My Favorite Willow Tree


     I vaguely remember the time, when I was three and a half years old, that my father wrapped me in his talit, (prayer shall) and carried me to the cheyder (a one-classroom religious school). A black-bearded teacher taught me the Jewish alphabet on a cardboard upon which raisins had been laid on each of the printed letters. After that first lesson the teacher pinched my cheeks and told me to eat all the raisins. From that day on I attended the school every day even in the summer and winter, whether the weather was good or bad. The teacher taught us how to say a prayer with a special intonation, for when we first woke up each day, after we had washed our hands and faces. He also thought us the blessings over food.

     The teacher had a pointer made from an old toothbrush, which he used to point to the letters. And with a sing-song voice heíd ask, "What letter is this?" "What letter is that?" Some days I liked the teacher and some days I did not. Come to think of it, a lot depended on the teacher's mood. One day he was angry; another day he was like melted butter. There were certain letters that I couldn't remember; then he yelled at me and made me cry. When I was five years old I distinctly remember the family celebration, marking when I began studying the Bible, and the chapter of the week. It was on a Sabbath afternoon when a few neighbors were invited, mostly women, to hear me make a speech. I stood on a table; I was decorated with women's jewelry and together with another classmate we exchanged a dialogue in Yiddish about why a little boy is supposed to learn the Torah. The teacher smiled at us, enjoying the fruit of his labor. Wonder of wonders, I still remember the dialogue to this day. The women who were present shed some tears, and I heard them say, "What a pity that Fruma Ryvka did not live to enjoy her youngestís performance." They meant my mother who had died when I was six months old.

     Gradually I progressed in my religious education, willingly or unwillingly until I was seven and had to advance to another teacher, where I began studying the Talmud. At the same time I had to enroll in the secular elementary school which was required by law. Attending a Polish school with a yarmulke on your head and long ear-locks was no picnic. The Gentile boys took vengeance on my attire. Frankly, my clothing was not first class either. There was very little protection to be expected from the teachers; they openly showed anti-Jewish hatred. Attending elementary school shortened the hours of studying in the religious school.

     Whenever I was depressed and mad at the entire world I went to my favorite hiding place where I felt secure. There was a big wheat field near the Visloka River, and in the middle of the field there was a lonely, huge willow tree. The tree was hollow. A lightning bolt caused the hollowness, but the outside core remained alive and green during summertime. There was a small opening at the bottom of the trunk that allowed my lean body to crawl inside and spend many hours humming songs to myself and dreaming of a better world. Actually it wasn't the world that I was worrying about, I worried more about a getting a good meal and decent clothes like other children around me had. In summertime, when the sun was mercilessly hot, I used to escape to my favorite hiding place. A cool breeze from the river caressed my face as I sat beneath the tree and watched how the swelling wheat sheaves were moving back and forth like sea waves. These were moments when all my worries disappeared.

     But I had plenty to worry about upon my return to reality. I would meet the scourge of my teacher in school, and the punishment of my father for my absence from studying the holy Torah. But sitting under my favorite willow tree, I felt good and didnít worry about the consequences. I played hooky many times for which I was later punished, but it was worth it. I felt a special affinity to that tree because it was a lonely tree in the middle of a wheat-field. I felt exactly the same. There were days when I was bored with the repetitious Bible stories that we studied every year at the same time and the same place. I never told anyone about my boredom or about my secret hideaway. My advancement to study the Talmud was more interesting and more challenging.

     Being motherless, I was filled with jealousy for other children who had parents and multiple siblings. For that reason I sometimes did things that wasn't fitting for a nice Jewish boy to do. In cheyder I would swipe someone's bagel with butter and swallow it rapidly, one two three, and it was gone. In the rebetzin's (the rabbi's wife) house where my father and I spent a lot of time, I dipped my fingers into her charity box and took a few groshen, to buy a candy. From that box she distributed alms to the poor. She once caught me red-handed but instead of chastising me, she told me with motherly love, that the coins do not belong to me; they belong to the poor. "Is anyone poorer than I am?" I thought to myself. I have no mother, and my father is a poor man. Notwithstanding my sinful behavior, my father was very good to me. When the first cherries appeared on the market he would bring a dozen cherries to me at religious school and say, "Here! Taste the cherries, see how sweet the are." Despite his poverty, he used to give me a nickel each day to buy a candy. Other children used to get a shiny silver dime. One time I rebelled and demanded a shiny dime like the other children were getting. My father became angry, slapped my face and sent me to school without anything. My dear father! Where are you now? How hurt you must have been not to be able to give your child the same coin that other parents gave their offspring. I wish I could beg your forgiveness for all my transgressions. Unfortunately, the Nazis did not give me a chance to do so. They mercilessly cut short your life.

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