The River - an excerpt from a new novel by former Winnipegger Zev Coehn

Cohen Zev 2019Introduction: The following story is an excerpt from a longer story in Zev Cohen’s new novel titled “Are You Still Alive?”
As Zev wrote to us recently, “this is Chapter One of my novel, "Are You Still Alive?" It is partially based on events recounted to me by my late father Moshe. The story, beyond being one of the countless tales of Jewish survival against all odds during the Holocaust, is also an allegory for the indomitable human spirit intertwined with Rabbi Akiva's maxim ‘V’havta l’raecha kamocha’. I hope to have the complete novel published soon.
Zev’s writing has appeared several times in the past in this paper. His collection of short stories, titled “Twilight in Saigon,” was published in 2021.
Born in Israel, Zev lived in Winnipeg until he was 17, when he returned to Israel with his parents. He now spends half the year in Israel and half the year in Calgary, where his two sons live.

Chumak leads the way towards the river in the dark. I had walked the route from his hut to the riverbank in daylight a few times and am confident I know the path down to the water and back. This time, though, I intend to cross to the other side under cover of darkness. Chumak, who came up with the idea, eagerly insists on guiding me so, he says, I don’t get lost. He claims he can find his way blindfolded. I think he believes that if this works, he might soon be rid of us, although he hasn’t said anything openly about it. To be fair, my suspicion just might be a projection of my own pressing desire to escape on to Chumak, whom I trust implicitly.
This summer has been uncommonly wet, and tonight the clouds are scudding low, hiding the moon and stars and making it difficult for others to spot us. At first, the only sounds are those of our movement through the brush and the occasional whoosh of passing nightbirds. The path is not overly challenging, and my labored breathing and rapidly beating heart stem more from fear than physical effort. Though I’m soaked to the skin by the constant drizzle, it is a minor irritation in the face of what I expect lies ahead. The sudden rattle of machine-gun fire causes us to instinctively fall flat on the ground, but luckily it isn’t close by, and we move forward a moment later. Distant flickers of lightning and muffled thunder are the backdrops as I blunder through the undergrowth and futilely attempt to avoid trees. Banging my knee against a tree trunk while trying to keep up with Chumak, I stifle a cry of pain, and then suddenly, I slip and slide down the muddy embankment, unable to get any traction. He grabs me before I plunge headfirst into the river.


“Quiet, you’ll get us caught,” he whispers as he holds my arm in his vicelike grip. “There are German and Romanian patrols on both sides of the river. Be more careful, or you will end up dead before you begin.”
The slope ends at the lapping water’s edge, but the river is barely visible in the blackness. A dog begins to bark incessantly on the other side. Has it picked up our scent even before I start to swim? I have no choice but to take my chances. Along the opposite bank downriver, dim points of light seem to be moving—smugglers perhaps or night fishermen. It’s hard to estimate how far away they are. I hope the current doesn’t drag me to them, but there is no going back. At least, for now, no searchlights are combing this particular area. Chumak seems to have picked the right spot.
Lightning flashes again, stronger this time, and in that instant, I realize how far it is to the other side across the rippling current. My swimming experience is limited to a small, calm pond near home, where my brother taught me some strokes. The wide, flowing river looks ominous, but I’ve made it this far, and I can’t give up now. And Chumak urges me on. I’m already knee-deep in the water, shivering, but not because the water is especially frigid.
“You can do it,” he encourages me. “The current isn’t so strong at this time of year. You must do it. It’s your only hope. Go!”


I stop for a moment and turn to him. “If anything happens…if I don’t make it back, help Ella and Sophie, please. They have no one else.” I don’t want to sound as if I’m pleading, but I am.
“Go, nothing will happen. You’re going to save them and yourself,” he says. “It’s the only way. I will wait here till you reach the other side and when you get there, clap some stones together three times to let me know you are safely there. The sound carries far at night. I’ll hear it, and I’ll tell Pani Ella that you made it.” Amid everything, I notice that this is the first time he calls Ella by her name.
I move slowly into the deeper water. At first, it’s easy; the water is up to my chest, but my feet still touch the soft muddy bottom. Then, without warning, it drops away, and I’m flailing and swallowing water. Finally, I calm down, gain control, and begin to swim. The current takes hold and starts pushing me downriver. Sputtering, I force myself to fight the rising panic and use my arms and kick with my legs in a crawl that will hopefully propel me towards the unseen shoreline. It’s working, and I’m not drowning, but I’m weakening rapidly. The combination of sickness I haven’t completely recovered from since the camp and general malnutrition has sapped me of strength. My clothes are waterlogged and drag me down. This can’t continue much longer. How idiotic would it be, I think, if I drowned now before beginning my mission? Rolling over on my back, I take the pig’s bladder that Chumak wrapped the note in from my pocket, and holding it tight, I squirm out of my pants to lighten the load. I let the current carry me and turn on my back to stroke and move gradually in the riverbank direction. It is less exhausting this way.
I’ve lost any notion of time as I float on my back and see nothing but the overcast sky. Has it been minutes? An hour? I fear trying to stand. If it’s still deep, I might sink and not be able to come back up. At least the rain has stopped. Some clouds have dispersed, and I can see stars in the black sky. Then I hear it. A baying sound getting closer. Maybe a dog? Then barking. Yes, a dog. Thankfully I must be near the shore. My feet hit bottom. I totter through the shallow water and, in the faint moonlight, survey a pebbly beach fronting the tree line. There is no sign of the huts nor of the large two-story house Chumak had pointed out some days earlier opposite my point of departure.


The house, he told me, belonged to a certain Nicolescu, a wealthy Romanian and well-known smuggler before the war. Chumak suggested that my woman, as he called Ella, write a letter to Nicolescu in Romanian asking for his help crossing the river. I imagined that he would get the letter to the Romanian or at least knew someone who could do it, so it took me by surprise when he said, “You will bring the letter to him, and he will make the arrangements.”
It seemed like a far-fetched idea. Beyond the problem of my crossing the river, in itself seemingly suicidal, why, I asked, would any Romanian, not to mention a wealthy smuggler, have anything to do with helping Jews? This is probably a punishable offense in Romania and meant certain death in German-occupied Poland. Only gypsies were desperate enough to offer their services. Even if Nicolescu was willing to help me, I had no money to pay him.
Moreover, those who did pay were often betrayed and delivered to the authorities on one or the other side. There was no guarantee of success, and many lost their lives in the attempt. A few days earlier, I saw a clump of corpses roped to each other floating down the river. I didn’t consider my death an issue anymore, but I was afraid of exposing Ella and the child to the risks involved. I told Chumak to forget it. I couldn’t do it.
“What choice do you have?” Chumak pressed. “Don’t be a fool. You, the woman, and the child definitely won’t survive on this side of the river, and you will stand a better chance over there, as far away as you can get from the Germans.”
His understanding of the situation is correct. The local peasants were handing Jews over for some butter or sugar and an opportunity to steal their belongings. They say a drowning man will grasp at a razor blade to save himself, so I agree.
“Even if I manage to make it across, how will I convince him? I have no money.”


Chumak was skeptical about my claim of penury. This wasn’t out of spite that he had thought through but rather an inherited bias. He was of the age-old school that believed Jews always had hidden treasure somewhere. He was convinced that if I couldn’t offer cash immediately, Nicolescu would accept a promise of future payment from a “high-class” Jew like me. To me, this appeared to be just wishful thinking since Chumak admitted never having actually done business with this Romanian smuggler, who was out of his league.
Chumak remained adamant, and his confident tone was hard to resist. “Tell your woman to write that she comes from an important, prosperous family in Romania that will pay him generously for his efforts. Give him a written guarantee.”
Before I could change my mind, he produced a slightly greasy lined sheet of paper from a child’s copybook and a blunt pencil stub. I took it to our hideout in the nearby forest, where I cajoled Ella, who also thought the plan was absurd and not doable, into writing the requisite supplication and promise of reward.
Standing on the flat terrain on this side of the river, I realize that the current took me downstream, and I need to walk back to the Nicolescu house. I’m not sure how far it is, but at least I can see where I’m going in the moonlight. I find some stones and strike them together three times, as I promised Chumak, hoping that he hears me, and goes back to report to Ella. Not expecting a response, I walk close to the tree line, off the riverbank pathway used by locals and military patrols. When a searchlight sweeps the river from the Polish side, I scamper into the trees, waiting, breathing hard, and picking up a dead branch for self-defense. Going forward, I detour through the woods to avoid a small group of men sitting by the embers of a fire smoking and passing around a bottle. Hunters or fishermen, I believe.


The house lies ahead through the gate of a stone-walled enclosure. No light escapes from the windows. Nearby in the compound, there are two thatched-roof peasant huts, weak light emanating from one of the windows, and a barn where a horse nickers. I stop to consider which building would be best to approach, and then, as I take a step closer, the dogs come at me, snarling. I fend them off with the branch, hitting one of them in the head. It runs off whimpering while the others keep their distance, growling, and barking. I’m done for. They are going to wake everyone. I retreat into the adjacent cornfield, crouching there cold, miserable, and afraid, as a woman appears holding a lantern outside one of the huts. She calls off the dogs and shoos them into the barn. As she locks the barn door, she stares into the darkness in my direction before going to draw water from a well in the yard and returning to the hut.
I can’t stay here much longer as indecision eats away at my remaining determination. It’s time to make a move, either forward to Nicolescu, whatever the risk and chances of success, or back across the river in abject failure. I run to the hut showing light and knock hesitantly. The dogs continue barking hysterically in the barn. Nothing happens, and I try again more decisively.
“Who’s there,” asks a muffled woman’s voice in Ukrainian.
“It’s me,” I reply. What else could I say?
She opens the door a crack. People must be accustomed to seeing strange sights around here because she doesn’t slam the door in the face of the wet, disheveled, half-naked specter that stands before her.
“What do you want? Who are you looking for?” the woman asks as if I was routinely passing by.
“I have an important letter for Mr. Nicolescu. He needs to see it,” I say, also in Ukrainian.


She invites me into the hut. Alone in the single, earthen floor room, she wears widow’s black. Wrinkeled but unbent, her age is indeterminate. Most of the space in the room is taken up by a traditional wooden loom, while a large blackened icon of the Savior hangs above a stove. I rarely devoted attention to Christian symbols, having never, so far, entered a church and always hurrying by the ubiquitous roadside shrines in our vicinity with eyes averted. The narrative of Christianity and Christians as moral and physical threats was, since time immemorial part of our Jewish psyche, but I have no direct personal experience of it. Even the murder of my father by Jew-hating thugs, which undoubtedly weighed heavily on my perception of the people who surrounded us, didn’t feel like a religious issue. Now though, as I stand here shivering, Jesus on the cross seems to be observing me ominously. But, immediately, my attention is drawn away to a piece of bread on a side table, and without invitation, I grab it and chew hungrily. The woman sees that I am exhausted and soaked and tells me to sit and rest. She brings me a blanket and pours a cup of water, watching silently as I continue chewing the bread thoroughly.
When I finish, she says, “You are from over there. You’re a Jew.” It’s not posed as a question, and she clearly knows why I have come. I’m not the first desperate Jew who has shown up on her doorstep. To my relief, she doesn’t take long to make her decision. “I will take you to Mr. Nicolescu’s mother. She lives in the other hut. Maybe she will help you.”
“Thank you.” I’m wary of digging too deeply into the subject for fear of treading on sensitive toes, but I’m also anxious to find out what has happened on this side of the river and know what to expect if Ella and Sophie are to cross with me later. “Are there any Jews left around here?” I ask warily. “What about the Jews in the city?”
“They got rid of all our Jews,” she replies in a matter-of-fact tone. “They say the devil came for them. You need to watch out.”
“Come,” she beckons. “We should go to Nicolescu’s mother before anyone else sees you here. People won’t hesitate to give you up.” I follow her to the neighboring hut, where a tall, old woman approaches us. “Who is that with you, Bohuslava?” she calls out in Romanian. “Beware of robbers. I’ll get a stick and run him off.”
Bohuslava walks over to her. “Shh, be quiet,” she says in Ukrainian. “Stop fussing. He means no harm and just wants to show you something. “Come here quickly,” she gestures to me.


Grey-haired, slightly stooped, with one eye clouded by a cataract, she must be in her seventies but looks far from frail. She takes my hand with a firm grip. “Let’s go inside,” she says.
She lights a kerosene lamp. This is a much bigger and well-appointed abode with an ornate porcelain stove dominating the room and a dining table covered in a hand-embroidered red and white tablecloth. Adjacent to the stove stands a single bed occupied by a young woman sleeping, oblivious to us.
“Bohuslava, you may go,” the Romanian says. “Just keep your mouth shut, or it won’t be long before everybody is aware that you take in Jewish strays. We don’t need that kind of trouble.”
“What will I say?” answers the other woman on her way out. “That you have a new lover and a Jewish one at that,” she cackles.
“Sit,” the tall woman says, pointing to a chair beside the table. Like most Romanians living on the border, she is fluent in Ukrainian, while my Romanian is rudimentary at best. “Show me what you brought,” she asks. I remove it from the pig’s bladder and hand the grotty piece of paper to her. She dons reading glasses and concentrates on the message.
“Good Romanian,” is her first reaction. “Who wrote it? It couldn’t be you.”
“My wife,” I say tersely.
“Is she from around here?”
“She is from the city,” I reply. “Actually, we’re together but not officially married. She has a small child, her daughter, with her. They were forced across the river with others a few months ago, and we are trying to get back to the city to join relatives who might still be there. The situation on the other side of the river is deadly.”
“Yes, I know. It’s not really safe here, either. If you’re caught, they will send you back there without a second thought. Don’t expect much pity here because nobody wants to get in trouble for hiding Jews from the authorities.”


Not wanting to get into a discussion on motivations. I prefer to get to the point. “I was told that your son, Domnul Nicolescu, has experience getting people across the river. If your son could help us, we will take our chances. It’s preferable to certain death over there.”
“I can’t speak for him,” she says. “He is a good man, but I doubt, though, that he would be willing to take such a great risk. He was never involved in the smuggling of people across the border. It’s a bad business. For him, it has always been cigarettes and other contraband.”
I am surprised, honestly, that she speaks so openly of her son’s activities to a stranger… especially to one with a price on his head. Though she doesn’t hold out hope, her demeanor and attitude give me a sliver of confidence. “You should get some rest,” she suggests, “and I will take you to him in the morning.”
“What is your name?” I ask.
“Margareta. And yours?”
“I am Emil. Thank you, Doamna Margareta, for your kindness. I hope your son takes after you.”
She wakes the girl rudely and pushes her into the other room. “Here, take this bed. The servant girl can sleep in my room. I will leave some dry clothes for you and wake you when we need to go.”
“Thank you again. Good night.” I kiss her hand.
“Good night, Domnule Emil. Sleep well.”


I feel exhausted and drained, and my shriveled muscles ache from the unaccustomed effort of swimming across the water, but sleep remains elusive. It’s not the discomfort of the thin, lumpy mattress and the scratchy wool blanket that still hold the sour odor of their previous user, nor is it the constant, sometimes frantic, barking of dogs outside that keep rest at bay. By now, I’m also habituated to grasping moments of sleep in more dire circumstances, whether in the camp barracks or on the cold forest floor. Tonight I’m kept wide awake by the train of thoughts and questions running in a relentless loop through my mind. Are Ella and Sophie safe on the other side, alone with the Chumaks? Will Nicolescu agree to help without payment in advance? Will we be betrayed by the smuggler as so many have been before us? What lies in store for us on this side without any means for survival at our disposal? Should we hide in the countryside here or take the risk of heading for the city? I try to block out the most subversive, monstrous, cowardly, and tempting considerations, but they are there. The palpable fear of swimming back across the river toward the near certainty of death, tries to convince me that I’m now safer and that on my own, I stand a better chance of hiding and surviving. Yes, I would be abandoning Ella and Sophie, but by going back, I would only join them in being captured and killed. They would be safer staying with the Chumaks, who certainly would take pity and continue to conceal and support a defenseless woman and child. Or maybe I could remain here and just send the smuggler for them. I want to scream. I will go back.
The sun is up when Margareta nudges me awake and offers me a mug of hot tea while waiting as I put on the clothes she brought. They belong to a larger man, but they will have to do. I walk with her to the door of the house. A few people, already out and about, are on their way to work in the fields, some leading cattle and a flock of sheep. The men doff their hats and greet her, paying no attention to me.


Margareta instructs me to wait outside and enters without knocking. I hear raised voices inside. “Have you lost your mind? Why did you bring him here? Do you want to get us arrested? Send him away!” A few moments later, Margareta reappears with another woman, a pale ash blonde of about forty, holding a cigarette in her long elegant fingers with a worried look on her face — definitely not of the farming class. The woman scans the yard nervously.
“My mother-in-law told me what you want. I am sorry, but Mr. Nicolescu doesn’t do this business. We cannot do anything for you.” Her voice trembles and she is obviously terrified. “Anyway, he is not here. He is in the city, and I don’t know when he will be back. You must go. It’s dangerous here, and you will get us into trouble. Please go now.” She starts to retreat into the house.
I can’t hold her against her will, and if Nicolescu is indeed away, there is nothing more to be gained here. “Thank you, Doamna Nicolescu,” I say in Romanian and press my luck. “I will go, but could you kindly give me some bread?”
She goes inside and is soon back with half of a large loaf. I once again kiss her well-manicured hand and turn to leave.
“Mr. Emil,” says Margareta, “You should not wander around here in daylight. It’s dangerous to stay out in the open. Why don’t you hide in the barn till dark? It will be safer that way.”
“Again, you are so kind, Madame, but I must return to my family. It has been too long already. They are alone and will worry that something bad has happened to me. I will be as careful as I can.”
“Very well, if you must, but follow me.” She leads me into the forest on a narrow footpath that is a roundabout way down to the water’s edge. “Eat the bread, you need the strength, and it will be ruined in the water,” she says. I need no more encouragement as I almost choke, devouring it. She turns to leave. “Be careful, Emil, and good luck to you. I will talk to Nicolescu when he returns. Maybe he will agree to help. He has more conscience than that frightened ornament he calls his wife. How can he find you?”
“There is a peasant named Chumak. He knows where we are,” I tell her.
“Yes, Chumak. I know him. He also used to smuggle cigarettes before the war.”
“Thank you, Madame. I will remember your generosity.” She is gone.


I sit brooding among the trees looking at the river as the sun glints off the streaming water and listening to cheerful birds chirping. I can’t help but ponder the difference between the elderly women, Bohuslava and Margareta, and the wife of Nicolescu. I’m not surprised by the younger woman’s reaction. It is one version, slightly less brusque, of the general refusal to help Jews. But, all other considerations aside, who can blame people for fearing the fatal punishments meted out by the Germans and their Ukrainian lackeys to so-called Jew-lovers? Would I behave any differently in their shoes? I am more impressed, not to say astonished, by those candles in the darkness, people who have everything to lose, yet whose basic humanity causes them to stretch out their hands to support their fellow men and women. That rough peasant Chumak, whose whole universe is his tiny homestead next to an unknown village on the banks of the river, heads my list of the righteous. Now I add Bohuslava and Margareta to it. The existence of such people, beyond their contribution to our physical safety, keeps alive my essential positivity toward humankind and allows me to still retain some belief in our survival.
What next, I ask myself? I achieved nothing and have no other plan in reserve. Swimming back in broad daylight now seems suicidal. Maybe drowning is a good option? But that means abandoning Ella and the child, and I have already decided this is not an option. Bring back yesterday’s rain, I pray. I pray, though my belief in the idea of an Almighty, never cast-iron, has been dramatically undermined by the past year’s events. Then the wind picks up, and the miracle unfolds. Dark clouds scud across the sky, and the first drops wet my face, replacing the tears. In moments the downpour becomes torrential. I tie the new clothes around my neck and dive into the river, feeling more energetic on my way back. The current is slow enough for me to gradually dog-paddle most of the way across and finish with a few crawl strokes.
I’m carried only about a half-kilometer downstream, and elation replaces caution as I drag myself onto the riverbank and start walking. Climbing up the steep slope, Chumak’s hut is soon ahead, but when I approach and enter it, nobody is there. I look for Ella and Sophie, but the barn is empty too, and figuring that Chumak is probably out working in the field, I continue upwards into the forest towards our erstwhile hiding place. Ella and Sophie are supposed to wait there for me in case of trouble. I call out not to surprise them but there is no reply. I run to the hideout. They are gone.