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[Pages 234-242]

Between Tritki and Lopatyn (Memoirs of a Farm Boy)

Mordechai Yalon

Translated by Ariel Distenfeld

Our home in the village Tritki (or as it was called Kritkis) in eastern Galicia, a distance of some 30 kilometers from Brody, was a typical rural village house, which underwent several renovations that made it look slightly like a town house. The front wall was covered completely with twisted vine. This strain of vine was brought years ago from Vienna by our father, who went there for a surgical operation, and it rooted itself well in our soil and even bore clusters of grapes. The grapes would ripen before the month of Tishri (September-October) and mother used to make wine for Passover from them. The wine was sweet and sour, very tasty. It was glatt kosher since mother was very careful to avoid touching the grapes as they ripened, and she would wrap them in paper to protect them from nectar-seeking bees. Our family was very proud of this strain of grape vine, the likes of which was not known in the entire surrounding area.

In front of the house was a colorful flower garden that was under the care of the girls, my sisters. The house was surrounded by an orchard of various fruit trees: apples, pears, cherries, plums and more. In the large yard were the farm buildings, a cow shed with a few cows. In the yard flocks of chickens, geese and ducks were walking and quacking relentlessly. Past the buildings the fields stretched to the nearby forest.

Our mother, Sarah-Leah was a short and fragile woman, wise and shrewd, quick and enterprising. She was fluent in Ukrainian and Polish, as well as a little German. Her wisdom and ability to solve problems were famous in the village, and because of it she was beloved by the peasants, especially the farm women who would come to consult her about personal problems. When a farmer's wife had an argument with a neighbor, she would come to “Avramkova”(so named after my father Abraham), and she would make peace between them. Mother and my sisters were invited to every wedding in the village. On the eve of the wedding the bride would come to our house, curtsy to mother and ask for her blessing. Mother wished them good luck accompanied by a worthwhile monetary gift. On the following day mother would bake a large wedding challah, decorate it with golden paper and send it with one of the sisters to the bride's home. On the Christian New Year, the village children would come to our home, scatter wheat kernels on the floor and bless us for a good crop year. Mother would then give them a gift of money.

As noted, we had varied and intensive agriculture. The main crop was hops. This crop was widespread in this area of Galicia. This is an annual plant that grows and winds around wires stretched to a height of 14-15 meters. Its cones would later undergo a drying process in a well-ventilated building, over flat beds woven from reeds. After the drying, the cones would be squeezed into large jute bags. During January and February, agents of breweries would come and buy them for good money. This sector, if well attended to, was worthwhile and profitable.

Mother oversaw all the agricultural business. She would hire the workers, make the work order, in short, she was the moving force in the farm. Father was sort of an “external minister” – and would arrange for all the materials needed by the farm. I remember that for a long period he acted as a trusted representative of the government, overseeing logging in the forest. (Our area had abundant forests.) For some time he was a clerk in a nearby flour mill, so that the burden of the farm was mainly mother's. The daughters helped with housekeeping. They also tended the flower and vegetable gardens, milked the cows, took care of the chickens, etc. Baking bread was mother's chore. She baked round loaves with a great aroma from week to week.

In Tritki there were two Jewish families, ours and the family of my uncle Tuvia (my father's brother) who also had a large farm with varied crops and grew hops. Another uncle was in Podkamien. Some distance outside the village there was a ranch leased by Reb Hirschel Halbertal, a Belz Chassid and a friend of our family. Relations between the villagers and the Jews were good. There were no signs of hatred or anti-Semitism. Even among the Christian sects (Catholic and Russian Orthodox) friendship prevailed. The village was part of the municipal council or the town of Lopatyn, but it had a local jury to decide on internal affairs. Father was the chairperson of the group that used to gather once a month in our home. I remember that once we had a land dispute with one of the farmers. The matter went to court and the deliberations were long. The plaintiff farmer was represented by a lawyer, and mother, the “defendant”, argued for herself. At the end we won. I would like to note that mother's arguments were very convincing and the judge stated that mother “should have studied law.”

In the village there was also a group of musicians (a quartet consisting of a violin, bass, flute and drum) headed by Kononovitz, a tall, broad-shouldered gentile. The group used to perform at weddings and other celebrations in the village. On the eve of each wedding, the group would go from house to house and give a short “concert”. For a fee, they did not skip our house. The melodies which they played remind me today of suites by Bach.

As stated, our village Tritki was about a Sabbath border from Lopatyn. According to my childhood concepts, Lopatyn appeared to be a metropolis. There was a custom house, a justice of the peace, a post office, police station and also a jail. There were two synagogues, one of the Chassidim of Husiatyn and one of the Chassidim of Belz. The rabbi of the Belz Chassidim was Rabbi Chaim Leibish Hamerling and the rabbi of the Husiatyn Chassidim was Rabbi Mendel Laszczower. The ritual slaughterer of the town was my uncle (my mother's brother) Reb Eliezer Shu”b, the son of Reb Joseph Shu”b (my grandfather) [Wilder]. He was also the town's mohel (circumciser). The bathhouse was used jointly, and friends and rivals used to meet there. They also had a city council or municipality headed by a gentile, a government school and two churches, one Catholic and one Russian Orthodox. Every Sunday and during the Christian holidays gentiles from the surrounding villages would come to pray, and afterwards would fill up the square in the center of the town .The grownups would shop in the Jewish stores and the youth would flirt with the farm maidens or get drunk at the bar of Reb Zelig Katz, the son of the community chief, RebYekutiel Katz. In the upper town there was a wide-open space which was used as a promenade by the locals. Two rows of residential buildings with shops stood to the right of the square. All the Jewish trade activity was concentrated there. In the middle of the square stood a fenced statue of St. John, next to which the peasant women would sit and sell fruits and vegetables to the town Jews. The bottom of the square led to a street shaded by a row of ancient trees. To its left were the industrial buildings for the production of spirits, and to the right the large house of Reb Elyakim Gasthalter, the rich man of the town, the lessee of the large estate. Next to his house was the dwelling of Dr. Rosenblum, the town physician. He was adorned with a Franz-Josef beard. This physician, when a patient came to him to seek a cure for his ailment, would ask “Well, did you visit Reb Eliezer Shu”b yet? Go to him first and then return to me and tell me what he said.” Reb Eliezer was renowned in the town for his medical knowledge, and the physician Rosenblum would consult with him about each serious case. The town also had a small river and the youths would bathe in it. The town well was famous for the quality of its water and passers-by would imbibe water to refresh themselves. It was said in town that it was good for stomach ailments. The inhabitants of the town, the gentiles, lived mostly in the outlying quarters.

I was a son of Tritki and yet a Lopatyner, like someone with a dual citizenship. In Lopatyn I studied with my uncles, Reb Zusia and Reb Michal Wilder. Also there I studied Hebrew and Latin “calligraphy” with Asher Barash. Almost all of my aunts and uncles on my mother's side lived there, as well as my father's relatives and family friends. There also lived my brother-in-law Reb Pinchas Winkler, a smart and honest man, with a sense of humor. His house was at the entrance to the town, and we would pass it on our way to Lopatyn, and his wife, my sister Chava-Rivka would always offer me good cakes. We would go to Lopatyn to the bathhouse and to pray on Sabbaths and holidays. On Yom Kippur eve we would hold the pre-fast meal by Reb Eliezer Shu”b. I had good friends in Lopatyn, and on free days like Lag B'Omer and on Sabbaths we would get together and hike to the nearby forest, singing and making merry. I recall one song that we used to sing with enthusiasm and it remains imbedded in my memory, and I quote it here in full.

Israel is not lost yet/as long as we live/Israel is not lost yet/as long as we die.
We are walking, we are jumping/over valleys and mountains/we want to take the land of Israel/from the Turk.
We are dancing, we are singing/and give thanks to G-d our father/we want to take the land of Israel/from the Tatars.
We dance and sing/in happiness and abandon/we want to take the land of Israel/from the stupid Turk, the king.

The first stanza of this song was already well known, but it appeared too brief to me so I added two new stanzas. We would sing it to the tune of the Polish anthem “Poland is Not Lost”, to teach you that we were then already fully committed “Zionists”. I remember that in 1910 the Kaiser Franz-Josef celebrated his eightieth birthday and the Jews of Lopatyn decided to hold a luxurious blessing ceremony in his honor. Several young men and girls got together to decorate the study house for this event. We brought pine branches from the forest. We collected flowers and decorated the walls of the study house as was fitting for the Kaiser beloved by the Jews of Galicia. We organized a boys' choir which was supposed to perform together with the cantor who was invited, I believe, from Brody, to conduct the ceremony. At the appointed hour, the synagogue was packed with people. The Belz and Husiatyn Chassidim sat together and the ladies section was full of women and girls. The cantor opened with “Hear O Israel” accompanied by the choir and with “Praise the Lord with me” and afterwards “He who blessed…he will bless his majesty Kaiser Franz-Josef” and the choir ended “In his and our day Judea will reach salvation” etc. The public gave an ovation and the choir had to give an encore. The ceremony left a strong impression and was a subject of conversation among all the town's Jews.

With all of that, I greatly loved the village where I lived: the green fields, the forest landscape, the hubbub of the workers. I loved the clucking of the hens, the mooing of the cows and neighing of the horses. During the potato harvest we lingered in the fields by the bonfire and roasted potatoes. From time to time I would join the village shepherd, Yoshku Kirik who tended the village flock. (Every farm owner in the village had an obligation in turn to assign an assistant shepherd to the main one). This Kirik was a good-hearted gentile and a wonderful flute player. Many of his melodies are etched in my memory. He would wander with the flock into the depths of the forest and knew how to exit it without difficulty. Once we walked far into the forest until we came to its other end, and there I discovered a new settlement which I previously did not know existed. Kirik told me that it was the town of Stanislawczyk. I remembered that my uncle lived in that town, my mother's brother Reb Shmuel-Leib Shu”b and I wanted to visit him. I asked permission from my “supervisor” who granted it and I was very happy.

I also had some friends among the village boys, my schoolmates. One of them was Martin “shaygetz” who was an excellent student, smart and with a quick and exceptional intelligence. He desired greatly to learn Hebrew and I taught him the alphabet, and within a few months he was able to construct sentences and also to understand a little. (I heard that years later he was a judge in Lwow). Here is a small episode connected with this Martin. Once we were lying in the forest, under a large pine tree, doing our homework. Suddenly, a baby squirrel fell from the treetop right on his head. He covered it with his hat and captured it. He gave it to me as a present and I took him home. At home I put him in a cage and fed him pieces of sugar and nuts, which he would crack while standing on his hind legs. With time he grew and became a domestic animal. He became used to the house and did not run away – he would go out through the window to the orchard, jump around on the trees for a while and return home. He would run after me like a puppy, happily standing on my shoulder or my head. My happiness did not last long. Father wanted to give him to the chief of the National Guard. My crying and begging were for naught, and the cute squirrel was transferred to the “puritz”(“local nobleman”) with much sadness and sorrow…

During the summer every day at dawn I would hear the banging of the peasants hammers on the scythes, to sharpen and polish them in preparation for the wheat and hay harvest. Every year, during the month of May, the girls of the village would gather in the evening in the large square and would sing and dance around the chapel which stood in the center of the square. I remember sections of Polish and Ukrainian melodies till this very day. When darkness fell the youths of the village would take their horses to pasture over night. They would tie them down so they could not go far and leave them alone. The boys themselves would sit in a circle, make a big fire and their songs would be heard over a great distance.

The major activity on the farm was during the harvest. Mother would hire harvesters, the men with scythes and the women with sickles. They would spread out in the field, harvesting and stacking up pile after pile at a certain distance from each other. On each pile they would make a hat-shaped sheaf to protect it from the rains, which in this time of the year would come suddenly. When the wheat harvest ended, the hops harvest started. The hops harvest was carried out by female workers, mostly young and agile, who would pick the cones and put them into baskets. The latter would be emptied into sacks, and in the evening mother would weigh the sacks. The wages were according to kilograms, and the ones with the most kilos got the highest wages.

The completion of the hops harvest was joined with the end of the wheat harvest and the workers would celebrate the end of the harvest noisily and with much commotion. Mother was at the center of the ceremony, which was dedicated to the admired “Avramkova”. And this was the order of the ceremonies: early in the day the workers would weave a wreath of flowers and bestow it on mother's head. Two flower-bedecked maidens accompanied her together with the rest of the workers singing in a procession up to the house. When they arrived in the house, the maidens would bow to mother and the other members of the household, and mother invited them to the party to take place in the evening. The workers left and the preparation for the party began. One room was emptied of its furniture, and several kegs of beer and distilled spirits, herring and a quantity of bread were brought in.

In the evening the girls and the local boys gathered. Mother sat at the head of the table, wearing the wreath of flowers, like the “bride of the party”. The girls bowed to mother and blessed her. After the ceremonial part was completed, mother took the wreath off her head and the partying began, drinking, dancing and singing until midnight. The family members, especially the sisters, were busy serving the guests. Only father went to the next room, studying “Ein Yaakov”. Midnight, the room emptied and silence reigned. Only the sisters were busy restoring the room to its previous state. This custom was repeated annually at the end of the harvest and the gathering, and thus did the girls of the village express their admiration for our family.

Behind the statue in the town's square, there was a small factory for the production of soda water belonging to a Jew named Hasten. The children would gather there and collect the glass marbles scattered on the floor there and play with them. These marbles were used to play with walnuts during Passover. The factory owner used these marbles to plug the soda bottles after they were filled. This Jew did not make a good living from the soda water business, and after a time he left Lopatyn and moved to Serbia. His son who was one of my good friends kept in touch with me by mail for a long time.

During Simchat Torah a group of us boys would gather at the small bar of Floh and drink together. His son, Saul Floh, was a wunderkind and amazed everyone with his talent. He would paint cards for Chanuka, drawing and making miniatures of different likenesses from metal and wood, the handiwork of an artist. Today he resides here in Israel, in Rehoboth, living off the labor of his hands. Time and distance somehow separated us, but I shall always remember the artistic pleasures that I experienced in his company.

In front of the house of Dr. Rosenblum, the town physician, there was an enclosed veranda, totally covered with bougainvillea, a dense climbing plant, and on the entry door there was a metal sign with his name engraved upon it. Underneath there was another small sign engraved with two abbreviated words “Univ Med”. These two words caused considerable “headache” to the Lopatyn children who did not know how to decipher their meaning. With time this riddle was solved by itself.

I also remember that in Lopatyn they conducted an excavation in one of the streets. I don't remember if the excavation was for sewers or some other purpose. But I do remember that the excavation uncovered human skeletons, Christian religious articles, and I think other items which pointed to belonging to the Jewish religion. I was a small child then and I remember a stormy time in the town. The excavation was halted for a long time and I don't remember how this business ended and how relations were settled between the two communities, the Jewish and the Christian.

I remember a popular figure in Lopatyn, a Jew by the name of Yudel the Wassertrager, “the water hauler”, who with the help of a yoke which he carried on his shoulders, would supply water to the Jews in the center of town who were not blessed with their own wells, as distinguished from those in the outskirts. This Jew, was created as if from birth for the water hauling work. He was tall with large bony hands and depressions in his shoulders which fit the movement of the yoke. He wore boots both winter and summer, and on his head he wore a black-visored hat, unlike the custom of the Galicians, more in the style of Volhynia. His Yiddish accent also was not Galician but a mix of Ukrainian and Volhynian. This Yudel was probably one of the “adoptees” in town, like several families who were adopted by Lopatyn Jews and naturalized there. (At the time of the forced military service in Russia, many Jews escaped from towns in Russia and Ukraine and found refuge across the border in Galicia. They were adopted by many local Jews, were given names of family members and became regular citizens). Among the “adoptees” were several families who assimilated among the locals, and with time were treated like relatives. I remember among the adoptees one named Eliezer Spodak, who in spite of living in our town for more than two or three generations was not weaned from his Lithuanian accent. Whenever he led the prayers at the study house he would proudly flaunt his accent, as if in spite.

This Yudel Wassertrager had two sons. One of them resembled his father physically like two drops of water. He also helped his father in his work. The second son was a tailor who moved to Lemberg in his youth, where he left the religion and became a “deitch” (“German-like”), wore short, fashionable clothes, and had no resemblance to his father or brother. For the holidays he used to come to his parents' house dressed in a black suit, cut according to the fashion and with a hard hat on his head. When the three would march to the study house for prayer, the contrast in their dress would attract the attention of passers-by.

I had a special feeling of sympathy for this Yudel because of his innocence and honesty. He profited from his yoke and accepted his fate. He was an enthusiastic Belz Chassid and I especially liked to sit next to him in the study house during the days of awe and observe how he would look at the Yiddish commentary in the prayer book and search for the meaning of the words in the poetic prayers. This Yudel Wassertrager was a precious Jew.

Among our cows there was one that we named “Tyrolka”. It appeared that she hailed from the Tyrol mountains, and we loved her very much. She stood out in the village herd in her beauty, and gave a lot of milk – it was said up to twelve liters per day. Once “Tyrolka” became ill and father invited Reb Moti (der langer Moti) from Lopatyn, who was an expert in bloodletting for animals. After he phlebotomized her she felt a little better and we thought that she would recover. However, after a day her condition worsened and we feared she would die momentarily. Father called a gentile from the village and he slaughtered her with a sharp scythe. That day was a day of mourning at home with great sorrow. We could not bear seeing her lying there slaughtered and we asked the gentile to take her away.

When I lived in the village after I stopped studying with the uncles in the town and I remained at home, I concentrated on studying Shazkes' grammar, Bible and secular studies and father would teach me Gemara in the evenings. My brother Hanoch would provide me with the necessary books from Lwow and advise me as much as possible, giving me Hebrew reading booklets published by Tushia and foreign books as well. I also began to teach my brother Isaac, who is two years younger than I. Two or three times a week I would visit Lopatyn to exchange ideas about studies with my friends, especially with my cousin Leib Kurtz, who was a great help to me. As said, we made short trips, played games, and already we dreamed of Zion. Incidentally, I remember I was about four years old and my brother Hanoch was still at home – he returned from Lopatyn with the devastating news that Theodore Herzl died. We were all in shock, including my father who was not a sympathizer of Zionism.

The First World War broke out in 1914. In the middle of the Sabbath a general draft order was announced. Single men and young marrieds were transported in wagons to enlist in the nearby city. Before long the Russians invaded eastern Galicia (we were very near the Russian border). Doom and gloom were everywhere in the town. All cultural activities, such as they were, ceased. The Jews in the town would congregate in circles in the square, in the study house, the kloyz (small synagogue), and especially in the bathhouse and would be involved in politics. The “confident ones” were certain that Austria would triumph while the doubters kept quiet. Slowly there developed commerce between the Lopatyn Jews and the Jews from the nearby Russian towns. For the first time I saw a Russian Jew bringing pigs to market in Lopatyn in his wagon and I was shocked. It was forbidden to even touch a pig.

Our agriculture also shrank for lack of workers. Growing hops decreased drastically and economic conditions declined. I continued self study as much as I could, and the handful of books that I possessed did not satisfy me. I began to think of a way to get out. I did not see any future in staying here. After a year or more, the Austrians returned and reoccupied Galicia. I learned then that my brother in Lwow escaped to Vienna and I was sorry that our contact was interrupted. In the meantime our mother passed away and I decided to look for a way to leave the house. I convinced father and he agreed that I should volunteer for the army, even though I was underage. And I did so, not out of patriotism, but to go out into the world.

In the army I suffered for a short while and afterwards I was assigned as an assistant in office work and my situation was good. When I was discharged at the end of 1918 I did not return to Lopatyn and I went to Vienna. For a while I was in preparation near Vienna and in the beginning of 1920 I went with a group of pioneers to the land of Israel. My mother died at the end of 1915. In 1925 I was informed of the death of my father. And in 1945 I received the bitter news that my brother Isaac as well as my sisters and my relatives in Galicia were killed in the holocaust. May their memory be blessed.

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