Tale 9 from David-Horodok by Kathryn T. Winston

The Fire


Razel's dreams were troubled. She huddled at the very the edge of a clearing, hugging herself under the protection of the encircling trees. With horrible fascination she and the forest watched as a campfire in the center of the grassy hollow grew, stretching its arms upward. As the flames towered over the trees, they reached out, grasping, grasping, searching for her soul. Razel screamed and woke herself up, and in that moment realized that the smoke was real and the flames were real. Through the stifling haze she lunged toward David's bed and shook him awake. Together they rushed to collect the children and carry them outside. Then, while the eldest woke the town, Razel and David raced to save as much as they could.

Joining their blurry-eyed neighbors, they ran to and from the houses along Olshonergas, carrying out goose-down comforters and furniture, books and Shabbes candlesticks, piling them on the wooden sidewalk away from the flames. Others saved much; Razel and David did not. Theirs had been the first house to catch fire and only a few minutes after discovery, the flames were already too hot and too consuming to permit much saving.

The volunteer firemen dowsed their house and the one next to them and the ones that lay beyond; the wind was blowing due west toward the Horin, endangering chiefly the houses between the Eisenberg's and the river. The wooden sidewalk across from the flames quickly filled with victims, furniture and valuables. Pillows, comforters, chests of drawers, clothes and dishes piled up in a jumble as neighbor helped neighbor.

Razel's children sat in the midst of the street's tumbled possessions and watched. The house next to theirs, the home of the Esther the Lime-plasterer and her son, the shoemaker, had already broken into flames, and the one after that, Razel's parents' house with their small tannery in back, was smoldering. The glare of burning buildings blotted the stars from the sky, but in the intense glow of the flames, shadowy men, women, and wagons burdened by grotesque shapes could still be seen moving to and fro. Swaying lanterns crisscrossed the blackness, creating a kaleidoscope of sweat and terror. Dogs howled and cats streaked off to hide. Such a fantasy of horror, intensified as it was by being so unexpected, went beyond even Razel's nightmare.


Isser Ashenbach sat at a table in the tavern playing preferánce with Yankel, the owner. Each card that fell enhanced Yankel's eloquence. "Loan me the money, Reb Ashenbach, and I'll make us both rich. I can double the size of this tavern. Then, with God's blessing, I'll serve twice as many customers-and build an inn for travelers besides."

"Yankel, think," Issur laughed good-naturedly. "God's blessing you may get, but I doubt it will be enough. The railroad doesn't stop here and boat passengers don't get off to spend the night. Since this town is rarely anyone's destination, where are all these new customers going to come from? Look around you. You can't even fill this place the way it is now." Isser's arms waved wide, in an all-encompassing gesture, as if the point were indisputable. Yankel, however, disputed.

"There's no one here tonight because it's so late, past midnight. I would have closed already but we we're having such a good time playing cards." Isser nodded an ironic smile. "And you're wrong about the business; I already have so much to do that I'm thinking of bringing my cousin in to take over the mundane chores like bookkeeping and taking inven..."

A bugle blown by Maisel the Watchman at the fire station stopped the conversation; a call at this hour signified more than a practice drill. They rushed out and heard from running passers-by, "It's the Eisenbergs on Olshonergas... Their house is on fire!!"

"Which way is the wind blowing?" Isser was deeply concerned; he had allowed some people to use their houses as collateral. If the wrong homes burned, he could be ruined.

"Due west. Toward the Horin."

"Ah," thought Isser," God is with me tonight." So while Yankel raced off to help with the fire, Isser offered to stay behind and keep an eye on the liquid inventory and cash box behind the bar.

The quickness of the warning and the fire brigade's response saved all but two houses-the Eisenberg's and Esther's next-door. In the early morning light, as valuables were slowly moved back into the remaining wet, slightly-singed homes, relatives took in the victims. Razel, David and their children moved in with Razel's parents. Esther and her son moved in with Esther's brother, Mendel the Tinsmith, the Bleckerer, and his daughter Leysche. Razel and David intended to build a small cabin at the back of their property where they could stay until their insurance money came through. Having never been able to afford insurance, Esther had no idea what she would do.


The insurance investigator looked through the rubble in the Eisenberg's yard, poking this with his toe and that with his hand. Inside of an hour, he had discovered two empty buckets behind what had once been the outhouse.

"What are these?" he asked, smelling one suspiciously and handing the other to David.

Because of her greater familiarity with buckets (and hard work) than her much adored husband (who was accused by one daughter of never having done a day's labor in his life), Razel took the bucket from David and smelled it. The odor of kerosene was obvious. She realized with horror what must have happened. "These buckets aren't ours. Ours have several chips knocked off the top over here." She pointed to the wood near the handle. "Anyway, we keep our kerosene in a closed can; otherwise it would evaporate."

"I think I'd better take a closer look at your house." The stranger began searching through the charred timber, pulling up boards, smelling this and breaking that, examining the remains of what had once been their home. After a time, he announced, "This was arson. I'm reporting it to the police."

Razel and David shook from this second blow. How could someone have set fire to their house? They had worked so hard for what they had... and what about Esther next-door? She had been ruined... and what about the town? Much of David-Horodok had been threatened; it was, after all, just a shtetl of wood and straw. Who could hate that much?


The police began their investigation with the Eisenbergs. David and Razel were summoned to David-Horodok's untidy two-room Police Station, with its large tile furnace in one corner and small table covered with papers nearby. David and Razel sat down on one side of the table; the Government Inspector sat across from them.

"This fire should provide you with a good deal of money." His comments poured out with practiced disapproval.

David was unmoved. "You must see," he replied with even more practiced reasonability-a skill cultivated during many hours of arguing Torah-"that it will cost more than the insurance money to replace what we had. What is the point of having cash if we've lost a place to live? And if we spend all the insurance money on a new home, why would we have burned the first one?"

David's manner as much as his logic convinced the Inspector. So the straznik quickly passed on to the town's favorite suspect, Hershel Goldberg. As the town tcheppenik, its first-class provocateur, he had alienated almost everyone with his practical jokes. When trouble occurred thoughts naturally turned to him, and he was duly brought in for questioning.


Chaim Goldberg, builder of ships and man of consequence, sat next to his brother Herschel, stiff with hopeful indignation, while the Inspector questioned the man.

"You've caused a lot of trouble around here in your time."

"That's true, my Lord and Master, that's true." Herschel bowed his head in mock repentance. Then from under his beard the Inspector heard bubbling up, "But the real trouble 'around here' is no one has a sense of humor." Hershel's "around here" mimicked the Inspector's remarkably well.

"Burning down two houses and damaging five others is not a joke, Goldberg. You think your brother's so high and mighty that I won't throw you in jail? That cell over there is just waiting for someone to warm its benches." The Inspector snapped his head toward the door at the other end the room, which closed on David-Horodok's only jail cell.

Chaim shut his eyes and bent his head, covering his exasperation with his hands; he knew that whether Hershel was guilty or not, a small bribe would now be needed to assuage the Inspector's offended pride. Chaim also knew that general spite had prompted people to suggest Hershel was the arsonist, even though the whole town knew, as Chaim did, that Hershel's jokes had damaged "only" their feelings in the past. But inappropriate comments collect enemies, and Hershel had made more than his share of both. Chaim waited with apprehension for Hershel's next remark.

"Would I ever take the concerns of my Lord and Master less than seriously?" Hershel spent the next week in jail, and it took a substantial bribe to get him out.


Needless to say, the topic of who set the fire consumed not only the police, but also the whole town for weeks. Most wanted justice and not a few, revenge. And because the whisperings of Socialism had come even to David-Horodok, even to the humble house of Mendel the Bleckerer, where Esther the Limeplasterer and her son were now living, the demands for justice were often wrapped in a flurry of words about capitalist abuse of the working class. The "bourgeois" moneylender, Reb Ashenbach, was among those who heard the most about it.

Sitting in Yankel's bar where he conducted much of his business, Issur Ashenbach endured Mendel's lecture with stubborn silence. Mendel, along with his fellow socialist Noah the Watchmaker, wanted to secure a loan to reconstruct Esther's house. Issur, unused to being addressed by anything less respectful than "Reb Ashenbach" certainly did not appreciate the names he was now being called, nor the way money was being demanded from him.

"Your fortune came from bilking the working poor of David-Horodok, but you can redeem yourself at least somewhat by lending my sister the money to rebuild her house." Socialism had of course blinded Mendel to the fact that Issur had never bilked the poor because he never lent them money in the first place; they had no collateral. Issur did not point it out, believing it would only lengthen the harangue. Instead he answered with practicality and logic. "How will she repay me?"

"She'll pay with money she earns by the sweat of her brow." Issur could almost hear the words "unlike you" hanging in the air. He ignored them.

"Mendel, think. Your sister doesn't earn enough to live on, much less have extra money to pay back a loan. I can't possibly lend anything without collateral. If we use the house she will build as collateral, you'll only be back yelling at me in two months when she defaults and I have to repossess it. Does she have any other collateral?"

Noah answered disgustedly. "You know she doesn't, you heartless capitalist. Where will she live if you don't give her the money to rebuild her home?"

"That's her affair, and if I may say so, her brother's. I am not part of her family, so it is not mine." Issur looked quizzically at Noah, who was also no relative.

Noah took the insult, stood up, and answered with the strength of the ideologically pure. "Some day all you blood-sucking capitalists will pay for the way you've trampled on the working class. Someday kerosene will be poured on your house and no one will be there to help you rebuild."

Issur eyed Noah carefully. "Are you suggesting the Eisenbergs were capitalists who deserved to lose their house?"

"No," Noah replied hesitantly. He recovered quickly. "But the capitalists in their insurance company can well afford to provide jobs for the poor carpenters in this town."

Mendel looked at Noah with a dawning suspicion while Issur calculated, "Do you really consider burning the Eisenberg house to be an act of justice?"

"If the poor don't have jobs, how can they eat?"

"What about my sister's house? She wasn't rich and she didn't have insurance."

"Her loss must be considered a casualty of fate," replied Noah.


The next day the police began to ask careful questions about Noah's movements on the day of the fire. However guessing that someone has committed a crime and proving it are two different things. The town, not needing the evidence required by a court, gave Noah wide berth. The poor were outraged at what had been done to Esther, while the better-off feared they might attract the same mischief that had befallen the Eisenbergs if they irritated Noah. Anyone with property or jewels tried carefully to remember all they had said to Noah when they had once dropped off or picked up their clocks and watches.

Noah's business dwindled to nothing. On her knees, his wife Hinde pleaded with her wealthy mother, Estusha. "Mama, I know you hate Noah, but what will I do if he's sent to prison. I don't have a way of making a living. I never learned the watchmaker trade; I never had to."

Her daughter's distress angered Estusha. She would have liked to let that good-for-nothing son-in-law of hers rot in jail, but she had no one to blame for this predicament but herself. She had chosen that ridiculous man to be Hinde's husband. But how could she know a sixteen-year-old yeshiva bohker would turn into a forty-year-old socialist agitator? And now, worse yet, he was an arsonist. She still had trouble believing that one who had been so passionate about his studies could have disgraced her family so completely.

"You expect me to help Noah the Criminal?"

"You have influence with the police." Estusha easily translated "influence" into "money for bribes". "You could stop the investigation, but you must do it today, before the police uncover anything really damaging, or they'll be forced to report it."

"Do you think saving Noah from jail will restore our honor? The whole of David-Horodok knows he burned those houses. Do you think for a moment our fellow Jews are going to forgive him?"

"Not him, but us. You could loan Esther the Limeplasterer money to rebuild. Just a small house. The Eisenbergs don't need us. They have insurance; they can rebuild on their own."

So Estusha rebuilt Esther's house, both for her daughter's sake, and to erase the shame Noah had brought on the family, and Esther paid back what she could, which wasn't much and wasn't often.

And you think Noah the Watchmaker ever said "Thank you?" The ideologically pure don't know the words. Instead Noah left Hinde and their children and ran away to Bialystok, where his socialist principles had wider scope. Hinde learned the trade of watchmaker, breaking not a few watches in the process. Deprived of Noah's company, she was able to build a small clientele. The hardest part was not her reduced status or income; it was being saddled with a debt of gratitude to her mother for the rest of her life.


After all the houses on Olshonergas had been rebuilt or repaired, Razel organized a watch group to walk up and down the street every night. For the first few months, she and her neighbors took turns (David of course needed his sleep); then the street hired a guard. Finally everyone forgot and things went back to the way they had been, as things will. However the town had learned at least one lesson. Thereafter fires, although intermittent, were not set, until most of David-Horodok burned down in 1936.



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