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[Page 211]

Old Rafalovka

Translation by Rachel Zetland

Donated by Jay Snider

 

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Old Rafalovka

Moshe Appelboim


(Excerpt from the Volhynia Anthology, no. 41, January 1987, with slight alterations)
This was written in 1987 when the author reached the grand old age of 80.

The description of the town of Rafalovka, which I'm bringing to you here, is 66 years old, a few years before the beginning of World War I. When I write Rafalovka, I don't add 'Old' as it was later known, because at the time there was only one Rafalovka. Jewish Rafalovka was located at the center of town surrounded on three sides by goy neighborhoods and on the west by the Styr River.

The Jews owned about 150 houses, some small, some large, 170 families lived there. There were families that didn't have their own home and they would rent rooms from Jewish homeowners. Jews settled in the town hundreds of years ago. One day a notebook of the Hevre Kadisha[1] was discovered in Rafalovka dating 325 years earlier. I saw it with my own eyes but couldn't decipher all the entries because ink stains covered most pages.

Jews worked in cattle trade and wood and were shopkeepers, shoemakers and tailors.

Two flourmills operated by the Styr River. One was called Torkevits Mill and the other was called the Community Mill, the hromada[2]. This mill had a ferry that used to go back and forth on the river. The Torkenitch[3] mill was on the southern side of town, in an area called “Polsha.”[4] The Community mill was on the northern side of the river, near the village of Babka.

The Torkenitch mill was leased to a Jewish family who ran it. The second mill belonged to a Jew, and Meir Vollich Kommissar!, a wealthy man. He had a stone house – only rich men lived in such a house at that time – and he rented the ferry out to another Jew named Leibel Forumtshik (Leibel who operates the ferry), the grandfather of Yaakov Sarid Schnieder.

The ferry worked after Passover and sometimes earlier when the ice just began to melt. Leibel would hire peasants who would carry the ferry on large boats. People, animals and goods would be moved back and forth on the overflowing river. When the water level went down the ferry would be put near a fence and be moved back and forth across the river by a rope. There was a straw hut on the ferry to protect people from the rain.

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There were two groups of Hassids: the Hassids of the Rabbi from Lyubeshov and the Hassids of the Rabbi of Stepan. They vehemently disagreed and sometimes they went snitching to the authorities and set fire to property. For instance, a house was once set on fire near the Lyubeshov synagogue with clear intention to burn it down. This was the work of the Hassids of the Rabbi from Stepan who were known to be extremists. But that day there was a strong wind blowing in the opposite direction, and more than half the town's houses were burned down, including the synagogue of those who set the fire. In the end it was the Lyubeshov synagogue that survived the fire intact, and many saw this as the intervention of God.

Ruins of an old destroyed synagogue stood behind the Provoslav church on the river near the town's bathhouse. When young couples married, the bride and groom would be taken there with the whole wedding party because people believed it was a holy place that brought luck and prosperity.

There were two religious judges in town, one for each group of Hassids. They made their living by selling yeast and candles for Sabbath, as was customary in many communities in those days. Sometimes they would hold a Torah court between two rivals.

People began rebuilding the houses in the town after the big fire. At that time they also started building New Rafalovka, i.e. Rafalovka the Station near the train tracks. I remember how David Koifman began rebuilding his house in the town and then stopped building and moved to New Rafalovka. At that time there were very few homes in New Rafalovka. Benjamin Gildengoren also moved to New Rafalovka.

It should be said that the Jews of Old Rafalovka were considered at the time to be the most educated people in the area. The Vladimirets Jews were called “di smolyares” meaning “the people who work with pitch,” because they produced tar.

There were kleyzmers in Rafalovka who traveled throughout the area to play at weddings. They reached as far as Sarny in the east and worked in Vladimirets, Berezhnitsa, and all the way south to Stepan on the way to Rovno. The Jews also had saloons where they sold wine to the goyim and cooked fish meals for them. State laws ordered Jews to close the saloons and food places on the Christian holidays. The Jews would bribe the oridanik (governmental clerk) and the strarjnick (policeman) to close their eyes to the open restaurants and allow the owners to make a living. In the winter fairs were held in the forest and many times forest merchants would come from Pinsk for a share in the business. There were also peddlers who carried their merchandise on their backs and went around the villages exchanging their goods for agricultural produce. All town residents were terribly poor and they would all beg.


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Memories from Rafalovka

Yaakov Sarid Schnieder

A recorded conversation. Transcription and preparation for publication – Aryeh Pinchuck

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a difficult task today because I'm about to tell my memories and I don't know if I can keep my head above water.

I've come to tell you about my hometown, not with the usual nostalgia for the past most people my age express. Old people miss first and foremost that period when they were young, 40-50 years ago. But I will try to tell you about my town with a clear eye, and talk of both light and darkness. When we were young we saw more dark days than light. On the other hand, as we grew up we started to see them equally. Perhaps we saw the light more than we saw the shadow because the light had disappeared in the meantime, taking the shadows along with it.

My town is called Rafalovka. The Russians called it Rafalovka, the Polish called it Rafaluvka. It was a small town whose size, so they used to say in Yiddish, was as big as a yawn, groys vi a genets. What does that mean? It means that when you open your mouth to yawn, by the time you're done yawning you've already passed through the whole town.

Until the end of the First World War it belonged to the Russians, and at the end of the war the Polish conquered it. In the days of the Russians it belonged to the Volhynia district, but there was no city called Volhynia. The capital was called Zhitomir. Zhitomir was very far from our town.

I myself had never been to Zhitomir because it was very far, but I remember my grandfather had some business with the district governor who sat in Zhitomir. He used to lease a ferry (forum in Russian) that enabled people to cross the river since there were no bridges. My grandfather leased the ferry and every time he had to go to court for some reason. He felt he was being discriminated against and always had to go all the way to the governor with his claims and complaints. He would leave town after Sukkoth on his way to Zhitomir, and because the road to Zhitomir was so long and dangerous, he would go from house to house saying goodbye (zikh gezegenen). This trip took half a year each time and he would barely make it back for Passover.

When the trains came they told my grandfather, “Take a train,” and he would reply, “What? I'm gonna drag myself on a train?” Taking the train meant riding 12 kilometers to the station and in the station you had to go to the window and buy a ticket, and you had to pay for it. And at the window there was some tshinovnik (clerk) and the Jews were afraid of encountering clerks. So he would say, “I better keep going by foot and carts.”

On the way to Zhitomir he would go to towns and villages where Jews were living and he would stop at Anash as was the custom among Jews in those days. In every village and town there were Anash – an abbreviation of Anshei Shlomenu[5]. These were, for instance, Hassids of the same rabbi.

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When he finally reached Zhitomir a few months later he would go to the synagogue. He went there to pray and to meet Jews, to say hello to the rabbi and the heads of the community, and also because in the synagogue there was a Jew who was called der makher. This was a kind of interceder whom they said could go in and out of the governor's house and arrange a meeting with him. Of course this makher would get some rubles out of my grandfather for this service, but my grandfather saw the governor as much as you did - by that I mean he came home without seeing him. A year later he would begin the same journey again, although he never made it in to the governor's house.

In the town there were 1000-1200 residents, no one really knew because they never counted, and why would you want to count? Why is it so important?

On one side of the town there was a mountain. At the time it seemed enormous. In reality it probably wasn't more than a hill, because when we would start horsing around on the top we rolled all the way down, so I gather it wasn't really that high.

On the other side of the town was a river and these were the two geographic landmarks. I thought it was far away, but now when I reconstruct the distance between the mountain and the river, I remember that when we went bathing in the river we would start taking our pants off while still on the mountain, and they'd be down by the time we reached the river. So you see this didn't really take a very long time.

There were goyim in the town as well. You could ask why would you need goyim? Well the answer is that a few goyim you need, for instance to light the stoves on Sabbath, draw water and chop wood. But in fact there were more than just a few, we had more than we needed. The children would go around the Jewish streets. We would be very careful about the goyim' streets, first of all because there were dogs there and you had to be cautious around dogs. And being cautious around goyim was also a good idea.

The town's houses were made of wood, the roofs were usually straw. Because we didn't have a fire engine, when a fire did break out the fire would eat half the town's homes. Some of the homes were covered with roof tiles (shindl). When the town developed they began covering the roofs with tiles which they called tsherepitse – special tiles cast from clay. There were two or three houses that were covered with tin. Most homes looked the same but a few stuck out, those with gankes (closed terraces). Anyone who had a closed terrace was a nogid[6], because most people didn't have terraces, only a few homes had terraces and a few homes were built of bricks and were called moyer or brick homes. This friend of mine [Aryeh Pinchuk? R.Z.] is sitting here with us. His father had a store in a brick building and there were a few other brick houses. This was considered a king's palace. I remember that when I would pass by a brick house with a terrace, my imagination started working. I imagined Princes and Princesses were walking inside, but in the end they were beggars like everyone else.

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There were a few synagogues in the town. This was according to the famous rule that every Jew has to have two synagogues, one where he prays and one he will never set foot in because he's against it. In this small town there were four synagogues, or more correctly, three houses of study [attached to synagogues, R.Z. ] and one synagogue.

First there was the big synagogue, di groyse shil. The difference between the synagogue and the house of study was that the synagogue had no stove and heating it was forbidden. The big synagogue burned down and no one was found to rebuild it. Holding the hupas[7] there would commemorate the place. All the hupas were led to the lot where the synagogue once stood.

A second synagogue belonged to the Hassids of Lyubeshov named after a small town near Pinsk. There was a rabbi in that town and that rabbi had Hassids in our town. And those Hassids of course had their own synagogue.

There was a third synagogue for the Stepan Hassids. The town of Stepan was not far away and there was a rabbi there, and he had Hassids in our town. And they established the synagogue of the Hassids of the Rabbi of Stepan.

And then there were the simple people who couldn't get along with those two synagogues, not with the Lyubeshov nor Stepan Hassids. Because in those synagogues there was too many of what we call sheyne Yidn[8] and there was no room for amcha[9]. So these people built themselves a synagogue and since it was built near the houses of some blacksmiths, they called the synagogue the di kovalske shil (the synagogue of the blacksmiths).

The town also had a Christian Provoslav church built on a mound. I thought this building was the height of impurity. It had domes and crosses and a painted tin roof that would glitter in the sun. I was so obsessed with this church that I finally decided to do away with it. They said that if you circle the church for some tens and tens of thousands of times and say 'a khurbn oyf dir' the church will sink into the ground and disappear. So I decided I was going to do away with the church, and many times on the way to and from heder[10] I would leave the group, run quickly to the church, circle it a few times, say 'a khurbn oyf dir' and spit as much as I could. I figured it wasn't going to be long before I finished off the church. But there were the days when Jews didn't come near the church. These were the days of the Christian holidays, then we would make sure to stay away.

There were a few places in the town where we used to stroll. One place was called der ogrod and another place di vishnitses. We would go there on Saturday afternoons. I never saw couples strolling in public, but groups of children would run to these places. There were dangerous places as well, like a place where a big dog was running free.

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Although the town had a river it did not have a bridge. There were tens of villages with thousands of goyim across the river but we couldn't get there because there was no bridge so we took the ferry. I was lucky enough to have my grandfather lease the ferry, as I told you before. When I had free time – when did I have free time? – on Fridays for instance when we studied only till 12 and then I'd run to the ferry and grandpa would let me pull the rope. When you pulled, the ferry would move slowly and I was in bliss to be able to go from one side of the river to the other bank. I was mainly happy about pulling the rope.

In the winter when the river froze we'd cross over on the ice, but there were times like during the spring when the snow was melting and you couldn't cross over, not on the ferry, not on the ice. Then you'd row across in a rowboat. You'd take the cart and the horses onto the boat and strong goyim would row the boat to the other side of the river.

There was a place near the ferry kids were always curious about and it was called der frud!, and what is der frud? It's a whirlpool that was apparently created by the mill. Every time I'd go swimming in the river my mother would warn me, “Just don't go close to the frud.” The whirlpool terrified us.

There were two water mills in the town that belonged to goyim, but Jews would lease them. Most of the year the mills were broken. They said that one Jew who leased the mill once decided he must fix it, so he took an agent and sent him to the mill. On the eve of Sabbath the agent returned to the house and the owner of the mill asked him, “Nu? What's happening?” and he replied, “Oysgelodet vi a fidele” (the mill is fit as a fiddle). The owner went on to ask, “And does it work too?” “No, it stands,” came the answer.

There were wells with a rope and bucket in town. It wasn't bad in the summer but in the winter when the ice almost reached the opening of the well it was bad. There were times people would get to the opening of the well and start dragging the rope and fall into the well. The dream of the townspeople was to install a pump so the well would be covered and the water could be pumped out. There was no pump until 1914. I went to another town during the war and found a pump there. It was in Berezhnitsa, but the pump was usually broken because in the winter it was always frozen and you could never operate it.

What was inside the houses? We didn't have interior decorators, but we managed not so bad without them, especially with furniture being the same in every house. Each house usually had 2 or 3 rooms and near the house was a kamer (a storeroom). There was a cowshed in the yard where they would keep the cow and the hay and the stacks of wood they had prepared. Rich people would prepare wood in the summer, and dry it out and stack it in a pile in the cowshed.

There was a cow in the cowshed. In the kitchen under the cooking stove was a kutshke. A kutshke is a chicken coop. The chickens would walk around in the house and their droppings would give off their smell, but it never harmed anyone. Once every six months the droppings in the coop would be cleaned.

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When you came into the apartment straight from the street you wouldn't knock on the door. The door was never locked and anyone who wanted to come in just opened the door and walked in.

The very poor had a completely white table, white wood with no paint. Somewhat wealthier people had their table painted red. There were kanapes near the table – hard couches. They probably knew it was healthier to sit on a hard couch than on a cushioned couch. There were two couches in the corner and a few tabaretkes (stools). This was the first room.

The second room had beds, usually painted red. There were no mattresses. They would fill sacks with hay and change the hay once every six months. When we were little the hay would of course give off a smell. They would put a sheet on this with many pillows and quilts. The pillows and quilts would be handed down. When you married a son or daughter the first thing you gave the young couple was pillows and quilts. Our mothers spent most of their time plucking feathers, filling another pillow and another pillow for this or that daughter. These were valuable objects. We didn't have a closet. The kufer took the place of a closet in those days – it was a long trunk held together with iron strips and sometimes with copper studs. The clothes would be laid in the trunk. Sometimes there also was a karzina!, a small woven wicker box where clothes would also be kept. The kitchen had two toptshelekh (tables), one for dairy meals and the other for meat, and an open chamber pot. Next to it was a copper washstand (a kvarat!). Next to that stood a barrel of water for washing hands. The kvarat had two handles because according to halacha[11] it had to have two handles. This completed the furniture.

I remember one day a skilled carpenter appeared in the town. He was born in the town and came back from America and started making polished furniture. The Jews made great efforts to order a politurte betn from him. The kids would stand by the politurte betn and look at themselves because it reflected their image like a mirror. Then this carpenter also began to make closets for clothes, polished with stain.

There were houses where they would keep potatoes under the beds in order not to go down to the cellar every time they needed potatoes. In town they said that a Jew arrived in Zhitomir and was told that he had a rich uncle there. He went to visit his rich uncle. When he came back they asked him, “What did you see at your rich uncle's?” He said, “What rich? This is a rich man, this? Indeed he has beds made of fiddle-halts (the wood used to build fiddles).” We didn't know yet about politura, so when he saw furniture made of politura, he called it fidl-holts. “But what kind of rich is this? He doesn't have even one potato under his bed.”

There were simple people, homeowners, holy vessels and teachers in the town. The craftsmen belonged to the simple folk. There was a hierarchy among these as well. For instance, there was a difference between a carpenter and a shoemaker. The worst thing to be was a shoemaker and a tailor. A carpenter was a little better, and a blacksmith was better yet.

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Some of the simple people earned their living by going around the villages. A Jew who had no trade or store would go out to the village with a little merchandise, sell and buy, exchange, and come back before the Sabbath to his town and family. When he left he would take 10 kopikes worth of merchandise and walk around for a week. He'd sleep in the homes of peasants, sometimes on a couch and sometimes on a stove. Good wives of peasants would have pity on them and sometimes give them potatoes because that is what one could eat at the goyim's. If he was lucky he'd bring fish, and those who were already a dreykop[12] would sometimes bring a calf as well. Thursday he would come back to town and Sunday he would go out again and his wife and children back in town would be starving. Each one of these peddlers had his territory. This one would go to this village. That one would go to that village, and you couldn't trespass. Everyone knew his territory. The most obvious sign someone was a simple man was that he sat in synagogue in the back near the stove and would not raise his voice or express his opinion on public matters.

Then there were homeowners. These were mainly shopkeepers. People who had a small store were not considered important. There were stores the size of a coop, with a barrel or half a barrel of salted fish and a few other small things and that was the whole store. The shop owner had to pay more for it than it was worth. There were two or three stores that were worth something. Some of them later went bankrupt. I remember one bankruptcy that made a terrible impression on us. By the way, they never said he went bankrupt. They said, “er hot shoyn libergebitn di viviske” (he already changed the sign, he wrote his wife's name on the sign). Lenders would come and break down his doors because they thought the man was the richest man in town and now he goes bankrupt on them.

What kind of stores did we have? There were of course grocery stores and two or three stores that sold fabrics and a few that sold iron products. Others sold alcohol (which was forbidden). There was a pharmacy, well, not exactly a pharmacy, what was called a apteczny sklad, a storeroom of medicines and medical materials. There were one or two shoe stores. I remember one day, and this was one of the greatest wonders, very shiny chrome shoes appeared in town. Everyone then dreamt of having chrome shoes, and of course only the rich children could have them. It was even a greater wonder when they started sewing shoes that had grooves in the soles (mit geputste shtokh). In our opinion this was an exceptional invention. When I would go with my mom to buy shoes I would set two conditions: a) chrome shoes, and b) shoes mit geputste shtokh. All buying was on credit. I don't recall one time when a buyer came into a store, bought and paid for what he bought. The shopkeeper would write. His hands were always dirty. On one side he had flour, on another side he had tar, and on a third side he had salty oily fish. I remember the record books very well. The shopkeeper would take the book and write it down. There were sad cases when a woman would come to buy for the Sabbath or holiday or just a regular day, and because her debt was so large the shopkeeper would say, “I'm tired of writing. I won't write anymore.” And he would take the bag of flour he had prepared for her and pour it back into the sack. The woman would leave the shop empty-handed and everybody knew things had gone too far.

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There were also two rabbis, holy vessels. They were both damn poor, because how could they make a living? It was said that they would make their living from “gzela”[13]. And what is gzela? It's the abbreviation for gaze likht heyvn. And the word gzela is made up of the initials of these products that people used to buy from them, in fact had to buy from them: kerosene, candles and yeast. But not everyone needed to buy these products from them and you could get them in the stores as well, and not everybody bothered to buy the kerosene and candles and yeast from the rabbi.

Other than the rabbis there were one or two shohets. The profession was passed on from father to son. They were better off than the rabbis because they at least had meat. There were some parts of the cow that were reserved for the shohet. For instance, you couldn't find spleen in the entire town because the shohet took it for himself. If you wanted to buy spleen you had to buy it from the shohet. I was lucky because the shohet's son was my friend and thanks to him I occasionally ate spleen.

Thank God we had quite a few teachers. In such a small town like ours there were eight or nine teachers.

There were Jews who for some unknown reason belonged to the group of important people and you didn't really know why. For instance, there was this guy, a yeshiva bokher, and when he married he was given a fur with tails (a tkherenem futer) in his dowry. This was a symbol of great yichis[14]. Even if the futer was 50 years old, this was upper crust. He'd come to synagogue, take off his futer, leave it on the stand and everyone would look at the fur with envy and amazement. Us kids would sneak by and yank the tails off and if he caught us we would run away and hide. In fact, these were also very poor people but they were admired as though they were holy vessels.

There were klezmers in the town as well. They called it a cappella. There was a violin, a horn, a clarinet, a drum, a bass, and a badkhn – a comedian who traveled with the klezmers. No one could learn the job from them because it was passed down in the family. A violinist would raise a violinist, and so forth. The klezmers would live from wedding to wedding and travel to the weddings in the peasant area as well, to the few Jews who lived there, every time they had a celebration in the family.

How would people dress? The men mainly would have a kapota[15] sewn for the wedding and this kapota lived forever. Some never had a new kapota sewn and others would sew a second kapota when they married their son or daughter. The kapota was what people wore on Saturday. There were two kinds of fabric – a geventene and a kartine. This kartine was apparently made of cotton and the geventene was made of wool. Not everyone could afford a geventene suit. When a man came to order a geventene suit and the tailor gave a price, the tailor would begin negotiating with the man and say, “briderke, dos iz dokh a gevant”[16]. There were two kinds of tailors, those who modernized and bought sewing machines and those who didn't want to abandon tradition and continued to sew by hand. A tailor would sew a suit for half a year. The suit for a boy was sometimes two times larger than what was needed because they usually took into account that until the sewing was completed the boy would grow. And the family would start to shout and so he would say, “Shah, shah, what's the problem, it's big, so I'll undo it.” And he'd undo it and resew it and they'd wait three more months for the suit.

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Our mothers and grandmothers dressed much nicer than the men did. They wore silk and velvet for holidays and weddings. Garments sewn for weddings would be worn till the end of time. Each woman had a wig. The daily dress was of two kinds. For the summer a tsitsn kleydl[17] would be sewn and in the winter they would sew clothes from a warmer fabric. I remember how my mother looked. She was the prettiest of all women when she sewed herself a kimono, a shirt with wide sleeves, according to the new fashion that came to town. Our mothers loved jewelry. If one of the marrying parties could afford to buy jewelry for the wedding, that was a big thing, and the whole town talked about it. The mothers would adorn themselves with jewelry when they went to synagogue on Saturdays and holidays and other events that had the same importance as weddings. Then people would come back from the event and talk about which in-law bought which jewelry and wore it to which event and how special and expensive it was.

When I was 3 years old I was sent to heder. I was told later on that they carried me to heder because I was so young. My first rabbi taught toddlers and his name was Yaankale der krimer (Yaankale the limper). If he had only limped that would have been okay, but he limped and stuttered and would mutilate the words. Later on they told me how he became a melamed[18]. He was very ill and became crippled, and a few homeowners decided to send their children to him so he could make a living. He was terribly poor; his apartment had one room and a miniature kitchen. All the furniture and the beds stood in that one room which was also the heder where we studied. He had 20 to 25 kids and he taught me to read and write. We would sit around the table on the wooden beams that ran around the walls of the room. Most of the time the kids would doze off because they were sitting for many hours and didn't understand the melamed very well. I was an only son and my mother had an arrangement with the rabbi's wife to put me to bed every day. We'd sit and study and suddenly the rabbis wife, who got paid for this service, would come in and take me out and put me to sleep for a while, and then bring me back to the heder.

I studied with the melamed for half a year, a full period, and I learned nothing. When the period was over, my mother came to ask about me, how was I doing in school, and he replied bluntly: “Ayer yingl hot a bisl a grob kepl” (Your boy has somewhat of a heavy head). There was much crying in the house because my mother had decided I had to be a rabbi and suddenly six months later she gets this knock on the head that says her son who was supposed to be a rabbi of the People of Israel has a grob kepl. This was a terrible blow. The end was that she ran to her brother who was also a melamed to ask what to do, and he fortunately somehow calmed her down.

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What's so difficult about studying? When the melamed would say aleph I would say aleph, when he would say bet I would say bet. I agreed, what could I do? And what made a boy exceptional? That he would speak out loud. If he spoke softly the rabbi was afraid that when they'll test him at home and he'll speak quietly the parents won't like it, so you had to speak loud. The boy would start speaking loud and in the meantime if he made a mistake the melamed would slap him on the face, and then he would start crying and then he couldn't speak at all, and the melamed would slap him again.

When I didn't succeed with Yaankale der krimer, my mother moved me to another melamed at the advice of her brother. I was very relieved because there they studied at a slow pace and in this second period I started to read. We had to learn the Humash[19] and interpretations by Rashi[20], in that order, so we didn't get to the sentences and we interpreted each word separately, meaning we learned the meaning in Yiddish. For instance, if it read: “And Yaakov left Be'er-Shiba and went to Huron,” we would repeat after the rabbi and say:

Left – iz aroysgegangen
Yaakov – Yaakov
Be'er-Shiba – fun Beer-Sheva
and went – un avek to Horon – keyn Khoron.

The problem arose when later on we had to say the whole sentence at once and by heart. Then it would become problematic because we knew each word on its own but we didn't know them all together.

Then came the time to study some shraybn, writing Yiddish and Russian, and not every rabbi knew shraybn. One knew and one didn't. When they asked one that didn't know how to write, 'Melamed, why don't you know how to write?' he'd say, 'The other melamed teaches older kids so he has a chance to learn from them, so it's not surprising he knows how to write. I teach small kids so I don't have from whom to learn.'

The rabbi would write the letters in pencil and pupils had to go over each letter until he reached the next stage, which was writing a complete phrase. The rabbi would write one phrase, and the pupils had to copy this line over for 20 pages. What would the rabbi write in that line? I remember one line I had that began like this: “Ikh bin geforn keyn Berditshev un gekoyft [a] vagon mit oksen.”[21] Why did the rabbi choose the word Berditshev? Because Berditshev was a difficult word, here you had to express the tshe and that wasn't easy. Sometimes he would test the children and see if they were paying attention by replacing the name of the place and write: Ikh bin geforn keyn Tzifachavitz[22] because there was one village nearby that was called Tzifachevitz. That was also a difficult word.

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The third stage of learning to write consisted of the rabbi writing a complete page and our copying it. My rabbi had beautiful handwriting and he would teach us how to write a sheynem [beautiful, R.Z.] “with the help of God.” We would write the initials beit heh[23]. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah we had to write a New Year's greeting to our family. I remember one verse the rabbi wrote that we had to copy and learn by heart.

  Der sheyner liber zimer The beautiful and dear summer
  Der freylekher imer always full of joy
  Geyt shoyn avek is already departing
  In zayn langn veg. on its long journey[24].

And they would also teach Russian, so when the child grows up he'll be able to write an address on his letters. The rabbi knew Russian like I knew Chinese but what won't you do to make a living? And if you needed to teach some Russian, so he teaches us some Russian too, according to a book called Ruskoye Slovo [Spoken Russian, R.Z.]. The children would rock back and forth while learning Russian like they did when learning the Humash and Rashi, and pronounce the word in Russian and its translation into Yiddish. He would pronounce each word separately, and in the same tune in which we studied Humash and Rashi. I remember a sentence from the Russian book about a boy named Pyetya who woke up in the morning, and we translated each word separately[25]:

  Pyetya – Pyetya Pyetya
  vstal – iz oyfgeshtanen woke up
  srana – in der fri early in the morning

The time came to study gemara[26] as well. That was at the age of seven and we understood nothing. Before the melamed would read the Mishna[27] which the gemara page discussed, and which we were supposed to study, he would first say the verse: Zaagt dar tanna fon dar mishna a din. And no one knew what is tanna[28] and what is Mishna, and what is din[29]. We had to repeat this out loud and the pupils had a hard time doing this. In the heder of 20 kids there were maybe two who understood something in Mishna. The rest were completely confused and couldn't fathom it. Then they would teach us prayers, which we could deal with somehow.

Childhood we didn't study in the heder, we did this with the rebbitzin. Usually the rebbitzin was the rabbi's wife. They taught us Moyde ayni, I give thanks, according to a children's version, and they would end it so:

  Mit ale git frime layt With all the pious people
  Mit brokhe un hatslokhe with blessings and success Zol kimen oyf mayn kepele may they come upon my head
  [the blessings and success, R.Z.]
  Omeyn, selo! Amen, Sela!

[Page 225]

Despite the fact that we studied long hours, I have to say that there were games as well. First of all we would play quite a lot in heder during the lessons. We'd run around, get some beatings, but run around all the same. Toys we didn't have, then every broom was a toy, and we would practice shooting at targets without even having teachers for physical education.

I also wanted to tell you about the Shabbats, the holidays, the celebrations and other events. Some of them are happy and some of them are sad. I'll skip all of them and just describe the last scene I remember from the town, from 1914 when during the war the Russian-Austrian front was nearing our town.

One bright morning Cossacks appeared in the town and began robbing the Jewish houses and shops. Suddenly in the middle of the commotion I saw Ivan, a goy who was almost like family to us – he would light the stoves and close the light in the synagogue and make quite a good living from these small services. I saw him running with a sack of flour he had stolen from a Jewish store. A Jewish neighbor stopped him and said to him: Ivan, what happened, what are you doing? and Ivan gave him a look that could kill and continued running without answering him. It was as if everything had shattered and collapsed the moment the Cossacks appeared, and in their presence and in the presence of the power they represented, the “Ivans” let their true feelings and true attitudes towards the Jews run free. I remember this scene very well and I cannot forget it. Everyone was deluded: we all thought that our goy neighbors, the “Ivans” who walked in and out of our homes and streets and yards, were our true friends, people with whom we lived peacefully and quietly for many years. And suddenly we faced the harsh reality, the reality that forewarned the destruction of Jewish life in Russia and Poland.

 

Footnotes
  1. Jewish religious burial society. Return
  2. 'Community' or 'group' in Ukrainian. Return
  3. Probably a typo in the original book: Torkevits and Torkenitch ['טורקביץ, טורקניץ ] are probably one and the same. Return
  4. [פולשה] Return
  5. Our fellow-members, those who think like us. Return
  6. A rich man. Return
  7. Denotes both the wedding ceremony and the bridal canopy. Return
  8. Yiddish for respectable Jews. Return
  9. Common folk. Return
  10. Literally room. The common name for the old-fashioned elementary school for the teaching of Judaism. The name first appears in the 13th century. Generally privately run and paid for by the parents.Return
  11. Religious law, religious practice. Return
  12. A schemer, who knows all the tricks. Return
  13. Literally, stealing in Hebrew. Return
  14. Pedigree. Return
  15. Traditional long coat worn by Orthodox Jews. Return
  16. Yiddish, 'Brother, this is made of wool.' Return
  17. A light cotton skirt or dress. Return
  18. A teacher. Return
  19. The first five books of the Bible, the Torah. Return
  20. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105 C.E.), the outstanding Biblical commentator of the Middle Ages. His interpretations are still very much in use today. Return
  21. [ציפצ'עבץ] Return
  22. Yiddish for 'I went to Berdichev and bought a wagon and bulls'. Return
  23. These are the initials of 'be'ezrat hashem', Hebrew for 'with the help of God'. Return
  24. In translating from Yiddish and in obtaining the standard Latin transliteration of Yiddish I was greatly assisted by Natalia Krynicka, of the Yiddish Cultural center in Paris, France Return
  25. This is a translation of “Pyetya vstal srana,” representative of the manner in which the Pentateuch was taught to children in the heder. From left to right the phrase appears in Russian, Yiddish (italicized) and English. Return
  26. The second part of the Talmud consisting primarily of commentary on the Mishna. Return
  27. Mishna (“Repetition”) is the core of rabbinic Judaism's religious texts. It is the first recording of the oral law, edited by Yehudah Ha-Nasi around 200 AD. Return
  28. Teacher of the Mishna period. Return
  29. Jewish law. Return

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