ONLINE NEWSLETTER
(No. 13/2006 – November 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. Cohen upon 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 October 2006, we posted Chapter One of the Autobiography, a recollection of pre-Russian Revolution life in a Belarus shtetl. In Chapter Two, Mr. Cohen recounts the upheaval of the Russian Revolution, the hardships of life under the Bolsheviks and what people had to do in order to survive.

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

(Translated by his son, Zvi Peretz Cohen)

Chapter Two: The Revolution, Part One

The Revolution came. Every underworld character put on a red armband and became a Communist. Every former businessman, religious leader or executive became an outcast. The slogan was "Robbi da Yesh", which means work and you will eat. Anybody, except a shoemaker, blacksmith, carpenter or farmer was not considered a worker. Such people as storekeepers, office workers or teachers were not classified as workers. Private business was taboo. Any body caught selling a pack of matches or a pack of "machorka", that is the black root tobacco, was considered a "speculant", that is a speculator. He was subject to arrest and jail and perhaps to be shot. Any citizen could stop any wagon or individual, search and arrest or be bought out for graft. Business stopped, also transportation. There was no merchandise around. So people turned for necessities to the Black Market. The price soared. People had no trust in money, neither the Kerenskymoney nor the Communist money, which were by then printed by thousand, ten, twenty and fifty thousand ruble denominations. (Ed. Note: Alexander Kerensky was a Russian revolutionary who helped topple the monarchy and served as provisional prime minister until Lenin took over after the October Revolution.)

I was only a young boy and already I served in three armies. The reason was because we owned a horse and wagon. This was an important commodity. Since all armies and soldiers and equipment had to move, so horses and wagons were commandeered by all armies whenever they moved. Since our part of the country kept changing hands from Russian to German to Polish and back to Russian Communist, every army grabbed horses and wagons for their trains. One was lucky when after a few days he was released. Some were taken away and returned years later.

Our town, Bushavitz, or Bogushevici(Bogushevitz) as it was called in Russian, was situated not far from the Berezina River at points 8-10-20 miles. The Berezina River had its fame because that is where Napoleon's army was beaten. I remember my grandmother telling stories how the French army retreating while crossing the Berezina, hungry and half frozen, drowned by the hundreds around there. When the Russian army retreating from the advancing Germans kept moving and crossing the Berezina at all points. Many detachments passed our town, Bushavitz. It so happened that the last rear guard company, which was supposed to cross the Berezina in the village of Yackshitz, where there was a very long and elaborate bridge across the Berezina, stopped to rest in our town. Our house which was quite substantial, with a large barn for a cow and horse was inviting to any army. A lieutenant with a few soldiers piled into the house. They had to be fed and bedded. Noticing that we had a horse, the lieutenant immediately ordered my father to get the horse and wagon ready to get in the train. Conditions the way they were, so uncertain, I could not let my father go and let a house full of children alone. My mother was already dead. I insisted that I shall go. The lieutenant consented on the plea of my father and he promised to let me go as soon as they crossed over to Shelibah, which was a few vyorst on the other side of the bridge.

This bridge was an engineering dream. Although it was all built of lumber it was a masterpiece. The last detachment was supposed to blow up the bridge after they crossed it. This they did when we started out from town. Since I was the only one local and knew the road, they put me in front. So we started out and as the last train passed the bridge, they dynamited it and blew it up. We came to the town of Shelibah, which was about five vyorst on the other side of the Berezina. We could see fire from the bridge for quite a while. We parked on the street and in some yards of houses. We had to feed the horses. The soldiers made bonfires to cook meals and to delouse their clothing. This was standard Russian army procedure. They get their shirts, coats off and some their pants off, too. They put them over the fire fleetingly so the lice get burned and drop off. Only one that lived under these conditions can appreciate what it means to put on undergarments and clothing which are temporarily deloused. The lieutenant who commandeered me from our house and promised my father to let me go as soon as we get to Shelibah, kept his promise. He came over to me and said that I was free to go home, but how am I to get home, the bridge across the Berezina is blown up and besides who knows who is on the roads in so uncertain times.

I decided to travel through side roads and alongside farms hidden in the woods and far from the main road. I stopped in a few places to inquire how to cross the Berezina to get home. In one place I was told that in some hidden cove there was a man who owned a small raft and that he probably would be able to ferry me across. After quite a bit of searching I came upon this man. This is true, no stranger could ever find him, so hidden was he from any observer. I started to beg him to take me across. Since I had no money he did not at first want to talk to me, but I must have stated my case very well. I told him of the house full of children with no mother and if I stay here the Bolsheviks will pick me up and take me into the army. The people did not generally have much love for the Bolsheviks. After a while, he consented to ferry me across. He took the wagon, the harness and the feed that I had, since I had no money. Towards evening he took me and my horse across. It was a good thing, too, since the raft was so small he could never have placed the wagon on the raft, too. I came riding home on horseback to everyone's surprise. They thought that the lieutenant would not keep his promise. The bridge was blown up, who knows when I would return, but there I was.

During the German occupation, I was taken to work many times myself, also with the horse and wagon. This was mostly for a day or two. Then they let me go. Any occupying army can confiscate anything or commandeer anyone to do whatever they want since they have the guns. The Polish army was the worst. They occupied our country for a while. They were bad. This is something to wonder about. The Polish people were split up under three governments, the Russian, the Austrian and the German for many years. They should have known what it means to be under somebody's rule, but they behaved miserably. They treated people like slaves.

One day we bought a new cow. A cow is the main supply for livelihood for milk, cheese and cream. Animals have the instinct to remember to find their way to their original home. Since the cow was with us just about one week, the first chance she got she ran away to her former owner. My father and I went over to the farmer and sure enough she was there. As the custom, we tied a rope on the horns and led her back to our house. It takes sometimes two people to lead a stubborn cow. On one of the porches sat two Polish officers. As we passed by busy directing the cow, we could not possibly take our hats off to greet these two officers. One started calling us back and cursing us, "Dirty Jew", we should turn around and come back, take off our hats and greet them. We had to comply. That is how mean the Polish army was. Anyway, I was fated to have another meeting with this officer.

I was taken one day with my horse and wagon by an army detail. We were heading towards the river Berezina at a point ten vyorst from our town. The road was very sandy toward the shore of the river. This detail was a cavalry company. The train was not large, about twenty wagons, carrying food and ammunition. We stopped to rest in a little knoll, a few dwarf trees covered with sand was all the protection. Further down the river was the sandy shore where the soldiers dug in and were shooting across the river. The men from the train had to move ammunition and take charge of the horses. Machine guns and artillery shots were booming all around. The company was changing over every while. One group would come up and rest and another group would go down toward the river, and every time there were more horses without riders.

I witnessed a stirring scene. My old friend, the officer who made me and my father turn around and greet him with hats off, and a major started to bring a fresh group to the shore. I was standing on the road near my wagon, as the major tells this captain to take the command over. This officer tells him, "Please, Sir, Let me go. You have a wife and children." The major consented. The young captain led the group down. It took very little time before this captain was carried back to the wagons. He was shot up very bad. There were many holes in his coat and he was full of blood. They put him in my wagon to take him over to the first aid station which was about a half an hour drive. In the rear, one soldier came along with me and the poor officer kept crying, "Wodi, wodi." that is water. We did not have any. What with the wagon hitting old roots on the road kept throwing him from side to side. It was a pity. Somehow we got to the first aid station and the doctors took over. I heard later that they amputated one of his legs. I never saw him again.

I went back to the front position and they loaded my wagon with boxes of ammunition. The command came to move up closer to the front. As luck would have it, I happened to be up front, the first wagon. We started out. We did not go a half a vyorst when we saw soldiers coming towards us from all sides. They are yelling, "Zavrutch, zavrutch", which means turn back. Now I am only a civilian and my orders were to go forward. So I don't turn. One soldier grabs a hold of my horse and turns him around and as I am the first in line, it turned the whole train. All of a sudden, the lieutenant who gave me the order to go forward came galloping on his horse and started yelling and cursing how come I turned when his order was to go forward. He is seated astride his horse, his gun on his side, the saber on the other side towering over me, a small boy, standing by his horse. I told him that the soldiers turned me around when they were running back. He kept cursing me with the choicest Polish curses. He grabs out his saber and a thought flashed through my mind. In a minute my head will be at the side of the road. As he swung the saber, he turned it and hit me with the flat side. It circled around my shoulders. I carried a blue decoration around my shoulders for a couple of weeks but I also still carried my head on my shoulders. I suppose I could not blame him much in the heat of the war. I was taken yet many more times for various services. They were a mean lot, the Polish army.

During that time, various bands of bandits roamed the countryside. They robbed and killed people on any pretext. Law and order were at their lowest. They came to our house and cleaned us out of everything they saw: money, clothing and anything else they fancied. The Bolsheviks made an offensive across the Berezina and drove the Polish army back. They established the Communist system of government. Now I was serving the Bolshevik army. Again, I was commandeered time and again on short trips with my horse and wagon. This was not too bad, only one or two days drive.

Once they assigned me to a big wagon train going to Minsk, which is 100 vyorst from us, and this would take weeks. Since they traveled very slowly, they usually stopped in any village on the road to forage for food. I also heard of cases where they took drivers with horses and just kept them for months or a year or more. I was not looking to get lost in an army wagon train. This time there were a few more Russian "muzhiks" from our village taken into this wagon train. Every evening they handed out a portion of feed for the horses and also food for the driver for the next day. Now there is no more valuable a possession by a "muzhik" than a horse. This beast provides for his livelihood. He tills the soil, brings in wood, brings in the harvest. A "muzhik" without a horse is lost. To him a horse is more valuable than a wife. For a horse he has to pay money. A "baba", a wife, he can pick up any time for nothing. They take very good care of their horses. I knew what I had to do.

I spoke to one of the drivers whom I knew well. I offered him the oats which was given me for my portion for my horse. I made some kind of deal with him so he should not catch on what I was doing and so my poor horse went hungry that night. The next night I made a similar deal with another "muzhik". So by the second day my poor horse was really starving. My aim was that if my horse is not able to keep up with the train they will throw me out, since for one break of any kind in the train, the whole train stops. After a while my horse started to fall back. He started to stop every few minutes. The soldiers kept urging him and hitting him to keep up for a while, but later he just gave up. The curses and reproach on my head and my poor horse. This I leave to your imagination. They pulled me out of the train and dispatched two soldiers to the nearest village to get a replacement. After a few hours they returned with a horse and wagon. They unloaded the cases of ammunition from my wagon and on parting with me gave the choicest Russian curses. They left me there. By now it was toward evening. I unharnessed the poor horse and let him feed in a field of beautiful buckwheat along side of the road. I slept on the wagon. It was a beautiful night. The stars were out and it was nice and warm. I was just thinking how I got away with it. Knowing full well what a chance I took if I was found out. I just could not see to let them drag me away to any unknown place for who knows how long. In the morning I harnessed the horse and started toward home, but the horse was so starved out that even to pull the empty wagon was too much for him. In the next town, I left the wagon there. I came riding home bareback.

It was during the Polish occupation in 1918 that the Spanish influenza swept the country. There was no family or house that was spared. They took over our house and made us move across the street in one room by a neighbor. That was when my mother took sick and in only eight days she died. We were then left a houseful of children without a mother. Although the army moved out soon after and we got our house back, our mother was gone and my sister, Tzipa, she was only two years younger than me, became the housekeeper. She was at that time 14 years old. It came so sudden and so cruel a blow. Our youngest brother Moishewas just one year old. I shall never forget the last night. I was by mother's bed watching her. By then what a change in her. Her skin turned yellow and she was feverish. All that could be medically done for her, under the circumstances, was done. Father brought a big doctor from Ihuman(Igumen) and he did not give much hope. I evidently dozed off for a while. I heard her calling me, "Avrom Zalman, Avrom Zalman." I tried to give her a drink and change the compress on her head. Soon her eyes closed and for a while she gave out strange noises and she passed out. It was in the month of March. The funeral was the next day. It was snowing.

According to custom, the casket is being carried all the way by volunteers to the cemetery which was about a half a mile out of town. It was symbolic that they put the older orphans in front of the procession. As we started out, my sister, Tzipa, my brother, Shaye Itzchokand myself. The snow coming down and you cannot see anything in front of you. Only grey, uncertain and empty. I thought just as the future of orphans in grey, empty and uncertain. The only consolation was that we were not the only ones. There was hardly a house that was not touched. As I mentioned before, Tzipa assumed the role of housekeeper, but later my father found an elderly woman whom he hired for the house. We started to get used to life without a mother.

During all of the disturbances of changing government and robberies, we dug a big hole in our barn. We insulated it with straw and buried most of our valuable clothing and dishes, covered it and masked it so good that with all the searches it was never found. Next to our house lived an old couple. Moishethe goat, he used to be called and his wife, Tzipa. Their house was very old and dilapidated. The roof was caving in. To walk in one had to stoop so low was the ceiling. No one would ever dream that there would be anything of value in a house like that. So after a while we dug out our belongings from the hole in the barn and stored them in Moishe the goat's house. He was called "tzig", which means goat, because on "Simchas Torah", the holiday of rejoicing with the Torah, he used to get a little tipsy and go out in the street and call out, "Tzoin kodoshim", holy flock, "Baa, Meh". So we loaded up much of our belongings in his palace.

Evidently somebody must have squealed because of what happened one day when a new army came to town. This is the rule. It seems that when a new army comes to town they get the freedom to appropriate or liberate whatever they want. We noticed that soldiers are carrying items which looked like ours and sure enough they were our belongings. Somehow they discovered the treasure and cleaned everything out. I went outside through the back of the house and I saw a soldier struggling with a bundle of clothing and a samovar. I said to him, "This is too heavy for you." He dropped the samovar and left it. I hid it in the grass. The same was with the Singer portable sewing machine. I saw a soldier dragging it with a bundle of coats. So I talked him out of it and saved that, too. But the rest they cleaned out like the locust.

We settled down to live under the Communist Regime. All business transactions stopped. Merchandise or any commodity was not to be gotten. People paid black market prices for anything they had to buy. Since there was no commerce, there was no work. In order to survive, many people turned to black market operations. Actually, it was by necessity. Since one had to live and what could a businessman or religious man or even office people do when their livelihoods were no more. It was against government regulations. They had to make a living somehow. The demand for black market merchandise was all around: merchandise of any kind.

In the country it was not so bad since a farmer can get by without the outside world for a long time because he can make his own clothes from linen or wool. He has his food and produce, milk and some meat. They usually kill some pigs before Christmas and they salt away some meat and smoke some and it lasts for the whole year. Then he can always have a calf or sheep slaughtered during the year. For light he burns kindling of roots which burn like candles. He hardly needs for all kinds of cooking for breads, soups, potatoes and especially for meat to cook and cure, but there was no salt. On one rich estate near us where the owner, fearing arrest by the Communists, ran away, the help discovered a storehouse filled with something that looked and tasted like salt. It was some kind of fertilizer. It tasted salty, only it left a bitter after-taste, but it was not harmful. We bought it from the help, transported it by night and we were in business. People from all around the countryside came around to buy salt. They brought rye, oats, barley, chicken eggs and some also had money. It was a godsend but this was the life then. We took the risk of being arrested, sent away to Siberiaor being shot as counter-revolutionaries. Then there was the feeling that we are actually helping people – which we did.

Later, we heard that in a town not far from the Polish border there was plenty of salt to be gotten. The distance was about 150 vyorst from us. I hired a "muzhik" and his horse. It was winter time and to ride in a sleigh without any freight one can travel very fast. I also harnessed my horse and we had a team of horses. We started out. Actually I had some freight. It was dry fox, squirrel and skunk skins which were being transported toward Poland and Germany. They brought a good price near the border. Since the skins don't take away much space and the weight was very light. We packed them in bags with hay which were hard to detect in case we were stopped. Luckily we were not stopped. We traveled at night. We arrived at that town. I made contact and sold my skins. Salt was easy to get. I got a 200 pound bag for the money I had, but then I got an idea. I sold my horse and was able to get another 200 pound bag of salt. Sure I took a big chance. If I were caught I would have nothing left. But then if I was caught with one bag of salt it would be the same. We lived by daring fate. As it turned out we were fortunate. We traveled by night and my "muzhiks" knew side roads which were not traveled by everybody. We arrived safe. Although it sounds unbelievable that I gave my horse away for a bag of salt, for the money I took in from that bag of salt I could have bought half a dozen horses. One had to get paid for the risks he took.

We combined with two local young men. One was Koppeland the other one was ChayimElia. They were older than I was. Actually the partnership was with my father since I was a youngster, my father having the connections and experience. I was doing the traveling with these two men. We were buying up wheat, flour, meat, butter, live cows, chickens, geese, and any commodity was useful and in demand. We transported it to Borisov, Minskand Bobruisk. These cities were approximately 60, 70 and 100 vyorst from us. The system was that we traveled by night and rested during the day in some inn where horses and wagons were driven into a barn so no one could see them and start questioning. Also we had to stay out of sight ourselves in order not to draw any undue attention. The term for black marketers was "speculant". Any soldier or any plain citizen could stop anyone and search him and make an arrest. With luck when we got through a transport of merchandise much profit was made. Inflation was rampant. The "Bolshevik" money came in denominations of one thousand, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 thousand rubles. "Chabar", graft, was all over. Since anyone had a right to stop anyone and search them, we were stopped many times, searched and threatened with arrest, but we managed to buy ourselves out since this is what they were looking for in the first place. I remember one night Chayim Elia and I were carrying merchandise which we picked up from a factory about 20 vyorst from us.

It was in the fall of the year and we had to pass through a village with one very long street. It was very muddy. We thought nothing of it. Who would be up at that hour of the night, but, as luck would have it, in the middle of the village we saw a light in one house and people walking around. It developed that a group of soldiers were traveling and they stopped by the mayor of the village to change over to new horses and wagons. As soon as we came up to that house they made us stop and started to question who we are, where are we traveling and as soon as they saw what we had in the wagon, that was it. The factory where we came from manufactured wooden lasts for building shoes, also, little wooding pegs which the shoemakers used to fasten the soles to the shoes. We got this in a deal with the commissar who managed the factory. For a price he would leave the store house open with no guard and we come and load ourselves. Should we get caught there, he does not even know us. We would be plain burglars. As soon as the soldiers and their lieutenant, a pockmarked "kalmik" saw what we had in the wagon, they immediately knew where it came from and that was enough. We are crooks, "speculants", enemies of the government and we should be shot or hanged or both. They turned our team in the yard, put a guard on it and put a guard on us, too. Even to the outhouse we could not go without a guard. We started to talk to the lieutenant but he would not let us talk to him. Well, for once it looked very bad. We made it our business to try and approach him several times with various pretexts. Somehow we wore him down and he started to listen. All this had to be done in a few hours before day break. We arranged with him that he will send his group on their way, the way they were scheduled. He will go with us on our wagon supposedly to bring us over personally to the commanding officer in the "Volosts". For that, we are to give him 1000 Tzarist Rubles. Now Tzarist money was then priced very high, since nobody trusted the Bolshevik money, which had practically no value. As soon as we concluded the deal, he gave the orders to his sergeant. The lieutenant got on our wagon and we were off. It was just starting to get light when we came to our house. I drove the horses in the barn and asked my father for the 1000 Tzarist Rubles, since this much we did not have on us. As soon as he got the money, we took him over to the mayor's house where he commandeered a horse and wagon in order to catch up to his group. This was a close call. He was a tough customer. Most of the time the transaction went over fast. They knew what they wanted and in many cases they were afraid themselves since this was risky business for them, too. Our wagons and sleighs were fitted out with double masked bottoms to be able to carry light products such as leather, saccharin or animal skins.

One day it was winter we had a big transport of merchandise going to Borisov. We had a wagon of meat, butter and cleaned, dressed geese. We had three "muzhiks” spaced about two hours apart, leading live cows. I had an uncle in Borisov, where I stopped every time we came to Borisov, also this time. After we arrived in the city and made contact with merchants to sell all that we had. It took most of the day and evening. We were lucky this time we were not stopped once. ChayimEliawas very happy we sold everything at very good prices and we had a good size bag filled with money. By the time we came to uncle's house it was quite late. Now there were soldiers stationed all over the city, also in my uncle's house. There were two soldiers sleeping in a room. When we came in, my Aunt Merestarted to make a meal for us. She knew that I liked oil with herring and since oil was a delicacy and hard to get that was a treat. She brought out a bottle of oil and it looked so beautiful against the light. I opened the bottle and took a sip from the bottle. At that time there was official prohibition on hard drinks in the country, although everywhere there was home brew. Everyone had it and most everyone made it. The soldiers sleeping in the other room saw me drinking from a bottle ant thought it was home brew. One got dressed and walked out. We did not think anything of it. We had our meal and were getting ready to go to bed. Somebody is knocking on the door. We open up and there are three soldiers with guns ready. They walked in and started to search in all the rooms. What they were looking for was vodka. They saw us drinking from a bottle. No matter how much we tried to convince them that it was oil that I drank, we could not convince them. We showed them the bottle of oil but nothing doing. They turned the house upside down, but they did not find anything for which they could charge us with. What happened was we had that bag of money. My Aunt Mere as soon as she saw the soldiers she put the bag under her dress. She saved all of us and also all that money. Her presence of mind saved the day. The soldiers in order to save face arrested Chayim Elia and me for questioning. Since we were strangers, they took us in and locked us up in a jail together with some crooks and prostitutes. Later we found out that they also took in our horses and sleigh.

In the morning they interrogated us. What we were doing in the city and who we are and a thousand questions. Being that they found nothing on us and we maintained that they had no right to arrest us and that they had better let us go. The only thing that worried us was that they should not find the secret compartment in the floor of the sleigh, and then we would be lost. Luckily, they did not think to search the sleigh. They did not find it. They kept us three days and when they saw that they could not pin anything on us, they announced that they would let us go but will make a deal with us. They will trade horses with us. The story they gave us was that being they have to move to another city by train and they have a couple of horses who are afraid to get on the train, they will take ours, since they looked tame and would give us their horses which turned out to by two mangy half starved animals. We refused. We told the captain that if he takes our horses we will make an official complaint to the general. He tried all ways to scare us but we held out. They did not take away our horses. They returned all our belongings a let us go with the money we had. We brought home saccharin and made a fortune. This was the life in those uncertain times.

Many farmers ran short of food and seed. When a farmer has no seed to plant he is lost. He will have to starve for the next year. Somewhere we laid our hands on a load of potatoes. Now potatoes are one of the main staples in our part of the country. It was spring and some farmers got to know that we had potatoes. They started to flock to our town and to our house. Wagons by the dozen used to come around to buy potatoes for seed. It got so that we had to ration them the amounts. It reminded me of Joseph in Egypt with his doling out the feed. They brought wool and linen and sheepskin coats and chickens and geese, whatever they could spare. Actually we did them the biggest favor since otherwise famine was staring them in the face.

Famine I saw in Siberia. I got together with a friend and we made plans. We should travel to Tashkentwhich is very far on the border of China. Over there, we heard things could be gotten very cheap. We got dressed in army uniforms. We took with us soldiers' knapsacks filled with bread, underwear and a few kilos of saccharin each, since this was bringing high prices deeper in Russia and in Siberia. The travel on the Trans-Siberian train was a story in itself. There was no schedule. With a ticket or without a ticket it was almost impossible to get on any train. The cars were mostly cattle cars filled with demobilized soldiers. They just refused to let anyone on. Most of them traveled for weeks on the train. They were the authority. We, being dressed as soldiers, somehow got on. Now this was in the midst of winter and it was very cold. They got a metal plate and put it on the floor on a little wood burning stove. They chopped a hole in the roof to let the smoke escape and we had a heated car. Wood was gathered at any station, from whatever was available: porches, fences, furniture, anything at all. In the car those that were sitting near the center got a little warmth and the others froze. In all fairness, at times they allowed to change places for a while. After about ten days traveling, we crossed the Volga and entered Siberia. At the first big city, Samara, we decided to get off and to try our luck. We got off the train and got into an "isvostchick", that is a horse taxi on a sleigh. We asked him to take us to a hotel. He brought us to a modest little hotel, where we rested overnight. The year was 1921.

There was a famine in Russia. Transportation as I mentioned was almost broken down. Industry was nil. The government was helpless to supply food for the population. The sight which greeted us in Samarais something which I shall never forget. The weather is freezing and people are walking around in big sheepskin coats and big sheepskin "kutchmas", that is hats. On their feet, felt boots. Dressed like that and being that they are tall, they looked like giants, but so many of hungry, their faces drawn. Their eyes are deep in their sockets. They hover around restaurants and watch through the windows. Some bolder ones walk in the restaurant and when one finishes a meal they grab the plate and lick it up. It was uncanny. One could not enjoy a meal there. In the street, beggars are all over in the bazaar. In the market place one could buy anything. For a loaf of bread, fancy coats, jewelry, and fancy dishes and for a "pud", which is 40 pounds of bread or flour, one could get a horse and wagon, a camel or anything. It is hard to describe. All around children crying "chlebtzo", bread. At night when it is still the voice "chlebtzo" echoes in the dark from a little child huddled in the corner or a grown man or woman who is not able to move and in the morning you find them frozen stiff like statues on the sidewalk or in the corner wrapped in the few rags that they had.

They have a system over there, tea houses, where one can walk in and buy a pot of boiling water. The pot can be of five glasses, ten or more. Then if you have tea and saccharin, you brew tea and even have a meal if you have bread. If not, at least you warm up. It was something to see. Those big individuals dressed in those heavy sheepskin coats and "kutchmas" and felt boots, sitting down in these tea houses, cold and frozen, drinking 5, 10 or more glasses and after a while they started to get warmed up and start to perspire and steam and they sit like in a cloud. We stayed about a week. We sold our saccharin and started to look around for merchandise to bring home. It should be profitable and it should not be too bulky. We settled on soft leather for shoe tops. We saw that it was plentiful in the market place and at a very cheap price according to what it brought in our part of the country. It did not require much space. We could pack plenty in our knapsacks. The only drawback was that it smelled strong like fresh leather does and this could give us away. We wrapped it around with our underwear and sprinkled some "machorka" tobacco to kill the smell a little. The next thing was to try to get out from the city. It was something to see around the station. As I mentioned before everyone was trying to sell their belongings and move. They all wanted to leave Siberiaand travel toward the Ukraine where food was plentiful. It was the transportation breakdown which was causing all this trouble. The government could not move food or people form one part of the country to another. People were spread out for blocks around the station with their belongings and their children. Old and sick people lay literally on the floor and sidewalks. The system was that one first had to get a number in order to get a train ticket. For that one had to stay in line for weeks in hope of getting a number and a ticket. The cold, starvation and sickness took their toll. People were dying all around. The station attendants were carrying out corpses continuously. It was a steady parade that people got so used to it and so indifferent that nobody cared. Now our purpose was to get out from the city. We started to look around and we came across two fellows who had two tickets to get out two stops out of Samara. They asked a lot for them but it was worth it for us just to get on a train. We knew that on the train somehow we will be safe. Since the traveling soldiers did not even let conductors or inspectors in their cars. Somehow we managed to get on one car. On a couple of other cars we were chased away. They said this is only for demobilized soldiers fan when we tried to tell them that we too are going home from the front, they did not believe us. We were too young. On one car we managed to get on and now we were on our way. It was the same kind of ride, a cattle car with fire burning in the center and every station we had to forage for wood. For this we searched everywhere in streets, backyards or on trains which were not in use. Often we found frozen bodies, either in train cars or in back streets. But on the train, with the crowd pushing and shoving, somebody managed to pick my pocket. They got away with my pocketbook, my money an also the passport. If I would have been stopped and inspected I would have been left in Siberia what with no passport and no ticket. Luckily almost all the way home I managed to avoid inspection with the help of my partner and a few of the soldiers with whom we got friendly. There was no use not to board the train. I had to chance it. I did have a few close calls of inspection where the conductors were stubborn and insisted on inspection. My friends were watching for me and when the inspector would get in one door they would slip me out through the other door. I would crawl under the car until the inspection was over and then my friends would bring me up into our car. It was very risky but somehow we kept traveling nearer to home. When I came to Smolensk, which is about 200 vyorst from home. I got off and went into the police and reported the loss of my passport. I was told put an ad in the newspaper for a week and then they would issue me a temporary document. It was a good thing because coming into Borisov, where we got off the train, there were inspectors checking everyone and without a document I would have been lost. Anyway, when I got home as far as profit we made a tremendous amount of money. From the road with all the dirt and unsanitary conditions and lice, I got sick with typhoid fever and was laid up for almost a month. When I got better I lost my hair and I noticed that when I spoke, people turned away. They could not look me straight in the eye. So I understood that I was not communicating right. I stopped talking. Just bare necessities did I answer. After a while my hair started to grow back and I got my mind and thoughts straightened out. I started feeling normal again. My father was in friendly terms with the army commander, the mayor, the postmaster and the lone policeman that we had in our town. They came in very handy. Of course, this cost plenty "chabar", graft, but it was worth it when my time came to be called to the army. For a good bottle of vodka to drink up and another to take home to army commander in the "Volosts", that is the county seat, gave me a document that I was one year younger. So I was not called. I did the same for my friend Hillel Zacharinand he, too, was not called up. I also proposed to do the same for four more of our friends of the same age, but they refused, too patriotic they were.

To be Continued

 

Copyright 2006 Belarus SIG and Zvi Peretz Cohen

Back to the index of the Belarus SIG Newsletters

Back to the Belarus SIG website