Pepy Bohnen and the Chartowa Goora
by Anna Mark Waldman

First, before the story of what happened, you need a little background. Pepy Bohnen was my sister Lora’s friend, and her mother, Charna Bohnen, was our mother’s best friend. The Bohnens owned the hardware store, the only one in the area. They had a very substantial home, next to the building for the primary grades of Gymnasium. While I was a student there, whenever the Gymnasium held performances or exercises outside, Ma would take a half-day off from working in the store, and go to the Bohnen’s home, and watch from their porch. Ma also sometimes would stop off there on her way to work. When she was late to the store, Pa would say, “Ma must be with Charna!” “Charna” means “dark,” and there was some dark secret in their family.

Every few weeks, Charna would be gone for a a few days. Pa would ask, “Vie is Charna?” (“Where is Charna?”), and Ma would answer “Sie is gegangen cy sehr bis kind.” (“She went to visit the child.”) Maybe they had another child who was sick in some way and couldn’t live at home. Or maybe it was something else. I never knew. I overheard Ma and Pa talking, but I didn’t think that it was any of my business to ask for an explanation.

The Bohnens lived closer to town than we did, but it was not far to their house from ours. To get there, we walked past the church where the Ukrainians worshipped, a Greek Orthodox Church. The little boys would come out of the church and curse us, but they were just little children, so we weren’t worried.


And now, the story:

The Chartowa Goora is a mountain outside the town of Rohatyn, beyond Babince (a sort of suburb), in what is now Ukraine. It was forbidden to go to the Chartowa Goora, and especially it was forbidden to climb it. I think that the name means the Bewitched Mountain, something like that. We all knew the legend of the mountain, and the superstition about it. The people of Rohatyn and Babince had always lived in peace and harmony with one another. Mostly the Babincers were farmers and the Rohatiners were merchants; in the town were a Greek Orthodox Church, a Roman Catholic Church, and an old synagogue. Lots of different groups of people, and they all got along.

God was happy about this and blessed the people. But the devil hated it and wanted to do some damage. He wanted to destroy the town. So one night, when it was pitch dark, he came up out of hell, carrying a mountain up high on his long, scaly arms. All night long, he moved across the land, the mountain hovering over one small village or town after another. He was just short of Rohatyn when, suddenly, an old rooster crowed and the mountain dropped from his hands onto the ground. He tried and tried, but he couldn’t lift it up again. The devil was furious; he smashed his fist into the top of the mountain. And then he had to race back down into hell before daybreak. The superstition was that we must stay away from the mountain, in order not to antagonize the devil.


It was all my sister Lora’s idea, not mine! It was a warm summer afternoon, and Pepy was playing with Lora at our house. We lived in Babince, just outside Rohatyn. Lora and Pepy were maybe eight years old, and I was ten. Lora came over to me and whispered, “We are going to the Chartowa Goora. Do you want to come with us?”

“What!," I answered her. "Are you meshugginah? Of course not. And you can’t go either! It’s forbidden!” There was a long debate between Lora and me.

In the end, Lora said, “We are going, whether or not you come.” I didn’t want to go. I thought, probably I’ll get arrested! But I did go. I was older, but Lora was the leader most of the time! So we walked out of the yard and away from Babince, toward the Carto Wagoora.

It was a 20 or 30-minute walk to the mountain from where we were living. The land was basically flat, farming land. There was a range of mountains near Babince, but the Carto Waggora was not part of that. It stood all alone. When we got to the mountain, I said, “Let’s take a couple of steps on the mountain and then go home.”

But Lora would have none of that. She was determined to climb the mountain, and she began walking up. Pepy and I walked close behind her. Right away, I could see that the mountain was different from the land around it. Everywhere else we had a shrub with a fruit covered with short needles, stickers. You had to watch out for it everywhere you went. But there was none of it, not one plant, growing on the mountain. The soil on the mountain was soft and silky, like ashes. It wasn’t difficult to climb; the mountain wasn’t very steep, and we were used to walking.

We climbed up almost to the top. The very top was like a crater, with a deep hollow in the center, ringed all around with rocks and short grasses. There were even flowers. You couldn’t see any of this from the ground below. We had never been so high up. We could see the village far away, below us. We could see the river that flowed toward our house, and the dam. It was so beautiful, and exciting!

We shouted out our names and our brothers’ names. Maybe they would hear us and wonder where the sounds came from. The air felt cooler, and it was a little hard to breathe. Lora was running and jumping on the rocks. I forgot about watching out for Lora and Pepy, and I ran to look at one plant with deep violet flowers. There it was -- a “Saasanka,” on the top of the Carto Wagoora. It was the national flower of Poland. The flowers were beautiful, deep violet and very fuzzy. They were a tulip-type flower, but grew lower to the ground.

The Saasanka was very rare, and it was forbidden to pluck the flower. I wanted to feel the petals, but I didn’t dare to touch it. And then Pepy slipped. Maybe she was clumsy, or her shoe got caught on something; I don’t know. She screamed once, one high, shrill sound, as she lost her balance, and then she began rolling down. She rolled over and over and over and over, all the way to the bottom. She rolled pretty slowly, so Lora and I stayed right next to her, walking, all the way down. At the bottom of the hill, Pepy stood up. Her dress and stockings were torn and covered with pieces of grass, twigs and dirt. Her braids had come undone, and her hair was also full of grass and dirt. But she didn’t seem to be injured in any way.

I tied her shoe that was loose, and the three of us walked back home, Lora and Pepy holding hands. I was tired, sweaty and very thirsty, but we didn’t stop to take a drink from the well near our house. We walked straight to Pepy’s house, just past the church. And there, at her house, Pepy got hysterical. She started screaming and shouting things like, “The devil is after me; he is pulling my hair and pushing me!”

It was her grandmother who was home. (The grandparents lived in a small house behind the house where Pepy lived, just like our family.) Pepy wouldn’t let her grandmother hold her; she kept screaming, and began to shake. In between screams, she tried to tell her grandmother what had happened, but she didn’t make any sense. Lora and I stayed there. Soon Pepy’s mother came running to the house, and then my mother also came running. I don’t know how they knew to come to the house. Maybe it was just time to be coming home.

Ma grabbed Lora and me and looked at us carefully. “Gotinu, what happened?” she asked. “What is going on?”

So I had to tell, “It was Lora’s idea. We climbed to the top of the Carto Waggora and Pepy fell or something. Ma, it was so beautiful at the top!”

“Oy,” Ma breathed hard and pulled Lora and me close to her. The three women looked at one another for a long time. Then Pepy’s grandmother said something very quietly.

“Stay here,” Ma told us, and she pushed us toward Mrs. Bohnen. “I’m going to get Grandma.” Mrs. Bohnen took her shawl and wrapped it around Pepy. Pepy’s grandmother went to a cupboard, pulled out something wrapped in a white cloth, unwrapped it and put it into a pot on the stove. Mrs. Bohnen pulled the curtains closed, and the room became dark. When Ma and Grandma returned, they sent Lora and me out of the room. We hid near the door, where we could look in and see what was going on.

The four women gathered around Pepy, who was sitting at the table, wrapped in her mother’s shawl, moaning, whimpering and shaking. Pepy’s grandmother brought the pot from the stove, holding it tightly with a cloth. Murmuring something, she swirled it around a couple of times in front of her and then quickly tipped it over, onto the table. Melted yellow wax poured out and spread over the table, and the women, led by Pepy’s grandmother, began to chant a prayer.

As the wax moved and flowed, it told the story of what had happened – I saw it! I could see the mountain rising up above the flat land and I could see something small, a bubble of wax, perhaps, come off the top and roll down the side. A little girl, rolling down. The women continued to chant, saying some sort of hocus pocus, in Jewish, I guess. I couldn’t hear everything that they said. For awhile they chanted softly, and then they began to chant and pray louder.

Pepy’s mother, Ma and my grandma were close to Pepy, touching her, patting or stroking her arms and her hair, to calm her. Her grandmother intently watched the wax. Her arms were raised; her hands, outstretched, moved above the flowing wax. Then she turned her old, wrinkly face up, and raised her arms higher as she prayed louder. Swaying, the mothers and grandmothers sang and chanted prayers, to take the hex off Pepy. And when they stopped praying, Pepy was fine.The women looked at Pepy like you look at a baby, with gentle smiles. I saw Ma wipe the corners of her eyes. Nobody spoke. Ma and Grandma came out of the room, and they hugged Lora and me, and then we went home.

In a couple of days, Pepy was back at our house again, playing with Lora, as though nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened. I never asked my mother about the ceremony, and Lora never did either. Like Charna’s secret, this was something that you didn’t ask about.

My mother and Mrs. Bohnen were modern women. My mother didn’t cut off all her hair and wear a wig. She had a short, stylish hair cut. My mother and Charna Bohnen were smart, educated women and they were businesswomen. But this was the old custom, and it was what they turned to. The grandmother could see the whole story in the wax, without anybody telling her anything. Then the women knew what prayers to say, to ward off the devil and to calm the little girl.

In their chanting, the women said that the three girls had done wrong and were very sorry. Then they said some kind of blessing and prayer for the children’s safety – and to keep the devil away from the town. This was what they all needed; it was reassurance for everybody. As for the child -- Pepy believed that they knew what they were doing, and so she was healed.

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