Authors: Irene N.Watts
Text copyright © 2013 by Irene N. Watts
Published in Canada by Tundra Books,
a division of Random House of Canada Limited,
One Toronto Street, Suite 300, Toronto, Ontario
Published in the United States by Tundra Books of Northern New York, P.O. Box 1030, Plattsburgh, New York 12901
Library of Congress Control Number: 2012947609
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Watts, Irene N., 1931-
Touched by fire / Irene N. Watts.
1. Pogroms – Ukraine – Juvenile fiction. 2. Triangle Shirtwaist Company – Fire, 1911 – Juvenile fiction. 3. Book burning – Germany – History – 20th century – Juvenile fiction. I. Title.
69 2013 jc813′.54
We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and that of the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation’s Ontario Book Initiative. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.
Edited by Sue Tate
For Chaim Pinchas Levine
and Gentry James Williams
Let ’em burn. They’re a lot of cattle, anyway.
Inspector H.F.J. Porter quotes a factory owner’s response regarding the use of fire drills, March 1911
The Triangle Fire
by Leon Stein
y nightmares began after we had to leave the shtetl, the village where my brother, Yuri, and I were born. That was four years ago, when I was five. I had heard the word “pogrom,” but I did not know what it meant.
Now I know, because I was there when it happened. It is hard to forget the broken shutters and windows, torn from their frames. Our front door was blue. Papa had just finished painting it in my favorite color – blue, like the blue of a spring sky or the blue of a duck egg – when the soldiers smashed it.
Here, in Kiev, we live in a gloomy part of the city. The house, which we share with three other families, is shabby. Our front door is old, scratched, and ugly, with peeling brown paint. It is not at all pretty, like the door of our first house in the shtetl.
There, everyone knew everyone else, knew their neighbors’ business; nothing remained a secret for very long. My best friend, Malka, and I played in the narrow streets and in the small market square. We were happy. My little brother, Yuri, stayed close beside Mama, nibbling a carrot or digging in the dust. Mama sold vegetables, and Bubbe, my grandmother, her own braided challah bread. People came from nearby towns to buy or trade for goods. Grandfather Zayde, a shoemaker, was well known for making even the shabbiest boots look like new. The mayor himself brought his boots for Zayde to mend.
My grandfather taught Papa how to repair shoes too. “You never know when another trade might come in useful,” Zayde replied, when I asked him why.
Papa can turn his hand to most things, especially if it means using a needle. He is a fine tailor, a master craftsman. Before we moved to Kiev, he worked at home on his sewing machine, making coats and shirts and waistcoats. Now he works in a shop. He cuts and sews from early morning to night, for someone else. Often Yuri and I are asleep before he comes home. Papa says he is saving rubles for a surprise.
“When will you tell us about the surprise, Papa?” I ask him.
“Be patient a little longer,” he says.
I love surprises, but it is hard waiting for them.
This afternoon, after school, I go straight to the backyard to help Mama hang up the washing.
“Mama, why do you think the tsar makes us stay in Kiev? Our teacher does not like children who have come from the shtetl.” I hand Mama Yuri’s shirt, and she pins the sleeves to the clothesline. She sighs, and together we fasten the white Sabbath tablecloth up to dry.
Mama says, “The tsar can send us wherever he pleases. Sometimes he forgets about us for a while – that is a good time. When he remembers, he sends the Jews pogroms. Then it is not so good.”
Mama wipes her hands on her apron. “Come, help me peel apples,” she says. “We will make onion and apple dumplings for supper.”
It is almost dark. Yuri rushes in, breathless from playing outside with his friends. He is sent to wash his face and hands for supper. Bubbe dishes up the dumplings we made, with sour cream. Papa and Zayde are already seated at the table, hungry after a long day at work.
Yuri’s real name is Yaakov, but he refuses to answer to anything but Yuri because it sounds more Russian. He is almost seven, two and a half years younger than me and the apple of Mama’s eye.
Between mouthfuls of food, Papa and Zayde complain about the latest increase in taxes.
Papa says, “Now we have to pay more, even for our Sabbath candles. Every day, there is something else to make our lives more difficult.”
Zayde shrugs his shoulders. “Our ‘little father,’ the tsar, is not fond of Jews, and we live or die at his pleasure,” he says.
“Is the tsar my father too? I am glad to have two fathers,” Yuri says. He gets up and marches around the table. Then he salutes. “I will fight for the tsar and be one of his loyal soldiers,” he says. “My teacher has a son in the army, and he came to school to show us his uniform. He told us about the army. ‘Who wants to be a soldier?’ he asked us. All the boys put up their hands, but I was one of the first. The teacher was pleased with me,” Yuri boasts.
Mama grabs his arm. “That is quite enough of that kind of talk, Yuri. Say good night, and go off to bed like a good boy. It’s late.” Yuri marches out, still pretending to be a soldier.
Zayde sips his tea through a cube of sugar and stirs the slice of lemon floating on the top of his glass. “He is just a child. How can he understand what it means to be a Jew, in Russia? One day, he will dream of other things,” Zayde says.
Zayde and Bubbe are Mama’s parents. Papa’s mother died soon after he was born. His father was sent far away to work down the mines. We never heard from him, except once, when Yuri was born. He sent a card, which Papa keeps in a special box. The grandfather I have never met wrote
I think of you all and send a blessing for the new baby son
When I asked Mama about him, she said, “Many people disappear in Russia.” I feel sad for Papa. Sometimes, I have nightmares about all the bad things that happen.
Tonight, after supper, I take my doll out from the back of the dresser drawer, where I hide her – not to play with, just to look at and to touch for a moment, to make sure she is still safe. Before I get into bed, I put her back.
It is late at night. I can’t breathe, my chest hurts, I’m afraid to open my eyes. Until I am properly awake, I cannot be sure if I am having a bad dream or if this is really another pogrom. I bite on my fist to stifle a scream. Then, slowly, so as not to wake Yuri, who is curled up next to me, I move to the edge of the bed. My brother is too young to remember the bad times.
Will the tsar’s soldiers, the Cossacks, find us?
Through half-open lids, I peer towards the window. There is a shadow.
Is it a soldier? Will he break the window or set fire to the house?
Even the strongest door cannot resist fire. Everything in our house is made of wood. Cossacks like burning things. Wood burns easily – first the shutters, then the frames. I’ve seen how fast the flames can move, gobbling up everything in their path. Soon the flames will reach the roof.
This is the hardest part. I force myself to get out of bed, look around our small room, then cross to the window. There is nothing there, except a memory of that terror
come back to haunt me. The curtains hang in their neat folds, and the house is quiet. If Cossacks were near, Mama would hide us in the cellar. I get back into bed, safe for now.
Yuri pulls the covers over his head. “Go away, leave me alone,” he grumbles. My brother is always fighting someone or something, even in his sleep.
I lie awake and remember how the air was full of smoke. I heard the neighing of the horses in terror in the barn. I remember the sound of their hooves, hammering, kicking against the stalls, as they tried to escape. Then the smell after the barn burned down, with the animals still inside. I remember it all: the soldiers’ laughter as they shredded the bedding, which had been left to air outside the windows. I remember the feathers, drifting down like snowflakes, long after the Cossacks had gone.