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A Promise of Sweet Tea by Pinchas Blitt


A Jewish community comes alive in this vividly told story of a childhood interrupted by the Holocaust. In his wry and evocative prose, Pinchas Blitt conjures Kortelisy — a humble, vibrant village in the backwoods of western Ukraine. Young Pinchas lives in fear of Cossacks and wolves and the local antisemitic children, but he finds belonging in the rich texts and traditions of his ancestors. When the Soviets invade, Pinchas’s life is infused with new meaning as he innocently devotes himself to the teachings of Comrade Stalin. Then the Nazis arrive, and Pinchas witnesses his beloved village being brutally attacked. As his family seeks safety in the marshes and forests, their precarious existence brings Pinchas face to face with his own mortality and faith, and with a sense of dislocation that will accompany him throughout his life.


Escape by the Back Door

The next time the Germans came to Kortelisy there was a completely different ending, and all hope of survival was shattered. It was Sunday, July 12, 1942, a week before my tenth or eleventh birthday. My parents had decided that we would stay overnight with my paternal grandparents; for some reason, they felt a little bit safer at the other end of the village, next to the church square.

Early that Sunday morning, while it was still dark and we were all sleeping, there was a powerful pounding on the front door and roaring in German — Aufmachen! Open up! This was not a gemütlich sound of invited guests arriving for breakfast. The Germans had come to kill us, and the pounding and roaring put the fear of God into us. I was not ready to die. I can still hear the sound of it, and it still frightens me and gives me the shivers; I still have the urge to run and hide. We all woke up. Anticipating danger, we ran out through the back door, straight into the fields of tall rye that grew at the edge of my grandparents’ house. Somehow we were calm and accepted the situation as part of being Jewish, running away from the Hamans and the pogroms, as our ancestors did. Once inside the dense rye fields, we ran in different directions. But my mother, as usual, held on to me and my brother. Sonia, a young schoolteacher who had arrived with the Soviets in 1939 from Kyiv to teach in the local school and was a colleague and girlfriend of my uncle Ben-Tsion, was holding on to my mother. Sonia was dark and beautiful, with deep black eyes; the Russian song “Ochi Cherney” (Dark Eyes) could have been written about her. She proudly insisted that she was a true yevreyka, Jewess, even when the Germans arrived.

The four of us stayed together, tucked inside a furrow in a rye field without moving a muscle the whole day, afraid of disturbing the rye and giving away our hiding place. We didn’t know what was happening to the Jews in the village. We had no food or water all day and emerged in the evening and returned to my grandparents’ house, where we reunited with our father, paternal grandparents, Ben-Tsion and my mother’s parents, who had also managed to escape.

Not everyone was that lucky. Some twenty innocent Jewish men, women and children — entire families of Kortelisy — were rounded up, murdered in cold blood and buried in the green grazing fields outside Kortelisy, in a flat, unmarked communal grave. Among the murdered was a family of four, whom I still remember. The father’s name was Binyomin, and one of the boys, who’d had his bar mitzvah two or three years earlier, was called Bentse. Later in the evening, when we returned to our own home and walked through the open door and saw everything in disarray, we realized how close we had been to being included among the victims. Father immediately pronounced that our staying over with Zeyde and Bobeh was nothing short of a miracle. Being the first house as one enters the village from the west, we would have most certainly been caught in our sleep and killed. We had no back door to escape from even if we had been awake.

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