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[Pages 20-21]

Our Shtetl Dusiat

By Miryam Slep

Translated by Shlomo and Sara Guberman

“Jewish Lithuania built up its spiritual universe without 'show windows'. Its spirit never meant to gleam, to scintillate, to dazzle or to amaze. Nothing in it was intended to create a brilliant impression on the outside. Everything was done for the sake of inner quality. Lithuania was a land of fruits, not of flowers, and even its fine fruit did not boast particularly bright or attractive hues.”
(Kariv, Avraham. Lithuania, Land of My Birth, p. 91, translated from the
Hebrew by I.M. Lask and Gertrude Hirschler, New York, 1967.)
 

Dusiat is a small Lithuanian shtetl in the district of Zarasai, in the province of Kovno, and is nestled along the scenic shores of Lake Sartai. The River Sventoji (“Holy One”) stretches for many kilometers, cutting through numerous small towns and runs through our little shtetl before spilling into the lake. Human beings have never set foot in some parts of the forests surrounding the shtetl; rumors and stories are whispered of roaming bears and other predators there. On Saturdays, however, we would go to the more familiar areas for picnics and to pick berries. Whenever we wandered too far and lost our way, my cousin Rasya, with her good sense of direction would save us by leading us out of that maze!

Most of the houses were made of wood, although several red brick houses did add to the variety and beauty of the shtetl. The Goyim had fences around their homes; their gardens were a lush green and much prettier than those of the Jews. Their flowers were so colorful and gave off a wonderful scent. While the Jews did not tend their yards, here and there one could spot a few flowerpots on the window ledges.

On cold winter days we used to dress up warmly and frolic on the ice. Whenever the lake froze, we would skate and pull our sleds across it, while in the summer we would go sailing. Swimming and bathing in the lake was a Friday ritual while on Sundays it was the turn of the Goyim to sail their boats on the lake. I remember so vividly their beautiful singing.

The bathhouse stood near the lake. It served as our social center, in much the same way the kibbutz shower once did! Bathing there was not just a matter of cleanliness, but also a healing of the entire body. The steam that rose up was so thick we couldn't see one another. The higher you climbed the steps in the bathhouse, the hotter the temperature. Sitting on the topmost step and having your back pounded with twigs (beizem) was considered to be an act of exceptional bravery. Sighs of relief would ring out in all directions: “Oy, a-mechaye! Oy a-mechaye!” (“What pleasure! What pleasure!”)

Very rarely was a doctor called into the shtetl. We had a pharmacy, and the pharmacist knew what medicines to prescribe. Even though it seemed that very few people got sick and that people lived longer, I have to admit that a sixty year-old woman already looked quite old. Maybe this was because of the fetcheyle (scarf) on her head and the apron tied around her waist...

Respect for the elderly was a custom people took for granted. No one treated old people with disrespect, nor were they ever forsaken in their old age. Perhaps the prayer “Al tashliheini…” (“Do not cast me aside...”) served as their protective right. Our grandmother Chaya-Sore lived a long life; the older grandchildren would take turns sitting at her bedside, and I remember we would do the same for Bobbe Sore-Beile.

Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon, the Vilna Gaon, led the opposition to the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov by banning the practise of Hassidism. The spreading of the Hassidic movement stopped at the borders of Lithuania. Hence the coining of the sobriquet “Lita Ha'misnagdis”, while “Litvak” came to be synonymous with “Ha'misnagged” (opponent).
There were two synagogues in the shtetl. One belonged to the Mitnaggedim who comprised the majority of the shtetl residents, while the other belonged to the Hassidim. The Hassidic synagogue was quite a unique building. On most occasions it was empty, and it was sad to see it so. However, on Simchat Torah it would be filled with jubilance. During this festival the Hassidim would literally go wild with ecstasy. The Hassidim emphasized happiness and joy, while the Mitnaggedim were “dull and dry”. In my time, the younger people seldom attended synagogue services, although they did keep Shabbat. They did not travel on Shabbat, and the shtetl was quiet with all the wagons standing motionless.

The church stood at the edge of the shtetl, right before the bridge, with towers that could be seen from near and far. This magnificent church building was the spiritual center for all the Goyim in the area. Whenever a respected Goy passed away, they would take out the church vessels and put them on a decorated wagon. They would then form a procession and march all the way to the Christian cemetery. The priest would lead the procession, together with a group of children dressed in special uniforms and chanting hymns. For some reason, we used to fear this procession, and never dared get too close. Perhaps it was because of the large number of Goyim who were gathered there.

I don't recall any physical fights between the Jews and the Goyim. Nonetheless, the atmosphere was quite tense, and we always felt as if we were “neta zar” (outsiders). On market day the Goyim used to come to our home. They would thirst for a drink and make anti-Jewish remarks, “supposedly” in jest. We sensed that there was more to their comments than just humor. Jews knew that the Goyim despised the Jews. There were also stories about blood libels. I remember during Passover when we offered matza to our non-Jewish guests, they would ask whether it was made from the blood of a Goy...

The Goyim were farmers, while the Jews were traders and artisans. Jews ran all the stores. The Goyim only started opening cooperatives just before the time I made aliya to Eretz Yisrael. They would spread tales about us in order to persuade everybody not to buy from the Jews. The main income of the Jewish stores was made mostly on Sundays and Wednesdays. On Sundays the Goyim from our shtetl and from the surrounding area would first gather for church services, and afterwards they would fill the shtetl and do their shopping. On Wednesdays, which was market day, the Goyim would arrive on their wagons loaded with farm produce. Although some Jews did keep cows in their yards, they were usually under-nourished and produced very little milk. Jews bought most of their food on market day, storing the items in big jars and baskets in their cellars.

Most of the shops were adjacent to the homes. There was an opening in the house with a ladder leading to the cellar where the food was stored. That is where fish was kept and where they used to bring up the varenye - different types of jam and confiture that had been prepared and preserved in large jars over periods of time.

Each house had an extremely large oven that took up a lot of space. In the winter, we would sit on it and even sleep there. Anyone who had already claimed a warm spot would not readily give up his place! You felt so lazy when you were sitting on it. That was also where we used to do our homework. The oven was used for baking bread, challah and matza; attached to it were the burners for cooking.

Lithuania was annexed to Russia towards the end of the eighteenth century and fell under the rule of the Czar.
In the wake of WWI, after the map of Europe was cut up and re-formed by the League of Nations (Entente Cordiale), Lithuanian independence was declared on February 16, 1918.
Hebrew Tarbut (culture) schools sprang up in independent Lithuania. The school in our shtetl gained a good reputation, and children from the neighboring shtetls would come and study with us. The school principal was my brother-in-law, Hillel Schwartz, and my brother Yehuda Slep was a member of the teaching staff.

The school had a preparatory class, as well as four other classes. Some students attended the pro-gymnasia (junior high) and then went on to study at the gymnasia (high school), usually in places where family members lived. I wish to point out that, in those days, it was common for people to stay at home and study autodidactically.

Yiddish was the spoken language, although most of the Jews in the shtetl, both old and young, also mastered the Hebrew language. This was true for my mother Chaya-Tzipe who spoke, read and wrote Hebrew. My father Emanuel's Hebrew was impeccable.

The Zionist movement in Lithuania was extremely well established. Youngsters from Dusiat joined the youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. Many of them made aliya to Eretz Yisrael, and played an important role in the building and settlement of the country, as well as the establishment of a number of kibbutzim and moshavim. There was also immigration to other countries, in particular South Africa, America and Brazil.

Then World War II broke out and the evil destroyer appeared and annihilated the Jews of the shtetl. No trace of the Jewish population of Dusiat has remained.

On the Shores of the Lake …

R. to l.: Micha Slep and his sister Henia, Rasya Kagan, (-).
In the background: the shoemaker Moshe-Mote's house, Hassidic Minyan, the new flourmill, and on the edge - the bathhouse…

 

Sixty years passed by until I went back to my old home[1]

 
Miryam (second from left) with her relatives from the USA, 1992
From right to left: Mary (Weiss) Horowitz [descendant of Zipe-Leah (Zilber) and Avrom-Aba (Tabak) Weiss[2]] with her daughter Susan Cartun and sisters Poritz, Olga Zabludoff and Lily Miller

 

When we reached the centre of the shtetl I jumped from the car while it was still going at full speed, and quickly ran “home” … I wondered then how my feet remembered the way and took me straight back … With great emotion and a trembling heart I walked here and there with my relatives, along the streets and along the banks of the “Ozere” [lake]. I related memories to them of bygone days and couldn't stop. All these memories came before my eyes again and again …

 

 
Here's my room, still with the same wooden floor the color of brick red …   I remember the day when
we reconstructed this roof …

 

Footnotes

  1. Pictures courtesy of Susan Cartun and Sara Weiss (Slep), 1992 Return
  2. History of the Zilber Family from Dusiat by Susan Cartun Return


 

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