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I Dreamt of Being a Farmer in Eretz Yisrael (cont.)

Enchanted by Bible Stories …

We were eight siblings; the result being plenty of quarrels, especially between myself and my brother Avraham, who was a right brat, but did grow out of it.

I also remember beating up our sister Henka. Why? Because while we were just sitting around idly, she used to pass us by and say to us in a parental tone: “Kinder, nemt di Gemore” (“Children, pick up the Gemore”) emphasizing the “Gemore”, and that would just drive us crazy, at which point we would beat her.

I loved Bible studies, unlike the Talmud lessons. Our neighbor, Reb Shaul, was a learned Jew, and taught Talmud to the elders. He didn't bother with children, but as a good neighbor, he obliged when my father implored him to tutor me. He would come to our house, and started teaching me some lessons from the Talmud in Aramaic, while Father was present in the room. I already knew Hebrew, but I found Aramaic difficult. Reb Shaul kept explaining it to me, but I just didn't get it. I simple didn't have a taste for it. He taught me other Talmud lessons as well, for the next six months, but I wasn't as enchanted with the Talmud as I was with the Bible.

One could say, I suppose, that this was the beginning of my love story with Eretz Yisrael, as it must have been for others, back in cheder, during Bible classes. We lived and breathed Eretz Yisrael. But I don't think I had a real clue as to what Eretz Yisrael was about.

During that time, I was reading the book by Buki Ben Yogli (Dr. Yehuda Leib Katzenelson), called “The Song of the Nightingale”.

The book was cherished by many youth in the Diaspora, and much like the hero in the book, they, too, wove their dreams of coming to Zion and working the land. Also among those dreamers were the youth of Dusiat.[7]

The book left a great impression on me, and got me dreaming about Eretz Yisrael.

Across the street from us lived the Elbingers who owned a large store. The wife was extremely capable, and the husband was a great scholar, almost a rabbi! Their son would sit in the attic, studying Talmud, and my mother longed for me to be a rabbi, like him. When she consulted with him, asking whether I should be sent to a yeshiva, he answered in Yiddish: “atzvek iz dost nit” (“There is no point in that”)…

At some point, there was discussion of my going away to yeshiva, an idea I rather liked probably because it had to do with going out of shtetl … but my father insisted I acquire a profession.

Later, my relative, Yoske Kagan, invited me to come and visit his yeshiva, but added: “Between you and me, I was kind of forced into this.” I came, I saw, I didn't like it, and Father enrolled me at the Jewish Vocational School in Dvinsk (Daugavpils).

But let me tell you first about my studies in the Russian Elementary School.

At the Russian Elementary School (Narodnoya Utchilishtcha)

Thanks to the connection my father had with the headmaster of the Russian school in the shtetl, I was one of the few Jewish children to attend it. I wrote the entrance exams, along with Beile, the daughter of Moshe-Leib Berman, the melamed.

Moshe-Leib was a Hassid, dirt poor, but a great scholar. He had a unique talent of compiling sentences with puns. I remember that he said, regarding the words “pihuta” (“infantryman” in Russian) and “pe hote” (“verbal sins” in Hebrew):”If the boy had no 'pe hote' ('verbal sins') he would have been more than a 'pihuta' ('infantryman')…”

Moshe-Leib's son was a master Hassidic storyteller, and I would stand there, listening to him, with my mouth agape.

Shayke Glick: Moshe Leib was extremely orthodox. He wouldn't speak from the beginning of Shabbat to the end. And if he did, it was only in Leshon Ha'Kodesh (“Holy Tongue” - Hebrew).

Rachel Rabinowitz: Beile graduated from university in Paris, became a doctor, and married an Italian professor…(see also pp. 110-112)

Well, they had a question on the blackboard, and Beile was called upon first, but made two mistakes and failed, while I gave the correct answer, and was accepted.

Soon enough, I found out that this class was above my level. The headmaster actually tried to help me, and gave me a preparatory book. I remember a rather complex story in the book, so Father paraphrased it for me, and I would get up early every morning and learn it. It was hard work! I also struggled with arithmetic, and had to ask the gentile children for help in geography. During that term, they were not in school because they had to help their parents in the fields, so I asked the help of two shikses (non-Jewish girls), one was the Orlin's neighbor. Apparently the shikses were better students than I!

Father kept helping me with the homework, but I wasn't able to answer the questions in class. “But you did the work at home,” the teacher wondered. What was I to tell him? That Father did my homework?

When a place became available in a lower class, I was transferred, and things got much easier. Mother wondered: “Until now, you had to get up early and cram, and now you don't!” Indeed, in the higher class, I felt inferior, and in the new class, I actually enjoyed myself.

In the Company of Gentiles

As a Jew, I was excused from religious instruction and Lithuanian classes taught by the priest. I remember the picture of the “Madonna” hanging in front of me in class. I found it repugnant. And the gentile children often teased me. I remember they would lay a pork chop in front of me, and I had to bribe them with some pie, so they'd take it away.

Once, when it was my turn to clean up, this kid, Batchis, grunted at me: “Do you call this cleaning? Wait till the teacher gets here and I'll tell him.” I was so angry, I slapped him, and his cheek immediately swelled up. I was petrified of the reaction. But amazingly, Batchis suddenly behaving as if his wings had been clipped, and even before the teacher walked in, flattered me and pointed to the notebook he had bought in Grandpa's store, and didn't tell on me. His father was a watchmaker, a liberal, intelligent person, whose wife taunted him for not going to church regularly. The father was an excellent man, and the son was a troublemaker, and an anti-Semite!

Chaim Levitt: I remember Yosef slapping the kid who smeared lard on his lips; I think it was. As I recall, he broke two of the goy's teeth. Naturally, we were afraid of the reaction, and should have just avoided confrontation. The teacher Doblebovitch, a non-Jew who knew what had caused this, made sure the whole thing was forgotten. He may have been bribed to do so, or was afraid of being fired. Did the Rabbi interfere? Not in matters such as these. For such matters, it usually took the intervention of the Great Rabbinate located in Novo-Alexandrovsk[8].

The headmaster was replaced, and his successor was a more liberal man. And then we were joined by another Jewish boy, from a poor family. The teacher observed that he would not amount too much, and disregarded him. And so, the gentile kids interpreted it as permission to taunt him, although he was quite big, and I remember Beile who was quite brave, letting the teacher know who his tormentor was. The teacher pinched the chin of the “sheygetz” (gentile boy), and scolded him. I hated that kid even when he grew up, although we would go ice-skating together. Once the Bolsheviks came into the shtetl, he joined them.

During the Pogrom

I was five years old during the pogrom in our shtetl. There was a rumor that the goyim were about to harm the Jews, and I remember Mother worrying about it, but Father dismissed her saying it was women's nonsense. We went up to the second floor of Chaim-Aaron's pharmacy, and locked ourselves in the room. With us was Rabbi Bunim-Tzemach Zilber[9], father of Sara-Nechama, the pharmacist's wife. From there, we heard glass breaking, and saw the horror: feathers from the pillows were flying all over, covering the ground like snow. Stores were being robbed, and barrels of honey rolled from Grandpa's store out to the street. We went home and discovered the dial had been taken from the big wall clock.

The chiming of the church bells horrified me, and for the longest time, I would not go anywhere near the church. To this day, I carry those horrible memories with me.

(For more about the pogrom see pp. 65-69).

And During the Fires…

I remember, when I was just an infant, walking in the street with Mother, looking at the buildings in ruins. I asked, “What is that?” and they said there had been a fire… salvages from that fire remained standing even as I grew up. I was told that the “Priziwniks”, the men who enlisted in the army, were celebrating before going away, and had lit the fire as a prank.

Seven years after that fire, there was another one. They said then, that it was a pay back by some of the rioters who were jailed after the pogrom, and so when they were released, they set the shtetl on fire in revenge. This fire fell on the week of “B'haalotecha”, the portion in the Torah (Numbers, 8-2).

I remember I was studying with Yosel Chatzkel (son of Faivish, my Grandpa Hanoch's brother). I was holding the Gemara, and I suddenly heard someone shouting that there was smoke billowing from a big fire in the center of the shtetl. I rushed home to find my mother terrified, and everyone else packing their belongings. They spread a large sheet on the floor, and put all the bed linen on it. There was a vacant yard near the church, and all the people who were burnt by the fire gathered there. We stayed there until the evening, and a Tatar friend helped us and stood watch over our things. I remember Father talking to him (the Tatars in the shtetl spoke Yiddish), asking him who, in his opinion, was responsible for the act.

Then we moved into Uncle Shmuel-Itzik's house, and the next Sunday, another fire erupted. Mother cried out to a gentile to come and help us save our belongings, but he ignored her. And when I bellowed at him, he came and helped us with what little we had left.

Shortly after that fire, Asher Chaitowitz the tailor moved into his new wooden house. A few nights later, I was looking through the window and saw a light! The church is alight! I started screaming: “Fire! Fire!” – Asher the tailor's new house went up in flames. They said then that Puternis, the goy who lived in the worker's slum amongst the laundry women, lit the fire. He was a thug, and they said he was settling a score…

Our house also went up in flames then, and we moved in with Grandpa Hanoch. We crowded in there with the Orlins, and it was quite cramped.

Ester Pomus: Micha Slep, Yosef's youngest brother, was born then in our house.

The next morning, we went out to see if there was anything left of our belongings, and I stepped on a pile of steaming coal, and burned my foot. Musl, my relative in Abel (Obelai), daughter of Chaya-Mina, cured it. She put compresses of flax seeds on my burnt foot. And how I got to Abel is a whole different story.

(For more about the fires, see pp. 67-68).

Civilization in Abel

The day after the fire, our relative Shlomo Friedman, son of Bertzik and Chaya-Mina, arrived from Abel, and invited my mother to come and visit with them for a little relaxation. Chaya-Mina was the sister of my maternal grandmother, Sore-Beile. Mother did not accept, but my brother Avraham and I liked the idea, and climbed up on the wagon, barefoot and dirty. We must have been wearing tattered clothes as well, because I remember the children of Bertzik's neighbor taunting us and saying: “Bertzik's kroyvim un geyen tzerisn” (“They're Bertzik's relatives, and they're wearing torn clothes) …

Apparently, our sad attire did not match the status of our rich relatives. Why “rich”? Well, they did have a piano … their daughter Musl, who owned a fabric store, made us new outfits, and I remember she refused to take the money Mother offered for them when she came to visit in Dusiat. Musl's little boy from her first marriage, Micha Zeidlin, was quite the brat, and he encouraged us to bang on the piano keys, until his grandmother Chaya-Mina came to shush us. He also taught us to drink tea out of a glass in a most impolite manner, and when we continued to do so at home, we were heavily scolded by Mother. She was very meticulous about our polite behavior. To this day, if I happen to take an impolite sip, I look around fearfully to make sure I am not caught…

In Abel, I first met Raphael Charit who was a student, already had a star on his hat, and used to wear sandals – a rare sight in those days. I took long walks with him, and he urged Avraham and myself to write home. When we came back home a week or two later, Aunt Freidl said: “You arrived together with your letter,” and added, “They must have taught you to brush your teeth,” … meaning that we were back from the civilized world…

In My Uncles' Homes in Dvinsk

During the years 1912-1915, I attended the Jewish Vocational School in Dvinsk, and lived with relatives. At first, I stayed with my aunt Riva-Leah, my father's sister, whose deceased husband, Avraham-Ber Toder, I had met in Dusiat when I was younger. Their home was in Masnetzkaya. Her grown children had already moved out. The one I recall the most was Shmuel who was a dental technician, and later immigrated to the United States, following his brother, Nissan. I remember that I decided to go home for Sukkoth, along with my friend Wolfe Lifshitz, but Shmuel got hold of me and brought me back to their house.

After Uncle Avraham-Ber passed away, Aunt Riva-Leah became the matriarch of her large family. She was an excellent homemaker and woman of valor. Being a fabric merchant, she would travel the roads a lot, and during one of those trips in her wagon, gentiles murdered her.

Two of her grandchildren survived the Holocaust and reside in Israel: Avraham, son of Bertha, and Lola, daughter of Vichka. (See pp. 392).

Avraham Levitt: I am the namesake of Grandpa Avraham-Ber. My mother told me that Grandma was murdered during the First World War. In our home, there was a photo of Grandma's grave. Mother said that she and her sister Vichka traveled in search of their mother's burial site, and found it somewhere on the Polish border…

Lola Levov: I am the namesake of Grandma Riva-Leah. My mother kept her maiden name, and the sign on our door in Dvinsk said: “Vera Toder Gurwitch, Midwife”. My mother was known as Vera Borisovna (daughter of Ber) Toder.

Aunt Riva-Leah was a vivacious, busy woman, and this is probably why I moved in with her brother, my uncle Shmuel-Itzik Slep who left Dusiat after the fire…

My uncle Shmuel-Itzik inherited an apartment building in Dvinsk, across the street from the synagogue. Every so often he would ride from Dusiat to Dvinsk to check up on his property, until he decided to move there. My father also had an “inheritance” in Dvinsk. But once the rumors started that the government would allow Jews to live in the big cities in Russia as well, Father feared that the commercial center would move from Dvinsk to central Russia, and his property would lose its value. And so he sold it…

My uncle Shmuel-Itzik was also a hard-working man who despised laziness. He himself would paint the apartment he rented out, which was quite unusual for a landlord. And all his children had to acquire a craft. He strongly opposed the religious institutions, and while I stayed with him, I noticed his children were not very orthodox, and they would even tease me about my orthodox attire, wearing “Arba Kanfoth[10] … His sons were scholars, all yeshiva graduates, who did not practice religion faithfully, but rather in the spirit of the Haskalah (Enlightenment Movement) which had a great influence on Lithuanian Jewry: ”Be a Jew in your home, and a 'mentsh' outside…” A few of his children live in Russia and America today.[11]

It has been over seventy years since I last saw my cousin Nechamka, the daughter of Shmuel-Itzik. She came to visit us with her family from Los Angeles, and we exchanged pleasant memories from our childhood.

 

Nechamka Silver (daughter of Shmuel Itzik Slep)
In the company of her cousin Yosef and his son Yair
Kfar Vitkin, May 9, 1985

After a year, I moved in with my uncle Moshe Chatzkel, Mother's brother. The house was always open to visitors. There, I met our relatives from Libava (Liepaje)[12] for the first time. There were Zundel Ginzburg and his son Dov who had come to enlist in the army, and stayed with us for a while. When they were about to leave, Zundel offered Aunt Chasya some money for her trouble, and she refused it, which amazed me. After all, they were not very well off.

Once the First World War started, and refugees streamed into Dvinsk, my uncle asked me to write a letter in Russian to my aunt's relatives in Shadova (Seduva), to invite them to come stay with us. And so they did. I remember their daughter Liba who was crippled in the hand, and yearned to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael. And later I learned that because of her disability, she was refused a certificate to make aliya.

Times changed, and Jews were allowed to live outside the restricted areas, and so Moshe and Chasya moved with their family. In her letter to Eretz Yisrael, my sister Henya wrote us: “Mom had an idea for you to send one funt (pound) to Uncle Moshe in Russia, for Passover”…

I have pleasant memories of my aunt Chasya who was the daughter of Reb Koppel Margalith, a famous scholar. Chasya was a gentle urbane woman. I remember that when she came to Dusiat, her sisters-in-law gossiped that she wasted money because she would buy ready-made noodles. They would always preach to her in shtetl, and she could not find her place there. Chasya sang well, and used to visit the theatre. I kept in touch with her daughter Leike, even after I made aliya. Before they moved outside the restricted areas, she wrote me: “I live here, with no love, no purpose,” and I answered that one of the main reasons for my making aliya was her mother, Aunt Chasya, who would sing Hebrew songs to me about Zion, Goldfaden's songs, and others. I remember my aunt also writing to me, that her dream was to come to Eretz Yisrael. This dear family perished in the Holocaust.

Talking about Aunt Chasya reminds of me the famous story, “A Mother's Heart”, she once told her friends. It was when my great-grandmother Hene-Zelda Katz-Friedman passed away in my grandmother Sore-Beile's house. I remember they placed her body on the floor, and lit candles around it. I was very emotional, and the words of the mother in the story, “Are you hurt, son?” increased my excitement. I was about six years old at the time.

In my uncle Moshe's house, I read the books of the Hebrew author Avraham Mapu, “The Guilt of Samaria” and “Love of Zion”, as well as other Hebrew books. Zalman Charit saw me reading a book in Hebrew, and stopped by to tell me about his visit to Eretz Yisrael, which thrilled me. At my parent's house, I had heard about the settlement Hadera in Eretz Yisrael. My father bought land there, but cut his payments short…

In Dvinsk I met Micha Zeidlin again, when he came to say goodbye to his relatives, the Charits, on his way to Eretz Yisrael, along with Yitzchak Charit (son of Chatzkel), and Yosef Charit (son of Yehuda). It was in 1913, the very day of Baylis's acquittal (victim of a blood libel). Yitzchak Charit was one of the founders of [the town] Afula. Yosef Charit was one of the leaders of Hashomer. As for Micha Zeidlin, I learned before I came to Eretz Yisrael, he was murdered by Arabs (October 4, l918). Only lately did I find out how, and that he was buried in Tiberias.

(Press “Next Page” for continuation)

 

Footnotes

  1. [12] Katznelson, Leib. (Buki Ben Yogli), Song of the Nightingale. Published by Ahi'asaf, Warsaw, 1894 (Literature of the Enlightenment Movement, Shaarei Zion Library, Tel Aviv). Return
  2. District capital. Previously known as Ezerenai, but after Lithuania regained independence, the town reverted to its Lithuanian name – Zarasai. Return
  3. Also father of Reb Eliezer Silver, the famous Rabbi, who described this pogrom in the foreword to his book “Anfey Erez”, Cincinnati, 1962. Return
  4. “Four Fringes” – prayer shawl worn by religious Jews. Return
  5. Nissan Slep, Nechamka-Anna Silver and Merke-Mary Zalburg lived in the USA. Hirshke Slep and his brother and sisters lived in Russia: Yosef, Breine-Berta and Lessl-Lena Kaplan. Yudel and his wife Rochel-Gitl with their five children perished in the Holocaust. Their son Gershke survived (see pp.402-403). Shmuel-Itzik Slep and his daughter Geula Rivak and her little child perished in the Holocaust. His wife Feige, daughter of Reb Shmuel, died in 1935 in Dvinsk. Return
  6. Libava or Libau - city in Latvia, of German orientation. Return

 

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