Translated from the Yiddish by Ellen Cassedy

PEN America is thrilled to showcase the work of recipients of the 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund. Each week through the fall, we’ll feature excerpts from winning projects along with essays by the translators on what drew them to a particular piece and why their work matters now. The Fund, which awards grants of $2,000-$4,000 to promote the publication and reception of translated world literature in English, received a total of 171 applications, spanning a wide array of languages of origin, including Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, Chinese, Czech, Hindi, Yiddish, and more.

Since 2009, the Fund’s annual contribution for grant awards has been augmented by support from Amazon. 

The Payback is translated from the original Yiddish. 


During the six or seven coldest months of the year, when the sap didn’t run and resin production was suspended, Riva was my partner for a variety of forest jobs. To be honest, she was in charge and I was her assistant – her apprentice, really. I needed her to show me how to use the tools, how to approach a tree, chop it down, clean it, saw it, split the logs, and stack them so well that so the boss would find nothing to criticize. Even as an apprentice I was no good. I mean it – no matter how I tried, the saw kept getting stuck in the wood, and I could never pull it out by myself. Poor Riva would have to make a wedge and pound it in to free the blade. I don’t know what was going through her head while she was doing this, but what she said to me was that I was trying too hard. “Take it easy,” she said. “Don’t lean on the saw. Understand? Go easy.” She wasn’t sure I did understand.

How could I ever have believed that chopping wood and carrying water were simple jobs that required no brains at all?

Besides chopping, she was better at stacking, too, so I bowed to her superior ability and handed her the split logs one at a time. She would construct the cubic meter like an engineer, sometimes slipping in some bark so cleverly that the boss would never notice. Here I made my contribution. Holding up a twig, I pretended to be a priest and solemnly blessed the stack while intoning the Jesus Prayer in a deep voice. Riva would choke back giggles. She never laughed out loud.

We didn’t always feel so playful. More often not. Sometimes the tree we were working on was so gnarled and knotty that it simply would not yield to the ax, and the bitter cold licked at us with icy tongues. At those times we didn’t joke. Eyes glazed, I would look around and curse the day I was born. If the two of us hadn’t been working together, I could never have held out. I would have given up and forfeited my bread ration. Not Riva. Without a word or a glance in my direction, she bit her lip and kept at it, and I, shame-faced, followed her lead so that she wouldn’t lose her own ration on my account. And so the sawing got done, all because of Riva, my friend and savior. Never once did she complain about me, except perhaps to her mother, and even that she had to do in secret, because we all lived in one room – she and her mother, me and mine. Somehow she put up with our friendship and even seemed proud of it. At the end of the day we’d head home along the path – Riva in front with her ax stuck into her belt and the saw over her shoulder, me behind with an armload of kindling, likely as not with my nose running. Our mothers would be waiting anxiously. “You poor things,” they’d cry, “slaving all day in the forest!” They’d help us breadwinners take off our frozen clothing and hurry the hot soup to the table.

*

Who was Riva and how did I get to know her? Even to ask such a question is to acknowledge that Riva was not one of us, not from Zguritse but from outside. We met for the first time in Kiprushka, and after that we stuck together for quite a while. Eventually we got fed up with each other and raised no objections when the boss assigned us to different work stations, but that was a few years later. At first, during our honeymoon period, Riva and her mother, Madam Glazer, as she was known, hung on our every word and tried to do everything we did. Having come from a village without any other Jews, called Shur, near Drokye, where we’d been loaded into the railroad cars, they knew little about Jewish customs. They’d made the terrible journey to Siberia among their non-Jewish neighbors. On the barge, though, quick-witted Madam Glazer spotted us Jews from Zguritse, and as we were all getting off in Kiprushka, she took advantage of the general confusion to get some of her Moldavian acquaintances to carry her trunk over to our area in exchange for a few coins. The two women followed, arms full of bags and bundles and eyes full of tears.

“I’ve lived all my life with goyim,” Madam Glazer announced to the crowd. “I want to spend the rest of my life with Jews.”

Well-put, I thought. And indeed, people began to move over to free up space, while my mother urged them on in her usual forceful way. “Since when do we have reserved seats here in Siberia?” she said. “There’s plenty of room.” She motioned to the two women. “Make yourselves comfortable,” she said, “and may the Lord remember us and deliver us from bondage, bimheyre-beyemeynu, speedily in our days, amen.”

“Amen,” Madam Glazer repeated after her, as if sealing an agreement. She kept repeating the word, as if marveling over her good fortune in attaching herself and her daughter to us. She singled out my mother and me and stuck to us like glue.

So my relationship with Riva began. It was fine with me, and as for Riva… most of the time she went around in a daze while her poor mother fussed over her and did everything she could to cheer her up. At least she’d provided her with a decent girlfriend.

What was Riva’s problem? A great tragedy had occurred, one that was difficult for a 19-year-old girl to handle. It turned out we’d heard something about it at the very beginning, back at the station in Drokye, before the train began moving, when we were “taking our seats” in the railroad cars – that is, grabbing a spot on the floor. Don’t think there was no pushing or shoving, though at least at first people tried to affect a modicum of respect for the elders and other esteemed townspeople. We stayed in Drokye for twenty-four hours while the transport was being arranged, and all that time the crowd was abuzz with rumors that there was a girl who kept fainting, a young woman who was to be married the day after tomorrow:

Really, the day after tomorrow? Yes, the call to the Torah was last shabbos, and the wedding was supposed to be the day after tomorrow. Quite a wedding, too! They’d hired the hall and the musicians in Belz months ago, and the baking and all the other preparations had been going on for weeks. Those devils – worse than devils, really. At least you can bargain with the devil, but with these thugs… Believe me, they tried bargaining. Her father fell at their feet and begged for mercy. With the Angel of Death you should beg, but with them? The poor man pleaded with them to postpone the order for three days so he could lead his child to the wedding canopy. “After that you can do whatever you want with me,” he said. “Go ahead, chop my head off!”

Well, canopy-shmanopy, they paid no attention, but what was this about chopping off his head? That smacked of anti-Sovietism, and that was too much. “Any more bourgeois backtalk out of you and you’ll lose your head for real,” and they started throwing things and shoving him. “ Davoy, davoy, get moving!” They carried him out on a stretcher.

Oy, a man is stronger than iron!

A few weeks later, at a station farther along the way, I caught sight of the girl, but at the time I had no idea she was the same unfortunate bride we’d been talking about back in Drokye. That day our train was driven onto a sidetrack, the bars were removed from the doors, and we were released for a few hours into an open field. Oh, the fresh air and the sweet-smelling grass! Women balanced their pots on a couple of stones and boiled what they could – mostly plain water. One woman managed to get hold of some cornmeal and made a mamaliga. With tears in her eyes, she begged her daughter to try some. I watched this scene from a distance, my mouth watering, unable to imagine how anyone in our situation could be miserable enough to turn down such a hot, tasty meal.

How could I know that this girl and I would soon be living together, working together, sharing secrets?

*

Apparently Riva cried out all her tears during the journey to Siberia. By the time we arrived she was silent. She worked and didn’t talk. Not a word out of her mouth. On Sundays, though, our day of rest, she would open her trunk, sit down on a little stool, and with heartrending tenderness lift out, one by one, all the gifts she’d received for the engagement and the wedding. She’d examine each item in turn, carefully running her fingers over the candlesticks, the silverware, the embroidered tablecloths, the vases, the beautiful china. She suffered especially over a certain tray. It was a round one, for tortes, made in the latest style, with a lacy silver base, a garland of flowers on the surface, and in the center a portrait of the happy couple, Riva and her groom, with their heads together. Whenever she picked up the tray, her mother would stand by with a damp towel to use as a compress if necessary.

At first I felt great sympathy for Riva. I would see her trembling lips and my heart would ache for her. Then I got tired of the scenes with the trunk, and when I saw Madam Glazer come running with the towel, I would roll over in bed, turn my face to the wall, and immerse myself in my geography book, the only book I’d been able to find on the site, which I was using to teach myself Russian. Later on, the business with the trunk began to grate on my nerves. One Sunday, the weather was so cold that you could hear the bark cracking on the trees, and I couldn’t have been more miserable. A big boil on my back had just popped, a carbuncle, which hurt worse than a toothache, and nothing would help – not bandages, not warm dressings, not even the soothing touch of my mother’s soft hands. That day I couldn’t bear it any longer. I lost my temper and let loose at her, perhaps more harshly than I should have.

“What Riva?” I spat. “You think you’re the only one who’s unhappy? You think nobody else feels terrible? Nobody else had to give up anything? Nobody else had to leave anything behind? Believe me, Riva, the rest of us have it just as bad as you – just as bad.”

Riva turned and looked at me as if she were trying to decide whether I had actually spoken these words or whether she’d only imagined them. Quickly she put everything back in the trunk and slammed it shut.

A black cat had run between us. Afterwards I tried to take back what I’d said, but I only made things worse.

*

Riva was strange. She wasn’t exactly eccentric, but… today we’d say she had complexes. Maybe the problem was that she was smart – too smart, perhaps. She ruminated about everything, herself included. Once, for example, she said something to me like this: “Look at the two of us. I’m a little village girl who’s good at whitewashing a wall – so good you can’t see a single brush mark when I’m finished – but when I write a letter to my fiancé, I have to do it ten times, with my stomach tied up in knots. Or take the way you talk. It sounds like Yiddish, but I can’t always understand what you’re saying.”

“Ay, Riva,” I replied, “it doesn’t matter. Don’t make such a crease in your yarmulke.”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about!” she said. “What does a yarmulke have to do with anything, and why shouldn’t I make a crease in it?”

I laughed so hard my eyes filled with tears. Looking at me, Riva started laughing too, stifling her giggles the way she did, with her hand over her mouth.

Another time – this, too, was before my outburst with the trunk – we’d roasted two potatoes in the embers of the fire that Riva was a world specialist at lighting, even when the snow was knee-deep. We were in a good mood. That day we’d been blessed with a tree so easy that the saw went through like butter. All our wood was sawed and chopped, and the only thing we had left to do was to build our stack, so we were allowing ourselves a break. Suddenly Riva began to unburden herself about her fiancé.

“I wonder whether Volodya is still alive,” she said. “And if he is, I wonder if he’ll come looking for me so we can get married.”

“What are you saying, Riva?” I said. “You were engaged, so you must have been in love.”

“In love!” she answered. “Of course I was in love. I’m still crazy about him. At night when I can’t sleep, I miss him so much I’m afraid I’m going to lose my mind. But it’s not me I’m wondering about, it’s him. You don’t know how handsome he is – tall, with muscles and gorgeous eyes, and his hair – well, you’ve seen his picture.”

“You don’t look so mediocre yourself,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “I may not be ugly or stupid or lazy or bad or whatever you just said, mediocre, and besides, my father promised him a big dowry. But that’s all wiped out now. So what’s the chance he’s going to come looking for me? It’s like the fire – it burns and it burns and then it goes out…. The worst is when I remember my father, so smart, so energetic, so respectable, groveling at their feet, and all because of me! Oh, it drives me wild.”

Given that conversation, you can see why it was so cruel of me to attack Riva that Sunday. I was the one she’d entrusted with her most precious secrets, the only one to whom she’d opened her heart. And yet I was the one who rubbed salt in her wounds. I couldn’t forgive myself. Nor did she forgive me. She would have had to be an angel – or at least be my mother, who could always find something in my favor when I offended her. But Riva was not my mother or even my sister, and she was no angel. She wasn’t inclined to make allowances for my suffering, and she took it very hard when I slapped her in the face the way I did that day. She was surprised and disappointed.

Not long after, I softened my heart and tried to make up with her.

“Riva,” I said, “it’s enough already. I feel so bad about what I did – I just can’t express it, that’s all. As they say, an ox may have a long tongue, but it can’t blow a shofar.”

She shot me an angry look. “Leave me alone with your Hebrew talk,” she said.

“If that’s Hebrew talk,” I said, “then I’m a rabbi’s wife.”

That was the end of our friendship.

*

And now for how she paid me back. Many years later – at least twenty years, maybe more – we met one more time. She and her husband came to Kishinev from Samarkand, where they’d settled after the liberation. She wasn’t with Volodya. After her mother died, she’d married a man from Zguritse, a deportee like us, of course. They were in town to see his friends, and she took the opportunity to visit me. By then we were well into our forties, with quite a bit of gray hair and fine lines in the corners of our eyes. Our meeting was very touching; we laughed and cried as one does on such occasions. Before leaving, all of a sudden she asked a question. “So,” she said, “I can see things are going well with you, but what about the – what about the other things?”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I mean…” She hesitated. “I mean… besides your family and your job. I mean” – all at once she found her tongue – “what about your writing, about getting published? If I remember correctly, you used to dream about something bigger. Didn’t you want something more?”

I looked at her with the same expression she’d fixed on me in front of the open trunk, as if I were trying to decide whether quiet Riva had truly spoken these words or whether I’d just imagined she had.

Riva returned my gaze with a thin smile and quickly took her leave. She looked quite pleased with herself.

 

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Yenta Mash was born in 1922 and grew up in Zguritse, a small town in the region once known as Bessarabia. In 1941, she and her parents were exiled to a Siberian labor camp, from which she escaped in 1948. In 1977, in her fifties, Mash immigrated to Israel and settled in Haifa, where she began to write and to publish. Her short stories were published in Yiddish journals on both sides of the Atlantic, and her work was collected in four volumes published in Israel. She was honored with Israel’s Itsik Manger Prize in 1999 and with the Dovid Hofshteyn Prize in 2002. Her last book was published in 2007; she died in 2013.

Ellen Cassedy’s translations appear in Beautiful as the MoonRadiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories. With co­translator Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, she won the 2012 translation prize awarded by the Yiddish Book Center for Oedipus in Brooklyn for a collection of short stories by Blume Lempel, which will be published in November 2016. She was a 2015 translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center. She is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust.