Although this is the first time his work has been translated into English, Marat Baskin is well known and much loved by his readers. His work has been compared to that of Isaak Babel, a great Russian-Jewish short story writer, who was killed during the Great Terror (Stalinism).
Born in Belarus in 1946, Marat Baskin (author) writes short stories about people he knew in his home town, one of the few remaining Jewish shtetls in the former Soviet (now Belarusian) territory. In 1992 he emigrated to the US. His short stories have been published in numerous Russian and Belarusian-language periodicals in Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, etc.
Moscow-born, Nina Kossman (translator) is an artist, writer, poet, and playwright. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a UNESCO/PEN Short Story Award, grants from Foundation for Hellenic Culture and Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, she is the author of two books of poems in Russian and English as well as the translator of two volumes of Marina Tsvetaevas’s poetry. Her other publications include Behind the Border (HarperCollins,1994) and Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths (Oxford University Press, 2001). Her work has been translated into several languages, including Japanese, Dutch, Greek, and Spanish. She lives in New York.
The Mad Trumpet Player’s Wife
In memory of my mother
Every self-respecting Jewish town had a violinist. Some even had two. Krasnopol was no exception to the rule. But now in addition to the violinist Honi, who played at all Jewish weddings in the county, Krasnopol suddenly got itself a trumpeter. Monya, son of Itzik, the town blacksmith, ran away from home with a Red Army detachment passing through Krasnopol. For three years no one heard anything from him, and Krasnopol folks lost hope that he would ever come back. Shadhen* Shloyme started talking with Chaim, the father of Hanochka, Monya’s bride, hinting that Monya might never come back, and even if he did, then he would come back with a shiksa*, while he, Shloyme, had some nice grooms lined up for her. And while Hanochka was still tsymus*, it was necessary to find a good hosun* for her. Hanochka did not want to hear this kind of talk; at the sight of Shloyme she would run to the other side of the street. She had forbidden her dad to talk to her about suitors — she was waiting for Monya. And finally she got what she was waiting for.
Monia appeared in Krasnopol right before the Jewish New Year. He wore a budyonovka and a long ankle-length coat. In addition, he had a saber scar on his head and a hiking bag with a trumpet, half a loaf of stale bread, and earrings with blue stones for Hanochka: this was a trade he made in Berdichev for half a loaf of bread.
“Was that enough war for you, Zunale*?” Itzik greeted him.
“Yes, enough for me, Tatunyu*. I got tired of waving my sword around, so now I’ll stay home and help you in your smithy.”
Monya didn’t say anything else about his time in the army, not on that first evening, nor later. Only once did Monya say to his bride Hanochka:
“I thought I was fighting so my tate* would live like Moishe Bragin, but it turned out that I fought so Moishe Bragin would live like my tate. And was it something worth fighting for?”
Itzik did not ask his son about anything, and Monya fielded neighbors’ curious questions with quick replies, like hammer blows on his anvil:
“I don’t remember anything… I’m shell-shocked …”
And as though in confirmation of these words Monya started a strange habit of playing the trumpet in the morning. The first morning, after returning home, Monia woke up early, before the first roosters, took the trumpet out of his bag and went into the yard to play reveille. In the frosty autumn morning air the loud sound of the trumpet rang through Krasnopol, waking up the sleeping shtetl. Hope, faith and love of neighbor were in those sounds. Haim Belitser, Itzik’s neighbor and Monya’s future father-in-law, who always sat with his book at that time, said that one should always start the day with a clever thought and where do you find it if not in books. So Haim, woken up by Monya’s trumpet, looked out into the yard and, seeing his future son-in-law playing the trumpet, said,
“Ale Shlofun, du shpilst*! Everyone is asleep, and you play? So finally we the Krasnopol folks got us our own troubadour ?! But I want to tell you that Hanochka can’t hear your music, she is still asleep. It looks like she sold her hemp at the market, because yesterday she stayed up till midnight cooking something tasty. And I’ll tell you why she cooked it. Because today she wants to invite you to a pretty good mincemeat! But this is between you and me. I did not say anything, and you did not hear anything!”
It’s hard to say who could have heard Chaim’s words, but by the end of the day everyone in Krasnopol knew that Monya was a troubadour. Nonik the shoemaker explained it to everyone:
“What is there to understand ?! Haim is a learned man, he took two words, truba and dur(ak) (fool), and put them together! And there, we got a troubadour!”
Hanochka, who was as smart as her dad, heard that they were calling her fiancé a fool, so she tried to explain to them that a troubadour was a poet and musician in the Middle Ages, not a fool, but no one believed her, just as they didn’t believe her that there were Ages that were called Middle.
“Tate,” she asked Chaim, “tell them that Monya is no fool. They’ll listen to you!”
“But what for?” Haim said philosophically to his daughter. “Maybe in our time it is better to be a fool?” Then he added, “Leiba Trotsky also wanted to be the smartest one, and what came out of that? You want that kind of thing?”
Hanochka didn’t want that kind of thing, so she resigned herself to the fact that Krasnopol folks thought of Monya as a bit crazy. And after they got married, the Krasnopol folks gave her a nickname to match his: Troubadurochka.
Out of respect for Chaim they didn’t mention it face to face with her, but behind her back this was the only name they had for her. Hana started working as an accountant in the nearby collective farm, named after Kaganovich, while Monya worked in the smithy with his father. Life went on as usual – they had their fill of joys and sorrows; first Itzik went to the other world, then Chaim, then Monya was awarded a two-year old farm cow for good work, then they repaired the house, then they expected a baby son.
“And what if it’s a daughter,” Hana said.
“It’s a son,” said Monya confidently. “I know.”
After the awarding of the cow, the local authorities tried to draw the former Red Army man into their ideas of doing great deeds to transform the world. They requested that he come to meetings, they asked him to speak to students, but Monya firmly refused to take part in their great deeds, citing, as always, a bad memory, so they let it go – what can you do with a fool, let him sit in his smithy.
But Monya didn’t manage to stay in his smithy – his love for playing the trumpet every morning got him into trouble. Although the folks of Krasnopol were already used to waking up at dawn to the sound of his trumpet like to the chiming of the clock on the Spassky Tower, the new Commissioner of the NKVD*, Jacob Pritzer, son of a Krasnopol water carrier Nohema, who had been transferred either to a lower or a higher position from Krichev to Krasnopol, did not quite fall in love with the sound of Monya’s trumpet.
“Who plays at dawn?” he asked, as though he had never before been in Krasnopol.
“A former Red Army guy,” they explained to him. “He was shell-shocked at the front.”
“And does he have any documents, your Red Army guy? – The commissioner chuckled, and with that chuckle he changed him from Monya the Red Army man into Monya the White Army man.
They arrived for Monya at night. A special team was sent for him from the center, like for a dangerous enemy of the people, a former White Army man and a spy.
“Good bye, Hana,” Monya said and added, “I leave you my trumpet. You must play reveille every morning. I will hear it and know that you’re waiting for me. Wherever I am…”
That same night, Hana gave birth at seven months, to Itzik-Haim, and the next night, she got up from her bed, lifted the trumpet with her trembling hands, and went out into the yard.
The NKVD Commisioner flew into a rage at the sound of the trumpet.
“Who’s playing this time?” he asked.
“It’s Trubadurochka, the shell-shocked man’s wife,” was the explanation he got. “Maybe she went crazy too.”
“We will cure her,” said the NKVD Commissioner, grinding his teeth. “Our professionals are very good at curing such diseases.”
And maybe Hana would have been taken the following evening too, but it so happened that the war broke out in the morning. And the NKVD Commissioner was too busy to be bothered with Hana and her trumpet.
Most Jews were leaving Krasnopol, but Hana stayed.
“Where can Itzik and I flee?” she said. “Monya will come here to look for us.”
And the trumpet continued to wake the people of Krasnopol.
The Germans entered Krasnopol on the tenth day of war. All the Jews were moved from the center to the outskirts. They were not allowed to take anything with them. Yet Hana took the trumpet, and she continued to play. Someone explained this to the Germans: Let the crazy girl play her trumpet, it’ll be easier to keep the calm this way, the people of Krasnopol were used to these sounds, Jews as well as Belarusians .
There were only three Germans stationed at Krasnopol, so the killing of Jews was given to the local police – the polizei. To strengthen the polizei they gathered them in Krasnopol from all over. In the evening, before the execution, the Jews were herded into collective farm stables. At some point in the morning, another Jew was dragged in.
“Havausya, Yid*,” said the policeman and kicked the bloody body.
Hana started: for a second it seemed to her that it was Monya. But it was Yasha Pritzer, beaten, bloodied, half-dead. He was moaning and asking deliriously for water. But no one had water. And then Hana, unable to bear his groans, came up to him, leaned over him, pulled out her breast, swollen with milk, and squeezed some milk onto Yashka’s dried lips. Feeling moisture on his lips, he opened his eyes and saw Hana.
“Forgive me,” he whispered.
Hana asked, “Where is Monya?”
“There was an order to destroy all the arrested enemies of the people”, he whispered. “I myself read the order. So they wouldn’t fall into the hands of the Germans.”
After dark the Jews were brought out from the stable and led to a pit behind the village, near the drying plant. Hana was lagging behind, dragging her feet at the end of the crowd, with Itzik in her arms, and police hurried her with constant shouts. But she did not pay attention to these shouts, she did not hear them. Dawn was coming, the time when she had to play the trumpet.
When the first ray appears, Monya will hear the trumpet, she thought. And he will know that I am waiting for him.
The sun flew out from behind the clouds, and for a moment it blinded Hana. She closed her eyes. And she began playing.
Everyone turned at the sound of her trumpet, the Jews and the polizei.
At the same moment they saw a rider rushing towards the crowd. He held in his hand a huge hammer from his smithy and brandished it like David’s sling. It was Monya. He raced straight to the polizei, and they, in fear and surprise, scattered, taking rifles off their shoulders and aiming at him as they ran. Monya, like a fabulous hero swinging his hammer, swept past them all, picked up Hana and Itzik and put them into his saddle and, raising a cloud of dust, sped toward Vydrenka. The polizei caught on and started firing at random, but the rider was already far away.
“And then what happened?” I asked my mother.
“I don’t know,” she said. “We were told this story when we returned from the evacuation. Monya and Hana did not return to Krasnopol after the war. And why would they – Monya would have been arrested again. Monya’s trumpet no longer resounded through Krasnopol in the mornings, but many in Krasnopol would wake up at night from its sound. The sound of Hope, Faith and Love …”
I did not understand my mother’s last words. I was still too young to understand them. But now, in New York, far from Krasnopol, I wake up in the middle of the night from a long and lingering sound of the trumpet playing reveille. I hope, I believe, I love …
shadhen – matchmaker (Yiddish)
shiksa – a woman who is not Jewish (Yiddish)
tsymus – a treat, something sweet
hosun – bridegroom (Yiddish)
Zunale – son (Yiddish)
Tate, Tatunyu – father, dad (Yiddish)
Ale Shlofun, du shpilst – Everyone is asleep, and you play (Yiddish)
NKVD – a precursor of the KGB, the dreaded Soviet secret police
Havausya, Yid – You were hiding, Yid (Belarussian). “Yid” is a slur for “Jew” in Eastern Europe.