Bonka Brik (Dorit Blatshtein)
Translated by Esther Snyder
A place on the banks of the Niman. A river of sweet water and many fish. And another river. Called Maritchenka. Its waters were cold as ice. Deep. Mountains. Plains. Forests all around. And, in the midst of all this my town, Meretch. The place where I lived, my parents lived, my brothers, my girl friends and the holy residents of the town.
All of them are gone. Childhood and youth, some of the most beautiful gifts of life things that one lives through only once in a lifetime were displaced and faded because of the Holocaust. My heart hurts when I remember them. Only memories remain. And they live on in me as if it all still exists.
The town was like a mirror of all the Jewish towns in Lithuania: houses close to each other. Here and there was a yard with a cow behind the house. I also heard stories of Jews who had goats. I personally don't remember such a thing. It's possible that the origin of the story was the popular saying that a goat is considered a Jewish animal.
Some of the houses were small and others big. They were different from one another in style and arrangement. The entrance to some had stairs while others had only a doorstep. Some had porches (ganikes) and others didn't.
The older generation would sit on the porches on Shabbat and watch the town youth who were enjoying walks on the narrow sidewalks.
Only a few had neat gardens near their homes which wasn't a common thing in our town.
There were, of course, public institutions in our town: three synagogues, a bank, a school and a bathhouse. There was also a post office and town council, both of which hired only Lithuanians. No Jew could be found there. There was a library and it was run by Motti Miklishenski.
Zionist youth groups organized the youth. Membership and taking part in their activities was a highlight of the youth. In the movement, we waited especially for Shabbat eves and after Shabbat activities. Then we would all gather together and sing the songs we loved, all of which referred to going to Eretz Yisrael to make aliya, to build and to be rebuilt.
Each movement had its own approach. The most active group in my time was Hashomer HaTzair. After that came Gordonia and Maccabi HaTzair. I was a member of Maccabi HaTzair. I joined when the branch was very active. Sport played a large part in our activities. We had social gatherings and evenings of song. Every two years they organized a Turnfest' (Sports Festival). All the town residents came to participate or watch. The Sports Festival was a real party. The conclusion was held at a field called Maccabi Field that belonged to a Christian who allowed Maccabi to use it for a fee. In the evening, there was a beautiful sport display, according to the ideas of that time. The exercises that were done are the same ones done today; they haven't changed.
In 1936, a Maccabiada was held in Kovno with participants from three Baltic countries: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. My little town was represented by members of Maccabi and Young Maccabi. The participants marched through the streets of Kovno. The Hebrew youth marched proudly, even on the main street called Laisves. All the onlookers were impressed with the Jewish youth who were so well organized and demonstrated their strength. It was a strength of beauty, the strength of the Maccabees, in whose hearts there was hope
I remember an Israeli singer named Osnat Levi who appeared in Meretch. I was a little girl and my mother, zl, took me to hear her. The performance was held in the town hall. I sat on my mother's knees and heard her sing the song, And at night the stars twinkle in the desert. In Meretch, the words were understood simply: in Eretz Yisrael there are no houses, everyone lives outside in the sands and see only the stars above.
Letters reached our town from the pioneers (halutzim) who had already made aliya and underwent a hard time of the training in the kibbutzim. These pioneers worked anyplace they were needed and any work was worthwhile in their eyes. Even when the work was terribly difficult they accepted it lovingly. That's what they wrote to us. Also my brother, Yitzhak Brik, was one of those early pioneers. He worked during the training period in an agricultural farm in Mamal. For a long time, he worked in the cow shed and had to supervise the calving, even during the long winter nights. Owing to his training he was able to receive the longed for certificate that allowed him to enter Eretz Yisrael.
Decades have passed since I left you, Meretch. You are always in my thoughts. Every day I think and go over again in my mind the little streets lined with houses, each one in its place. In my imagination I place the town residents in their houses. My brain knows that it's not reality but I haven't learned to come to terms with the fact that the horrors of the Holocaust actually occurred and my town is gone. On Passover eve, I see in my imagination the girls of the town making matzot. I see before me everyone busily cleaning their homes for the holiday. The seamstresses have so much work in order to complete sewing new clothes for the holiday. Each holiday in turn. Here the Shabbat candles are lit. I can smell the aroma of the cholent that came out of the ovens of Reuven and Bentzi, the bakers. During the week they make bread and rolls but on Friday, after they take the braided Shabbat hallas out of the oven, the Jews put in their pots of cholent that will cook all night and be served for lunch on Shabbat.
I can hear the sounds of the waves of the Niman River. Also, the sound of my mother's voice singing a song of Esther Kaminsky who was her teacher, echoes in my ears.
I remember a story that Minale Amerikanski, who was an outstanding student, told me. And this is the story: Near the synagogue, on the eastern side, there was a cave that was hidden from sight. Anyone who could discover the entrance to the cave, could enter with a white goat and would go directly to Eretz Yisrael. A real shortcut. And there, in Eretz Yisrael, they eat oranges and the sun never sets. We believed her. We, the children, would go around looking for the entrance. We continued looking the whole summer until winter came and it snowed. Even when I first met, in 1947, the first emissaries and Brigade soldiers, who came to help the survivors of the Holocaust, and they told us the truth about Eretz Yisrael and the journey to it Minale's story remained engraved deep, deep in my memory. Reality cannot replace a legend like this. That is its strength.
Lithuania, a hated country. Decades have passed and the voices of the Lithuanians beating and killing our Jewish brothers hasn't quieted. They still ring in my ears. Hated Lithuania, a snowbound country. The cold outside is only in the winter, but in you, the Lithuanians, the heart was always frozen.
How do you, the Lithuanians, feel when you pass by the graves of the innocent, that your people handled the work of destruction with great energy and passion? When you heard cries for help your voice was silent, you didn't hear. You heard the sound however your ears were closed to the voices.
Hated and hypocritical Lithuania - I will not forgive nor forget.
Rabbi Shlomo A. Shor
Translated by Esther Snyder
One cool morning, a wagon driver stops his wagon, full of fragrant hay, near our house. He says to me, Shlomke son of Itche Shahor, I, my mother and father get on the wagon to travel to America. I climbed up. At first, I didn't realize what was happening. After a while, I find myself overseas, thousands of miles away from home. And I never stopped thinking and remembering the years of my childhood in my beloved city, Meretch.
We arrived in Boston where we lived for many years. Immigrants from Meretch in Boston established an organization for former residents (landsmanshaft). This organization helped many new immigrants (greeners) in charitable activities and good advice.
Years passed and we became older. The first immigrants passed on and our numbers decreased. Soon no one would be left who could remember our life in Meretch. Therefore, it was our duty, and my personal duty, to record memories and experiences, and to recount the events in our town Meretch, that once was and is no longer. As is said, and tell your children.
Meretch was a beautiful town in many respects. It had a reputation in the whole area. Despite the small number of Jews living in the town, among them were many merchants, students and Yeshiva students; all were people of Torah.
Commercial activities continued all year, winter and summer. The merchants of Meretch traveled around the whole area, near and far, and reached the towns of Sobelk and Grudno. Some even went as far as Vilna, a distance of 150 kilometers.
The town of Meretch numbered several hundred Jewish families. Poles, Lithuanians and Russians also lived there. The Jewish homes were located in the center of town while the gentile neighborhoods were on the outskirts. There were no Hasidim in the town no children with long sidelocks (peyot) were seen in the streets.
The three synagogues in the town played a central role in the spiritual and cultural life of the Jews. Among the residents were about a dozen men who were ordained rabbis (smicha). There were some very learned in gemara (Talmud) and who studied regularly including Gershon Rabinovitz, Haim Shlomo the grocer, Itche Shahor, David Masha, Mendel Gershon, Haim Yehezkels, Alter Blitzer, Rabbi David Goldfet, Zalman the painter and his son-in-law Rabbi Leib. Meretch also had a permanent cantor. I remember that as a child I sang in his choir. The cantor sang the prayers in all three synagogues. There was also a dayan (Rabbinical judge). He was called Rabbi Daiches. He was an old man and well-versed in Torah but almost blind. His son served as rabbi in a neighboring town.
All three synagogues the Shul, the Klois, and the Bet Hamedresh were located on the same street and each had its own congregation. The baalei batim (home-owners) important people and those learned in Torah prayed in the Bet Hamedresh where the prayers were said in the Orthodox manner. After the morning prayers, the congregants would sit around a table and learn a page of gemara. Here, they studied Talmud more than in the other synagogues.
The Klois was larger and more beautiful than the Bet Hamedresh. When a cantor would visit the town, the congregants of the Klois made sure he prayed with them. Those who prayed in the Klois were younger and the atmosphere was closer to the spirit of the maskilim (enlightened). Also, the prayers were shorter than in the Bet Hamedresh.
The Shul also had a beautiful building. The aron kodesh holy ark was made of carved wood. Brass chandeliers hung from the curved ceiling, which was painted sky blue, scattered with stars. The acoustics here were very good. Tickets were sold to hear the visiting cantor. Prayers were not held in the Shul on weekdays but only on Shabbat and holidays as the congregants were young, enlightened and not so observant.
A few people prayed in all the synagogues, for example Rabbi Michel Shtupel who was a respected, older man. It was said that that he had a great knowledge of Talmud and studied day and night. He usually prayed in the Bet Hamedresh, however, from time to time, he prayed in the Klois and infrequently also in the Shul.
Most of the Jews of Meretch worked hard to support their families. But, there were also those who had large businesses. Such was Bezalel Manosovsky who was a wealthy, influential person. He leased plots of the forest from the government and hired both Jews and non-Jews. The logs were transported to the Niman River in the summer on carts and in the winter on sleds. The logs were rolled from the banks of the river into the water where they were tied into rafts. These were floated downstream to the Baltic Sea and from there they were taken to the saw-mills in Germany. Bezalel Manosovsky owned a saw-mill where the logs were cut into wooden boards.
Other trades in Meretch included flourmills, brick-making, tanners, domestic candle-making and a few bakeries. Among the craftsmen were shoemakers, tailors, carpenters and even construction workers. These crafts involved manufacturing, renewal and repair. Buying clothes or shoes was not an everyday occurrence. Here, in the hands of these craftsmen, a ripped shoe or a worn-out garment was repaired and renewed. However, often these craftsmen didn't receive this work as it was common, among both the Jews and the gentiles, that the mother of the family sewed the clothes for the family. They also baked bread and even halla for Shabbat in the oven in their home.
Until the age of 12, I never left the town to visit others towns. The only places outside the town that I did visit were the villages in our area. Our whole lives were spent within the framework of the town. Usually things were calm as each one was busy making a living. However, public life was like a big family: in happy occasions or, G-d forbid, sad ones, everyone acted like family grief and joy brought all the people together. I knew the names of everyone.
Serious disputes did not erupt among the Jews in the town, although there were sometimes disagreements. These were resolved in the Bet Hamedresh. How? On Shabbat, when it was time to read the Torah, the claimant stood before the Holy Ark and prevented taking out the Torah. It was called, delaying the reading. The claimant turned to the congregants, raised his claims and asked that his demands be accepted. If his claim was accepted, the matter was settled. In cases where the matter was not resolved, a committee was formed to look into the question and resolve it. Only after this, could the congregation continue and read from the Torah.
Here are some examples of disagreements: Shchita (animal slaughter) payments the butcher demanded higher payments, which was a matter supervised by the community; the right to sell yeast the Rabbi held the right to sell yeast for the baking of halla for Shabbat and the grocer claimed discrimination and damage to his livelihood. And other such cases.
When there was a dispute between Jews, they did not turn to the official courts; they went to the Rabbi. The Rabbi, and sometimes others who sat with him, heard the arguments and decided the case. Usually, his decision was accepted without question. In extraordinary cases, when the Jewish claimants resorted to the gentile courts, Hersh Radovski wrote the arguments for them in the language of the state, Russian. Since there was no court in Meretch, the case was heard in the city of Troki.
There was a prison in Meretch. The prisoners were gentiles. Only very infrequently were Jews imprisoned there.
A small number of policemen served in the local police force, which was headed by a second lieutenant (ordinik in Russian). They wore official uniforms with a sword hanging from their belts. The people treated them with respect that derived from fear. The police didn't have much work. The Jews didn't make trouble. On market days, which were on Wednesdays, after the gentiles finished selling their produce, with cash in their pockets, they went to the pub to drink a small glass of whisky. The glass quickly turned into a bottle. Often, this drinking ended with the gentiles going out into the street totally drunk. Then the police intervened and jailed them until they sobered up. This also happened on their holidays when they came out of church, they went to the pub to drink a glass of whisky.
My first teacher (melamed) was Leibe from Serey (Leibe the Sereyer's). He lived in a small wooden house. There were two classes in his heder (school). One was for learning the Hebrew alphabet and reading in the sidur (prayer book). The other was for learning Mishna and Gemara (Talmud). Pupils who excelled received sweets. The weaker pupils were often punished by having to stand in the corner. The teacher wore a paper hat and the pupils laughed at him. He used a pointer to follow each pupil's reading. Sometimes, when a child didn't know the place in the reading, the teacher would hit him with the pointer on his fingernails. On Fridays, he used to invite the parents to hear their child being tested. Once, on a Friday, I was surprised to see my father. My heart beat fast. While I was reading from the sidur, I cried from excitement. Suddenly, coins fell on my head I was stunned. That was the prize I received for reading so well. Where did the coins come from? The teacher's wife climbed up to the attic and threw coins, which my father had given her, through a crack in the ceiling.
At age ten the pupils began to learn Gemara. The youth studied with the melamed until age 12 or 13. The talented ones continued studying in the yeshivot of Lida, Volozhin or Slobodka (a suburb of Kovno).
Other teachers at that time in the town were Shimon the Melamed, Abba the Melamed and Moshe Yehezkel.
Before the First World War, a lower-level yeshiva (yeshiva ketana) was established in town, where boys from the age of 13 and older studied.
The yeshiva was supervised by Rabbi Michel who was very learned. Also there were the son-in-law of R' Zalman the painter R' Leib and Rabbi David Goldfet who gave a lesson in Gemara. The classes were held in either the Klois or the Bet Hamedresh. Each boy prepared for the lesson by himself. Sometimes, two boys prepared together. The studies continued until late at night. For fear of the war, we were afraid to walk alone in the dark and the fathers would come to take us home.
There was also a Talmud Torah a Jewish elementary school in Meretch where the studies were free. They studied there sidur, Bible and Hebrew.
There were also two regular schools one for gentiles and another for Jews. Each one was located in a two-story walled building. There were four classes in each school and those who completed their studies continued on to the Gymnasia. In the Jewish school, boys and girls learned together; the language of the studies was Russian. The principal of the Gymnasia was named Swirsky. A teacher named Bestomski also taught in the school he later became known for the mathematics textbooks he wrote. I remember that the pupils of the heder were required to go to the regular school for a few hours everyday in order to study Russian. Afterwards, we returned to the heder to continue our studies.
Also in our town of Meretch the police believed and suspected that the Jews used the blood of Christian children to bake matzot for Passover. I remember the local police officer who entered the synagogue to look for signs of blood of a Christian child. The Jews opened the holy ark and also showed him the bottle of wine for Kiddush pure wine without any blood.
We saw soldiers in our town very infrequently. During the years 19121913, military maneuvers were held in our area. The soldiers were housed in the homes of the Jews. In those years, horses were confiscated for use by the army. In 1914, the Russian government decreed that all the Jews who lived in towns near the German border must leave their homes and move east to the Russian interior. Some of these Jewish refugees arrived in Meretch. They were housed in Jewish homes.
A military commander was appointed and the military police supervised the activities of the Jews.
Then the Russian army suffered a defeat and thus the front came closer to Meretch. For four continuous days, the cannons shook the center of town. Afterwards, there was face-to-face fighting in the town square between the German soldiers and the retreating Russian soldiers. The residents hid in cellars and walled houses. Some hid in their own homes while others hid in their neighbors' homes. Only when the battles ended, did the Jews come out of their hiding places and found themselves under the German occupation.
The new rulers were totally different: a new language and a new government system. The new rulers treated the Jews fairly. The Jews knowledge of Yiddish made it easy to communicate and speak with the new rulers.
The Shor family
Translated by Esther Snyder
Meretch (Merkine in Lithuanian) was located in the southern part of Lithuania. To its west flowed the Niman River. Southwest of the town, the tributary Marichenka emptied into the Niman. Further north, although still to the south of the city, a small stream called Stenga (called the bath stream by the residents of the town) also flowed into the Niman. Children, whose homes were built not far from this river, bathed there in the summer.
On the western bank of the Niman, not far from the Marichenka and the Stenga, rose a hill called in Lithuanian pillis (Fortress Hill). On it summit was a fortress that had protected the town from foreign invaders in the early years of Lithuania. Here, on the grassy hill, the youth of Meretch (especially the members of the youth movements) loved to spend their free time.
On all sides of the town, a short distance from its borders, stretched agricultural land. Farmers, who were called mashchians (city people), worked the land and lived on the outskirts of town. Some Jewish families were also farmers: the family of Shaul Kagnivitz and the two families of the Lauknitzki brothers.
In the town, there were businessmen who dealt in forestry. Both gentiles and Jews were employed in cutting down the trees. In the winter months, the logs were carried by tractors and in the beginning of spring by carts. In the spring, logs were tied together into rafts and floated down the Niman River to the Baltic Sea and from there to Germany.
The houses around the town square were made of wood or brick. In one two-story house on the bottom floor the offices of the town council were located. On the upper floor was housed the Lithuanian pro-gymnasium. In an adjacent two-story building, there were residential apartments and on the upper floor was an elementary school and the municipal library which was administered by Ephraim Yavrovitz.
The houses encircled the market square in a circle open on all sides. From there streets extended and from them lanes and alleys branched out. The market was full of life mainly on Wednesday, which was market day. Then the farmers arrived with their wagons full of products from their farms and produce from their land. The Jews bought their necessities from them every week: chickens, fruits and vegetables, eggs and butter. The merchants also bought products from the farmers, such as wheat, lentils and eggs that were sold mainly to neighboring Germany.
In the winter months, the children skated and the youth rode in sleds along this street from the nearby hill down to the square. Here, on Kovno Street, lived a tinsmith, a baker (whose expertise was in baking bread from sifted rye), a tailor (who sewed clothes for the farmers) and a number of stores.
Another street, which faced north, was called Shul hoif. This street was full of Jews who went to pray in the three synagogues located there (Shul, Bet Hamedresh, and Klois) or to hear a lecture in gemara or Ayn Yaakov. There were also those who came to recite Tehilim Psalms. Also located on this street were the Tarbut and Yavneh schools.
Further on, to the northwest of the square, was Millveg Street (Millway), which led to the forests. In the summer, this street was used to reach the vacation spots.
A main road crossed through the whole town. On the west, the road led to the Niman River one kilometer away. To the east, it was possible to travel on this road to Vilna. This section was called Vilner Gass Vilna Road. Two streets branched out to the east from this road: to the right (south) to Grudno, and to the left (north) to the district city, Elita and to the capital Kovno.
There was a bridge across the Niman, which was rebuilt by the Germans in World War I. Further on, past the bridge, spread out yellow sand hills. During the summer, the town residents bathed in the Niman; there were separate bathing areas for men and for women.
On both sides of the road, were high banks of earth planted with leafy trees. This is where the youth spent their leisure time in the spring and summer; it was pleasant to lie on the grass and look out, down onto the flowing Niman River.
The Post Office was located on a street that extended west from the square. Anyone who wanted a shortcut to the Niman, used this street. The farmers and some Tatar families, who fished in the Niman, lived at the end of this street.
A Jewish engraver lived on Post Office street. Around his house was a garden of fruit trees: pears, plums, apples and cherries. There were also tomato plants and thistle. Near the entrance to the garden stood a beautiful swing that the youth enjoyed using.
To the southwest was the street where the town Rabbi, Michael Shtupel, lived. The Rabbi was very well learned in Torah and even published a book entitled, Be'er Haim. On Thursdays, this street was full of the sounds of children because this was the day their mothers sent them to buy yeast from the Rabbanit the Rabbi's wife. People of other occupations also lived on this street, such as carpenters, a specialized shoemaker, a barber (who was also a flutist), a fishmonger, a butcher and a seamstress.
Vilna Street lay to the east. On both sides of the main street, wooden houses were crowded next to each other; there were no brick houses. On the street, you could hear the sounds of couples walking by, the tumult of children and the conversations of adults on their way to the open fields. At the end of the street stood the flourmill and the sawmill of Avraham Chirelshtein.
To the southeast was the street called Milchel Gass with its many alleyways. Most of the residents were craftsmen: blacksmiths, wagon drivers, bakers, butchers, tailors, shoemakers and others. Also the shohet (ritual animal slaughter), R' Nahum Kelman, who had been a student at the Volozhin Yehiva, lived there. He was well-versed in Hebrew and its grammar. On Sabbath days between the prayers of Minha and Maariv he gave a lecture (shiur) on Aggada to the public. In addition, he wrote paeans to visiting philanthropists. He was also a teacher in the Yavneh school. In later years, the municipal library was located on this street.
From the corner of Vilna Street, extended another street. The importance of this street was due to the reading room and clubhouse of Gordonia there. In previous years, the heder (schoolroom) of Leib Masarei was located there. The children of Meretch learned to read and write in this schoolroom. There was also a well on this street that supplied water to the residents. To the south, was the street of the bathhouse, which was full of people, mainly on Friday when the Jews were making preparations for the Sabbath and wanted to be clean and well-scrubbed.
This street also led to the Jewish cemetery. In order to reach the cemetery one had to cross a slanted, wooden bridge over the Stenga.
On the Stenga, the mothers or their helpers beat their laundry with paddles on large stones and rinsed the laundry in the flowing waters. Here, at the foot of the mountain, gurgled a spring of cold water that the townspeople enjoyed on hot summer days.
The Jews of the town felt as if they were living in their own world, a Jewish world. Everything was done according to the customs of previous generations; they didn't feel like outsiders. They lived full Jewish lives.
This once existed. On Monday, 16 Elul 5601, 8 September 1941, the remaining Jews of Meretch were led to their deaths. No one was left in the town to mourn for them. There was no one to eulogize them. No one to recite El Maleh Rahamim. No one to say Kadish.
Just the heavens above accompanied them to their eternal rest.
A street in the town
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