Stories from the series "Words and pictures about my little town - Tshon" by Yechiel Mechel Ukrainik
By Arthur Nitikman
Related to: Teofipol (Town)
Yechiel Mechel Ukrainik (real name Mitchell Nitikman), was born in Tshon (Teofipol) in 1905 and resided there until 1921. He left Tshon when life became unbearable for the Jewish residents. At that time he, and his brother David, escaped to Poland and subsequently immigrated to Winnipeg, Mantoba, Canada.
Although their grandfather and great grandfather had the surname "Nitikman", their father, Azriel was given the fictitious surname "Ukrainik" to avoid conscription into the Russian Army. At the time of his birth, the firstborn son was reprieved from military service, but any subsequent sons were eligible to become cannon fodder. By the time Mitchell and David were born, the risks had dropped enough that they both carried the same surname as their father.
Upon reaching Canada, they both reverted to the Nitikman surname. Mitchell wanted to honor his father's name, so he wrote under the name "Ukrainik" and, prior to his death, had requested that the surname Ukrainik appear on his gravestone along with Nitikman.
Mitchell wrote many articles and editorials for the Israelite Press (Der Yiddish Vort), which was published in Winnipeg. In the 1940s he wrote a series of articles which were entitled "Fuhn Mein Shtetl - Tshon". They were subsequently reprinted in the US in the Yiddish Forverts, which is archived in the Yale University Library as well as other archives throughout the US. These stories dealt with his memories of life in Tshon during the early 1900s and represent a wonderful legacy for all to enjoy. -- Arthur Nitikman
Table of Contents
- SRULI MECHELES. SHIKAH.
- THE THREE EZRIALKES.
SRULI MECHELES By Yechiel Mechel Ukrainik (Nom de plume for Mitchell Nitikman) (from the series "Words and pictures about my little town - Tshon)
Translated into English by Sonia Diamond in February, 1997
Sruli (Yisrael) Mecheles had become such a very old Jew that perhaps only some of the oldest members of the communities would still remember him when he had walked without a cane. However, the young people just remember him going around with a knotted, shiny, red cinnamon colored cane, which he would jab at all of the young trouble-making rabble-rousers, hitting them on their noses. As old as Sruli Mecheles was, that is how actively involved he was in everything that happened in the shtetl. Whether there were elections for a new Mayor or a new Gabbai, or upon the arrival of a Maggid, or Matif, or Zionist speaker, or a Cantor with a choir, Sruli Mecheles was always the first one to arrive and take a front row seat. Afterwards he would relate his opinions, whether in the Trisker study hall during the first Minyon or Friday afternoon, where he was one of the first ones to arrive at the Mikvah, the ritual bath house.
He lived on the same street as the Synagogue around the Austrover Synagogue in a very small house, passed on through generations. The house was so old that it was already half way settled into the ground. His livelihood consisted of going throughout the town all day Thursday and on Friday morning with a large book under his arm, collecting money for Bikur Cholem, the sick fund, which was located next to the Jewish hospital. He was a very good-hearted man, never getting angry.
He always enjoyed relating events of past years in the little town. For instance, they had built the distillery where you could buy a bucket of Orkevet whiskey for two kopecks, but nobody could afford the two kopecks. One time, Sruli related that the manager of Grof Petovsky's estate in Antonion came into this little town to buy merchandise in the store. He paid with a half Imperial, worth seven and a half rubles. The merchant went all over the town to get change but no one, including the rich people of the town, had enough money to make change.
He also used to tell how the gristmill was built, how the footbridge and waterwheel were made, the new great synagogue, and other projects. He also related that in his younger days he was very strong and worked as a barrel maker. He could make barrels better and quicker than anyone else. But mostly he would like to talk about his longevity. He said that he hoped and waited for the opportunity of living a full 120 years.
He would tell the following story: One time, when he was still a very young child, the Saddener Rebbe arrived in town for the Sabbath. Sruli had the privilege of holding the Shammas candle, which was used at the end of the Sabbath, when the Rebbe would make Havdalah. After the Havdalah, the Rebbe patted him on his little head and asked his name. The Rebbe's followers among the Chassidim immediately told him that the child's name is Yisrael, named after Yisrultze Rushiner, the Saddener Rebbe's father. The Rebbe, then, blessed the child with long life and years.
One Shabbos morning, during the Torah reading, Sruli Mecheles had Zanvel, the town Shammas, announce in all of the Synagogues, Study halls and gathering places, that on Tuesday morning, with G-D's will, he is inviting all the Jews to the first Minyon in the main synagogue for cake and whiskey in honor of his second Bar Mitzvah at the age of 113 years. Understand that a half of the little town's Jews came to the first Minyon, along with the Chassidim and others, viewing this as a very special occasion, a unique Bar Mitzvah. The place was packed more than when people came on Yom Kippur for closing Neilah service.
Immediately after this, the First World War started, followed by the Civil War. The town was captured by Austria, followed by a takeover by the Bolsheviks. The Government kept changing from Bolchevik to Petlurofs, then to the Poles and then reverted back to the Bolsheviks. The little town was robbed many times and lived through a major pogrom in which about 150 people were murdered. Over half of the houses were shot up or burned from the bombardments and the pogroms. Sruli Mecheles, with his little house, lived through all of this.
One fall morning, when the Jews of the town woke up early to recite the morning prayers, the 13 principles of faith, a neighbor went by Sruli's little house. When she looked through the window, she nearly fainted and screamed from fright. This raised a tumult. From all sides the Jews started to run, both men and women. Upon entering the house, they found Sruli Mecheles stretched out on the floor on bundles of straw, dressed in his shrouds, with candles burning at his head. The whole town attended his funeral which was arranged the same day. Religious Jews declared that he must have been one of the 36 righteous people (it is thought that in any generation there are 36 hidden righteous people); since not only did he live "a long life and years", but he was also given the knowledge, "from above", as to his date of death.
SHIKAH By Yechiel Mechel Ukrainik (Nom de plume for Mitchell Nitikman) (from the series "Words and pictures about my little town - Tshon)
Translated into English by David Nitikman in March, 1997
Shikah was raised by a widowed mother. His father, Bentsi, died when Shikah was still a young child. His widowed mother, Bentsicha, began to sell fruit in a stall at the market place. Being busy all day, making a living, she couldn't watch over her son, so he grew up like a free bird - hardly knowing anything about Cheder (religious school). At the beginning, Bentsicha, tried to keep him in Cheder. Shikah, however, was not interested, and as money was scarce to pay the teacher, that was the end of Cheder.
Each summer, with the help of one of the important towns-people, Bentsicha would rent a large orchard and can both fruits and preserves. She sold these directly to the towns people and, whatever was left, through her market stall. It was Shikah's task to guard the orchard from thieves and rowdies who came to steal the fruit. As a result of being out in the fresh air, most of the time, and eating as much fruit as he wanted, Shikah grew to be a strong, handsome young man. He was tall, broad shouldered, with a full head of hair and a rosy complexion that looked like it would start bleeding with the smallest prick of a needle.
You should understand, that by growing up under these circumstances, Shikah could not read or write, not even in Hebrew. He knew nothing of Jewishness other than when it was Sabbath or a Holiday. Sabbath and Holidays were observed by the whole village. When a Jewish holiday came on the Thursday, which was market day, even the people from smaller, outlying villages knew there would be no market on that day. Because he knew nothing of Jewishness, the towns people called him "Shikah Goy". This embittered Shikah and estranged him from the Jews and Jewishness.
Besides the large shul in our town, there were several small shuls for various working groups. There was one for blacksmiths, one for tailors, one for shoemakers and one for musicians. One time, on Simchas Torah, when Shikah was seventeen or eighteen, he went by the musicians shul. One of the musicians, who was standing outside, called out to him. "Shikah, what will you donate if you are called up to the Torah for a special prayer?" Shikah answered that he would donate a duck worth two guilders The musician went into the shul and told them to call Shikah up to the Torah for a blessing, for which he would donate a duck worth two guilders. Next morning the whole town was buzzing with what had occurred. Shikah's mother, Bentsicha, uttered deadly curses. For a long time thereafter, the musicians avoided running into Shikah in a secluded street.
On the second Sabbath, the Rabbi went to the musicians shul and said a prayer to turn the curses into blessings. After this episode, Shikah gave up all contact with the Jews and Jewishness. He moved in with a gentile family and began hauling eggs to Warsaw. He began eating non-kosher food and smoking on the Sabbath. He even severed his relationship with his mother. That's how Shikah lived until he was twenty one years old and had to register for the army. As he was a strong, physical person, he was inducted into the army and hardly any of the Jewish residents grieved for him, except perhaps his mother - still a mother. In the army, Shikah was not to happy until he finished his basic training and began to enjoy his new life. He liked horses and was put into the Cavalry. He also learned to speak the Russian language by living with Christians. This is how Shikah served the Czar for three and a half years.
Just as he was about to be discharged, the first world war broke out. Shikah's regiment was among the first to see action and he threw himself into the fray with all his heart and soul. There was no mission for which Shikah didn't volunteer. Having grown up in an orchard, which he guarded at night, he was used to the darkness and always distinguished himself in his service. For his bravery, Shikah was awarded four medals and four crosses. They promoted him to a higher rank in the Cavalry, which very few others had achieved. He was even honored by a General.
Shikah received twenty one wounds, mostly light ones. Any of the Czars soldiers with such a record would be promoted and, even though he couldn't read or write, he was sent to military schools to learn a trade. One time, Shikah was called into an office. When Shikah entered the large room, he was greeted by an officer who saluted him and escorted him to the Chief Officer. The Chief shook hands with Shikah, returned his salute and offered him a seat to become acquainted. He complimented Shikah with warm words of praise.
For a while the Chief busied himself with some papers and took out a couple of printed sheets. He then told Shikah how lucky he was to be the top candidate for the higher military school. "The Czar will pay off your debts and also your mother's and she will receive a nice income. You will become an officer with a steady income in the military, with a pension when you are old. All these good things would be yours as a Cavalry officer. However, as a Jew, you are only entitled to a salute, nothing more. My advice to you is that you should convert to Christianity as a smart, brave young man. I hope you will take my advice. What do you say?" "Absolutely not", was Shikah's quick reply to the Chief. And that is how it ended. Shikah did not become an officer because he would not convert. When the town heard of this, it was the talk of the town. The town philosophers shook their heads and said, "A Jewish soul cannot be valued". Shikah would not give up his Judaism.
THE THREE EZRIALKES By Yechiel Mechel Ukrainik (Nom de plume for Mitchell Nitikman) (from the series "Words and pictures about my little town - Tshon)
Translated into English by Sonia Diamond in March 1997
aa In our town there were three men named Ezrialke: Ezrialke the butcher, Ezrialke the hardware man and Ezrialke the watchmaker. (Note 1) The eldest among them was Ezrialke the butcher. He was a Jew about sixty years of age, medium height, broad shoulders, with a very heavy, quick step. In spite of his sixty years, he could still lift up a heavy side of meat by himself. Ezrialke's butcher shop was the first one in a row of seven butcher shops in town. He was a very angry person. If a woman came in and complained that a piece of meat that he sold her was not to her liking, he would curse her roundly. Even so, the knowledgeable housewives still would come to Ezrialke to buy their meat.
The Jews and non-Jews that would come to the villages knew that if they had a fine cow or other high quality livestock, that he would buy it for his shop. If one would think that by going to another shop he would make a better deal, after going to all the other shops, he would return to Ezrialke's. This is the reason that all the housewives knew that if they would need to buy a really good piece of meat, or first-cut of breast, or a pancreas that would melt in your mouth, that they would have to come to Ezrialke's establishment. This, in spite of the fact that many of them swore ten times that they would not set foot in his place.
The second Ezrialke, a hardware merchant, was a businessman. A young man about thirty-five years old, whose business went very well for him and was well on his way to becoming a rich Jew. His ambition was to become a leader of the town and therefore he never missed a meeting and always made himself heard. He bought himself the best seat in the Trisker Bais Midrash, where the elections and meetings were held. He used to invite all the young people to his store and discussed politics with them. For instance, he would arrange debates between the Rabbi and Yonah the Shochet. The one who was losing was roundly criticized by Ezrialke, adding salt to the wounds. Therefore the townspeople had given him the name, Ezrialke the Shaigetz (roughneck).
The third Ezrialke, the watchmaker, was tall, and about the same age as Ezrialke the hardware merchant. In fact the two of them in their youth went to class together. However, he was a gentle and quiet person. He was the Mayor's aide, as well as the Gabbai of the Ruzhiner shull. But he would always be reluctant to tell the town how to run its business. Once, on a Saturday night, Mr. Wolfe, the mayor called the leaders to his office for a meeting in order to arrange funding to clean up the marketplace. When Rachel, the watchmaker's wife, asked why he wasn't attending the meeting, he responded that he thought that there would be a lot of quarreling, with each one wanting the other to give a higher amount while they would want to give only a small amount themselves. Therefore, he would be better off paying the amount that the group assessed, so long as he wouldn't have to argue with them. That was the reason that he didn't attend the meeting.
The meeting was, in fact, a rather noisy one and lasted well into the night. Of all the people there, Ezrialke the Shaigetz was the loudest. He truly had the opportunity to have himself seen and heard. He told everyone that they should pay a higher amount. When it came the turn for Ezrialke the butcher, who also didn't attend, Ezrialke the hardware man announced that he should pay 25 Kerblechs for the following reason: The butcher would have no problem to pay it. Furthermore, a whole year he skins us, so now we have a chance to get even.
At this meeting, some of the other butchers were in attendance. They immediately brought this news to Ezrialke the butcher, including what the other Ezrialke had said about him. They were sure that he would understand that it was Ezrialke, the Shaigetz, since no one else would express himself that way. The butcher understood it otherwise. Knowing that the meeting was called by Wolfe, the Mayor, he was sure that the Mayor's aide, Ezrialke the watchmaker was playing first fiddle (running the meeting). So when his friends told him what had occurred there, he took it for granted that Ezrialke the watchmaker had put him on the list to pay the money. He was burning mad.
Monday morning, Rachel the watchmaker's wife came into the butcher shop to purchase a piece of meat. She had barely stepped over the threshold of the store when Ezrialke the butcher, with a knife in his hand threw himself at her with wild curses. This would certainly have resulted in a great tragedy were it not for other people mixing in and holding him back. The tumult brought the other butchers running to the store. They realized that it was all a misunderstanding by the butcher and straightened him out.
When the watchmaker's wife came home the poor thing opened up her bitter heart to her husband. For a long after this episode, he avoided taking any kind of position in the town.
Note 1: Ezrialke the watchmaker was Mitchell Nitikman's father, who died in Tshon during the 1918 worldwide flu epidemic.
Copyright ©1997 Arthur Nitikman. All Rights Reserved.