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[Page 283]

A Bundle of Memories

by Aharon Chait

Translated by Libby Raichman

My parents, a remarkable couple in the old home

My shtetl is in ruins, away in smoke and flames, wiped out in the blood and marrow of our holy and pure ones.

My parents are dead: rooted out of our sinful earth.

The Nazi murderers, may their names be erased, killed my father. He was not even given the honour of resting in peace in his own grave. They desecrated his gravestone and ploughed over the mound of earth on the old cemetery.

Who knows whether an unclean Gentile foot treads on the kosher, holy letters of the elegant font on the gravestone, that is possibly set in the asphalt of a street, of my now entirely Christian shtetl?

My Mother dragged her old bundle of bones here to America and it was here that she turned over her purified soul to the Creator, a soul so clean and pure, just as she received it from Him, leaving behind in a local cemetery, a thin worn–out body that was not destined to have “love and pleasure” even after death.

And I, a lonely son, wandering around with nostalgic yearning between two continents whose soil holds my greatest treasure. An irony of fate and in addition a privilege that they, at last were brought to be buried amongst their people – others did not even have that “luxury” ……

I transport myself to the “holy place” of my own memory and I arrive at the “grave of my Fathers” so that here in this prayer book “Ma'aneh Lashon” (a book containing prayers recited at a grave) through the lines of the descriptions I say the “new Techinah”(a book of prayers specially for women) for Avrom the Vatnik and Tzivia the daughter of Ahre, may peace be upon them, who brought me and our family into the world.

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Reb Avrom and Tzivia

 

What was, was. It is no longer here but memories cannot be disturbed, they are unforced, immortal.

 

Stoibtz, my little shtetl Stoibtz!

A simple little town in the big wide world: a spot on the earth's sphere, a poor, respected corner, but for me it was a kingdom, a central point, a significant place – and above all – a home.

And from these very ashes and from the dust of my little shtetl, from between the colourfully rich panorama of Fathers and Mothers, my own parents stand out, most beloved and unforgettable.

The name of my Father, Avrom the Vatnik, Reb Itshe the Vatnik's son, was a name that engraved itself In the memory of generations: a name that brave sons of my home town, students and admirers, took with them on their journeys over the seven seas, escaping from military service, from hard labour, from prisons, from the czar “his lordship”, in search of good fortunes and bread, in freer lands, under lighter skies.

People remember Avron the Vatnik because he raised the youth of the shtetl on his knees and perhaps some of them still have a blue “bruise” from the “teacher's leather whip” . Together with the beatings on their bottoms he “beat” a considerable amount of Yiddishkeit into their heads. Oh, the lashes, the youth–lashes …

He was not only the teacher of parents, children and grandchildren but also Shliach Tsibur (the messenger of the community), the cantor of the shtetl, who with his tunes and his old traditional style of reciting prayers, would represent the congregation on the bimah, serving as their defender and asking for a good year.

Who can forget that slender, handsome, tall Jew with the little black, round beard who on the eve of the High Holy Days would soak his throat with Wissotzki tea and a lump of sugar? – these were the congregation's gift to the cantor and a treasured one, so that the Satan of destruction, the evil one, should not, God forbid, sneak in and make his voice hoarse. Who can omit from their memory of those days, the sight of Reb Avrom with a shawl wrapped around his neck so that no angry wind, Heaven forbid, should approach and do him harm? And who cannot remember his “ya'alot” and his “n'tanne Tokef” his “Hi'neni He'ani mi'ma'ash” that split all the heavens: his “tal”(prayer for dew) that caressed the air of the coming Spring or “geshem” (prayer for rain) that drizzled with the soaking wet of the autumn rains.

And Reb Avrom was not merely a person with a religious role but a teacher, a cantor and also an educated Jew, the “notary” of the shtetl, who distinguished himself with his calligraphic handwriting and his knowledge of accounting, Russian, German, Hebrew, a special expert in the forms of prayers of various kinds, of congratulations, epitaphs and a florid style of writing titles (illuminations) etc.

He was also known as the auditor in the shtetl bank where he would go very often to see to the accounts. He was also an active worker in the shtetl Gemillut Chesed where he helped to give out loans.

Reb Avrom was intimately involved in all aspects of shtetl life – an institution. and a community in one person.

Outwardly he also made an extraordinary impression. He was aristocratically neat, a dandy dresser with well–fitting clothes, a “goldfinch” as they called it in the shtetl. He impressed with his elegance. They used to say that on the coldest days Reb Avrom took in a handful of snow into his house to spruce up his clothes; at that time a primitive substitute for the current chemical cleaning.

Very often one would see Reb Avrom on a voluntary mission through the town to collect wheat money or ice for the town's ice–house, in order to provide for the needs of the community. It was also his function to estimate the yearly sale of the pews in the synagogue and to maintain the town's book of records.

And this remarkable Jew who dared to blend Torah and enlightenment, who created ambassadors from Stoibtz itself and throughout the entire world. From letters received from Argentina, South Africa, America etc, there would come greetings to the shtetl, describing how native wanderers in distant places used to gather to soothe their sadness with a tune or witticism of Reb Avrom.

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My grandfather Reb Ahre

A true wife, a life's companion not only in family life but also in her spiritual influence in the shtetl, was his wife, my God–fearing Mother – Tzivia the daughter of Ahre. They referred to her in this way out of respect for my grandfather Reb Ahre, a righteous man who was much loved in the shtetl and whose good qualities my Mother inherited and passed on.

Tzivia the daughter of Ahre, belonged to that type of small town ”lamed Vavnikkes” (one of the 36 most righteous souls in her generation) who are only seen through the concealed veil of their good deeds.

She was a true woman of valour, satisfied in years but young in spirit, one of the last Mohicans of a generation of righteous women who disappear from the surface.

Small in stature, thin and shrunken, she was however sharp of mind, big–hearted and very wise. Her fellow townsfolk of Stoibtz remember Tzivia, the daughter of Ahre, as a teacher who helped Reb Avrom to put together a system of teaching for a modern time, teaching and managing the “Cheder” (Hebrew school). When her exhausted husband used to rest from fatigue with a “prayer book, a Pentateuch or a pointer”, she would then take over the education of the children. She also taught domestic skills to girls and young women, special prayers for women, the Yiddish translation of the Pentateuch for women and a “tsenna u'r'enna” (a Haggadic interpretation of the Pentateuch in Yiddish).

Before their eyes, there stands the picture of Tzivia, the convenor of charity. This thin Jewish woman with the wig on her head and the bright warm look in her soft eyes, used to shuffle around

 

Stayptz Jewish Co–operative Folk Bank 1922 – 1926
First row at the top from right: Yechezkel Volfson, Aharon Machtei, Avrom Chait, Dovid Sveksvine, Yossel Moltshadsky, Berl Bruchansky
2nd row: Chaim Leib Kaplan, Natan Vinaver, Elimelech Miltsenzon, Avrom Levin, Chaim Yitzchok Tseshler, Avrom Russak, Mordechai Machtei, Chaim Hirsh Akun
3rd row: Baruch Garmizze, Asher Akselrod, Eli Rabinovicz, Shlomo Harkavy, Eliakum Miltsenzon, Isaac Borishansky, Shlomo Palay, Nachum Malbin, Yitzchok Katz

[Page 286]

the shtetl in the evenings and shake out loaves of bread for poor families from the folds of her apron. Then she would immediately disappear in the shadows in her modest way. The same sensitive ear would absorb the groans of a heavy heart: the same lips would whisper a prayer and a word of comfort for a bitter mood; the same hands would help poor brides, lonely orphans and abandoned widows. She would work alone and through the “Ladies Committee” in the town.

Tzivia the daughter of Ahre is also remembered as the town's wig–maker who would adorn the heads of observant women with a covering of modesty and enlighten hearts with faith in God's word.

Teaching, astuteness, modesty, charity, love of people, contentment and “Tsidduk Hadin” (a prayer said at a burial acknowledging Divine Judgement and the whim of fate). She took on the suffering of others out of love – together these attributes created a floral wreath of virtues. One often wondered how such a small body could maintain such a beautiful spirit that managed to do wonders on both sides of the ocean, in the old home as well as in America. Her love and charity for all Jews were outstanding.

A separate, special talent of my Mother's was her handwork, the embroidery and artistic weaving that she would present for charity. She was also granted the gift of a talent for writing and she left behind an unfinished diary. Her stamina knew no bounds and here in America she completed an English Elementary school in the evenings at the end of many days of hard work in running her household.

The knitting needle and the book were her inseparable companions until her last breath. She was constantly surrounded by people; she was their friend and adviser until her last day. She left the world in the midst of weaving a beautiful, kosher, holy life, in the middle of her hand–written lines between pen and paper, knitting needle and knitting, with a treasure of nine decades of fruitful and beautiful years.

 

The house of Avrom Chait

 

We grew up in this atmosphere between our parents. Our home was the mirror of the generation, the pulse of the shtetl. Our table was the stage for various ideological clashes, of modern winds, but also for words of Torah and ethics. The romantic storm of our time took place between the walls of our house.

This was one of the most light–filled, noble, ideal homes of our little town of Stoibtz, alongside the quiet waters of the Niemen River: a nest whose Fathers and Mothers are in the next world and the children and grandchildren carry the great inheritance and the sunny dreams over the great entire, world.

 

At the funeral of Hirsh Machtei
From right: Moshe Liss, Shaul Ginsburg, Mendl Machtei, Sarah Machtei, Moshe Yitzchok Bernshtein,
Fyve Liss, Rochl and Roshke Kushnir, Mandel Matshosky, Moshe Ryser, Liebe and Velvl Tunik, Yossl and Elly–Hendl Machtei, Minye–Golde Machtei, Feigl Machtei (Leibe's daughter),
Ruven Machtei, Chaye Machtei, Liebe Kantarovicz, Leibe Machtei, Feigl and Ettl Machtei, Bashe Machtei (Leibe's daughter)

 

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