ONLINE NEWSLETTER
(No. 9/2006 – October 2006)
Editor: Fran Bock

Abraham Zalman Cohen, born 1903, left Bogushevichi, Belarus, in 1923 to immigrate to the United States. He was a resident of Ossining, NY until his death in 1987. The sub-title refers to the author's retirement after forty-five years working on the butcher's block.

The Autobiography was originally audio-taped by Mr. Cohenupon his retirement, circa 1970, and later transcribed to a typewritten, pre-Word script. This year the Autobiography has been copied to Word format, edited and also translated to Hebrew by his son, Zvi Peretz Cohen .

In May 2006, we posted Abraham Zalman Cohen’s description of Bogushevici, his home town. We are pleased to present here his recollections of pre-Russian Revolution life in a Belarus shtetl. In subsequent articles, we’ll present his memories of the impact of the revolution, and emigration to the New World. We hope these articles will help the descendants who read them better understand and appreciate the experiences of their ancestors.

We thank Zvi Peretz Cohen for sharing his father’s autobiography.

 

This article is copyrighted by Zvi Peretz Cohen.

Reprinting or copying of this article is not allowed
without prior permission from the copyrightholders
.

 

Bogushevici Memories: Excerpts from “Forty-Five Years on the Block”,

The Autobiography of Abraham Zalman Cohen

by Abraham Zalman Cohen

Chapter 1 – "Essen Teg"

 

From olden times, Jewish parents tried to give their children as much education as possible. In most cases Jewish education also could have been achieved through charity "Tzdoko", it was the biggest thing in Jewish life. Every Jew was compelled to give charity according to his means. Those who were not able to study law themselves because they had to go make a living at an early age, lost out on a great opportunity. Because of this they could not study too much of the law. They tried to help as much as possible the students that were able to study at "Yeshivas". Each community had a "cheder" or "chadorim", one school for young pupils and one for teenagers. Youngsters used to travel from the villages and the farm section to towns and cities where there were "Yeshivas". Some of them were able to find lodgings to sleep in. Many slept in the synagogues on the floors and on the benches. As for food, this is what is called "Essen Teg". The poorest Jew was glad to provide a day's food for a scholar, for a student of "yeshivas". Some were able and lucky to get food in a rich house and others were not so lucky and they will get a day's food in a poor man's house. The family hardly had enough to feed themselves. I was one of the lucky ones. I had a room to stay in but had to "eat days" sometimes in well-to-do houses and sometimes in poor houses.

 

I remember one in which the owner had a bakery. They were baking white bread and black bread and "chalah". Both were busy and in the bakery day and night. They had somebody in the house attending to the students to give them the meal. Twice a day I used to come around for the meal that used to be put down on the table. A "bulkah", that is a white bread and tea and sugar. That was the meal. The "bulkah" is a white bread. The difference between the "bulkah" and the "chalah" is like day and night. "Bulkah" is plain white bread. "Chalah" has a taste of holiday and Sabbath. To a boy that is hungry it is a pleasure to eat the "bulkah" and sweet tea. I had one day, a Sabbath, on which I used to eat in a doctor's house. In the doctor's house there was plenty of food, very nice surroundings and atmosphere of holiday, intelligent people. They made me feel like I was home.

 

There was another house. I never saw the people. The man and wife were both in business. The maid served the meals and she put out a meal like nobody's business. She was putting out the best of everything. Another house was the house of an old scribe or "soyfer". A "soyfer" is the one who writes the "Torah", "tfillin" and "mezuzas". They were usually poor men. This one was a poor man. He lived with his son-in-law who was a shoemaker. Both did not make a living. But that had nothing to do with offering a student a day's food. They felt obligated to do it. I used to come around on Fridays, and honestly, it was a crime to come around and eat a piece of bread because they did not have much themselves. I remember one Friday they put on the table some kind of soup. I was a small eater and they put a full plate of some unappetizing soup in front of me. I just looked at it and got sick. I told myself how am I going to muddle through a plate of soup like this. I could not put the spoon to my mouth. I was thinking to myself how to get out of eating that soup. So I started to complain of a toothache. I thought to myself I would rather go hungry than eat that soup. I told them I had a headache and that I should go lay down. About my having a room where to sleep- my father used to kid me. He was left a total orphan when he was about seven or eight years old and he went to live with his grandparents, and as soon as he got to be a little older his grandparents sent him away to a "yeshivah". With no place to stay, he slept in the "schul" on the floor, putting half of the coat on the floor to lay on, one sleeve for a pillow under the head and cover up with the other half. This is an act to muster. So me, having a room to stay in with a bed, I was rich.

 

I would never forget an experience I had in one town called Lapitch. I was about fourteen or fifteen, studying in that "yeshivah", during the First World War. My father was of military age, but through some assistance and recommendation he was able to get a deferment job, to work in a lumber yard. WhiteRussia was full of woods and forests and they used wood for all kinds of power in factories, and also trains ran on wood burning locomotives. Lumber used to be floated down rivers Berezina and Dnieper to the Ukraine, so that wood was an essential commodity and the government gave deferments to people of military age to cut wood, but people had to have "protection". Father was accepted through some friends he knew. My father was accepted and the camp turned out to be near the same town, Lapitch, where I was studying in "yeshivah". One day I was having my midday meal in a home, and as it turned out the owner was the contractor of the lumber yard where my father worked. My father had to come see this man and here my father walks in the house and I am seated at the table having my meal. I don't know which one of us felt worse. I know I almost choked on my food. I had the most terrible feeling that my own father had to meet me at a strange table although actually "essen teg" was not considered charity. To my mind it was one of the nicest traits in Jewish life that they felt obligation to provide food for a student to enable them to study the "Torah", and for a Jewish boy to know that they will not go hungry, that minimum livelihood will be provided for them, so they could give their full attention to their studies.

 

Our day began early in the morning with the morning prayers and several hours study, then we went for a meal and studied the rest of the day. After the evening services, we went for the evening meal and then learned again till nine or ten PM. I remember that I used to like to get up early, about five in the morning, and go over to the "yeshiva" and sit down and study. Your head is so clear and receptive at that hour that the hardest part of the "Talmud", complicated sections and questions, all fall in line in the morning hours. Your mind is very alert at that hour.

 

The first year I went to a "yeshivah" I was about twelve and one half years old, in a town not far from our home town. I stayed in a house with an old couple who were distant relatives of my grandmother. Since it was my first experience away from home and it was not far from our town, my father did not want me to start "eating days", so he arranged with the old couple that I should eat in their house and for that my father would bring them flour and meat and potatoes once a while. So my first year in the "yeshivah" I was a privileged character. I did not have to "eat days".

 

The old man where I stayed was a potter and several of the neighbors on that street were potters and it was very fascinating to watch them work. Many an evening or any minute I could spare during meal time I used to spend watching them making all kinds of jars and dishes and all kinds of pots from a blob of clay. I watched the preparation of the clay and kneading it with their feet and molding it into beautiful and useful dishes and pots.

 

Saturday was the official day off from school, except for the morning and afternoon prayers, so after the noon meal, I used to go visiting another relative of my grandmother, Liebethe "Schochet". "Schochet" means slaughterer. This is one who slaughters animals and fowl according to ritual. He was a tall man who was very pious. He liked to sniff tobacco. By him, to slaughter a calf or a chicken was a rite. He would start honing the "chalef", the special knife, which is supposed to be so sharp with no obstruction of any kind. He would wash his hands clean, put on his long coat, tied around his middle with a belt and thus he was ready to perform the holy rite of taking a life according to ritual. He had a houseful of children since a widowed daughter lived with him and those were her children. Some were my age, so I used to visit them on Saturday after the meal, but by Liebe the "Schochet" it was still in the middle of the meal, since it is a "mitzvah" to enjoy the meal and to prolong it and to sing "zmiros", that is the special poems for the holy Sabbath. So it was something to see the whole family around the table, Liebe at the head with a "yarmulke", his shirt open to be free to sing. Every couple of minutes he would fill his nose with snuff and all the children would follow him in song. The "tscholent", that is the main course, consisting of fat meat, potatoes and beans which were stewing all night in the oven, is put on the table nice and steaming, smelling of all kinds of spices, with pepper and garlic, and that aroma is mixed with the smell of snuff tobacco - with the sun shining on the steaming bowl, it gave me the feeling of a rite, something like the "kohanim" were performing in the Temple. It left a very profound impression on me.

 

There was another house I used to visit, also of some distant relative. They had two sons, one was a year older than I was, and the father was a musician. He played the violin and he was teaching his son how to play the fiddle. I thanked my lucky stars that I didn't have him for a father. He was usually sitting opposite the boy keeping time with his foot and as soon as he detected a wrong note SMACK he would give the boy a hit over the head. I felt very sorry for the boy and was glad that I didn't have him for a father.

 

Watching these days what people put themselves out to do for their children for a "bar mitzvah" it brings to my mind my own "bar mitzvah". As I mentioned before I was sent to "yeshivah" when I was twelve and a half years old. My father came later and paid the "soyfer" three dollars to make me a set of "tfillin", those are the phylacteries with which a Jew prays the morning prayers. When my thirteenth birthday arrived I simply put on the "tfillin", which every Jewish boy is supposed to know how, from observing the elders, and also from instruction. I was called up to the "Torah" as a full fledged Jew. This was the extent of my "bar mitzvah" what with the war going on.

 

The front at that time (Ed. Note: World War One) was at a town about two hundred and fifty miles away from us, which is called Baranovitch. But after a while the Russian front started to crumble, so many people started to run, and a steady stream of people filled the roads leading deeper in Russia. This was a sight I will never forget. The main road was not far from our town and it was filled with wagons and foot walkers. Every family and every individual with as much possessions as they could muster to carry on a wagon or pushcart or on their shoulders. Some had cows and some had pigs and chickens. The noises on the road of the animals and babies and the shouting and cursing of the elders blended together and it all spelled misery. All along the road started to appear little wooden crosses where people died. They were buried along the side of the road and the family or friends traveled further. The news of the war to us and the sight of the refugees brought fright to our eyes and to our part of the country. Many started to get ready to leave if it will be necessary. All studies stopped. Life became so abnormal people could not plan for tomorrow.

 

Soon the Revolution broke out, the German army occupied our part of the country, then the Polish army took over, and then came the Bolsheviks. Then came the BalfourDeclaration and with it the hope arose for the Jewish people to finally get a corner in the world where they shall have their own home, especially when it will be "Eretz Yisrael". In our town came a representative of the Zionists selling "Nachalos", that is settlements in Israel. Many Jews were buying, so my father bought a "nachalah". After the Russian army came in, contact was lost with the outside world and with Palestine, so I don't know whatever happened to the transaction. The records were lost, for all I know I own a piece of land in some part of Israel. Folks started a movement to go to "Eretz Yisrael". Some started to make preparations and some did go, too. From our town, including myself, five boys started to get documents ready to go to Israel. This was under the German occupation. Travel was free anywhere. The border was at that time the River Berezina and this was near to us. So we sent in our affidavits and requests for passports on a Thursday, hoping to get them by Monday. But over the weekend the Bolsheviks made an offensive and crossed the Berezina and the Germans retreated. The Communists occupied the country and every border was closed. There was no travel anywhere, and so it happened that my trip to Israel was stopped. Otherwise, I would have been in Israel all these years, almost as long as BenGurion.

When the front from Baranovitchstarted to crumble and the flow of refugees started to stream nort,h everyone started to think about the possibility of also having to run. In Bobruisk, a city about 70 vyorst south of us, some of the refugees who had the price discarded their horses and wagons and went by train. So the news reached us that in Bobruisk one can pick up a horse and wagon for very little money. Many people, who never owned or had anything to do with horses, went to Bobruisk to buy horses and wagons.

 

My father too went to Bobruiskand came home with a good wagon and a large grey mare. But then came the trouble. Being a man who never handled horses, he did not know how to harness the horse or to feed it. We knew we had to give her hay and oats, but to put her in harness was something else. Father had to pay, during the first weeks, many packages of "machorkah", that is the cheap strong root tobacco, to fellows to help him harness the mare. But after a while, he learned the art and so did I, and we were able to use the horse even though we did not have much use for a horse. We kept her in case of emergency. However, soon after, and due to the fact that we did not know much about horses, a smart horse trader talked father into trading the mare. He gave father a horse and five rubles and father gave him the mare. Needless to say, the horse that father received was worthless.

 

As it turned out, our town did not have to move. The Revolution came for a time. The Polish army occupied our country. They were miserable. Shooting and looting and robbing, especially Jews. Every Jew was considered a Communist. Then the German army came and this is for the record: the German army’s behavior was civilized. They did not mistreat people. As an occupying army, they could and did requisition houses, sometimes allowing the owner to live in part of it. Sometimes the owner had to move. In our house, which was quite large, five soldiers were stationed which took up half of the house and as it turned out they were very polite. I remember one explaining to father that in Germany everybody is equal. There is no difference between Jew and non-Jew. They were so respectful that knowing that the house and the dishes were "kosher", they did not want to cook in the oven and any cooking they did, they did outside. It is hard to conceive that a people, not the same individuals, but of the same culture, would turn out to be the monstrous Nazi killers.

 

Before the Revolution, my father having enough time on his hands was trying to get in all kinds of businesses. He once got a contract to produce khaki uniforms for the army, that is a sub-contract. He got everything cut up, prepared and then it had to be sewn together. So tailors in our town and seamstresses and plain housewives were sewing uniforms. Another time he got a contract to make boots and the half dozen shoemakers in town who were Jewish were making army boots. That is where you could see the difference. Arye, the shoemaker, who was very good and an honest master shoemaker, turned out perfect boots. On the other hand, Avremelproduced boots of the same material and the same specifications which did not look or amount to anything.

 

Another time my father got a contract to buy cows for the army. This was also a sub-contract. He was to get so much profit per head. So my father let it be known that he was buying cattle and most of the Jews in Bushevitz (another name for Bogushevici)went out in the country to the farms buying cows and bulls. The method was "neemonuss", which means trust. Every buyer received three rubles above what he paid and I can vouch that no one cheated on his "neemonuss".

 

Then father got a contract to bake bread. That every housewife could do. Father provided the flour and then they had to turn in so much bread. There is intricate figuring in the process. If bread is baked well, it weighs less than bread which is not baked well. So some bakers took advantage of the army and the bread came out quite messy. Most of the town's people became bakers. The water mill which we had in town was working overtime to provide flour for father. When the bread was ready, it was delivered to our house. Then it was transported by wagons to the army base which was in the town of Berezin, 20 vyorst from us.

As I mentioned before, my father traded his original horse for another which came from a neighboring village. One day, when a transport of bread, of about ten wagons, was going to deliver the bread to Berezin, my father decided to send his own horse and wagon, too, and for me and my sister, Tzipa, to go with it for the ride. A couple of the peasants who were hired with their horses for the trip, promised to watch over us. Both my sister and I were happy to go for the ride. The ride going was uneventful. It was a mild late summer day and we enjoyed the trip. The bread was delivered and weighed-in. The horses were fed and everyone had something to eat. We started home towards evening.

 

The others put our wagon in the middle so we would not get lost. Soon it got dark. Tzipaand myself must have dozed off and our horse evidently passed a familiar turn which lead to his original village and to his owner's house. All of a sudden, we woke up and we were standing near a house and there was no sign of the transport. I got off the wagon and knocked at the farmer's door. I tried to explain what happened to us, but the farmer started cursing and yelling, "Get away from my house whoever you are." I got very scared. I was all of about 11 years old. I got back on the wagon and drove to the outskirts and not knowing which way to go, we parked there until daylight. When we started to see people going to work, we asked for directions to get back to Bushevitz. The people, seeing two lost children, gave us instructions and in about an hour we were home. At home there was great rejoicing. Already a posse was being formed to start a hunt for two lost children.

 

The Revolution came and preparations were being made for national elections. This was during the Kerenskyregime. Speakers from various parties started to come around to enlighten the people and to make propaganda for their parties. The biggest hall in Bushevitzwas the second grade school building. Whenever a speaker came to town everyone assembled and he would start to praise his party's program and what it would do for the people. The he would ask, "Soglasno?" in a loud voice. Then as it was usually happened, a speaker from an opposing party would get up to answer him and after knocking the other program to smithereens, he would ask, "Soglasno?" and the crowd would yell, "SOGLASNO". That shows how enlightened the people were. When the terms "Bolshevik" and "Menshevik" were introduced in the small towns and villages, it was like a foreign language. Nobody knew anything about it. Then the bandits started to roam around the countryside. Some were demobilized soldiers; some were deserters. They were hiding in the woods or at friendly isolated farms. They robbed people on the roads and came into the towns, villages and farms at night. As always, the Jews were most of the victims. Since most of the Jews were merchants and always had some money around and because of the inborn hatred for the Jew, Jews were usually victimized.

 

One Saturday night, a band of bandits came to our town very late in the evening. They got a couple of hostages and were looking for my father since he was known around the country as "resnik", which means cutter, since he was the "schochet".

But as luck would have it my father was not home that Saturday night. I was coming home from a friend's house. They grabbed me not knowing who I was. They already had Paisie, the butcher, and a woman storekeeper. They were looking for Leibfried, a son of the richest man in town, and for my father. They asked for ransom money. The woman and Paisie, the butcher went with the guards to their houses and to those friends and collected what they could: money, fancy silver, dishes, and clothing. The bandits let them go. But as for me, there was no one to get ransom. When they were ready to leave, they tied my hands with wire. They put somebody's over coat over my shoulders. The head man was riding on a horse and they had a couple of wagons filled with loot. I made up my mind that if they took me with them, I would start running so that they would have to shoot me. I just did not feel like being strung up on a tree, which was their method.

 

As soon as we crossed the bridge by the mill and started to leave town, the head man called to one of my two guards and when he came back he told me to take my coat off and my boots. I said to him, "Untie my hands." He did. I threw off my coat and jacket. The guards sat me down and pulled off my boots and pants and then the commander yelled, "RUN." So I started running to town zigzag. I figured if he started shooting maybe he would miss me in the dark, but he did not shoot. They left.

 

I ran towards town and the first house in which I saw light was the Rabbi's. It happened that the bandits tried to get into the Rabbi's house and his son got scared and tried to climb out through the back window and was shot in the arm. When I walked in, he was walking around with a wet towel bandaged around his arm, his mother was crying and water and blood were dripping from his arm. I walked in without pants or shoes or shirt. I must have looked funny. The "Rebbitzin" ran and got me the Rabbi's pants which were twice my size, since the Rabbi was a six-footer. She also hunted out a jacket. After helping bandage the son's arm, which was not a dangerous wound, I ran home to see what had happened at our house.

 

As it turned out the children were out at an old neighbor's house and only the old housekeeper was left in the house, as she was sick in bed. When the bandits came looking for my father, she told them that she had typhoid fever, which was common in those days. They ran from the house and they did not know that I had been taken as a hostage.

When I had walked in, in my outlandish dress, as scared and frightened as they were, all burst out laughing and we all thanked G-D that father was not home. Who knows what would have happened if they had gotten ahold of father.


To be Continued: Chapter 2 – The revolution

 

Copyright 2006 Belarus SIG and Zvi Peretz Cohen

Back to the index of the Belarus SIG Newsletters

Back to the Belarus SIG website