About Uncle Leyzer
And That Iceberg
By Dovid Katz
Eighty year old Ziska Shapiro is giving a peasant a haircut in the makeshift barbershop he has set up here in this town northeast of Vilnius. "I lost my barbershop when they privatized everything here. A few of the people I had trained bought it up. I couldn't. and I wouldn't anyway. I don't believe in capitalism, you see! But I do believe in work, so without losing a day, I set up here at home." Home is a damp dingy quarter, carved out of an old wooden structure that once housed the Jewish secondary school in the village, which is now called Pabrade in Lithuanian.
Today, Ziska Shapiro, a slight, bald man with a neatly
trimmed moustache and eyes that say, "I will tell it to you straight,
friend," is the only Jew in town. He loves to shock foreigners with his
unpopular political views. "Just imagine, 50 states have their own
but they all recognize Washington! But since the Soviet Union
any shmendrik can set himself up without recognizing Moscow! Well, mark
my words, if they don't have good relations with Moscow, there will be
big trouble in these parts."
After giving up his barbershop without a fight, Mr. Shapiro drew a line in the sand when they came around to privatize apartments, selling them to their tenants for a pittance. "A man came around and invited me to buy this dump, can you imagine? 'This was a Jewish town,' I told him. 'All the Jews were murdered, there is one Jew left in his hovel with no running water in a building that was once the Jewish school here, and you want me to buy it from you? Get out!' I told him. God, did he run away trembling!"
The peasant sitting in the barber's chair has no hands or feet. Another, waiting patiently on a broken bench for his turn, has one hand. Are these horrific war injuries? "What war injuries?" Mr. Shapiro asks satirically. "They got drunk, conked out in the snow and froze off their extremities!" Mr. Shapiro takes no money from handicapped people. He charges healthy people 50 cents for a haircut. The one barbershop in town, the one he ran away from, from the late 1940s until 1992, now charges about $2. Hobbling away, the first peasant, sporting his smart new coiffure, provocatively asks about the two former apprentices, both women, doing all the men's haircutting in the barbershop these days, "Perverted!" Mr. Shapiro barks back with a wry smile. "You tell your friends to come back here for an honest haircut from an old master!"
Ziska Shapiro became an apprentice barber himself back in 1932 in his native Ignalina, further northeast. That town is now best known for its Soviet built nuclear power plant. The entire area, including today's Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, had been part of Poland between the wars, The Soviets took it over in 1939; it was "their" sector under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. They hastened to give it away to the Lithuanians as a "gift" before duly proceeding to swallow up all of Lithuania as a new Soviet republic in 1940. When the Nazis invaded in June 1941, Mr. Shapiro recalls, many of the older Jews wouldn't dream of trying to escape. "They remembered the Germans as the most civilized of the armies during World War 1. These are not soldiers who would go around shooting innocent civilians!" But Mr. Shapiro decided to believe an old wandering beggar, Chaim-Meir of Svir, who had for years been telling people that Hitler was boasting he would murder all the Jews. After three days of studying the faces of the German occupiers in June 1941, Ziska fled for his life eastward into Russia and joined the Red Army.
Wounded three times, he is a decorated war hero. When he returned home after the war, in 1945, he found out that all the Jews of Ignalina, including his mother, had been herded to the edge of a pit in a nearby town in October 1941, and shot for being Jews. "I tried to return home to Ignalina, but I only lasted a week. Too many nightmares. So I came here, to Podbrodz." Although he is grateful for having survived by serving in the Red Army and for many years of a "decent life" under the Soviets, he acknowledges that the Soviet system "just did not work."
Like many whose lives have not turned out quite as they would have hoped, Mr. Shapiro sees one primeval tragedy as having made way for the circumstances that allowed all the others to follow. That tragedy, he tells us, taking off his apron after finishing the second fellow's haircut, is called "tee-TAH-nik." He is shocked to learn that we have heard the name, and the story, before: "No? What, they still remember in America that a ship hit an iceberg and sank in 1912?" He is even more flabbergasted to hear that there is a "blak-BOS-ter fillem" in the West about the ship. Now Mr. Shapiro's life has not been a catalogue of happiness, but why blame the Titanic? He proceeds, in his rich Lithuanian Yiddish, to recollect the milestones.