moment, as they torqued around the kitchen, Motl saw what might be a smile wrestling with his mother’s pursed lips.
Then—oy yoi yoi—his father reached for him and he was dancing between his parents as if between two bears.
He was giggling and his father kissed the crown of his head and his mother said, “One day you’ll have a family of your own.”
And Faigel, his grandmother, sighed. And the fiddler began another tune. Lili lili li, his father sang, and Motl joined in, almost inaudibly, his thin voice cracking, a small bird being born from an egg.