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[Page 29]

My Reminiscences

By Yehezkel Kotik

Chapter I

My native townlet, Kamenetz, is known for its old historical tower-like building. Its origins are unknown. Apparently it is a remnant of an ancient fortress. This aforementioned structure is quite tall, it has thick bricked walls and openings through which it was possible to shoot with guns and rifles. Cannon balls weighing ten pounds could still be found there in my grandfather's time; it was a sure sign that shots had once been fired through the openings.

The bricks of the tower are so strong that it is impossible to break away a piece of the wall. People in Kamenetz say that egg-whites had been used as mortar during the construction of the fortress, and for this reason it is so strong. When Tsar Alexander the Second, accompanied by European princes, went hunting in the Bialowieza Forest, which is seven miles away from Kamenetz, all the ministers and generals came to the townlet to see the historic tower.

I purposely mentioned the tower first, because whenever I recall my small town, at once the memory of the ancient building surges up, like a sign or a symbol of unknown meaning.

And now I can turn to the townlet itself. About sixty years ago, the starting point of my memoirs, Kamenetz consisted of two hundred and fifty little old, blackened, houses, covered with steep roofs, and the number of "souls" that is inhabitants appearing in the Russian Government Register, was four hundred and fifty. At this point a logical question comes to mind. Two hundred and fifty houses as compared with only four hundred and fifty souls? How is that possible? The answer is very simple. Before 1874, when the new recruiting law came into force, two thirds of the Jews were not registered. The Government, which had in fact known about it all the time, did not intervene and remained silent on the matter. Only in 1874, after the Tsar had decreed that those who were not inscribed would not be punished if they registered, did all the "missing" begin to register. Government commissions travelled all over the country, from one townlet and village to another, and they registered the missing.

It is interesting how, in those bygone years, the inscribed four hundred and fifty "Souls" of my townlet provided the prescribed number of recruits for military service.

Four miles away from Kamenetz there lies a small town Wysokie. It had about five hundred and fifty "souls" listed in the official Register. All the time, Wysokie and Kamenetz jointly mustered the recruits. But soldiers are called up in accordance with a certain ratio, let us say one soldier to a thousand inhabitants. Since that was the Population of Wysokie and Kamenetz joined together, both townlets has to provide Tsar Nicolas the First with one soldier only. The share of Kamenetz however, amounted to less than half a soldier, and that of Wysokie which is larger, to somewhat more than half a soldier.

This provided the authorities with a hard nut to crack. Finally the matter was settled in the following mater: Kamenetz provided the recruit one year and Wysokie the other year. One year in ten, though, Kamenetz was exempt. The reckoning was simple and account was taken of the difference in the number of inhabitants in the two town-lets. In such a manner, after mutual agreement had been reached, soldiers used to be recruited as the years passed.

As it is customary two rows of stores stood in the market. A lane stretched between the rows, and it was so narrow that a horse-drawn cart could hardly pass. Three or four stores sold textiles of better quality. Their customers were Jews and estate owners from the vicinity of the town; three or four ,storekeepers sold aprons, kerchiefs, drapery etc.; the remaining ones were haberdashers, merchants of tar, pitch and others.

Only women and young, girls and maids ran the stores. All these women used to sit opposite one another, excited and flushed. Of course there were helpers around, girls or married women who dragged and pulled the prospective customers, mostly a villager or a peasant woman, to the shop, or call them in a loud voice.

But the "high class" customers, the Jews and the estate-owners had their own particular shopkeeper, and no one dared to pull, forcibly like a herring, such a customer to one's own store. Perhaps quietly, such a customer was accompanied by a curse which was addressed also at the merchant-woman who sold him the merchandise.

Actually, the turnover was very low, except on Sundays, because on other days the peasants hardly came to town. Therefore, the women used to sit idly in front of the shops. Sundays, however, were market days with the villagers coming in large numbers. They crowded and jostled near the doors of the shops like buzzing f lies on a window pane covered with powdered sugar.

Inns were also among the more important establishments in town. They were quite numerous. The peasants could find a bite there cheese, herring and cucumbers. But there was plenty of liquor, too. Only members of the gentry ("Szlachta") or at least small estate-owners could offer themselves such a treat. After they had a drink, they would not be satisfied, like the peasants, with a bit of cheese or herring, but ate a piece of goose-meat or fish. These inns, just like the shops, were also run by women. Only on Sundays, when business was brisk, and the turn-over large, the menfolk helped out too.

This being so, what was the occupation of the men? They did not sit with folded hands either. In the vicinity of Kamenetz there were several hundred estate-owners. Each of them had several hundred or even more serfs. These serfs toiled and sweated by day and by night and were penniless on the other hand the land owners, quite obviously, had to enjoy life. Each of the estate-owners had dealings with one or two Jews in the townlet, who profited from them to a lesser or greater degree.

If the noble man had two Jews in his entourage, one of them had to be a "nice Jew" and a respectable merchant, whereas the other one was less outstanding as regards both the outward appearance and the respectability of his commercial dealings. Both Jews were the estate owner's factotums. The "nice Jew" served him more with advice, the other one was more of a Jack-of-all-trades, whose occupations were of the shadier sort. Both of them, however, lived in great fear of their patron. Though they derived part of their livelihood from him, and he acted like a protecting Tsar in their dealings with the authorities, nevertheless we ought to praise God ten times a day hat this kind of relationship with the estate owners has disappeared from the scene of history.

If the squire fancied so, he might beat severely his Jew and then say to him "if you keep silent, you will stay with me, if not I shall give your job to another Jew". Just the same you will not be able to do anything to me, because both the magistrate and the police-chief are friends of mine."

The Jew kept silent thinking to himself "well, I got beaten. That is why he is a squire. But on the other hand, I eat my piece of bread thanks to him, and when I close my eyes forever my child will gain his livelihood from him."

His reasoning was quite correct. When a Jew serving a land-owner died, the squire took in his place the factotum's son or son-in-law, whomever he liked more. This was not unlike a marriage contract, and the Jew received the squire as a sort of inheritance. Perhaps it is worthwhile to mention here that the estate owner also had his own artisan in the townlet, to whom he would give all his work. There were numerous artisans in the townlet – cobblers, tailors, tinsmiths etc.

It is understandable that they found it more difficult to earn a living than the shopkeepers. Even though the rents were low and one had to pay only ten to twelve rubels a year for a flat, they could not afford to live by themselves in an apartment and the lodgings in a little house were shared by two or three families.

In those days the assessor and the district police-chief were the real rulers in the town. When a quarrel broke out between two Jews, they at once brought their case to the assessor. They appeared before him accompanied by their wives, children, helpful assistants, good friends and relatives. The assessor ruled in favour of the one who had bribed him with a larger sum or who had evoked greater sympathy in him. And if one of the litigants was daring enough to challenge the verdict and lodged a complaint, with the district police officer in Brest, against the assessor, it was seldom effective. On the contrary, the bold fellow was not worth a half penny afterwards, because the assessor tormented and persecuted him, as much as he could, and went as far as to beat and arrest the victim. As a rule the district police officer went hand in glove with the assessor.

At that time, the district police officer exercised full authority in the region. The notions people had about the provincial Governor were indeed strange. He was regarded as being on the same level as the Tsar, and nobody would ever conceive the idea of involving him in Jewish affairs.

The squire had a Jewish factotum who lived in his country estate. He also had a lease-holder, usually a Jew, and when he possessed several estates and several villages, a Jewish factotum and a Jewish lease-holder lived there too. It can be understood that such Jews trembled with fear before the squire.

At that time, when it was a mere trifle for the landowner to lash his peasants, men and women, young and old alike, what weight could such a little Jew carry?

One can imagine how the factotum, the lease-holder and their children lived in deadly fear of the estate-owner. If, God forbid, they had good-looking daughters, this was regarded as a terrible calamity. One had to fear lest the daughters should attract the squire's attention, because he had power to do whatever he fancied.

Pretty girls of the village-Jews were always dirty, unwashed, covered with soot and grime so that their good looks might remain unnoticed. Only when the girls went to town, and after they scrubbed and washed themselves with soap, did the people know that the village-Jew, had a pretty daughter.

The squire employed his Jews to handle most of his affairs, since he believed the Jew was a clever being, cunning but nevertheless honest. Every estate-owner regarded only his own Jews as honest, but the others were, in his opinion, swindlers and thieves.

He used to send his Jews on missions to his colleagues, the other land-owners. Though he had a Christian steward running the whole estate and giving orders to the peasants, he preferred to deal with the Jews. The squire who believed that a Jew could accomplish his task in a more skilful manner did not lift a finger without his "Moshke" and "Shmulke".

The majority of the estate owners who lived around Kamenetz were not very rich. The soil of the Kamenetz region is sandy and not particularly fertile.

The crop from one "morga" of land (two thirds acre) amounted to no more than four shocks of sheaves; each shock yielded about five-six wagon loads of corn. Not much wheat grows in the region of Kamenetz. Only here and there a patch of fertile land occupies several square miles and there the yield per acre amounts to eighteen to twenty shocks of sheaves.

The land owners, who lived two or three miles away from one another, arranged frequent balls, each time at the residence of another squire. These feasts were grandiose, with the best wines stored up for the occasion.

In fact, these balls drove quite a number of the estate-owners into financial straits, so that they were constantly short of money.

The Jews used to buy grain, alcohol and wool. The payments, which amounted to large sums of money, were made in advance. Often they exceeded the value of the bought goods.

Also merchants were not lacking, who would run to the estate-owner and try to cut the price offered by the steady buyer. Yet whatever the squire needed for himself, was bought from his "exclusive" Jews, with whom no one could compete.

As was fashionable at that time, the estate-owners were fond of dogs. Each squire had different sorts of dogs. There were hounds and beasts that would silently, without barking, fall upon a stranger and almost tear him to pieces. There was a third kind too – dogs that would only bark but not bite; but there was a fourth kind as well – dogs that barked and bit at the same time. Each estate-owner kept all these kinds of dogs in his courtyard, and the torments the Jews, who were on their way to the squire, had to suffer from them could fill quite an important page of the history of Jewish dispersion.

A Jew, who was on his way to the squire's residence, would first of all stop his horse-cart near the gate to the estate and wait till he saw a peasant man or a peasant woman. The man or woman would take him to the factotum, who usually sat in some corner, and from there someone would accompany him to the squire.

When the Jew had to leave, the estate-owner would send a servant to take the Jew to the front entrance. This applied only in case the Jew merited the honour of leaving through the front entrance.

If he did not possess this privilege, however, the Jew had to walk in deadly fear from the palace to the Jewish factotum, so that the latter might accompany him to the gate.

But not until he reached the gate was the Jew secure from the bad dogs. Should the estate-owner bear the slightest grudge against the Jew, the latter's life was not worth a dime. In such a case the Jew was left without an escort and had to undergo the methodically applied tortures of mockery and pain.

At first the squire sent out several dogs of the barking-but not biting kind. They were soon followed by the other kind and finally came the real "biters". The whole pack fell upon the Jew, not letting him budge from the spot; at the same time he received a considerable portion of bites.

While the cries of the Jew rent the air and he was frightened to death, the squire with all his family was standing on the porch and laughing heartily.

Sometimes, a land owner, to whom the Jew had caused the slightest displeasure, would tell a servant to accompany the Jew to the gate, at first, and then to have him alone in the Jew to the gate, at first, and then to have him alone in "privileged" one, would receive the same treatment as an ordinary Jew.

We cannot generalize however, and say that all squires acted in such a manner. There were others, more decent ones whose attitude toward the Jews was different.

The Jew was half dead when he returned home and many became sick as a result of the fright. The wife and particularly the children, who saw their father as he arrived tottering and pale, burst out crying and it seemed as if Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) had arrived But it often happened that, after a couple of days, the estate owner again sent for the Jew to come, because he, the squire, needed him urgently. And the Jew, to be sure – ran at once at full speed to the estate owner, because what will a Jew not do for title sake of gaining a livelihood?

The Jew used to console his wife constantly that basically the squire was not a bad fellow and that one could earn money from him; only when the "evil moment" overcame him things were bad – apparently all this comes from God. Nothing in the world happens without God's will. When God squire's head. May this expiation put an end to my troubles, and may God continue to protect me from the bad dogs.


[Page 38]

Yehezkel Kotik

Author of “My Reminiscences”


Yehezkel Kotik was born in April, 1847 in Kamentz-Litovsk in the Province of Grodno. His father was a Hassidic Jew. Yehezkel learned the Talmud until the age of 17. Then he married and was a lease-holder of estates in various villages for about two years. Later on he settled in Kiev. The anti-Jews pogroms which took place there made him move to Warsaw, where for many years he owned a coffeehouse in Nalewki Street. This coffee-house was a meeting place for Yiddish writers as well as for activists of the Jewish Labour Movement. Kotik was known in public affairs. We founded a number of philanthropic societies and institutions. He also published various pamphlets in Hebrew and Yiddish, and a book of Jewish stories. But he gained world fame thanks to his memoirs published in two volumes under the name "Meyne Zikhroynes".

Particular interest was evoked by the first volume where the author gives us a bright picture of Jewish life in Russia in the middle of the 19th century.

In this volumes Kotik depicts the social, economic and cultural conditions of that period. He drew a picture of the people who lived there and the struggle between the "Hassidim" and the "Mitnagdim", etc.

Except for its cultural-historical value, "Meyne Zikhroynes" has also purely literary values. The personages appearing on its pages are very vividly described.

Kotik died in Warsaw in 1921.
Front “The Eternal Source”
(Morgen Journal New York)


kam029.jpg [10 KB]
Yehezkel Kotik


[Page 39]

Sholom-Aleichem’s Letter to Yehezkel Kotik


Lausanne (Switzerland), 10.1.1913

Very respected and unfortunately unknown colleague, Yehezkel Kotik!

At the same time that I wrote to you, I wrote to Nicrer that we should exchange the books. It turns out that you had sent to Niger the copy dedicated to the poet Abraham Reisin - and Reisin is now in no other place but in New York, in America! If this had happened a few years ago, when Sholom Aleichem was still light-footed, it would have been child's play for me to get up and take a trip to America. But since right now this is a bit more difficult, what was I do if I was dying to read your "Reminiscences?" I put the entire blame on you for committing the transgression, cut open Niger's copy and I feel no regrets. I began reading your "Reminiscences" and what shall I say? I do not remember a year when I experienced such great pleasure, such enjoyment – real spiritual enjoyment! That is not a book – that is a treasure, a garden, a paradise, full of flowers and singing of birds. It reminded me of my youth, my family, my "heder", my holidays, my dreams, my types. No! Compared with you, I, with my bunch of types and pictures, many of which I had known and many of which I had invented - I am a poor little boy and a beggar, and I say it without any flattery or false modesty.

If I had your experiences and family I would by now have flooded the world with them. For Heaven's sale, where have you been till now? A man possesses so many brilliant diamonds and pearls and nothing happens! A Jew "collects precious coins", as the pious ones from your hometown would say – without even mentioning to anyone that he possesses such a treasure.

I began to read and was unable to teal myself away from your book. It almost drove me crazy! Who is that Kotik? I had heard about someone whose name, I believe, is A. Kotik and who is a young man - and you are a Jew with a grey beard. What enchanted me in your book is the sacred, simple truth, unadulterated simpleness. And now the language! No, you are not only a good, honest, faithful watchman of a rich, an enormously rich treasure you have a talent blessed by God and an artist's soul which has no self-knowledge. There were not few Jews in your Kamenetz and in Zastavye, not few relatives in your noisy – as you call it – family. But why has none of them collected such reminiscences as you have? Why has none of them displayed anything like your imagination which flames?

I somehow feel that your family is my family, and every reader probably feels the same. I know your grandfather Aharon-Leyzer, and your grandmother Beyle-Rashe, and your father, the Hassid Moyshe, and all your uncles and aunts, and even the district police officer and the assessor, with all the estate owners, the good ones and the bad ones, and the religious teachers ("Melanadim"), and the Hassidic Jews with their opponents, the "Mitnagdina", and the doctors, and the rabbi, and that sceptical atheist, the writer from Brest, willing to write for a rubel, and both Israels, and Aharon-Leybele, and Hatzkele, and Moshke, and Berel-Bernt, the steward and just all of them! They are all alive. I know them all and I share the joys and sorrows of all of them. After all some force is necessary to make me not only laugh (there are spots in your book when I burst out in a side-splitting laughter), but also to extract tears from my eyes. I swear upon my word of honor that I was crying together with all of you, when your grandfather gave his blessing to you all, before the Day of Atonement, and when your pious and righteous Grandmother was lying, dead on the floor and your grand-father fainted a hundred times. Let us rejoice as much in a speedy deliverance of Israel as I shed my tears, and Oh Almighty God, I did not do it because a human being died. How many people are dying every day, at any time and at any hour!

But I was crying because your grandmother and your grandfather - they are mine, mine, mine! And because they are living, golden-hearted people, whom you had cherished and snuggled in your soul and whom you had invested with your entire fiery truth. I am really filled with pride that we possess such people, such Jews like you to whom we owe it that the "small coins", thrown aside and neglected – in nay opinion many of them are still lying around – have not been lost for our people. I am really proud that our still young Yiddish folk-literature has been enriched by such a book like your "Reminiscences".

Will you continue writing, your "Reminiscences"? Will they be as rich and as masterful as the first volume? Masterful? I am sure they will be. But rich? I do not know; I am afraid their contents will be poorer, thinner. Those Jews are no longer! It means they are, but not so much in the foreground; they are like a drop in the ocean, in particular in large towns.

11.1.1913.

Today, on a mountain called Leson, which is 4,500 feet high and tops Lausanne, I accidentally met a writer Izbicki (Michalowicz). I told him how much admiration was aroused in me by a book of a respectable Jew, Y. Kotik, which moved me to tears. It turned out that Izbicki knows you very well, that you are A. Kotik's father, that you are the owner of the coffee house on Nalewki Street and that everyone has known for a long time about some "Reminiscences" of yours. One must ask: "Where have they been all the time, the idiots?" Why did they keep silent, if they knew about it? And where was I, an idiot myself? Was I not myself in the Nalewki Street and did hot I drink coffee there - with Spector, I believe. Why was I unaware where I was and at whose place I had a coffee? Why is our book market being flooded with the worst of trash, at a time when treasures like yours are lying around in a crate, in a drawer or under a mattress. Murderous hatred rises up in me against our critics whenever I recall to mind how they praise every young scribbler who produces an obscenity taken from the "Goyim". I boil with indignation while reading the digested and spitted out obscenity of Artzibashev and similar filth, which enrage the good humorist – as I am called – and deprive me of the desire to write. I become a vicious criminal; do not imagine that it lasts long – I am just like the proverbial "Jewish robber".

Well, I have been chatting too much about myself. If you have time, answer this question, please. Are you still writing your "Reminiscences" and what period and what circles are you dealing with? Is it going as smoothly as previously? Are you dealing with the family? There are persons and characters whose stories you must carry on and on.

Live long, be healthy and cheerful and write! Your thankful reader, friend and pupil,

Sholom-Aleichem


[Page 43]

Yearning and Mourning for My Home Town

By Abraham Shudroff


Almost every one of us yearns for the small town or the "shtetl" where we were born. Wherever we may be, our hearts and minds are often drawn to it, and great is our longing for this place across the seas where our cradles once stood. It is of little importance that half a century or more has elapsed since we left it. Although we all know well that perhaps there is nothing to long for, the spell of the native land is so powerful that we cannot help feeling nostalgic about it. Perhaps it is the yearning for the bygone years of childhood and youth that makes us unceasingly discuss and reminisce, write and read about those points on the map with which our personal experiences are linked forever. This homesickness is made stronger by our knowledge that our own parents and forefathers lived for generations in those Central and East European towns and townlets and created a rich and complete Jewish life. Seldom in the history of Jewish wanderings on various continents has there been anything resembling it. After the First World War, when I was sixteen years old, I left Kamenetz for the United States. Though over forty years have gone by since then, I still have a clear picture before my eyes of my home town and its inhabitants. The town was neither large nor rich. Its Jews were poor but lovable and friendly. A considerable number of them were shopkeepers and small merchants. But the majority were independent craftsmen and tradesmen, shoemakers, tailors, furriers, etc. There were also a few rich men, according to the standards of that time. The overwhelming majority were religious, God-fearing Jews, many of them learned in the Law. They were all, without exception, devoted to their families and to their children. There were numerous parents, deeply rooted and long settled in Kamenetz, who, in the first decade of the 20th century, grieved deeply when they had to accompany their children to the railway station. The children set out on their way to the "Land of Columbus" and most of the parents knew that they would never see them again. Quite soon, however, they derived satisfaction when the sons and daughters, who settled down and established themselves in the faraway land, began sending material aid to their fathers and mothers to support them in their old age.

I was a little boy attending "heder", the traditional religious school, when the First World War broke out. A year later, in 1915, the German and Austro-Hungarian armies occupied Kamenetz-Litovsk. Difficult times full of hardships and sufferings began.

A fine generation of Jewish youth grew up in Kamenetz after World War I. Many of them emigrated, but a considerable part remained at home. Schools, libraries, and many educational circles were established. But on the whole, the Jews suffered under the anti-Semitic Polish administration.

The year 1939 came. The Second World War broke out and we were cut off from the townlet. And then came the accursed Hitler, the worst oppressor and enemy of our people in all times:

In 1941, when the Nazi murderers entered Kamenetz-Litovsk, they immediately shot the leaders of the Jewish community and locked all Jews in a ghetto. Later on the entire Jewish community, headed by the Rabbis Reuven Burstein and the Yeshivah-Principal, Hayim Garfinkel of blessed memory perished in the gas chambers and death camps of Treblinka and Auschwitz. The Jews of Kamenetz shared the tragic fate of their six million martyred Jewish brethren.

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