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[Page 631]

Characters of Bobruisk

by Yakov Lifshitz

Translated by Maria Gilbert


A. The carriers

Bobruisk was well known as a trade town. It had two train stations, called “Bobruisk” and “Berezina,” and a river port (pristan ) on the Berezina River.

Until 1914 the town of Slutsk did not have trains. The goods (grain, fruit and such) were transported to Bobruisk on wagons, the business was carried out by the coachmen from Slutsk. These coachmen were known for their strength, their horses, and their wagons. I remember a family, a father and six sons, each one had three large Belgian horses and carried hundreds of pounds a week – they were called “the children.” The biggest bandits and robbers from the forest and the glass factory were afraid of “the children.”

Coachmen from Glusk [Hlusk] also came to Bobruisk twice a week with their goods. They unloaded the goods and made their purchases for Glusk the same day. They would race each other to enter the town first.

From early dawn people came to town. Everyone had to rely on the local carriers; they were organized in a cooperative. Yankele Mazin, a strong man (he could defeat professionals in the circus), was involved in the cooperative. Shaike Pazukha, a short, large-boned young man, he would lift at once four sacks of salt (each weighting around six poods [1] ), two under the arms and two on his back. Fishke Parkh, also a very strong man. Velvel Bulava, a redhead with curly hair. They were the spokesmen and no one dared to challenge them. They made a good living and did not deny themselves good food and drink. Such friends of Jews are seldom found, they would give their life for a fellow Jew! The market had a water pump; a payment of one kopeck for watering a horse was collected by an old Jewish woman. Many peasants tried to avoid paying; here would come the carriers and “honor” the peasant with a couple of good blows, as a warning for thefuture.


B. The card players

During market days three card players used to cheat the peasants in their crooked “lottery.” This was a game with three cards where the red won and the black lost. “The players” were: Abrashka, a tall, young man with a pock-marked face; Yosl – a short man with a close-trimmed beard; the third was a gentile named Pyotr, he wore gentile clothes, had a long blond beard and shoulder length hair. Their goal was to coax the peasants to bet on a card. The peasant would point to a red card, he was sure he would win. Abrasha in the meantime would shuffle the cards so skillfully that no one, not even a trained eye, would notice that instead of a red card the black one was uncovered. The peasants would lose large sums of money and cry for help until the police came. The swindlers were never caught, the police were not about to lose the “monthly pay” they received from Abrasha and company.


C. Drabkin's Theater

Drabkin's theater was a small building on Pushkin Street, located across from Reb Yoel Losinsky's house in a garden with fruit trees. It had an upper tier, boxes and orchestra with comfortable seats. The facilities were, understandably, primitive; when the curtain was raised, a black covering was lowered to cover the large ceiling lamp. Nowadays this sounds comical, but then this was almost an invention.

The best Jewish troupes and actors performed in this theater, they had various, but mostly serious, dramatic repertoire. Sam Adler, Genfer's troupe with actor Lie Bedayev in the lead role, Julius Adler, Morris Liampe, Rudolph Zaslavski, and others made guest appearances here.

I loved the theater and was a frequent guest there. Some performances used to take place in the garden. I recall that in 1906 or 1907 I was called to the “improvement room” of the Free Kitchen for an audition. The conductor asked me to sing a tune in the garden in Hebrew for Lag b'Omer. At first I was very scared of the public, but as I started to sing with emotion and tears, the public loudly applauded. I recall a song that was popular then, though the author is unknown to me.

Do you know the land where citrons bloom,
Where goats eat carob like grass,
Roasted ducks and ducklings are flying,
Raisin-wine is flowing freely.
And with lulavs [palm fronds] the roofs can be covered,
And almonds are growing on every stick.
Ai, ai, ai, to there, to there, to there, ai, my God, ai, for heaven's sake, ai, for heaven's sake!
To there, I would go, go, go, yes, ai soon...
I recall another song, parody on “Ya, khalili amali” [2] , which the “yevseks” [3] authored:
Nachum Sokolov, Weizman the professor,
A Jewish State with English permits,
Ya, khalili
Dogs will not bark, chickens will not cluck,
The Mezuzas will be put in streetcars.
Ya, khalili, etc.

Interesting, what are they saying now?

Near the theater was a billiard hall and Zeldovich's restaurant. The food there was not kosher, it was patronized mainly by officers and high officials; very seldom would a Jewish guest sneak in, hiding like a thief.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. pood = 36 pounds. Return
  2. “O, my flute, my labor.” This is a folk melody of Arabic origin about the importance and joy of labor, through labor one overcomes trouble. Return
  3. “yevseks” An abbreviation for “Jewish Section,” the name given to officials appointed by the Soviets to deal with Jewish affairs, they were known as anti-Zionists. Return

[Page 636]

Hirshbein's Troupe in Bobruisk

by Mendel Elkin

Translated by Odelia Alroy

In 1910, I don't remember what time of year, I got the news from the Yiddish press that Hirshbein's troupe is preparing to visit the Jewish Mecca-Warsaw. That means they are travelling throughout the Jewish world to show what they have accomplished and receive accreditation.

I knew that the troupe is going to Minsk for several appearances and from there to Vilna. My local patriotism rose and I decided to bring Hirshbein's theater to Bobruisk. Said and done-I went to our famous, Itche Epstein, to negotiate the matter with him.

Itche Epstein, the owner of the Bobruisk theater was a known personality in the provincial theater world in Russia. A man of about 60, stately, with a long beard always in a black coat and a yarmulke on his head, even when he kisses the hands of Russian actresses. He has done much to help actors in their time of need even though he did not have a high regard for them.

He showed me great respect and therefore in a short time, he went to Vilna and brought the troupe to Bobruisk. That was Pesach time.

Epstein made a lot of publicity: all the fences, shops, empty walls of houses and barns were hung with many colored posters. Bobruisk was full of sensational news about the upcoming performances of Hirshbein's theater. Bobruisk was fired up….

I went to Vilna with Epstein to meet the troupe. We got them lodging and Hirshbein-I and my wife; invited to stay at our home. We gave him a room and asked him to feel at home. We told all the cast that the main headquarters of the troupe in Bobruisk would be at our home and our doors would always be open for them. Lena Nemi, Faigel Orlovskaya, Yakov Ben-Ami, Lazar Fried, the poet B. Safir, the supplier of the troupe-they became our daily guests. And it was lively. Hirshbein saw that there was a piano in the house, so he began to improvise and so soon won the close friendship of our small daughter Esie.

The city awaited the first performance of Hirshbein's troupe. I waited impatiently for the performances: I wanted the troupe to be successful and to rest from its experiences in Warsaw.

I don't remember exactly what they played the first evening. But I remember that the enthusiasm of the crowd which filled the theater to overflowing, was great. There was much applause, and people felt uplifted. Even Hirshbein, who at the time of a performance was always deadly earnest, stiff and not talkative, even he smiled.…

Epstein was in seventh heaven from joy and always asked the actors if they needed something.

The crowd was drawn to the troupe with love and attention. The young people, who had the theater bug, began to send letters to Hirshbein with requests that he take them into the troupe. Who at that time in the province hadn't caught the theater bug? Hirshbein selected me as the Secretary and I had to answer the correspondence of the theater-sick-an unpleasant job.

In order to have an idea of who in the province tried to get on stage at that time, it is not excessive to print some letters, which a young man from Bobruisk, an artist by trade, sent to Hirshbein. Here are the young man's two letters, printed letter for letter in his spelling (the originals were found in the archives of YIVO in Vilna).


Letter 1

Dear Peretz Hirshbein

Since I want to go on stage and take part in your troupe! Since I want to be an actor, I am going on until I can go on stage!

When the troupe started I didn't want to join because it was not famous and not only intelligent people would come but ordinary people! But the intelligent people who understand Yiddish theater have not stopped going to the theater! But I was in a home where they had told me about your group. And I have decided that there could be nothing better. I will go to a performance of Yeckel the Smith because I have been told that the piece is very good! But in short I would like to go on the stage. I can take a dramatic role. Please answer this letter. I will wait for your answer. This is my address…. And I ask you to answer this letter. And also there is a woman who would like to be an actress and she has much interest and can take a role.


Letter 2

Since I sent you one letter that I want to be a Yiddish artist and I have not had an answer I am asking you to answer me because I want to know what happened to the letter I sent you at Epstein's address.

I don't know why I have not heard from you! I want very much to get on the Yiddish stage.

Velvel Zev Lefkovitch, The Sunday Market

All week the Jews looked forward to Sunday, to the market. Gentiles would come from far and nearby villages on their scrawny peasant horses. They would bring their village products-eggs, butter, wheat, fowl, calves and so forth.

All the roads that led to town were full of village farmers who wanted to get there early to get a good spot. They would park their wagons in long rows, with the shafts turned inward, not to take up too much space….

The sun had not yet risen on the Bobruisk sky and the town was bustling. The merchandise was already laid out on the ground, on tables, on wagons…every type of merchandise had its regular spot, her corner in the marketplace. Here are heads of cabbage, green and white, small and big-whole mountains. A little farther-barrels of apples: white, red, yellow and small, sweet and sour and even wild, hard apples from which kvas (an extremely popular fermented beverage with very low alcohol content) is made. On the wagons: wheat, corn, beans, pea, oats, barley.

The center is taken by booths-a whole row-with bread, white rolls, bagel and all sorts of baked goods. In a corner are the coopers with their barrels, troughs, pails and tubs. Near them the tinsmiths displayed their painted green-blue pails, white buckets, graters, spoons. The sun shone on the tin and burst into beams. Higher up were the wheelwrights with their wheels, covered with iron rings. The cap makers displayed mountains of hats on their tables: black, green, blue with sparkling decorations. When one puts on such a hat, you look truly handsome….

Here the shoemakers have their steady spot, and they set out pairs of brand new boots, in high and low styles. Jewish women deal in sparkling thimbles, spread on the ground or on tables, with satchels, wide and narrow, rings and earrings-jewelry, for the village beauties. Gentile men and women sell lithographic portraits of the Czar and the Czarina, pictures of Jesus and the holy mother, war pictures, which show the bravery of the Russian army. And young thugs who can't resist the temptation and in the bustle, try to steal…if one of the Russian peasants catches them, blows and curses fly and it bubbles like in a kettle. Gentile potters bring clay pots for sale, bowls, jugs and steamers. The flower pots are filled with flowers. Pinging sounds are heard-customers are tapping the vessels to see if they are cracked.

A little to the side is the horse market. Three types of people trade here: Jews, Gentiles and Gypsies. The Jews are the middlemen. They act as brokers between one gentile and another, between buyer and seller. The Gypsies bring their own as well as stolen horses and the negotiations proceed. The gentile taps the horse on all sides, looks at the hoofs, looks at his teeth, tests the horse by harnessing him, then they bargain. They swear, they shake their heads, pat each other on the back, and the horses, in their own language, seem to have their say: snorting, shaking their tails and tearing pieces of earth with their shod hoofs….

And the stores are full, packed, busy…they bargain until they are hoarse, praise the merchandise to the heavens, measure the cloth, count the money and they yell to a daughter or son: “As God loves you, watch the customer, they can rob us.…”

Jews race around, from wagon to wagon, sticking a hand into a sack of wheat, tapping a calf, a hen-it's a bustling affair. The heavens open. Their faces are flushed, hats are pushed back, sweat is running from their foreheads.

Gentiles come to the market on Sunday, not only to buy and sell, to drink, to have fun. They take a bottle of whiskey out of their sacks, a drumstick and they eat in the middle of the market or at the tea houses, where after the whiskey, they have a roll, bagel or salted herring. And if anyone takes something dairy and some cream sticks to their mustache, they take it off with their finger-back into the pot lest it go to waste.

At nightfall, each Gentile is preparing to leave.… Their pockets are clinging with coins and their heads are rushing with whiskey. It's lively, happy and homey. The Gentiles kiss each other, cry and curse. Others, drunk, fall asleep in the middle of the market on the pavement, since it is now quiet in the market. Wagons now empty, take to the roads, to the wooden bridge over the Berezina. They are going home. Jews gather up their merchandise, they count their money and are happy. “Blessed is his name.” Soon they go home, rest, have something to eat after a hard day's work.

[Page 640]

Slobode: Fragments of a poem

by Moishke Levin

Translated by Odelia Alroy


A thought of my boyhood keeps reverberating
And shivers go through me…
I remember our old home
How my youth passed in suffering

I can't forget you, my lowly house
Your damp grey mold, your broken roof!
That's why I now recall you in song
Because there are still many such houses


There, outside the town, in out of the way streets
Little houses are spread out like snakes
Broken fences, old and foul
Lawns and gardens crying in trash

And no one thinks
Of coming there and finding out how they are:
They quickly pass the stench
Which springs from the houses with bitter woe


The houses stand old, hunched
And look beat [bent?], bowed to the ground
The green roofs, shabby, full of holes,
Others-wrecks, ruined by age

The window panes-stuffed; broken;
All-dirty, full of webs
Openings stuffed with rags
So the shivery fall wind should not blow in


Here live only poor porters, and shoemakers,
And tailors who sew and break their necks,
And beggars, hunched, sick and coughing,
And women who stand in the market with baskets

Small children, crying and screaming
They are begging for bread
The mother is weak-she bends over
And screams to God about her bitter need

It's dark in the house full of cobwebs and rags,
And there is often harsh coughing:
Here the father sits in a corner, pale
With gasping breath, and a sore chest

He sits at his worktable, sick, bent
Hunched and blind from sewing:
Glasses don't even help
So he has to call a child to thread the needle

A fall cloud-covered sky threatens
Darkens the day which passes quickly
A rain falls and pounds on the pane
A fall wind blows harshly


New sewing machines hum in the houses!
Tailors and seamstresses-all: they sew
They are driven from the grey dawn
And everyone hurries until the day is over

Everyone works, everyone sews
Hammers are banging, now high, now low
Carpenters with planes, chisels turning
Splinters, chips fall all over

In narrow rooms, stuffy
They sit on barrels, bent, drawn
There is much noise coming from there:
They are plucking goose feathers

They are plucking for the market and for stores
Each daughter helps as does each child
Young hands, so swift
Work well and as quickly as their mothers

Sleeves are rolled up on well-worn hands
No one says: “It hurts and I'm tired”
It's roaring everywhere
And each one sings


Songs are heard in all the workshops
Songs which oppose those in power
They think of a brother, a brother-in-law, a father
Who fell like heroes in battle

And old people tell and young people listen
And each has hatred in his heart
And the young and strong make fists
And soon there will be a battle in town streets

Trouble burns in each heart
Wakes the anguish and bitter sweet
Dripping from the dark, sweaty faces
Into their greasy laps


Barefoot boys run in the streets
Cigars in their mouths, smoking;
One winks to the other
Showing the pigeons, flying high!

And suddenly shadows appear
And the boys run away
They run after the pigeons
And jump over a hedge.

A strong fall rain
The houses cry out in the rain
Mud forms in the Sloboke paths
And people look wistfully out of the windows

And thick clouds cover the skies
The day passes and night comes:
A dream falls over the houses
The streets are worried, tired


There in a court, near the faraway barn
Stand some young people, bent over the fence
The sun never shines here
No one knows the great need.

Here stands a sad widow near the oven-
Head bent over a laundry tub
Flickers of flame from the oven
Light her eyes and darken her tears

She is washing for the fat madams
From grey dawn until late at night;
Each limb is already exhausted
And she has not even thought of resting

She is sweating
She sighs, thinking winter is coming

She knows not what to do with her children When winter comes with suffering and pain

The winds are howling outside
Nearly blowing down the house
Her ears hear the roar
She thinks about winter, in a worried mood

The children are sleeping, hugging each other:
A part of the night has passed
But little Shaya, looks at his mother
Watchfully, he regards her face

He tries to console her with words,
And throws loving glances at her
Oh, loving mother, my good and true one
I won't forsake you, though I am still small

My uncle will yet say
That he will send me to learn how to operate the machines
Oh, how lucky I will be
When you will wake me to go to work.

And there will I work, hammering or as a smith
With my two young and capable hands
And you won't have to bend and struggle
And wash laundry for strange devils.

Because I will support you with my youthful craft
And you will not know any more sorrow and pain
A joy will overtake you
Sunny and light


The walls are darkened by the smoky fire,
It is gloomy, the house is quiet.
But far in a corner, somewhere hidden,
A cricket chirps.

[Page 652]

My “Little Town” Bobruisk

by Meier Soloff

Translated by Odelia Alroy


1. The Citadel

Not only I, but also my father, may he rest in peace, Reb David Solovyov-were born in Bobruisk. Our house was next to Reb Motl Eizenstat's, whose children, Shakhne and Rachel, were swept up by the Pioneer movement and made aliyah to Eretz Yisroel. He, Reb Motl, was a man of status, a town inspector.

We lived not far from the “Polygon”-a military drill field, which caught and bewitched my childish fantasy with its spacious landscape, endless horizon, and with the old Citadel-built at the time of the war with Napoleon-whose walls and jails were heavy, massive and secret.


2. My father, may his memory be as a blessing

In this very Citadel, my father, who was known for his honesty and diligence, was a property owner. He had contact with the officers and those who supplied provisions for the soldiers, who were quartered in the surrounding barracks.

In community life, my father was prominent and respected. He was the Gabbai in our shul “Chevra Levaiah” for 34 years and was a member of the local council-a position to which a Jew could not easily attain. And who do you think would underwrite the funds from which the policemaster would get his wage? Indeed, Reb David Solovyov, by his honor and his wealth.


3. With the force of an intermediary

The following episode is etched in my memory: once, on the evening of Yom Kippur, when the people were saying their prayers, the Kazianer Rabbi suddenly appeared in our shul. What happened? He asked my father a favor, that he go with him to ask the “higher-ups” to release the Jewish soldiers from the barracks.

My father didn't say a word, he took off his robe and his tallis and went. And when the officer on duty heard the request, he called out: You, Solovyov, I know and I'll release them for you. And it was said and done. The Jewish soldiers came exactly for Kol Nidre. They stayed and enjoyed the holiday treat.


4. Women and Lessons In Russian

From cheder I went to a yeshiva in Abraham Yudel's shul, which was headed by Reb Abraham Itche. I remember a piquant story from that time.

Bertshe Etinger was a wealthy Jew. His daughter would give lessons and teach Jewish boys Russian. And I went to Reb Bertshe like a yeshiva-bocher and asked stupidly:

– Reb Bertshe, may I go to a girl three times a week?

– You fool! You come to ask me such a question? Reb Bertsche slammed the lectern angrily.

And the questioner, embarrassed, mumbled:

– A woman and lessons in Russian!

– So speak like a man! And the Rabbi softened. He gave permission to take lessons from the young woman – because the fathers were the patrons of the yeshiva.


5. Leaving the Yeshiva

The yeshiva didn't take to me. The Rabbi wanted me to learn all the details. It never occurred to him that it could be hard and complex. And when he would ask me to say some Gemorah I would see black. Until one fine morning I decided:

– It's enough. Leave the yeshiva.

My father was silent about the whole issue. With luck, I became a clerk at Kastelanskins, a rich Jew, a lumber merchant, who also had a textile business in Bobruisk.

That was at the end of the last century.


6. The First Swallows

In 1902 the first thoughts of organizing professionally began. The Jewish clerks were the “first ones.” They founded the “Bobruisk Union” which was involved with all the worker circles which were under the direction of the Interior Minister Zubatov. This short period is known by the name “Zubatovshina.”

It didn't take long and in the union there crystallized a small Zionist-Socialist group – mainly intellectuals – who later founded the Poale Zion. [The “Workers of Zion” was a Marxist/Zionist movement.]

We didn't see any contradiction between us and the members of other parties, who were in the union of Jewish clerks.

In the meanwhile, the government stopped allowing open meetings. The workers' groups had no choice but to conduct their activities in secret. Poale-Zion and Bund and others went in this direction.


7. Herzl's Death

1904. Bobruisk was steeped in sorrow because of the death of Benjamin Zev Herzl. We received permission to have a memorial service at the cemetery. With trembling, we boys and girls stood and listened to the speeches. The crowd wept.

Suddenly – it happened! Members of the “Bund” broke in and tried to interrupt the speeches with songs and shouts. A tumult broke out, a terror. The policemaster pleaded: “Children, what are you doing? It's a holy place!” But his voice was a call in the wild. There was fighting. I was beaten. But I did not do nothing. After the meeting we dispersed.

I have been young and I have been old and I still recall that meeting.


8. “Blessed be the light of the flame”

Once we began to whisper that hard times are approaching for the Jews: Pogroms! I was already a member of the self defense group, at whose head was Simeon Lozinski, the elder brother of Kadish Loz, member of Degania Bet [a kibbutz in northern Israel founded in 1920] and President of the Knesset. I belonged to the fighting group.

And if Bobruisk escaped a pogrom and all that went along with it, it was due to the boys and girls who were prepared to fight. Those who would make the pogrom knew that we would not sit by, and that we are ready – not to bribe them and not to pray – to fight. And they heard it.

And we heard that in the neighboring town, Yasin, they are preparing to make a little riot. They want Jewish property. We, a group of boys, with arms in our pockets, came and showed that we aren't afraid and announced:

“Listen here. If you touch a hair on a Jew, we will make the blessing over fire, over your houses and crops. It will all go up in smoke, Do you understand?”

And when they understood that we meant what we said, and we would not let them get away with it, they got cold feet. There was no pogrom.


9. Friend, put away your arms

In the self-defense group were the finest of our youth, who belonged to various parties. This unity led to the strengthening of our Jewish ideologies although each group was organized separately. The threats brewed from outside but we were united.

In 1905, new winds started to blow in Russia. I and some of my friends decided to collect money from the Jewish rich, in order to buy arms. I was then working for Kastelanskins, who gave me a contribution of 1,000 rubles.

Before we entered his office with loaded guns, I said: “Guys, hide the arms. I work here!” But they didn't want to listen. We were young. We thought the world was ours. Chutzpah was a sign of knowledge and bravery.

Kastelansky countered:

– You, Solovyov, came with armed friends?

– Now I'm not your employee. We protect Jews and we need money.

My boss promised to give me 500 rubles the next day.


10. The Child Isn't Here

We had in our command 3 guns, 32 revolvers. A true treasure. I was the guard, the cleaner and polisher. Once I came and wanted to take them out of their hiding place and… they weren't there. I started to scream.

I was full of angst. I had no choice but to ask my father:

– Perhaps you saw the…?

My father looked at me sharply and lectured.

– You are killing me without a knife! My name and standing – are all at stake.

I knew that he was right. He was a supplier for the army. He had the faith of the government because of his reputation. Should someone find such a cache in his house – God forbid.

He showed me the attic. I cleaned and hid them in the forest, near the Berezina. A young strong man, Feite Braya, who worked as a porter lived there.


11. The Romantic Couples

There is where we, the Poale-Zion had our secret meetings. Usually, we would prepare couples, who would stroll dreamily, romantically, innocently in the area. But their eyes and ears were sharp to catch every covered path or rustle. They were the guards, to protect us from evil or the police.

Naturally, we would take our arms along. But something happened and some guys decided to play with the loaded guns and a bullet caught our friend, Bryna Katzenelson.

I had to bring her, wounded, as quickly as possible, to Dr. Fiertog, who knew all our secrets. Half dead, I got a sled, but on the way, this girl, to my great grief, died.

For a long time we couldn't forget what happened and we felt guilty. But we were young, stormy and lighthearted.


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