(No. 1/2007- March 2007)
Editor: Fran Bock

Part of our mission is to shed light on the lives our ancestors lived. To this end, we are pleased to post additional excerpts from the autobiography of Abraham Zalman Cohen, translated by his son, Zvi Peretz Cohen. Previously-posted excerpts dealt with pre-revolutionary life in a Belarus shtetl (Chapter One - posted October 2006), and the upheaval of the Russian Revolution (Chapter Two - posted November 2006) .

In the current segment, Cohen describes the ingenuity (we would call it entrepreneurship) required to survive in early post-revolutionary days, his decision to leave the country to avoid military conscription and his adventurous escape, and the sad fate of his family who remained.



This article is copyrighted by Zvi Peretz Cohen.

Reprinting or copying of this article is not allowed
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Bogushevici Memories: Excerpts from “Forty-Five Years on the Block”

The Autobiography of Abraham Zalman Cohen

by Abraham Zalman Cohen

(Translated by his son, Zvi Peretz Cohen)


Chapter 3 – The Revolution Part II


I could not see going into the army to serve the Communists. There were four friends that refused to change their ages on their documents as I did. One was Reuvenwho crossed the border with me later to go to America. Another was ChayimHirsh, who was scheduled later to become a general in the Red Army. The other two - I do not know what became of them. In order to exist, one had to resort to all kinds of deals. Some perhaps were not very ethical in normal times and standards, but these were uncertain times. You dealt with a government that existed on legalized robbery and confiscation. They confiscated homes, businesses, synagogues, anything that they laid their eyes on, giving no thought or consideration to people's condition or circumstances. The work and savings of a lifetime was gone. To teach a child Hebrew was against the law. To circumcise a child was prohibited and punished by jail terms or exile to Siberia.

My father was a "mohel". That is, he was an expert in performing circumcisions. My sister married after I left for America. She married a big commissar, AharonLevine, a party man. He held a big executive job in "Less-Bel", that is the lumber industry. He was getting a very good salary. They lived very well with a housemaid, mind you, in Communist Russia. Later, when they had a little boy and from photographs they sent me, they and the child were dressed as well as we were in America. Now when this little boy was born, my father offered to perform the circumcision, but my brother-in-law would not allow him to do it. When he went away some place in line with his job, my father circumcised the boy. When he came home, he was very angry. He wanted to report my father to the authorities. Only my sister's crying and begging finally made him change his mind. Only he forbade my father to come into his house when he was home.

My father came home one day from Borisovand told me that he met two men who had a small tannery. For 100 American dollars they would teach me the process. It sounded good since calf skins and cow hides were plentiful in our part of the country. Finished leather brought a high price. It sounded like a good deal. I took US$ 100 and went to Borisov and made the deal with the men. They will show me a complete run of a batch of skins form the beginning to the end. I am to write out the complete process, such as timing and chemicals used and formulae. The whole process took eight days, in contrast to the method used by a couple of Turks who lived in our town. They used to tan skins with bark of trees which took them about thirteen or fourteen weeks. I stayed with those men for eight days and learned all the mechanics of the process. I paid them US $ 100 and bought some chemicals to take with me and I came home a tanner.

We hired a house at the end of town, not far from the lake, because for the process we needed lots of water. It was funny, the man who rented the house to us and his brother-in-law had gone to America for a few years. They made a little money and came back to their families and their farm land. Every once and a while they would throw in a few English words to show their knowledge but they were hard workers. We got plenty of skins and it started out to be very promising. It was actually half legal because we accepted skins from farmers to tan it for them. It was easy to mark most of the skins with some fictitious names and claim that we were merely workers instead of "speculants". The product came out quite nice, if I may say so. I turned out to be an expert. The leather came out beautifully colored and pliable and soft. This was a very promising business.

My father was always getting new ideas and projects. We always got together with people and picked up all kinds of news and ideas. One day he came home with a new project about an oil pressing undertaking. It seemed that he knew where to get an oil pressing establishment. In our neighboring communities linseed was plentiful. It sounded like another good idea. The farmers grew linseed for the linen to make clothing. A water mill we had in town, since the seed first has to be crushed into flour. We hired a house next to the mill and father got the press and we installed everything. I remember we had to get sturdy oak poles, 18 in. x18 in., to hold up the press which by the way was powered by manpower.

A half a dozen men were needed to lean on the bar to press the seeds. I don't know how this would be counted in horsepower, but this is the way we did it. We waited until four or five farmers brought in their seed. Then we started to work. First, the seed has to go to the mill to be crushed to a pulp. You could not call it flour because the oil in it kept it moist. Then it had to go in a container over a fire to be toasted, constantly being mixed and turned around not to burn. Then it was put in a linen kerchief and put in to the press between metal perforated plates for the oil to run through. Six people leaned on the bar. I shall always remember the beautiful aroma of the first oil starting to ooze out. I was always partial to oil, perhaps because I am a "Cohen". Nothing tasted better than to dunk black homemade bread in the hot oil salted with coarse salt, each one to his own taste. This project, too, started very promisingly. This was almost legal. We were merely performing a service to the farmers. Naturally, we had oil for ourselves and there was a very good profit in it.

The reason we waited for four or five farmers to start work was plain. We had to have manpower, so each one helped the other. I divided my time between my tannery and the oil press. In the tannery I had the two men working so I was able to get away after giving them the instructions what to do while I left to go to the oil press. It was to the press that my sister, Tzipa, came running one afternoon saying that some Commissar is looking for me. I knew at once what it was. I half expected it.

Since about a week before, this on a dark Saturday night, one of the four fellows, my friends to whom I suggested to fix their documents, came into our house and called me out. The other three were waiting and they broke the news to me. They are called into the army. They will have to leave their homes and go to serve and perhaps go to war. Since I am not being called because I fixed my documents (changed my age to younger), I should pay them some money so they could leave it to their families. These were all boys with whom I grew up. I told them, "Fellows, I offered to do the same for you. There is nothing so important or deserving that any one of us should go to serve in the Communist army. But you refused and now you want me to pay you money? For what?" Well they started saying that they did not want to cheat the government. Now they will leave their homes and don't know if they will ever return. Here I am working and making money so I better pay them or they well report me. I told them, "Go and do whatever you want. I have a legal document. I shall not pay any blackmail." Now it was a dark night and they were four against one. They could have harmed me, but we were friends. I did not think that they will try to harm me, but they said I will be sorry. I expected that I shall hear about this.

Now when my sister came with the news, I went over to a friend's house and did not go home. The inspector was from the "Volosts" regarding my army standing. Although I had a document, if any investigation would take place, the Commissar, our friend and I would get in trouble. The best thing for me to do was to run away from home for a while. I left home for a few weeks. Our friend, the Commissar, fixed things up in the "Volosts". My three friends went into the army. One turned out to be one year younger than he was supposed to be for the army. He stayed home. After a few weeks I returned home. After a few months, toward spring, I got notice to report to the "Volosts" for army training something like the home guard. This I could not avoid. My friend, Hilie, and I started to go a couple times a week. There were so many boys from our town. We went and got some instruction how to march, sing, and carry out orders. They did not give us guns yet.

Then one day we got a letter from my Uncle Jacob Bobrovin America. He had affidavits for me and my sister, Tzipa, to come to America. This was a gift from heaven. Here I had an out to get away from the accursed Communist Russia and not have to go into the army for two years. My sister, Tzipa, refused to go. She would not leave the rest of the children alone without a mother, but all of us agreed that I must go. This had to be kept a secret, since I was of military age and already in training. I could not think of getting a passport. I had to steal across the border and this had to be done very fast. In the tannery I had to get out thirty-five calf skins. In order to get them out I had to work my last night home. I worked all night. My father made arrangements with a friend of ours to take over the tannery. I started out on my first leg to America.

It so happened that the parents and two sisters of my friend, Reuven, were getting ready to travel to America. They had a son and a daughter who sent them affidavits to come to America. The parents and sisters could get passports and travel legally, but Reuven was also of military age and could not get a passport. I spoke to him and asked him if he would want to travel with me. We would try and cross the border together. After consulting with his parents, he agreed. He did not care to remain the only one of his family in Russia. We left home together.

Now, we had no plan where to go whom to contact. But I, being in the smuggling and black market, knew that we can always get contact with people who are in the know. The general direction we knew we had to travel across to Latvia towards the Polish border. We got to a town by the name of Dagoa, about 60 vyorst from the border. We stopped in a boarding house and started to get information. Sure enough a man showed up and started to ask us questions. "How we are traveling? How many bags we have with us? What clothing we have?" Now this is where my experience paid off. When we left home, I insisted that I do not want to travel with any baggage, since I heard enough what happens to people with baggage. Most of the time they are robbed and some instances murdered while crossing. I did not take anything with me and insisted that Reuvennot take anything with him. When this man started to ask about clothing and baggage, he did not believe his ears. "How do you travel without any extra clothing?" But I assured him that we travel just the way we are and that on the other side our friends will supply us with whatever we need. When we left home I made up with Reuven to let me make the deal with the agent because I knew that these types will soak from a candidate as mush as they can. I just took with $20 American money and a ten ruble gold piece Tzarist. Although Reuven had with him $100 American money, I insisted that I should deal for both of us. When I started to talk to the man, he wanted $50 from each of us for crossing the border. I told him that he was crazy. We did not have that kind of money. All we had was $ 40 for both of us. First he was jumping to the ceiling, but seeing that it did not help he quieted down,

I explained to him that this is all the money we had. My ten ruble gold piece was sewn on as a button on my sheep skin coat. I explained to the man that he was not dealing with old people or women with children, and we will not be any burden to him for either walking or running. He agreed. He gave us the plan. We will start out from this town, and where we will stop in a village to stay over night, who will pick us up from there to a farm just on the border where a man will walk us across at night. The border was a creek. On my insistence he agreed to take twenty dollars on our first stop and the rest when we crossed over. I must say he turned out to be a very honest man. The actual proceeding went as to his original plan without a hitch. The man to take us across the border turned out to be a Latvian farmer about 50 years old with a long black beard. The snow was very high with large drifts around the creek. In some places it reached up to our armpits. This poor man was sinking in the snow and Reuvenand I had to dig him out time and again but soon we were over the border and in a house with a big fire burning in the oven, with a nice warm meal. It was heaven. We were in Latvia and out of Russia at last. After the meal they bedded us on the warm oven and we fell asleep immediately, happy that it was over. In the morning they took us with a horse and sleigh to a town where we met a Jewish family and we had a good meal with sugar for our tea instead of saccharin. We really felt free. I changed my 10 ruble and we paid the good people for their room and meal. They provided us with a horse and sleigh to get to Riga. It was something to fee free, to sit down to a meal with butter and real sugar. At home I handled sugar, but that was as a commodity. For ourselves we used saccharin. Here we could use as much sugar as we wanted.

We came to Riga. Riga was a beautiful city, modern and clean. Before the Revolution, Latvia and Lithuania and part of Poland belonged to Russia. After the Revolution, they became independent states and governments. Riga was the European part of Russia. There is a beautiful park in the center of the city, with a nice lake. Not having anything to do we spent many hours in that park, either walking or hiring a boat. At the first house where I was brought to stay, there was a mother and a daughter, a very nice girl of about 18 or 19. It took only a couple of days for the mother to try to talk me into remaining in Riga. She liked me and her daughter liked me, but I was determined to get to America. It seems mothers are that way all over the world.

I remember on the way to Borisov, when we used to travel by night, we stopped at one inn about halfway from home which was managed by a woman. She was a widow and had a very good looking girl by the name of Bluma. One day my father told me that this widow made my father a proposition to have a double wedding for him and for me. I told my father, "Sorry." He was a free man and can do whatever he wants but I could not see myself growing roots in Russia. I guess my father himself was not very interested in that proposition since he never followed it up. In our town, Bushevitz, there were also girls with whom we grew up and were friends. There was Shulamis, Goote, Busche, Chana Dnoremand some of their brothers Hillia, Shepsel, Itche, Yudel Surach. Who knows what became of them, also the two older men, Koppeland ChayimElia, with whom we shared so many experiences. How may times we got lost at night in snow drifts and how many times did we face danger of being arrested. Not knowing if this is the time that we will not be able to buy ourselves out. How many times did I have my feet frozen and we had to rub them with snow to get the circulation back into them. Memories, memories.

When I left home there were left in the house Tzipa, my sister two years younger than me. Then there were Shaye Itzchok, Yirme, Benyamin, Moisheand another sister, Chaya Beyle. My father remarried after I left and had another little boy and girl, Chayimand Leah. I never heard anything of them after Hitler. It seems that no one was left. Although, it is hard to believe that there is no one left since my brothers were all of military age and must have been in the army. It is inconceivable that all of them were killed on various fronts, but I never heard from them after the war.

Reading my Yiddish newspaper one evening, after the war when organizations started to get information on refugees and survivors after the HitlerHolocaust, I came upon the name of an old aunt of mine, Geshe, who was trying to get information about my uncle Jacob Bobrov, her brother. I immediately called my uncle and I wrote to her. We sent her some money. I asked her about my brothers and sisters. She answered me that those who did not move away to Siberiabefore the advent of Hitler's army were all killed. Russia did one great thing when they sent away many Jews to Siberia thereby saving their lives. By a miracle she and two of her daughters survived. The men were all killed. I corresponded with her for a couple of years and sent her some money. I did not hear from her any more and presumably she died. From her daughters I never heard anything.

My brother Shaye Itzchokwent into a military school after I left for America. He became an officer and made a career of the army. That is what my father wrote me. I used to send money regularly to my father. One time I did a foolish thing. I sent $25 to my brother. This must have stirred up a hornets' nest. Imagine a future Communist officer receiving money from the accursed capitalist America. He wrote me a long letter with a big argument and that I should never do this again. I did not. I did not write to him any more. I did not want to embarrass him. My father while he was alive used to give me information about him. It seems that after he graduated he got a big, responsible post somewhere in Siberia. He married a daughter of a Tzarist general. After that I heard nothing more.

My sister Tzipa, as I mentioned before was married after I left. My father wrote me about it. Her husband, Aharon, was an ardent Communist. He held a big post in the lumber industry as I already mentioned. For the wedding he came to town one Saturday afternoon with a horse and sleigh with bells. They picked up Tzipa and rode away to register. This was all the wedding. They lived very well up to the time in the thirties, when Stalinhad his famous "tchistke", that is purge. Good party men were picked up suddenly and either shot or sent away to Siberiafor hard labor. Aharon was taken away one day and never heard from again. My sister, Tzipa, was left with her little boy, Lyiov, without any support. She, because of her husband's supposed guilt, could not even get a decent job. She was washing dishes in a restaurant anything to make a living for her and be able to support her little boy. She survived until the Hitlerarmy made and end to her and all the rest of my family.

My other sister, Chaya Beyle, was also married and had two children. They were also wiped out. My father being a religious man and a past businessman was considered a "Lishenetz", that is he had all his civil rights taken away. His children could not get any higher education. My two younger brothers, in order to get on with education, had to leave home and to change their names. One, Yirme, graduated "agronom", agriculture, and Benyaminwas studying something, I never knew what. What Moishedid, I did not know. Later on, my father had two more children with his other wife, but what became of them all, I will never know. My father was arrested several times on such gross charges, such as slaughtering a calf or teaching a youngster to read Hebrew. Then he was arrested with many more Jews and actually held for ransom. They had the record of people who had relatives in America and who could be induced to send dollars for their relative's release from prison.

They arrested hundreds of such Jews on trumped up charges and forced them to write their relatives in America for money for their release. They had to lay their hands on foreign currency. The "Dollar Inquisition" it was called then. I received an urgent letter from my father, who was in jail, to wire immediately $150 for his release. I did and they let him out. Then in 1937 he was arrested and sent away to Siberiato a lumber camp. Over there he could not survive very long what with the cold weather, the hard work and no proper food. He would not eat anything that was not "kosher". I sent home food packages from this country with salami and "kosher" canned foods. They were sending it to my father. He did not survive long. He died there. I don't even know where it was. It is curious how I got the date of his death which enables me to keep "yahrzeit". A package of food came to the camp after my father was already dead. Another prisoner, knowing the importance of the date of death to the family, sent back a message on a little piece of crumpled packing paper that this man died and the date he died. This man sure earned a big "mitzvah". At least he lived long enough to receive from me a "talis". He asked me to send him a "talis" because his "talis" was torn to shreds. Knowing that only old clothing could be sent to Russia at that time, I got for him a woolen "talis" and put some spots on it, crumpled it and soiled some parts of it, and together with some old clothing I sent it out. It took months and I got the package back. It seems that by then the law changed and only new clothes would be allowed to enter Russia at 100% tax. When I received the "talis" back, the spots which I deliberately made on the "talis" with condensed milk were holes. So I had a holey "talis". I bought another and sent it to father which he received. He was the richest Jew in Russia to own a new "talis".

The same was with Jewish calendars. They did not allow printing of Jewish calendars in Russia. The Rabbis over there had to figure out when to keep the "Rosh Chodesh", that is the new moon, and the holidays. My father asked me to send him some calendars. I used to send him about half a dozen each year. He wrote me that he used to copy them and distribute them to the neighboring communities. Once he found a mistake in one calendar and he wrote me that I should go to the institution which printed it and ask them to correct the mistake. He was right, they did make a mistake. I notified them. It goes to show how important is a "luach", a calendar, which here is given away free by so many institutions. I could have made arrangement to have some congregation bring him as a Rabbi. Many Rabbis were hired this way. It was a good deal for both parties. The Rabbi was able to enter this country and the congregation got an inexpensive Rabbi, since the newcomer did not expect a high salary, but this way he would only be able to enter himself, without the family. I could not yet bring him in since his son was not a citizen.

Before long, President Hoovereliminated this possibility. He put a ban on clergy entering this country outside the quota. It was an insurmountable problem to move a family with children of all ages. To leave the children with a stepmother was another problem. So that nothing could be done and so it dragged on even after I got my citizen papers. Then the war started. My father passed away and after that the whole world went crazy.

The only good thing, my being a citizen helped me to bring Raein as a bride from Canada. That was the joke. I, an immigrant, who had to wait for the quota to come to America, was able to bring in my wife, who was born in Canada, to the United States. In Rigawe stayed until the middle of May. Then we went to Hamburg, Germany, where we boarded a boat June 19th and arrived in Bostonon July 1st, 1923. On the boat there were few from the original group from Riga. We had a very good voyage. I was hardly sea sick. The time of the year was very nice. It was warm and we enjoyed watching the sea and the monster fish jumping from the water. The food was very good. We were able to help some people who were really sick.

Copyright 2007 Belarus SIG and Zvi Peretz Cohen

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