The Autobiography of Solomon Katzen
The Early Years: 1902-1923
© 1996 Solomon Katzen. Used with permission.
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When writing my Autobiography, I began to remember -- in no particular sequence -- various incidents from my childhood. As I look back, in order to reflect the flow of the times, I would like to add the following two incidents, the first of which occurred when I was about seven years old.
My mother asked me one day to go to the homestead of a local farmer by the name of Dreyman, who lived on Talsener Street. I was to ask his wife for a special favor: my older brother Harry was ill with a case of pneumonia and Mother wanted to add fresh carrots to the chicken soup which she was preparing for him. No fresh vegetables of any kind could be obtained at that time in town. Stores didn't carry this item. Farmers coming to market on Thursdays didn't have carrots because at that time, in early May, none of the vegetables were ripe yet.
Although we never had any business with the Dreymans, we knew that Mrs. Dreyman always planted a large vegetable garden. Mother gave me 30 kopecks in silver and off I went. When I arrived at the Dreyman homestead and approached Mrs. Dreyman with my mother's request, she wanted to know the nature of my brother's illness. I told her that I didn't know the name of it in the Latvian language but I thought that she would probably understand the name in German (the Yiddish name is the same): "lungen entzindung." Yes, she understood it now, and told me that the name in the Latvian language was "plaush karstum."
Mrs. Dreyman took me along to her garden and we looked carefully for carrots that could be used since most of the plants hadn't grown yet to usable size. My mission was a success! I came home with a bundle of fresh young carrots for Harry's chicken soup.
The second incident occurred on the first day of Shavuot in 1915 when the Jews rushed home from the synagogue and began packing their most needed items for the trip into the unknown. They had to comply with the order of expulsion. Many years later, my brother Harry told me that on that hectic departure day, Pastor Yenich from Erwalen came to our home to express his sympathy to Father for what was happening. It was this same Pastor who had been present at my graduation (see page 42).
Pastor Yenich offered Father a 20 ruble gold piece. Although Father thanked him and at first refused to take it, the Pastor insisted. He said, "Take it. You'll need it." As far as our family was concerned, Pastor Yenich was the only one who came personally to express sympathy for what was happening to the Jews and to offer assistance. This act of kindness will long be remembered.
In 1958, Luise Katzen (Levy) was exchange student to Bremen, Germany, where she lived with Antje and her family. In 1961, Antje came to the United States and met Solomon and Pat Katzen. After having read Solomon's autobiography early in 1996, Antje was moved to plan a trip to Sasmaken as a "gift" to Solomon. Armed with the autobiography, a hand-drawn map provided by Solomon, a notebook, and a camera, Antje arrived in Sasmaken (Valdemarpils) in June of 1996. With the help of her driver and local officials, Antje was able to identify some of the locations mentioned by Solomon. She also learned something of the current uses of buildings, and obtained information about specific families.
Antje wrote to Solomon in July: "Valdemarpils has about 1500 inhabitants now. The population is Latvian with a few exceptions (2-3 Russians; no Jews). The village seems to be rather poor, somehow stagnating. Your map drawn out of your memory was really a big help! I felt extremely moved by the power of your memory. For example: the city clerk showed me the school in Hoffstrasse. I said: "The Russian church must be close!" And there it was!! I felt like walking through a dream altogether. . . I imagined you as a little boy, your family and the other people you mention; I imagined the life of a Jewish community at the beginning of this century -- as far as I could after reading your lively autobiography. And I felt the most painful contrast reality formed to that former situation ... [Since leaving] Valdemarpils, I have been thinking about that visit ever since. I felt very close to you and because of that, happy. And I felt very sad and full of shame at the same time thinking of the losses, the waste of life of a people and its culture. But whom am I telling that . . . "
The city hall clerks with whom Antje met told her that the Jews who did not leave Sasmaken before World War II "did not survive that horrible time." A former mayor of the town, who had established "a little Valdemarpils museum," met with Antje and provided documents and photographs he had collected concerning the Jews of Sasmaken. "It turned out that he actively supported the building of the Museum and Documentation Centre: Jews in Riga, which opened in March of 1996." (Antje visited that museum). It was Antje's perception that the former mayor wanted "to maintain what memory is left of Jewish life in Sasmaken. . . " He asked for a copy of Solomon's autobiography, as did a representative of the museum in Riga.
We are deeply grateful to Antje for what she has given to Solomon and to all of us through her visit to Sasmaken and to Riga and her sharing of that journey with us. That she planned and carried out the visit is a powerful affirmation of Solomon's life and of the meaning of connection.
© 1996 Solomon Katzen. Used with permission.