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[Page 11]

The Koydanover Relief

by Noakh Rozevitzky

Translated by Lillian Leavitt

I left Koydenov in 1920. After experiencing the changes of the First World War, I came to America. But the town with its hills and streets, my old friends and the residents of the town were always right before my eyes. I always longed for them.

When the Second World War broke out, I, like most others from our town, was extremely worried about the situation of the Jews in Koydenov. I was very much relieved when the news that the Red Army had freed Koydenov reached us. But what had happened to our relatives and friends? How many were left alive and how many had died? We couldn't get news about that in the early days.

It occurred to me that I might turn to the Post Master in Koydenov and ask him to bring a letter to the Jews in town, to let them know they could be in touch with me. My letter worked. I received a reply from Shimon Elye the butcher.

Shimon Elye was a neighbor of mine back home and I remember him quite well. His letter, which I received with great joy, also brought me the tragic news that of all our Koydenov Jews, only nine were left in Koydenov. The Nazi murderers had killed 1600 Jews. A number of Jews managed to escape to the woods, or survived in the Red Army, but in the early days, no one knew where they were.

Soon letters of surviving Jews began to arrive: around twenty each week. The question was: what could be done to help them? I went to the Koydenov Society, but had no results. Every society had its own special assignment and obligation to its members.

I went to talk to my friend, A. Evans (Avrom Evanchik, back home) and he promised to call a meeting at his home with some of the townspeople. There I had the most unexpected surprise of seeing my friends from back home - Louis Shulman, Yosef Heller, Morris Binder and Peshe Gitlen, friends that I hadn't seen in 25 years. It was a moving moment. We kissed and cried for joy.

We immediately went to work and called up the first memorial meeting on the 21st of October, 1946, in the fraternal club house.

Several hundred townspeople came- all with the same thought: to help their surviving townsfolk. At that point, the Relief group under the name of “The United Koydinov Relief” was founded.

The first officers were: Gershon Singer, Chairman; Avrahom Evans, Co-chairman; Bernard Grossman, Treasurer; Leyb Shuman, Co-treasurer; and Yosef Heller, Secretary. I was chosen to maintain the connection to the Koydenov survivors on the other side of the ocean. Abe Evans received the assignment of sending help, and Morris Binder was chosen to arrange activities.

Our dear friend Abe Evans volunteered to use his business office as the office for the Relief. He also donated his time to watch over the work of the Relief. Peshe Gitl Fraynt did a two-fold job: help me write letters and help send out the packages.

We immediately started sending food and clothing packages to the address that we had and we received replies and greetings saying that had received it all.

At this point, we have addresses of 460 surviving Koydenov Jews. The majority of them are in Minsk and in Koydenov; others are in other cities in the Soviet Union. In addition to the regular packages that we sent we also sent out several hundred matzo-packages.

The responses we received and the joy of the surviving Jews were our greatest rewards. For me personally, every letter we received from a survivor was a joy. It was like the arrival of a new- born baby in the family. I walked around carrying the letter and showing it to every one of our townsfolk.

“Our town Koydenov is rebuilding itself” wrote Yosef Siratkin (Zarekh the tailor's son), Berl Glazer, and Zaritzky (Rakhmiel the mason's grandson). “The economy is improving. ”

It won't be long before the Jews of Koydenov no longer need our help, but we must not abandon our organization. We need to broaden it. First of all, as Koydenover we can do helpful work for the state of Israel, which needs help. We've already sent off several hundred dollars to Rehoveth where an orphans' home is being built. There will be a room in it dedicated to the 1600 Koydenover martyrs. We plan to send more aid. Secondly, the Relief has brought us Koydenovers in America closer together. We have found friends and old friends from back home. We are bound together in helping our townsfolk on the other side of the ocean.

The Koydenov Relief has given us Koydenover the opportunity to find 460 surviving Jews from our beloved old town; martyrs that lived through the Nazi hell and came out alive. They are very dear to us. We stand united with them and we will assist them as much as we can. The Koydenov Relief has also bound us more tightly together and found old hometown pals and friends.

At this point, I don't want to write about the Koydenov of my youth although I would have a lot to say about that. What I want to talk about here is the importance of the Relief, and what it means to me.

We need a center, where all the Koydenov folks, regardless of which society he or she belongs to, can get together for one purpose: for the Koydenov hometown community. We could also use the center for general Jewish cultural activities for our folks. We could build a youth division and interest our children in the life and traditions of our hometown.

We need to always stay in touch with the surviving Jews of Koydenov, to show interest and friendship toward them even when they no longer need our help. We want the name Koydenov to remain not only as a memory in this book! No, rather, we want it to become a living memory through maintaining ties with the Koydenov folks in America, as well as with Koydenov folks throughout the world.

I also want to mention the chairman of the Koydenov Youngmen, my friend and townsman Nathan Klumak. Through his initiative the Yizkor gathering in October, 1946 raised 迼. In 1950, it was through his initiative that the Relief committee became known as the “United Koydenov Association” and he is the chairman of the organization. We wish him the best of health and that he continue working in the organization for the Koydenov folks and also for the state of Israel.

[Page 15]

Gathering of the United Koydenover, in Evans Hotel, Kiamishe, New York, 1948

 

[Page 16]

Gathering of the United Koydenover, in Evans Hotel, Kiamishe, New York, 1948

 

[Page 17]

The Appearance of Koydanov

by Avrohom Evans (Avremel Evenchik)

Translated by Pamela Russ

In order to give you a picture of the town Koydanov – if we would draw a circle around the area of the town – we would find the stores (small shops) that are found in the marketplace right in the center. The stores are set out in the shape of the consonant “khes” with a “patakh” (the “a” vowel sound) under it. The marketplace is sprinkled on all sides with all sorts of stores: groceries, gallantry shops (better goods and materials), manufacturers, hardware stores, stores with pots and pans, second-hand clothing stores, stores for shoes, for skins and furs, for herring, for dairy products and for meat. These stores gave a certain charm to the appearance of the town. The entire economy of the Koydanov residents was dependent on the business that went on in and among the shops, and understandably, also on the business that the farmers brought from the surrounding villages. They brought their grains, wool, flax, etc.

The houses in the marketplace belonged to the successful Jewish businessmen in the town. The Russian church was also there (a brick building), with five domes and an iron gate around it. Six streets stretched out from the market. Two were parallel, called New Minsk and Old Minsk, and another two parallel that were called Slutsk and Rubizewycz, then one street called Vilna, and another called Parabotsk (or Stankov). I just want to remark that at every corner in the market where there was a street, there was a building (actually a large storehouse), that had a very characteristic structure and served as a designated place for the aristocracy and wealthier peasants to park their wagons and coaches. There were a few of these structures in the middle of the streets.

[Page 18]

The shul's courtyard had a prominent place in the town. It started on the corner of Slutsk Street in the market. That's where all the shuls in the town were located – the brick building of the Beis Medrash (place of learning) that held the new Beis Medrash, the tailor's Beis Medrash, and also the small Beis Medrash. They were all in the same building as the brick Beis Medrash. At the edge of the shul's courtyard was the khassidic shul with the Rebbe's courtyard. In that same place was the town's bathhouse, with the famous flowing waters all around that was called the “metzula” (“deep waters”). Also, this was a place of recreation for the children during the winter, for those who would go skating, particularly on Shabbos, when they were free from school, and the Rebbe and their fathers would not see them, because the skating was behind the khassidic little shteibel (small house of prayer).

Other than the few main streets, there were also a few smaller streets, which were called the “humnes” (or the barns), that were parallel to Slutsk Street. Also Sadowa Street (Orchard Street) near Rubizewycz Street. Also there was a small street between the new and old Minsk streets that was called the Tatar Mountain Street, which had an old cemetery from a long, long time ago, when the war befell the entire Russia.

The judicial district held a real prominent place at the edge of the town, where there was the Polish church with its famous “tall mountains” (spires) with the Calvinist seminary, and the match factory that was called Stronginz factory. There were also some small streets that had no name and that were populated with Jewish residents. One such street was between the shul court and Parabotzk Street, and also between New Minsk and Old Minsk streets, and also between Slutsk and Rubizewycz streets. This last one was called Model Street.

At the end of New Minsk Street, there was a bridge that stretched to the train station. Here the Koydanov Jews would stroll on a Shabbos afternoon to watch the arrival of the express train as it passed through without stopping. At the end of Vilna Street, a village became visible that stretched for a few versta (a little more than one kilometer), and there only farmers lived, because Jews were not permitted to live there.

[Page 19]

This village was called Makoitchitz. Two Jewish brothers inherited the rights to live there from their parents. Their names were Shloime and Beryl Kahan, and they were really called by the name Makoitchitzer. The villages and courts need also be remembered, that is those that belonged to the Koydanov volost (Soviet rural administrative division), with a population of about 35,000 souls.

A very prestigious place was held by Stankov that belonged to the famous Count Chapski, the governor of Minsk. He owned many courts, but the one that made the greatest impression over us was the small court of Halinka, because that had the closest river for us to bathe in, or float on a raft. Or Krisow Novisyolok – the big one and the little one, Useh and Dzalnje. We also have to remember the Kaider forest where the older Jews used to say that Napoleon's wars took place.

Koydanov was a very old town. All the houses were made of wood. There wasn't even one brick house other than the Beis Medrash building. And amongst us, the youth, this question always came up: Why, in many towns such as Styopecz and Mir, there were many fires, but never here in Koydanov. The older Jews would say that that was because of the blessing (bracha) given by the Rav of Minsk, the Shagat Aryeh, to the town of Koydanov as he went through here. The blessing actually remained until the end of the World War One when the Polish bandits set fire to the stores in the marketplace and the main streets.

* * * *

The destruction of the city began at the time of the first World War, on Tisha b'Av, 1914. Suddenly, all of the men aged 20 to 45 were drafted, and all left for military service, in Rennenkampf's army. (Rennenkampf was a Russian general who served in the Imperial Russian army for 40 years, including during WWI.) Almost all of the soldiers were taken prisoner by the Germans in East Prussia. The war went on for two years far from Koydanov.

[Page 20]

We saw many soldiers pass through the Koydanov station, and many of them wounded from the front. But the Germans started marching closer to Koydanov, and many Koydanov Jews began to evacuate. The fright was really for nought, because the front stopped at the banks of the Nieman River, and Koydanov remained under Russian rule as a strategic point for providing military support and provisions to the front. Tens of thousands of soldiers from all corners of Russia arrived in Koydanov, and were placed on the echelon trains and sent to the front.

In February 1917, the Revolution broke out, and a provisionary government was established. The Russian army on the front became very demoralized, and the Bolsheviks used this as an opportunity to capture the power from the government. The soldiers began to leave the front, and many hooligans began to rob the Jews of their goods and belongings. Our organized group for self defense, which we had established at the time, didn't help at all. It was then that our first victims fell. These were Leizer Romanover, Feigel Rein's daughter, and Akiva Heshel's daughter.

 

Four Generations of the Family Evans
 
 
 
Zachariah (Charles)   Abe   Yechiel  Zachariah

 


[Page 21]

Koydanov

by Moyshe Khaim Einbinder

Translated by Pamela Russ

My dear beloved town Koydanov, it is so dear to me to remember your name, and more so Rebzewycz Street, where I say the first rays of light from the big light of my yet unknown world. Koydanov! Where my poor carriage stood, and where I lived through all the pains and joys of my childhood years. How dear and sweet it is for me to remember your prominent name. What has happened to you, my dearest town Koydanov?

Koydanov was the most aristocratic town of all other surrounding towns like Rebzewycz, Rakow, Ivenetz, Uzde, and even Styopecz. Forget about Swerznje or Wohlme, and we would say half in jest but with some truth, that we could hardly be called a town!

We were proud of our large marketplace and the “in between stores” with the six streets and roads, with the rows of trees, the three Batei Medrashim (places of learning), a shteibel (small shul), a total court! An entire kingdom!

Many of our fellow townsmen remember the melodies, especially Mikhele's melody, when he would raise his head, place his thumb under his chin, and wait for the Rebbe's wink to begin singing his melody, without words. And the melody has gone into the Jewish folk music under the name of “the Koydanov melody.”

And, on the other hand (le'havdil, not to compare Jewish to non-Jewish), the Russian Orthodox Church with the Polish Church and the Calvinist seminary with the organ. And a few times, in all honesty, we heard fine music. The elders and religious people said that we weren't allowed to listen because ….

 


[Page 23]

My Hometown, Koydenov
(Memories)

by Rabbi Israel Kravitz

Translated by Lillian Leavitt

The famous French poet Anatol Frans said that he was very much surprised by people who've told him they couldn't remember a thing about their childhood. In his book “Le Livre deu Mon Ami” he describes the earliest years of his life in the most dramatic colors.

The memories of my childhood in my birth city left a fierce impression on me as well. It's true that various episodes occasionally feel like far away dreams in a very far away past. Nonetheless, they are engraved deeply enough in my memory so that I can still describe them as if they had occurred yesterday….

My earliest memory takes place as I lay in my crib in our apartment at Leyke Ahron Leyb's on New Minsk St. I'm lying there and crying and am inconsolable. I hear rapid footsteps from afar. It's Father coming home from “Tiferat Bakhorim”, after evening services. He runs toward me quickly singing “Sleep my Flower, my Sweet Child, Because I Created You”. He rocks me and sings so tenderly that the song becomes permanently imprinted in my soul. To this very day, I remember all the verses of that Hebrew lullaby, filled with love for Israel and her land. Today when I think about that song, I think why in the world did my father (a strictly orthodox Jew) sing that particular song? It was such a fervently Zionistic song. But I do recall that it was not the only song my father sang.

I see before my eyes a cold, winter night; snow falling, shutters on the double boarded windows waving and heaving fearlessly. We children are huddled in front of the oven trying to keep warm despite the frozen tiled walls. On the other side of the room the old fashioned clock with its weighty pendulum creaks hoarsely. Our spirits are heavy and forlorn. Suddenly, Father, who has been lost in a big book of Gemora jumps up and starts to sing. “The moon is out and shining, the stars sparkle….my old book is open before me…a voice is heard and promises my people that they will be as numerous as the stars in the sky…” A delicious sense of comfort and sweetness begins to flow through my body and limbs, and awakens a longing in my soul as all of us dreamily sing along.

And will I ever be able to forget Friday nights at our house? What a spiritual atmosphere- the house clean and sparkling, the table covered with a clear white tablecloth, Father making Kiddush with his rich voice, Mother, may she rest in peace, and all of us children with our glowing faces, standing around the richly laden Sabbath table, responding “Amen”. Mother's gefilte fish had the taste of paradise, her own baked khale, the soup, everything – so delicious – and the Sabbath songs? Father sang and we, his orchestra, supported him.

Outside, a crowd of people who'd gone out for a walk, stopped in front of our window, mesmerized by the Friday night songs. Saturday morning, after a cup of chickory and a bite of honey biscuit, we'd be off for prayers at “Tefirast Bakhorim”, a sort of Young Israel which was organized by the youth of Koydenov, with my Father as the spiritual leader. The supplicants, mostly young men, would get together at Reb Avrohom Itche Rosevitziki's home. The atmosphere was joyous. Noakh Rozevitzki would read the Torah, his reading beautiful, in the homiest fashion. I can still hear it as if it were yesterday. My Father prayed the Musaf service in his unique way, everyone shook hands heartily – Good Shabbes! Good Shabbes! And we'd be off for home. I can practically see Rebzevitz Street, Farabotzk Street, Vilna Street, Old and New Minsk Streets, the broad market place and its shops. We'd pass the shul yard and see people leaving various shuls – the big Shul, the new Shul, the “shtibl”, people running by, Taleysim under their arms, or still wearing them; everyone greeting one another, rushing home to enjoy the delicious Sabbath foods…

Shabbes afternoon, a beautiful summery afternoon, people would walk to the enchanted looking hills on the outskirts of town. The old castle with its walls cast a fright on my childish mind. They somehow looked as if they had ancient secrets to tell. We would spend many happy hours surrounded by nature and return home happy with the world.

And do I ever remember Simkhas-Torah in our town? Not completely, but I well remember the way the crowd would gather at our house on Shmini Atzeret. It was sort of a community feast. Right before the holiday, various delicacies would be brought to our house. My mother, may she rest in peace, loved people and she would beamingly greet everyone who came in. Right after Musaf on Shmini Atzeret, people would start coming to our house. Everyone sat quite democratically at the table in the living room which was kept for special occasions. There were no status seekers among the men of Tiferet Bakhorim. Everyone ate and drank together, singing Simkhas Torah songs. Father's “From God's Mouth Israel will be Blessed” and “May God be Great” were especially popular, with special Sephardic melodies that Father allowed himself to sing just that one time a year.

We ate, drank, sang, danced, and jumped around until we didn't know if it were Shmini Atzeret or Simkhas Torah! At that point we would get ready to go to Shul for Simkhas Torah “Hakufot” (Ed: 7 Circular ceremonial dances with the Torah). The strongest men in the crowd would link hands, creating a chair of sorts, and cart my Father off to Shul….

Yes, whenever I think about the beautiful brotherhood of Tiferet Bakhorim, I think that even today's modern Young Israels could learn a thing or two from us. It seems to me that the young people of Koydenov were not that culturally deprived at all.

Furthermore, I want to say that Father's Khumash and TaNaKH classes, under the auspices of Tiferet Bakhorim, were very well attended. Not only did the young men stream in to hear a Dvar Torah at night after work, but the older gentlemen and even the rabbi, Reb Shmuel Nakhum, of blessed memory, used to come hear and observe with the greatest pleasure as the young people practically inhaled a chapter of TaNaKH or Khumash, as only my father (The Rov Yitzkhak Kravitz) could deliver……


[Pages 27-32]

Remembrances and Other Thoughts

B. Grossman

Translated by Lillian Leavitt

Childhood is the most beautiful and sweetest time of life which is why a person's birthplace is so important. It's the place where one's cradle stood and where one first opened his eyes to see the glorious world.

You never forget the time and place in which you receive your first impression of the world and people, and where you get your earliest education. You always love the memories and places in which you wove your young dreams and celebrated youth.

So how can you possibly forget the place and the atmosphere in which you were born?

It's been almost half a century since I've been away from our birthplace, Koydenov. I've experienced many things and spent a lot of time here in America. Still, I've never forgotten Koydenov. I remember all the places, all the people, all the details.

The town, as well as the name Koydenov, is no longer here. The people are also gone. The storms of time and two horribly bloody wars have destroyed all things and murdered the people. But in my mind the town still lives as I remember it. All the places and houses, all the people and personalities, and the entire life of that time are right before my eyes.

My thoughts pass to those times, to that piece of land that was called Koydenov. I see the marketplace and the stores, the six streets and alleys, the schoolyard and schools, the fence, and the rabbi's courtyard.

I also see, please forgive the comparison, the church, the rows of trees along the walks, the tall mountains, all the orchards and gardens, and all the stores and houses from one end of town to the other.

It's worth noting that I've been living here in a community for over thirty years and know very few families and people. But even now, I can list almost every house in Koydenov and the people who lived in them; their names and childhood names and even the nicknames which every one of them had. This shows how people lived in small towns, bound together in a brotherhood with friendship and love for one another.

They brought that brotherhood with them to America and founded communities of their former lives, named for their towns. They will continue to exist for as long as those who came here are alive.

It really is a wonderful love and devotion that those townsfolk have for one another. Considering the tragedy that struck our Jewish nation overall and our town Koydenov in particular, it is no surprise that our townsfolk responded as helpfully as they did to the people who managed to survive Hitler's hell.

Let's hope that this help will continue on and on until the world gets back to itself.

 

How a library was founded in Koydenov

This took place at the end of the last century, around 1890, when, in Jewish towns and villages, it was still a sin, a crime, to read a book. It was considered illegal and revolutionary. But the enlightenment movement that had started at the end of the last century ignited the desire in the young to become educated and learn languages. The pressure for education spread across the entire country and reached our town Koydenov.

Young people began to learn. Some studied Russian, some Hebrew. And they carried out other acts of opposition as well. Everyone wanted to become an educated person. We, therefore, needed teachers, but there were not enough teachers in Koydenov.

There were, in fact, teachers of Hebrew: Khayim Yehuda Merlish, Slavin, Drabkin, as well as “Yakhenaz”, the well-known writer and feuillitonist whom the wealthy Mikhel Zavelevitz had brought to town to teach his children and his grandchildren, the children of Aaron Zisl Yoselov.

There were also good teachers of Russian, such as Marshak, Valakh, Kelman, Akkon, Feygenson, and others. They were also teaches of Russian and Yiddish, such as: Avraham Reisen, Shloymeh Khayim Plimak, Yoseif Haznovitz, Yitzhok Moshe and many others.

In addition to these teachers there were also teachers in the schools that used to teach Talmud and Gomorrah as well as writing and arithmetic. For example: I studied beginners' writing with Yisroyel Artzik, a teacher of Tanakh and Gomorrah. However, our famous resident and writer, Yosef Shloberg also studied with that teacher and participated as a student. In this way, young people educated themselves and there was a great demand for books. But where could we get books to read?

There were even some businessmen, enlightened men, who owned books, such as Zavelevitz, Yoselov, Avraham Khayim Kasel, Yeshaye Heller, and a few other people – but how could one access them? So several of the progressive young people got together and decided to found a general library – for everyone. All the young men and women in town were called together, informed of the goal and subscribed as member. They were to pay a certain sum each month and using these funds, books would be bought.

It didn't take long before a sum of money was collected and books bought. The number of books grew each month and that is how a library came into being. They rented a room from Itshe Vaynshtayn on Vilna Street and books were lent out from there, several hours a day.

The leaders of the library were: Feygl Ahron, Zisl's daughter, or as we used to call her, Fanye Yoselov, a girl educated in Russian and Hebrew, a democrat even though her father was a rich factory owner. There was also a young man, Valakh, an assistant to the town pharmacist Sayiet; Marshak the teacher; myself and others.

We got together often to discuss which books were the most necessary. Some thought Hebrew was the most important, others – Russian. Yiddish was not yet recognized at that time. There was also no great demand for Yiddish books at that time and so we had very few of those.

We used to hold our gatherings at Valakh's house. He had a very large room in Matte Zinger's new house on Nayminsker Street. We simply had to bring our own chairs.

There were various movements among the Jewish youth. It was the time of Zionism and Bundism. A lot of people were Zionists, followers of Dr. Herzl's and we often had open Zionist meetings. There were also Bundists, declared Socialists, who used to hold secret meetings in the woods. But these differences didn't matter as far as the library was concerned. We were all united as well as tolerant.

At times we were worried over the fact that the library was illegal according to Russian law. Although all the books had passed censorship and were considered kosher, we were supposed to have special permission from the government and that was not that easy to get.

In the meantime, we kept up the library for a period of time until a strike broke out in the match factory in town. Then everything became strictly controlled. This frightened Feygl Yoselov. She therefore, rented a wagon, loaded all the books onto it and delivered them to me. One early morning, she arrived at my house, pale and frightened, worried about what to do with the books. Where could they go?

I found a solution. What could I possibly do?

We had a flour granary. So we put all the books against one wall and covered them with sacks of flour, so that they were not visible. That's how they stayed for months until Madame Sayiet, the pharmacist's wife, took responsibility for the situation and got a government permit. She also rented a new locale for lending books to readers. The library started functioning again. The number of books began growing.

That was 1900, the year I left for America.


[Page 33]

My Return Home

by Avraham Reisen

Translated by Lillian Leavitt

Wandering, roaming
My alienated life was spent,
Weary and downhearted,
The many years went…

Oh, those great cities
With their avenues and broad streets
Their gigantic looming buildings
Made me yearn for my shtetl, insignificant and sweet.
My beloved shtetl,
Her narrow streets, struggling to survive,
Tiny houses, poor and precious
Crooked graves, wonderfully alive.

Yes, graves! Tugging and beckoning
My heart to the old cemetery,
Oh how many memories
Lay hidden there for me.
Deeply buried, yet
I will unearth them and sing.
Reconnect with the dead
And revel in the joy they bring.

So, I left that great world
Speedily, as if on wings
To my shtetl where I would find
My cradle and other childhood things.

2.

I knew you at once, dearest shtetl.
You hadn't changed very much.
I recognized your streets,
The market stalls that I'd touched.
Oh, how sad you looked now:
Houses grown quite old
Dust filled window panes,
Dark, forlorn and cold.
Khayim Leyzer's house- where is it?
With its balcony wrapping around
Good times, friends, family singing,
Happy laughter, joyous sound.

Ever so rich was Khayim Leyzer,
A true master of his home,
A home well appointed,
Two young daughters of his own.
I recall the oldest, Bayle,
With her large dark eyes.
They emanated laughter,
Always took me by surprise.

I'd often go to that balcony
To sit on a summer's night
With those girls, the beauties,
Mocking, joking, left and right.
Their laughter used to ring out
Like the song of the evening bird,
Oh where are you dear daughters?
Why isn't your laughter heard?

Bad times! Khayim Leyzer
Fell into poverty.
He had to send his daughters
To America, across the sea.
This is what my mother recalled,
Her eyes, red and teary:
“My two happy birdies
Went on a journey, long and weary.”
Wringing her hands, she slowly spoke,
“See what's happened to their home,
To that balcony; it all has broke.”

3.

Nor did I forget the schoolyard
Where we learned and prayed.
I gazed at it from afar
Because up close I was too afraid…
I recognized the poor children,
Barefoot, ragged, downcast.
Touched by their alienation
My heart spoke out fast:
“Oh you Torah learning children,
I see you through damp eyes spent.
You're not carrying books in wooden yokes
Why are your backs so bent?”

“Which difficult burdens twist
Your backbones which are young still?
Is the Torah too much for you?
Or is it the lack of food that slowly does kill?”
But they never did respond,
Not understanding amidst the humdrum,
Simply staring, eyes wondering:
Where did this stranger's concern come from?
Oh, the poor and orphaned
Have never known anything mild,
Only screams, blows, and beatings,
Not tenderness for a child.

4.

I wanted to see our old shul,
So I entered that special site.
Oh, how warm and friendly
Everyone greeted me that night.
Both the friend and the stranger
Extended his right hand to me
The “Sholem Aleykhem” in his eyes
Was evident and clear to see.
I recognized my poor brethren,
Among them Khayim Bern;
He was my former teacher
With whom I used to learn.
Seeing his deeply wrinkled brow
I asked “How are you, dear Rebbe?
What are you doing these days in shul?
Do you still teach students like me?”
I saw that something was amiss;
My senses felt his message reaching.
Had he become very rich?
Was he, therefore, no longer teaching?

“Dearest Son!” He replied at once
“No, I'm not rich at all,
But yes, I'm no longer teaching,
Our town has taken a fall.”
Dearest Son, our fellow Jews
Have had troubles more and more
It's no longer like it used to be
No one cares to study as before.
Nowadays boys just learn
Simple prayers, a few blessings made.
By the time they reach bar mitzvah
They're off to learn a trade.
“So what are you doing dearest Rebbe
How do you earn a living?”
My son, I've sold my little house
And to marriage, my daughter I'm giving.
You recall my little house,
Rundown and a rebuild it did need
Nonetheless my heart aches as I remember
All that happened there, in mind and deed.
Foolish recollections! Yes, I had to sell…
Do you remember my young bride?
Although so many years have passed
Our talk awakens old memories inside…
She really was quite a substantial girl,
But that didn't take care of the table.
Beauty without money
Doesn't make life stable.
Well, for a tradesman, maybe…
“So what do you do daily, dear Rebbe?”
Afternoons, I sip on Kabala…
“No - I mean to make ends meet…”
“Don't ask my son,
Don't worry, fret or rue.
With God's help, I manage
Just as all the others do.”

5.

Further into the shul, off in a corner
A boy managed to seclude himself.
With great feeling and great passion
He stood and wrote, as if in stealth.
I looked him over, skin and bones
His cheeks sunken and drawn
Features barely present,
Only eyes sparkling like a fawn
I eased over to him,
Asked, “What are you writing, dear?”
He was embarrassed and frightened
And trembled as I stood near.
“Nothing,” he barely answered
“I simply like to draft,
So I make pictures of the great ones.”
I pray and do my craft.
At home, it's dark and crowded
Crying babies make drawing unstable,
So I stand here in the shul
And sketch “Cain kills Able”.
The doctor saw my work
And on my behalf pled my case
To have me study and learn,
My talent not to waste.
My father simply laughed
At what the good doctor said.
“Send my son to school?
Maybe I should learn to dance instead.”

6.

I left the shul sadly.
Grieved, I walked out the door.
Full of heartache, full of worry,
Filled with foolish wishes my heart bore.
I took to walking
On and on… to try to forget
The depth of pain
That into my soul had set.
Profoundly lost in sadness,
I came to the river bank.
Wrapped in an old time shiver
Onto my knees I sank.

“Greetings, Dearest River,
Oh how I've longed for you;
I've stood before mightier waters
But I knew where my heart was true.”
Peaceful and quiet is your flow;
There are no waves breaking rounds.
Your ships are rags floating,
Signs of poverty that abounds.
In the summer, in your waters
Anyone can find deep pleasure.
Were you to dry up completely,
Heaven forbid, we'd lose this treasure…
In winter, your waters become icy
Covered with snow are your banks
But I will always love you Dearest River,
Never cease bestowing thanks.
True, I've seen rivers
Where waves toss and heave
Where waters are tough and mighty
But you, I can never leave.

Yes, to you I've always been drawn.
I've stood on your shores with my pain
I've watched the mothers from town
Wash family clothes, and hum a sad refrain.
As I think of my mother,
My eyes fill with tears.
Take them and use them, Dearest River
And you'll stay filled throughout the years…

7.

Coming home to grandfather's
Which was where I laid my head,
Where grandma wanted to greet me
But lectured me instead:
“Where in the world have you been?
Did you totally forget about us?
Did you come back only
To eat, thinking that I wouldn't fuss…?”
“Well, of course I forgive you.”
She lovingly added to say:
“A young man wants to roam
To find life in his own way.
I was also young once
And I also loved to play
Oh, the hours I spent walking,
Never tired at the end of a day.”
Now… it's over, existing only in memory,
But see, I've over spoken, totally lost in thought
While you stand here starving,
About your hunger I forgot!

How I loved the flavors
Of Grandma's simple meal.
Her schmaltz and radish were quite delicious
No better could I feel.
Laugh if you will, friends
About this very simple fare,
I stand by my taste:
Schmaltz and radish, I do swear!
“A bit of meat…” - grandma added softly,
“Don't worry, don't be concerned.
You'll never find anything so delicious
No matter how much you might have earned.”
The butchers complain and argue,
Try to play it safe.
The meat they've prepared for Sabbath
The rabbi has deemed “treyf”.
The butchers grumble, common and coarse;
They don't know the laws; they've little schooling.
How can they pretend to be pious
And want to ignore the rabbi's ruling?

8.

Shabbes morning I was off
With my grandfather to shul
To the very same place
Where once with my heart full,
I prayed as a child standing
Next to my father and his prayerbook.
I remember those days with joy
And my heart rejoices as I look
And feel as if God's angels
Were stroking and kissing my face
In this very same shul
In this very same place.
I look up ahead and see the altar
Where the cantor stood and sang,
His woefully sweet voice
Full of prayer to the Almighty rang.

Oh how passionately did that cantor sing,
Assisted simply by one young fellow.
So why is the cantor mournful?
Does he find his assistant too mellow?
Why are his tenor tones straining
In his prayers and devotions?
Perhaps his schnapps was hard to come by
Or did the gabbi short his quotient?
Why does he spread his arms,
As if entreating all who pray and sing?
Perhaps he's lamenting because he knows
The cemetery is what Elul will bring.
Once the cantor ended
Singing his heart out completely
The gabbi started selling
Aliyas fast and sweetly.
Just as always…
Moshe's Torah is being sold
From the high altar
For a ruble, or a little gold.
The sixth Aliya still gets the most
With its sky-high price.
While the Fourth and the Fifth
Take bids that really don't suffice.
And yes, Reb Ber still takes a fancy
To the Sixth, even today
As he walks from the alter
Pompously leading the way,
Patting his round belly
Putting on airs before he takes his seat
As if he were saying:
“Gentlemen, the Sixth Aliya is quite a treat
For me, a man of means.
I am, after all, Reb Ber
And I am all that I seem.”
The cobblers and tailors,
Watch him and envy his status and money
Wondering when their time
Will come to also taste a bit of honey.
Why are they fated
To spend their lives in need?
Even the sweetest part of Torah
Can't be theirs to read.

9.

Sunday morning, off I went
To the market, here and there
To look around and observe
How life for my people was unfair.
Yes, that market full of mud
Was what we had been given.
Yet were that muddy market to be lost
To our end, we'd be driven…

Among the many merchants
There was only one I could recognize
Could it really be Rokhel
Who had been both beautiful and wise?
Rokhel, Rokhel, on my word!
I immediately recognized her face.
Although she'd changed quite a bit
It was surely her… without her lace.
I remembered those perfect eyes
Their glances sharp as arrows.
Could this be she standing here?
Those eyes now full of sorrows!
Rokhel - a shopkeeper - tell me how
Did this all happen to you?
You used to read so many books,
Believed good things would come true.

I remember the dreams you entrusted to me
When I walked with you as a boy,
You dreamt of a world full of flowers,
Of a future filled with joy.
How did you come to be here?
Your free, lithe soul covered in armor
As you sit in this dark crowded shop,
Your beautiful eyes, awaiting your farmer…
Your tender voice that used to sing
A sweet romantic song
Is now hoarse and tired
Haggling with customers all day long.

She responded terribly sadly
“The past is gone, as well as the time.
I once was foolish, hoped and believed,
That all I imagined would truly be mine.”
My spirit was full, my dreams vast
My heart knew there was nothing I couldn't do
What I didn't know was how
The limits were drawn for me as a Jew…
So the years went quickly by
As I grew older and older
And the passions of a bold girl
Grew steadily colder and colder.

I heard the women in town whispering
About my aging, about my fate.
I felt myself wither more each day.
My heart feared it would soon be late…
I heard it all and silently wept
Vowing to marry quickly before
My youth was completely gone,
Before I had lost it all and more.
Yes, I had to -my good mother
Needed to see the fruits of her life
“To spite our enemies, my darling child,
Become a mother and a wife.”
Mother lived to reap the pride and joy
She had waited for so very long
Now, he - works in town by the hour,
And I - keep the shop,
Sweep the flour and sell the flour.

Very little joy, my dearest shtetl,
Did I find in my return.
The little charm you once held for me
Has long ago waned and worn.
I ached and longed for you, from afar.
Finally I returned to see you again,
I found you so much poorer now
Than you were, for me then. ones scream,
So I sit here with this work I hold.

 

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