(No. 19/2004 - June 2004)
Editor: Fran Bock
In 1954 my recently widowed grandmother, Lena Klempner (born as Laya Zlata Samsonowitz), came to live with us in a "new" much larger apartment in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, NY. Two years later we all moved to Borough Park, a neighboring section of Brooklyn. It was in Borough Park that grandma was inspired to recall the days of her youth in the shtetl Slonim, then under the rule of the Russian Empire.
Borough Park in those days was, and probably still is, the closest one could get in the U.S. to what must have been the Jewish life and culture of the shtetl or Jewish market town of Eastern Europe. The neighborhood was filled with Jews of all sorts - from the secular to the most religiously Orthodox. Modern Orthodox and black- garbed Chasidim peopled the streets along with a few exotic Jews from far off Yemen and Ethiopia. On erev Shabbos we would watch from our front windows as the men and boys in their kippahs walked to and from Friday evening services. Grandma was amazed at the wide variety of Jews and at their degree of observance and this reminded her of Der Heim (her home). Home for her would always be Slonim and her mother, my great grandmother, Rochel Samsonowitz.
Samsonowitz Family in1906: (from left to right) Laya Zlota (grandma), Rochel Krupernick Samsonowitz (great grandmother: Laya Zlota's mother) Laya's brother-in-law and cousin, Samsonowitz, Faigel Krupernick Samsonowitz (Laya's half sister), their children.
Grandma never told us about the elegant city that Slonim was or about the magnificent 16th century synagogue on the Templehoft. She didn't mention the canals, either. Perhaps the surroundings were unimportant to her? What she did mention was her little home known as a shtieb. It was a wooden or log cabin like structure with two rooms. In the front were a combination kitchen, dining room and bedroom occupied by grandma and her mother. In the back room were the living quarters of her half sister, Faigel Krupernick and husband - most likely a cousin - and their children.
Faigel Krupernick Samsonowitz and daughter in 1927
in Slonim cemetery
Grandma never mentioned the surnames of the people that she was most intimately involved with, such as relatives, friends, etc. She assumed that we, my sister and I, would never have use for them. She also did not give us the names of her brothers, brother-in-law, nieces and nephews, who had been slaughtered by the Nazis. Those, like the people themselves, had disappeared into oblivion sometime in 1941 or 1942. To me all this had happened so long ago, but actually it had not been that long.
Her story started sometime around 1888 or 1890 when she was born posthumously to Dovid Samsonowitz, who had died six weeks before, and his wife, Rochel Krupernick. She liked to tell us that her birthday was the "second day of the second holiday of Passover" and she celebrated it according to the Hebrew calendar. Little is known about Dovid except that he was an old man of 70 years when he passed away. He had been married before and had several sons and a daughter with his first wife. His children, except for his daughter, Sure Chava, lived in another shtetl and grandma did not know them very well. At least two of his sons were married, but did not have any children. The one half brother that she did get to know, Liebert, she met many years later at age sixteen or eighteen in New York.
Great-Grandma Rochel shortly before her death in 1926
Rochel, too, had been married before. She was widowed about 1880 and had two daughters with her first husband, surnamed Krupernick, Faigel and Sure Rifka. Grandma called Sure Rifka Surifka and she referred to her half-sister Sure Chava as Chava. Rochel wanted very much to have a son since male children were obligated to say kadish (memorial prayer) for their parents. He would also, perhaps, be able to help support the household. She chose to remarry an older man since he had a good "track record" of producing sons. In 1883 she gave birth on Yom Kippur to a son whom she and Dovid named Simcha Yehezekiel or Haskel. She adored him as did his older half-sisters and my grandmother. He was a handsome and bright child and he was to be Rochel's only son.
Grandma told us that her brother, who later changed his name to Hyman in the US (referred to as Hymie) was sent to another town to be educated and that he also went to a Russian as well as a Jewish school (Yeshiva). Whether or not this was true, Uncle Hymie did have a good Jewish education and was able for many years to lead Yom Kippur services at his synagogue in Miami Beach, FL as a baal tefillah or lay cantor. He also worked for the federal government as a Russian interpreter in the Tampa, FL Navy Yard during World War II. He had in his youth been trained as a ship's carpenter, which leads me to believe that maybe this had been Dovid's profession as well.
Rochel raised grandma, whom she called Laya Zlata. They lived in the front room of the shtieb. They slept on a mattress on a shelf on top of the oven ( pripichok). This was the warmest place in the house and the best accommodation. A goat lived with the family in the house during the winter months and provided the family with milk and cheese. In the summer months the goat lived in the yard. Rochel was a very pious woman. She kept her house scrupulously kosher . When the neighbors' pigs would come through her yard. she would take her broom and shout at the pigs to leave.
The shtieb was close to the river, and grandma would play with a Polish or Belarussian friend who lived on the other side of the river. On occasion the little girls would cross the river to get to the other side to play with each other by walking over stepping-stones in the river rather than using the bridge. One time grandma was crossing the river to go back home and she slipped and fell into the river. Her little friend fearing that she would drown shouted to a passing Russian soldier who ran onto the stepping-stones and rescued grandma by scooping her up in one hand.
Also by the river was a house that was lit up brightly by Japanese lanterns on summer evenings. Rochel and the other neighborhood women told their children never to go there. The children attracted by the bright lights and the music could not resist and on one occasion they went to peek through the hedges surrounding the house. There they saw women greeting the soldiers from the Russian garrison that was stationed in the town. The women wore loungewear and smoked cigarettes. Eventually the children found out why their mothers had forbidden them to go there!
Rochel worked on market days in the town's market square selling fish. The market was held every Monday and Thursday. These were also the weekdays that the Torah was read in the synagogues. As a widow she just about made a living for her family. In Laya Zlata's early years, Rochel hired a baby sitter to watch her baby daughter on those days that she could not take her to work. The baby sitter played and fed grandma, whom she kept in a sort of high chair most of the day. Later, when grandma was older, she could go to market to help her mother and she learned how to clean and fillet fish.
When Laya Zlata was five years old, Rochel would carry her over the snowy fields with Laya's feet wrapped in old rags or schmatters to work as a cigarette roller in a factory. Shoes were only worn on Shabbos since it was too expensive to have more than one pair of shoes. Later, Laya Zlata would work as a housemaid and kitchen helper during Passover for wealthy families, and as a seamstress. The latter would become her vocation and, later, her hobby. Her half-sister, Surifka, would go to Bialystok to work as a sheitel maker in a marriage-wig factory. She would send a portion of her earnings home to help support her mother and sister. There, too, she would meet her husband, Leib Sterling, who used to see her sitting in the factory window and fell in love with her. His mother protested his plans to marry the beautiful, pious, but poor and illiterate, Surifka and he was cut off from his inheritance and his immediate family. Surifka would live a more sophisticated life than she had had before, with visits to the opera and beautifully carved furniture in her household for many years before leaving for the U.S. in 1915.
Laya Zlata's playmates were her nephews, the children of her half sister, Chava, and her brother-in-law, Leib Widolok. There were seven boys and one girl. We always were amazed that grandma was younger than some of her nephews. She would visit her half-sister's shtieb and find the boys having pillow fights. Feathers would fly and poor Chava would be shouting at the boys to stop, so she could clean up the mess. The boys were also know as the Cossackim. They were rather wild creatures ( vilde chayas ). Besides pillow fights, they enjoyed diving from bridges into the river and the canals. Their good friend and playmate was also Laya's brother, Hymie.
The Widolok brothers were very protective of their little sister, Nachameh Charny, later called Jennie, and their aunt Laya Zlata. Laya became a very close to Nachameh, who looked up to her young aunt. When Nachameh immigrated to the US in 1913, her aunt Laya gifted her with a beautiful new American dress, which Nachameh never forgot. The girls remained friends for the rest of their lives.
As Laya grew up, Rochel would take her to the market place to help her sell fish. When her daughter became ill, she would take Laya to see the refeh (healer) who would cure a sore throat by putting her two fingers in a barrel of sour pickles and then put the briny water into Laya's mouth. Laya remembered doctors using leeches, not only in Slonim, but also in New York.
Besides her mother, grandma remembered her zaydeh (grandfather). He lived in the community old age home commonly referred to as the moshe v' kaynim. This was more like a charity home or a poor house where indigent and ailing elderly people lived. My second great grandfather was blind and frail. Grandma would go and visit her grandfather often with her mother. Her mother would bring him food and other necessities. Zaydeh would see his grandchildren by touching their faces and he would bless them. Respecting one's elders was an important part of Laya's life. She learned early that one was to treat one's parents as if they were a king or a queen. Later she would leave her mother and travel to a far off land and work hard in order to send money to support her mother whom she loved dearly.
At the age of six, Rochel made an important decision that would affect Laya's life. She was determined that Laya would learn to read the Chumash (The Five Books of Moses) and the Sidur (the prayer book). Although this was not a necessary accomplishment for a girl, Rochel decided that her youngest daughter would learn to read and write in Yiddish and Hebrew. Girls, in those days, were just required to stay home and learn how to be a good mother and housewife. Part of their education was to learn to cook, clean, and sew. Rochel sent Laya to a girl's cheder (literally a school room) that was taught by an elderly rabbi. Obviously, the little boys may have been too much to handle for an old man, but the placid little girls would be much better behaved. Grandma went to school for perhaps a year, since that was all her mother could afford. In that year's time she was able to learn how to read and write in Yiddish and to read Hebrew as well. She latter was able to read Yiddish newspapers and novels. She also composed letters to her mother and much later to other relatives. She was complimented on her beautiful handwriting and was very proud of her accomplishments. The only downside was that her half-sisters, Faigel and Surifka, were very jealous of her. They had many accomplishments, but they never got the opportunity to learn to read and write.
Laya had several friends in Slonim. One of these friends was a girl named Chava. Chava means life in Hebrew, but it also means friend. Chava Elawig was to become an important friend of Laya's in latter years. She spoke about her other friends rarely. She also spoke about an aunt that she was fond of whose name was Zelda and after whom she named my mother. Once she told me that she had another aunt who was deaf and mute. She told us that her cousins spoke to her aunt in their own kind of sign language, and that they were very attentive to their mother. Like many others in the family, she never gave me their names.
One incident that must have been rather traumatic to her was the marriage of one of her friends. Marriage was looked upon with great seriousness. One was starting a new life - a life that was full of great responsibility. According to Judaism, when a couple gets married they start a new family. The couple is responsible for the livelihood of the family and for the Jewish education of their children. Pious women have the obligation to cover their hair. A woman's beauty is only meant for her husband to see. Therefore, to insure modesty a married woman has to cover her hair. One of the traditional ways to do this in Eastern Europe amongst Orthodox women was to cut or shave one's hair and to wear a sheitel or marriage-wig. Most of the time, these wigs were very unattractive and many of the women would then cover them with a hat or kerchief in public. In private they would just wear a tickel (scarf) over their head.
Grandma's friend was a girl about eighteen years old. She had beautiful long blond hair, unusual for a Jewish girl. She was, according to grandma, very pretty. On her wedding day the girls came to see her and she was crying. Grandma began to cry too since she felt that her friend had been so pretty and now she looked like an "old" woman with her hair cut short and wearing a dark sheitel. She always told us that her beautiful half-sister, Surifka, the sheitel maker, also wore a sheitel, but only a partial onel. I guess that it was a special sheitel and that Surifka must not have cut her hair particularly short.
Haskel, Grandma's brother, left Slonim for the US in 1902. He had been drafted in the Russian army. He had successfully deserted his post and hid for several days in an attic before crossing the border into Germany on his way west. Sometime after January 10, 1903, he allegedly arrived in Philadelphia under an assumed name. He took the train to New York to join his brother, Liebert, who had arrived in the US two years before. Liebert would later greet the rest of the family as well.
By 1905, with the defeat of the Russian army in far-off Siberia by the Japanese, life became very difficult for the Jewish community. There were several pogroms in many of the larger cities of the Pale. Rochel was worried about her young daughter, Laya, who had been involved by now with the Jewish Socialist Bund. She was under the influence of a talented young man, whom grandma referred to as her unofficial fiance. The young Bund members would meet secretly in the woods and would listen to a lecturer speak about a new type of political and economic system for the Jews of the Russian empire. Laya learned socialist songs that parodied the government policies and the Tsar. She also socialized with the other members of the group . She would read books about Russian history in Yiddish, especially one about the scandalous Tsarina, Catherine the Great. This was risky activity, punishable by imprisonment or exile.
Grandma told us that her fiance, whose name she never revealed, was well educated and wrote Yiddish poetry and drew pictures. Rochel was not too pleased with this young man's influence and she most likely was happy to separate him from her daughter. In June 1906, grandma left Slonim for good. Before leaving, Rochel had a photograph taken of herself with her daughters, Laya and Faigel, her son-in-law and her three grandchildren. Surifka, who by now, lived with her husband, Leib Sterling, in Bialystok and their two young sons were not able to come to Slonim to be in the photo.
Jewish mother that she was, Rochel gave Laya a large basket filled with non-perishable food consisting of kosher salami and a small keg of homemade beer. She instructed her to eat only kosher food. Laya was accompanied by some other young people from Slonim, among them Chava Elawig. A young matron with several children also accompanied grandma, according to the manifest of the Mississippi. It appears that Laya was employed on the voyage as a mother's helper. Grandma never told us this part of the story, but she did mention that every evening the lower deck of the ship flooded with water and she and Chava slept, if they could, together on the top bunk. The women in steerage prayed and cried in several different languages, fearing that they would not survive the voyage. Miraculously the ship did arrive safely in New York harbor and Laya's brothers, Haskel and Liebert, now known as Hyman and Louis Samson greeted her and took her to her new home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This was to be the beginning of a new life in America.
Copyright © 2004 Belarus SIG and Barbara Musikar
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