An Unknown Country East of Germany

Vicksburg, 1863, Currier and Ives, Date: 1863.

The western boundary of the US State of Mississippi is defined, for the most part, by the Mississippi River. The city of Vicksburg lies atop a bluff on the river’s eastern bank. Vicksburg is about forty-five miles west of Jackson, where I grew up. Over the years, I was able to visit the city a few times. I always found my trips there rewarding.

In May 1863, during the War between the States, the Union General, later US President Ulysses S. Grant, laid siege to the city. Six weeks later, the Confederate General John C. Pemberton, commander of the city’s defense, surrendered. Pemberton, a Pennsylvania native, survived the War. He died in 1881 in Pennsylvania, and his family buried him in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, the city of his birth. He is the only Confederate general I’m aware of who is buried north of the Mason-Dixon line.

In Life on the Mississippi River, Mark Twain comments on Vicksburg’s war history.

“The war history of Vicksburg has more about it to interest the general reader than that of any other of the river-towns. It is full of variety, full of incident, full of the picturesque. Vicksburg held out longer than any other important river-town, and saw warfare in all its phases, both land and water—the siege, the mine, the assault, the repulse, the bombardment, sickness, captivity, famine.” 

Mark Twain. Life on the Mississippi (Illustrated Classic): 100th Anniversary Collection (p. 283). Seawolf Press. Kindle Edition.

Vicksburg National Military Park preserves the site of the Battle of Vicksburg.

Many cities are located by or near water, whether a river, a lake, a sea, or an ocean. London, one of my favorite cities, for example, stands on the River Thames; and the Seine flows through the beautiful center of historic Paris. My last trip out of Israel was to Poland in the autumn of 2018. I had long wanted to visit Poland, and given that my wife’s ancestors on her mother’s side came from Galicia, I had the perfect reason.

Jews and Poland have a long history together. Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog wrote in Life is With People: The Culture of the Shtetl [1952]: 

“An old legend tells how, in the days of the Black Death, a group of exhausted [Jewish] refugees came to an unknown country east of Germany. As they beheld it, a voice from Heaven announced in Hebrew, “Polin!”—here thou shalt rest! The name of the country was Poland.”

Life is With People: The Culture of the Shtetl, p. 33

My wife and I spent a few days in Warsaw, but we traveled throughout southern Poland most of our time. My fondest memories of our trip are the days we were in Kraków and its vicinity. While in Kraków, we stayed in Kazimierz, the city’s historic Jewish quarter. Kraków lies along the Vistula, the longest river in Poland, which I had wanted to see for some time. On our last day in Kraków, cold and misty, we walked to the river. Here is a photograph of me on the Powstańców Śląskich Bridge, one of several bridges that cross the river in Kraków.

View of the Vistula from Powstańców Śląskich Bridge, Kraków

We descended some stairs to the river’s edge and walked along the Vistula to the Father Bernatek Bridge. Fascinating sculptures of acrobats decorate the bridge. It is also popular with couples who declare their love by attaching a padlock to the bridge railings and throwing the key into the river.

Lovers’ locks on the ​wire fence, Father Bernatek Footbridge, Kraków

In the section on Poland in his book A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, Ben G. Frank writes: “Sholem Asch once said that the broad shallow river, the Vistula, the queen of Polish rivers, spoke to him in Yiddish.” Yiddish is not the official language of any country; it never was—not in Israel and not in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast. But before the Holocaust, more than 11 million people spoke it. It was the lingua franca of central and eastern European Jewry. 

On my immediate right at my writing desk is a two-volume Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of the English Language, International Edition, 1962, combined with the Britannica World Language Dictionary, 1959. Britannica’s dictionary is at the end of Volume 2. It has tabs for seven languages: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and Yiddish.

In the 80s, I worked for a company headquartered on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. It was an excellent location with many places to shop and eat nearby. Once at my lunch hour, I was waiting at a stoplight to cross Eighteenth Street. I noticed a relatively diminutive older woman standing beside me. She looked up at me and said, in a heavy English-Yiddish accent, “I speak English and Jewish. Do you speak Jewish?”

I find two things interesting about what she said. First, she didn’t ask me if I spoke Hebrew, and second, she said, “Jewish,” not “Yiddish.” I knew what she meant. Literally, Yiddish means Jewish. When she grew up, Yiddish was the everyday language of Ashkenazic Jews; Hebrew was the language of the Bible.

The late Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902 – 1991), won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. In his acceptance speech, he said

“The high honor bestowed upon me by the Swedish Academy is also a recognition of the Yiddish language – a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government, a language which possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics; a language that was despised by both gentiles and emancipated Jews. The truth is that what the great religions preached, the Yiddish-speaking people of the ghettos practiced day in and day out. They were the people of The Book in the truest sense of the word.”

Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Lecture, 8 December 1978

There is a saying in Yiddish, “Nakhes fun kinder iz mer tayer far gelt.” [Joy from children is more precious than money.] Last Monday, November 30, my daughter gave birth to twins – a boy and a girl. My daughter asked me what my grandchildren should call me. I told her Zeyde, Yiddish for grandfather. I don’t know when I will get to see them in person. But I have a good idea of what I will do when I do see them—give them a big hug, a smooch on their chubby cheeks, and then say, “Zeyde loves you!”

All the best,
Gershon

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021.

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