Val David; 1942
Memories of summers past flooded Izzy's head as he approached the old, decaying, wooden train station. It had stood proudly in Val David atop a hillock, which sloped gently toward the gravel country road winding alongside the white-water rapids and the dilapidated sawmill. The buzz-saws had been silenced years ago, their whine now replaced by the rapid-fire thuds of carpenters' hammers. They were boarding up the station. They were also closing out a chapter in Izzy's life.
As his pulse quickened, Izzy fought the urge to cry out. He would stop them if he could, but it was all beyond his control. He was consumed by memories of that scene, almost 50 years earlier, during the early stages of World War 11.
Out of the chill of that August night came the cars, driven by the draft-dodging denizens who were native to the Laurentian Mountains. Jew-haters all; the woodcutters, the truck drivers, the laborers, the farmers.
The line of cars stretched all the way back to the train station and continued to Le Chateau David, their staging area, the "No Jews or Dogs" sign displayed prominently over the portico.
On came the cars, more than a dozen, down the dirt road from the station, alongside the river and rapids next to the old sawmill. They turned off at Boris Yaroslavsky's house and barnyard and made their way across Boris' rickety wooden bridge.
At the head of the column was Monsignor Romeo Benoit, a Jew-hating, black-coated, Catholic cleric. He claimed for his parish all the loyal sheep between Val Morin and Ste. Agathe.
Benoit was always in the lead, against Jews or Jehovah's Witnesses. The Quebec Provincial Police always gave him the honor of clamping the padlocks across the doors to the meeting halls of the Jehovah's Witnesses. It was some kind of demented war he waged against the J.W.s, with the blessings of Le General, who had already been in power for six years as the Premier of the Province of Quebec.
Le General was the granddaddy of Quebec fascism. There had always been some sort of unholy alliance between the Government of Quebec and the Catholic Church. Le General fine-tuned and perfected this church connection However, it could not survive the death of Le General.
"Yaroslavsky!" boomed Benoit over the bullhorn, his black robes silhouetted against the headlights. "Yaroslavsky, we want your Jewish tenants out of here by Sunday! I want them gone by Sunday's mass!"
Yaroslavsky had 40 Russian winters under his grizzled skin by the time he had escaped from Czarist Russia and emigrated to Canada in 1914. By now, he had 28 more winters etched into his face, each of them a bastardly cold Laurentian winter.
Yarro, as he was called, unlike his sons, did not stand tall; about five feet, eight inches. His three sons, all born in Val David, each in his early-to-mid-20s, stood six feet, two inches and higher. They had the weight to go with the height.
Yarro and his sons each sported a shotgun. He had a few brushes over the years with his French-Canadian neighbors. But he decided early that he hadn't survived the Czar and come to Canada to be faced down by a pack of unruly, know-nothing and now draft-dodging Frenchmen.
Yarro never had much of an education, but he knew when he was being threatened. He also knew what was happening in Russia at the hands of the Nazis. He would make his stand right here and now, for himself, with and for his sons and for his Jewish tenants.
That was the scene. More than a dozen Frenchmen against Yarro and his three sons--Georgie, Alec and Bob--which was just about the kind of odds favored by the Frenchies. They did some of their best Jew-baiting when they had those odds.
The half-dozen Jewish tenants watched from afar, some deigning to leave their screened porches. If there was to be violence, there would be violence. Some were refugees from the Czar's pogroms Izzy's father certainly was, but Izzy had never seen him embroiled in a violent situation. Maybe he had some of the fighting spirit within him, Izzy thought. After all, hadn't his father's father,Yitzchok, for whom Izzy was named, died in Russia under circumstances a Gentile might consider "heroic."
He was a religious Jew, replete with shtreimel, long, neatly combed beard and black kapota. This Jew wore riding boots and was astride his horse when the Bolsheviks shot him in the back. He never had a chance to draw his pistol. He always packed a gun on those trips through the forest. Anyone managing several thousand acres of woodlands for the Czar had to carry a gun, Jew or not. Self-preservation was a cornerstone of Judaism. Today, they would call him a forestry engineer.
Izzy was sure his father would get involved if he had to. So would the other tenants. Izzy had seen his father handle those 500-pound cases in his store. He was no weakling. But they were up against something else here. A dozen or so bibulous Frenchmen, rendered so by beer and all of them armed. The probability of the Frenchies being drunk was easy to figure out, even for four-year-old Izzy. It was Friday night That was sufficient deductive reasoning.
Georgie, at 20, was the youngest of Yarro's boys. Thursdays were always his busiest days. That was roundup day. Georgie and Izzy would run themselves ragged every Thursday morning rounding up the chickens that had been ordered by the Jewish tenants for the Sabbath. Using a long wooden pole with a catch-ring at the end, the objective was to catch the chickens' legs in the ring, haul them in and dump them in the rear of Yarro's 1934 Ford Coupe. As often as not, Georgie and Izzy missed, ending up dive-tackling the chickens.
Alec, the middle son, was the driver. Just after lunch on Thursdays he drove the chickens to Ste. Agathe, where they had a date with the ritual slaughterer. The chickens had to be killed kosher. Those were standing orders from the tenants and Yarro knew it.
So it was done--every Thursday. Alec was the doomsday driver and Georgie went along to help him. Maybe that's why Izzy could never quite warm up to Alec. Bob, the oldest son at 25, never messed with this operation. He stayed behind and helped Yarro with the fields. If not the fields, there was always something else that needed doing, like fixing some ancient piece of equipment or repairing a leak in the roof of a summer cottage.
Izzy regretted the day Bob fixed the leak in the roof of the cottage his parents rented from Yarro. Rainy days never seemed the same after that. Izzy found something spellbinding about a rainy afternoon in the country when the roof leaked. He lost his job as the pot-man, placing the pots in the right places to catch the leaking rainwater. Each clanking drop was confirmation that Izzy had done his job well--the pots were in the right places. When they were full, they had to be emptied and put back in place. Izzy was responsible for all that.
Each Thursday, Alec asked Izzy whether he wanted to ride along to Ste. Agathe. Izzy always answered "no." He helped to catch them, but Izzy was not about to ride to Ste. Agathe with two dozen chickens and watch them be killed. He would help deliver the dead, cleanly plucked chickens to the tenants' cottages, but he would not go along to Ste. Agathe. Izzy collected the blue and red rings the chickens wore on their legs, never sure what they were for.
One Thursday, Alec fooled Izzy. This time the ritual slaughterer came to Yarro's barnyard. He wore a yarmelka and sported a goatee beard, an incessant, incomprehensible Hebrew chant always audible. He botched the job on a chicken and it raced crazily around the barnyard, bleeding until it dropped dead.
According to tradition and Jewish law, it could not be represented to a customer as being kosher. The slaughterer said nothing, but Yarrow knew better. He would not mislead a tenant. He set that chicken aside for himself. Izzy liked Alec even less after that barnyard incident.
"I want them gone by Sunday's mass, Yarro ... the morning mass ... nine o'clock, Yarro; tell them. Get them the hell out of here! We don't want any Jews around here anymore," yelled Benoit, his fist shaking and black robes flapping in the brisk mountain breeze. And then, out it came; a gutteral "maudits juifs"--goddam Jews.
The Frenchies frequently used that expression. They had found their scapegoat. It was black-coated clerics like Benoit who were responsible for their lot in life and place in Quebec society. It would be left to the students of the 60s to articulate the repressed desires of the Frenchies. For now, a bellowing "maudits juifs" would suffice.
The hills, it seemed, echoed to "maudits juifs, maudits juifs!" The cursing grew louder, seemingly from Yarrow's rickety wooden bridge all the way back to the train station.
The cursing emboldened Benoit. He started walking toward Yarro and his sons. Some 30 feet separated Benoit from them. Benoit was slow and deliberate, the better to exploit the moment. He walked alone, without benefit of the QPP, but he had his sheep behind him, bleating "maudits juifs!"
The racial slurs grew still louder. A few drunken Frenchies leaned on their horns. Benoit approached still closer, only 10 feet separating him from Yarro and his boys. "Stop right there!" yelled Yarro. "I don't want to harm anyone, but if I have to I'll drop you where you stand. Stop right there!"
Benoit kept advancing slowly. Some of the cars behind Benoit inched forward. Suddenly, everyone froze. Yarro and his sons had fired into the air. The exploding shells reported against the hills, starkly contrasting with the now-silent cars and the fear-crazed Benoit. He knew what Yarro was capable of. He had tested Yarro's patience before and it wasn't pretty. Yarro cooled his heels in the county lock-up for a few days after that incident, but the brawl dispatched Benoit to his dentist for extended treatment. Alec, Bob and George were only kids then. Old man Yarro did it on his own, amidst the beer-drinkingest session on a Friday night in the most popular tavern in Val David. No one messed with Yarro for quite some time afterward.
Yarro lowered his gun It was aimed at Benoit, just about flush with the gold crucifix he wore around his neck. Yarro's sons knew what lay ahead. Benoit was about to die. But it stopped, just as suddenly as it had started. The boys grabbed the old man and wrestled him to the ground. It took all three to control the hatred wrapped up in this 150-pound Russian.
The old man cursed in Russian, his face held to the ground. Bob leaped to his feet and headed for Benoit as his brothers held the old man down. Benoit was in shock. He sensed he had just narrowly escaped meeting his maker. He crossed himself rapidly, repeatedly.
Bob was no pussycat. He had re-arranged the faces of a few Frenchies, a fact well known to Benoit. As the parish priest, he visited Bob's victims in the Ste. Agathe hospital. "Benoit, you son-of-a-bitch, get the hell out of here while you can!" warned Bob. "If you don't, I swear, my brothers will let the old man up to finish you off. If you ever set foot on our land again, you're one dead priest! You and your sheep have three seconds to turn around and get the hell out of here!"
It was as though Jesus Christ himself had spoken to Benoit. He did a tight 180 and high-tailed it for the bridge. The Frenchies in the cars bolted into an impromptu drag race. They were in a virtual dead heat as they scrambled to be first across Yarro's rickety old bridge.
Yarro exploded into gales of laughter. "The cowards ... the bastards" he yelled in an almost demented fashion. His sons grimaced, fearing for the old man's sanity. "You stand up to them and they run," Yarro wailed with laughter. "Let them go!" he screamed in an almost insouciant tone But Yarro cared and he wasn't crazy. Maybe like a fox he was crazy. A few cars could get across the bridge, but not all of them. Yarro had built the bridge soon after he came to Canada. He built it for his horses and wagons. One horse, one wagon at a time. The supporting timbers bore 27 winters of wear. The crazy bastards would never make it across.
Yarro had thought about those timbers when he bought his first Model 'A' Ford. Now he was thinking about buying a truck. He knew that sooner or later he would have to reinforce the bridge. But now he was beside himself with joy for not having strengthened the bridge. He could not suppress his laughter. Alec and George sensed the old man was calming down. They relaxed their grip and let him stand.
Yarro tore loose from Alec and George and broke into a knee-bending Russian dance, one that could try the joints of someone decades younger. During calmer evenings, 'round a fire in the barnyard, the old man would leap, twist and squat his way through his paces, driven by his guitar-and-mandolin-playing boys. When he felt especially joyous, Yarro sported his white-silk, loose-fitting shirt, the better to flap around in the wind. He fancied himself a young Cossack on the Steppes of Asia. There were no guitars or mandolins tonight, except in Yarro's head, as he danced in defiance of the retreating Frenchies. He knew what was coming. As Yarro danced, he shouted: "Let them go! Let them go!"
Nobody cared to stop them, least of all Izzy's father. "Danken goht"--thank God--he said. "We're rid of them!"
Benoit scrambled across the bridge and tore down the dirt road toward the train station. Several cars made it onto the bridge, to the delight of Yarro, his knee bends now deeper and more vigorous. Yarro was confident his sagging timbers would not let him down. It was different for the Frenchies caught on Yarrow's bridge.
Slowly, gradually, urelentingly, the timbers gave way. Fifteen feet below were the rocky rapids of the river that led away from the old sawmill. At precisely the correct moment, as though Yarro himself were orchestrating the scene, four Frenchmen in Fords dropped to the drink. They changed the course of the shallow rapids for awhile.
Yarro's boys ran to fetch the horses and pulled the cars out of the rapids. The injuries were not terribly serious; a bloody nose here, a broken leg there, but, all things considered, the four Frenchmen came away in pretty good shape. Yarro and his boys were highly solicitous of the four broken Frenchmen, their hands and arms in perpetual motion as they described the sign of the cross. Yarro mimicked the sign of the cross. The victims were silent.
In the spirit of the moment and in keeping with every good Russian driven to the heights of ecstasy, Yarro broke out the vodka--100 proof. He offered it to the broken Frenchmen, which served only to terrorize them even further. "Non, monsieur, non monsieur, merci, merci!" they moaned.
Yarro poured himself a couple of ounces and gulped a snootful. It was not in character for the Frenchmen to refuse an alcoholic beverage, although beer was more their speed. They feared being poisoned by this crazy Russian.
Yarro gulped loudly and deeply as the vodka trickled down his gullet. Only Izzy's Bubbie Rosie could match the gulps for volume. Yarro wiped his lips and poured another snootful down the hatch. The boys shouted some Russian phrase at the old man; sounded like "nos darovne," drink hearty. From somewhere in the shadows, a Jewish tenant witnessing this craziness muttered "l'chaim!"
Where had all the other Frenchies gone? Nobody knew, nobody cared. Even the broken Frenchmen didn't care. They loosened up a bit and threw caution to the winds, now that they were sure the vodka had not been poisoned. It helped to ease their pain.
A flashing red light was now visible in the distance. Someone had called the QPP. Nobody knew who. Probably Benoit and his gang. Captain Serge Savard, head of the Val David detachment, came on the scene, an ambulance in tow. Savard was the bastard who always gave Benoit the "honor" of padlocking the Jehovah's Witnesses meeting halls.
Savard drove right on down to the water's edge, into this mad scene in the night. By now, the broken Frenchmen, fortified by Yarro's vodka, felt no pain. They were covered by blankets, which Yarro's wife thoughtfully placed over them on this cold night. Savard arrived to the strains of "Alouette," warbled by Yarro, the boys and the four broken Frenchmen. "What de hell go on here?" demanded Savard.
Yarro shot back some answer in Russian, which only the boys, a couple of tenants and Izzy's Dad understood. The latter was fluent in Russian, as anyone born in the Ukraine would be. Maybe that's why Yarro and Izzy's Dad got along so well.
"Dammit, speak English, Yarro," bellowed Savard. He knew Yarro spoke French fairly well, but he wouldn't waste his breath to ask the old Russian to speak French. Yarro would never speak French to a Frenchman. Anything but French. Russian was o.k. English was o.k. even a little Yiddish, but never French. Out of earshot of a Frenchman, Yarro was heard to occasionally break into French, usually when he wanted to curse his horses.
"What happen here tonight?" demanded Savard. "Nothing very serious," Yarro finally answered in his best vodka-sotten English. "Yarro, dey tell me der was some hell of a fight here tonight. Mon dieu, what de hell happen?"
"Nothing to worry about, Savard," answered Yarro. "These guys had a little too much to drink and they fell off the bridge, that's all. Nothing to worry about."
"Nutting to worry about, you say. Dese people, dey pay me to worry about dese tings. I am de law!"
Savard was the law in those parts. But his sanctimonious, justice-oozing words have to be weighed against some facts. Savard had graduated elementary school after two attempts at the seventh grade. He dropped out of high school after flunking his first year. Writing a traffic ticket sapped his literary capabilities, which is why he wrote so few. But Savard's father was cozy with some Unite Party politicos--Quebec's ruling party, the party of Le General--and his son was destined to play policeman. The mentally challenged simpleton was not good for much else, not to say he was any good for this job.
"Damn you and your law!" answered Yarrow "This is my land and I'm the law around here. And I tell you nothing happened here tonight."
"Den why is your bridge broke? She lay in de water, goddam! Is dat nutting?" persisted Savard.
"It's my bridge and my land, Savard," retorted Yarro. "I'm not complaining, so why should you? It's my bridge that's lying in the water and I tell you nothing happened. Don't worry about my bridge. It will give me a great deal of pleasure to rebuild it--nice and strong!"
Savard shrugged his hulking shoulders and waved to the ambulance attendants to come and get the broken Frenchmen. There were only two stretchers aboard the ambulance, so what to do with the other two broken Frenchmen? Yarro's boys fashioned a couple of crude stretchers out of some boards lying around the barnyard and they gingerly littered the Frenchmen to the overcrowded ambulance. Savard stood in disbelief.
As the ambulance pulled away, Yarro turned to Savard and invited him into his home for a drink. Without hesitation, Savard agreed. He could do nothing else. Life in Quebec was frequently a tenuous co-existence. Izzy's Dad made some excuse and begged off, disappointing Yarro. Yarro and his boys, with Savard in tow, headed for Yarro's grandiose kitchen for a few more belts of vodka. The tenants retired to their bungalows.
The next morning, as they walked toward the white synagogue in Val David for the Sabbath services, Izzy, his father and grandfather learned where the Frenchies had gone the previous night. It was painfully obvious. Romeo Benoit and his sheep had made a beeline for the shule after Yarro had scared them away. Scrawled across each of the four outer walls of this tiny summer house of worship, built on wooden stilts, like most buildings in the mountains, were four ugly, menacing, black swastikas.
Izzy asked his father what this meant. He asked his Zada. Neither spoke. During the Shabbos service, Izzy overheard a whispered word here, a muttered word there. The rabbi spoke. He talked about the big war in Europe and the black swastikas on the shule. Izzy began to learn about what was happening in Europe. He suddenly became aware of what was happening in Val David. What did it mean? Were he and his people in trouble in Val David? Would they be in trouble in Montreal, too? Was it like this all over Canada? Was it like this just in Quebec?