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[Page 9]

Distant Echoes


A Door to the Past

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

And we will begin with the words of my late friend, F. Tsibulski: “We have been weaving the silk fabric for many years on the inherited weaving stool, but I try to just spin a thin thread that I want to have to connect to the navel of a newly arrived heir.”

And indeed – what would our many thousand year life in the world have been worth without a continuation, without heirs? It was a concept: “Jewish shtetlekh [towns].” The majority of the people are descended from our people in Eastern Europe. Our literature was also born in the shtetlekh, although it [the literature] was never “small town-like.” The shtetlekh remain; however, there are no longer any Jews. They are not like they were earlier. Those people were rooted with body and soul in the soil, with sap drawn from this soil, which was our home. The survivors were thrown to all corners of the world, widely scattered. However, the old sap remains with them, drawn from familiar soil and this is our distinctive line. Here, we are crumbs, splinters, grains of sand that carry with them memories of everything that begins as a little story, a – this is how it was…

Everyone loves his beginning. This is valid for individuals as well as for entire communities. We loved our childhood, our youth – this is our golden time, from it we take our dreams in our later life; those years formed us, each as he is. In the old man and in the old woman we recognize the young boy and the young girl from their young years.

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The male friends and the female friends carry their memories of that time with them when they meet and are nostalgic. The longing awakens, wrapped in a romantic veil, no matter how hard and poor our childhood home was, how bitter was the fruit that we tasted from the tree of life and from the tree of knowledge. And something else: Those who went with the smoke of the crematoria, they are still not completely gone as long as we, the survivors, the saved, live. They are here, engraved in our memory – with their names and with their faces, with their gestures and customs, with their deeds and with their lives. We carry them still in ourselves and they will first only disappear with us. We therefore want, we very much want that they not completely disappear; something of them should remain in the thicket of the future, so that the few, the very few of the heirs in subsequent years, when they have the desire to search for their roots, can connect the thread or even connect a thread to a thread in a knot, if the thread was somewhere disconnected.

My sincere friends, your pleas to write something about our shtetl for the yizkor book that you intend to publish moved me. Yes, descendants from hundreds and thousands of Jewish cities and towns that became ruins started, without collaboration, to publish yizkor books dedicated to their birth places. They all felt a debt with their hearts, as a Chesed shel Emes [the truest act of kindness – ritual of preparing the dead for burial]. But this is actually more – this is a wandering matzeyvah [headstone] for they who were destined to have no place of rest under a stone, a headstone that vandals cannot overturn, as still happens today at Jewish cemeteries.

Naturally, your request moved me as one string in my heart, particularly, as you proposed an opportunity to me, the act of opening the door to such sacredness for us all, as is our past – our shtetl, sanctified through all of the death. I confess that

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there had long lived in me the desire to draw from my memory, faces, types, events that remain alive in it and they only need to be taken. Peruse the memory and it will revive more and more. But… and this is the “but” of a moral character: Do we need to hear the introduction, or such, of the miraculously saved, witness testimony that saw the destruction with their own eyes, the roads to hell that those closest to us experienced until death? However, on the other side, then who is so important? The important thing is – we should begin. I will be one of the most interested in this work.

I have not been in our shtetl for a long time; a fog of scores of years separates me from it. And here I am, alone, only one from our shtetl and from our region and there is no one to talk to about the old matter, revive facts long forgotten, bring in motion the visual centers of the market, receive impetus, thank yous, memories and also to control one's own memories, if it was really the way it was recorded in my head and not erased? In writing, through correspondence, such a task was not attained. We had the occasion to speak with Leibl Gasman. He remembers many facts, many curious things, characteristic of our shtetl. Leibl Faliewski also has things to say and many others of those who live with you and together would perhaps be successful in erecting a truthful picture of our past daily life that was in no way profane, and of it people, simple, toiling, for whom the concept of “grey' is absolutely not fitting, as we are usually prone to use in relation to Jews during the year. And there is another reason that makes the task more difficult for me as for everyone else. I have in the past struggled with the evidence and because of this I myself cannot write; I must dictate to someone else so that he can record it and dictating and writing are very difficult things. In writing, one is eye to eye with a white sheet of paper. It creates a mysterious contact between the

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virgin paper and the one who needs to pour out his feelings, form his thoughts. Visually, you see the errors, the mistakes, the clumsiness in sentence structure and you make them better right away. While editing, a third one finds himself in the middle, a stranger and in the end writing is such an intimate matter that a third one is not tolerated. I have the feeling that spoken words recorded by another are a pseudo-speech before a group and speeches are too fiery, usually too circular, there is too much emotion in them, for it to be possible to replace a recorded one that is equal to what a person himself says, man – himself.

And yet I am ready to surmount, though perhaps with difficulty, stumbling blocks and let it be as a private thing, as my letter to you, my sincere friend.

No one will ask: Is Ephraim my favorite son?[1] We are a small dot on the map of our national disaster. “We” – this is our shtetl. We mourn the shtetl. We cry for it, like orphans cry for a mother. There were millions of mothers, we mourn millions, but they are all embodied in one, in our mothers. For everyone, their mother is the dearest. And an entire life draws yet to the roof under which one was born, to their street and to the neighboring street because there lived a young girl for whom your heart shivered; to the street where the kheder [religious primary school] or the synagogue was located, where each stone was measured with your steps. Enumerating everything that is connected to those cobblestone pavements is the enumerating of every day of your life, before you left your shtetl and went out into the world. And it is always yours, as is your mother. Thousands and thousands of shtetlekh, but one is yours because it gave you the food for your trips on all of your paths, on all the long and wide paths of your wandering.


Translator's Footnote
  1. This is a reference from Jeremiah 31:20: “Is Ephraim my favorite son or a delightful child, that whenever I speak of him I remember him more and more?” Return

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Our Shtetl [Town]

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Our neighborhood: Kolki, Sofiyivka, Osova, Chartsriysk and other shtetlekh [towns] had their own details. It seemed to us that our area lived not only differently; I would call it, style, but also lived in another time that was already long past. It seemed to us that our Jews were also different from elsewhere. It may not be very far from us. The shtetlekh thrown among hundreds of smaller and larger Ukrainian villages were far from cities. Scores of viorst [a little more than a kilometer or .62 miles] from the nearest train station – there were also such. They were like dark islands hidden in the deepness of the Woliner woods, among oaks, alders, pines, birches and other kinds of tall trees. The low parts of the city were covered as if with a golden mantle of mighty oaks that shone like copper during the sunsets, as if taking leave of the day before night came. The pines and also the birches let it feel like a competition of colors. I do not want to dwell upon the wonderful morning, fresh meadows and dewy fields – my palette is too poor for it. Our eyes bathed in the color, in the green grass and we became sure that there is no more beautiful scenery in the entire globe. You will say: this sounds very naïve. But everything that is beloved is naïve and we were enamored with this, which while we were young, was for us our natural world.

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And the Jews? The familiar Jews also appeared different and better in our eyes. Some sort of a trifle! Gather up as curiosities the wide-shouldered Jews of Trochenbrod [Trokhymbrid]. They consisted of pure muscle. It is enough to close my eyes and I see them alive as they tan leather near the tubs. Like in a game of fantasy, they stand before me in their garden, near their horses in the stalls and they labor in the fields that surround their houses and all of us as in a garland of green and yellow wheat. Simple Jews, Jews like of earth – Moshe Kulbak, who delighted with his uncles from Raysin, would certainly call them.

Dear friend, you certainly remember the kind of respect they drew from the surrounding peasants. And there were still Jews – peasants, who drew their livelihood from mother earth, just like the Ukrainian peasant, or Polish. Remember the Jewish peasants from Asawe, from Wiszcow. Those from the town and the peasants felt as if they were one family and often helped each other. Simple people, but sincere, with axes in their gartln [belt worn by pious Jewish men] on the road and with [axes] waving – in the forests. And what were our blacksmiths worth, the cabinetmakers, the carpenters, the woodworkers and the others; the tailors of inexpensive clothing and those who were in the small shops and sat near the canteens? Were they then scarcely men proud of their ancestry; were they then thrown out like heaps of seeds, by a mysterious hand on the Woliner Plains between the forests, with a message: you should have children and make the children men; you should plant roots here and grow. What? Do we need to look in the books in order to find the Jewish beginning? How do the books concern us? Just look at the Jews well, the local ones; are they not the true seeds of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? How similar they are to the Patriarchs whom we made acquaintance with along with the Khumish [Five Books of Moses]. How grown old and familiar are the patriarchs here. They were – if you want to know not sown – but thrown in the damp, swampy plains with a thud. What does he babble, the Jew, from

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longing for generations connected to one root?! Was there not the giant, steel bird [Translator's note: an allusion to an airplane] that each of them costs millions? No, there was no giant, steel bird – however, there was the verse from a sacred book and it would fly over speedily like an electrical point from south to north and set down verses like landing troops. And they were dear, and endured through all time. And they could manage with any calamity.

If they had not been one family, would they have endured, the Jews – with straight backs, with open faces, with gray and white beards and without a beard. Do not look in the books, look at Chaim “Kubel,” how he goes with a scythe in his hand, onward and onward and cuts, and under his hand fall stalk heads. He goes as if in battle in his fields between the bridges and… what and? And Pinye “Kashkele's” [son of Kashkele] (Reznik), does he not sit as if on a racehorse on a thick beam and chops with the wide axe and chips fall. Like the, the … how? … let it rest, I do not know how, but a strong person outside in a long talis-katan [undergarment with fringes at each of four corners worn by pious men] with a large axe, thrusts with such certainty and calm as if he alone would rule a house on the earth. And at least one peasant got the idea to puncture the Jew with an axe and talis-katan?! Bože Matsiwer, Bože Kowal [My dear God, headstone engraver, my dear God, blacksmith] – a body spilled out of the stall. Holding my breath I would look into the dark smithy at twilight, on his brown face, the radiance of fire, on his hands, which lift rhythmically and bang, pat the iron, here strong and here with fantasy: - you see, you are doomed in my hands, so concede. What, do you want to go farther into gehenim [hell]? – and the iron would become pliable. Bend. Seeing me, the blacksmith would smile and say the clever words: See my child, when the iron is not heated, the hammer would remain a fool. Understand?

And when thoughts of the shtetl forefathers come to me, I remember Mendl the apothecary – Mendl Fajersztajn. Who does not know that an apothecary

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was the grammatician? What is to be said – he even knew Latin, and not only how to write a letter. But I am indebted to him – with commonsense, he taught his son Tone, and at the same time, me, various chapters of Tanakh. Have you seen such an apothecary? And my sister, Rozke, took the melody from him with which she taught Hebrew to her students and with the melody and with Bialek's help, she would quietly and slowly, draw her students into Hebrew conjugation.

They fly at me from all sides, as if from an open hive and try, they say “to arrange themselves in a row, not hastily.” The images creep toward me, all at once, naturally, first – all of Kolki. They insist, they want no one to miss them. Why am I different from anyone else?

Hello, Ayzyk Werberg! See how he is the first to appear and I do not even remember the color of his beard. I only remember that it was wide and diffused. I remember his thick eyebrows. But I remember him in his daily surroundings, surrounded by tables, closets, chairs and a range of utensils and planks and boards of various sizes. And everything gleamed and reflected the other as in a mirror. And, word of honor, no painter got the idea to paint such an interesting and original work of nature! – And pure forms, geometrical, a Cubist piece of work. Although, I do not have the basis on which to presume that in general he did not know about such a school. He rocked back and forth and a long, wooden spiral turned out from his plane. Why not paint a composition with a cunning name, especially because all of the smells from the woods, with galipot [crude turpentine from pine trees] and pine were here. True, some kind of mixture was present that did not belong to the colors of the woods – oil, I once felt this mixture; now, when he comes to me as a guest for a second, I still smell the luster and the smells of the forest, and each mixture. I try to look at him longer,

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it torments me, I must remind myself what color his beard was. This torments me; I strain my eyes as if he were standing before me and I am in the position in which I am now, and see only a silhouette, but no color. I ask him, solicit: What color is your beard? – And he disappears.

I stood with my back towards the exiled, spoke and spoke and did not hear that someone was knocking at the door. Opened it – an acquaintance, entirely not sad. I cannot say anything. I wake up as from a dream. I was in the past – I was awakened.

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Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

I came together with my note-taker again. He sat with his pen in his hand and I did not know with whom to begin, where to begin. He waited patiently and I stared in a corner as if I wanted to draw out the strand of my memories from that small point. A white image unexpectedly appeared to me, but really completely white: an old man with a white beard, white eyebrows, white hair, wearing a white apron. So, yes, this was the Zeydenyu [word of endearment meaning grandfather], the old baker, Liplewski. He stood in the pit near the oven, as if he had grown from the earth, his head bent to the small doors of the blazing oven. A guest in my thoughts – his smile began to live again in me. I remember that I am sitting on a small porch.

…I only need to remember a name and a guest comes to me.
Sholem Aleichem [hello], Manes Eizenberg! A strange person! He loved everyone and everyone loved him. Delicate, genteel and yet life did not spare him from his youngest years on. He was still truly a child when he became an orphan – without a father and without a mother, but with a heavy responsibility. It is usually said: the man dies and she remains with very small children to raise. Here he, himself a child, remained with very small children. The emaciated, thin young boy had to be a father and a mother to his three very small sisters and to his young brother – the unpredictable Meirl.

The house in which they lived could be called a “room.” It was like a small shed made of haphazardly hammered together green boards with a shingle roof over them; a roof remembered by the great grandmother.

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The small room possessed a nice, small porch that stuck out like a young noise from an old, wrinkled face.

The neighbors came together on the small porch and wrinkled their brows. What can we do with the poor orphans? They need to be given to the orphan house in Lutsk. You, Manes, they told him, are yourself a child. How can you take upon yourself such a family, keyn eyn-hora [no evil eye – may you be spared from an evil eye]?

However, Manes had his own answer: as I live, they will live.

– Easier said than done – what do you mean, even the small house was not yet theirs; it was rented.
But Manes was stubborn: he would not give “his” children anywhere or to anyone.

If there was work, he toiled from dawn until night fell and yet was always smiling. Why did he smile? Perhaps because of the thought that one should not be tested as to what one can get accustomed to?! A person can bear everything… he was seen pulling the heavy yoke and everyone had more respect for him and with respect – human love, because how can one not have love for such a person? In time he built his own house and nourished and raised three beautiful sisters, and the small Meirl grew to be a sensible person who moved among the adults and with me who would visit them and he became a “buddy.”

All of them perished, only Meir Eizenberg survived. Several dozen years later I met him, my former sympathetic friend, in Wroclaw, and long reminisced with him about what was and what disappeared. Recently I received a greeting from him – he lives in Israel.

And Srolik, the wagon driver? A simple man of the people, but not a coarse youth. Proverbs and witticisms bubbled up in him – at anytime and in every circumstance. A bit of Tevye the Milkman, or a verse. He gave each

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the honor they deserved, but he did not bow to anyone. The truth itself was his dearest friend. I remember: He took us, a friend, a teacher, and me, from Rozyszcze to Lutsk with his wagon to a conference. Srolik spoke to his horses the entire time and my friend noticed that the wagon driver did not even look at, did not notice what my friend did. He talked to them both good and bad: - when we need to pull the wagon out of sand, you are lazy, but if you have a flat road, an easier bit of work, you fly, so I no longer have any strength to hold you back, horse that you are. And you really cost me; you peel my skin from me. You do not want to know anything. Damn your father's father; a boil has grown on my neck. An autobus goes from Kiwerce [Kivertsi] to Kolki and it takes away my rides. So, a little cheerful! We will appear on time for the train, for which you have God to thank that he gave you a smart boss. Now that there is an autobus, I call out earlier, so the crowd will know, so that they are more certain with me. Four horse hooves go slower than the wheels of the autobus, which keeps rumbling in its iron stomach and it stops, it is stubborn, it does not want to move from its spot. And you, my jewel, if Srolik asked, you went quickly. I have a whip and you a hide, but you say yourself, my noble steed, when have I ever cut your hide. I whistle with the whip so that you will know what I mean and like a kheder boy [religious school student], you act as if you were afraid.

He told them, his “breadwinners,” everything in a haze, that they would know how expensive bread is and how cheap death.

Several years later I read a large notice in a YIVO publication: “A Conversation with Horses” – this actually was my comrade's correspondence about Srolik the wagon driver's sermons to his noble steeds.

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Sholem Aleichem, guest, guest from the other world, guest from my childhood in the world, on our bloody ground!

As I remember Srolik the wagon driver, “Meir the soldier” comes to me as a guest. I knew him as an old man. However, I remember a true story that my father told. My father told me that when the First World War broke out, the mood of the shtetl Jews became very gloomy. They did not yet understand the size of the misfortune, but a dark cloud covered the sky. This alone, that our shtetl lay near the Styr River, threw a fear - they would say: “We lie in the very middle of the road, just to be killed and to be slaughtered.” The front came nearer to us; the central alleys where Jews lived immediately were burned.

In short, and it came to pass that they sat on the outside earthen bench as before: peacefully; a large horde of Cossacks invaded from Raznicz, a village that was near our shtetl, through the first and second bridges, where the Styr would divide into two separate streams. They did not stop in the shtetl, but went in the direction of Kiwerce and Lutsk. A Cossack broke off from the last group and went to Meir the soldier's shtibl [one room synagogue], nothing special, a simple thing, but it remained in the memories of the residents of the shtetl. However, before anything, I must tell a story within a story.

I, as I have already said, knew Meir the soldier as an old man. He would knock on the closed shutters in the morning and wake up those who had to go to the train with a wagon driver. He also would wait for every wagon that arrived in the shtetl and recognize who was a broker, who was a merchant and found the language with which to receive several groshn from them. I remember him as a tall, thin Jew with a small beard, like a broom resting on a thick stick that held up his light body, heavy with age. He would sit for the entire day at the small bridge in the middle of the shtetl, near Shlomo Szlajener's house,

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surrounded with young boys and he told them stories. He knew everything, what had happened in the shetl, and, perhaps if he did not know, he would invent. He was a born storyteller and each of his stories seemed completely true. Leibele Stawker and I also were avid listeners to the old man's stories. Speaking and telling stories visibly gave great pleasure to Meir. If he had few stories, he would quote his father, grandfather and even his great grandfather, as if a witness. Among his stories were histories about tenant farmers, leaseholders and other village Jews. These village Jews would come to the synagogue for the holidays and bring all kinds of good things and treat everyone with meat and butter, little cakes and cakes. Meir would smack his tongue as if he still smelled the [aroma] of the [gifted foods]: of the whiskey, geese, grievin [chicken skin cracklings], that he would taste that we do not even see today.

He would tell stories about demons and ghosts with just the same realism as the town stories about deserted wives, the baptized, about a virtuous girl who suddenly gave birth to a bastard.

The ghosts had their place. They would come together at midnight at the large synagogue. Meir would call the people by name, that is, those he saw with his own eyes. It is true that those who saw the demons with their own eyes were very tipsy, but what does that matter?

The old man would melt when he would tell about the “trickery” of the “einuntswantsik-yorike” or the “einuntswantsiker,” as they usually called the “recruits.”[1]

Every year the same thing was repeated. Several dozen young men received “notifications” for the draft.

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Weeks before presenting themselves before the medical commission that needed to judge: “godyen” or “nye godyen,[2] many endeavored to be “nye godyen” – they would not sleep, not eat and do even worse things. This is known. Jewish young men did not want to serve the emperor with his pogroms against the Jews (and who did want to?). The recruits would have a good time – let the good times roll, live it up! “Poslednyy noneshnyy denyochek gulyayu s vami, druzya, a zavtra rano, chut svetochek, zaplachet vsya moya rodnya[3] – so sang the Russian recruits. The last free day, the last free night – the Jewish conscripts also would go through the shtetl, singing, laughing, not letting people sleep and doing “dirty tricks.” Namely, they would remove all of the signs from the shops and workshops and exchange them.

On a shoemaker's workshop – a sign from a tailor and the reverse; from a furrier's workshop to a butcher and the reverse and so on. In the morning each one ran to look for his sign. The signs of those against whom they held a grudge were cast away and try to find the wind in the field.

Day turned to night and during the night the same “wedding” was repeated. Many laughed, others cried, a number screamed that one could “get apoplexy” from the young rascals.

It was a custom that every wealthy resident had to contribute several coins for the “recruits.” And be a hero, and not be a “benefactor” – such a hero would then “have a terrible time” – they tied the doors with string from outside so that they could not leave the house, kerosene was poured on a rag and ignited, a shout was started: “it is burning!!!...It is burning!”…and the heroes, the offenders, could not leave the blocked houses…they began to throw the bedding, the household possessions, out through the windows… Today the shouting, the lamentations!...

And if they decided not to give; they did not bribe the louts!...

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Melted tar often was poured into the houses of the “malevolent ones.” It took weeks of toil to scrape it off…this one a hero and that one a sage – had become stubborn and did not give, when the young ones “asked”… one stubborn, a usurer, in one night all of the privies were brought to his house, so that it could be smelled from a kilometer away…

This was told by Meir the soldier. But what did my father say about Meir the soldier? The story that I interrupted at the very beginning?

It seems, the Cossack who broke away from his division and stopped at the shtibl, where Meir the soldier sat tranquilly on the earthen bench attached to the house, placed his lance on him and shouted:

– Hey, you Jew! Bring out a Shabbos roll!
Meir did not move from the spot, but looked from under angry brows in wonder at the Cossack. The Cossack moved closer and threateningly, repeated:
– Bring out a Shabbos roll!
Meir stood up calmly, as if he wanted obediently to fill the order and called to his wife:
– Bring out the ax! – And his wife brought the ax.
The Cossack stood with a murderous face, his lance turned to the Jew's chest and opposite him was a thin Jew with an arrogant goatee and an ax, ready to spring like a panther at any minute and split the Cossack's head.

The Cossack stood as if nailed to the spot: “We ask a Jew for a Shabbos roll – he brings an ax?!” – He lowered the lance, spit and with the spit let out a long Russian “Mishebeyrekh” [“May the one who is blessed…” – prayer for healing], whipped his horse and left…

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Jews who were forest brokers by trade were living in the city for many years. How they arrived at this trade I do not know. However, I do know that they were great specialists. It was told of a case when tradesmen with diplomas – the Polish forest engineer, Sczalkowski and a well-known wood specialist from Warsaw, a certain Kenig, quarreled for two days about clearing a forest, choosing trees to be chopped down and preparing double railroad ties to be prepared or other material there. They really fought and waited for one of the Jewish forest brokers to come to make a decision. And they actually held to his decision.

* * *

In late autumn and winter, Faleshukes, peasants from the swamps between Volyn and Falesia, would arrive. They came in fastales, [shoes] made of bast [fibers made of bark] on their feet; in coarse, self-made woven pants; in pelts, shiny with age; in fur caps from under which their hair stuck out like bundles of grass, which had possibly not “seen” a comb for years. They began “to roll trees.” It is easy to say “roll.” They first had to be “cut down” and then sawed and when a tree remained that had to be cut, it would be expertly knocked down and thus one tree after another. Then, the branches of the trees on the “battlefield” would be cut off and the trunks of those “cut down” trees would be sorted according to their designated use: to be split, for boards, for ship building and for many other purposes.

When the “devastation” ended and the earth was frozen, the wozekes [wagons] would arrive: Poles – Masovians [from the Masovia region of Poland] with large, healthy horses. They would pull out the trunks with steel cables to the road; lay them out and tie them up and take them on short sleds to the shores of the Biala River several kilometers from the shtetl. There, the trunks had to be lowered about 40 to 50 meters down the hill to the river. This laying out of the blocks to

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lower them to the river was a great achievement because the wisdom of this was that the trees, laid out one on the other under a more or less straight corner would hold and not move from the spot. Boards would be placed perpendicular on the trunks and then a new row of trunks [would be built]. Thus a giant, stable cube grew that stood until it was necessary to let the trunks into the river and bind rafts from them. A long section of the river would be filled with such cubes.

* * *

The Masovians were very skillful people at their work. As young people they would come to the forests with their fathers and later they inherited the trade. The binding of the rafts on the river was the work of the surrounding peasants. However, this also demanded a mastery and experience. The raft binders needed to work with a mathematical exactitude even if they could not sign their names. The most responsible of all of the series of work [assignments] was the lowering of the logs to the river. Just the right number of logs had to be tied together – not one log more nor one log less. The logs had to be bound in a requisite order: the thick and thin end here and there. If the required order was ignored, the current could carry them away and, then, try to hold them back.

And first of all: thus lowering every log, he must not drag along the others and scatter the strongly built up cube chaotically on the shore. One error and there could be a catastrophe. The bundled together rafts could fling apart and drag with them the gear, the tools – everything they encountered on the way – as well as people, wagons, horses. The collapsing cube would scatter the masses on all sides.

* * *

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Semen, a peasant from the village of Novosilka, was very skillful in his trade. A youth with a shiny cap visor over his eyes, a short mustache, black eyebrows and small, furtive eyes – a strong young man. Real boots on his feet and not those made of bast, as with the rest. He was a joker, a happy young man; the girls would run from his hands with satisfied shrieking. He loved to drink, but he was always sober at work. The logs, as if they understood his language, rolled to the river regimented and tranquilly lay themselves one next to the other.

And it came to pass on a beautiful summer night. There he stood at work and a young man with a steel rod stood on the other side. Rhythmically they on both sides moved the logs and they began to turn like soldiers at an order: one after the other so that it really was a pleasure to watch.

Suddenly something crashed, a thump like thunder from a clear sky. The logs began to spring one after the other with a frightful clatter as if in hell, in dangerous disorder, with a terrible impetus as if from an earthquake. The noise and clatter grew from second to second. The cube flew in a wild rush on all sides as if was trying to make a ruin of the world.

And again suddenly two logs stood on end and with terrific impetus drove themselves into the earth. They began to jostle wildly, resisted like two strongmen. The jostling and the terrible impetus of the logs grew weaker, quieter and finally the mass of logs lay immovable like a wounded animal.

We saw in the emerging quiet that Semen was standing with his hands on his hips, bewitched by the two log “strong men” that took upon themselves the danger and protection so that the misfortune would not grow any greater. And during that moment, it did happen. Under the pressure of the mass [of logs] a board split and one of its slivers found its way to Semen legs with its all power

[Page 29]

and they were cut in two. A misfortune. A victim. And, as was the way, this story was quickly forgotten. The misfortune was Semen's.

However, one [person] did not rest. This was Chwedar Baika, a shoemaker. A remarkable type – a Ukranian who spoke Ukrainian with a Yiddish accent, therefore Yiddish like a real Jew. It is a wonder? He lived his entire life among Jews. There was one difference: a satin shirt jutted out from under his jacket, thrown over his pants. He also had a beard like a Jew – but a blonde one. [He used] Hebrew words in his speech, an example, a proverb, a Jewish curse: “It happened between Minkhah and Maariv [afternoon and evening prayers],” “He was locked up in the Khad-gadya,” “Call me a nutcracker,” – this was the lexicon of his Yiddish speech.[4]

* * *

Such a story happened in the shtetl: there always were two shoykhetim [ritual slaughterers] in Kolki and suddenly a third one turned up. A great quarrel broke out. Artisans, poor traders united around the newly baked shoykhet; rich merchants, influential people, the so-called “Kolki purses,” around the earlier shoykhetim. In the quarrel involving the tzadekim [righteous men] from Stalin [Donets'k], Trisk and other locations, Chwedar Baika stood on the side of the new shoykhet along with the other poor men. He shouted louder than anyone: “We must have our own shoykhet.”

And actually this Chewdar learned eight or nine months after the misfortune with Semen that things were very bad with the victim. There was no bread, not even potatoes. Semen's beautiful wife had become so dejected that she was unrecognizable.

It turned out that the merchants believed that Semen was himself responsible for his own misfortune and therefore he was not entitled to any compensation, particularly somce they had had no contract with him. They simply were letting him and his family die of hunger.

[Page 30]

Chwedar was incensed and he knew to whom to go. He went for the Jewish forest brokers:

– Jews, help!
The forest brokers had no connection to the matter. Their role ended in the forest, before the trees and logs were taken out of the forest. However, Chwedar knew that there was justice in a just heart. So he went to the Jewish brokers.

In short, the forest brokers were the solicitors [of money] for Semen with the merchants. The merchants became as stubborn as donkeys: that he, Semen, was not entitled to it; they would not give him a penny.

– You say that you did not have a contract with Semen – argued the brokers. Good! You also have no contract with us, but if a tree falls on us and makes us cripples, you also will wipe your hands of us, because you have not concluded a contract with us. We do not want to work for such people.
The forest merchants were convinced that the brokers were not fooling around, they were not joking. It was not worthwhile to lose such good specialists; it was not worth the trouble because a broker that they would have to bring from Danzig would cost them four or five times more because who knows each tree in every local forest!? So they became softer and began to negotiate until an agreement was reached.

Chwedar immediately, as was his way, shouted from the roof tops:

– We won! They became better, the fat selfish ones. The brokers and I pressed them to the wall well. [Things] will not be hopeless for Semen and his wife.
* * *

Nyunya Gildin in Baltimore told me that Chwedar, the gentile “Jew,” had Jewish luck. The Kolki Jews had already been slaughtered. He was sitting once with a fishing rod near the river and catching fish. A boatful of Germans then

[Page 31]

arrived and they carried on a conversation with him. A word for a word, and Chwedar managed a fine tone for the Germans. What beautiful “German” he knew and he began to speak Yiddish to them. One subordinate officer realized:

– You are a Jew!
The German did not wait for an answer. He shot one bullet into Chwedar's Jewish face and a second – in his heart.

Chwedar Baika could not even scream. His body slid down into the water and the current carried him in the direction of the Biala shores where had long been the mass grave of his young friends – his Jewish neighbors.

(Photo, captions: Yakov Liplewski)

Translator's Footnotes

  1. einuntswantsik-yorike and einuntswantsiker both mean 21-year old Jewish young men who were required to report for the Russian draft. Return
  2. godyen - fit; nye godyen - unfit. Return
  3. The Recruit's Song is a well-known song that was sung throughout Russia by men entering the army. The words of the song are “Today is the last day I will stroll with you, friends; for tomorrow, at first light, my whole family will be crying.” Return
  4. Khad-gadya One Kid – is a cumulative song sung at the end of the Passover Seder. Khad-gadya is a euphemism for jail. A person locked in Khad-gadya is all alone in jail. “Call me a nutcracker” means “I do not care what you say about me.” Return

[Page 33]

It Returns to the Surface of Memory

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

My friend, I am not writing a novel in which one chapter is woven into another. I am recording that which comes to my memory; recording that which is engraved in me from my childhood years on.

Our shtetl [town], cast aside among similar ones in Wolyn, lived its life, but time invaded that life, not asking us for advice. We lived as neighbors with Poles, with Ukrainians; we lived in a state with its laws and customs, among waves that swayed and among them we often felt like a miserable little ship in the middle of an angry ocean.

I remember how in the 1920s Ukrainian groups of students, poisoned with hate toward the Jews and who longed for [Symon Vasylyovych] Petlura and wanted an “independent Ukraine” and blamed the Jews for everything in the world, took charge. These were the students from the higher classes in the gymnazie [secondary school]. Organized, they traveled on boats along the rivers and streams of Wolyn [Volhynia] to the rivers of Polesia and positioned themselves in the shtetlekh, floating by, agitating everywhere – agitation against Jews: The Jews murdered Petlura; they were communists, eternal enemies; even in Chmielnicki's time, the Jews and the Poles carried out war against the Ukrainians; they, the Jews, used the blood of Ukrainian children and similar provocative nonsense.

The police tolerated the anti–Semitic agitation and only when there was the threat of pogroms did they demand that the agitators

[Page 34]

travel on further. [It was] a deliberate policy – not permitting the shedding of blood, but not preventing the anti–Semitic agitation that was sometimes a good lightning rod for anger against the government. The shtetlekh [towns] became uneasy when the agitation was swimming on the rivers. Understand, it was just the same in Kolki.

They came to Kolki a day before the fair. Do you still remember exactly how the fair looked here in our shtetl? The income of the shtetl was dependent on the market day that took place one day a week. For the peasants from around [Kolki], the fair was like a holiday. Wagons, hitched with horses and oxen, would begin to arrive a day earlier; others came riding with packs on their backs; many on foot with their goods on their necks.

Every area differed with its regional clothing, with the embroidery on the shirts with the collars that buttoned on the side, with the colors. The peasants from Troscianiec, Sytnitsa, Khmel'naya, Zhuravichi and other rich villages dressed differently. The Masurians as we would call the Poles from Rundia, Rudnik, Taracz, Majdan, looked different. They would bring cattle, horses, pigs, calves, rye, wheat, oats and barley to the fair. The Masurians would be dressed in dark colors, in coarse cloth and stiff boots, in white shirts without ties, in small caps with lacquered visors on their heads. They were clean–shaven, neat. Their heavy wagons were hitched to healthy large horses and the shiny horse–collars were adorned with brass nail heads. They were Faleshukes [from Falesia] – who took the lumber from the forest to the shores of the Styr River.

The Masurians lived in peace with the Jews. Every Masurian had “his” Jewish house in the shtetl – he would pull up there, leave his wife and children there, preparetheir family meals there with the dishes they had brought. The Jews also had “their” Masurians in the villages and also felt as if at home with them.

[Page 35]

People from Troscianiec dressed differently. The young were in soft boots – harmatkes; they wore red, green and yellow Cossack–like pants. Their white, embroidered shirts glimmered colorfully. Their healthy girls – with flaming, really blood–sprinkled cheeks, singing and laughing – would be at the side of the young men, in their blouses with the wide sleeves and with all of the colors of the rainbow. They did not come here to trade, but to parade, “to show themselves,” to [determine]: who is prettier. There were beads at their throats that would dangle and bang when they moved – one against another. Less than 10 strings of beads at the neck indicated poverty. Here, everyone prided themselves with their health and wealth. Beautiful young people, sunny; however, the mood in their heads was very gloomy – overflowing with hostility even toward their own who were not as unhappy politically as they were; so that it self–evidently caused in them an outrage against Jews, the opposite of the Masurians who showed no hostility to Jews.

The peasants from Great Osnitsa [Osnica Wielka], Lesser Osnitsa, particularly from Niezwir and the more distant villages on the border between Wolyn and Falesia looked different. [They dressed] in grey linen pants they made themselves, in linen shirts over the pants, belted with a rope or with a small leather belt – this was their attire. Shaggy hair, uncombed heads, over grown faces, linen leggings on their feet or in fastales [shoes made from fibers made of bark] – khadakes [a type of shoe worn by peasants] – their attire particularly brought attention. Their poverty called out from them; their destitution cried out [from them].

Do you remember the fastales, my friend? One had to enter the noble's forest secretly, find small, young linden trees, cut the bark from them, like the pelt from a cow and then wash the bast [plant fiber made from bark], soak it and dry it so that it would finally be like soft leather and fastales would then be woven from this. They would be bound to the linen leggings with strings, neatly crossed and braided up the knee.

[Page 36]

The attire was a witness to their lives. Old, young – the same poverty. The girls – all with the same style – [hair] combed straight (their hair smeared with kerosene or grease), in dark brown or grey homemade short jackets, made from their own wool and own work; kerchiefs on their heads – coarse, not gaudy and on their feet – fastales, only instead of strings – braided narrow hooks. Around their necks a few inexpensive glass beads – and this was their entire finery. They did not parade; they felt ill at ease in a colorful sea of those adorned.

They would mostly come to the shtetl on foot. They brought a piece of butter, an earthenware cruet, braided karzines [braided baskets] with black berries, a little bit of dried mushrooms, hand–braided rope for leashes, sometimes with a wagon of wiazkas (bundles) of wood, a bundle of small fish, a few sacks of potatoes, smaller and larger flour sifters and other articles. The container of cream or the sack of potatoes often was torn from the mouths of their own children.

The clothes were grey, the life was grey, held in unyielding need – they would sweeten the bitterness of daily life at the fairs with “bitter drops” [whiskey]. They made lively toasts for several hours. Everything was “Drink, eat, carouse, pauper! Death is cheaper!”

An ample number of merchants from Lutzk, Kowel and Rowna and from other places also came to our shtetl to our large fairs. Many of them with street stalls, with tables and even with boards on benches on which they laid out their goods would be on the ring, on the large streets and on the most beautiful alleys. Artisans – capmakers, shoemakers – also would come with the goods they had made during the week. The Ukrainian town dwellers sold shoes and boots; the Jewish tailors – peasant clothing that they had sewn throughout the week.

What was not at our market! Whatever a mouth can utter! Therefore, we will not mention all of the goods; it would

[Page 37]

take page after page – perhaps, thousands of kinds of goods – from potatoes, wheat, confections, manufactured goods, haberdashery, meats, books to icons with golden crowns. There also was whatever one wanted for children: puppies, kittens, various ornaments – ponies and small guns, soldiers made of poured lead and carved out of wood. Honestly, a large Woolworth, the department stores could probably have sheltered the assortment of essentials.

You and I know what a fair is. The young need to read about it in the old books. So, secondly, we must comment on it by telling the miracles of our market and fairs for those such as we who had seen all of this during our childhood and years of our youth in the small Jewish shtetlekh.

However, I write not only for someone else, I also write it for myself and everything is still alive for me and the nostalgia for those exterminated constantly evokes the pictures and images and for them – the people from our beginnings – we want to erect a headstone of words, consistent with our abilities. When I remember our market, I suddenly see before my eyes how the buyers and sellers slapped their palms strongly during the long and fervid process of haggling over the price – such sights were real theatrical scenes and I loved to watch these debates and slaps of the palms, until finally, finally… until both hands already were swollen. First then were they reconciled to the price and gave the true, last slap of the palms as a sign that the purchase had taken place. And as the haggling occurred, an uproar usually was heard like a wild orchestra, accompanied by shouting. Naturally, after, we “wet” the bargain and both sides boasted with a real drink. The haggling at selling a horse was more drawn out, but the drinking was still longer and the result was that the seller left without the horse and without the money – only with a whip…

[Page 38]

Every market and every fair had its “stars” – thieves and burglars. They would arrive in small wagons like finely dressed merchants and although both the local shopkeepers and the police knew who these people were, it caused no harm to their [the thieves'] “business” because “uncaught, one is not a thief” and getting entangled with them was a deadly danger. So they kept quiet and they [the thieves] did their work until shouting was heard, as in the well–known song:

“Help, a thief, help a thief, he just took something from me…”

The [thieves] would provoke jostling, a quarrel and during the tumult they agilely “handled” the victims and vanished without a trace and afterwards there was something to talk about! However, if the peasants caught a thief “by the hands,” [the thief] left with their hands crippled and ravaged; often – a cripple for their entire life. The police did not interfere, both when they saw the thefts and when they saw a person being beaten to death. Failure did not frighten a thief and no market went by without their “distinguished and active” presence.

I am not speaking about the surrounding commotion; all of the sellers shouted praise and boasted about their goods and if the goods belonged to a kind that had a resonance thus ended in a business deal. [There was] a mix of languages – mainly Polish and Ukrainian. The young people, who ran around with their goods and praised their “cold, sweetest and cheapest kvas [fermented drink made from bread],” were the most skillful at shouting. In general, only the “best” was at the market. Makers of cheap clothing, namely, sellers of coarse cotton pants, also shouted that this was the best in the world, from the least expensive wool, made in the famous manufacturing seat of Lodz. They flattered the customer, saying that only to such a person as he, would they sell to for such a low price: they used persuasion, using various psychological tricks so that the goods would be sold. And who traded and who sold? The vast majority were

[Page 39]

poor men and paupers and both remained, yes, a pauper and yes, a poor man. Into the tumult were inserted kosher and unkosher means of gathering together their livelihoods through begging: from the lame, limping, to the ostensibly lame, limping and blind, from the organ–grinder to the lottery sellers where everyone won with them and a white piglet drew out an envelope in which was the mazel [luck] and sometimes even a sort of “winning,” a coin of little value. The drunkards crawled; an old, warm hit tore from the long throat of a gramophone…

A fair in the shtetl! A fair in the shtetl! Who does not remember the fairs as I do, returning from the fair, to the great attraction that called one – life.

Fairs! And where, if not at the market and at the fairs, would the black souls come with their calloused hands to beat Jews, the neighbors, with whom they had lived side by side for hundreds of years. Later we had a name for them: fascists. However, before? We knew them from earlier, before we knew about such a creature that is called fascism.

They, those who did the beating, would suddenly arrive organized. They would agitate against the Jews, dragged in local hooligans, youths from the nearby villages: Roznichi, Starosel'ye, Kopyl'ye and others. It was already known in the villages that this time they would live it up on Jewish bodies, that this time they would let the feathers out of the pillows and the innards from the stomachs. They arrived with empty sacks to fill with Jewish property. The locals waited until those arriving began their beating, then they would steal. What? Their souls were the souls of mares?! The organized Ukrainian nationalists would do the beatings and they, incidentally, only innocently took things. Therefore, they carried the empty sacks under their arms.

When the nationalists arrived in Kolki on their boats, it already was known here what they had done elsewhere. They ostensibly would enter into a quarrel with someone, so that a fire would flare up.

[Page 40]

However, before they widened their “front”, before they were able to draw the local peasants into the fight, they set off for Sender Shlejen. Sender's steel hand, his powerful shoulders, his face, his strength when he grew angry were well known in the shtetl. He knew the “trade” of giving a slap… No one could bear his slap. A young man from Klokowice [Klokovitse] joined Sender and Tine and his older son, Naftali Gutman's father and Buzie Maciwer, a pair of butchers, exercised their strength. Other Jews, seeing them, quickly turned up with carriage shafts and swingletrees [metal or wood bars used with draught animals] from wagons, with iron rods and crowbars and, generally, with anything they found. And at Sender's command, they set off… They moved forward like a living wall and the mob began to retreat. However, they decided to teach their “guests” a lesson – they were easy to recognize because of their organization uniforms.

The peasants immediately separated from the “guests,” the villagers, the locals did not get involved. Those who were supposed to be a danger to the Kolki Jews themselves were in danger.

An acquaintance in Baltimore asked me: how was this possible? The local people had lived for tens of years as neighbors, wall to wall; they understood, so to say, with a wink; Ukrainians spoke Yiddish just as well as Jews, and Jews spoke Ukrainian just as well as their neighbors… And yet it happened that during a fire, the Jews risked their lives to help their non–Jewish neighbors and the opposite; how was it possible then that what happened at the time of Hitler happened? How was such a bestial outbreak of hatred possible?

However, let us not run ahead. Life is also dear to the murderers. They will murder, but not be victims themselves. After the fair in Kolki, when their friends quietly took the violently beaten men, in torn and tattered uniforms, with bandaged heads

[Page 41]

in the rented wagons to the train in Maniewicze [Prilesnoye], it also became quieter in the distant shtetlekh and the fairs there were also quieter. The Styr [River] was freed from the “fleet” of young Ukrainian fascists.

An innocent notice appeared in the Ukrainian press in Lemberg: Jewish hooligans attacked Ukrainian youth.

[Page 43]

Stains on the Face

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Dovid, your description appears rosy and beautiful and heroic – can you, perhaps, make an observation, my friend – there were also other colors, too. Have you possibly forgotten about them?

– No, not forgotten, not forgotten. However, naturally, one does not want to remember stains. We speak about a shtetl [town] that was, but has been murdered, about people who drank the bitter cup to the bitter end – will you then remind them of their sins? When have you heard about someone standing at a grave and speaking badly about a corpse?

And what purpose is there in actually talking about the bad? Seen in the retrospective? In our eyes, covered with the fog of sadness, our shtetl looks different, better. However, what happened in it happened all over. There were gabbaim [sextons – assistants to the rabbi] about whom the people said, “Billy-goat,” you will not drive the community out of the city garden. They argued, fought politically; sometimes they actually went against each other with their fists. Certainly! How could it be different? There were stains. However, a face is more than its stains.

Do you remember? Motl was banished from the community. Why? For what sin was he placed outside the camp? His crime consisted of this, he did business on Shabbos [the Sabbath]. Alas, of what did his trade consist? He sold a glass of seltzer-water, a small piece of taffy, a portion of ice cream that a boy bought for a girl in his soda-water shop on the holy Shabbos. And many believed this deserved ostracism. Who? You? Me? There were many like you and me. He

[Page 44]

had transgressed against an important, perhaps the most important law of the religion. The religious zealots condemned him according to the law and they spoke among themselves, and when one transgressed against our law – was this insult ignored? Do you understand what I mean yet? They acted in agreement with their knowledge and we shouted: Middle Ages! Why actually Middle Ages? Why not even earlier?

You want stains? Here are stains: remember a preacher once carried out a mobilization among us against the “leftists.” “Leftists” were the “Peretzists” – the members of the Y.L. Peretz Society. There were those who were ready to go and demolish the premises, burn the library. There also were other ugly things. However, this was not the essence. The stains did not cover the face, did not deform it. They wanted to, but did not. Why? Because the shtetl – I consider it in its entirety – was against this. Our opponents did not agree to vandalism. It was not “fair play.” However, it was not a mortal danger for us. Everyone was convinced of his errors. Faith is without errors, but life is full of them.

We were agitated – we at them, they at us. However, we were still one body. And when – and against my will – nostalgia suddenly began to grow in me and began to flow and I was plunged into melancholy because of our great misfortune, I did not think only of “ours” but also of “theirs” and they are all close to me and my own and no complaints about any of them remain in my heart; they are all mine – the people from every street and alley of out shtetl.

The librarians were murdered; the synagogue and the houses of prayer, the apothecary shop and the public bath were burned. No one asked the victims their beliefs in the gas chambers, at the mass graves; no one asked whose bones were in the crematoria – of a “Peretzist”

[Page 45]

or of a communist or of a Zionist or free-thinker or of an Orthodox [Jew]. Every victim is worthy of being remembered no matter who he was; he was who he was.

I will avoid emotion as I will avoid self-torture. Jews who survived the hell of that time, live in self-torture and the day deceives them, like their clothing, like their laughter, like a joke, because night pains are present that no one sees. We all suffer from such after-pains. These are the pains that scorn words because all words have become banal, unbelievable, have become as naked as a tree without leaves. Therefore, we must avoid self-torture and simultaneously stop demanding accountings from the shadows, from the shadows that live in us and with us and want to be extinguished with us. Therefore, let us not speak today of stains on the face. We did that enough in the old days. Only remember how [Yisroel] Aksenfeld, [Yitzhak Yoel] Linetzky and, mainly, Mendele [Mocher Sforim], out of love, flogged the soul of a people with iron rods. However, not today, when an entire people must live with fewer of their heirs and [must] preserve the disappearing image with reverence.

[Page 47]

Come Out, Vanished Figures

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

I call them from my memory: come out, vanished figures! Let the friendship and sincerity of the old zagatowszczik[1] provide me with inspiration; may the coarse jokes and wanton pranks of Motl the shoykhet [ritual slaughterer] and the subtle sarcasm and ironic smile of Ahron Falewski live again. Falewski should not quibble with me as in the past: “You have come again on Shabbos, my jewel [said ironically]?” “And again you” – and he would circle his finger to [indicate] his “shame,” to his son Yudl, who actually was supposed to bring permission from the regime from Lutsk for a theater presentation – “This already is your religious service, my Tanna Bara.”[2]

The large, many-branched family of the Tines, Unies, Chaiczikes, Egers, Szpilbergs – the large toiling, vigorous family, could be a source of creative inspiration, material for full-blooded personalities for every Jewish writer – healthy souls and healthy bodies. They were all under one roof, just as they were under one heaven in Kolki.

So for example: I often think – and with pleasure – about the various wonders of this shtetl [town]. I have thought about whether I need to put the word “wonder” in quotes. But no, why not truly a wonder? I mean the people from Kolki without an education, who were employed in “educated” trades, namely, “doctors” – without academic degrees, “apothecaries” – without diplomas, “lawyers” – without diplomas, first class “pedagogues” without diplomas. Yes, [I mean] people without paper documents [certifying]

[Page 48]

graduation from universities and institutes; perhaps their abilities in the trades they practiced would have been envied by many people with academic degrees.

What am I getting at? To this, that I remember an unheard of thing. I remember an engineer who never in his life ever thought of being an engineer and had such “smart” hands that would bring to fruition the expertise of various fantasies that would arise in his head that he needed as much as he needed to live. And when he began thinking, it did not take long until he came up with something, often wandered around, but himself found his way. He did everything himself and everything with his own hands, which could do everything. I am referring to the older Szpilberg, Pesakh-Leib, who himself was everything: a builder, a mechanic, a technician and what was he not?

Pesakh-Leib actually had built the house in which the Szpilberg family lived with his own hands. His grandfather Motya's spacious house had once stood on the same spot, but it burned during the First World War. Szpilberg, the head of the family, actually erected a cottage for the family starting with the foundation. He laid the foundation, raised the walls (carved, planed, laid the oven from bricks he made himself) and finished the construction himself, covering the straw roof. In truth, it was not a palace – a front room, a bedroom and a kitchen. This was the entire “edifice.” And the house was always full of people and with smoke because Szpilberg was an entrepreneur – he had built a “barge” that brought goods to Lutsk and from Lutsk on the Styr River. Water transport. And to run the “barge” and its loads, it was necessary to have a work force and these were the peasants from Semki who were members of the Szpilberg household. Rywka, his wife, would prepare them for the trip and would slave away at the oven to prepare food for the time of long transports of many days when the “barge” would be pulled along the shore.

[Page 49]

And who built the barge? Actually, he himself, Pesakh-Leib Szpilberg, did, with the help of only one other worker who helped him deliver the wood to the spot and he took to the work just as if he had done no other work in his life than build a barge. He had such unusual certainty in his own capabilities and the most internal inventiveness in himself. He himself thought; he himself made the plans; he himself worked. And truly – wonderfully; without theories and without mathematics and the ship was a ship, balanced on the water. “Barge” – this was the Kolki “train.” This also was the asphalt road that led from Kolki into the world.

It is easy to tell stories. Life is harder and more terrible. It was not easy to earn a living, but the joy of creation was his. Later Szpilberg began to think the world needed to find a better way than rope, something mechanical – a motor. However, a motor costs money and he certainly did not have it. He began to think about his own invention. He was a quiet person and if he were talkative, it would not have made a difference – he did not have someone with whom to consult. He thought: how can I devise a water mill using the strength of the water; how should we travel over flat water, what should turn it, not being able to push the barge? He created an “invention” – a very complicated invention – but it failed. He had forgotten something.

He had committed a technical error somewhere when considering the plan for his machine that was to drive the barge and its goods to Lutsk and back to Kolki. Something had not emerged in his highest technical thoughts. The barge only went in one direction. The failure was a great blow to Pesakh-Leib. He almost ceased to believe in his abilities.

* * *

[Page 50]

Until then his entire life had been busy with wheels and devising small machines. His [Pesakh-Leib Szpilberg's] mind always was busy. There was no electricity in the shtetl. He constantly thought of ingenious ideas for mechanizing everything that worked with the assistance of horsepower to be able to manage without the sweat and without the toil of human muscles. But God gave man brains for this, so that he could save himself from heavy work. He had horsepower and all kinds of mechanisms made with his own hands; he mechanized the carpentry shop –a machine that combed wool that later could be finished. He mechanized the oil-press business and pressed oil and more, did still more things so as to make his work easier.

The modest house, always crowded with peasants, was a well-off house according to our perception. The peasants worded it this way: it is a house where they eat challah [braided egg bread] every Shabbos [Sabbath]. So, is this not great opulence?...

The inventive mind of Pesakh-Leib Szpilberg did stop toiling; his golden hands tried; he did not give up, but he did not become a rich man from it. Parents did not rest. There was enough toil for both of them. Children grew up and left. There was bread, potatoes, too. For Shabbos there was, not just challah, but also fish and meat. They did not desecrate the Shabbos, God forbid…

Earning a livelihood for a nine- to 10-person family, buying new clothes for children, caring for their education and upbringing could truly dry up the strongest mind.

* * *

Therefore, years later when I met three of his sons in Canada, I was very satisfied that through a miracle, children remained from Pesakh-Leib's large family who could remember the name of their father who had earned great respect.

* * *

[Page 51]

Yes, from time to time I think about the wonders of Kolki. How can we forget Pesakh-Leib, a Jew who set as his goal to be an Edison in Kolki?!

* * *

I sometimes ask myself if there were families among us who lived well? And it is difficult for me to answer. A little worse or a little better than the rest, but in truth, it is difficult to remember a good life. Most could barely tie together a tail to a tail [were very poor]; they toiled the entire week to bring Shabbos into their home. A rye challah on Shabbos was the sign of poverty. They made “chopped cutlets” from small fish called shtinkes [smelts] by Jews and, given that wives were efficient housekeepers, the “cutlets” smelled of meat. The joy of looking with delight at new clothing and shoes that would squeak for a child for a holiday did not occur in all homes. The young did not have a place to use their strength; they often languished in forced idleness. How did they hide their poverty so that it did not scream out, did not awaken pity, did not evoke a nebekh [poor thing]! They were ashamed of their poverty as of a sin, so as it is said, they pinched their cheeks so that there was color…

However, it was known in the shtetl and there were people who were concerned about this. How could they secretly slip an interest-free loan into a cashbox and without a signed agreement, so that, God forbid, no one would be shamed, so that it would not appear that the water had reached the throat and someone must “ask something of another.” There is a good reason why being an “anonymous donor” was considered by Jews to be the best trait.

Among those who read the situation from people's faces and who tried to come with help at the right time were Moshe Czartorisker, Motl Lerner and Moshe Kac.

* * *

[Page 52]

Moshe Kac was my relative, my best friend among my family members and in the later years – my best and closest friend. Therefore, I will not write about him. However, I cannot avoid saying something:

Sincerity would appear in his narrow, almond-shaped eyes. He possessed eyes that could not be forgotten. His golden smile would illuminate his face and his voice still rings in my ears today. I remember him as a young man, full of exuberant life (I was still a boy then). I also remember him already a little bent over under the burden of his not too easy personal life. His dark beard quickly became threaded with grey hairs.

Everyone in the shtetl knew him. He was an unusual man – he did not have any enemies. He did not know what one was. He helped people with his every act and deed and he did so as if he were not doing anything for them. They came to him as to a good Jew, to pour out their heart and no one left without advice, with a consoling word that was very important at a special moment. Those who knew him have not forgotten him. I always feel joy when I hear how warmly people speak about my landsleit [man from the same town]. A knife from a band of Banderowcy [member of Bandera – the Revolutionary Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists], a rezun [murderer], cut short his virtuous, honest life.

* * *

I also was close to the other two, whom I have mentioned, although there was a considerable difference among us in age. Their human aid activity was an unusual thing to me; I just now understand what an ethical source resulted from this normality. To how many families did they “bring Shabbos [Sabbath]!” Thanks to them how many small shops had a little bit of goods before a market and thus some income? For how many promissory notes were payments not demanded because of their intervention? And everything was done very secretly, so no one would know.

[Page 53]

Motl Lerner was a dry goods seller. According to our concepts – a rich man. [He had enough money for] Shabbos as well as for the entire week. He was a practical young man and a philosopher.

How he did it, I did not know, but when he gave 20 zlotes to M.O.F.R. [Miedzynarodowa Organizacja Pomocy Rewolucjonistom – International Organization for Help to the Revolutionaries – International Red Aid] (International Organization to Support Political Prisoners) and warned that no one should know of it, except in Moscow, I promised him that Moscow would know. Twenty zlotes was a large amount of money.

Once I went pass his store with friends. Suddenly we noticed that he had left customer and was coming towards us in haste:

– Comrade – he said – come to the Stoliner synagogue today, without fail. A preacher such as you certainly have not heard and have not seen will speak there today.
We shrugged our shoulders. Motl Lerner knew that we were well-known free-thinkers; it can be said: at least right from the womb on, that we did not go to the synagogue and did not listen to preachers.
– Go, I tell you. It is your preacher. He wants to throw all rich men into gehenim [hell] Go, I am confident that you will enjoy it.
We had heard something about a preacher in the shtetl. According to someone, he was a Litvak, from Vilna; according to another he was from Kutno.

The small carpenters synagogue was located almost in the center of the city. A low square of coarse boards, a shingle roof and two tall chimneys. This was the small synagogue where they quickly “slipped in” for the morning, afternoon and evening prayers, to recite the Kaddish [prayer for the dead] – everything quickly, so as not to waste too much time doing this.

During the fair, on a cold day, people would run into the small synagogue for a short time to warm themselves. During their free time, they would lose a few hours here [discussing] politics. Young people – rascals, would do their “dirty tricks” here – wet the towels in a barrel, throw them at the “statesman” and disappear in the blink of an eye – like the wind in a field.

[Page 54]

A simple, small synagogue for simple people, in simple coats and caps, in cloth pants with faces burned by the wind and hard hands. However, a merchant also would come here and even split a few logs so that the group could better warm themselves.

Our home was close to the small synagogue so I could be certain that I am an expert about it, know everything that happened there. I saw how the Jews danced, placed their hands on the next one's shoulders in a circle, lively, happy. It was a wonderful life! Worries about income were left outside. Never mind, it could wait when Jews were creating joy…

That the preacher had chosen the carpenter's small synagogue showed that he wanted a larger audience – the masses. Our group also came: naturally, it would not have made any sense [not to come] when we had these goods here that we could not buy elsewhere.

When we arrived, the preacher already was speaking. [He was] a young man with a short, trimmed beard dressed as every young man of his age, in a white shirt.

His white hands helped his mouth. They made each of his phrases, each thought clearer. His diction was to be envied – each of his words was heard. His language – juicy, cultured, simple and intimate. And he spoke in a way, just as if he had read our thoughts and spoke them. He used stories, examples and aphorisms [asking] why does he tell us this, every story with a lesson and not something from an imaginary rabbinical treatise, but the real goods. He tossed out a well-rounded, clear, complete idea: “Do not think of the entire world. Think about how can you help your neighbor.” “We can close the door and window in order not to see how difficult life is for a widow. But how can we block our conscience, if we have one? And what is a person without a conscience? This I ask and answer – I answer myself.” He mentioned the example of glass that when it is silvered on the other side we no longer see the world, but we see only ourselves. (Later

[Page 55]

I first learned that this is from An-sky's Dybbuk.) However, I must confess that the words did not evoke such an internal shiver in any theater as then in the small Stoliner synagogue in Kolki.

We heard, as it is said, with our noses and with our ears. There was a dead silence all around and even in the overcrowded anteroom where they usually jabber even during prayers.

Each story that he told was more beautiful than the others and more interesting; each example smarter than the others. It really was as the verse says: “Where there is Torah – there is wisdom.” It can be said that he took our young non-believers with empty hands. We, the agitators, did not have any retorts. He spoke not only to us, but ostensibly for us, he spoke in our midst…

Motl Lerner was “guilty” in that, whoever we were, we were delighted and thoroughly enjoyed a preacher.

Really, a strange Jew. Why did he persuade us to listen to a preacher? Certainly, because he wanted us to derive pleasure from him. He was, by nature, a very good person. If one can have pleasure from a preacher, then why not do so? A preacher who speaks about things that not only we speak about but for which we are ready even to jeopardize our lives, and he does so better than us, clearer, more persuasive. And perhaps Motl Lerner knew then what we first learned later, that the preacher was not from Vilna and not from Kutno, and in general, he was not a preacher, but a teacher of Yiddish literature who came from an educated family in Rovno [Rivne]. This was a time of deep economic crisis. The teacher decided to add a bit of income by preaching in the secluded shtetlekh [towns] in the Volyn forests where no one knew him.

I memorized his stories and examples and did not know then that he drew them from the treasure of Yiddish literature in which he was very proficient. A supplement to his income and, in addition, he brought light to our minds. Is that not a mitzvah[3]?

[Page 56]

Naturally, not only the worldly stories from a worldly preacher are encompassed in my memory about Motl Lerner. He lives in my memory as a rare, interesting specimen of man.

Actually, he needed to belong to a very different world than the one to which he belonged. He was a Jew – a shopkeeper, with commonsense and with a little luck. And yet – not like all shopkeepers. Mainly, there was in him this, that he always lived the idea that his obligation was to help other people.

He had absolutely no connection to the radical young people; he was, as is said, a bourgeois Jew. However, he was sincerely absorbed in characteristic secret charitable activity. [Who knows] how much he helped the Jews in his shtetl? And [who knows] how much he helped the young people who had been tortured in the jails in Kolki? In their moment of need they felt his hand outstretched with help, with approval! And always: quietly, without a word said to anyone. Help – this was his innermost moral command. Why hide: I was one of those to whom he sent packages in various jails.

Also, during the Hitler hell, he exhibited what he was for his entire life. Motl Lerner organized (with great quiet and modesty) the aid actions for the most needy. He always was the one who initiated help.

* * *

I remember Moshe Czartarisker as I saw him for the last time.

On the 24th of June 1941, in the morning. [It was] quiet everywhere, although doors and windows were open.

In the morning they quickly began to leave the shtetl. Wagon after wagon – with people and things. I also hurried. I wanted therefore to cut through

[Page 57]

the ring [of houses and shops], to shorten the way and across the bridges – straight to Maniewicze [Manevychi] and Sarny. The small horse harnessed to a light wagon raced forward as if it felt the danger.

When we got closer to Moshe Czartarisker's house, I saw Moshe separating himself from a group of Jews and coming toward me. Stopping the horse, I got down off the wagon. He took me by my arm and breathing with difficulty, asked:

– Dovid, what should we do?
I looked around me and saw the entire shtetl as if on the palm [of a hand]: from the Ukrainian pasture to the last alley outside the Jewish ring. The cemetery, the bridges over the river, the apothecary, the church, Jewish houses and peasant huts. And groups of Jews scattered everywhere, all with evident question marks on their faces; with the same unease in their eyes: Jews, what do we do?

A scene of fear and expectation, doused with a clear, sunny day. Why was it so light when the mood was so dark? Now, when I remember it, it appears to me as a photograph taken on the eve of death. Remember: this is how our shtetl looked before it sank.

Moshe asked – What should we do? – Do you have horses? You need to pack.

– I already have packed a little.

– So, do not wait. Leave here immediately.

– Yes, I have argued this with them – he pointed with his hand to small groups of Jews – do not wait to leave; pack and march from here! And they all said with one voice: what will happen to the Jewish people is fated, what will happen to the Jews is fated. We cannot escape from our fate.

Moshe turned his back sharply to me, did not say goodbye and walked to his house with nervous steps.

My horse took off from that spot and was gone as if with the wind. Moshe Czartarisker was the last Jew from my shtetl with whom I spoke.

[Page 58]

His son, Meir, told me what had happened to him:

“My father did leave, but three days later. Wherever he turned there were already Germans. There being no other choice, he returned to the shtetl and waited like the others for what was fated – for death.

“Fated, Fated! How I have come to hate this word. How many times did I hear this word in my parents' home, from neighbors, from people?

“Fated. One cannot escape from fate. It will chase you wherever you are. It flies faster than the wind, and in any case, [faster] than a horse…”

I: so, yes, what was fated for me? I was fated to tear myself from the Rawicz jail during the first day of the war and on the first day there already were S.S.-men. I was fated to save myself, or did I alone save myself? Let us say: perhaps not alone. Luck played its part; but I did something so that my luck would be favorable. I did not wait – I began to go in the direction of Pozen. True, other comrades remained there forever. Was this really fated for them?

And then, near Kutno, when we asked the Polish pilots to take us on their trucks with which they wanted to break through to Warsaw and there already were German troops on all sides, there was room for only four in our group, and there was no space in the vehicle for me. We accompanied those who withdrew quickly with the vehicle with looks of envy.

We walked. Fifteen kilometers further [on the road] we found a pile of blown-up stomachs, heads that had been blown off, hands, feet, open, glassy eyes, and rucksacks. We recognized “the lucky ones” whom we had envied when they had quickly gone further away from us. For which of us was this fated? Who had decided who would live, who would die, who had

[Page 59]

chosen? It was us, the four fated, for whom there would not be room on the vehicle and in such a way, just the luck of the draw, we had the biggest win – our lives.

We, the fortunate, voluntary defenders of Warsaw, who lay under the flood of German fire, had rifles in our hands that did not work during the First World War. Here, too, there was finally the dilemma: who will live and who will die. Someone still was fated to depart with complete bravery, like us, at the time when others lost their resolve here and saw the sky with smoke and fire for the last time.

We left Warsaw with Hanale Paliewski and Borukh Miler, when the Germans were already here and when many of our group already no longer were among the living. No longer living was Lewicki – the construction worker from Chelm, as was Mariszczuk – the peasant from outside of Lutsk, and Dovid Lazar – the Hebrew teacher from Lemberg. They already had been fated.

Accidental or fated – is there a distinction between these ideas? An entire era has passed. Years of the war and destruction. I am in Lutsk. I am in Lutsk because I went to see my Kolki, my cradle, the place where I entered the world, etc. etc.

The driver of the truck does not want to take me. We argue with him for a long time; in the end he agrees. When he finally agrees and I am sitting on top, in the “body,” I begin to have doubts: should I go there? Why should I meet the past that left for me along with all those who were annihilated? I also knew many people in Lutsk; where were they now? I did not see one familiar face. I was afraid to confront the dead past. A dead city. The shadows even evaporated, disappeared. We cannot call them back; bring them back to life. Scratch one's soul with one's nails? Who needs it? Who is waiting for me there in dead Kolki?

[Page 60]

I sit with others, with quite strange people in the body of the truck and hesitate. Go – not go. I do not make a decision. I get an internal impulse at the last minute and I jump down from the truck. Now I know for sure: I will not go. I shout to those accompanying me with a strange voice – to Yitzhak Arsztajn: – “What is for me there!?”

And we are again on the streets in Lutsk. Lutsk is covered with snow. Snow and snow. Snow around me; snow in me…white sadness lay on my soul…

I will get drunk. In Arsztajn's house, his wife has covered the table. There is no lack of whisky. Perhaps it is an offense that I am so protecting my peace and refuse to travel to Kolki to visit my parents' graves? An ugly egotism! They have looked death in the face; the slaughtering knife has slaughtered them and I tremble; I am afraid of the terror that lives stuck in me and I am afraid that it may hurt me. Alas, what a delicate, spoiled child! Where were you spoiled, my heart? Where? In the dark Kolki prison, in the sea of death where I was bathed?

Whisky is the remedy. At least – then it helped me. The next day I learned: Between Trosteniec and Sitnice, the vehicle in which I wanted to travel to Kolki was fired upon by “Banderowcys” [members of the Revolutionary Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists]. The band left the dead bodies of the passengers and took the sugar that was in the truck to their military base.

I, what a tasty bite I would have been for the dangers of life! They would have drawn one [bite] after another from me. But this was not fated for them because it was fated for me to live.

For what good deeds was I fated to remain alive? For what sins was I fated to leave in loneliness the sea of blood that drowned and swallowed everyone? For which sins?

[Page 61]

When I think about this, I remember Moshe Czartarisker, how I saw him a second before my departure forever from Kolki, which is still a part of me. I remember his argument with the Kolki Jews: “They kept repeating – what is fated comes true.” Why did not their hearts warn them: that their death also was fated?! – Why was I fated to live? Perhaps so that I will never forget their death?...

* * *

Translator's Footnotes

  1. A zagatowszczik was a member of the quilting trade. The quilting was done for gaiters or spats for boots. Return
  2. A tanna is a rabbinic sage of the 1st and 2nd centuries – a Tanna Bara meaning “outside of the school” is a tanna not mentioned in the commentaries. Return
  3. ommandment, often translated as 'good deed' Return


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