(No. 14/2005 – December 2005)
Editor: Fran Bock
by Jack Ritzenberg
BORN in the year 1901 in a small town in
Kobryn, circa 1900
I don't know much about this town, as my parents moved to another town, Kobryn, while I was still a baby, but when I was a little boy, my mother used to take me along when she went to visit her sister Basha Leah. This is what I remember of my earliest years.
I remember a group of stores under one roof, and walking up three steps. Also, I remember a structure that was like part of a smokestack of a steel mill. No one knew exactly what it was from. Children used to tell horror stories about it - how at , ghosts came out and danced in a circle around it.
My aunt Basha Leah had a garden and my cousin Miriam, who was then about 8 or 9 years old, used to take me there and let me pick cucumbers.
When our family moved to Kobryn, a nice town, I was too young to remember dates, but I remember the house and the people who lived there. It was adjacent to a Synagogue and it had two suites. Our family occupied the larger one, and in the other one lived Yoodle the Shamis (the Synagogue sexton) who was a man of all trades. A short man with watery eyes and a small thin beard. His wife, Bryna, a stocky woman, used to buy chickens from the farmers in the market and resell them to help support the family. They had one daughter whose name I don't remember.
I must have been three or four years old when, my mother bought a pair of pet rabbits from a farmer. One was white with black spots, the other one was white and brown. No one in our family provided a place for the rabbits to live. So the rabbits found a hole in the wall and that became their living quarters. Whenever my mother went to the market she took me along and I picked up the tops of carrots and other vegetables and fed it to the rabbits. Our whole family enjoyed watching me taking care of the animals.
One night, someone in the house heard a noise like mice running. Since my mother and sisters were afraid of mice so they woke up my father. My father lit the kerosene lamp and let me be the hero. . . I looked into the rabbit hole and guess what I saw: a bunch of little rabbits.
My mother did not ask the farmer about the sex of the rabbits, whether they were male or female or both of the same sex, and neither did the farmer offer any information, so to my mother they were just rabbits. Every so often we had a houseful of young rabbits and my mother had a job giving them away only to people who offered to give them a good home.
One episode I will never forget, as it could have ended up in tragedy. I had been playing with matches and started a fire. I did not get panicky, but ran to my sister and told her to yell "fire" because the bed was burning. The fire was put out leaving little damage.
When I reached the age of five, my father took me to the first "heder" (a religious Hebrew school). It was not a modem school, just one room with about six or seven male students. This room was part of the teacher’s residence. I remember the first “rebbe" (teacher), a tall slim man with a pointy beard of brown and gray, whose name was Krasnitzky. .
The first thing he taught us was the alphabet, and then to learn to read. We also received modem education from another teacher, a young man. Through the years of Hebrew learning, I must have had five or six teachers as the learning progressed. I remember them all.
After school, boys used to have plenty of playtime. We rolled the steel rims of barrels or the braces that held together the legs of wooden chairs. Playing with buttons was very popular and exciting. Buttons had various values, especially in sets of several of a kind. The most valuable ones were mother of pearl. Metal buttons were also in demand, and plastic-like ones (we called them bone) were average. The only ones that were not acceptable were the ones covered with cloth.
Stick throwing was popular with older boys. It goes like this: The player has 2 sticks, he throws one in the air and hits it with the other one, then measures the distance of the throw. There were other games with sticks also. During the Passover and Succoth holiday, nuts were the most popular games. There were many other games to play, such as "hide and seek." Girls, of course, had different games with which I am not familiar.
This I will always remember: My
brother Avraham went to learn the trade of capmaker. He made a soldier's uniform cap and I used to
wear it. He also made a wooden rifle and he drilled me like a soldier. My
sister Hinka learned dressmaking, and she was a good
seamstress. She even made me a silk shirt with an upright collar like the
I REMEMBER WHEN my brother Avraham, at age 14, left our family in
My parents bought a two-family
house. I heard my parents say that Grandma Shprintze
gave them 200 rubles toward the purchase. My father was an emissary for a
rabbinical college in
When my father had to go to the railroad station, since there were no telephones in our town, someone had to go to the market place where the carriages were stationed to hire a coachman. My brother used to do this pleasant chore, and I went with him just for the ride back home. I always hoped to get the coachman who drove the fancy carriage with the beautiful horse - an Appaloosa.
remember that my father once received an album from the rabbinical college in
When we moved into our house, we took along the two rabbits we had, but it seems the rabbits didn't like the decoration, and started ripping the wallpaper off the walls. We had to get rid of them, and I felt heartbroken, as they were my pets.
I found a solution. My uncle Yeshia had a cat that gave birth to kittens. When the kittens were old enough, I took one as my pet, and the cat remained with us for many years. We also had a problem: When the cat was having her first litter, she couldn't find a suitable place to deliver, but finally she found one. Our ceiling had beams about five or six feet apart, and between the attic floor and the ceiling was about six inches of space, so there she gave birth.
We could not reach for them to take them out. They started to run around in the ceiling and we were helpless, until someone in the house thought of an idea: cut a hole in the ceiling, put a pillow on the floor, and as they were running, they fell out one by one (a total of three). Who said there are no geniuses?
One day I didn't feel well. My mother put her lips to my forehead and she said I have fever and decided to call Dr. Weissman. Someone had to go to his office to have him come, as we had no telephones in our town that time. The doctor examined me and diagnosed that I had diphtheria. My mother put me on the floral couch by the door, as my father was holding my legs and the lady who lived next door was by my head. I lay still for the doctor’s injections. To compensate for the pain, the doctor gave me the empty vials with red stoppers and that made me feel better.
On my way back to heder after lunch, I stopped by my grandmother Shprintza's pottery store. It was located in the rear of the main marketplace. She gave me two kopeks for candy from the leather money pouch that dangled from her shoulder, as they didn't have cash registers then. Their stores were without windows and had no heat in the winter. Women storekeepers kept warm by putting a pot of hot charcoal by the stool at their feet. It was called a fire pot.
There were stores around the marketplace, there were horses and wagons parked, and of course, chickens pecking the grains dropped from the horses' mouths. The chickens were friendly and ladylike, following the rooster wherever he went. The rooster was not as nice as the hens. He did not like the women peddlers from the market, as they were dirty and sloppily dressed, so he attacked by jumping on them. If you ever plan a trip there, bear in mind the rooster and dress accordingly.
Here is another rooster story from a different neighborhood, not related to the one in the marketplace, and not about attacking women, but kids. It belonged to a lady across the street from my heder. Why the rooster jumped at the kids, no one knew, but there was probably a reason: The rooster had red feathers and the Hebrew teacher had a red beard, that made the rooster think of rivalry for his flock. But why pick on kids?
Since we are speaking of chickens, why not remember the chickens from our own hatchery, where I stood patiently watching the eggs break and baby chicks come out from their shells. It was a big thrill for me and I watched them grow.
When the young chickens were old enough to select their own place to perch, they chose a place in the hallway above the door. That was fine, but their sitting position was backward. Instead of facing the hallway, they were facing the wall with their tail ends toward the hallway. It was not safe to go through without security for your head.
Our city was hit with typhus and our family was no exception. Three people, my two sisters and my brother were stricken with the disease. My parents were the ones to take care of them. I was not sick as yet, but my parents were warned by people that “if the youngest in the family gets sick. it may be fatal."
My parents took me to my Hebrew school teacher, Yitzhak Avigdor, who had a boy my age. I enjoyed being there, sleeping on the floor, getting up early in the morning, going into the fruit garden in the back of the house to pick up fresh fruit that fell down over night. I don’t remember how long I stayed at my Hebrew teacher’s home, but it was nice of them to keep me with their children.
I remember two men by their respective occupations: Mihalsky, the water man, and Tatteh Yona, the sand man. It's best to clarify the meaning of water man. At that time we did not have running water at the house, but we obtained water from a well or from the river. The water from the river was not purified and was too far to carry. We used two kinds of water: for drinking we used well water, and for general use there were men who delivered water from the river in a huge barrel with horse and wagon.
Our water man’s name was Mihalsky. He did not know how to write, so he used to make little lines with chalk on the wall of the hallway to keep record as to how many pails of water he delivered. I also remember my coat that my mother gave to Mr. Mihalsky for his little boy.
Tatteh Yona I assume was a nickname. I don't remember his personality, but I remember his horse. Tatteh Yona used to deliver yellow sand to people's homes. In those days we didn't have floor covering. Floors were made of plain wood, and to keep them shiny, we sprinkled the yellow sand, swept it out, and that made the floors shining bright.
I remember the horse because he walked on three legs. His fourth leg was shorter and looked like a small spare tire on a big car. The horse was a pony.
MY BROTHER NEHEMIA was five years older than I and he decided to take up printing as his trade. A printer was considered as an intelligent man and a semi- professional. It was a good trade to know.
In those days a printer's training was not for free. On the contrary. The trainee did not get paid for his time, a year's labor, and the boss received 25 rubles for his efforts. But my brother and I were fortunate to receive the apprenticeship gratis, because the boss just started business and he needed the extra help.
Not much later, I quit the Hebrew school and studied with a private tutor for awhile, but it was boring, so I decided with my parents' consent to quit the religious studies, and at the age of 13, I became an apprentice printer to Mr. Meyer Tenenbaum, at the same place my brother was working.
As an apprentice, you have more than one responsibility. Learn the trade, go on errands, do the dirty work, sometimes help the boss' wife with the shopping. After a year of training, I was paid 4 rubles per month.
When I received my first month's
pay, 4 silver rubles, my sister Hinka made me a
small cloth bag with a drawstring to keep the money. My parents didn't take
the money from me, and to me, as a thirteen-year-old, it was a toy. I was
happy and proud to be a printer. One morning I was going to my uncle's
bakery. I noticed circulars posted announcing that we were at war, and men of
a certain age should register for military duty. I don't remember the exact
date on the calendar, but I remember that on the Hebrew calendar it was
"Tisha B'av," a
day when the Jewish people mourn the destruction of the
When people met on the street, faces showed the agony of the situation, especially the young men. When I stopped in at my uncle's bakery, I noticed some people buying a little heavier than usual, as they were expecting the war to be an overnight affair .
Gradually, draftees from the city as well as from the nearby small towns and villages appeared in Kobryn. My parents never thought that the draft would concern our family, since my brother was only 18 years old and I was only 13. and the war would not last that long.
That calculation turned out to be wrong. With each week that went by, military traffic started to become heavier. Since all the war equipment was horsedrawn, traffic slowed even more. To make matters worse, people who lived in the war's path left their homes and fled.
Except for my father's travelling, our family was not yet affected. Nor was our city as we were a long way from the battle front. But the Russian army kept on losing ground in every battle. And with the army in retreat, thousands of refugees passed through our city, and it looked like that soon we would learn our fate.
My father and my cousin Yankel bought a horse and wagon in partnership in case we were ordered to leave the city. The horse and wagon were kept by my cousin, as he had a barn.
As the war progressed, the Russians started to induct men who had wives and minor children, as well as younger men. Military age in peacetime was 21.
My cousin Aaron was inducted into the army reserve. He had a wife and two children. My brother was drafted at the age of 19, but got a deferment for one year. A few months later, the Germans invaded our city allowing my brother to evade the draft since the Russians were now gone.
THE WAR WAS MOVING closer to our
city. We thought the only hope of the war ending would occur at the fortified
Our city was 42 miles from Brest Litovsk. We knew that before long the war would move through our city. The only question for us to decide was what to do to survive. We were not told to evacuate, as in other cities, and the people were confused listening to reports from refugees that the army in retreat would burn the city to the ground.
One morning, two German planes appeared over the city and were met with artillery fire from the ground. No bombs were dropped. The echo of the shooting could be heard in the city. People started to look for a safe place, since being in the city was a danger because of fire.
The next day, I think it was Saturday, my parents decided to go out in the field to be safe from fire in case the city is burned. We walked out of the house leaving three people, refugees my parents took in, an elderly couple and their daughter whose husband was in the army (they were not related to us), and the cat we had for many years. We didn.t even lock the doors.
In the field there were many people with horses and wagons parked there. An aeroplane appeared in the sky circling around like they were looking for something. Maybe the fliers thought it was military so they dropped a bomb, but missed. Thank G-d.
In the afternoon, we went back to our house. The people were gone, even the cat we raised since she was a kitten was gone. We took a few pieces of clothing, my father kissed the "mezuza" on the door post and we left. This was the last time we saw our house. Not knowing of any particular place, we decided to go to my cousin Aaron, who lived in a brick house, to be safer from the shooting. It was already evening. We saw streaks of fire in the air, but we were not afraid because we didn't understand the danger of bullets flying overhead.
As we approached
In the morning, my sister Hinka suggested we should go to the big Synagogue because it had thick brick walls and was safer. In the morning, we left the man's house and we stopped at my cousin Aaron's, as we originally planned. Next to my cousin's house was a brick storage building with steel doors, and if you had something to store for safety, he charged 3 rubles. We were in my cousin’s house, as the shooting became louder, the man opened his door and soon as we got into the storage building, a shell hit my cousin's house and knocked in a wall. Fortunately, there were no people there. .
There were several people in the building. We were sitting in the dark and did not talk in fear of being robbed or killed by the soldiers. Shrapnel was hitting the steel doors constantly like hail in the summer. Our biggest fear was the soldiers and that caused the death of my cousin's infant baby. To keep the baby from crying, my cousin's wife kept cuddling the baby, not realizing that she was suffocating the infant.
In the afternoon, two men came running breathlessly, pounding on the steel door. Someone opened the door and the men brought us the good news that they saw German soldiers crossing the river. The people hugged and kissed each other for joy.
Some people, a father and son came out of their home too early and were killed by the fleeing soldiers. A woman was killed by a bullet after the Germans were in the city. The German soldiers warned the people to stay indoors because there will be more shooting as the Austrian army is still coming behind. We remained there overnight.
The next morning was quiet, no shooting was heard, so we went to see whether our house was still there. All we found was the chimney and smoldering ashes. To our amazement, the house next to ours was not touched by the fire. All stores around the market place went up in flames. There were other people also searching in the ashes for their precious belongings, but never found them. My mother pulled out of the ashes two copper utensils. She stood there holding the pots and cried, big tears rolling down her cheeks. Along came Yoodle the sexton, who knew my mother. He stopped by her and said, "You are crying because you lost a house. Go to the big Synagogue and see how many people were killed there. (This was the Synagogue where my sister wanted us to go for safety.) Other people also thought it was safe, but Cossacks went in on their horses, opened fire and killed several people.
When my mother calmed down at the sight of what became of our house, we still had to find a place to live even temporarily. My parents found a large room in a brick building above stores. It wasn't suitable, but my parents decided to rent it until we found a regular house.
Our problems did not end there. When the German army invaded the city, there were many corpses to be buried. Those were bodies of people who died as they fled from the war. Also animals that were killed in the shooting. I remember when we came out from the shelter, there was a horse and cow dead. The Germans rounded up men in the streets to do this work.
There was not a day when men felt safe from being picked up by a German soldier for work. My father was picked up twice: the first time he buried some corpses, the second time, he was taken to a farm to harvest potatoes. But the second time, he claimed he was 50 years old, and because of his age, he was released and brought home.
The Germans took over the Synagogue and put a barbed wire fence around it to keep men until their release. I don't know why the Germans worried about the Jewish people not having a Synagogue, but they decided to set up a temporary Synagogue in the room our family occupied. So for a while we lived in a synagogue, which is considered desecrating a house of worship.
My uncle had a big house with two
separate entrances. It was formerly the residence of a doctor who left the
city. When the German army invaded the city, the house was vacant, so two
military personnel took up residence in part of the house, and the other part
was made into a barn for two horses of other military personnel. In a couple
of days the horses were taken out, the house was
I don't remember how long we lived there. The soldiers were nice to us. They had a truck so they brought wood and gave us little things, such as sugar, candles and other things.
When our city was struck with typhus, the German authorities ordered the whole population, young and old to be innoculated and it stopped the epidemic. They also set up another system, a disinfection house, where all people in the family had to go when it was their turn.
One morning, my mother stopped at my uncle's bakery and mentioned to my cousin that she no food for the family. My cousin replied, "Why don't you go out in the fields and dig some potatoes," as some farmers left their homes and crop when they fled. When we arrived, it looked like the locusts of the ten plagues of the Bible covered the field. Many people with all kinds of tools were digging potatoes. Of course, we joined the crowd and dug. After the first experience we went every day in the field to dig potatoes. We dug up enough potatoes to last a whole year.
THE WAR ENDED. After that our city and life began functioning again. My father's travelling ceased, the pottery store he inherited from his mother burned during the war. We had to readjust ourselves to a new way of living. Although I was only 14 or 15 years old, I felt a responsibility to put myself into the yoke of making a living.
We accepted any kind of work that was in our ability. My father found out that there was work in a forest cutting down trees. It was not a job for a 14-year-old or a 19-year-old boy, but we accepted it, and believe it or not, I the youngest was making the decision as to which way the tree shall fall.
We stayed with a couple and their son, refugees from the war. It was a house that formerly belonged to a farmer who fled the war. We slept on the ground, since there was no floor. Rats were running around while the cat was taking a nap. I was afraid to fall asleep.
Friday we used to go home and return on Sunday. It was a distance of about three or four miles on foot. One Sunday as we returned, the forest floor was covered with snow and I fell over a tree stump. I was taken to the house and lay there with fever the entire week. To save the cost of bringing me home, my father bought a load of wood, put me on top of it and I came home.
The fall over the stump left me with a wound unhealed for more than two years and a scar on my leg for life, but I resumed my work as usual.
In the summer, we attempted to do some agricultural work. Since there were uncultivated fields without owners, we rented a plow and a horse. I put my hands on the plow and said in horse language, "gey-up," waved the whip in the air and it worked. The horse seemed to be eager, pulled the plow and I followed triumphantly. The following summer, we planted potatoes for other people for a fee.
Since my father had no trade and his traveling as an emissary for the rabbinical college ceased, he and my brother started to deal in grain and flour. They bought rye and wheat from farmers or other merchants, took it to the mill to be ground into flour for sale to bakers. They went to other cities to buy merchandise. It was risky to travel on the road by horse and wagon. There were casualties.
I will always remember this trip. I went with my brother to a town called Domatchev. My brother bought a load of flour from a man who lived on a farm off the road. My brother was supposed to meet him there. When we came to the road leading to the farm, my brother got off the wagon and walked. Our wagon and three more wagons left, as we always tried to travel in a group. It was getting dark, and I saw my brother running and disappear in the darkness. I didn't see him until morning when we stopped to rest and feed the horses. I cannot describe how I felt when I saw him coming at last.
Once a Polish soldier probably saved my life. I was sitting by my house talking to a neighbor, when two soldiers came up and told me to come with them. When we came out on the main street, there were two more soldiers and three civilian men whom they picked up for the same purpose - to drive a horse and wagon to some city. This is what we were told.
Here is the real story: The army needed more horses, so they went to civilians, took their horses, and told them to come along so they can get their horses back when they arrive a their destination. But it wasn't so. They kept the people and the horses. Some of the people abandoned their horses and wagons and escaped. This is why the military needed those horses and the people. They took me and other men to the river where the transport was stationed.
In the evening, they told us to have two men go to their homes if they want to take some clothes or whatever they may need. We spent a sleepless night by the river.
My cousin had a bakery that was taken over by the military.
My family also spent a sleepless night. In the morning, my mother went to my cousin whose bakery had been taken over by the military. She cried about what happened to me and that I was by the river getting ready to move with the transport.
The soldier left his work in my uncle's bakery without even washing off his arms from the dough. He told my people that if I am asked about my occupation, I should tell them that I am a baker, and he left. I noticed my sister coming, and she was calling to me, “You are a baker." Several minutes passed and I heard my name called by one of the soldiers. When I stood up from sitting on the ground, the soldier asked me my name and what kind of work I do. Now it dawned on me why my sister was saying, "You are a baker," and I said I work in a bakery." They let me go because the soldier- baker told them that I work in the bakery for the military.
Here is a story that involved two young men, Velvel and Ezra, whom I knew well. Both of these young men's fathers had horses, the army was in need of horses, so they took the horses with a promise to release them when they reach their destination. To make sure they get the horses back, the young men went with the transport - but they never returned alive. Fortunately or unfortunately, peasants working in the field noticed the grave in which they were buried, they reported it to the authorities, and Velvel and Ezra were given a proper burial.
Thank G-d for the Polish soldier. I am alive to tell the story. He probably was the angel of mercy, a complete stranger filled with humanity who risked his own personal safety to help someone in danger. I shall never forget him.
WHEN WORLD WAR I ended, my
brother Abraham, who was in the
obtained the necessary documents from the Polish government, but when we came
the big problem - money. My brother in
My brother Nehemia
had just married a woman not for love but money, or he rather made a
sacrifice for the family. The popular saying is that "Marriages are made
in heaven," but this one was probably made by an apprentice or an
amateur matchmaker, because it was not an heavenly
match. My brother was willing to lend us the money, but he needed her
consent. Because they were just newlyweds, and to preserve "sholem bayis" (peace in
the home), she lent us the money necessary. Eventually, I came to
After we solved the money
problem, we went to
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society,
known as "HIAS," helped us a lot in our voyage. The people of HIAS
noticed that the date on the Polish passports of several people, including
ours, was near expiration, just a matter of days. So a representative of HIAS
took us across the border to
When the other people arrived
It was early evening when the
ship's foghorn sounded a few short and long blasts, and with two tug boats
pulling, the ship started to move. To me it was the biggest thrill in my
young life, as I was waiting for this moment for many years. Going to
We were not treated like passengers on an ocean liner, but like soldiers on a troop ship. The meals were not served on porcelain dishes, but we were given metal plates and we had to wash them after the meal. We were not served at a table, but sat on the edge of the bed. The food was not brought to us, we had to stand in line to get it.
The voyage was rough, and my father was seasick most of the time. I was also seasick but not as bad as my father. The ocean was rough, but it did not affect everybody alike. I remember going on deck one night, walking as if I were drunk, and there was man sitting and reading a book as if he was in his own living room.
After almost three weeks aboard
the ship that felt like an eternity, the ship anchored in
It was evening when the ship actually stopped. Although we did not see land yet, we knew it was there because of the shimmering lights in the far distance. We went to bed but couldn't fall asleep.
The next morning, they started to
unload the passengers, instead of giving us breakfast,
the passengers were taken to a disinfection house. By the time all the
passengers went through, we missed breakfast. Finally we were koshered, disinfected
and ready to enter the
My brother came to
The next day, my brother took me into a store and bought me some clothes and other items. When I got dressed, I looked like a real American, not a greenhorn anymore.
Later in the day, my brother and
I went to the railroad station. He bought tickets, we boarded a train and we
were on the way to
After many hours of travel, we
finally arrived our long awaited destination –
At the station we were greeted by several relatives whom I knew by name only. I still remember the cars they had. My cousin's husband was driving a Dodge, and my brother's father-in-law had a Ford. Both were touring cars with snap-on curtains on either side. These were the only two cars in the family.
Copyright © 2005
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