Dr. Hershl Meyer
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
More than a half century has passed since I left Gordz at the end of 1921 - the shtetl [town] of my childhood and the first years of my youth, when I left the house on a frosty December morning with a small basket of books and a small pack of dried zwieback and plums that my mother insisted that I be sure to take with me for the then long sea voyage to America.
Since then I have seen a great deal, heard, studied and forgotten still more, but I have not forgotten what our sages said, what we learned first, we know best. The impressions that our still fresh senses and still young plastic brain cells absorb remain as if etched. Therefore the memories of old people from the very distant past are really clearer than those from just a few years ago. We need only to fly with half-closed eyelashes to the corner of a formerly familiar alley to remember someone who patted our childish head and a series of faces, pictures, figures, voices, sounds, melodies of the disappeared past comes back to the surface and extricates itself as from a fog: they draw and haunt us with endless longing for our eternal ones, cruelly annihilated Eastern Jewry.
It was a shtetl in which the greatest number of Jews lived in poverty and worry about their income: in my home, with particular worries and difficulties because of my father's bad physical condition. But instead of servility, the poverty carried a certain dignity and even arrogance as something for which we would later be praised, or with confidence that we would be redeemed. When care and gloom would like a cloud draw in
my parents, their spirit would be strengthened by pushing it away with a verse from a sacred book or with words of consolation.
A shtetl of mainly sturdy fathers and mothers, busy with the burden of earning a living, with raising children - sometimes in tears at saying goodbye to a son, a daughter, sometimes with breathless
hearts going for the mail, seeking a longed for letter from America Jews with weathered faces notched by the wind, muscular hands, healthy, folksy jokes and humor with the language of their trades: or with the speech of the roads and the highways to the villages, from hammering horseshoes, poles, blocks and from pulling loads. Here and there, a relaxed face of a leader of the city, or of a gemara [Talmud] teacher with soft, downy hands, an open face on which hovered a the contrary is true of an unfinished casuistic debate.
There were two kinds of poor men in Gordz - those who did or did not have a goat for milking. The others like us who had a cow and a small garden were considered as rich men. At times my mother would carry dippers of milk to a poor man, a sick person or a family with many small children or without a goat.
I remember how my mother and father would speak among themselves during late autumn with such happiness that we were already taken care of with flour, wood and potatoes for winter. We will not be hungry, my mother would say and noted that in addition to this, we also needed a dress, shoes for the family for seven souls and tuition for the children (Asher, the oldest, was already in America).
My first easier and then more difficult endeavors around the house from the first kheder [religious primary school] years on stand out with a special clarity for me. (From this [comes] my full and complete belief that taking part in productive work is of cardinal importance for the development of a child.) Running to the stall several times a day during the winter, feeding the cow, letting her out in the field on summer mornings where Jonas the shepherd was waiting; carrying pails of water on poles from the well to wet the garden beds during the dry months; the aroma of the black earth, the wonder of the sprouts coming up. My mother singing a little of
Ela-Chaim Cunzer's In der Sobe Ligt di Mazel-Brukha [Luck Lies in the Hook Plow] while taking out the beets, the carrots, the pumpkins, the onions and the cabbage in autumn; the placing the cucumbers in barrels for the winter, the digging up of the piles of potatoes, each of them like winnings or a present from the earth.
The material conditions in which we lived during our childhood certainly affected the formation of our character. But more than anything else, we were formed from the worth and actions of the adults around us; from the sincerity, loyalty and devotion among our own, from the sort of emotions and feelings that they revealed to others like the colors and aromas of the general way of life. We were stamped by this for our entire lives.
There was a series of well-established habits, traditions and customs. A whisper from the mother, a word, or even only a look from the father, was enough for we children to feel or understand what was beautiful or hateful, false or right, good or bad - the common traditions created in the community of shtetl folk an atmosphere of shaming yourself in front of others with that which past nit [is unsuitable], what is nit sheyn [not nice] or unworthy. We wanted to find favor, not be shamed or scorned by another; we wanted to take part in the joys of others, or the suffering. The I in the shtetl was often mirrored in the you The mutual community, the organic connections with those around, just the folk familiarity had a manifold good effect on the childish soul.
A connection that is characteristic for those from the shtetlekh was expressed in the warm relationship of the Gordzer in America to their landsmanschaftn [organizations of people from the same town], in the nostalgia for their shtetl and the help that they would send to its needy from the still meager earnings of that time.
Gordz consisted of a market place, several side alleys and the long Tamoczne Street which began near the barracks at the very border of Germany. There lived the rich Jawszices (forest lessees who delivered large amounts of timber to the German celluloid factories) and still other wealthy merchant families. Tamoczne Street went down into the so-called gesl [alley]. Wagon drivers, peddlers, dorf-geyer [men who bought and sold goods in the villages], shoemakers, tailors, bakers, tinsmiths and other artisans lived there as neighbors in crooked clusters of small houses. There were also tanneries and a smithy with a forge there. A tavern, an apothecary and several food, ironware and cloth shops were found around the wide market place. On Thursday market days, peasants would come there in wagons to sell their products and buy what they needed. Beyond the nearby church, which we called di tiple, was outside the shtetl.
From the front, the cottages constituted a shtetl: behind them, with the goats, the chickens, farm yards and small stands, it appeared as a little village. But in late, quiet, moonlit nights, the rows of houses would change into quiet, mysterious figures, one huddled against the other, in a sort of fear of the far, cold surrounding void.
It was a shtetl, on which, time, it seemed to me, did not have any influence, a shtetl in which the wheel of fortune of life flowed calmly with the change and course of the seasons, like the quiet, non-demanding contemplative Lithuanian landscape with shimmering lakes, pensive willows, pines, birch trees, its green meadows, orchards, gardens and those straw covered peasant cottages surrounded with scythes, plows and rakes.
I remember the creaks from those wagons loaded with grains
on the road to Memel (today Kleipeda), the hoarse whoa of the wagon drivers, the snap of their whips, the sparks on the stone bridge from the horses' horseshoes. The young with the long poles that would guide the long rafts of wood logs on the Minija [River]; the long locomotive whistle of the departing Lojgaler train, like a call from the waiting distant world; the Shabbos eve tak-tak of the chopping knives on the fish [chopping] boards; the waiting of the wagon drivers for the stop going when the hard, crooked lumps of earth, in which the muds would lead them astray, waiting for them to be covered with snow
I remember the gloomy, trickling, crying Lithuanian autumn days: the childish feet, jumping with vigor, springing from one stone to another among the surrounding, bubbling muds; and suddenly falling in a muddy watery pool Coming home soaked, my mother called out: Eidl, just look at the pants that we just bought for the brat for Passover last year and his shoes were just resoled and again they have holes, a truly mischievous child, Korach's wealth1*] will not be in store for him. And she immediately undressed me, sat me on a chair near the oven and ordered me to drink a glass of tea with a little preserves, so that I did not, God forbid, catch a cold.
The winter evening stretched slowly: the shimmer of the kerosene lamp on the white ice-covered windowpanes; outside the creaking steps on the frozen snow; in the house, the periodic rustle of the cricket (whose winter hiding place around the oven we could never find), the roof of the house groans from time to time as if it were shuddering from the cold: My mother said, It is difficult to heat to over 30 degrees when the heat waves from the oven only reach the table. Before going to sleep my mother would give me a pail of a warm brew for the cow, and my father: Do not forget
to cover her with the rags that are hanging in the stall and take a few logs of wood to heat the oven in the morning.
During such evenings, my father would tell stories sometimes from the Midrash, sometimes from his youth and his bizarre adventures in the 1890's in the then wilderness of the Transvaal of South Africa, sometimes stories about the Vilna Gaon and thereby underlined the fact that he was an expert in astronomy and that one can study science and simultaneously rise early [to study] the Torah. He would also speak about Yisroel Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement [created] to reach higher moral levels. But my father would mention that Salanter had to sit shiva [week long period of mourning] for his own son, Yom Tov Lipman, because he had become depraved; he left the yeshiva, went to Germany and became a mathematics professor. Also my father would speak with great wonder about Yehuda Leib Gordon and Avraham Mapu's Lover
The stories that our grandfathers would tell, warming themselves during the cold winter evenings at the beis-medrash oven, true stories, about chapers [kidnappers], who would take children from Jewish poverty for the Czarist regime, send them to distant parts and make soldiers of them; the fantastic tales that they would spin about pious men and villains, evil spirits and metamorphoses and terrible Ashmodai [king of the demons] frightened me, but I wanted to hear more and more Also stories about people known in the shtetl who met the dead, devils or nit gute [not good, the bad ones].
I also remember the sermons from the preachers between minkhah and maariv [afternoon and evening prayers] under the light of the half dark beis-medrash. For me their content as well as the preacher's pantomimes, the rise and the fall of his melody, presented a dramatic call to save oneself with reproach and repentance. They would both frighten me and soothe me, both warn me of fearful hellish punishments and console me with examples and stories from the Midrash [oral Torah]. At the conclusion they would adopt a happy ending accompanied by A redeemer will come to Zion [Isaiah 59:20] from which I would breathe with a freer spirit.
The Chanukah candles fused to a brick, fluttering at the window. The pride in the Maccabees, the longing for that time, with my father's stress on ba-yamim ha-heim [in those days] when blessing the Chanukah candles. The Maoz Tzur [Rock of Ages] with the Chanukah dreidl [top] and the potato
latkes [pancakes] with goose fat; our quiet waiting for the Chanukah gelt [money] and the quiver of my grandfather's old hand when he would count out the several kopikes for us
Running to the wonder world of kheder [religious primary school] - to the flashes and blazes of Mount Sinai with thunder from the 10 Commandments, the rabbis singing farteytsh [translation from Hebrew text to Yiddish] from Moshe's wonderful Listen, O Heavens - remember the days of ancients times, think of the years of generations: - hear the echo of the shofarus [rams' horns] around the walls of Jericho. Boasting of Shimshon haGibor's [Samson the great] final revenge against the Philistines, regretting the fall of Saul and Jonathan at the edge of Gilboa, - pitched war with David's strong men - flying in a turbulence of stormy winds with Eliyahu haTishbi [the Tishbite] into heaven in a fiery wagon with fiery horses - translating mene, tekel uPharshin[2*] on the walls of Belshazzar's palace - all of this seemed clearer to me, more natural and understandable than the realities of daily life around me.
Later the grease on the reading stand from the tallow candles, with our evening sing-song of the Gemara. The head of the yeshiva thoughtfully strode back and forth among the shadows of the beis-hamedrash. But, with sharp senses, he would immediately sense that it was not going smoothly at one reading desk and he needed to resolve perplexing questions
The arrival of spring, the crash of the melting floes of ice on the already flowing Minija [River]; the doubts of the wagon drivers as to whether the wooden bridge on the river would endure the blows of the ice, the Purim shalakh-manos [gifts of food and drink given to relatives and friends on Purim] that my mother would send me to bring to several houses and first to the rabbi; a plate covered with a napkin, under which usually lay pieces of cake, a tablet of chocolate and an orange that was brought from Memel; but do not be a glutton or drunkard, they would warn me
that I should not nibble on anything on the way. We, little ones, became very clever about this.
The upheaval of erev Pesakh [the eve of Passover]: the confusion in the shtetl with the koshering of the utensils, the scraping, scratching and washing every crevice of dust and khometz [food not kosher for Passover]. Carrying the spoon with the crumbs of bread to Fayte the shamas [assistant to the rabbi] to sell the khometz of the entire shtetl to a gentile The gravity of us asking the four questions, at counting Pharaoh's plagues, at pouring out the wrath, at opening the door for Eliayhu HaNovi [the prophet]; the joy and laughter at discovering who had stolen the afikomen[3*]. Each chapter of the Hagadah [book read at Passover Seder] had its special melody. My father's high points were the Mi Yodea [Who Knows One] with Ehad Eloheinu [One God] The singing would be carried from every house. At the Song of Songs, the young strolled through the alleys under the shine of a fresh, clean moon.
The Shabbos twilights were mysterious to me like all other evenings. When it began to get dark my father would close the Gemara or the Mishnius [written compilation of the Oral Torah] and begin to hum sad melodies, as if for himself.
After reading the Tzena uRena [the Yiddish version of the Bible read by women], my mother would remain sitting near the window lost in dreams. Outside, the heaven and everything in the house vibrated with gentle pity on that which was disappearing and with a tremble for what was coming. When it became dark, my mother would sigh and begin murmuring, When the beloved Shabbos holiness leaves The week comes with its worries And then with a higher voice, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, guard your people Israel. This lighting of the candles, the making of havdalah [ceremony ending the Shabbos], the suddenly joyful, Gut wok [good week] - called out, woke me like a cold spray
Two long tables stood near the entrance of the beis-hamedrash: one near the southern wall for the Gemara scholars and a second one far from it near the northern wall for artisans, wagon drivers and other common people. Before Maariv [evening prayers] on Shabbos, in the twilight hours,
they would gather there for a session of Psalm recitations. However, it was not the usual recitation, but a sort of stormy outpouring of the heart. The melody, the rhythm did not have the character of prayer, but of arguing things out with human destiny; of speaking of everything and everyone that gnaws and presses on the heart in a merging of various voices with the warm words of the Psalms of faith and comfort. At certain verses such as: Frail man, his days are like grass; like a sprout in the field [Psalm 103:5], the voices would suddenly become roaring and with a melody that was both a lament and assumed the common inevitability. At standing up after ending, they appeared to me as if encouraged, and strengthened to face the coming week.
The already cool Elul [August-September] days, with the aroma of ripe apples and pears, when not only the pious Jews, but even fish in the water began to tremble. Holding me by my hand, my father would take me to the beis-hamedrash Shlichos [penitential prayers recited the week before Rosh Hashanah] in the dark Elul mornings. Inside, a tide of light, fully packed with men standing with Makhzorim [prayers books used on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur] in their hands like mobilized troops: a kind of preparation, a maneuver for the soon arriving fateful fencing with the Raboyne Shel Oylem [Lord of the World] during the Days of Awe.
The Kol Nidre [opening prayer] prelude to Yom Kippur; the hovering of a strained fearfulness over everyone's heads; the slow solemn lamentoso notes of the first Kol Nidre vowels, as a testimony for the entire people of its endless tragic fate and like a glowing constant request. It seemed that the surrounding walls, the skies and all of the past generations were listening to the singing of Kol Nidre.
Suddenly the transition from recitative, from the tragic minor to the resolute major - to the daring rising-resolve, Thus it will not remain. The who will live - who will die reaching its climactic phase, 24 hours later in the moving adagio cant-
abile of the singing of Neilah [concluding Yom Kippur prayer]; the entire kehile [organized Jewish community] in Psalms, with faces pale from fasting, with all of the sins beaten on their breasts, in the last plea for mercy for a year of life, health and income; and why does He not come out from behind the curtain on the ark containing the Torahs with an answer, I would ask as a child.
The melodies of the Days of Awe prayers followed me for my entire life. For me they represented the universal human struggle against the animal-like and the barbarian, with firm belief in the final victory of the human.
Our yearly carnival - the Simkhas Torah hakofes [a procession in which all of the Torah scrolls are carried around the synagogue seven times]: our childish amazement seeing the usually serious, stately Jews of the entire year, suddenly marching, dancing and singing with ecstasy around the beis-hamedrash platform; Torahs with gilded velvet coverings in their arms. Old men with white beards trudged with the heavy Torah with tears in their eyes. The congestion of the neighboring adults to catch a Torah with a kiss. Not being able to reach it, we children would stick out our small hands to the touch the Torah and then kiss our fingers; at Hodu lo [give thanks], we would all sing out, We all shout Temimah, temimha, temimah [perfect - factually without error]!
The first theater performance of shtetl amateurs - actors in Goldfaden's Shulamit. The entire shtetl was as if embraced by the hearty folk songs and melodies from the play; young and old sang them for a long time after.
The first library in the shtetl. We spoke with the Folks-Shul [public school] teacher, Hurvitz, called together a number of young men and girls, gathered a little money - and received books from Kovno. The joy and reverence with which we held in our hands the new, beautifully bound volumes of Mendele Mokher Sforim, of Peretz, of Sholem Aleichem, Nomberg, Frug, Friszman, Dobnow, Anski, Bialik, Ber-
dyczewski and others - and with what hunger did we attack them to read.
The first and only electric lamp in the house and my not wanting to part with the warm light of the kerosene lamp. My satisfaction when we constantly had to light it again when the capricious electricity, which came from a primitive machine near the generator, would often break.
The stampede with the kheder boys to be the first to see the wagon without horses that stopped in the shtetl. A chauffeur with shiny buttons sat inside waiting for the doctor whom he had brought from Memel to a nearby very sick person to come out. He did not even look at us when we tapped the wagon on all sides. When the doctor came out, the wagon began to bang, clatter as in a fever with black smoke; being afraid that it would explode, we quickly ran away; we were greatly astonished when we saw how smoothly it drove away.
The social, cultural and political tendencies and struggles went on in the large settlements of Lithuania in the course of years between the spreaders of education and the rabbis and, after that, between Folkists [political party seeking Jewish national autonomy] - Zionists - Socialists - Bundists, workers and owners and so on found a small echo in the small shtetlekh. A newspaper only came to Gordz to a few so-called educated intellectuals. When the small town class struggle would spurt from time to time, it would be represented in the beis-medrash during the reading of the Shabbos Torah portion of the week: common Jews would interrupt the reading with a tumult of clamor and a roar and make bitter complaints and protests against the elite of society at the Eastern Wall. Usually it was a question of injustices
such as the tax for meat for which the poor would pay the same sum as the well-to-do.
A great shock in the shtetl, about which my memory is foggy, took place during a small pox plague in the year 1907 or 1908. There were many sick and among them my sister, Eidl. What remains in my memory is the smell of carbolic acid in the house, the surrounding dread and the lament for the deceased.
The picture is clear in my memory of the Shabbos morning in August 1914 when a number of mobilized men from the shtetl had to leave their families as they left for the war front. Almost the entire shtetl was in mourning and accompanied them up to the bridge of the Minija River.
The shtetl also became agitated during the trial of [Menacham Mendel] Beilis; on Shabbos when the weekly Torah portion was read, I would run home from the beis-hamedrash to look at the newspaper which would come at that time. Back in the synagogue, the Jews in prayer shawls would immediately surround me and ask me what was happening in the Kiev blood libel trial. Mainly, there was interest in [Oscar] Gruzenberg, the Jewish lawyer, who was finishing up in court with [Justinas] Pranaitis, the enemy of the Jews.
The entire shtetl rejoiced at the Balfour Declaration. A committee was immediately founded with the dynamic teacher, Hurvitz, at the head in order to collect money for Keren Kayemet [Jewish National Fund]; women, young girls with joyful faces donated golden rings, earrings and other objects. A large meeting was held in the courtyard of Akerman's house on Tamoczne Street, where Hurvitz and a few others and I among them gave fiery speeches about the historic turning point for the Jewish people and the necessity of joining the Paole-Zion [Workers of Zion - a Marxist-Zionist organization] movement.
Problems with income drove tens of thousands of Lithuanian Jews to emigrate to America at the end of the 19th century; a number left for South Africa, among them my father and his brother, Pale. But after 10 years of toiling there and as shopkeepers in the then primitive Transvaal, they, without luck, returned to Gordz the same poor men as when they left. My father had to take a position with the Jawszices who demanded that he remain in the distant woods the entire week to control the quantity of the wood that the peasants extracted and pay them for it.
Life, like his salary, was a dismal one; my mother had to do more by baking bagels and selling them for a little flour, sugar and other food products. This was kept
in the entry room of a house near the market place, in which we then lived until 1910. What I remember, as an echo of those first childhood years, is my father coming home on Shabbos and the unfailing sad and worried conversations between him and my mother about debts. We, it seemed, had eaten more than the amount from the profits of her poor receipts. There was nothing with which to repay the debts that gathered for the products the entire trade furnished her.
Once my father found out that she had borrowed money with interest in order to pay a little of the debts and, therefore, he was angry with her. He said of it: Taking out a pane of glass from one window and putting it in a second. The word debts still causes a shiver in me today.
His work in the forests in the very cold winter worsened the condition of my father's feet from which he had already begun to suffer during the past few years after being in Africa. A long Job-like road of suffering began for him that caused deep changes in the spirit and in the life of everyone in our family.
My father suffered from the so-called Berger's Disease - which medical textbooks labeled as an illness that is found principally among Jews. (Later, it was asserted that it also appears among non-Jewish smokers.) It begins with cramps in the leg muscles when walking, because of spasms in the arteries; later the blood channels become clogged and gangrene starts to spread to the feet. The pains from it are described as the most unbearable. No other medical remedies than quieting the pains with morphine existed then, also no other cure other than amputation of the feet. Not knowing how far the congestion in the veins with the gangrene in each case would spread, the amputation of the feet would be
done in installments, first at the bottom, several years later, up to the knee and then up to the top
My father suffered for more than 10 years until part after part of both of his legs to the top were removed in Konigsberg. He endured years of enormous pain and suffering, but with a spiritual strength that astonished everyone (even his doctors); with a courage, a belief and optimism, without a sign of melancholy, without spiritual dejection or complaining. His eyes always looked to the needs and sufferings of others. (I remember how my mother would sometimes murmur: Gershon, you think only of others, nothing of yourself.) When we carried him into the house after the last amputation, a gathering of people waited for him with grief, compassion and tears. [He] told of comical events and ended with: As long as there is a head on the shoulders, it is worth living.
Because of the unevenness and the incline of the surrounding streets, my father could only use the little chair on wheels around the house. The wagon driver, Mordekhai Yoke, our neighbor, or someone else and I would carry him to the beis-medrash during the Days of Awe and on Shabbos. After praying, the Rabbi, Reb Shabtai Szpira, would discuss the shtetl problems with him. Freed of his earlier pains, my father was the soother of pains in others; he gave advice about how to right the wrongs of cases: of a mother who did not have the means to buy remedies for a sick child; a family without wood for the winter, or a wagon driver whose mare fell and needed a horse - they came to Gershon. To obtain the means for the needy, sitting at the window he would call in the more well-to-do passersby of the shtetl and argue with them that it was necessary to help the needy people of the shtetl. God's pleaders, who wanted to turn around with a We are collecting
to bind the Mishnius [plural of Mishnah - compilation of the Oral Torah] or to renovate the mikvah [ritual bath] - would receive a gift from him of verses about - connections between people as the tenet of Yiddishkeit [what it is to be a Jew].
Shabbos at night a number of common Jews would come together at our house to pray maariv [evening service] with him. Before this, he would study a little Mishnius or Midrash [Biblical interpretations] with them. Discussions and disputes would also take place about town matters, as well as world politics. My father would endeavor to clarify the disagreeing sides, or reconcile them.
One day a dressed up military wife came in and asked in German about my father. He was in the bedroom; the small wagon was there. With courtesy I went to carry him out. Not necessary, she said - I need to speak to him alone. She left immediately when her conversation with him ended. We never saw her again - a Jewish woman from Konigsberg who had come for advice - my father said, but he did not say about what she had come. We suspected that she brought something for him because the number of needy who would come to him immediately increased
After his death, 11 years later, we opened a notebook that he would carry with him; the names of almost a third of the shtetl families were in it with the sums
of the gmiles khesed, or interest free loans, that he gave out to everyone; mostly from 200 to 400 lit. Many borrowed, paid it back and again borrowed. All were precisely and exactly recorded in a clear manuscript. On the title of the book: 8,000 lit from the Konigsberg woman - with a ban to ever mention her name or to reveal it and to use her money as charity given in secret to those in need.
With the outbreak of the First World War, we were cut off from my father, who was then in the Konigsberg hospital. - The surgeons, he wrote to us in his last letter, had not yet decided if it would be necessary to amputate the second leg to the top or not.
When shooting at Gordz at the border began (our city was later damaged by a bomb), we escaped to Plungian, where my mother had two sisters. We lived there in a crowded, half cellar-like little apartment and lived in want. My mother and Eidl baked bread and bagels to sell. In the morning they would sometimes give me a little to carry to several local middleclass houses, those who knew my mother from her earlier childhood years. Then I would go to study in the local Talmud-Torah [school for poor boys].
Once I had a basket of unsold bagels. I went on the road with them to where the German infantry columns were marching to Telz. They immediately grabbed the bagels. The German coins that they threw into the basket amounted to around two rubbles - double the amount the bagels were worth. Full of joy I quickly ran into the house with the treasure with the news: We can become rich! But my mother and Eidl looked at me with serious, overcast brows as if I had committed a crime. They began to berate me about my missing the studying at the Talmud-Torah, that I would become
a trader or even a libertine, a swindler. I was no longer given a basket with bagels
From time to time Reb Yerukham, our daily Tanakh [Bible] and Midrash [Talmudic commentary] teacher in the Talmud Torah, would disappear. The old boys said that he was meditating, others that he is a lamed vovnik [36 just, humble men]. Or a righteous man. But, although he was a pious man and wore a talis-katan [undergarment with fringes at each of four corners worn by pious men], he did not appear to be one of those who fasted every Monday and Thursday [every other day]. He was young, good looking and strongly built, with a chestnut brown beard, with a high forehead and a visionary, thoughtful face. I never grew tired of hearing him read chapters of Joshua, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Habakkuk, Nahum and the other prophets. His voice would change according to the prophet or the chapter that he would bring to us: here descriptively soft and there lyrical, here with a prophetic, sincere love for the people and there with flaming wrath against his seducers and vices; and here with a joyful message of the end of days when all people will come together for peace and friendship - for the sanctity of human life Jeremiah was a symbol of prophetic fervor and vision to me, of prophetic thought and its moral brilliance. Unforgettably, I studied with zeal in the Plungian Talmud-Torah because of its good teachers. But a year later we returned with joy to our home in Gordz.
After my father returned home from Konigsberg, I was sent back to Plungian, but then to study in the local yeshiva, whose head, Yehuda-Leib Ziv, was a student of Reb Itsele Paneveczer [Panevėžys]. We studied Gittin [Tractate of the Mishnah dealing with concepts of divorce - get, plural gittin] whose content bored me. The head of the yeshiva was a shrewd man and he would gather each paragraph of Talmud in a subtle head spinning argumentation for me; perhaps because I had gegesn teg [eating days - that is, meals provided to a student by a local family] and in several of the houses I did not have enough to eat.
In between, my father wrote to me to come home with a
drosha [sermon] for my Bar Mitzvah. When I asked him from what Tractate that I was studying, he answered me with a story about Reb Yokhanan Ben Zakai [Talmudic sage and youngest disciple of Rabbi Hillel], who particularly praised Reb Eliezar of all his students; and, therefore, still on the question, Go and see which path a man should adhere to, he was the only one who answered lef-tov [kind hearted person]. I put together a thunderous drosha from the Midrash, from Hovot ha-Levavot [Duties of the Heart], from Yalkutim [Anthologies] and other books about this that was strongly successful with my father as with the scholars of the shtetl. I still remember the Bar-Mitzvah gift I received - a pair of suspenders.
At the end of December, 1929, Mula Oszerowicz (my sister Chene's husband) let me know that I should quickly go to see my father because his days appeared numbered. I had ended my medical studies then with a two-year internship in Chicago City Hospital. The trip by ship lasted over two weeks.
When I arrived in Gordz it appeared to me as if the entire shtetl was waiting for me: someone to receive a greeting from one of their own, someone to look at the freshly baked American. Entering the house I found my father sitting on a chair padded with cushions, dressed up as if for a holiday and with full eyes, with sadness and with joy. He looked at me for a long time, as if he were searching for the former boy. He embraced me, wanted to say something, but his words remained hanging on his lips In order to control himself from breaking out in tears in the presence of everyone around, he turned to my mother and began to joke: Nu, what do you say about your former mazek [mischievous child] and Sambatyen [impassible river of rocks beyond which live the 10 lost tribes - a reference to someone living far away], left with a pair of patched pants and with five groshn in his pocket and became a doctor. Suddenly he began to ask me questions about certain relativity theories, about Spinoza's
philosophy and similar matters about which we would correspond in my regular, long, often 20 to 30 page letters to him.
Although his heartbeat and his pulse were weak, his mind, understanding and interest in the world and in people were the same as always. He spoke about the unjustifiable course of the Lithuanian regime against the Jews and that almost a third of the families in the shtetl must come to the gmiles khesed. My fund is almost empty, he said. When you return to Chicago, you will probably be busy organizing your office - you should tell Asher and Pala to call together our countrymen in Chicago, that they should do something to help us. After that he asked me to examine the rabbi's state of health and several others in the shtetl.
He spoke to me in the evening: In the time that comes for a mortal from the folly of not being quite ready and then with words of a last will and with the substance of all his hopes - that All of my children will pursue the Jewish and the humane. A few days later, my father fell into eternal sleep
The house became too empty and sad for my mother and Rywka to remain in it. They went to live with Chene and Mula in Memel, from which they later emigrated to Tel Aviv where Eidl and her husband, Elchanon Furman, had been residents since 1925. In 1938, when the clouds of the Second World War became thicker and heavier, we succeeded in bringing them all to America.
Gordz, like the Jewish communities in Lithuania in general, changed very much during the course of eight years. The poor became poorer and those from the middle class became impoverished. Even in Kovno,
a large part of the Jewish population needed to receive assistance from the tzedakah-pushke [can in which charitable contributions are collected] and from the charity distributing food for Passover. The usual Jewish professions and pursuits were more and more occupied by Lithuanians and no others appeared on the horizon.
At the same time the shtetl appeared worldlier to me and less backward. They studied more, discussed more, knew more about what was happening in the world. Young people belonged to Hashomer HaTzair [Zionist youth movement] or Habonim [Labor Zionist youth movement] organizations and a Makabe sports club. A number of Halutzim [Zionist pioneers preparing for emigration to Palestine], waiting for certificates [from England granting permission to emigrate to Palestine] completed their hakhsara [preparation for emigration] on farms of the Lithuanian estate owners near Memel. All, and particularly the young, truly strove to leave. But America was fenced off with quotas and only a few lived to see a certificate from England to enter Palestine.
Only around 14 Gordzer received permission in the 10 years between 1930 and 1940: among them - through a complicated intervention and shortly before the Nazi invasion - Yehudit Lesem, her husband and her sister's two children. Yehudit has been the most beloved Gordzer in Israel since then and until today. Thanks to her conscience and her devotion, thanks to her remarkable expressive, lively memory of each of those who perished - as well as of the Gordz survivors widely scattered across the world - came the outline of the Gordz book.
|1*.||Korach is a Biblical figure who was known for his great wealth. Return|
|2*.||From the Book of Daniel 5:25-28 - interpreted by Rashi in the Stone version of the Writings as Thus the Babylonian rule will be broken and given over to a Persian conqueror. Return|
|3*.||A Piece of matzoh broken at the beginning of the Seder and eaten at the end of the meal. In many families it is customary to hide the afikomen and have the children search for it. The child finding it is given a reward. Return|
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
Until the First World War our shtetele [small town], Gordz, was located on the border between Germany and Russia.
As my parents would say, the economic situation of the Jews in Gordz in Czarist times was very difficult and the Jews in our shtetl [town] lived in need and want. There were no sources of income for the Jews in Gordz and the people searched for various opportunities to be able to feed their families.
A border between Gordz and Memel went through not far from our shtetl. The crossover point was the Tamozshne
On photo in German: Greetings from Gorzdy - Hindenburgstrase
(as it was then called). There, one had to show permission to cross the border. The situation at that time was difficult. It was not permitted to take products from Gordz to Memel. At that time products were lacking for the Germans, too, and there were great shortages and everything was very expensive.
Since the Jews needed income, they looked for various opportunities to find an appropriate point to cross the border at night where the border guard could not notice how various foods were smuggled across to Memel. The smuggling was from both sides: food products were taken from Gordz to Memel and various goods that were lacking in Gordz were brought from there to sell to the Christians. Thus, Jews had income and in this way maintained their families.
It was just after the First World War, when the Germans, as well as the Russians, lost the war and the independent Lithuanian state arose that Memel and its region was included in Lithuania that the traffic between Gordz and Memel became freer. In as much as Memel is located a total of 16 kilometers from Gordz, it became the most important center of nutrition for our shtetele Gordz and its environment. Jews began to travel to Memel and a lively trade developed. Various goods, vegetables and fruits were sold. The Jewish young people found employment in factories and in various offices. Children began to go to study in various schools and gymnazies [secondary schools] in Memel. A lively life developed in Gordz and the shtetl began to blossom. People became animated and this began to be seen on their faces. Life in the shtetl began to develop in various areas: communally and
economically. A marked cultural revival by the young people in the shtetl was noticed.
In the religious realm, too, a visible revival was felt. There was a Talmud-Torah [religious elementary school for poor boys] in the shtetl. Jews studied a page of Gemara [Talmudic commentaries] with passion and actually understood what they were studying. The rabbi of the Talmud-Torah was a Jew with a black beard, of average height, who had great love for his students and he would study with the students with great goodwill and diligence. During a later era, the leadership of the Talmud-Torah was taken over by Rabbi Doniszewski. He was the opposite of the shtibl [one room house of prayer] rabbi. This was a tall Jew with a chestnut brown beard who threw fear into his students with only a look. He was very strict and, if it was necessary, he did not refrain from hitting a child with his stick.
There was also a private kheder [primary religious school] in Gordz. Select children went there to learn. The rabbi was Gershe-Feywe. He was a tall Jew with a fine half-grey beard, a man of stately appearance. One only had to look at his face and had to give him a great deal of respect. He was a very great scholar and knew the Talmud well. I, personally, had the honor to study with him in his kheder. I remember exactly the kheder that was located in his house. We had to go up to a high bridge into the house.
We would study near the window that looked out into the street. We studied with zeal and how lucky I was the day when the rabbi Gershe-Feywe took me home from kheder, pinched my cheek and with a smile said: You studied well today.
There were very many refugees in Gordz at that time - escapees from Poland who had been brought to the shtetl by the Germans. I would say that these were not refugees, but forced laborers whom the Germans had brought to Gordz
to work. These young Jewish men remained in Gordz at the end of the war and did not return to their homes. Little by little they began to make plans for work, arranged their lives in Gordz and the Jewish kehile [organized Jewish community] provided for the education of their children.
A Jewish Folks Shul [public school] was founded at that time and the majority of children from the Talmud-Torah, as well as the private kheder transferred to study at the Folks Shul. The manager of the Folks Shul was Lem, the teacher and Hurwitz was the Hebrew teacher.
When the Zionist movement began to develop after the Balfour Declaration, our small shtetl, Gordz, did not lag behind other cities in the area in Lithuania. Various Zionist parties and youth organizations began to arise, as for example: Hashomir Hatzair [Zionist Socialists], Mizrakhi [religious Zionism], Betar [Revisionists] and general Zionists. Life in the shtetl became more interesting with the rise of the Zionist organizations in Gordz. The Zionist struggle developed: one organization struggled with another. Various speakers from various positions began to come to the shtetl and each speaker tried to spread his ideas and tried to show that his party was better than the other one. The propaganda struggle would take place in the beis-hamedrash [house of prayer], which was always filled with people during the rallies and meetings and then the air would be filled with gunpowder so that a fight could break out. Slowly, the mood would cool down; the crowd would become quiet, the speaker would end his speech and the formerly heated crowd would go home without a blow.
Gordz was not a large shtetl. The general population numbered about 3,000 residents, of them about 90 percent Jews. The Christians lived in the cross streets and around the city.
Even though our city was small, I really loved her! It differed somehow from other shtetlekh of its size. I think even the people were different. More friendly and more sympathetic. They were devoted to each other. The entire shtetl grieved when some misfortune, God forbid, happened to someone. These were Gordz Jews. Each looked for some way to help the other however they could. And, therefore, a Linas-haTzedek [society to care for the sick], a Gemiles-Khesed fund [interest-free loan fund] and later, also a Folks-Bank [People's Bank], which greatly helped the Jews of the shtetl by giving the merchants loans to enable them to run their businesses, were founded.
Gordz also did not lag behind in the area of sports in comparison with other shtetlekh. Makabi was founded and, later, other sports organizations. Makabi excelled with its football [soccer] competitions (matches). On Sundays, everyone would wait with impatience for the arriving football team from Memel or from other cities. Then everyone would run to the city garden where the football field was located and then the city garden would be filled with people: young and old, all were concerned that our Gordz Makabi would not, God forbid, lose.
Later, we founded a youth organization that we named Tzeiri haTekhiyah [Youth Reborn]. This was a youth organization whose task was to spread the Hebrew language among the Jewish young people. Groups of pranksters wanted to ridicule us and gave us the name Leybedike meysim [living corpses] This did not affect the development of our organization and it was spread very well among the young and successfully. After Tzeiri haTekhiyah was strengthened, we founded the Hebrew library that in time drew in all of the Jewish young people, who had begun to read Hebrew books.
Thus the Jewish kehile [organized Jewish community] developed in Gordz. Jews studied with joy and were satisfied. This is how life remained until 1939 when Hitler took Memel from Lithuania and annexed it to Germany. All at once, the old, former border was back, but now with the anti-Semitic Germany. After the German annexation of Memel, the Jews who lived in Memel were forced to run from the city leaving almost all of their possessions abandoned and they returned to their shtetlekh [towns], from which they had come to Memel 18 years earlier. Difficult times then began for the Gordzer Jews, in general, and for the Gordzer young people, in particular, both spiritually and materially, as they were suddenly cut off. The work places, where the young people worked, were confiscated. Thus, many of the young people, who had even a small opportunity, left Gordz and went to look for work in the larger cities in Lithuania. The majority of Gordz young people settled in Kovno - in the capital of Lithuania, where they found work and opportunities for existence.
In August 1939, the Gordz Jews met a great misfortune when a large fire broke out and 150 houses were lost in the smoke and 150 families remained without a roof over their heads. The situation was very difficult then. Whoever had relatives in other cities went to their families. However those who did not have any relatives to go to did not remain outside without a roof over their heads. The Gordz Jews who were not touched by the fire then showed their good-heartedness and the best virtues of help. Even those with the least took in those in need and gave them a room in their apartment.
Thus, everyone again found a roof over his head.
In the month of July 1941, when Lithuania was annexed by the Russians and the Russian army also occupied our border shtetl, Gordz, it was then proclaimed as a border area and it was forbidden to visit the shtetl without permission from the authorities. If a Gordz resident also wanted to travel from Gordz for even a short visit to another shtetl, he needed permission from the Gordz municipality in order to be able to return to his family.
The material situation of the Jews in Gordz was mainly difficult because private trade was stopped and the Jews lost their sources of income. The government workplaces were very few and those who were successful in arranging for government work received an insignificant salary.
Such conditions did not last long. Great catastrophe for the Jewish people approached. On the 22nd of June, 1941, the war between Germany and Russia suddenly broke out. This was on a sunny day when the German army began its great assault on Russia and it did not last long and the German military divisions marched into Gordz after a little resistance by the Russian army.
The first work of the German murderers and their Lithuanian collaborators was to gather together the Jewish men and, later, also the women and children and after holding them for several days, the men were murdered in a terrible manner in the city itself near the customhouse. Several months later, the Germans and the Lithuanians also murdered the women and the children
You German hangmen and your Lithuanian collaborators! We will never forgive you for your sin, that
in a terrible manner, you murdered our fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, wives and children. May you be accursed for eternity!!!
And you our dearest Gordz victims, we will never forget you and you are always with us. You will always sit in our hearts wherever we will be
Thus was annihilated and erased the Jewish kehile in Gordz.
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
There, where the Neman [Nemunas] flows into the Baltic Sea, the city of Memel is located, which actually carries the name of the river (in German, the Neman is called Memel and the city is called Klaipeda in Lithuania).
Until 1918 Memel belonged to Germany. After the First World War, the city was allocated to France[1*] and, at the beginning of 1922, the Lithuanians took the entire Memel county, which extended to Tilsit (today Chernichovsky). Klaipeda became a very important port city on the Baltic Sea for Lithuania.
Gorzd, our shtetl [town], where around 300 Jewish families lived, is located 17 kilometers east of Klaipeda. The border between Germany and Russia was near Gorzd for hundreds of years. If one needed to travel to Klaipeda, one had to worry about a transit document in order to cross the border. A toll office was located there, on the border, which checked everyone.
The border pass was abolished immediately with the rise of independent Lithuania and the traffic from Gorzd to Memel became free; the control was abolished and a transit document was no longer necessary.
The shtetl came to life. Trade grew stronger and increased. Gorzder merchants would bring wood, flax, animal skins, cattle, chickens, geese, vegetable and other goods to Klaipeda. The wagon drivers would bring freight for the merchants and shops in the shtetl.
The Gorzd youth found work in Klaipeda; children studied in the middle school there. A bus would travel
back and forth several times a day and the contact between both cities was very good.
As a result of the new opportunities, almost 80 percent of the Gorzd Jews drew their income from Klaipeda. It was the same in other Lithuanian shtetlekh that were located close to Klaipeda.
Such a situation lasted until March 1939 when Hitler Germany again annexed the Klaipeda region. The city again became Memel and again became a border town right near the German boundary. But this time, the position of the Jews became a great deal worse. If until 1922 one could still cross the border and maintain a connection with the other side it was now impossible. All of the Jews who were found on the other side in Memel had to leave the city within 24 hours. These Klaipeda Jews, who had lived in the city from generation to generation, also were forced to escape, leaving all of their possessions.
Memel was declared as Judenrein [free of Jews]. Thus were the Jews of Gorzd torn from their main source of income. Several traveled to other cities in Lithuania to look for work, but where could one find employment? Lithuania was a small, undeveloped and backward land that had first received its independence 20 years before and it had not yet begun to properly develop economically. The economy of the nation was just at the stage of development.
What was the alternative?
Emigrating abroad? All gates were closed. There were no possibilities for emigration, so the Gorzd Jews, who lost their sources of income were in a very difficult situation.
The Second World War broke out half a year later. A large fire broke out at the end of the summer in 1939 and half of the Jewish houses burned. But despite this, almost no one left the shtetl. They rented apartments and continued their lives. Several families even began to build new houses.
This was how the Gorzd Jews were connected to the shtetl, to their birthplace, despite the fact that the enemy was located just a few kilometers outside the shtetl.
On the 15th of June 1940 the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic nations. Lithuania became Soviet. And when the Red Army marched into Gorzd, the Jews thought that the border was now in better hands. The Soviet Union was still a great power with a large, strong army and, in addition, a Treaty of Friendship had been agreed between the Soviet Union and Germany.
About a year later, on the 22nd of June 1941,ignoring all agreements that had been signed earlier between the two nations, Hitlerist Germany attacked the Soviet Union.
The Germans began their assault at four o'clock at night and two German motorized columns entered Gordz on two sides with great pageantry. It did not take long until they
captured the bridge over the river. We could no longer escape. The road east was cut off.
The true hell began for the Gorzd Jews. The Jewish streets that were located in the center of the shtetl burned; leaving the houses was deadly dangerous; the shooting and the cannon barrages from the artillery forced people to cram themselves in various holes; on the first day of the occupation, the Germans took every Jewish man without regard to age. Later it was said that they had been taken to Germany to work. The wives and the children were imprisoned in a camp in the nearby village of Anieliske where they were held for several days in a barn in the worst conditions: in hunger, filth, crowdedness and without a drop of water.
The young were taken away to heavy, physical work cleaning up the ruins of the shtetl. They were held isolated and they could not have any involvement with the Christian population.
This was the truly sorrowful, frightening greeting that we, several Gorzder heard, finding ourselves in the Kovno Ghetto. Later we learned that the Germans with the active participation of the Lithuanian murderers led out the women and children to the Anelishke forest and shot everyone there, not even sparing the infants.
As we were told after the war, this was in September 1941.
Thus, the Jewish community in Gorzd was murdered. We, the few survivors, remained with an unending deep pain and grief in our hearts. We remained orphaned, without families, without Jews and without a birthplace.
Who can imagine Gorzd without Jews? And who can
imagine Gorzd without the Yiddish language on the streets and alleys of the shtetl? And if we now see the new streets and houses that the Soviet government has built, they are not like the former Jewish streets they are unfamiliar to us they do not belong to us
We, the survivors from Gorzd, will never forget and forgive the German murderers and their Lithuanian accomplices for the death and destruction of our dear and best for the sins and crimes that they committed against our people, for Gorzd without Jews.
|1*.||Under the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I, Memel and the surrounding Klaipeda area were under the provisional administration of France. Return|
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
During the era of independent Lithuania, the beis-medrash [house of prayer or synagogue], which over the course of generations was the center of general kehile [organized Jewish community] business, little by little lost its political character. The entire communal life of the Jewish young people moved to the premises of the parties.
The young were party conscious. Various Zionist parties existed in Gordz, from the religious Mizrakhi [religious Zionists] to the Zionist-Socialist Hashomer Hatzair [Youth Guard - Socialist-Zionist youth movement] and Hahalutz [youth organization training potential agricultural settlers for Eretz Yisroel]. Makabi, the sport organization, occupied a particularly respected place. Its members recruited from all party strata (Makabi was a Zionist-bourgeois sports organization in Lithuania). Each of the organizations had its own meeting place and its propaganda apparatus. Just a small group, Tiferes Bokhurim [magnificent young men], which would study Tanakh [Five Books of Moses] and Mishnius [rabbinical commentaries], had the beis-medrash as a meeting place. Therefore, the Tiferes Bokhurim as well as the Khevre Kadishe [burial society] occupied the head of the table at all synagogue celebrations, particularly Simkhas-Torah [joyous holiday marking the conclusion of the annual reading of the Torah] and Shabbos Bereishis [first Sabbath of the Jewish year on which the beginning of the Book of Genesis is read].
In spite of the worldliness of the Zionist youth, they would still go to the beis-medrash on the Shabbosim [Sabbaths] and yomim-tovim [religious holidays]. Some went because of honor or great respect for their fathers and some because of habit. Politics would be discussed at the reading of the Torah and arguments were held with political opponents. The yomim-tovim were particularly politically cheerful, when a number of Gordz young people, who studied in yeshivus [religious secondary schools] and gymnazies [secular secondary schools] in the larger cities, would come home.
The Gordz Hahalutz, as well as the Hahalutz around Gordz, in
Memel county, many of them intelligentsia and others with diplomas, supplied much to the zest of Jewish communal life in our shtetl.
As usual in Lithuanian cities and shtetlekh, a Jewish folks-bank [people's bank] also was founded in Gordz. The entire Jewish commercial and shop life actually was dependent on credit from the folks-bank. The gmiles khesed [interest-free loan fund], founded mainly with money from Gordzer landsleit [people from the same town] in New York and Chicago, would give interest-free and long-term loans only for constructive purposes. The lekhem aniyum [bread for the poor] and the bikur kholim [society for visiting the sick] would give monthly support for the poor people in the shtetl. The linas hatzedek [society providing medical equipment and medications] would only give attention to the sick, poor and rich, particularly at night and would also lend various instruments - hot water packs, enemas, thermometers and so on.
The Talmud-Torah [primary religious school for poor boys] in Gordz received state status in the later years and it became compulsory to study at it. It was mainly supported by pledges and contributions. It received partial support (for Lithuanian subjects) from the government. The Jewish folks-shul [public school], which was founded in the 1920s was a state school.
The two libraries, the Yiddish and the Hebrew, occupied a particularly important place. The adult young people read more Hebrew. Both libraries were rich in books. The Landsman brothers, Shmuel Zaks, owner of the factory Mashi in Ramat Gan, would support both libraries with money and books. From time to time the libraries would arrange lectures and communal debates on various actual themes.
During the last years, when the Lithuanian regime became more anti-Semitic, a large number of the Gordz Jewish young people emigrated to Eretz-Yisroel, America and South Africa.
Gordz was one of the first Lithuanian shtetlekh that
tragically perished. The Nazi troops from Memel murderously invaded Gordz on the 22nd of June 1941. All of the men were shot immediately on the first day. The women were dragged away to the nearby villages and perished there several months later. Very few Gordz Jews survived.
Honor the memory of our sanctified and pure!
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