[Pages 407 - 410]
The Little Shtetl Piesk
Chaim Shebach (Argentina)
Translated by Alan Rems
The little shtetl Piesk astride the Zelevianka River, between woods and mire. Small wooden houses covered with straw and shingles and with a green blanket of moss. Little windows and wooden doors that screech with every movement. [Houses] mostly of two rooms and a kitchen, with a hen house for winter and a broad lounge to warm oneself on long winter evenings.
Behind the poor houses lay broad gardens and orchards that provided the main sustenance of the inhabitants. Greens and fruit for day-to-day subsistence and the cow and horse rounding out the resources for living. Not much was needed: a piece of black bread with butter, a glass of milk, a plate of potatoes and that's all. And still, marvelously, a doctor couldn't make a living in the shtetl. When there was trouble we had to borrow one from a nearby town. The people of the little shtetl lived more from the beauties of nature than from good nourishment.
Most income from labor and livelihood came from the woods and water. To the east lay, spread out, the Orslyaner and Mosty Wood, where the Piesk gentry sent their sheep and cattle to pasture in summer; and, at night, returning [the cows] with full milk udders for the whole family and filling the entire shtetl with thick dust and the odors of field and wood.
To the west lay the Zelevianer Wood, young and green; and at the left lay, spread out broadly, the Strumnitzer Wood, with its proud pine trees stretching toward the heavens as if in prayer. From their tops, the song of birds and the cawing of crows was heard constantly.
All these big woods were the pride of the little shtetl Piesk. In their depths, the young and old, poor and rich, dreamed on and on. The Strubnitzer Wood lay clean and neat in summer with its full magic, bedecked with a green carpet of grass and moss, overgrown with wild mushrooms and red and black berries.
On Friday and Saturday, the wood was greatly sought out by young and old. It was the main place for everyone to stroll, particularly, for the young, who would dream of love and better times, about distant lands such as Eretz Yisroel and America, about good fortune and joy, and about all that the dear shtetl did not possess; and the youth felt dissatisfied about.
The wood was filled with song, lieder of joy and sorrow, of slavery and freedom, of hatred and love. Everyone allowed to express, in their own voice, their desires, strivings, unfulfilled longings and dreams.
Here, the youth felt free as birds; here no one could get in the way; here there was no one to fear. The green wood was disguised and hidden from the dark gaze of poverty, hunger and want. The wood gave from its nature to everyone, equally, with a full hand.
The earth is soft and green, full of grass and flowers. The scent of the wood and field intoxicated and filled everyone with courage and strength to dream of something better and more beautiful, and of liberation of all youthful fantasies. It often seemed to me that the shtetl leaned toward the cemetery; and the wood drew toward the outside world. That the shtetl is gray with age and in darkness and the woods are big, strong and powerful, green and pleasant and attractive.
Much further on stretched green meadows with thickly grown grass, where horses and cattle pastured. The way led to the shtetl, my little shtetl, Piesk. Fields thickly overgrown with rye, wheat, and potatoes. In the air, one feels the smell of cut hay and grain; and there appears the first houses of the little shtetl.
Here, lived my teacher LONSKY, a zealot, an expert. Everything he taught was based on Haskalah (i.e. the thinking of the Jewish Enlightenment). A great Hebraist, knowing Tanakh well, he discussed with me at length a variety of subjects. A poor one room house. Orphaned, his parents had died young. He taught his students in the orchard on a long table under fruit trees.
Here, the Zaretz neighborhood begins. Her few streets intersect each other. In the center stands a deep well, where all the neighbors come to draw water. A row of little shops lead to the bridge, where the mills were located that belonged to my grandfather, Reb Yisroel SHEBACH, and which later was passed along to my father Reb Avrom and his brother Lazer SHEBACH.
Here began the SHEBACH family's history in Piesk. How much my memory allows me to remember that my grandfather was tall, thin, with gray, severe eyes and a penetrating gaze-a great scholar and a great businessman. In addition to woods and fields, which he worked, bought and sold, his great accomplishment was the building of two mills on the Zelevianka River that separated the shtetl in two.
As it is understood, the shtetl and all its environs, fields, woods, rivers and such, belonged to the famous noblemen Veispyng, who leased the land to grandfather to build, in the middle of the shtetl, mills for [the shtetl's] own needs and to make the highest quality wheat meal for export, particularly to Germany. The water was contained and propelled the mill wheels. And thus, the entire panorama of the shtetl was changed.
Christians began to arrive, colonists from the whole vicinity, from tiny villages and little shtetls, who brought grain on their wagons for milling into meal to make barley cereal, oat and buckwheat meal husk, sifted and wheatened. And, at the same time, selling hens, eggs, cheese and butter for the gentry, who didn't own any fowl and cows. With the proceeds, the Christians bought kerosene, herring, salt and everything necessary in a peasant home.
The Jewish shopkeepers would stand at their doors and call the customers by name to come to their shops, so as not to lose the small pidyen. [The writer is being facetious. A pidyen is a ransom or a payment to a Hassidic rabbi for advice.] Beside the row of shops in the center of the market, there were also grain dealers who bought wheat for milling and afterwards for sale to the shopkeepers. Drivers would earn money by bringing and delivering the merchandise. In this way, much of the shtetl lived and worked around the mills.
The large three-story mill, which operated only for export, was a modern roller mill, arranged with modernity. The wheat was washed and dried. The whole process was automatic, almost without human hands that were needed only to pour in the wheat and collect the finished meal in sacks by various types and qualities.
It is remembered how the mill was prepared for Passover in order to grind meal for matzot. Both rabbis then came: the Rasher rav and Yehoshua-Beniamin inspected the kosher quality of the mill. The mill stood pure and tidy as a bridal maiden, swept and purified of the dust accumulated over the entire year: from the wheels, sifters, belts, and crannies. The stone wall was whitewashed; and the floors shined with purity.
Both rabbis would examine all the places so that there shouldn't, God forbid, be any chometz lying about. Then, they would go to the office and make a l'chaim [i.e. take a drink]; and after that, each rabbi would be sent his recompense, as the sale of candles and yeast was insufficient livelihood for [their] extensive families.
On the Zelevianka would float the logs from the forests that grandfather and later my father, peace unto him, sent to the Nieman in long rafts for export. Many Pieskers worked on the river. The water-men, I see them still tall, healthy, with sunburned faces, dressed in their breeches, with stripes on the shoulders, they would stride with their long broad beards on the long logs as easily as if at home. With a food bag for several months, they embarked on their long journey.
The Zelevianka River extends to the shtetl Zelva until it empties into the Nieman by the shtetl Zelevian. On its banks are long, green meadows and thick forests. Populated meadows full of the song of birds and people, which are heard from morning to late night. The song of couples in love, who express their longings, illusions and hopes. Two rows of trees surround the banks, grown in one upon another, their roots full of small berries and wildflowers of all hues and varieties.
How much joy the meadows brought to the Jewish shtetls, from distant settlements and lands. How great was the joy to depart on a little boat with a group of friends on still summer evenings, either to enjoy the peacefulness and ease of the night, to breathe the pure air and experience romantic feelings. How many generations mourned on these banks? How many Jews performed taslich [i.e. the Rosh Hoshanah ritual conducted by running water] and light-heartedly returned with small strides and the complete hope and certainty that they had discarded in the abyss of the river all their sins and cares?
The river regularly overflowed, winding over hill and valley, drowning its banks and separating in infinite directions, affecting poor and rich alike.
Houses of Worship
Piesk possessed five houses of worship where the older generation lived spiritually: the Chai Adam for workmen, the Moyer for the gentry, the wooden for the common people, the Hasidic for practices specific to the Hasidim and the shul for the major holidays. Every house of worship had its own particular appearance inside and outside.
The Chai Adam a big wooden structure where they prayed the first minyan[i.e. the morning service]. Craftsmen would hurry very early to finish their prayers before going to work. Worshipers in shabby garments and patched boots would get through their prayers and proceed further. But by mincha and ma'ariv [i.e. the afternoon and evening services], the prayer house was packed. People would talk their hearts out with one another, discussing the bitter situation earnestly and the outlook for improvement; and, maybe, solely about revolution, as in the year 1905 when a great part of the shtetl had to flee to America because they had cried Down with Czar Nicholas!
The worshipers of Moyer were genteel people with filled out faces and rounded bellies. From their vest pockets dangled gold chains and watches wedding gifts. They would wake up a little later. With trimmed and combed beards, they would enter with light steps, hands [clasped] behind them, with a broad good-morning and good-year on the lips: What's the world news? Who has a newspaper? It's said something's stirring in the world, somewhere deep in Russia. Nu, funya [i.e. derisive nickname for imperial Russia] should drop dead. It was directed to everyone and, slapping the lectern, they assumed the attitude of prayer.
The Hasidic [shul] always appeared as tumultuous and noisy as if there was a wedding. Hasidim with long kaftans and gartlen [i.e. belts worn by men to separate the profane lower body] would pray with burning fervor, not missing any Hasidic dance and jig. This was a joyous, enthusiastic religious community of Jews, with a strong faith in the Almighty. They satisfied themselves and were contented with the leavings of the rabbi's table.
The shul, the pride of the shtetl, built in Godly style with many peaks, stood on a small hill to which there led stone steps. The magnificent external and internal appearance gave it the right to be called the shul. Here, it was mostly the youth who prayed, who did more chatting than praying. Here was known all the local slanders and vilification. Loafing buddies or sons-in-law on kest [i.e. room and board provided to a new son-in-law to enable him to continue his studies without financial worries], with sticks in hand, knew about everything and everybody. Elegantly dressed, with shined boots, a cigarette in mouth and with a wristwatch, they were everywhere, on all the porches, wherever there were girls about. They discoursed about fire and water [i.e. they never shut up], invited themselves with books of love, novels; and thereby, slickly, they accomplished nothing.
This was the intelligentsia of the shtetl. Guys were introduced there to their culture with a Zionistic inclination, the discussion being in Hebrew or Russian, dreaming of travel to Eretz Yisroel and building there a new life on productive foundations. But, meanwhile, condemning the shtetl every which way.
There was a second [variety of] youth, workers, who toiled for existence in their day-to-day life. Laborers: shoemakers, tailors, millers, carpenters, youths who helped their parents in their work, dressed poorly, smoked smelly inferior tobacco, workers without ability to bargain for their labor. The shtetl didn't have factories or other possibilities for work. Youths, who wait around and expect nothing. The Polish regime did nothing to improve the life of the Jewish youth; on the contrary, it removed all specifically Jewish sources of livelihood: the tobacco franchise, taverns and the mails were put in Polish hands. Because of the [Polish] cooperatives, many Jewish shops had to close. Unemployment increased; and the youth became embittered.
Winds began blowing from Russia, stormy, and revolutionary. The youth had sought an outlet and the Polish regime [responded] with beatings and imprisonment, suffocating the manifestos. The youth fled, crossing the border to where life is free and you can recover your breath, where there is work for everyone free of discrimination; and it is dogma that everyone can live as they wish and it suits them.
The shtetl possessed a Russian [Orthodox] church and a Polish [Catholic] church, where the Polish and Russian peasants gathered. All week they stood empty but were full only on Sundays. [The peasants] would come on light wagons, dressed in their typical garments, the women with colored shawls on their heads. They would unharness the horses tethered to the wagons, which they would park around the churches, entering inside with good and pious countenances; and, leaving with scowls, full of hate and venom toward the Jewish population, incited by the fanatical priests not to buy from the crucifiers of Jesus. A Sunday rarely passed without fighting between Jewish and Christian youth. It was then quiet the entire week unless there was a church holiday.
[Pages 413 - 414]
Piesk at the End of the First World War
L. Aryeh Lonsky (Canada)
Translated by Alan RemsAt the beginning of the [20th] century, a shake-up occurred in the spiritual life of the Jewish settlements of Eastern Europe. The established life-styles of many centuries, based on religion and faith, went through drastic changes under pressure of strong winds that blew from the outside world and invaded the congealed life in the towns and villages of Russia and Poland.
The Socialistic currents on one side and the Zionistic thinking on the other side reached the Jewish masses, primarily the youth...and destroyed and ended the entire [previous] course of Jewish life.
The youth sought out new ways and were no longer satisfied with what their parents had marked out for them. They yearned for something new that would create a richer meaning for their lives.
This impulse was particularly strengthened at the end of the First World War, after the Russian Revolution on one hand and the Balfour Declaration on the other.
Amid the Current of the Times
Our little shtetl Piesk, too, was carried away with the currents of the new times. Suddenly, various organizations of Zionist and Socialist ideological content were founded. The sounds of the Hebrew language began to be heard in the street. Nobody knew how it happened, that some individuals had acquired a sure knowledge of Hebrew. Here and there, you began to hear Yiddish and Hebrew songs.
Nobody knew from where it came and who brought it here. There was talk of a library, where the youth could get books and become acquainted with modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature. Young parents were greatly concerned that their children should not be satisfied with the old cheder. Instead, a modern school must be founded where the children would receive a rounded education in the country's vernacular as well as modern Hebrew, together with a variety of other necessary knowledge.
The First Hebrew School
The writer of these lines, together with some friends including Zeidl SHEBACH and Yechezkel LISOVSKY, who were themselves young men just eighteen years-old and whose knowledge was entirely modest, were in the forefront of this movement. Having the assistance of the older and more-educated, like the AMIEL brothers and others, they founded the first Hebrew school in the shtetl.
From the start, the older generation regarded this whole matter with suspicion, fearing it would lead the children into bad ways. But when such members of the gentry as Yitzchak SHAPIRA, Yisroel KAPLAN, and Avigdor DIECHUBSKY aligned themselves with it, and even the greatly learned Reb ZASHAME smilingly gave his blessing, the matter moved along. A school was created with L. LONSKY and Zeidl SHEBACH as the first teachers.
Children from every corner of the shtetl headed to the school. The place very quickly became overcrowded, it became necessary to seek larger space.
The school became the center of all cultural and spiritual activities. A library was founded, evening courses [were held] for the grown-ups, principally Hebrew, whose lectures the elder gentry also began to attend. The school chorus became a popular institution that embellished all cultural gatherings.
A Dramatic Society
Soon, a dramatic society was founded, which presented productions of modern Yiddish and Hebrew drama in the one and only place that was referred to as The Tavern. God knows where the youth got the courage and knowledge for such undertakings, when the leaders themselves barely had ever witnessed any theatrical productions.
Today's modern people could not understand the pleasure and enthusiasm from this activity. Although life was hard and the possibilities very limited, those youths nevertheless were happy, were overflowing with idealism and joy, and ceaselessly dreaming about a brighter future, particularly about the rising stars of the Jewish homeland.
In the evening, the streets were filled with strolling youth, who fell in love and together dreamed the dream of a far land which was so near to their hearts.
In the evenings, the sounds of Hebrew and Yiddish lieder would be carried from the little boats on the Zelbianka River. The young couples, who sailed, cried out their joyous dream into the night. The writer of these lines soon departed our dear shtetl and began his way in the world. However, he maintained contact with his friends and students for a long time. He had the fortune to be the guest speaker in the evening when the first group departed to Eretz Yisroel, where they were among the builders of the country and most of whom spread across the independent State of Israel.
There swims up in my memory a song that we once all sang. The writer of the lines composed both the words and melody:
Friends were we
On a still summer night.
The lovely-starred heavens
Awakened us then.
Now, I'm greeted coldly
At my distant reaches.
Friends were we
At home, back when.
[Yiddish page 415]
"Still Life in Piesk"
by Hindy Benkovich (Veiner)
Translated by Alan Rems
As one arrives on the Volkovysk Road and leaves the Strubnitzer Woods, one immediately sees the peaks of the two churches. As one rides over the hill and approaches the shtetl, one also discerns the historic Jewish shul with its beautiful majestic exterior.
A little further, as one enters the shtetl, the small wooden houses appear, scattered about, one in, one out. Engineers and architects didn't plan them. Everyone built according to his own taste and plan.
As one enters a bit deeper into the shtetl, one sees a forge. There stands a Jew forging the iron and nailing the horseshoes on the horses' feet. A bit further toward the square, one enters the street named Zaretz. It was counted among the most attractive streets in the shtetl. On one side of the street lived the police chief. From there came all the evil decrees affecting the Jews. Instead of intending to improve the condition of the shtetl, they continuously thought how to uncover Jewish transgressions.
Not far from the police station is found the Polish shul. Parallel with the forge, Zaretz Street extends to the bridge over the Zelbianka River. Under the bridge is located a dam, which provides power for the wheels of the mill that was built by a wealthy landowner. The mill was continuously in the hands of Jews, who rented it from the landowner.
In 1927, an electric station was erected; and Piesk's homes became illuminated by electricity. It became light in the houses. But, it was dark in the streets and dark in the spirit of the poor Jewish inhabitants.
Across the bridge were houses of the same style, but also shops. The first shop and bakery was the baker woman's. To eat one of her cakes in the morning with a glass of milk hot from one's own cow was a taste thrill, but who had the ability to buy a cake from Ratke the Bekerke? There was no possibility of experiencing this pleasure. You ate black bread, which mother herself baked. Not once did this bread cause heartburn.
The street stretched parallel from the river to the Russian (Orthodox) church. There, the street widens; and in a while, is found a circle of shops where storekeepers wait for customers. They wait impatiently for Thursday, since a market is held every Thursday.
Immediately, at break of day, Christians arrive with their horses and wagons and with their products. They bring calves to sell, as well as horses to barter and sell. The first customers were the butchers, buying a calf, grabbing a bargain in dealing with a Christian. In the bargaining process, there is a continuous slapping of each other's hands. By the time the purchase is consummated, their hands have become swollen from slapping. When the Christian tires of the hand slapping, the butcher immediately buys the calf as planned. So goes the trading in cows, horses, hens, geese, and ducks. After selling his goods, the peasant goes to the shops for his purchases. After buying in the shops, the peasants head for the bars to drink (All bars were in Jewish hands.) After drinking to intoxication, they would go in late afternoon to church, when the church bells began to chime, and there were incited into an anti-Semitic rage.
All the curses in the world were poured on the heads of the Jews. The Jewish shopkeepers, with great fear, would promptly lock their businesses; and everyone locked himself in his home, fearing to stick his head out until the Christians rode off.
From the church, there runs Perekop Street, a clean Christian street with small wooden houses, with pretty flower gardens all around. They all led a life of poverty. The street extended to the second bridge, Perekop. From there, the road led to Mosty, Rozhanka, and other shtetls.
A Sneeze in Zaretz
The shtetl was so big that sometimes a Jew said: "If I give a sneeze on Zaretz Bridge, I'm wished good health on Perekop Bridge."
As one returns from Perekop Bridge, immediately at the right is the neighborhood of Shul Street, the center of spirituality and culture of the Jewish population. Somewhat further is the little street where I was born and where my parents spent their lives. When the Germans occupied our territory in the First World War, they nicknamed the little street "the Garden [Sadova] Street". It really was an appropriate name for the little street. The orchards with their fruit trees lit up the little street. In the Spring, when the lilac trees bloomed with their purple color, they smelled like the best perfumes from today's modern laboratories. When the cherry, apple and pear trees bloomed, we youngsters, back then, bloomed with them.
Beyond the street, down the hill there lay the river. At the river's edge, there was a (ritual) bath. Here, in the mikvah, the women used to go when it was their time (i.e. after menstruation), and the men, every Friday, in order to take up with purity the Shabbat Queen. Friday evening, all men go with easy faces to the beautiful shul edifice. Such a majestic shul might have stood in any capital city.
The Hassidim and other pious Jews hurried into the big shul after prayer, to the small Hassidic prayer house to dance with the Hassidim. There, Hassidim and Misnagdim (Hassidic opponents), danced shoulder to shoulder and also made Kiddush together. In the big shul, there was prayer only in summer, as it was cold there in winter.
About the shul, various legends circulated: During winter, spirits come to pray, or the dead come to revel. I was a freethinker, but if I had to pass the shul, I felt fear and looked around to see if I was being pursued.
In the middle of Shul Street was a well. Here, the well with its bad waters had great significance for us, as Jews. It also was a 'strategic' point for weddings. Here, from the well, they lead the groom and bride to the chupah (marriage canopy). Klezmer would play the entire way. The whole shtetl escorted them with heartfelt good wishes to their new path of life.
If the wedding occurred in winter, little prankster boys pelted the groom and bride with snowballs. In summer, the boys got close and jabbed them with needles. These ceremonies continued for ages in the shtetl until the arrival of modern times. The youth revolted against the life-style; they threw parties themselves; and new ways of life were born.
A Jewish Cow
by Chaim Shebach (Argentina)
Translated by Alan Rems
When Yehuda the Shepherd cried out early on a summer's morning, The cows have been fed, it created a stir in the shtetl. All the Jewish women, with kerchiefs on their heads, hastened with milk pails to their cow. Then, they could be released in the marketplace where the Jewish cows were herded together.
The Jewish cow had the same mazel as its Jewish master and had endured the same tsouris as he a family partner. The Christian cows had plentiful pasture on both banks of the Zelebianka, which belonged to the church leaders of the shtetl. Immediately, on exiting their stalls [the cows] entered the mud [of the river]. They satiated themselves with the juicy grass, still bedecked with early morning dew, and drank the fresh river water. At midday, they lay at ease, spread out under the willow trees that grew high and wide on both banks of the river, udders full and chewing their cud. Blessed and thankful that their masters were not Jewish; the entire abundance and ease belonged to them. The Jewish cows unfortunately waited hungry on the sandy marketplace with sunken sides and meager little udders, barely able to stand on their feet. Finally, they departed several versts [1 verst is about 2/3 of a mile] to the Mosty Wood. The town gentry had obtained this pasture for a goodly sum through negotiation with the Balavicher poritz [lord]. The Balavicher Wood was not natural pasture. It was a piece of cut-down woods where young trees and mossy shrubs still remained. The Jewish cows unfortunately had to go far to collect a small amount of [grass] leaves or moss to fill their empty stomachs.
Sadly, Yehuda the Shepherd was a poor youth from poor parents, dressed in tatters. The salary that he received was insufficient [to buy] decent garments. In his shoulder bag was a piece of black bread with herring. He had to get along with that for the entire day. Afterwards, [he had] to take grief from the masters about why their cows gave less milk than they did before. Why is it my fault, he argued, that over time there are more cows and calves and less pasturage? The poritz of the wood, KARTSHEVET, had built a turpentine factory, leaving reduced pasture. The little grass that [the cows] ate during the day was worked off by the time they reached their stalls. You had to immediately prepare tubs [of feed] and feed them all over again. Otherwise, there would be no milk in the morning in the pot of chicory for the children.
Unfortunately, the Jewish cows shared the lot of their Jewish masters while, at the same time, they sustained the families.
And the Sun Stood Still in the Middle of the Heavens
Chaim Shebach (Argentina)
Translated by Alan Rems
(Translator's note: The chapter title, written in Hebrew, is a quotation from the Book of Joshua, when the Lord caused the setting sun to stand still long enough for the Israelites to gain a victory. The writer omits the source, assuming that his readers would immediately recognize the biblical source.)
A man with an angular face and the shaggy beard of a gentleman that extended to the waistcoat, where dangled a watch made of cheap Russian gold, probably a wedding gift from the in-laws. Velvele, Leib Ber's son-in-law, a Jew of short stature, thin, meager, barely able to hold himself up on his feet, a frightened look, a pale face and fleshy nose.
Whether summer or winter, dressed in a long mantle, heavy shoes, and a hard hat pulled down over the ears. The children of the shtetl used to run after him and yell Reb Velvele. Then, he would stuff his thin fingers in his ears and begin to run from one side of the street to the other, to hide somewhere from the childish yelling and new jests that would oppress him to the depth of his possibly aching soul. His gait appeared like Charlie Chaplin's, which stirred the band of vagabonds even more.
His wife, Shifra, tall, fat, with a pock-marked face, a fat nose and fleshy lips, always dressed in a wide gray dress, appeared monumental next to her husband. The Rabbi (i.e. Leib Ber) had negotiated for a yeshiva boy for his unaccomplished daughter.
In the autumn of 1914, the war approached our shtetl, Piesk. The youth was taken away to the military, to serve Funye der Gonif (derisive term for the Czar). In the shtetl remained just old people, young children, and women. Under the guard of soldiers, they dug trenches for the army near the Strumnitzer Wood, who had retreated from the front and were preparing to winter by the Nieman [River]. The river was a natural strategic point to halt the enemy. Day in, day out, they dug trenches and protective cellars.
The peasants hastened to gather the produce from the fields and hide it somewhere. Everything around gave the appearance of twilight. The setting sun colored the sky with a reddish shine. The treetops gleamed from the sunset-hour. The wood was swaddled in lengthy shadows. The frogs by the stream had said their krishma (the prayer before going to sleep). Everything appeared as though something must happen
a voice of foreboding, from fear and nervousness.
Suddenly, everyone lifted his eyes to the west. The sun is not setting. The sun remains still. There is no sunset. The skies redden again, as one sees the last rays of the sun mix with flaming tongues of fire coming from somewhere within our sinful world. It burns the world, and everything around
Mosty, Ros, Wolkovysk
the entire region, the woods, the fields. Pillars of smoke reach and darken the sky intermittently. Then, again, the red flames mix together with the sunset. Amidst the entire surrounding tumult and fear, a female form suddenly stood out, running with a shawl in hand and yelling Velvele, Velvele, get home, you have a cough, you'll catch cold, God forbid...
And someone had drawn forth a tune: the sun departs in flames; the sun is hardly seen; so departs my hope, so departs my dream.
Piesk on a Wintry Night
Chaim Shebach (Argentina)
Translated by Alan Rems
The sky is starry and blue velvety blueness with a full moon that slowly strolls. The shtetl is sunk in deep warm sleep under a soft blanket of snow. The houses cling to each other as though seeking protection in one another.
From the roofs hang small, icy candles like garlands of pearls, echoing the great beauty of everything around. The windows are frozen over, painted by frost with a variety of flowers. Inside, hodge-podge between the windowpanes, are various grasses, moss, and bottles to soothe the severity of winter.
The shtetl rests; the streets are empty. The well that stands in the middle of the marketplace is frozen. The surrounding fence is encrusted with a thick layer of ice; and all around it is slippery, dangerous to approach.
The trees stand so peacefully, covered by snow and frost, deep in thought about better times: that a green blanket would be exchanged for the white one and green leaves with various blossoms would sprout all around. Meanwhile though, it is cold. The frost cracks
under foot. Breath freezes in the air. You walk dressed in [leather] boots or felt boots, feet wrapped in woolen rags, and hands in furry gloves with a cowl on your head.
And there is our stream Zelevianka, covered over with a thick layer of ice, sprinkled with snow, gleaming in the moonlight as though bejeweled. Such great brightness and whiteness, such great moonlight, one can only see in my little shtetl, Piesk. A little island surrounded by woods and fields, streams and meadows. Little houses where tiny fires flicker. A mother has arisen already to peel potatoes for breakfast and to heat up a kettle to prepare chicory. A wisp of smoke comes from the chimney and ascends directly to heaven. "To shul, to shul," bangs Shmul the Shames with stick in hand, dressed in a long, warm coat, summoning the first minyan.
The Proud Watermen
by Chaim Ruzhansky (Argentina)
Translated by Alan Rems
With great homage, I remember our Piesk watermen. Our little shtetl Piesk was surrounded by water and had the appearance of a magnificent island. On the island there was natural beauty pretty meadows, woods and fields, fruit-laden orchards, and fragrant lilacs bounding the stream that flows into the Zelebianka. There, a certain part of our Jewish population lived by transporting wood (logs) on the water; and thus they were called the watermen. They drew their wretched livelihood from the water. The wood would be tied together and [floated] to the depot at Zelbian and loaded there into wagons [for delivery] to the wood merchants who sent it to various towns and lands.
Piesk had no industry and, if a child grew up in a family, there was never something from which to earn a groschen.
My father, blessed be his memory, was also a waterman; and thus, I had a part in the [activity of the] stream. While still a young boy, he took me along with him to work on the water; and so I too was a piece of a waterman but, for a really short time, for only a few summers. I saw that I could get no good fortune from it and creating a position for the future was uncertain. There was work only in summer, and in winter, some went hungry. However, as I had the great defect that I also wanted to eat during winter, I left seeking something else. But, there remained deeply inscribed in my memory the few people with whom I worked, the dear and hearty Jews who will never disappear from my memory.
As said, the watermen worked only in summer. In winter everyone sought to earn by various kinds of work to get through the winter. One used to barely make it to Erev Pesach, when the work agreements were made and advance payment was taken, so there were some [resources] to celebrate Pesach.
It is worth recollecting the self-regulations that the watermen were obliged to follow. Thus, for example, when a father introduced a son to the work, he had to pay a certain percentage every workweek to those who worked without children. We, the youth, later annulled this regulation.
More than once, we sat together by the shore of the stream and enjoyed the beauty of nature. The elders would tell us their achievements and more; the young folks listened in with great interest and curiosity. Here I see old Yona with the long beard, my father, NEYAME KYEZSHES, Bornye, Velvel the Turyer (from Tur'ya, east of Minsk) and many others. They recounted to us with joy and pride how they once carried out a strike against the boss for his not saying Good Morning to them. They then worked for Korpl the wealthy man. One fine day he came to the shore and approached them with the pride and greatness of a wealthy man , greeting nobody and wishing a Good Morning to no one. Before long, there arose from the group
NEYAME KYEZSHES, a crafty and adroit Jew, and ordered everyone to cease work. He also called over Korpl and spoke to him sharply ..... and to [Korpl's] father's-father. It then unfortunately became dark in his eyes (i.e., he realized he had gotten himself in too deep); and he sought a way to disengage quickly. It did not come easily to him. He then gave it to [Korpl], that not saying Good Morning would cost two kopecks more for every log. No words could help and [Korpl] unfortunately had to pay for his strife. From then on, he delivered a Good Morning when he met us.
Afterwards, the watermen worked for resin merchants. They told of an episode, how Moshe-Yona's brother, on a raft, saw in the distance that several women were drowning. These women had gone to collect sorrel on the other bank, where there was abundant growth. Without having any foreboding of danger, they attempted to pass through to the other bank. However, they went into deep raging waters. Moshe was able to pull the entire bunch of women onto the raft and rescued them from certain death. From then on they crowned this creek Moshe's Creek.
Clash with Christians
The work continued with such hearty and often comical episodes from summer to summer. In summer, I remember when I was already working at the water, there was a terrific drought that dried up the water on the other side of the creek and hindered our work. It caused us to lose money since, rather than tying ten logs or five, we had to then lose two or three logs (i.e. they had to reduce each load by two or three logs).
The watermen then wanted a price increase. The wood merchants did not grant it and went off to find other workers. Everyone around knew that the Piesk waterway belonged to the Piesk watermen for generations, and nobody wanted to assume the work. The merchants therefore turned to the Christians from the upper Nieman [River]. As they were anti-Semites, they accepted the proposition right away and took up the work. To conclude, as the morsel of bread was taken from our mouths, we chose two elders to negotiate with [the Christians]. They [the Christians] would not be convinced and cried out Kill the Jews.
Blows then fell on the two old Jews; and they barely got away alive from their hands. When people saw Yona and Velvel so beaten up, we all organized, fathers and sons, and headed for the river to make war against the Christians. Our weapons were the [logger] belts; and we so beat them up the water turned red from their blood. The Christians fled like mice into their holes, and no more was seen of them. They had made a bitter mistake. They thought that the Jewish watermen could only receive blows but not deliver them. The thought did not enter their Christian heads that they would be repaid tenfold.
The Denunciation Arrest
The vile deed, however, came from the Jews. They were not at all ashamed to stain their Jewish honor and denounced the watermen [saying] that they engaged in a communist uprising. An order arrived to arrest everyone and transport them to Wolkovysk (the district capital). We, several Jewish lads, fled and remained at large, but the elders were put in wagons and driven away.
Here occurred something deeply impressive.
When old Yona remembered that he had not brought his tallis and tefillin (prayer shawl and phylacteries) he stretched out on the ground and absolutely would not let himself be taken. The commandant saw that he couldn't do anything with him, so he sent him off to get the tallis and tefillin.
Meanwhile my sister Sheine telephoned my brother Elye, who then lived in Wolkovysk and told him the whole story. Elye had very good relations with the local commandant. He met with him right away and everything was settled.
Who doesn't remember Shabbas eve with the watermen? It was for them the shortest day of the week. I remember how old Yona would yell out with his healthy, manly voice: Secure the rafts, it's Erev-Shabbas. And his voice resounded over the whole stream. Everyone in unison would tie up the rafts, put their belts on their shoulders and with a holy shudder in their hearts went home to take up the holy Sabbath.
Gone are those Jewish watermen, gone are those hearty figures, who I will perpetually remember with great love.
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