Belarus SIG Newsletter

Issue No. 2 - February 1999

Growing Up In White Russia

My memories of Belakoritz and Wolozyn (Poland/White Russia) 1912-1931

By Cheyna Rogovin Chertow

This charming account of Jewish life in a shtetl in Europe was given to Laurel Chertow Glickstein by her mother, Cheyna Rogovin Chertow, in Chicago, Illinois, December 1997.

Background

A family wedding early June, 1931, in Wolozyn.
Zelik - Nachama - Abe Chertow (my dad) - Cheyna (my mom) - Aaron - Rifka
Front Row: Parents: Hinde and Moshe Rogovin.

My father Moshe Rogovin lived in Belakoritz, Poland (Belarus) with my mother Hinde (nee Mordochowitz) and they had 5 children: Nachama (1910), Cheyna (1912), Aaron (1914) , Rifka (1919), Zelik(1923). He worked for a Forestry Office, Agarkov and Heller, with headquarters in Paris, France. He worked in Belakoritz until about 1928. My family moved to Wolozyn [this variant spelling of Valozhin is used throughout by the author - Ed.] in 1925. In 1928, my father was transferred to the company headquarters in Mikeshevitch. We continued to live in Wolozyn. Although the towns my father worked in were not physically so far away by today's standards, it was difficult to commute and my father often was not home for weeks and months at a time. The company marked and cut trees to make veneer. He worked there before World War 1 and once the war ended, he was rehired.

The Town of Belakoritz

Belakoritz was a beautiful town, a resort town in White Russia - it had moving water, beautiful trees: white bark trees. We lived in a nice house. The people were White Russian. Later, Belakoritz became Polish, in about 1925. I rode bare back in Belakoritz, with a Gentile friend who had horses: her name was Zena. The Gentiles at that time were good to our family. But Jews were never able to hold government jobs. As time passed, Gentiles, or "the Goyim" became difficult to trust. There was a Polish School. We went to the Polish school in Belakoritz. There was no Hebrew School. There were no other Jewish people living in Belakoritz. We had a rabbi come to our house and stay with us for the week. He would sleep there and go back to Wolozyn on the weekends. My father was home with us at this time.

Living Conditions

The house was wooden that my father rented from the Polish Government. There was a well outside the house. That is where we kept food from spoiling. My mother would go to the market on Thursdays to Wolozyn. either walked 1 1/2 hours or went by horse and buggy. She bought needed items and meat. She koshered the meat at home. It was wrapped in a pot with a white cloth; covered with oilcloth and tied with a rope to lower into the well. It would sit on top of the cold water and stay fresh. Next day it was taken out for cooking for Shabbos. We used Kerosene lamps in the house. The kitchen (kich) had a brick oven with a steel door; logs were used to heat the oven. The oven had a separate section on the side with a trifoos on three feet that looked like a tripod about a 10 inch high circular platform and we would put twigs on the bottom, make a fire and put the steel pot on top of the trifoos to heat the water for bathing. It was also used to make jelly; fried chicken fats; feinkochen scrambled eggs; boil eggs - a very handy little compartment.

For washing clothes, we would boil water in a couple pots with brown soap; there were clothes lines outside. In the winter, we dried clothes outside to kill lice and to keep the clothes sanitary. Also we went to the river to wash clothes during the warmer months. We used a board and hammer to pound the clothes clean. The bathroom (toilet) was outside against the wall of the house - we then covered the waste with dirt. In the kitchen - only for use in the night - we "voided" in a pot and then emptied the contents outside in the morning.

We had a piece of land which my mother would cover with the waste products including all left over food (very little) for fertilizer. We grew potatoes, pickles, radishes, onions, and had a barn with chickens and a milking cow. I drank raw warm milk fresh from the cow which we milked ourselves. Our chickens were taken to Wolozyn for slaughter.

Keeping Time

In Belakoritz we looked on the sun. My father had a pocket watch: "Arum 12:00 mit tog tseit" and "vetchere dinner arum zeks azeger". A calendar in Belakoritz? I don't recall; but we knew when the holidays came and we knew when it was shabbos. We lived close to Wolozyn and they had wind up clocks and calendars in Wolozyn.

Life at Home

We made black bread in the house; my father would put in his pocket two sandwiches with butter and with herring and a fresh pickle ("the best") he would go to work . We always had a feshl (barrel) of herring. We also bought white bread from the bakery in Wolozyn. We always had good food.

All births took place in the home with a local midwife: a woman who lived on a nearby farm. Her name was Theresa, a Russian, who birthed all the babies in the town. The father or older sibling had to walk to her house when mother was in labor and the midwife stayed with the family until after the birth. The birth of my youngest brother, Zelik, took place in the house. The brit was done by the mohel from Wolozyn. There was a minyon that came from Wolozyn and my mother made a veal breast, roasted potatoes, and a samavar with tea and sponge cake (tort) with lekach (honey cake). The brit was called a mitzvah and there was never a charge. The Mohel would place sugar with gauze - wet in water in the child's mouth, like a pacifier.

Babies were nursed for a long time. The newborn was kept in a vigele (a rocking bed). The newborn was wrapped in a vikelach. (like a bandage wrapping) going around and around and wrapped with a different cloth in the center as a diaper. The vikelach began at the shoulders and ended at the toes closed. And the feet were wrapped so to prevent the "fees fun vaksn krum" (feet from growing crooked). This was worn for about four months, from shoulders to feet. By four months the infant's body above the waist was freed. The vikelach was still used from the waist down till about 6 months of age. The infant was bathed daily in water that was heated in a big steel pot. The steel pot was heated on the trifoos..

My parents slept in two twin beds, on a perena, covering themselves with a coldre. The second bedroom, a camara, is where the children slept. There were beds, feather pillows, a perena or a feather quilt. When my father was not home, my older sister would sleep in their bedroom with my mother. Otherwise the girls slept in one room. A couch called a divon is where Aaron and Zelik slept outside the second bedroom.

We made clothes by hand. Peasants made linens using a hand web unit. Women on the farms would spin thread by hand. The local midwife was also a peasant.

The Town of Wolozyn

We moved to Wolozyn in about 1925, my father's birthplace. It was getting difficult for Jews to live in Belakoritz. No shuls. Children needed the Hebrew School and the Jewish life. My father moved his family, although he continued to work in Belakoritz. The distance was about 1 hour's walk. The house in Wolozyn was rented and in about 1932 my father built a new house and moved into that one. I left Wolozyn in 1931 and never saw the new house. Many of the features of the house were similar to the one in Belakoritz. Our house in Belakoritz was a dorf - really a small farm. We were more self-sufficient there; and it was very beautiful in Belakoritz. We now lived in a town that had a market to shop and buy food and utensils for daily use in the home. Thursday was the big market day.

The Jewish people lived in a circular fashion around the market place. The gentiles lived further from the market. Now we lived in a town that had three shuls; a bathhouse for washing that also served as a mikva. The tukerke - nail cutter, cleaner, cared for the women in the mikva and this is where much gossip in town began and spread, all in the hands of one woman. She knew who did and did not go to the mikva, and that was a most important ritual for all Jewish married women. There was NEVER a dream of intermarriage. NEVER. For both the Jews as well as the Gentiles. NEVER.

The house was wooden; the toilet was outside - an outhouse that was cleaned regularly by a townsperson in charge of sanitation. That was an improvement to the sanitary conditions in Belakoritz. Although conditions in Belakoritz were more primitive, we never became ill due to any disease related to sanitation. Electricity in the house: I recall two bulbs, one in the kitchen (kich), one in the living room (stalova). We had a calendar on the wall and also had a wind-up clock. The houses were lined up next to each other. The kitchen (kich) had a brick oven; used logs to heat the oven; steel door. We bought meat the same day we cooked. All meat was koshered at home. The roof of the oven was made of a flat platform and in the winter this would serve as a place to sleep in the cold winter months: "shlofn afn aven". Men would sleep up there - it was made so you could step up and get on the platform with a pillow and blanket and go to sleep.

There was one family - I remember visiting a friend, Freidel, and her father always slept on the platform all winter. He was "Shimon the bord" (the Beard). Mother thinks he never slept in a bed! A handsome man known as the man having the longest beard in Wolozyn.

The outside well water was used for drinking, bathing, and washing clothes. A pail hung from the well; we lowered the pail, pulled out the water. Wolozyn had three wells in the whole town. Go to the well or get water delivered by horse and wagon.

The dining room, living room - stalova - had an oven made out of tile to heat the house, called "petz-er-ke" (tile fireplace). It had a steel door and we put wood (logs) in to heat the house. The tile oven went up to the ceiling like a fireplace. Feter Hirshl Leib came and slept there - up against the wall. It was very warm all winter. Furniture and utensils in the house: a long bench and table in the dining room (stalova). We used clay pots with wires; made a cholnt in a clay pot; also used porcelain and copper pots. Dishes were porcelain and we used metal spoons and forks.

Transportation was by horse and buggy/sled. Money was counted in Zlotes. 1 Zlote = .18c. 8 Zlotes = One American Dollar. 100 Groshen = 1 Zlote. You could buy 40 lbs. of flour for 1 Zlote.

Wolozyn had a dry good store and an "opteka", which was a drugstore that carried ready-made herbs. The town was involved in the lumber business. There was a local orchard, a market place and a flour mill. The Bank was there for alvoyas, to borrow money and for nedovas (donations) to help people. The Teichel was the little river.

Familiar Names in Wolozyn

Shrira had a drugstore. Polak had a flour mill - they had an oriental carpet in their house. Rappaport had a lumber business. The Potashniks were educators and Hebrew teachers. The Rogovins were in the shoe business - shoemakers. Young Chaim and Yossl (stepbrothers) Rogovin the schuster (shoemaker). Chaim Rogovin the schneider was the tailor, an older man. He made suits for my father. Chaim Rogovin the katzif (butcher) died in the orchard from a heart attack. His son Aaron Rogovin took his place. There was Chaim the balagolla (taxi driver); Berman the Izengeshaft (hardware store); Hirshl the baker - his egg bagels were outstanding and so was his white bread; Rachel Leah Skloot the schneiderke - a superb dressmaker; Avrom Tsart the feltcher (doctor or healer). Marozhina sold ice cream in an ice cream store.

Yard goods were sold everyday but market day was on Thursday and Channa Skloot (Itzhak Sklootís daughter, my cousin) would sell yard goods. She moved to Palestine before the war in about 1935. The Perskys were in the "flox" linen business. They picked the plant called flox. The plant was about 3 feet tall, pulled the fibers out, crushed the fibers and through the machine, and the flox was made into fine linen. They also bought pig's hair and had grocery stores in town selling food items including farina, barley, lima beans and candy.

Food

People ate teiglach, cholnt, fish bulba, lekach (honey cake), gefilte fish, kneidlach, challah, potatoes, milk, butter, hard cheese, meat. For breakfast we might eat herring with green pickles (oogarot) with schvatze breit (pumpernickle bread); for lunch mitten tog a gebachte bulbe (baked potato) with sour cream (shmetene); for dinner, mittog vechere, we ate kelbene fleish (veal) mit pelgroipn (barley). Shabbos was a holy day and the whole town prepared, beginning on Thursday.

Visiting My Feter Hillel

Feter Hillel Skloot, my uncle - my father Moshe's mother's brother (grandmother's brother) - lived in Wolozyn. He was an older man. He lived with his wife. Every Thursday, I helped Feter Hillel in the market to sell pottery. I had a wonderful time with Feter Hillel. I also spent Fridays there helping them prepare for shabbos. I washed the floors, cleaned the kitchen and helped prepare the food. I would sometimes sleep there. His two sons (my cousins) sailed for America maybe in 1920. and settled in Cleveland, Ohio. I remember mail sent from America with packages and matzo for Pesach: Manischewitz Matzo. They were in the shoe business in Cleveland.

Blessings

The goyim would often come to the rabbi for a blessing. They would bring a chicken, a few zlotes to heal and the rabbi would offer them a prayer.

Holidays

  • Rosh Hashanah: All shuls were packed. First we went to the Wolozyner Teichl; tashlich.
  • Yom Kippur: Holiest day of the year. Everyone fasted as well as young children. Used to make the samavar (tea) with gebrite milk and herring to break the fast.
  • Sukkos: most had little attached porches on the houses and put a srach (evergreens) as a roof. They would bring an esrog and lulov and benched esrog.
  • Simchas Torah - at the Wolozyn yeshiva - all were celebrating inside the yeshiva for the day.
  • Hanukkah: Potato latkes with benching licht for eight days - but no big ceremony.
  • Purim: Before Pesach - made own hamentashen and sent shelachmonos (baked goods) to each other. Money went to a nedova.
  • Pesach: Made our own matzo and made matzo meal with a "hiltzen shtessl". The shtessl was very wide at the bottom and was placed in a large cuplike bowl and the matzo was ground up by hand till it became a fine flour.
  • Counting Shrira for 40 days until Shvuos - there were no marriages.
  • On the day of Shvuos we ate only milches (dairy): blintzes and fish.

The Shuls and Schools

There were schools: a Polish school and Hebrew school. There was a yeshiva, two churches and three shuls: the Aruptsu shul downhill, the Kleizel shul on the Uphill of Vilna Gass; and the Marketa Aruftsu shul on the Upperhill. We went to the Polish school and the Hebrew school. For barmitzvah the father just took his son to the shul, He read the Haftorah, and went home - no parties.

Other Points of Interest

There was a bathhouse, shvitz and a mikvah. There was a hospital and many babies were born in the hospital. There were few telephones and they were in wealthy homes in the South of Poland.

My father Moshe Rogovin was the baltfila in both the Aruptsu and Aruftsu shul. My grandfather was in the Kleizel shul years before. My father was born and raised in Wolozyn. He spent his early years with his father in the Kleizel shul. My mother Hinde comes from Derevna. The marriage was arranged.

Postscript

(Laurel Chertow Glickstein has appended the following notes}

Cheyna, my mother (b. 1912) married my father Abe (b. 1906) on about June 1, 1931 in Wolozyn, Poland. My father is an American who returned to Eastern Europe to seek out his roots. His parents arrived in America, September 1906, from Minsk, Russia. They settled in Chicago and there my father was born three months later. It was on my father's journey through his search in Eastern Europe for his relatives in Wolozyn that he met my mother. They were married on a Friday afternoon before Shabbos, which was the Shabbos noch Shvuos. The Shammos carried all the invitations for 5 zlotes. and delivered to all the Jewish houses. The whole town was invited to the wedding. There was a street procession to the wedding chupah, to the outside of the Aruptsika Shul. The reason for the large celebration was that an American man married a girl from Wolozyn, and in the history of the shtetl he was the first American to marry a local girl. The whole shtetl celebrated. The rabbi that married my parents was Rabbi Derechinsky. He honored them with Chupa Kedusha. There were many honorable guests at the wedding. Noteworthy rabbis from the Etz Chaim Yeshiva of Wolozyn were in attendance. The roof of the chupah consisted of tallesim held up by four poles carried by four ushers. The Rabbi asked for $10.00 and my father paid him $5.00 American money! The next morning my father had an uffroof and my grandfather Moshe Rogovin. was the baltefila, davening by the omed for the shabat service in the Aruptsika Shul.

The newlyweds remained with my mother's parents (grandparents) for about two months in preparation for leaving Poland to America. My mother sailed from Gdansk, Poland and arrived in New York on September 12, 1931. The cost of that passage was $140.00. My father arrived separately about a month later, sailing from London, England. They were unable to leave together because the Polish Government required that a Polish Citizen sail directly to America from their port. They then joined again together in Chicago, Illinois in early October 1931. Today, December 27, 1997, our family is celebrating my father's 91st birthday. We are four children, with 10 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren with the fourth due in June 1998.

As an addendum and current update (January 1999), my parents are still managing together in their home in Chicago. Our fourth great-grandchild was born June 23, 1998 and carries the beloved name of my Uncle Aaron Rogovin who was also a Resistance Fighter during the Holocaust. We are also expecting another grandchild, May 1999.


Copyright © 1999 Belarus SIG and Laurel Chertow Glickstein


Back to the frontpage of the Belarus SIG Newsletter Issue 2 - February 1999

Back to the index of the Belarus SIG Newsletters

Back to the Belarus SIG website