Belarus SIG Newsletter

Issue No. 3 - Contents - May 1999

Memories from a childhood in Orsha

By Harry Kalkin

Harry Kalkin with his schoolmates and teacher in Orsha, ca. 1908 (ca. 100 Kb)
Harry Kalkin (front row, second from the right)
with his classmates and teacher from the Jewish shcool in Orsha, ca. 1908

Click on photo to see an enlarged copy

My grandfather Harry Kalkin, who died last year just a few weeks short of his 100th birthday, was born in 1898 in the town of Orsha in today's Belarus. At that time Orsha had a population of about 14,000, of which about half were Jews.

Harry's parents were an "April-December" couple. When they were married in 1883, Avraham Sillem Kalkin was a 56 year-old-widower who had survived two wives and sired at least two children. His bride, Faige Henya Kirson, was only 17. Harry was the youngest of their six children and the only boy. In the interview, Harry refers to his sisters and to his older half-brother Chaim Kalkin, who was married to his mother's younger half-sister, Basha Kirson. It was indeed a complicated family!

Harry immigrated to the United States in 1910 with his widowed mother and two of his older sisters. They settled in Brooklyn near his extended family. There he worked his way through school and became an architect. With his wife Ettie Lavker Kalkin, he raised two children, and lived in many places, including Washington DC, the Panama Canal Zone and Newport News, Virginia. At retirement he and Ettie moved to Los Angeles to be near their children and grandchildren.

In December 1989 I interviewed him about his early childhood in Orsha, Belarus, and about and his life after immigration to the USA. The following is an edited version of this interview.

Note by Dara Pearlman

My family

My father

My father, Avraham Sillem Kalkin, was a painting contractor in the summer, and in the winter - when there was snow and ice on the ground and people were shivering from the cold - there was no painting. Then he would be a tailor, he made fur coats. I suppose that the wealthy people, who could afford fur coats, would come to him and he would fit them. Then he had to get pieces of fur. He would buy the skins from the peasants.

Then the skins had to be cured, which he did at home. One piece of skin was the size of a wall. I can recall that he had a board against the wall, on which he would stretch the skins by driving lots of nails in the skins. After a certain time the skin was removed from the board, and you would have to pull all those little nails out. I used to enjoy pulling out those nails! I thought it was a lot of fun!

The way he worked as a painter, was for him to take the entire job, whatever was necessary, under contract, and then he would sublet the other work, and he would do the painting. Once he was on a contract to paint a church - the steeples, you know, the "onions" on the Russian churches? I remember that, in the summer time, my mother took me to the market next to the church, and she looked up, and there was a small figure up there on the "onion" - it looked to me, as the figure was not more than 6 inches high - and she said: "Thatís your father up there". He was tied to the cross on the top of the "onion". I suppose there were trap doors up there to get out, and he would lash a rope on to the cross and around his waist and climb out. I also remember that they had a long stick with the brush tied on to it - it that way, they could paint the steeple.


My grandfather

There were several synagogues. They had what they called the "Hase Shul", the large synagogue, and there was a smaller synagogue. My grandfather, Wolfe Kirson, was the "shamash" at the small shul.

On Fridays, my grandfatherís job would be making rounds to collect candles. I canít remember what kind of lighting they had in the synagogue, but presumably candles. So, apparently they must have used an awful lot of candles.

I can recall that on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur you would come to the synagogue, and there be a big box filled with sand, so that the candles could burn for 24 hours. Tall candles! Everyone would walk in and put the candle in the sand. When Yom Kippur was over, they would take the remains of their candle and bring it back home. I remember, that my father would come home with this candle, and - by the light of this candle - he would start building the Sukkah, before he would break his fast.

The Sukkah was made of what they had at hand: Some old doors here and a couple of old doors there, and they were put together right next to the house and attached here and there, and then pine needles were put on top of it - and that was the Sukkah! I suppose there was a door leading to the Sukkah from the house, and there would be a bench and a makeshift table, so that you could eat in the Sukkah.

We lived in a basement, and the oven (maybe itís in the kitchen, I donít know) is actually the center of the house, I think they called it the "lejanke". Itís a masonry structure, and part of the oven projects out. - So the oven is the cooking facility, the heating facility, and provides warmth for of sleeping there, and in the wintertime it was wonderful, you could sit there. It was warm and it was a "machiah", full of comfort. That was the old fashioned "spa" that we had.

Our Goats

We had goats - at least one. You could not go to the store to buy milk, so you had to have a goat. The goat, I suppose, would then have little goats - little kids - which in wintertime would stay in the house and we would play with them. I remember, that we did not have a sofa, but we had a long bench, and I would put the goat on the bench and climb up there myself, then I would jump off and the goat would follow me. I would do that over and over again and have a lot of fun that way.

It was my sister Idaís job to take the goat to the pasture. Ida told us that when she took the goat to the pasture, she would have to pass long buildings with high basements, which were rented to shoemakers and the like. In the summertime the basements would be open. Once when she passed with the goat, a shoemaker was sitting in his basement working on some shoes, and all of a sudden the goat disappeared. When she looked down in the basement, she saw that the goat had jumped onto the shoemakerís head!


First I went to Cheder. Children were sent to Cheder when they were about three years old. I recall that my hair wasnít cut until I was about three years old. I had long braids, black braids. I remember being placed on the table and given a piece of candy. Then someone clipped off the hair at the same time. That was the first time I had a haircut! - I cannot recall my first shave though. -

We did not usually get candy. Iíll tell you when we got the candy: In the "Hamentashen". You know Purim? That was a delight! We looked forward to it. And then you would get so many pieces of candy on Purim, that you could save some. It was a treasure and youíd hold on to it. The tragedy was when it was all gone.

We did not have toys, either! When you go to Cheder, and youíre six or seven years old, I suppose you play with sticks and stones and balls or whatever. I remember that in Cheder a group of kids would be inside studying, while another group would be outside playing. And then those playing would be called in to study, while the others could go out to play.

I stopped going to Cheder, when I and my sister Sadie started to go to a school in Orsha, that was called something like "an Ivraske Judiche" in Russian. It was a school that taught Russian as well as a smattering of Yiddish and Hebrew. A rabbi would come to our house for a short while as a private teacher for me and another kid.

I must have been through with my Jewish education when I was about 10 years old. I refused to go to Cheder anymore. I rebelled!

My father then decided, that he would make a painter out of me.

Once he was painting the roof or the upper story of a building, and in order to get up there, you had to go up on a ladder, out unto a ledge, and then continue on the ledge, holding on the wall. I hated it! So my father said: "Iíll tell you what. You stay down on the ground and watch the paint, so that nobody steal it".

So, I sat there watching the paint, but got scolded, because somebody actually did walk off with the paint!

My father also got at job painting the butcher shops - a series of stores painted all red. I went along with him the first time and helped him to paint. When I came home, my mother looked at me and she cried out: "What did you do to the child?" - I was red all over! So thus ended my painting career!

The 1905 Pogrom

In 1905 there was a pogrom in Orsha. What happened was that there was some sort of an edict from the Tsar. There were many Jewish liberals or socialists, and I suppose they had certain demands and some of them were granted. However, whatever the cause, the "muzjiks" (Russian peasants), with the support of the police, just looked for an excuse, and ran out to kill the Jews.

I remember the pogrom distinctly for the simple reason, that we lived on a street where all the muziks - with sticks and knives and whatever - paraded down the street: "Letís kill the Jews on both sides of the street." Now, there was a big wooden gate on one side, that you had to go through to get into our house, and I think that there were two buildings as you opened the gate, - like a courtyard enclosed by a gate. Across the street lived some wealthy Jews, and a group of peasants attacked those people across the street. I donít know how many of them were killed.

Furthermore, we were warned, and my father decided that he would be the one to protect the family. Most of us were taken to a place near the city cemetery - there must have been a building there. I do not remember, how we got there, but I recall one thing: There were a lot of kids making a lot of noise, and in order to make the kids keep quite, my sister Ida, who was a big shot, was cutting bread and herring. That is all - I do not remember any other details. I was only about six years old.

But I know, that was the time my older brother, Chaim, escaped, - he left Russia and went to the United States!

(Explanatory note: Chaim Kalkin had been involved in Jewish group that planned to resist the pogrom. The authorities took a dim view of Jewish resistance however, and Chaim had to flee the country. His wife and children followed some years later.)

To America

There was always the desire of going to America! Abe Dubroff was the first one, who came to the United States - around 1905, I believe. He married Minnie, my motherís half sister, in 1903 or 1904, and shortly afterwards Abe Dubroff went to the United States. Thenmy older brother, Chaim and his family followed after the pogrom.

It was planned that my sister Ida and my father should go to the United States, and then we were supposed to follow later on. Our family in America sent money for theim to come. However, my father was very reluctant to go to the USA. He said it was, as he would call it, an unreligious country - "a goyishe medina". Well, he got reports from relatives in USA. And he was a very religious man!

--- Not a Hasid, a religious Misnagid! They had a hasidishe synagogue not far from the misnagid synagogue. On our way home from the synagogue, we had to pass the hasidishe synagogue, and every time we passed, we would stop, because those people would make so much noise with their singing and dancing. But my father would not allow me to stay and watch it. He didn't like the kind of dancing they did. ---

In March or April 1910 he begun another job on contract. However, he soon felt sick and said: "I must go home!". He came home and went right to bed. The doctor came, he thought my father had pneumonia. My father was ill in bed for five days- and then he died. That was less than a month before Pesach.

So my mother, my sisters, Ida and Sadie, and I made the journey to the USA alone.

Life in Brooklyn

We lived in Brooklyn, and I was sent to a school in the Stuyvesant section, not far from Fulton street. At first, they put me in 3b, then I was immediately skipped to 4a and then I got to 4b. They rushed me from one grade to another. When we left Russia, I knew a smattering of German, and I was able to read - only a little bit in English, but I caught on very quickly. I was not really scared. I managed to get along, and I did not have any battles with anybody. Not much to speak of. Sadie was sent to another school.

Abe Dubroff, who was married to Minnie (my motherís half-sister), was a butcher, and he tried to get me interested: Maybe I could become a butcher! For a while, he gave me a job helping him in the store. First of all, I had to get there in the afternoon, right after school. Abe had customers on both sides of the town, so I had my route. I had to get to the customers and get their orders, get them back to Abe, and then the following morning, I had to deliver the orders.

I delivered the orders. We had pushcarts, no bicycles. In the afternoon, I would come back after school and get the orders for the following day. I had a tough time. I had to get up very early in the morning, to deliver the orders. Then rush to get to school before the bell rang at 9 oíclock. I managed to get there maybe 2 minutes before the bell rang. Somehow I managed to do the homework, too. How, I donít know!

After finishing grade school, I went to school at night (I went to Boysí High) and had a job at a wholesale newspaper agency during the day, where I had to deliver the New York Evening Journal. The owner had a candy store and was also managing the newspaper routes. The newspapers would be delivered by the elevator on Fulton street - a large bundle of papers. I was supposed to pick up that bundle, but I could not make it. So the owner of the store showed me how to do it. You would have to throw the bundle of papers on the station there, and then pick up the papers on the shoulder and then "run Ďem down and put Ďem in your pushcart" - and there you go again.

The routine was the same as when I worked for Abe Dubroff: I had to make my rounds to different stationery stores, get the orders and then in the afternoon I had to deliver the orders.

My Bar Mitzvah

When I finished saying kaddish (for my father), I was not even bar mitzvah yet.

We lived at Rockaway avenue at that time, next to my sister Musa. On Rockaway Avenue there was a corner store, that had been converted into a little synagogue. They had a minyan in there, and they had a Torah in there.

So one Monday morning they said to me, that I was Bar Mitzvah.

So I went to the synagogue, and they made a blessing on the Torah and that was that: They said,

"Mazel tov, you are Bar Mitzvah!"

Copyright © 1999 Belarus SIG and Dara Pearlman

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