In 1979, I was sitting in the Tel Aviv kitchen of my grandfather, Rubin Kaplan (b. 1904, d: 1990) with him, asking a lot of questions about his life. Although I had heard many of his stories, I was looking for a more complete picture. As we sat and talked I realized that I wanted to preserve his memories for my (then) future children. So I asked him to write his memoirs. He consented.
He worked for many months and finally stopped when he got to the 1940's. I was stunned by what he had written. Not only did he write down his memories, to me he captured an entire way of life which no longer exists. Although he wrote this for his family, I don't think he would mind us sharing it.
What follows are excerpts from his memoirs that pertain to Palonkeh and Baranovichi, Belarus, from 1904 to 1922 - from his early youth to age eighteen.
Thanks go to several other people involved in putting my grandfather's memoirs in this form: his daughters Nira Yakir and Helen Bernstein, and my sister Karen Bernstein.
Alison Greengard, Lakewood, CO, 1999
My father's name was Menachem Yoel Hacohen Kaplan (1868-1936). This was also his grandfather's name. My mother's name was Chaya Targownik.
I know my great-grandfather's name on my father's side, because I have a copy of a small book that my grandfather had published on education in the year 1894.
[Title pages of a book written by Rubin's grandfather, and as far as we know the only copy in existence, printed in Warsaw in 1894]
Click on photos to see an enlarged copy
The book is called "Dover Emet" ("One Who Speaks the Truth") and has to do with how parents should deal with children. It bears his father's name alongside of his: Dov Aryeh, the son of Menachem Yoel Hacohen of the city of Slonim.
The book gives a remarkably modern approach to bringing up children - with patience, kindness, the answering of questions honestly, etc. One of the endorsers of the book was the Chafetz Chaim himself (Rabbi Yisroel Maier Hacohen from Radin).
I met the Chafetz Chaim after the First World War, when he passed through Baranovich on his way from Russia. He was already world famous and one of the rich men in town had the honor of being his host. A special minyan of ten men was called to morning prayer in his house. My father took me along and I shook the honored man's hand.
and Helen Kaplan
|The Kaplan family*||The Kaplan brothers
(left to right):
Yikutiel, Rubin and Yaacov Kaplan.
[* The Kaplan family (left to right): Back row: The three Kaplan brothers and their wives: Sarah and Yaacov (Yankel) Kaplan, Bertha and Rubin Kaplan, Reizl and Yikutiel Kaplan. Middle row: Sarah and Yaacov's son Isaac, Bertha and Rubin's daughter Helen, the parents of the Kaplan brothers: Chaya (Targownick) Kaplan and Menahem Yoel Kaplan, Reizl and Yikutiel's children Rachel, Mordechai (far right) and Dov (bottom).]
I remember very little of my grandfather, Dov Aryeh. He was Dayan of Slonim, in White Russia (Belarus) and was known by the name of "Duber" or "Berel Laskes". I visited there once at a very young age, maybe three or four. I remember the courtyard, the gate, and faintly, my grandmother. As far as I can understand, grandfather was called Berel Laskes because it was Grandmother who made a living for the family, by keeping a guest house. Her name was Laske, and Dov is Berel in Yiddish. As I understand it, the wife being the breadwinner, the husband was therefore nicknamed after her.
Grandfather, in those days, was studying Torah - how else could he have been a dayan? A dayan is one to whom Jews would bring their conflicts. Sometimes a dayan would get a few pennies for his services, but as a rule, the dayan refused because getting paid was considered unethical.
My father was Menachem Yoel, the chazan, shochet, and mohel - cantor, religious slaughterer, and circumciser. Father had a good singing voice and memory. If he heard a guest cantor on Shabbat, on the following day he would write it down in musical notes with the words in Hebrew. He also gave voice lessons and organized a choir. Being a cantor was not enough to make a living, so he learned slaughtering in addition. I don't know how he met my grandmother, but I can guess since her brother-in-law was also a cantor. Father also had a sister named Bashke and a brother called Meir, who lived in Novogrodek. My mother came from Mezeritch in Poland.
Father's first position was in a small, historic, Jewish town, halfway between Slonim and Baranovich, called Palonkeh where I was born. The houses of Palonkeh, as well as of Baranovichi where we moved later, were built of logs, with moss packed between the logs. All windows had storm windows for the winter, and glasses filled with acid were placed between the panes to keep them from frosting over. At the rear entrance to the house was an enclosure called the "firhouse" where the barrel of water stood, along with garden tools, etc. Under the firhouse was a dugout, a cellar of sorts, entered through a small door in the floor. There, in the sand, or on shelves, were stored potatoes, onions, carrots, beets, etc., milk for souring, and from which the cream was removed to make butter, and jelled sourmilk, which was eaten with potatoes. The pigs belonging to the Christian neighbors would come into our yard, and dig up the garden with their snouts. My mother was afraid to chase them away, and it would have been no use since the garden was not fenced in. Once one of the pigs belonging to the priest discovered the vegetables in the cellar, dug his way into it, and fell in. My parents were scared of what might happen, but our Russian maid Antonina went and complained to the priest that the pig had ruined the contents of the cellar. The priest got hold of four husky men and they promptly pulled the pig out.
Across the street was a grocery owned by the Perevelotsky's. They later moved to Nova Scotia and changed their name to Perlin. In 1965, they came to visit us in Brooklyn and we sat around and reminisced. The oldest son of Perevelotsky, Yisrael Ber Perlin had many stories to tell of Palonke, of which I will mention one:
"In 1904 or 1905, Russia resounded with pogroms. The Jews of Palonkeh, heard from friendly gentiles that there was agitation in the church, calling on the farmers to sack Palonkeh the next Sunday. The young Jewish people decided to defend themselves, and they worked out the following plan: One group of young men armed with sticks and knives would await the invaders (farmers from nearby villages) near the bridge, so that the farmers would see what was in store for them - a fight. A second group of young men was sent at night to hide behind the haystacks in two of the farmers' villages, and observe from a distance the events near the bridge. If the planned attack did take place, it was up to this group to set fire to the haystacks. The farmers did show up en masse on the appointed Sunday. They ignored the small group of defenders near the bridge, and tried to push their way into Palonkeh. Suddenly, they noticed smoke rising from their villages. Only if you have seen a haystack burning can you imagine the smoke and fire. The roofs of the farmers' houses were made of straw, the houses of logs. Panic-stricken the farmers turned back to save their homes ... learning a lesson for years to come".
I remember once seeing Yisrael Ber Perevelotsky. He had been drafted into the Russian army, and as was the custom, he was sent far from home, to serve in Siberia. I don't remember how long he served - four to six years - but I do remember that he came back a different person. I happened to see him before anyone else did, as he came from the railroad station, directly to us, before going by wagon to see his family in Palonkeh. He looked like an assimilated big-town Russian in his dress, language and lifestyle. He wore an army uniform - the long Russian "shinnel", a military coat, and a large fur hat ("papche"). He could hardly speak Yiddish. He spoke with a heavy Russian accent, using a heavy "r". Instead of the word "rubles" he used "kerblack" used by Jews in deep Russia. After a reunion with his family, he left for Canada. After the First World War, he brought his younger brother and his parents there, and there is still a large Palonker community there today.
In 1908 or so, when I was four or five, we moved to Baranovichi, a town having at that time only one shochet, an older man. Baranovichi was a new town. There was a farm called by that name, and when the railroad to Moscow was built in the late 1880's, it ran by that farm. A road was built parallel to the railway at the same time. This railway eventually connected Berlin with Moscow, and became a major link between many cities. What came to be Baranovichi was in the midst of heavy pine forests which belong to a Graf named Razvodovski. This Graf was a businessman, and in 1895, as soon as the three railroad stations in our area were built, he parceled up the land into squares and blocks and sold them. The town at that time consisted of lots with a large marketplace in the middle. The lots were big, with rooms for gardens, a yard, and a barn. In the old part of town ("Alt Baranovichi"), on a little square, stood a large Russian church. It was very tall and was called "Pravoslavny" ("the correct religion" or "belief"). In a corner of the square was a tiny building belonging to the Catholics. There was also the "Shosey", a crosscountry cobblestone road that cut diagonally through town and led to Minsk and deep into Russia. The Shosey had deep paved stone ditches on both sides to drain rainwater. Eventually the Russian government built a large camp for soldiers ("a lager") there, and one of three bread factories ("sucharney zavod") for the army.
Due to its central location, Baranovichi soon became a focal point for businessmen, suppliers of products for the soldiers. Storehouses, warehouses, and workshops sprang up overnight, and the town grew by leaps and bounds. The main business street was called "Got's Gas" (because of the rich people there) at first, then later Marinska, and under Polish occupation, Piludskaya. On one side of the street were stores and shops, and on the other side were the farms. According to Czarist law, Jews were not allowed to live on farmland, and so could not build on that side of the street.
Baranovichi had two synagogues, facing one another almost across the street. Everything was built from logs, since the city was surrounded by heavy forests. One synagogue was called the Big Shul, and there the Rabbi prayed, and a special house was built for him nearby. The Big Shul was used for big meetings, or when a Magid (traveling preacher) came to town or an outside cantor performed. The smaller, new synagogue was called the "Baal Melochishe" (Artisans place), and there my father ruled as the regular cantor. His free seat was next to the Holy Ark. He organized a choir, and the ba'aleh-batim (community leaders) loved him. On holidays, he would bring them some new chanzanishe (cantor's) melody, and the choir added extra attraction.
The small artisan shul was usually kept locked, and was much cleaner than the big one. On the east wall above the Holy Ark were four large paintings - a tiger, a deer, a lion, and an eagle, representing a well-known saying that a person should be brave and swift and obey God's commandments. In later years when we moved "uptown", father would go to the "new" synagogue. It was nicknamed the "aristantsker shul", meaning former prisoners, since some of the ba'aleh batim didn't have a very clean moral record. Once one of the ba'aleh batim met me in the street and asked where father was. I answered in Shul. In which one, he asked. In "Aristanske", I answered. At that moment, I received a terrific "frask" (slap) in the face, teaching me never to use that word again...
We did not own a house in Baranovichi, and I remember three apartments - all rented. I will try to describe the layout of them:
Picture the kitchen, which led to the firhouse, and the yard. It had a window, under which was a "tapchan", a wooden bench, useful for many things, a small table, and stove implements such as a "kochere"(a long wooden pole with a metal hook to take ashes out of the oven), and a "vilke" (a long stick to take pots and pans out of the oven).
The maid slept on the tapchan in the summertime, and on the oven in the winter. Most of the pots were of clay or cast iron, and you had to have a steady hand to get them in and out of the oven. Then there was a "l'yak", made of copper, which served as a tea kettle, with a small handle on the side and a narrow opening in the center of the top. During the winter, it sat on the coal, and on Shabbat, naturally, it was the source of hot water for tea.
The construction of the oven was complex. The bottom of the oven served as a chicken coop, where I often crept to get the eggs out, or to clean it. During the winter, the chickens were fed in the kitchen. The wood fires produced a great deal of charcoal, which was then used for baking bread, for cooking, and for warming the house. The side of the oven facing the dining room served as a wall and was covered in tile.
It is interesting to recall that in the good old days before World War I, each day had its particular food. Friday mornings were special - we ate potato latkes or buckwheat cakes with cream or sour milk. Lunch was hobergritz (ground oats) soup, or dairy. Meat was served only at night. Before going to synagogue, we had tea and a "zemel", mother's sweet baked rolls, with lots of raisins and cinnamon.
At the table, each one had his place, and no one ever dared sit in father's or mother's place. Mother sat to the right of father, and to his left my brother Yikutiel, then my brother Yankel, then I. A guest's place depended on rank, but usually next to Yankel and myself. The maid always ate in the kitchen, after everyone else. The Friday night meal lasted a long time. Between dishes we sang "zmirot" (Sabbath songs). After the meal and the blessing, Yikutiel would be the first one to sneak out of the house, and then Yankel. Father, very tired, would sit at the table for a long time, drinking tea from the steaming samovar. I remember once when my Aunt Bashke, my father's sister, was our guest. It was Friday, after the meal, and father had dozed off in his chair. Mume (Aunt) Bashke told mother that if someone got hold of a sleeping person by his pinky and asked him questions, he would answer in his sleep. Mother wouldn't dare, but Bashke did...Sure enough father had overheard their conversation and pretended to sleep. He gave the women all sorts of answers, and we had a lot of fun afterwards joking about it.
The preparations for winter in Baranovichi were numerous. Wood had to be stacked up well in advance - good wood such as birch and other hard woods that would burn long and leave a lot of charcoal. We hired a laborer to split the wood. Then we had to stock hay for the cow. Father went from wagon to wagon, testing the hay for dryness, scent, and quality. He preferred hay with little flowers and a good scent. We could borrow a chopping machine and chop the straw ourselves, mixing it with bran from the mill and cut-up potatoes. During the winter, we added boiling water instead of cold water to the mixture. We also stocked up on vegetables for ourselves like potatoes and carrots, along with goose fat, feathers, and down.
Not all the streets in Baranovichi were paved, and those that were paved were covered with round field stones so that passing wagons made awful noises. But the sidewalks and entrances to the houses were not paved. When the snow melted, or rain came, the mud was knee-deep. The unpaved streets turned into lakes. The sidewalks on some of the streets were made of wooden planks. These were raised 15 or 20 centimeters above the water, but if a board broke or was loose, and you stepped on it, the water splashed right into your face, and on all of your clothes. This situation lasted through the winter and beyond Pesach, until all of the water dried up.
Since father was the Shochet, when slaughtering chickens, he had the right to pull off the top feathers on the rooster's neck. These were collected and sold. He also had the rights to calves' stomachs, a great source of income. On these he worked hard. Father sometimes brought a sackful on his back. We cleaned them, tied up the wide end, blew them up, tied the small end, and hung them to dry. After drying, the heavy end was cut off and the air let out, and we packed them in bundles of one hundred. These dried stomachs were powdered and used in Holland for making curds.
Baranovichi is built on sandy soil. The only water we had came from deep wells. A rope was tied to a roller with two handles on each side. In wintertime, the ice built up high and it was dangerous to go too near lest we fall in. Still the maid would fetch the water for the house and for the cow, standing barefoot on the ice, cranking the handle, and bringing up two pails at a time. Sometimes she would even stop to chat with someone. I still wonder how she did it. She did wear her shoes though to church on Sunday.
I saw how the wells were dug. They were originally lined with logs, but later on with concrete pipes. The first two pipes were lowered into a hole dug in the ground. The next pipe was placed on top of the two, and from then on it was dug under the first one, the sand removed, and the pipes sank by their own weight, until water was reached. Some rich people had their own wells and a pump installed. These wells also served for making dishes kosher for Passover. The dishes were lowered in a pail into the well, there being no river for miles around.
Our first apartment was near the Shosey. One day we heard loud noises and ran out to see what it was. A car passed, the first we had ever seen. We were not the only ones who came out to see it. As people looked on in amazement, I remember the remark the gentiles made in Russian, "chortopchayka", meaning the devil is pushing it.
|The house, 17 Sadova St. in Baranovichi, where the family lived in 1932||Kaplan family by the house||In the yard at 17 Sadova Street||In the window|
As the city grew and quickly developed, a large slaughterhouse was built at the other end of town, so we moved in that direction, so that father wouldn't have to walk far, especially in winter. Only when I visited Baranovichi on the way to Palestine in 1932 did I find the family in their own home at 17 Sadova St., with a barn and a nice garden. (On this visit, I was traveling with little Helen, my oldest daughter, and had planned to leave Mom and Helen in Baranovichi while I went to Palestine to build a home. But the Polish police came to the house almost daily to check up on me. When father protested, the policeman said, "To Nasha Polska", meaning, "It's our Poland, and we will come to your house whenever we feel like it." After about three weeks I left, with Mom and Helen.)
We didn't stay long in that first apartment, since we had a cruel neighbor who was a blacksmith. The outhouse was close to his fence. He had three sons who worked with him, and their favorite pastime was to watch when my mother went into the outhouse. Then they would shove a red hot iron through the wooden boards and scare the life out of her. In this apartment my mother gave birth to a little girl, who did not live for more than a year.
I remember a neighbor who lived across the street - Shlome "Der Porush" Block, and his red-headed wife Chanah. A porush was part of an ascetic group who devoted his life only to Torah and not to worldly matters. His wife made the family living by boiling bones for making candles. They were childless, and it seems that they were very sad over it. They tried everything to have a child. I remember once he brought from the slaughterhouse the male organ of a bull, which was cooked. Shlome drank the broth, but it did not help. My parents were very close to this couple, who eventually moved to Jerusalem when the Turks still ruled there. They settled close to Me'ah Shearim. I visited them in 1922, and slept there for one night. I had slept in their home (the one in Baranovichi) once before, when my little sister died. These people eventually adopted a boy in Jerusalem. In the early 1930's I visited them again. It was a Thursday, and I noticed people moving in and out of the kitchen, talking to Chanah. I finally learned that Chanah had a fund for "matan b'sater", giving charity that is inconspicuous. People who were embarrassed to ask for help would come to her and get a ticket to the grocery for a certain amount of food, according to the size of their family. I made it a habit to send a few dollars for the fund every now and then.
Each town had its own meshugoyim (crazy ones), and we had two. The meshugoyim usually slept in one of the synagogues, on the benches near the stove.
Mendel der Meshugener was a quiet man. People fed him willingly. He wore an old hat and dilapidated clothes. Our other meshugener was Vashke. He was a young man, and some said very learned.
Vashke was vicious. He could swing at you for no reason, and if someone teased him, as happened often, he ran very fast, caught his victim, and beat the hell out of him. He also remembered his enemies. Many boys feared his fists and would walk on the opposite sidewalk to avoid meeting him. His main hangout was in the Big Shul.
We also had all kinds of characters in Baranovichi. One claimed that he was a great-grandson of the Vilner Gaon, and told miracles about him. One story was that someone tried to desecrate the Gaon's grave, on which there was a little building. This was the usual practice over the grave of famous people, and was called an "ohel" (tent). To get back to the Gaon, as the man touched the grave, his hand became stiff. He could not bend his hand until he begged forgiveness from the Rabbi in Vilna, and pledged charity.
These kinds of stories were told by overnight guests, and would fascinate the children. A guest cantor or a "magid", after performing in town, had a group of "ba'aleh batim" go and collect money for the guest, usually from the people who belonged to that particular synagogue. But I remember a very famous "magid" who talked in the big synagogue. The place was so jammed with people that one couldn't get in or out. People were hanging on the windows. The collection was made on the spot and a large sum of money was gathered. The "magid" was not only an orator, he hypnotized the audience. Such speakers were very rare.
Once a cantor came to Baranovichi for Shabbat, and naturally he stayed with us. On Friday he asked mother to prepare a whole chicken for him, and said he would pay for it. It sounded strange, but mother did so, and he asked her to place it in the "cahelke", a special place in the oven where he could get to it by himself. He got up early Saturday morning before going to synagogue, and consumed the whole chicken. But he really had a good voice, and it paid him well for all he ate.
When I was six, I began school. My teacher, Mr. Kusherovsky, was a tall, bearded man who resembled Herzl. (In later years, I joined the Tz'eirey Zion Party, a socialist Leninist party to the right of the Poalei Zion., of which Mr. Kusherovsky was also a member.) The school was a corner house near the market square. Winter days in that part of the world are short, and by 3:30 P.M. it was dark. The snow would pile up high and remain on the ground most of the winter. Paths were shoveled through the snow, and formed tunnels with high walls on each side. Going home from school one day, I walked hand in hand with a little girl my age who lived near us. Our parents had ordered us to go home together. Of course we got lost, since we couldn't see over the walls of snow. Search parties found us wandering around.
As I grew older, I moved on to a different teacher - Mr. Misilevsky - and a different school. It was a modern Hebrew school, with subjects such as arithmetic, science, poetry, and composition, all taught in Hebrew. I was later told that it was mostly due to the influence of my oldest brother, Yikutiel, with the sympathy of my father, who decided that I should not go to Cheder, the old-fashioned school where the emphasis was on the study of the Talmud and the language used was Yiddish. Misilevsky and his daughter were excellent teachers, and I made good progress in Hebrew.
As Baranovichi grew, a big Yeshiva was formed as well as a smaller one. The latter was called the "Musar" Yeshivah, and was basically concerned with teaching good morals, mitzvot, and proper prayer. Bachurei yeshivah (Yeshiva students) flocked to Baranovichi. They had to eat and sleep, so they ate "tag" - a day here and a day there. Each housewife felt it her duty to adopt a boy or two for one day week, or for a Shabbat. In our house, three boys ate one day a week. Mother wanted only boys who behaved well. Some would even get a few kopecks that day.
I remember a childish prank of mine. The maid used to bring me lunch, consisting of hot cocoa, buttered bread, a soft-boiled egg, and a piece of fruit. During summertime, we would eat outside and one of the girls began teasing me. I ran after her, and rubbed the soft-boiled egg into her hair...shame on me.
I learned to read Yiddish in 1913, during the famous Bailis Trial (Blood Libel Trial which took place in Kiev.). Jews were accused of killing a Christian boy and using his blood in baking Passover matzot. The trial of the accused man, Bailis, took a long time, and his lawyers did their best to defend him while the Czarist regime did all it could to convict him. He was finally freed and moved to America. This trial stirred Jews to the highest degree. If he had been convicted, a series of pogroms would have spread throughout Russia. The radio did not exist then, and the only available information regarding the trial came from the Jewish newspapers, which arrived by train from Warsaw. People waited anxiously at the station to grab the newspaper, especially to read the speeches by the defense. When the papers came to us, my father would gather the family around him and read aloud, telling us each time to remember this trial all our lives. One day I got hold of the Yiddish newspaper, and after a few questions, started to read. All I had to know were a few rules, such as an aleph is an "a" or an "o", a yud is an "i", an ayin is an "e". And that's all there was to it. But my Hebrew from school influenced my whole family. My parents overheard me one night, talking in my sleep in Hebrew. Being ardent Zionists, my father and older brother suggested we try to speak Hebrew at home. I was delighted and it worked for a while, but it was difficult to get along with mother who could not converse in Hebrew, and the experiment failed.
Once before WWI, I remember a big scare. Near the synagogue was situated a "hekdesh" and a Talmud Torah, and a shack where funeral implements were kept. Naturally we were afraid to pass nearby and see those implements in the shack. The "hekdesh" served as a public place where poor people could sleep overnight. Some sick ones remained there until they died. mother would often send me with a dish of soup or some meat for a sick person. The stench inside was terrible, but I had to go. Then one day mother cleared a bedroom and took an old woman in. Mom tended to her, fed her, and after a while, the woman got sick. Mother would clean and wash her. One day I came home from school, opened the door, and saw the woman on the floor with two candles burning near her head. My shock was great, and I screamed and fled. It later turned out that my brother was to have watched for me to keep me out of the house, since we were Cohanim and as such are not allowed to be in the presence of the dead. But my lookout overlooked me. After the funeral, the house was washed and cleaned and we returned the next day. A woman whose job it was to make the burial shrouds, came and put a needle with white thread left over from the dead woman's shroud, in my lapel, saying that it was a "segulah" (amulet) for a long life.
That particular bedroom remained empty for a long time. Finally brave Rouvke (me) said that he would move in there. My bed was put there, and I must have slept there for two or three nights, when I awoke in the middle of the night screaming and sweating. I said that the woman had come and choked me. And that was the end of my bravery.
I recall that there were many goats in the town. A large buck was named Kaziony, which means "belonging to the government". He roamed the streets freely. If he managed to get into a garden it meant ruin. He was powerful. Brave boys would grab him by the horns and ride him. But woe to you if he caught you from behind without your noticing him. Your behind was a perfect target for his horns. This buck was once maneuvered into the Big Shul, where he was driven crazy for hours, chasing and being chased around the central Bimah.
Erev Yom Kippur, thousands of chickens were slaughtered for "kapparot" (atonement for sins). At least one was needed per person. The two Shochetim of the town, sometimes with an assistant, became partners for the day. It was announced that all kapparot would be slaughtered near the two synagogues - the main and the artisan synagogues - at a large empty lot. In order to facilitate and expedite matters, tickets were sold in advance. A paid ticket was given for the number of kapparot to be slaughtered. I went to the store to buy paper for the tickets, and came back with two rolls of toilet paper, which I had never seen before. They served well, since it was perforated, and easy to tear off. All we had to do was number and stamp it, and with this document each customer went to the shochet. No forgeries were possible, since no one possessed such paper!
On the day of Yom Kippur, father sat in the first row near the Ark, facing the worshippers. A heavy layer of hay was spread on the floor, since everyone took his shoes off on that holy day. At Minha (intermediate worship service), about 1:00 P.M., a half dozen plates for different charities were set out at the entrance to the synagogue. One box was covered, and called "secret donation" where each one put in according to his conscience. This was intended for those who were in need, but were ashamed to ask for help publicly. All other plates were open, and watchful eyes knew exactly what each one put into the plates.
The place was lit up very brightly by lux lamps - kerosene under pressure - and each person brought candles, and hundreds of them burned at one time. Some candles were heavy, and a meter tall, and burned well into the next night. Some people did not go home, but studied and said "tehillim" (psalms) throughout the night. But we kids had a good time. We got a supply of food and goodies to take with us to Shul, and running around in the hay was a lot of fun.
Sukkut came, and with it cold rain, frost, and snow. To help build the Sukkah was a lot of fun. The "s'chach", branches of a pine tree, gave off a good scent, and the farmers brought them in, wagonloads of them from the forests surrounding Baranovichi. But very seldom could we enjoy sitting in the Sukkah unless we wore coats. I remember my brother Yankel preparing a nice set of holders for the lulav, with two green twigs on either side, made from the leaves of the lulav. It was something very special, woven together, and he was very good at it.
On Simchat Torah, frost covered the ground, but the cold was offset by our collecting the "s'chach" from the Sukkot, and gathering it into one place, in high piles, the higher the better. Then we set fire to the piles. As the flames jumped into the sky, the circle around the fire had to retreat fast, very fast...and it seemed there was no trace of snow or cold. I remember how we celebrated Simchat Torah while father was still in the Artisan Shul. Everything from the aliyot to hakafot (walking a circle holding a Torah) were sold in auction style every Shabbat, by the Shamash, who had a childish voice. He would usually start low, with 5 or 10 groschen (half a kopeck) and go up to a gilden (15 kopecks). But important events, such as hakafot Simchat Torah, brought in even rubles, especially the first two or three hakafot. Father, who led the procession, did not have to pay. The custom on Simchat Torah was that the Gabai (elected officers of the synagogue) invited the congregation to their houses. Of course not everyone came, but a couple of dozen people, who knew them well, would come. It was a mitzvah to drink and eat. One year, it was our turn as well to be hosts, after the Gabai. Mother was known as a kugel and stuffed derma specialist, especially the heavy part called "kutznitze". Naturally mother prepared everything well, including tzimmes, cakes, etc. And when the whole group marched into the house, wine and vodka were served, and then the hot dishes. But when mother opened the oven, she found it empty! While we had been in synagogue, someone had played a trick. They had removed all the pots and put them in the neighbor's oven. The pots were, of course, returned and refreshments were served. The Shamash, a poor man, went to all the merry events, and when he got to our house, he was a bit drunk. But he said, L'Chayim! And wanted to sit down. Just then, something told me to pull the chair away from him. He wore a heavy "peltze", sheepskin-lined. The poor man rolled over, and I still feel sorry for the stupid joke I played on him.
Chanukah was the season of latkes, cards, and Chanukah gelt. Naturally the kids knew all about getting, but not giving. We had a visitor from some small town who always brought something nice - a fat chicken, a large jar of cream. He came for one Chanukah, and gave me a whole ruble, a big silver thing with the face of the Czar on it. Well, my parents had to get it away from me, since I didn't know what to do with such a thing, except to play with it and keep it in my pocket. And what would I be if I lost it? They tried all sorts of ways to get the ruble away from me. I held out until after Chanukah, when I was told that the ruble would get me a new pair of shoes. And that was the end of my fortune.
Purim was a joyous holiday. The biggest fun was not the "grager" (noisemaker), but the "shooting". And here is how it worked: You got a key somewhere, the larger the better. The key had to have a hole in it. You took matches, filled the top of the key with sulfur from the matches, and then found a nail that fit and rubbed the point down flat. You tied a string to the head of the nail, inserted the point end into the key, and swung it against the wall. The sulfur would explode with a large sound. This was repeated until the key blew up. It was not easy to obtain the right kind of key, and many locks were left keyless after each Purim. But this wasn't all. Purim also meant "mishloah manot" - sending gifts to one another, and sending gifts to the poor, as it is written in the Megilah. Kids were running around with covered platters. Some got paid for the job, or were given a nice hamentash (poppy seed cake). The platters were loaded according to the friendship, or the prestige of the giver. I remember a 5-ruble piece being sent to someone.
Pesach followed Purim, and by then it was springtime. Pesach was the season in which the children played at rolling nuts, usually the smaller ones like hazel nuts. The older boys played with walnuts. The same man who gave me the ruble once gave me a large paper bag full of walnuts. We would make a little hole in the ground and try to roll and hit the lined up nuts into the hole. The winner won all the nuts.
Preparations for Pesach started right after Purim, especially if the weather warmed up a bit. The storm windows were removed, and often some new paint or new wallpaper set the holiday atmosphere. But the really busy season started a week or ten days before Pesach. Baking matzoh was a project in itself. Although the matzot were baked in several places, some places were favorites. For instance, where the Rabbi baked his, an inspection of the place was made: oven, tools, water barrels, cleanliness; all was microscopically checked. Then a staff of volunteers was organized. Those that knew how, rolled out the dough, usually women and girls. "Redling" (perforation of the matzah with a special tool) - this was a favorite job. Then the round matzot were handed to the baker, who put three or four on one paddle, and with a swift movement, unloaded them in the oven. When the matzot were ready, they had to be removed in time, before they burned or the edges folded under, rendering them unkosher. Bakers were paid for their work, but all the helpers were volunteers. The jobs were popular since it gave the boys and girls an opportunity to meet and flirt.
Finally, Erev Pesach came. The house was spick and span. The matzot were brought in a large, white linen tablecloth and put away in a secure place. Now came the time to prepare matzoh meal for kneidlach, and farfel for soup. The "stupe" - a hollowed out log of wood was taken down from the attic. Matzoh was put into the hole, and the stupe was banged on with a wooden stick until flour formed in the bottom, while the small pieces were used as farfel. Pesadikeh cake was delicious, and chremzlach - triangular small cakes fried in deep oil were a favorite.
The dishes, glassware and silverware all had to be "kashered", and that was quite a job. After a good cleaning, some of the pots were fired, and knives were stuck back and forth in the earth until they shone. Some of the pots were made of copper, soldered white on the inside. These were re-soldered for Pesach. A small hole was dug in the ground and the silverware put there. The hole was filled with boiling water and red hot stones placed in the water. New glassware and silverware were subjected to "t'vilah" in the well (put into a pail an dipped several times into the well). All books were taken outside for airing and leafed through to make sure no bread crumbs remained in them. During the year, things were put into the attic instead of being thrown away. Erev Pesach was the time to get rid of these unnecessary things.
With Pesach over, we kids looked forward to Lag B'Omer. We went into the woods, shooting clumsy arrows, but we had a lot of fun. Then came Tisha B'Av, the memorial day for the destruction of the Temple. By then it was late July, and we collected sticky round balls. These were brown seed balls covered with thorns from the castor trees. We would pick handfuls and throw them at one another. They stick to your clothing, and the girls would get them in their hair and run home terrified for help to remove them. The really bad boys would aim for the beards of the Chasidim, who were not favorites in Baranovichi, the town being mostly "Mitnagdim."
Barnovichi was a town of "Mitnagdim", Jews who emphasized learning the Talmud and the intellectual side of Judaism. These were opposed to the "Chasidim", Jews worshipping with dance and music and devoted to their rebbe. These rebbes held court and became dynasties with their positions handed down from father to son. Despite the hostility of the "Mitnagdim", the Chasidim kept coming and settling in the town. Eventually they built their own synagogue, called a "shtibel", from the word "shtub" meaning a house. Once a Rabbi came to town. That Shabbat, some big boys got together and went to the Chasidim while the Rabbi was eating with them. At the entrance to each synagogue was a small tank with water and a basin for washing the hands - and some very wet towels. The boys rolled up some of these wet towels and pelted the Rabbi with them!
A favorite trick with the boys, especially in the Big Shul, was to line up the "standars" (individual pulpits on which the large volumes of Talmud were kept) a small distance form one another, in a circle around the Bimah in the center of the synagogue, and then throw one over. Like dominoes, the first one hit the second, and so on creating a chain reaction and a lot of noise.
"Novobrantzes" was the name applied to newly recruited soldiers who came to Baranovichi. The first few days they would roam the streets, usually drunk, and bother people. Those were days when you were better off at home. There was also a Christian holiday, which must have been Easter, when an icon of Jesus was buried near the church and dug up on the next day. Then a procession was formed with the icon carried out in front. This was another day when it was advisable to spend the day at home, or at least keep out of the way.
My older brother Yikutiel joined the "Paz'arneh", the fire brigade, which was a voluntary institution with only two or three paid workers, who took care of the horses and the red wagon with the large pump handles operated by four people, two on each side. This was a big attraction, for everyone, but especially the children. Each pozarnik got a shiny brass helmet, and the "natchalnik" (commander) had a special hat. There are photos of both my brothers in the Baranovichi Memorial (Yizkor) Book. In later years, my brother Yankel also joined the "Paz'arneh", since the firefighters became sort of a self-defense unit during the war years between Russia and Poland. They played a big role in serving the town from burning and looting. Having horses and equipment, with axes handy, they commanded authority, and risked their lives many times.
The Czar used to come, it seems, every summer through Baranovichi. My father saw him seven times, since he would pass near the slaughterhouse which was in the forest. I saw him only once, not only him, but his entire family. They passed through the city in a row of automobiles. I stood on the corner of Marinska Street. Police were everywhere. When the Czar passed, we all took off our hats or caps, and loudly yelled "Hurrah!" according to the policemenís' instructions. The royal couple was in the first car. In the second car, an open one, sat his uncle, Nicolai Nicolaiyewich, I think, the Commander in Chief of all of Russia. Others filled the rest of the row of autos, and Cossacks rode horses on all sides. I remember that on Shabbat in the synagogue, a special prayer was said for the Czar, after the reading of the Torah. A policeman was always present to make sure that the prayer was said.
As the war approached, a German circus appeared in Baranovichi. The tent was set up in the marketplace. Over the course of a week, two horses would run away every day. One German always ran out to find them, either in the Lager (soldiers' camp) or in one of the railway stations. Later on it was claimed that the disappearance of the horses was deliberate - for spying purposes. Just before the war broke out, a tiny German plane landed in a field near the city, very close to the railway and the houses. It was said at the time that it just ran out of gas. It was the first plane I ever saw close up.
The city began to fill up with Jewish refugees ("bezjentzes"). They were strangers to us, and came from the borders of Germany and Austria. They were forced to evacuate by the Russians, who claimed that they were a danger to the Russian Empire. At first the refugees tried to rent rooms, but then they came by the trainload. They were a pitiful sight, with babies in their arms and a small valise or package on their backs. They slept in the synagogues on the floors. People volunteered to give them shelter. Some looked like wealthy people, but since they were evacuated in a hurry we could not tell for sure. What amazed us was their Yiddish dialect, and such a different way of speaking. We said "do" (yes) to parents, and Tate (father) - Mami (mother). They said "Tateteshy mir gebun" or "Mameshy" (father or mother will give me).
As the Germans and Austrians broke the Russian lines very quickly, these refugees were ordered to move on deeper into Russia. We heard of Brisk (Brestlitovsk), a fortress, falling. That meant the front was coming closer. People counted as many as a hundred trains a day passing through our stations, loaded with wounded soldiers. But just as many kept coming to the front. A platoon of newly recruited soldiers, all of them "muzjiks" (Russian peasants) from farms, were stationed in our yard - about thirty of them. After two or three days, a sergeant came with a rifle. They lay on the grass and the sergeant demonstrated how to use the rifle. First you put it against your shoulder, then you aim, lift the lock up, push it back, lock down, and then pull the trigger. This went on for several days, with the single rifle going from hand to hand. The Muzjiks did not catch on at all. I was already an expert from watching. I heard another story about the Muzjiks who were drafted, but didn't know left from right. The sergeant solved the problem by tying hay to one of their legs and straw to the other. When he taught them to march he called out "hay-straw" instead of "left-right". These so-called soldiers were soon to go to the front. When someone asked the sergeant about rifles, he was told that they would get them at the front from the soldiers who had been killed.
After the fall of Brisk (Brestlitovsk), the front moved in our direction. We saw Siberian soldiers called Kalmiks with slanted eyes. We were told that they were the best. Cossacks passed through the town on horseback, with long lances. This was a joke against the German armament. They all marched to the front, but few returned.
The front came ever closer, and one day three Cossacks and a high-ranking officer stopped in front of our house. All of us were scared to death. The officer marched into the house and asked very politely for the engraver. My brother, Yikutiel, had by then set up shop in the house: engraving tools, a press for making rubber stamps, some raw rubber, and wooden handles were part of the equipment. The officer, a nephew of the Czar, had just received a gift from the Czar himself - a beautiful sword. This was to be engraved with a legend the officer had carefully written out. It was to be done in two days. No price was asked or mentioned. Yikutiel left everything and worked on the sword. He did a beautiful job, and when they returned they carefully inspected the work. Yikutiel had planned to ask 5 kopecks per letter, but when he saw the smiles of the officer, he asked 7 kopeks. The letters were counted, and Yikutiel received payment seven times what he had asked. We were all thrilled and delighted by the gentleman.
The following day, this same officer passed our street, in front of our house, with his escort of Cossacks. A neighboring Jew passed by him on the sidewalk. The officer stopped his horse, called the Jew to him, and started to whip him without warning, using his "nagayke", a horse whip. When he knocked the Jew's hat off he yelled, "Why didn't you remove your hat when you saw me coming? Pick up your hat and put it on!" He did so, and was again whipped hard and knocked to the ground. The Jew screamed for help, and his wife came out screaming too. The Cossacks asked the officer to move on, and he did...
The front got closer. The officers were drunk, the soldiers were drunk. The order came to burn the "sclad", a giant warehouse of vodka. But first the bottles had to be broken. Soldiers, under the officers' eyes, put hammers to the bottles. The vodka ran like a flood and pails and barrels were filled. Some was stolen. Three officers were stationed in our living room. One afternoon a horse and wagon pulled into the yard loaded with cases of vodka. We managed to take a case of the best and bury it in the cellar. It wasn't missed, since there must have been about two dozen cases. We now had Cherkes soldiers in our yard. They wore black coats, carried bayonets, and rolls of bullets across their chests. Each one had his own "nagayke" without which he never moved. They refused to sleep in the house, preferring to be with their horses. Each one wove a straw sleeping mat for himself in no time. They might have been Moslems, since they had sheep with them for meat. One day, as the Russians began to retreat, horses with cannon rumbled through the streets. Suddenly our next door neighbors screamed for help. Some Cossacks had invaded their house. It was a prosperous house, and the Cossacks were collecting whatever they liked. That group of soldiers were going from house to house, so that we would have been next. My parents went to the Cherkes, begging them to intervene next door. When they were told that the Cossacks were doing the robbing, they refused. After long pleas, three of them agreed and walked into the neighbors' house. In my eyes they were giants, each holding his "nagayke" in his right hand behind his back. They entered the house and said to the Cossacks, "Out!". The Cossacks walked out sheepishly, taking nothing, and disappeared from our block.
It suddenly got very quiet in our streets. Just an occasional shot was heard. A rider sped through the street, disappearing fast. Firing was heard in the distance. After about an hour, a few soldiers in strange uniforms appeared, first on horseback, then on foot. They spoke German and some other language. We found out that they were Austrians and Hungarians. They led away some Russian prisoners. After setting up a command post, they began giving orders. First thing - to clean up the streets from all horse and cow manure. The Hussars would come to our door with their horse, knock and say "putzele, putzele", clean the street. They were smartly dressed, with a short jacket carried on one arm. We finally called them Putzilach. There were many Jews among the Austrians, some coming to the synagogue to pray. They soon asked for civilian clothes, burying their uniforms, and sneaking back home to Austria and Galicia.
It was autumn and we had no food for the coming winter. Two or three families got together in one wagon, and went to the nearest village to buy food, only to find all the houses vacant, everything open, pigs roaming about the chickens, the stables open, with cellars full of milk and cream, potatoes, etc. We took shovels and began digging up potatoes from the nearby field. Suddenly artillery shells began exploding all around us. I distinctly remember the sight. A shell would hit the ground, sink in, and then a burst of flame would come from the hole. The shells kept coming closer to us, and we beat a hasty retreat home. But we managed to get half a sack of flour, and a bag or two of potatoes.
The Austrians and the Putzilach didn't last long. The Russians pushed them back almost out of town, and then the Germans replaced them, staying in Baranovichi until the revolution, when I saw a German soldier pull an officer off his horse, and rip his epaulets from him. The officer was white from fear, got back on his horse, and made a hasty getaway.
The Germans were very different from the Austrians and the Putzilach. Everyone was immediately registered in the Commandanture. The Sukharney Zavod (toast factory) was turned into a camp, surrounded with barbed wire, and held sleeping bunks in two tiers. Young men were stationed there and made concrete blocks for the front. The Germans dug in just out of town, before the famous swamps that stretch as far as Pinsk. My two brothers were stationed in this camp. Others were sent far away to cut lumber, which was shipped to Germany. Some boys never came back, being killed in accidents, or freezing to death. I had a taste of one day in that camp. Yankel had a bad cold, and I sneaked into the camp to answer the roll call. The soup was cabbage leaves with worms swimming around. Each one was given a half pound of bread for the day. The bread was as heavy as lead, made of half-raw potatoes and a bit of flour mixed with ground sawdust. A little later, during the occupation, when food supplies were exhausted, my brothers would save up some of the bread and bring it to us so that we could survive. The one night I slept in the camp, it was bitter cold, and at 5:00 A.M., even in winter, everyone got up for work.
I worked for the Germans on one other occasion. A neighbor of ours had to stay home one day for some reason, and there was a heavy fine for not coming to work. I got half a ruble for taking his place at work. He didn't work at the concrete block factory as did my brothers, but somewhere near the railroad. I showed up for work, and together with this man's friends, was placed in the rear row, and said "Here" when his name was called. We were counted and marched to work, carrying railroad ties, 15 to 20 on our shoulders. I was placed in the middle, and raised my hand to carry the load. I couldn't reach it (I was only about 12 years old), so I managed to sneak away and get home.
My Bar Mitzvah came during the war. It was on a Thursday, since the Torah was read on Mondays and Thursdays. Naturally there was no fuss, but what remained in my memory was a German who had a very small pair of boots. They were too small for the soldier, so my father bought them, or mother earned them by doing laundry for the soldiers. But I wore them to my Bar Mitzvah, and I was thrilled. It did not matter that they were too large, I stuffed something into them to fill up the extra room.
Some Germans set up quarters in our house. We were allotted the kitchen and one small bedroom for the three of us boys. The living room was occupied by a high officer named Westfal. He was a mean man. The other room was occupied by soldiers and officers who spent two weeks at the front and two weeks in town. One of them was a sergeant named Franz. He was a tall, good-looking fellow, seemingly good-natured, and we knew him well, or thought we did. He would sit at the table and fart loudly while eating. He would say it was healthy. No one protested, of course. One day we heard screams from the barn. We ran out to see what was going on and saw Franz skinning a sheep alive, the sheep hanging from a rope. Father begged him, with tears in his eyes, to kill the sheep first. "Go away!" was the answer. "I want the skin clean without blood on it."
Mother did the soldiers' laundry for them, mended their socks, etc. We ate what the soldiers threw away, including potato peels from the military kitchen. Mother sometimes earned some brown sugar for doing a soldier's laundry. The brown sugar was fed to the military horses. I remember doing my homework or reading to the light of long strips of thin pine wood which were stuck horizontally into something over the table, and one end lit. They burned slowly and made a lot of smoke. The Germans had kerosene lamps. Towards the end of the war, they built an electricity station, and for the first time we enjoyed electricity.
Food was very scarce during the war, and men with long white beards stood in line near the German field kitchens. After the soldiers had their fill, they tried to get a little soup, if anything was left over. People tried to get the green tops of potatoes and usually got deathly sick from them. I remember someone who caught a flock of birds in his barn. They were tiny and he brought them by the pocketful to my father to have them slaughtered. Many people contracted a sickness that caused difficulty seeing in the dark. The remedy was liver, but who had liver?
My friend Menye Gershuni, who was a few years older than I had a job on the "Lager". They would pump latrines into a tank. He would drive the horse and tank out of the town and dump it somewhere. He had a special permit to get out of town, which was surrounded by barbed wire. The Germans had planted potatoes in the fields close to town, and instead of digging them up with shovels, as we did, they plowed the rows and workers walked after the plows picking up the potatoes and putting them into sacks. One day Menye told me that the Germans had plowed a field. He suggested that I get two shovels and that night I would ride out with him saying I was his helper. After dumping the tank, we would dig in the field, maybe finding some potatoes. We did actually dig for several hours, but the yield was very small, since the Germans were careful to leave nothing behind.
I suppose that the Germans couldn't get much work out of their hungry laborers, and they decided to give them some meat once a week. My father was called to do the slaughtering. He managed to bring some meat home hidden in his long coat. We ate meat for several weeks, but without salt, bread or vegetables. Mother had to be careful when cooking the meat, so that the smell would not reveal our secret. But one day on his way home, some blood from the meat showed through father's coat. He was stopped and arrested. You can imagine what we went through until he came home again. I don't know how he managed to get out, but that was the end of the meat for us.
The Russians bombed Baranovichi quite often. If I am not mistaken, the pilots and the planes were French, since the Russians had no air force. The Germans had some stationary platforms with six anti-aircraft guns on them. These were revolving platforms. Later on they mounted anti-aircraft guns on trucks which moved about the city shooting from one street after another. The Yeshivah, which was a large building, had been turned into a bathhouse by the Germans, and once it received a direct hit. When shooting started, all lights were turned off. Anyone caught with lights on at night was subject to severe punishment. One evening when the alarm sounded, our officer Westfal was writing a letter. The windows trembled, and sand fell from the ceiling. (Sand was used in the attic as insulation against the cold.) We heard bombs exploding all around us, but the light in the officers' room burned brightly. We were sure that the planes would concentrate on our house - with the only light in town. My father dared to knock on the door and asked that they put out the light. But he was chased away with abuse. Revenge was sweet some months later, when the soldiers came back from the street without Westfal. Upon inquiry we were told that on the day they were to be released, and return to town a Russian mine severed his legs. It seemed that the soldiers were not too sorry for him either.
I have a photo of a bomb crater in a yard, and next to the crater is a dead horse with a large steak cut from his rear. The crater was about six feet across, and soldiers, some boys and myself are standing at its edge. A Jewish neighbor of ours owned a horse, who would graze somewhere at the edge of town. When the bombs started falling, this smart Jew ran to bring his horse home. He succeeded getting him into the yard, and then went into the house to get the stable key, where he intended to lock up the horse. A bomb fell, killing the horse, while the lucky man was saved. Some soldier was quick enough to cut a hunk of meat from the horse.
The Germans introduced a blimp with a carriage under it. The blimp was tied to a cable on a large truck. Two soldiers with binoculars would rise some hundreds of feet into the air, and from that vantage point could direct the artillery against the Russians. Towards evening, the blimp was lowered and hidden in the trees. The Germans also introduced a tiny fighter plane - a one-seater. The plane did not have to circle in order to gain altitude, but would shoot straight up in the opposite direction of the incoming planes, trying to rise above them and engage in dogfights. We observed some of these fights right overhead, and watched as these little planes would attack four or five big ones. I even have a photo of a burning plane shot down in the snow.
One day at noontime, one of these small planes went on a mission over the Russian lines. It was forced down there and came back with a Russian or French pilot. The plane circled over the city once or twice, but did not land. The Germans couldn't figure out what was wrong, and signaled him to land. They sent up colored rockets, but he continued circling. Finally, two planes were sent up towards him. He then veered towards the blimp, firing two long bursts into it and sending the blimp and its occupants crashing to the ground. The plane then escaped across the lines. I watched the whole drama, and was not far from the crash.
One day there was panic in town. The Germans used poison gas against the Russians. Suddenly the wind changed direction and the gas reached Baranovichi. In the area around the "Lager" people were coughing, and there were some victims of the gas, but no one knew how many. School was irregular during the war years. My parents decided that I would learn Gemorrah, that is Talmud. Not a very fascinating subject for a young boy, unless one is inclined to law from childhood. Talmud makes for complicated study, especially when it comes to the commentaries. I didn't care for it then, though now it seems easy and interesting. I was at it for two years. The first year I studied with a "Melamed", who taught a class of boys only, of course. The study room was in one of the synagogues. This teacher, whose name was Fitel Iser, was very strict. He had a wide, white beard, and would lecture with his glasses on his forehead and both hands on his chest, thumbs up. After his lecture he was constantly on the go, his eyes open and watchful. He would slap your face for every little thing. Since he knew my father, who was of some prominence, he expected more from me than from the "regular" boys. I remember one rest period, when we heard a band marching through the next street. We all ran to see what was going on, and then returned as fast as we could, sneaking back into our places. Fitel Iser singled me out for punishment. Why did I leave the class? I received a few slaps in the face...he never missed!
The following year I went to a Yeshivah of a different kind. It was a Musar Yeshivah. In short we studied ethics and forms of prayer. We studied, of course, but the emphasis was more on behavior. Prayers were conducted in a special way, and most impressive were the evening prayers. At the very beginning of the evening, the lights were not turned on. In semi-darkness, the boys took turns at the pulpit, leading the prayer. There was deadly silence, except for the leader's voice. The prayers had special melodies, which were melancholy but pleasant. The lights were then turned on and the studies resumed, with more "flavor".
By that time I had read a lot. In Hebrew school we were given small pamphlets called "Nitzanim" (buds) and other things to read. These were very effective, since they concentrated on easy language and on one subject, which made you think. Most of the subjects were on Jewish history. I did a lot of reading, mostly in Hebrew, some in Russian. I read some of the Russian classics which were a "must" for everyone. I even read German since I had learned to read and write it. But I was most influenced by the Hebrew readings. I especially recall Zangwill, Mapu, Bialick, etc.
Father had a tremendous library. Most of the books, especially the good ones, were bound in leather. Years back a Hebrew newspaper had been published, and these papers were bound in enormous volumes. Of course there were also all the tractates of the Talmud. They were very large, with commentaries in them, and, in the margins, notes in father's exquisite handwriting. Father's handwriting was famous in town, and people who had to write important letters in Yiddish or Hebrew would come to him. Among the books were commentaries on the Torah, history books in Hebrew, etc. I now realize the importance of that library. I remember reading a book called "Yosiphon", supposedly written by Josephus Flavius, the Jewish General who had defected to the Romans and became one of the most famous and reliable historians of the Roman siege of Judea. A Jerusalem professor is currently  publishing a book dealing with "Yosiphon" on which he worked for ten years. His theory is that "Yosiphon" was actually written in the year 1000 by an Italian Jew who had collected much information that had been passed down by word of mouth over generations.
Then I encountered a book which practically shaped my future life for the rest of my days. I have told and retold this story a thousand times. It happened in late 1916 or 1917, in the Yeshiva library, where I found a small thin book, no more than a half-inch thick, and six by twelve inches in size. The first few pages contained a will, the writer's will, from Rabbi Yehuda Chasid, to his children. I did not bother reading these pages. What fascinated me in the book were the bizarre stories about devils, demons, and dead people. When I think about it now, I find it hard to believe that a great man like Rabbi Chasid could have written anything like that. It doesn't seem consistent with true Judaism. Anyway there is more to that book than I know or remember, and I would like to get a copy. I would read those little stories, and be afraid to go home. A pair of "gatkes" (long underwear) hanging on a line and moving in the wind terrified me. I was afraid to pass near a closed, dark synagogue, assuming that at night the dead gathered there to pray. I was scared to pass near a well, etc., etc.
But one day I decided to read the will, on the front pages. There I discovered that Rabbi Chasid said to his children, 'I will tell you what will happen in the end of days." He mentioned the Jewish calendar year parallel to 1914, foreseeing that Germany (Ashekenaz) would overrun half the world and that Germany would lose the war. A league of nations, he said, would give the land of Israel to the Jews. Another world war would come in which the Jews would go through a time of harshness such as nothing they had known before, and Germany would be destroyed. Then the land of Israel would be given to the Jews by the judgment of the nations. I do not recall the rest, but was struck by the date 1914.
[Note from Alison Greengard: My grandfather spent his whole life trying to find another copy of the book with the entire writer's will in it, but to no avail. I did find a copy of the book in the Brandeis University library. It only contained the first line of the will, followed by a note that said that historians knew that there was an extensive will to this book, but there were no copies of it left anywhere in the world, and no one knew exactly what it had contained...]
The fact that the Germans were in Baranovichi, impressed me. We had heard something of a Jewish legion being formed, but knew nothing exact, of course. I grabbed the book and ran home, finding only mother in the house. I shouted, asking for father, and was told that he was across the street, by Isenshtadt. I crossed the street in a moment, opened the door, and was in the dining room. To my left, at the dinner table sat Mr. Isenshtadt at the head, a bearded respectable man. My father sat at the side, to his left, with an open Gemorrah, glasses of tea before them. I came in like the wind, and began chattering about 1914 and the Germans were here, etc., etc. Father took the book from me and read intensively, handed the book to Mr. Isenshtadt, who also read attentively. Then father asked where the book came from, and I explained that I had brought it from the Koidinover Shtibel, where I was learning. Father directed me to return the book to its place and I did so. He did tell my brothers about it.
Those lines I read made a big impression on me. I discovered something which corresponded to all my dreams - an independent Jewish state. I dreamt of being a Jewish soldier, walking in the open with a rifle, and perhaps riding a horse, not fearing a German or the Czar. This I kept to myself, locked in a secret place in my heart.
Just before the Germans left Baranovichi, a truck loaded with crates full of cows' legs pulled over. The soldier was taking the train for shipment, but he wanted to get rid of his load fast. Father bought the load from him very cheaply. We stacked up crates between the barns and the fence. The legs were without hide, which made them worthless on the market. But a Jewish housewife knew how to make a delicacy from a calf's leg, especially if it was a front leg. A little heat would remove the hooves, boiling water removed the hair, and the leg was singed over a fire to remove any hairs left behind. The leg was then taken apart at the joints. The large bone was placed over a knife turned on its back. The bone was placed on the edge of the knife and gently tapped with a hammer. This cracks the bone in half. Then it was cooked with lots of garlic. The final result, known as "ptchah" was eaten hot, and the bone marrow is very delicious. What was left over jells and was very tasty when cold.
After the German collapse, Russia went through a period of pogroms. Denikin (Russian Rightwing Czarist general) operated in southern Russia, I believe, and his followers were called Belo-Gvardeitzes, the Whites, as against the Red revolutionaries. They were the best organized of the many rival armies at the time, and if I am not mistaken, supported by outside powers such as France. Denikin was also anti-Semitic, since the leaders of the Russian Revolution such as Trotsky and others were Jewish. Then there was Petlura, a rascal who operated in the Ukraine. His job was to rob, kill, and rape Jews, plundering from town to town. Another upcoming band, mostly "muzhiks" under the leadership of Balachowich, operated not far from us.
The Germans disappeared overnight, and suddenly we were all Communists. I remember a Jewish family appeared in town as commisars. A daughter of well-known Jewish family appeared in "galife" (riding pants) with shiny boots. Her two brothers, also party men, then took up some high posts in the city hall. Then the son of a poor rabbi/teacher turned out to be a big shot in the party. The rabbi and some prominent people were told to clean the streets, just to degrade them and show them who was boss. Anyone who didn't have a job (and who had?) was considered a parasite. Unions were formed fast. All workers had to belong. I had a friend two or three years older than myself who was in charge of the union office. He took me up to his office, which was in "Shulainers Moyer", the richest house in town, and said to me, "I'll give you a job in my office. Write down names, etc." I agreed, but now he wanted to convert me. He started to indoctrinate me in communism. I wasn't very sympathetic to the idea, and when I asked him what would happen to the Jews in a communist society, he said that they would disappear like all other minorities, through assimilation
Especially happy with the Revolution were the Bundovtzes, the ones who belonged to the Bund, an organization which was violently anti-Zionist. They argued that Jews were Polish or Russian citizens, and no more than that, but they were entitled to speak Yiddish. But all these people soon disappeared from the scene. They were either arrested as counter-revolutionaries, or deported to some unknown place.
The real victims were the people, who became paupers overnight. All the currency - Russian Czarist rubles, German marks, all had to be exchanged for Kereskies. The bills were small, about 2 1/2 inches by 3 inches, and were soon valueless. The Bolsheviks took over, and the train that brought Lenin from somewhere in Europe passed Baranovichi on its way to Moscow or Petrograd. A giant meeting of the Red Army, estimated at over 100,000 took place at the marketplace, and the crowd was addressed by Trotsky and others. The Petluras and Balachowich threat disappeared, and we started adjusting to life under a communist regime, but not for long...
The Poles felt that their chance for independence was at hand, and with the help of France and America, they formed well-armed legions which, with the leadership of French generals, started pushing back the Russians to their original borders. The Russians were tired of the long war and were not enthusiastic about more fighting. They fled in retreat.
One bright morning we discovered that we were without a government. Fear arose that the surrounding villagers would soon come in and make a pogrom. The first to organize themselves were the "Pozharnikes" - the boys who served as volunteer firemen, mostly Jews. My older brother Yikutiel was an officer. Yankel was also a Pozharnik. Yikutiel had a fancy brass helmet, shiny and impressive. Yankel shined his helmet until it looked like a mirror, and they patrolled the city in pairs or in threes, stopping strangers to ask for documents. They had some rifles and marched around with them in the open. Weapons were plentiful and free for the taking. I had a hand grenade hidden in the attic. As children we used to pry open the bullets from rifles and collect the black power, which we would spread in circles or zigzags, light one end, and watch it burn from end to end.
Coming back to the quiet period between governments, we suddenly saw young Polish boys, sixteen or seventeen years old, with square hats and a single eagle as an emblem, armed with rifles and two bayonets hanging from their belts. The first two words in Polish that I heard from two such boys were "Hei, sluckay Antek" (hey, listen Jack).
A governor soon took over, who was very much surprised to see "Jeedy" (Jews) walking around with rifles. It was soon decreed that anyone possessing arms must bring them to the marketplace. A pile of rifles was delivered by the Pozharnikes. I buried my hand grenade in the latrine. And before we knew it we were penniless again. Russian money - you might as well burn it. "Zloties" was the money which no one had. The Poles kept pushing the Russians back across the Berezina River. Even Vilna was taken by then. But in Baranovichi, as well as all over the occupied territory, the anti-Semitic "Hellersachikes" with the square hats (General Haller was an American who came to help free Poland) were busy cutting Jewish beards. In Baranovichi they cut beards with a knife and scissors and would then take out a mirror to show the victim the results, and ask to be paid for the job. But in some cases the beards were cut off with a dull bayonet. This was reason enough to hate their guts, but it wasn't all. Soon a neighbor named Yomtov, the father of a family in whose house the legionnaires were stationed, disappeared as though the earth had swallowed him up. He was found a year later, buried in his barn under the manure.
But their rule did not last long, since they over-extended themselves. The Russians drove them back in a mighty offensive, all the way to Warsaw. During fierce battles, the Poles committed atrocities, and their retreat was accompanied by robbing, plundering, and burning. Our town, like many in White Russia (Belarus), was vulnerable to fire. Some houses in the marketplace were set on fire. The firefighters brought tanks of water on horse-drawn wagons. The pumps were hand-operated, with two firemen on each side. Our family, like all the others, prepared barrels of water in the yard near the water, taking turns on watch. In one instance, on the block near the market, a Jew spotted a Polish soldier setting fire to his home. He hit the soldier over the head with a board, killing him on the spot. Luckily for the man, the Russians appeared the next morning, and just took the body away. The town changed hands several times. On one occasion, when the Russians had retreated, a whole family was found slaughtered.
My own experience with the final Russian retreat was not a pleasant one. On one Thursday, three high-ranking Russian army officers were stationed in our house. The Russians were in retreat. The three officers had taken over the living room, the largest room, where we three boys had slept. I slept on the dining-room table instead. It was hard, but better than the floor. I woke up to the sound of a large argument. Mother and father were arguing with the Russian soldiers in the kitchen. My brothers were almost dressed, and I ran down to see what was happening. The argument was over a sack of flour, and we, of course, lost since the soldiers were armed with rifles. In front of the house I saw a horse and a wagon, and on the wagon were all our linens, whatever food had been in the house, and most important, the flour for baking bread. I looked into the dresser where the linens had been and cried out that my coin collection was gone. I cried hysterically. By this time the officers were dressed and packing to leave. My mother pleaded with them for the half sack of flour, and I for my coin collection. But to no avail. They didn't say a word. A car came and picked them up. My curses followed them.
How did I come to have a coin collection? This is interesting. My father would get a few kopecks for slaughtering a chicken. Father had an eye for old coins. He accepted them and I collected them. So, whoever had a bad coin, or an old coin, or a strange one would try to get rid of it by paying the Shochet with it. The collection was an interesting one, and I can now assume, a very valuable one. But it went with the revolution...
The Russians retreated slowly. Thousands of horse-drawn wagons passed. All peasants were left without horses and without wagons. Hundreds of trains passed Baranovichi. All young men were drafted into the Russian Army, or joined of their own will, for fear of the Poles. Streams of soldiers passed through the city without end. It was then that the Russians suddenly were ordered to stop their disorderly retreat. But how? Patrols were sent out into the streets. They would stop a soldier and ask him, "Why are you here? What regiment do you belong to etc.,?" If the answer was not satisfactory, he was jailed and immediately tried. There was a moviehouse next door to us, and on the stage a table covered with a red cloth. Three officers formed the tribunal. The public was allowed to witness the trials, since they were interested in the publicity. I witnessed two trials, and am still horrified at the faces and the cries. The questions went like this: name, rank, regiment, location of the regiment, etc. Why are you not with the regiment? After a few minutes' questioning, they were pronounced deserters and sentenced to death. Immediately Cheka men came over and tied the prisoners' hands behind his back with plain wire. They were set aside and few protested. One was a young boy of about sixteen who was accused of stealing something. He too was sentenced to be shot. But a man in his late fifties, with gray hair, did cry out when accused, "Me? An old revolutionary who just came back from Siberia? You dare call me a deserter? I was a principal of a high school. I was sent to Siberia to conduct revolutionary activities, etc. etc." He finally broke out crying, but it didn't help him. As a group of about eight were marched out, among them was a young Jewish boy, who asked for a cigarette. Someone lit one and shoved it in his mouth. There was a potato field two blocks away, and there their coats were removed and they were shot. An officer then came over and fired a bullet into each one's head. Then their boots were pulled off. The firing squad returned to town and sold the coats and the boots in the street. Two days later they were gone, court and all.
More about the same moviehouse: I would often sneak in there to play on the piano. (We were all musical, father and Yikutiel played violin, and Yankel played the balalaika.) There was a small door under the stage and many times my friends and I would hide there from soldiers who wanted to drag us to work. The last time I hid there with two other boys was when the Russians made their final retreat, because they took able-bodied young men with them.
The Poles were making a forceful push against the Bolsheviks, this time with a powerful, well-organized, well-armed army. A few miles out of town was a creek of running water, fifteen or twenty feet wide. But it was deep between its banks. This time the Poles had a "Bronvik" with them, a tank-like train, fortified with steel on its sides and guns mounted on it. As the Russians retreated they blew up the bridge across the creek, and without that train the Poles couldn't carry on their offensive. Hundreds of men were brought in to repair the bridge. Heavy timber was cut down in a nearby forest, and floated down the stream to this point. I don't know how they repaired the bridge, but we waded in the water, neck-deep, to bring in the logs.
Regiment after regiment passed by on foot, crossing the creek on a make-shift bridge. The officers would come over to the train, asking for information. How far were the Russians from this point, they wanted to know. Meanwhile, the soldiers decided to have some "fun" with us in the deep water. They would throw hand grenades into the water a short distance away. Some of them fired rifles over our heads. They had their "fun", and we were scared to death. About twenty minutes later, some soldiers on horseback came over to the train. They looked disturbed and suspicious. After awhile they departed and a regiment came marching in. A general called the officers to him and gave them an argument. Apparently the regiment had heard the explosions and shots in the distance. They were informed that the road was clear, but hearing explosions, they halted and sent a "razsvetske", a lookout patrol, to find out what was going on. We worked on that bridge until after midnight without food or water. Then we were told to go home. Before leaving, we were told that on the next day we would not be taken to work, and we would have a day's rest. We were afraid to walk at night, but we were told to go, and we left in a group. Somehow we were not stopped, and fell into our houses, dead tired.
In the morning I was kicked awake and told to get dressed and come along. I protested that I had been told to stay home for the day since I had worked eighteen hours straight. The Commandanture was a short distance away, and I decided to run there and plead my case (how stupid of me). When I started to run, the soldier was sure I had decided to run away. He cocked his rifle and warned me to stop. I was by now around the corner, and ran into the Commandant's yard, only to find two rows of men lined up and the soldier hot on my heels. Instinctively, I pushed myself between two men in the rear row, as if I had been there all the time. The soldier searched the yard, passed the rows, looked at the faces, but didn't discover me...
We were soon taken to the central railroad station, where I loaded a locomotive with logs of wood. That work almost killed me. Each log was over a meter long, and they were just trees split in half, soaked wet with rain, and weighed more than I did. My hands bled from large splinters. After that experience, Yankel and I would hide in the stable, in the hay when the soldiers came to round up men for work. We had a secret entrance from the rear, so that no ladder was visible. But one day soldiers came on horses looking for us, and they searched the hay with long lances, to see if anyone was hiding there. The lances flashed by us, but we were lucky that time.
My brother Yikutiel retreated with the Russians. I don't know if it was voluntary or not, but he had been put into uniform and given a rifle. At the battle on the Berezina River he stopped a Polish rifle bullet with his left arm. Luckily it did not shatter the bone. After the wound healed a bit, he made his way to a small town where he shed his uniform and got some civilian clothes. He started working his way back to Baranovichi. He stopped in Slutzk, where he was helped by a Mr. Keslin, who later became his brother-in-law. Mr. Keslin's wife came from Lyakhovichi, a small town about twenty kilometers away. Keslin directed Yikutiel to stop on his way at Lyakhovichi, where he got more help, and there he met his future wife, Reizl Peker. After a few months, Yikutiel showed up. He couldn't stretch out his left hand because of the wound, and he couldn't wear a sling since he didn't want the Poles to discover he was wounded. For a while he was in hiding, until he got some documents, after paying heavy bribes. To hide his handicap, Yikutiel kept a lit cigarette between his fingers, so that his left arm was forever cocked. He became a heavy smoker.
|Kaplan funeral procession||Menahem Yoel Kaplan's tombstone (1868-1936)||At the Kaplan grave. Most of the people around the grave are not family, because being Cohanim, they were not allowed to enter the cemetery. Therefore Cohanim were buried at the cemetery fence, so that the family could approach the grave without actually being inside the cemetery.|
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