No. 5/2000 - 3. February 2000
by Selik Sussmanovich Rosovsky (1893-1967)
TOWN AND FAMILY
Our family has deep roots in Bobruisk.
To my regret, I know little of my ancestors before my great-grandparents. But I myself remember five generations of my family who belonged to that city.
Once, when I was a child, I had the experience of being in one room with five generations: from my great-great-grandmother, Dveire-Chaya, who was about 100 years old, to myself at the age of five. This was on Erev Purim (1898?), when snow still covered the ground. My father invited me to go with him by sleigh to visit my great-great-grandmother Dveire-Chaya. The whole family assembled there to listen to the Megillah, because she was already too old to go to the synagogue. My great-grandmother, my grandfather, my father and I were there in addition to my great-great-grandmother -- five generations.
My father, Sussman Chaimovich Rosovsky, was very devoted to Bobruisk. He loved the city and its people, and I in turn have made every effort to pass on to my sons my recollections about Bobruisk and my own love of that city.
Even though I lived in Bobruisk year-round only to the age of eleven -- afterwards I was only there during vacations -- I remained very fond of Bobruisk and know a great deal about different segments of the community and different kinds of Bobruisk people. This is primarily because so many of them passed through my father's house – businessmen, intellectuals, professionals, workers, and people who were not well-to-do, even poor, with whom my father maintained a special bond.
Everything I am telling you reflects the perspective of what I saw in my parental home.
I believe that Bobruisk was a very unusual city. Even though its appearance was rather ungainly -- dusty, dirty in spring and autumn, streets often covered with puddles -- it had a decidedly comfortable "family feeling". The people of the city felt close to each other, understood each other -- more so, it seems to me, than in most Jewish towns. The special character of Bobruisk was also evident in the total absence of snobbish attitudes between different classes and occupations. Snobbishness enjoyed no respect in our town. On the contrary, relations between different groups were always straightforward and clear.
I will begin my reminiscences with my early childhood. As is true of all people of my age and time, the story starts with the cheder.
When I was five or six years old, I was sent to a real Jewish cheder, where I studied with some ten other boys. Classes were held in a small room, part of a two-room apartment consisting of the rebbe's living room, where he taught, and a kitchen. In that room we spent from 10 to 12 hours a day. To tell the truth, after going through other educational institutions, secondary and higher, I couldn't understand how I ever managed to learn what our rebbe set out to teach us. The teaching method was somehow incomprehensible -- but nevertheless, it produced results . . ., indeed, positive results.
I learned "Chumesh and Tanach", and to this day I remember the translations from Ivrit into other languages. All this was achieved by a very simple teaching method. The rebbe read and we repeated after him until everything was committed to memory.
My rebbe's name was Beines Tarshiz. In his own way he was "modern." He introduced a horse-drawn carriage service to pick up his pupils in the morning and convey them back home in the evening.
The early l900’s saw the establishment of a "Cheder Mesuken" (an "orderly" or "structured" cheder), conducted entirely in Ivrit with instruction on the contemporary educational model. But the learning I acquired -- if it deserved to be called learning -- actually stemmed from my first cheder.
Our city was noted for its fires. Two big fires nearly destroyed large parts of Bobruisk and made a deep impression on me in my childhood. One occurred in 1899, and if I am not mistaken, another occurred two to three years later. I remember that during the first fire, I saw the whole city in flames. My parents and all our neighbors loaded horse-drawn wagons, trying to save their belongings.
The second fire, which took place in the daytime, caught me during cheder. I remember well how my mother -- who had to walk through big sections full of fire and smoke -- fought her way to my cheder to take me home. By the way, this fire was caused by flying sparks from a locomotive of the railroad which led through the town. It resulted in a government regulation requiring wire meshes to cover all locomotive funnels, to guard against future fires.
One of my earliest recollections is the first "Zionist evening" organized for the children of our cheder on Hanukkah. In addition to the children, there were several adults. At the end of the evening we received small paper bags with gifts -- mainly sweets. The head organizer of the evening was Leib Mazze, who later moved to Israel and died there. It was he who lit the candles and made a speech for the children, explaining the significance of Hanukkah. I had a part in the presentation. For the first time in my life -- I was about Six years old -- I was on stage, where I recited the poem "Kadimah".
From then on, I have kept a special affection for the holiday of Hanukkah.
I cannot overlook the subject of the synagogue I attended with my father on Saturdays. This was "Die Graysse Chassidishe Shul" -- The Great Hassidic Synagogue -- where my great-grandfather, Nordche-Leib Rosovsky, was the gabbai: A person of stern aspect -- particularly stern when he stood on the platform holding a silver pointer, with which he guided the weekly reading of the Torah.
His authority was so strong that when people talked too loud in any corner, he would incline his head in that direction and move his bushy eyebrows. There was instant silence.
The congregation of this synagogue numbered many interesting "characters", of whom I remember several: Yacov-Eli Rivkin, Reb Avrom Eisenstatt and Neach Frenkel, who took over the reins of leadership of the synagogue after the death of my great-grandfather.
Sharply etched in my memory is the call-up notice for prospective army draftees, which was issued in Autumn and often coincided with the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holy days. These draftees -- mostly people of small means -- knew one way of being rejected from army service. That was by loss of weight, exhaustion through starvation and lack of sleep, leading to a condition of physical weakness sufficient to disqualify them from military duty, according to Russian law. New draftees without resources needed money for their upkeep during the period of deprivation and sleeplessness.
To raise funds, groups of them showed up in the synagogue during the Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur Torah readings and proceeded to disrupt services. This provoked unbelievable agitation. Cries of protest arose in various corners, until the gabbai reached an agreement with the draftees, promising them a specific sum of money. Order was restored. These events made a strong impression on a young boy.
REB SHMERL NEACH SHNEERSON
Another aspect of life in Bobruisk: I had a toothache. My mother took me to the dentist (whose name was Shapiro). We were sitting in the reception room awaiting our turn, when a bearded man with peyes, dressed in a long coat, entered and ordered everyone out. "Arois!" ("Leave this place!"). The reason was that Shmerl Neach Shneerson -- the Hassidic rebbe of Bobruisk -- also had developed a toothache and was on his way to the dentist. The presence of women was of course unacceptable.
Speaking of Rebbe Shneerson, I remember another encounter many years later. The Jews of Bobruisk needed a new cemetery -- no space was left in the old one -- and the Jewish community had to raise funds for the project. Naturally, the Russian government did not provide for the needs of the Jewish population.
Reb Shmerl Neach took this business in hand. Breaking with custom, he decided to visit a few "gvirs" (people of great wealth) to collect the necessary money. He honored my father by calling on him.
First came a "shaliach" to announce that the rebbe would arrive in half an hour. Instant turmoil! All the females moved to another half of the house. The only person whom my father permitted to stay was I -- his oldest son.
Within half an hour the rebbe arrived in a two-horse coach, apparently lent to him by one of the rich men in town. Before entering on the purpose of his visit, the rebbe described a meeting of well-known rabbis called together in St. Petersburg by the Czar's minister Stolypin. These spiritual leaders were expected to persuade young Jews to give up active participation in the revolutionary movement. Reb Shmerl Neach Shneerson had chaired that meeting. I remember that my father and I listened with great interest to his report on the events in Petersburg.
When the rebbe switched to the real topic of his visit, my father went to the safe in another room to bring out his share. Considering the importance of the project and the honor shown him by the rebbe's personal visit, he presented what seemed to be a very large sum of money.
What impressed me was the rebbe saying to my father: "My son, you are giving me too much, apparently because I came in person to call on you. I don’t want that." And he returned part of the money to my father.
Reb Shmerl Neach was held in very great esteem by all segments of the population.
CABBIES AND CARRIERS
As you know, there were no institutions in those days organized to provide social services for various needy segments of the Jewish community. These services were furnished through the private initiatives of different associations, in which my father played an active role. It is worth noting that Bobruisk had a set of ethical traditions which allowed this work to be accomplished without hurting sensitivities. Somehow relations were direct and, I would even say, warm.
One example I want to cite is the circumstance affecting an occupation in which Jews were heavily represented -- owner-drivers of horse-drawn carriages and carts. The death of a horse meant poverty and starvation.
On the morning after a horse dropped dead, even though it was a working day, all the cabbies changed into Shabbat dress, and went to see people whom they expected to respond with the necessary contributions. It was touching to see a couple of these drivers appear to ask for help for a fellow driver. My father was among those who regarded this kind of help as his sacred obligation.
My recollections also go back to a day when, at the age of eight, I went for a walk with my father. We encountered two bearded Jews with belts of rope -- laborers in our river port. One was named Ruvim, blind in one eye, gaunt and tall. The other was Arye "der treger" (the carrier), a stockier man aged about 50 My father was very glad to see them and stopped for a chat. He probably knew them from childhood. After talking about their earnings and similar matters, we parted. As we left them, my father said to me: "Understand that these men have carried on their shoulders hundreds of thousands of "poods" (1 pood ~ 36 lbs.). They are very good people and you should never in your life forget the most important thing -- respect labor and the people who labor. Remember this!"
I have tried to remember it.
SOME BOBRUISK "CHARACTERS"
As in all towns, especially Jewish ones, we had various kinds of "characters" whom it is interesting to bring to mind. Bobruisk also teemed with a large number of crazy people who were free, somehow integrated in the everyday pattern of the life of the town. Nobody objected to them -- they were accepted such as they were. I cannot stop here to describe the peculiarities of each of them, but there are some I remember particularly well.
"Meir Kalte Vasser"They called him "Kalte Vasser" (cold water) because one the of ways he earned his keep was to set up a barrel of cold water in the marketplace on hot days, selling it by the mug to the mujiks. (I don't think that from this enterprise, he lived as well as Ford in America.)
He was a deeply religious Jew, but during his periodic seizures he changed into a nasty and threatening figure for the synagogues of Bobruisk. During those months he became an apikeros, charged into the synagogues when nobody was there, and tore the holy Torah scrolls. He also had the habit of entering private homes to pour salt on the mezuzot -- all this to prove that he reviled the Jewish God.
"Dovidke der Shilter"Another crazy person was "Dovidke der Shilter," well known because he constantly cursed the rich people of the town. He rejoiced when one of the "gvirs" died. On those days, he danced through the town saying: "See, another 'gvir' is dead.'" He beamed with satisfaction. (This was one of the less pleasant madmen in the town.)
Faivele Dobkes walked about in a Russian officer's cap, doing no harm, provoking no incidents.
Some of you may remember an oddball called Abram Issakovich. Decked out in a silk topper and presentable overcoat, he acted out the grand gentleman who would not condescend to dine in the home of a wealthy "gvir."
One of the crazy people had an established connection with our home. He was not from Bobruisk but a regular visitor from Igumen -- a good distance from our city. His name was Mendel -Padle, and he always showed up in the first warm days of spring. He was lame and walked on crutches. For his summer residence he selected gardens with hammocks, in which he lived and spent the warm-weather season.
One summer -- perhaps several summers -- he chose to be a resident in our own garden. I remember that before going abroad on his summer vacation, my father left me instructions on the care and feeding of Mendel-Padle.
This saved me from all sorts of aggressions he took out on other boys. Mendel-Padle was entirely inoffensive, but children drove him mad by standing nearby and repeating his name over and over: "Mendel-Padle, Mendel-Padle . . .". His eyes would turn bloodshot and he began to run after the children on his crutches. But when he caught a boy he only threatened him with lifted crutch, and let the boy go without touching him.
ADVENTURE OF THE STOLEN FURS
Winter was an especially active season in the life of the timber merchants. Because everything moved by sled, the timber had to be brought out of the forests before Purim. Any timber left behind was considered as good as lost.
On one such winter evening my father’s office worked until midnight. Many visitors had come from other cities – Minsk and Gomel – as well as a large number of employees from various timber cutting projects. There were about 30 people. All had arrived in fur coats, which hung in the hallway.
Around 10 p.m., somebody opened the door, grabbed an armful of furs and vanished.
When the out-of-towners got ready to leave for various night trains -- which made connections in Bobruisk at about 3 o’clock in the morning -- they discovered that their furs had disappeared. Outdoors it was freezing and besides, in those days, furs were very costly garments.
Finding out what had happened, our bookkeeper -- Hirsh Kaganovich, who enjoyed great respect in many circles -- decided to get in touch with one of the "cabbies" who was rumored to have connections with suspicious elements of the city.
Kaganovich went to see the driver and told him: "This was a very ugly action. How could you do a thing like this to Rosovsky? You know it's not in order! It's inappropriate." The other was embarrassed. Of course he said he knew nothing about it. Some misunderstanding had occurred. He would see to the immediate return of the furs. Within half an hour, somebody opened the entry door to our house and threw in all the fur coats. This cabbie agreed that the incident had been unethical.
Events of this kind convinced my father that Bobruisk was special. I remember that after our emigration, a gentleman (I believe from Warsaw) asked my father for information on a man from Bobruisk, with whom he proposed to do business. He asked if the man was honest. My father simply answered: "Er iz doch a Bobruisker!" ("I need only tell you he's from Bobruisk!").
That's the way my father thought of Bobruisk.
JEWS AND CHRISTIANS
There was a palpable feeling of mutual respect between Jews and Christians in our town. I cannot recall any major troubles. In fact, Bobruisk was one of the few Jewish towns in the pale of settlement which never had a pogrom.
Archpriest Dobrynin -- the highest ranking Russian Orthodox church official in the city -- was our next-door neighbor. He once said that as long as he stood at the head of the church in Bobruisk, pogroms would only happen over his dead body. And he kept his word.
Other important figures in the Christian part of our population -- Zarubo, for many years head of city government; Godytsky-Zvirko, principal of the gymnasium (high school) ; a few physicians, lawyers and judges -- also maintained relations of good faith with the Jewish people and its leadership.
And here I want to note that after the overthrow of the Czarist regime, during the time of our first and unfortunately short-lived democratic republic -- the time of Kerensky -- our city held its first universal elections. I don't know why, but voting took place in Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Polish churches, and in synagogues. And in these free elections both the Jewish and the Christian populations voted for my father, who was chosen chairman of the city council with the additional duties of taking charge as mayor. His electoral majority was earned not only in synagogues, but in Orthodox and Catholic churches. I think this certainly illustrates that our Jewish and Christian populations had much in common.
To what I have already said, I now want to add some details which in my view should interest people from Bobruisk. The subject will be Bobruisk medical men.
Of Jewish physicians I remember Drs. Feiertag, Raigrotsky, Shchergey, Paperno, Pruzhinin1 Barash, Lozinsky, Neuman, Peskin and Zeldin. I believe the most interesting Bobruisk doctor was Dr. Feiertag. He was an extraordinary person in our city.
How did this wonderful man find himself in Bobruisk? At the end of last century, Isidore Samuilovich Feiertag was a military doctor in the fortress of Bobruisk, gradually achieving high rank. He was then offered a further promotion on condition of conversion. Dr. Feiertag refused, and moved out of the barracks into the town, where he started his practice. He was exceptionally humane and kind. The poor literally worshipped him.
Because poor people seldom have the money to pay their the doctors, he was one of the few who treated them at no charge. But that wasn't all. When he called on patients in poor households, he loaded his carriage with chickens, eggs and other foods needed by the sick, and he left these things behind.
Here is an example to demonstrate how his medical practice worked.
One of Dr. Feiertag's horses fell ill, so he couldn't make his rounds. He stepped out of his house, stopped at the cab stand, and asked one of the Jewish drivers how much he'd want for a whole day of work to visit all patients. The cabbie knew Dr. Feiertag, his kindliness and liberality. So he refused to name a sum, saying the doctor himself would know how much to pay. Dr Feiertag proposed the following: All the doctor's earnings that day would be shared in equal halves. The driver was happy to agree, assuming a person of the importance of Dr. Feiertag obviously made big money.
The doctor's first stop was at one of the wealthier homes. Coming out, he told the driver that he had received a good honorarium and immediately handed over half of it. In this way, stopping by several well-to-do homes, the cabbie made more in half a day than he had dreamed of earning in a full day.
Having finished his visits to the rich, they drove to the poor sections of town. At one place, the driver had to wait a long time. When the doctor emerged, he told the cabbie: "You know, there are five persons here suffering from typhus, and they don't have anything in the house. I gave them some medicines and some food, and even had to leave them five rubles in cash. Please hand over your half."
Of course the driver did so. The final result was that at the end of the day, the driver not only had nothing left of the money earned earlier, but he now owed money to the doctor. It goes without saying that Dr. Feiertag never expected the cabbie to work for free. He paid him for the day.
When Dr. Feiertag fell seriously ill and lay on his deathbed, hundreds of his patients from the poor districts assembled near his home, put on their tallesses and tfillen, and raised their voices in prayer under his windows amid violent sobbing. One witness described how the doctor asked to be lifted on pillows to an open window. "Even if they cannot see me," he said, "I want to see them."
This was shortly before his end. The scene provides clear evidence of his deep attachment to the poor and unfortunate people of the city.
Tens of thousands attended his funeral. The poor carried banners with touching inscriptions -- in the absence of anything better, plain kitchen towels.
Among other physicians I mentioned was Dr. Pruzhinin, who was an exception-ally good man, who was my personal friend.
THE BOBRUISK THEATER
Now a few words about the Bobruisk theater. The grounds and building belonged to the businessman Rosenberg -- I believe he manufactured bricks. He rented the theater to a certain Epstein, a handsome, full-bearded man who in no way seemed to resemble anyone with the slightest connection to the arts. But apparently he was quite competent in this area.
The theater stood in a rather spacious and well-kept garden. The garden had a bandstand. During intermissions in the summertime, a military band performed there led by conductor Kataliuk -- the idol of young ladies and high school girls.
Though visually unattractive, the theater building had all necessary features: Orchestra, mezzanine and balconies. The rest of the arrangements were rather wretched.
It is interesting to note that in order to darken the hall when the stage was lit, the management of the theater thought of suspending from the ceiling -- on chains -- a bucket from which the bottom had been removed. Before action began on stage, the bucket was lowered and the hall turned dark. During intermissions, the bucket was raised.
Such conditions did not prevent famous actors from playing Bobruisk. Among them were the brothers Adelheim, Orlenev, Dalsky and others. There also were Jewish actors, like Esther Kaminsky, the brothers Adler, Naomi Orlovsky, Clara Jung, etc. Jewish plays were soul-wrenching dramas or operettas. Audiences took an emotional part in all that happened on stage. I remember one occasion when the play portrayed a poverty-stricken, hungry man. Someone in the balcony threw him a roll. Bobruisk loved the theater and always filled the house.
The theater employed two ticket collectors -- Soloveitchik and Tunkel. These two knew everything that went on backstage, and all about the visiting repertory group. They were glad to provide information. I remember that once when I met Tunkel, I inquired about the new performers. "They're amazing," he shot back. "Last night the crowd lined up at the box office managed to crush a colonel!"
In conclusion, a few words about the amateur actors who often committed themselves to help the Bobruisk theater, both Jewish and Russian. The most distinguished of them was my friend Mendel Elkin. He loved the theater, knew much about it, and enjoyed acting. He frequently produced shows in which he played the lead. Meir Arlozorov also had ties to the Jewish stage. In my own young years, there were opportunities of helping out senior artists by taking on modest roles -- I remember it now with pleasure. On one occasion I performed in the play "Nor A Doctor" ("Nothing but a doctor") -- with Elkin, Arlozorov and the professional actress Naomi Orlovsky.
THE FORTRESS AND THE RIVER
The river Berezina is famous not only because Bobruisk is situated on its banks. The Berezina is historic -- Napoleon was smashed there in the retreat from Russia. A first-class fortress guarded the river at Bobruisk. Two regiments were stationed there -- Imeretinsky and Kutaissky. The fortress lived its own special military life. It had barracks, M.P.'s, an army hospital, various military facilities, also a jail and a treasury. Garrison officers and soldiers were highly visible in the city. The entire fortress harbored only one Jew, by name of Belenky, who had the concession for a grocery store.
Among other Jews who dealt with the fortress were the brothers Hirsh and Yevel Lozinsky -- a respected family in our town. (The Lozinskys served the fortress as principal contractors. Apart from that, they were major timber merchants). Bobruiskers are very proud that Hirsh Lozinsky's son, Kaddish Luz, is the speaker of the parliament of Israel.
The Berezina river was the principal supply route not only for Bobruisk, but for the surrounding towns and hamlets. It had a heavy traffic of rafts, barges and ships. These businesses were entirely in Jewish hands. The first riverboat I heard of belonged to Zalman Margolin, the son-in-law of Meir-Simon Kaganovich. The name of the ship was "Fortuna". "Saul" and "Esther", larger ships, belonged to the brothers Katznelson and were named in honor of their parents. Another big ship was the "Oscar Gruzenberg", owned by Bere Rosovsky and named in honor of the lawyer Gruzenberg, the defender of Beiliss.
The ships came to us along the Dniepr from Ekaterinoslav, Cherkass, and Kiev -- bringing flour, sugar, salt and other provisions. On the return trip they carried tar and turpentine.
In the summer, the Berezina was a source of pleasure for the population of the city, especially its youth.
You see that the Berezina genuinely served the Bobruisk people in many ways.
The Bobruisk coat of arms portrayed beavers (the Russian word "bobr" means beaver, so Bobruisk means "Beaver City"). Apparently some time in the past beavers found their way into Berezina from its tributary, the Bobrulka.
THE JEWISH INTELLIGENTSIA
A few words about the Jewish intelligentsia. We should not forget our connections to the past. I will therefore simply name the people I remember and say a little bit about those I knew best.
Isaac Israelovich Estrin, president of the Jewish community, very devoted to the city, concerned about its needs -- he enjoyed great respect.
Solomon Lvovich Ginsburg, a great "original" and one of the few who undertook a journey to America some 60 years ago (around l900) not out of need, but out of curiosity. He was determined to experience the real American spirit. Following the example set by many Americans, he started by selling newspapers in the streets of New York. He learned English well. I heard that at the end of his life he was in Leningrad, a broker under the Bolsheviks. He was a very knowledgeable man, of conservative outlook, and an active member of the Kadet political party in Bobruisk.
Nachke Yukhvich, leader of the Bund. I know that a lot of material has been collected about him -- one of the outstanding personalities of the city. His decency and honesty earned great respect not only in labor circles but equally in other circles.
Konstantin Barkhik, a man of letters and instructor in literature at the Odessa gymnasium. His brother Grigory was a civil engineer.
Semyon Steinberg, teacher. Bakst, son of Reb Yosef "der Dayin". Tsilia Stisson, a teacher married to Hirsh Kaganovich.
Yakov Rosenthal, the best mathematics teacher in town.
Ilia Meitin, Latin instructor, very well-educated, well-versed in literature and poetry, high-minded and committed to the idea of enlightenment. His father, Shmul Meitin -- or as they called him, "Shmul der Shreiber (the writer)", taught the Russian language to members of the previous generation. All our fathers learned Russian grammar from him.
Benedict Lvovich Getzov, cultured and active in public affairs. He did much to foster the cultural life of our city. The entire progressive Jewish intelligentsia used to assemble in his house.
Mendel Elkin, whom I have already mentioned, was especially remarkable in this setting. In periods of affluence, he not only sponsored Jewish theater but supported actors and playwrights. He lived to a ripe old age, dying in New York at 89. To the last days of his life he remained as alert and curious as in his youth.
FIRST JEW ON THE BOBRUISK BENCH
I want to end with a few words about myself, if it is of any interest. In the time of Kerensky I was elected to the court of the second district of Bobruisk. There were three judges -- one Russian Orthodox, one Polish Catholic, and I -- a Jew. In the beginning, working together was very pleasant. I had just finished legal studies and took to my work with alacrity. The end came six months later under Polish occupation. These were the circumstances:
A man was being tried on suspicion of having robbed a synagogue. The only witness to the crime was the old shames who did not speak Russian. Eager to help in examining the matter, I addressed him in Yiddish -- the law of the provisional Government permitted this. But the Poles were already in charge and my Polish colleague told me: "Don't make this into a Jewish synagogue."
I voiced my protest. The session was adjourned.
Next day I was called to the office of the civil governor of the city, a Pole named Poremski, who wanted me to understand that it would be best for me to resign. That was in late 1918. I went to consult the Jewish community. In view of the mood of the Polish authorities, I was told it would be preferable to submit my resignation.
So ended the judicial career of the first Jewish judge in the Jewish city of Bobruisk.
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