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[Page 323]

Autobiography of Avrohom-Yitskhok Slutsky

Mordkhai Zaytshik

Translation by Stephen M. Cohen, Ph.D. , February 4, 2004

I was born in the month of Kislev, in the year 5648 (December 1888). I was the third son. The two children before me (boys) did not survive their third birthday, and before I entered the world, my mother, as she used to say, remained with “empty hands”. The cause of their early death was the crowdedness, poverty, and want, and, above all, the epidemic childhood diseases that rampaged wildly and untamed in those days. They therefore could say, “eyn beys, asher eyn sham meys” [no house without death therein]. Very rarely were there parents who raised all their children to adulthood.

When my mother came to the time to bring me into the world, she decided to change residence and tried to give birth in Lakhva, whence she originated, and where she had her whole family. And actually in Lakhva, on a frosty night, my mother (upon her be peace), at her uncle's home, behind the oven, brought me into the world. And there, behind the oven, I noticed for the first time the bright shine of—an oil lamp….

Thereafter, they brought me into the covenant of Avraham Avinu [Abraham our Ancestor], gave me the name “Avrohom Yitskhok”, and blessed me, “zeh hakotn godol yihyeh” [This little one will be great], and I was already a youth of 4 weeks old, when my mother had to return home to Lenin. Burdened with fear for the life of her child, she took me to the old Lakhva rabbi, the esteemed sage R' Dov Ber Zts”l, who blessed me, that I should extend my days and my parents should live to see me raised to Torah, to the marriage canopy, and to good deeds. Because of this, the rabbi laid upon me a third name, Alter [the old one]. So I still call myself “Alter Avrohom Yitskhok”. If all the attempted methods caused me to be able to write this in my sixty-fourth year—I don't know, perhaps yes….Because in the house into which my mother brought me and where her elder two children died, it is really a great miracle that I survived. Even greater is the miracle and wonder that after me were born five more children in that alleged “house”, of which only one, a boy aged three, died of diphtheria. That is amshteygns said was no house, but a grave. A little room with one window, without a bit of sunshine. And so in the “house”, a family of seven souls crammed itself in. Until today, when I think of that time, I get a chill, that grave with many other similar living corpses are gone with the fire in the great conflagration that came about in the year 1904.

My education

The only education that Jewish children received during that time was the kheyder [Hebrew school]. Among parents of the better teachers, they taught beyond that Chumash with Rashi, Tanakh and Gemara, and also writing Yiddish a little, with arithmetic. Russian I learned almost by myself. I was always fluent and had a good head for learning. Four semesters I learned in the Lakhva Talmud-Torah, which had at that time was famous in our area. Many Lenin youths traveled to study in Lakhva. The teachers in Lakhva were straight from Lenin; one, Moyshe the stiblevitsher, the second, Avrohom Bregman, Nisn Bregman's father. Both of them were great Talmudists. The ladder of the Talmud-Torah was at that time Hershl Mendl, Pinye Kaplan's son.

After the four semesters of studying in Lakhva, I could already read a page of Gemara with Tosafot. To my good head for learning I added a good little voice, and I sang for four years with the old cantor, R' Yisroel Khayim (upon him be peace), and used to gain pleasure from my singing the prayers in synagogue. And certainly, with all my abilities, I was no rabbi, as many have suggested, but also no famous cantor. I was a tradesman—a carpenter. In the conditions and circumstances in which I found myself, it was impossible—regardless of my will and diligence—that I could reach something higher. Being a fourteen-year-old youth, I came to Avner Golub in Kantor to learn carpentry. Also, the arrival in Avner's in Kantor was a big thing, to which not all of my equals could attain. In the Kantor carpentry-shop, one worked according to one's own hours, with a two-hour break for lunch. In the other town workshops, they slaved the whole day, including Saturday night. At age 18, I went away to Ekaterinoslav. There, in the big city, I opened up a new world for myself. I joined a reading group, read and learned a lot, and acquired a certain amount of knowledge in Yiddish and Russian literature. I also learned to play a musical instrument (guitar). Politically, I belonged to the “S.S.” (Zionist-Socialists), today's Po'alei-Tsiyon. In general, my three years in Ekaterinoslav were the best years of my life. Attaining 21 years of age, I came home to military conscription. That was at the end of 1909, I was freed from service as a first legotnik, i.e., provider for the family. Six months later, in March 1910, I married my cousin Khave, the daughter of my mother's sister, and in October of the same year we left for America.

Hard, very hard it was for me to separate from my poor, unlucky parents, whose only consolation in their dark life I was. Very dear also were my relatives and friends, and also my dear pals. In America, in the golden land, at the beginning we were just like all greenhorns, going not birdlike. In March of 1911, towards the anniversary of our marriage, my wife gave birth to our first and only son (after him came our three daughters), and life began to flow its normal course.

Landslayt [home-town people]

At that time in America, we already found a quite a few landslayt from Lenin. Some were already here since before the end of the previous century, such as the brothers Benyomin and Mordkhe Zaytshik, the sons of Leybe Feykun. Also Yenkl Medvedyev, who returned to Mikashevitsh, and many others, who came with the immigrant stream at the beginning of the new century. In 1910 I already found here quite a nice fareyn [society]. The goal of the fareyn was at that time to get together twice a month, in order to drive out the feeling of loneliness and pining for the old hometown. Thereby also to help out each other in need, or, God forbid, sickness. The landsmanshaft [home-town society] was founded in October, Khol Ha-Moed Sukkot, 1906, and already owned its own cemetery plot (that is the first thing that landsmanshaftn worry about).

The first week after coming to America, I was immediately attached to my brother landslayt. I came to their get-together, and that was the initiation of my lifelong activities in America. I provided my whole energy, all my abilities for my brother and sister landslayt in all domains, both in joy, and, God forbid, in sorrow. In brief, I took part in all activities of our landslayt organization: philanthropic activities, communal and national ones, such as the “United Jewish Appeal”, etc.

Our landsmanshaft has nothing to be ashamed of, with its work in all domains. Just the opposite, in fact: it brings itself closer to the moment when our landsmanshaft will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. We will have much to explain, as a small bunch of immigrants showed so much accomplishment.

I am proud that I and my wife Khave have a big share in all the good deeds.

[N.B.: Lakhva and Mikashevitsh are nearby shtetls; Kantor is a town whose non-Yiddish name I have not researched. All words and names are transliterated according to YIVO conventions. The abbreviation R' stands for “Reb”, a respectful honorific for Jews similar to “Mr.”, and is left untranslated.]

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