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[Page 405]

Before the Flood

 

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A Letter from My Father

by Itshe Metsker, New York

(About the Jews of Lanovtse [Łanowce] and Kazatshine)

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Donated by Saul Lindenbaum

Years ago, before we foresaw the terrible destruction, when I began to think of writing my novel, Oyfn Zeyde's[1]

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Felder [On My Grandfather's Fields], I wrote home to my father, of blessed memory, to Kazatshine [Kozachizna] and asked him to help me with a little information. My father

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did not keep me waiting for long and wrote a letter on four large sides, with small handwriting, that I have kept until now.

My father writes at the beginning of the letter that the first Jews who settled many years ago in our village and in the surrounding villages came here with the grace of the Polish nobility and chiefly from the Duke Sapieha to whom the majority of the estates in the area belonged. My father writes: “our older Jews know to talk about a Feldshuh family who settled in our village many years ago and had the propencia [license to sell alcohol] from the Bilczer Duke. The Feldshuhs then bought estates. The Blank family also was one of the earliest in the village; a great-grandfather of Mekhl Blank was a Jew named Borukh. It is said that this Borukh would harness himself to a wagon and would himself bring a wagon of wood from the forest. He would also have arguments with the non-Jewish young boys until they beat him so badly that he died of his wounds.

“I know about our family, that the great-grandfather Reb Josef – that is, the father of Leib-Ayze, your grandfather and my father-in-law – was brought from Russia when young boys were caught there to be converted. Your grandfather's father-in-law had been brought to a village near Buczacz so that he would become a trustee of the propencia at Kimelman's. It happened that a stranger, a certain Halbin, then obtained the propencia. They immediately went to the Husiatyner Rebbe. How was it possible that the business had been theirs since the grandfather's time and now they had to yield it? The Husiatyner tzadek [righteous man] pledged that Halbin would not take over the propenica and the preacher asked that it be taken from him [Halbin]. In short, Halbin had brought a large household with good furniture and expensive things. They again went to the rebbe and the rebbe answered that he had not yet
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taken over and would not take it over. And that is how it was. On the day of the take-over, thunder descended on the inn and destroyed all the material goods and the whiskey. Then Kimelman was asked to take back the propencia.

My grandfather, Leib-Ayze Reich leased the mill near our house many years ago and there manufactured the dark blotting paper. Rags would be brought from the surrounding villages and shtetlekh [towns], from which the paper was made. My grandfather brought the paper to such towns as Tarnopol and Buczacz. He would tell about how he brought the first kerosene lamp from the world and how the non-Jews as well as the Jews from the village ran to see this new invention.

And here are further sections from my father's letter:
“The [number of] Jews in the village increased little by little. They lived among the Ukrainians better than with the Poles because the village Poles, although he knew no Polish, were proud. Jews in the village drew their livelihood more from the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians were given goods on credit, with the lending of money. However, the Jews had little to do with the Poles.

“It was very rare that someone among us went to America. Years ago, when uncle Hersh Reich left for America (in the 90's of the last century [19th], Y. M[2]), I drove him with my horse to Chortkow to the train. I had said in jest at that time that I, too, had a little money with me. They immediately emptied my pockets and my mother and my grandmother no longer took their eyes off me. They sent the preacher and a man

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with me to watch me and to bring me home from Chortkow.

“Whenever there was trouble in the village they immediately went to the rebbe. My father-in-law, Leib-Ayze, also would travel often to Chortkow for the Days of Awe. Reb Welwele Azieraner would also always come to us in the village. He came many times for a ritual circumcision. He was brought to be the sandek [man who holds the baby boy during the circumcision]. He was a righteous man. His way of life was poor. When a woman once wanted to give him payment for his advice, he did not want to take it until it was confirmed that her husband knew of it. In general, he did not want to take any money.

“The grandfather, Leib-Ayze, was his intimate. He would make Reb Welwele a little happy with his sayings. People say that he also was a miracle worker. One of the children once was very sick. The grandfather went to Reb Welwele and he pledged that he would be healed. And it actually came true, although doctors had already abandoned the child.”

In the letter, my father also provides particular details about how the Jews lived in the twin villages of Kanatshine-Lanovtse among so many non-Jews and from where they drew their livelihood. He also writes about how they lived in their homes and in the small synagogues.

There were two small synagogues there. One was built on the side of the Kazatshine in 1895, on the garden of my great uncle, Hersh Leibhart, the father of Feywl Leibhart. The second small synagogue was in Lanovtse in the courtyard of Meir Kimelman, the grandfather of the writer, Ruchl Oyerbach. In time, a number of Jews, because of the Azieraner quarrels (among followers of Yeheil Fefer and of Reb Welwele's successor, his granddaughter's husband, Reb Eliezer)

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left the small synagogue and created a separate group that had its minyon [10 men needed for prayer] at the home of Yisroel Leib Gorser on the Kazatshine. They prayed there on Shabbosim and holidays in three places. This shows that the twin villages had a considerable number of Jews. At one time, before the First World War, there were forty some Jewish families there.

The Jews lived spread out across the large village and they did not appear there during the week. But when it came to a Shabbos, to a holiday and they took off their weekday toil, scratched off the mud from themselves, dressed up in the best Shabbos clothing and gathered in the houses of prayer, it was seen that they were not few in number. The gentiles often remained standing in astonishment and they would often speak among themselves that so many Jews could again turn their village into a city.

I still see before my eyes the picture of the village Jews, dressed in talisim [prayer shawls] and in the shtreymelkh [fur hats], walking with the members of their household to pray and it still is difficult for me to believe that they are not there anymore.

Almost all the Jews in Kanatshine-Lanovtse lived in their own houses. They had their own gardens and a household of chickens, ducks and geese. A large number of the Jews there had several acres of fields and they also had cows and horses. Several worked the fields themselves and others entrusted them to the gentiles in partnership. There were also a few Jews there who had a great many fields and they were considered very rich men. A significant number of the village Jews were merchants, trading in horses, cows, wheat, eggs, had shops and held leases on inns, a

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kiosk[3] and also [leases of ] the two city gates that were there.

The city Jews competed a little against the Jewish village dwellers. It was an accepted precept with the city Jews that all of the village Jews and their children were ignorant, that they could not read any Hebrew and they related to them with scorn. However, the accepted belief was a false one. Of course, there was no lack of ignorant people, but proportionally, there may have been more in the city. As far as I know, during my time, there was not one boy in the village who did not go to kheder [religious primary school]. Almost every boy studied until he began to put on tefilin [phylacteries] and he may not have had a head for learning, but he could work his way through a chapter of the Khumish [The Five Books of Moses].

There were Jews here, born in the village, who knew a page of gemara [Talmudic commentaries]. In Kanatshine-Lanovtse, there was a boy who achieved a great deal of education, knew German and Polish well, and Hebrew, too, and was interested in literature and in world problems. Good teachers always were employed in the village and the poor Jews did without food in order to be able to pay tuition.

Jewish life in the village also was not so socially backwards. True, the Jews lived scattered, but they kept together. In addition to Shabbosim [Sabbaths] and holidays in the small synagogues, they visited each other for celebrations. They gathered in houses to read a newspaper, speak about politics, play

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dominos or chess. From time to time, a preacher was brought for Shabbos and, later, modern speakers. Many years ago there already was a society, Bikur Kholim [society to aid the sick]. After the First World War there also was a Zionist club there, a dramatic group, a reading room, a dancing school and at one time there was a modern Yiddish school.

As many Jews in the village had geese and there are feathers from geese, on winter Shabbos nights, they had gatherings to pluck the feathers. Each Shabbos night they came together in a different house and it was an evening of entertainment for young and old. The girls and the women plucked the feathers. The teacher or one of the young people gave a humorous reading, mainly from Sholem Aleichem and they sang songs that the Jewish students from the village brought from the [wider] world. On summer Shabbosim the young went strolling from one city gate to the other. They met with young people from neighboring villages or from surrounding shtetlekh; they spent happy times together and they dreamed of the wider, greater world.

After the First World War the young people of the village began to be drawn into the world. However, only some had the luck to tear themselves away from there.

Many Jews lived in the small village kehilus [organized Jewish communities] in eastern Galicia. They were rooted there for generations and lived particularly Jewish lives. However, in a certain sense they were separated from the larger Jewish world and very little was known about their lives. Now we know even less about their tragic death…


Tranlators Footnotes

  1. The book Ofyn Zedyns Felder by Itshe Metsker (Isaac Metzker) was published in 1953.  It was republished in English in 2005 under the title Grandfather's Acres, and offers a detailed look at Jewish life in a small village in Galicia. Return
  2. The letter writer has misremembered the date.  Hersh Reich actually arrived at Ellis Island on June 28, 1902, on the liner Columbia, sailing from Hamburg, Germany.  On the ship's manifest, it says that he has never been in the United States before. Return
  3. Farlag [newpaper kiosk] or trafik - tobacco shop, in Austrian times, a permit was needed for this. Return

 

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