The Family


Photo: Smolar Family

The Family

By Hersh Smolar

Translated from Yiddish by Ruth Murphy and edited by Catherine Madsen


No such command had been issued, and no one had ever considered who it was that had granted the family such unlimited rights. All the family moved freely throughout the villages and forests of the partisan zone, and it was enough that in response to the demanded password, the answer would come, “the Onion Folk.” And with that they would even be allowed to pass into the sector headquarters.
No one ever called them by their real name. Not even the Jewish partisans, who knew that the old man was called Bere Leyb, his wife's name was Sime, and their son, aside from his nickname “a ruble and twenty” (he limped a bit on one foot), had such a fine-sounding name as Itshe Velvel. As to the little girl with the thin braids that were always tightly plaited across her small blond head, she was simply called “the youngest.” Everyone, even the Jews, referred to them as nothing but “the Onion Folk.”
As the old man Bere Leyb explained it one time over a drink, the nickname originated from his keeping kosher. As it happened, one could come to a friendly peasant in the village and be treated to “a glass of milk… from a crazy cow” (moonshine, that is). To chase it down, the peasant would set out a few slices of dried sausage or some yellowed bacon. And Bere Leyb would turn his head away and entreat the master of the house: “A piece of onion will be plenty.” Thus was acquired the nickname, “the Onion Folk,” in which over time no hint remained of the original mockery.
The dirt cave of Bere Leyb’s family differed quite markedly from the usual partisan caves, which resembled barracks. The clay walls were covered with straw, from which a pleasant reflection would fall upon the surrounding darkness. In the kitchen, which had been hammered together from a tin gasoline barrel, hung a shelf of dishes that were always washed sparkling clean. The dirt floor was spread with pine branches that would fill the cave with the holiday scent of Sukkos. No weapon on the wall of Bere Leyb’s cave or on a stand, as was typical among partisans, had ever been seen here. Yet they also knew that as soon as Bere Leyb happened to come across “a better piece,” he would make an exchange and keep it himself. None of “the Onion Folk” whether on the road or when arriving at a partisan base could be observed with a weapon, although everyone was well aware that each of them had hidden on them some sort of weaponry. “It’s not fitting,” Bere Leyb would say, who always (even in his dress) maintained the amicable appearance of a small-town Jew.
But anyone who saw “the Onion Folk” during a raid, when entire regiments of SS troops surrounded the forest and set about attacking the partisan brigades, would understand that these were the true “Onion Folk.” Gone was the smile that always lay upon Bere Leyb’s creased face. His small soft beard became tautly pointed, fusing itself completely to the grey mustache and eclipsing the tight seam of his lips. His cocked ears were the first to hear the command, and he was among the first to stretch out on the ground, his rifle aimed and ready. His wife Sime, too, who was always falling behind on the road, unable to catch up to her “warriors,” would suddenly lose her encompassing heavy roundness and nimbly manage to be by Bere Leyb’s side. Of Itshe Velvel’s lameness not a trace remained. With his automatic rifle across his chest, he did not even for an instant take his eye off “the youngest,” who followed after him carrying a sack of loaded magazines for the rifle.
As soon as the raid was over, the family once again headed back to the old cave. If the cave was wrecked, like the majority of the partisan caves, the four of them would begin seeking out a new spot away from the nearby bases. There they would again dig out a cave that would possess the same feeling of home as so many others that had been destroyed, and once again take up the normal forest life of “the Onion Folk.”
A newly arrived Jewish partisan would be greatly irked by this: “How is it that they, the family, just go their own way? Why shouldn’t they join a detachment like hundreds of others, and do what everyone else does?”
“They’re the ones who give fodder for wicked slander about us,” such a one would say heatedly until the time came when he would see for himself that in fact people everywhere held “the Onion Folk” in high esteem.
It had never happened that in the family’s unattended cave, when Bere Leyb and his family would be out on the road, that anyone would allow himself, even in a drunken state, to enter and have the run of the place, or to take something from it.
It was to this place that people would come when they had a free minute and “the Onion Folk” were at home. They would bring along half a liter, a bit of cheese and butter, or something really good from a successful “bombing,”* and present them as a gift to the lady of the house, or to “the youngest.” They would come there to find out the latest news from Bere Leyb, who would cover a lot of ground, gather up the slightest rumor, and deliver it to the proper place. Then he would return home, fill his lungs with the longed-for feeling of home, tear off a shirt already fallen to pieces, and receive a basin full of hot water from Sime, so that he might feel the pleasure of a clean body.
Yet the main reason they would come to the cave was with a hidden intention. The friendlier they became with the family, the more deeply they would be engraved in its memory, and with this they would gain the certainty that no matter what happened, some recollection of them would remain a trace of a life whose last moments had been passed crouched and awaiting danger at every step.
It was during that time when the forest did not yet have a master. Regular German military units still passed through the main road without fear.
On the side paths, small groups fleeing from captivity or from encirclement by the Germans would sneak out when the nights were pitch-black, to seek a little food. People called them “partisans,” but they were really people who, in desperation, sought a hiding place so as not to fall into the enemy’s hands. One such group would avoid meeting another, suspecting every living person they met of bearing only death for them.
At that time, Bere Leyb had come to the neighboring woods of his town in order to find protection for what remained of his family. Deadly peril lurked all around. One couldn’t move about, and sitting in one spot was dangerous. The thought then came to Bere Leyb that he would burrow underneath one of the hundreds of graves that had been hastily dug to cover the remains of fighters killed in battle. He would remain there during the daytime, and then at night, either alone or with his youngest child, set out to the neighbors for a bit of food and water.
The grave proved to be a secure trench until the forest did acquire its master: true partisans, who showed up and mined all the roads, forcing the enemy to avoid the forest. Then Bere Leyb came out of his hiding place, and without asking anyone’s leave, and showing the determination of one fulfilling a solemn vow, began, together with his family, to dig out the graves, transporting the remains of the battle-slain to a site deeper in the forest. Partisans would stop, look upon the work of the four “civilians” without asking any questions, and bid them farewell with a sympathetic word. Once a Jewish lad tried to toss off a mocking comment: “Apparently, Uncle, you were the president of the Burial Society.” Bere Leyb answered him with his sad smile, which the young man understood to mean, “And who knows where your own bones will come to rest?”   
The general staff of the zone took an interest in the family. The partisans knew that “the Onion Folk” were providing weapons to the detachments. Rifles with rusted bolts and rotted wooden stocks, which since the beginning of the war had lain in graves together with their one-time owners, began once again to serve skilled hands. The partisans even knew about an entire arsenal that someone had hidden in graves and disguised from above with crucifixes, and which the family had then uncovered.
Yet it was not of this that the partisan commander would whisper together with Bere Leyb for long hours. It was not even of the news that the family would bring with them from the wide world. It was instead a conversation on the age-old custom of not abandoning one’s fallen brother to the enemy a custom of which one was reminded day in, day out, by the words of the battle commander: “Eternal memory to the heroes who fell in battle for the just cause.”
And when partisans would meet the family somewhere distant, close to the enemy’s positions, they would know: these formidably peaceful people were heading for a difficult mission. And when they returned, they would bring with them all that it was possible to bring, of a fallen battle comrade. And above all they would bring peace to the spirits of the living, who today, tomorrow, each and every day until victory was achieved would be walking towards certain death.
The family strengthened the faith in the hearts of the living that they would never allow anyone to pass away in that traceless anonymity which is much more terrible than death.
* Requisitions of property taken from hostile or wealthy elements.

Hersh Smolar, born in Zambrów, Poland, Smolar became a Communist activist early in life, studied at the Communist University of the Peoples of the West in Moscow, and wrote for Yiddish youth publications. In 1928 he was sent to Poland as a Comintern agent; arrested, he spent four years in prison. Escaping from prison in 1939, he went to Soviet-occupied Bialystok. When the Germans occupied Bialystok in 1941, he travelled to Minsk. Following German attack on the USSR, Smolar became a leader of the ghetto underground. He ultimately escaped and fought with the local partisans, helping to organize Jewish partisan units and editing the party press. In Warsaw as of 1946, he was the one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Poland and the editor of the Yiddish newspaper Folks-Shtime. His 1956 editorial “Undzer veytik un undzer treyst” (“Our Pain and Our Comfort”), reprinted and cited world-wide, became the first semi-official confirmation of the liquidation of Yiddish institutions and personalities in the USSR. Following the official 1968 anti-Semitic campaign, Smolar left Poland for Israel in 1971, where he died in 1993.


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