The Autobiography of Solomon Katzen
The Early Years: 1902-1923
© 1995 Solomon Katzen. Used with permission.
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Get Thee Out
The serenity of our life in Sasmaken was badly shaken. Apparently, father must have been notified by the county police, that the Katzen family must leave the town within a short time since under the existing laws, only those Jews who resided in Kourland prior to 1880 or their progeny were permitted to live there. My parents came to Sasmaken from Neibaden, Lifland, which was also outside the Pale of Settlement. Grandfather Moishe Falksohn must have moved there prior to 1880 and thus was covered by the law. Father was the general communal functionary for a year to two in Neibaden where he met and married Chaya Rivka Falksohn. Neibaden was too small a community to support a rabbi. Presumably, he was looking for an opening elsewhere and found the place in Sasmaken. Presumably, he must have been assured that no one in town will ever question his right to reside there. As events turned out, someone did question this right.
While we were living in a ground floor apartment in the building owned by Jacob Thal, there moved in to a second floor apartment a spinster and her single brother. I remember, that he was called Zelig ("Kroomfoos") as he had a kind of round or club foot, and was limping. Both of them were not well regarded in town. Zelig was employed by Yanke the shoemaker, who was also the sexton (Shamesh) in the synagogue. It was the general consensus in town, that it was Zelig who squealed to the authorities about the family Katzen, who had no right to live in Sasmaken. The leaders of the community had a meeting and decided to petition the Governor of Kourland that, in view of the needed functions performed by father, to grant permission for our continued residence in Sasmaken. A committee of two were appointed. Im not sure, but I believe they were Shaye Thal and Bentze (Benzion) Levius. They traveled to Mitau, the seat of the government and personally presented the petition to the governor. The result was negative, but they obtained a period of grace, that is, we were given 3 months time within which to move. The following I heard much later. Grandfather Katzen who was living at that time in New Bedford, Mass. was urging my father to come to America, an idea readily subscribed by him. However, mother was receiving letters from her sister Bluma Krales, that things in America were bad, which was true as far as she was concerned, and that mother would be better off to remain in Europe. Furthermore, it was not practical for our family consisting of five children to go to America, all together without an economic footing. There was the idea of father going by himself, getting established and then sending for the family. But mother didnt want to remain alone with the five children. The decision was to remain in Sasmaken, since a new way was discovered to live there legally. Outside the "Pale of Settlement" (i.e. the area where Jews were permitted to live) only certain categories of Jews were granted rights of residence as follows: doctors, lawyers and merchants of the first rank, who were required to pay a special tax of 500 rubles a year and tradesmen (locksmiths, tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, and others) who were graduates of either one or two official trade schools. One of those schools was in Vilna and the other in Odessa.
Although the city of Vilna was much nearer, father went to Odessa, a fast growing city and port on the Black Sea. He was directed to a family who had emigrated many years ago from Sasmaken and were rather prosperous in Odessa. While there, he lived in their home, attended the trade school and through some connections he learned a trade in six weeks. He was given a diploma to the effect that he was a master bookbinder. Before leaving for home, the Odessa family entertained him by taking him to the opera, which was a first for him.
To our great relief, Father returned from his trip and brought a gift given him by his Odessa hosts in the form of a nickel-clad samovar of beautiful design, which became our prized possession. He told us about his experiences, especially the ride on an express train, which was speeding at 60 viersts, the equivalent of about 40 miles per hour. He described the beauties of Odessa and its harbor.
His diploma was sent to the governor at Mitau, and back came a permit for the Katzen family to continue to reside in Sasmaken, as long as Father will practice his trade. I dont know, where the tools and equipment of the trade were purchased as there was no other bookbinder in Sasmaken. Perhaps it came from someones attic, or was purchased elsewhere. But there it was, the wooden presses, glue pots, cardboard, books in the process of repair, and a supply of books needing repair. A half of a room was assigned to the workshop. In case of required proof, father did repair a few books, rather the bindings, for a few householders. So, the black cloud that was overhanging left us and we continued to live in Sasmaken legally. Then, it became clear to me why mother was so agitated when a rock I had thrown in self-defense hit the policemans son. Also, I now understood why the visits of Fathers sister Rose and later the visit of Fathers parents were very short. Aha! They had no right to stay in Sasmaken.
Everyone in the family was happy with the arrival of the first girl Sonya. I remember, that Harry and I were walking down Shiler St. And many people greeted us with the remark that, "Your stock has fallen, now that there is a girl in the family." We walked as far as Mrs. Eksteins residence. Mother and father roomed there, when they first came to Sasmaken and Mrs. Ekstein was always friendly to us. During one of those summer days, another event took place. A local cabinetmaker delivered and set up two new beds with high carved bed boards that my parents had ordered for themselves. Their old beds were handed down to the growing family.
I Enter An Elementary School
About the year 1908, there was built on the Hoff St. a new two story brick building as the first Government Elementary School. Prior to this, there was no Russian Language School in Sasmaken. This was a 4-year school for pupils aged 10-14. There was one classroom for each grade. The Superintendent, as well as all the teachers, were male and wore uniforms. Pupils were also required to wear uniforms. Before being accepted, the pupils had to undergo an examination in reading and writing Russian and arithmetic.
Both Harry and I, along with some other Jewish children, took the entrance exams in 1909. No one asked for birth certificates and I was as tall as my older brother, and both of us passed the examination. Now, there arose a dilemma. Since there was a quota of 10% for Jewish pupils, it wasnt fair to have two accepted from the same family and furthermore I was too young. So I waited till the following year. Took the exam again and was accepted. However, for some reason Harry never attended the school. In a starting class of about 25 pupils, there was a Jewish girl Minna Weinberg and myself. After one year, she dropped out and I continued as the only Jewish boy through the 2nd, 3rd and 4th grades, in a graduation class of about 18, among whom was one Latvian girl, a daughter of a local storekeeper, by the name of Yuryan. There were no home room teachers, but they specialized according to subjects. Fritz Derman was teaching math, geometry, geography, drawing. Martakoff was teaching the Russian language, literature, grammar, Russian history. This teacher was a retired army captain. There was a third one whose name escapes me. His subjects were calligraphy, singing, and other minor subjects. With my becoming a student at the school¸ it required all of my time and attention. The school hours were from 8 a.m. to 2-3 or sometimes to 4 p.m. six days week. My studies at the cheder were stopped.
It was the policy of the Czarist government to promote the teaching of religion, particularly, the Russian Orthodox faith. However, during the entire four years at school, there wasnt a single student of Russian parentage. The Lutheran pastor would give each class an one hour lesson in their religion. This was conducted in the Latvian language. Their new testament stories were illustrated in a not too favorable way to the Jews. Besides their Bible, they used another small book, called catechism, which taught the essential beliefs, dogmas and church use.
As a Jewish boy, I was always excused from the class, and used that time for reading or homework. I was also excused from writing on Saturdays, although attendance was required. Under Jewish custom, even carrying any object on Saturday was forbidden, so a fellow student who would pass our house on the way to school would pick up and carry my books too. However, the principal required that I bring to him a certificate from the Government Rabbi indicating the dates on which the holidays fell. The principal, whose name was Schweitzer, always used to compare the current certificate with the one from the previous year. Since the dates were different, he used to remark that even the Jewish calendar is crooked. Although, he didnt deserve it, on Passover, mother would wrap a few matzos and a bottle of mead and I would bring it to him as a gift.
We Move Again
As our family was growing in numbers we needed more spacious quarters. We moved diagonally across on Tzunzer St. This time our quarters were in a house in the back yard of the property owned by a Mr. Zell, who was a Latvian. The yard of this building was not paved, and it used to become very muddy after rains and melting snow. The water well was quite a distance from the house, down a hill. There was no pump and the pailfuls of water were pulled up by a stork like contraption. The maid would carry two pails of water on a shoulder yoke. We didnt always have a maid and frequently, I used to carry pails of water from the well and fill barrels in the hall.
My Friend Young Zell
He was a young man about 18 or 19 years old, the son of the owner of the house we lived in. The front, or the building facing the street was occupied by the Zell family and by a tenant, Shmuel Zelig Edelstein, who was a cattle dealer and horse trader, and in part of the building was a carpenter shop, where Carls grandfather lived and worked.
Carl owned a flock of pigeons, which nested in the attic of the house above the Zells living quarters. Whether it was my interest in his pigeons or for some other reason he befriended me and called me his partner. I used to accompany him to the attic and observed his handling of the pigeons, and he handed me a pigeon to hold. In the back of our house, which was in the yard, there was an orchard belonging to the Zells. When the fruit on the trees would start to ripen, Carl would take me into the fenced in orchard. We ate various kinds of berries, cherries and apples.
When his grandfather was away, he once took me though the carpenter shop. The floor was full of shavings and there were a lot of tools and unfinished furniture. Then we went up to the attic of the shop. Here, I was astounded when I saw a coffin. Carl told me that his grandfather built it for himself to be buried in. I already knew, that some old Jews, particularly old women would make their own shrouds to be buried in. The Jewish community owned one black coffin, in which the deceased was carried to the cemetery, with most of the townsfolk following the funeral procession. At the gravesite, the body would be removed from the coffin and lowered into the grave by the shroud. The coffin would then be rolled over on the cemetery grounds three times. I was told that this action confuses the angel of death, so that he will not visit the town again. The coffin would be returned to the little building at the cemetery for reuse. Let us return to my "partner" Carl. I was very saddened when he showed me a bunch of chopped off heads of pigeons, which he threw away in the garbage. Pigeons were among the fowl listed as permissible for consumption by Jews, if ritually slaughtered by a Shochet¸ but I didnt think about or know of any Jews eating pigeons. Shortly after the killing of the pigeons, Carl told me that he was leaving for America, where he had brothers, and that, when I was grown up, I, too, should come to America. Thus we could be partners again. I thought about his suggestion quite often.
Shmuel Zelig Edelstein had two grown up sons and a boy, Leibke, who was about 4 or 5 years older than myself. The oldest son Leizer emigrated to South Africa. The second, Chayim was working in the shop owned by his fathers cousin, Wolf Edelstein. His was the only shop where the uppers for shoes or boots would be cut and stitched based on the measurements taken by the various shoemakers. This shop had a higher rating than an ordinary shoemaker, because of the professionalism and this shop had the only machine in town that could stitch leather. The youngest son, Leibke, used to accompany his father on the trips to the countryside where they bought and sold horses. Leibke was rather a rough character, which apparently went with handling horses. Sometimes, on market days, when I used to go shopping for Mother, when school was not in session, I used to observe the shenanigans of horse-trading, of which the Edelsteins were masters. The haggling and bargaining in the price, the clapping each other, i.e., buyer and seller on the palms of their hands, when a new price was offered, the continuous inspection of the teeth of the horse, his gait, the frequent swearing by everything that was holy was quite a spectacle. Particularly funny to me was a phrase used by Shmuel Zelig when quoting the price that he himself paid for the horse. Usually he would quote and swear that he paid more than the price he is willing to sell the horse. He would in all seriousness say that if the buyer didnt believe him, he should go and ask his wife for verification. While I mentioned his wife, whose name was Shule, it comes to mind an event that shook up the town.
Word got around fast, that a sister of Shule, who was nicknamed Lutes, committed suicide by slashing her throat. Although I had not known of the prior existence of this woman, my curiosity was aroused. With other boys¸ I went to her residence, which was in a basement of a house on the Hoff St. By the time I got there, quite a crowd of people were already there. The body had been removed from he floor, which was covered by a stream of coagulated blood. She was not accorded the usual funeral rites, but was buried outside the cemetery fence. I had heard that she lived with a gentile farmer Lutes, whose farm was about 1-1/2 miles outside of town.
Along the right hand side of the Zell property, stretching for the whole length was the property of Mrs. Grosswald, a widow. Facing the street there was her fenced in vegetable garden, then her house and barn, and a fairly large orchard. Living with her was a sister and an elderly brother, who did the hard chores. All digging was by hand. We used to buy vegetables from her, and these would be pulled out fresh from the ground. Her harvested apples were kept in the barn, on shelves decked with straw. By mid-November most of the apples would be gone, since there were no cold storage facilities.
Thinking about Mrs. Grosswald, I reminded myself, that it was her son-in-law, who lived elsewhere, by himself set new paving stones on Tzuntzen St. for a stretch of about 100 yards. There was fresh sand strewn on the street. He would take each stone from a pile and set it in the sand, tap it with his heavy hammer. When a small section was completed, he would stomp each stone with a heavy log, held by a crossbar fastened to it. It was Mrs. Grosswalds orchard where the family picture was taken, probably in 1912 or 1913. There was no resident photographer in town. Apparently, when an itinerant photographer arrived, he must have had many customers, among whom was our family too.
On Tzuntzen St. to the left of the Zell property, there was a small grocery, owned by a Latvian by the name of Yurjahn. There we bought mostly small items, while the large bulk shopping was done in the larger stores owned by Shaya Thal, Verbelov Bros. or Mr. Shneour. I was fond of buying candy in the Yurjahn store. For one kopek I used to get either one black caramel Iris or two candies in wrappers called Ananas. The latter had a picture of pineapples, the heavenly taste of which I could only imagine. It was Yurjahns daughter who was a classmate of mine in the elementary school. Mr. Yurjahn, who was in his late thirties, died suddenly. He died of appendicitis which had not been taken care of properly.
Although, I didnt go to their house, it seemed to me that many people in holiday attire gathered there. I heard lots of singing and what seemed like a celebration was taking place at this house before the funeral. There was still another house in the back of us which was occupied by two elderly Latvian families. They kept to themselves and I remember little about them, except that in their hallway there were big troughs of soured oatmeal, which was a national dish called Putraim. Also, on the chimney of that house, storks would nest there in the spring and summer. In the back of their house was the orchard, beyond the fence of which were open fields.
Providing for the Long Winters
Every householder would purchase or provide for himself with more than enough firewood to last for the entire winter. Every yard had neatly piled logs, depending on the number of families living there. Wood choppers were hired to split the logs and the chopped wood was laid out in round tower like piles, for the wood to dry. Afterwards, when dry, the wood was piled up in the barns. In all of Sasmaken, there was only one place where coal and coke were used and that was by the local blacksmith.
In the summertime, all kinds of berries were plentiful. Wild berries, such as strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and cranberries grew in the woods surrounding the town. It was almost a days work of searching and bending to pick a quart or two oft berries. On Thursdays, all kinds of fruits and berries, depending on the season would be brought to the market. Most householders, depending on their finances or needs would make their own preserves. None was available in any of the stores.
Every house had a cellar, which was reached through a trap door and movable ladder. Many householders, especially those who had vegetable gardens had root cellars, where potatoes, beets, carrots, turnips, radishes, horseradishes were kept. The pungent odors of drying garlic, onions, mushrooms, which were tied on long strings and hung up to dry in the living quarters of Mrs. Grosswalds, as well as the numerous flower pots left a lasting impression.
Pickling time was an annual ritual. Traveling peddlers would come to town with wagon loads of pickling cucumbers. These would be bought by the shock which numbered 60 pieces. We would buy 5 or 6 shocks, with the corresponding quantities of dill and garlic. I would assist mother in the process of laying out the rows of pickles in the barrels, which were kept in an alcove. Similarly, with buying 50 to 60 heads of cabbage, which would be cut and put up for sauerkraut.
This operation used to intrigue me, because it involved using a machine which we used to borrow. The entire machine was made of wood, except for the gears and cutting knife which was built in the horizontal wheel. One had to be careful not to cut a finger, and after a while the work would become tiresome for me. We used to put up at least two barrels of sauerkraut.
The fall season, was also the time to lay in a supply of smoked lamb and salami. Beef used to be koshered and put up in barrels for curing. Likewise, sides of lamb, only the forepart of the carcass was used. This was mainly fathers job. The big job was grinding the meat by hand. Although we owned a regular size meat grinder, we used to borrow one of larger dimensions. Before the grinding process, father would accumulate and clean a substantial number of intestines, which were used as casings for the salami. This work would usually be done in an evening when father was at home. The smokehouse was at the end of the hallway, separating the quarters of Zell, the owner, and the quarters of the Edelsteins. One had to arrange for the schedule when the smokehouse was available, since it took about two weeks for the smoking process.
The inner walls of the smokehouse were black, covered with soot. One had to climb up a ladder to hang the salamis and breast of lamb on hooks. Then a fire was lit below. I do not recall what kind of wood was used, but it was slow burning with lots of smoke, which was operated continuously. The end product was a delicacy.
I remember Grandfather Moses, when he lived with us, used to make almost a ritual on wintry Saturday nights. He would cut for himself a slab of smoked lamb, a few slices of black pumpernickel bread, a dish of cold sauerkraut and would take some rendered goose fat, mix it with diced onions, smear it on the bread, and enjoy his meal with a boiling samovar on the table for tea. I mention this now, because, where we lived before there was no smokehouse, but we used our neighbors Bendet Weinbergs smokehouse.
One of the annual events for the boys, was the arrival of, in the surrounding large farms, the threshing machine, and the steam engine to drive it. Four to six horses were required to transport the steam engine which rested on a frame supported by four large and wide steel wheels. The wide wheels were required to prevent the heavy machine from sinking in the unpaved, muddy roads. Dreimans farm was bordering the town, so it was there that I liked to observe the process. The harvested wheat, rye, barley, or oats, the sheafs of which would be lifted on pitch forks by hand and fed into the threshing machines. Of greater interest was the steam engine. It was a wood burning machine, the drive wheel of which was connected by a long leather belt to the threshing machine which operated inside the barn. Standard size burlap bags were attached to the bottom of the machine. Full bags of 5 poods or 200 lbs. of grain were removed. The straw would be thrown out by the machine in the back, where it was picked up and transported to another barn. The threshing would be completed in a day or two, and the machines would then be transported to another barn.
On a hill outside of the town, near the Jewish cemetery there was a windmill, and the millers house just below it. The local farmers would bring their grain to the mill for grinding, so that the resulting flour was from their own grain. The principal crop was rye, most of which went for local consumption. Wheat flour carried by the merchants in town originated in the Ukraine in the south, where both the wheat and the refining milling process were superior. I used to be intrigued to see how the miller would move the roof of the windmill together with the big wings in the direction of the wind. I remember being permitted once to go into the mill while in operation. Everything inside was massive: the big wooden gears, the mill stones, and the noise was deafening. The grain was carried on a circular stairway to the top and emptied into a large hopper and the finished product came out on the ground level.
On the outskirts of the town, there was a mechanized dairy. This was a non-Jewish enterprise. I dont know who the owner was, perhaps it was owned by Baron Heiking himself, who was the biggest landowner in the area. The town of Sasmaken was built on his land, with the owners of the houses paying a land rent to him. The manager of the plant, as well as the workers were either Latvians or Germans.
The milk production of the area was much greater than the local population could consume, and thus, the economics dictated the production of butter for export. In the yard of the plant, there were a few underground ice storage facilities. In the winter time, big blocks of ice were cut at the lake. These were brought on sleighs, slid down in the underground warehouse and covered with straw to retard its melting.
On several occasions, I went to the factory to buy butter, when the local dairyman or the weekly market was short of supplies. I was overwhelmed by the machinery, huge vats, turning wheels, pipes, cement floor which was constantly washed. The product was sweet butter packaged like the American product. The by-product skimmed milk, was shipped to the Barons farm as feed for pigs. Local Latvian women would carry pails full of skimmed milk on yokes which they purchased for a few kopeks, to their homes as feed for their animals. The main output of sweet butter was exported to Germany and England.
On a side street, off the road to Talsen, there was a woolen mill which burned down completely. I was too young to remember the fire, but I remember going there to see the ruins, big iron wheels, drive shafts, and the remains of the walls. In a few years the factory was rebuilt with more modern machinery.
In addition to its regular production, the factory also accepted personal orders from the local populace. At times father would bring wool home which he received or acquired from the butchers. About once a year, mother would arrange to have the wool washed, carded, spun into yarn, and have it woven on home looms of which there were several in town. The resulting cloth, generally gray, was rough. On several occasions I carried the cloth to the mill to have it worsted.
What impressed me most was the new diesel, the source of power for the mill. There was a large glass container on top of the machine, which held the oil, but I was at a loss to understand the combustion principle. There was no such thing as buying socks, gloves, or mittens. These were knitted at home.
Horses were the only means of transportation, as well as furnishing the power for agriculture. Although, I had already seen one reaper operated by a prosperous farmer, this too, was pulled by horses.
There was one barber in town by the name of Rosenberg. When needed by Baron Heiking, he would send his chauffeur for him. However, when the weather was nice, and the spirit moved him, the Baron would ride into town on horseback. When the boys would see him coming they would run to the barber shop. Although there were posts to tie up the horse, the Baron liked to have one of the boys look after his horse, for which he would pay 10 kopeks. I had the honor to hold the reins once and was happy to earn the money.
Among the boys, a fashion developed to hand make chains out of hair pulled from horses tails. Some of the boys were ingenuous in making multicolored chains. I remember also other situations involving horses: the death of two horses, I remember in every detail. The first was on a Saturday. This horse, belonging to a Mr. Weinberg, was running from or being chased from his pasture. The gate to the yard was partly open with a crossbeam sticking out. The horse was running to its stall and apparently did not notice the crossbeam. He ran into it, which stuck into his chest. The poor animal, bleeding profusely was freed from the beam, walked to its stall, where it laid down and died.
The other case involved a horse owned by a Latvian, who arranged to have the horse shot. This horse was used to pull wagon loads of firewood, carry away garbage and must have gotten old, so that he no longer could pull the load. How the word got around town, I dont know. Quite a few boys, myself included, accompanied the man and his horse to the place of execution in the woods about a mile outside of town. The old horse was left standing alone. We all moved back about 30 feet. Then the forester raised his gun, aimed and fired, hitting the horse above the eye. The horse kneeled and keeled over. The owner remained there, to skin the animal and bury him right there. All of us boys return to town very sad.
We had heard about such things. On one summer day the word spread fast that an auto is staying in town overnight. I did not see its arrival, but immediately ran to the only inn (Wollandskis) where all the boys gathered to inspect the new phenomenon. The chauffeur was in white overalls, and the horseless carriage on solid rubber tires, with a lot of brass, looked like a fancy carriage. It was an open car, belonging to some baron. I believe it was burning alcohol for fuel.
First Street Light
What a novelty. Prior to the installation of this, the only town gas lamp in the market place, the town used to be pitch dark at night. All houses were equipped with outside shutters, and these were usually closed in the evenings. The only light penetrating to the streets was from some windows that were not shuttered. A lantern was a necessity to go out at night.
It was an evening ritual, to watch the custodian come, and with his key lower the big lamp, which was suspended from a high pole on a wire rope. Then he would unhook the lower half, pump air into the body of the lamp which held the alcohol. Then he would light a small fire to heat up the mantle, and when sufficiently hot, he would open the valve and the light would start with a hissing sound. Next, he would fasten the lower half and wind the lamp upwards with his key. This great lamp illuminated the market place and the adjacent streets. I was never present at midnight when the lamp was extinguished.
My Second Sister Shirley (Sarah)
On Saturday afternoons in the summertime, most of the Jewish families would go for a walk into the pine woods surrounding the town or to the lake, a distance of less than a mile. The town had no public parks. Even in the winter, after a heavy snow fall, father would take the older boys for a walk in the snow drifts. Sometimes, the snow drifts were so high reaching the to the top of the windows, so that hardly any light came through. The door to the outside could not be opened until the snow was shoveled away. I recall an ugly incident one summers day when the family went on an outing. This time we didnt go to the woods, but along the fields of rye until we came to a hay field. Father, as usual was at home taking his Saturday afternoon nap. At that time, I was about six years old. Beside mother and myself, there was Harry, Baruch-Mayer and David. Mother sat down with us on the grass. Shortly thereafter, a grown son of farmer Dreiman, who owned the field, walked up to us, grabbed mothers scarf which she had put down on the grass as security for payment for damages to the grass since we walked and sat on it. I never learned the outcome, whether mother had to pay a fine to redeem her scarf, or if it was returned without payment. When I got older, the walks into the woods were getting deeper, a distance of two or three miles. Once father pointed out to me in the woods, the home of Ms. Englebert who was the midwife serving Sasmaken. We learned that she delivered all of us, and of course, I remembered this kind but strict lady who stayed with mother for a few days during delivery.
On a hot summer day, Father asked me to go to Mrs. Engelbert and ask her to come to our house. Since I knew the way I went eagerly and accomplished the mission. My older brother Harry and I were sleeping in one bed. On that night we were awakened by mothers frequent screams. We were agitated all night and toward morning we were told that we have a new sister Sarah.
Mrs Engelbert busied herself with the newborn infant and looked after Mother, who remained in bed for a week or ten days. Until the age of about nine months the infants used to be wrapped like mummies, and, of course, all were breast fed. In addition to the maid, who did the heavy work, on such occasions, when the mother of the house was incapacitated, there came in another woman to do the cooking and manage the house. She was a middle-aged widow by the name of Chana-Reina. She lived in an attic in Verbelows house on Talsen St. Normally, her source of income was from the sale of water bagels. She used to bake daily two basketsful and carry them in the afternoon to her customers or likely customers. She was peddling her bagels in all kinds of weather, and not infrequently she was tied up in several shawls, a basket of bagels in each arm, and to little children she looked like a witch. Actually she was a kind person and loved children.
The post office was located on Talsen Street. How the mail used to reach Sasmaken I really dont know. The county seat was the city of Talsen, a distance of about 15 viorst or 8 miles. However¸ the nearest railroad station was Stenden, about 5 miles beyond Talsen.
Sasmaken had two draymen who carried freight and passengers to and from Talsen and Stenden. One of these was Isaac the "Furman" and the other was a Latvian by the name of Straut, a jolly fellow who knew a few words of Yiddish. Which one of these brought the mail, or if it was delivered on horse back I dont know. There was no home delivery of the mail. In late afternoon, people who were expecting mail would go to the Post Office and inquire. Usually, there would be a small crowd and everyone would know if so and so received mail with money orders from their sons or daughters in America or South Africa. By that time most families had relatives in those far off countries.
A few newspapers used to reach Sasmaken. Of course, they were two or three days old. Besides the Yiddish newspaper Der Tog (The Day), which father used to receive from Warsaw, there used to arrive several copies of Rigashe Rundshau, a German language newspaper subscribed by the Thals and Levius.
Because Father was receiving a newspaper, he had to, and willingly, shared the important news with the townspeople. At that time there was a war in Balkans (1912) and some people were interested in the progress of the combatants. That period also brings to mind the 100th anniversary celebration of the Russian victory over Napoleon, which was marked by parades, display of flags, and the playing of the national anthem: "God Save the Czar." During the playing of the anthem, I remember that a certain farmer standing in the crowd had forgotten to remove his hat, and the local policeman promptly knocked it off with his saber. Also at that time, committees were organized to sell buttons made of tin, resembling the aeroplanes then in use. The slogan was that "Russia needs an air fleet" and people used to donate 5 to 10 kopeks
Of great worry and significance to the Jews of Russia was the then occurring "Baylis Process" in 1913 (The Case of Mendel Baylis). This was a jury trial of Mendel Baylis, who was a manager of a brick kiln in Kiev, and was being accused of having murdered a Christian youth for the purpose of using his blood for the baking of matzos. With Baylis, all of Jewry and the Jewish religion was being accused of fostering this practice. The daily newspaper reports, about the trial, were of concern to the townspeople, and fathers newspaper, as well as his personal views, were in demand. I remember names that were then being discussed such as defense counsel Gruzenberg from St. Petersburg and Jew Baiter Purishkevitch, and a Catholic priest, "expert" on the Talmud by the name of Pranaitis. Then, there were the famous newspapers Retch (Speech) a liberal paper and the Novoe Vremia (New Time), a most reactionary paper controlled by the anti-Semitic "Black Hundreds." The period was tense, and had Baylis been found guilty, there would have been a wave of pogroms and killing of Jews throughout Russia. Fortunately, the jury consisting of 12 plain people found Baylis not guilty, and the defense proved that it was the murdered boys mother herself and some of her drunken friends who committed the murder, because he knew too much of their illicit deeds. They were later tried and found guilty of the murder. Although Baylis was found not guilty of murder, the Jewish religion, or the Jews generally, were not acquitted of the blood libel as such. A sigh of relief greeted the verdict. I remember the fellow students at school taunting me that the international Jewry "bought" the jury to have them proclaim Mendel Baylis not guilty.
Forward to Part 3
© 1995 Solomon Katzen. Used with permission.