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In the House and In the Street

Vigoda

Y. D. B.

Translated from Yiddish by Judie Ostroff Goldstein


Our street Vigoda1, where the city of Slutsk began, had probably been named for its topography and character. If one does not take into consideration the autumn mud in which the street was sunk before the cobblestones were laid, whether in summer or winter the street appeared very free and airy. It was surrounded on two sides with the deep, clean flowing Slutch River, hugged by wide fields, large, green gardens and orchards. During summer weekdays young and old from the “city” (this is how people on Vigoda referred to all the other Slutsker streets) came to bathe in the “Yatsever River”. There were three beaches: “first beach” for women, “second beach” for heder2 boys and non-swimmers and “third beach”, which was the deepest, for swimmers. Shabes (the Sabbath) afternoons, most of the young people, walked in the “Mayovka” – a sort of open park behind the Vigoda orchards.

PHOTO

Entering town from the south side


Vigoda began at the first city-bridge and ended at the second, at Zaryetcher Street. This was a quiet, cozy, sparsely built street with wooden one-story houses. The inhabitants were mainly from poor, Jewish families of gardeners, fruit growers, field overseers, grain merchants, some tavern keepers, melamdin 3, scribes, also several artisans (craftsmen) and wagon drivers. There were also some gentiles on Vigoda: the Polish nobleman Salyuta, who lived on an estate in the middle of the Vigoda fields and was very friendly with his Jewish neighbors. (Later for his part in the Polish rebellion, the Russian government confiscated his property and gave it to a Russianized Polish general). A second Polish noble, who owned “Gorki” behind the Vigoda bridge, leased out his fields to the Slabodskis, a wealthy Jewish family with a lot of sons, large and small, who came from somewhere else. They were busy in the Vigoda shul (synagogue) and had a place of honor at the Holy Ark and every Shabes and Yontif (Heb. Yom Tov, holy day) were given the honor of reading the maftir 4. The Greek Orthodox priest, a rich man from Minsk, owned the largest orchard on Vigoda and he rented it to Jews. His son, a hunch-backed, epileptic, gentile was infected with revolutionary godlessness and secretly was friends with Jewish boys his age. There were more ignorant men: Simon and his sons, Poles who had converted to Greek Orthodoxy, the Shabes-goy 5 Vasil, took care of the lights in the shul on Yonkipper and in honor of the holy Jewish day shaved his beard once a year.

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And there was the Shabes-goy 5 Stanislavikhe, a drunk, would take down the candlesticks in Jewish houses, therefore a religious fanatic, and milked the cows before they went to pasture.

In the middle of the block, as is customary, was the Vigoda synagogue, in which in olden days the voices of Torah students rang out clearly from the windows. In the last years it stood empty the entire day except for morning and evening prayers. When old Mota “kapulshchik”, did not sit there over a gemore 6 and study from morning until late at night, it would be locked. But for prayers, mainly on shabes, the shul was always full, with young and old, and here the Vigoders displayed their peculiarities and their wrinkles. To describe them properly would take too much space so I will describe a few Vigoda Jews who will serve as models for all the others.

First of all, there were the Vigodskis. Because of their surname alone they had a place of honor on Vigoda. This was a sizable family of brothers, with children and children's children who all settled in the outermost houses at the bridge and were grain merchants. They were called the “sons of David”… in total seven small Jews with big beards. The oldest and the richest of them was Elia David's, a former tavern keeper and later when the government had monopolized the liquor trade for itself, he became a grain merchant. He became a rich man, went slowly, never ran like his extremely busy, poor brothers the small grain merchants, he only “walked” as he called it, gave his children an education and sent them out into the world. His oldest son started a large factory in Minsk and one of his granddaughters, Clara, a revolutionary, lead the Slutsker youth in the Russian Revolution.

There goes Mota Ayolo, from the Slutsker maskilisher 7 family Ayolo. But Mota was not a maskil 7 and because of military conscription he chose a different surname: Rozenzweig. He was a simple Vigoda Jew with a large yellow beard and a sizable household, over ten sons and daughters. Yonkipper 8, his gang of youngsters would bring a full sack of hard-boiled eggs from home and when the adults were in the middle of fasting, the small children peeled the eggs. Those around them who were fasting swallowed saliva and turned their heads away in order not to waken the desire to eat. He lived in a fine house with large storehouses, far behind the Vigoda Bridge, opposite the Gorki Estate. He was a large grain merchant, exported wagon loads, was by nature a quiet, reticent man and nevertheless he lead, through his eldest son, a relentless struggle with the “Sons of David”, especially with Chaim David's son, competed in buying peasant wagon loads of grain from the others' hands. Once it went even as far as a fight and a quarrel in the synagogue Yontif during prayers. At the Vigoda heder 2 where boys learned tanakh (Jewish Bible), Shmuel B. described a verse: Hebrew word the war Hebrew word sons of the House of Saul and sons of the House of David”…

Then comes Yusef Shmuel Neikrug, a heavy Jew from outside (not born in Slutsk), of fine character. He was a mix of scholar and commoner, ranging from a charitable person to a wild miser, always ready to help a neighbor with an interest free loan and at the same time told clumsy stories to save a groschen (a penny). He dressed very commonly in a worn out kapote 9 with sleeves too short and heavy, dried out, warped “boots”. When he would walk, his head would go to the right and to the left and it seemed as if he was going and going but he stayed in one place. The Vigoders talked a lot about his stinginess and his poor attire that were incompatible with his wealthy circumstances. In his house one ate bread and onions. He was also a humorist: “How do I make tea? I drink a quart of cold water and lie on my stomach at the oven – then I have tea”. He owned, through an inheritance, two large vacant lots on both sides of the street, a small one that he sold to the neighbors and a larger one that he converted into a brickyard. People dug and made bricks, fired them in a lime kiln and on a half-starved horse, with his youngest son using the whip, drove the bricks to Slutsker homes to make ovens. The work in the brickyard was primitive and was done by a peasant, or poor Jews (often it was even a half-crazy person from among the well-known Slutsker crazies) for pennies. Men dug, kneaded, laid out the wet brick in a wooden mold, later put the half-dried bricks in the sun and then took them to the kiln. Yosef Shmuel used Vigoda schoolboys for the lighter work. The older ones were paid cash – a kopeck and the younger ones were paid with something valuable - with a ride across the street in his shaky wagon with the half-dead horse and one day it ended in catastrophe.

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Once when the wagon was loaded with small children it turned over at the lime kiln and the children fell into the fire, barely escaping with their lives. Vigoda then went into motion.

Yosef Shmuel played an exalted role. He was very often the gabe (synagogue trustee, Hebrew gabbai), Shabes and Yontif he prayed at the pulpit (most people were not happy about this because his voice cracked). Shabes in the evening, in the dark, he lead the people in “Ashrei Tamimi Derekh” (a prayer) which he recited by heart. During the week, during mincha-maariv (afternoon and evening prayers), at the large table behind the oven, he said “Ein Yankev” (a story from the Talmud) for the ordinary Jews.

By nature he was a compassionate man and listened to everyone's troubles with good, deep worried eyes and was always prepared to help. Often he would take a red kerchief and go into the street with it “to take up a collection” of several florins for a needy neighbor. Overall, his reputation on Vigoda Street was that of a good, religious Jew.

Judel ”der zeidener” also occupied a respected place in the Vigoda shul. He was called “der zeidener” because he came from a silk family – he was an Eizenstat. He was a big-bellied Jew, worldly, not a great scholar, but not ignorant either and lived therefore as the only Jewish representative on the city council. According to the Jews, he took himself for a Jewish “starosta” (governor). But he was not officially the governor, only one of the writers who copied papers. He wore a yarmulke (skullcap) in council and kept a low profile in regard to the gentile officials, who persecuted him, even flattered a young gentile, a writer, who he called “panochek” (young squire). In return he was very haughty with poor Jews who would need to come to him for a favor. In the Vigoda synagogue he conducted himself as if he was the representative of the authorities, never said a bad word about the Russian government. But he was fundamentally a good person and an honest Jew, a religious man who loved to serve the Almighty, prayed the additional service on Shabes and Yontif and was also a strong competitor of Yosef Shmuel.

Jankiel “der Koyen” 10 was a gardener who rented a nobleman's fields on Vigoda where he grew cucumbers and grain. The work was done by day laborers, peasants from the neighboring villages, under the supervision of his sons and daughters. Jankel “der Koyen” 10 was a good boss, a gabe in the shul, often the prayer reader at the pulpit, led the grandeur of Heshayne Rabe11 on Vigoda and at night distributed apples from a sack to the heder2 boys who said Psalms in shul. On Simchas Torah 12 he invited everybody to his house for a reception (at which alcoholic drinks were served) and he was the leader of the revelers. When the priestly benediction was performed in shul with the Vigoda Koyenim 10 , his singing resounded louder than all the others. For all of these things he was known on Vigoda as “der Koyen Godl13 even though he was not a great scholar. Shabes at musaf (additional service), singing from the pulpit “Tikhns Shabes” (a prayer) he would always say “Vitzibanu haShem Elokainu” instead of “vitzivanu”. And when one would tell him that in the sidur (daily and Shabes prayer book) it states expressly “vitzivanu”, he would answer with a rebuke: “Of what use is the sidur? My father, olevasholem 14 , also prayed from the pulpit and also said “vitzibanu” – that for me is the holiest!”…

Mota the kapulshchik came from Kapulia. As a young boy he studied in a besmedresh15 with Sholem-Yakov, Rav Moishe's, who later became famous, among Jews, as MendeleMokher-Sforim 16. In his younger years he was a flax merchant. He bought flax and traveled to the villages to sell it. When he was older he settled in Slutsk, on Vigoda and was greatly respected by his son who was also a flax merchant. He sat day and night in the Vigoda shul studying gemore6 with Rashi 17 and toysefes 18. He went through the entire Shas 19 in a year and erev (the eve of) Yonkipper 8 celebrated the conclusion. Thanks to him the Vigoda shul always stood open and the voice of Torah was never silenced there.

The old Vigoda shul was a strong brick building with thick walls. It had an old Holy Ark full of Torah scrolls, ancient curtains, a colorful, embellished pulpit and two dark coal ovens. Behind the ovens were two cases with well-bound Sforim (holy books), old and new: all kinds of shasn 19, medrashim 20 , yori-deah's 21, sheiless un tshuves22, even philosophical books such as “moyre-nevukhim” 23, the “Kuzri” 24. The shul stood alone in a corner of the green gardens and grain fields. It overlooked a large pond where frogs croaked during the summer and when it froze during the winter served as a good “katok” (skating rink) where urchins could skate. How did a pond come to be at a besmedresh15? Heder2 boys used to tell this story: A long time ago when Vigoda Jews decided to build the shul, the nobleman of the street decided to build a church exactly opposite. However the Jews thought this was wrong – and G-d performed a miracle, the church sunk one night and in its place was a river. This frightened the noble and he begged the pardon of the Vigoda Jews and sent from his brickyard well-fired bricks for the new besmedresh15. And so the walls of the synagogue were thick.

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Once, during a hot summer the pond dried up and people saw the tip of the sunken church. This happened only once.

What has become of the Vigoda shul with the pond now that Jewish life has been eradicated from all of Slutsk, together with Vigoda and has been seized by today's rulers? It is difficult to find out, but one thing is clear: today there are no more miracles.



Footnotes:
1 VIGODA - (Polish) comfortable, cozy. Return
2 HEDER – religious grade school for boys only. Return
3 MELAMDIN, pl. of melamed - teacher of children in a heder 2 Return
4 MAFTIR – reading of the haphtarah (lesson from the Prophets) in the synagogue. Return
5 SHABES-GOY – gentile hired to perform domestic chores forbidden to Jews on the Sabbath, e.g. lighting a fire. Return
6 GEMORE – Hebrew Gemara, that part of the Talmud 25 which comments on the Mishnah (post-biblical laws and rabbinical discussions of the 2nd century B.C.E.) Return
7 MASKIL, adj. Maskilisher – An adherent of the Haskalah (enlightenment movement. Return
8 YONKIPPER – (Hebrew, Yom Kippur) the Day of Atonement the most solemn Jewish holiday and fast day, when every person's fate for the coming year is to be decided. Return
9 KAPOTE - kaftan, gabardine, long black coat traditionally worn by observant Jews. Return
10 DER KOYEN - pl. Koyenim priest in ancient Palestine; descendant of the priests, accorded certain privileges and obligations by Jewish religion. Return
11 HESHAYNE RABE - Hebrew Hoshanah Raba (lit. great hosanna) The seventh day of Sukkos (Tabernacles) on which seven circuits are made around the synagogue reciting a prayer with the refrain, “Hosha nah!” (Please save us!”). Every person's fate for the coming year is irrevocably sealed in Heaven on this day. Return
12 SIMCHAS TORAH - Hebrew, “rejoicing with the Torah”. A festival that celebrates the conclusion of the annual reading cycle of the Torah. Return
13 DER KOYEN GODL - High Priest in ancient Palestine. Return
14 OLEVASHOLOM – rest in peace. Return
15 BESMEDRESH – prayer and study house; small synagogue, also used for meetings. Return
16 MENDELE MOKHER-SFORIM – the father of Yiddish literature. Return
17 RASHI – Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (1040-1105) Torah scholar unequaled in his commentaries. Best-known for his commentary on the Torah. Return
18 TOYSEFES – important commentaries on the Talmud 25 written between the 12th and 14th centuries. Return
19 SHAS - pl. Shasn abbreviation of shishe sedorim meaning six books. The six parts that make up one Mishnah and one Talmud; the Talmud 25 Return
20 MEDRESH, pl. MEDROSHIM – commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, as well as legends and fables compiled in the Talmudic and post-Talmudic era Return
21 YORI-DEAH'S – second part of the Shulkhan Arukh put together by Joseph Caro 16th century as a compilation of Jewish ritual law. Return
22 SHEILES UN TSHUVES – books written by Rabbis expressing their analysis of certain questions regarding Jewish religious
law.
Return
23 “MOYRE-NEVUKHIM” – title of a well-known philosophical work by the Rambam. Return
24 “KUZRI” - title of an important philosophical book by Yehuda Halevi. Return
25 TALMUD – there are two Talmuds: one known as Bavli Babylonian is the most famous, completed about the 5 th century; the second is Jerusalem, edited around early 4 th century. The core of both is the Mishnah 26 and Gemore 6 (Heb. Gemara); has become term used for Talmud.
26 MISHNAH – the collection of post-biblical laws and rabbinical discussions of the 2 nd century B.C.E , forming part of the Talmud 25.


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Crumbs of Memory

Moishe Strugatch – New York

Translated from Yiddish by Judie Ostroff Goldstein


Fifty years, a half-century! When one has been torn from a city, and one's childhood was spent in the neighboring area, it is natural that a lot would be forgotten, erased from memory, even though it was my hometown. The names of people and streets have disappeared, and the little that remains is shrouded in a thick veil.

Only small incidents remain in memory. Perhaps this will give everyone a picture of the once existing and now destroyed Jewish Slutsk.


It is understood; I am a Slutsker, born on Vigoda at the home of my zayde [grandfather], Reb Szaia Zhitkowitcher. I remember that opposite our house was an empty field, on which was later built a wooden city jail for petty criminals.

The “smotritel” or supervisor of the jail tormented the Jews unmercifully, but he more or less tolerated my zayde as a neighbor. This “smotritel” had two sons, gymnazia [Polish high school] students, tall gentiles with honest faces and naturally just as cunning as their father. It occurred to my zayde to ask them to teach me Russian. We both went to see them. The two gentiles took us into one of the empty cells. They sat down on the cot and they left my zayde standing. There was only one other piece of “furniture” to be found in the room: a wooden pail used as a stool by the prisoner.

The chat lasted a long time and my zayde found it difficult to stand, but neither one asked him to sit down, so he sat on the “stool.”

This incident has such an impression on me that when we had left I said to my zayde: “Under no circumstances will I study with such anti-Semites!”


I started going to heder when I was 5 years old. My first melamed was Hirshel Berl – an emaciated Jew, who simultaneously was also the shamas [beadle] in the Vigoda shul. As I recall, the heder was built directly on the ground, and the front door just cleared the ground. The house next door to the heder belonged to Y.D. Berkowitsh's parents – just higher and somewhat roomier in comparison to the rebbe's (teacher's) house.

Now an episode from my second heder – also on Vigoda, close to the cemetery:

One autumn morning somebody ran in to tell the rebbe that the nadizatel [superintendent] was going around to all the houses demanding nalog [taxes]. The rebbe should not have been afraid because he rented the space for the heder and the house was not his; but in any case, a melamed needed to have a “certificate” that cost three rubles and this he did not have. The rebbe yelled to the children that they should run. The children ran out onto Vigoda.

I, along with another boy, ran to the Yatzeva, far behind the shul and sat there hungry the entire day. When it began to get dark, we decided that we could return home. But not feeling entirely safe, we hid behind the shul and looked out around the corner to see if one could go into the street and go home without meeting up with the superintendent.

When I came into the house, my mother was very upset. She did not know where else to look for me and she was taking out all her evil nightmares on the rebbe's head.


I would like to mention an interesting fact about the police. A new bridge was being built over the river on Zaretzer Street. Only the support poles for the new bridge had been put in place, and boards were laid over the poles providing two narrow passageways over the bridge. By chance my mother and I were crossing the bridge when suddenly we noticed that from Zaretzer Street, on the road to the market, soldiers were running, their faces exasperated and impatient. And of course we, along with the others who were crossing the bridge, were in their way. They said nothing and did not harm us. But their running had worried my mother and we turned back.

It turned out that the soldiers were running to the market place to carry out a pogrom. They managed to beat a number of Jews who were not able to run away and hide. But the strange thing was that they had not bothered anybody on the bridge. With very little effort they could have thrown a dozen people from the small boards into the river. But they had been told that the pogrom had to start in the market place and as the bridge was before the market place, this was not part of their mission.


I would also like to mention my third heder. It was located opposite the Zaretzer shul. The melamed's name was Itshe Note's, from his father-in-law's name, Note Tomback, the well-known educator and Hebrew writer who was also the uncle of Yehuda Grodzovski. He was different from all the other melamdin I knew, intelligent and wellread, and he read Hebrew newspapers as well as Hebrew books. I do not remember if he did this for everyone, but when he taught me grammar, he never stopped me from bringing reading books to heder. He even translated for me the difficult words when I didn't understand their meaning. (His wife Tille was known in Tel-Aviv for philanthropic activities).

At that time there was another event. There was not a legal library in Slutsk! There was only an illegal one in the house of the Khapashker shul. This library had to be open two or three times a week in the evening. It had to open at 8 o'clock, but the librarians were not in any hurry and would arrive at 9 o'clock.

At that time I was 8 years old and was caught up in reading Y. Levner's “Kol Agodas Yisroyel” [All the Israel Legends] – 36 books. I would get the books at the library.

I remember that I would leave heder 2, in the winter, at 6 o'clock in the evening, I would go to the library, and the room would be locked. Only the anteroom of the shul was open. I would stand there in the dark and cold until the library opened. And as soon as it opened, all the young boys and girls would come to get books, or simply to meet and enjoy oneself for a while. Naturally the librarians would meet girls there and a small boy standing quietly off to the side, was never noticed. Only when they had to close the library would they notice that a young boy stood waiting for a book and give it to him.

I had to go home late. I walked with the book, lifting the hem of my coat through the dark streets. Many times walking over pieces of wood, laid out over muddy or wet places instead of a footbridge, my heart would tremble from fright on hearing the barking dogs and the drunken voices of the gentiles who often came from the opposite side.


Another incident that was characteristic of that time:

I was then 6 years old and I was sick. My mother took me to Dr. Bildrzhikevitsh, a Pole. I remember that his apartment was on Shausayne Street on a corner opposite Folke the tailor. (Later the lawyer Rep lived in that house). The doctor wanted to see how I digested food, so he ordered the servant to bring a glass of milk and a piece of black bread for me to eat while I sat in the waiting room. But I said to him, “A gentile calls this food?”

Therefore they got me ready for the second order of the doctor – to go to a datcha [cottage].


In the Khorker forest it was very gloomy. Aside from us there was only one other cottager, a consumptive and my mother wanted to avoid sitting close to him. Mainly we would go to an isolated corner and sit by ourselves. But once we encountered an unexpected visitor, Iser the crazy man. Iser was a wild crazy man, and it was dangerous for me to be alone with him. He was a Slutsker, had brothers there and one of them was on Shausayne Street opposite Haim Mikhel's mill. But the brothers had sent him away to Khorki and he became a resident there. He walked around with long, uncut hair, a disheveled beard, and a bag that he never took off. From time to time he would remember his brothers, and he would make a pilgrimage to Slutsk and create a tumult there until his brothers would send him back.

And there I sit with my mother in the forest – and Iser arrived. He was not just passing through; he came and sat down near us. Our blood turned cold from fear. What should we do? Should we get up and leave? Would it be more dangerous? So we sat scared to death until he got up and left. But before he did, I had to say that in the morning I would repair his bag.

The next day, he arrived early in the morning, and I can still picture it today – how I sat on the ground with Iser next to me and I sewed up his sack. (Going outside to meet Iser, I knew I made sure to see where my mother was) My mother did not take her eyes off us the entire time.

We never went into the forest again and returned home.


Neither the doctor nor the datcha helped me. But I got well nevertheless.

My mother had a relative in Starobin, who was known as a big “charmer.” I can still see him in front of my eyes: a tall, older man, with a gray beard, rings under his eyes and the forehead of a wise man.

People had to watch out for him when he came to town to buy merchandise and simply "catch" him. When he would come to town, he would go to ten market fairs. At the inn he would grab [food] and put away all the packages in a minute and run out to continue.

To be sure that one could “catch” him, we would go to the inn at 6 o'clock in the morning, when he was just getting up. He heard my mother, and she said that she must see him alone before he prayed and drove away two hours later.

What did she have to do now? She had to get a new knife from a store that nobody had ever used and a fresh apple. Well, a knife is a knife. My mother went to wake a storekeeper in order to buy the knife. But where could one get an apple since it was still early in the season and there were not any apples:

My mother had to search for one, and she had to pay fifty kopecks for the apple, but she had found the things and ran back to the inn.

The charmer took the knife and cut the whole alphabet around and around the apple. He handed it to me to eat. He ordered me to bite letter after letter, beginning with the “tof” [last letter of Hebrew alphabet] and ending back at the “aleph” [letter “A” in Hebrew alphabet].

I obeyed him and did it, as he ordered. And – believe it or not – in a very short time I was healthy again.


Yet another melamed lived on Ostrover Street, where he “taught.” But such teaching this was that he charged thirty rubles a school term, and this was considered a good term. But for the most part he only took in around twenty rubles – or three rubles per child – for he never took enough children.

Possibly because of this, he had only one day a week to be with his children. This was Shabes. He had two old-maid daughters who worked all week in a workshop as dressmakers. Shabes was the only day that the two could expect to look decent and perhaps meet a young man. But how could one expect to look respectable when one must not use a comb?

Blood would pour every day in the house. Two young women who wanted look decent had only one day a week when it was possible, but on Shabes, one had to go around with uncombed hair, which they did, because they were not strong enough to go against the iron will of their father.

I remember another Jew from Ostrover Street – Yonah the shadkhan [marriage broker], a tall, dried up fellow, always with an umbrella. He had a daughter, an old maid, and a dried up son who later died of consumption. People would life at him and tease him to his face – that he should be able to at least manage a shidukh [a match] for his own daughter.


There was another person once in Slutsk who should be remembered, Aliotke the thief. He looked fine, respectable and had a beard.

I did not know him. My mother told me what her mother had told her about a personal experience.

This happened during a winter night. The winter was a terrible one, with very cold temperatures and storms and blizzard. My bobe [grandmother] was lying in bed and heard something scratching in the stable and the goat, the only possession that she had of substance, was restless and bleated loudly. It occurred to her that there must a wolf. The house was at the edge of the city. Probably a wolf got lost and detected the smell of the animal. She did not think long, did not wake anybody, grabbed her shoes and an old garment, found a stick and ran out – to drive off the wolf and to save the animal.

She was not able to find the animal in the stable, and she did not see a wolf. So she raced out over the white field, to see if she could find a clue. Not a small thing for a poor person to have an animal!

Who know what my bobe wanted to find that night. As luck would have it, a thought came to her: what was she doing, the wolf would throw away the animal and catch her too?

She went back.

The entire night, understand, afterwards she did not sleep and with the gray light of morning she went with my zayde to the stable. There was no sign or a clue that they could find – the snow had covered everything.

My bobe then figured that it could not have been a wolf because there was no sign of blood in the stable. What then? It was likely Aliotke the thief… and she quickly dressed and went to see Aliotke.

“What do you mean, Reb Aliotke?” she demanded of him him: “How could you do this to me? There was not a richer person to go to, only to me ?”

At first Aliotke played innocent, denying everything: “Who me?” He did not know what to say. Only when my bobe would not give up he said, “So, nu, Dina-Keila, you will give me ten rubles to get the animal back. Someone else would not give it back for under twenty-five rubles; indeed such an animal could not be bought for fifty rubles!

“But you are an honest Jewess, so for you I will give it back for a tenner. What do you say? For all my pain and trouble on such a cold winter night?”

The main thing was, they bargained and bargained until she had bargained him down to five rubles. She gave him the five rubles and brought the animal back to the stable.

(Remarks from the editorial board: According to older Slutskers in Israel, he repented in his old age and led a respectable life).


A couple of words about my mother who was from a poor house but a proud family – the Rakhmilievitshes (her maiden name was Leah Rakhmilievitsh). She was never bitter, never thought of herself, and always shared her last penny with others.

She had only one brother, Itshe, a son-in-law of Reb Zacharia. the paloshnik , who was also a scholar and a man of knowledge. In his twenties he had already written for “HaMelitz.” My mother was their sister's landlord, the one he taught to read and write and learn vocabulary. My mother was the intelligent one in her family, and from the beginning sought to teach me Yiddish and worldly knowledge.

She died in New York.


The law profession, which properly meant writing petitions, seemed to be well represented in Slutsk. I can count the following names:

Ratner, Perkal, Rep, Tshiptshin, Bakaliar and Salop the “writer” (more card player than “writer.”)


Seldom did anyone have only given name in Slutsk. Just about everybody was known by a nickname. I remember the following:

Judel “der zaidener” [from a silk family] – served in the “uprava” and lived on Vigoda.

Shimon “der trif'er” (has a variety of meanings) – was assistant sexton in the house at the Zaretzer shul.

Itche-Niek (Yelin) – teacher in the “Evreiskoye Utshilishche.” Hardly large than a dwarf.

Matrenka “der shuster” [the shoemaker] – later had a son, a doctor.

Yoshe Gon (Gaon ) “der shneider” [the tailor].

Hershl Tzitzke – a “rimizshnik” [perhaps harness-maker] – lived on Ostrova.


There were Hebrew speaking families in Slutsk by the name of: Aliashev (Alishib), Migdal, Ayolo, Yelkut, Gabai, Hofetz, Shur, Ofres, Efrun, Yorkhe (Yorkha), Mas (Mo's), Berkut, Minker.


{Page 296}

Nishke Kvasnik's Street

Pesya Shapiro-Michanik

Translated from Yiddish by Judie Ostroff Goldstein


Slutsk was a well-known, old city with street and lanes, mostly wooden houses. On the main street were brick houses of one and two stories. The children would walk up and down the long streets: Zaretzer, Chapashker, Shosajne, Kapulier, and Ostrover. They left their tracks as long as the Jewish exile on the still clean, cobblestones. There was constant noise from the wagons and their drivers and from the carriages and their eazvoshtshikes [coachmen]. The town was bursting with life and comings and goings of the gentiles who flocked in from the surrounding villages to trade with the Slutsker Jews. Our street was short and narrow. In Russian it was called Soborny Pereaulok and but we Jews knew it as Nishke Kvasnik's Street.

Nishke Kvasnik was once a tavern keeper whose formal name was Nisen Ratner. He was an enlightened Jew and a Lover of Zion. His children were raised with the love of Israel and the Hebrew language. After his death, his sons opened a restaurant. They were well known Zionists, Moshe and Isik Ratner, and they had a sister Henie Ratner who was very fluent in Hebrew.

On one side of the street was a high hill with large trees behind which stood the large “Sobor Church.” My mother would tell me that on that spot once a church sank, so the gentiles built the “Sobor Church in the same place The church made the Jews tremble from fear with the constant ringing of the large bells. The gentiles would come to church and then get drunk, and the residents of the street would shake in terror. Our house was not far from the long bridge.

PHOTO

From right to left: Feigl (daughter), Tuvia Mechanik [Tevia, the carpenter], Pesia, Chana Chaia (mother), Milkha and Dvosia (daughters).

I remember our Jewish neighbors on the street, such as: Leib the Tzadik [pious man], Grinvald the bookseller and owner of a private library, and Podlipski Mordchai, the shtumer [mute]. Also, Feiwel Zelda's, (the Russian soldier); Nechama, the hardware storekeeper; Sholem, the melamed [teacher]; Zelik Klotz, the kirzshner [cap-maker]; Nachum Dan Baron, the yeshiva dean; and Sara Kushes.

Nishke Kvasnik's brick house was the only two-story building and because of it brought prestige to our little street, and so it was named for him and we did not call it “Soborny Pereaulok.” My father, Tuvia Mechanik, [Tevia, the carpenter], employed six workers. He made furniture: benches and chairs for schools and government institutions in Slutsk. His relationship towards his workers was that of a father; he gave charity generously and gave loans without interest to those in need. Never once did he fail to pay what he owed. My mother, Chana Chaia, collected money to give a Torah scroll to the yeshiva. I remember the celebration for the Torah and my mother's joy on that occasion. Who was as honest as she?

Our house was a large one. In the courtyard my father planted trees and raised hens and turkeys. There was a pond with fish and in the stable a cow with a calf. In one word – my father was a mensch [good person]. During the summer we rented boats to row on the river.

My father was of the opinion that the real exile would happen with the coming of the Messiah, and yet he longed for Israel so much so that he pushed his sister to go Israel and sent her ten rubles a month. My mother loved Israel body and soul. For her the pushke [charity box] for Keren Kayemet [Jewish National Fund] was as noble as the pushke for Reb Meier Bal-HaNes [money collected for Orthodox scholars living in Palestine]. With trembling hands she would put money in all the charity boxes. Her lips would quiver as she choked on her tears: Because of Shabes and the Land of Israel Jews should help. She understood

PHOTO

Josef Mechanik (died 1931 in New York)

When we became members of Tseirei-Zion [one of the many Zionist Youth movements], my mother would say, “You should be worthy of living and building our Holy Land.” My brother Josef olevasholem [may he rest in peace] who died in America, was from the first year of this century [twentieth] an activist and devoted Zionist in Slutsk and belonged to “Kdima.”

My mother's prayer was fulfilled. We earned enough merit so that some of us could live in Israel.


{Page 297}

A Fire in Slutsk

M. L. Gorin

Translated from Yiddish by Judie Ostroff Goldstein


I remember the fire, when I was a child of 6.

It was a week before Passover, during a nice, clear, starry night. The weather was clear and dry. My mother, may she rest in peace, woke me around 2 o'clock in the morning.

“Look, see, it is burning!”

Through the window I saw how red the sky was. Sparks were flying in the air, falling on the roof of our house. My mother, brothers and sisters were busy gathering together the bedding, household goods and taking them out to the street. I got dressed and went outside. Panic reigned. All the neighbors were busy packing, dragging large pots, chests and bundles into the open field. The women sent up a lament, and we were screaming, the children were crying, and the men were busy trying to save everything possible, grabbing a look from time to time at the red flames whose hot breath could be heard coming closer and closer.

Neighboring houses had burned quickly and soon our house also began to burn. The children were sent away far from the street to a courtyard. From there I saw the terrifying tragedy: “Slutsk is burning!”

When the sun rose the fire had calmed down. That afternoon when I went with my older sister to see our street, it was enveloped in flames and smoke. The house was no longer there, had burned to the ground, and our family had to stay at a relative's house. This lasted for months.

There was enormous crowding. Three or four families lived in a house with five or six rooms. A lot of families remained homeless. They took corners in the anteroom of the shul – the walls of the Kalteshul [Cold Shul] sheltered about fifty families with their children and bundles for a long time.

After The Fire

With great difficulty and with help from America and other cities and countries, the city little by little was rebuilt. Instead of low, detached houses, new row houses were put up. Many brick and steel buildings of two or three stories were built and even reached the center, to Slutsk's poor people – “America” Street.

“After a fire people get rich,” joked the graying Artshik, the tavernkeeper. A Jew, a scholar, with a handsome face and a long, well groomed beard, he also had a brick house built where his had burned. It had a deep cellar and modern arrangements.

It cost my mother, a widow, a lot of trouble, sweat, and heartache until our new house was ready and we could move.

During reconstruction the streets were widened and paved with cobblestones; new, better wells were dug and the mud was done away with. In short this part of newly built Slutsk had a new, nicer look.

It's Burning! / Yehudes Simval

I do not remember the year. “Pozhar! Pozhar!” [Fire! Fire!] – the screams carried over the entire city. I was very small then. I was taken by the hand to run away from the fire. When I awoke and opened my eyes I saw flames through the shutters – a sign that the fire was close to us. My mother and father had already gather the children and counted them – 4, 5, 6. My mother was very confused. She looked for the other children, where is Reizel, where is Henie? Mama! I am here – yelled all the children. The small children were taken by the hand, the older ones helped my mother with the clothes because all the children were still small. And when we were leaving the house my mother yelled to my father: run to the stable, tie up the animal and drag her out!

When we were out of the house, I remember a red world. The air was filled with smoke. We went to the field. The street was full of people who had come to help save something from the fire, and one after the other they ran with a pail of water to help the firemen put out the fire. Others ran with children into the field, as did my parents. Some good people saved some cushions and curtains from our house and brought them to us in the field. Half the city had been burned. We were left naked, without a roof over our heads. Early in the morning we were taken to the shul that had not burned. Every family had a corner between two benches. Food was sent from the city and from surrounding villages. I remember that at noon cooking was done in a large kettle; a krupnik [dish of groats] from large pearl barley and a few pieces of fat were floating in it. We stayed for a couple of days until my parents rented an apartment on Zaretzer Street.

Folklore

Rabbi Yakov David [RIDBaZ, abbreviation for Reb Jankev Vilovsky] came to Slutsk to visit Rabbi Yitzhak Yakov Raynes, the founder of “Mizrahi” [Orthodox Zionist movement] and stayed with him. A delegation of young Slutsk Zionists (among them Hillel Dubrow and Y.D. Berkovitsh went to pay their respects, welcoming him and speaking to him in Hebrew. Rabbi Yakov David jumped out from a side room and in a red silk dressing gown and as a playful prank screamed: “Impudent fellows, govoritye po-Russki!” This means: Impudent fellows, speak Russian…then he stood up and repeated a Zionist lecture that he gave in Chicago during his trip to America. The lecture began with the sentence: “I sing of barren women, not of giving birth,”


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