The reader will find in this volume; memoirs, descriptions, portraits and documents dealing with Jewish life and the history of the community; its active persons in public affairs, its types and odd characters and the heroic struggle for national and personal existence, down to the very last days just before complete annihilation and doom. These pages relate events of the distant past and more recent years; record the struggle of bygone generations of Jews in all fields of public endeavor: religious, social, political and cultural.
Drohichin was a small town, indeed. It conducted its life in modesty and humbleness. Its inhabitants did not aspire to greatness, because the burden of their meager material existence was heavy on each and all. Yet, in spite of all this, its spiritual and social life was inspired by faith in the goodness and higher meaning of human existence. For the older and deeply religious folks it was the sacred belief in the Hereafter ("olam habah"); while for the younger, and more secular elements, it was the ardent belief and struggle for a better and brighter world of equality and justice. Both, the religious as well as secular and worldly elements, shared the lot of our six million brethren in Europe who perished at the hands of Nazi Germany's brutal and beastly murderers.
This period of cruelty and human degradation is fully recorded in the third section of this volume subtitled: " The Road of Pain and Doom ". The men and women who write the articles of this section are those of our fellow townsmen who survived the Holocaust and felt it was their duty to record their own struggle against the arch-enemy of our people and to tell more about those who trod the path of martyrdom to the extermination camps.
The publication of this memorial book, dedicated to the sacred memory of our destroyed community, was made possible through the relentless efforts of our fellow townsmen now residing in Israel and the United States, who contributed their literary efforts as well as the financial means. They all deserve fully our appreciation and gratitude.
We are especially grateful to our worthy editor Mr. David Stokfish for his boundless patience and encouraging guidance during these six long years of gathering the material, careful editing and final preparation of the book for publication. Thanks are no less due to his esteemed colleagues: Mr. Abraham Knaani of Tel Aviv, who edited the Hebrew section and to Mr. Yosef Wilfand of Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, who translated and edited the English section.
The book thus consists of six sections.
I. There was, a town;
II. Characters and Portraits;
III. The Road of Pain and Doom;
IV. Drohichiners in Israel and in land of our Dispersion;
VI. English Section.
This subdivision, we felt, would be in the spirit of our martyred community's history. It would also solve the, so called, "language problem" of our times, thus making it possible for our children, as well as future generations of our descendants the world over, to read and learn about the life and final struggle of their ancestors, in the town of their origin.
It is now with a sense of a job completed and a sacred task performed that we humbly present this book to our townsmen and all readers.
Tel-Aviv, March 1969.
During the German occupation of our town, compulsory education for all Jewish children was introduced, but at that time I was not yet of school age. One day a young lady came to see us. She asked me, very pleasantly, if I would like to start school. Overcome with joy, I said yes. Then the lady began to enumerate all the wonderful things the children would do and learn at her school such as: reading, writing, singing and all sorts of handicraft; also go on hikes and present plays. It all sounded so wonderful that I began to dance for joy. Just then my mother came in and asked what the commotion was all about. When she heard about the school she immediately responded with a flat no. It was against the family's tradition to have a child of ours attend a gentile school, and she would not even hear of it. She offered instead to send me to a Hebrew school where I would learn to read the prayers in Hebrew, and also to Sore-Rivkah, the Shochet's daughter, for private lessons in Yiddish writing. I cried bitterly, but I knew that mother's word was law. Our visitor, the Polish lady, went away. A few days later my mother did send me to Soreh-Rivkah, but my lessons with her didn't last very long. I must have mastered the art of reading and writing so fast that my teacher herself came to mother and told her that she had no more to teach me. . .
What next? All my pals were enrolled in the newly opened Polish school, while I had to stay at home to play with my dolls, waiting impatiently for my playmates to come home. . . Then, one morning I could not stand it any longer and without mother's knowledge joined the other children at the Polish lady's class. I came without pen, pencil or notebook. The children were singing and talking freely, as they could already read and write. Only I felt as an ignorant outsider. When the teacher came into class I burst out crying; first because I came without my mother's permission; secondly, because I had no book or notebook like all the other pupils. It appeared that the teacher recognized me for she smiled kindly. She didn't even ask why I was crying, came over and gave me a pen and a notebook.
When I came home, I was punished just as I had expected. But I didn't mind the spanking, because this time I was not forbidden to go back to school.
The two young ladies who conducted out school came to us from Warsaw, only a short time after the Germans evacuated our town. They were intelligent and very devoted to their work. One of them was called Maria; the other Justina. Maria took the younger class while Justina had the older. Although there were age differences in each of the classes, they managed to conduct their teaching very well, and the children really enjoyed going to school., Our teachers did their utmost to help us in our work and gave special assistance to children of the poorer families. We children admired our devoted teachers. But the older and more orthodox elements of the community were hostile, because they considered them agents of assimilation. The Hassidic Jews did all they could to get rid of them.
I well remember how, just before Purim we were preparing a play and puppet show, in which I had a part. I had to recite some piece about a doll who got up at midnight and sang;
This midnight hour, when our fun begins. Those were days of joy and happiness for me; Then came the night of our performance, when the whole town came to see our puppet show, that was a smashing success!
This time I was sure was the end of my schooling. I waited outside until the other Jewish children came out. I knew that my family would not allow me to attend school on Saturday: then I was afraid that I would not be allowed to return because I had dared to talk back to my teacher. We, the Jewish children, decided to appeal to the local priest, about whom I shall have more to tell later on. I told the priest what had happened in class and burst out crying. The priest was a kind and patient man. He tried to calm us and told me that I may come back to school on Monday morning. Sure enough, when we returned to school on Monday morning, we found a new teacher, who even took a liking to me.
I recall yet5 another episode. Just across the road, opposite the synagogue there was an empty lot that belonged to Yidl Shinevitzer. From my window, I could see the tall trees. In the shade of these trees I saw one day a large group of Red Army soldiers. One of them was punished by the whip to the count of an officer. It was rumored in town that this soldier was flogged thus for plundering Jewish shops in town. It was assumed that the officer was a Jew.
When the Bolsheviks occupied our town their first act was to arrest the local priest. The elders of the Jewish community intervened on his behalf with the Russian commanding officer. Claiming that he was a good and noble man, who helped save Jews form death, they vouched for him that he would not escape.
Those were most difficult years for the Jews of our town. We suffered from all sides. After the Germans evacuated, came the Russians. Then the Poles. The victorious Poles avenged themselves on the Jews. Then the Bolsheviks, who came back, did the same. The priest, who remembered how the Jews saved his life now did his utmost to help Jews when the Poles returned to stay. He took in many Jews into his residence and ordered his Christian followers to guard Jewish stores from plunderers. It was said that he personally, with the holy cross in his hand, came down to the riverbank to save many Jews from being thrown into the river to be drowned.
Then, gradually, life returned to normal again. The polish administration reopened the primary school and also a high school. All the girls attended those government schools and also some boys from the less rigid non-hassidic families in town. The children of the Hassidic group attended heder or the yeshivah .
From the time of the Polish-Soviet war, I remember how Jewish girls were ordered to peel potatoes for the army kitchens. One day I saw how a Polish soldier was brutally beating a Russian was-prisoner hammering bullets into his throat.
One night our house was taken over by Russian soldiers and my father took in a few bundles of hay to pad the floor for them. Then, I heard sounds like thunder and loud noises, but I didn't know 3what it was all about. My father was nervous and began to wake the tired, sleeping soldiers. They were panicky and tried to escape, but most of them were killed by the attacking Poles. Only one Russian woman-soldier remained behind in our house. My mother hid her in the closet, but we were scared to death lest the Poles find her. She had her hair cut short and it was easy to tell who she was, for only the Russian Bolshevik-women had short hair cuts. The shooting continued all night and on the next morning the town was strewn with corpses of dead soldiers and horses. The peasants from our town and the surrounding villages came in hosts to plunder the dead, taking all their belongings; boots, clothes and even underwear. Then, they piled the naked corpses on wagons for burial or disposal. I felt deep shame and great pity for the desecration of these dead soldiers.
Ours was a thoroughly Zionist home. My mother, of blessed memory, would tell us all she knew of ancient Jewish glory and heroism. We children absorbed her stories of the Maccabees and of Biblical heroes with palpitating hearts and flaming faces. She told the stories of old but linked them to the present and future of our people, thus kindling our hearts with faith in a bright future of our nation in the land of our fathers. Invariably, at the end of these tales we imagined ourselves packing for the happy journey to the land of Israel.
At the well attended mass meeting in the evening the same speaker presented his credentials as an accredited agent to sell lots in the land of Israel. My mother offered her jewelry, without even asking the man who he was or where the proposed land plot was situated. Other Jews followed her example.
Our parents came back from that meeting happy and satisfied with the deal that they had made. They had in their hands an officially signed receipt that certified their title to a plot of land. So, they woke up the children to tell them the good news recounting every minute detail of the great meeting. Then, the table was set for a little celebration in honor of the great event.
The whole town was teeming with excitement. Everybody talked about going to Palestine, but we were the first to sell our belongings in preparation of the big journey. Only our extremely pious neighbors were dubious. They thought that the time had not come yet, and that Jews better wait for the Messiah, instead of turning our heads with deeds of land and journeys. My mother, too, was a pious woman but she felt that there was no future for Jews in Poland and that one should go before it was too late. Let the Messiah on his white donkey come after us to Eretz-Israel!
Mother came back after a week or so but the joy of our prospective journey was now dimmed by mother's illness. She came back with a bad cold that soon developed into pneumonia. During the foll9owing six weeks our house had many doctors' visits and the room was filled with all sorts of medicines. But all the efforts to save mother were in vain. She was sinking fast. On the last Friday night, before she died, she called father and addressed him thus: Promise me, Motenke, to take our children out of the galut (exile). She held his hand and made him promise just that, before she fell asleep forever. . .
Remembering, however, what he promised mother before she died, father finally decided to overcome his waverings and on a cold winter morning in January 1921 he bade farewell to his many friends who gathered in our house. Many of the assembled were envious of father who was about to realize the hopes and dreams of his life. Only he himself was sad and moody; hardly a participant in the lively conversation. He held our baby sister, just about two years old, hugging her closely. When the coachman came in to haul the baggage on a sleigh, he didn't really have much to take for except a pillow and some other bedding all of father's baggage was already outside. But, father was still hesitant. He couldn't tear himself away. Friends began to urge him: Reb Mordechai, the carriage is waiting. Father burst into tears, I can't go, it's a crime to leave nine little orphans. It was clear that such a dialogue could not go on very long. So, he had to be put on the sleigh forcefully while the coachman was ordered to let the horses go, full speed.
The appearance of these young Zionist organizations also raised hopes for our passage to Eretz Israel, to join our father. Meanwhile, we were anxiously for letters, each morning inquiring our mailman whose invariable reply was: Niema Nitz (nothing at all). Then, one day our mailman shouted to us from afar: Children, a letter from Palestine. With trembling hands we opened the long awaited letter, that contained, in addition to a warm fatherly letter, a paper bill of one pound sterling. In those days in Poland this was a considerable sum of money when exchanged for Polish Zloti, enough to live on for a whole week. This of course, called for a grand celebration. We acted accordingly with a load fo bread and a couple of good herrings.
A few days later came my brother's affidavit, then also, the papers necessary for the entire family. At that time the economic situation in Palestine also improved and father was able to send us enough money to live on, while awaiting final arrangements.
Our house by that time became a meeting place for Hashomer Hatzair and other Zionist-minded groups. We held meetings, reading sessions, discussions, and parties.
The train was to pass the station of Butki where relatives of our met to bid us godspeed. From there, to Bialistok where another uncle of ours (one of my mother's brothers, Nusl Bielin, who was a Hebrew teacher) also bade us godspeed. Then, directly to Constanza, the Rumanian port of sail, on the Black Sea.
Our long and difficult sea journey, under most unsanitary conditions, defies description. It lasted for eight long days. We were hungry most of the time, for each passenger had to live on whatever food he brought along and we had very little. Instead of meals the children were fed on hopes and promises, that soon we shall be with father in the land of our dreams. . .
Then one sunny morning, when all the passengers turned out, on deck, we saw before us the wonderful panorama of Haifa Bay and the Carmel. Tears of joy overflowed our eyes. There was kissing and embracing when the ship landed and all our woes were forgotten. We spotted our father and brother on the pier, but there were still quarantine formalities to overcome before we could join them. We still had to wait a few days in quarantine. It was midsummer and very hot. Father arranged for the children lodging with a friend of ours. It was a bare wooden shack and we all slept on the floor, because we still did not have the means to rent a more decent house.
In 1936 father acquired a plot of land in Yoknaam and settled there. We now remembered our mother, of sainted memory, who would have been the happiest person to own her own land in Israel.
So the years passed. When in 1948 the state of Israel was established and our children participated in the war of Independence, we again remembered our good mother, whose great dream now came true. We recalled what she so trustingly declared: No child of mine will serve in the Polish or Russian army. My children will fight for King David!. . .
Drohichin, a Russian town in Czarist times, lay right on the Bug River, the border line of the old Grodno District. On the river's opposite bank, the Polish district of Shedletz began. I could never understand why the name of the nearest village on the Polish side was called "Russkie stroni" (Russian side) until an old Jew offered the following explanation.
It seems that the course of the Bug River once ran deeper into Polish territory and this village belonged to Russia under the Grodno government. So, the Poles named it "Russkie stroni". In time, the river changed its course, flowing more towards the Russian side so that the village was now on Polish territory. Still, the old name remained.
Drohichin Jews spoke a Yiddish dialect akin to that spoken by the Jews of the Ukraine (Baruch they pronounced Burich). They made up a community of about 200 families. Everybody knew everybody else's business and the other fellow's good and bad points this, from the esteemed Rabbi down to the humblest water carrier. It was also a community where people cared for one another; and, should anybody not be seen for a few days, neighbors and friends felt obliged to inquire where and wherefore.
Our Rabbi was a great Talmudic scholar, but he was a Mithnaged (an opponent of hasidic teaching). And so the hasidim, according to their belief that only they can be truly God-fearing Jews, didn't think very much of him.
Now it happened one day, shortly after Passover, that some Jews of nearby Semiatich had a legal dispute with a member of our community. They brought the case before our Rabbi. Because of the immediacy and importance of the case, our learned Rabbi missed his afternoon and evening prayers. He also forgot to recite the usual Sfira count which occurs after the evening prayer. (Sfira lasts 49 days, from the day after Passover to Shavuot, and orthodox hasidic Jews strictly observe it).
The next day, when the Rabbi came to the synagogue the members asked him to say the proper benediction before the Sfira recitation. He declined, stating that in accordance with custom one who's once missed the count shouldn't mention it again with a blessing.
And what a stir this caused! Mithnagdim and hasidim reacted with amazement to his confession. Both sides discussed this happening! The mithnagdim were furious: "A Rabbi should forget the count Sfira Disgraceful!" On the other hand, the hasidim praised and admired the saintly man who had had the courage and piety to admit his omission in public. They respected his not reciting the benediction in vain and considered this a sign of true Godliness.
Followers of the Radziner Rabbi- ranked first among the hasidim in our town. They wore blue frills in their "tzitzit" to distinguish them from the rest. Next, came the adherents of the Slonim Rabbis.
In its earliest years of existence, Drohichin lacked a Jewish cemetery, so families buried their kin in the town of Semiatich. Later, as Drohichin expanded, the Radziner hasidim asked their Rabbi to organize their own " Hevrah Kaddisha" (burial society). This he did. The Rabbi also introduces a "pincas" (register) and he took care of all those details called for in establishing a well-ordered Jew cemetery.
Now the establishment of a Drohichin Burial Society naturally infuriated Semiatich undertakers who suddenly were faced with the loss of a substantial income.
One day, the gabbai (treasurer) of the Drohichin society visited Semiatich. While there, someone approached him and mockingly asked:
"Do you at least know what they say to the deceased when he is lowered into the grave? You surely don't know, do you?"
The amazed gabbai returned to his home-town and repeated the insulting question to his friends. After much discussion, they decided to turn again to their Rabbi. They wanted to know the proper words to say to the about to be interred. "You simply say, 'May we not lie with you before you rise'," the Rabbi remarked.
Several Jews in our town gained renown for their witty puns, which were repeated with joy and jest.
Especially did Reb Pessach Note, an old Radnizer hasid who lived to see his 90th year, acquire fame as a master of the 'double entendre'. Once when an illness confined him to bed, the Rabbi came to see him. Without giving the Rabbi a chance to inquire about his health he floored him by picturesquely inquiring: "Tell me, Rabbi, did you come to fit the size of your eulogy for me?"...
On another occasion, he again pronounced some very unexpected words. This occurred on the day when we were returning from my grandmother's burial ceremony. Now my grandmother Rosie had lived into her 70th year, and Chayche, her twin sister, survived her. As is natural at such a time, we were all deeply engrossed in our own thoughts. Imagine our amazement and surprise when out of a clear blue sky, Reb Pessach-Noteh announced: "I knew all along that Rosie would die. After all twins don't usually live long..."
Another time, Reb Pessach-Noteh paid a Passover holiday visit to his Rabbi in Radzin. Now, it seems that one hasid had had a very frightening dream about "hametz" (unleavened bread) appearing in prominent sight on the Passover table. This nightmare had so upset the hasid that he sought relief by asking the Rabbi to interpret it.
Shortly afterwards, our witty Pessach-Noteh saw this hasid walking ahead of him in the street. He came behind him and made a loud nasal grunt. Puzzled by this nasal sound, the hasid who still vividly remembered the dream, asked what was wrong.
"What's the matter? Do you smell something strange?"
"I think I smell unleavened bread!" came the naive reply.
Much alarmed, the hasid quickly fled to see the Rabbi again. He told the Rabbi that even Pessach-Noteh sensed the smell of hametz on him.
Hiding a smile, the Rabbi quieted his hasid's fears. He knew Pessach-Noteh's love of playing practical jokes, so he sent word asking him to let the poor devil alone.
And who could forget Chayim Velvel Rosen, who spent his last years in Warsaw. Materially speaking, Chayim was as poor as a church-mouse. Even his last name seemed to bespeak his lack of wealth. (In Yiddish, the word "rosen" means dearth.) Still Chayim possessed a very rich sense of humor that endeared him to many.
Chayim could explain all kinds of things. Once shortly after the Succot holiday, he whimsically accounted to me the reason for his poverty:
"Because, during the holiday prayer when the cantor chanted 'lasova' (plenty), all responded 'lo'lrosen' (not for Rosen)".
Town's people frequently wanted to know how Rosen's rich nephew in Warsaw treated him. Chayim quipped:
"My nephew is rather rich, but he does not come up to me."
One day the topic of conversation revolved around the merits of all sorts of meat - veal, beef, chicken. Now "off" in Yiddish means chicken or eat up. You can imagine the smile he brought to faces when Chayim explained:
"Ich ess stendig off." (I constantly eat up! or: I constantly eat chicken).
Another upright citizen, Reb Shilem lived for a time in our town. A disciple of the famous Chefez Hayim, he later earned the appointment of "dayan" (a religious judge) in Pruzan. But, for a time he taught the Talmud to a group of live mischievous Drohichin boys. When one of his pupils disturbed the lesson, he'd threaten him thus:
"I am going to spank you soon, God willing!" [The original Hebrew phrase for God willing is "Blee Neder" (without taking the vow)].
Piety and fear of God he had in abundance. To entrust his wife with the relatively simple task of salting the meat - making it kosher - unthinkable! He did it himself. Also, many were the bowls, dishes, pots and pans that he stored up in his attic because he doubted their "kashrut" (ritual fitness for use).
And how Reb Shilem feared that he might cheat the local grocer, this became a great worry of his. Since he frequently took journeys and would be away for great lengths of time, he would ask the grocer to charge an extra ruble for the groceries his wife would buy while he was away. For how awful it would have been if the grocer had cheated himself!
Pious Goldeh, another inhabitant of Drohichin, became known for her talks with the dead. In moments of crises and troubles, she quickly scurried to the graveyard. There she prostrated herself in supplication over the graves of the dead that they should help in the present situation. She'd also hurry there to deliver all good tidings to the departed. Once I heard her speaking to my mother about my grandmom buried in the cemetery:
"Feige," she casually stated, "I have already congratulated your mother on the delivery of your daughter's boy."
Goldeh spent her old age with her son in Warsaw. There she lived to be almost a 100 years old. She was a little old woman, the size of a 10 year old girl, and a frail little thing. Fear that she might die without reciting Vidui (the confessional prayer) preoccupied her. She made it a point to ask all who visited her to recite this prayer from the traditional "Korban Minhah" (prayerbook) which she always kept by her side.
Days full of fun and sunshine belonged to summertime. During this time, timber merchants floated their cut trees down the Bug River towards Germany. Many Jews worked then, and our town benefited from the 'water Jews' - the name given to those who helped to transport lumber down the Bug. These 'water Jews' spent much money in town, purchasing food and other things which they needed.
However, misfortune also came along with the pleasantries of the river. I recall how the Bug River claimed the lives of Baruch Hilke's two children who drowned in it. Also, I remember a Sunday that saw an unusual influx of lumbermen in town. So great was their number that the bakeries couldn't supply them with enough bread.
Another time, a 'water Jew' had to change a 100 ruble note. Only one of the storekeepers, Moishe Fervel, the owner of a hardware store and richest merchant, kept that much cash on hand. This Reb Moishe would charge, for his service, 15 kopeks - a goodly sum.
This same man possessed his own philosophy of life. He frequently posed his favorite question:
"What is the difference between the day after Passover and the day after Succot?"
When you asked him what it was, he'd reply:
"After Passover, there's a boxful of Matzos left over; after Succot, a boxful of soiled underwear!"...
And people would ask him, "How's business?" To this, Moishe, when pleased with the profits of a good market day, invariably responded:
"Business wasn't so good today."
Afterwards he'd explain his reason for this reply.
Let him too be happy..."
On the other hand, a bad market day evoked a retort that business was good! Why this response?
"For why should only I be unhappy?" he revealed. "Let my competitors feel bad too..."
Moishe led a rather modest life, and from his home one couldn't tell that he had wealth at his fingertips. Nor could one tell it from the way he dressed. Also, he'd respond very generously if you'd ask him for a donation to some worthy charity. He once told someone:
"I don't wait for them to come to me for charity. After a good business deal or a good market day, I put aside a certain amount of money as my contribution. So, I'm really not taking the money out of my pocket, for I never regard this sum as belonging to me. All I have to do is decide how much I want to keep out."
Another very wealthy resident, Srolke Bloch, lived in a brick building located in the center of the town's market square. Each morning, well dressed and with his beard" nicely groomed, he'd regally promenade across the square to the synagogue. Under his arm would be his talith bag; and in his right hand, a cane.
Townspeople honored him with high status and prestige. They acknowledged him as the undisputed host of the Slonimer Rabbi, whenever this saintly man came to our town. Only an important personage could host such a distinguished guest. Also, a woman who'd immigrated to America paid tribute to his position. In one of her letters, she wrote that her home in Americas was even nicer than Bloch's...
Not only did we reside near the Bloch's, but our general store, where we sold everything from herring, kerosene, tobacco, cigarettes, shoes and overshoes to sewing kits, was close to their dry goods store. So, it was natural that his family bought goods from us, and we from them.
Whenever our two families settled business accounts between us, an interesting spectacle would occur. Then Hanche Bloch, Srolke's wife, would request a special favor: for although she'd pay for everything she had bought, she'd ask my mother not to list everything on the written bill. This way her husband couldn't become aggravated with what he might have called extravagant spending. And, Hanche reciprocated when my sister, Hannah Bashe, requested the same favor from Hanche. Hannah definitely didn't want her husband, Avrum Hayim, to think he had married a spendthrift.
The pious women of Drohichin were really marvelous. They made good housekeepers, fine business-women and wonderful mothers. As a rule, they worked harder and much more than their husbands. They also accepted their lot as a matter of course.
It's at this point that I must confess my sins. As a boy of about nine, I felt that my mother didn't allot me enough pocket money to buy sweets. Because of this, I sometimes dared to take a penny or two from our store's cash box.
Now Asher Bloch, Srolke's son, and I palled around together. We kept no secrets from one another. I once asked him if he ever took "extra" money when he needed it. He admitted that he did, but his didn't come from the store. It seems that his mother would regularly send him to the bakery shop to buy several loaves of bread. If his mother told him to buy seven, he'd only purchase six and pocket the rest...
Srolke Bloch found it extremely difficult to talk. Words choked him and only with the greatest of difficulties would he manage to stammer them out. In the synagogue, though, another Srolke appeared. There before the altar he spoke with clear and perfect enunciation.
One of Srolke's sons ventured a visit to Eretz Yisrael. A trial to see what life was like there then, the trip proved to the son that it meant doing without many accustomed luxuries. He also realized that if his sister would come she'd have to do her housework. Life without hired help for his pampered sister No!
So he returned to Drohichin and shared the lot of all those who later perished as Hitler's victims...
Another outstanding member of the community, Reb Nachshon, was the head Talmud teacher of his own "heder" (school). This teacher accepted only the very bright pupils who came from 'good' families. Parents used to dream of having their son study under Nachshon. And, people being people, some became quite upset and unhappy because so and so's boy was also accepted there...
During the Succot holidays and Passover, one would see Nachshon formally strolling in the market place with the fathers of prospective pupils; the topic of discussion being the terms of enrollment and tuition fees.
Although hefty and fleshy, Reb Nachshon said he rarely ate to satiety. Weight just seemed to attach itself to him. Two other things distinguished him. First, in all seasons, this observant pious hasid wore a large velvet hat. Second, on shabbath mornings during the Torah reading he'd remain standing, eyes shut and body swaying and rolling fervently.
As a teacher, he gained fame as a strict taskmaster. Never once did he smile during lessons. Then too, he put great faith in the dictum that 'he who spares the rod, hates his son.' To make sure that he abided by this rule and performed his professional duties, he'd frequently resort to using the broad rubber belt from the sewing machine. Because he fastened the end of it into a hard lump, the boys called it "dos knipl" (the knot). Oh, yes, he did apply this "knot" to the bottom of his pupils' anatomy!
At the beginning of the school year, Reb Nachshon would divide his students into two groups: the bright ones and the slow ones. Sitting himself at the head of the table, he placed on one side, the bright pupils, and on the opposite side, the 'thick heads.'
Invariably the weekly class schedule followed this pattern. Sunday, we studied together; Monday in pairs; Tuesday, each one by himself; Wednesday, one had to know the full assignment; and Thursday, judgment day! the test. Usually this test took the form of oral recitation. First the more intelligent would be called on to recite their lessons. After this group finished, our master would turn to the other half of the class and sighingly would remark:
"Now we shall have to turn to the goyish section."
(The term goyish, meaning Gentiles', also means the ignorant and slow learners.)
Most students already knew from experience exactly when the knot would be put into usage. One of our fellows cleverly devised a way to avoid feeling much pain. Taking a paddy towel, he put it under his clothes so it'd soften the blow he'd receive. This did work.
Also, in the classroom, this Rebbe kept an alarm clock locked in a glass dresser. The reason for it being locked in a safe place is really very simple to explain. It seems that a certain gremlin once set the alarm to ring before lunchtime...
Girls also went to school at Reb Nachshon's heder. His wife, Leah Nehamah, taught the girls how to read the prayers from he Siddur.
Oddly enough, this learned couple never attended any teachers' training seminary. Still their pupils weren't uneducated. The boys excelled in their Talmudic studies while girls knew their prayers fairly well.
Concluding these memoirs, I should like to record an episode that happened in my own family when all lived in Drohichin. Although a true story, it sounds almost legendary. One could compare it to the Talmudic legend of Shulamite, later popularized by Goldfaden as an operetta on the Yiddish stage.
Now my grandfather, Reb Meir Drohitchiner, was a great scholar. Talmudic students respected his knowledge. Even in his old age, when eye trouble affected him and he could see very little, they'd still come to his house for instruction.
Grandfather, in his youth was a mithnaged (a staunch opponent of hasidim), but after his marriage, he gradually changed his beliefs. Life with his in-laws, followers of the Rodzen Hasidic Rabbi, affected his ideas. Still he never lost some of his original habits and attitudes. For one thing, he was accustomed to reciting all the 'piyutim" (poetic passages) of the "mahzor" (a special prayerbook for holidays) on festival days like Passover, Shavuot and Succot, before leaving for the morning services. This the others never did.
Although my grandfather and grandmother had had ten children, only my father survived. Very much worried about the life of his only boy, grandfather went to his Rabbi and begged the holy man to ask God to grant his wish.
Just as he was leaving the Rabbi's house, another supplicant, a hasid from Chekhanow, appeared. This hasid feared for his only daughter's life, and like grandfather, he wanted the Rabbi to "promise" that his baby would live.
Upon hearing this, the Rabbi called my grandfather back and asked eight more Jews to come to his house. This way a "Minyan" (a quorum of ten Jews) would be formed. What the Rabbi had in mind was the announcing of a marriage between the two babies, for the Rabbi believed that arranging a "tnaim" (a formal engagement) would serve as a remedy to ensure their survival... (This practice occurred frequently among hasidim).
So it happened that when my father, a little boy, started school, he received presents from his 'bride'. First she sent him an "Aleph-Beth" (alphabet); then a "siddur" and then a "humosh" (the Pentateuch - the five books of Moses).
Years passed. The father of the bride became very wealthy while my grandfather remained as he was - a great scholar, but far from being rich. As the two children grew up, the "mechuton"
(the brides father) forgot all about the engagement. He gave his daughter in marriage to someone else. My father, too, became engaged to another girl. All seemed to have forgotten. Suddenly one day, years after my father's marriage, he received a summons to appear before the town Rabbi. Father couldn't imagine what the Rabbi wanted. He put on his Sabbath coat and went to see. At the Rabbi's he met the hasid from Chekhanow, the man who might have been his father-in-law.
There, the hasid had much to say. He brokenly explained the sad story of how his daughter had died during the birth of her first child, how his wife had become mentally deranged because of her daughter's death, and how a fire caused him to lose half his fortune.
At this point, he recalled the formal agreement made between him and my grandfather. He now came to implore my father for forgiveness and begged my dad to accept several hundred rubles as retribution.
Since my father already had two children, this money would have come in handy. Still, the precept of "honor thy father" meant much to dad. He couldn't accept any money without first asking his father - Grandpa Meir - what he should do.
After father repeated the story, Grandpop ruled that not one penny should be taken. Also, father should completely absolve the poor misfortunate hasid's oath. And this did my father do.
Ah yes, I remember those days of yore - days of life filled with happiness and sorrow as found in our town, Drohichin.
One of these churches was situated not far from the market place, and its front side was part of the street leading to our synagogue. Another church was surrounded by a high brick wall intercepted by a heavy gate that was always shut. Only the tops of the fruit trees overhanging it's walls could be seen from the outside.
The third church, also enclosed by a wall. a fence and a gate? was shrouded in mystery and Jewish school boys passing by were afraid to come near it at night, although they were rather curious to know what goes on within. There was a well inside this enclosure and during the day it was permitted to draw water from it. The entrance was through a wicket gate. Once inside you could see a quadrangle of two story buildings, which was strictly out of bounds for all but the staff and students of a girls' boarding school conducted by nuns. No one in town ever saw these girl-students outside without being accompanied by their chaperons.
It is of this girls' boarding school, and especially of two inmates that I want to tell one curious episode. There were two girls of Jewish families from Grodno, but neither I nor anybody else of the town ever found out how and why they, or their families, chose to send them to this thoroughly Christian boarding school.
It seems that the pious nuns were sure that they had the rare chance of saving these two ' sinful" Jewish souls and treated them accordingly. When, however, the two girls stubbornly resisted attempts to convert them refusing to change their loyalty to the Jewish faith for the Christian "son of God", they were punished severely and forced to do the most degrading menial labor in and around the school. One of the girls, Sonia Halperin, somehow managed to transmit a secret message to her father in Grodno, describing the situation they were in, and asked to be rescued. When the father came to see the school directors, he was told that his daughter and her friend were disciplined for disobedience and stubbornness. The desperate father, leaving the school, came to consult our local Rabbi, appealing for help to save the girls from forced conversion.
Our Rabbi went into action immediately. He summoned to his house some young fellows of the town who could handle such matters. Among these were such boys as: Leiser Resnik (Avrumche's son) Feivel, son of Shaye the cobbler, Meyer son of Berl the tailor, Matuses's two sons, Zelig the capmaker, and Berke Grogilsky, the shoemaker. These took upon themselves to do the job.
The plan was to have the two girls slip out of the dormitory at midnight, hide in the abandoned church near the corridor leading to the bell-tower, while the fellows outside would fasten a tall ladder reaching up to the window of that tower.
The plan worked and the girls were rescued and conducted back to safety with their families in Grodno.
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