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[Pages 391-410]

The Goniondz Landscape

by Aryeh Khativah, Tel Aviv, Israel

Translated from Hebrew to Yiddish: Alf

Translated from Yiddish to English by Dr. Isaac Fine

A special love lies within each person's heart for the house in which he was born, for the town or city in which he took his first steps and in which he was reared. But the special love of the Goniondzer for the town of his birth surely has its root in the place's entrancing landscape: its woods, fields, hill, river, pastures and gardens. Thus it is fitting for us to establish a memorial for our town, the cradle of our childhood.

I transport myself in thought to the shtetl of my youth, and pass through its streets, stroll along its paths and out to the surrounding landscape. I stand on the synagogue hill and turn my face towards the north. On the edge of the horizon one can see an endless thick bluish black line. A mysterious veil covers that clump of forest. My eyes see through the high pine trees directly across from me. I see the straw roofs of Dolke village glistening from afar, on a hill of yellow sand. Perhaps the nymphs live there, or perhaps Nimrod, the hunting hero. A green carpet spreads forth under the black line, an unending grassy plain. One's glance falls on flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, and many contentedly grazing horses. Wagons laden with sweet smelling hay are seen over a broad expanse at the river's bank. From there, the hay will be carried by barge to the other side of the river, and then transported along the road leading to town. This is the river Bober, flowing by at the foot of the hill, and the joy of every child. Every rascal found a welcome place on the boats which floated along the currents of its waters. In the long summer evenings, the river shore was filled with crowds of bathers. Fleets of lumber barges glided along the twists and turns of the riverbed, and disappeared in the downward course to the west, with their lanterns twinkling in the distance. From the town square, at night when it was dark, the lights seemed like stars that had become lost on the earth. The Bober was not just a river for us. We scanned its waters looking for the papyrus box of little Moses. From the thicket of Klitsky's orchard, not far from the bathhouse, we thought we saw Miriam, Moses' sister, as she sought with weeping eyes the little box which moved increasingly further towards the middle of the river. We were especially proud of our river in springtime, when, with the melting snows, its waters overflowed up to the first barns. Wooden fences protruded above the surface of the water. On the other side, its waters licked the edges of the forest.

I shift my view from the scene, and move forward on the earthen path which passes behind the barns. I arrive at a fork. To the left, a sandy trail leads to the slaughterhouse. This is my shortcut, the Sabbath route, where my feet have trodden to the village of Klevyanke. During summer vacations I guarded an orchard there, which belonged to a wealthy landowner. The fruit was harvested during the Days of Awe . Piles of apples, pears and plums from the orchard were transported to town during the High Holy Days.

The way that leads to the right is the Christian street. On the corner one solitary Jew, Yankel the blacksmith, lived there among them. There were birch trees by every gate, and cherry trees encircling the houses. They were wooden houses throughout, some of them with straw roofs. It was a beautiful straight street, unpaved, and it had somewhat of an urban flavor. Pigs foraged there, and one heard their squealing from time to time. When they appeared in a Jewish backyard these creatures would be scalded with hot water. When Christians heard the pigs squealing at such moments, they would boil with anger at “Jewish nerve.” They believed the pigs should be allowed to roam freely in Jewish yards. Yankel the blacksmith's house was built before his time, an old moss covered wooden structure with a little porch on its street side. A few steps beyond, one finds his smith with smoke seeping out through the cracks in its walls. Through the open windows one hears the rhythmic wheezing of his bellows. Yankel stands at the door with his back to the bellows, always with a cigarette in his mouth. Tailors, cobblers and smiths were the most important tradesmen in town. Smiths established themselves on street corners and in the outskirts of town, on all the routes leading to the outlying villages. Yankel's smithy was the furthest from the center of town. In my fantasies I saw him as the smith who forged weapons for the Messiah, as described in a poem by David Frischman.

A few steps further on, and I am already on Dolistover Street. This street is the gateway to the greater outlying areas of Goniondz - to the granaries, to the herds of cattle, and flocks of sheep, and so on. On a market day, hundreds of wagons could be seen on that route, laden with fruit from field and garden. At night a late drunkard could be found staggering there, shouting and making a commotion. One turns left, and finds oneself in the path of the street which cuts through the suburbs, partially built up, and uncobbled. In a few minutes we come to the corner of the street. There and further ahead there are only fields, through which passes the highway coming from the west and descending towards the northeast. A row of poplars accompanies the highway along its entire length. Through the trees one can see a forest - Kolkovechisner Forest, which is located a little beyond the highway cutoff. In its continuation, the highway passes through it.

Of all the forests and little roads which surround the town, this forest is actually looked upon as the town forest. On Lag B'Omer , we students of the Hebrew School marched through it in a festive parade. With a white and blue flag in the lead, we children marched in pairs, strong and proud, singing Hebrew songs of spring and freedom. In the forest there were many old oak trees, and, in the space between them, many cut stumps and trunks, bearing witness to the intrusion of human hands. Further along are many birches, with wild bushes entangled between them. Little paths lead out from here, and no one knows where they lead. It's not difficult to find hiding places for playing here. The flowers hang overhead like tablecloth fringes, and dust from them sprays out over one's clothing.

This scene evoked a happy mood, even in our adult guides. These leaders of fun and song were our first teachers. There was Shimon Halpern, a dynamic and happy man who was ready for any mischief, just like his students. Accompanying him was “the long one”, Yoel-Mayer Cohen, self concentrated, with an ever-serious face. When he laughed he didn't open his lips. He was always humming a melody within himself, and God forbid you should disturb him! He was loved by his students for his fine voice and the joy he took in singing. When he took his tuning fork in hand, they were always quiet and attentive. We cavorted around and loved to hear his songs of the battles between our ancestors and the Romans during the time of Bar Kochba's uprising. From our more recent past, there were also melodies about the battles of our warriors with the Arabs in Eretz Yisroel. The Lag B'Omer march in the woods, sponsored by the school, served as an introduction for frequent wood walks. Groups of friends were accustomed to stroll around in the woods. They would pause at the forest warden's table to nourish themselves with black corn bread, cheese, and sour cream. The forest warden's house stood in the center of the forest, next to the path which separated the old woods from the new woods. The structure was near the well, which was built with moss covered stones. A pump stood over it, with an attached wooden bucket.

When one goes from the previous place onto Dolistover Street towards the right, one comes to the beginning of the cobbled street. This section of the street is empty on the south side, which is in the direction of the windmill. On the other side stands only one house, whitewashed and without any surrounding shade. That house had, at one time, been the post office. The beginning of the cobbled street heralds the beginning of the town, and marks its separation from the suburbs. Here one finds Jewish homes, one after the other. It was not as in other streets, though, where the houses are usually connected one to another. Here the houses stand separate, some with a small lot. I remember Dolistover Street with its wooden houses and their balconies and carved beams. The inhabitants were accustomed to sitting on their steps on summer evenings, shelling pumpkinseeds and conversing in loud voices. Alter-Yisroel's lumberyard, on the south side of the street, interrupted the continuity of homes on that side, and flawed its appearance. We children weren't concerned about that. We found a great fascination there, climbing on the boards without losing our balance, and swinging on boards which rode on the beams. There I saw an automobile for the first time, which was arriving at the Osoviec Fort when we were under the rule of “Fonya the Thief” (the Tzarist government).

A few steps further from there and the marketplace lies before us, in the shape of a long quadrangle. Four streets lead out from each of its four corners. In former times, a wooden building stood in the center of the marketplace, and it had served as a warehouse for fire brigade equipment. The adjacent building had been a temporary jail for street fighters and drunkards on a market day or Christian holy day. The western side of the marketplace forms almost a closed row of houses without any intervening space - beginning from Motke Kliap's home, up to the house of Nyevodovsky the watchmaker, and from there, to the access street which leads to the old marketplace. In that row, one finds two storied houses. In the first house from the right, with a balcony, various government officials had been quartered on the second floor. From its balcony, one had a view of the entire marketplace. My memory, however, quickly leads me to the second, whitewashed house. It was penetrated by a vaulted tunnel, which served as access for the dwellers in the yard. This was the home of the Nemoy family. Many of us recall its second floor. A school, reading room, and a meeting place for political discussions had been temporarily quartered there.

Later, the club for Jewish Zion haters was established there. From the cluster of memories attached to that building, one surfaces which is deeply etched in my memory. During a lecture on literature, our townsman the young writer Yudl Treschansky suddenly appeared in our class. He had decided to migrate to foreign lands, and wanted, as a farewell, to read us children the poem “Al Mio Rechov Yam Hatchelet” by Saul Tchernikovsky. He read, and we listened entranced. He laid out before us an endless ocean with countless waves “whose separation is without sadness and longing”, and whose waves moved in a rhythmic fashion. But we impressionable children felt a deep sorrow arising from Treschansky's departure. During that time many young people had taken the wandering stick in their hands. A feeling of loneliness and uprootedness would overwhelm those of us who remained.

The parallel row of houses, on the eastern side of the triangle, starts with the brick house owned by the Burak-Barsky family. It has two fronts, one to Dolistover Street, and the other to the marketplace. The wooden house of old Pandre was attached to it. On the other corner of that side, is Moshe Dobchak's house, which runs near the entrance to Dead Man's Alley. There one finds nothing particularly noteworthy.

I still remember the students of Diotke the teacher. Diotke's classroom was located in Moshe Dobchak's yard. In the center of that row was Mary's shop. “Schlomo the Colt's” little hand-operated soda water factory was located in her yard. Schlomo got his nickname from entertaining the children by neighing like a colt.

In winter, when a thick sheet of ice covered the river and fishing was impossible, in that corner of town one could buy smelts, brought from afar. These fish had a special aroma. When I remember that aroma, the snowstorms at the end of the month of Tevet arise before my vision. Piles of snow towered up before the passerby, and lay against the fences. The streets were deserted and pedestrians went running, impelled by the wind. When the water barrel was empty or frozen over, who could find the water carrier in such weather? Without any choice, one would take up a shoulder pole with two buckets and go up to the spring, or to the watermill in Dolke. To tear oneself away from the hearth in such weather was certainly not pleasant, yet one could nonetheless enjoy the warmth that came from activity and movement.

The row of houses beginning with Church Street is on the third side of the triangle continues up to the house of Beryl-Leib at the entrance to Dead Man's Alley. This row, unlike the previous one, is separated at three places by three alleys. One is at the entrance to the house that belonged to Yitzhak Furman the leather merchant, opposite the house of Moishe-Laizer the watchmaker. At its end, it meets with an alley which runs perpendicular to it, which begins with “The Tzarinas' House”, and continues to the home of Gedaliah Mondres, near the Church Street fence. On one side, at the corner, is located the house of Cherniak (Haskel Peretz). On the other side, the fence from the churchyard extends forward.

There were few houses in the first alley. Along the first half of its length, houses are found only on the right side. Further on, there are houses only on the left. Across, in the second alley, one finds not a single building that might attract the attention. One finds there a big empty lot which remained from a previous fire, after which there had not been reconstruction, leaving behind a few free and deserted places. In actuality, this openness was a contrast to the “house on house” architectural style of closed blocks of dwellings. Perhaps the Jewish homes in town clung one to the other in fear of the Christians, like a flock of sheep surrounded by a pack of wolves.

The children in town found the spot quite interesting, even though there was no construction there. There were pigeons, though, and of varying appearance and color. Just between ourselves, where will you find a youngster who isn't attracted to these delicate birds? We stood there many hours pressed against the high wooden fence pickets, to gratify our view of the priest's covey of pigeons. They would coo, hop on the ground, and then would suddenly fly in the air over our heads, circle in the air, and land on the red shingles of the church storehouse, where they had built a nest.

Church Street is the street of Sabbath walkers. The church fence takes up nearly half of its length. The continuation of the street leads to Dolke, where the watermill and the pond are found. Near it is a path that serves as shortcut to the highway. Hearing the name Dolke, the aroma of fresh pumpernickel bread wafts forth, intertwined with these fragrant leaves, which grows in Dolke. There, where the water is shallow, large flocks of storks found ample living space. They found abundant nourishment there and nested on nearby barns. These creatures would step quietly, conveying an impression of dignity and self worth.

A little further on, by the broad path which leads to the highway, one notices the tower of the Christian cemetery, and the gate which leads to it. The willows on both sides of the highway cover them, yet one sees them clearly, since the way from the highway to the cemetery gradually ascends. In seeing the many crosses within we would always say, “Sheketz Tischektseno” (Deuteronomy Ch 27). We passersby would look in, over the not very high stone wall that encircled it. Inside, well-cultivated beds of flowers between rows of high pines, with pine needles cleared away from the path, greeted the view. Above, the pine tree branches were clumped together in a dark mass, which conveyed a sense of sadness, both in their stillness and by their waving in the wind.

A short distance further on the same road is located the Jewish cemetery, in the midst of fields on the main road to the village of Dovnari and which lies near the highway leading to the provincial capital of Bialystok. The stone wall, which surrounds it, is visible to the passerby on the right, easterly side, bordering the road. Within, its high grass, thorns, and weeds give an overall appearance of neglect. The pine trees, which grow on its periphery, are very low. Perhaps our ancestors, may their memory be for a blessing, observant and faithful, felt that since the dead will rise and come to the Promised Land when the Messiah comes, it is therefore not worthwhile to occupy oneself with this temporary earthly station.

The row of houses on the second side of the street, parallel with the churchyard fence, end with the building of the “skole” - the Russian school. Only its walls remain, a remembrance of the great destruction. There one finds no large homes or any businesses. The inhabitants of the homes here are workers, and manual labor is their calling. They have green gardens behind their homes, an auxiliary to making a livelihood. The cobblestones lead up to the church gate and end there. This is also the boundary for town strollers. They walk to that area, remain standing for a while gazing at the houses and barns of Guzi, and then return. The village of Guzi lies to the west, further on, and is clearly seen. The road to it descends from the Russian school, and lies open before the eyes, unobscured by any structures. One can hear the scraping wheels of the wagons, as they move in a straight line between the fence poles on both sides of that road. Although Church Street is a street in the center of town, in the early afternoon hours one could not find a better place for a friendly chat, a discussion, or a stroll with a guest who has come to town to give a lecture. On Sabbath and High Holy Day evenings, the street is full of youths, strolling by starlight. There were no lanterns on these streets.

Now I step forth, and in a few minutes, arrive at Dead Man's Alley. It surely was not proper to attach such a horrible, frightening name to this street. Simply because the town corpses were transported through there, was it needful to give it such a melancholy title? In all, this little street consists of two very short rows of houses. Its inhabitants are Jewish manual laborers and small businessmen. Only one shop is found there, the shop of Yashe Kolshevsky, on the corner of the left row. When I recall this Christian, I never cease to wonder. His pure Yiddish was intermingled with Talmud words, and his diction was superior to that of many of his Jewish neighbors.

If you find yourself here on a warm summer day, and you have leisure time, it's worth the while to turn left. Moving in this direction, you'll arrive at the top of the hill on which two windmills stand. At the start of this route there are only a few houses on either side, inhabited by Christians. Further on, one passes by a row of barns built on only one side of the street. The hill itself is bare and open on all directions. A cool refreshing breeze meets one while grating and scraping sounds emerge from the mill. Giant, cross-shaped wings revolve from one place. If one wishes quietness and solitude, however, and to gratify oneself with a view of the beautiful landscape, it is better to turn back to the departure point, to the house of Yashe Kolshevsky. From there, turn aside on the path to the right. You will find yourself in a cultivated field, in which there is a path leading to the hill with the little Catholic shrine. There is no trodden path to the top of the hill, seemingly designed for the taste of those that take pleasure in solitude. There, one feels no glance of a strange eye.

The same highway shortcut is intersected by a brook which comes from Rave. From that point and further on it is hidden behind the highland through which it continues in the direction of Sochovole and Grodno. The brook currents move forward on their way to the Bober River into which it flows, after passing by two windmills, one in Dolke and the other in Guzi. The latter belongs to Mayer Guzer of the Plaskovsky family. The willows on both sides of the highway are swallowed up between the trees and bushes that grow in the water-rich soil of the area. During summer evenings, the highway was noisy with crowds of strollers, just as one might find on a city street. The trees and the intermingled growth gave the place the attractiveness of a city park. Couples ambled back and forth there. Zionist pioneers (chalutzim) used to walk there in closed ranks, and took up the whole breadth of the highway while singing with vigor. Every new song, which arrived from Eretz Yisroel by messengers, first came to them and then was passed on from them to the whole shtetl. After the pioneer organization was established by the Hebrew school teacher Mordechai Nielovitsky on the synagogue hill, a marked change took place in the atmosphere of the town. Concerns about family prestige became outdated. We no longer heard the comment “It's proper to associate with this one, but not with that other one.” This elimination of class prejudice filled us with pride. Youngsters from prosperous families began to take an interest in learning a trade. Some moved away to the pioneer preparation station. Agricultural labor was considered the most highly esteemed trade.

The vision of being a farmer in Eretz Yisroel, and wresting your own sustenance from the earth, had entranced us all. Our fathers and mothers were concerned for us, and showed us the strenuous labor of the local farmers. In the hidden places of their hearts, though, they also had been caught up by the wonderful dream of being a tranquil agricultural worker, tilling his own soil in his own nation. Therefore, they didn't place any obstacles in our paths. We believed that plowing was the most important aspect of agricultural work. We'd go out to the surrounding fields and ask the farmers if they would show us how to do this kind of work.

The last side of the rectangle, which makes up the town-square, includes the row of houses from the transit street of the old marketplace up to the beginning of Dolistover Street, by Sarah the baker's house. That same row, with six two storied homes, gives the shtetl the appearance of a real city. But that same row, just as its opposite, is interrupted by two alleys which open out from it. One alley starts with the whitewashed house of the Luria family. That spot is the lowest ground in the marketplace. Rainwater flowed noisily through that area on its steep descent down to the river. It's an especially good place for sliding with a sled in wintertime. Its whole right side is covered with rubbish and segments of bricks. The entire place has been deserted since the great fire, and remains empty with the exception of the tailor's wooden house, which clung to the synagogue hill and was not reached by the flames. Across, on the left side, there is dense construction up to the place where the hill descends sharply. When I encounter the phrase “between two mountains”, I see myself standing in the deep valley between the steep brush of the synagogue hill and its opposing hill -which is also quite steep. Beneath that hill, on its western cliff, the brewery of Yankel Rudsky stands. For many years, it served as a sort of temporary theater for performances of local amateur groups, and also occasional traveling theater companies.

At the entrance of the second alley from the right stands the house of Manye Tsukert. The Hebrew School was founded on the second floor of that same house. A new epoch was begun in town with the establishment of that school. A fresh springtime wind passed through the town's atmosphere. Life took on a new rhythm. Youngsters from all social ranks intermingled within the boundaries of the classroom, sitting on one school bench. The school sponsored walks outside of town for fun and for learning about the vegetation in the area. These walks awakened a love for the flowers and landscape of the region in us children. Later, in these walks, we learned about the landscape of our own nation. Within the classroom walls, our diligent studies awakened in us a love for our people and for the rebirth of our fatherland. Happy evenings and presentations drew out crowds of people, and brought refreshment and new vitality to the shtetl. The imprint of the Hebrew School was felt everywhere. Thanks and blessings go to the founder, Moshe Levine.

The House of Study stands in the same little street, a wooden building with many windows on all sides. Within, an enormous oven served as separation between the men's and women's section. This place was a house for prayer, learning and community meeting. Its doors stood open all day and evening. Our parents, who worked hard to make a living for their families, found rest and refreshment there in praying and in studying, either alone or with the community. There we would say three times a day “May our eyes see the return to Zion.”

The house of Benjamin the scribe separated the House of Study from the synagogue yard. It was a low wooden building with an orchard behind it that ran down the hill. On the side, wooden steps descended to the valley, from which one's view of the orchard is blocked. The red cherries on top of the trees would stimulate the appetite of those studying in the House of Study when they glanced out of the windows facing in that direction. The image of Benjamin is etched in the hearts of many of us. Benjamin, the good-natured scribe, the lover of children, who used to kid with us and befriend us with a sip of kiddush wine.

A Goniondzer living in a foreign land remembers the synagogue when he remembers his home-town. Perhaps he will not remember every detail of his own house. But he recalls every aspect of the synagogue decoration. The synagogue stood in a broad open place, with willows planted near the fence, except for the side in the direction of the street. This community area was a sort of “independent territory” for us, separated from the Christian parts of town. The slopes on the right and left sides of the hill, combined with the broad flatland in front (across from the river) gave the place the appearance of a boulder on the shore of the sea, with two arms of water reaching out on the two sides of the dry land. The synagogue building, which stood near the corner of the open area, was visible from quite a distance. The impressive surrounding vista could not be seen from within the building, since the windows were high. Perhaps the building was constructed in this way so that the worshippers could pray in concentration, free of distraction from the beautiful surroundings. From the windows within, one could see only the heavens. The entire body of worshippers would seek out the synagogue for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. From Succos on, with the beginning of the cold weather, the group of attending congregants diminished. Only a minyan or two remained faithful to the synagogue without any break in continuity during the great frosts. These were mainly young folk, including the non-observant who had a feeling for tradition and loved the loved songs of prayer.

The new marketplace was connected to the old marketplace by a short little transit street with shops on both sides. There one finds nothing that bears witness to the antiquity of the place, except for the wooden house of extraordinary appearance which belonged to the Viliamasky family. This place served as station for the village folk from the other side of the river, and to the train station at the Osoviec fort.

On the road, which serves as doorway to the greater world, guests and travelers from outside come to us, and by the same way, sons and daughters have leave the shtetl to go out to the entire world. On their last ride to the train station, the rattling of the wagon wheels against the stone cobbles of the street continues to echo in their ears, through the village of Guzi up to the shortcut to the highway, near the pond of Meyer Guzers' watermill. Entering the fort one passes through iron towers and casts a backward glance at the deep-water canal which passes on the left side. Its water is always black and still. All around it, the trees, bushes and steep hill convey a sense of mystery akin to the feelings of he who is departing -and later to those who were deported to the concentration camps.

Let us hope that the story of the shtetl of Goniondz, and the tragic epilogue of that story, will convey a lesson to our sons and daughters who are scattered throughout the world, not to reconstruct such Goniondzes in foreign lands. For our home is where our heritage lies and where the waves of the blue Mediterranean lick its shores with love.


[Pages 423-436 - Yiddish] [Pages 411-422 - Hebrew]

Long Ago in Goniondz;
A Bundle of Memories

by Avraham Yaffe, Tel Aviv, Israel

Translated from Hebrew to Yiddish by M. Goelman

Translated from Yiddish to English by Dr. Isaac Fine

Our shtetl had no knowledge of the theaters and concerts of the greater world. We did have a group of town youth, though, who enjoyed presenting, from time to time, a theatrical piece such as Goldfadden's “David and Goliath,” “Bar Kochba,” and many others. I remember the role of Saul's daughter, Michal, in “David and Goliath”. It was enacted by Dorach-Sheimash Vikotsky, and he took the role of a young woman. In those days, women were not allowed to take part in dramatic presentations. The theater season was generally Purim time, and the location was Itshe Anshel's great storage structure, which was to be found in the alley across from the priest's garden. There were also entertainments put on by the Zionists, who presented Zionist melodies as well as folk songs. The lead singers were the son of Sheimash, Yossel, Zorach, and Pesach.

One house in the shtetl was the center for song throughout the entire year, particularly during religious festivals. This was the residence of Cantor Nochum Amdurer. His dwelling was located in Avram- Moishe's house, across from the post office on the corner of Dolistover Street. The Cantor Nochum Amdurer was a beardless man of average stature. He was always seen with a hat and a long coat. Nochum was a schochet, a ritual slaughterer. Day by day he and Yankel, the other schochet would go to the slaughterhouse. On the evening before Yom Kippur, everyone would bring the chickens for slinging to their home. In the fall, when geese and calves were in season at the market, the two men would go to various homes in the town and slaughter them in the prescribed kosher manner. From my childhood years, I remember being with Avram-Moishe, the son of Yankel the schochet, along with his father in the slaughterhouse. During our return back home afterwards, we met a Christian on the path along the way. We clung to our patron, Yankel for protection, being frightened of Christians at that time. As he passed, Yankel bowed down to him and greeted him with a very submissive “Good morning!” The Christian was willing to answer but glanced in our direction. Immediately afterwards, Yankel gave us a lesson. When a Jew passes a Christian, he must greet him. That way he can be sure that he hasn't slighted him. The image of spilled blood in the slaughterhouse and that encounter with the Christian man saddened our childlike mood.

During the month of Elul, prior to the Days of Awe , when even the fish were trembling in the water, the Cantor's residence was transformed into a temple of music. It drew the attention of everyone, great and small. Each day the Cantor and his choir would be preparing themselves for the prayers of the High Holy Days, singing new as well as familiar melodies. The cool winds of Elul and the voice of the shofar (ram's horn) all contributed to the seriousness of the Jewish mood during that particular time period. At this time, world Jewry is held accountable for the condition of their souls. One must prepare oneself for the Day of Judgment and it is well, indeed, for he who is prepared. The Days of Awe began with the first night of slichos of Rosh Hashana. The introduction was the Sabbath evening, when by tradition the Cantor and his choir sang the chapter from Psalms, “Lamnatzeiyach bin ginos mizmor shir.” It continued with “Elohim, yoducho omim kulom (All nations will praise the Lord all nations in unison)” and then, “Eretz nosno yevulo, yivorcheinu Elohim eloheinu (The earth gives of its bounty, bless us Lord our God.)” A sense of awe would overcome over the assembled congregants in the dark Sabbath night, “Gilu B'rodo (Rejoice in trembling).”

From my childhood years, I remember the alley which led from the marketplace to the House of Study and the synagogue hill. It was between the shop of Gershon-Leib and Chayim Koppelman on one side, and the store of Yente Chaya-Feigel's on the other (this was at the beginning of the twentieth century). During the time of the great winter rains, the alley was transformed into a muddy swamp. One dark evening at that time of year, while I was walking, plopping through the mud, to the House of Study for a Torah lesson, I tripped over some wooden boards which were lying in front of Moishe Dinge's house. I fell and was covered with mud. Entering the House of Study, black as a Negro, I was seen by Mordche, the assistant sexton, of whom the children were frightened to death. At that moment, he was adding fuel to the great oven which covered one third of the House of Study wall. His custom was to fill it with large pieces of wood, shut the oven doors, lock them, and then go home. After he left, the boys who were studying there used to bake hot potatoes on the oven. Sometimes one of them would bring along a herring, and baking it there was a great joy. Seeing me, Mordche grabbed the wet towel which hung by the basin and remained there from one Sabbath evening to the next. The worshippers always dried their hands with it, after saying, “Asher yotzar” the prayer traditionally said in the European shtetl after leaving the bathroom: “Baruch atoh Adonai Elohainu melech ho'olom asher yatzar et ha'adam b'chachma, nikavim, chalulim, chalulim, galui ...” translation: Blessed art Thou O God, king of the universe who has formed man in wisdom making within him a system of ducts and tubes. It is well known that before Thy glorious throne that if one of those be opened, or if one of those would be closed, it would be impossible to exist in Thy presence. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who healeth all creatures and does wonders.

A lighting system for the road to the synagogue hill was installed at the same time that cobblestones were put in the alley of the House of Study. The energetic sexton, Eleizer-Laishke Neivodovski, who had made many improvements in the interior of the synagogue, had sawed a series of large poles from which hung big petroleum lamps, which lit the way to the synagogue hill and the synagogue. On the first night of Slichos, the scribe, Benjamin, would kindle the lantern lights for half of the entire night. Throughout the year, generally speaking, the lanterns were lit only on the evening of Sabbath on religious festivals.

In those days, it was the only lighted street in the entire shtetl. The night of Slichos was an all night event in the residence of Reb Nochum, the cantor. The choir members remained there rehearsing Slichos songs from the end of the Sabbath, until midnight. The Cantor's wife would strengthen them with tea and milk, which promoted a clear voice. After rehearsal was over, the choir would climb up on the large oven in the kitchen, and catch a nap until it was almost time for Slichos. From the distance, one could see the bright light coming from the windows of the House of Study. The community gathered together and the wealthy man of the town, Yahatzkel Bialototsky, would appear with his son Chayim. Chayim was a student at the high school in Grodno, and wore his school uniform with its shiny brass buttons. They would arrive from their house, which was near the lumber mill by the river. Mordche, the assistant sexton, would be running around the House of Study very excitedly, seeing that everything was in order. Yehatzkel would give a wink to Motke, the teacher, that he should come forward to the lectern. Ische- Leib, the main sexton, would be standing on the altar with his assistant, Mordche. A loud knock was then heard from the wooden clapper resounding against the table and all was still. Motke, the teacher, with his prayer shawl covering his head, moved forward with a serious step to the lectern and with his powerful voice broke forth in the traditional “Yiskadal, yiskadash.” The entire House of Study became filled with holy awe. The Jews prayed the Slichos service with great fervor. An hour after the conclusion of the Slichos service in the House of Study, a movement began in the Cantor's residence. The Cantor awakened his choir and went out with them to the road leading to the main synagogue. A light was shining out from the windows of the synagogue where the Slichos service would be held somewhat later. We pass by the House of Study, which was already darkened again, but the lights from the synagogue's windows and from the lanterns along the way brightened the path.

The synagogue was filled. The sexton, Benjamin the scribe, stood on the altar after lighting all the candles and lamps. The Cantor was with his choir by the lectern, and thus began Slichos. Song filled the entire large room, and all the congregants joined in. After a while, one would go outside and stand on the synagogue hill. In the evening stillness, stars would winkle and twinkle from on high. Not far from the foot of the hill, the river Bober passed by with a quiet whisper. On the other side of the river the forests were dark, enveloped in the darkness of the night. Only from the northwest direction, towards the Osoviec Fort, a dim light could be seen emerging from some of the houses in the village of Dolke. Perhaps a Jew who lived out there in the outlying suburbs was rising for Slichos. A deep stillness was conveyed from the distant forests and marshes. A bird twittered in his nest. From behind the red bricked, red-roofed bathhouse the frogs had silenced their croaking. One stood intoxicated, encountering the dark horizon in the night stillness. Yes, this was the first Slichos night for a faithful Jewish community. All was quiet for that community, in holy stillness.

The morning after Slichos, the congregation prayed in its usual fashion. Leaving the synagogue, the whole shtetl was enveloped in a grayish-white fog. The fog began to lift and separate like the holy smoke from the altar incense. During the morning services the blowing of the shofar reached to the loftiest realms of Heaven. In the alley of the House of Study, which lead to the main marketplace, a shop door opens here and there. A crowd of Christians thronged to the church on Tifle (Church) Street. A weekday has come to the shtetl.

All the seven days prior to Rosh Hashana , people arose early to say Slichos and then to blow the shofar after morning prayers. In the shtetl marketplace, the glances of customers were especially drawn to the watermelons cut in halves, quarters and eighths. There were also, of course, the grapes. These last two items were brought from afar, and were quite expensive. They were only available for purchase for Rosh Hashana so that one could make the “shecheyonu” blessing on the second night of Rosh Hashana. All these activities heralded the approaching Days of Awe. In the House of Study, there was much preparation. The gabbayim were busy selling seats. Among those who came to the House of Study at this time were some who added an additional Psalm or an additional chapter from Prophets or the Mishna to their study after the morning service, in reverence for the special days which lay ahead. One needed to mobilize oneself. The Day of Judgment approached. There were ten miracles which our ancestors experienced in the Temple. One of them was when they were standing clustered together for prayer. When it was time to kneel, there was enough space for all. This miracle did not happen in our House of Study during the Days of Awe. All the small minyans which met in the shtetl throughout the year were closed and locked during the Days of Awe. There were two exceptions to this pattern. One was the minyan of Moshe Lemborg Kramkover. The other was a little shtibl , Nimas Tsdek, which met in the house of Gershon-Lieb. At this time, all the others came to the House of Study or the Synagogue. In addition, many Jews who lived in outlying areas came to town with their families, to pray with the communities. Unlike the House of Study, the Synagogue had a very high roof, which eliminated any feeling of overcrowding among the congregants. But within the House of Study, the main room and the hallway filled up with those sitting and standing so that it was almost impossible to move. The air was stuffy and uncomfortable, and there was a great deal of perspiration. The square skylights were opened, in order to improve the free flow of fresh air. There were a few, who, unable to tolerate the discomfort, would change their place of prayer and pray at the Synagogue during the High Holy Days. Reb Nochum, the cantor, prayed alternately at the House of Study and the Synagogue during Rosh Hashana. For evening services, Yankel the schochet prayed once in the House of Study and once in the Synagogue, seated to the right of the Holy Ark. During the Days of Awe, he prayed in the Synagogue. On these occasions, Yankel's place in the House of Study was taken by Yehatzkel Bialototsky, who was a wealthy townsman and owned the lumber mill. Yehatzkel also was the primary advocate for the Jewish community of the town with the local Russian government authorities. His nickname in town was Yehatzkel-Moishe's.

How did the prayer of Yankel the shochet and Reb Nochum differ? When Yankel would begin his praying “Borchu” of the evening service, one felt the passion in his voice as he hummed. He was a Chassid. His white overgarment, beard, and earlocks added a further sense of intensity to his appearance. His thin voice shrieked out like the sound of a bleating little lamb. Listening to him would remind us that Israel is like a lost lamb. The warmth coming from him warmed the hearts of the worshippers present. It was different with the cantor, Reb Nochum. He was a competent reader of music, and had a choir wherein one simultaneously heard four voices - a soprano, an alto, a tenor, and a bass. His special talent, though, was for singing prayers which moved one to tears.

Among the youth who sang in the choir, I remember Peisach-Shammesh and Moishke, the son of the cantor. They were sopranos. Eliyahu, the oldest son of the Chassid, and Zaitke, the son of Koppel the teacher were the altos. The altos were Avramel Schmuel's and Achi Sender, the writer. The tenors and basses were all apprentices in ritual slaughter to the Chassid who was also a schochet. Most of the week, they sat in the House of Study and learned Gemara . Between them were the two sons of the Cantor's daughters, as well as the man who later became the Chassid's son-in-law, Nochum Vilkomersky. Nochum later became the father of the singer, Avram Vilkomersky. Nochum was an intelligent and studious youngster. He usually could be found learning diligently in the House of Study. He also regularly read a Jewish periodical, and often chatted with those in the House of Study about this topic or that. Later on, Vilkomersky relocated to Germany to complete his studies in music and singing - especially religious music. Later, he became famous as a great cantor. In keeping with the requests of those among the worshippers who particularly enjoyed singing, the choir youths, during weekdays, would repeat certain holiday prayers and songs in the shtibl. On the Sabbath of the New Moon, the appreciative congregation would shower them with compliments and praises, which were their reward.

Mayer Bodner enjoyed the traditional prerogative of praying the Musaf services on Rosh Hashana. He was called Bodner because he came from the small village of the same name. Mayer was a Jew of quite diminutive stature, with a long white beard. The congregation suffered from this traditional prerogative, but no one dared to challenge him. It is said that he who would lead the congregation in prayer is required to wear a beard, have a pleasant manner, and in addition, a sweet voice. Mayer Bodner did not meet the last of these three requirements. From my youth, I recall that his voice would emerge from him as something coming forth from the ground. One could only hear the air from his mouth and his “oy, oy, oy!”. His voice was neither powerful nor sweet. He could only moan, “oy, oy, oy!” I recall one occasion during Musaf of Rosh Hashana when Velvel Kaminetzky was standing at the right of the lectern where the Cantor prayed. Velvel sat across from his father, Gedaliah Kaminetzky (whose place was in the east corner, to the right side of the Holy Ark) and was singing to the prayer, “How Shall One Die?” with “Who By Fire ...”. Mayer Bodner excitedly spread out his hands as he prayed. Velvel got a fiery slap on his head, and his hat went flying. The entire congregation couldn't keep from laughing, even though this occurred in the middle of “Uktsaneh Tokef”, one of the most solemn prayers of that day.

The Cantor Reb Nochum wore a kittel, a white gown, with his tallis over his shoulders. His tenor voice was not particularly powerful. He would begin “Hineni” with a loud voice, walking forward towards the Synagogue altar. His voice brought forth tears from the congregation while the choir responded to him in unison with “Hineni m' maas”. One felt that this prayer had the power to open the gates of Heaven, and that the gates of Mercy had not closed. In my youth, I would see the Cantor on his knees on the floor, praying in a loud voice and then falling on the floor with his head and feet stretched out, completely covered with his long prayer shawl. I heard sounds of crying from under his tallis. The choir standing behind him in the lectern would be rhythmically crying out “ay, ay, ay!” I was completely enthralled. At times I feared the Cantor had fainted. Weakness caused by fasting was not unusual. With a thumping heart, I waited until they picked up the Chassid by his elbows and helped him to stand again. When he arose and continued on with his praying I breathed a sigh of relief. Now, when I hear the leader of a congregation praying at such moments during the service, and he is not having a world-shaking effect on those present, I become caught up again in these childhood memories.


[Pages 437-444]

Three Beli-Tefillos
[Prayer Leaders]

by Moshe Bachrach

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Forward

Our Jewish way of life was once very rich in distinctive music. An abundance of musical sounds accompanied the Jews from cradle to the “gutn ort” [good earth – the cemetery]. Everyone was influenced by the Jewish singing – cheerful and sad, serious and humorous, religious and secular (weekday [not Shabbos]). A good preacher, for example, would sing out his sermon, and the gemara [rabbinical commentaries on the oral law] melody was well known. However, the collective musical experiences in the synagogue and in the Beis-haMedrash [house of prayer] made a particularly strong impression. And lucky was the shtetl that had a talented khazan [cantor], sensitive beli-Tefillos [prayer leaders] and musical beli-koyres [Torah readers].

In the thinking of the majority of us – the generation that lived in

[Page 438]

Goniadz until around 1920 – three men had a very large part in the musical life of our shtetl, through the synagogue and the Beis-haMedrash: The khazan Reb Nakhum, Yankl the shoykhet [ritual slaughterer] and Eliezer Zakimovitch.

The Khazan

Reb Nakhum, the khazan, was an educated musician with a “sweet” voice and with a talent for fusing prayers with music in such a manner that it would transport an entire congregation of Jews as if everyone under his spell would be elevated and profit greatly from the religiosity in the music and from the music in the religion.

In order to express the full beauty of the style – of the commonplace melodies with which every Jew is familiar – requires

Eliyahu haNavi [Prophet Elijah]
As a child I heard this melody from Beniamin the Sofer [scribe] at the locking up of the synagogue on a Shabbos night. – M. B.

 

[Page 439]

a mastery. Because with ordinary beli tefillos it emerged mechanically, as “correct” – they would not sing. It was also the style that the khazan was a sincere musician. But he was a true artist in singing special cantorial compositions and, indeed, from “a sheet of paper” (notes)… The El Melech Yoshev [the King sits] at Neilah [concluding prayer on Yom Kippur] was, for example, such a composition, which he would sing solemnly and “dramatically.” The synagogue, fully packed with Jews who were already feeble from the fast, would truly be revived. All of the worshippers would receive fresh strength and faith that - - - Mokhel avonot amo [God forgives the sins of his people]. Everything was disregarded and forgiven…

And who of us does not remember how sincere and moving Reb Nakhum would perform the prayer, Hineni Heni Mimas [“Here I stand before You”], going through the entire length of the synagogue from the door to the cantor's desk with prayer and song, dressed in a white kitl [white robe worn during Yom Kippur services] and his face covered with a talis [pray shawl]? Who did not feel with him, the representative of the kehile [organized Jewish community] who had taken upon himself such mighty responsibilities – to open the heavens for an entire congregation of Jews?!

During the war, in 1914, we realized that the Goniadz khazan could occupy a position in a large city, when because of the nearness of the “front,” we ran from the shtetl after Rosh Hashanah and the khazan was also among the Goniadz “homeless” in Bialystok.

Probably arrangements had been made earlier for a ba'al Shakhris [person who recites the morning prayer] for Yom Kippur in the large Bialystok synagogue. However, when they learned of Reb Nakhum, the plan was changed at the last minute and it was suggested that he daven [pray] Shakhris. It should be understood that the khazan was happy with this and that Goniadz was proud at the honor which Bialystok gave to our khazan.

When Reb Nakhum died in 1915, his

[Page 440]

nearest and dearest went to the funeral. The mite [board on which the deceased is laid] with his remains was taken into the Beis-haMedrash and placed on the bimah [platform on which the table holding the Torah during readings is located] and when the Goniadz Rabbi, Reb Tzvi Hirsh Wolf, eulogized the khazan, he, himself, cried like a child – and the entire congregation with him.

 

Yankl the Shoykhet

“A still, thin sound[1]” – that is how I would characterize the praying of Yankl the shoykhet [ritual slaughter]. He would not approach the lectern the entire year, only in the Days of Awe he would daven [pray] musef [extension of the morning prayers].

The shoykhet was a ba'al-Tefillah who did not act as a cantor… He prayed with feeling, but he was not a ba'al bekhi [one who likes to cry], not a crier. He would keep to his version and only in the liturgical songs, for which there was no Skarbower melody, he sang the melody that he had learned somewhere. He was not a great “fastidious man” in this respect. So, for example, he sang “Veyativ kol lavdekha” [and you will accept everything of your servant (Israel)] with a “Piechotnem” [infantry] march – and all of the worshippers “marched” to the beat with him…

Yankl the shoykhet was a dear person, a scholar and he had a sense of humor. Once, on Shimkhas-Torah, he brought humorous joy to the shtetl when he went up to the ahron koydesh [ark holding the Torah scrolls], at close of prayer, stood facing the congregation in a pose for dukhn'en [giving the priestly blessing] and with the melody of Yevarechecha [From Psalm 128:5 – bless - “May God bless you from Zion…”] went into She-hakol nih'ye bidvaro [blessing said before eating or drinking certain foods – “…through Whose word everything comes into being.”]… It should be understood that this was not a benediction given in vain; he immediately drew out a bottle of whisky from under his talis [prayer shawl] and took a good sip.

There was an idyllic friendship between Reb Nakhum the khazan and Yankl the shoykhet. Both of them were shoykhetim, but absolutely not competitors. It could be that one shoykhet would have been enough for Goniadz for all of the days of

[Page 441]

the year, but erev yom-tov [on the eve of holidays] and particularly before Yom Kippur for kaparot[2] there was indeed a need for having two. We children were very surprised at how such gentle men could grab a slaughtering knife so quickly in their mouth – for the hands, it should be understood - turn over a hen with its neck up, flick a few feathers, “Khik” [sound made when cutting the hen's throat] – and throw it to the ground…

Yankl the shoykhet was loved and honored in Goniadz as only a Jewish shtetl can love and honor a sincere person who is an affable man and a well known and respected figure in the religious life of the community.

In 1933, Yankl the shoykhet, passed through New York on the way from Chicago to Eretz-Yisroel, where he went to live out his last years. He achieved his wish; shortly after his arrival in the Holy Land, and the city of the Kabalists – Tsfat [Safed] – he died. And as if sent by Providence, he first met – and then “accompanied” – the third Goniadz ba'al-Tefillah – Eliezer Zakimovitsh, who had been living in Kibbutz Ayelet HaShahar [a communal settlement in the Upper Galilee], which is very near Tsfat.

 

Eliezer Zakimovitsh

Eliezer, my uncle, was a ba'al-Tefillah who was enamored of the cantorial art. He “made a living” from a “spice store” where, by the way, one could buy – – herring, gauze and even pitch tar to rub on boots. But he maintained his life

[Page 442]

Eliezer Zakimovitsh

 

at the synagogue lectern – in the synagogue. Eliezer was the greatest nosher [person with a sweet tooth] of cantorial pieces. And his memory for the thing was truly astonishing. It is correct to say that if he heard something from a khazan or from one who repeated something once – it was already his, forever and ever.

If we all loved the khazan very much and valued him, Eliezer was truly idolized. Everything that the khazan sang in Goniadz could be heard first from Eliezer at the same lectern – in the synagogue and years later – in the Kibbutz Ayelet HaShahar in Eretz-Yisroel where Eliezer and his wife, Rywka (daughter of Ruchl's son Moshe) lived

[Page 443]

in honor, as the parents of the settlers.

The order was that the khazan would only pray in the Beis-haMedrash during the winter. This left the cantor's desk completely free in the synagogue for Eliezer; he was the “substitute khazan' there for the minyon of half-frozen synagogue-patriots. After the khazan died, he became his “successor,” both at the cantor's desk in the synagogue and with the khazan's entire “repertoire.” Thus the khazan's spirit still hovered in the synagogue for a number of years until Eliezer emigrated to Eretz-Yisroel.

As an older person, Eliezer did not have the responsibility of working in the kibbutz, but he was very interested in making himself useful – he was given easy tasks to carry out. This greatly satisfied him.

As is known, the parents are held in great respect in the kibbutzim. They have the same privileges there as the children – in regard to food and comfortable

[Page 444]

facilities; in the kibbutz you could find Eliezer in the middle of the day at a sefer [religious book] and, a little later, giving his attention to the large pump, taking a nap at the same time… Once when he woke from such a “watch,” he saw a snake in front of him who was looking right into his eyes – he then gebentsht goylm [said the blessing for escaping from danger]…

To pray in a kibbutz, after the Goniadz synagogue, surely was a decline for Eliezer the ba'al Tefillah, but without a doubt he had great satisfaction in that in a non-religious kibbutz he was the one who held a pious-Jewish position. And he upheld it in such a manner that everyone respected him for it because even in the kibbutzim they were delighted with the familiar melodies and cantorial pieces.

Eliezer died on the 28 of Khesvan 5710 [20 November 1949] and his wife, Rywka, died on the 18 of Shevat 5717 [20 January 1957].


Translator's note:

  1. From I Kings, 19:12 Return
  2. Kaparot is a ritual performed during the days before Yom Kippur involving the waving of a white rooster [for a male] or a hen [for a female] over the head in expiation of one's sins and the transfer of those sins to the chicken. Return

 

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