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[Page 374]

Ponemunok

(Panėmunelis, Lithuania)

55°55' 25°29'

by L. Karabelnik

Translated by Lucas Bruyn

Ah, my poor ruined little town! But though it was small, smaller than the other shtetlach in the vicinity, it was privileged by having a railway station. On the big wall-maps in Russia and in the Baltics, Ponemunok was marked by the icon for "relay center." Ponemunok played a bigger role in commerce than Kamay, Ponedel, and Skopishok. The inhabitants of these townlets had to come to Ponemunok's rail station whenever they had to take trips, whether they traveled in-country, abroad, or overseas. Coachmen driving shopkeepers and merchants used to come to collect deliveries of goods or to send off fruits and other agricultural produce.

Before the First World War, Ponemunok had a Jewish population of about 200 souls. Probably because of the rail station the townlet had increased rapidly in size. You must realize that during the reign of the Czar there were no borders between Russia, Latvia, and Poland, and there was a far-reaching network of trade with cities and localities in Russia. No doubt the presence of the railway station attracted people who wanted to ease the struggle for a livelihood by settling down there.

Apart from the railway station, Ponemunok is surrounded by a fine landscape and the river Nemulenim, a subsidiary of the Nemunas, lends a particular charm to the town. That river certainly was one of the main attractions for the youth of the town--we all have lots of memories
connected with that stream running through the city.

After the Great Fire [see "My Shtetl Ponemunok," by Ben Zion Joffe] and after the expulsion of the Jews of Ponemunok during WWI, the Jewish community of Ponemunok diminished considerably and only 22 Jewish families remained, all living around the railway station, while the Lithuanian community numbered about 60 families. The Jews busied themselves trying to make ends meet.

After the death of the only Jewish tailor, Segal, there were no more craftsmen in Ponemunok. They were tradesmen, shopkeepers, peddlers [karabelnik-krumer], and farmers. The few affluent families took care of the poor in the shtetl, giving them matzah during Pesach and meting out an irregular income to them. They lived in peace with each other and they helped each other out with interest-free loans.

Because the community was so small, there was no resident medical doctor. The Jewish apothecary, Olkin, who lived in the center of the town, used to bring over a doctor from Ponevezh twice a week. There was only a Christian barber-surgeon living in town and in urgent cases they had to ride to Rakishok for doctors. After the war Rakishok, 16 kilometers from
Ponemunok, became the capital of our district.

In my time Ponemunok did not have a Rabbi either. There was a young yeshivah student from Telz who officially registered as Rabbi of Ponemunok in order to have grounds for exemption from military service. He only came down to the shtetl in the evening, in order to satisfy the authorities. The prayer and study-house was a simple wooden one, with a modest ark and a lectern without any carvings. Only on Shabbes and during the High Holy Days did the prayer house have an occasional minyan of worshipers. On weekdays there would seldom be a minyan if it were not for someone's yahrzeit. At first, Yoyne Karabelnik was gabbai (caretaker), and after he died the position was taken over by his brother Ezra Karabelnik.

All people of the shtetl were Chasidim, and the tradition followed in praying was the Sefard style. Only the members of the Karabelnik family were Mitnagdim. Sometimes when the gabbai Karabelnik went up to the lectern for prayer and recited the "Yatzmah Purkanei" from the Kaddish or a "Barukh She'amar" as "Hodu," a tumult would arise in the benches [shtenders], but it never became an outright shouting match.

Parents took care to give their children an education. For many years the shochet Avrom Epstein was the only teacher [melamed] in Ponemunok. He was a man with a long beard that reached down to his waist. He was thirsty for knowledge and he was well-read, mainly in astronomy. His pupils in the cheder loved him because of his mild and friendly behavior towards them.

After the death of Mr. Avrom Eliezer, Vilenski from Nayshtat became shochet and chazzan.

There was a Lithuanian "Volkshul" in Ponemunok where some Jewish children went; young men went away to a yeshivah or a "gymnasium" [classical grammar school]. For some time they had an imported female teacher of Hebrew and general studies in Ponemunok. She taught Hebrew with the Sephardic pronunciation [havore], which clashed with the Ashkenazic style taught in cheder.

***********

I left Ponemunok in 1936. A quiet and idyllic life formed the heartbeat of the shtetl. The only dynamic force was the railway station. Nothing special ever happened; no changes took place, and there was no social activity. The paupers occupied themselves only with the battle for survival and the well-to-do people were not active in the community either. Maybe the small number of Jewish inhabitants in Ponemunok were simply not interested in showing any initiative in the field of social activity.

A great social upheaval took hold of Ponemunok when the writer of these lines "sold shekalim" [shekels--collected fees for the Zionist organization] and then called for a general meeting, during which I urged for a vote to elect the delegates to the 19th Zionist Congress, for a certain Zionist party. For the people of the shtetl it would be the first Zionist Congress, because they had never been involved in the activities of the Zionist movement.

Ponemunok did not produce any famous people. Leibe Levin was the only "utsjoni Yivrei" (erudite Jew).

The whole community of Ponemunok somehow did not have much cohesion, especially after the First World War. This becomes evident from the fact that there was no Jewish cemetery. They used to bury their dead in Kamay, 11 verst [1 verst is .66 of a mile] from Ponemunok. It could be
that the Jewish inhabitants of Ponemunok had a premonition that in the end the Jewish community of Ponemunok would be rooted out, as indeed happened during the days of Hitler's reign, may his name be blotted out.




[Page 377]

My Shtetl Ponemunok

By Ben Zion Joffe

Translated from the Yiddish by Lucas Bruyn

It is many years ago now that I left Ponemunok. I have been forty years in South Africa. My father, Chaim David Joffe, may he rest in peace, initially traveled to Africa alone and later brought over his family.

With the passing of time spent in South Africa, under influence of the changed living conditions of the new country, the memories of my old home have faded out. But although many things have unfortunately become nebulous, still, to this very day, shreds of reminiscences, images, and figures from those distant years in the shtetl of my birth still run through my mind. This is all the more so since the great destruction [khurbm] of the East European Jews in general and the annihilation of my town Ponemunok in particular.

I do not know when a Jewish community was first established in Ponemunok, but the story in the town went that Jews started to settle there with the building of the railroad. Before that time it used to be a kind of farm [folvark], under the estate [hoyf--court] of Ponemunok, the property of count Shvintetski. The fact that the church did not stand in town, but rather on the estate, bears witness to this.

Ponemunok was surrounded by large woods, fields, and meadows. Along the town stretches a dense forest and a small river named the Nemunelim cuts through it. (In Lithuanian, Nemunelim means Little Nieman). [The river Jara, a subsidiary of the Shventoji/Swenta.]

To this very day I am puzzled why the Central Railway Board of Czarist Russia chose Ponemunok for the site of a new railway station--one even bigger than that of Rakishok. [The reason might be that before the railroad was built, Ponemunok was on the main road between Dvinsk and Libau, while Rakishok was not.]

Trains used to halt in Ponemunok for a solid half hour, and there was a canteen in the waiting room. While the train was standing at the platform, passengers would alight to eat and drink there.

Ponemunok's railway station served all small towns and villages in the region. The towns Sviyadosht, Kamay, Skopishok and Ponedel, as well as dozens of villages, exported their agricultural products, cattle, and timber through PonemunokÕs railway station. Thousands of farmers would deliver logs at the station for further transportation by train, and these would lay in wide circles around the station. At the beginning of the geese season they would drive flocks of geese towards the station and the noise of the gaggle would be deafening. At the end of summer they would bring whole strings of carts full of fruit to be exported to many places.

Every Thursday there was a big market, and the marketplace was in the center of town. You could also find shops there with living quarters above, as well as some brick buildings. Big merchants from Russia and Germany used to come down to the market of Ponemunok. In my time the town counted about 60 Jewish families, and almost all of them were in commerce. There were big merchants and small traders. There were almost no craftsmen--only one shoemaker, a tailor, and a blacksmith.

Thanks to the railway station--and also thanks to the fact that the post office of Ponemunok served the surrounding towns and villages--the economical development of Ponemunok went well. There were several wholesale businesses. The owner of the biggest wholesale store was Zalman Itze Mizrekh. You could say of him that he united religion, cleverness, and wealth in one person. In his shop you could find anything, from a needle to a threshing machine.

A big lumber merchant was Shmuel Avirer (Karabelnik). He kept a roadside inn. He was a man of high morals, and always the first when it came to helping out someone or doing someone a favor. When it happened that someone fell ill during the night--Ponemunok did not have a doctor, only a Christian barber-surgeon [feldsher]--they would run to Shmuel the Avirer and he would immediately harness his horse and deliver the patient to Rakishok himself. He was always ready to give a loan, to offer hospitality, to help out an orphan getting married, or to assist a widow.

Yoyne Karabelnik had a good name in the region. He had a textile business and was a timber merchant. He owned a two-story brick building.

Malatski was a man of Talmudic learning and the owner of a big business. Moyshe Arn, the butcher, was a good and fine person.

My father, Chaim David Joffe was a real man of the people, always lively and in good cheer, clever and witty. He brought his plain Yiddish personality along to South Africa and spent a lot of time on community affairs. For 40 years he was a member of the Rakishok Society and other Jewish institutions.

In my time there were two prayer houses: one Chasidic and the other Mitnagdic. Most Jews were Chasidim; the wealthy ones were Mitnagdim. Yitzhok-Moyshe, the son of the Rabbi of Ponedel, was the [Mitnagdic] Rabbi. [TranslatorÕs note: the author is not clear if Yitzhok-Moyshe was Mitnagdic or Chasidic, but the text reads "rov" rather than "rebbe," generally indicating a Mitnagdic rabbi. It may be that he served both synagogues.] He was a man of great Talmudic learning and an exceptionally capable person. He was also in big business [groyse miskhorim] and he did not make a living from his rabbinate. Moreover, he was a great singer [bal-menagn], the chazzan [cantor] in the Chasidic synagogue, a preacher [bal-droshn], and in general a man of stately appearance [a hadres ponemdiker yid].

I think that Avrom was the shochet [ritual slaughterer]. He was a modern man, not only learned in the Talmud, but also an adherent of the Haskalah [Jewish Enlightenment] movement, who spoke Russian and Polish well. He gave his children a secular education.

Shmerl the shames [beadle] was an interesting character. He always said the morning prayers, blew the ram's horn in the synagogue, and was the reader of the Torah. He also used to write out the addresses for women whose husbands were overseas.

In the Mitnagdic shul, Zalman Itze Mizrekh was the chazzan.

Ponemunok as I remember it had several cheders. The teacher of Gemara was Bertstik. The well- to-do families used to send their children to study at the yeshivah of Ponevezh. I also remember a strange man who had 22 children.

***********

I don't remember any special events in Ponemunok. There was a bit of commotion in 1905 when they killed a member of the secret police in Ponemunok. My brother Itse Berk and his friend Nefl [?] Naftali were accused of shooting him. They soon escaped to America, were they live until this very day.

Around the turn of the century there was a great fire, and the whole shtetl burned down. Before long, however, the shtetl was rebuilt with a new bathhouse [merkhets].

Up until the First World War the Jews of Ponemunok lived in comfort and contentment. After the war the economic situation of Ponemunok went downhill. Rakishok became the governmental seat of the region and competed with Ponemunok. The business of the whole region centered on Rakishok.

There never was a cemetery in Ponemunok, giving rise to the joke that this was why the Jews of Ponemunok lived to a ripe old age.

The Jews of Ponemunok, together with those of Rakishok, were all murdered. May this account keep alive forever the memory of my home town, Ponemunok.


The great annihilation killed all the Jews of Sevenishok. Not one soul remained of them. We did not know of any refugees from the Holocaust. We learned, however, that all of the Sevenishoker Jews were taken together to Tarutzer Forest and forced to dig out large pits into which they were hurled and shot. Many were buried alive.

No one remained in Sevenishok, but there lives in each of us a longing for our old home, and an eternal sorrow and pain haunts us.

 

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