The child, his stomach grumbling with hunger, his pekel light and empty, took the coins eagerly. Money!
Kolbasov, Poland, 1890s.
Avrome’le sat at the back of the cheder. He was always in the back; he didn’t have a tatte, and his mama didn’t have enough coins to give the melamed each week.
He listened carefully. The melamed went from table to table, reading from a siddur with the four-year-old group, learning Chumash with the six-year-olds. Sometimes, a question appeared in Avrome’le’s mind. He put his forehead in his hands and tried to think. Other boys raised their hands with kashes, but his mama didn’t pay the melamed, so he wasn’t allowed to ask.
Still, he was happy. As well as learning alef-beis and davening and Chumash, Avrome’le watched the melamed closely. He saw how his face creased into happy lines when he spoke about Yom Tov. He watched the tears that rolled down the melamed’s cheeks when he said Al Naharos Bavel, after eating a slice of black bread at noon.
Days passed and Avrome’le came to cheder each morning. Years passed and Avrome’le learned diligently. Until the day he was bar mitzvah, and then it was understood that the luxury of learning in the little cheder could be his no more. Nor the simple comforts of home: Mama’s Shabbos kigel and a cozy, warm spot by the stove. Like his brother Mendel before him, Avrome’le would have to go find work to help his family.
Avrome’le took the pekel his mother tearfully packed: a blanket, some clothing, a little food, siddur, tefillin, a few pennies. Did some boyish sense of adventure lighten his step as he left his mother and little siblings behind in the Polish shtetl that was all he’d known? Did he realize how alone he would be?
“You should find work in one of the kehillos in Germany,” his mother told him. Avrome’le traveled mostly on foot, yet frugal as he was, by the time he arrived in the great city of Hamburg, the food and coins were almost gone. He wandered around the city, dazed by its size and strangeness, dizzy with hunger and longing, desperate for a familiar face, a Yiddish word.
Avrome’le trudged through endless city streets, and then his eye suddenly alighted on the sight he longed for. Yiddish lettering seemed to jump off a building. He pulled himself toward the big door, knocked, and asked politely for some food. To his joy, a woman opened the door, and immediately beckoned Avrome’le in to a comfortable dwelling: warm, dry, and welcoming. “I will bring the Father,” she said to him. “Wait here for the Father to come.”
Soon she brought a tray of food and some coins, which she extended to Avrome’le. She smiled at him. “The Father is coming,” she said again.
The child, his stomach grumbling with hunger, his pekel light and empty, took the coins eagerly. Money! This could give him another few days to find work. To buy food. To sleep somewhere warm. Eyes bright with gratitude, he began to thank the woman in Yiddish. She gave an inscrutable smile.
As Avrome’le rejoiced at his good fortune, a heavy tread announced a man’s entrance. In the doorway stood the “Father.” He was a big, heavyset man wearing a black robe. Not a rekel, or even a short-cut German jacket, Avrome’le thought, surprised. He let his gaze travel upward; a glint of gold flashed on the black cassock, and he startled. Gold chain. Swinging. And there, at the end, a cross.
Avrome’le’s breath came in sharp, panicked gasps, as his brain registered what his eyes had seen. The “Father” stepped forward with a hand outstretched and a practiced smile. “My son,” he said to the little boy.
Now his breath caught in a huge hand of fear and choking nausea. He was only Mama’s son, and Tatte who had gone, and the Eibeshter Who had taken Tatte but always loved him. Avrome’le stood up, grabbed his pekel, and ran for the door. Before he stepped out onto the cruel streets, he turned and threw the handful of coins at the missionaries’ feet.
Postscript: A few days later, Avrome’le found work in a Jewish bakery, where the baker liked him so much that he wanted the young boy for his own daughter. At the turn of the century, evading the draft and the shidduch, he emigrated to join his older brother Mendel in England. Together they bought tickets for their mother and three younger sisters — and in the tumultuous 1930s, Avrome’le repaid the Hamburg baker by bringing him to England.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 511)
Oops! We could not locate your form.