My father's name was
Menachem Yoel Hacohen Kaplan
This was also his grandfather's name. My mother's name was
I know my great-grandfather's name on my father's side, because I have
a copy of a small book that my grandfather had published on education in the
(Click on photos to see
an enlarged copy)
[Title pages of a book written by Rubin's grandfather, and as far
as we know the only copy in existence, printed in Warsaw in 1894]
The book is called
("One Who Speaks the Truth")
and has to do with how parents should deal with children. It bears his father's
name alongside of his:
, the son of
Menachem Yoel Hacohen
of the city of Slonim.
The book gives a remarkably modern approach to bringing up children - with
kindness, the answering of questions honestly, etc. One of the endorsers of
(Rabbi Yisroel Maier Hacohen from Radin)
I met the
after the First World War, when he passed through
Baranovich on his way from Russia. He was already world famous and one of the
rich men in town had the honor of being his host. A special minyan of ten men
was called to morning prayer in his house. My father took me along and I
shook the honored man's hand.
Rubin, Bertha and Helen
The Kaplan family
The Kaplan brothers
Click on photos to see an enlarged copy
I remember very little of my grandfather,
Dov Aryeh. He was Dayan of Slonim,
in White Russia (Belarus) and was known by the name of
Laskes". I visited there once at a very young age, maybe three or four.
I remember the courtyard, the gate, and faintly, my grandmother. As far as
I can understand, grandfather was called Berel Laskes because it was
who made a living for the family, by keeping a guest house. Her name was
and Dov is Berel in Yiddish. As I understand it, the wife being the
the husband was therefore nicknamed after her.
Grandfather, in those days, was studying Torah – how else could he have been a
A dayan is one to whom Jews would bring their conflicts. Sometimes a dayan
a few pennies for his services, but as a rule, the dayan refused because
was considered unethical.
My father was
, the chazan, shochet, and mohel – cantor,
religious slaughterer, and circumciser. Father had a good singing voice
and memory. If he heard a guest cantor on Shabbat, on the following day
he would write it down in musical notes with the words in Hebrew. He
also gave voice lessons and organized a choir. Being a cantor was not
enough to make a living, so he learned slaughtering in addition. I don't
know how he met my grandmother, but I can guess since her brother-in-law
was also a cantor. Father also had a sister named
a brother called
, who lived in Novogrodek. My mother
came from Mezeritch in Poland.
Father's first position was in a small, historic, Jewish town, halfway
where I was born. The houses of Palonkeh, as well as of Baranovichi
where we moved later, were built of logs, with moss packed between
the logs. All windows had storm windows for the winter, and glasses
filled with acid were placed between the panes to keep them from frosting
over. At the rear entrance to the house was an enclosure called the
where the barrel of water stood, along with garden tools, etc. Under the
firhouse was a dugout, a cellar of sorts, entered through a small door
in the floor. There, in the sand, or on shelves, were stored potatoes,
onions, carrots, beets, etc., milk for souring, and from which the
cream was removed to make butter, and jelled sourmilk, which was
eaten with potatoes. The pigs belonging to the Christian neighbors
would come into our yard, and dig up the garden with their snouts.
My mother was afraid to chase them away, and it would have been no
use since the garden was not fenced in. Once one of the pigs
to the priest discovered the vegetables in the cellar, dug his
it, and fell in. My parents were scared of what might happen,
Russian maid Antonina went and complained to the priest that
had ruined the contents of the cellar. The priest got hold of
men and they promptly pulled the pig out.
Across the street was a grocery owned by the
Perevelotsky's. They later moved
to Nova Scotia and changed their name to
. In 1965, they came to visit
us in Brooklyn and we sat around and reminisced. The oldest son of
Yisrael Ber Perlin
had many stories to tell of Palonke, of which I will mention one:
"In 1904 or 1905, Russia resounded with pogroms. The Jews of Palonkeh,
heard from friendly gentiles that there was agitation in the church, calling
on the farmers to sack Palonkeh the next Sunday. The young Jewish people
to defend themselves, and they worked out the following plan: One group of
men armed with sticks and knives would await the invaders (farmers from
villages) near the bridge, so that the farmers would see what was in store
them – a fight. A second group of young men was sent at night to hide
the haystacks in two of the farmers' villages, and observe from a
the events near the bridge. If the planned attack did take place, it was
up to this group to set fire to the haystacks. The farmers did show up
masse on the appointed Sunday. They ignored the small group of
near the bridge, and tried to push their way into Palonkeh.
noticed smoke rising from their villages. Only if you have seen a
burning can you imagine the smoke and fire. The roofs of the
were made of straw, the houses of logs. Panic-stricken the
back to save their homes ... learning a lesson for years to
I remember once seeing
Yisrael Ber Perevelotsky. He had been drafted into the Russian
army, and as was the custom, he was sent far from home, to serve in Siberia.
remember how long he served – four to six years – but I do remember that he
a different person. I happened to see him before anyone else did, as he
came from the
railroad station, directly to us, before going by wagon to see his family
He looked like an assimilated big-town Russian in his dress, language and
He wore an army uniform – the long Russian
, a military coat, and a
large fur hat
. He could hardly speak Yiddish. He spoke with a heavy
Russian accent, using a heavy
. Instead of the word
used by Jews in deep Russia. After a reunion with his
family, he left for Canada. After the First World War, he brought
brother and his parents there, and there is still a large Palonker
In 1908 or so, when I was four or five, we moved to
Baranovichi, a town having at
that time only one shochet, an older man. Baranovichi was a new town. There
was a farm
called by that name, and when the railroad to Moscow was built in the late
ran by that farm. A road was built parallel to the railway at the same
time. This railway
eventually connected Berlin with Moscow, and became a major link between
What came to be Baranovichi was in the midst of heavy pine forests which
belong to a
Graf named Razvodovski. This Graf was a businessman, and in 1895, as
soon as the three
railroad stations in our area were built, he parceled up the land into
blocks and sold them. The town at that time consisted of lots with a
in the middle. The lots were big, with rooms for gardens, a yard, and
a barn. In the
old part of town ("Alt Baranovichi"), on a little square, stood a large Russian
church. It was very tall and was called
"belief"). In a corner of the square was a tiny building
belonging to the Catholics. There was also the
, a crosscountry
cobblestone road that cut diagonally through town and led to
Minsk and deep
into Russia. The Shosey had deep paved stone ditches on both
sides to drain
rainwater. Eventually the Russian government built a large
camp for soldiers
("a lager") there, and one of three bread factories ("sucharney zavod")
for the army.
Due to its central location, Baranovichi soon became a focal point for
of products for the soldiers. Storehouses, warehouses, and workshops sprang up
and the town grew by leaps and bounds. The main business street was called
(because of the rich people there) at first, then later
, and under Polish
. On one side of the street were stores and shops, and on the
other side were the farms. According to Czarist law, Jews were not allowed
to live on
farmland, and so could not build on that side of the street.
Baranovichi had two
synagogues, facing one another almost across the street.
Everything was built from logs, since the city was surrounded by heavy
One synagogue was called the
, and there the Rabbi prayed, and a special
house was built for him nearby. The
was used for big meetings, or when
a Magid (traveling preacher) came to town or an outside cantor performed.
new synagogue was called the
(Artisans place), and there
my father ruled as the regular cantor. His free seat was next to the
He organized a choir, and the
(community leaders) loved him.
On holidays, he would bring them some new
and the choir added extra attraction.
The small artisan shul was usually kept locked, and was much cleaner than the
On the east wall above the Holy Ark were four large paintings – a tiger, a
a lion, and an eagle, representing a well-known saying that a person should
and swift and obey God's commandments. In later years when we moved
would go to the "new" synagogue. It was nicknamed the
meaning former prisoners, since some of the
a very clean moral record. Once one of the
met me in
the street and asked where father was. I answered in Shul. In which one,
he asked. In
, I answered. At that moment, I received
(slap) in the face, teaching me never to use
that word again
We did not own a house in Baranovichi, and I remember three apartments – all
I will try to describe the layout of them:
Picture the kitchen, which led to the firehouse, and the yard. It had a window,
under which was a
"tapchan", a wooden bench, useful for many things, a small table,
and stove implements such as a
(a long wooden pole with a metal hook to
take ashes out of the oven), and a
(a long stick to take pots and pans
out of the oven).
The maid slept on the tapchan in the summertime, and on the oven in the winter.
the pots were of clay or cast iron, and you had to have a steady hand to get
them in and
out of the oven. Then there was a
"l'yak", made of copper, which served as a tea
kettle, with a small handle on the side and a narrow opening in the center
of the top.
During the winter, it sat on the coal, and on Shabbat, naturally, it was
of hot water for tea.
The construction of the oven was complex. The bottom of the oven served as a
where I often crept to get the eggs out, or to clean it. During the winter,
were fed in the kitchen. The wood fires produced a great deal of charcoal,
then used for baking bread, for cooking, and for warming the house. The side
oven facing the dining room served as a wall and was covered in tile.
It is interesting to recall that in the good old days before World War I, each
had its particular food. Friday mornings were special - we ate potato latkes
buckwheat cakes with cream or sour milk. Lunch was hobergritz (ground oats)
or dairy. Meat was served only at night. Before going to synagogue, we had
and a "zemel", mother's sweet baked rolls, with lots of raisins
At the table, each one had his place, and no one ever dared sit in father's or
place. Mother sat to the right of father, and to his left my brother Yikutiel,
then my brother Yankel, then I. A guest's place depended on rank, but usually
to Yankel and myself. The maid always ate in the kitchen, after everyone
The Friday night meal lasted a long time. Between dishes we sang
(Sabbath songs). After the meal and the blessing, Yikutiel would be the
one to sneak out of the house, and then Yankel. Father, very tired, would
at the table for a long time, drinking tea from the steaming samovar. I
remember once when my Aunt Bashke, my father's sister, was our guest. It
was Friday, after the meal, and father had dozed off in his chair. Mume
(Aunt) Bashke told mother that if someone got hold of a sleeping
by his pinky and asked him questions, he would answer in his sleep.
Mother wouldn't dare, but Bashke did... Sure enough father had
their conversation and pretended to sleep. He gave the women all
of answers, and we had a lot of fun afterwards joking about it.
Preparations for winter
The preparations for winter in Baranovichi were numerous. Wood had to be
well in advance - good wood such as birch and other hard woods that would
and leave a lot of charcoal. We hired a laborer to split the wood. Then we
stock hay for the cow. Father went from wagon to wagon, testing the hay for
scent, and quality. He preferred hay with little flowers and a good scent.
We could borrow a chopping machine and chop the straw ourselves, mixing it
with bran from the mill and cut-up potatoes. During the winter, we added
boiling water instead of cold water to the mixture. We also stocked up
vegetables for ourselves like potatoes and carrots, along with goose
feathers, and down.
Not all the streets in Baranovichi were paved, and those that were paved were
covered with round field stones so that passing wagons made awful noises. But
the sidewalks and entrances to the houses were not paved. When the snow
or rain came, the mud was knee-deep. The unpaved streets turned into lakes.
sidewalks on some of the streets were made of wooden planks. These were
15 or 20 centimeters above the water, but if a board broke or was loose,
you stepped on it, the water splashed right into your face, and on all of
your clothes. This situation lasted through the winter and beyond
until all of the water dried up.
Since father was the Shochet, when slaughtering chickens, he had the right to
pull off the top feathers on the rooster's neck. These were collected and sold.
He also had the rights to calves' stomachs, a great source of income. On these
he worked hard. Father sometimes brought a sackful on his back. We cleaned
tied up the wide end, blew them up, tied the small end, and hung them to
After drying, the heavy end was cut off and the air let out, and we packed
in bundles of one hundred. These dried stomachs were powdered and used in
Holland for making curds.
Water and wells
Baranovichi is built on sandy soil. The only water we had came from deep wells.
A rope was tied to a roller with two handles on each side. In wintertime, the
ice built up high and it was dangerous to go too near lest we fall in. Still
the maid would fetch the water for the house and for the cow, standing
on the ice, cranking the handle, and bringing up two pails at a time.
Sometimes she would even stop to chat with someone. I still wonder how
she did it. She did wear her shoes though to church on Sunday.
I saw how the wells were dug. They were originally lined with logs, but later
on with concrete pipes. The first two pipes were lowered into a hole dug in
the ground. The next pipe was placed on top of the two, and from then on it
was dug under the first one, the sand removed, and the pipes sank by their
own weight, until water was reached. Some rich people had their own wells
and a pump installed. These wells also served for making dishes kosher
for Passover. The dishes were lowered in a pail into the well, there
being no river for miles around.
The first automobile – chortopchayka
Our first apartment was near the Shosey. One day we heard loud noises and ran
out to see what it was. A car passed, the first we had ever seen. We were not
the only ones who came out to see it. As people looked on in amazement, I
the remark the gentiles made in Russian, "chortopchayka", meaning
the devil is pushing it.
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