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Early Years

My family

My father's name was Menachem Yoel Hacohen Kaplan (1868-1936). This was also his grandfather's name. My mother's name was Chaya Targownik .


My great-grandfather

I know my great-grandfather's name on my father's side, because I have a copy of a small book that my grandfather had published on education in the year 1894.


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(Click on photos to see an enlarged copy)


[Title pages of a book written by Rubin's grandfather, and as far as we know the only copy in existence, printed in Warsaw in 1894]


The book is called "Dover Emet" ("One Who Speaks the Truth") and has to do with how parents should deal with children. It bears his father's name alongside of his: Dov Aryeh , the son of  Menachem Yoel Hacohen of the city of Slonim.

The book gives a remarkably modern approach to bringing up children - with patience, kindness, the answering of questions honestly, etc. One of the endorsers of the book was the Chafetz Chaim himself (Rabbi Yisroel Maier Hacohen from Radin) .

I met the Chafetz Chaim after the First World War, when he passed through Baranovich on his way from Russia. He was already world famous and one of the rich men in town had the honor of being his host. A special minyan of ten men was called to morning prayer in his house. My father took me along and I shook the honored man's hand.


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Rubin, Bertha and Helen
Kaplan
The Kaplan family The Kaplan brothers

Click on photos to see an enlarged copy


My grandfather

I remember very little of my grandfather, Dov Aryeh. He was Dayan of Slonim, in White Russia (Belarus) and was known by the name of "Duber" or "Berel Laskes". I visited there once at a very young age, maybe three or four. I remember the courtyard, the gate, and faintly, my grandmother. As far as I can understand, grandfather was called Berel Laskes because it was Grandmother who made a living for the family, by keeping a guest house. Her name was Laske, and Dov is Berel in Yiddish. As I understand it, the wife being the breadwinner, the husband was therefore nicknamed after her.

Grandfather, in those days, was studying Torah how else could he have been a dayan? A dayan is one to whom Jews would bring their conflicts. Sometimes a dayan would get a few pennies for his services, but as a rule, the dayan refused because getting paid was considered unethical.


My father

My father was Menachem Yoel , the chazan, shochet, and mohel cantor, religious slaughterer, and circumciser. Father had a good singing voice and memory. If he heard a guest cantor on Shabbat, on the following day he would write it down in musical notes with the words in Hebrew. He also gave voice lessons and organized a choir. Being a cantor was not enough to make a living, so he learned slaughtering in addition. I don't know how he met my grandmother, but I can guess since her brother-in-law was also a cantor. Father also had a sister named Bashke and a brother called Meir , who lived in Novogrodek. My mother came from Mezeritch in Poland.

Palonkeh

Father's first position was in a small, historic, Jewish town, halfway between Slonim and Baranovich , called Palonkeh where I was born. The houses of Palonkeh, as well as of Baranovichi where we moved later, were built of logs, with moss packed between the logs. All windows had storm windows for the winter, and glasses filled with acid were placed between the panes to keep them from frosting over. At the rear entrance to the house was an enclosure called the "firhouse" where the barrel of water stood, along with garden tools, etc. Under the firhouse was a dugout, a cellar of sorts, entered through a small door in the floor. There, in the sand, or on shelves, were stored potatoes, onions, carrots, beets, etc., milk for souring, and from which the cream was removed to make butter, and jelled sourmilk, which was eaten with potatoes. The pigs belonging to the Christian neighbors would come into our yard, and dig up the garden with their snouts. My mother was afraid to chase them away, and it would have been no use since the garden was not fenced in. Once one of the pigs belonging to the priest discovered the vegetables in the cellar, dug his way into it, and fell in. My parents were scared of what might happen, but our Russian maid Antonina went and complained to the priest that the pig had ruined the contents of the cellar. The priest got hold of four husky men and they promptly pulled the pig out.

Across the street was a grocery owned by the Perevelotsky's. They later moved to Nova Scotia and changed their name to Perlin . In 1965, they came to visit us in Brooklyn and we sat around and reminisced. The oldest son of Perevelotsky, Yisrael Ber Perlin had many stories to tell of Palonke, of which I will mention one:
"In 1904 or 1905, Russia resounded with pogroms. The Jews of Palonkeh, heard from friendly gentiles that there was agitation in the church, calling on the farmers to sack Palonkeh the next Sunday. The young Jewish people decided to defend themselves, and they worked out the following plan: One group of young men armed with sticks and knives would await the invaders (farmers from nearby villages) near the bridge, so that the farmers would see what was in store for them a fight. A second group of young men was sent at night to hide behind the haystacks in two of the farmers' villages, and observe from a distance the events near the bridge. If the planned attack did take place, it was up to this group to set fire to the haystacks. The farmers did show up en masse on the appointed Sunday. They ignored the small group of defenders near the bridge, and tried to push their way into Palonkeh. Suddenly, they noticed smoke rising from their villages. Only if you have seen a haystack burning can you imagine the smoke and fire. The roofs of the farmers' houses were made of straw, the houses of logs. Panic-stricken the farmers turned back to save their homes ... learning a lesson for years to come" .
I remember once seeing Yisrael Ber Perevelotsky. He had been drafted into the Russian army, and as was the custom, he was sent far from home, to serve in Siberia. I don't remember how long he served four to six years but I do remember that he came back a different person. I happened to see him before anyone else did, as he came from the railroad station, directly to us, before going by wagon to see his family in Palonkeh. He looked like an assimilated big-town Russian in his dress, language and lifestyle. He wore an army uniform the long Russian "shinnel" , a military coat, and a large fur hat ("papche") . He could hardly speak Yiddish. He spoke with a heavy Russian accent, using a heavy "r" . Instead of the word "rubles" he used "kerblack" used by Jews in deep Russia. After a reunion with his family, he left for Canada. After the First World War, he brought his younger brother and his parents there, and there is still a large Palonker community there today.


Baranovichi

In 1908 or so, when I was four or five, we moved to Baranovichi, a town having at that time only one shochet, an older man. Baranovichi was a new town. There was a farm called by that name, and when the railroad to Moscow was built in the late 1880's, it ran by that farm. A road was built parallel to the railway at the same time. This railway eventually connected Berlin with Moscow, and became a major link between many cities. What came to be Baranovichi was in the midst of heavy pine forests which belong to a Graf named Razvodovski. This Graf was a businessman, and in 1895, as soon as the three railroad stations in our area were built, he parceled up the land into squares and blocks and sold them. The town at that time consisted of lots with a large marketplace in the middle. The lots were big, with rooms for gardens, a yard, and a barn. In the old part of town ("Alt Baranovichi"), on a little square, stood a large Russian church. It was very tall and was called "Pravoslavny" ("the correct religion" or "belief"). In a corner of the square was a tiny building belonging to the Catholics. There was also the "Shosey" , a crosscountry cobblestone road that cut diagonally through town and led to Minsk and deep into Russia. The Shosey had deep paved stone ditches on both sides to drain rainwater. Eventually the Russian government built a large camp for soldiers ("a lager") there, and one of three bread factories ("sucharney zavod") for the army.

Due to its central location, Baranovichi soon became a focal point for businessmen, suppliers of products for the soldiers. Storehouses, warehouses, and workshops sprang up overnight, and the town grew by leaps and bounds. The main business street was called "Got's Gas" (because of the rich people there) at first, then later Marinska , and under Polish occupation, Piludskaya . On one side of the street were stores and shops, and on the other side were the farms. According to Czarist law, Jews were not allowed to live on farmland, and so could not build on that side of the street.

Baranovichi had two synagogues, facing one another almost across the street. Everything was built from logs, since the city was surrounded by heavy forests. One synagogue was called the Big Shul , and there the Rabbi prayed, and a special house was built for him nearby. The Big Shul was used for big meetings, or when a Magid (traveling preacher) came to town or an outside cantor performed. The smaller, new synagogue was called the "Baal Melochishe" (Artisans place), and there my father ruled as the regular cantor. His free seat was next to the Holy Ark. He organized a choir, and the ba'aleh-batim (community leaders) loved him. On holidays, he would bring them some new chanzanishe (cantor's) melody, and the choir added extra attraction.

The small artisan shul was usually kept locked, and was much cleaner than the big one. On the east wall above the Holy Ark were four large paintings a tiger, a deer, a lion, and an eagle, representing a well-known saying that a person should be brave and swift and obey God's commandments. In later years when we moved "uptown", father would go to the "new" synagogue. It was nicknamed the "aristantsker shul" , meaning former prisoners, since some of the ba'aleh batim didn't have a very clean moral record. Once one of the ba'aleh batim met me in the street and asked where father was. I answered in Shul. In which one, he asked. In "Aristanske" , I answered. At that moment, I received a terrific "frask" (slap) in the face, teaching me never to use that word again…


The apartments

We did not own a house in Baranovichi, and I remember three apartments all rented. I will try to describe the layout of them:

Picture the kitchen, which led to the firehouse, and the yard. It had a window, under which was a "tapchan", a wooden bench, useful for many things, a small table, and stove implements such as a "kochere" (a long wooden pole with a metal hook to take ashes out of the oven), and a "vilke" (a long stick to take pots and pans out of the oven).

The maid slept on the tapchan in the summertime, and on the oven in the winter. Most of the pots were of clay or cast iron, and you had to have a steady hand to get them in and out of the oven. Then there was a "l'yak", made of copper, which served as a tea kettle, with a small handle on the side and a narrow opening in the center of the top. During the winter, it sat on the coal, and on Shabbat, naturally, it was the source of hot water for tea.

The construction of the oven was complex. The bottom of the oven served as a chicken coop, where I often crept to get the eggs out, or to clean it. During the winter, the chickens were fed in the kitchen. The wood fires produced a great deal of charcoal, which was then used for baking bread, for cooking, and for warming the house. The side of the oven facing the dining room served as a wall and was covered in tile.


Meals

It is interesting to recall that in the good old days before World War I, each day had its particular food. Friday mornings were special - we ate potato latkes or buckwheat cakes with cream or sour milk. Lunch was hobergritz (ground oats) soup, or dairy. Meat was served only at night. Before going to synagogue, we had tea and a "zemel", mother's sweet baked rolls, with lots of raisins and cinnamon.

At the table, each one had his place, and no one ever dared sit in father's or mother's place. Mother sat to the right of father, and to his left my brother Yikutiel, then my brother Yankel, then I. A guest's place depended on rank, but usually next to Yankel and myself. The maid always ate in the kitchen, after everyone else. The Friday night meal lasted a long time. Between dishes we sang "zmirot" (Sabbath songs). After the meal and the blessing, Yikutiel would be the first one to sneak out of the house, and then Yankel. Father, very tired, would sit at the table for a long time, drinking tea from the steaming samovar. I remember once when my Aunt Bashke, my father's sister, was our guest. It was Friday, after the meal, and father had dozed off in his chair. Mume (Aunt) Bashke told mother that if someone got hold of a sleeping person by his pinky and asked him questions, he would answer in his sleep. Mother wouldn't dare, but Bashke did... Sure enough father had overheard their conversation and pretended to sleep. He gave the women all sorts of answers, and we had a lot of fun afterwards joking about it.


Preparations for winter

The preparations for winter in Baranovichi were numerous. Wood had to be stacked up well in advance - good wood such as birch and other hard woods that would burn long and leave a lot of charcoal. We hired a laborer to split the wood. Then we had to stock hay for the cow. Father went from wagon to wagon, testing the hay for dryness, scent, and quality. He preferred hay with little flowers and a good scent. We could borrow a chopping machine and chop the straw ourselves, mixing it with bran from the mill and cut-up potatoes. During the winter, we added boiling water instead of cold water to the mixture. We also stocked up on vegetables for ourselves like potatoes and carrots, along with goose fat, feathers, and down.

Not all the streets in Baranovichi were paved, and those that were paved were covered with round field stones so that passing wagons made awful noises. But the sidewalks and entrances to the houses were not paved. When the snow melted, or rain came, the mud was knee-deep. The unpaved streets turned into lakes. The sidewalks on some of the streets were made of wooden planks. These were raised 15 or 20 centimeters above the water, but if a board broke or was loose, and you stepped on it, the water splashed right into your face, and on all of your clothes. This situation lasted through the winter and beyond Pesach, until all of the water dried up.


Since father was the Shochet, when slaughtering chickens, he had the right to pull off the top feathers on the rooster's neck. These were collected and sold. He also had the rights to calves' stomachs, a great source of income. On these he worked hard. Father sometimes brought a sackful on his back. We cleaned them, tied up the wide end, blew them up, tied the small end, and hung them to dry. After drying, the heavy end was cut off and the air let out, and we packed them in bundles of one hundred. These dried stomachs were powdered and used in Holland for making curds.



Water and wells

Baranovichi is built on sandy soil. The only water we had came from deep wells. A rope was tied to a roller with two handles on each side. In wintertime, the ice built up high and it was dangerous to go too near lest we fall in. Still the maid would fetch the water for the house and for the cow, standing barefoot on the ice, cranking the handle, and bringing up two pails at a time. Sometimes she would even stop to chat with someone. I still wonder how she did it. She did wear her shoes though to church on Sunday.

I saw how the wells were dug. They were originally lined with logs, but later on with concrete pipes. The first two pipes were lowered into a hole dug in the ground. The next pipe was placed on top of the two, and from then on it was dug under the first one, the sand removed, and the pipes sank by their own weight, until water was reached. Some rich people had their own wells and a pump installed. These wells also served for making dishes kosher for Passover. The dishes were lowered in a pail into the well, there being no river for miles around.


The first automobile “chortopchayka”

Our first apartment was near the Shosey. One day we heard loud noises and ran out to see what it was. A car passed, the first we had ever seen. We were not the only ones who came out to see it. As people looked on in amazement, I remember the remark the gentiles made in Russian, "chortopchayka", meaning the devil is pushing it.


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