The Beginning of the First World War

By Jacob Dinezon
From Sh. An-ski’s Oysgeklibene Shriftn
(S. An-ski’s Collected Works)
Musterverk fun der yidisher literatur
(Masterpieces of Yiddish Literature)
Buenos Aires, Argentina: Yosef Lifshits Fund
for the Literature Society at YIVO, 1964
pp. 270–277
Edited by
Shmuel Rozshanski
Translated from the Yiddish by
Janie Respitz


First Letter

Warsaw, June 8, 1914, Dzielna 15

Dearest, darling, and truly best friend Reb An-ski!

The twenty rubles I just received literally fell from the sky. I don’t know if you realize how we are living today in Warsaw!

A day ago, before the Don Quixotic Wilhelm drew his sword from its sheath, our friend Peretz and I were relatively well off. Peretz was earning a good living, and I had a few rubles put aside in the bank. Now we have both remained, may you be spared, without a groschen to our names. Peretz still has his position with the Jewish community, but that only covers half of his expenses. He no longer receives revenue from his works. Two months before the outbreak of the war, they stopped paying him his 150 rubles a month, which he had regularly received for the merit of his work. You can imagine how he is now tormented by his expenses. Since the beginning of the war, we have been getting by on one ruble a day for breakfast, lunch, and supper for four people. We simply skimp on the amount of food we put in our mouths. This is about Peretz. Things are not any better for me. The bank where I have my few rubles, like all banks in Warsaw, does not pay. It is not clear if they can’t or won’t. They don’t pay! The few rubles that the wealthy have are widely spread out like the seven seas, but let’s not even talk about the interest-free loans for the poor. In general, people have a short memory concerning paying off interest-free loans, and especially now, when the world is so chaotic, even the solid banking houses don’t pay! What can I tell you? I have remained, unfortunately, without any cash, as the Hebraists say.

We have, however, a great God in heaven who provides for the worm under a stone and does not abandon a Jewish man of letters even during a war, and He sent me a Jew to provide for me and maintain me and not let me die of hunger. Do you think this Jew is a wealthy man? Actually not! He is himself poor and dejected, heaven forbid, himself lacking bread. His business is baked goods. That is to say: he brings a few wealthy men bread and a roll every day and earns his so-called living. In short, the first day after the war was declared was exactly Tisha B’Av (the Ninth day of Av, a fast day). This man who was himself a pious Jew did not doubt, God forbid, that I would fast. So that morning, like every fast day, he did not bring his baked goods. I reminded myself of the saying, “When there is no money, there is no choice,” and seeing that I was a bit disturbed by the declaration of war, I fasted on that Tisha B’Av like a real pious Jew, and it did not even feel like I was fasting. That night, after the evening prayers, my man brought his basket of rolls to break the fast, but my fast was prolonged: I didn’t even have a broken coin in my pocket, and I did not have the heart to borrow from this poor man.

And by the way, I was a bit embarrassed as well. Then I had an idea, and self-assured I said: “My friend, would you have change for a ten ruble note?” . . . He looked at me in wonder and asked if I was making fun of him. “Where would I get change for ten rubles?”

“Then today I cannot buy a roll from you!” I explained and was ready to fast the entire night just as I had fasted all day. Then he said to me: “Take it on credit this time!”

“And if tomorrow I will not have change, would you give me on credit again?” I wanted to know.

“Someone else in these times, probably not . . .” he replied, “But you, I’d give half my kingdom!” he said in Hebrew.

“Tell me, my friend, what does that mean?”

“Well,” he said, “half my kingdom means, well, let’s say: thirty kopeks!” he explained, and we closed our deal.

Five days in a row, this man supplied me with baked goods at five kopeks a day until he attained his half kingdom! On Friday, I took a three ruble note from Peretz, paid the man what I owed him, and I’ve been living off the change until today.

Today I thought: where will help come from tomorrow? And just as I was thinking about this, the door opened, and the postman entered and counted the twenty rubles which he told me had just arrived from Kiev.

I read the few lines on the receipt. I was so confused from being overjoyed that I did not recognize your handwriting and could not understand where the money came from and if it was really meant for me. Finally, I did recognize your handwriting and was thrilled. No small thing, twenty rubles cash during these times!

You don’t know how many blessings and heartfelt thanks I bestow on you for the twenty rubles. May God grant us both salvation and solace as long as we live. I thank you from the bottom of my heart, my dear beloved friend. Now I see the truth in the talk of our sages when they said: “Rolling a right by an entitled,” rights come to the just, and goodness to a good person. Your timing is perfect. These twenty rubles for me are as valuable as twenty thousand. Now I am the rich man in the family! Unless I have to lend some to someone needy, I am now taken care of for an entire month.

And don’t think, dear friend, that I am exaggerating. If you could only imagine the panic the war has instilled in Warsaw, the fear, anxiety, the stampede, the cries and tears near the closed banking houses, the run on merchandise at the bakers and shopkeepers, and all the false information from the surrounding towns near Warsaw. If you only had the smallest notion of what is going on, you would understand that I have not exaggerated even by a hair and have actually softened and lightened the real situation.

By now we have gotten a bit used to it. It is no wonder that the evil Titus got used to the fly that regularly picked at his brain with its beak. We can get used to the worst, and in Warsaw, I believe, things are a bit calmer, although the news from nearby places says that things are far from calm. Kalisz, Kielce, etc. . . . This is what the German culture has achieved! Bashibozek, the Turkish barbarian and master of cruelty in war, would be embarrassed in comparison to the deeds of the Germans in this war!

And this is just the beginning. We cannot conceive with our non-German intelligence what this war will continue to display.

Write from time to time, dear good An-ski! Be my comfort in this boiling sea of blood and tears that is flooding humanity and humanness. Write, do not forget your friend because of the screams and noise of the inhumane enemy of the world . . . write, tell me we will survive this horrible time and will live to tell about it. I don’t sleep at night. I’m not capable of writing anything now, although there is so much to write about, an infinite amount!

Our Peretz sends you warm regards and asks you to do him a favor and make an inquiry at the information desk of the Foreign Ministry about Madam Peretz. At the outbreak of the war, she was in Bad Salzbrun in Germany, and until today, we have not received any information about her. Perhaps you can ask one of your friends:

(Written in German:) Frau Nechame Peretz from Warsaw. Was in Bad Salzbrun (Landhaus-Jager).

You would be doing Peretz a great favor. We are well, thank God. We have no choice but to skimp, but we are not starving yet thanks to his great reputation.

Our friend Kacyzne is also “All right” (said in English); he has some work and is not lacking bread.

What do you say, is it advisable for us to leave Warsaw?

We recall Kalisz and Kielce and ask ourselves: why sit and wait?

But where should we go? With what means, and how would we get there?

Be well, my friend. I hope to see you soon and, in happier times, tell you of the fear and anxiety of today.

Y. Dinezon

Second Letter

Warsaw, August 15–28, 1914

To my beloved, dearest friend Reb An-ski, you should live a long life!

I received the fifty rubles. What can I say? Thank you? God forbid! I will tell you that these fifty rubles will be very useful for us. By us I mean Peretz and me. The story goes like this: you want to know the accurate situation, so listen: Until now Peretz received his monthly income, namely: 200 rubles from the Jewish community, and 250 rubles for his writing and for the privilege to exploit his work, ten volumes. Together this ensured 450 rubles a month besides the few hundred rubles he ends up with during the year for his readings in Warsaw and other towns in Poland. With such earnings, I don’t believe he needs to be a debtor. However, it appears he is deep in debt as he gives the community center 200 rubles. I do not fault him for this behavior. This is his nature. If he did things differently, he would not be Peretz. I do, however, pity him, and it hurts me to see how much he is suffering due to his poor planning. Now it’s like this: the Jewish Community Fund in Warsaw is now in debt as no one can pay their contributions, and because of this, they pay their employees half their monthly salaries. According to this, Peretz should be receiving 100 rubles, and that would be good. When they saw Peretz was donating 200 rubles to the fund, they considered this to be two months’ wages. The decision was made to pay only half of regular salaries until the end of the war. The treasurer of the fund that borrowed the money from Peretz did not have the right and, therefore, without observing that Peretz was left without a kopek, had to charge him for everything at once.

The revenue from his works and writing also stopped. Three months ago, the Vilna publisher, Mr. Kletzkin, bought the contract for Peretz’s work from Evalenko with all the obligations. That is to say: to pay Peretz 150 rubles a month for his entire life. Mr. Kletztkin had also paid Peretz 100 rubles a month for his contributions to the journal The Jewish World as well as for the last two volumes of manuscripts, which Evalenko did not have rights for. The first month Kletzkin sent Peretz his 250 rubles on time. Meanwhile, Kletzkin traveled abroad with his family. The war broke out, no more publishing house, no more contract until after the war, no more payments. Between us, Peretz was left without one ruble in earnings, and you can imagine how we get by.

I immediately put your 50 rubles into our general account, and we made a calculation. According to our expenditures, these 50 rubles should cover one month of expenses. Our biggest worry is rent. Firstly, I have great faith in the fact that until we have to pay rent (October 1st in the new calendar), the Messiah may still come, and even if he doesn’t, there may be interest or help from elsewhere. The Master of the Universe sends good messengers when he wants to do something just for His Hasidim (followers). In the worst case, I explained to Peretz, we will tell the landlord he must wait until the world is a bit freer, and the ruble will not be as expensive as it is now. In short, your 50 rubles, together with my political combinations on how to handle the household expenses and how to settle accounts with the landlord and other creditors, to which Peretz has no clue, will be helpful. Peretz, and because of this, I as well, is now in a better mood and able to live this war-life with greater hope. We will overcome all the difficulties and unconventionalities and be victorious, as is fitting for two heroes like him and me.

I hope, God willing, to repay you the 50 rubles in happier times.

In Warsaw we are almost accustomed to the present situation. We live as if we were tied up in a sack. We don’t know where we stand, where we are, and where, God forbid, we will be tomorrow. We are delighted with the news that now the local newspapers are permitted to be printed. And we are afraid and anxious when we hear all the horrific stories people tell, and no one knows where or from whom they come.

Until the day before yesterday, we rarely saw a wounded soldier in Warsaw, as if there was no war or the war was in Belgium, far from here. The day before yesterday, a large number of wounded began to arrive on trains and were taken to local hospitals, and we now feel they are not just sleeping in this war, and it is no longer make-believe.

I remember the Russian-Turkish war and the Japanese war very well, but I do not remember such immense moral participation as in this war both from the general public and individuals. I would never have imagined such unity and true patriotic feelings among everyone, Jews and Christians. We greet the wounded as our own brothers, our own children. We feel their pain and try to ease their suffering and cheer them up. We meet them with pious responsibility and brotherly love. We bring them flowers and candies. We greet the severely wounded with tears and fears when we see them being transported in cars.

We cannot even speak about leaving Warsaw as you have advised. Firstly, we do not have the means, and secondly, it appears to me that we are safe enough in Warsaw. I don’t even know why, but it appears to me to be this way from some unclear information published about the events around Warsaw.

Stay well and strong, and if you have time, write a few words from time to time. In any event, send your address, and I’ll write to you wherever you may be.

Your devoted,
Yakov Dinezon

Unfortunately, we still have not received news about Mrs. Peretz.

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