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  • Writer's pictureCorbin Allardice

My Lexicon - Kalmen Khayim Heysherik

Kalmen Khayim Heysherik (Kalmen Chaim Hajszryk)

Born around 1890 in Turek, Poland, served in the Russian and Polish armies during the First World War, was captured [as a POW] by the Germans. Small trips around Eastern Europe. Lived mainly in Warsaw. Fled in 1939. Central Russia, 1942.

Were a writer to want to depict a man of the masses, an “unknown soldier” of the army of humanity, one of the nameless millions, they would then depict a person like Kalmen Khayim Heysherik, or Heyshrik. The name suits him wonderfully--Heysherik [a swarm of locusts], an amorphous, unindividuated, millionfold mass going somewhere, going, and going, and if there’s something to eat on the way--then eat it, and if there’s not then don’t, and if there’s nothing to eat for a long ways, then die out, die by the millions and millions. But Kalmen Khayim Heysherik, our swarm of locusts, did not wait for another to write of him. He wrote of himself in several pristinely autobiographical volumes. And in those autobiographical stories--many about his physical suffering, and many others about his spiritual and psychological suffering, about his experiences--he perpetually insists that he does not write books, that he is no artist, and that he can merely hold a pen in his hand and write those words which come to his pen, however unpolished and unrefined they may be. The best of his books is surely “In Fire and Blood” (In fayer un blut), in which he chronicles his experiences in the First World War, Revolution, and later his experiences in liberated Poland. It is almost as if the unknown soldier--whom everyone wants to shut up and keep locked up, silent and beautiful, in his grave--were to suddenly rise up out of his anonymity and say “Don’t mind me, but I’m not yet dead (zayts mir nit gezunt ikh bin nokh nit toyt)...” And it endlessly interesting to hear what an unknown soldier has to say. And, indeed, Heysherik’s book was rather successful.

Aside from all his other virtues, Heysherik’s true virtue lay in this: he is honest. He is honestly honest, so to speak...Once, in Warsaw, we were sharing the company of Moyshe Nadir and discussing the honesty of a certain labor leader (arbeter-firer.) Everyone agreed that there was no doubt as to this individual’s honesty. Even Nadir agreed. The only thing which distinguishes the labor leader from all other honest people, he added*, is that everyone else lives honestly, while this individual lives a life of honesty (er lebt fun erlekhkayt)...And there are different classes even within that concept of honesty, one can, or cannot, live honestly a life of honesty. And our Kalmen Khayim Heysherik does not live a life of honesty, though he would gladly if only he could, and if he could, he would surely honestly live a life of honesty. Oh, how honest he is...Sometimes, sharing his company, you would think that you were living hundreds of thousands of years ago, or in the distant future, or on the face of the moon itself.

Once, Heysherik told me that he wanted to travel to London. And he laid out his plan to me. He would travel to Belgium and from there “he’ll just pop over” to London. The thing is, he needed his friend’s (khevre) help to get to Belgium. To Heysherik, the writer’s union was just “his friends.” I asked him how exactly he would pop over from Belgium to London. He said “on foot.” Now I knew that Heysherik was very religious and had never read the New Testament and thus did not know that one could walk on water, so I asked him, “How will you do that on foot?”...It turned out that Heysherik did not know that England is an island. And the beautiful thing about it is that he didn’t blush at his not knowing, although it mortified him that he had made a mistake. Innocence--101 percent. He was like a fish in water in that dense Jewish city.**

Once, Heysherik dropped in on me--he only ever dropped in and never came over. “The waters are come in even unto the soul” (בָ֖אוּ מַ֣יִם עַד־נָֽפֶשׁ) [Psalms: 69:2]...he is dying. His wife and children are already in some village, living with country Jews (yishevnikes), and he really is dying. We hire him a cart, we lade it with all his dog-eared books--may that, Borukh Hashem, be enough between brothers--and Heysherik takes to the streets with his wares. The price of books has fallen beneath the price of paper...and business took off. He was back on his feet, his pockets jangled with copper groshens, nickel coins, even a few silver złote, and he shone for as long as his merchandise lasted. The police chased him, but he always got off without a record thanks to his union card (legitimatsye fun fareyn.) A writer and he sold books off a cart. Even the Polish policemen were moved to believe in him. For it was impossible not to believe in Heysherik. And it is a wonder how he, through sheer belief and honesty, rescued (durkhgegloybt un durkhgeerlikht un durkhgeratevet) himself and so many other Yiddish writers all the way to Samarkand…

Once Kaganovski’s boy--we was six years old at the time--was so amazed by Heysherik that he couldn’t even move. People asked, “Peretsl, what did you see in him?” “He is a very fine man…” answered the still-astounded child. And this is what Heysherik looked like: a man of average build, with irregular, thoroughly Jewish (folks-yidishe) but not Semitic facial features, a face which seemed too small, like a turtle without a shell (es falt aroys fun epes)...This impression came, perhaps, from the fact that his old fedora (kapelyush, which he always wore because he was religious, was too large for his head. And he always spoke so timidly, while the few, large teeth in his mouth mingled and merged with his heymish, close-cropped, prickly black beard and moustache. But his eyes still smiled, perpetually innocent and faithful, even when asking a wealthy friend with a genuine Polish accent, “Borrow a few more bucks, I’m starvin’”------


*- I believe Nadir is the speaker here, however it could well be Heysherik. The grammar is unclear.

**- This may in fact be yidnshtat (Jewish State) rather than yidnshtot (Jewish City).

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