Barnovichi was a town of "Mitnagdim", Jews who emphasized learning the Talmud and the intellectual
side of Judaism. These were opposed to the "Chasidim", Jews worshipping with dance and music and
devoted to their rebbe. These rebbes held court and became dynasties with their positions handed
down from father to son. Despite the hostility of the "Mitnagdim", the Chasidim kept coming
and settling in the town. Eventually they built their own synagogue, called a "shtibel", from
the word "shtub" meaning a house. Once a Rabbi came to town. That Shabbat, some big boys got
together and went to the Chasidim while the Rabbi was eating with them. At the entrance to
each synagogue was a small tank with water and a basin for washing the hands - and some
very wet towels. The boys rolled up some of these wet towels and pelted the Rabbi with them!
A favorite trick with the boys, especially in the Big Shul, was to line up the "standars"
(individual pulpits on which the large volumes of Talmud were kept) a small distance form
one another, in a circle around the Bimah in the center of the synagogue, and then throw
one over. Like dominoes, the first one hit the second, and so on creating a chain reaction
and a lot of noise.
"Novobrantzes" was the name applied to newly recruited soldiers who came to Baranovichi.
The first few days they would roam the streets, usually drunk, and bother people. Those
were days when you were better off at home. There was also a Christian holiday, which
must have been Easter, when an icon of Jesus was buried near the church and dug up
on the next day. Then a procession was formed with the icon carried out in front.
This was another day when it was advisable to spend the day at home, or at least
keep out of the way.
My older brother Yikutiel joined the "Paz'arneh", the fire brigade, which was a voluntary
institution with only two or three paid workers, who took care of the horses and the
red wagon with the large pump handles operated by four people, two on each side.
This was a big attraction, for everyone, but especially the children. Each pozarnik
got a shiny brass helmet, and the "natchalnik" (commander) had a special hat.
There are photos of both my brothers in the Baranovichi Memorial (Yizkor) Book.
In later years, my brother Yankel also joined the "Paz'arneh", since the firefighters
became sort of a self-defense unit during the war years between Russia and Poland.
They played a big role in serving the town from burning and looting. Having horses
and equipment, with axes handy, they commanded authority, and risked their lives
The Czar used to come, it seems, every summer through Baranovichi. My father saw him
seven times, since he would pass near the slaughterhouse which was in the forest.
I saw him only once, not only him, but his entire family. They passed through the
city in a row of automobiles. I stood on the corner of Marinska Street. Police were
everywhere. When the Czar passed, we all took off our hats or caps, and loudly
yelled "Hurrah!" according to the policemen’s' instructions. The royal couple
was in the first car. In the second car, an open one, sat his uncle, Nicolai
Nicolaiyewich, I think, the Commander in Chief of all of Russia. Others filled
the rest of the row of autos, and Cossacks rode horses on all sides. I remember
that on Shabbat in the synagogue, a special prayer was said for the Czar, after
the reading of the Torah. A policeman was always present to make sure that
the prayer was said.
World War I
As the war approached, a German circus appeared in Baranovichi. The tent was set up in
the marketplace. Over the course of a week, two horses would run away every day. One
German always ran out to find them, either in the Lager (soldiers' camp) or in one
of the railway stations. Later on it was claimed that the disappearance of the
horses was deliberate - for spying purposes. Just before the war broke out, a
tiny German plane landed in a field near the city, very close to the railway
and the houses. It was said at the time that it just ran out of gas. It was
the first plane I ever saw close up.
The city began to fill up with Jewish refugees ("bezjentzes"). They were strangers to us,
and came from the borders of Germany and Austria. They were forced to evacuate by
the Russians, who claimed that they were a danger to the Russian Empire. At first
the refugees tried to rent rooms, but then they came by the trainload. They were
a pitiful sight, with babies in their arms and a small valise or package on their
backs. They slept in the synagogues on the floors. People volunteered to give
them shelter. Some looked like wealthy people, but since they were evacuated
in a hurry we could not tell for sure. What amazed us was their Yiddish dialect,
and such a different way of speaking. We said "do" (yes) to parents, and Tate
(father) - Mami (mother). They said "Tateteshy mir gebun" or "Mameshy"
(father or mother will give me).
As the Germans and Austrians broke the Russian lines very quickly, these refugees were
ordered to move on deeper into Russia. We heard of Brisk (Brestlitovsk), a fortress,
falling. That meant the front was coming closer. People counted as many as a hundred
trains a day passing through our stations, loaded with wounded soldiers. But just
as many kept coming to the front. A platoon of newly recruited soldiers, all of
them "muzjiks" (Russian peasants) from farms, were stationed in our yard - about
thirty of them. After two or three days, a sergeant came with a rifle. They
lay on the grass and the sergeant demonstrated how to use the rifle. First
you put it against your shoulder, then you aim, lift the lock up, push it
back, lock down, and then pull the trigger. This went on for several days,
with the single rifle going from hand to hand. The Muzjiks did not catch
on at all. I was already an expert from watching. I heard another story
about the Muzjiks who were drafted, but didn't know left from right.
The sergeant solved the problem by tying hay to one of their legs
and straw to the other. When he taught them to march he called out
"hay-straw" instead of "left-right". These so-called soldiers were soon
to go to the front. When someone asked the sergeant about rifles, he
was told that they would get them at the front from the soldiers who
had been killed.
After the fall of Brisk (Brestlitovsk), the front moved in our direction. We saw
Siberian soldiers called Kalmiks with slanted eyes. We were told that they were the best.
Cossacks passed through the town on horseback, with long lances. This was a joke against
the German armament. They all marched to the front, but few returned.
The front came ever closer, and one day three Cossacks and a high-ranking officer
stopped in front of our house. All of us were scared to death. The officer marched
into the house and asked very politely for the engraver. My brother, Yikutiel,
had by then set up shop in the house: engraving tools, a press for making rubber
stamps, some raw rubber, and wooden handles were part of the equipment. The
officer, a nephew of the Czar, had just received a gift from the Czar himself - a
beautiful sword. This was to be engraved with a legend the officer had carefully
written out. It was to be done in two days. No price was asked or mentioned.
Yikutiel left everything and worked on the sword. He did a beautiful job,
and when they returned they carefully inspected the work. Yikutiel had
planned to ask 5 kopecks per letter, but when he saw the smiles of the
officer, he asked 7 kopeks. The letters were counted, and Yikutiel received
payment seven times what he had asked. We were all thrilled and delighted
by the gentleman.
The following day, this same officer passed our street, in front of our house, with
his escort of Cossacks. A neighboring Jew passed by him on the sidewalk. The officer
stopped his horse, called the Jew to him, and started to whip him without warning,
using his "nagayke", a horse whip. When he knocked the Jew's hat off he yelled,
"Why didn't you remove your hat when you saw me coming? Pick up your hat and
put it on!" He did so, and was again whipped hard and knocked to the ground.
The Jew screamed for help, and his wife came out screaming too. The Cossacks
asked the officer to move on, and he did
The front got closer. The officers were drunk, the soldiers were drunk. The order
came to burn the "sclad", a giant warehouse of vodka. But first the bottles had
to be broken. Soldiers, under the officers' eyes, put hammers to the bottles.
The vodka ran like a flood and pails and barrels were filled. Some was stolen.
Three officers were stationed in our living room. One afternoon a horse and wagon
pulled into the yard loaded with cases of vodka. We managed to take a case of
the best and bury it in the cellar. It wasn't missed, since there must have
been about two dozen cases. We now had Cherkes soldiers in our yard. They wore black coats, carried bayonets,
and rolls of bullets across their chests. Each one had his own "nagayke" without
which he never moved. They refused to sleep in the house, preferring to be with
their horses. Each one wove a straw sleeping mat for himself in no time. They
might have been Moslems, since they had sheep with them for meat. One day,
as the Russians began to retreat, horses with cannon rumbled through the
streets. Suddenly our next door neighbors screamed for help. Some Cossacks
had invaded their house. It was a prosperous house, and the Cossacks were
collecting whatever they liked. That group of soldiers were going from
house to house, so that we would have been next. My parents went to
the Cherkes, begging them to intervene next door. When they were told
that the Cossacks were doing the robbing, they refused. After long
pleas, three of them agreed and walked into the neighbors' house.
In my eyes they were giants, each holding his "nagayke" in his
right hand behind his back. They entered the house and said to
the Cossacks, "Out!". The Cossacks walked out sheepishly, taking nothing,
and disappeared from our block.
It suddenly got very quiet in our streets. Just an occasional shot was heard.
A rider sped through the street, disappearing fast. Firing was heard in the distance.
After about an hour, a few soldiers in strange uniforms appeared, first on horseback,
then on foot. They spoke German and some other language. We found out that they were
Austrians and Hungarians. They led away some Russian prisoners. After setting up a
command post, they began giving orders. First thing - to clean up the streets from
all horse and cow manure. The Hussars would come to our door with their horse,
knock and say "putzele, putzele", clean the street. They were smartly dressed,
with a short jacket carried on one arm. We finally called them Putzilach.
There were many Jews among the Austrians, some coming to the synagogue to
pray. They soon asked for civilian clothes, burying their uniforms, and
sneaking back home to Austria and Galicia.
It was autumn and we had no food for the coming winter. Two or three families got
together in one wagon, and went to the nearest village to buy food, only to find
all the houses vacant, everything open, pigs roaming about the chickens, the
stables open, with cellars full of milk and cream, potatoes, etc. We took shovels
and began digging up potatoes from the nearby field. Suddenly artillery shells
began exploding all around us. I distinctly remember the sight. A shell would
hit the ground, sink in, and then a burst of flame would come from the hole.
The shells kept coming closer to us, and we beat a hasty retreat home. But
we managed to get half a sack of flour, and a bag or two of potatoes.
The Austrians and the Putzilach didn't last long. The Russians pushed them back almost
out of town, and then the Germans replaced them, staying in Baranovichi until the
revolution, when I saw a German soldier pull an officer off his horse, and rip
his epaulets from him. The officer was white from fear, got back on his horse,
and made a hasty getaway.
The Germans were very different from the Austrians and the Putzilach. Everyone was
immediately registered in the Commandanture. The Sukharney Zavod (toast factory)
was turned into a camp, surrounded with barbed wire, and held sleeping bunks
in two tiers. Young men were stationed there and made concrete blocks for
the front. The Germans dug in just out of town, before the famous swamps
that stretch as far as Pinsk. My two brothers were stationed in this
camp. Others were sent far away to cut lumber, which was shipped to
Germany. Some boys never came back, being killed in accidents, or
freezing to death. I had a taste of one day in that camp. Yankel
had a bad cold, and I sneaked into the camp to answer the roll call.
The soup was cabbage leaves with worms swimming around. Each one was
given a half pound of bread for the day. The bread was as heavy as
lead, made of half-raw potatoes and a bit of flour mixed with ground
sawdust. A little later, during the occupation, when food supplies
were exhausted, my brothers would save up some of the bread and bring
it to us so that we could survive. The one night I slept in the camp,
it was bitter cold, and at 5:00 A.M., even in winter, everyone got
up for work.
I worked for the Germans on one other occasion. A neighbor of ours had to stay home
one day for some reason, and there was a heavy fine for not coming to work. I got
half a ruble for taking his place at work. He didn't work at the concrete block
factory as did my brothers, but somewhere near the railroad. I showed up for work,
and together with this man's friends, was placed in the rear row, and said "Here"
when his name was called. We were counted and marched to work, carrying railroad
ties, 15 to 20 on our shoulders. I was placed in the middle, and raised my hand
to carry the load. I couldn't reach it (I was only about 12 years old), so I
managed to sneak away and get home.
My Bar Mitzvah came during the war. It was on a Thursday, since the Torah was read on
Mondays and Thursdays. Naturally there was no fuss, but what remained in my memory
was a German who had a very small pair of boots. They were too small for the soldier,
so my father bought them, or mother earned them by doing laundry for the soldiers.
But I wore them to my Bar Mitzvah, and I was thrilled. It did not matter that they
were too large, I stuffed something into them to fill up the extra room.
Some Germans set up quarters in our house. We were allotted the kitchen and one small
bedroom for the three of us boys. The living room was occupied by a high officer named
Westfal. He was a mean man. The other room was occupied by soldiers and officers who
spent two weeks at the front and two weeks in town. One of them was a sergeant named
Franz. He was a tall, good-looking fellow, seemingly good-natured, and we knew him
well, or thought we did. He would sit at the table and fart loudly while eating.
He would say it was healthy. No one protested, of course. One day we heard screams
from the barn. We ran out to see what was going on and saw Franz skinning a sheep
alive, the sheep hanging from a rope. Father begged him, with tears in his eyes,
to kill the sheep first. "Go away!" was the answer. "I want the skin clean without
blood on it."
Mother did the soldiers' laundry for them, mended their socks, etc. We ate what the soldiers
threw away, including potato peels from the military kitchen. Mother sometimes earned some
brown sugar for doing a soldier's laundry. The brown sugar was fed to the military horses.
I remember doing my homework or reading to the light of long strips of thin pine wood
which were stuck horizontally into something over the table, and one end lit. They burned
slowly and made a lot of smoke. The Germans had kerosene lamps. Towards the end of the
war, they built an electricity station, and for the first time we enjoyed electricity.
Food was very scarce during the war, and men with long white beards stood in line near the
German field kitchens. After the soldiers had their fill, they tried to get a little soup,
if anything was left over. People tried to get the green tops of potatoes and usually got
deathly sick from them. I remember someone who caught a flock of birds in his barn. They
were tiny and he brought them by the pocketful to my father to have them slaughtered.
Many people contracted a sickness that caused difficulty seeing in the dark. The remedy
was liver, but who had liver?
My friend Menye Gershuni, who was a few years older than I had a job on the "Lager". They
would pump latrines into a tank. He would drive the horse and tank out of the town and
dump it somewhere. He had a special permit to get out of town, which was surrounded by
barbed wire. The Germans had planted potatoes in the fields close to town, and instead
of digging them up with shovels, as we did, they plowed the rows and workers walked
after the plows picking up the potatoes and putting them into sacks. One day Menye
told me that the Germans had plowed a field. He suggested that I get two shovels
and that night I would ride out with him saying I was his helper. After dumping
the tank, we would dig in the field, maybe finding some potatoes. We did actually
dig for several hours, but the yield was very small, since the Germans were careful
to leave nothing behind.
I suppose that the Germans couldn't get much work out of their hungry laborers, and they
decided to give them some meat once a week. My father was called to do the slaughtering.
He managed to bring some meat home hidden in his long coat. We ate meat for several weeks,
but without salt, bread or vegetables. Mother had to be careful when cooking the meat,
so that the smell would not reveal our secret. But one day on his way home, some blood
from the meat showed through father's coat. He was stopped and arrested. You can imagine
what we went through until he came home again. I don't know how he managed to get out,
but that was the end of the meat for us.
The Russians bombed Baranovichi quite often. If I am not mistaken, the pilots and the planes
were French, since the Russians had no air force. The Germans had some stationary platforms
with six anti-aircraft guns on them. These were revolving platforms. Later on they mounted
anti-aircraft guns on trucks which moved about the city shooting from one street after
another. The Yeshivah, which was a large building, had been turned into a bathhouse by
the Germans, and once it received a direct hit. When shooting started, all lights were
turned off. Anyone caught with lights on at night was subject to severe punishment.
One evening when the alarm sounded, our officer Westfal was writing a letter. The
windows trembled, and sand fell from the ceiling. (Sand was used in the attic as
insulation against the cold.) We heard bombs exploding all around us, but the
light in the officers' room burned brightly. We were sure that the planes would
concentrate on our house - with the only light in town. My father dared to knock
on the door and asked that they put out the light. But he was chased away with
abuse. Revenge was sweet some months later, when the soldiers came back from
the street without Westfal. Upon inquiry we were told that on the day they
were to be released, and return to town a Russian mine severed his legs.
It seemed that the soldiers were not too sorry for him either.
I have a photo of a bomb crater in a yard, and next to the crater is a dead horse with
a large steak cut from his rear. The crater was about six feet across, and soldiers,
some boys and myself are standing at its edge. A Jewish neighbor of ours owned a horse,
who would graze somewhere at the edge of town. When the bombs started falling, this
smart Jew ran to bring his horse home. He succeeded getting him into the yard, and
then went into the house to get the stable key, where he intended to lock up the
horse. A bomb fell, killing the horse, while the lucky man was saved. Some soldier
was quick enough to cut a hunk of meat from the horse.
The Germans introduced a blimp with a carriage under it. The blimp was tied to a cable
on a large truck. Two soldiers with binoculars would rise some hundreds of feet into
the air, and from that vantage point could direct the artillery against the Russians.
Towards evening, the blimp was lowered and hidden in the trees. The Germans also
introduced a tiny fighter plane - a one-seater. The plane did not have to circle
in order to gain altitude, but would shoot straight up in the opposite direction
of the incoming planes, trying to rise above them and engage in dogfights. We
observed some of these fights right overhead, and watched as these little planes
would attack four or five big ones. I even have a photo of a burning plane shot
down in the snow.
One day at noontime, one of these small planes went on a mission over the Russian lines.
It was forced down there and came back with a Russian or French pilot. The plane circled
over the city once or twice, but did not land. The Germans couldn't figure out what was
wrong, and signaled him to land. They sent up colored rockets, but he continued circling.
Finally, two planes were sent up towards him. He then veered towards the blimp, firing
two long bursts into it and sending the blimp and its occupants crashing to the ground.
The plane then escaped across the lines. I watched the whole drama, and was not far from
One day there was panic in town. The Germans used poison gas against the Russians. Suddenly
the wind changed direction and the gas reached Baranovichi. In the area around the "Lager"
people were coughing, and there were some victims of the gas, but no one knew how many.
School was irregular during the war years. My parents decided that I would learn Gemorrah,
that is Talmud. Not a very fascinating subject for a young boy, unless one is inclined to law
from childhood. Talmud makes for complicated study, especially when it comes to the commentaries.
I didn't care for it then, though now it seems easy and interesting. I was at it for two years.
The first year I studied with a "Melamed", who taught a class of boys only, of course. The
study room was in one of the synagogues. This teacher, whose name was Fitel Iser, was very
strict. He had a wide, white beard, and would lecture with his glasses on his forehead
and both hands on his chest, thumbs up. After his lecture he was constantly on the go,
his eyes open and watchful. He would slap your face for every little thing. Since he
knew my father, who was of some prominence, he expected more from me than from the
"regular" boys. I remember one rest period, when we heard a band marching through
the next street. We all ran to see what was going on, and then returned as fast
as we could, sneaking back into our places. Fitel Iser singled me out for punishment.
Why did I leave the class? I received a few slaps in the face...he never missed!
The following year I went to a Yeshivah of a different kind. It was a Musar Yeshivah. In
short we studied ethics and forms of prayer. We studied, of course, but the emphasis was
more on behavior. Prayers were conducted in a special way, and most impressive were the
evening prayers. At the very beginning of the evening, the lights were not turned on.
In semi-darkness, the boys took turns at the pulpit, leading the prayer. There was deadly
silence, except for the leader's voice. The prayers had special melodies, which were
melancholy but pleasant. The lights were then turned on and the studies resumed, with
By that time I had read a lot. In Hebrew school we were given small pamphlets called
"Nitzanim" (buds) and other things to read. These were very effective, since they
concentrated on easy language and on one subject, which made you think. Most of the
subjects were on Jewish history. I did a lot of reading, mostly in Hebrew, some
in Russian. I read some of the Russian classics which were a "must" for everyone.
I even read German since I had learned to read and write it. But I was most influenced
by the Hebrew readings. I especially recall Zangwill, Mapu, Bialick, etc.
Father had a tremendous library. Most of the books, especially the good ones, were bound in
leather. Years back a Hebrew newspaper had been published, and these papers were bound
in enormous volumes. Of course there were also all the tractates of the Talmud. They
were very large, with commentaries in them, and, in the margins, notes in father's
exquisite handwriting. Father's handwriting was famous in town, and people who had
to write important letters in Yiddish or Hebrew would come to him. Among the books
were commentaries on the Torah, history books in Hebrew, etc. I now realize the
importance of that library. I remember reading a book called "Yosiphon", supposedly
written by Josephus Flavius, the Jewish General who had defected to the Romans and
became one of the most famous and reliable historians of the Roman siege of Judea.
A Jerusalem professor is currently  publishing a book dealing with "Yosiphon"
on which he worked for ten years. His theory is that "Yosiphon" was actually written
in the year 1000 by an Italian Jew who had collected much information that had been
passed down by word of mouth over generations.
Then I encountered a book which practically shaped my future life for the rest of my days.
I have told and retold this story a thousand times. It happened in late 1916 or 1917, in
the Yeshiva library, where I found a small thin book, no more than a half-inch thick,
and six by twelve inches in size. The first few pages contained a will, the writer's
will, from Rabbi Yehuda Chasid, to his children. I did not bother reading these pages.
What fascinated me in the book were the bizarre stories about devils, demons, and dead
people. When I think about it now, I find it hard to believe that a great man like
Rabbi Chasid could have written anything like that. It doesn't seem consistent with
true Judaism. Anyway there is more to that book than I know or remember, and I
would like to get a copy. I would read those little stories, and be afraid to
go home. A pair of "gatkes" (long underwear) hanging on a line and moving in
the wind terrified me. I was afraid to pass near a closed, dark synagogue,
assuming that at night the dead gathered there to pray. I was scared to pass
near a well, etc., etc.
But one day I decided to read the will, on the front pages. There I discovered that Rabbi
Chasid said to his children, 'I will tell you what will happen in the end of days."
He mentioned the Jewish calendar year parallel to 1914, foreseeing that Germany (Ashekenaz)
would overrun half the world and that Germany would lose the war. A league of nations, he said,
would give the land of Israel to the Jews. Another world war would come in which the Jews would
go through a time of harshness such as nothing they had known before, and Germany would be
destroyed. Then the land of Israel would be given to the Jews by the judgment of the nations.
I do not recall the rest, but was struck by the date 1914.
Note from Alison Greengard:
My grandfather spent his whole life trying to find another copy of the book with the entire
writer's will in it, but to no avail. I did find a copy of the book in the Brandeis University
library. It only contained the first line of the will, followed by a note that said that
historians knew that there was an extensive will to this book, but there were no copies
of it left anywhere in the world, and no one knew exactly what it had
The fact that the Germans were in Baranovichi, impressed me. We had heard something of a Jewish
legion being formed, but knew nothing exact, of course. I grabbed the book and ran home, finding
only mother in the house. I shouted, asking for father, and was told that he was across the street,
by Isenshtadt. I crossed the street in a moment, opened the door, and was in the dining room. To
my left, at the dinner table sat Mr. Isenshtadt at the head, a bearded respectable man. My father
sat at the side, to his left, with an open Gemorrah, glasses of tea before them. I came in like
the wind, and began chattering about 1914 and the Germans were here, etc., etc. Father took the
book from me and read intensively, handed the book to Mr. Isenshtadt, who also read attentively.
Then father asked where the book came from, and I explained that I had brought it from the
Koidinover Shtibel, where I was learning. Father directed me to return the book to its place
and I did so. He did tell my brothers about it.
Those lines I read made a big impression on me. I discovered something which corresponded
to all my dreams - an independent Jewish state. I dreamt of being a Jewish soldier, walking
in the open with a rifle, and perhaps riding a horse, not fearing a German or the Czar.
This I kept to myself, locked in a secret place in my heart.
Just before the Germans left Baranovichi, a truck loaded with crates full of cows' legs
pulled over. The soldier was taking the train for shipment, but he wanted to get rid
of his load fast. Father bought the load from him very cheaply. We stacked up crates
between the barns and the fence. The legs were without hide, which made them worthless
on the market. But a Jewish housewife knew how to make a delicacy from a calf's leg,
especially if it was a front leg. A little heat would remove the hooves, boiling water
removed the hair, and the leg was singed over a fire to remove any hairs left behind.
The leg was then taken apart at the joints. The large bone was placed over a knife
turned on its back. The bone was placed on the edge of the knife and gently tapped
with a hammer. This cracks the bone in half. Then it was cooked with lots of garlic.
The final result, known as "ptchah" was eaten hot, and the bone marrow is very delicious.
What was left over jells and was very tasty when cold.
After the German collapse, Russia went through a period of pogroms. Denikin (Russian
Rightwing Czarist general) operated in southern Russia, I believe, and his followers
were called Belo-Gvardeitzes, the Whites, as against the Red revolutionaries. They
were the best organized of the many rival armies at the time, and if I am not mistaken,
supported by outside powers such as France. Denikin was also anti-Semitic, since the
leaders of the Russian Revolution such as Trotsky and others were Jewish. Then there
was Petlura, a rascal who operated in the Ukraine. His job was to rob, kill, and
rape Jews, plundering from town to town. Another upcoming band, mostly "muzhiks"
under the leadership of Balachowich, operated not far from us.
The Germans disappeared overnight, and suddenly we were all Communists. I remember
a Jewish family appeared in town as commisars. A daughter of well-known Jewish family
appeared in "galife" (riding pants) with shiny boots. Her two brothers, also party men,
then took up some high posts in the city hall. Then the son of a poor rabbi/teacher
turned out to be a big shot in the party. The rabbi and some prominent people were
told to clean the streets, just to degrade them and show them who was boss. Anyone
who didn't have a job (and who had?) was considered a parasite. Unions were formed
fast. All workers had to belong. I had a friend two or three years older than
myself who was in charge of the union office. He took me up to his office, which
was in "Shulainers Moyer", the richest house in town, and said to me, "I'll give
you a job in my office. Write down names, etc." I agreed, but now he wanted
to convert me. He started to indoctrinate me in communism. I wasn't very
sympathetic to the idea, and when I asked him what would happen to the Jews
in a communist society, he said that they would disappear like all other
minorities, through assimilation.
Especially happy with the Revolution were the Bundovtzes, the ones who belonged to the
Bund, an organization which was violently anti-Zionist. They argued that Jews were Polish
or Russian citizens, and no more than that, but they were entitled to speak Yiddish.
But all these people soon disappeared from the scene. They were either arrested as
counter-revolutionaries, or deported to some unknown place.
The real victims were the people, who became paupers overnight. All the currency - Russian
Czarist rubles, German marks, all had to be exchanged for Kereskies. The bills were small,
about 2 1/2 inches by 3 inches, and were soon valueless. The Bolsheviks took over, and the
train that brought Lenin from somewhere in Europe passed Baranovichi on its way to Moscow
or Petrograd. A giant meeting of the Red Army, estimated at over 100,000 took place at
the marketplace, and the crowd was addressed by Trotsky and others. The Petluras and
Balachowich threat disappeared, and we started adjusting to life under a communist
regime, but not for long
The Poles felt that their chance for independence was at hand, and with the help of France
and America, they formed well-armed legions which, with the leadership of French generals,
started pushing back the Russians to their original borders. The Russians were tired of
the long war and were not enthusiastic about more fighting. They fled in retreat.
One bright morning we discovered that we were without a government. Fear arose that the
surrounding villagers would soon come in and make a pogrom. The first to organize themselves
were the "Pozharnikes" - the boys who served as volunteer firemen, mostly Jews. My older
brother Yikutiel was an officer. Yankel was also a Pozharnik. Yikutiel had a fancy brass
helmet, shiny and impressive. Yankel shined his helmet until it looked like a mirror,
and they patrolled the city in pairs or in threes, stopping strangers to ask for documents.
They had some rifles and marched around with them in the open. Weapons were plentiful
and free for the taking. I had a hand grenade hidden in the attic. As children we
used to pry open the bullets from rifles and collect the black power, which we
would spread in circles or zigzags, light one end, and watch it burn from end
Coming back to the quiet period between governments, we suddenly saw young Polish boys,
sixteen or seventeen years old, with square hats and a single eagle as an emblem, armed
with rifles and two bayonets hanging from their belts. The first two words in Polish
that I heard from two such boys were "Hei, sluckay Antek" (hey, listen Jack).
A governor soon took over, who was very much surprised to see "Jeedy" (Jews) walking
around with rifles. It was soon decreed that anyone possessing arms must bring them
to the marketplace. A pile of rifles was delivered by the Pozharnikes. I buried my
hand grenade in the latrine. And before we knew it we were penniless again.
Russian money - you might as well burn it. "Zloties" was the money which no one had.
The Poles kept pushing the Russians back across the Berezina River. Even Vilna was
taken by then. But in Baranovichi, as well as all over the occupied territory, the
anti-Semitic "Hellersachikes" with the square hats (General Haller was an American
who came to help free Poland) were busy cutting Jewish beards. In Baranovichi they
cut beards with a knife and scissors and would then take out a mirror to show the
victim the results, and ask to be paid for the job. But in some cases the beards
were cut off with a dull bayonet. This was reason enough to hate their guts, but
it wasn't all. Soon a neighbor named Yomtov, the father of a family in whose
house the legionnaires were stationed, disappeared as though the earth had
swallowed him up. He was found a year later, buried in his barn under the
But their rule did not last long, since they over-extended themselves. The Russians drove
them back in a mighty offensive, all the way to Warsaw. During fierce battles, the Poles
committed atrocities, and their retreat was accompanied by robbing, plundering, and burning.
Our town, like many in White Russia (Belarus), was vulnerable to fire. Some houses in the
marketplace were set on fire. The firefighters brought tanks of water on horse-drawn wagons.
The pumps were hand-operated, with two firemen on each side. Our family, like all the others,
prepared barrels of water in the yard near the water, taking turns on watch. In one instance,
on the block near the market, a Jew spotted a Polish soldier setting fire to his home. He
hit the soldier over the head with a board, killing him on the spot. Luckily for the man,
the Russians appeared the next morning, and just took the body away. The town changed
hands several times. On one occasion, when the Russians had retreated, a whole family
was found slaughtered.
My own experience with the final Russian retreat was not a pleasant one. On
one Thursday, three high-ranking Russian army officers were stationed in our
house. The Russians were in retreat. The three officers had taken over the
living room, the largest room, where we three boys had slept. I slept on the
dining-room table instead. It was hard, but better than the floor. I woke up to
the sound of a large argument. Mother and father were arguing with the Russian
soldiers in the kitchen. My brothers were almost dressed, and I ran down to see
what was happening. The argument was over a sack of flour, and we, of course,
lost since the soldiers were armed with rifles. In front of the house I saw a
horse and a wagon, and on the wagon were all our linens, whatever food had been
in the house, and most important, the flour for baking bread. I looked into the
dresser where the linens had been and cried out that my coin collection was
gone. I cried hysterically. By this time the officers were dressed and packing
to leave. My mother pleaded with them for the half sack of flour, and I for my
coin collection. But to no avail. They didn't say a word. A car came and picked
them up. My curses followed them.
How did I come to have a coin collection? This is interesting. My father would
get a few kopecks for slaughtering a chicken. Father had an eye for old coins.
He accepted them and I collected them. So, whoever had a bad coin, or an old
coin, or a strange one would try to get rid of it by paying the Shochet with
it. The collection was an interesting one, and I can now assume, a very
valuable one. But it went with the revolution...
The Russians retreated slowly. Thousands of horse-drawn wagons passed. All
peasants were left without horses and without wagons. Hundreds of trains passed
Baranovichi. All young men were drafted into the Russian Army, or joined of
their own will, for fear of the Poles. Streams of soldiers passed through the
city without end. It was then that the Russians suddenly were ordered to stop
their disorderly retreat. But how? Patrols were sent out into the streets. They
would stop a soldier and ask him, "Why are you here? What regiment do you
belong to etc.,?" If the answer was not satisfactory, he was jailed and
immediately tried. There was a moviehouse next door to us, and on the stage a
table covered with a red cloth. Three officers formed the tribunal. The public
was allowed to witness the trials, since they were interested in the publicity.
I witnessed two trials, and am still horrified at the faces and the cries. The
questions went like this: name, rank, regiment, location of the regiment, etc.
Why are you not with the regiment? After a few minutes' questioning, they were
pronounced deserters and sentenced to death. Immediately Cheka men came over
and tied the prisoners' hands behind his back with plain wire. They were set
aside and few protested. One was a young boy of about sixteen who was accused
of stealing something. He too was sentenced to be shot. But a man in his late
fifties, with gray hair, did cry out when accused, "Me? An old revolutionary
who just came back from Siberia? You dare call me a deserter? I was a principal
of a high school. I was sent to Siberia to conduct revolutionary activities,
etc. etc." He finally broke out crying, but it didn't help him. As a group of
about eight were marched out, among them was a young Jewish boy, who asked for
a cigarette. Someone lit one and shoved it in his mouth. There was a potato
field two blocks away, and there their coats were removed and they were shot.
An officer then came over and fired a bullet into each one's head. Then their
boots were pulled off. The firing squad returned to town and sold the coats and
the boots in the street. Two days later they were gone, court and all.
More about the same moviehouse: I would often sneak in there to play on the
piano. (We were all musical, father and Yikutiel played violin, and Yankel
played the balalaika.) There was a small door under the stage and many times my
friends and I would hide there from soldiers who wanted to drag us to work. The
last time I hid there with two other boys was when the Russians made their
final retreat, because they took able-bodied young men with them.
The Poles were making a forceful push against the Bolsheviks, this time with a
powerful, well-organized, well-armed army. A few miles out of town was a creek
of running water, fifteen or twenty feet wide. But it was deep between its
banks. This time the Poles had a "Bronvik" with them, a tank-like train,
fortified with steel on its sides and guns mounted on it. As the Russians
retreated they blew up the bridge across the creek, and without that train the
Poles couldn't carry on their offensive. Hundreds of men were brought in to
repair the bridge. Heavy timber was cut down in a nearby forest, and floated
down the stream to this point. I don't know how they repaired the bridge, but
we waded in the water, neck-deep, to bring in the logs.
Regiment after regiment passed by on foot, crossing the creek on a make-shift
bridge. The officers would come over to the train, asking for information. How
far were the Russians from this point, they wanted to know. Meanwhile, the
soldiers decided to have some "fun" with us in the deep water. They would throw
hand grenades into the water a short distance away. Some of them fired rifles
over our heads. They had their "fun", and we were scared to death. About twenty
minutes later, some soldiers on horseback came over to the train. They looked
disturbed and suspicious. After awhile they departed and a regiment came
marching in. A general called the officers to him and gave them an argument.
Apparently the regiment had heard the explosions and shots in the distance.
They were informed that the road was clear, but hearing explosions, they halted
and sent a "razsvetske", a lookout patrol, to find out what was going on. We
worked on that bridge until after midnight without food or water. Then we were
told to go home. Before leaving, we were told that on the next day we would not
be taken to work, and we would have a day's rest. We were afraid to walk at
night, but we were told to go, and we left in a group. Somehow we were not
stopped, and fell into our houses, dead tired.
In the morning I was kicked awake and told to get dressed and come along. I
protested that I had been told to stay home for the day since I had worked
eighteen hours straight. The Commandanture was a short distance away, and I
decided to run there and plead my case (how stupid of me). When I started to
run, the soldier was sure I had decided to run away. He cocked his rifle and
warned me to stop. I was by now around the corner, and ran into the
Commandant's yard, only to find two rows of men lined up and the soldier hot on
my heels. Instinctively, I pushed myself between two men in the rear row, as if
I had been there all the time. The soldier searched the yard, passed the rows,
looked at the faces, but didn't discover me
We were soon taken to the central railroad station, where I loaded a
locomotive with logs of wood. That work almost killed me. Each log was over a
meter long, and they were just trees split in half, soaked wet with rain, and
weighed more than I did. My hands bled from large splinters. After that
experience, Yankel and I would hide in the stable, in the hay when the soldiers
came to round up men for work. We had a secret entrance from the rear, so that
no ladder was visible. But one day soldiers came on horses looking for us, and
they searched the hay with long lances, to see if anyone was hiding there. The
lances flashed by us, but we were lucky that time.
My brother Yikutiel retreated with the Russians. I don't know if it was
voluntary or not, but he had been put into uniform and given a rifle. At the
battle on the Berezina River he stopped a Polish rifle bullet with his left
arm. Luckily it did not shatter the bone. After the wound healed a bit, he made
his way to a small town where he shed his uniform and got some civilian
clothes. He started working his way back to Baranovichi. He stopped in Slutzk,
where he was helped by a Mr. Keslin, who later became his brother-in-law. Mr.
Keslin's wife came from Lyakhovichi, a small town about twenty kilometers away.
Keslin directed Yikutiel to stop on his way at Lyakhovichi, where he got more
help, and there he met his future wife, Reizl Peker. After a few months,
Yikutiel showed up. He couldn't stretch out his left hand because of the wound,
and he couldn't wear a sling since he didn't want the Poles to discover he was
wounded. For a while he was in hiding, until he got some documents, after
paying heavy bribes. To hide his handicap, Yikutiel kept a lit cigarette
between his fingers, so that his left arm was forever cocked. He became a heavy
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