dark and Vera is falling asleep. Yet the five-year-old is the
first to hear a noise. She struggles to open droopy eyes. Fuzzily
she figures she's dreaming when out the window she seems to
see snow falling. Big, white, fluffy snowflakes wafting past
her window. How could silent snow have awakened her? Yet this
is all she can see: a blizzard of fat white snow--strange snow
because it is well past winter's end.
For a while no one else seems to notice anything unusual
outside. Vera's little brother Mendel stays asleep beside her
on the feather mattress. She loves it when she and Mendel have
the bed all to themselves, before the bigger children crowd
in. With all the whispering and jostling, teasing and pinching,
they usually wake her. Then she says something grouchy, which
only makes them laugh and tease her more so that she falls back
asleep with a frown on her face. Mendel generally sleeps through
it all, because he is only a baby, not even two yet. Anyway,
it's still early. Everyone else is in the other room.
Vera smells the cigarettes Papa is smoking and hears
the crinkling of paper as he reads the Bund newspaper from Odessa.
She hears him say, "Bring me a glass of tea," and
knows he's talking to seventeen-year-old Ruchl, the eldest child,
and that Ruchl, dutiful and quiet as always, moves quickly toward
the kettle. Piano keys tinkle softly. That must be Mama.
Then Hersh's voice: "Papa, the strategy is all
wrong. I repeat, on the national question your beloved Bund
has the wrong approach entirely. You are putting not only the
class struggle but the Jews ourselves at risk."
Vera is used to political debates between her big brother,
next oldest after Ruchl, and her father. Yet she hears something
new in Hersh's tone tonight. Beneath the stridency, is that
fear? Vera's skin prickles. She comes fully awake. Without moving
enough to lose her view of the snow she shifts a little so she
can peek past the sheet that hangs dividing the rooms. She doesn't
like to miss anything if she can help it. Sure enough, there's
Malke, who is ten and in Vera's opinion a complete nudnik. Malke,
on the other hand, considers herself a wit of the highest order.
She's standing behind Hersh, silently mimicking him with exaggerated
expressions and gestures. Little ripples of air wisp through
Papa's bushy black beard—this is how the children know
Papa is amused, this chuckle that ripples his beard, this is
the closest thing to laughter they ever get out of him--and
the chuckling beard infuriates Hersh into further fine-tuning
his political argument.
"How can you laugh when we're talking about the
future of the Jews? And on a day like this, especially. A day,
let me add, that we should have started by being down there
at New Marketplace with our brothers defending our people, appealing
to the goys as fellow workers, organizing against the pogromists,
not staying by ourselves, not trusting to some fekokteh god--"
"Be quiet,"Mama suddenly spits. "You'll
wake the babies. I want them to sleep through this night. And
leave Papa alone," she hisses.
Why is everyone talking about this day, this night? A
thin sliver of fear glides through Vera's breastbone. It lodges
inside her like a tapeworm. Still she stays behind the hanging
sheet, peering at her family as their bickering continues.
Mama rises from the piano. She strides to Hersh, lifts
his chin so he meets her eyes and, with a tight smile, says,
"Number one, keep your voice down. Number two, be glad
Papa can laugh on a day like this."
"But Mama, what are we doing?" Hersh's tone
is querulous. "I mean, we're just sitting here. All day
it's like we're waiting for them to come get us."
"We are hoping things have settled down since yesterday.
We are doing what we do in the evening. Solomon is rehearsing.
You are pestering Papa. Malke is driving you meshugeneh,"
Mama says. "What else can we do?"
What had been a dull drone from over by the eating table
lifts to a sonorous speech now, drowning out any answer Hersh
was preparing. It is Solomon reciting Hamlet's "to be or
not to be" soliloquy. He's rehearsing for his leading role
in the school play, in which he will declaim the Bard in Yiddish.
Mama's expression softens. The Shakespeare was her idea, eagerly
adopted by Solomon's progressive-minded teacher at the otherwise
not exactly progressive school for the children of Jewish workers.
Mama volunteered to be drama coach, which has turned into something
she loves--no, anyone can see it's more than that, something
through which she finds herself transported into a dreamy realm
far removed from this loud, gritty, drafty place that is itself
far from her home-- but it has also become yet another household
dispute. Papa says Solly, at 12, should be studying for his
bar mitzvah with Mr. Sislvicz, the shammes at the run-down shul
on Skulianskii Turnpike who for a discount fee tutors workers'
boys to chant their bar mitzvah Haftorah passage. Papa has been
trying to pin Mama down for two months now on setting a date
for Solly's bar mitzvah so he can make a deal with Sislvicz
and the rabbi, but Mama has been putting him off one way or
Now oy oy oy, Vera hears him mutter between Hersh's sniping,
which has resumed, and Solly's trilling. "Oy oy oy, this
is what I get for marrying a modern woman. She'd rather turn
her boy into a Shakespeare reader, an actor, a faygeleh most
likely, this she'd rather than a Haftorah reader who becomes
a man when he's thirteen like every Jew has for the last 5,000
"Not every Jew, Leib," Mama says. "Not
"Fine, now you're going to start in on me about
women's equality, Lena? Please, enough already. Please may I
have a little peace and quiet before I go back to kill myself
in the jute mill tomorrow?"
"I am not the one who threatens your peace and quiet,"
she says. "So please stop with the oy oy oys. I've really
had quite enough of them today and to tell you the truth for
the rest of my life."
Vera yawns, relaxing again. This she's used to. For here
in the Resnikoff household on Munchestskii Road in the mud-poor
Jewish section of the Skulanska Rogatka neighborhood on the
eastern outskirts of Kishinev, the capital city of Bessarabia,
southwestern province in the czarist empire, here live people
who would rather express to the highest possible degree of accuracy
their various thoughts, observations and opinions than let the
chance to do so pass. Vera glances out the window again. The
snowfall seems to be thickening. Again she yawns. So maybe her
family drives each other crazy a little. It doesn't bother her--especially
on a night like this, when, despite tendrils of brisk April
breeze that squeeze through gaps in the plank walls, it feels
wonderful to be home, inside, snug and warm under a blanket.
Vera is comfortable, contented, before the chill comes. Before
she decides to get out of bed and shuffles into the main room
to announce, "It's snowing."
Before Hersh looks at the big window and says, "That's
not snow." Before the window suddenly shatters. Before
Vera's brooding big sister is on the floor, an inert,
crumpled heap at Papa's feet. Her silence is deeper than usual.
Papa himself is bleeding from the temple. Rocks fly through
the window. Everyone is paralyzed for a moment before everything
All Vera's senses are under attack. First she feels the
cold. Her fingers are icy with April wind whooshing in
full force through the broken front window. She tries breathing
on them to warm them up.
looks outside. The air is thick with white particles falling
from second-, third- and fourth-floor windows. She sees now
that they aren't snow flakes at all, as Hersh saw right away.
They're feathers--goose feathers, duck feathers, the downy insides
of hundreds of pillows and mattresses. The bedding of every
family on Muncheshtskii Road. Tiny wisps of down tickle her
nose. She sneezes. Why is it snowing feathers? There's a full
moon and it's a clear night but Vera has to squint to see through
the thick shower of feathers. She looks across the narrow yard
at the wood-frame apartment house where ten families live. Young
roughs are flinging bedding out the upper-storey windows. She
doesn't know them, they don't live there, she wonders who they
are and why they're tearing up her friend Gilda Markowitz's
mattress, and then oh Mama she whispers as she sees that one
of the men has Gilda herself, he's holding her out the window,
upside down by her feet, he's laughing and now he drops her
too, just lets go and she flutters down amid the down.
But Gilda doesn't drop quietly like the snowy feather
storm. She screams, one long shriek as she falls, and now Vera
hears a thousand sounds at once. Screams everywhere--Gilda,
and Gilda's mother, who stands at the window howling as her
daughter falls, and in the next window Mrs. Damnovner chanting,
"Oy Gott Oy Gott Oy Gott" over and over. Now a series
of rhythmic dull thuds, each accompanied by a cry, from the
window above the Damnovner apartment, a girl Ruchl's age it
sounds like, maybe it's Ruchl's best friend Sorah Lieboff, she's
crying in pain as though something is pounding into her her
over and over and over then suddenly her cries stop and now
Vera realizes the loudest noise of all is here, beside her,
below her, where Mama lies on top of Ruchl, keening, kissing
her, holding her, sobbing. Malke is crying, too, and Solly,
and now Vera hears Mendel whimpering as he toddles into the
room. Papa whimpers also. Little wisps of air disturb his beard
like when he laughs. He bends over Mama and Ruchl and lets out
a deep moan. He starts rocking, swaying, murmuring the plaintive
opening notes of the Kaddish prayer for the dead. There are
shards of glass stuck in his hair. Blood seeps down from his
forehead through his beard, drips onto Ruchl's body.
More sounds--windows breaking, things tearing, something
cracking, soft surfaces being pounded. Bellowing laughter. Feral
howls. They sound like battle cries but Vera doesn't understand
the words. It's Moldavian, the language of the goys.
They are approaching. Close, too close, they're outside,
in the yard, they're next door. Soon they'll be here. Vera tastes
iron and realizes she has bit her lip open.
A whirlpool swirls around her. She is the still, silent
center. Maybe if she doesn’t move the next thing won't
But it does. "Come on," Hersh yells. "Papa,
we've got to get out of here. We've waited too long already."
Hersh is taking charge. Now he's the eldest, Vera realizes.
He grabs Papa's shirt, actually lifts him up, shakes
him. "Take Malke and Solly," he says. "Run out
to the back, into the alley, and see if you can find somewhere
to hide them. Maybe in Grillspoon's carpenter shed up the alley."
Papa looks down at Mama and says, "Lena, we've got
to go. They'll be here any minute."
"Go on!" she screams. "I stay with my
"But the other children--"
"They're all dead!"
Hersh intervenes again. "Papa, just take Malke and
Solly and go." Then, harshly, "Now!"
Papa does. Now four live Resnikoffs are left in the tiny flat
along with the dead one. The noise outside grows louder, nearer.
Snapping. Cracking. Dishes? Windows? Bones?
"Mama, we are going right now," Hersh says.
"Get up and take Mendel."
He thrusts the crying, confused toddler at Mama. Vera
holds her breath. Does Mama really think they're all dead? Will
she take Mendel? Will she leave with them before the monsters
"All right, Hersh," Mama finally says. She
straightens up. Her voice is like ice. "Give me Mendel.
I'm coming. We'll leave Malkeleh here alone."
Then she turns to Vera. The child stands rigid, breathing
fast and shallow. Fear chokes her. Fear siphons her dry.
Holding Mendel, Mama whispers, "Vera, we have to
Vera starts toward the sleeping room. Hersh grabs her
from behind by the shoulder. "What are you doing?"
His rough handling shakes Vera. She's on the verge of
tears. "Getting dressed," she says. Like Mama always
tells her to, neatly, nicely, because a Jew must always make
a good impression when she goes out.
"There's no time, Vera." He turns her around
so she’s next to Mama, facing the back window. "Now,
Mama, take her! Go!"
Vera takes Mama’s hand, which is limp.
"Hurry!" Hersh nudges them forward. "Run,
"Where, Mama?" Vera asks. "Where are we
Mama looks blank. Hersh stands in front of his mother,
takes her chin into his hand, lifts so he can see into her eyes.
He slaps Mama's cheek. Her head jolts back. A curdled
roar spurts out of her. For an instant silence splits the room,
then an answering, much louder roar of many deep voices comes
from just outside the front door. Mama looks wildly at her son.
"Take them," Hersh commands. "Now."
Mama nods. She moves toward the back window with Mendel
and Vera. "And you?" she asks the teenager.
"I'll see you later. I'm going to go into town and
find the comrades."
Another slight nod dips Mama's head. Hersh hugs her,
taking in the two little ones and blocking their view of Ruchl's
body. He helps them out the window, hisses again, "Run!"
Where are they running? Vera must know. She turns back
toward the window, reaches inside, grabs Hersh's arm and asks.
He tells her, "Into the woods. Help Mama and Mendel get
there. Run fast, Veraleh."
Vera tries to push down the terror and breathe. Into
the woods they’re going? Into the place where she is never,
ever allowed, not even at the very edge, not even to play? The
place with wild animals and crazy goys who are like animals
if you have the misfortune to run into one of them? We're going
to the forbidden, dangerous place? Without even getting dressed
How can this be?
But how can any of this be? How can that silent dead
thing left behind on the floor be her big sister Ruchl? How
can Mama's eyes too be so silent, so dead? Mama's hand so limp?
No time to make sense of it. The screaming, the crashing,
all the sounds rise up again around her. Vera thinks she hears
something from inside her own house, where she was asleep it
seems just moments ago. Where is Hersh? Is he inside, still?
Fighting the Jew killers? Or has he already slipped away? More
glass breaking, now yes it's definitely from inside Vera's house.
Maybe it's Mama's special Passover glasses, and now oy oy oy
there's no mistaking the sound, horrible music as the keys fly
off the piano, someone is smashing it, pound, crash, wood cracks,
wires pop. Oy Gott they're destroying Mama's piano, the only
fine thing we own Mama often says. How can they do this to her
beautiful mother? Vera feels Mama wobble, looks at her stunned,
immobile face, and realizes it's up to her to get the three
of them to safety. Where are Papa and the others? Vera hopes
they're waiting in the woods. Suddenly tonight, the trees don't
loom so scary. It seems that all the vicious animals are here.
In Kishinev. In her house. Now the Jews belong in the woods.
Vera runs. Pulling Mama forward, she keeps a tight hold
on her hand, checking that Mama in turn is keeping hold of Mendel.
Mama does manage to hold him--but not to keep him quiet. His
whimpers erupt into wails. The fear all around him, the screaming,
the sounds of destruction--the two-year-old is tumbling into
panic. Mama has no free hand to cover his mouth. As they run,
Vera and her mother and her baby brother, they are anything
but inconspicuous. They never make it to the woods, not even
to the edge where, Vera has been hoping, they might blend in
with the other forest creatures and be safe until Papa arrives
to take them home. In fact, they never make it out of their
own rear yard with its familiar jumble of wooden buildings.
As they hurry past the ramshackle carpenter's shed, its door
opens and Papa shoots out. He grabs Vera brusquely, breaking
her hold on Mama's hand, and shoves her into the shed. Then
he pulls Mendel from Mama, takes his wife's hand, and closes
the door behind them as they enter the shed.
It’s very dark in here but even so Vera can feel
the presence of many people. No one makes a peep, however. Except
Mendel, who’s still howling. Papa rocks him. Whispers,
"Sha, sha." Finally puts his hand over the toddler's
Too late. Mendel's wails have been heard. The shed's
door is ripped open, hands reach in, grabbing people, dragging
them out. Now the screaming starts up again. Sobs, cries, appeals
to god. In that other language some thug yells something and
laughs, and the others start shouting merrily. Papa and some
other men rush forward, out of the shed, begin fighting the
Moldavians, trying to pull the children and women back from
them. Mendel's weeping is now only one note amid a discordant
chorus, Yiddish laments mixed with calls of "Kill the Jews,"
the meaning clear despite the language barrier. So many voices,
in the shed, outside. Twenty-five people have been hiding in
Grillspoon's shed. Mostly children and their mothers. The mob
that has at them numbers fifty or sixty. Men and teenaged boys.
Some with pipes and clubs. Some with knives and hacksaws.
It goes fast. Papa, Mr. Grillspoon and the other men
try to fight off the mob. Outnumbered, without weapons and unused
to fighting, they go down one by one. Mr. Grillspoon and three
others are clubbed to death. Bella Grillspoon--kind Mrs. Grillspoon,
their neighbor, the one who always chucks Vera under the cheek
and gives her a hard candy--doesn't have it so easy. Just outside
the shed's open door she is set upon--by four, five, six brutes,
how is it possible? Vera doesn't know the word for what she
sees but she sees it with her own eyes. Cowering in the front
corner of the shed with Mendel she watches, the moon shining
a spotlight on Mrs. Grillspoon. Some time after the third or
fourth assailant, the old woman ceases to resist or even flinch.
Still she lives; Vera hears her rasping breaths. Then, after
the last one finishes, he kicks Mrs. Grillspoon over and over.
When he moves away Vera doesn't hear her breathe anymore.
Vera turns the other way and there is Papa lying on the
ground. Blood all over his face. One leg bent at a strange angle.
Vera wants to scream and scream but she knows it's too
dangerous. She must stay still. She must not draw attention
to herself. She must pull herself in as tightly as she can.
Become small. Invisible. And keep Mendel quiet. Which is no
longer hard. He's gone silent, stiff. Finally Vera understands
all Mama's fears, all her warnings to Vera and the other children.
These goys are like animals, it's true after all. Or worse.
Near the corner where Vera crouches with Mendel, Solomon
and Malke have been hiding too, under the carpenter's big work
table along with Feya Wouller, a girl Solly's age, and Feya's
eight-year-old sister Dvora. After finishing outside, a pack
of men howling like wolves sweeps into the shed, kicking children,
grabbing women. They topple the table and see the four underneath.
Two of the men make a beeline for dark-eyed thirteen-year-old
Feya Wouller; a third rights the table; they lift her onto it,
tear at her dress, start at her. Solly leaps forward, screaming,
kicks at the men. One grabs him, punches him in the gut, keeps
hold of him while Solly hunches forward. As Solly catches his
breath, he starts thrashing, trying to break loose. Meanwhile
the ruin of Feya Wouller progresses. One after another, they
tear into her. After the fifth she is unconscious. Solly calls
out to Malke and Dvora: "Run!" As the girls hesitate,
the thug punches Solly again, this time hard in the face. The
Two sets of grimy hands grip Malke and Dvora. The men
push the girls back down onto the floor. As Malke's assailant
reaches up to loosen his belt, the shed is filled with a guttural
cry in no known language. Mama lunges at the beast atop her
daughter. She is not completely human herself. A creature of
instinct, an enraged, wounded animal, a she-devil rising up
to defend her child. This is Mama, carpenter's awl in hand,
no language left but fury, and she brings the awl down hard
onto the rapist's back, gaping a tear into him that staggers
him backward, off Malke. While Malke is spared, the gang rape
of Feya Wouller proceeds on the table. Vera smells something
foul as the men destroy her. A dozen of them. The thirteen-year-old
is already dead as the last two take their pleasure.
Then the thug Vera's mother bloodied shouts something.
Many men--the same dozen who just finished off Feya? fresh troops
surging into the shed?--swoop toward the center of the shed.
They swipe the body off the table, its skin catching wood splinters
as it slides down. Several drag the corpse outside and Vera
hears the hacking sounds of an ax breaking it apart. The table
cleared, a hundred hands lift Mama onto it. One by one, they
rape her too. This time Vera does not see or hear. Malke has
joined Mendel and her in their corner. With shaking hands she
pulls Vera's face against her chest and covers her ears. Mendel
has long since rolled himself into a fetal ball. The three children
hide and wait for it to end.
For what seems like hours, Vera, Malke and Mendel wait
in the carpenter's shed. They stay silent, hidden, almost molded
into the rough, slivered wall until long after the mob peters
out. Russian police come. They carry Mama out, and Solly and
the others. They don't see the still, silent shadows in the
corner. At last, when the children hear no more movement, no
more voices, Malke gets up. She struggles to pick up Mendel,
takes Vera's hand, and leads them out of the shed into the yard.
Vera tries to keep her eyes closed, thinking this will
maintain her invisibility, but she keeps stumbling on the debris--torn
clothes, pieces of wooden plank, a metal rod--so she resigns
herself to opening her eyes. She slips and nearly loses her
footing on some slick red gunk on the ground. She's holding
Malke's hand so tight her sister says "ouch" and tells
her to let go, but Vera cannot let go, no she will not, she
must hold on. Look what happened when she lost hold of Mama's
And so they make their way across the yard and back to
their home. They climb in through the same window they'd left
by. Malke and Vera gasp at the wreckage. Nothing is the
same. Pieces of dishes, glasses, windowpanes on the floor. Cutlery
tossed all around. Clothes strewn, furniture overturned. And
the piano barely recognizable as such.
The old upright's legs have been hacked off so it lies
on its back. Most of the keys have been pried off; they're scattered
around the floor with the other trash. Some stiff metal musical
strings point out from the innards. Others, bent or cut or stripped,
droop onto the floor. The dark wood is torn up. And it smells
like someone has peed on Mama's piano.
A wild wire of worry twists inside Vera. How will she
tell Mama what they've done to her piano? The piano Mama calls
her saving grace. The stool, also broken now, is Mama's special
place, her protected zone, where she goes sometimes to play,
sometimes just to sit and stare facing the friendly keys when
she's weary or sad or at her wit's end. The household knows
to leave Mama alone when she sits at the piano, Mama's piano,
Mama's retreat and renewal, Mama's reminder of home, of her
own mama and papa, the grandparents Vera has never met. One
sweet spring evening Mama had explained her feelings for the
piano to Vera. She said it was a precious remnant of her life
in Odessa, the thrilling, cultured port city Mama left to come
to this back-country provincial capital in the Pale of Settlement,
the area to which Jews are restricted by the czar's decree,
where Papa could find factory work. Mama had shown Vera a faded
photograph of herself at eighteen, seated at the piano in the
front room—Mama called it the parlor--of her parents--flat
above their tailor shop. She told Vera people used to teasingly
call her an "Odessa levone"--an Odessa moon, meaning
she was stylish, even glamorous--and that the picture was taken
on a special night, just before her parents took her to see
a touring production of Hamlet in which the great Sarah Bernhardt
shocked the world by playing the lead role, in men's knickers.
Now where will Mama go when the shrying gevalt drives
her mad? Vera is always able to wait quietly while Mama plays
or just sits at the piano, because she knows that when Mama
is ready she will reach out for her pet, draw her onto her lap,
take Vera's hands into hers, place them on the keyboard, and
then Vera, magically, is playing music. She knows it's really
Mama playing, Vera herself wouldn't know what to do with her
fingers without Mama guiding them, but still it swells her up
with pride and love as she hears the notes thump out and feels
the vibration rise from the stool up through Mama's lap into
her tushy, which she clenches as she squirms with pleasure.
With all that has happened this night, everything she
has seen, the piano somehow seems the worst. The snapped wires
draw her insides taut with anxiety. She frets over how to tell
her mother about the piano's destruction. It doesn't occur to
her that anyone else would tell, or that Mama might already
know; or that her mother has more to grieve over than a musical
instrument. No, Vera vows, Mama must never see this sight. She'll
get Malke to help her finish dismantling the piano and drag
its carcass out of the flat.
If only she hadn't waited so long to tell them it was
snowing. Guilt rises up through Vera's throat. All of
this is her fault. Maybe none of it would have happened if Vera
had realized what was going on and warned her family. The piano
would be okay. If only she'd told them earlier about the strange
snow. The dishes would remain stacked in the cupboard, milcheche
on the right, flaisheche in the middle, Passover on the left.
Her parents' mattress would be fluffy and full, not torn up
with feathers lying all around, and at the foot of the mattress
inside the trunk the family's clothes would still be neatly
folded and piled instead of torn up and flung all about, like
that big, ungainly pile under the front window--
Ruchl. Oh god. She lies where they left her. Vera takes
it in. She wishes Hersh were here. He would know what comes
next. Where is he? When was the last time she saw him? Her stomach
rises to her throat. She swallows over and over. Suddenly she
feels very sleepy. She's shutting down. She turns toward the
sheet that, incongruously, still hangs between the two rooms,
and stumbles onto what's left of the children's bed. Lying down,
shivering, she sneezes as the loose downy fluff rises around
her. The night wind lets itself in through the broken front
window, tickles Ruchl's body, then washes over Vera. She yawns.
She couldn't open her eyes if she tried. She feels Malke place
Mendel at her back and ease herself down behind him. Malke has
found the big blanket, untorn, and tucks the rough wool atop
the three of them. Under it she lays her arm over Vera and Mendel.
Vera stops shivering. Exhaustion trumps emotion, and the three
youngest Resnikoffs sleep through what's left of the night.