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Meir Brog – His Life Story

Meir Brog recorded the story of his life 60 years after he arrived in Palestine. His younger brother, Isrolik, arrived in Palestine 5 years after he did. Meir was born in Pushelat, Lithuania on April 17, 1908 (29th day of Nisan) and his brother Isrolik (Israel Mendel) was born in Pushelat on August 24, 1910 (2nd day of Elul). Their parents were Rabbi Ruvin Brog and his wife, Frada Schemer.


LITHUANIA – ITS HISTORY

Lithuania is a small country located near the Baltic Sea. In 1792 the Russian Army conquered Poland and the three Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania became part of the Russian Empire. The number of citizens living in Lithuania at that time was about two million and about two hundred fifty thousand of them were Jewish. Fifty percent of the Jews lived in the four major cities and the rest of them lived in about thirty small shtetlach. The ruling nobility owned most of the land, in full partnership with the clergy. Most of the Jews were involved in trade, or crafts, and they provided services to the whole population.

It was the time of an enlightened Tzar and it was a little bit easier for the Jews. They were able to live in the larger cities except they were not allowed to live in the capital of St. Petersburg. They were also allowed to partake in land for agriculture. As a matter of fact, here and there Jews had land in the country and were working as farmers together with their countrymen. It was like the story in “Fiddler on the Roof”, Tevye the milkman.

Most of the little towns where Jews lived were set up in the center of the villages and they had the shape of a horseshoe. The houses of the Jews were like the framework around it. In the middle was a very big square that was used as a marketplace. Twice each week the square was filled with carts with horses, with agricultural products, wood from the forest for heating, horses, cows, goats, and so on. These two days were the noisiest with everybody talking, weighing things, and near the shops everyone was busy. Every member of the family participated in the buying, the selling, to help support the family.

The houses themselves were usually built of lumber with wood in order to ensure heat during the winter. The roofs were covered with straw. The inside of the house was divided with a wall that separated the living room, the bedroom, and there was another area that was used for the stove and the heater. In a lot of the houses, the shop, or workshop was also in the house. The toilet was near the stable or cowshed in the yard. In a distance of about ½ mile there was a well with a depth of one to eight meters. The well contained a thing, in the shape of a “Y”, with a rope, to lift up the water in a bucket. Members of the family brought water to the house during all hours of the day. Whoever had time would go with two buckets and bring water. In our little town, we had a well that the gourmet people said the water tasted better. Whoever was not lazy would go a little further to that well and bring water. That water was used only for tea. In the towns where there were rich Jews they also used a professional water carrier to bring their water.

The cow had a very central and meaningful part in the nutrition of the people because the cow gave milk, cheese, sour cream, and butter. Whoever could not afford a cow had to settle for a goat. Very few also had a horse and a cart. Except for the snowy months during the winter, the cow was out in the meadow. One milking was done during the middle of the day by one of the girls of the family who had to go on foot two or three kilometers to the cow. Before evening, the cow would be brought back to the cowshed and, early in the morning, the cow would be milked again before it was taking out to the meadow. So, the cow was milked twice each day.


THE COMMUNITY LIFE

The community life of the Jews centered around the synagogue and the bathhouse which also served as the mikvah. They heated the bathhouse once a week, on Thursday, and everyone went there to wash himself or herself. They were like cleaning themselves to welcome shabbos. More than these two services a small shtetl could not afford itself. In a larger shtetl, you could also find a rabbi and a shochet.

The education of the children – in those times the Jews did not have central institutions that could train and guide. In every shtetl there was a cheder, and a teacher (Melamed), and there they studied how to pray, they studied the chumash, the torah, and the first chapters of the bible. One of the main methods of teaching the children the torah was a leather belt that all of the teachers wore around their waist. In our shtetl, in addition to the teacher who taught the torah, praying, etc., we had another teacher who taught writing and mathematics. The teacher did the writing, with a pencil in a notebook, and the pupil would follow it with his own hand. This is the way the pupil learned to write the letters by copying what the teacher wrote in the notebook. Regarding mathematics, it was only simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. If a student was excellent, he could also learn fractions. This teacher, as opposed to the Melamed, was nice and smiling. The most severe punishment he gave was a pinch of the ears. What were common with both teachers were their clothes. They wore a black coat with boots in the winter and summer and both of them looked shabby and not very clean.

Very few kids managed to get from the shtetl to a large town to learn in a yeshiva. To study in a yeshiva was the wishful thinking of every kid who wanted to be good in his studies and to get a recommendation for a good shiduch from the head of the yeshiva. The custom was that a wealthy Jew met with the head of the yeshiva, when he had the recommendation in his hand from the rabbi. The head of the yeshiva was pointing to a nice fellow, sometimes he was excellent in his studies, and everything was according to the donation that this Jew would give to the shiduch. The most brilliant students knew how to get to this goal and they were also studying in the additional secular institute of the gentiles.

Life together with the gentiles - Even though they had business connections with the gentiles, the Jews lived their lives alone. The only gentiles the Jews were in touch with were the regional government like the mayor, the priest, and the policemen. Of course the Jews had to have good relations with them and they tried to do it in many different ways. Even though there was a relatively quiet period, the Jews were not entirely comfortable. They always knew it wasn't their home and naturally, there were always ideas about immigrating to places like Palestine, Argentina, South Africa, and especially to the United States where part of our family had already emigrated.


THE BROG FAMILY

The central character where my story begins is Grandmother Itsla Yaelson Brog, our father's mother. She was born around 1835-40 in a shtetl called Keidan (Kedainiai), which is by the railway that crosses the country from the regional city, Panevezys to the main city of Kovno. At the age of 16 she got married to Arieh Meir Brog. According to her, she wasn't a beauty but she was nice with long hair in a braid. As was the custom in those days, the young couple stayed with the bride's parents for a period of several years until the husband could support himself. In those years, Grandma was learning a trade manufacturing wigs. Soon enough, everyone knew her and the orders began to come in even from the near cities. She employed in her workshop about four to six girls who were learning the trade from her. Thanks to her awareness and her competence, I assume that she was the main provider of the family that developed and grew.

In a period of seven to eight years she had four children. The first one was named Tzina Riva, the second one Rochel Pesha, the third one was Ruvin (b.1873), and the fourth one was Yakov (Jacob) (b.1876). Jacob is the Grandfather of David, Sandy, and others. All of the children had a good Jewish education and a large knowledge in secular studies. At the age of thirty-five or forty, Grandmother became a widow and that is how she remained as the central pillar of the family.


THE CHILDREN'S MARRIAGES

The first one who got married was the eldest, Tzina Riva, when she was sixteen. She married to Abelson. In a short while, after the marriage, he immigrated to the United States to Pittsburgh, and after two years he sent for his wife. In the course of the years, she bore twelve children. The second daughter, Rochel Pesha also got married and immigrated to the United States. She never had children as she always had miscarriages. This was probably the reason why she separated from her husband. After several years, she remarried and lived in Chicago. Very seldom Grandmother used to receive a letter from her. The third one who got married was the son Jacob, and he married Rachel Leah Tennewitz when they were still in Lithuania. There she had her first born, Arieh Meyer, after the grandfather, the husband of Grandmother Itsla. Jacob was also the father of Elchanan.

Grandmother Itsla gained the respect of her daughters-in-law. She always knew to stand by them if she thought they were right. She used to tell us that Uncle Jacob visited her often and he liked being at her house. She used to beg him, “go to your wife and stand in front of her as a soldier in front of an officer”. In a short while, Abelson sent for them and they also came to Pittsburgh. Jacob served as a chochet in the synagogue and also as a Hebrew teacher. In Pittsburgh, the other children were born in the following order. The second son, Victor, is Maurice's father. The third one, Israel, is David's father. The fourth one, Gitel. The fifth one, Reuben, after our father, and the sixth one, Freda, after our mother. So, the only ones who stayed in Lithuania were Grandmother Itsla and her son Ruvin. Why they didn't join the two-thirds of the family in the United States I do not have an answer to it.

Under the Tzar's rule, they were enlisted in the army service for 25 years. In earlier times they even enlisted at the age of 12 as they were kidnapped in the streets. That is how our father at the age of 20, or 22, was sent to the Caucuses. Of course, even in this regime there were many who tried to avoid the army service. There were even stories about drinking a type of tea for weeks, or other things to make your pulse beat quicker so you would not be taken to the army for health reasons. There were even cases where people used to cut their fingers on their right hand so they could not use a gun. Some even lifted heavy weights in order to get a hernia so they would not be taken to the army. Our father was not like that so he was drafted for 25 years.

For several years this nightmare went on while Itsla's beloved son was thousands of kilometers away, in the dark mountains of the Caucuses. During these three years, Grandmother worked, saved money, and prepared herself for the action of bringing her son back home. She went on an unknown road, with all of her savings on her. Her Russian was not that good but one thing she knew was that God must help her. With the money she had she felt she could achieve her goal. Indeed, after three months of a very tiring journey and looking for her son, she came back with her son and with a yellow ticket that showed he was discharged.

After returning to Lithuania our father went on with his studies and became a Rabbi. He was a well-known Rabbi for his time but he did not do it to provide for his family. In order to make a living he went to Vilna and there he studied pharmacy. When he finished his studies he began planning his future and to start having a family. We do not have many details as to how our father and mother met but we assume, as was the custom in those days, a shidduch was arranged. Our mother was an only daughter, her mother died, and she remained with her father Faivel Schemer. Faivel's financial condition was good and he manufactured various products from leather. He had a small factory, was thought of as rich, and his daughter was considered a suitable match for my father. Unfortunately, we do not have any pictures of our mother but when Grandmother and other relatives described her she was short, smart, nice, wise, and everybody sought her presence and asked her for advice. In short, it was a real shidduch.

In the period between the engagement and the wedding there was a fire in Pushelat (Pusalotas). Some of the Jewish houses were burned and, apparently, Grandfather Faivel's house was severely damaged. Grandfather Faivel, following the sudden decrease of his assets, was afraid this would bring an annulment of the engagement. In a conversation with my father, Faivel said, “Tell me Ruvin, is everything burned for me?” My father's answer calmed him down and in a mutual effort they rebuilt and reconstructed themselves, together with the others who suffered damage. During this time the wedding probably took place and my father moved to that shtetl which was Pushelat (Pusalotas).

Because of what he had learned during the years, and since he was a well-known Rabbi and a pharmacist, he became much respected in the village. Everyone used to discuss with him and he filled the place of the Rabbi and was chosen to be the Gabbai of the synagogue. He represented the whole community. When Jews from Pushelat, living in the United States, heard what happened they sent large amounts of money to help the Jews who had suffered from the fire. The money was sent to father's address, they wrote letters to him, and he had some people with him who took care that the division of the money will be divided in the right way.

Later on, when the new buildings were already standing, another donation arrived from the United States from a Jew who wanted to rebuild the synagogue that was burned. The money was to be used for a new synagogue. The Jews in Pushelat, together with some others, asked that the money be given to them and the synagogue would be built later. My father did not agree with this idea and he said that money that was given for a synagogue was not allowed to be used for other purposes. In order to strengthen his opinion he invited the most important people in Pushelat to meet with the Rabbi in Panevezys, the most important Rabbi in the area. The Rabbi in Panevezys agreed with my father and also stressed the gravity of the situation if the money was used for something else. The discussion ended and they started to build the new synagogue.

Several years of good work for the public by my parents passed, they were financially fine, they started a family, and you can assume that they were happy. Then, a terrible misfortune happened as the hand of a murderer tore the life thread of the happy Jewish family. On the first day of Succoth, 1912 at 2:00 o'clock in the morning, two murderers broke into the house. They came with iron sticks and they hit those who were sleeping in their beds. I was sleeping in the bed with my father, was probably awake, and started to scream. They shut my mouth with a towel, hit me on the head, and went on hitting my mother and my father. Isrolik, who was lying on the side of the bed in his cradle, was not touched. Perhaps they did not see him. Grandfather Faivel, who lived nearby, could not bear the pain and the sorrow and he died three days later. Father was thirty-eight and mother was thirty when they died and she was in her fifth month of pregnancy.

The murderers were caught, tried, and sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor. After a year and a half, the First World War began, and all of the prisoners were released including them. Grandmother Itsla, who lived in Panevezys, was restless on that night and regardless of what she tried she could not sleep. She started working in her workshop and, very early in the morning, the man who had the carts came and told her what happened. She got on the cart with him and went to Pushelat. Upon arrival, she was told that my father and my mother had just died and I was the only one who was still breathing. Grandmother did not shed any tears, and did not look at her loved ones. She grabbed me into her arms, and hurried the driver to get me as fast as he could to a specialist doctor in Panevezys. When we got to the doctor, he told her he could not do anything and the only hope was, if she could get in time to the nearest hospital in Dorf, which was a suburb of Riga. This was a fifteen-hour ride in the train.

As the doctor suggested, she took me together with the two girls who worked with her, on the train. During the ride, they held me in their hands so that I would not have any more concussions in my head from the shaking of the train. When we arrived at the hospital the doctors told my Grandmother that there was not much hope because the fractures in my skull were so deep my mind was probably also injured. When she heard those words she collapsed and feinted. I stayed in the hospital for eight months.

The news that I was better strengthened my Grandmother and she felt that her destiny in life was to raise us. She accepted her fate as a command from above and did not question it. Isrolik was all of this time, with Ita Minde who was a relative of my mother. When I came back from the hospital I was already five years old. Isrolik was 2 ½ years old and Grandmother was in her eighties.

As was the custom in those days, a five-year old boy would start learning in the cheder. The wound in my head was still open and Grandmother refrained from letting me meet other people for fear that somebody would touch it and cause infection. She solved the problem by bringing a private tutor, who came every day to the house for an entire year. The doctor also came twice each week to change the bandages. One day when the doctor came I caused Grandmother an embarrassment. The doctor, for some reason, did not come on his regular time and my Grandmother was mumbling to herself, “ a cholesha doctor” . When the doctor arrived later, and he did not close the door behind him, I told him what my Grandmother had said. It was very embarrassing because she said such a thing about him that was not nice.

In spite of the motherly care that she gave us, Grandmother knew that it wasn't enough and she tried to fill in the blanks. On Shabbat evening she used to invite the grown up men from the synagogue and the Yeshiva brochers so at least one night a week we would meet men and feel a friendship with someone. The preparation for Saturday started on Thursday and went in a certain order. We had to clean and shine the brass candlesticks, which were considered as cultured candlesticks because the base was made in the shape of a small plate. In this way, the melted wax from the candle dripped onto the plate and not on the tablecloth. Each candlestick weighed over three kilos. On Friday, Grandmother did not work in the workshop with the wigs. This day was dedicated to cleaning the house, to washing us in hot water, and to prepare Shabbat dinner and all of the other needs of Shabbat.

Before lighting the candlesticks she used to dress us in our Shabbat clothes. Isrolik was dressed in a long robe that reached to his ankles and I was dressed in velvet pants, with a shirt and a jacket. We waited for this outfit for the whole week. When the time for lighting the candles came, she used to cover her head with a shawl, her hands covered her eyes, and her mouth was mumbling the blessings. I always noticed the tears that dropped on the white tablecloth.

After the Shabbat prayers at the synagogue were finished the two invited guests arrived to the house. The younger one sat at the head of the table and he would perform the kiddush and, after the meal he would sing Shabbat songs until the candles were burned out. Only the shinning from the brass candlesticks still continued to shine from the light of the small lamp that hung from above the table. After almost every festive dinner like this there was a little moment of anger between Grandmother and me. The reason for it was the fuller plate that she gave to the younger Yeshiva brocher and not to me. In order not to make me angry she would say, “ vey, vey, vey, what big eyes you have and you wouldn't be able to finish it anyway”. Indeed, I couldn't.

Isrolik was not a big eater because he had a childhood disease that made his bones soft which tended to make them break easily. It was a lack of calcium and was called the English disease. Because of that the bones did not develop in the right proportion. The head and the stomach were like big and the hands and the legs were very thin.

Saturday night, after Shabbat, Grandmother would put us to bed and she would sit in her workshop and work even until the morning. During the weekdays, friends and neighbors were visiting her and one of them was a young woman who worked in her workshop and who held me in her arms when we made the trip to the hospital. Their conversation usually was about Grandmother's destiny that by the end of the day she became a young mother and that is how God wanted it. Their conversation would end at night with a gesture of their hands toward the sky.

On Saturday afternoon, when we were napping, tired from the good cholent that we usually ate for lunch and dinner, Grandmother was sitting with her prayer siddur. Between chapters, she was like arguing with God, “why did he do it to her, why didn't he take her instead of them, and if he needed to take someone it should have been her”. Then she would say, “Who am I to argue with him, probably someone has sinned and probably his justice was right” , and then she would close the book with a kiss, wipe her wet eyes and go on.

One day, during the first year, Grandmother said, “children, today you wear your shabbos clothes, we are going to have our picture taken, and have a memory from your Grandmother”. We did not understand what it meant to take pictures but after several years we understood it.


WORLD WAR I

Very early in the morning, Grandmother woke us up. Sleeping at this age was probably very deep and we did not want to get up. She hurried us and told us to get dressed because we were going to Pushelat. Every day, the government issued the “rules of the day” and posted them on the wall outside our building. On that day, the rules were already posted and the Jews were ordered to transfer, within forty-eight hours, deeper into Russia. Our Grandmother decided not to join the camp in Panevezys but to transfer to Pushelat. There, she could join our relatives so that if, God forbid, something happened to her at least we would be closer to our relatives.

Early in the evening, we arrived in the Market Square in Pushelat. There we found groups of families with all of their belongings. Eta Minda's family of three people - two sisters and a father was there. Enlarging the family to include the three of us depended on formal arrangements that could only be done in the neighboring town of Pumpian (Pumpenai). The assignment was given to Grandmother who spoke Polish and a little bit of Russian. According to the preparations that were going on around us, I noticed that Grandmother was about to leave us. I grabbed her skirt and wasn't going to let go of her. She mounted the stairs of the carriage and I was still holding on to the edge of her dress and crying. Two strong hands pulled me away from her and the carriage began to move away. I was running as hard as I could and shouting, “Bubbie, Bubbie”. The carriage left behind a cloud of dust on the road and it was blowing in the wind. Soothing hands brought me back to the square. There I found Isrolik in the hands of Eta Minde, and he was also crying.

After three hours, Grandmother came back holding the certificate that confirmed we were one family. Since our family included two elderly and two small children our destination was the Ukraine and not Siberia. The first question Grandmother asked when she returned was, “ Der kinder hoben esen genumen in moil?” - “Have the kids eaten anything?” (Literal translation – “Did the kids put something in their mouth?”).

The night came and, in the morning as I recall, we found ourselves in a carriage of a train. It was not a train for carrying people but just carriages that transported goods. Everyone was lying on the floor leaning against their packages and other belongings. I was at the side of Grandmother and Isrolik was at the side of Eta Minde. Her father was with a tallis and tefillim, mumbled prayers, and was nodding his head from right to left. The train was going very fast and the grownups that were in charge said the Germans are chasing us and disconnecting the rails. After three hours of flight, we stopped and there was a very sad atmosphere. Nobody was smiling. The place where we stopped was not familiar, the door to the carriage was opened, and somebody jumped out and announced that the engine was disconnected and went away.

We stayed in that place for two days and then an engine continued to move us on. After three or four hours, again the engine went away. At this time, all of the grownups that still had strength got out and pushed the carriages toward the place we were going to. This was not the last time we found ourselves this way but after three weeks we arrived on a Friday to the city of Melitopol in southern Ukraine (182 km SSE of Dnepropetrovsk; 46 50'/35 22'). We were stored in the yard of the Synagogue. The tightness was the same as in the carriage but we felt better and waves and waves of righteous women appeared, bringing with them pots of food, fresh bread, soup, and it was very refreshing. It was the first night after three weeks of traveling and shaking during which time we did not taste good food. The warmth of these unknown women, who cared for us, gave us a piece of bread, a glass of milk, warm clothes and shoes, I can feel this warmth up until today.

We lived in the synagogue about ten days and we were then transferred into a permanent house. This was an apartment with one room inside the other rooms. In the front of this huge room, there was one small apartment that the owner of the whole thing lived. Our apartment included one room, which was inside the ground, and one of its walls was covered with mold all through the year. The bathroom for all of the apartments was located at the end of the big room together with the boxes for garbage. Behind the place for the garbage was a fence, which was alongside the river that crosses the city. (Editor's note: this apparently was a large building with one-room apartments and an outside toilet).

On one of the very cold winter days, in order to save heat, we didn't open the ventilated small window that was in the chimney. The result was, the three of us fainted until the next morning. Another case was an unpleasant event that was with me when I climbed up the small fence of the bed in order to get to the ventilated window. I slipped, and fell back while holding the heavy iron frame of the window, the corner of which hit me in the forehead. The whole week I was walking around with a towel wrapped around my head.

One day, we all came down with typhus and the neighbors, adults and children, refrained from coming in contact with us. Even at the time when we were already becoming better, but still sick, the doctor visited us. He did not have any medicine but only advice to Grandmother on what we should, or should not, eat. On his next visit he encouraged us and told us she should let us eat a potato or borsht.

Eta Minde, her sister and their father lived on the same street not far from our apartment. From time to time they visited us and took Isrolik for a little while to their apartment.


THE CIVIL WAR BEGINS

While we were still at synagogue, the grownups were talking secretly among themselves that there is a revolution and that the Germans were coming closer to Melitopol. In the meantime, every few days there was a curfew and no one was allowed to go in or out. Once in a while we heard shots and the whistle of bullets in the air. Those days, we really knew hunger. There were a lot of stories that meant nothing to us because we could not understand them. There were two generals fighting against the Red Army, General Petalyura and General Anton Ivanovich Denikin who was the main general in charge. One would seize the area and, at another time, the other one seized the area. They both had consensus on one thing and that was they should have a progrom against the Jews. (The White Army of General Petalyura perpetrated pogroms in Russia and in the Ukraine during the 1917-1921 Civil War).

In one of those gloomy days, I noticed that the gate to the yard was open. I went out, I stood, and I could not see a soul. Suddenly, a carriage came by with a horse and it was full of potatoes. A few shots were heard and the horse began to gallop. One big potato fell from the carriage and rolled toward the pavement. I came closer to it, my heart was pounding, and I picked it up and covered it with my shirt and went home. Grandmother was already worried, wondering where I was, and began questioning me. When I gave her the potato, she wanted to know where did I steal it and she wanted to know every detail. At the end, she wasn't convinced by my story and said I will bring trouble to everyone. That day, she would not touch the potato. On the next day, when nobody came to complain, she made gourmet food out of it.

Another adventure that could have caused shame concerned an apple. I had a friend, a little bit older than me, whose mother was a shoemaker. She worked in a small hole, like a cave, in one of the yards near us. One day, he told me his mother promised him money for ice cream and he invited me to join him. I was very happy with his invitation, we were going to the market, and there he bought ice cream in a cone. I licked a few licks also. While we were walking between the stands in the market, most of the people who were selling there were women. They were country people and old women. The things they were selling were put in place on short boxes. Tomatoes were displayed in the shape of pyramids; they had apricots and pears, as well as apples. My friend asked me if I would like to eat an apple. When I gave him a positive answer he handed me a stick that he had in his hand the whole time. On one side of the stick was a nail and he told me, “you simply stick the nail into an apple and run”. So, I did it and nobody chased me. I did not try this trick again.


THE JOINT COMES TO THE AID OF THE REFUGEES

Much of our hunger was relieved when public kitchens were opened that gave us warm soup and a piece of bread. Another kitchen supplied, during morning hours, a glass of milk filled with cocoa. This was for the children up to the age of five so Isrolik was entitled to this. I used to get up in the morning, take a small jar, and hurry to the end of a very, very long line. The line was as long as the Jewish exile. Grandmother used to add some water to it and make two glasses out of it. She did not drink any of it but gave it all to Isrolik and me.

Two years passed, until one morning when we got up we found Germans in our yard. They confiscated the landlady's apartment and about ten soldiers lived in it. Outside, four horses were tied and, every morning, they were taken to the river to be bathed and to drink. We the kids flocked to accompany them and they were very nice to us. One of them by the name of Hans, used to catch Isrolik, lift him high above his head, and swing him from side to side. When he put Isrolik back down on the ground he used to shove into his hand a package of biscuits. He used to say that he left at home a boy exactly like this and Isrolik reminded him of him. Of course, Isrolik was not mad any morning as long as they were around.

On one of those quiet days, we played hide and seek with the kids from the yard. We had lots of hiding places and Isrolik came running, very frightened, and told us he found a gun in one of the hiding places near the garbage boxes. The excitement was great until one of the children's fathers came out and told us to keep it a secret and not to talk about it.

On one of the summer days, we were playing in the street and a family was passing by near us. The father's hair was in a pigtail almost to his knees and the mother wore pants and had very small feet. On her back she had a baby in a back sack and four other kids were walking behind her. This was the first time we had ever seen a Chinese family. They turned into our yard and went down to the garbage boxes. After an hour, they came back from there with boxes full of mice. One of the fathers, who saw the astonishment on our faces, told us this would be a very good meal for them. We did not understand it.

This is how we adjusted to our new situation. Grandmother found a few neighbors she used to talk with now and then. Ita Minde and her sister Sarah were visiting very often and also taking us to see their father, “Foter” (father) Chaikel. We always found him mumbling in a book and he spoke very little. He used to give us a pat or a pinch on the cheek.

I started going to the Cheder . We were about 12 or 14 students sitting very tight on a bench which went from one wall to the other. The desk was much higher than our size. When a kid wanted to go outside, and he needed to go outside, he had to go under the table and under the bench. While he was doing it, he used to get punches, kicks, stabbing with things, and whatever. The Rabbi sat at the center of the table and did not react very much to our mischievous behavior. He only told us words of education like, “you should not do it, it is not nice, etc”. When the Rabbi had to go out, the class was the noisiest, as everyone was struggling and talking. When the Rabbi came back to the class all the kids were standing around him and pointing to the one who started it. The Rabbi used to stop, open his belt in his right hand, turn to me and tell me to approach him. He would say, “ Di Glecheley hat ich gehert fun der zadis”. (Literal translation: “I heard your voice from far away” ). The belt in his hand was very threatening. “Rabbi, he is an orphan” one of the kids said. The Rabbi responded, “So what if he is an orphan, does that mean he can run around and misbehave?” In the end, he used to settle up with a pinch and a tug on the ear. This is how we made our first steps in learning the torah.

Our lives entered into a routine that lasted about three years. It seemed that we became grownup all at once and I was already entering my tenth year. Isrolik also suddenly became grownup. We were speaking to each other in Russian and Grandmother was no longer speaking to us as if we were babies. We got used to the atmosphere of war, to the changes in government, and to the alarming stories that accompanied them. The Germans retreated, the White Russians were defeated, and Trotsky's Red Russians completed the conquest of the city. They explained to us that we do not have to fear them because they harm only the rich. They take from the rich and give to the poor. We were happy that we belonged to the side that they give to.


WINTER OF 1917

There were many rumors that we were going home. Again we are in the train carriage, wrapped with blankets from head to toe. We did not stop in the small places and, in the main places we stopped to get hot water and other things. At last we arrived at the station in the city of Gomel. Here Jews, men and women, who brought us loaves of bread, bagels, and artificial honey, met us. They also gave the children sweets that were wrapped in paper like the games we used to play. For the first time this week we stumbled upon a wedding paper with candy inside. In another few days we were in another large station which was called Baranavich. The lovely sight of the concern for the refugees coming back here made us feel very good. Here and there, even the old men were laughing, praying a lot, and mumbling in their Tefilim book (Book of Psalms).

In another few days we were already in the train station of Panevezys. We threw all of our packages on the ground, jumped down from the carriage, and someone helped Grandmother to step down. I loaded one of the packages on my back, and we marched toward the carriages with the horses. Grandmother talked to the driver about the price and soon we were riding to Pusalotas, the town we had left three and one-half years ago. We passed very quickly the crosses on the side of the road and we could already see the town. Grandmother showed us the Jewish cemetery and, on the right side under the bent tree, our parents grave.

In another fifteen minutes of bouncing in the carriage we were standing in front of the house of one of the relatives who did not leave the town during the years of the war. We were very warmly accepted. It was very difficult for me to step down from the carriage because my feet were frozen. One of our relative's grownup daughters supported me and sat me down near the very hot oven-heater in the house. Grandmother was standing near me and saying it is better if the cold from my feet would pass gradually and not near the warm heater. All of the daughters in the house were engaging in entertaining us, and hosting us, and giving us a glass of milk and bread with real butter which had the taste of heaven.

The mother of this family where we stayed the night was our mother's cousin. They had five daughters and three sons and were considered one of the well-off families in the shtetl. All the members of the family worked, some in the shop, some taking the cow out to the meadow, and some bringing water from the far away well. For two or three days we were very welcome guests but later, we were just guests. After two weeks we were already guests of burden. Grandmother became well aware of this attitude, in time, and decided that we had to move into our own house even though it was open to the wind. No windows or doors but it was ours.

Once in a while, Grandmother took us to visit relatives and, of course, they always gave us refreshments and other things. This helpless situation continued for ten months and the war hadn't yet ended. About five kilometers from our village there was still a German army unit. One day, we saw a convoy of Red Russians passing through the market square on their way toward the German army unit. In this convoy there were two cannons and four horses drew each one. After an hour, in the village we could hear the shots and, after another hour the convoy made its way back. Only two horses dragged one of cannons and the barrel of the cannon was missing. The next day there was a rumor that bombs were scattered around the market square. Most of the people who lived around the square closed themselves up in their houses. In the end, we found out that someone wanted to intimidate us and just scattered around a few packages of beets.

Life in those periods was not easy for people even in the good years. For Grandmother, in spite of her will power to deal and stand against all pressures, the signs of fatigue began to be seen on her. They were caused by day to day worry about our existence and our support. She was not sure if, on the next day, she would have food to serve us and especially, she did not see any purpose for us. She decided that, after the winter, we will move to Panevezys. There, she is known and she will again open her workshop and not have to rely on the help of relatives. As a matter of fact, Grandmother was disappointed in the relatives. In the meantime, she knew that she had to go on and, of most importance, was food and this was not at all simple. You could not buy baked bread. First you had to buy the grain, take it to the flourmill, and then to bake it in your own oven. For us, this process was impossible.

Somebody gave a hint to Grandmother that you could get a small amount of flour at the grinder, the man who grinds it, because from every grind there is a little bit left. The problem is how to bring it from the village that was about five kilometers away from our village. There were several ideas, one of which was to build a small platform on four wheels with a rope for pulling. Grandmother did not entirely believe the need but I wanted to prove that it was possible so I started to work on it. The tools that I possessed were a hammer and a pocketknife. It took me a whole week until I could find the rope and build this small platform but I achieved my goal. I brought about forty kilos of flour and we had bread for a relatively long time.

For the other nutritional ingredients Grandmother took care of herself. One egg each day we had from a hen that we raised under the stove. After the hen laid the egg, she used to get out and let everybody know she had the egg by “coo-cooing”. Grandmother would hurry and take the hot egg, call us, and rub it against our closed eyes. This was a sign to bring us good health. Meat we tasted only once a week, on Saturday. It was not real meat as it was the kishka, or the lung, or the spleen. The other taste of meat was in the soup, or borsht, but only from cooking the bone. In the land near our house we grew carrots, beets, onions, and cucumbers.

For the second time I hear that I am an orphan. On one of the Saturdays we went as usual to the synagogue. Grandmother was sitting in the woman's part, which was divided by a curtain from the men's side. We were sitting on one of the benches when it came time to take one of the torahs out of the closet and put it on the reader's table. Grandmother was in the middle, banging her hand on the table and declaring that she would not let them read in the torah. She opened her mouth, with very difficult words of accusation toward those present and said, “how can it be that the person who helped this community with all of his heart and soul and built this synagogue, and was murdered, left orphans, and now there is not one of you who is interested in whether these kids have bread to eat, or clothes to wear, you should be ashamed”. Usually, in these cases, the Gabbai of the synagogue approached her, and promised her in his name and in the name of everyone who was present that they would take care of the problem to her satisfaction. Indeed, this is how it was until we left Pushelat half a year later.

According to Ita Minde's stories and Grandmother probably let her in on her secret plan to stall the reading of the torah, Grandmother's appearance in the synagogue left a very strong impression and was the talk of the day between relatives of the family for many days. Especially, they were admiring the courage and the daring of this woman.

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