Jews were always a significant presence in Plungyan, accounting for a large percentage of the village population. In the year 1847, the Jewish community of Plungyan consisted of 2197 Jews; in 1897 there were 2502 (55% of the total population of the community); in 1921 there were 2200; in the year 1928, 1815 (44% of the total) and in 1939, 2500 Jews (43%).
Most Jews worked in the area of trade, but little by little they were pushed out. In the years 19311935 the number of Jews who had been involved in the area of trade decreased to 50%. The percentage of Jews who traded in tobacco decreased from 50% to 25%. Approximately 200 Jewish families engaged in various occupations. The Jews in Plungyan had six locations in which to pray. The bes medresh [study/prayer house] was built in the year 1864 by Yankl Geler. The great Shul [Synagogue] was built in the year 1814. There were four kloyzn [houses of worship]: Gmiles Chesed, Shamosim, chaye adam, Di Gele (tailors).
In Plungyan in 1908 there was a yeshiva with 50 students. A teacher named Gutl founded a school where all disciplines were taught in Hebrew. At the beginning of1919 the Progressive Jewish Youth founded a Jewish Volkschule [elementary school] where all disciplines were taught in Yiddish. The school had five teachers, three of whom were in the service of the government. The young people, themselves, supported two of the teachers. Later, another school was founded in Hebrew, but in the year 1927, according to the order of the Ministry of Education, both schools became unified into one school.
In Plungyan there was also a Jewish gimnazye [high school]. There all disciplines were taught in Hebrew. It was located in the present day " Salameio-Neris " Number 4. The wall stands in this street to this day. This was a gift for Plungyan Jews from Mr. Oginskas, especially for the Jewish gimnazye. In a school that was called Tarbut, 130 students studied. In an anfang shul [beginners' school], which was founded by the gimnazye, 100 students studied in the Yiddish language. There was also a library called the Peretz Library named for the author, Peretz.
Not far from the gimnazye on Maluno Street (today called "Darius"), stood a cheder , a religious school called Talmud Torah. (The building is no longer there.) For the most part, the poorest children studied in the Talmud Torah. The wooden building was purchased by a wealthy Jew. He hired the best teachers. One of them was a teacher named Levinson, thanks to whom the authority of the cheder greatly increased. But none of the wealthier Jews would allow their children to study there. Talmud and Hebrew were studied at this school. Children who finished this school were accepted to the yeshiva. Plungyan’s own administration (self government) offered little material support to the Jewish schools. Their support was sufficient to sustain only one school.
In Plungyan there were several sport organizations including Maccabi, and Ha-poel. They had soccer teams and other sports clubs. Organizations included Shomer Ha-tsair, Chaluts Ha-tsair, as well as Betar. There was an organization, Berut Hachayal, whose goal was to go to Palestine and, with weapons in hand, create a Jewish state. On Paprujai street was a primary school where 30 young boys and girls lived. They learned different trades, worked in agriculture, without shunning heavy, dirty work, and after working a certain amount of time they would travel to Palestine. It turned out that I studied in this primary school and had contact with them.
As in all shtetls in Lithuania, Plungyan had cultural autonomy: institutions, press, and other things which were necessary for the Jew to exist with a Jewish spirit. Newspapers were delivered daily: Der Wort, Volksblatt, Yidishe Shtime, Der Emes, Der Moment; and the weekly: Dem Yidishn Lebn and Hayntike Nayes. There was also the Jewish Volksbank [people’s bank] that operated on Vituto Street. At the beginning of its founding it had 321 members. Later there were 220, of whom 15% were Lithuanians. The bank's management consisted of important Jewish community leaders, the intelligentsia: Chotse Gamzu, Avrom, Gulvitsh, Avrom Pozin, Shoyel Shuch [Shur], Shloyme-Yank Mets, Yente Garb, Odes [Ades], Michl Amolski, Tevye Kesl and Emdin.
In1927 the management of the department of Plungyan’s Aze (Jewish Health Union) were: Avrom, Dembo, Michl Amolski, Itsik Pozin, the doctor’s wife Mrs. Leybovish, Lipman, Chaim Zaks, Genese Levinson, Chaim Chest, Leibe Garb and Motl Pozin
In Plungyan lived a well-known writer, Mordechai Plungianski and a well-known sculptor named Rosenthal. The rabbis at different times in Plungyan were: Chaim Bloch, Avrom Vesler, Yehuda Ziv, Z. Barit, Shmuel Pavenzon, (1929); Yitschok Olshvanger, Yoysef Gutman, Meyer Mets, Yoysef Muravitsh, Bere Dov (1716).
During the period of 1918-1931 there was in Plungyan a Jewish mayor, Boruch-Dovid Goldvasser. In the year 1928 in honor of the tenth anniversary of independent Lithuania, this mayor received an award in the form of a "Freedom medal" and an honorary citation from Smetona, the president at that time. His daughter from America, Annette Goldvasser, brought copies for the founding of the Jewish Museum in Plungyan. In 1937 the whole family emigrated to South Africa, where the father died in 1956. In the Plungyan self-government there were 11 Jews, [but] in 1936 there were only two, and the representative of the mayor was Hirshe Mets (according to historical sources).
In Plungyan lived two front fighters, Yank Garb (a brother of Yente Garb, Jewish
community leader), and Leibe Bunka (my father), who fought in the year 1918
for Lithuanian independence and who were rewarded with "Freedom"
were also given 8 hectares of land, lumber to build, and horses to work the
In 1936, Necheme Ril (my uncle) who was a member of the self-government and the chairman of AZE was one of the people responsible for determining what occupations Plungyaner Jews were engaged in. In the center of the shtetl stood many buildings that belonged to Jewish merchants, businessmen and craftsmen. No Jew worked in governmental institutions because they were not accepted. Besides, there were Jewish institutions that accepted Jews. There were three doctors, two lawyers, two Jewish pharmacists on the street Darius un Girenas (earlier called Moluna). Kotse Zaks had an electricity station, a sawmill, and a flourmill. The Plungyan inhabitants called the electrical outlets, which were 110 volts, zaksin e, thereby eternalizing Zaks name.
At this time, the condition of the Jews was a very bitter one. The crisis became
greater for the craftsmen and the shop owners. Some Jewish shop owners were on
of bankruptcy, and several did in fact go bankrupt. Much of the fault lay with
Lithuanian stockholders union, "Letukis," which did not pay any taxes
state. They were exempt from payments, and therefore were able to sell their
more cheaply. Both Jewish and Lithuanian shopkeepers suffered from this. The
People's Bank [Volksbank] assisted a great deal. Its members lent people
needed-money without interest as did the treasury of the Jewish Aid Committee [Hilfskomitee]. Ten percent of Plungyaner Jews had relatives in America, Africa, and other
countries from whom they received support. People waited for Wednesdays and
when mail from abroad would arrive. You were really happy when you could buy
for your half-empty shop with the dollars or pounds that you received from
In the marketplace there stood a long wall (burnt down in 1961) on both sides of which there were buildings called booths. They called the buildings "shops." The wall was also a gift from Comrade Oginskas. There were only Jewish booths there. In the "shops" people traded in fancy goods, fabrics, sewing machines, gears, parts, ironware, shoes, and all other things that are used in life. The booths included those for the wealthy, like Goldvasser, Rolnik and Plungyanski, whose proprietors had accounts in the Lithuanian Telzer Bank and the Plungyan People's Bank.
The remaining shops were average and were avoided by the well-to-do. There was neither heating nor lighting in the small booths. Hene Shvat, whose shop was in the beginning of the "shops", on the same side as Hile Ruman's green grocer, facing Ritever [Bod Street], sat with gloves, with open fingertips, and kept a pot full of hot coals close by to stay warm while she sold buttons.
As in all Stetlech there were also Chevre Kadishim [burial societies]. In Plungyan they had no one affiliation and were independent. They dug the graves themselves, laid out the graves with boards ("Roysh" and nails) [?], and placed wood chips on the eyes of the deceased, in a word, they did everything to carry out what was needed to bury the dead. Paupers were buried without charge. The Chevre Kadishim would also tear " krie " [the rending or tearing of garments] and go around with a collection box [pushke] to collect money calling out, "tsedoke totsil memoves [charity will save from death]." What they collected was their only reward for the hard work of the burial society: cleansing and putting on shrouds, carrying to the cemetery, and interring the dead. They did their work the year round, in heat and in cold, in rain and in snow, carrying the deceased to the cemetery at the bottom of the hill. The money that they received from the relatives of the deceased and tatsl moves gelt [charity collected for the burial of the dead] was donated to buy shrouds for the poor and was also used to support their kloyz [house of prayer], and shames [beadle]. Money was also used to keep the cemetery fence in good repair and with the remaining money, a party was held once a year.
Every shtetl had its "extraordinary" Jews and Plungyan was no exception. I would like to recall some of them. First was Moyshele Royzes. Both Jews and Christians alike knew him by name. He was a small man. His knees were pressed tightly together. It was difficult for him to walk, yet he did so shaking from side to side. He had a habit of screaming, " oy " which he yelled out from time to time. He also had a virtue, in that he always knew what time it was whenever he was asked. Everyone knew about this. Consequently, children, adults, Lithuanians really needing to know, or for no reason, would ask, "Moyshele, what time is it?" He would always answer cheerfully, sometimes ten times a day. People wondered how he knew the correct time, accurate within a few minutes, especially since no one ever saw him wearing a watch.
There was another person, who was called "Yankele the Blue" who was an invalid. A hand and a foot were shrunken because of an illness, or perhaps he was just born that way. His hands and face were blue from his condition, giving rise to the nickname "Yankele the blue." Every Friday night he would go through the streets with a knocker in his hand and call, " Yidn, in shul arayn [Jews, into the Synagogue!]." In the beginning of the war, his friends took him with them. While fleeing Plungyan, lying in the wagon which his friends were driving, he was not able to hold out, and died close to the Estonian border where he was buried.
Almost the entire shtetl had colorful nicknames. For example, "Bebale" [little bean], "Di Luchtse" [The Rag], "Kroe" [Crow], "Sholem der toyt" [Sholem the Dead], "Chane di Shvartse" [Chane the Black One], "Koloshe," "Koshkale," "Cossack," "Berman Foy," "Leibke der Lebenbeyn," "Binkeliner," and others. All Plungyaners together were called "Plungyaner Ganovim"
Its worth mentioning a few other interesting characters, as they say, with their particular personalities, or virtues. In Plungyan such people were not uncommon. I am writing about a few with whom I was acquainted. There was Chayeh Yose Noyachs, a huge woman who on high holidays would stand by the door of the shul at the womans entrance maintaining order, making sure that children didnt push their way in. She also would not admit children without mothers, chasing them away and cursing at them vehemently. The children thought this was great fun, so they purposely irritated her just to hear her lexicon of curses.
There was Hese Korb, the wagon driver, who was hired to stay the night with a
person (according to Jewish law the dead were not to be left alone). Like all
drivers he was a cheerful man. He also had artistic abilities, and took part in
which drivers, tailors, shoemakers, and other craftsmen organized. Even
remaining with a
dead person he never lost his sense of humor. Leibe Bunka (my father) was
invited to weddings and other celebrations to entertain the guests with his
singing in couplets, improvised on the spot for the person for whom he was
used to tell anecdotes and perform stories he created himself, keeping time
with a match
stick on top of a matchbox. He had a good singing voice. He recited rhymes, or
as they were called. Aside from this, he was famous for writing legal
appeals or other pleas for people. He wouldnt accept money, but some
people gave him
gifts when they were able to.
At this point I would like to talk about my childhood years and youth. We left Plungyan to live in Klaipeda (Memel) when I was ten years old. My father worked for the company of Israilit in a manufacturing factory. I had a Bar Mitzvah there in Klaipeda on the 13th of July, 1936. At that time I studying in a Lithuanian high school called Donelaitis. For a whole month after coming home from high school, I studied the Haftorah " Nachomu, Nachomu am I " for several hours a day with a Rabbi. The day of the Bar Mitzvah arrived, and as the Shul was not far from our home (on the next street) my mother made an effort so that more Jewish ladies would come to hear me read the Torah. I must admit that at that time my voice sounded beautiful. When I finished reading the Haftorah and went to my mother, I noticed that she was not the only one wiping away the tears; the old ladies did so too as they joyfully congratulated her. Later a community representative approached my parents with a proposal for me to study in the Telzer Mechine (preparation for yeshiva). Naturally they agreed. It wouldnt cost them anything because the Kehile [community] would help. I arrived in Telz and began to study and "esn teg" [a rotating meal plan where students would eat in a different home every day]. Financial support from home was out of the question because there were still five children at home. Only my father worked, and he did not earn much. Granted, I did receive support from my uncle Cheme Ril who was a wealthy member of the Plungyan Jewish community. He paid a Telzer Jew, Shavel, who every week would give me a kilo of sausages. I lived on Bod [Bath] street with a woman named Verblav and her daughter. In the Mechine we were taught by the head of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Bloch and his representative named Pinchos, at whose house I ate Shabbos dinner. He had many children and lived in a house across from the bank (which stands today although their house is no longer there). It used to be cheerful after the meal. As with all children this age, there was a lot of talking. The Rabbi had a morose character. He had a strange habit of pulling hairs out of his beard and he was strict. Many who studied in the yeshiva must remember the great uproar caused by the appearance of an obituary in the newspaper stating that the Rabbi had died. It so happened that the whole incident was a prank perpetrated by a Yeshiva student who had been expelled by the Yeshiva. The Rabbi had stood firm on his decision to expel the boy. On that day the kiosk which stood close to the Yeshiva was swarmed by people wanting to get the newspaper. People read in groups. On that very day the Rabbi had studied Gemora with us. At the beginning of the class the Rabbi said that this was a reminder from God not to forget death and to commit fewer sins, so that arriving in the next world you will have fewer sins, and everyone of us had to know this in order to learn well. The next day an announcement appeared that the obituary was a forgery. The youth was punished for having spread the deception. Unfortunately, it was not long before the Second World War broke out, with its gruesome fate for the Jews of Poland, and thereafter for the Jews in all of Europe.
We had to return to Plungyan after a short time. On March 19, 1939 Klaipeda (Memel) was annexed by the Third Reich of Hitlers Germany. All the Jews had to leave Memel. Lithuanians also had to leave. That day the German newspaper, the Memel Dampfboot announced that all Lithuanian censors were out. Many anti-Semitic slogans appeared against front fighters who fought in the years 1918-1919 against the Bolsheviks and also against Germany. My father had to get out as quickly as possible in order not to fall into the hands of the Hitler Youth. It was already clear to me that the Soviet occupation was a definite possibility because a lot of people were talking about it.
I also returned to Plungyan and, being around sixteen, I was given over to a carpenter who made furniture. I worked until the beginning of the war in order to learn the trade.
Mendl Ril (my grandfather) was a Vorsprecher [soothsayer] against an eyne hore [the Evil Eye] "aroyz" (this comes from an incantation). Both Jews and Christians used to come to him from all corners of the Plungyan area, as well as from other areas requesting his help. This was his remedy: He would pour lemonade into a glass of water if the client brought water. If not, he would go to another room, because he held the healing procedure secret. No one was allowed to see what he was doing. He once said he would teach me when he himself was no longer able. (Unfortunately this never happened. He, my grandmother, my little sister and their daughter and her husband were murdered in the town of Skoydvil.) My desire to see what it was that he did with the glasses of liquid was very great. I managed to see this much: He ran his right index finger around the glass and quietly, with closed eyes uttered something. This lasted several minutes. Then he took it out to the sick person, ordering him to drink a tablespoon three times a day, and if it did not help, to come back again.
One time a Lithuanian mother and father came to my grandfather from the countryside with their daughter in a wagon bedded with hay. The daughter was covered with a blanket. Her face was swollen and terribly red. They told my grandfather that he was their last hope. They had heard from former clients that he had once healed a similar illness. He did the procedure as always into a glass of lemonade, and ordered the parents to give it to their daughter to drink three times a day. They then went to the wagon where she lay, and my grandfather placed his hand over her face, and whispered something. We were so surprised when they returned with their very beautiful daughter, bringing my grandfather eggs, butter, a few chickens, fruits, vegetables, cheese, and I don't remember what else. They promised to bring more when they came to market in Plungyan.
Once a young Jewish woman came, who was a frequent guest in my grandfathers home. She used to become easily provoked about the evil eye and would then become frightened, fearing that anything may happen. As a precautionary measure, she would often come to my grandfather. On that particular day my grandfather was not there, but my uncle, Chayim-Leib, happened to be visiting from the shtetl of Luknik. He also knew about the womans fears and decided to play a trick on her. He told her that my grandfather was ill, but if she desired he could take the glass of water into the other room where grandfather was lying and he would say the incantation over the glass and bring it back for her. She agreed. My uncle went into the other room, poured a little bit of salt into the glass, waited until the salt dissolved and took it out for her to drink as she was used to doing. Some time passed and she met my grandfather and of course thanked him and asked how he was feeling after his illness. She knew that he had been ill last Wednesday, the day when he warded off the evil eye for her, only the water was a little salty. My grandfather looked at her in bewilderment, and told her that he hadn't been ill at all. Precisely on that day he had been in the tailors' kloyz where he was the gabbai repairing the omed [lectern]. She then understood that she had been fooled, and had been made a laughing stock. She became angry at my uncle, but she remained silent so that no one would find out about it.
It was happy Simche Le Yehudim full of joy and merriment for Jews on our Bod Street. Everyone lived hand to mouth, but in high spirits, as they say.
Hirshe der Fisher obviously sold fish. The fish looked like they were still alive in his hands because he trembled probably due to old age. He was a very strong man. In his youth he had been tall and broad shouldered.
Gite di Telzerke dealt in frozen wild apples, which she would sell. She would gather them in the forest, frozen in the winter, and sell them individually or by the litre.
Toyve, the blind woman, lived together with her son. She would blindly knit socks for people who ordered them from her. She was always thrilled when someone told her they were wearing a new dress. She would touch the dress with her fingertips and say, "What a nice dress you are wearing."
There lived two sisters and a brother, whose last name was Flaks. They were very poor, and also a little bit poor in wits, in addition to which they did not speak well. It was very difficult to understand them. One of the sisters married another poor man from Kelshteyn. I heard an anecdote that they got up in the morning, and one said to the other "I saw our mother in my sleep." The other said with wonder, "Come, come. I was awake and didn't see our mother, so how could you see her when you were asleep!" They lived close to our house.
Leibke der Leybnbeyn was a very strong man. He lived with his mother, but he was not too bright; like they say, he was missing a screw in his head. He was not a wagon driver, but helped them carry heavy things, sacks of flour, sugar, salt and other things. With this he earned a few litn to help make ends meet for him and his mother. Later, in the chapter describing the destruction of the Jews of Plungyan, I will tell how he met his death.
Shortly before the war there were over 60 Jewish craftsmen in Plungyan including: three watchmakers, two photographers, (one the famous Berkovitch), four tinsmiths, thirteen bakers, six seamstresses, three tailors, one leather cutter, eight shoemakers, one carpenter, five blacksmiths, two kettle makers, two leather workers, two hat makers, three mirror makers, two hairdressers, later one or two glaziers, one harness maker, four house painters, one master builder (called Velvl the Master Builder). Eyg Aynbinder, who worked with his brother-in-law, whose family name was Takson, had a small candy factory in which 30 women worked. There was also a woman who ran the Dutch oven and a few small Jewish institutions, restaurants and a hotel.
Plungyaner Jewish teens and children got along fairly well with their Christian counterparts. Many wealthy Jews sent their children to study in the Lithuanian high school or the gimnazyes. They would often do their homework together helping the less able students. Neske Shochat, for example, often did her homework together with a Lithuanian friend, Dola Vajtkute. Dola used to be often at Neske's house as if she were a member of the family. They were devoted to each other. This was told to me personally by Dola the Lithuanian friend. I already spoke about a few people on Bod Gas, which was the poor street.
Now I would like to furnish a few details concerning the main street, Vytautas, where mostly rich Jews lived. On the street there were more than a few Jewish shops. A few of their proprietors were: Pozin, Rhill, Rostovski, Gelerenter, Yudelman's bakery, Rihman's harness and shoe repair, that employed about ten workers. There was also a small lemonade factory on the Telzer Gas. The horse trader Chotse Gamzu who exported horses to Holland, had three brothers Chest, Rolnik and Hirshe the lawyer. There was also Bere Press, a shopkeeper; doctors Ziv and Levin; Goldvasser, the former mayor of Plungyan; Plungyanski, a famous shopkeeper and dozens of others who traded in small and large business.
In the Bod Gas, as I explained earlier, lived the poor Jews, shoemakers,
tailors, water carriers, laborers, laundry women, unskilled laborers, unemployed and poor
people in general who were constantly supported. There were also a few small shopkeepers
on the Bod Gas. They did not have any signs outside; instead they placed in their shop
windows empty packs of cigarettes with brand names like
Vilkas, [or Vilkos]
or from Turkish tobacco
[or Turkos]. From sitting too long in the shop
window the cigarette packs were faded and covered with a layer of dust. The
shops of the
small shopkeepers were dark especially when the sun did not shine on their side
street. The owner lived in the best room of the house as did, for example, the
named Kriger. Entering the shop, a bell would ring that was attached above the
letting the shopkeeper know that a customer had arrived so he didn't have to
wait at the
counter the whole time.
Most shopkeepers on the Bod Gas (there were three) sold herring, which was considered to be a cheap food. But when you tried to buy more, all they gave you was herring brine, which alone could be eaten with potatoes, saving the herring for another day. The main staple was potatoes. Potatoes with herring, potatoes with herring brine, potatoes with sour milk. These were the most common foods. They used to buy as they say, "on credit", not paying right away. As soon as you brought the money to the shopkeeper, he would cross out what you owed. Wood for cooking and for heat in the winter was purchased in the marketplace by the wagon load or in bundles. In the old days people didn't buy so much wood because it wasn't cheap.
Plungyaner Jews named the streets in their own way: Ritever Gas, for example, became Bod Gas, deriving its name from the bathhouse on the street. Vaizganter Gas became Pakolner Gas, deriving its name from the Lithuanian word for downhill. The main street Vytauta became Kunigiske Gas named for the priests who lived on the street. (Kunigiske, Lithuanian for priests). There was also the Tifle Gas [or Tiple], the Frayheyt Alee [Liberty Avenue] and the Deitchisher Gas named for the Germans that they said lived on the street many years ago. Jews also named other Plungyaner streets.
Bod Gas looked poverty stricken. The old wooden houses appeared to be crippled and overgrown with tall weeds and nettles. On small mounds there were a few garden beds. There they planted garlic, onions, beans, carrots cabbage and sometimes potatoes and other things a little bit of everything.
With the exception of the mikve, people seldom entered the bathhouse. Before the high holidays the bathhouse was full. Every day the bathhouse courtyard would be full of playing children. Children were always in abundance in the house of a poor man.
Many Jews on Bod Gas had goats. A goat isn't a cow; it's a lot easier to maintain. A goat provided enough milk for the entire family. On market days the goats were let out to fend for themselves.
At the marketplace on market days wagons stood with signs raised high
wares on sale:
or shoes with wooden soles and other items
that the peasants brought from the countryside. The Jewish goats would
themselves right next to the wagons and together with the horses would chew on
the hay or
grass that was hanging over the wagon from between the bars. The peasants
didn't bother to
chase them away. How much can a goat eat anyway? They weren't stingy with their
they had plenty of from their fields. Even after their horses had finished
was plenty left over, which the
(Jewish Women [?]) would gather up for
winter. Other days they used to lead the goats to what they called "the
many areas of which were swamp covered, but with an abundance of grass as well.
was a no man's land located between the Bod Gas and the
Papruder Gas. If a goat
grazing in the area was not careful, and fell into the muck, up to his stomach,
you had to
get help to pull him out onto dry land.
Next to the lawn lived a former Polish or Romanian Jew whose family name was Jakop. His occupation was buying old weak horses no longer any good for work, and afterwards selling them to be slaughtered for meat, or slaughtering them himself to be sold to the fox companies, which sold the meat as food for other animals. He didn't always find a customer so quickly and left the horse to graze on the lawn until a buyer could be found.
We children thought it was fascinating to see the horse being pulled out of the mud. A horse is not a goat, even if it's an emaciated horse. It's still a horse and the weaker he is, the more difficult for him to get out of the mud alone. The more he stumbles trying to wrest himself free, the deeper he sinks into the mire. That's why you have to get help as quickly as possible. The children would run shouting to Jakop, telling him the bad news. In desperation he would run yelling and pleading to everyone along the way to help him save his "capital investment." A crowd consisting of Lithuanians and Jews gathered. Grabbing thick wooded poles by the ends, they placed them under the animal. Some of them grabbed him by the tail and tossed a rope around his neck and, in this fashion, lifting and pulling with a tremendous effort, they saved the horse's life. Jakop went around thanking everyone profusely for their assistance.
Wintertime on the frozen portions of the meadow, both Jewish and Lithuanian children used to slide around on the ice with wagons and goats making the place a pure pleasure. This was not far from our house. We lived right near the meadow. Only one thing was missing: the money to buy skates. So we decided to make them ourselves. We took a small but somewhat long piece of wood, to which was hooked on a thick piece of wire attached to two pieces of string to tie on to the feet. For the most part people only had a single skate and would use the other foot to push with. The kids who didn't have these kinds of skates would borrow them from someone else. At the beginning of the Bod Gas, which started on the top of a hill descending downward, we kids would position a big sleigh, the type you harness to a horse. It was quite heavy and we had to push it uphill with all our might before we could take off down the hill. The sleigh had a shaft that we used to steer with (to control the descent downhill). So as not to crash into Velvl the Master Builder's house it was necessary to steer to the left. We had no trouble maneuvering safely down the hill because in those days there were no cars in Plungyan. In the evenings almost no wagons passed through the streets. So many kids were anxious to take the ride that it was no effort at all to get the sleigh back up the hill. There was quite a bit of bickering with each other. Finally, we reached the top of the hill (we did not make the girls push) and cheerfully shouted to take off, we sped down to the bottom of the hill. There our parents would be calling us to supper, usually consisting of milk and noodles with puter broyt (buttered bread) then to bed.
Bod Gas was known for a crystal clean stream that flowed into the bathhouse, exiting as dirty water. The stream traversed the street at which point a small wooden bridge had been constructed. Under the bridge there lived huge rats as big as cats. The rats had long tails and people called them "water mice". They struck fear into the hearts of child and adult alike. The "water mice" didn't pay much attention to the passersby. Perhaps they would give them a quick mouse-like glance and quickly return to their search through the muddy water.
Wintertime in Jewish households was a time for plucking feathers. Illuminated by the light of a kerosene lamp with a glass chimney, we would sing popular Yiddish songs, tell stories and legends. I remember to this very day the story of Stese who used to help my grandfather and grandmother bake bagels and smoke herring, starting the work in the middle of the night, delivering fresh bagels for the customers in time for breakfast. One particular late night she left the house and was led away by an evil spirit or maybe even the devil himself. The whole night she wandered around and around and couldn't find my grandfather's house for the life of her. When the sun came up, she realized that she had been standing precisely in front of the door to my grandfather's house. After hearing these stories, children became fearful of sleeping at night.
In those days we played various games with buttons, kites with long and short wooden sticks, banging with the larger and smaller one to make it fly further. Then they would ask "mozshna?" (At the time I didn't know what mozshna meant. It means "are you ready yet?" in Russian. It appears that the game is from the time of the Russian Tsars.) Girls and boys played together imitating the grown-ups, cooking and baking with sand, making cakes and torts. Girls played with dolls made from old materials while the boys played soccer with balls made out of old rags tied together with string in order to maintain their round shape to keep them from falling apart when kicked. Most of the time the string didn't hold and kept having to be repaired. We also rode on wooden poles tied to a crate. This was our horse cart. We played, shouted, jumped around and drove the "horse" to fetch merchandise for the booths, riding off to fairs, trading and selling "horses." Paper candy wrappers or buttons served as money.
During the High Holidays the children would go with their fathers to the big shul and would stand and listen to the davening. During one of the holidays something happened to me that I remember to this day. It happened like this: I was waiting for my father by the source of the well, a place where frogs were always found sitting near the water. It was for this reason, or so they said, that the water was always so cold. Frogs, mice, birds and other small creatures were my real weakness. I had a habit of picking them up to look them over, even sometimes taking them into the house to keep. My father found the frog, which I was not permitted to have, told me to get rid of it and go to shul. In that particular moment, instead of putting it back near the well, I lost the frog. Without realizing it, I had placed the frog in my coat pocket where it sat still not moving an inch. When we entered the synagogue, it sat quietly until Shmoneh Esre at which point, as if in spite, it began to stir. It turned out the frog had journeyed through a hole in my pocket and was now stuck in the lining of my coat and had crawled on my back. My father noticed my scratching and fidgeting and knew that something was wrong. He couldn't help me because he hadn't yet finished praying Shmoneh Esre. The prayers had barely finished when we were out the door. My father lead me to the synagogue courtyard. When he discovered that the disruption had been the frog, he made me take off my coat, removed the frog himself and threw it in the grass, scolding me all the while. Another time I found a human skull, which I painted completely red and laid it down by the outside wall of the house. My mother took one look at it and told me to immediately take it back to where I had found it. I discovered the skull where they were digging a foundation for Rihman's Lemonade factory. It was determined that the skull had belonged to a Cossack. Part of a rusted sword was found next to the skull.
was a Jewish tradition throughout the ages where wealthier Jews
aided poorer Jews. Insuring that poorer Jews had food on the table for
holidays was not an exception in Plungyan. Inviting a less fortunate guest to
was part of this tradition. During the High Holidays the big shul
packed with people. There were some Jews who attended services who did not
tradition and were not really considered faithful. People went to the big shul
only on the holidays. Very few went to the big shul every day and even fewer in
because there was no heat. It was in the
and small study houses where
people went to pray three times a day. There were long tables with benches
sat and recited Psalms.
Jewish laborers and youth were active in the Jewish communal life in Plungyan. Evening discussion group meetings and get-togethers were arranged in "Izraelovitch" to which we were supposed to bring tasty sweet foods (without alcoholic drinks). At these meetings we had discussions, socialized and talked about the general situation of Jews. It was decided who was going to help with what concerning matters of the day. We also held poetry recitals where people read aloud their own works or the works of other Jewish poets. We sang Hebrew and Yiddish songs and Borech Gershke accompanied us on the mandolin. There were several Jewish orchestras to keep us in good spirits. Many Plungyaners still remember the following story: A performance was being put on by a troupe of tailors and shoemakers, not to mention a few other assorted workers all of whom would hardly "spit at a glass of whiskey" as they say. In the middle of the performance came the line "Jacob, how do you know that I am the King of Kings?" From the audience came the improvised response "Yeah, yeah, we know who you are, Yankele the Drunkard." The audience's reaction varied. Most were angry at the person who made the crack. A scene was avoided, and the performance continued.
There was also a movie house called Kino Lira. It was there that silent films were shown on the stage. On the other side of the screen sat our now famous Borech Gershke who played various popular Lithuanian and Yiddish melodies.
Many Plungyaner Jews were able to read and write. There were those who knew shacharis, mincha and maariv by heart. Some, as in the case of Elie Glickman, knew mincha and maariv by memory without knowing how to read or write. Glickman also spoke five languages including a few rarities like Gypsy language. He was also one of the best firemen.
The fire department of Plungyan consisted almost solely of Jews. There were a few Lithuanians but the leaders were all Jews: Hirshe Mets, Cheme Ril, his brother Chest Ril, Chaim Katsin (he had a slight limp) and other honorable and distinguished Jews. During periods of frequent fires, night-shift firemen were organized. The town's youth were also enlisted to help out. Rumors were circulating that people were setting fires for the purpose of getting insurance money from the government to put up new houses so that construction workers would always have jobs. After the big fire of 1931 (there were also big fires in 1917 and 1894) almost a third of the houses in Plungyan were destroyed. The fire started in Chest's wooden building on Vytautas Gas. Arson was suspected, but it couldn't be proven.
The aforementioned Cheme Ril wrote in 1936: "Five years after the fire one would not recognize the streets. There are a lot of new houses and buildings to be found, some of them beautiful wood construction." Not everyone could enjoy their homes because of the high rates of interest charged by the banks after the war [World War One] when cash was scarce. It was a hardship for many to pay back their loans at such rates.
Not far from Plungyan was the so-called Kolneshiker Forest. It was there that the Jewish community of Plungyan created a summer camp for disadvantaged children. A farmhouse was rented and personnel were hired including a few girls who ran the play activities, led walks in the woods and took care of the children, all on a volunteer basis. During the course of a summer, many children attended the summer camp. The camp organizer was Cheme Ril. The wealthier Jews rented rooms in the country where they stayed with their families the entire summer. The forest, with its many pine trees had positive health effects on those with lung ailments. One such woman was Mrs. Rihman who for years spent the summers in the forest until she finally succumbed to tuberculosis.
Jews and Christians alike ventured from town into the woods to gather the plentiful berries found growing there. On the Sabbath we had to cross through the edge of the woods that stretched along the road exiting the town.
Palange, a seaside resort, is about 50 kilometres from Plungyan. The summer
cottages by the sea were not the only attraction in Palange. Poor Jewish
youngsters traveled there from Plungyan to earn a few
doing business with the kosher hotels and villas where rich Jews vacationed.
From the kosher hotels in Palange, chickens and poultry were brought to the
to slaughter in the ritual way.
Boys were hired to carry the chickens back and forth. I was informed by a boy
Plungyan that there were boys who slaughtered the chickens themselves and kept
pennies for their own pockets. At the kosher hotels, girls waited on tables and
dishes along with other workers, men and women.
Jews and Lithuanian shared varying, but complementary, economic interests. Jews leased orchards from the Lithuanians, harvested the fruit and berries and sold them at their booths at the market. Jews also purchased flax, grain, horses and other necessary goods and provisions to sell to the Lithuanian farmers in the countryside. The farmers were grateful not to have to waste valuable time in the high farming season. Jewish tailors, with their sewing machines in tow, traveled to the countryside and made clothes for entire families, and afterwards for everyone else in town. Jews made trips with wagons to buy old clothes and things that the peasants no longer needed. Korobelnikes or peddlers sold various small items like sewing needles, buttons, thread, candles, headache pills and the like. Jews painted the traditional Lithuanian chests with various birds and similar images in an old-fashioned style.
Provincial Lithuanians, who came on market day, to the fairs or to attend church services, always had a Jewish acquaintance who would allow them to park their wagons in their courtyard and provided them with a place to stay in their house. The Lithuanians also bought fresh bagels and herring from the booths where each merchant would grab them by the sleeve pulling them over to his booth. Sometimes the merchants would even take a chance and let merchandise out on credit to a peasant with whom he may or may not have been well acquainted. To this day Lithuanians remember those days when you could count on the Jews in times of need, and you could trust them. But one cannot say the same about the Lithuanians from whom it was difficult to get help or expect favors.
Whether in the booths, Jewish restaurants or bakeries, you could always buy what you needed: clothes, dishes, harnesses, chains, shovels, nails, bullets, horseshoes whatever you needed to run your household. You could also have the Jewish blacksmith make you a plow and harrow to order. He could also overhaul your wagons and sleighs or shoe your horses. (It wasn't just by accident that we had five Jewish blacksmiths in town.)
It was a common tradition to bring little gifts for the children. And the children anticipated tasty treats like bobkas, milk rolls and bagels.
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