by I. Michel-Michalewitz
Translated by Nathan Summer
My birth town Abel is a sister "shtetl" from Rakishok and from the neighboring towns, and has also a history of various events and episodes of interesting personalities and most typical characters too. This town possessed a spirited Jewish living style and a very active social environment.
To my regret, I can only share some minor points of the Jewish social activities in Abel from the beginning of the twentieth century until the end of the First World War years; and since the establishment of the Lithuanian Republic. With this work of mine I intend in my humble way to put a written monument in memory of the tragic onslaught against the Jews of our town. Let my words be an eternal memorial of my hometown, Abel.
Abel had a train station on Libauer-Romner train-highway, from where many trains have stretched to two different directions: to Dvinsk and to the towns of Rakishok, Ponieviezh, Radviliski, and others. This was the first train station on Lithuanian territory, the key to all of Lithuania.
There was always on the Abeler station a sort of bright atmosphere. The train auditorium was always full of business people and tourists, women who were very visible selling all sorts of their produce, including fresh-baked bagels, cookies, and cakes; also they were peddling all sorts of fruits, such as apples, pears, and plums. The coachmen were going around in working clothes and ropes around their hips, and in their hands a whip, calling on the surrounding people, men and women, to ride with them! At various times, because of a passenger, they exchanged their whips. The train station was also a central place for the neighboring towns and villages like Dusiat, Alexandrovno, Krevne, Subotch, and others.
From the station to town, it was about two kilometers along a wide highway. From both sides of the highway during the summer months there were beautiful gardens, lawns, and fields. Near the town grew beautiful wild flowers that twisted toward a stone fence nearby to the town of Subotch.
Nearby the town there was a fleeting and narrow, deep river that gushed down to the area of the Stashunzer Forest. At the entrance to town there stood impertinent the white painted church with a gray shingle roof. On the wall of the church, facing the town, there could be seen sculptures symbolizing divine beings, and from the top of the edifice we have seen in reflection of the sun, bronze crosses.
And after that we have seen long lines of Jewish homes that led to the marketplace, to the pharmacy and to a very old monument that was considered to be the central place of the town, from where they used to advise the population of the town of various orders and new laws. From this place, you could see in two different directions--one that led to the large court orchard that was well known for its assortment of fruit and especially for its spring water that gushed from a wood pipe. People suffering from poor eyesight used to come to wash their eyes there, hoping to find a cure and relief from its pains and aches.
From the above-mentioned court orchard, a swampy area led to the brewery, which for many years produced and marketed all sorts of liquors and beverages to many central cities of Russia. From the dregs and refuse of the beverages they used to feed gulls so that they became tremendously large and wild. They were hardly able to move as they gained a lot of weight. Through their noses they used to fasten a copper ring, and they also attached a long chain that a number of people used to lead them for safety reasons. The people of the market area were very much in fear when they used to walk with these wild animals. Mothers immediately made sure that their children were put to safety.
A second group from the stone monument led to the length of the town, through the bridge passing Berzig, the under-brick layer; left close to the homes of Yosel Shapiro, Israel Chayes, Beyne Itze the blacksmith, and Bere Mote the gravedigger, was leading to a muddy road to the Stashunzer Forest.
A narrow trail was winding through Velvele the farmer's house and joined the wide Antenasher Highway, which from its right side we found the beautiful pine forest which during the summer time was filled with nuts, wild strawberries, gooseberries, and other berries. This beautiful forest was also a resort place. In 1905 there were many secret revolutionary meetings held there.
There was also the Antenasher River that bordered with the creek, which sent its streams to the Abeler River, near the street of the House of Prayer. In this street there were bungalows in which were housed Beile Cheikels the midwife and also Sara Leah the widow. Higher down on a hill we were able to see the homes of Shmuel the sexton, Hirsl Nachman the tailor, and Zuse, the teacher of a "cheder." Further down the street there was the new House of Study--and close to it was the old sunken synagogue, where Jews used to gather during the high holidays for prayer services.
On the other side of the street lived the families of Tzivieh the bagel baker, Abraham Moshe the butcher, Heshel the shoemaker, and Frume Baruchs the matzah baker.
Through a narrow street, past Ethel the baker's garden, you entered the main street of the town, which was a central place of most larger stores, and business people like: Itzik Zak, the forest businessman; Zalman Mehler's liquor store; Abraham Teztzis; Itze Zelig’s seltzer factory; Leibe the barkeeper; Abraham Tirzes’ general store; Elie the Moskvers’ manufacturing business; Sarah and Elie Leyzer’s general store; Leibe der Lange’s stores of flax; Israel-Itze and Yose-Abela, fruit dealers.
In the near proximity, there was the only Chasidic synagogue in town, an old wooden building, with a patched-up shingle roof, where they had an attached ladder leading to the chimney. From all three sides we were able to see three large carved windows. In a narrow corridor, led from one side to a special examining room where the rabbis had for years their own place, and from another side of the corridor, leading to the main synagogue.
When one observes the edifice in its entirety--the long benches around the walls, the large tables by the sides, the shelves of prayer books, the beautiful bimah (platform) close to the door, the ark with the old faded curtain, the torn yellowed holy books that protruded from the book shelves, and the sunset that sends its last rays toward the ark where the holy scrolls are kept--some mystic reflections will remain with you forever.
The majority of Abeler Jews were considered declassified, without any specific trade or profession. There were many without thinking of earning a living; there were some who considered themselves as brokers, small-time dealers of anything; and a large segment of the Jewish population just doing nothing, with the hope that God would help them. Most of them made their livelihood depending on the one market day of the week on Thursday. Peasants from nearby villages used to bring their produce on that day to market. On that day, most Jews of the town were quite active. They used to rise very early that day. First they used to hastily do the morning prayers and leave for the marketplace with faith in their hearts, meeting the gentile peasants on their way.
The shopkeepers used to put up their tables with their wares like: leather, men and women’s clothing, all sorts of utensils, dishes, etc. Among the many shopkeepers, they used to compete with each other quite loudly, which led to insulting each other. Although they didn’t really hate each other, most of them were worried that if they didn’t sell enough, they would not be able to meet the week’s expenses. That’s why most of them were trying to run ahead with their wares towards the potential peasant buyers.
From the nearby towns, like Rakishok, Subotch, and Dusiat, arrived many established business merchants that used to buy from the peasants flax, seeds, geese, and cows. Only on the day of the market gathering did the town really become very active and lively. Everyone had hopes on that day to make sure they would be able to make expenses for the week ahead. But on ordinary days, Abel was considered to be a sloppy and dead town. No wonder in Abel and nearby towns they used to call people in the town "Abeler ghosts." Once in awhile we used to see a peasant come into town to buy a bottle of gasoline, herring, and other small things. All merchants were looking at the peasant, perhaps because he would stop at their place to buy something. Not too many people of Abel were experienced laborers. There were only a handful of them: a shoemaker, a few tailors, a bricklayer, a watch repairman, and a couple of glaziers. There were also butchers, including: Henech, Abraham Moishe, Berzia the Strapyker, Shalom der Schwarzer, Shmuel Alexandrover, and Saul Klas. They were very experienced and specialists in their trade. The town also had a few fine bakers, such as: Leyo Rachmiels, Zivieh the bagel baker, and Etil Yoses.
Many were the gardeners, the so-called orchard renters, like: Bereh Motte, Hirshe Gross, and Yoseh Abales. They were only occupied with this sort of business. They exported first-class fruit to Warsaw, Lodz, Riga, and other places. There were also some business dealers that were well known as the flax merchants-- Leibe Zakshtein, Berzik Friedman, and Yudel the Pakrevner--who dealt in a more commercial manner. They had their own storehouses where they had to keep and clean the flax. The better kind they exported to Preisen. The same dealers were also handling special kinds of seeds, which they transported to an oil factory in Dvinsk. The small dealers used to buy from them flax and seeds for a certain percentage.
In town there were two forest dealers: Itzik Zak and Leibe the forester. They led large commercial dealings with other countries and they lived quite comfortably. They were considered progressive and observed a secular Jewish lifestyle. Itzik participated in various social endeavors. For a long time, he was on the ritual committee of the Chasidic synagogue.
Itzik sent his children to study in universities. His older son, Israel, was studying in the famous Petersburg University and received a diploma in building engineering. His second son studied law and later became a prosecutor in Ponevezh. Itzik Zak’s wife, Yente, was a very devoted wife and mother, and very pious in her religious beliefs. She was always helping indigent families. I remember that once when Yente came to an impoverished home to visit a sick person, she brought with her a dish with jam. I also remember when a poor shoemaker asked Itzik the little money that he owed him for fixing his shoes, Itzik looked at his pocket and answered the shoemaker, "You will excuse me, I just haven’t got the few kopeks that I owe you with me." Yente, listening to her husband, took out a five-ruble coin, gave it to the shoemaker, and asked him to take out as much as her husband owed him and give her change. She criticized her husband a little for not paying the workman in time.
As a rule, the more affluent people seemed to look down on the working people. They seemed to have kept themselves to a sort of higher standard than the poor hardworking people. They kept themselves with pride of their inherited beautiful homes that their parents left them, and with their better economic position.
Social Cultural Events
Until the First World War, Abel’s cultural life was quite backward. There was the lack of a cultural environment, where the youthful elements had no chance of advancement. Only some individuals from time to time left Abel and went to larger cities, where they had an opportunity to pick up some secular knowledge.
In our Jewish community of about 300 people, the rabbis had the greatest influence. The parents were religious zealots and were very much afraid that their children shouldn’t forsake the right path.
The children were sent to "chadurin" (religious Jewish schools) that were mostly kept in crowded, dark, and filthy rooms. The so-called "teachers" did not take care of the children in a kind and loving manner. For the slightest misbehavior, a child was punished in a very vicious way. Abraham-Itze the Hunchback, the melamed (teacher), was a very unkindly person. His entire "cheder" schoolroom consisted of a long table, embraced with some benches. Close to the stove, he put up a bed separated with a linen curtain. This was his bedroom, and the "cheder" children used to spread their mostly patched-up clothing there. The crowdedness in this cluttered room was unbearable. Abraham-Itze was of medium height, with a long hunched nose, and a disheveled beard and head of hair. He had a short body with long legs that moved pretty fast from one child to another. He had a leather whip and if a child made some remark that he didn’t like, he would whip the child and he didn’t care on what part of the body his whip landed.
Worse were the winter months, when the cruel frosts entered the impoverished homes of the so-called "schools" where the children-students were very uncomfortable and freezing until late into the evening. The "melamdim" (teachers) were underpaid and were barely able to have a decent livelihood, and surely they were not able to heat the iron stoves properly.
Aba, the Talmudic teacher, had a much better relationship with his young students. First, those young Talmudic students came from better, more affluent homes, and the teacher was well compensated, financially. This teacher was known as a great Talmudic scholar, and a student of his really became very knowledgeable. He had a very disciplined and tactical relationship with his students. Aba the scholar-teacher had a comfortable livelihood from his teaching and did not have to depend on side jobs outside of his profession.
For many years Abel did not have a formal community that would care and try to improve its educational institutions among its Jewish populations. They had a group of ringleaders, like Leibe the tall one, Leibe the coachman, Yankel the Yakres (the dearth), Itzik Zak, and Zalman Mehler. These men moved to take positions of leadership. They were more dedicated to all sorts of quarrels among them rather than productive work towards educational goals.
In the shtetl there were "Chasidim" and "Misnagdim" (opponents to the more orthodox Chasidim). The split among them was very partisan. A "Chasid" would never think of entering a synagogue of his opponents, and a "Misnagid" felt the same way about the "Chasidim," although they pray to the same God. The split among these groups were of such magnitude that at various times it led to violent engagements of insulting each other and even attacking each other physically.
During the winter months, when a biting harsh wind would dance through town in a very devastating manner, and there was a snowstorm that blocked and covered all streets and highways and byways of transportation, the low-built houses with straw roofs were covered with tons of snow and the window panes were beautifully painted with flowers and figures of frost. Most people were under the impression that these devastating snowstorms would stay with them forever and never end. On those days when the impudent winds and frost came through our town, the worshipers in the houses of prayer were very much upset and angry and couldn’t find anything to keep them happy and proud. At that time, the only warm-hearted individual was the stately appearance of Shmuel the goat, who brought the worshipers a mood of consolation and joy through his snuffbox of tobacco.
Most synagogues in town during these hard winter months were seldom heated because of the shortage of firewood. The worshipers were very upset and angry because the two prominent forest merchants did not provide them with wood to keep the houses of worship warm and comfortable. They told them to stay home and not dare to come to the synagogue because of their being stingy to provide the poor people with heat during the nasty and cold winter storms.
Now some influential individuals of the Jewish community brought with them a novel idea how to get money to be able to provide the houses of worship with heat. They asked the sextons to announce in all synagogues that every worshiper would contribute as much as he can for buying wood to heat the ovens. Every one of the assembled worshipers was asked to leave their little prayer shawls overnight and by bringing five kopeks, the shawls would be given back to them for the morning service. In this sort of novel manner, they collected some money to purchase firewood.
In the "Misnagdim" synagogue, Rabbi Chaim Nasan was the rabbi for a long time. He lived in a little crowded apartment with three small windows in the Beth Medrish (the house of study) through which you were able to see the town’s bathhouse, near the running brook and some nearby areas of the town. The Jewish community was not able to pay the rabbi a living wage. They gave him some kopeks from chicken "schite" (slaughter) and from yeast sales. From all this, he was barely able to make a poor living to support his family. The rabbi was a very God-fearing man, and because of poverty stricken circumstances, he was constantly searching to improve his material position.
Being a very knowledgeable preacher and speaker, he asked his leaders of the synagogue, since it was very hard for him and his family to maintain any living standard, to allow him to travel to nearby towns to deliver lectures. The trustees of the synagogue had no other choice but to allow him his demand. Rabbi Chaim Nasan began touring the neighboring towns and cities. On his way, he met a young rabbi who just came out of a yeshiva (academy). The young rabbi told him that he was married to a daughter of a very rich merchant. Rabbi Nasan told him that perhaps he would accept his position for a certain sum of money. The young rabbi accepted his offer and he gave Rabbi Nasan a large sum to allow him to take his rabbinic position in the synagogue that Rabbi Nasan was leaving. Rabbi Chaim Nasan now had enough money to go to America with his family. Before he left the town, the synagogue arranged a farewell party for him and his family. One of the members of the committee wished him to go in peace and now we can say about him, using a biblical quote: "Now you are a man of the world."
The very young rabbi took over the former rabbi’s position, and he became very popular among the people in Abel. They called him lovingly, the "red-haired Rabbi." He really was a man with great ability. In his sermons, he showed great Torah knowledge and wisdom, and the town was entirely under his influence. He managed to arrange all the expenses and finances of the synagogue on a solid basis. There was enough money to cover all outgoing expenses and enough to provide the edifice with firewood for the cold winter months. After a few years of serving the Abel population, he too left for the United States.
Under Czarist Russia, Abel had only one public school. There was no high school, so most well-to-do Jews sent their children to larger cities to get a better education--cities like Kovno, Dvinsk, and Petersburg. The only Russian public school in Abel could be found on the side where the administrative office was located, not far from the house of Aba the melamed’s house. The classes in public school were quite often interrupted. They were not too steadfast. During the summer months they would keep them entirely closed, for the reason that the children were mostly used at their homes because of the coming Christian holidays, where the children were busy feeding the pigs, cows, and geese. The schools did not have too many Jewish children in the public school because they only allowed about five percent of the Jewish population. Besides, you needed some protection from the higher officials. If for some reason a Jewish family was not favorably liked by some official, their children were not accepted.
Later, many parents sent their children to private teachers, but there were not many teachers that had command of the Russian language. There was an exception--Sarah of Moscow. She happened to be the only Russian language teacher in Abel, an only daughter.
At that time in Russia, "socialism"--which was very popular but illegal--was transferred to smaller towns and villages in Lithuania. The Lithuanian towns were very inspired by the revolutionary movement, but they were very much in need of intellectual leaders. Also, at the time, Abel was very much aware of the revolutionary mood. In Antenasher Forest, which was also known as a resort place, tourists used to come during the summer months from the surrounding towns for vacation and rest. Among them was one young man by the name of Boris. That was his pseudonym. His real name, no one knew. This fellow Boris was delegated by the revolutionary Central Committee to organize the youth of the town. He rented a room from Sarah Karabuz and told her that he was a professional Russian teacher. He taught those children that were not accepted in the public school On Saturdays, he used to take them on a hike to the Antenasher Forest, where he read stories to them and led discussions, especially on social justice issues. The brothers of those kids were also interested in the teacher’s taking a hike to the forest and his reading and discussing issues that they paid much attention to. The youths were very inspired and hypnotized by his lectures. They were very much ready to revolt against the Czarist despots and to free the Jewish people and humanity from this Czarist regime. As a result of the illegal gatherings by Boris, Abel had a considerably large revolutionary circle in the small factories and workshops that regulated the working hours of the day. If an owner objected to some of these regulations, they told him that he was playing with fire.
All the illegal meetings were held in the forests. The group of revolutionaries dressed themselves as peddlers that go to villages to sell some products. Sometimes they spoke to the peasants about the hard times they endured under the Czarist regime. At the head of the Freedom Committee were two very capable men--Shmuel Itzke and Motke, sons of Beres Notes, the cotton maker. Before they became involved in social issues, they were students of the Dvinsker Yeshiva. They became very dedicated to the coming revolution with all their heart and strength.
In 1905, before the uprising, they were in contact with the "Sabatcher" comrades, and together they planned an uprising in the area. The first insurrection appeared in the marketplace. There was a very large stone on which they placed a red flag and they used it as a platform for the speakers. The peasants came to the market area to pay attention and listen to the speakers.
Beres’ sons, Shmuel Itzke and Motke, were the main speakers that, with their aggressive speeches, aroused most of the attended crowd against the Czarist regime. The Lithuanian writer from the town’s administrative office, Chutzke, was known to be a very able orator. He ended his speeches with the slogan: "Let’s revolt--the time has come!"
The speeches had such a great influence on those that participated at the gathering that they reacted by running down to the various government offices, burned and destroyed papers, documents, and pictures that were related to Czar Nicolai and the House of Romanov.
With great courage, the peasants of Abel broke into the Monopol storage of vodka and whiskey and they were drinking without a stop. It broke into a stampede, and police started to arrive and tried to disperse the crowd, but they were afraid for their own lives and they started to run away.
A division of Cossacks was housed in a government brewery. Immediately they came running down to the area of great turmoil and were running into the crowd with their horses and swinging bayonets. The peasants resisted, but they were weak against an armed militia. There were many victims that had to be hospitalized and many lost their lives. Most of them disappeared into the fields. The Lithuanian writer and orator, Chutzke, was killed in the stampede, and the sons of Beres ran into the town’s bathhouse and managed to hide themselves and save their lives.
The police were looking for them. A peasant by the name of Tarashi, who lived on the other side of the river and was one of those that hated Jews, was helping the police to find them and others whom he called the conspirators against government. But as for the sons of Beres, they were not able to find them.
When the situation in town had settled down somewhat, some friends had prepared women’s apparel for Beres’ sons, in which they escaped to some unknown area in town. A fisher boat waited for them at the river and brought them to the other side of the river, and they escaped to the popular pine forest.
For a long time, no one heard anything from them. Their parents and close friends for a long time did not know their fate. One morning when Yose, the sexton from the "Misnagdim" synagogue was delivering the mail (he was also the mailman), he delivered a letter to Beres with foreign postage. The letter was from their sons in America. A gush of happy tears ran through Beres’ face. There was celebration and joy by their parents and their friends.
In their letters that they had written to their parents and close friends, they complained that they were missing the active life of Abel, and fate had brought them to a land where they were not able to live according to their ideals and aspirations. In their letters of later years, they wrote that they got involved in scientific studies, and they became medical doctors, and they were very much respected in American medical circles.
Among the revolutionaries of 1905 were also: Eidel Zakshtein, Chaye’s son, and Yankel Snieg. Because of persecution by Czarist Russia, they emigrated to foreign countries. Yankel Snieg at the time emigrated to Africa. He died the fourteenth of April 1952. He was very much involved and dedicated to the Rakishker Society. In recognition of his dedication and hard work, the Society honored him to be a lifelong president. He was president until the end of his life.
Years passed on. Until the First World War, the face of the town had not changed much. The Russian revolution of 1905 was crushed by strong armed forces and by large hordes of Cossacks. It appeared the year 1914. War had erupted. The turmoil was unheard of. Most people felt desperate and depressed. People did not know what to do--run away to some far away village, or to leave Russia. It was hard to leave, to part, from the very little that they had accumulated over the years. But the command of Nicolai Nicolieavitch--the Czar’s uncle, that Jews had to be deported from the front lines, ended all hesitations and suspicions.
People felt bad and not too well under the created situation. The peasants spread rumors that Jews were spies. "Karusia," the water porter, with her "lover," reported to the Police Commissioner that they had seen a German airplane land at Velvele the Lessees’ backyard; and that Velvele had packed the plane with butter, cheese, and milk. The Commissioner believed them, calling Velvele every day to be investigated. The Jews of the town were observing it, and they understood that these were meaningless spy reports that could be made against them. Therefore, they decided to evacuate to Russia.
The Jews were running to the villages to buy horses to be able to leave fast enough. They were, at the time, afraid to travel in the trains, because the Cossacks killed Jews and raped women. More than three-quarters of the Jewish population evacuated themselves. Only one-quarter remained in town, hiding themselves in their homes and in the cellars. My father also bought two large horses and loaded a wagon with the most needed things that he sent away with the first transport to Dvinsk. A day later, my father came back to town and took the rest of the things and family, and left empty and hollow walls.
We were four of us: my parents, my brothers and myself. I remember I was sitting zipped in a warm fur coat, riding through muddy roads, and a cold nasty wind was blowing from the fields and forest. My father was very restless. At sunset, father said that the red-radiant stripes in heaven are the witness to tremendous shedding of blood. In Novo Alexanderovsk, they dragged young people to dig trenches. My father put a dress on me so that they wouldn’t grab me for work. We got tired of dragging our horse and wagon endlessly, so we decided to go back to Abel.
The German cavalry came galloping into town, The Jews that remained started coming out of their hiding places. We started to adjust ourselves to the German government. They began to establish a civil administration, with a Jewish mayor, whose name was Moishe Zakshtein. They arranged forced labor. The mayor, Moishe Sakshtein, was running around the streets every day, wearing special-fit trousers and boots, holding a long leather whip. With the passing of days, the Jewish mayor became more demanding, even using the whip against friends and elderly Jews. The local forced-labor was not too rugged, but some Jews were sent to special work camps, and I was among them. We had many hardships there; it was really bad. With brutal regulations, the Germans were treating us. They did not feed us well, and they even used to beat us with wooden sticks, and they also gave us the most unbearable hard-working conditions, like unloading railroad cars with rails, laying them out, and screwing them together. We also had to load some railroad cars with rocks, and also did ground digging. The work camp stretched a Russian "viorst" (equal to 0.66 of our mile) which was fenced around with heavy barbed wire. The exit tower was heavily armed from both sides.
It was impossible to exist in the camp. I was looking for a way to free myself from this slave camp. One early morning, I went to a doctor and complained that I was sick. He examined me and in an angry voice shouted: "Farfluchte Yude" (Damn Jew). I will make you real sick." He started to beat me with a stick. Under a strict vigilant guard they sent me back to the slave-camp. Looking at my failure, I was earnestly thinking of running away. It was the time of the Jewish holiday weeks (Shavuot) and we had a deluge that flooded the camp. Vicious winds were blowing all around us. At that time, I decided to get away from this evil place. It was two o’clock during a very dark night. Me and two of my friends slowly opened the door from the barracks and listened to the steps of the guard. We ran over to the toilet that was close to the fence, and we separated some of the barbed wires to create an opening. We managed to get away to a nearby forest with our last strength. From there we got to our homes.
Jews endured hard and bitter times in our town under the German occupation. We suffered great deprivation under the so-called tolerant Willhelm’s heel.
The First World War came to an end, and the Germans left Lithuania. It was the beginning of a new era. Homeless Jews deep down in Russia started returning to their former homes. At the brewery building, the Lithuanian government started a quarantine that reflected the tragic events of the Jewish people. The quarantine was fenced around with hard barbed wire, and a military guard was there day and night. The treatment of the Lithuanian government towards the returning Jews was far from friendly. Every one of them was being investigated. They were looking, thinking perhaps that they would find some "communist" cell among them. Any intervention on their part did not help. Many months passed by until they freed all Jews from being quarantined. The sanitary condition was also very bad. There was a breakout of an epidemic of typhoid that spread to all barracks around the brewery.
The Jewish National Committee of Kovno started its own effective medical help to stop the epidemic outbreak. Many Jews at the town’s quarantine at Abel lost their lives and were buried at the old cemetery of Abel.
All Jews that came from their evacuation brought with them a different spirit, a more creative spirit for culture and progress. Before the Lithuanian government had reconstructed themselves, the town was administered by a Soviet regime. The Jewish youth was very active in a Soviet board. They organized a fire department, a civil administration, and a town militia. The Soviet board opened the first cooperative at Zalman Meiler’s house. This was of great help to the Jewish population, which was poverty stricken and now able to buy produce and other articles for reasonable, stable prices.
In 1920 they organized a Culture League. The initiators were: Israel Zak, Benjamin Zak, Heske Zakshtein, and Moishke Zakshtein. The work was conducted with great enthusiasm. The club-local was always packed with young people at the time when there was a recitation or lecture by our writers and poets. The lecturers were: Benjamin Zak and Yankl Zweigarn. But the older members of the Culture League did not have any interest in getting closer to the younger friends and did not get their attention. The younger people separated themselves from the elderly group and organized a new culture league under the name "Youth Center." Among the leaders were: Moishe Klavir, David Halpern, Nachemka Feitels, and Chaye Sara Gordon. They organized a library and evening courses. The teachers of the evening courses were: Chanah Friedman, Yankl Zweigarn and David Halpern. Almost all of the youth in town joined the "youth group."
In 1923 the "Culture League" was closed by the Lithuanian government, as they suspected them to be "left" oriented. In its place, they organized a Jewish folk-library, which became the town’s cultural center. They also organized a drama circle under the name "The Dramatic Section part of the Abeler Jewish library." The first amateurs were: Bashke Friedman, Moishe Klavir, Nachemke Feitels, Baruch Elke Feitels, Shmuel Bams, Chaneke Friedman, Rivke Malies, and Yisraelke Michalewitch who for a time directed some of the plays and also participated in serious roles. The plays were held mostly in a barrack that the Germans put up during the war years at Itze Zelig’s garden. The income from the shows was used for the library expenses.
For a short time the library was enriched with Yiddish and Hebrew books that were able to culturally enrich a larger Jewish population than Abel had at that time. Abel had no Yiddish school. They opened a "Tarbut school" (Hebrew language school) under the leadership of Michal Kuperman. At first, he was the only teacher and director, but later the National Board sent in some teachers from Kovno. It also opened a Lithuanian language school in the old monopole building, and Jewish children were obligated to learn the Lithuanian language.
In 1923, a Jewish communal board was formally organized that had to oversee all Jewish events in town. The first board members were: Leibe Zakshtein, Zalman Mehler, Baruch Kadish, and others. From year to year, the spiritual and cultural life greatly progressed. It formed a strong National Jewish movement. Among the youth groups, there was a splitting into different views and aspirations. There were such groups as: Tsofim (Scouts), Social Zionists, Young Zionists, General Zionists, and Chalutzim (Pioneers). The most active of the groups was the (Chalutzim) Pioneers. Most of them went to various farms to prepare themselves to be fit for work in Israel. The heads of the Chalutzim were: Lipke Friedman, Ziamke Friedman, Baruch Elke Klas, Moyshe Klavir, and Mayerke Klavir. They were very dedicated and created a strong Chalutzim movement.
Since the time that the Lithuanian government adopted a reactionary attitude towards the Jews and they abolished the Jewish National Board, the youthful elements became very discouraged and felt that under that government they could not expect great things to happen in future endeavors. The time became ripe to emigrate. They began to emigrate to various foreign countries. Only a small group of the youth remained until the beginning of the Second World War, and was actively involved in communal and cultural endeavors that were part of life.
The continuation of Jewish life was shattered with the coming of the Germans. A black dead curtain was covered over the Jews in Abel that had lived a more progressive life. The bestial Nazis in the first days of occupation destroyed many of the small Jewish towns and, likewise, Abel that counted about 300 families.
Abel is close to the Lithuanian border and is 60 viorst from Dvinsk, and fell the first victim from the German invasion. In haste, the Jews took with them the little they possessed and ran. Families with small children were at nights in muddy fields and on roads, hoping to find some alternative. But the German parachutists and the Lithuanian fascists attacked them on the roads whenever they found them. The chapters of the Psalms that the elderly people were uttering as prayers didn’t help. Wild Lithuanian peasants, led by the Germans, attacked them on the roads and in town. From the panicky condition in the nearby towns, most of them started running in great fear to Abel. There, together with the Jews in Abel, they were all taken to the Antenasher Forest where they were in a gruesome way tortured to death.
A devastating storm has destroyed the generations-old town of Abel, with its roots. In the deep ground of our brothers graves lie our parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and all our dear ones--our kind and sincere Jews of Abel who were in a vicious way snuffed out by the wicked Nazis and fascist Latvians. With deep sorrow and pain we must remember our killed martyrs. That was their will.
Characters of Abeler Jews
When Elieyuhu Gordon came to Abel, the people named him "The Moskver." A long time before the Japanese war, he lived illegally in Moscow. He was a merchant, a very wise man, and a great Talmudic scholar. He saw to it that his children got an education in a religious Judaic spirit.
The brutal Czarist government released a decree against those that had no "living right" in Moscow, and must leave the city by a certain date. The police immediately notified all those that at the given date, they must leave; otherwise they would be arrested. A lot of Jews were forced out of the city, and among them Elieyuhu Gordon. Fate brought Elieyuhu Gordon to the town of Abel. At first, it was very hard for him to adjust to a small muddy town. With the passage of time, he adjusted himself to the town and its people. Especially being a very sympathetic person, he gained many friends and during the years he endured in the town of Abel. He became one of the well-known personalities of the town.
One daughter, Chaye Sarah, became a Russian teacher and the second daughter, Dobre, opened a dry goods store that within time did very well. He himself used to assemble all the freight bills by the merchants and made the payments at the train office. He earned a certain percentage for his endeavor.
In the evenings, "Reb Elieyuhu" spent most of his time looking into some Talmudic books. He was a Chasid outwardly and inwardly. He wore a beautiful Chasidic garment with a silk belt and his gray-white patriarchal beard gave him that Chasidic charm. Years passed on, but his hatred against Czarist Russia remained with him, because of their vicious decree against the Jews who were forced to leave the large cities. When the Japanese war broke out, he was of the opinion that Russia would lose, because Nicolai was a weakling, had a head of an ox, and glass eyes of an idiot. Later, when Russia lost the war to Japan, Reb Elieyuhu Gordon, or as he was called, "Elieyuhu the Moskver," was in "seventh heaven," and among groups of Jews he said that he had foreseen the downfall of Russia as a result of their King Nicolai "who is a weakling, an idiot, and has glass eyes."
Mendl Klatzkin was known in Abel as "Mendl the Attorney." He was a son of a Rabbi. His father had a position as a Rabbi in the town of Anishishok, but Mendl did not follow the rabbinic position of his father. He was fascinated by the enlightenment movement of those days. During the daytime hours, his father taught him Talmudic scriptures. During the night hours, Mendl used to isolate himself without anyone knowing that he was reading secular books.
Against his father’s wishes, he visited a Russian high school and also entered a jurisprudence faculty to study law, but he did not accomplish his goal. He later married Zalman Meller’s daughter and moved to Abel, interrupting his studies. Yet, his town crowned him with the name, "Mendl the Attorney." First, he looked like a lawyer, and resembled the well-known Gruzenberg, who defended the accused Beilis. He used to help people when they were in need of a lawyer. For some reason, he had some influence on the local administration.
It once happened that Mendl the "attorney" wanted to fool Reb Elieyuhu the Moskver on the first of April, so he sent him the following telegram: "I, the imperialist of the country of Russia, happened by incident to look through the protocols of the decree of Moscow, and not finding any accusation against you, I allow you at present to settle in Moscow or any other city beyond the Pale of Assignment to Jews. With friendly greetings, Nicolai Romanov."
Elieyuhu, listening to the message, was so ecstatic, that he ran among Jewish circles and told them: "Well Jews! What are you saying now? Is it possible that Nicolai, the ox head himself, should for me abolish the decree? It really could have happened by such a tyrant, that he is now being repentant, which I consider a miracle from the Almighty."
The news spread like a storm throughout the town. Leibe the sexton from the synagogue of the "Misnagdim," a Jew with all sorts of assumptions, thought it was perhaps a signal that better times are coming for our people. The "fire fighters" were not so sure about the telegram. People working in various places stopped working and came to the streets; women at the street corners started gossiping. The whole town of Abel went on wheels. Most people thought it was a second miracle of Purim.
Israel Chiyois was a hard working man, a very honest and good human being. His eyes always smiled in a friendly way, expressing love to everyone. As a rule, he was a quiet and easygoing man, and seldom did he speak in a loud voice with the exception of the evening services, or when he was reciting the Psalms. In a high voice, he started the Psalms prayers so that everyone understood that he had a hidden strength. Also, in the bathhouse he raised his voice. He was the only massager, and he considered that to be his trade. He used his strength to bring his clients up to the higher benches, where the steam was hotter, and with his hard brush and soap he used to massage his people.
From the bathhouse, he used to leave sweaty, and during the biggest snowfall he used to roll in the snow to cool himself.
The Almighty has endowed him with good health and a strong body. Friday, before the beginning of the Sabbath, he went around town with his horse and wagon delivering sand to Jewish homes to spread on the floors. It happened sometimes, when the wagon went into a thick muddy area and his horse was unable to move the wagon, that Israel went down from his wagon and used his arms to push it; and, when the horse began to feel his helping hands, they were able to get out of the dense mud.
There was talk in the town that Israel Chiyois was freed from serving in the Russian army as a result of pulling several teeth from his mouth using a pair of pliers. He used to be a heavy eater. In one meal, he was able to finish a five-pound black bread with a few herring, holding the head of the herring in one hand and the tail in the other hand. After that he guzzled down 10 glasses of water.
I remember once coming into Israel’s house, which was at the end of the town neighboring with Bertzig’s house, next to the road and in the vicinity that led to the Stashuntzer forest. He was at that time lubricating the wheels of his wagon. Coming into his house, he took a large radish and cut it into pieces and put some salt on it. His wife, the short-grown Chaya, served him a large plate of soup, and she threw in hard pieces of bread. After such a meal, he said the meal blessing and kissed the door mezuzah and took a sack on his head and went out to harness his horse and wagon. He had a lot of trades, but he was still a poor man. But on Saturday he still found a challah on his table.
Although his was a poor material life, in his home there was contentment, and they had a strong faith in the Almighty. He lived to an old age. The last time I saw him, he was already a very old man. I asked him, how do you feel Reb Israel? His answer was: "Oh, my son, times have changed. There is no more the years of the past, when for my streng th the ground under me was trembling. Now, I tremble against the earth."
p. 274 - The marketplace in Abel.
p. 277 - Chasidic Synagogue in Abel.
p. 279 - The firefighters of Abel.
p. 281 - The lake in Abel.
p. 285 - The Drama Circle. From right standing: Chaya Sarah Gordon, Horovitz, Yankel Kaplan, Chana Friedman, and Moishe Klavir. From right sitting: Fannie Klas, Horovitz, Bacia Friedman, Riva Yoselevitz, and Elie Klas.
p. 286 - The Scouts in Abel.
p. 287 - The first convention of "Chalutzim" (Pioneers) from Rakishok and vicinity that was held in Abel.
p. 291 - An Abel family: Nacham Zeligman and his wife, and two sons, Shimon and Heshke.
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