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[Page 14]

Chapter One

The town in the eyes of its residents

 

My Town, Meretch

Dov Halperin

Translated by Esther Snyder

In order to understand correctly life in Meretch, it should be noted that until the middle of the 1920's there were no municipal institutions in the simple and accepted meaning of the term. Until the end of the First World War while Lithuania was occupied territory, municipal matters were at the lowest level. When independence was gained at the end of that war, Lithuania started to organize its governmental system, but it reached our small town only in the second half of the 1920s. Previously, public life was run according to informal arrangements of the Jewish communities in Lithuania.

Truthfully, although the arrangements were based on a voluntary framework, self-discipline brought their strength to a level no less that had it been anchored in law. In this system, there was a special place for the Rabbi-decisor and others dealing with religious matters. Along side this system, whose functions were clear and well known, there was also an entire system of “institutions” to deal with the various needs of the public. The community was headed by a committee that was called, I think, “Ezra” – Help.

My father was one of those who headed that committee. I remember well how the committee used to meet in our home to discuss public problems. A large part of their activities was done in our home.

One of these institutions was the society “Linat Zedek.” The name itself explains the nature of the society, which was to arrange for a healthy person to spend the night with a lonely old person or a person chronically ill who needed help. (Visiting the sick was the responsibility of the society “Bikur Holim” –Visiting the Sick.) The people took turns without any directive. Each man came in his turn, without any accounting or thoughts that his action was extraordinary or worthy of praise. I remember well how at least twice I went instead of my father who was busy that night with public works and I sat a whole night in the home of an elderly couple. My friend Yaakov Rabin joined me and we played all night. The rest of the youth also did their part; when the father was unable to take his turn, he wouldn't to put it off, and of course, wouldn't leave the needy alone – someone from the family would go in his stead.

A “GaMaH” (Lending Society) was active in the area of loans to the needy, without interest nor guarantees: “When a borrower will make money, he will return the loan…” Another society “Matan Beseter” (gave aid and help to the needy, not intended to be returned. So as not to embarrass the receiver, neither the giver nor the receiver knew the identity of the other. There were also other benevolent societies. Since these institutions were functional in practice and by definition, there were no particular restrictions on their areas of activity. The best example of this was the use of money from the “Hevra Kadisha” (Burial Society) to install a system of running water for the town. Theoretically, the activities of the Hevra Kadisha were strictly defined. However, since this was an institution with relatively large assets, when a need arose for funding such an important benefit to the general public, no one found this deviation improper.

More than that. Even when it turned out that there was a mistake in the planning (they didn't consider that the water might freeze in the winter since the pipes were on the ground and therefore they exploded) and it was necessary to lay a new pipeline under the ground, no one complained about the cost. This incident was accepted by the public in good spirit.

* * *

The initiative to install a system of water came from Mr. Avraham Zalman Reisner. Thanks to him, this system was established. Two Jewish engineers from Kovno, the brothers Korlanzik, were hired to plan and build the project.

At a high point, on the slope of the “hill,” they built a pool (red bricks) whose capacity was 5000 cubits, for the use of all the public and the cost was paid by the general public. Those who were interested could, at their own expense, add a pipe leading into their home. The water made its way from the pool into the homes by gravity. Thus, Meretch became the only town in all of Lithuania that had a system of running water, including even the capital Kovno

The town rabbi didn't receive a salary from the Jewish community. Although he spent all his time performing the functions and duties of a rabbi and learning Torah, nonetheless, it was his wife who earned money. She sold yeast that was a product that only she sold. Even the “Probuslavi” town priest recognized her rights, at least for a certain period, and obliged his people to buy yeast from the Rabbi's wife.

* * *

The changes in the social, religious, economic and political life that had occurred in general in this century and especially since Lithuania gained independence, also reached the Meretch community. Nevertheless, one can find unique features in this community. The immigration to the United States, South America, Mexico and other countries around the world was done mainly by individuals from each family and even some entire families. After World War I, after the Balfour Declaration, there was a serious and meaningful change: the people in Meretch joined Zionist political parties. What is special about Meretch is that only parties connected to “Eretz Yisrael HaOvedet” (Workers of the Land of Israel) established branches there. Of course, there were some whose views were closer to other parties, for instance the Revisionists, Mizrahi, etc. There were some whose views were similar to Communism, However, none of them participated in organized activities of the local branch. Therefore, even in those homes where the parents didn't belong to political parties close to “Eretz Yisrael HaOvedet,” their sons and daughters joined youth groups that encouraged “aliya” to Eretz Yisrael and joining a kibbutz or group (kvutza). Those who belonged to “HaShomer HaTzair”, which was the most extreme in obligating its members to “hagshama” - fulfillment, were the ones whose parents' views were far from it. The branch of this youth movement was the largest of the branches in Meretch.

Among the older youth, there were those who weren't satisfied just in belonging to a Zionist party but decided to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael as soon as the conditions made this possible. The neighborhood of Nahalat Yitzhak was built by Lithuanian Jews. Among the founders was also the Ziman family who came to Eretz Yisrael in 1925. However, most of the “olim” (immigrants) were the youth from the youth movements who came without their families.

Many of the youth in our town who couldn't continue their studies or didn't find work, went to the district city Alita or to the capital Kovno. These cities were intended to be just temporary stops. Most of the youth were connected to the pioneering (halutzi) youth movements who waited for the longed for “certificates.”

* * *

A description of the Jewish community in Meretch that ignored the non-Jews there would be lacking an important element. Until the middle of the 1920s, the relations between the Jewish residents and their gentile neighbors was expressed mainly in supply services and merchandise. The Jews were the merchants (merchandise) and the workmen (suppliers of various services: tailor, shoemaker, baker, carpenter, etc.) while the gentile (farmer) would bring his produce to the town market. The gentile farmer received money for his produce, the Jewish merchant bought it in order to re-sell it in another market and even to export it outside the borders of Lithuania. The farmer would quickly spend the remuneration received on the necessities of his household and to pay for the services supplied by the Jewish craftsman. The craftsman would both make a new item or mend an old one, all according to the request of the non-Jew. Wednesday was market day in the town and everyone was extremely busy.

Jews who held leases also managed the work in the forests and the distribution of work was similar. The Jew was the merchant and agent while the actual work of cutting down the trees was done, mainly, by the gentiles. A few Jews were also involved in woodcutting or floating barges down the river to the sawmills and even abroad.

We are talking about Jewish “craftsmen.” Industries had not yet been established. There were, of course, gentile craftsmen who employed a few Jewish workers from the town. To tell the truth, many of these “craftsmen” didn't object if they frequently were forced to do other work. They were willing to do any work in order to bring home food for their family. Generally, the situation of these workers was very difficult.

Other than these connections, there was almost no interaction between the Jews and the gentile residents of the town. All the Jews lived on the streets around the commercial and business center of the town. All the non-Jews lived on the outskirts of the town. Not one gentile lived on the streets of the Jews nor did one gentile own a business in the town center. The fire fighters including their commander were all Jews, and their building was also used for screening movies. The police station was in the center of town and the policemen were non-Jews but they all lived outside the center of town. However, the Provoslavic Church was located in the center of the marketplace. The gentiles came there on their holidays and these became times of trouble and violence for the Jews.

The gentiles didn't participate in the administration of town affairs, even those matters defined as municipal. Only when the central government of independent Lithuania was established, during the second half of the 1920s, an important change occurred: an official city hall was instituted. Two gentiles were appointed to take charge. The city, mandated by law, forced the licensing of businesses. Voluntary payments to the community treasury stopped – from now on people paid taxes based on laws and regulations. (It should be noted, that the internal arrangements of the Jewish community were voluntary, but actually could not be avoided or evaded, as if they were in force due to law and certified authorities.)

* * *

As described above, early on the youth did not see their future in their beloved place of birth. At this stage, their search increased for a future outside of Meretch and even outside of Lithuania. Now, they looked towards Eretz Yisrael and especially to settling in kibbutzim.


[Page 17]

The Town and its Community

Prof. Yisrael Rabin

Translated by Esther Snyder

350 families lived in the Meretch community, numbering 1400 people. The large marketplace was in the center of town and the large houses and stores created sort of a frame around the market. The town spread out about one half a kilometer or more in each direction from the central market square.

In the center of the square stood the Provoslavic Church, which was surrounded by chestnut trees and closed in by a high wall. Sometimes, we heard singing and melodies of the Provoslavic ritual. I remember that the Jews feared the evening before Easter. The music didn't prevent the spreading of stories of blood libel against the Jews and the danger of violence was very real.

* * *

I remember the big fire in Meretch at the end of March 1921. Almost half the town went up in flames during the day and night that the fire raged. The fire didn't reach the market square. However, the concern was great and the residents of the houses around the square took out of the house into the street as much of their belongings – furniture, utensils, books - that they were able. Also, merchandise was removed from the stores. The people thought, “If the house is burned down, at least some of our belongings will remain.” The square was full of men, women and children – all working feverishly to save their possessions. Everything was brought to the square.

In the early morning the wind, that had fanned the flames and caused it to pass from house to house, subsided. The flames died down. The houses around the square were saved. But, for the whole town, the disaster was great. In the morning, we returned to our home. Many were left homeless – the suffering and poverty caused by the fire were terrible.

Uncle Yitzhak Leib from America came for a visit a few days before the fire. He worked tirelessly and helped us to move out the furniture and to guard it outside. At the same time, there was another visitor from America. After the fire, they helped to raise funds from the Meretch societies in Boston and New York. They also participated in distributing the dollars to the needy who were harmed by the fire.

At that time, a bank (or charitable institution – “Gemilut Hesed”) was established in Meretch which would help hundreds of poor souls to rebuild their homes and their lives.

* * *

The 1920s, the years after World War I, was an interesting and special period in the life of the town. This was a culturally transitional period moving from traditional religiousness to secular modernity. Although I was in Meretch only until 1925 when I left to study in the Gymnasia in Kovno (where I studied until 1929), when I came home for summer vacations, I was an active participant in the vibrant social life of the town. Truth to tell, these were years full of interest, vision and lively activity.

In this transitional period, one could discern two different layers in the town. One was the elderly and the religious whose lives revolved around the synagogue: daily study of Torah, “Hevra Kadisha” – Burial Society, charity, support for the poor, etc. The second group consisted of the younger generation, who were, in general, non-religious. Despite this, tradition dominated the town. On Sabbaths and Holy days, the synagogue and “Bet Midrash” – Torah study hall – were full. The way of life in the homes was still traditionally Jewish: observance of Kashrut –kosher food, religious education for the children, respect for parents and teachers, and family purity (“taharat hamishpaha”). Alongside this, the youth were interested in the future. Two generations and two ways of looking at life existed together in peace.

Most of the youth did not see their future in Lithuania. They wanted to leave the diaspora and go to Eretz Yisrael. Only a few were anti-Zionist and believed in Marxism. They dreamed of the Jewish community being a part of an international society.

The adult society – Poalei Zion, Tzierei Zion – were active in the town. Also the youth were organized in youth movements. Especially active were “Gordonia” and “Hashomer Hatzair.” When we gathered together in the groves, on the sands outside the town, we had a feeling of being in an “underground.” We were worried because the Lithuanian government prohibited public assemblies.

The great majority of the youth intended to go to Eretz Yisrael. Also many of the adults wanted to go. Not everyone succeeded. Among those who didn't go were my parents – Yehoshua David and Sara Fruma, my younger brother Yehoash and my sister Hanna Libba. They were all killed in the Holocaust in September 1941. My brother Yaakov, who was two years younger, came to Eretz Yisrael in 1933. After years of guarding and serving in the British Army, he became a member of Kibbutz Mizra. He remained there until his last day. He died on June 30, 1986.

* * *

The education in my time reflected the transitional period of the cultural life in Meretch. In the early twenties, the “heder” was the only educational institution in town. The two well-known teachers – “melamdim” ” were R' Shimon (Rubinstein) and R' Abba (Bekker). I studied for only a few years in the “heder” of R” Shimon the “melamed.” After that, I moved to the “Tarbut” elementary school. There was also a system of religious schools called “Yavneh” and schools of the Yiddishists. Meretch was a Zionistic town and the most appropriate education was that of the Tarbut schools. We had a number of good and faithful teachers. I have many pleasant memories from this school including “Lag BaOmer” celebrations, plays and other activities.

The general cultural life of the town was well developed. There was a full, overflowing library. Various parties and events were held. In the evenings, there were lectures and debates on literary or political topics. They were held all year long but especially so during the long nights of the Lithuanian winter. An amateur dramatic society staged different plays from time to time. At first, they were held in an abandoned building on the outskirts of town. Later the plays were staged in the hall of the fire station, which was built after the great fire.

* * *

After the First World War, the town underwent political unrest. At the end of the war, the Germans captured the Lithuanian regions of Russia. I remember that the German soldiers gathered every day in the afternoon to listen to their orchestra, which stood in the center of a circle, and played various tunes and melodies, including marches. Many of the residents, especially the children, stood nearby and listened to the music. This was totally different from the local band that played at weddings in the town.

After the German occupation, the Bolsheviks arrived but they didn't last long. The Bolsheviks were followed by the Poles who ruled Lithuania until the international decision to grant independence to the Lithuanians in Lithuania and the establishment of their own government.

The Jews had to adapt to each one of these changes. The period of the Polish occupation was the worst. The Polish conquerors showed more anti-Semitism than the others. We feared them greatly and there was a justification for that fear. I remember clearly a certain episode from the time of the Polish occupation that made a deep impression on a young boy like me. Here is what happened:

In was in 1919 or 1920. It was rumored that the “hazan” – cantor – Noah was caught by Polish soldiers. The people hurried to the square where we saw a young, armed Polish soldier with a large pair of scissors holding the “hazan” and trying to cut off his white beard. A large crowd gathered around. Everyone looked on in fear and a feeling of helplessness. No one dared stop the arrogant, armed soldier or try to oppose him. Suddenly, a young girl entered the square and started to fight with the soldier to stop him. The soldier was deterred and apparently didn't want to beat a young girl. The soldier departed the square and left them alone. The courageous girl succeeded in saving the hazan from the rowdy, young Polish hooligan.

Polish anti-Semitism was well known, so was the Lithuanian anti-Semitism. I remember an event that was talked about in those days: There was a family of “yishuvnikim” (Jewish farmers) in an area near Meretch. One night, some people came and poured gasoline on the walls of a house and lit a fire. The whole house went up in flames together with the whole family who were asleep inside.

* * *

It seems to me that it's almost an insult to summarize the memories of Meretch in just a few pages. The town had a great influence on its residents. It served as a framework for the family, it was the web and texture of our lives. People who were close to us lived there. The model of mutual assistance that existed in the town gave us the strength and energy to follow the paths of life – those that we chose and those that destiny charted for us. Together with the other last remnants, we will remember lovingly and with respect our hometown until the end of our lives.

 


Rabin Family children

 

[Page 20]

 

Town Square

[Page 21]


Copy of a document from 1937 from the
Student Stipend Fund, Gemilut Hesed Society

[Page 22]

 

Market Square
 

Market Square on Wednesday, which was market day

[Page 23]

 

Niman River

[Page 24]


One of houses

[Page 25]


Meretch River flowing into the Niman River

 

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