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Characters and Personalities

 

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A Series of Personalities

by David Friedman of Vilna

Translated by Jerrold Landau

{Photo page 317: David Friedman}

My dear Jonavers, I present to you a gallery of Jonava personalities with all of their foibles and comical sides. I do not mean, Heaven forbid, to poke fun at them, but rather to mention them as a memorial. What person does not have his foibles? People understood this, and conducted themselves properly in public, as well as within their own realities.

Rebbes

“Hirshe the Teletze”

Our rebbe was called Hirshe the Teletze. He was the eighth son of Chaim the Teletze. The source of his nickname is unclear. Apparently, it was inherited through several generations. That rabbi had a foible of taking naps and sleeping. He learned a few lines with us, and once again dozed off. We would take a stick or a stone and give a hard bang on the table. He would wake up in a great fright. Forgetting where we were, he began to teach the verses of Chumash from the beginning. A few minutes later, he would doze off again and begin to snore. Apparently, he was only able to afford very meager meals from his earnings as a rebbe, and he would enjoy his sleep before his meals.

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He was very prone to anger. He would shout and administer beatings more than teach. He would speak into his large beard, and it was very difficult to understand him. His wife died in his latter years. Since it says in the verse[1], a man should not be without a wife, he decided to marry for a second time. If he was already getting married, why not take a young wife? He indeed found such a young widow. She made a condition, however, that he must give her a promissory note of 1,000 Litai. So as not to struggle with the evil inclination, it is better to write a promissory note and to get a young wife for the house.

He sobered up a few weeks later, and realized that the young woman had taken advantage of the older man by demanding a 1,000 Litai promissory note. He demanded the promissory note in return. He did not retrieve the promissory note, but he did get a bill of divorce.

The Rebbe Yose-Ber

He was called Yose-Ber, or the Kaplitzer Rebbe. His cheder was in his private dwelling. This was a house with many occupations – a conglomerate in miniature format. Yose-Ber would conduct class with his students. His wife would occupy herself with the hen business. She would purchase live hens, slaughter them, and sell them already plucked. An elderly Jew who worked as a gaiter stuffer lived in a second room in the house. In the same room, the gaiter stuffer's wife would bake bread for sale.

Aside from studying, Yose-Ber's students had an additional special job. They had to help Yose-Ber's wife catch the hens to slaughter. For us, this was the best activity. We would chase the hens over the table. They would jump into the window, and the feathers would fall all over the room. The noise was so loud, and the attention to the work was so minimal, that Rebbe Yose-Ber would always get involved in the matter and send us home.

The Recluse

The biggest mischief-makers in the town would learn in his cheder, such as Yoshke Girshevich, Lipke Cherneman, Lielke and Motke Joselovich and others. The greatest

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delight of the students was the shacharit service before beginning their studies. When the recluse would stand for Shmone Esrei and sway back and forth in devotion, the students took advantage of that time, and during those moments, the cheder looked like a madhouse. The students did as their hearts desired. They would bang on the tables with their hands and with sticks. During the winter, they would roll a snowball and bring it into the cheder. At Purim, they would shoot large keys stuffed with matches, which would explode with a loud bang. One could become deaf from the explosion. In addition, we would shoot at our rebbe's long kapote with toy guns.

Once, after such a Shmone Esrei, when we broke sticks and conducted such a concert over the tables and benches, the recluse was at Oseh Shalom[2], pacing a few steps back, when somebody suddenly threw something. He grabbed the stick from the perpetrator, and snatched it from his hands. It was some sort of a sporting match: the recluse from one side, and on the other side the students who had moved aside. As we were talking together, we tossed the stick once more. The recluse fell on the floor with his feet upward, and we all quickly turned toward the door.

The Hiltzerner Rav[3] (Fleishman)

The era of the cheders ended. Modern schools were founded. Yavne was one such school. Aside from the modern teachers, there were still some of the typical rebbes. One of them was the “Hiltzerner Rav” whom we also called by another nickname, “G-d is Atzig.[4]” The Hiltzerner Rav read Hebrew poorly. Instead of saying “Hashem oz leamo yiten[5], he would say, “Hashem aiz leamo yiten[6] The group of jokers from amongst the students would translate “Hashem Eiz” as “G-d is a goat,” and the nickname took hold.

In his later years, he became preacher who traveled from town to town. Once, he arrived in a town on the very day when the 500th anniversary of Vytautas the Great[7] was being celebrated. Gatherings took place everywhere, and, as well, the rabbis sermonized about the issues of the day in the kloizes. The Hiltzerner Rav began to deliver a sermon in that town. His words began as follows, “Five hundred years ago, Vinchuk the Great died, may it be for many years[8]. Everyone burst out in laughter, and the gathering ended.

The Enchanted Craft at the Prayer Leader's Podium in the Beis Midrash

a.

Several people served as prayer leaders: Kremer, Furmans, Kirzner, Schmid, Buchalter. Meshel Ivensky, who had a fine voice, also wanted to bestow his cantorial skills upon the congregation. He had a beard like a very pious Jews. However, the gabbai always invalidated him from being a prayer leader; there was one small thing, he was a freethinker, and therefore, they spread gossip about him that he had a fondness for married women. In invalidating him, the gabbai meant, but was not bold enough to actually say… Meshel Ivensky had some connection with money and credit in the People's Bank… And that is why he was able to benefit us with his fine tenor.

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b.

When Pesach the furrier engaged in cantorializing in the kloiz, everything was quite cozy. The primary coziness came on Simchat Torah, when they took advantage of his cantorial skills. First, they would give him a cup of liquor, and he would get the courage to go up to the podium with self assurance, as if to clip and shave. Pesach the furrier used to begin high, with a festival tune. However, Tevchik Jaffa the photographer sat behind him, and, as if to incite, he would break out in a weekday melody. He did not have a tuning fork, the noise reverberated in his head, and it was very easy for him to move over to a false tone. Laughter and a racket broke out in the kloiz. Thus did the group of jokers take advantage of him. Others would tie him to a lectern with a towel, while still others would bombard him with wet towels. The feeling of a veritable Simchat Torah pervaded in the kloiz.

c.

The kloiz had two strong competitors – not, Heaven forbid with regard to livelihood, but rather for the sake of Heaven – that is, with regards to cantorializing. These were Yankel-Leib Landsman the carpenter and Yosel Levin the smith. As was the custom, Yankel-Leib the wealthy man had more access to the podium than Yosel the Smith.

One Friday night, when Yankel-Leib was preparing to don his tallis and begin to sing Lechu Neranena[9], the group of jokers headed by Tevche Jaffa, began to incite a rebellion and spur on Yossele the smith.

“Well, why do you let him lead you by the nose? He is indeed a wealthy man, but everyone is equal before G-d. Why must he always lead the services, and you not?”
Before Yankel-Leib got started, Yossel the smith was standing at the podium, and singing out “Lechu Neranena Lashem” in a loud voice.

The next morning, during the time of the reading of the Torah, a group was standing in the synagogue yard, discussing both competitors. Some supported one side, and others supported the other. One of the jokers shouted out:

“Reb Yankel-Leib, being a smith who bangs all week with an anvil, was so embarrassed yesterday before the entire congregation? An unacceptable shame!”

Yankel-Leib shouted out, “What do you want from a cold smith. He knows how to forge shoes for a horse, but with respect to leading the services, he is no good.”

“Reb Yankel-Leib,” called out Yossel the smith, “Perhaps you are better with smithing together the rendition of the festival service, but with regard to the Sabbath rendition, I am ten times…”

Everyone laughed, and continued to incite them on.

Berele the Goat and his Assistant

They would call him Berele the Tzig [Goat]: Berele because he was short and lean, the goat – because he had a stretched out form and a small, pointy beard on his chin, and therefore, he would bleat like a goat during his prayers. He was occupied with various trades. He was the shamash [beadle] in the synagogue, and he taught Chumash to children with obtuse minds. He conducted lotteries for miscellaneous objects, such as a large, 10 kilogram pike, old candlesticks and other sundries.
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G-d had endowed him with an abundance of children, and in order to earn a livelihood, he would go to the villages announcing that a famous cantor was to come. He would post notices in the local kloizes that the famous cantor would be conducting services. Eventually it became clear that the famous cantor would not appear. On Friday night, he would bleat out the services with his cantorial rendition. On Saturday morning, they would promise to pay him for not leading the services.

Berele the goat had an assistant, a deputy shamash. He was a former Cantonist[10] who served Nikolai for a full 25 years. That deputy shamash also had the role of the summoner to the synagogue. He was tall and thin, with a large, thick beard that he never combed. He would run through the streets of Jonava like a Czarist general on Friday at candle lighting time, shouting, “Go to the synagogue!” A group would follow him from behind, and help him shout, “Go to the synagogue!”, and throw prickly burrs at him. At the end of the march, he would look like a shield of burrs.

Mottel Salanter

a.

At one time, he was a shoemaker. He had a double name: Mottel Salanter, or Mottel Glaz. Later, he became a fisherman in a sadovnik[11]. He also occupied himself with matchmaking. What did he not do to earn a living? He was a prankster. He was always cheerful and at ease, and jokes would always issue forth from him. He would tell about his attempts at matchmaking. He proposed a match for a small-town lad with a young girl who lived with her parents in a village. He was not that appropriate according to the rules of matchmaking. He indeed pushed the match through, but the villager was not able to come up with the matchmaking fee before the wedding. The villager did not hurry to pay his obligation. Later, when he requested of him the fee, the villager took out a package of Czarist money that was no longer valid currency and said, “Here, you have your matchmaking money.” The matchmaker looked at the money, looked at the villager, and thought, “He must be out of his mind.”
“Why are you staring at me?” called out the villager, “am I guilty for the fact that you have delayed proposing a match for ten full years.”
With a lowered head, the newly minted matchmaker left after his first failure.

b.

He once proposed a match for a girl with a coachman. The parents were willing, but the girl was stubborn, saying that she was not interested.
“Why?” they asked her.

“What will I do if his horse dies?”

c.

He proposed a match for Meirke the Miller, who was not all that astute, with an older girl from a village. The match went through, and the wedding was to be celebrated. The wedding ceremony was to take place in the synagogue courtyard. For the young people, this was immensely surprising – that is – Meirke the miller is going to the wedding canopy! The group crawled over the

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surrounding rooftops, and when Meirka recited “Harei at[12], brooms and wet cloths were tossed from the rooftops. The groom did not maintain his composure. He went forth from the wedding canopy and chased after the crowd with curses.

That same Meirka took on the task of painting the kloiz. As the rabbi of Jonava was walking by the synagogue, he made a comment about his work.

“Rabbi, you understand this type of work like a rooster understands noodles. And in general, rabbi, a fool does not understand half the work.”

Dvora Leah the Reciter[13]

Dvora Leah sat in the women's gallery of the synagogue on Yom Kippur, surrounded by a group of women who unfortunately could not read. She served as the reciter for them. The old women reminded her together:
“Dear Dvora Leah, do not forget to remind us when we are supposed to begin to weep.”
Dvora Leah the reciter was very pious. She had two daughters, Michle and Itke, both old maids. She was not well disposed toward Itke. One day, after an argument with Itke, she summoned all the women to the synagogue. When the crowd came to pray, she went up to the Holy Ark, knocked on its door, and started to recite:
“Good morning, dear G-d. Your servant Dvora Leah is standing before you and I beg of you: Give us a good groom for Michle, for she is unfortunately a girl getting on in years. For Itke – a malady, for I have had years of suffering from her.

An Example of Stinginess

Reb Mende Tzemach's, may he forgive me, was very stingy. When they constructed the sidewalks in Jonava and every householder was required to plaster his own segment at his own expense, Reb Mende Tzemach's got to work. He would stand with a broom in his hand and refuse to permit anyone to walk on his sidewalk, lest they wear it out, Heaven forbid.

Fanning the Evil Eye

Feiga Kriger of Breizer Street owned a goat from goatland. Jonava had never seen such an udder as this goat possessed. When Feiga would walk her goat, a group would run behind her and shout, “Feiga, the goat has a large udder.” Feiga was afraid of the evil eye, and therefore fanned the goat ten times to ward off the evil eye.

A Glutton and Exaggerator

Reb Moshe David Mauer, the former Stirnik[14], had an open house. Better guests would always come to them. His wife Sara-Batya was a wonderful cook, and the guests would always have good food, such as a good roasted duck or gefilte fish. The problem was that Moshe David was a healthy man, tall, thick, and therefore had a hearty appetite. Their restaurant

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fed him in a legal and illegal manner. When Sara-Batya would leave the house, Reb Moshe David would go to the oven, snatch a freshly roasted duck or a freshly stuffed fish, and quickly wolf it down. He would wash his beard and moustache, take a few Litai and place them on the shelf. Sara-Batya would return, go to the oven, and notice that a duck was missing.

“Moshe David, who ate the duck?”

“A little while ago, a guest came who was a glutton. The money is over there.”

Moshe David, like his brother Avraham the Stirnik, were both known as exaggerators. When one of them would tell a story in an exaggerated fashion, he would immediately call the other brother as a witness. And when the second would pester someone, the first brother would help him. They would tell stories about travelling in America. Reb Moshe David tells:
“When I went to America, I befriended someone on the ship. It was Friday during the day. We were sitting together in the coach and travelling for such a long time that the Sabbath began to approach. Tell me my friend: Before we travel home, let us travel to the kloiz, and you will see how fine and beautiful our kloizes are. We entered the kloiz, and my friend began to whisper to some people, and then I heard that they had called me up for maftir[15]. The bima was so far away that I had to sit in the coach and drive. If you do not believe me, ask my brother Avraham.” He called to Avraham:

“You will all believe me about the 'American thief.' A fine thing happened to me in America. Immediately after arriving there, my friend said: 'Get up, Avraham, I want to show you an America style mikva [ritual bath], without the Jonava mud.' I will no longer punish myself. I went to the mikva, and saw a veritable sea before my eyes, and I jumped in without fear. I knew how to swim well as a Stirnik. I used to swim back and forth across the Vylia, and this to me was like a piece of sugar cake. I decided to take a swim in the mikva. I started to swim, fathom after fathom, and then I noticed that I can no longer see the shore. My hands and feet became shaky, and the thought came to my mind that I might drown in the mikva, Heaven forbid. Suddenly, a miracle took place. I noticed an island in the middle of the mikva. I grabbed onto its shore with both hands and was saved. Is this not true, Moshe David? You saw this yourself.”

Someone who Made Calculations

When the policeman, the labas[16] would give Mote Flaks a ticket for failing to clean the street, bringing with it a fine of ten Litai or three days in jail, Reb Mote Flaks would calculate that it was cheaper to sit for the three days. He would send his sister's husband, who worked for him in the grain warehouse, and earned a small salary.

An Overheard Conversation

Dr. Ran, the chief physician of the Jonava hospital, became a good friend of the administrator Glaz. They were once sitting during a break and conversing. Dr. Ran called out:

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“My wife is young, and only wants to have a good time. Here in Jonava, she is lonely. She likes to go on vacation in Kovno. She goes to the theater, and she goes to the opera. You understand, this costs me a lot of money.”
The administrator Glaz with the long beard answered him.
“On the other hand, my wife is old and sick, and does not let me enjoy life. I no longer want to save money. Sir Doctor, do you know what? You are a bit miserly, as is my wife. Your wife wants to live it up, as do I. Let us make an exchange, and we will both gain.”

A Wealthy Man – A Haughty Man

a.

Reb Leibe Wolfovich states:
“Today, I picked up a new suit for my Meir (14 years old), from Meirke the tailor (44 years old).

b.

“Itzke!” (Referring to Yitzchak Burstein.) “Did you see my Hershele?”

It Does Not Pay to Exchange

One Friday night after services, I was walking with Reb Leibe from the large Beis Midrash. We were walking and chatting. He was talking his heart out to me, and, as usual, he began with his well-known expression:
“Did you hear, beloved brother? When I lived as a youth with my parents in Taraker Kretshme (the village of Trakai between Koplice and Siesikai), I recall that I went around to the villages all day, but not to make purchases. Did you hear, beloved brother? I was a very poor person, and I toiled hard. I would carry a calf on my shoulders from the village to Tarak, where I would slaughter it and sell its meat in town. I would return home only on Fridays. Mother would prepare for the Sabbath. She would spread a thick, linen tablecloth over the table, and put out the brass candlesticks. She would make thick noodles from coarse meal for food. Did you hear? Then I began to sense the pleasure of the Sabbath. And what is it like today? In my home, today is like yesterday, and tomorrow is like the next day. There is no difference between the weekdays and the Sabbath. The fine, white tablecloth is on the table every day. We have a good lunch every day of the week, beloved brother, and I get no enjoyment from the Sabbath of today.”
After such a lecture, I worked up my brazenness, and said:
“Reb Leibe, it is not all that difficult to return to your former lifestyle. If you agree, I will arrange for it. I will talk to Yose the Tzimmes or old Shlomo Itze's to arrange an exchange with you, at least on a trial basis for one year. It could very well be that after a good Sabbath, they will want to go back to the impoverished Sabbath.”

“Truth be told, Davidke, the exchange does not interest me. Let things stay as they currently are.”


Translator's Footnotes

  1. This is not actually a biblical verse, but rather a halachic statement. Return
  2. Near the end of Shmone Esrei. Return
  3. Literally “The wooden rabbi.”. Return
  4. G-d is a goat. Return
  5. G-d gives might to his nation. Return
  6. Lithuanian Jews often pronounce the short 'o' vowel as 'ai'. Literally, the verse would now mean, “G-d gives a goat to his nation.”. Return
  7. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vytautas Return
  8. A traditional greeting for a long life. Return
  9. The first words of the Friday night service. Return
  10. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantonist. Return
  11. I am unsure of the meaning of the term 'Sadovnik'. Return
  12. The first words of the betrothal phrase recited by the groom at a wedding ceremony. Return
  13. A “Reciter” (Zogerke) is a woman who informally assists the women in the women's section of the synagogue with the recital of the prayers. Return
  14. A log driver who accompanies logs down the river to market. Return
  15. The concluding Torah honor (aliya) on Sabbaths and festivals. The person who gets this aliya also reads the haftarah (prophetic portion). Return
  16. In Lithuanian, labas means “good,”i.e., the good policeman. Return


[Page 339]

Meita the Baker

by Frank Sirek

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Thursday evening in the small towns, as is known, was a dark and worrisome evening for women. A trifle, one prepared for the Sabbath. One had to make the challa. One had to prepare flour, yeast, eggs, and raisins, make the dough, and prepare the oven. One had to let it stand until dawn, then warm the dough, kneed it, roll it, braid it, light the oven, and place the challa in the oven. Now you can imagine what the evening must have been like for Meita the baker (Levin), who baked challa and bread not only for herself, but for a large part of the city.

One day, on a winter Friday, our Meita woke up before dawn, hastened out of bed, lit the kerosene lamp, and went quickly to the dough which was already beginning to hang over the edges of the wooden boards. In her great haste, she forgot to put on her dress. She was wearing her thick, cotton bloomers with a slit in the rear, in railroad fashion. The oven flickered with large flames of fire, as if holy spirits were blowing beneath it. One could hear Meita knocking and panting, as she conducted her holy work in honor of the Sabbath. Meita moved the hole-filled dough from the boards, cut it with a knife, tossed it onto round boards, sprinkled it with white flour, beat under the dough with her hands, kneaded and rolled it, twisted it, braided one side into the other, tossed the dough into forms, spread it on the bottom and on the top. The work was conducted with such ecstasy that she could have been, of course not literally, the High Priest engaged in the holy service in the tabernacle.

Early in the morning when the darkness had not yet abated, the table was already covered with boards laden with various baked goods in various shapes and flavors. The fire in the oven was already dying down, and the flames were calming down, and the top of the large Russian oven had already darkened. The only thing left to do was to clean out the ashes and place down the challas. Suddenly, she realized: “Oy vey. I don't have any pomele[1].” She did not think for long. She ran out the back door and off she went to the nearby market. Outside, it was the gray of early morning. The zealous woman was wearing her bloomers. She did not even notice that she was running

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with her cotton pants… She bought the pomele and ran home. Then she noticed that someone on his way to the first Minyan was looking at her and smiling. She then recalled that people were also laughing at the market. Then she realized what had happened: she had forgotten her dress, and she appeared in the street in pants. As she arrived at her home, young jokers laughed at her out loud and made merriment. She ran into the house with her head covered in shame.

Word of that episode spread throughout Jonava that Sabbath, and the jokers of Jonava nicknamed her from then on, “Meita the Baker with a Crack in her Underpants”, or for short “With a Crack”.

Told over by Yitzchak Burstein


Translator's Footnotes

  1. A baker's mop for cleaning out an oven. Return


[Page 347]

My first year working at Filvinsky's

by Yisrael Yaakov Pogir

Translated by Jerrold Landau

For a thirteen year old boy, being an assistant[1] was an honorable profession – something of a trifle!

After Sukkot, when I went after services to Velvel Filvinsky, he treated me to a glass of tea. First he taught me how to make a glass of tea: one puts in a third of concentrated tea essense, a third milk and then fills it with hot water. The dwelling was on the second story. On the first day, I made eight glasses of tea! One went up and down on the steps.

Once I was silly and made it the opposite way – first the water, and the essence at the end. He noticed it and did not drink it, and I had to bring him another glass of tea.

Once I opened the door angrily with a glass of tea in my hand. He closed the door with great anger and gave me a smack on the hands. The saucer remained but the glass fell victim. I returned and brought another glass of tea; but he continued on with his anger and told me that today's glass of tea would cost me dearly. The wonder is that in carrying 8 glasses of tea for 300 days, I only broke one glass.

When did the day of a 13-year-old assistant end? In short, I did not study the Code of Jewish Law. I had to wait until Filvinsky closed the business. However, Filvinsky waited until Elazar Levi Itzik's (Yudelevich) closed his business. I would go to take a look every few minutes to see whether Eliezer Levi Itzik's[2] closed the lamps. Perhaps he was waiting for Filvinsky? In the meantime, I sat there until approximately 10:00 p.m. No customers came. Therefore, I was happy when Leib Gronevich, Alter the lawyer with his powerful voice, Moshe Itzik and other businessmen came to converse.

During the evenings, I waited. I used to sit in the corner on a sack of sugar and listen. They talked about the Governmental Duma, Hamelitz, and Jewish tribulations. Today I think about the stories that they used to tell! They laughed so much. Were I to have known this then, I would have collected the Jonaver humor, and I would have sweetened it today. Alter always had the last word. Since he talked loudly, he won all the debates. My boss had candies and nuts, but he never treated his guests who sustained him. He finally let out a smile…

A day came when an agent from “good things” for the Krasna market arrived. Before the Julians arrived, the Barishnies came to search for sons-in-law and vice versa. The events took place before the Polish church, right in the place where Filvinsky was sitting[3].

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The agent came in the evening and left his merchandise, various types of sweets. Immediately thereafter came the humorous customers who talked about G-d and his Messiah, about trees and stones. They were the experts about the candies. They continued sampling and ate up his entire stock. The agent shouted that they ate everything up. I quickly fled home, cursing all the businessmen. If G-d desires, I would not longer be an assistant[1]. Eating a Vilna Jew out of his livelihood? Such businessmen I could not tolerate.

Every Monday was market day. As Filvinsky waited to sell and not to purchase, his business began after midday. In the evening after the commotion, Filvinsky sat down to count the hard tens, the silver 20 kopecks, the guilders – and tie up the packages. He handed me a heavy load:

“Go off to Sarel Blume's (Pogirsky), give her the 85 rubles and small change, and ask her for a full hundred. She owes me 15 rubles to pay a promissory note.

For her I would never lend, even if I had to go hungry; and for him I had to shamefully borrow, all for a ruble a week!

Sarel Blume's gave me a hundred ruble bill and told me not to lose it. I brought him the money. First I had to go to Moshe Tzvia's (Lukman) in the hotel, find Yankel Asher's and ask whether he was travelling the next day to Kovno with the coach. Then I had to take the hundred ruble bill and trudge on to the businessman who was traveling to Kovno, telling him to take the money to koznochistova and pay the Filvinsky's debt.

On Monday evening, I did not have to wait for Elazar Levi Itzike's to close his business. When I returned home, Lozer's (Elazar's) business had already long been closed…


Translator's Footnotes

  1. The word here is “Prikozhik'. Return
  2. This style of name, appearing several times in this chapter, was common in those days. A person would be nicknamed for his mother or father, with the possessive form applying to the parent names. In this case, the father was Itzik, so the man was called Itzik's. Return
  3. 'Julians' would be Russian slang for 'boys', and 'Barishnies' for 'girls'. This cryptic paragraph is obviously describing some matchmaking that was going on in this store. Return

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