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[Page 487]

With My Brothers In Minsk

by Daniel Charni

Translated by Judy Montel

The author (1888 – 1959) – a well known Jewish author, the brother of Baruch Vladek, one of the heads of the “Bund” and Shmuel Niger, one of the greatest critics of Yiddish literature. These remembrances, from D. Charni's book of memoirs “Dukar”, published by “Tint un Feder”, Toronto, 1951, were translated from Yiddish by Nachum Chinitz.

My brother Baruch (eventually – Vladek) was two years older than I was, but at age sixteen he was a man in the full meaning of the word. Within a few years, in conditions of “eating days” he went over the Talmud curriculum at yeshivas and secretly prepared to be tested in the curriculum of the four grades of the Gymnasium. Those who had passed the exams were allowed to be elementary school teachers or apprentices at pharmacy. To what did my brother aspire? I don't know. My second brother Shmuel (eventually S. Niger), who was two years older than Baruch, was already known in the yeshivas of Minsk as “The Ilui [Genius] of Dukor]”, and a number of the wealthy men of Minsk had their eye on him. However Shmuel also studied Russian secretly and read books of the Haskala. My brothers Mendel and Zelka had positions in the cheap kitchen on Rakovi Street. This kitchen was the main residence of all five of the Charni brothers, each of whom had a special nature, though all of them were kneaded from the same dough.

My brothers helped one another as much as they could. The older ones made sure that I lived with them in the cheap kitchen. My remaining two brothers, the yeshiva students, lived in a small dark room with an iron bed for the two of them; they looked after my spiritual sustenance…

My brother Shmuel took it upon himself to go with me to the “Totersher Shul” every day to study Jewish legends with me. Apparently, even then Shmuel considered Jewish legend more important than Jewish practice.

When my brother Baruch heard that Shmuel was introducing me to the world of legend, he proposed introducing me to the practical world, to teach me mathematics, grammar, geography etc. And to ensure my existence, my brothers Shmuel and Baruch decided to give me their “days” at the places where they ate at the houses of the “Pans” of the city. These were good “days”, that entitled the diner not only delicious meals, but even cash – “grivniye” or “gulden” (ten or fifteen kopecks) for small expenses, buying sweets or a book. And since their “days” were scattered all over Minsk – I had the opportunity to get to know the city and its people. It is beyond my ken how my brothers were able to give up their “days” when they themselves were truly hungry. When I visited them once in their dark and narrow room I found the tail of a herring and rusks dry bread, and dried figs. They used the figs to sweeten their tea. They put the figs into a kettle of boiling water and the water immediately became yellow, like tea, and even a bit sweet. When I told my brothers Mendel and Zelka about the want and poverty of Shmuel and Baruch, they told me they themselves were to blame, they want to live a spiritual life… all of their resources were invested in the movement and they had nothing to spare.

My brother Shmuel was respected and accepted by the aristocracy of Minsk. When he took me to the well-known eye doctor Kaminski, the latter received me in his splendid office with warmth and friendliness. The doctor ordered three cups of real tea, not fig tea, and additional abundant refreshments. They discussed political and other matters that I didn't understand for a long time…

One day Shmuel stood on the stool in the cheap kitchen and spoke for hours on end before the audience of Dr. Leon Pinsker, who was preparing the ground for a state in the land of Israel with his composition “Autoemancipation”. However the state – said my brother Shmuel – must be built upon socialist principals, according to the “Kapital' of Karl Marx. The words “Kapital” and “Autoemancipation” were not clear to me then…

[Page 488]

[Photo: The Charni brothers. From the right: Baruch (Vladek), Zelka, Shmuel (Niger), Daniel and Mendel.]

Meetings frequently took place in the cheap kitchen in which respected and established inhabitants of the city took part. The debates went on until the late hours of the evening. My brothers Baruch and Shmuel argued about the matter of the land of Israel, but Mendel and Zelka were preparing to travel to America.

When we would gather in the house of Uncle Yeshaya, the uncle would start with a discussion about Zionism and about the congress in Basle, from “HaTzefira” read speeches by Herzl, Dr. Max Nordau, Wolfson and other various doctors, whose names I heard for the first time. My brothers nodded their heads, as if they agreed with the uncle's words, and if one of them wanted to ask or comment about something – the uncle didn't allow it. My ears heard many words that I didn't understand. However, a few words remained etched in my memory: “A bit of soil for a penny, every penny – a bit of soil!”

-- Understand, boys, for a penny – a fistful of soil – for a penny – a bit of earth! –Why this is the Keren Kayemet!” – Mendel and Zelka answered, the two older brothers and would each drop a penny into the blue box.

I was pleased that my brothers were earning two fistfuls of the soil of the land of Israel.

Before I went to sleep, my mother gave me a penny and told me: “I don't know anything about the redemptions of Uncle Yeshaya, but one mustn't scorn the box of Rebbe Meyer Ba'al Haness either! Put this penny into that box and may God have mercy!
I listened to my mother and went to sleep satisfied that Rebbe Meyer Ba'al Haness was also on our side.

[Page 489]

The Cheap Kitchen and the Tea House

The cheap kitchen for the needy was on Yuriavskaya (Rakovskaya) Street. Among the diners in the cheap kitchen were poor people from two classes: three kopecks and five kopecks. For three kopecks you received a serving of whole grain bread and thick soup, and for five kopecks you also received a piece of meat in the soup. Of course, those ate for three kopecks secretly envied those who ate for five kopecks, but this envy was not mixed with hatred.

Periodically two poor people would buy two meals in partnership, one for five kopecks with meat in it and one for three kopecks, without meat, and they would divide the piece of meat between them. Thus the meal cost each one four kopecks and had meat for both of them.

In the cheap kitchen pickpockets and all the characters from the Minsk underworld also ate, but it was rare that one of them put a fork or spoon into his pocket to sell for one or two kopecks. The restaurant was an established place in which they behaved honestly and with excellent manners.

The Minsk aristocrats who supported and maintained the restaurant would come for the Sabbath meals. At the head of the committee was the very wealthy Goldberg, who founded the restaurant. Immediately after the Sabbath prayers in the great synagogue they came to look or peek, how the poor of Minsk eat their Sabbath meals. Goldberg's head was covered with a tall, black top hat, and his wife was decorated and dressed elegantly, precious stones sparkled in her earrings and shone in the rings that were on her two hands. The delicate lady tasted some dish in front of everyone and nodded to her husband to signal that the food was tasty and cooked properly. The rest of the righteous women followed in her footsteps, they also tasted (in order to fulfill “those who taste it are granted life” [part of a line from a Sabbath song, referring to the Sabbath itself]) the Sabbath foods and nodded their heads to their husbands, that all was well. Their earrings dangled and the precious stones shone in all the colors of the rainbow. Filled with satisfaction and pride the wealthy people of Minsk left the restaurant, feeling that they had done something important and useful, which earned them a place in the world to come, and for the poor people of Minsk, also something in this world. As if it had been decreed from the heavens that the Goldbergs, the Sutins, the Kabakovs and the Poliaks were to be the wealthy ones and those who ate in the restaurant – the downtrodden poor.

Next to the cheap kitchen there was also a Tea House (Tchayne). The manager of the kitchen was my eldest brother, Mendel, and my second brother, Zelka, ran the cheap Tea House. And Zelka had to work for Mendel as well, since the Tea House was open all day, from eight in the morning until eight in the evening, while the restaurant was open only during the noon hours, between twelve and two, and for the evening meal – between six and eight.

The serving of tea was from a large white ceramic kettle, which contained five or six cups of boiling water, and above it a small ceramic kettle stood in which Zelka put a spoonful of tea and a bit of soda – so that the essence would be most excellent. Besides these two kettles, the drinker received a cup and a saucer and three pieces of sugar. Drinking so expansively would continue for hours together with lively conversation. The cheap Tea House was always full of people. If someone managed to drink the entire kettle of tea until it was finished, my brother would refill it with boiling water for free. I loved to sit next to my brother Zelka by the counter and talk about various matters.

Once I asked him, why our two other brothers, Shmuel and Baruch, didn't come to drink tea there, who had to drop dried and withered figs into a tin kettle in their meager dwelling and thus save themselves the cost of a spoonful of tea and pieces of sugar, when for one kopeck they could drink tea sweetened with sugar. My brother Zelka explained to me that Shmuel and Baruch were great idealists, and they didn't wish to partake of philanthropy…

[Page 490]

And when I asked my brother what the difference was between idealism and philanthropy, he explained to me that idealists don't want there to be rich and poor, but everyone equal, and the philanthropists want the poor to remain beggars forever and they, the wealthy, would give the poor charity.

The Train Station in Minsk

In Minsk there were two train stations: the Vilna and the Brisk [Brest]. The Vilna train station was large, a stone building well lit with many electric light bulbs. In the first class hall there were tables always set in good taste with white cloths upon them even on weekdays.

The station was always full of Yiddish-speaking Jews since the Libau-Romany railway line passed between the cities of the Jewish Pale of Settlement such as: Bobruisk, Homel, Minsk, Vilna and others. The Brisk train station, in contrast, had a shabby appearance. A wooden building that was lit with ancient gas-lamps. There were many non-Jews among the passengers because the Moscow-Brisk train served the Christian population especially. Only the Jews of Borisov and Orsha needed this train line until they reached Orsha-Smolensk. And since that was where the Jewish Pale of Settlement ended, from thence onwards no Jews appeared among the passengers.

The “Susita” (“Konka”) of Minsk only reached the Vilna train station. It was absurd, that one horse pulled an entire car. One might think that the “Susita” had the power of an engine in it. And when the “Susita” had to reach the “High Market”, they had to harness a second horse, who waited in the middle of the street. It was a strange thing to see a car on the railway tracks being drawn by a horse through the streets of Minsk, and the horse was leaving his droppings and spreading a rich aroma.

The conductors' treatment of the Jews on the Moscow-Brisk train was much worse than that of the conductors on the Libau-Romany line. Once a Jew from Borisov who was travelling to Minsk was standing in the railway carriage, wrapped in a prayer shawl and tefillin and he began to sway in his prayer with his face towards the window. The conductor yelled at him and told him: “Listen here, Jew, this is not a synagogue and not a place a Jewish worship!” The Jew turned around, motioned to him to wait a moment, finished his prayer, removed his tefillin and took off his prayer shawl.

– You should know – he told him – that the Czar, his royal majesty allowed us to pray.

– When did the Czar allow you to pray here? – the conductor asked in confusion.

– Wait until the train stops at the next station, we will go out to the platform and I will show you the “order” which allows the Jews to pray in the carriages, - the Jews said emphatically with utter certainty.

When they reached the station, the Jew disembarked with the conductor, took him to a carriage and explained the Russian abbreviation that was upon it: V=<=:=L= [M.B.ZH.D.] and explained to him what they meant: [Molitsya Bogu Zhidam Dozvolyayu], that is: Praying to God is Permitted to the Jews.
The correct reading of the letters is: [Moskovsko - Brestskaya Zheleznaya Doroga]*, that is, Moscow-Brisk Rail Road.
When the conductor heard the explanation of the letter, he burst out laughing, and the people standing nearby couldn't contain their laughter. And from that day, they say, Jews were allowed to pray in the railway carriages.

*Many thanks to Vitaly Charny for his aid in transliterating the Russian.

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