The Autobiography of Solomon Katzen
The Early Years: 1902-1923
© 1995 Solomon Katzen. Used with permission.
My Early Years in Sasmaken
I will try, as much as possible, to recall the events and life in general in the little town of Sasmaken, Kourland, where I was born in 1902.
We lived in a one story cottage, half of which was occupied by the owner, a German, by the name of Carlson. His half of the house opened on a fenced in garden, where fruit trees of apples and pears grew, as well as bushes of currants, huckleberries and various vegetables. He lived there with his wife and a large dog by the name of Caesar.
Our half of the cottage consisted of two rooms. Facing the street (Tzuntzer St.) was the living room. The back room housed the kitchen and the sleeping quarters which were separated by a large curtain across the room. Next to, and facing the driveway, on the other side, Carlson owned a house, in which lived two sisters by the name of Beckman.
One of the events that remained in my memory was when a farmer brought a large pig to be slaughtered by Mr. Carlson. The pig got away from his handlers and was running in the yard, the gates to which were closed. The men finally got hold of the pig and Mr. Carlson drove a large knife into the pigs heart. Then, the process of butchering and dressing the carcass lasted almost the entire day. They collected the blood in pails, placed the carcass in a large trough, in which they poured large kettles of boiling water. The bristles were scraped off, the carcass cut into parts.
To a Jewish boy of four, the entire procedure was strange. At that time, I already knew the Jewish method of slaughtering fowl, and had an idea of animal slaughter in the towns slaughterhouse. The chase and the squealing pig, the sticking the knife into the heart, the collection of blood, which was subsequently used for food, and besides, the pig was a most proscribed animal, whose meat is forbidden to Jews.
Across the street from us, lived a Jewish family by the name of Hirshberg. The Hirshbergs owned their house. Quite frequently, I would go to the Hirshbergs, where there lived a boy slightly older than myself. He had a large set of beautiful building blocks with which we would build castles. Then I have vague memories of the seashore, a small rowboat and a house nearby. This turned out to be the locale, where Grandfather Moishe lived, I was subsequently told. Mother took my older brother Mendel (Harry) and myself on a visit to her fathers home in Neibaden, Lifland. The occasion was that my Aunt Bluma and her three children were departing for America to join their father Benzion Krales, and Zaidy (Grandfather) Moishe, with whom Bluma lived, was closing his home, and going to stay with his sister, Malka, in Zagare. Somewhat hazily, I remember a visit to our home in Sasmaken of fathers youngest sister Rose, who came from Zagare to see us before she emigrated to the USA.
As I write these lines, the houses and fields on Zuntzer St. become more vivid. The street was just a country road, not paved. Then, our family moved to different quarters on the same street, but further away from the center of town. This new location was closer to the communal bath house, mikvah, and slaughterhouse. Our living quarters were in one house, or rather part of a house, and Papas cheder (Hebrew School) was in another house across the driveway.
The closest neighbors were the family of Bendet Weinberg. He was a butcher and was also in charge of the slaughterhouse. As part of his compensation, he would receive the heads and the innards of the slaughtered animals. Besides his wife, he had four daughters, grownup, and a boy somewhat older than myself. When visiting him, I used to be amazed at the quantities of food consumed by that family. For instance, the dish pirogen, which consisted of chopped lung baked as a filling surrounded by dough. The size of these consumed by each one of the girls, were equal to a serving for three people in our family. Sometimes, each of them would get a whole boiled sheeps or calves head. The quantities of boiled potatoes and herring they would consume were amazing.
Since our quarters were near the outskirts of the town, there were quite a few Latvian neighbors. I was especially intrigued by one of them who lived across the street. He was a wheelwright and quite frequently he would work on his lathe, producing the hubs for the wheels. Through his window, I could see how he would make the holes and fit the spokes into the holes. This was very exacting work, since it had to be fitted into parts that form the outer rim, and then behold the whole wheel.
Every Thursday and Friday, the public baths were in operation. We used to go with Father to the mens section. It was a dingy place. There was no heat in the dressing room except what heat would come in from the bath when the doors were opened. The bath was a large room, constructed of wood, with benches along the walls. One section of the wall consisted of large rocks that were heated from the boiler room side. Then there were platforms rising above each other, reaching almost to the ceiling. The bathers would call for more steam, and anyone near the hot rocks would take a bucketful of water and splash it on the rocks. The water would immediately be converted to steam and rise toward the ceilings. Obviously, the upper platforms would be exposed to the most steam. Everyone or rather mostly everybody would have a bundle of birch branches with the leaves thereon and smite themselves therewith. Calls for more steam were frequent, and the entire place was bedlam. There were no showers, no pipes. There were large barrels of cold water which were filled with a hand pump and a kettle of boiling water, into which one would reach with a wooden bucket.
Once I went along with father to the mikvah. There were no steps leading into it, but one had to climb down a wooden ladder into the deep, dark body of water.
The communal slaughterhouse was close by to the bath house and I would occasionally go there to see the slaughtering and dressing of the carcasses. The operation was not a continuous one. Whenever, a butcher would buy a steer, calf, or sheep from a farmer, he would bring them to town and take them down to the slaughterhouse. The butcher would then call on father to come to the slaughterhouse and perform the Shechita (ritual slaughter). To determine that the meat of the slaughtered animal is kosher (fit for consumption by Jews), the butcher was required to bring the lungs for inspection. For this purpose there was a separate room in the slaughterhouse. Through the windpipe, the butcher would blow up the lungs. Father would then inspect them. If no blemishes were found, the animal was kosher. However, only the forepart of the carcass would be cut up and sold to Jews, and the rear part would be sold to gentiles. In rare instances, when a blemish was found on the lungs, the entire carcass would then be designated as Treif not to be eaten by Jews. Whenever this happened, it would entail a great loss to the butcher, since the demand for non-kosher meat was limited, because of a relatively small number of non-Jewish customers. Usually, there was fresh meat available for the Shabbas. Father had a special box where he kept the chalofim ritual knives. They were of various sizes and thickness and quite frequently he was sharpening them, and testing them with his fingernail to determine their absolute smoothness, which was required by regulation.
During this period, a few incidents remain engraved in memory:
Trip to Farm
There were two milkmen in town. Our milkman was named Itzchak Lemchen, however, everyone knew him as Itze Flam, because of his red beard and explosive demeanor. Once he agreed to take me along to Tzuntzer Farm, where he was picking up the milk. The ride on his wagon, through farm country, on a dirt road (all roads were unpaved, except city streets) was exhilarating. In his wagon, he had two large wooden barrels, the tops of which were partially covered. At the entrance to the farm, there was an open large wooden scale. Upon inquiry, Itze explained that it was used to weigh cows or other animals, which were being sold to butchers or dealers. Near the scale, there was a large pile of rocks of various sizes. Each rock had painted thereon a number showing the weight of the particular rock. When weighing an animal, they would pile on the scale a sufficient number of these rocks to bring the scale in balance, then proceed to add the weight of the stones.
Our arrival at the farm coincided with milking time, approximately 40 cows were in the barn and several milkmaids were busy milking the cows. As they would fill a pail, they would bring it to a large wooden barrel and empty it therein. I was standing near the barrel and observed this process. One of the maids dipped in a half quart container, filled it with milk and gave it to me to drink. I liked for it was the warmest milk I ever tasted.
As the large barrel was almost filled up, I remarked in the Latvian language: "Gee, so much milk." One of the milkmaids scolded me for having made that remark. On the way home, Itze explained to me that what I said was equivalent to giving the cows an "Evil eye", which would in effect reduce the milk-producing abilities of the cows.
On Tzuntzer Road, some short distance outside of town, in a house standing by itself, there lived a recently arrived county sheriff (Ouryadnik). He had a boy about my age, who walked over to our neighborhood. He started calling me names, derogatory to Jews, and then proceeded to throw stones at me. He was near the open gates and I was inside the yard. I replied to his rock throwing in kind, and eventually hit him over the eye, which started bleeding and he ran crying all the way to his home. I reported the incident to mother. She became terribly agitated, full of fear as to what will happen to all of us, as a result of this accident. Later I heard that the wound required several stitches. Mother said that we were going to pay for it, i.e. the medical costs. But at that time, I didnt understand how big a calamity could have involved the entire family as a result of my self-defense action.
Grandfather Moishe (Moses Falksohn)
I do not remember his arrival, but there was grandfather Moishe with us. He was a quiet man, sat in a corner usually near the oven and studied his books, which I believe were folios of mishnayas (it consists of six volumes and represents the written codification of the oral law). Grandfather, my older brother Mendel, and myself were assigned to sleep in the cheder, apparently because of lack of room in the house. The sleep gear consisted of canvas, which was nailed to a strong frame, the size of a small bed. The ends of the frame were laid on benches for support, a bag filled with straw was placed on the frame, followed by sheets and pillows. For covering, there was a down filled comforter. Harry and I slept on one frame and grandfather on the other. Since there was no heat at night in this building and to make sure that the comforter should stay on during the night, Grandpa would try to fasten a long leather belt around the comforter to hold it in place. Harry and I would raise our knees, so that it would become difficult for him to fasten the belt. These antics would go on for a while until, at Grandpas urging we would quiet down an be tied up for the night. As I look back, it seemed to me that he tried to see, what life would be like living in the home of his second daughter Chaya Rivka (my mother). He must have been with us less than a year. When and how he left I do not remember.
Brother Davids Limp
On one of the colder days, it was noticed that my younger brother David was limping and as time went by his limping was more pronounced. He was brought into the house, his shoes were removed and the reason for his limp became apparent. He had stuffed spent matches into his shoes so as to keep his feet warm.
At that time, when we lived on the lower Tzuntzer St. I too was attending Papas cheder. During recess, some of the boys played a game called Tzigelach. These were half inch cubes of dried clay. Five of these were used in a game. One of the boys came crying and complaining to Father that I took away his Tzigelach. Without inquiry, Father gave me a severe licking. Finally it turned out that it was somebody else who committed the crime. I remember that mother was angry with dad for having given me such a severe undeserved punishment.
Dealer in Calves Stomachs and Beef Liver
In the slaughterhouse, where after butchering, the animals were dressed, the innards had practically no value. For instance, there were no buyers of beef liver. Frequently, a butcher would give me a beef liver, which I would then sell to some people who had flocks of ducks. It would be cut up into small pieces and the ducks loved it as food. I used to get 5 to 10 kopeks for a liver. I would also get for free, the calves stomachs. One end would be tied and through the other end I would blow it up like a balloon and tie it. These were hanged on a string in the inspection room of the slaughterhouse. After several months they would become very dry. The ends would be untied and the air pressed out. The dried stomachs would be accumulated for a year. Father told me that a traveling would buy these in the entire region, and that these awfully smelling stomachs were reduced to a powder and used in the production of Swiss cheese. Father kept the proceeds of the sale for my account.
We Move Again
I have no recollection of the process of moving. The family is now installed on the ground floor of a two story building. The construction was of brick with white stucco facing. Across the hall was the residence of the owner Jacob Thal. He was a widower, and his daughter Paula was his housekeeper. This house was also on Tzuntzer St. but closer to the center or marketplace, and the street was paved with irregularly sized natural stones.
Across the street was a one story red-brick building, the town Monopol, and where the resident manager lived. The sale of hard liquor, i.e., vodka and spirits was a government monopoly. Adjacent to Jacob Thals house was Cheme Thals one story brick house covered with yellow stucco. Jacob Thal was the older of the two brothers and they jointly operated a tannery which was located in the common backyard. Besides Cheme (Nehemia) his family consisted of his wife, Ida, a grown up daughter Clara, and sons: Benno, Eugene, and Leo. Benno was a student in the Real School (classical high school) in the city of Windau. Eugene who eventually also entered the Real School was about a year older than my brother Mendel (Harry) and they became friends. The youngest boy Leo, who was about my age became friends with me. We would romp in the enormous backyard, but we seldom went into the Tannery work shop, which had a vile smell. Raw hides were brought from the entire region by dealers. The hides would be treated chemically and then the hair would be scraped off.
Trifon, a Russian, was one of four workers doing this process and the other operations in the Tannery. There were eight tremendous vats in the ground. The cleaned hides would be placed in the vats and the latter filled with water. I used to be fascinated with the pumping of the water from the well. The handle was double-jointed, with a cross bar at the end, so that two people could operate the pump. Sometimes, two men would be pumping for several days in order to fill the vats. After soaking in the vats with some chemicals for several weeks, the hides would be removed. Two men holding enormous tongs would get a hold of a hide, pull it from the vat, and Jacob then would indicate to the men, whether the particular hide will go toward producing uppers of shoes or boots, or it will go toward production of leather soles. Depending on his decision, the men would drop hides in different vats for curing. The yard had tremendous piles of oak bark, which would be dumped in the vats for the curing process.
Most of the manufactured leather, would be shipped away, but a small quantity would be taken to the retail store owned and operated by Jacob Thal. The store was next to his residence, and he himself would attend to the customers, cutting the leather as required by the customers, who were local shoemakers, or peasants who would themselves make their own moccasins. There were warehouse buildings which were also used to finishing the uppers. Heavy iron hand rollers were used to impress the uppers with the appropriate grain. Leo and I used to weigh ourselves frequently on the warehouse scales.
More About My Friend Leo Thal
In the springtime we decided to plant a vegetable garden. The yard was paved, but we did locate a small plot in the back. Each of us had their own plot. We dug the hard ground, cultivated it, raked it, and finally planted the seeds which we had purchased at a stall on market day. We were inspecting the garden daily, watering it, and were impatient for results. Most of the crop was a failure. Except for radishes, which we ate. We decided that the soil wasnt any good there, and the following spring our gardens were dug and cultivated in a field, not far from our house, the owner having given us permission to make use of a small plot. The results were much better, and I was especially proud of the good crop of chicory which I gave to mother.
Leos father, Cheme Thal, used to travel a lot. Once Leo showed me a banana that his father brought from Riga. Leo shared the banana with me and I was certain that no one in Sasmaken had ever tasted such fruit. In season, Leos mother, Ida, would always give him bowls full of wild strawberries, raspberries, currents, cherries, red huckleberries, and tell him to eat them, as these fruits are good for him, they produce blood. Leos mother spoke mostly German, and very often she would read to him from German books, stories or poetry.
Sometimes I would be there at reading time. To this day, I remember one sentence that struck me as funny. A grenadier was telling about his experiences in battle, when he felt that his leg was shot of and he said, "Dann greiff ich erst nach meiner pfeife und nachher nach meinem fuss." (When my leg was shot off, I first grabbed my pipe and thereafter my leg).
It was quite an event when Leos oldest brother Benno came home from Italy where he had been sent for a whole winter. He must have been sick. He was thin and the face drawn.
Grandfather Baruch (Brachya) and Grandma Visit Us
What a surprise! This is the first time I saw my paternal grandparents. They brought from Zagare two large woven baskets. In one of them were their belongings and the other contained two hens, live ones. They were brown feathered, one bigger and one somewhat smaller. These were gifts for Harry and myself. Naturally, he got the bigger one. The grandparents stayed with us only a few days. Shortly thereafter, I heard that they had gone to America.
Every house in Sasmaken had barns in their yards. Harry and I cleared a space in the barn for our hens. We watched them and lavished our attention on them. After a few months, they began to lay eggs. In our yard there were also other chickens, roosters, and ducks, which belonged to other people.
Time passed and we, i.e. Harry and I noticed, that after laying the eggs, the hens would remain seated on them. Mother explained, that the hens would like to hatch small chicks. We accumulated about eight eggs of each hen, placed them on straw in the barn and our respective hens remained seated on them. There was no limit to our joy, when finally the little chicks were hatched. We fondled and watched them, as the mother hens stayed with them in the yard. By that time, there were also ducklings in the yard. There was a small round pool where the ducks and the ducklings swam.
As the chicks grew up, we had quite a flock of hens and young roosters. Brother Harry displayed greater interest in the flock, and was nicknamed "Captain of the Hens." As time passed, the roosters were slaughtered and eventually the original mother hens were also slaughtered. When Harry discovered that his mother hen was slaughtered, he refused to eat any part of the meat, and for several years refused to eat meat of any fowl. Harry was very sensitive about his hen.
For Jewish boys, there was universal education. It was taken for granted that everyone must and will learn Hebrew. Since the social life of the community was centered around the synagogue and the besmedrash, everyone was expected to participate in the services. The cheder or Hebrew School was located in the basement of the besmedrash (another designation for synagogue). The younger boys started with the Hebrew alphabet and proceeded to learn how to read. The first lessons were reading of prayers, thereafter, reading and translation of the Bible. The advanced classes were studying the Prophets. Preparation for Bar Mitzvah didnt entail any special training since everybody by the age of 13 was fluent in Hebrew reading, except for reading from the Torah and the Prophets, which were handwritten on parchment.
I went to the cheder daily, except Saturdays, when everyone went to the synagogue or to the besmedrash. Besides Hebrew, I attended at different times private classes. One was given by a Miss Kahn at her home, where I learned the German alphabet and some reading. There was another private class at the home of a Miss Himmelhoch, where I learned some arithmetic, the Russian alphabet and some reading, including the reading of the words.
In this class, I remember Miss Himmelhoch was disturbed by someone whistling. She ordered that the whistling be stopped. As the class consisted of about 6-7 pupils, boys and girls, was engaged in the lesson and the whistling somehow hadnt stopped, the teacher discovered that I was doing the whistling and ordered me to stop it. But I couldnt stop, since as a result of my breathing, my nose was producing the whistling sounds. I remembered then that I was hit on the nose by a wooden bucket in the bath house. Since then, my breathing through the nose must have been affected; I had not been aware of this in Miss Himmelhochs class.
About this time, there came to Sasmaken a new Latvian family by the name of Reisniak. They lived on the second floor of the house (Thals) we lived in. Mr. Reisniak was a piano teacher. Although we had no piano, father decided that I should take piano lessons. After the third lesson I refused to continue, because the teacher wasnt satisfied with my fingering and hit me with a ruler on my knuckles. My music education, thus, came to as quick end.
The Beginning of Wisdom is Fear of the Lord
On a late summer afternoon, father was in the living room with a visitor, a Mr. Himmelhoch, discussing some fine points of the law, about Treif (non-kosher and kosher). I dont know what urged me to walk through the living room, I was promptly stopped by father, who asked me whether I had attended the Vesper (Minchah) services. Caught in a dilemma, I replied that I had been there. Then father asked, "Who was leading the service?" I was perplexed by this question because I had not been to the service. So I gave the name of someone, who was then in mourning, and was usually leading the week day services. It turned out, that this same Mr. Himmelhoch had Yahrzeit on that day, and he had priority and led the service. Were it not for Mr. Himmelhoch, who then quoted in Hebrew, "The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord," I dont think it would have happened, what followed you guessed it, a spanking, in front of Mr. Himmelhoch. I disliked him and the Lord.
Unlike some of the wealthier households, we didnt have steady maids in the house. Some of the Latvian maids stayed with us several months or a year at the most. By this time, we were five brothers, the oldest Mendel (Harry) was nine years old. Whenever possible, I helped with simple chores. The water used to be obtained from a big hand pump. Full pails were too difficult for me to lift, but I carried some half pails of water to the rear hall and emptied it into the large barrel that was kept there. I carried chopped wood from the barn to the kitchen. Swept the floor with a broom that was made of twigs. Especially, I liked to go on errands to the grocery of Leah-Minna which was located in the next building closer to the market place. She lived upstairs above the grocery store, with an old invalid husband, Oizer. Leah-Minna, herself, was a slightly hunchbacked old lady, not too tall. When opening the door of the store, a bell would ring, but not infrequently it was necessary to go upstairs and get Leah-Minna to come down. Oizer never came down to the store. These are some of the articles I would fetch from the store: Kerosene, used for our lamps, would be drawn from a faucet inserted in a large barrel into small quart containers, a few schmaltz herring which would be picked by hand from a barrel and wrapped in paper. A pound or two of rice, barley, beans, whenever needed. None of these items were prepackaged. Leah-Minna would make a paper container, fill it, and weigh it and then close it. She carried in the store Shabbas candles, matches, shoe polish, yeast and various other household needs. Not infrequently, mother would give me an extra kopek, with which I would buy Turkish nuts (peanuts). A rare treat used to be a fruit called "Buckshorn," which we would get in that store on "Tu-Bishvat," the New Year of the trees in Palestine, although in Sasmaken, it was the middle of winter.
The building in which Minna-Leahs store was, belonged to a widow, by the name of Dora Thal. She had a drug store in the corner part of the building. The stock consisted of toiletries and home remedies which could be purchased without a prescription.
There was an opening in the fence of our backyard, which led diagonally into the yard of Nesse Lemchen. Her husband, Shmuel Yanke was a cattle dealer, but she maintained a bakery, in which three kinds of bread were sold. Nesse, herself, did all the baking. Her yard was always full of all kinds of fowl, including several turkeys. She had an enormous kitchen where she did all the baking. Since Jews werent permitted to cook on Saturdays, the cooking for the Shabbas took place on Friday. In order to have a hot dish, especially on cold wintery Saturdays, a special dish called cholent was prepared. Ingredients varied. Principally it consisted of beans, meat, stuffed derma, potatoes, sometimes carrots and prunes, etc. These would be placed in a covered metal pot. Being a professional baker, Nesse had a large hot oven. I would take the prepared cholent through the backyard to her kitchen and along with many other such pots, these would be placed in the hot brick oven and closed. At noon on Saturdays, whenever we would return from the synagogue, it was my job to go and fetch the cholent. As part of Shabbas observance, Jews couldnt carry anything on the street, but in the backyard it was permitted.
Preparations for Passover
Of all the holidays, Passover had a special fascination for me. Preparations began weeks in advance. I didnt know why at first, but it seemed that we were accumulating eggs. During the week of Passover, we consumed 100-150 eggs. The only place where eggs could be bought was the outdoor market on Thursdays. Everybody needed eggs, and the supply depended on how many eggs were brought to the market by the farmers.
Only in the homes of the rich did they have bottled Passover wine. In our case, we bought about 10 pounds of kosher raisins. These were chopped by hand, placed in large bottles, sugar and water was added and let it rest for several weeks. When fermented, it was poured into pointed cloth bags, hug up and dripped through. This was wine. Another drink for Passover was mead, which was prepared in larger quantities. This would be done, at least 3-4 weeks before Passover. We didnt own a kettle for brewing of the mead, so we usually borrowed one. The copper kettle would be placed on a large tripod in the yard. It would be filled with water and the fire under it was kept going all day. In the boiling water would be placed the proportionate quantity of honey, 10-12 pounds, and a bundle of hops, which would be enclosed in a cloth bag. When the contents of the boiling kettle would be down to about 1/3 of the original volume, the boiling process was completed. The contents would then be poured into a wooden barrel with a small opining on top, and placed in a warm spot. The fermentation would start and the foam would rise through the opening. After two or three weeks, the fermentation would be complete and the contents of the barrel were bottled and put away for Passover.
The best dishes were set aside for Passover and there were two sets of them, one for dairy and the other for meat. Many copper cooking utensils were koshered by having the tinsmith apply fresh zinc on the inside. Knives and other cutlery, as well as cast iron pots, were koshered by fire. The housecleaning was most thorough after a long winter. The inner double windows were removed and fresh air let in.
On Shiler St. there was a storekeeper by the name of Sholom Tzemach Davidovitch. In his backyard there was a separate building set aside as the place for matzo baking. However, I believe that during the year, there lived a poor elderly couple. Every householder, would make arrangements with Sholom Tzemach, as to how much Pesach flour he or she wanted, and an agreed upon time was set when the matzos would be baked. Every householder would be present at the bakery when his matzos were baked. The bakery was semi-mechanized. Water was carried by hand in new wooden buckets. The kneading of the dough was by hand. When ready, the dough would be put through some iron rollers. The wheel activating the rollers was turned by hand. The handling of the dough in the form of a sheet required speed and dexterity. When the proper thickness of the sheet of dough was attained, metal forms were used to cut round matzos. The remainder of the dough would be used with the new batch coming from the kneader. The round matzos, while still in the form of dough on the metal table would be perforated by hand rollers and carried to the brick oven. There an operator, with a long wooden shovel would place them in the oven, and remove those that in her opinion were baked. Usually, the baked Matzos were placed in large woven baskets, which had been lined with clean cloth. The matzos were never weighed. As explained before, the household bought so many pounds of flour and was present throughout the matzo baking operation.
Several months before Passover, mother would go on a shopping expedition to the general store of the Bros. Verbelov. Theirs was one of three large stores that carried various items, including yard goods. All the needed material for the boys suits and the girls dresses and trimming would be purchased. We had our own sewing machine and we would hire a dressmaker who would stay with us for several weeks. Mother used to supervise the making of paper patterns to required size and style, and of course the sewing and trying on.
Similarly, the older children would be taken to the shoemakers. It was either Itze Edelstein or Shia Weinberg who would take the measurements of our feet and make the shoes. The younger children wore mostly hand-me-downs. Quite often the shoes didnt fit too well, but they were always accepted. It was fun to compare our new shoes with other children to find out whose shoes made more of a squeaky sound. Mothers own dresses or coats were made at home, but fathers were made by a mens tailor, whose name I cannot remember. Perhaps it was the Latvian tailor Tiltin.
Passover Holiday Atmosphere
Everything in the house gleamed with the special dishes, silverware, wine beakers for each of the older boys. To celebrate the Seder, father would put on a white kittle (robe), and presided, leaning on cushions and being served as prescribed in the Hagaddah. Those of us who could read, would recite the entire Hagaddah in unison with Father and Mother.
At that time of the year most of the snow that hung on for months would have melted, leaving behind rivulets and mud. One of the customs was for boys to get some walnuts, and these were used in outdoor and indoor games, which called for rolling them and trying to hit the common row of nuts. Especially during the holidays, I felt isolation of our family from relatives. Almost all the other children in town had uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, etc. with whom they would socialize.
I almost forgot to mention the ceremony of Bdikat Chometz, i.e., the ceremony of the final inspection for leaven on the evening preceding the Seder. The matzos and other Passover foods were set aside in a cleansed corner. After the evening meal, all of the leaven would be removed from the house, as well as the regular year-round dishes. These would be placed in a special alcove. We would thoroughly inspect our pockets, to make sure that not a crumb was left there. Knowing that the house has been cleaned, we would place a few crumbs of leaven in some corners. Then father would go inspecting together with us kids, and naturally he would find these crumbs. With a duster made of feathers, he would pick up all the crumbs and place them into an old wooden spoon. He would then cover it and tie it with a piece of cloth, so that none should fall out. On the following morning, the old wooden spool with its contents would be burned in the yard. This part of the ceremony was called Biur Chometz, the burning of the leaven.
During the semi-holiday period, the middle four days, mother would do a lot of baking. First and foremost, were sponge cakes. I liked the process of seeing so many eggs cracked, the yolks and whites separated into separate bowls. Beating of whites was easy, but mixing the yolks after matzo meal and sugar was placed in the bowl was rather tiresome. Oh yes, I forgot to mention, that the matzo meal too, was prepared at home. There were a few families who owned special equipment required to reduce matzos to matzo meal. It used to remind me of the equipment I saw on pictures where Indian women were pounding corn into meal. It was a partially hollowed out log where the matzos were placed and hand stamped with something resembling a baseball bat with spikes on the end. This was a long tedious process, to produce fine matzo meal.
The not-so-fine matzo meal was used for matzo balls. Especially delicious were Geshmierte matzos and Chremzlach. The former were slightly soaked matzos with a thick covering of mixture of cheese, sour cream, and raisins and baked. The latter were a mixture of matzo meal, eggs, chicken fat and fried like latkes (pancakes).
Non-eating of leaven was strictly observed, and toward the end of eight days of Passover, we would be pretty tired of matzos. The boys of the town would stand near the exit of the besmedrash during the final evening service of the eighth day of Passover. Immediately, upon on conclusion of the service they would run to the bakery, owned by a Christian, and buy a Krengel, sort of a pretzel. It was considered an accomplishment, as to who was the first to make themselves chometzdick, i.e., the first to eat leaven.
An Unexpected Trip
Somehow, I dont remember the preparation for, nor the beginning of the trip. As if through a mist, I remember alighting from a train at the station Autz(en) in the middle of a late spring night. There were mother and brother Harry (Mendel) with me. We boarded what was called a dilijance, which had leather covered seats, and was pulled by two horses, and we were off on the way to Zagare. Among the passengers, that I was sitting next to, were a father and a son, a boy of about 8 or 10 years old. They were conversing in a language that I was hearing for the first time. It was akin to Russian, and I thought it was Polish because I heard frequently the word "Tzo?" which I assumed stood for "What?" Then all of a sudden, the father in an agitated voice was pointing out something to his son, pointing to the field. I too looked, and there, in the early dawn light I saw an animal running. The father said that it was a fox. He said, "Lisitza" which has the same meaning in Russian.
We pulled up at a house, which appeared much smaller than the one we lived at. Here was the home of Aunt Malka. Malka was a sister of Grandfather Moishe. Although, it was still semi-dark, she was already up, working in her kitchen. Specifically she was baking bread to be sold in her small grocery store. In a separate section, in the same house lived her widowed daughter Rivka Lasersohn. Upon our arrival, she was awakened, and both women were glad to see us. Personally, I was most anxious to see my second cousin, and namesake of my brother Mendel. I was told he was a year older than my brother and was still sleeping. Never having seen any of my cousins, I couldnt control my curiosity, went into the bedroom, which was still in darkness and felt his face with my hands but didnt awaken him. In the corridors of their house, there was a red tricycle and I felt envious. When cousin Mendel finally got up, being three years older than myself, he didnt seem to show particular interest in me, and slightly more in my brother (Harry) Mendel.
We remained in Zagare for several days in the home of Tante (Aunt) Malka. I was intrigued by the goods in her store. Sacks of beans, barley, peas and other foods.
Somehow, I dont remember seeing Grandfather Moishe (Moses) who stayed with his sister Malka. For the duration of our visit he probably stayed elsewhere. Mothers trip to Zagare took place in order for her to say good-bye to her father and to her aunt Malka before their planned departure from Zagare to Jerusalem, Palestine, which was then part of the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire.
While in Zagare, mother took us on a visit to her Uncle Tode (Theodore) Muschat. He was a brother of her deceased mother Shaine-Mina. He and his family lived in a poor looking house with an earthen floor. However, I do remember him as being jolly, and he gave me a silver five kopek coin. Shortly before leaving Zagare, mother was quite in a turmoil. She had brought a substantial sum of money, 30 or 50 rubles, and while in Zagare, she hid the money in the kitchen cabinet. The money was to pay for silver spoons which she had ordered from the Lasersohns. Each spoon was engraved with the initials of all of her five boys. To complete our return trip, mother borrowed money from her cousin Rivka Lasersohn.
On the way home we traveled through Riga. We visited an old Aunt (Dveira) who was a sister of Grandpa Moishe, mothers cousin Beila Geronick (Garron), mothers Uncle Miche (Micah) Muschat who was already in his summer dacha in Dubbeln. I remember being there, and we waited at the Dubbeln railroad station in the early evening for the arrival of the train from Riga. The sight and sound of the train coming through the woods was electrifying for me. We were greeted not too enthusiastically by Clara, her brother and sister who arrived on that train. The journey back home from that point, I do not remember. Perhaps we traveled during the night.
Postscript: upon our arrival home in Sasmaken, or perhaps a few days thereafter we had word, that mothers misplaced money had been found.
Forward to Part 2
© 1995 Solomon Katzen. Used with permission.