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My Memoirs and Thoughts
Written by: Solomon Shaposnick
Our sincere appreciation to Lisa Weinshenker, who prepared the manuscript for the Internet.
This is from: My Memoirs and Thoughts Unpublished manuscript, written 1964
by Solomon Shaposnick, as dictated to his daughter, Ann Shaposnick Barash
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
I am intimately acquainted with these facts, as my own father went through this terrible ordeal.
My life story also takes in the gloomy period of the notorious pogroms and massacres of thousands of Jews in the last years of tsarist dynasty in the pre-revolutionary Russian.
Then follows the story of my settlement in Canada and the experiences I underwent there as a shopworker, farmer, hotel keeper.
I have narrated the events of my life as frankly and objectively as best I knew. If the reader will find my narration interesting that will be my reward.
Summer time one could always hear the boisterous outcries of the cheerful youth, the boys and girls, as they were taking their daily swim in the clear water of the river; middleaged and elderly folks also used to bathe there and forget for a while at least all their worries and anxieties of their workaday life.
Everyone of the inhabitants of Risineh made a living in a different way, but there was one thing common to all the various sources of livelihood: the economic status of the population was an extremely difficult one.
But no matter how hard life was all week long Friday evening the picture changed entirely. The arrival of Sabbath brought cheer and merriment.
One rushed then to the Dniester to get washed, so to speak, of all the daily worries. Happily and lustily the bathers, all excellent swimmers, plunged into the clear and shining water and covered long stretches in their swimming exploits in all directions downstream, upstream, across the body of the river, the delightful shouts and screams of the divers echoing and reechoing throughout the entire town.
Still more vociferous were the vigorous outbursts of the younger elements on warm nights, when the full moon was reflected in the smooth waters of the Dniester. The older folks did not bathe in the dark. This gave the younger generation an opportunity to make their rendezvous around the water mills, situated in the deeper stretches of the river hidden from human eyes. Under such circumstances the younger folks gave themselves over to frolicsome merriment.
Mothers would stand at the shore demanding from their daughters to come forthwith home. But the latter paid no attention to their mothers' pleas.
May I add parenthetically that the bathing of the robust youngsters did tend to
arouse unduly their passions. Indeed, there were moments when fired
imagination got the better of their common sense and caused them to deviate
somewhat from the orthodox injunctions of morality imposed upon them by the
atmosphere of a small town community life.
Mothers used to be very much uneasy over their daughters' alleged light-minded frivolities. Even fathers would at times display concern when their teen-aged children trespassed the accepted standards of moral conduct. It must be owned that not infrequently certain actions of the youth did scandalize the Jewish community. However, these unbecoming actions were, as a rule, the result of harsh discipline certain parents tried to impose upon their children. Such an approach on the part of the older folks sometimes ended very tragically. There were instances when parents' exaggerated harshness drove a girl to conversion, while a more tactful approach to problems of adolescence might have prevented such results. Unfortunately, not all parents were equal to the task of handling their budding children thoughtfully and sensibly.
And yet, notwithstanding the occasional unpleasant episodes, bathing in the river used to bring much delight in every home.
Our town extended a mile long and half a mile wide. It spread from the baron's garden up to the place traversed by a streaming waterfall. The swift waters came gushing down from the high mountains surrounding the area, and fell into the Dniester. Summer time barges used to ply on the Dniester. These were laden with wheat, corn and other grain produce merchants purchased from the villages for shipment to other parts of the country or abroad.
Our town was flanked by high mountains studded with vineyards stretching for miles. Other fruit trees as well as nut trees were not lacking either. These vineyards and orchards were enclosed by stone fences. Their owners were the wealthier burgers of Risineh, who had Jewish workers in their employ. Working conditions were extremely miserable from sunrise till late at night. For such a nerve-wrecking and body-breaking day's work one got 50 kopeks. There were no eating places or restaurants. So the workers would bring lunch with them from home. And what did the lunch boxes contain? As a rule, a few slices of stale black bread, or cold mamaliga, (corn mush) seasoned with an onion or a hardboiled egg. On these scanty victuals one had to sustain oneself for a 15-16 hour working day. Needless to say that after such labor the worker came home tired and exhausted.
However, bad as working conditions were, one was lucky to get a day's work. It must be borne in mind that work was going on only in nice weather. On a rainy day even this meager income was not forthcoming. Young children used to work, too. Their work consisted in clearing the ground of small stones. I was one of them. A day's work would net me 15 kopeks. My mother would provide me in the morning with a scanty lunch and after a long dreary day I ran home delighted to hand over the 15 kopeks to her.
But curiously enough, in spite of the harsh circumstances we were subjected to, we nevertheless were the proverbially healthy and strong Bessarabian children.
A change for the better in our material conditions took place when the grapes ripened. For then the employer would hand out to every worker a cluster of ripe grapes at lunch hour. He would also offer every one of his employees a few bunches of grapes to take home after work. Such a hometake grant was the delight of the family. The happiness of the little ones at the sight of this delicacy knew no bounds. Its presence spelled a comparatively sumptuous supper.
Way on the top of the mountain, overlooking a vast stretch of tillable fields and luxurious lawns stood a big, imposing mansion and a few other buildings of less magnitude: these were surrounded by gorgeous orchards that abounded in a all kinds of fruit bearing trees. The orchards, of course, were enclosed by tall fences. The sweet aroma of these trees would engulf the entire town. The fragrance would render the atmosphere exceedingly pleasant. The entire magnificent estate belonged to the baron M. At the ripening of the fruit the sportful youngsters of the town would divert themselves by climbing over the fences and filling their pockets and bosoms with apples and peaches.
It goes without saying that only the most daring and courageous of us boys embarked upon this adventure to climb over the fences and pluck the forbidden fruit. For the danger was always looming to lose one's cap if such a daredevil was caught by the watchman. Truth, however, is that the watchman was not a bad fellow at all. As a matter of fact, he was on friendly terms with the Jewish population of the town.
When a child, after having been caught by the watchman came home capless, mother would come running to the watchman exhorting him to return the cap, because as she put it, the boy could not go to synagogue bareheaded. Whereupon the watchman always did mother's bidding and relinquished his booty, admonishing, however, that should this folly happen again, the cap would be forfeited. However, the same thing did happen again. Unable to resist the temptation, the children climbed over the fence again, they were caught, and again the mothers would plead with the watchman that he return the cap.
Behind the vineyards, almost on the border of the town, there was a spacious square. Here the fairs took place. Twice a year the farmers of all the neighboring villages used to come to this place bringing with them all kinds of farm products and live stock to sell; such as cows, horses, goats, also poultry. These farmers deprived their families of the direct necessities of life storing up these marketable necessities to bring them to the fair and turn them into cash. With the money realized on the sale of these things the farmers bought things for household use or farm tools and instruments. This was the ordinary way of life.
But with some farmers this quite legitimate transaction turned out to be a tragedy. After they sold their products, the went straight to the saloon and squandered away all the money on drinks, to the last ruble, and left for home empty handed. They even lacked the wherewithal to buy salt or kerosene for home use.
Embittered and crestfallen the poor farmer vented his venom on his wife and children. It also happened not infrequently that such a short-sighted farmer would repair to the Jewish storekeeper in town to get the needful commodities of daily use on credit, which the latter, as a rule, never refused.
In those days under the tsarist regime, the Jews, as is well known, were not allowed to reside on the outskirts of the cities nor in villages. They were confined within the narrow walls of the ghetto. Only a very small percentage of privileged Jews were granted the right to live outside of the ghetto. These were so-called first class merchants or big industrialists. And even they had to resort constantly to the expediency of bribing the officials in order to enjoy this right.
The overwhelming majority of these farmers were illiterate and unenlightened people, and did not have the remotest inkling as to where their miseries came from. This ignorance of theirs accounted for the fact that many were amenable to the propaganda of the Black Hundred who poisoned their minds inciting them against the Jews as those responsible for their miserable plight. The class-conscious and intelligent peasants who well understood that not the Jews but the tzar and his henchmen were responsible for their poverty were in the minority, and therefore, had no effect on the general trend of thought.
The entire wealth of Russia belonged to the rich monarchists, industrialists, merchants, and landowners. The military might of the ruling clique was backing them up. They kept the millions in abject poverty and political subjugation; and when conditions became insufferable and rebellion of the downtrodden was imminent the Black Hundred, as the extremely reactionary segment of the population was called, threw the entire blame on the Jew and incited the ignorant and gullible peasants and poor farmers to make pogroms on the defenseless Jews.
Nor should the general situation be lost sight of. The masses saw all around fabulous wealth: huge granaries bursting with grain. Also numerous stables for horses and houses for cattle. But they, the masses, themselves owned nothing and lived in unutterable degradation and poverty. Small wonder then that these oppressed people lent themselves so easily to the incitement of the anti-Semitic elements, the hirelings of the tzar, who poisoned their minds into the belief that it was all the fault of the Jew-robber that they found themselves in such straits. They had no way of learning the truth that the Russian people, both the Jew and non-Jew, were bitterly enslaved and persecuted by the money-bags in the city and country.
The result of the ignorance of the Russian masses was that they turned upon the Jew for revenge. Tens and hundreds of Jewish localities were thus pogromed. Hundreds of thousands of Jews men, women, and children were slaughtered in these pogroms. More of this later.
In Risineh there were many Jewish craftsmen such as tailors, shoemakers, and others. They were all poor, hardly making ends meet. They derived their scanty livelihood by working in their various trades for the non-Jewish populace of the surrounding villages. Almost two-thirds of the surrounding territory belonged to the already mentioned baron M. He employed landless peasants to work for him at the hire of 50 kopeks a day, from sunrise till late at night. There were also landless peasants who preferred to become apprentices at the Jewish small shops.
Many Jews in our town were employed in the wine industry. Many others drew their livelihood by growing and cultivating tobacco. The tobacco people used to lease a parcel of land from the rich landowner for the cultivation of tobacco. This afforded a tolerably fair living. It may safely be said that the tobacco growing lay exclusively in Jewish hands. This may be explained by the fact that the non-Jews had no experience in this industry. Since the latter were all taken up with either farming or manual labor they had, therefore, no opportunity to acquaint themselves with this branch of production.
Between the two extremes the rich landowners on one hand and the propertyless peasants on the other there was a middle class. A member of this class had a sort of homestead of his own, along with a vineyard and a few acres of land.
The house consisted of two rooms and vestibule. One room was not furnished at all, as it was never made use of. It was reserved exclusively for guests who made an appearance on holidays, and for purposes of economy it was never heated in winter. When guests did show up the host contrived to put up tables and benches made of plain boards. A gypsy violinist was invited to entertain the gathering and hilarity knew no bounds.
In the room that was used for living quarters stood a big oven made of bricks, a fire place, and a big chimney to draw the smoke out. Such a room usually served as sleeping accommodations for the entire family, at times consisting of 6 or more souls. In the middle of the rood stood a tripodal rickety table. When there was not enough room around the table for the entire family at meal time, the father and the elder male members sat on the floor. The food, according to our standards, was far from nourishing. Mamliga, flavored with a few onions or garlic, borsht, and potatoes, black bread these were the food staples. Yet notwithstanding this inadequacy, they all grew up to be of robust physique.
Further down, parallel with the shore of the Dniester, there was the main street where the aristocracy of Risineh resided. This avenue was also the seat of the post office, the drugstore, the monopol (liquor store run by the government), the dentist and the crown-rabbi who simultaneously was the town's medico.
Still further down was the market place. On Sundays, the market abounded in stall keepers who displayed a big variety of wares: kerosene, salt, candles, herring, fish, calico, ready-made clothes, all sorts of trinkets and cheap ornaments that peasant women used to buy. The more well-to-do people would buy sheepskin coats and fancy dresses. The stall keepers were all Jews. For them these Sundays when the peasants of the neighboring villages and farms used to go to town to purchase household necessities were the sole source of livelihood.
All in all, the Jewish population lived a precarious life. They didn't know whence the next meal would come, living from hand to mouth. True, there were well-to-do Jews too in Risineh. These were mostly owners of big and spacious stores situated on both sides of the central avenue. To this class also belonged the big tobacco growers.
But the majority of the Jews were small store keepers or craftsmen: tailors, shoemakers, capmakers, etc. They struggled very hard to make a living. The are these people occupied was symbolically called Egypt. This name betokened the hard life the residents of this section led. They were invariably ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, even as our ancestors fared under the Pharoahs in Egypt.
The only day these ill-used laboring people felt like humans was Saturday. On that day they renewed their strength, both physically and spiritually. On that day the workmen spent their leisure time collectively. They assembled in a certain place, mostly outdoors, when the weather was favorable, and engaged in various games of arranged discussions touching on problems of common interest. Thus they enjoyed a delightful day of rest and socializing' thereby forgetting for a while the hopelessness of their dreary and comfortless daily life. But at sunset they were thrown again in the abyss of gloom and worry. The daily struggle to provide bread for themselves and their families rendered life almost inbearable.
Believe it or not, their mail problem was: How to provide for the Sabbath. It did not matter how badly they were faring on weekdays the preparations for the Sabbath meals entailed extra outlay of money. And whence were these extra expenses to come when the weekly income was so low and inadequate?
The intellectual level of the Jewish population was very low. Secular education was nonexistent. The children were taught, in the cheder religion, prayers and chumosh (The Bible). The number of people who could fit in the category of the intelligenzia was very small. There were a few students, too. These were the sons of the wealthy Jews who could well afford to send their children to high schools and colleges.
There was another element in our town that belonged neither to the laboring section nor to the rich merchants or tobacco growers. This was a group of small traders whose conditions of life were constantly fluctuating. Their business was buying a few sacks of grain from the peasants and later selling same to the big grain merchant at cost price. Their profit came by way of cheating the peasant in the weight.
But the Jew would come to grief indeed when the peasant became aware of the fraudulent methods employed by the buyer. Then the latter would invariably come home with black eyes. But, unfortunately the position of the small trader was such that doing business on an honest footing would yield no profit at all. The middle man was squeezed on price by the big grain speculator, hence, the former had to resort to swindling in order to get a measure of profit.
About the time this story relates to, there appeared in Risineh a young man who lived somewhere on the other side of the Dniester. He was of tall stature, handsome, proud, and with a swarthy countenance. His name was Fishl. He came not alone. His father accompanied him. The latter was a manager of a liquor distillery that belonged to a big real estate man. The elderly man, Abraham, inquired where the city elder lived. The latter happened to be a Jew, Moses Kleinman.
Somebody showed the strangers to Kleinman's house and they got there when Mr. Kleinman had just returned from the morning prayer in the synagogue. The Elder shook hands with them adding: Where do Jews come from? From Zhmerinka, came the answer.
After the exchange of greetings Abraham said: I would like to have a talk with you privately. I have to take up with you something of immense importance.
All three entered the Elder's office. On the desk lay a voluminous book containing the vital statistics of the town. Having been made at ease by the encouragement of the Elder, the distiller unfolded the following pathetic story.
You remember, don't you, Mr. Kleinman, the old days of tzar Nicholas, when small children were snatched away from their parents' homes and sent thousands of miles away to be trained as future solders of the tsarist army. The majority of these children were converted to Christianity
Well, my son was one of them. He was still a tot when he fell into the hands of the snatchers. He was sent away further inland behind Smolensk. In those days there were no permanent quarters set aside for the young trainees. These children were billeted in private homes of native Russians.
Thus m son was estranged both from his Jewish home and Jewish religion. My suffering and that of my wife defy description. I had another son. In order to protect him from sharing his brother's fate I had one of his fingers chopped off and that saved him from being conscripted for military duty.
Now, my soldier son came home on a leave of absence. He has already served 15 years. He still has 10 years more to go. And I am afraid to send him back. There is no telling what might happen to him, there. So far he has resisted all attempts on the part of the authorities at forcing Christianity upon him. But who knows what the future has in store for him. He is still young and finding himself in a Christian environment he may some day succumb to the demands of his trainers with the result that he will grow up to be a goy.
Bear in mind, Mr. Kleinman, that while in service my son became a tailor. His regimental officer tells him that if he would forsake Judaism he could get a considerable promotion. As a Jew, however, a promotion is out of the question, and he will have to stay in his menial position for another 10 years. The military officer took a great liking to my son and is willing to give him a push providing he, my son, is willing to part with his faith. So you see the temptation is very great. Before my son got his leave papers he was made to take an oath that he would return to his army base at the expiration of the two months leave.
I don't have to tell you how happy my wife and myself were when we beheld our son. Nut there was on little fly in the ointment. And that is my son's inarticulate Jewish speech. Once could hardly understand his Yiddish. The 15 years of army life played havoc with the language of his people. We were very much upset by it. My wife especially was grieved to the core over it.
And now, Mr. Kleinman, after much digression, I am coming to the point that brought me here. I want you to make out a fake passport for my son enabling him to remain here. I am afraid to send him back to finish his term in the army lest he yields to the temptation of high promotion offered him in the army, and abandons his people and religion altogether.
And now, Mr. Kleinman, you understand what I am here for. You will thus perform a noble act to save a Jewish lad from the hands of Gentiles. And besides, I will surely know how to reward you for your noble act.
Don't worry, came Kleinman's reply, I will surely find a way how to comply with your request.
Whereupon Mr. Kleinman set out to look up in the records of Vital Statistics with an eye of finding a deceased person who left no children. He used that name for a passport for the soldier, telling him: From now on you are a Shaposhnick.
The soldier donned civilian clothes and remained in our town, under the above-mentioned name. (His former name was Strelnikoff) When the military authorities later inquired in his home town after a soldier who failed to return to the army from his leave, the answer was that nobody knew of the whereabouts of such a person.
This episode led to another one of more vital importance. Mr. Kleinman had a sister, a pretty young girl. She was an orphan having lost both parents in her childhood.
It was decided to match up this girl with the ex soldier. Well, no sooner said than done. Two days later the engagement took place. Needless to say that the bridegroom was happy with the match. And why not? He was getting a young beauty. As to the girl's consent and reaction well, in those days the bride was never consulted in such matters. Two months later the wedding took place. The marriage ceremony was quiet. The bridegrooms past demanded that the affair should arouse as little publicity as possible.
Mr. Kleinman was very happy with the issue of the case. He felt that he had performed two noble acts simultaneously: He wrested a Jewish boy from the hands of Gentiles and married off an orphan girl to the bargain. Fishl established himself in our town, opened up a tailor shop and began to lead a normal family life. They raised five children: four boys and one girl. The author of these memoirs is the youngest.
For fifteen years the Shaposhnicks lived peacefully without any mishap. Suddenly something occurred that put an end to the tranquility of the family.
Until then Mr. Kleinman's candidacy as Elder was never contested. Every time he was reelected by acclaim. But 15 years later one by the name of David opposed him in the race for office. The fight between the two candidates assumed a bitter personal aspect. Mr. Kleiman's opponent knew the secret concerning my father's false passport and he announced to the authorities the deed that had been done by Kleinman. The story the informer David told gained added credulity with the authorities in view of the fact that my father's way of speaking did indicate that he served in the Russian army for many years.
The authorities proposed to my father that if he confessed they would let him go unpunished, as the former law of 25 years' military service was not valid anyway. But that was the very thing my father refused to do, for by so doing he would have implicated Mr. Kleinman.
The upshot of it was that my father was indicted on the charge of being a revolutionary and was exiled to Siberia. The government gave my father permission to take along his family to Siberia at his own expenses. But as this was financially beyond our means we were then six souls: mother and five children, my father left alone and we remained at home.
My oldest brother, Charles, was then 16 years old and took over the management of the household. By then he already had a job at tobacco growing earning 5 rubles a week. My sister assumed the supervision of the house duties. My mother had no time for these responsibilities. She used to lease orchards and made a living for the family by selling fruit. Another brother of 12 was also working at tobacco. My brother, Jacob, 8, used to make 15 kopeks a day at odd jobs. And yet with everybody working we were hardly able to get by.
I was then 4 years old and remember my father as through a dream. However, one scene of those days stands out very vividly. My father had been kept in a local prison up tot the day of his exile. On the day of his departure for Siberia my mother took me to the prison to take leave of my father. He gave me nuts and a new jacket that he himself had made up in the prison shop during his stay there.
I also remember that my mother too pleaded with my father to confess. But he steadfastly stuck to his guns, for fear of implicating Mr. Kleinman. In a conversation with my mother he also expressed another apprehension. Suppose, he argued, the authorities do not live up to their promise not to punish me for not returning to the army 15 years ago and they send me back to finish the 25 years term of military service. Who is going to stop them?
After my father left we were confronted with a serious problem. That was: Where and how to get living quarters? Struggle as we might we could not manage to save up enough money for rent. Well, this difficulty was surmounted in the following manner. My mother leased from the noblemen the orchard, and he permitted our family to use one of his wagon sheds for our residence. We managed to rough it through the summer. The children were of considerable help to mother. At day time we used to pluck the fruit and berries and mother sold them to the fruit stores and stalls on the market place.
Truth is that that was the happiest summer of my life. I made myself useful as an earner, plucking the ripe fruit, which employment was a source of delight to me. I had ample opportunity to spend hours in communion with the birds that were in abundance in the gorgeous garden, listening to their sweet singing and this joy exceeded all others.
By nature, I was of a pensive disposition and inclined to observe things. I loved to stand for hours and watch the flight of birds and their gracious movements in the air. My oldest brother was wont to say that I was more at home with birds than with humans.
The following incident is worthy of mention. At the baron's estate there was a woman superintendent of the dairy department. She was of German descent. She was an exceedingly good-natured woman. When nobody was around she used to take me into her private apartment and treat me to a good meal, which, considering the sort of life I fared at home in those days, was very welcome. She was to me like a mother. She used to caress me and often repeated: I love you, my dear child.
Every Saturday morning my mother let me be on my own. On such occasions I used to join other children on the play square, where we embarked upon a multitude of pranks and games. I used to take along pocketfuls of fruit to share. Like myself they too came from poor homes and the fruit that I brought along was a rare treat. They were always delighted at my appearance.
My mother was a very pious woman. The whole day Saturday she was reclining under a tree reading the Scriptures in a Yiddish version. When, towards the evening, I returned to the orchard from my day's vacation I liked to nestle at my mother's bosom and listen with enthusiasm to her God of Abraham, a special prayer women used to cite at the end of the Sabbath day thanking God for bestowing upon us Jews a rest day and appealing to grant His people a week of health and prosperity.
Thus the Sabbath became a day of rest and joy. I could hardly wait for the advent of the day, which was received with great trepidation of the heart.
It has already been stated that after my father's exile my oldest brother became the head of the family. All incomes had to be handed over to him. In time he assumed a dictatorial role. His word was law. He, for instance spent a considerable part of the hard-earned monies on his clothing, so that very little was left for the upkeep of the family. But he suffered no interference. Everything proceeded according to his will. He was a tobacco worker and made out fairly well. The trouble with him, however, was that he loved to dress beyond his means, with the result that he made it his business to know of every grochen we earned. The children could spend nothing without his consent. And we had to yield to his usurped power.
The summer came to a close and with it the work in the orchard. With the appearance of the cold weather we could not live in the shed. The problem of finding living quarters came up again. At long last my mother found an apartment, if that could go by that name. It consisted of a small room and a kitchen. The room had two small windows through which the sun never penetrated. For the rest, we were not an exception in the matter of slum dwelling. All people of low incomes shared the same fate.
And now that we were established in our new winter home we were confronted with another problem, that of making a living. My older brother, who, as stated before, worked at tobacco, broke in the younger one, Daniel, in this line. My only sister, aged 14 then, also contributed to the income of the family. She used to knit stockings and pluck feathers for the rich. And yet, with all the members working, we could hardly keep body and soul together. So my mother concocted a plan whereby she could raise the revenue of the house.
My mother was well-versed in the art of charming away ghosts and evil spirits (in keeping with her superstitious belief.) So she now set herself to the task of capitalizing on her magic prowess. One morning she walked off in the direction towards the nearby villages, taking along a deck of cards. In other words, she became a fortune teller, and enchantress among the rural populace. Her clientele was both the young folks who sought to find out from her the future of their love affairs; and the older generation who thought my mother well able, by means of her charms, to ameliorate their sufferings.
In return for her services the peasants would offer her some grain, potatoes, and whatever article of food or general use these poor people had stored away for their own use. Towards evening my mother would be trudging home carrying the packages she collected from the peasants. Like the mother bird, she used to bring food to her children.
As a result of my mother staying away from the house daily, the cares and tasks of the household were taken over by my sister. And let it be stated, to my sister's credit, that she acquitted herself excellently on that score, in spite of the fact that she was of delicate build and that even with her duties multiplied, she had not given up the work that she used to do by way of taking in knitting and feather plucking, to ease up the financial situation. Furthermore, since the combined income was still insufficient to purchase new clothes for the entire family, my sister assumed the added burden of renovating the cast-away clothes of the oldest brother to be used by the smaller children. Experience is the best teacher and so my sister became adept in all fields that necessity imposed upon her.
With many ups and downs we roughed through the winter. Of course it is much easier to describe it now than it was to live it through then. But we managed somehow to get by. And, surmounting all difficulties and hardships, we finally lived to see summer approaching. With the advent of summer our situation changed for the better. The 3 older brothers found work on tobacco plantations. My mother became very popular with the peasant folks. The net result was that during the summer food at least was not lacking in the house.
My mother was concerned not only with my material well-being. She did not neglect my spiritual nourishment either. Accordingly she placed me in the local Talmud Torah (religious Hebrew school) and I began to study there. To give you an idea as to how a Talmud Torah looked like in those days suffice be to say that this seat of learning consisted of one class room damp and dark like our dwelling. In the center of the room stood an elongated table around which stood benches. In this room 60 children were crowded together. And the rabbi (schoolmaster) was entrusted with the task of making good pious Jews of the boys. The latter were all children of poor parents. When the weather was nice we spent many hours outdoors in play. This sort of relieved our tension.
I studied diligently. In a very short time I was able to read Hebrew fluently. I was considered a top-notch student. One day while the class was in session, the rabbi called me over to his desk, patted me on the cheek saying: you are a very capable pupil. You have a good head on you. From now on you'll be my assistant. I can't cope with so many children. I will assign to your charge some children.
Needless to say that the proposition made me very happy. To begin with, I felt elated that I was held in such high esteem by the rabbi. Secondly, the situation gave me an opportunity to be of some help to the rabbi whom I liked very much and who treated me very kindly.
In Talmud Torah I made the acquaintance of a boy of my age. In time there developed such a close friendship between us that we used even to eat together. As a rule we also spent the after school hours together, now in our house, now in his house. The real reason underlying our intimacy was the fact that he had a sister, 5 years of age, to whom I took a great liking. Osher (that was my pal's name) had an older brother, age 22, or thereabouts, a tall and handsome boy, who was looked upon as the Don Juan of Risineh. Altogether the family numbered 8 souls.
This young man was a tobacco worker. Because their father was dumb and deaf, this 22-year-old boy was the dominant figure in the house and he ruled over the family highhandedly, totally ignoring the will and wishes of the other members. I myself would shy away from him. When I saw him coming home I left the house. I simply couldn't tolerate his dictatorial behavior.
Concerning my visits to their house I was always faced with a serious dilemma. I was lured there by Teibele. But then the presence of Sheike (the big brother) repulsed me from the house. Fortunately for me, Sheike was seldom at home, so I had ample opportunities to beguile my time in the company of Teibele.
Meanwhile, time was passing on uneventfully. Teibele grew up to be an
exquisitely beautiful girl possessing as she did an attractive body and
gracious manners. But, oddly enough, her physical development carried in its
wake a conflict of emotions in my heart. On closer scrutiny I discerned in her
a flaming passion similar to the one that made her brother Sheike notorious as
a dandy and lady-killer. Frankly, this daunted me to the extent of urging me
to keep aloof from her. But then her beauty captivated me.
At the sight of my sweating and fatigued mother trudging home laden with bundles from her round to the villages, as told before, my heart ached in me. At times I would appeal to her to take me along on her long walks, so that I might help her carry the packages, but her invariable answer was: You had better devote your time to study that you might grow up a pious Jew.
But, mother, I used to plead with her, I know already Chumash and Rashi (the Bible and it chief commentator) and the teacher says that I already am in need of an instructor to initiate me in the study of Gemara (Talmud).
But mother stuck to her guns refusing to take me along on her wanderings over the villages and farms.
Shortly afterward my teacher informed my mother that he was going to come over to the house to take up and important matter with her. I knew very well the purpose of his visit. He was going to urge my mother to transfer me to a school of higher learning, as the Hebrew had nothing to offer me by way of instruction. As a matter of fact, my time was wholly spent in coaching other pupils while my own intellectual advancement was totally neglected. It had been arranged that the rabbi's visit was to take place on Shavuoth.
In preparation for this occasion my brother (believe it or not) bought a bottle of wine and my sister baked egg cookies. In connection with my instructor's ensuing visit something unusual occurred in our family relationships. My brother, who till then had been hardened and insensitive to us, all of a sudden became very friendly towards me. It goes without saying that his change of heart delighted all of us. I in particular had a good reason to be proud of myself.
I decorated the house in accordance with the tradition of the holiday. That is, I brought green twigs and leaves and spread them on the floor, also decorated the walls with them; so much so that the house was pervaded with the Shovuot spirit. In the expectation of the visit I also deemed it necessary to study up the weekly portion of the Holy Book, as well as the story of Ruth and the poem Akdomuth, which latter two I know practically by heart.
And here we are on the first day of Shavuot. Mother, brothers, sister, the rabbi are all sitting around the table helping themselves to the wine and cake specially prepared for this occasion. I overwhelmed the gathering with my fluent reading of the Torah and the Scriptural story of Ruth and the presentation of the poem Akdomuth, traditionally read on Shavuot. My mother was overcome with happiness. Tears choked her speech. In her ecstasy she embraced and kissed me profusely. Before parting the rabbi said:
Your boy is very capable. In the Talmud Torah the curricular course embraces Hebrew reading, study of the Bible and Rashi. If you want you boy to take up the study of Talmud you will have to transfer him to a higher school. There's a great future for him in the field of higher education.
When the rabbi had left my mother said to my oldest brother: Well, what do you say? Whereupon my brother made the following reply: Let's not fool ourselves. I am already 21. I'll soon be married. So the burden of making a living will fall upon him. Our father is away. Who will provide for the family? There is no other way but to have him discontinue his education. Instead of sending him to a Talmud school you had better think of engaging an instructor to teach sister reading and writing Yiddish.
Well, my brother's proposition became a reality. From then on a teacher came to the house 3 times a week to instruct my sister Yiddish. His fee was a ruble a week. And I harnessed myself to the task of accompanying my mother in her roaming around the villages to help her carry the bundles and packages she collected from the peasants as fee for services, as told elsewhere.
And yet despite the forced termination of my formal schooling, my intellectual development did not cease. I made good use of the teacher's visits to my sister. On these days I made it a point to remain at home to listen to his instructions. In addition, my sister used to impart to me the knowledge she gained. Thus I too learned to read and write. Up to then this part of my education was totally neglected.
In those days the youth developed a craving for reading Yiddish books. The first Jewish author who intrigued the boys and girls to get a taste of Yiddish literature was Shomer, with his sensational novels. No other Yiddish writer was known to the new generation as yet. There was a Jew in Risineh who ran a lending library. For 5 kopeks a week on could get from him any book to read.
I took to reading books with the greatest zest. I was an avid reader and did my reading at night at the light of a candle, after a day's hard work. Friday evening I used to go over to my friend Osher's house and read a story to them. Since nobody there could read, my reading aloud was a great treat to them. My Friday evening visits were looked forward to with great expectation by that entire family.
Add to it the fact that whenever I went there I took along plenty of sunflower seeds and you will understand how happy we all were there. Thus we used to while away an evening as they were munching the seeds while I played the part of a narrator.
The Sabbath afternoons we spent in dancing. Boys and girls would gather in private houses and enjoy themselves thus. My dancing partner, as a rule, was Teibele. She used to give me a lot of encouragement and went out of her way to be in my company as much and as often as possible. But, as already mentioned, there were moments when I avoided her company, as her impetuous temper sort of scared me.
At the time this story relates to there happened something that enhanced my youthful tension. A friend of mine confided to me that he could get Teibele to be his girl if he wanted to. His bragging had a semblence of reality, for indeed he had everything necessary to win a girl of Teibele's type. The trouble was that that boy's family would not hear of him keeping company with Sheike's sister, as the former had a very bad reputation. Under the circumstances my friend could not expect his affair with Teibele to end successfully. And to act treacherously towards her he didn't dare. He knew that Sheike would not stand for such nonsense.
At the same time Teibele was also afraid to meet him clandestinely. For Sheike forewarned her to break up with him. Sheike used to harp on one point: Remember your boy-friend is Shleime and nobody else. For Sheike held me in great esteem and admiration. This was due to the following chain of circumstances:
Sheike was a tobacco grower, but he couldn't write nor read, let alone work out black on white all the specifications and conditions under which he used to lease a parcel of ground for the planting of tobacco. So I did these things for him. He also engaged me to teach his younger brothers and sisters the art of writing and reading. He, therefore, felt indebted to me for these favors. I made every effort to get them to acquire some knowledge. But my efforts were unsuccessful, for their minds were extremely unreceptive. On realizing that I made no headway with them I gave up the endeavor altogether.
One day we received a letter from our father informing us that he had engaged a lawyer who undertook the fight for his liberation from Siberia. The lawyer won the case. My father was permitted to return home. As the tsarist government didn't provide my father with a train ticket for his return trip and as he had no money of his own to pay for his transportation he resorted to the expediency of stopping at every town and hamlet where he found some odd jobs to make just enough to buy a ticket to the next town. The trip took him 6 months.
At last, after many ups and downs, my father reached his destination. The doings that took place in the house on the day of his arrival are beyond description. Unfortunately, our happiness did not last long. Furthermore, my father's arrival, after the flush of excitement was over, caused great and far-going changes in our family life.
My father, as already told, was brought up under the influence of army discipline and he had a bent for domineering others and making them obedient to his will. By trade he was a tailor. He therefore proposed to open a shop wherein the children would learn the tailoring trade and work for him. This, of course, would have satisfied his ego. That is, he would have become the ruler and we his subjects.
But my oldest brother rejected the plan categorically. My mother, too, was against it. Our antagonism to his project was based on solid grounds. To begin with, in point of social prestige the tobacco business was by far on a higher level than tailoring. A tobacco merchant was a more respected and esteemed personality than a tailor. Then the tobacco business had a brighter future in store for us than the needle trade. Tailoring spelled a future of permanent poverty, while the tobacco business offered great hopes of some day getting rich. These factors determined our objection to our father's plan.
It must also be borne in mind that for a long time our father was away from us, while our mother never parted with her children. Consequently, our attachment to the latter was much stronger. This also motivated our siding with our mother.
To cap it all we figured that submitting to our father's plan would have meant the loss of comparative freedom that we had been enjoying working at the tobacco industry, in which vocation we exhibited definite ability and commanded more or less independence. We knew our father's character. We would have been his slaves day and night. Thus, a gulf developed between our father on one side and mother and children on the other.
My father did not grasp the motivation of our reluctance to his proposition. As a result of his misinterpretation he began to harbor the notion that we were ashamed of him. This psychological factor widened still more the chasm between us. Add to all this the fact that during the period of his exile he alienated himself from family affections. All this boiled itself down to one result. My father began to absent himself from the house for months on end and returned only for short visits. The financial help we got from him in those days was next to nothing.
Shortly afterwards my brother got married and began to lead a conventional small town family life of his own. As a result of his matrimonial status, his attachment to us waxed weaker. The other children remaining at home with mother strengthened their mutual ties with each other still more. Our love for mother especially assumed an added significance.
Next to our mother to claim our unbound love was my sister and she well deserved it. For she simply sacrificed her life on our behalf. True, my mother was a very pious woman. However, in virtue of the fact that, owing to the necessity of providing for her children she was always on the go and seldom stayed at home, - she paid very little if any attention to our conduct on that score.
At the age of 12 I was a full-fledged tobacco worker. Summer time I worked in the fields, and in winter was employed inside sorting the tobacco leaves. I was recognized and respected wherever I worked. To begin with, I was a proficient worker, and also know how to get along with people. The wages were sadly low, and the hours very long. The normal working day was 16 hours. We led a poor, precarious sort of existence.
And yet notwithstanding all this there were a few positive features in my otherwise uneventful life. Firstly, as already mentioned, I was appreciated as a fine craftsman. Praises and compliments were directed to me very often. And this, as everybody knows, is a source of great satisfaction to a young man. Secondly, the work carried some great promises for a brighter future. This, in a way, lightened the burden.
As far as spending money was concerned I lived very thoughtfully. Thanks to this I had some money saved up, for a rainy day, as the saying goes. In a way I was better off than the boys of well-to-do families. They used to get from their parents a weekly allowance of spending money. But they were big spenders and their parents' grants never kept pace with their needs. Whereas I lived within my means and the money I had at my disposal was my own hard-earned wages.
In those years I fraternized with boys of wealthy families. Their parents owned houses and vineyards. Our group used to arrange parties at nights. One of the group was a butcher's son and he used to secure meat for these revelries of ours. There was also one adept in broiling meat. Thus our parties were very successful, what with the choice meats and costly wines. Our parties usually lasted till the early hours of morning. I had a cousin, Nathan, who belonged to a group of middle class boys. They organized a musical band that contracted jobs at wedding ceremonies. To their credit let it be said that the group did it not for commercial purposes. The money the earned from playing at weddings they contributed to charity; such as equipping poor girls with a dowry, or covering the expenses of their weddings.
There was another boy whose father was the owner of boats that plied on the Dniester carrying shipments of cargo. Occasionally, he managed to acquire on of his father's boats for excursions on the river and the band would join the party and supply music for dancing. And so our group really had a variety of fun and gayety on these outings: wine, meat, music, and our hilarity on such revelries knew no bounds. Thus the youth of our town spent their leisure time. And although I worked very hard, the free hours or days I had for myself I used to great advantage.
There was in our town a merchant, Yosl Fliman, who was considered the wealthiest man in town. His business consisted in buying tobacco from the small planters. He employed around 50 workers. One had to be a first-class worker to get a job with this firm. I ranked high among the highly qualified workmen in his employ. The supervisor of the plant was Jacob Binder. I was his favorite. And not in vain. For I volunteered to help him out in many phases of the work, even outside of my department.
Now, Mr. Fliman, the employer, was on intimate terms with the head of the provincial government. In fact, Fliman was his commissary. This governmental figure, Smolenksy, by the way, was a phil-Semite.
One day Mr. Fliman summoned Mr. Binder to his office and asked him: Do you know anyone who could be entrusted to manage Smolensky's plantation?
I have one, came the prompt reply. I will ask him if he is willing to take the job. If so he is the right man in the right place. He is dependable in the highest degree.
The foreman called me over and relayed the information to me. Later in the day Mr. Fliman himself summoned me to his office to talk matters over. Among others he asked me if I could write. Are you willing to accept the job? he asked me point blank. You will get 15 rubles a month and board. If so, I shall take you to Smolensky's plantation right tomorrow. But see that you don't put me to shame. Here is your great chance. Smolensky is a fair-minded person. You will be the sole boss on the plantation. Smolensky's top man is also a Jew, but he knows very little about the cultivation of tobacco. So this will be your exclusive charge.
Shall I assay, dear reader, to describe my happiness at the chance of entering into the employ of the regional governor in the capacity of foreman. And need I say that all the other workmen in the place were envious of me? I expressed my profoundest thanks to Jacob Binder, Fliman's foreman, and on the following day took leave of all my co-fellows in the shop. In the house everybody was proud of me.
During the ride to Smolensky's farm I had my heart in my mouth as to what impression I was going to make on him. After all, this was the first time I was to meet such a high personage.
Mr. Fliman introduced me to the governor. He was an exceptionally good-looking man. His chest was studded with medals betoking his high rank. There was a pleasant, amiable expression on his face. When looking at me he betrayed astonishment.
This is your new tobacco manager, Fliman introduced me. He is young, but he is capable and has a good deal of experience. I am sure that his services will be to your advantage.
Your recommendation, Fliman, is a good guarantee. It's a deal, said the governor.
Then tea was served. Truth is that I hesitated to touch my glass. The host noticed my shyness and in a spirit of real fellowship he tapped me on the shoulder saying: Don't be bashful, brother. Drink the tea and help yourself to the jam.
Later in the day the general manager arrived and took me in his carriage to the tobacco field. He also showed me the shacks where the tobacco was drying: Anything you'll be in need of , he added, ask me for it. I am available at night only. At day time I am out in the fields. The stable man will provide you with horses. The commissary will attend to your needs of food. I have already given orders to that effect.
I plunged into my new enterprise with all my energy. The whole week I was on the plantation, only once a week I took a ride to the town to see my family.
The summer over I came home. And right on the next day I visited my friend Osher. Of course, my real objective was to meet Teibele. Well, I found her prettier than ever. She was somewhat cross at me. From her point of view she was perfectly right. It seems that you are stuck up, she rebuked me, you used to come to town in your carriage and it never dawned upon you to take me out for a ride.
I didn't know, I apologized lamely, that you were anxious to ride with me.
Very often we used to go bathing in the river when the weather permitted. One day she invited me to her house. She said she had something very important to take up with me. Whether it was by her contrivance or a mere co-incidence I am not in a position to say. But at the hour of my visit there was nobody in the house except we two. Before long she jumped up from her seat, threw herself on me hugging and kissing. I wriggled out of her embrace and left. Thus my affair with Teibele ended.
There was a law in tzarist Russia forbidding gypsies to stop in a city or village. But they were permitted in the outskirts of the residential area for three days only. The reason was that the gypsies were inveterate thieves.
It was on the holiday of Succoth when three carts with gypsies stopped at the market place located at the end of the city. We lived at that time not far from the market. A few paces away there was a saloon. Koki, the saloonkeeper's daughter, waited on the customers. The gypsies entered the saloon and ordered drinks. They got drunk. One of them became nasty with Koki. She lost here temper and flung at him a copper pot. Jews rushed to the scene. In the ensuing fracas many Jews and gypsies were involved. The gypsies got a severe beating. Police were rushed to the scene, and stopped the fight.
Meanwhile the Jews became terrified lest the event should bring on pogroms. A week later there came to Risineh the district attorney, the chief of the provincial government, a police captain, and a few gendarmes. On a Friday evening, when all Jews were in the synagogue, the latter was surrounded. The gypsies were placed at the exit of the house of worship. The Jews were made to walk out single file and the gypsies were told to identify the attackers.
The Jews, identified by the gypsies, were arrested and sent to Kishinev, the seat of the provincial government and placed on trial. The case threw all the Jews in the area into a panic. For if the defendants were found guilty it would have meant life imprisonment for them. Our community therefore decided to appeal to the Jewish community in Petersburg for help, and the appeal brought results. The Petersburg Jewry engaged a great Jewish lawyer to fight the case of the 12 defendants. He did it gratis.
During the trial the gypsies still had on their persons visible marks of the beating they received in the free-for-all. Now, the lawyer made every possible effort to prove the innocence of his clients. But he failed to get a not-guilty verdict. The judge sentenced the defendants to 4 years in penal servitude. Thus ended the gypsy case.
Hot on his trail were 2 gendarmes with drawn swords and revolvers who also stopped at the front of the blacksmith. They had orders to keep vigil on the commander. Half an hour later the regional police commissioner appeared on the scene. He entered Jacob's house, and asked for the commander's traveling papers. He found them in perfect order. However the gendarmes handed the police captain a telegram demanding the arrest of a person whose description answered that of Tretiakovsky. According to the telegram Tretiakovsky was being sought by the government for stealing from the government's treasury 160,000 rubles.
The police captain was at a loss as to how to proceed. Meanwhile our town was in a state of excitement. Curiosity ran high. Children as well as adults climbed up the fence enclosing Jacob's house to look at the commander. The latter's threats to shoot at the intruders were not heeded.
Among the curiosity seekers were some of those that served a prison term in connection with the above-told gypsy case. To the surprise of everybody they recognized the commander. For the latter had already been tried once for grand larceny and, when found guilty, was sentenced to a prison term. He was sent to the same prison where the Jews were incarcerated.
The chief of police got wind of this. On the following day he summoned the Jewish ex-convicts who assured him that they knew the commander well; for while in prison he used to be in their group when they were sent on work duty. The also told him that on day he disappeared from the prison. The prison authorities arrested two prison guards on suspicion that they were implicated in the plot of his escape.
The Jews signed affidavits confirming his identity. Whereupon the chief of police, aided by a squad of armed plainclothes men arrested the commander and put him in the local prison. A few policemen kept guard over the prison 24 hours a day. Several days later they transferred him to the state prison in Kishinev. During the entire trip he was guarded by police and gendarmes heavily armed.
Thus ended the Tretiakovsky episode. There were rumors current that he was a revolutionary in disguise, and worked for the overthrow of the tzar. Another version was that he was a swindler pure and simple. One could never get at the true facts about this man.
Around the beginning of winter there came to our town a family from Siroki. They opened a bread bakery. There were 8 children in the family: 4 girls and 4 boys. The girls worked very hard at baking bread. Their father, a reserved man and spending most of his time in the house of worship in the study of the Talmud, was of delicate health. The family prided themselves on their background. In Siroki their former residence, they were in the leather business, but went into bankruptcy, which circumstance compelled them to leave town.
The girls lived in style, so to speak. They displayed a proud disposition and kept aloof from others. On Saturdays they were seen promenading in the street by themselves. They were poorly but neatly dressed.
About that time by brother went into the laundry business, and made out fairly well. He commanded a reputation of an honest businessman. It came to pass that a matchmaker came and proposed to my brother the oldest daughter of the baker family, Sorke. After a series of talks and discussions the match was consummated. Her mother was dissatisfied with the affair. Her overbearing disposition felt hurt at the idea of having a plain tailor as the father of her son-in-law, and she sought to interfere. But the young folks paid no attention to her objections, and began to lay plans for the coming wedding.
Sorke had a younger sister, Zisl. I made her acquaintance and occasionally used to take her out. In point of beauty Teibele, my first girlfriend, excelled her. However, my feelings for Zisl were incomparably stronger than in the case of my first love affair. In one point though both girls were alike. Neither could write or read. On my rendezvous with Zisl we used to spend a great deal of our time in reading; that is, I read and she listened. Our meetings used to take place at my brother Daniel's house.
How well I remember those happy moments. During my reading she would look straight into my eyes and hang on every word I uttered. Was it necessary for her to tell me her reactions towards me? Her eyes spoke more eloquently than words could have conveyed. Gradually I withdrew from the company of my other friends and their dancing parties. My only ambition in those days was to be with Zisl who I felt was a sincere friend of mine. Our conversation very often assumed a practical turn.
My sister was now married, but unfortunately her marital like was not a happy one. Her two boys were both handicapped. My mother took them to a big hospital in Kishinev. But nothing could be done for them. A short time later both died. After my brother had been married to Sorke I went to live with them. My sister-in-law was to me like a mother.
Life went on comparatively well, when all-of-a-sudden something disturbing cropped up. I developed a nasty and unrelenting cough. I was uneasy about it. The doctor told me to leave off working at tobacco in winter time. That kind of indoor work was not compatible with my lungs. The summer work in the field, however, was not harmful, the doctor said. Whereupon, in order to have an income in winter and at the same time not endanger my health, my brother taught me to press men's shirts. Thus, I worked at tobacco in summer time and in the laundry during winter.
I will not be amiss to mention her that Teibele still persisted in seeing me. At meeting me she would rebuke me for evading her company. But I was not disturbed a bit by her sallies. By then I was quite sure that she was not meant for me. And I dismissed her from my mind altogether. Meanwhile my interest in, and friendship for, Zisl grew by leaps and bounds. In addition, Zisl's sister, Sorke, did everything to strengthen the mutual ties between me and my sweetheart. I subsequently learned that Sorke spoke enthusiastically about me to Zisl.
But soon after my romantic sky was darkened by heavy clouds. This was brought about by the following circumstances. There moved in Risineh a modern baker and took away all the customers from Zisl's parents whose methods of work were outmoded. The family was not able to make a living any longer and there was no work for the girls in the bakery. This factor induced the family to decide to send the 2 girls to America. They had an uncle in the U.S. and the girls joined him in Pittsburgh. On parting with Zisl I promised her that very soon I too would follow her to America. Co-incidentally I also had a brother in Pittsburgh.
In the U.S. the 2 girls found work in a pants shop and made out tolerably well. They used to save and send part of the hard-earned money to their parents.
My promise to Zisl materialized. 6 months later I left my home town for America. My first landing was in Pittsburgh. I became a presser on ladies dresses. My wages were $10.00 a week. The cost of living was very low. 3 dollars covered all my running weekly expenses, and $7.00 I saved. I rented a room I the building where Zisl and her sister lived. Thus I had an opportunity to spend almost every evening in their company. My life dragged on thus for a year, during which time I saved up a few hundred dollars.
A new turn took place in my life about that time. It became evident to me that factory work did not agree with my constitution. And I therefore was seeking ways and means to lay my hands on something else for a livelihood.
I chanced to meet a fellow who was working in one shop with Zisl. The young man impressed me favorably and we opened a dry goods store in Carnegie, near Pittsburgh. The following plan had been arranged: I was to take care of the store, while he was to remain working in the shop till business would reach a point enabling both of us to make a living from the store. The plan operated quite promisingly. But at this juncture a new problem cropped up that obliged me to change my plans of establishing myself in business.
I became 21 years old, the time I was to report for military duty in tsarist Russia. According to tsarist law my oldest brother Daniel was responsible for my appearance at the draft board, on the pain of paying 300 ruble fine. So Zisl and I worked out a plan, according to which I was to go back to Russia and place myself under the jurisdiction of the local board. If the latter, upon a physical examination, accepted me, I would after taking the induction oath, escape. In such a case, my brother would have been freed from responsibility for my disappearance. If however, I was to be declared unfit for military service, I would have remained in the old country, and Zisl would have followed me back home.
For the truth of the matter was that life in America did not inspire us at all and we had a great hankering to go back to our former mode of life. Concerning the store, it had been decided that my partner would remain in the business and pay me out my share if I remained in the country.
The plan was brought into execution. I went back to my home town. Mention should be made here that Zisl's sister had already returned home some time before. A broken up love affair was the cause of her departure. Upon her return to Risineh she married a cousin of mine.
As luck would have it, I drew a high number and was freed from military service. Whereupon I immediately embarked upon carrying out the other details of my scheme. I took into consultation my sister-in-law asking her to intervene in my behalf with her mother to give her consent to my marrying Zisl. For the old lady still retained her domineering attitude and was wont to interfere with her children's private life.
So far everything went according to schedule. The lady agreed to have me for her son-in-law. In virtue of the fact that the mother was longing to see her daughter back, it was easy to get her promise. I, therefore, lost no time writing to Zisl to ready herself for a return to Risineh. Sorke, her sister, appealed to her to the same effect.
As to the store in Pittsburgh it soon had to fold shop anyhow. This was because my partner who took over the management of the business was a strictly religious man and a Sabbath observer. And inasmuch as the major bulk of the business was done on Sabbath, the week days income did not cover overhead expenses, let alone make a profit. When the store had been liquidated I received in refund less than a half of my investment.
Shortly afterwards my Zisl came home happy and gay. Everything looked bright and hopeful. I joined my brother's laundry business as a partner, though I continued busying myself in the tobacco industry.
Zisl and her sister had placed 500 rubles at the mother's disposal. Zisl herself had about 500 rubles of her own. My brother too was worth about thousand ruble. In a small town like ours this was by no means a sum to be trifled with. One could go places with such an amount of cash on hand. We had all the reason in the world to look forward to brighter doings. But here a new trouble darkened our horizon.
Zisl's mother changed her mind and broke her promise. She became stubborn again and sought to prevent my marriage with Zisl. She found a new excuse by stating that it went against her grain to have two brothers marry her two daughters. Of course, this was merely a pretext. The real motive of her objection was that she felt that her prepossessing daughter, in possession of quite a sum, had all the chances in the world to land a better match.
Well, things got topsy0turvy. The old lady tormented Zisl's life. The latter disregarded her vehement outbursts. She then set upon the other members of the family, scandalizing them and making whatever trouble she could. Gradually she conquered territory. Usually I used to meet my sweetheart at my brother's house. One day my sister-in-law told me bluntly to stop coming to her house, which meant that Sorke let herself be influenced by her mother. To overcome this difficulty, Zisl and I arranged to meet in my private room which was in the back of the laundry.
As a result of the mother's stubbornness the family peace was thrown overboard. There were bickerings and even stormy quarrels between my brother and his wife; also my cousin used to have exchanges of sharp words with his wife all on account of me. Then I hit upon a plan which I laid before Zisl:
You have friends and a grandfather in Siroki and I understand that he is a practical man. Let us go to him. If he fails to soften up your mother we shall see then what to do. I am sure that he will set things right. For on several occasions I heard mother talk of him very respectfully. I feel that his word will carry weight with her.
My plan was agreed to by Zisl. On leaving Risineh for Siroki my mother bound us by an oath to come back to Risineh and not go to America. I promised. I entertained great hopes that Zisl's mother would in the long run repent her conduct.
On hearing our arguments, the old man immediately wrote a letter to the mother threatening her to marry us if she did not come at once. His threat worked. She came. I wrote to my parents, and they came too. Thus a quiet wedding was carried off. Of course, such an unassuming ceremony was not to our liking. Under normal circumstances the wedding would have been quite an affair. It would have been attended by all the members of both families.
This and the fact that since her return from America Zisl had been continually under a terrific strain without one day's let up, embittered us against the old lady.
We made the laundry our living quarters. There was ample space there for our residence. Gradually the family storm subsided. On retracing her conduct, the mother came to the realization that she had acted wrongly and thoughtlessly and, as a result, softened and began to display a more humane attitude towards us. We fixed up a nice home and began to lead a normal family life. Thus a few years passed. We made a fairly comfortable living and were happy.
But our happiness was not to last long. Our sky became overcast again.
The Kishinev pogrom broke out, a frightful event that threw the Bessarabian Jews into panic. As a result of this pogrom there were organized self-defense groups in every Jewish locality. Our town was not an exception.
I too joined such a defense group. The members of the group took turns guarding the town at night. I had to report for guard duty three nights a week. We had revolvers. We also took other precautionary measures. For instance: We secured 10 cans of kerosene and long brooms. The kerosene we placed on small vehicles. It was planned that, given a signal, we were to repair quickly to the villages, sprinkle the peasants' huts with the flammable liquid and set them afire. Thus we lived in constant fear.
The situation at home was a very tense one. By that time we already had a 6 month old baby. And my wife had to remain alone in the house three nights a week, when I had to report for guard duty. The goings-on were nerve-wrecking. In the midst of these turbulent and depressing events, however, something occurred that improved the general situation for a short while.
Smolensky, the head of the county, summoned to his office the entire administration of Risineh and warned them that they would be held responsible if any violence were perpetrated against the Jews. He also told them that they would come to a grievous end if the started up with the Jews, as he permitted the latter to possess arms and organize a defense squad.
There were in our town about 200 well-to-do Jews, whose children studied in Odessa. Their summer vacation they would spend at home in Risineh. These students belonged to a revolutionary organization, aiming at the overthrow of the tzar. They used to call meetings of workers and call upon them to join this organization and carry on an armed struggle against the autocracy.
The following scene engraved itself in my memory. In the backyard of Dr. Abram two girl students delivered fiery speeches calling upon the workers to prepare themselves for the coming rebellion. The revolution, the speakers argued, was already around the corner. For the Russian people wanted unmistakably bread and freedom. But, they wound up, we can't fight with bare hands, against armed soldiers. Come, therefore, Friday evening to our house, when my father is in the synagogue and you'll be given arms.
And so it was. Friday evening the workers assembled at the appointed place and Roselyn and Masha opened the doors of their father's business and handed out revolvers, knives, daggers, and told the workers: Go home, hide the weapons and be ready when you'll be called upon to rise and fight.
Now, picture to yourself what went on in the house when the father came home, saw what had taken place. He tore his hair and got so furious that he used violence against his daughters. The girls called for help. Immediately three students appeared on the scene. With drawn revolvers the warned the father to be quiet: It's high time, they argued, to drive out the watchdogs of the tzar who deprive the people of their freedom and incite them to pogroms.
The country went through a turbulent period. People suffered immensely. Of course, the Jews - more than any other nationality in tsarist Russia. The situation got immeasurably worse, after the defeats the tsarist army sustained in the war with Japan, when the entire Russian army and fleet were virtually wiped out.
To pacify somewhat the people the tzar made a few concessions. The government granted freedom of press and gave a duma (parliament). But the people were not satisfied with these concessions. They demanded more. Other great events of the tremendous significance took place about that time, which disturbed the quiet we had enjoyed before. For instance, a steamer put up at the Risineh dock. The workers of the town went aboard the ship and, aided by the sailors, hoisted a red flag with the inscription: Down with the tzar! Such mutinies took place everywhere in Russia. Now, seeing that the concessions he had granted, far from appeasing the people enhanced their fighting spirit to a higher pitch, the tzar scuttled whatever freedom the people had wrung from him. He dispersed the duma, inaugurated a regime of increased terror. Detachments of police and gendarmes were stationed in every locality, including Risineh, where political unrest was brewing.
It turned my stomach to see how the poor peasants, in the hundreds, were made to slave inhumanly in the fields or otherwise for a starvation wage. Then it angered me to see our Jewish people deprived of a chance to own land in the suburban section, because the tsarist oppressors were afraid that the Jew would spread the seeds of revolt among the peasants population. For the Jews, the tsarist clique felt, were inherently a freedom loving people, and rebelled at enslavement. Their love for freedom and their readiness to fight for it came down to them by inheritance from the time of Moses.
The Jewish question in tsarist Russia was an acute one. The Jews were caught between two fires, so to speak. On one hand the revolutionary upheaval assumed gigantic proportions. The fearless youth were determined to do away with tzarism. On the other hand, the rich landowners, in an attempt to divert the wrath of the people from the real oppressors, had, with the aid of the police, whipped up hatred against the Jews. The enraged and incited Russian masses fell for this venomous propaganda and let loose a wave of pogroms killing Jews in the thousands. All these factors taken together had brought about a situation that I resolved to leave Russia for good.
About that time the Canadian branch of the JCO sent out booklets announcing the grants by the Canadian government of free land and free immigration. Whereupon we decided to take up this offer and leave for Canada. By bribing Russian officials, our two families obtained a permit to cross the border. By then my brother had 2 children and I also had 2 children. Of course, setting out for such a long and difficult journey with small children was not easy. But, as the saying goes, necessity has no law.
At long last, after the necessary preparations had been completed we left our homes in the old country. For 4 weeks we were wandering over Germany, Austria, Belgium. According to the prices the ticket agency had charged we were supposed to get all the traveling conveniences and accommodations available. Unfortunately, we were deceived. They cramped us in windowless trains without water, let alone washing and toilet facilities. The luggage bails we used for putting the children to sleep. At each station we were permitted to go down and obtain a pot of water. From peddlers at the station we bought bread, cheese, and butter. The prices were sky-high.
At last, after four weeks of exasperating suffering we finally arrived at Antwerp, where we boarded a steamer, third class.
I can't help doing justice to a happy episode that occurred during our otherwise unhappy journey till we reached Antwerp, a scene that engraved itself in my memory and which proves how men, unhampered by reactionary forces and false propaganda, can elevate themselves to a high level of solidarity and fraternity. When our train had arrived at Cracow depot, the immigrants were met by a group of boys and girls. These were students, who turned the big waiting room of the station into a dining room, with tables covered with the best of foods; also all kinds of soft drinks and liquor and cake.
The students who played host to us had requested the stationmaster, and he granted their request, to permit all immigrants to disembark here. We were seated at the tables and the boys and girls themselves waited on us. They looked after each and everyone of the travelers to provide him or her with food and drink. If anyone was in need of financial aid, - this was attended to.
Our families kept aloof from the rest, and did not partake of the served food. We only asked, and got, warm milk for the babies. The friendly hosts, on noticing our seclusion, thought that our reluctance to join the rest was due to our piety. Whereupon they assured us that the food had been prepared under the supervision of a rabbi and consequently it was kosher. They also offered us financial aid.
Thanking them heartily I assured them that our situation did not warrant the necessity of monetary aid. As to kashruth I said: Your approach to people is on a higher level than kashruth itself. Thus we whiled away our time among good natured and kind-hearted people. They told us that they were handling thousands of immigrants daily.
They saw us to the train and parted with us heartily. They gave us two large tea pots with hot milk for the children and a large box of candy. They would have gladly stayed on, they said, at the platform to see us off. But they had to go back and prepare the tables for another batch of travelers that were scheduled to arrive a few hours later in the day.
At parting I said to them: I had almost lost faith in humanity. But your conduct reassured me that there still are noble hearted people in this world of ours and that the spark of humanity is still smoldering.
The man in charge of the office replied that he had no time to bother with us, for he was in a hurry to get home and prepare the Seder. He advised me, though, to walk over to the synagogue located a few blocks away, and see Rabbi Cahn who was likely to do something for us.
I did so. But lo and behold! The rabbi sent me back to Baron Hirsh's office. We found ourselves in a tough spot, indeed. I knew two landsleit living in Montreal, but their whereabouts was unknown to me. From my conversation with the rabbi, however, I learned that there was a book store in the neighborhood that served as an assembly point for immigrant workers, some of whom, I knew, were Bessarabian. This information served me in good stead. I went to Hirshman's book store on Main Street and, as luck would have it, I did meet there two lansleit.
They immediately took a taxi and drove us all to their residence. They roomed with poor families respectfully. The people received us cordially. They were of limited means, but exceptionally kindhearted. My brother was quartered with one family and I with another. Both families were located in one building. On that night my sister-in-law Sorke gave birth to a girl.
We remained with our new friends till after Passover. It was a lucky co-incidence that just then a family moved out of the building, and we took the vacant rooms.
Very little money was left after the trip to Canada. I had a mind to settle on a farm, in the Baron Hirsch colony in the West. But this plan entailed serious difficulties. To begin with, we were a family of ten. My wife's younger sister Rachel had joined us on our trip to Canada. My sister-in-law was not fully recovered from her confinement. My own younger boy took sick as a result of the voyage. All these made us hesitate to undertake a long trip to the West. But the keen question: What is to be done? Demanded an immediate answer.
There was nothing else to do but to consult JCO, whose official received me cordially. His advice was that one of us depart for the Colony and the rest stay in Montreal. This sounded very practical. For to find work in the Colony was out of question. Nor could we afford to draw much longer on our cash resources for living expenses, for there was very little left to draw from. This way one was likely to find work in Montreal meanwhile while the other was engaged in prospecting the new territory.
Now, the question was: who was to go? The logic of the situation prompted us to have my brother take the trip. I soon found a job, and made out tolerably well. With my earnings I maintained both families. Both women having been practical and considerate people they decided to ease up the rent situation by taking in a few boarders. This step was a great help and even made us able to save.
Meanwhile letters began coming from my brother Daniel. These informed us that the place was a wilderness, though the land was fertile and available to whoever wished to settle down there. But one had to wait a year before he could see some fruit of his labor. And a house had to be built. And anyhow this proposition was over and above our means. He also told us that there was no work to be gotten, save to work with pick and shovel at the railroad tracks, which work was beyond my physical ability.
The upshot of all this was that he left the entire question to my discretion. I was very much upset by this report. His disappointment dismayed me more than my own. And yet we never repented having left Russia. Not for a moment did it occur to us to go back. True, our economic situation was not bad there, but the danger of pogroms was always hanging over our heads like a Damoclean sword.
I immediately wrote to my brother telling him to come right back to Montreal. Meanwhile a few hundred dollars more went to waste. The cash we had brought with us dwindled down to very little. Then Daniel set out to look for work. And after a few days' search he found a job as a presser's help on pants. At the same time I chanced to become a contractor. Seeing how my brother was struggling to find a suitable job, I decided to take him in my place and teach him the trade. At first he was my helper. Later, however, after acquiring more experience, he became the head presser and I his assistant.
I had contemplated that he take over the entire contract, without my assistance. As for myself I intended to look for another job somewhere else. A few weeks later he lost his job. He came home depressed. He started out in quest for another job, but none was to be found.
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