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Alterman's Courtyard

Manus Goldenberg (Givat HaShlosha)

English Translation by Thia Persoff

 

Above the Staircase of Grandfather's House

Many cloudy days were visited on our town. For weeks on end, a dense mass of clouds would hang over our heads beyond Mount Vidomka, which is on the west side of Mount Bona in the east. But in my memory, I always see it awash with sunlight and the bright glow of childhood.

I remember a clear summer morning. The east side of the street rests in the shade, while the west side is dipped in the sun's radiance. On the stone steps leading to the entrance of my grandfather's house, in the center of the street, are the distinguished wagon drivers, some sitting and some lying down. Their strapping young sons, who already enjoy an important position in the profession, surround them. Drunk on sun and the scent of acacia, the elders are enjoying their conversation and reminisce about bygone days. Their language is flowery, spiced with folk sayings and proverbs.

I had witnessed their talks since early childhood. Hour upon hour, I used to sit in a corner and listen. This was my first window to the wide world. Together with those still hearty old men, I traversed – in my imagination – the steppes of Ukraine in a two-horse carriage. I met other travelers, generous squires and Jewish contractors, the builders of railroad tracks and roads through the vastness of Mother Russia all the way to Kiev and Odessa.

Together with the young cart drivers, I enjoyed hearing about the quantities of roasted goose they ate and the wineglasses they emptied when they brought their passengers to blessed Bessarabia.

I was a partner to their life and adventures in the early 20th century, which we spent together on the steps. I still think about them.

 

From the Storm's Echo

I recall a fresh morning during the harvest season, when the wagon drivers arrived from the train station with information about a shocking incident that had taken place there: two young Russians who were waiting on the platform for the train to arrive looked suspicious to the policemen. The Russians were ushered into a separate room to be checked, and soon shots were heard. When people burst into the room, the two policemen and the two Russians were dead. The young Russians had shot the policemen first, then shot themselves. Leaflets from the revolutionary underground were found next to their bodies. The policemen were buried with a grand ceremony, but the young revolutionaries were buried in the sand at the foot of the Mount Krestova. The residents there, who held the young men close to their hearts, remembered their burial place. When the right time came, the Bolsheviks dug out their bones and buried them with proper honor.

Here, on the steps, this incident was discussed in whispers and linked to … a comet that is approaching the earth and is liable to destroy it with one sweep of its tail. They told of bloodstains on the moon, too, in which they saw bad omens for the future – and, indeed, evil times came.

Those sitting on the steps could see colorful sights. Each horse passing by led to a discussion, as the bloodlines of all the horses in the district were well known to them. When the mood came upon the youngsters, they entertained the older men with shenanigans: sneaking up behind a Pravoslavic priest and sticking a paper tail on his long cassock or stringing a rope across the street. Then young and old would burst into thunderous laughter when a young couple walking by tripped and fell to the ground. They had many pranks up their sleeves, with particular shenanigans for each season.

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The century's first decade passed slowly, but by the second, events began to tailspin. In 1912, we viewed the grand parade of the Czar's army celebrating the 100th anniversary of the victory over Napoleon. Soon after were the parade and even grander celebration of the Romanov dynasty's 300th anniversary. Had our city ever seen such a display of grandeur and glory, and had anyone ever admired the czars and fully believed in their victorious might as the wagoners did? From these steps in 1915, we followed with wonder as convoys of the Russian army's service corps, heavy artillery corps, and infantry, all supplied with the best equipment, flowed endlessly from the center of Russia toward Galicia.

Fascinated, they sat and watched for days as division after division galloped lightly in front of them with their many marching bands. Troops of Cossacks from the Ural, Kuben, and the Don as well as Cherkasian and Kirghizian horsemen all moved north, north toward the breach in the front that General Brusilov had opened. “Mr. Thief,” some of them mutter, excited by the splendid-looking horses passing by. Their eyes lit up with a powerful desire at the sight of the bearded brigadiers' and generals' valiant stallions. But in my childish imagination, I had a nightmare that they had been trampled under the horses' hoofs, their beards stained with blood …

 

With the Collapse of the Tyrant

Returning, the convoys again flowed steadily, this time in a panic, the wagons, horses, and the soldiers looking wretched. This was Czar Nikolas's retreating, defeated army.

The world of the inhabitants of the steps collapsed on them. The stormy days of the revolution skipped over them and passed on. They were only passive onlookers, and they seemed to continually resent it. Now that the broom of the revolution had swept away the squires and officers, who had scattered their money generously, no one called to them in a lordly way, “Wagoner!” Now their providers were grocers and peddlers, enriched by the war, who sometimes would walk to the train station to save a coin. Their world became gray and narrow …

Years have passed since then. Their carts stand in a long line near the stone fence of the Pravoslavic church. The street is empty. When someone approaches, the drivers run toward him, each trying to pull him to his cart. Pandemonium reigns. But soon they find out that he is just passing through …

I remember their days of glory, and I witnessed their shocking deterioration. With a pounding heart, I walk up the street to the sharp left turn. Where did the gully disappear to, the one into which the rainwater flowed mightily? Each big rainfall turned it into a roaring river, carrying thousands of tons of mountain silt and heavy stones with it. Once, a farmer who dared to cross the flooding water was washed away into that gully with his wagon right in front of some people, who stood by helplessly. The gully was filled with dirt, and in place of that Kremenets “Niagara,” the public toilets stand, the crowning achievement of the Polish mayor …

 

Tovye Shaykovski

The first house at the end of the street was ancient. In the front it had one story, but in the back, facing the Potik, it had two.

[Translation Editor's Note: The Potik is the stream at the foot of Mount Bona.]

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A high fence made of boards surrounded the lower one, concealing its secrets. Now and then, hysterical sounds accompanied by hair-raising curses erupted from there. When that “storm” calmed down, we, the children, would peek through the narrow crack in the fence and see a green fruit orchard and a cow barn. The house and courtyard belonged to a widow and her slightly mad daughter. Only the boldest of the boys dared to sneak into the orchard, and woe to the one who was caught. Only once did I succeed in penetrating this mysterious world. One evening, my grandmother, who liked drinking fresh cow's milk, took me there with her. A cheerful view met my eyes: in a pastoral courtyard full of plants and flowers wafted a mixture of lilac fragrance and the odor of fertilizer. All this was only a few steps from the center of the town, which was crowded with stores and workshops.

At that moment, the animosity toward the courtyard's occupants dissipated. The milking mother and daughter were a remnant of a family that had lived on its land in a village but had been deported as a result of Czar Aleksander's edict.

In the apartment facing the front lived Tovye Shpigl, called Shaykovski, with his family. In the only room except for a small kitchen, he sat bent over a machine, sewing shoe uppers for the shoemakers who surrounded him on all sides: non-Jews from the nearby mountains. They all understood Yiddish, and Tovye spoke with them mostly in his mother tongue. The floor boards shook and squeaked, and through their cracks you could see a dark chasm, but the atmosphere was jolly. Ukrainian and witty Jewish jokes followed one after the other. The shoemakers waited patiently, sometimes from morning to evening, as Tovye was busy with community needs most of the time.

The Burial Society – the poor survivor of Jewish autonomy in our town – was to Tovye like clay in the potter's hands. Even the town's dignitaries went along with his decisions. Ordinary citizens followed him like after a revered leader. On Simchas Torah, he showed up in full splendor, accompanied by his devoted adjutants, as the conductor of the Burial Society members' circuits. The next day I saw him again, wearing a uniform. A reserve soldier, he was called to serve in the army the year the war began. With his divided red beard, he looked like a knight out of a folktale. I can still hear the voices of his family members accompanying him on his way to the front. When he returned safely after many years, he had his hands full. It was a troubled time for Jews. On one of the fateful days, when the lives of countless Jews were hanging in the balance, Tovye risked his life to save them. There was an uprising of angry farmers the vicinity, and the Jews stayed hidden in their homes, awaiting their fate in great fear. I heard the echo of heavy steps. I peeped through a crack in the shutter. Tovye and his adjutant Sender Shepsel, weighed down with heavy sacks, were walking in the empty street. As we found out later, the sacks were filled with food from the residents for the rebels, to appease their anger. A high-ranking Czarist officer who headed the rebels and had had ties to some Jewish families in the past helped them in this endeavor. This was a deed of great self-sacrifice, as death was lurking at every step. After the rebels ate their fill, peace returned. And except for a few cases of robbery, there were no casualties. The rabbis, who had been taken out of town at gunpoint, were rescued at the last moment.

[Translator's Note: Simchas Torah (Rejoicing in the Torah) is a holiday whose celebration includes hakafot (encirclings), in which the Torah is carried around the house of worship.]

During Polish rule, Tovye again took community affairs into his own hands. His humble apartment turned into a “high command center,” where his secret allies attended him all day. Through them, he negotiated with the miserly, wealthy relatives of those who had passed away and demanded large sums of money from them. On the other hand, he generously supported poor families and took it upon himself to contribute to the weddings of poor brides, charity associations, the hospital, the home for the aged, synagogues, and so on.

He was firm, loved by the poor, and accepted by non-Jewish craftsmen.

The period of his “reign” came to an end with the Senacja clerks' interference in community affairs.

[Translation Editor's Note: Senacja was a Polish political movement that came to power in 1926.]

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Figure 49. Tsukerman's Courtyard, Next to Alterman's Courtyard

 

Alterman's Courtyard

A few steps from the house where Tovye lived stands a partially destroyed fence. This is Alterman's Courtyard. Here is where I spent my childhood. The courtyard was built on a slope that continues up to the Potik. The back fence is at the foot of Mount Bona. During my childhood, I used to feel apprehensive about this close proximity, because the rabbi's assistant liked to ask himself, in front of us, “What would happen if the Bona collapsed during the night?” and immediately give the answer: “It would cover the whole city.” Since our house in the courtyard was the closest to the mountain, I was scared of the impending avalanche and the large rocks peeking through our windows. The rabbi's assistant said that if one of them were dislodged, a tremendous flood of water would burst out of the mountain …. I was about five years old when we came to live in this courtyard, whose owner was no longer living. His old widow lived in one of the courtyard houses surrounded by her sons and daughters. She was then in her declining years and was treated with the honor reserved for a wife of a high-ranking officer – her husband being a supplier to the army troops lodged in the many buildings in the courtyard. Even today, the women are jealous of her … on account of her glamorous past.

The Nagid R' Duvid Leyb, a person of great dignity from one of the town's aristocratic families, lived in one of the houses in the courtyard. People used to talk with great admiration about his philanthropy and the fine manners in his home. The elder son, although he dressed traditionally, became caught up in tarbut ra'ah and ran away to the university in Petersburg. The family moved away from Kremenets.

[Translator's Note: A Nagid is a prince or leader, or ruler. Tarbut ra'ah (bad culture or manners) refers to an interest in secular education.]

 

R' Moshke'le

Into the white house moved Rabbi Moshke'le, one of the many great-grandsons of the Ba'al Shem Tov, who lived on his great reputation and witnessed its decline. He did not perform miracles or distribute amulets. He had a small study hall in one of his rooms. My father was one of the regulars who prayed there. Jews of all classes would come to his house and give him a donation; they enjoyed being his guests at Sabbath and holiday dinners and discussing daily events. He was not a scholar, and his regular visitors were simple people. But at the close of the Passover holiday and on Simchas Torah, a spark of the Hasidic excitement was lit here; Hasidim would gather around his table and “grab a couple of songs,” singing and dancing until dawn.

[Translator's Note: The Ba'al Shem Tov was Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, an 18th-century mystical rabbi who is considered the founder of Hasidic Judaism.]

For many years, the citizens of Kremenets remembered his eldest daughter's marriage to the son of the rabbi from Radzivilov. For about a week preceding the wedding, the town bustled with preparations.

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Figure 50. Section of Sheroka Street
Photo by Alter Katsizne

A giant tent was erected near the house, where a meal was served to the poor the evening before the wedding. We, the children, watched the assorted cripples, some of whom stayed in town to collect alms.

On the wedding day, all work stopped in the town. The main street was flooded with people, Jews and non-Jews. A troupe of “Cossacks” – Jews in Cossack costumes – rode on horses out of town to receive the groom. For hours the crowds waited on the sidewalks, and then a colorful procession arrived. The groom was sitting in a four-horse carriage followed by many other carriages and wagons, which were greeted with cheers. The policemen in charge of maintaining order were already tipsy from the brandy they had “tasted” until it was time to collect payment for their services…

For years, all of the “young rabbi's” time was devoted to study while R' Moshke'le supported him. In the evening, when my father's workday was done, he would study some difficult passages with the young rabbi. He praised the young rabbi highly but did not hide his sadness over his expending all his energy on one small section of Halakha. After the revolution, the family immigrated to America, where they were supported generously by the Kremenetsers there.

[Translator's Note: Halakha is Jewish religious law.]

The rabbi's house, which stood at the entrance to the courtyard, was drenched in peace and tranquility. In the courtyard, under the canopy of an ancient chestnut tree that shaded the rabbi's house, noise and tumult reigned. The children of the courtyard played there all day long with their friends from nearby and faraway streets. In that place grew up a generation devoted to public movements that shook up the Jewish street.

 

A Meeting Place for Revolutionary Youth

Very close to the rabbi's home stood a small house. At the same time that the rabbi would formally receive the district governor in his splendidly lit home, the best of the young generation would meet in a neighboring house to heatedly discuss human rights, freedom, and ways to topple the regime of oppression and slavery.

The house belonged to the widow Chave Hirsh Aba, a seamstress to high-society Russian ladies. Her clients, attracted by her pleasant personality and dignity, would come to her salon with their best manners.

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Her home served as a meeting place for the best of the Jewish young people in our town: university students, students from the upper grades of the High School of Commerce, leaders of the Bund organization and the Jewish Social Democratic Workers, etc. The owner and her family received all in a pleasant, friendly way. The atmosphere was always saturated with the joy of youth. The laughter of the students from the high school for girls, the owner's daughters and their friends, would accompany the lively discussions.

During the summer nights, many of them would leave the rooms and the arguments to sit on the benches under the chestnut tree and express their love for their nation in lyrical songs.

The courtyard's tenants would gather around them, joining the singing and playing the guitar and mandolin. Their only competitor was the chorus of Ukrainian young people hidden among the mountains, whose soul-capturing singing would penetrate all corners of the town.

Among the frequenters of the house were members of the Manusovits family, educated left-wing activists who were talented in the arts. It was they who nurtured the love of literature and Jewish folklore in our town. Under their guidance, parties and celebrations were arranged in honor of current Jewish writers.

Preparations for celebrating the anniversary of the writer Mendile in Chave's house lasted for months. The rehearsals drew us in. We listened to readings, recitations, and songs. A big celebration held in the spacious second-floor apartment of Vitser, an army supplier, topped off the preparations. Here it was safe to enjoy ourselves without causing suspicion. It was an important event, as the law did not permit Jews to hold plays, parties, or meetings.

When Anski came to Kremenets, he was the guest of the young people in Chave's house. With their help, he got in touch with townspeople who could enrich his collection. And in Kremenets, he enriched it greatly.

He would spend his resting hours under the chestnut tree in the company of young people, and to entertain the women and children he would play folk records. Close to the beginning of World War I, all the members of the Manusovits family immigrated to America, where they were very active in the Jewish education and the arts.

A few years later, Chave's only son, the student Hirsh Aba, also began preparations to leave. It took a long time, and on the day of his departure, his mother gave in to the unexpressed pain of the coming separation, and she had a stroke. The son did not leave. Her limbs paralyzed, the mother spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair. When the war and general conscription began, a few of the town's young people continued to come over. This center was completely destroyed when Chave passed away, her son Hirsh Aba left for Petersburg the capital, and two of her daughters enlisted as nurses.

 

Arts and Crafts in the Courtyard

The courtyard bustled with creation and labor. In three large carpentry workshops there, the town's best cabinetmakers, Fingerut and Alterman, produced the most elegant furniture in the whole area, each piece a lovingly created work of art.

We, the courtyard's young children, loved watching their faces radiating with the joy of creation. A tall pile of lumber was stacked near each workshop, each board and plank cared for and tended by its owner. A piece of lumber that had not fully aged would not be used. In that period, furniture would be kept in a family from one generation to the next, and each item carried a tag identifying its maker.

During the summer, work stopped at day's end.

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The workers laid their tools down and hurried to their homes, then went for a stroll on Sheroka Street. The carpenters and cabinetmakers would come out with their wives to breathe the fresh air and sit on the piles of lumber. We liked to sit with them at that hour and take in the aroma of the forest emanating from the wood.

As darkness slowly fell and the shadows lengthened, the music of a violin accompanied by piano poured from the windows across from us. Now and then, a song sung in a subdued bass accompanied them: the voice of Sioma Kaplan, the tailor's son, who had succeeded in enrolling in the High School of Commerce, sang Russian romantic songs with feeling.…

Night fell, and all was silence. Everyone listened to the melancholy notes coming from the Rozenblits' apartment. This family of storekeepers was preoccupied with making a living, but their apartment was clean and comfortable. The family members were blessed with talent and beauty, and the children studied music and painting, which attracted many young people to this enlightened household. Kremenets is the hometown of the father of the Russian Enlightenment, and not without reason was the nickname “Kremenets Philistines” pinned to its residents. Many of the elders in town still spat and showered curses on Levinson when they passed his hut…

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Figure 51. Levinzon Street
Photo by Alter Katsizne

This courtyard was a miniature world: a cross section of the society's life and its classes and characters. Here was the supplier for the army, Vitser, a member of the preeminent class in town, and here were the storekeepers, brokers, and craftsmen. In one of the far corners was a shoemaker, and in the basement of the house was a machine for baking matzot, called “the big machine” to differentiate it from the other two machines in town.

The week after the Purim holiday, the scrubbed and whitewashed basement was turned into a factory that hummed from early morning to late at night. It was here that we first witnessed “sweatshop” work: the thin line of dough moved rapidly out of the machine onto a long table, next to which sweat-drenched boys stood holding knives and slicing the dough, trying to keep up with the speed of the machine. The bakers worked quickly next to the blazing-hot ovens. The baker near the machine urged the boys to speed up, his mouth flowing curses. You felt as if you had been thrown into Hell…

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The hardest work was done in dark areas in the far corners of the basement. There, laborers – only non-Jews did this work – toiled 12–14 hours a day, kneading huge lumps of dough with iron bars attached to tables covered by metal sheets. Their breath was labored, and their sweat ran into the dough. Two of them had an earring in one ear, and I saw them as submissive slaves and was full of pity for them. During the 1930s, this work, too, was “conquered” by pioneers from the training kibbutzim, to the puzzlement of the local Jews.

[Translator's Note: Submissive slaves, according to the laws of the Torah, are slaves who do not accept freedom at the end of their service. They were marked by piercing, a mark of shame.]

The status of the wagon drivers there was represented by their chosen sons.

In the far reaches of the courtyard were stables left from its days as an army barracks. The wagon drivers who owned several pairs of horses were the “leviathans” of the profession, big, strong Jews followed by legends of their heroic deeds. Jews and non-Jews called “whippers,” who worked for them for a daily salary. For the few coins they earned, they manned their vehicles all day. Their status was considered the lowest on the social ladder.

More than once, we awakened at night to the screechy wailing of a “whipper.” We knew that this was the hour of reckoning between the boss and his employees and that punishment for assumed incorrect billing was being meted out. We thought it odd that grown men would cry like little children, yet they were known to be strong-armed men. Like stricken dogs, they would hide in a dark corner of the stable sobbing for a long time.

On other days, when the owners set out for an official reception, the stables could be seen in a completely different light. From the dark opening of the stable, one could hear the joyful laughter of Jewish women in colorful outfits, who were known in town to be prostitutes. Here they were honored, and they seemed like elegant ladies with lapdogs. The rough, boorish drivers were gentle and polite in their company, and all the scorn and contempt they received throughout the year were forgotten here. Their self-esteem rose. This was not so hard to understand, as the drivers were their knights and protectors. Sometimes, as a result of those visits, quarrels would start in different parts of town as the protectors retaliated against those who had insulted the women. Blood was spilled on the streets of Kremenets, and no one dared interfere, not even the police. The heavy hand of the Czarist police was very soft when it came to the forces of the underworld, which terrorized even non-Jews. They always had the upper hand.

With the revolution, the drivers' economic standing was destroyed, and the civil war put an end to their arbitrariness.

Between the two carpentry workshops across from the stables was the first Hebrew school in our town, which was established in 1909. For two reasons, the school was given the modest name of Cheder Metukan. One was to prevent the devout traditionalists from getting angry. The other was to prevent the Czarist authorities from refusing to give a permit for a Hebrew school. This was the first school in our town where boys and girls attended and studied together. Some of those students continued their studies in the Hertsliya High School in Tel Aviv-Jaffa and in the school for agriculture in Mikve Yisrael. There, the founders, teachers Burshteyn and Sirayski, knew how to awaken a longing for Zion and love of the Hebrew tongue in us.

[Translator's Note: A Cheder Metukan is a progressive Hebrew school.]

It was while we were in school that we first felt the heavy hand of the Czarist authority. For a long time, we had been preparing for a Purim celebration by learning to recite long sections from I. L. Gordon's writings, and we were nervous at the prospect of this gathering, at which our parents would be the audience.

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The celebration was held at the spacious home of a parent, R' Mordekhay Chasid, in a room lit by large kerosene lamps. Slowly the parents arrived. Spirits were high. A screen sewn from bed sheets was raised. The first to perform were four children, including me, reciting together; after us, it was students Brak and Shnayder's turn. While they were reciting and the parents were admiring them, policemen burst into the room – and the boys stopped as if they were frozen in place. After an extended interrogation, the policemen wrote down the names of all the attendants, ordered them to disperse, and arrested Chasid.

 

Boys Who Rose High

What happened to those two from the upper grade?

One of them, Brak, deviated from our ways some years later. Dark forces among the Christian residents had influenced him to convert. At a crucial moment in the civil war in our town, he appeared on a horse at the head of a Ukrainian rebel regiment of local farmers. The regiment attacked the town, which supported the Hetmans and their German lords. Among the Hetmans' supporters were some students from the Ukrainian high school and some Jews who had given in to the principal's coaxing. After a bitter battle, the rebels were victorious. One of the rebel commanders who led the negotiation for the German surrender and leaving the town was our Jewish-school friend Brak. He was also one of the people who punished residents who helped the Germans – former officers and policemen who excelled in cruelty toward farmers and hatred of Jews.

The young life of Brak's partner in the recital, Shnayder, was rich in deeds.

Well built, he showed up one night wearing an army uniform and a gun in his belt, while we, a group of his previous school friends, were on civilian guard duty on Voskrasanskaya Street near our courtyard. He was then on assignment as an officer representing the revolutionary board.

The meeting was very friendly. In the peaceful, deeply sleeping street, we felt the ties from the days of our childhood in spite of the distance between us, which was very large by that time. We were still involved in the world of youth, while he, who was two years older than we were, had already taken an active role among the makers of that period's history.

We were told that during the Bolsheviks' temporary retreat from our area, Shnayder was left as one of the revolution's underground organizers in the rear of Petliura's army in the Dubna area. There were many stories of his daring adventures during the brave partisans' war against Petliura's army in the district.

In the Bolsheviks' great attack on this unruly army, which began with the conquest of Kiev, their capital, Shnayder was one of the first commanders who entered as victors. The Jewish residents, who had been saved from a bloody massacre, hugged the young fighter. The painful insult inflicted by the Czarist police at Mordekhay Chasid's had probably made a lasting impression on these two heroes.

The courtyard's neighbors to the north – the Czarist policemen – contributed to its color and oddness. Here, in a large hall, was the barracks of the town police force, numbering about 20. These policemen, with whom Jewish mothers threatened their children, walked around in embroidered shirts like simple farmers. Most could not recognize a letter when they saw one, but they liked to joke with us. Only weapons, swords, and guns we saw on the walls through the open windows kept us from getting too close to the place. Their ignorance made even the children laugh. To show how ignorant they were, we tried more than once to sing revolutionary songs under their windows, but they did not understand them and simply asked us not to disturb their rest.

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Across from their windows was the apartment of Tody Shvarts, a bespectacled Jewish clerk in the chicken slaughterhouses. All the members of his large family, young and old, were laborers. Everyone respected this family, as it was crowned with courage.

The eldest son had shot himself to death. Such a death inspired the Jews of that era; there was something in it that aroused young people's respect, particularly when we heard from the adults that the reason was disappointment over the failure of the 1905 revolution. He had been active in the revolutionary underground and, with his comrade in the movement, Y. Kremenetski, had been arrested, jailed for a long time, and beaten by the police.

Tody's sons taught us the revolutionary songs and encouraged us to sing them in front of the policemen. Once, one of the sons dared us to get a real bayonet from the police – an “expropriation” that we successfully achieved. We were suspects in the theft and were interrogated for days, but not one of us squealed on the others.

 

The Yeshiva

About two or three years before World War I, the police left the courtyard, and in their place came the Yeshiva. Young men of different ages arrived from villages near and far, with each one known by the name of his village. By day they studied in those rooms, and at night they slept there. We heard them chanting day and night. Even then we saw that some of them occupied themselves with books from the outside, and the neighbors in the courtyard, most of whom were progressives – adherents of the Bund or Zionism – were willing to help them get those books.

The head of the Yeshiva, who came from the town of Zvihil, is worth mentioning.

His beard disheveled, he walked bent over, with his eyes lowered to the ground so as not to meet a woman's eye. He never smiled at his children or his wife, and he never called his wife by name.

The Yeshiva existed on donations from the city residents. The students went hungry often, as did the family of the head of the yeshiva. A slice of bread dipped in oil was his main food, and the oil was used as a remedy, too, for any ailments in his family…

He never raised his voice to his students. He could calm any storm with his gaze, and they treated him with indescribable respect and love. But the ones who were caught with books from the outside paid a bitter price, as then the head of the Yeshiva showed himself to be a vengeful, vindictive zealot. Only a few of the students became rabbis. Some left after a few years and went to national schools, and nearly all of them were swallowed up by life's whirlpool when the revolution began. They all ended up in one political movement or another. Across from this Yeshiva full of noisy and vibrant students, the humble, poor Hebrew school stood in a corner, leaning on skinny, sickly Burshteyn's shoulders.

 

The Courtyard during the War

About a year after World War I began, the front was approaching our town. Great changes took place in the courtyard. The Yeshiva closed its doors, and the students dispersed to their hometowns, most of which had been destroyed.

New residents moved into the courtyard. Some were families that had been evacuated from border towns, and some were young men from Odessa and Kharkov who came to hide until the Austrian forces arrived and freed them from the threat of forced conscription into the Czar's army. They brought some big-city glamour, new songs, new etiquette, and new behavior with them. The army took over the stables, storage facilities, cellar, and Yeshiva. Outdoor field cooks raised smoke and steam all day long, and the smell of coarse whole-wheat bread being baked for the soldiers in the matzot-baking cellar permeated the area… The schools were evacuated, the children went idle, and their parents lost any influence over them. Armies marched to and from the front, transporting wounded and prisoners, and officers paid generously for any service rendered…

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The distance from the front to the town shortened until the line of Austrian trenches was only 6 kilometers from the Dubna suburb. All government and the town civic institutions were evacuated, and a Cossack commander with the rank of captain took over the rule of the town. The town's entire economic structure collapsed, as farmers from the unconquered side hardly ever came to market, and many stores closed. For the first time, the town's residents faced a curfew, and every infraction of the commander's rules was punished by flogging. The echoes of machine gun and rifle fire were constant, and the sky was red with the reflections of burning villages. The oppressive terror of war struck fear into the hearts of the residents.

On those evenings, a lively social life continued in the courtyard more than in the rest of the homes. Was it because of the soldiers and officers who lived there or the young men and women in student uniforms? In their loneliness, friendships and relationships formed among the courtyard residents. During the dark evenings, the young residents still sat under the canopy of the chestnut tree and carried on discussions as before. The main speakers were fugitives, who were integrated into the courtyard's free, genial atmosphere…

As the Austrians' chances for victory increased, the residents drew even more closely together, and we were like one large family united in its fate.

The situation completely turned around with the partial victory of the Russians' great counterattack. The front retreated 20 miles. The headquarters of the famous Eleventh Army Corps, which included many units with all sorts of armaments, came to Kremenets.

The town and the surrounding area were flooded with soldiers and with those directly or indirectly in the service of headquarters; there was no other way of making a living. For those seeking to make a profit, money was flowing. Every other home was turned into a coffeehouse. Grocers profited, beggars multiplied, and their pockets swelled. Licentiousness reigned. At the same time, the families of the conscripted and those whose heads of household had run away to avoid conscription were even more destitute. There was a sharp contrast between the starving and freezing and those who were getting richer.

Life in the courtyard declined decisively during this period. Some of the young people were conscripted, some left to study in Odessa and Kiev, and the escapees and refugees returned to their homes and towns. People from headquarters penetrated every corner. The atmosphere in the courtyard was influenced by gold fever in the army's rear. Even the carpenters and drivers were forced to trade and speculate – in wartime, who needed furniture or a ride to the train? Until the war began, only very seldom did a single car, belonging to the president of the noblemen's society, pass by on Kremenets' main street, and it drew a large crowd. Now the army's elegant cars and trucks passed through day and night.

 

The Revolution Arrives in the Courtyard

The February Revolution erupted. Large demonstrations organized by the headquarters' drivers and mechanics added to the wave of joy and excitement that permeated the Jewish community. The laborers from Petersburg and Moscow had a great deal of experience in such operations… From them, the residents of Kremenets heard revolutionary marching songs for the first time. They were the first to wave red flags by the hundreds, and they cautioned us about provocation by the headquarters' military police. The streets of Kremenets lived the life of revolution to its fullest. The endless demonstrations and meetings attracted everyone, including the young residents of the courtyard, some of whom had returned from the large cities where they had studied and threw themselves enthusiastically into the arms of the stormy revolutionary life all around them. The easy rhythm and tranquility of life in the courtyard did not fit the new era.

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Its young residents had left. Members of the underground surfaced and moved into the open to function in assorted institutions and cultural centers. In the courtyard next door, the second largest to ours in the city, events of historical importance were taking place. This courtyard had also been used as an army barracks at one time. The house in the center of that courtyard was built in the Polish aristocratic style of the 18th century, one that Polish architects and painters often photographed and painted. The soldiers' council of the Eleventh Army Corps was headquartered in this house. At meetings there, Russia's destiny was discussed: there were arguments about how to continue the war or whether to stop it, the kind of government to have in Russia, etc. Among the council members were well-known leaders of the Socialist Revolutionaries and Social Democrats and speakers from the liberal royalist party Constitutional Democrats.

Every day, large delegations of soldiers would arrive from different areas of the front with marching bands and flags. In the wide-open space of the courtyard, their spokesmen would present their demands to the council and, through stirring patriotic speeches, persuade them to accept a decision to continue the war.

In a corner of the council hall sat a delegate wearing a Czarist lieutenant's uniform who from time to time asked permission to speak. He expressed the opposite of the other delegates: a demand to stop the war and divide the estate lands among the farmers. At first, his words were like a voice calling out in the wilderness, and he was dubbed a follower of the traitor party. Nevertheless, he drew more and more sympathizers. In addition to his talks in the council hall, he appeared in a series of lectures in the Lyceum auditorium and talked with groups of soldiers in the streets. His influence became stronger, and by the end of the summer, he had surrounded himself with many supporters who helped him promote his ideas. Among his adherents were few Jewish students from Kremenets. This young lieutenant was the famous Krilenko, who stood at the head of the Red Army at its inception and was later the Soviet Union's public prosecutor for many years.

 

The Zionist Club in Tsukerman's Courtyard

In the entrance to that courtyard, called Tsukerman's Courtyard, stood a large house. Its wings were decorated with white and blue flags, and extensive Zionist activity began there. It was the center for a national movement, and young people who had studied in Odessa and Kiev and devoted themselves with the passion of youth to disseminating information and culture. Committees were established for the National Fund, Hebrew classes, Zionism, the expansion of the library, the formation of Hebrew education institutions, etc., and the first Hebrew kindergarten was housed here, too. The conference of the district's Young Zionist movement, which was infused with an atmosphere of newly acquired power, was held here. During elections for Jewish Russian or Jewish Ukrainian institutions and for the first community governing council in our town, this house was turned into a war zone. In Jewish neighborhoods, it was necessary to break the rule of the lobbyists.

Those forces were attacked from another opposing side, that of the Bund organization, which was very powerful in those days. Bund members considered themselves the best men of the revolution, and the workers of Kremenets followed them enthusiastically.

Two strong, opposing factions struggled for this first community government: the Zionist Organization, and the Bund with the Jewish Social Democratic Workers Party. The latter faction won the election, and the first organized community in Kremenets was declared with much ado as a “Red Community” and celebrated with victory parades.

The “Red Community” did not last very long, just as all sorts of other public institutions at those unstable times did not.

[Page 177]

But I'll never forget that community's stormy board meetings, whose debates took place under the slogan of liberty, equality, and fraternity. People sat listening until the late hours of the night and sometimes participated in the discussions.

From the balcony of the Zionist Organization house, we watched the progress of the events that decided the fate of the Russian revolution. There were more and more delegations of soldiers from the front, and their appearance was increasingly stormy. Spring was over, and summer came to an end. Every day we heard news of murdered estate owners, burned mansions, and lynching in our area. The “October” winds were blowing.

I moved to the city of Rovno to attend the School of Commerce. During my six months there, the glamour of the February Revolution faded, and in the midst of the turbulence and confusion of the time the election for Greater Russia's constitutional assembly began. A few factions campaigned for the Jewish vote, and one of the first candidates on the Zionist Organization's ballot in Vohlin province was M. Gindes, from Kremenets. He campaigned in Rovno and Kremenets against Goldshteyn, the famous attorney, who represented an independent slate. In Kremenets, Dr. B. Landsberg argued heatedly with the rivals of the Zionist slate who had turned away from the center.

News from Kremenets seldom arrived. The town was used as a transition stop for soldiers who had left the front to move east and south with large stores of weapons and supplies. The year 1917 came to a close, and October was a long way behind us. At the end of December, my sister and I took the train – which was crowded with soldiers – to Kremenets for Christmas vacation. The train dragged on its way all night, and we were impatient to see our family, which by then had moved from Alterman's Courtyard to Grandfather's house in the center of Sheroka.

 

Grandfather's House Goes Up in Flames

It was a gray, wintry morning in the station. The drivers, who had known us since our childhood, met us with an odd indifference, and only one dared to take our luggage and asked us to his sleigh. We approached the town center. Frishberg's house was already behind us, and there was the Grand Hotel, but where was our house? The sleigh stopped in front of an empty lot. In place of our house and the Vitels' house were smoking embers in which a few people were rummaging… Our parents, their cries restrained, hugged us. We learned the whole story: the house that our grandfather had inherited had burned. On the ground, the metal sign announcing “Watch repairs, gold and silver articles for sale. Margolis. Established in 1861,” was like a single witness to the antique house that had stood there. Each corner had been like a museum. The house went up in flames when a rabble of soldiers who had stopped in Kremenets on their way from the front attacked, murdered, and looted. During the robbery, the owner of the adjacent store, Mr. Vitels, was shot.

Four of the Vitels' little children were asleep in the house at the time. The rioters, who were busy looting, did not harm them. When the attackers left the house for a few moments, my mother, accompanied by my young uncle, ran out under a shower of shots to bring help. It was a daring and dangerous act in a lifetime of suffering and sacrifice. They succeeded in rescuing the children and some of the jewelry from the safe, which enabled my parents to rebuild the house and continue their business.

Only the stone steps on which the cart and wagon drivers had sat for so many years were left. For a while afterward, they refrained from sitting on them, discouraged by the empty space behind them … the looting and murder, and our destroyed house. This was the only pogrom in our town during the entire civil war, in which all of Ukraine's Jewish settlements experienced an abundance of riots and slaughter.

The next day, self-defense began in Kremenets. About 50 Jewish soldiers who had returned from the front with their weapons volunteered to be the organizers.

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kre052.jpg
Figure 52. The Old Market
Photo by Alter Katsizne

On the first day of the defense's existence, groups in uniform and full combat equipment were already holding watch in the city's streets. For the groups' maintenance, well-to-do people were taxed heavily. Those who refused were denied permission to open their businesses, and guards were posted at their doors. A sense of peace and security returned to the city's residents.

After a few months, my parents were able to rebuild their home, the house that had been a meeting place for the town's notables during the life of my grandfather, R' Nachman the watchmaker, as well as for pious Hasidim who dined at his table during the holidays. Now big changes were taking place in it. Most visitors were young students and people from all social strata in town. Every important occurrence in the Jewish world or our town was discussed there. Initiatives for projects to help the national funds came more than once from there; stormy discussions were held here among members of the Zionist movement and its opponents. The local store owners went there to warm their frozen bodies by the stove on freezing cold days, and they found help there during the summer when they needed to pay a note at the bank… Some went there to read the newspaper or seek advice and encouragement from my mother or help from my father, who, as a representative of the government's social services was a custodian to the town's poor Jews and Christians in addition to his official community jobs. The large samovar was steaming, and everyone was welcome to a glass of tea and cookies… When a labor emissary from the Land of Israel came to our town, he found a warm atmosphere and a place to stay in our house. This was one of the houses in the countryside that the writer Sholem Asch immortalized in his book The House.

As soon as the house was rebuilt, the inhabitants of the steps, the cart and wagon drivers, returned to them. One fall day, their curious eyes saw long convoys of military vehicles, artillery batteries, and foot soldiers marching in line on the main street. The army uniform, marching style, and language of the commands were different from what they had been used to all those years. This was the German army that burst with tremendous force into e Ukraine in 1918. A period of peace had begun, the calm before the great storm – the civil war.

It seemed as if the events that took place between the two world wars, until the Holocaust, had chosen this house to put their stamp on. The house was partially destroyed by a German bomb at the beginning of the World War II. During Nazi rule, it was destroyed again along with all the other Jewish homes.


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