No. 11/2000 - 22. April 2000

Elsebeth Paikin
The editorial staff:
Mario Kampel - Lori Miller

The Epstein family from Orsha by the Dnjepr River

by Abraham Epstein

translated from Danish by Elsebeth Paikin

Click on photos to see enlarged copies!

This article was first published in Danish in "RAMBAM - Tidsskrift for jÝdisk kultur og forskning" [RAMBAM - Journal for Jewish Culture and Research] Vol. 5, 1996, pp. 72-79.

We thank Abraham Epstein and RAMBAM for the permission to translate and republish it here in the Belarus SIG Online Newsletter.

Prison camp in Archanglesk 1905-1906? (c 144 Kb)
Prison camp in Archanglesk 1905-1906?
Salman Moses Epstein (in Russian cossack blouse)

My name is Abraham Gerson Epstein. I was born the 4. January 1910 in Copenhagen. My father was Salman Mousewitz (= son of Moses) Epstein born in Orsha ostensibly in 1884. My mother was Dina Riva Berman, probably born 10. March 1887. Her surname was originally Gorshel, which is a diminutive of Gerson. I had a sister, Lise, born the 5. November 1911, died 22. April 1965, and a brother, Leopold, born 18. November 1913, died 18. February 1987.

Our grandfather was Moses Epstein (died 1917). He and his cousin Ure had their places in the front rows in the Synagogue. In Orsha there was the following synagogues: 1. The Mishnadic synagogue (di misnagdische schul) 2. the chasidic synagogue (di chasidische schul), where my grandfather came twice a day, and which had a yeshiva, that our family used. Furthermore there were two or three other synagogues.

My uncle Louis (Lozer), my father and Mikael (Michel) went to Cheder in the chasidic synagogue. It is possible that the chasidic synagogue was called "Borechís schul" or "Reb Borechís schul". Besides going to Cheder the boys also went to Talmud Tora. The girls were taught Yiddish and Russian at home by a teacher, they also learned arithmetic and sewing.

Outside the house was a garden, where hens and chicken ran around. Friday evening the table was covered with a tablecloth and candles were lit. Grandpa Moses went to the synagogue. Moses said Kiddush and then they had their evening meal was served. Saturday they did Havdalah. The family went to mincha and maariv. Saturday evening they had "shalischudes" (the third meal). Shabbat had begun.

The difference between the service in the misnadic and the chasidic synagogue was among other things that in the chasidic synagogue they commenced with "heidu" (my uncleís pronunciation). It corresponds to the Danish prayer book, 4th edition, 1917, page 25: "Houdu la schem kiru bischmou". In the misnadic synagogue the service began with "mateivu", corresponding to the Danish prayer books start: "ma touvu ouholecho jaakov".

In the chasidic synagogue the boys hung up lanterns, when it was "shimchas touro", and "gingerbread" (Yiddish: "lekech") was handed out to the children. The Christian inhabitants in Orsha never disturbed or bothered the synagogues. According to the Jewish Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv there were 7,383 Jews, 56% of the total population in Orsha in 1897. In an old Baedecker from around 1900 Orsha the following information is found: "First mentioned in 1067 as the capital of a rural area. The town is beautifully situated on both sides of the Dnjepr river. The population 21,000 mainly Jews. A railroad connects the town with Vitebsk to the North and Mogilev to the South".

No Jewish societies are said to have existed in Orsha, but later on Bund got a foothold in the town. Bund was a social-democratic political association. The fire brigade had a good orchestra (pazarni komandi), that during summer played on the boulevard. Some of the Jews had curls (Yiddish: "peyesen") at the ears. In Orsha the Jews did not wear "streimels" (furhats of a special form). They didnít wear long coats of black fabric (Yiddish: "schwartze chalaten").

In Orsha they cultivated a lot of grapes for wine. The food was presumably the East European Jewish style. It could be e.g. "kugl", "tsimes" (sweet potatoes and carrots accompanied by delicious stuffed dumplings) "tort", "putscha", etc. Today it is not easy to get that kind of food in restaurants in Israel. On Mondays bread was baked for the whole week. Also "mazza" was home made, as well as wine for Pesach. Everyone had a sukka for Sukkot.

Most of the Jews were poor, but there were a few rich Jews in the town. There was for instance a brick-factory owned by a Jew. Some Jews owned shops, others were retailers (Yiddish: "bakaleinik"). Kabalkin was a large Jewish store, where you could buy flour, wine, spice and various comestibles.

Orsha also had itís special characters, that I will briefly mention:

  1. Ivan Kata. He was a Christian, of middle height, 45-50 years old. He used to sit on the bridge across the Dnjepr river catching fish. The boys used to tease him, telling him that the fish would be crushed if he pulled them out of the water. He would then get up and run after the boys and slap them on the shoulders. Then he would return to the bridge and continue fishing.
  2. Kuschke Chatulle was a healthy and very strong Jew working as a stone carrier. When he had to unload, he just pushed the heavily laden carriage with his shoulder and the load would roll off. When he was teased, he was not adverse to give a hearty beating to the culprit.
  3. Kalis Strat was a Christian who used to play the violin at Christian weddings. He was considered to be a somewhat bewildered person.
  4. Bebbe was a poor, isolated man clad in rags. He was mostly considered a tramp or hobo. None knew whether he was a Jew of a Christian.

The streets in Orsha were covered with small stones (Yiddish: "brokirt"). In the smaller towns, Horke and Dubrovne, near Orsha the streets were not covered with stones. In Horke was large schools, among others a technical school (or a "technical university") and a business school.

My grandfather Moses was married three times:

 The authorís grandfather: Moses Epstein - 1917 - in Orsha
The authorís grandfather:
Moses Epstein - 1917 - in Orsha

  1. with Libe:
    1. Aron (married to Basche), died 1928
    2. Itsche (Isaac) married to Sore (= Sara)
    3. Beile (married to Ischie = Samuel SOBIN), died 1929
    4. Ischie Sobin (married to Esther), died 1933.
  2. with Leie (Lea)
    1. Ruben (married to Schena)
    2. Jakob (married to Chasche)
    3. Salman (married to Dina Riva Berman)
    4. Louis (Lozer) (married to Rose)
    5. Mikael (Michel) (married to Vera)
  3. with Schieme
    1. Rasja (married to Isak Leitman)

1.1-1.4 Information about Mosesí children with his first wife, Libe:

1.1. Aron was married to Basche. They were poor. Basche worked very much. She was a healthy woman. Aron worked as a driver for his father. When he married, he got his own business as a haulage contractor and he transported both persons and goods from Orsha to Horka, Mihilev and Vitebsk. To begin with he had three or four horses, later only two. Aron lived on a high hill close to the Dnjepr river about 20 minutes walk from the house, where he was born. He was a pious man. During World War I the family lived in Copenhagen, where they had a boarding house in Rosengaarden No. 11. The 6. July, 1915, there was an advertisement for the boarding house in Yiddish in the Yiddish journal "JÝdisk Folketidende": "Kosher boarding house. Fresh food every day. Fresh Jewish fish. Orders can be made for weddings and engagement parties. Piano. Epstein, Rosengaarden11, 1. Floor".

It is said that Basche had a night long conversation with the author Scholem Aleichem. This must have been in 1916 when Scholem Aleichem passed through Copenhagen on his way to the US. (Information provided by Chaim Unterschlag). On a family photo taken in Copenhagen about 1913 at Epsteinís is Aronís daughter Riva (Rivale) next to her brother Israel (Isrolke) who holds a stringed musical instrument in his hand. He was later employed by a Jewish radio station in California. When Riva was 11 years old, she was sent out to learn to sew. At that time she witnessed the pogroms in Orsha where 30 Jews were killed. Stones were thrown at the synagogues and the Jewish houses. Riva then went to Rjasan where my father worked for the Russian railways. Later my fatherís brother, Mikael, also came to Rjasan. Riva worked for an orthodox Jewish tailor, who had two sons and a wife who worked at home. She got both board and lodging there.

1.2 Itsche war married to Sore in Orsha. They had a son Hyman who was somewhat backward, for instance, he could not write. Itsche loved the boy very much.

1.3 Ischie Sobin, Beileís husband, was a leaseholder (Yiddish: "arendator") in the village Kuschnike not far from Orsha. He had a good income, horses, cows, poultry, and he grew potatoes, corn and various vegetables. They lived in a wooden house (Yiddish: "funbervenes"). Itscie worked in the fields together with the Christian farm workers. My father, Salman, often went to Kluschnike to visit his sister Beile, who was very fond of my father. There was a good relationship between the Jews and the Christians until 1905, when there was a pogrom against the Jews. Beileís daughter Rose remembers how my grandfather Moses played with her.

1.4 Ischie (Samuel) was married to Esther. They had four children: Fanny (married to Philip Orlins), Abe (married to Kitty White), Benny and Libe (=Lily, married to Sidney White, later to Ronald Fecher). Lily and Ronald had a child, Stacey. Lily and Sidney had the children Marvin and Elaine. Marvin was killed in World War II. He was an intelligent and energetic young man. Elaines and Marvins parents died very young in 1938. Sidney died of a heart disease and Lily of cancer. Benny never married, he died in 1917. Abe came to the US fifty years ago and is now (in 1961) 62 years old. He told that his father Ischie first went to America and that his mother, Esther, was left behind with four children in Russia. There were pogroms and they were almost killed when a peasant knocked on their door and threatened to kill them.

2.1-2.5 Information about Moses and Leieís children:

2.1 Ruben was married to Shena. He was a soldier in the Russian army, serving in Kronstadt in "Pervij Kronstadtskiy pachotniy bataljon, pjataja rota". He played in the orchestra. He had a furrier workshop together with his brothers Jakob, Ischie and Lozer. Ruben took care of Lozer when he was a small boy, he was the youngest child. Ruben was a good man. Ruben and Shena had three children, a son Max, an engineer, married to Hilda, a teacher, and two daughters: Lea (Lily) married to Emanuel Cohn, and Marthe married to Louis Bernstein. Max and Hilda had two children, Ruth and Poul. Ruth became a librarian and is now employed by the Architectsí Library in London. Poul studied physiology and married Grace. Poul and Grace have three daughters Naomi, Serena and Alisa.

2.2 Jakob (Yankev) married to Chasche. The 19. December 1961 I had a long conversation with Chasche, in which she told me about Jakobís mother Leie, who was very pious (religious). One year when she was cleaning the house before Pesach she caught a cold and died. It as a Friday. It was snowing. Chasche had to take care of the small children: Louis (2.1/2 years), Michel (4 years), Salman (my father, 6 years) and Ruben (8 years). Leieís brother was also a very pious man.

Moses was a handsome Jew with a long beard and peyesen (sidecurls). I have been told, that once my grandfather was given a silver- of goldcoin by a Russian officer, presumably because of his distinguished appearance.

Chascheís father Josef was a cousin of my grandfather Moses. Moses and Josef were partners and had a business driving cabs from Orsha to Mogilev, Vitebsk and Horke. They had their own houses and their own cattle. Abe, Chasches grandfather left them a house, when he died. They were poor, money was scarce, but they always had something to eat, and they were content when they had something for the Shabbat. They owned 10 horses and carriages. In a diary my father kept as a refuge in Sweden my father recalls from his childhood in Russia that he rode the horse down to the Dnjepr river to water it. The carriages were covered with linen. People were content in the old days. Everybody was poor, but none envied his neighbor. People cooked and baked and were content. During the Summer ice was kept under ground. Chasche learned how to sew and earned two Rubles a week. Mosesí house had four rooms, one of the rooms was a large room with a big oven in the middle with berths around and on top of the oven ("lezankes"). Chascheís fatherís house had six rooms. Chasche had 5 brothers and sisters: Michel, Braine, Moses, Josef and Osser.

Chascheís brother Michel lived in St. Petersburg. He had five children: Two sons and three daughters who all stayed in Russia. Chasche also told me about the bad times in Russia and about the family. Her fatherís name was Josef (Josche, Reb Jeisef) and his father was Abe (not Abraham). This Abe had a brother who was father of my grandfather, Moses Epstein. Chascheís mother was Basche nťe Paretzki.

The authorís father: Salman Epstein
The authorís father: Salman Epstein
The authorís mother: Dina Riva Epstein (nťe Berman)
The authorís mother: Dina Riva Epstein (nťe Berman)
Dina Rivaís mother: Chaie Genesse Stein
Dina Rivaís mother: Chaie Genesse Stein

2.3 Salmanís (my father, married to Dina Riva Berman) eye was damaged when he was about 14 or 15 years old; some chalk, whitening or lime had fallen from the ceiling and in his eye, but nobody had time to worry about his eye. Otherwise he is said to have been a handsome, young man. At the same age he started at the technical school for education of mechanics, blacksmiths, craftsmen etc.: "Remeslene Utsilitsa". Having finished ordinary school at the age of 15, one could go to the "Remeslene Utsilitsa". The school was situated in the center of Orsha right next to the "Evreiska Utsilisa" (the Jewish school) and was only for Jewish children. At the age of 17 or 18 he got a permit to leave the Pale and attempt to get a job somewhere else. He came to Rjasan where he was employed by the Russian railroads. Here he learned to speak Russian very well. In 1905 he was called before the draft board, so that the Russian military could decide whether he should be drafted, but because of his eye he was rejected. He returned to Rjasan and became a member of the revolutionary movement. He was arrested by the police - perhaps because they had found some revolutionary material where he lived, or because he had participated in a demonstration, where they had dared to carry a red flag. He was sent North to a penal settlement near Oneg and Archangelsk. I have a photo depicting my father - holding (presumably) a balalaika - and a group of other prisoners in a wood. My father is sitting in a Cossack blouse on a trunk of a tree. My fatherís fellow prisoners helped him to escape from the camp. When he came back to his hometown, Orsha, his family gave him 30 Rubles and advised him to disappear as quickly as possible, because if he was found at home they were sure he would be sent to Siberia.

My father then went to Copenhagen, and the 11. February 1907 the police gave him a residence permit ("opholdsbog") so that he could start to work. He had brought his Russian certificate of apprenticeship. My motherís residence permit was issued 2. April 1907, which must mean that they arrived almost at the same time to Copenhagen.

They were married in 1908 and - as previously mentioned - I was born the 4. January 1910. My father kept a diary in Russian from 7. July 1907. The diary together with some letters and notes in Russian and the comprehensive diary, my father kept during his stay in Sweden 1943-1945, was donated to the Jewish Museum (planned to open in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2001).

In Copenhagen my father was first employed in a Jewish factory making baby carriages, later he was employed at Burmeister & Wainís shipyard, and later again as a tool maker on Nielsen & Wintherís engineering works on Blegdamsvej. When he resigned from this position in order to start his own business, they gave him a good letter of recommendation.

My fatherís first workshop was - as far as I remember - in Classensgade 7, later on he moved to Mariendalsvej, later again to Noerrebrogade 209 and finally to Ny Vestergade. He never really got started in this last place, because he fell ill, was hospitalized and never recovered.

My father was not a religious man, and sometimes he would call the observance of certain religious traditions superstition. Nonetheless he always went to the synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur. My father and his brother Michel were both socialists and in Copenhagen my father received most of the fellow partisans that came from Russia. My mother tended to the religious side of life. She came from a very religious family in Latvia. Her father would not allow photographs to be taken of him. My mother sent me to Cheder with Davidson in Nansensgade when I was 6 years old, later I attended the Mosaic School for boys on Johannevej, a side street to Aaboulevarden. The director of the school was Hartwig Cohn - also known as "Skaeve" (= crooked, lopsided) by the pupils. You got a good education at the school, and those pupils who continued in other schools, did well. In the Springtime there were examinations and at the end of the schoolyear the dignitaries of the Jewish community were present in the gymnasium when the mark-books were given to the pupils. I think that I had some good years in that school.

My father was a very hardworking man. He worked in his workshop many Sundays and he found the solution to many technical problems and had contact with many firms.

2.4 Lozer (Louis), married with Rose, was the youngest of the five children in Moses second marriage. They are both buried in Beth Shemesh between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel. I have heard him referred to as the "barber", but in the US he worked as furrier together with some of his brothers. Rose came to America from Courland (Vindava) when she was 15 years old. Her brother bought the ticket for her and her sister. After one year in America she met Lozer, who came to the US in 1911. They were married in 1915.

3.1 Information about Mosesí children in his third marriage:

3.1 Moses and Schiemes had a daughter, Rasja, who married Isak (Isaac) Leitman. Moses last child was Hirsonel, a boy who died when we was about 13 years old. I have never heard anything about him.

I have visited the family in Moscow four times. We spoke Yiddish, English and a little German (Aron) and a little Russian. They did not have much knowledge of the Jewish religion. The only thing I can recall was that Irene said something about fasting on Yom Kippur.

Copyright © 1996 & 2000 Abraham Epstein & RAMBAM, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Reprinting or copying of this aricle or photos is not allowed without prior permission from RAMBAM, Abraham Epstein and/or the editor: Elsebeth Paikin

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