My favored hobby in summer was climbing mountains. The exhilaration of standing on the summits and looking down on what looked like toy villages was unmatched by any other sensation except the thrill of skiing. As to winter sport, skiing, we had no lifts, it was all "cross country ." It would take us several hours to get to the top of the slopes and about ten minutes to ski down. Skiing was not the only reason winter was my favorite season. It was also the look and feel of it that was exciting. The view of the landscape all dressed in white, the absolute stillness gave it the aura of a holiday. The sleighs gliding noiselessly by with the only sounds coming from the jingling bells on the horses, the icicles hanging from the edges of the roofs, the intricate designs on the windows painted by the frost, the crisp snow glittering in the moonlight like diamonds. All that lent the scene a wonderland quality. I used to look forward to the flight of the wild geese on their journey south in the autumn which heralded the approach of winter.

At about the age of seven I had my first and only swimming lesson. While this teaching method was not the most ingenious one, it was nevertheless effective in my case. One of the big boys picked me up and flung me into the deep water thus leaving me with two choices. Sink or swim. I swam. That was how things were done in Verecky.

When I was eight years old I joined a Zionist organization. The creed of Zionism was antipodal to that of fundamentalism. According to the orthodox dogma we were to wait for God to send the Messiah who would deliver the Jewish people from the Diaspora. To precipitate our redemption by our own action was deemed a mortal sin. The Zionist doctrine held that we must accomplish the liberation by our own endeavors, an idea that made more sense to me. The teaching, study or speaking of modern Hebrew was considered a sacrilege by the religious zealots. Hebrew was only to be the language for prayer. The chief Rabbi of Mukatchevo in his sermons would pronounce all kinds of terrible curses on the Zionists. He would spit when he passed by the Hebrew gymnasium (high school). While the various orthodox factions fought among themselves with great ferocity, in opposition to Zionism they were united. Although my parents and grandparents were orthodox, they were no fanatics and thus did not oppose my joining the movement. My brothers also joined upon attaining the ages of eligibility.

I was about twelve when my school team was involved in a soccer game. I was the goalkeeper. Pouncing on the ball in heavy traffic, my wrist was dislocated as a result of a kick. As there was no immediate pain or swelling I continued playing. It was at bedtime when the pain started. Grandfather stayed up with me all night applying hot towel compresses to my hand. In the morning he took me to the doctor who cured me. After that I was taken to the rabbi and made to promise never to play soccer again. At that moment, having felt the welcome relief from pain, there was no reluctance on my part to make the pledge. Later, however, I found it humanly impossible to resist the temptation and, in spite of the sense of guilt, broke my promise.

My parents and grandparents, because of their trades were interacting with all the various ethnic groups. My brothers and I associated with the Jewish youths and our Czech school mates. We had some relationships with some Hungarians but none with Ruthenians as many of them were inculcated with the spirit of anti-semitism from childhood on. We carried the Christ-killer stigma. Bigotry, while more or less dormant under Czech rule, reared its ugly head under the Hungarian regime. I had a few run-ins with several bigots. I was challenged to wrestling matches once by a Hungarian boy and once by a Ruthenian. Both of them, being bigger than I, were convinced they would prevail and thus prove the commonly perceived inferiority of the Jew. I must admit, I was scared stiff. Nevertheless I felt I had to accept the challenges. Although they were bigger and huskier, they were also clumsier than I and so after throwing them three times each, emerging the winner to the unexpected surprise of the three of us, this left them puzzled for being deprived of their sense of superiority. Thereafter they never bothered me again. One day while several of my friends and I were strolling on the side walk in front of the department store, a Ruthenian youth, a six footer, came over and made an anti-semitic remark. Unable to control my rage, I hit him in the eye whereupon he left. Several minutes later he approached with reinforcements -three of his friends. Needless to say, the prospects didn't look very promising. Looking around to survey my odds, I discovered that they were not at all favorable. My friends simply vanished into thin air. I don't know whether it was due to stoicism, sheer stupidity or fear-induced paralysis that I didn't budge. My legs just wouldn't move and so I was the recipient of a good thrashing. After a few seconds of administering blows on my head they stopped, baffled by the fact that I didn't run or cry. I just didn't conform to their image of a Jew, which was that a Jew was a coward and was expected to run, cry or both. I believe that my conduct gained me a measure of grudging respect. From then on they never bothered me again.

In 1937 at the age of fifteen I was apprenticed to a custom tailor for a three year training period. It was there that I was introduced to the quest for excellence. Ready made clothing was not available in Verecky, therefore everyone's apparel was custom made. As the clients of my employer were mostly government officials and others that were well off, the emphasis was on absolute quality of workmanship. Although I received no wages for the three year period, I was tipped every time I delivered a garment to customers. While this didn't make me fabulously rich, it did come in handy. Frankly I wasn't very excited about learning tailoring. The idea didn't exactly appeal to me. To be cooped up inside a shop six days each week eleven to twelve hours each day didn't occur to me to be the ideal life. The only other choice open for me in Verecky was the shoemaking trade which I considered even less alluring, as this required the taking of measurements of ill-smelling feet. Later in my tenure I improved my condition by taking Sundays off -to the chagrin of the boss -and that gave me Saturdays and Sundays off. In the beginning, work was a drudgery as the learning process was very slow. A great deal of my time was taken up by cleaning the shop and running errands for the employer as well as for the salaried help. After about two years, however, when I learned to make pants and vests I experienced a sense of accomplishment. The work ceased to be tedious. At the end of my apprenticeship I was able to make jackets up to the sewing in of sleeves, which gave me a sense of creativity.


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Boris Segelstein