I was drinking coffee in a Haifa deli
When a sepia photograph caught my eye
A man, his wife and family posing stiffly.
The café owner said it showed his grandfather’s father
And brought my order and the story.
When Black Hundreds pillaged Bialystock
And the cry went up, “Kill all the Jews!”
Moyshe ben Mendel, cantor of the Shul,
Took Sara his wife and baby Yisrael
And dodging barking village dogs
Pushed a pram stacked with food and blankets
And a violin-cased Tenach he knew by heart,
Down moonless muddy tracks
For Christiania and a boat to England
On to the ‘promised land’. Americke.
To placate the “Inspector of Nuisances”
The Wilson Line leased a landing station, Island Wharf,
To keep Hull safe from contamination by “bastard Russkie Jews.”
Then whip them quick away to Liverpool.
Moyshe ben Mendel looked through the bars of
“The North Eastern Railway Company Emigrant Waiting Room.”
Complete with disinfecting and delousing facilities for transients.
It’s still there, a pub now called, ‘The Lair’.
Seeing a shtreimelled head pass the window
And seizing his chance, and Sara and child
Moyshe raced after hat and wearer
To Osborne Street – the Jewish Quarter.
Pursued by whistles and heavy boots
Ringing the cobbles of Midland Street
The family ran headlong into a throng of
Boozehounds spilled from the Albert Hall.
A treacherous leg tripped Moyshe.
As the cantor measured his length,
The song went up,
“Got us another Jew just like the other Jews.”
The violin case stamped to matchwood junk
Tenach pages fluttered to the gutter
For baptism by stray dogs and drunks.
Clogs pinioned the Cantor tight to the cobbles
Coppers frogmarched him manacled
Back to the Emigrant Waiting Room,
Sara with Yisrael in her arms, hobbled behind.
Isolated from Paragon proper,
On the migrant departure platform
A straggle, held in line by guards and batons,
Congregates for transportation.
Sara whispers, “Black Hundreds?”
Moyshe ben Mendel nods.
Finding courage, he asks a guard, “Americke?”
“Not effin’ yet – keep your foul breath off of me.
Further down. Bastard Yid.”
Moyshe ben Mendel former Cantor
Of the Bialystock Synagogue nods, “Ja yid.”
Migrants fill the platform
Huddled against sheeting rain
Wondering what lay ahead
Along the track around the bend
Beyond the railway bridge.
Spurred by shepherd hounds,
Shouts and shoves
They cram into battered cattle trucks.
Sara shivers, Yisrael whimpers,
Train wheels beat out the curse,
Bleak, featureless terrain unfolds,
Moyshe, alert for signs of Americke,
Squints through slatted windows
Making out the names of places,
Broomfleet, Saltmarshe, Gilberdyke.
At Leeds the train put on coal and water,
Moyshe, spotting a poster, “Syrup of Coca Cola.”
Hissed, “Americke! Frayhayt! Kumen meyn tayer.”
Quietly stepping from the train,
Moyshe, his wife and child
Melted into unknown streets
And urine-running alleyways
Stalking kippahed heads
To the refuge of ‘The Leylands’ – another ghetto.
I caught the waiter’s eye,
“Mine’s a Coke.”
© coolhermit 2023