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The Bookshelf: How things were done in Odessa


Isaac Babel was a Russian language journalist, playwright, literary translator, and short story writer.  Isaac Babel, the son of a  Jewish  shopkeeper, was born in Odessa, Ukraine, on 13th July,1894. When he was a child he witnessed a pogrom and was deeply influenced by the experience.


I was the one who began.

“Reb Arye-Leib,” I said to the old man. “Lets talk about Benya Krik. Lets talk about his lightning-quick beginning and his terrible end. Three shadows block the path of my thoughts. There is Froim Grach. The steel of his actions— doesn’t it bear comparison to the power of the King? There is Kolka Pakovsky. The rage of that man had everything it takes to rule. And could not Chaim Drong tell when a star was on the rise? So why was Benya Krik the only one to climb to the top of the ladder while everyone else was clinging to the shaky rungs below?”

Reb Arye-Leib remained silent as he sat on the cemetery wall. Before us stretched the green calm of the graves. A man thirsting for an answer must stock up with patience. A man in possession of facts can afford to carry himself with aplomb. That is why Arye-Leib remained silent as he sat on the cemetery wall. Finally he began his tale:

Why him? Why not the others, you want to know? Well then, forget for a while that you have glasses on your nose and autumn in your heart. Forget that you pick fights from behind your desk and stutter when you are out in the world! Imagine for a moment that you pick fights in town squares and stutter only among papers. You are a tiger, you are a lion, you are a cat. You can spend the night with a Russian woman, and the Russian woman will be
satisfied by you. You are twenty-five years old. If the sky and the earth had rings attached to them, you would grab these rings and pull the sky down to the earth. And your papa is the carter Mendel Krik. What does a papa like
him think about? All he thinks about is downing a nice shot of vodka, slugging someone in their ugly mug, and about his horses—nothing else. You want to live, but he makes you die twenty times a day. What would you
have done if you were in Benya Kriks shoes? You wouldn’t have done a thing! But he did. Because he is the King, while you only thumb your nose at people when their back is turned!

“He, Benchik, went to Froim Grach, who even back then peered at the world with only one eye and was just what he is now. And Benya told Froim, ‘Take me on. I want to come on board your ship. The ship I end up on will do well by me.’

“Grach asked him, ‘Who’re you, where d’you come from, what’s your bread and butter?’

“‘Try me, Froim,’ Benya answered, ‘and let’s stop wasting time spreading kasha on the table.’

“ ‘Fine, we won’t waste time spreading kasha on the table,’ Grach said. ‘I’ll try you.’

“And the gangsters called a council together to decide about Benya Krik. I wasn’t at that council, but word has it that they did call together a council. The elder back then was the late Lyovka Bik.

“ ‘Anyone know what’s going on under Benchik’s hat?’ the late Bik asked.

“And one-eyed Grach gave his opinion.

“‘Benya talks little, but he talks with zest. He talks little, but you want that he’ll say more.’

“ ‘If that’s so, we’ll try him out on Tartakovsky,’ the late Bik pronounced.

“ ‘We’ll try him out on Tartakovsky,’ the council decided, and those who still housed a trace of conscience turned red when they heard this decision. Why did they turn red? If you listen, you’ll find out.

“Tartakovsky was known as ‘Yid-and-a-Half’ or ‘Nine-Raids.’ They called him ‘Yid-and-a-Half’ because there wasn’t a single Jew who had as much chutzpah or money as Tartakovsky had. He was taller than the tallest
Odessa policeman, and heavier than the fattest Jewess. And they called Tartakovsky ‘Nine-Raids’ because the firm of Lyovka Bik and Company had launched not eight raids and not ten, but exactly nine raids against his business. To Benya, who was not yet King, fell the honor of carrying out the tenth raid on Yid-and-a-Half. When Froim informed Benya of this, Benya said yes, and left, slamming the door behind him. Why did he slam the door? If you listen, you’ll find out.

“Tartakovsky has the soul of a murderer, but he’s one of us. He sprang forth from us. He is our blood. He is our flesh, as if one mama had given birth to us. Half of Odessa works in his stores. Not to mention, his own Moldavankans have given him quite a bit of grief. They abducted him twice and held him for ransom, and once, during a pogrom, they buried him with chanters. The Slobodka4 thugs were beating up Jews on Bolshaya
Arnautskaya. Tartakovsky ran away from them and came across the funeral march with chanters on Sofiyskaya Street.

“ ‘Who are they burying with chanters?’ he asked.

“The passersby told him that Tartakovsky was being buried. The procession marched to the Slobodka Cemetery. Then our boys yanked a machine gun out of the coffin and started shooting at the Slobodka thugs. But Yid-and-a-Half had not foreseen this. Yid-and-a-Half got the fright of his life. What boss in his place would not have been frightened?

“A tenth raid on a man who had already been buried once was a crass deed. Benya, who back then wasn’t yet the King, knew this better than anyone else. But he said yes to Grach and on that very same day wrote Tartakovsky a letter, typical of those letters:

Most esteemed Rubin Osipovich,
I would be grateful if by the Sabbath you could place by the rainwater
barrel a …, and so on. Should you choose to refuse, which you have opted to
do lately, a great disappointment in your family life awaits you.
Respectfully yours,
Ben Zion Krik


Tartakovsky, not one to dither, was quick to answer:

Benya,
If you were an idiot, I would write you as to an idiot. But from what I know of you, you aren’t one, and may the Lord prevent me from changing my mind. You, as is plain to see, are acting like a boy. Is it possible that you are not aware that this year the crop in Argentina has been so good that we can stand on our heads but we still cant unload our wheat? And I swear to you on a stack of Bibles that I’m sick and tired of having to eat such a bitter crust of bread and witness such trouble after having worked all my life like the lowliest carter. And what do I have to show for my life sentence of hard labor? Ulcers, sores, worries, and no sleep! Drop your foolish thoughts, Benya.
Your friend, a far better one than you realize, Rubin Tartakovsky

“Yid-and-a-Half had done his part. He had written a letter. But the mail didnt deliver it to the right address. Getting no answer, Benya became angry. The following day he turned up at Tartakovsky s office with four friends. Four masked youths with revolvers burst into the room.

“ ‘Hands up!’ they shouted, waving their pistols.

“‘Not so loud, Solomon!’ Benya told one of the youths, who was yelling louder than the rest. ‘Dont get so jumpy on the job!’ and he turned to the shop assistant, who was white as death and yellow as clay, and asked him:

“ ‘Is Yid-and-a-Half in the factory?’

“‘He’s not in the factory/ said the shop assistant, whose family name
was Muginshtein, his first name Josif, and who was the unmarried son of Aunt Pesya, the chicken seller on Seredinskaya Square.

“‘So who’s in charge when the boss is out?’ they asked poor Muginshtein.

“ ‘I’m in charge when the boss is out/ the shop assistant said, green as green grass.

“‘In that case, with God’s help, please open the safe!’ Benya ordered, and a three-act opera began.

“Nervous Solomon stuffed money, papers, watches, and jewelry into a suitcase—the late Josif Muginshtein stood in front of him with his hands in the air, while Benya told stories from the life of the Jewish people.

“‘Well, ha! If he likes playing Rothschild/ Benya said about Tartakovsky, ‘then let him roast in hell! I ask you, Muginshtein, as one asks a friend: he gets my business letter—so how come he cant take a fivekopeck tram to come visit me at home, drink a shot of vodka with my family, and eat what God has seen fit to send us? What stopped him from baring his soul to me? Couldn’t he have said—Benya, you know, such and such, but heres my balance sheet, just give me a couple of days to catch my breath, to get things rolling—don’t you think I’d have understood? Pigs at a trough might not see eye to eye, but there is no reason why two grown men can’t! Do you see what I’m saying, Muginshtein?’

“ ‘I see what you’re saying,’ Muginshtein answered, lying, because he was at a loss as to why Yid-and-a-Half, a respected, wealthy man, one of the foremost men in town, should want to take a tram so he could have a bite to eat with the family of Mendel Krik, a carter.

“But all the time misfortune was loitering beneath the windows, like a beggar at dawn. Misfortune burst loudly into the office. And though this time it came in the guise of the Jew Savka Butsis, it was as drunk as a water carrier.

“‘Ooh, ooh, ah!’ Savka the Jew shouted. I’m sorry I’m so late, Benchik!’ And he stamped his feet and waved his hands. Then he fired, and the bullet hit Muginshtein in the stomach.

“Are words necessary here? There was a man, and now there’s none. An innocent bachelor, living his life like a little bird on a branch, and now he’s dead from sheer idiocy. In comes a Jew looking like a sailor and doesn’t
shoot at a bottle in a fairground booth to win a prize—he shoots at a living man! Are words necessary here?

“ ‘Everyone out!’ Benya shouted, and as he ran out last, managed to tell Butsis, ‘On my mother’s grave, Savka, you’ll be lying next to him!’ “So tell me, a young gentleman like you who cuts coupons on other people’s bonds, how would you have acted in Benya Krik’s position? You wouldn’t know what to do? Well, he did! That’s why he was King, while you and I are sitting here on the wall of the Second Jewish Cemetery, holding up our hands to keep the sun out of our eyes.

“Aunt Pesya’s unfortunate son didn’t die right away. An hour after they got him to the hospital, Benya turned up. He had the senior doctor called in and the nurse, and, without taking his hands out of the pockets of his cream-colored pants, told them, ‘I have a whole lot of interest that your patient, Josif Muginshtein, recovers. Just in case, let me introduce myself—Ben Zion Krik. Give him camphor, air cushions, a private room, from the depths of your heart! If you dont, then every doctor here, even if they re doctors of philosophy, will be doled out six feet of earth!’

“And yet, Muginshtein died that same night. It was only then that Yidand-a-Half raised hell in all Odessa. ‘Where do the police begin and Benya end?’ he wailed.

“The police end where Benya begins,’ levelheaded people answered, but Tartakovsky wouldn’t calm down, and to his amazement saw a red automobile with a music box for a horn playing the first march from the opera IPagliacci on Seredinskaya Square. In broad daylight the car raced over to the little house in which Aunt Pesya lived. Its wheels thundered, it spat smoke, gleamed brassily, reeked of gasoline, and honked arias on its horn. A man jumped out of the automobile and went into the kitchen where little Aunt Pesya was writhing on the earthen floor. Yid-and-a-Half was sitting on a chair waving his arms. ‘You ugly hooligan!’ he shouted, when he saw the man. ‘You damn bandit, may the earth spit you out! A nice style you’ve picked for yourself, going around murdering live people!’

“ ‘Monsieur Tartakovsky,’ Benya Krik said to him quietly. ‘For two days and nights I have been crying for the dear deceased as if he were my own brother. I know that you spit on my young tears. Shame on you, Monsieur Tartakovsky! What fireproof safe have you hidden your shame in? You had the heart to send a paltry hundred rubles to the mother of our dear deceased Josif. My hair, not to mention my brain, stood on end when I got word of this!’

“Here Benya paused. He was wearing a chocolate jacket, cream pants, and raspberry-red half boots.

“‘Ten thousand down!’ he bellowed. ‘Ten thousand down, and a pension till she dies—may she live to be a hundred and twenty! If it’s ‘no,’ then we leave this house together, Monsieur Tartakovsky, and go straight to my car!’
“Then they started arguing. Yid-and-a-Half swore at Benya. Not that I was present at this quarrel, but those who were, remember it well. They finally agreed on five thousand cash in hand, and fifty rubles a month.

“Aunt Pesya!’ Benya then said to the disheveled old woman rolling on the floor. ‘If you want my life, you can have it, but everyone makes mistakes, even God! This was a giant mistake, Aunt Pesya! But didn’t God Himself make a mistake when he settled the Jews in Russia so they could be tormented as if they were in hell? Wouldn’t it have been better to have the Jews living in Switzerland, where they would’ve been surrounded by first-class lakes, mountain air, and Frenchmen galore? Everyone makes mistakes, even God. Listen to me with your ears, Aunt Pesya! You’re
getting five thousand in hand and fifty rubles a month till you die—may you live to be a hundred and twenty! Josif’s funeral will be first-class. Six horses like lions, two hearses with garlands, chanters from the Brodsky Synagogue, and Minkovsky himself will come to chant the burial service for your departed son!’”

And the funeral took place the next morning. Ask the cemetery beggars about this funeral! Ask the synagogue shamases, the kosher poultry sellers, or the old women from the Second Poorhouse! Such a funeral Odessa had never seen, nor will the world ever see the like of it. On that day the policemen wore cotton gloves. In the synagogues, draped with greenery, their doors wide open, the electricity was on. Black plumes swayed on the white horses pulling the hearse. Sixty chanters walked in front of the procession. The chanters were boys, but they sang with women’s voices. The elders of the Kosher Poultry Sellers Synagogue led Aunt Pesya by the hand. Behind the elders marched the members of the Society of Jewish Shop Assistants, and behind the Jewish shop assistants marched the barristers, the doctors, and the certified midwives. On one side of Aunt Pesya were the chicken sellers from the Stary Bazaar, and on the other the esteemed dairymaids from the Bugayevka, wrapped in orange shawls. They stamped their feet like gendarmes on parade. From their broad hips came the scent of sea and milk. And behind them plodded Rubin Tartakovsky’s workers. There were a hundred of them, or two hundred, or two thousand. They wore black frock coats with silk lapels, and new boots that squeaked like piglets in a sack.

“And now I will speak as God spoke on Mount Sinai from the burning bush! Take my words into your ears. Everything I saw, I saw with my own eyes, sitting right here on the wall of the Second Cemetery, next to lisping
Moiseika and Shimshon from the funeral home. I, Arye-Leib, a proud Jew living among the dead, saw it with my own eyes.

“The hearse rolled up to the synagogue in the cemetery. The coffin was placed on the steps. Aunt Pesya was shaking like a little bird. The cantor climbed out of the carriage and began the funeral service. Sixty chanters supported him. And at that very moment the red automobile came flying around the corner. It was honking I Pagliacci and came to a stop. The people stood, silent as corpses. The trees, the chanters, the beggars stood silent. Four men got out from under the red roof, and with quiet steps carried to the hearse a wreath of roses of a beauty never before seen. And
when the funeral ended, the four men lifted the coffin onto their steel shoulders, and with burning eyes and protruding chests, marched with the members of the Society of Jewish Shop Assistants.

“In front walked Benya Krik, who back then nobody was yet calling the King. He was the first to approach the grave. He climbed onto the mound, and stretched out his arm.

“‘What are you doing, young man?’ Kofman from the Burial Brotherhood shouted, running up to him.

“ ‘I want to give a speech,’ Benya Krik answered.

“And he gave a speech. All who wanted to hear it heard it. I, Arye-Leib, heard it, as did lisping Moiseika, who was sitting next to me on the wall.

“ ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Benya Krik said. ‘Ladies and gentlemen/ he said, and the sun stood above his head, like a guard with a rifle. ‘You have come to pay your last respects to an honest toiler, who died for a copper half-kopeck. In my own name, and in the name of all those who are not present, I thank you. Ladies and gentlemen! What did our dear Josif see in his life? One big nothing! What did he do for a living? He counted someone else’s money. What did he die for? He died for the whole working class. There are men who are already doomed to die, and there are men who still have not begun to live. And suddenly a bullet, flying toward the doomed heart, tears into Josif, when all he has seen of life is one big nothing. There are men who can drink vodka, and there are men who can’t drink vodka but still drink it. The former get pleasure from the agony and joy, and the latter suffer for all those who drink vodka without being able to drink it.

Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, after we have prayed for our poor Josif, I ask you to accompany Saveli Butsis, a man unknown to you but already deceased, to his grave.

“Having finished his speech, Benya Krik came down from the mound. The people, the trees, and the cemetery beggars stood silent. Two gravediggers carried an unpainted coffin to an adjacent grave. The cantor, stuttering, ended the prayer. Benya threw the first spadeful of earth and walked over to Savka. All the barristers and ladies with brooches followed him like sheep. He had the cantor chant the full funeral rites for Savka, and sixty chanters sang with him. Savka had never dreamt of such a funeral— you can trust the word of Arye-Leib, an aged old man.

“Word has it that it was on that day that Yid-and-a-Half decided to close shop. Not that I myself was there. But I saw with my own eyes, the eyes of Arye-Leib—which is my name—that neither the cantor, nor the choir, nor
the Burial Brotherhood asked to get paid for the funeral. More I couldn’t see, because the people quietly slipped away from Savka’s grave and started running, as if from a fire. They flew off in carriages, in carts, and on foot.
And the four men who had arrived in the red automobile left in it. The musical horn played its march, the car lurched and hurtled off.

“ ‘The King!’ lisping Moiseika, who always grabs the best seat on the wall, said, following the car with his eyes.

“Now you know everything. You know who was the first to pronounce the word ‘King/ It was Moiseika. Now you know why he didn’t call one- eyed Grach that, nor raging Kolka. You know everything. But what use is it if you still have glasses on your nose and autumn in your heart? . . .”

1923—1924

Translated by Peter Constantine