The Autobiography of Solomon Katzen
The Early Years: 1902-1923
© 1995 Solomon Katzen. Used with permission.
Back to Part 3
Just like the Jews of Riga, the Jewish Community of Kremenchug was organized to assist the flow of refugees. While the city of Riga was located outside the "Pale" (area where Jews were permitted to reside), Kremenchug was within the Pale of Settlement. The Jews of Riga constituted 10-15 percent of the population, but in Kremenchug they were at least 70 percent. In Kremenchug, there was in existence, a Society for the Assistance to Poor Jews. There were also branches of ORT and OZE. The latter was a society to promote health among Jews.
Going back to our arrival, we were unloaded from the freight train and taken to army barracks. These barracks were part of a large three story brick building next to the parade ground, where soldiers were trained. Apparently, half of the barracks were temporarily vacant and permission was given to place the refugees there. Where? On the floor, there being no bunks of any kind!
The Jewish committee provided assistance, like in Riga, they, too, had a free soup kitchen, but quite a distance away. While at the barracks we met Tode Muschat (mother's Uncle from Zagare) with his family: wife, Hanah, sons Chaim and Leo and daughter, Recha. They were on the same train with us from Riga, but of course we couldn't have possibly met until disembarkment. Hanah Muschat had well to do cousins (Mirelson) in Kremenchug, and they were instrumental in obtaining a basement flat for them and some second hand furniture.
After a few weeks the committee found small quarters for us, in the house of a Mr. Zhivov on Preobrazhenskaja St. As a sideline, Mr. Zhivov used to buy bulk washing soda in big burlap bags and package it in one pound boxes. I was enlisted to help him make the cardboard boxes, paste on the advertising labels and fill the boxes. I don't remember receiving any pay. Perhaps he gave the refugees a reduction in rent.
There must have been at least 20 synagogues in Kremenchug. Some extremely large and some very small. There were no openings for rabbinical posts. Pa performed some duties and adult teaching in the so-called Polish Synagogue. I'm sure that his income was inadequate and we must have been receiving some relief from the Society. Harry started working in Mirelson's lumberyard for little pay. He was 15 and I wasn't quite 13 yet. Throughout this period, ever since we left Sasmaken, it seems to me that mother suffered most, caring for so many infants, the deprivations of the family undermined her health.
Next to Zhivov's house, there lived an old gentleman with two maiden daughters. They heard about the Bezhentzes (refugees) in the next house. Quite frequently, they would call me in and give me a small pot of hot chicken bullion to deliver to my ailing mother. By the time my Bar Mitzvah approached, father was connected with an Ashkenazic Congregation Tehilim (Psalms). So my Bar Mitzvah was held there on Shabbas of Succoth. In addition, to the regular proceedings I read, i.e., chanted the entire scrolls of Ecclesiastes. When we returned home from the synagogue, there was hardly anything that could have been called refreshments.
Harry's job in the lumberyard was too difficult for him. Pa heard of a position open in Krivoi Rog for a Hebrew teacher. Krivoi Rog was a mining center about 150 miles to the south. Harry went there and got the job.
After my Bar Mitzvah, it was time to find a real job for me. I was apprenticed to a Chabad Chasid Borowitsky, who owned a wholesale yard goods store. My job was to sweep the floors, help arrange the bolts of cloth. Run errands and carry packages of goods brought by retail out-of-town merchants to the railroad station. I also ran errands for his wife and daughter. I slept on a straw mattress on his kitchen floor, ate at his table, had to accompany him on Saturdays to his Chabad Synagogue. From that time on, I disliked his antics, as well as the other chassidim at prayer. I doubt if Pa received any compensation for my services. Room and board presumably took care of everything.
The Borowitsky family lived in a large brick house which was well decorated inside, with parquet floors and a full-time maid. At the time, I joined their household, they were happy, just having received a letter from their older son, that he was wounded in battle, taken prisoner by the Germans. The letter came through the International Red Cross, which also had a message on it from the German family who were looking after him at their home. There was a young son in his early 20s at home at that time. He was a medical student. While home on vacation he practiced his violin.
My coming and going into that house was through the kitchen. Naturally, I had a chance to observe that the method of cooking in the Ukraine was different than at Sasmaken. A large brick oven was fired with wood, and when reduced to hot coal condition, the food in earthenware posts were put in the oven by means of special hooks with long handles. The hooks were made to fit various sizes of pots. I especially liked the spiced Gefilte fish and the various borshts. My job at Borowitsky lasted about six months.
For a period of about two weeks Father was hospitalized in a general sprawling hospital which was about 1 1/2 miles outside of the city. Although there were electric trolley cars in the city, none of the lines went to the hospital. It was called Bogu Ugodnoe Zavedenie, which stands for "God Pleasing Institution". There were separate buildings for infectious diseases, surgical pavilions, where some the rooms had over 40 beds. Father was in one of those. Other than bread, the food there was non-kosher. So, almost every day, I would carry food to him from home. Although this wasn't the only hospital in the city, I was impressed by numerous wounded soldiers, invalids on crutches who were all over the grounds at the hospital
In the winter of the same year, 1915-16, I was given another job, that of sales clerk, at an open stand in an open air market structure. Items carried there were prunes in barrels, herrings in barrels, large unwrapped cakes of soap, barley, rice and other grocery items. The memory of this job reminds me only of extreme cold, the wind howling through the structure, which had neither window nor doors. The only heating element was a foot high cast iron pot which contained burning charcoal. When the opportunity presented itself, you could hold your hands near the hot pot. This job lasted a few months. The pay that I received was turned over to the family.
We Are On the Move Again
Our living quarters were pitifully small, and the Refugee Committee were successful in finding larger quarters for us on Elenskaya St. where we moved to. We had no knowledge that an apartment in that house was least desirable. The owner of the house was the largest contractor for the cleaning of the outhouses. In the back of the yard of this house were kept the equipment consisting of large wooden tanks attached to the wagons and the long handed pail size buckets. The stench there was unbearable and the flies and other insects and vermin were plentiful. We had to suffer there several months and willingly accepted a dark dingy one-room flat in a basement, which had about 8-10 steps going down, with two small windows, which were level with the ground. It was in this dingy apartment where our youngest sister Bracha died. She was about 1 1/2 years old and couldnt take the deprivations which we were undergoing.
Shortly, thereafter, Mother was sick again and was hospitalized. Again I was carrying food to her. I do not remember the name of this hospital, but I think that this hospital was exclusively for women, and was used also as a training school for midwives and nurses. Before reaching Mothers room, I had to walk through a long hall, which had shelves, on which were standing large jars, each containing a fetus in various stages of their development. Although, I dont know for sure, but I think that Mother had a miscarriage or an operation.
Since our flat in the basement was not too far from the flat where Mothers Uncle Tode Muschat lived, we had his daughter Recha (Mothers cousin) come to our flat and help with the cooking. Another good thing about our new location was, that it was next to the office taking care of the refugees and the poor.
My Advance to Office Work
It was late in 1916, that father arranged for my new job as office boy in that organization. I did some sorting and filing, but principally, I was the messenger, who was delivering the monthly bills for pledges to the homes and offices of the well-to-do local Jews, who with their contributions were supporting this organization, which was caring for thousands of refugees.
This job brought me into contact with the homes and offices of some very rich people. The Jewish industry in the city were in the form of some large 6-7 stories, flour mills. By making use of the street car tracks, freight cars were brought to the mills, where grain was brought in and flour moved out.
There were several large tobacco and cigarette manufacturers. Since the bills I was delivering were personal, I had to be sure that the given individual received the bill. Once, I got to go find Mrs. Rabinovitch (he was out of town) in the warehouse where tons of cut tobacco was being cured. I could hardly breathe in the place, but Mrs. Rabinovitch was in her element.
There were many lumber yards all along the Dniepr River. Some of the owners of these enterprises had their own synagogues.
Revolution February 1917
The war was going badly for Russia. Poor leadership, lack of equipment, woeful transport, and lack of supplies. The capital city of St. Petersburg was renamed during the war to Petrograd. Because of these conditions, the workers and the garrison of Petrograd revolted. The Czar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate the throne. The Duma, a "parliament" with limited powers, took over the government.
News of the events in Petrograd, i.e., rumors, reached the provincial cities. It was Saturday when I was present at the service in the Great Choral Synagogue. There was a great quandary whether to read the prayer for the well-being of the Czar. If the rumors of his abdication proved to be wrong, the leaders of the congregation would be severely punished. In the commotion that ensued, I don't remember whether the prayer was read or not. Generally, there was jubilation among the people, that the hated police state was brought to its knees, and the enlightened, democratic principles with freedom for the people, especially Jews, who were so terribly deprived of rights will begin to function. I heard, an old man say to my father, that without the Czar and strong armed police, things will become much worse. It is not my purpose to write a history of the revolution, because it was an event of such magnitude, and lack of accurate data as to what was happening in the country. I will just mention that the police force disappeared fearing for their lives. Their place was taken over by quickly organized "Militia", the prison doors were opened, the intention being to release the political prisoners, however, all prisoners were released. Crime and anarchy immediately increased. Although the winter of 1916-17 was bitterly cold, with lots of snow, the revolution did lift the spirits of the people for better things to come. On the public plazas and in halls, meetings were held by different parties, social democrats, menshevicks, social revolutionaries, agricultural, etc. Trying to promote the election of their party members to the National Convention, which would establish a constitution and form a government. A temporary government was established in Petrograd, the leader of which was Kerensky, a former deputy of the Duma. The temporary government was for the continuation of the war against the Central Powers, especially at that time, when the U.S.A. entered the war on the side of the Allies. If interested, you can obtain books, and read about the revolution of 1917. I purposely said revolutions, plural, because there was another one in October 1917, when the Bolsheviks (Communists), disbanded and arrested the members of the Constitutional Convention and took over. That is a separate story.
A warm spring, a sudden thaw caused quick melting of the ice and the heavy accumulation of snow. Flood waters filled the streams and rivulets leading into the big river basins, which caused them to overflow. Although Kremenchug was built on the hilly bank of the Dniepr, there was fear that some parts of the city located near the left river bank would be flooded. The city administration pressed into service every able-bodied man and youth to fill sandbags and use them to build dikes.
I, too (I was then 14 1/2) was working on building the dike at a point where the river made a 45° angle and the dike was already 6 feet high. As the waves hit the dike, it shook. It was a most dangerous spot to have been working, but the dike held.
While normally the river is one half to three-quarters of a mile wide, one could see from high points, that further north, where the left bank wasn't high, the river became 3 to 5 miles wide. The far side of the city, away from the river, naturally didnt have dikes as none seemed to be required. Well, what was feared happened. The flood waters broke through farther north and started flooding the city from the back. The flood waters covered about one third of the city, and didnt recede for about two to three weeks.
Life in the city became paralyzed. Although our miserable basement quarters were not flooded, life became unbearable. Shortages of food and basic needs set in, and epidemic diseases started to spread. There was no hope that we would ever be able to get out of that cellar and find other quarters.
Father looked desperately for a new place. He learned that his services could be utilized in the town of Smiela about 75 miles to the northwest in the Kiev Gubernia. In view of Mother's and the children's poor health, some interested friends were helpful in finding an unoccupied dacha (country home) in the village of Krylov, about 15 miles down the river, on the left side, which was in Cherson Gubernia. Father left for Smiela, and the family moved to Krylov. Since Harry was still away at Krivoi Rog, I was the senior responsible male in the family.
A Lovely Summer in the Country
In the early summer of 1917, we packed our meager belongings. We tied them the best way we could, for we didn't own a single valise and were transported to the dock on the river. We boarded the river steamboat for the trip to Krylov. Our traveling group consisted of Mother, myself, and the three young brothers, and the youngest, being my sisters, Sonya and Sarah. The short trip, which took almost a half day, was a grand experience. Having left the dank, dingy cellar in Kremenchug, we were now in open fresh air, the steamer carrying us on the wide river. The first stop of the ship was at Krylov, where we disembarked. Our dacha was not far from the dock, and we eagerly settled there. Living in Kremenchug, our lives and experiences revolved with and around Jews. However, Krylov was a middle sized Ukrainian village, with only a few Jewish residents. None of the streets, roads, paths were paved. Sidewalks nonexistent. Near us, on the main village road, stood a large impressive looking white washed Russian Greek Orthodox Church. The passersby, whether riding or walking, would stop and cross themselves.
It didnt take me long to note that Krylov was being utilized by the army as a training post for the cavalry. Behind the village, the terrain was hilly. There the Ulans could be seen galloping their horses up and down the hills, with bared sabers or staves in their hands. I enjoyed watching this spectacle. I mentioned Ulans instead of plain cavaliers is that the cavalry consisted of various rankings. In order of rankings, there were: 1) The Leib Guardians (guarding the Czars family and for parade purposes); 2) the Hussars; 3) the Ulans; 4) Plain Cavalry; and 5) the Cossacks. Each grouping had its distinct colorful uniforms.
In Krylov, there was a large shop where the uniforms for the Ulans were manufactured. Their color was blue with yellow trimming. By the year 1917, it was obvious that the Russian Armys reliance on cavalry in battle against the German machine guns was badly misplaced. The losses suffered by the Cossack regiments and cavalry, in general, were horrendous. Still, here they were, the men, carefully dressing their horses, undergoing training exercises and preparing themselves to sustain certain losses in men and animals.
As for the conditions in our dacha-home, Mother was still ailing. It was my duty to do the marketing, even do the cooking, and other chores. There were no stores where one could walk in and purchase the vitals needed for the family. You bought these, that is, whatever was available at the open air stands in the market place.
Apparently, the assistance that I could provide was inadequate. As mentioned earlier, as a refugee in Kremenchug, there lived Mothers Uncle Tode Muschat. He had a 16 year old daughter Rochke. She was summoned to come to help Mother and, by the way, she, too, would enjoy a week or two in the country. She came, and I was relieved somewhat.
Now, I had the opportunity to go swimming in the Dniepr with my brothers Baruch-Mayer and David in my care. The river was too dangerous a place for the youngest in the family. While at the river, we met other boys, mostly Russian. None of us had any bathing suits and we were in the men's area of the beach. On one of those very nice, warm, sunny days, we stayed at the river too long. Not realizing what was happening to me, I became badly sunburned. This had never happened to me before in the northern climate, at the lake in Sasmaken. It was a painful experience which lasted several days. Because, it is so vividly etched in my memory, I wish to tell about an excursion to the countryside.
Two of the Russian boys, with whom I became acquainted at the beach, asked me to join them for a days excursion in the countryside. We must have walked a distance of several miles. Men in rows walking step-by-step, welding their scythes in unison. Their scythes had a special attachment for gathering the stems, which I had not seen in Sasmaken. Groups of women were following the men and were gathering and tying up in bundles the cut wheat.
When we, the boys, started out on our excursion, we gave no thought about food. After a while we became hungry. One of the lads suggested that, since he had matches, we could dig up some partly ripe potatoes and bake them. Of course, this entailed a certain risk, were we to be caught.
At any rate, with our hands we dug some potatoes. Collected straw, sticks, and other dry flammables. The fire was lit, and after an hour or so, we had freshly baked potatoes, all the while looking out in all directions, to be sure that no one was coming to get us.
The idyllic short summer came to an end. We had word from father that he procured quarters for us in Smiela, and we were to proceed there. Again, we collected and packed our meager belongings. This time, the steamship took us up the river Dniepr to Cherkassy. From there by wagon, on a unpaved road, 20 miles to Smiela, where a totally new life was awaiting us.
Smiela was a town of perhaps two to three thousand Jews, out of a total population of about seven thousand. Most of the homes were one story affairs, built in the Ukrainian style where the outer walls were made of clay-like black mud mixed with dung. However, they were all whitewashed. Most of the roofs were of tin, painted green or red. Some of the poorer houses had thatched roofs. Some of the rich inhabitants had brick houses, also the gymnasiums (schools) were built of brick.
Two or three main thoroughfares were paved with cobblestones. Parallel to pavement on both sides of the road were deep ditches for the rain water to run off. The sidewalks were not paved and following any rain or thaw the muddy sidewalks presented a problem.
In the older section of the city, there was the center of the Jewish Community. There was a large wooden synagogue and a besmedrash, the Rabbi's official residence, Hebrew Schools, kosher butcher shop, all located on narrow streets. As the town grew, Jews settled in the newer areas. The quarters where we moved into was in the backyard of a house owned by Motye Maly. This was a large house located on the corner of the Main Rd. and a plaza, on which stood a large Russian church. In the rear of Malys house, lived a railroad official with his wife. Both of Polish extraction. The house in which we moved into, was built to accommodate two families. In the front part lived a family the name of Tzukrov, consisting of a father, mother and two daughters ages 12 and 8.
We occupied the second half of the house, which consisted of a kitchen, one bedroom and a living room. The services were all outside, such as a well for drawing water, privies, barns for storing cut logs for cooking or baking.
An unusual feature of our living room floor was that it was tilted at about an 8-10° angle. Where and how the furniture was acquired I have no knowledge. There were two single beds, a rough table with about 6 chairs, and a buffet for storing some of the dishes and food. All the children slept on the living room floor in one row. Blankets and featherbeds were spread out.
As was customary, fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, chickens, etc. were brought to market by peasants from the region. For instance, since pasteurization was unknown, the milk would be brought in clay jars, that had been preboiled, with milk skim browned on top of the jars. Almost all the householders baked their own bread.
The position that Father landed, was in a synagogue about 1/5 of a mile from our home. It was called the Gele Shul Yellow Synagogue because its walls were painted yellow. There was only one town rabbi, so he couldn't assume that title there, but fulfilled all the function plus being reader of the Torah, giving sermons, adult education and an occasional mohel and kosher poultry slaughterer. During the late summer of 1917, the war was continuing with the Russians suffering great losses in men and territory. Armed deserters from the front and from the barracks were making their appearance in ever larger numbers. The temporary government was issuing new paper currency in ever larger amounts. Inflation became rampant as goods disappeared from the stores.
The populace was grumbling about the "Jewish"-made revolution, which was causing the loss of the war, and the loss of law and order. Political parties now operating in the open were trying by their propaganda to gain more candidates for the Constitutional Assembly. Ukrainians were advocating independence for their country. Later on, in the fall, word reached the Jewish community about the Balfour Declaration promising the establishment in Palestine of a homeland for the Jewish people. The time was pregnant with various possibilities of good and evil. In the meanwhile, one had to be careful not to be robbed, beaten or killed by the roaming marauders.
New Work Experiences
Our landlord Motje Maly was also the owner of a leather goods store. He agreed or offered to have me, a 15 year old lad employed in his store. Whatever I earned went to father towards the payment of rent.
The stock in the store consisted of whole skins for uppers, such as from the finest kidskins, calfskins, cowhides, as well as precut units ready for the shoemakers. There were also various grades of leather for inner and outer soles, full skins or precut pieces. Particularly smelly were the precut uppers used for boots. These came from tanneries in central Russia, from the city of Yeletzk.
My job was to keep the stock orderly, after the salesmen finished showing the merchandise to prospective customers. It goes without saying that I was running errands and sweeping the floor.
By local standards the Maly family were well off. Besides his wife, there were five daughters in the family, aged 17 to 25. The youngest was attending the women's gymnasium, the others were still attending the University of Kiev or had graduated. In their household, they had a cook and a maid. Our neighbor, Tzukrov, was a bookkeeper. This was considered a somewhat learned profession. He and I became well acquainted. I asked him where he learned his profession, as I knew that he wasn't a graduate of a School of Commerce. Since I evinced such interest he told me that he had taken a correspondence course and if I was interested, he would lend me the material.
The bookkeeping lessons were printed in handwritten script, and consisted of about 50-60 pages. I read and reread the material evenings and on Saturdays, and I was satisfied that I understood the system of double entry bookkeeping.
This period, the latter few months of 1917 and beginning of 1918, was turbulent. We, in the provinces really didnt know what was going on in the capital cities of Petrograd and Moscow. The Russian front against the Germans was crumbling. Shortages of basic goods and rising prices were prevalent.
At that time, Motje Maly, a Mr. Brodsky and three other individuals formed a partnership for the wholesale purchasing and selling of leather goods. At the recommendation of Mr. Maly, I was hired as the bookkeeper for the partnership. Maly and Brodsky supplied most of the capital, and the other three did most of the traveling and purchasing of goods. Selling any goods was no problem at all.
The office of the partnership was set up at Brodsky's home where he lived with his wife and young daughter. The traveling partners traveled as far as Harbin, which is in Manchuria. The Russians owned and controlled the railroad which ran as a shortcut from the TransSiberian railroad to Vladivostock.
At that time, the USA had already entered the war against the Germans and the American government was sending weapons, locomotives, all kinds of merchandise to help the Russian war effort. In addition, there was regular trade between USA and China. Thus, Harbin was the place where one could buy calfskin leather from American manufactures. The Russian transport system, not the best to begin with, was beginning to break down. Traveling, in general, became dangerous, because of the banditry and lawlessness.
The partnership lasted four or five months. All the partners had confidence that I was keeping accurate records of purchases, sales, transportation costs, etc. and that I was correctly allocating to each partner his share.
By early 1918, the machinery of the government had broken down completely. The stores were emptied out of goods. Some clever speculators managed to hide needed goods. Prices started to rise at a faster tempo. The peasantry especially, who were bringing foodstuff to market refused to accept the new paper currency, or even the old Czarist bills. The only things they would accept were goods. In other words, the barter system was established.
New economic socialist ideas were being tried and I do not know who started the idea of organizing a cooperative store for the populace. At the latter phase of the organization, I was hired as the bookkeeper for the Cooperative Store named Zhizn, the Russian word for life. A Mr. Mazur, who was a bookbinder by trade was the head of the store. At first, the store was partially successful in obtaining some merchandise, whatever was available. Prepackaged and canned goods were not then in existence in Russia. Mostly, everything was served from bulk containers and weighed. As an oddity, we got a small shipment of German made safety razors, which I had seen for the first time. I bought one for my personal use. It was no good.
By this time my older brother Harry had returned from Krivoi Rog. I believe that he was giving some private Hebrew lessons and carrying on his studies privately. The younger children were receiving their education in a Hebrew School. No public schools were available to them.
Ukraine Under German Occuption
Liberal ideas declared by President Wilson for ending the war, without winners and vanquished, without payment of war reparations, and establishing independence and self-rule for all nationalities reached the peoples of Russia too. However, in October of 1917, when the delegates of the Constitutional Assembly were ready to begin their deliberations, armed Bolsheviks surrounded the hall. They arrested and dispersed the delegates, all political parties were prosecuted except the ruling Bolsheviks - Communist Party.
The Bolsheviks won the allegiance of most of the armed forces. Their slogans for the immediate ending of the war with Germany, the disbanding of the armed forces, and especially that all the land belongs to the people, won the hearts of the peasant soldiers. Officers were killed, or went into hiding, changing into peasant clothing. On their way home, the armed soldiers robbed, raped and rushed to claim the properties of the rich landowners. The Ukraine, which had been under Russian control for 150-200 years was now eager for independence. Perhaps, the idea was germinated by the German General Staff.
At any rate, some self-appointed leaders of the Ukraine got together with the Germans, and proclaimed Kiev as the capital. The German army met with hardly any resistance, and within a few months occupied all of the Ukraine.
Word spread that a detachment of Germans were nearing Smiela. With a group of other boys, we went outside the town on the road leading from Chigirin. We didn't have to wait long, as a company of German infantry came marching along. At a crossroad, the detachment split in half, the first going toward the railroad station Bobrynskaja, and the other half toward the railroad station in Smiela and then to town. The local bystanders were amazed that they didn't have to ask anybody for directions. The Germans had detailed maps of the area.
Commandatur, i.e., the command post of the local German garrison was established in the house of Motje Maly, our landlord's home, half of which was requisitioned by the Germans. The region was more or less pacified. Soldiers of Ukrainian origin who had returned from the front ahead of the Germans kept their arms and hid them, as well as the arms they had obtained from the looted arsenals.
The occupation of the Ukraine was of enormous strategic value to Germany. Immediately, endless trainloads of food stuffs were exported to Germany to relieve the starving populations. Although the Germans paid in paper marks, that currency subsequently became worthless. Soldiers were buying the market food for parcel shipment to their families. A small part of the German military transport was parked in the barn in the back of our house. The soldier in charge of the wagon and the two horses of Polish origin were from the province of Silesia. His horses he named Peter and Paul. Perhaps the horses and the wagon may have been part of war booty, that is, requisitioned from some large farm. The soldier took good care of his horses. This same soldier was anxious to engage me in a trade. He had in his wagon an automobile tire, which must have been a spare in a Russian command car. The tire bore the stamp "Provodnik"; I knew, that it had been manufactured in the factory by that name in Riga. At any rate, this was no item for me to deal in or trying to find someone who would cut it up for soles. I was still holding the job of bookkeeper at the Cooperative. Life was relatively tranquil. During the period, I felt safe enough to go swimming in a floating bath/house on the river on the outskirts of town.
The tranquility didn't last long. The central Bolshevik government wanted an end to the war, so that they could concentrate on establishing their social order. A delegation to discuss terms was headed by Trotsky, who negotiated peace terms with the German generals. Russia ceded all the territory then occupied by the Germans plus a substantial payment in gold.
Throughout the breadth and length of Russia armed detachments led by former Czarist officers were fighting against the establishment of the Soviet or Communist regime. Although the Russian armed forces had completely disintegrated by desertion and self-demobilization, the communist leaders, felt the need to establish a new army called the Red Army and instead of the Czarist rankings, they introduced the term "Comrade" and the new uniforms were in the form of helmets with a red star.
The allies disapproved of Russia taking itself out of the war, thus, freeing the German army to concentrate on the Western Front. Despite this advantage it was outweighed by the American contribution to the Allied cause in men and especially in material and food.
German offensives were beaten back and finally they began to lose ground in France. At that point, the morale at home began to weaken, seeing how the Russians quit and furthermore, the generous terms offered by President Wilson sank in. The German General staff realized the unlikelihood of their winning, now that the American contribution kept growing.
Sensing what was going on at the Western Front and at home, the German army of occupation started to withdraw from the Ukraine. Former soldiers of the Russian army picked up their guns from hiding and were harassing the retreating Germans. I was a witness, when two armed Ukrainian militiamen took into custody a drunken German soldier and were leading him into a side street. I quickly went to the commandatur, told about this incident to the Lieutenant in charge, and he immediately sent two armed soldiers and they did rescue the German drunkard. The lieutenant was very appreciative and he gave me his name and address and promised to show me a good time when I get to Berlin. His name was Schmidt. As the German army withdrew, that marked the end of a short idyllic period. The terrible, bloody years began in the fall of 1918.
The absence of governmental authority brought about the worst possible conditions, armed bands were ruling and roaming in the countryside and the townships. Robbery, rape and senseless murder followed in their wake. On the other borders of the Ukraine, the newly constituted Red Army were fighting whatever forces were opposing them. The Red Army was no better than the bandits. In the northern Caucasus, as well as in the southern perimeter of Russia, a certain Czarist General Denikin, had organized the Cossacks and other proczarist elements into an army whose aim was the restoration of the Czar. In the wake of the march of this army, the victims were mostly Jews. Life in the very small hamlets and shtetels became unbearable, and whoever could, ran to the larger cities.
While on the job at the Co-op one day, I heard a rumor that a band under the leadership of Machno were about to enter Smiela. We closed the store and the employees rushed to their respective homes. Mother was beside herself with worry, and was relieved when she saw me.
Many homes were plundered, Jews were killed, women raped. The bandits had taken four Jewish young men and placed them on the train which was under their control. Thus, they traveled from city to city. They also traveled on horseback.
About five days later, word reached the town that the bodies of the four missing Jews were found beside the railroad tracks near the Station Znamenka. The Jewish community of Smiela paid a peasant to have the bodies returned for Jewish burial. Among the four, was a younger brother of Mazur, previously mentioned. This younger brother, who lived in America, returned to Russia in 1917 to help build the new free Socialist Russia. There were quite a few such socialists who returned to Russia.
Although gruesome, for the sake of the truth, I will mention that the four bodies showed signs of having undergone long days of bestial torture, with particular gruesomeness on their sexual organs. Like a crossfire, these maraudering bands would come and go. It was life-threatening for a Jew to be outside the city limits. Because the next incident is vividly impressed on my consciousness, I will recite it in detail.
On a Saturday morning in the Yellow Synagogue, I found a Declaration pasted on the wall. In the most beautiful handwriting in Hebrew, it stated in the heading that "Our hands have not shed this innocent blood." And it proceeded to tell about three Jews, who were from out of town, and who had been advised not to take the risk of traveling to their home town about 10 miles away. Their bodies were returned to Smiela on the eve of Shabbas, and the funeral will take place on Sunday. Out of curiosity, I went to see these bloodied bodies, which were in a communal building.
During this most difficult period, starting with the end of 1918 and through 1921, the aim in life was a mere fight for a day-to-day survival. Sanitary conditions were non-existent. Lice were feeding on human bodies. Plagues and diseases were rampant. In 1918-19, there was a worldwide epidemic of the Spanish flu, which reached the city of Smiela, too. Mortality rates were high.
To stop the epidemic, the Jewish community resorted to a medieval remedy. In order to confuse the Angel of Death, the prescription called for the celebration of a wedding on the cemetery grounds. Given an appropriate dowry, one of the town's beggars was married to a poor old maid on the cemetery. Few people actually believed, that such a ceremony would stop the epidemic.
Our family was also directly affected. Sonya, the older of the sisters took sick, with the principal complaint of difficulty in breathing. With superhuman efforts father got a doctor to come to the house. He examined Sonya and left a prescription. Risking his life, father went to the apothecary and had the prescription filled. The medicine provided no relief and Sonys condition grew worse. Father was able to have another doctor come to the house. His diagnosis was diphtheria in the later stages when antidiphtheria serum wouldn't be of help. When father noticed Sonya was in her final stages, he called the older children to come to say "good-bye" to our sister. Several men from the Burial Society came and took her body away. Our house was placed under quarantine and I don't remember being present at her funeral.
Like a whirlwind out of the south came several Denikin's hordes of Cossacks. I watched through the garden fence, how they were assembling on the plaza in front of the church. Their fame for murder and plunder preceded them. Without losing any time, our family and the family of Tzukrov, who lived in the same house, quickly put a ladder against the attic entrance, and we all scrambled up. Our Polish neighbor removed the ladder and put it in the barn. We all remained in the positions, we were and held our breath. The Cossacks soon took off on their horses and spread havoc all over town.
Before long we began hearing shots, shrieks, cries of wailing and despair. Our younger sister Sarah (now Shirley) started to cry. My older brother Harry who was close to her put his hand over her mouth to stifle the sound. He almost choked our poor little sister, then aged 7, who didn't know any better. In their eagerness to get to the strictly Jewish sector the Cossacks didn't enter our courtyard, one side of which faced the church plaza.
Our agonies in the hot dusty attic were real, as we felt and knew what was happening to our fellow Jews. The carnage lasted all afternoon and when the Cossacks felt that they had enough of it, or whether their leaders ordered them to stop at a given time, I'll never know. When things quieted down, our neighbor brought the ladder and brokenhearted we clambered down to our respective quarters. On the morning following, we heard of a woman raped by a dozen Cossacks, and physically terribly hurt. Mass funerals were held which I didn't attend. Personally, I grieved over a young man, about my age, who with his family came to Smiela for safety, having left their home in a small nearby hamlet. He held the position of salesman in the Co-op where I was a bookkeeper. He was running for safety to his home, but was overtaken by the Cossacks on a narrow street in the Jewish quarter. His scalp, face and shoulders were hacked by the sabers of the Cossacks. Against unarmed, helpless Jews, their sabers were very effective.
It is conservatively estimated that over 100,000 Jews were murdered by the Ukrainian bands and by the Cossacks during that period of 1919-1921.
To gain a better understanding of this turbulent period, it is important to give a condensed summary of the happenings in 1919-20. You will excuse the writer, who is writing about these events from memory. Which at this point maybe somewhat faulty as to exact dates.
The Communist government, which had moved from Petrograd, now renamed Leningrad, to Moscow, was having its hands full with enemies of the regime. To combat the contra-revolutionaries internally, there was set up the "Cheka," a forerunner of the present "KGB". The chekists were all armed, as well as most members of the party. There were few idealogies, among the chekists, who were mostly, former prisoners, or, of the lowest criminal classes. They were arresting people whom they thought to be against the Communist Revolution. There were indiscriminate searches of persons and homes. Whatever they liked they "requisitioned," and the owners brought to the cheka cellars or yards and shot. It was a period of reign of terror. The party later on, labeled this period as "Military Communism."
Lenin was busy with the development and setting up of the regime with its new administrative organizations, along uncharted lines, for Karl Marx didn't provide a blueprint for the organization of society under the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat." Trotsky was the genius in bringing into being the Red Armed forces.
Soviet Russia was under attack by in the north by English and American forces, from the east by Admiral Kolchak, and from the south by Denikin's Army, as well as by Ukrainian Nationalist bands. It took several years for the army to push back its enemies, and to consolidate and extend the rule of the Soviets over the entire area of the former Czarist Empire. The buffer countries in the west were cut away from Russia by the Treaty of Versailles. In that sector, the newly independent countries were: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
The Cossacks in Denikin's Army lost their incentive to continue fighting because of their accumulated booty and returned to their villages on the Don and northern Caucasus. The Red Army reached Smiela and points further south, except for Crimea, which was controlled by a White Army General Wrangel.
The local communists now came to power. Jews were prominent in the party and formed its own grouping known as the Jewish Section. These people attacked the Jewish community institutions, particularly the religious establishment. For instance, the community maintained a public bath house, which then was open only on Thursdays. By order of the Jewish section of the party, these baths were ordered closed. I remember my father saying that he couldn't see where the closing of the public baths would further the cause of the revolution.
Forward to Part 5
© 1995 Solomon Katzen. Used with permission.