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[Page 61-64]

My Shtetl in Remembrance

By Henia Sneh (Blacher)

Translated by Hedva Scop

Fifty years have elapsed since I bade farewell to my shtetl Dusiat, the place of my birth, where I grew up and absorbed my love for Eretz Yisrael. It was thanks to the education I received at home and in the youth movement Hashomer Hatzair that I came here to Israel.

Johannesburg, South Africa was a temporary sojourn. I arrived there as a young girl, together with my mother Musl (Kagan), sister Rachel and brother Moshe. My father Hirschel and my oldest brother David had already departed, my brother in 1924, and my father in 1928 or 1929. I remember well that my sister, brother and I had tried to persuade our father to make aliya to Eretz Yisrael, but unfortunately father chose to immigrate to South Africa, because he didn't like the “atheistic” chalutzim (pioneers). As if in South Africa everyone was shomrei mitzvoth (followers of the 613 commands – 248 “do's” and 365 “don't's”) …

As the time for our departure drew close, I became more and more torn. It was very difficult to leave my familiar environment, the shtetl and group of friends with whom I had grown up. How would we realize our dream of making aliya together and establishing a kibbutz? Nonetheless, I had to join my family and take my leave of Dusiat. Kvutzat “Trumpeldor” threw a farewell party for me. My last words to them were: “See you in Eretz Yisrael,” and I cried bitterly. Until the outbreak of WWII, I managed to keep up a correspondence with my best friends. I still have some of those letters today.

In May 1933 we left Dusiat, however, the scenery, the people, the school and the youth movement all remain deeply engraved in my heart and in my mind.

The corner where our house stood was a famous spot in the shtetl because of the location of the well. All the folk from the area would come to draw water, and that is probably the reason that I became so well acquainted with everyone, and I still remember them all. Gita Baron bought our house – she was about to wed Elyoke Pores.

There were many stores and workshops in the center of the shtetl, and I can picture each and every one of them. Here is Shneor-Yitzchak, “Der Schneider” (tailor) who resided in the house of the melamed, Avraham-Moshe. The tailor was a personable man, but somewhat nosy. He had to know everything. If he spotted a group of people gathered together, he would drop his work, run outside with a measuring tape still draped around his neck, asking: “Nu, nu, vos far a nayes?” (“Do tell, what's happening, what's new?”…)

Our house was positioned between two synagogues, one of them, Beth Hamidrash, had been there since time immemorial. Not only would prayers be heard emerging from there; the sounds of altercations or disagreements also filled the air. Whenever we were pressed for space, a second service would be held at the house of my uncle, Shiye Velvel. His extensive family emigrated after he passed away. The question as to who would pray in my uncle's house was cause for dispute in the shtetl among those attending synagogue services. Usually after the animated and vociferous argument would die down, peace and quiet would once again prevail in the shtetl.

The social strata were divided between the meyuchasim (privileged) and amcha (masses, less privileged). The differences and dissensions between them “offended” the souls of the younger people. On more than one occasion we were given instructions: “You may play with this child, but not with that one …” However, owing to the education endowed upon us at school and in the youth movement, the class differences were blurred, and on the whole we were a contented group, in touch with humane and national values.

Mutual Assistance

My uncle Shiye Velvel Blacher's large family was called “Katrolika vaiki šešaulika šaimina”. (In Lithuanian: Fourteen children – sixteen in the whole family.) Most of them immigrated to Brazil, two to South Africa and two to the United States. Their mother, Mume Feige-Liebe, joined them, but the grandmother, Bobbe Beile, remained behind in the shtetl. (She was refused entry to other countries because she had lost her sight). They rented her a room adjoining the Binder family who had no children, and I recall them well: Getzel, was an enormous man, and his wife, Riva-Ella ran a store in the center of the shtetl, both caring devotedly for the lonely grandmother.

One day, our madrich (youth movement guide) took it upon himself to explain her plight to us, and asked us to help take care of her. We split up into teams, taking turns at assisting her on a voluntary basis. We did her shopping, brought her water from the well, and washed her clothes. We fulfilled our task admirably, according to the traditions of volunteering and mutual assistance that were so ingrained in the shtetl. Alas, after a year of loneliness, the grandmother passed away.

Our first activities in Bnei-Midbar or Chabirim[1] (youngest age group in the movement for 8-12 year-olds) revolved around friendship and reciprocal aid. Each and every madrich dealt with these matters.

I recollect activities with Rivka Melamed, Miryam Slep, Rivka Scop and Yoel Zeif who was head of the ken (cell). Eretz Yisrael and the Hebrew language constituted the center of education. Each shaliach (emissiary) who came to Dusiat instilled in us values of amity and enthusiasm for collective living, that is to say, for life on kibbutz.

How did I come to join the youth movement? We would tag after our older siblings [to their weekly meetings only to have the door closed in our faces], and this eventually led to the establishment of Gedud Hachabirim (first level). I was among the first to join. There was a difference in the ages of the members. There really was no choice because there were not that many children in the shtetl.

Celebrations and Outings

Chanuka celebrations in the movement held at the house of Rivel Di Patumsiche and Motte Der Patumsicher, stand out clearly in my mind. [The couple hailed from the village Patumsichis.] At every meeting in the ken, Motte would never fail to regale us with his refrain: “Tan dan ran, genoomen a maidele mit asach nadan…” [The equivalent of “Tra-la-low-ry, he took a lass with a large dowry…”]

 

Henia: I am looking at the photo of the “Trumpeldor” troop with our leader Miryam Slep, and my mind is flooded with memories of those times.

From right to left: Lolke Slovo, Chanka Pores, Chanka Glezer, Rivka Aires, Chatzke Shteiman, Tzilka Shub, Miryam Slep, Estherka Yossman, Bailke Fein, Motele Slep, Sonka Slovo, Hene-Bailke Blacher, Bailke Pores, Beinish Yudelowitz

 

Many a Shabbat night we spent near the houses of the Davatkes (nuns). I am referring to the whole “Trumpeldor” troop, before it was separated into boys and girls. Also involved were Beinishke Yudelowitz, Yehezkel Shteiman, Slovka Bachar from Salok and the “gang”. The “gang” was composed of Nechamka Yudelowitz, Sonia and Itale Slovo, Chanka Pores, Tzilka Shub, and myself. We chatted and sang, and oh what lovely dreams we embroidered...

And outings to the forest on Shabbat – each time to a different one, especially to the Markun forest, by way of Unter-Dem-Brik Gass (Beyond the Bridge). This road was famous, because of the bridge and the church, a charming spot adjacent to the road where the Davatkes dwelt. A stream flowed through the area abounding in lush greenery, and of course, the forest …

Wonderful summer days are engraved in my memory. Under the moonlight, the “gang” set out for the forest to pick berries.

Our baskets overflowing with raspberries, we marched back home. The owner of the forest apprehended us, demanding that we pay a fine because we didn't have tickets (permission required for picking berries). Somehow we managed to conceal the escapade from our parents. The following day we paid the fine.

Another summer experience was to go to Silvitzker Veldele (grove owned by Lith. Silva), sneak into the fields owned by the Lithuanians, and pick green peas and beans. More than once, the dogs chased us. On one occasion, the Lithuanian caught up with us, and followed us home. Mother ended up paying him for the peas and beans we had “filched” from his field…

And walking around the streets of the shtetl…

We would walk on Der Milner Gass (Miller's Street), to Sonia and Itale, the miller's daughters. But, of course we would have to pass by the Lithuanian candy maker, Stalemekis, and how is possible to go by the store without buying a dooldela (lollipop)? And with the money we had, at most we could only afford two pieces of candy… So we split into two groups, each group taking turns at licking the lollipop.

And how is it possible to forget the house of the Lithuanian, the walls of which were plastered with thousands of candy wrappings? The house, not far from the flourmill, was small, comprising a room and kitchen. What a delightful spot!

The street leading to the village Podusiat (Padustelis) served as a summer resort for the “wealthy”. Families would come on vacation from the various cities and bask in the beauty of the forest and the wonderful surroundings. In order to reach that area, we had to go via Maskevitcher Gass, where the stores belonging to Orlin and Charit were located, and where the dyehouse owned by the Aires family stood. Indeed, Rivka Aires was also part of our “gang”, and her house served as a meeting point.

We would continue on our way towards Podusiat, and simply have to stop at the spring, with its lucent and icy water.

And in the center of the shtetl – opposite the Rabbi's house – surrounded by a garden and fence, stood the monument to Vytautas, the symbol of Lithuanian independence. Why the fence? “I know,” said little Yosele Baron, “on market days, it's where the Lithuanians can tie their horses,” and his words became the joke of the day in the shtetl …

The Garin Goes to a South African Kibbutz in Eretz Yisrael

I was very excited and moved to be reunited with my father, brother and our large family in South Africa. However, deep down inside, I felt distressed. That period was one of the most difficult I had ever experienced socially. It is true that I learnt a new language – I attended an English-medium school – I also acquired a trade, but I really didn't want to be there.

In 1934 I joined the youth movement Habonim in my neighborhood of Johannesburg, but I wasn't satisfied. They barely touched on Zionism. It was not a movement of realizers of Zionism.

One day, in 1936, Aryeh Gutelevsky, Polish-born and member of the youth movement Hashomer Hatzair showed up in our class. (Today Aryeh Gilat is a member of Kibbutz Chatzor.) He told me that a cell of Hashomer Hatzair had been set up in Doornfontein, Johannesburg (the undisputed Jewish working-class neighborhood). I was enthused, immediately left Habonim, and became a member of the newly formed Hashomer Hatzair. And who was the founder, if not the young Nahum Skikne from Yanishok (Yoniskis), Lithuania? At the time he was barely fifteen or sixteen years old…

Together we were active in the movement in Johannesburg, and in 1941 we wed.

As I had hoped, Johannesburg was only a temporary stop along the way.

At the end of 1941, eight members of Hashomer Hatzair set forth to realize their dream in Eretz Yisrael. We made aliya as a garin (nucleus) to the first South Africa kibbutz of Hashomer Hatzair, none other than Kibbutz Shoval [in the Northern Negev]. We arrived on April 25, 1942. I remember the very warm reception we received at Kibbutz Beit Zera (first kibbutz of Hashomer Hatzair from Lithuania). We were welcomed heartily at the sichat kibbutz (meeting) by Yaacov Gottlieb (Amit) and Daniel Prochovnik (Ben-Nahum), along with all the other veteran Litvak kibbutz members.

When I left my shtetl Dusiat, I said to my friends: “Lehitraot b'Eretz Yisrael.” (“See you in Eretz Yisrael.”) I made aliya with the words resounding in my heart: “Ayarati sheli, Dusiat sheli, mazkeret li” (“My shtetl, my Dusiat, my remembrance”) …

Little did I know that my shtetl no longer existed …

 

Footnotes
  1. According to the methods of Bnei-Midbar and Chabirim, there was a tendency to build a bridge between the ancient myth and the future in Eretz Yisrael. Return

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