by Miriam (Mariashka) Rotenberg, Daughter of Velvel and Gitel Reichel [Rajchel]
Translated from the Hebrew by Dr. Ida Schwarcz
Footnote Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch
This happened in 1917 or 1918 --- toward the end of World War I. Our town, Braslav [Braslaw], passed from hand to hand: the Russians captured it from the Poles, the Germans and Lithuanians also ruled there for short periods, but there were times when there was no ruling authority at all in the town. Then the gangs of bandits, composed of Gentiles from the area, raised their heads and sought to steal the property of the Jews and murder them. This is what my mother told me when I was 10 years old. Meanwhile, groups of Jews organized themselves to defend the town. One of these was my uncle, Yerachmiel-Mendel Meirson --- the only son of my grandparents Yitzchak-Yaacov and Chaya-Sara (there were also five girls).
On a summer day in 1918, when there was no ruling authority in Braslav, hooligans and bandits burst in, beat up Jews and stole their property. There was tumult and a great outcry in the town. Everyone was afraid. Many hid in their homes, attics, stables and the like.
Then the group of defenders went to attack the gang and drive it away.
On that day, Shmuel-Yosef Milutin excelled in heroism and beat the leaders of the bandits. Avraham Lubovitz [Lubowicz], a member of the group, was injured in the leg and remained crippled for the rest of his life. More Jews joined the defenders, struck the bandits with fierce blows and chased them out of the town. But during the clash between my uncle and the angry bandits who came to rob the store of Zalman Ulman, my uncle [Yerachmiel-Mendel Meirson] was shot and killed. My uncle was a good man, well liked by all, especially active in working on behalf of the Yiddish school.
Years went by but Yerachmiel-Mendel wasn't forgotten, and on the 10th anniversary of his death a tombstone was put up for him. The schoolchildren and their teachers attended its unveiling. Merchants, tradesmen and storekeepers closed their businesses and joined in; housewives and others joined in. We marched in rows to the rhythm of the mourners' march played by the band, followed by the schoolchildren. They carried wreaths, and many held flowers to put on his grave.
There were speeches, Yerachmiel's mother unveiled the tombstone (his father was no longer among the living). At the top of a canopy made from red bricks, there was a plaque of black marble on which was engraved
in golden letters: Here rests Yerachmiel-Mendel Meirson, who fell while defending the Jewish community at the age of 18 [in Yiddish, followed by the same sentence in Hebrew]. There was a religious ceremony, and Kaddish was said.
May the name of this Jewish fighter be exalted and sanctified.
As is known, the old Jewish cemetery in Braslav was later vandalized, and the tombstones were removed for various purposes.
May these words serve as a tombstone and candle to his memory.
[This photograph shows the tombstone not of Yerachmiel-Mendel Meirson but of Esther Kremer, who died on October 26, 1929. Standing next to the tombstone in Braslav are Feiga/Fania (née Kremer), who was the daughter of Esther. With Feiga are her husband, Rafael Fisher of Braslav, and their daughter Yetta. Yetta survived the war; her account is on pages 117-119 of this memorial book.]
Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov
Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch
The image of the town of my birth comes up in my memory with affection and longing, and with a terrible rending of the heart. The place of my childhood no longer exists. Its friendly, pleasant people have passed and are no more, as are the young, who once were lively and hungry for knowledge. Only memories remain, memories of the lovely days of the long-ago past.
Until World War I Braslav [Braslaw] belonged to Russia as part of Belorussia, but after the Polish-Russian War in 1921 the town and entire region were annexed to Poland. The residents of the surrounding villages were all Belorussian and spoke it [the Belarusian language] as their mother tongue, but the official language was Polish.
Braslav was one of the most beautiful towns in Poland. Because of its unique climate and geographic location [in what was then the nation's northeast corner], people called it the Polish Siberia. In winter, severe cold and snowstorms were very common.
Two lakes surrounded the town --- the large Lake Driviata [to the south] and the small Lake Noviata [to the north]. In the center of town, the lakes were joined by a river, over which there was a wooden bridge. The lakes were full of many kinds of fish. Many residents earned a living from fishing, marketing and selling the fish. For young people these lakes were an excellent place of recreation, in both summer and winter. They were a wonderful place for sailing, skiing and skating. On summer days, students from the center of Poland came to Braslav from the universities of Warsaw, Krakow and other cities. They'd organize parties of bonfires (ogniska) in the evenings, and many of the townspeople would gather and enjoy plays and entertainment under the starry skies until the wee hours of the night. The authorities sought to instill the spirit of Polish nationalism among both the Belorussian population and the Jews, residents of the country's northeast region.
On both sides the town was surrounded by thick forests, most of them trees of pine and fir. To the southeast--- the Dubki [Dubkes] forest, and to the west --- the Karpovitz [Karpowicz] forest. The forests served the residents of the town as a place for hikes and meetings, mainly on the Sabbath, when large numbers of young people and children would go out to relax and play.
In the town center stood Castle Mountain. Around it
the wooden houses of the inhabitants lay scattered like mushrooms. At the western edge of the mountain was a monument at the grave of the physician, the supporter of the Jews, Dr. Narbutt. The Jews of the town loved and respected him, because of the warm feelings he showed toward the Jews and especially to the locals. A street was even named for him --- Narbutt Street.
On each side of Braslav stood a flour mill. On one side of town was the windmill, which stood silently for many years; only its arms projected into the blue sky. In a strong wind, the arms would turn slowly, as if they lacked will to do so. On the other side of town was an active flour mill, which belonged to a Jew and operated day and night.
There were four synagogues in the town. Three of them stood in the heart of Braslav, on the main street, and one synagogue (the Sandy Synagogue) stood on the other side of the mountain.
Next to the [three] synagogues was a fire station. In the station was a large hall used for shows, plays, meetings and ceremonies for celebration. Nearby, on the shore of the large lake, stood the ruins of a house. This was the community bathhouse, which served the Jews of the town on Thursdays and Fridays.
There were also a Jewish bank and a Gemilut Hesed [Free Loan Fund] in Braslav. Locals in need could receive loans from it without interest.
In our town were three schools: one for the Yiddish language [the Folkshul, with education in Yiddish]; the second one, Yavneh, based on the purity of Hebrew; and the third, a Polish school.
Important offices were concentrated in a new, exclusive neighborhood, green and well looked after, that was built near the Karpovitz forest [in the western part of the town], especially for the Polish officials.
Braslav was a regional town (powiat), and the nearby settlements and forests belonged to it: Druysk [Drujsk], Yod [Jod], Miory, Dubina [Dubene], Slobodka, Yaisi [Jaisi], Opsa and smaller places. Braslav belonged to the Vilna district; the major city of Vilna had a large concentration of Jews and served as not only a cultural and Jewish spiritual center (the Jerusalem of Lithuania) but also a trade center.
There were no factories in Braslav. The main business of the residents was trade: small stores, small workshops of shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths and the like. In the town were several guest houses, hostels that were called hotels, bakeries and processing houses for leather. There were two markets. For some reason the first was called the bread market, even though everything that came to hand was traded there. The second was called the horse market. The means of transportation indeed was mainly horse and wagon, in which merchandise would be taken to and from Braslav from other towns.
In the years before World War II --- due to unfair competition by the Poles, mainly the government --- the economic situation of the Jews worsened. During these years, with the help of the authorities the Poles opened a giant department store with a varied inventory and engaged in extensive anti-Semitic propaganda about not buying from the Jews. Despite this, they couldn't defeat the Jewish shop owners, mainly because of the credit that these shop owners gave to farmers. Because of the good relations between the Jews and the Gentiles from the surrounding villages, the authorities failed in their attempt to oppress the Jews.
And so life went on in the town, amid work, problems and worries. Each day of the week, people were busy and troubled. On Fridays, all the tumult stopped and it grew quiet. From every window the Sabbath candles winked and capered, candles of rest and tranquility.
I can remember my town many, many years ago: without electricity, without roads or sidewalks, in deep mud on dark nights . . . Most of the Jews lived in poverty. Even the small children tried to assist their families, through handwork or by helping in the house. Because of this, many children were unable to finish primary school.
Especially difficult were the lives of the women. They were always busy next to the stove, cleaning the house, caring for the children, and helping the head of the family earn their daily bread.
In those [very early] days, the school had lacked a building; lessons took place in the women's section of the synagogue. The overlapping boundaries that resulted caused arguments between the praying congregation and the teachers and students of the school. These problems ended when a nice, large building was constructed, one with comfortable classrooms and an exercise hall. A real school.
The years of study are engraved in my consciousness forever. I'll never forget the dedication and sacrifice of the teachers, who always treated us as if we were members of their own families. Despite the tiny salary, which they [often] didn't receive on time, despite the freezing cold in the classrooms and the lack of teaching aids and books --- they always carried out their work as if it were a sacred mission.
I remember how on cold winter days we --- all the children of the class --- decided to drag wood for heating from our parents' homes to warm the classrooms. The Polish government didn't support the Jewish educational institutions or set aside funds for them, and these schools existed on tuition payments and donations. Next to the school was a large library, with whose help we enriched our knowledge and formed our outlook on the world. Sometimes, when a teacher was sick and couldn't come to class, we --- the children of the higher grades --- took the initiative and taught the children of the lower ones. After completing school (seven grades), some of the young people would leave for other places, mainly to the district city, Vilna, to continue their studies. Of course this depended on financial support that only a few families could manage, but several young people did succeed in gaining knowledge and a profession at the ORT school, an abridged technion [technological institute], teachers' seminary, and the like.
A few of the young people studied at the Jewish [teachers'] seminary in Vilna, the only one in Poland. But to their great dismay, its gates were closed some time before the end of the last semester, and the students attending supplementary courses didn't receive their completion certificates and were unable to work as teachers.
Next to our school there was a drama club, whose purpose was to help the teachers financially, by means of plays, parties for entertainment and so on. At the head of the club was a very talented young man who guided and taught us. We presented mainly classic plays. We also organized Purim and Hanukkah parties for other institutions, and with this we filled gaps in the school's budget. I'm writing about this in detail because the school was the center of our life and experience.
Sometimes there came to our town [Jewish] preachers and speakers of all kinds and from differing political parties. A large crowd would gather and each orator spoke on the importance and superiority of his party. Usually these gatherings were accompanied by interruptions, shouting and even an exchange of blows between the righteous of one party and its opponents . . .
I loved our holidays, especially Hanukkah. There were parties, our father, of blessed memory, would light
the holiday candles and we, the children, would enjoy the tasty special foods for each holiday.
At the end of the 1920s [or the early 1930s], a power station was built in the town. The houses and streets were lit with electric lights. The roads were [finally] paved, and this brought an end to the ever-present mud. At this time, several Jews established a printing press that gave employment to a number of young men of the town. Sometime later, a bulletin appeared --- a local newspaper.
At this time, anti-Semitism and hatred of the Jews grew stronger in the town. The Poles, mainly from the racist-nationalist party, the N.D., established hooligans as guards [in the town], and these prevented buyers from entering Jewish stores, broke windows and so on.
Such events caused agitation among the Jewish young people. A not-insignificant part of them saw a solution to the problem in aliyah to the Land of Israel. Another part searched for redemption in the socialist idea of Soviet Russia. In this way, the social situation worsened. Many young people stood at a crossroads. The Communist youths weren't able to do much; occasionally the police would arrest many of them.
A few of the Zionist youth received certificates and made aliyah to the Land of Israel. For a time, there was also in our town a preparatory kibbutz of the General Zionists. The period was filled with events, and we felt that something important was about to happen. Newspapers printed editorials, men in the street talked and argued, but the situation wasn't completely clear.
[Handwritten in Yiddish at the top of the photo are the words At the departure of member Shayke, Braslav, May 11, 1935. This refers to Shayke [Shaya] Deitch, who was from Braslav but is said to have worked as a theater actor in Vilna. Shayke, marked by the arrow in the photo, is also pictured on pages 41 and 229 of this memorial book. Yiddish caption translated by Aaron Krishtalka and Jerrold Landau.]
With the rise of Hitler to authority in Germany [from 1933], persecution of the Jews had begun. Several refugees reached us, telling of the troubles and suffering of the Jews under the Nazi regime. At the time, we didn't fully understand the seriousness of what was being said. Warnings were heard from Jewish leaders, but people didn't take them seriously.
In late 1939 [September 1], Germany attacked Poland. A few days later [sic], the country surrendered. Many of our young men had been drafted into the Polish army, and we didn't know what was happening to them.
I remember the day the Red Army entered our town [in late September 1939]. The soldiers marched in all their strength; they stood up straight on the backs of cars and tanks, waved to us and announced they'd come to free us from the yoke of the Polish shliachta [szlachta]. The Jewish population received them with satisfaction, thinking it was better to live under Russian rule than to be persecuted and oppressed by the Germans.
Sitting (from right): An unidentified man with glasses, Shayke Deitch and Shimon Viderevitz
[Handwritten in Yiddish on one side of the photo is a hard-to-read caption with the words Producers of the revue evening of [19?]37, direction Shayke . . . Yiddish words translated by Aaron Krishtalka and Jerrold Landau.]
There were no bounds to the excitement of the local Communists. Many people who'd spurned Communism until then now changed their faces overnight and joined the sycophants. Immediately after entering, the Russians began their system of propaganda with the help of films, presentations, songs and other forms of communication.
I belonged to no party. In addition, after the [Soviet] occupation I wasn't tempted to register with the youth organization, the Komsomol. I remembered all the trials and confessions of senior [Soviet] officers and leaders [in the 1930s] who'd admitted to being capitalist agents and traitors with the evil intention of attacking the Soviet Garden of Eden and establishing a fascist state in Russia. I couldn't understand how it was possible for these people, who'd dedicated their lives to the Revolution and suffered so much for the socialist idea, to suddenly reverse course and turn traitor.
Immediately with the coming of the Russians, we began to feel a shortage of food. The shops emptied out. We began to stand in line to buy bread and other food products. Once, in a line for bread, a woman made scornful, derogatory statements about what was happening. For this, she was immediately arrested. She was only freed thanks to the efforts of several respected men of the town, who managed to convince the authorities of her apparent insanity.
This was how we lived under Soviet rule, until the coming of the terrible loss and destruction of the Jews of my town of Braslav.
Son of Gitel and Leib
Translated from the Hebrew by Dr. Ida Schwarcz
Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch
Today is Rosh Hashanah [the Jewish New Year], and standing wrapped in my tallit [prayer shawl] I pour out my heart before the Master of the Universe. Forgotten images rise out of the mist of years, faces and experiences. I hear within me the melodies of Shlomo [Zilber] the shochet [ritual slaughterer], the choir of Chaim-Aizik Maron and his sons on Kol Nidre night, and memories from my childhood and adolescence stand before my eyes like beloved guests . . .
Our lives in those days weren't easy. My family wasn't among the rich. Poverty and hardship were frequent companions.
My father was a wagoner, on the roads for an entire week. The work was difficult and exhausting, requiring much effort, and also fraught with danger. In the wintertime, amid the cold and snowstorms, my father and the other wagoners would take merchandise from our town to the big city of Vilna [170 kilometers to the southwest] and then return. They'd load the wagons with their merchandise after the Sabbath, set out on the long journey and come back on Friday, exhausted, rushing to the bathhouse to wash from their bodies the sweat and dust that had accumulated during the week.
Many years later, I met the old bathhouse attendant --- Anton --- and he spoke nostalgically of those days when the wagoners would come to the bathhouse. They were heroes, he said, everything shook when they stood in the steam room and whipped each other with the birch branches in their hands --- they were great men. They and some other families, like the Biliaks, always came out to defend the Jews of the town during the pogroms, opposing the anti-Semitic hooligans.
We lived in a small house, very narrow and almost fallen down. In the wintertime the snow came up to the windows and we had to work hard to clear a path to leave the house. In those days, I remember, I used to run to school in good spirits, because during the break we got a fresh roll and a glass of warm milk. We didn't always get this at home. We didn't always have wood for a fire to warm the house, and we children would go to the flax warehouses of Avraham-Leib Fisher and take from there, for a small price, the leftover waste of the flax and bring it home. We used to go there after the Sabbath, when the workers weren't there, and we, children of all ages, would stuff the dusty waste matter into large sacks that had been sewn for that purpose.
We tried to stuff the sacks quickly, to beat the other children. The dusty waste turned us into ghosts; our ears, noses and mouths became clogged and covered with a thick layer of dirt. Heating with this waste wasn't easy. We had to stir the burning material with a stick, otherwise thick smoke would burst from the oven. After a while, a tinsmith named Moshe-Aharon [Etzin] invented a special device that made it easier to use the waste.
I remember Moshe-Aharon [Etzin], a short thin man, who worked in his shop from morning until evening. He had a strange, funny nickname: Moshe-Aharon Puff-Up. The origin of the nickname, as I heard it, was in a story about his wife Chana: on the Sabbath, after the afternoon rest, he and his wife used to take a walk on the main street dressed in their Sabbath clothes. As they approached the richest man in town, Chana would tell her husband to puff up his cheeks and stick out his chest so that he'd make his thin body look more important. Thus, the nickname Moshe-Aharon Puff-Up became his permanent nickname. Both he and his wife were murdered together with all the Jews of Braslav [Braslaw].
In our house we had a large wide oven --- especially for cooking cholent [traditional Jewish stew]. Many housewives would bring their pots with the cholent on Friday before Sabbath and on the next day, after the morning prayers, they'd come to take them. Once it happened that a maidservant took a pot by mistake that didn't belong to her mistress, and the poor family was delighted to find the delicious meal that had been prepared . . .
I remember the fire in our town. Many houses burned down and we, the children dragged whatever we could to the shore of the lake. The men were busy trying to put out the fire, and we were happy to serve as important helpers in a time of trouble.
The problem of clothing was very difficult. Every holiday eve, we had rosy dreams of new shoes or new outfits.
Mother used to buy used clothing and give them to Reb Tsale-Nahum to alter. He was an old and very religious man. His house was always full of all kinds of rags that he repaired for poor children. He was so pious that he took care to avoid, G-d forbid, sewing a cross when he sewed a button, and his stitches were always straight and not crossed. He had a mentally handicapped daughter; she was an innocent soul who would never harm anyone and who said to everyone she met, Milky golem boo boo boo. Her name was Gita, and her nickname was Gitka Boo.
The [Jewish] community council was located in the building of the study house of the Mitnagdim, where people came to receive assistance. The heads of the council, may their memory be honored --- to my sorrow I don't recall their names --- tried to help the needy graciously, whether it meant buying a horse for a wagoner whose horse had died, or with ma'ot hitim [money to buy food for Passover], or any other type of assistance.
I shall memorialize the good Jews of the town: Shneiur Aron, who leased the lakes, gave fish to the poor every Sabbath eve; and the baker Aba Shmushkovitz (not a relative), who always gave me challot [loaves of bread] for Sabbath when I came to buy them, telling me my mother had already paid for them. His image appears before my eyes, as he stood in the synagogue on Sabbath and holidays, handing out prayer books to the children.
We were children, and we yearned for bicycles such as other children had. Bicycles, of course were just a dream for us. We did everything we could to earn a few moments of happiness when we borrowed bicycles for an
hour or two from Mendel the mechanic. He used to build bicycles from junk and would rent them for a short time to children like me. We earned the money, a few pennies, on market days from the farmers who paid us to water their horses at the lake.
I'll mention Moshe-Baruch, who took any job, even the lowliest, to earn his bread honestly, as the saying goes: Flay a carcass outside, and you won't need other people. [In other words, it's better to take on even degrading work to avoid handouts]. He used to give poor children haircuts for free, on condition that they keep their payot [sidelocks]. I used to sneak into the barn afterward and cut them off with my mother's scissors.
And also Chaim-Aizik Maron, a cheerful and friendly man who once met a farmer who asked where he could buy an English saw. Maron said, Come with me, took the farmer to his house, showed him his wife (who was English) and said, Here's an English saw, she cuts me up every day.
The days of my childhood and the years of my youth have passed and gone, never to return, but the memories remain, memories full of sadness and also feelings of sweet pain.
I survived the terrible war, from Stalingrad until the victory. I was wounded twice. I always dreamed and hoped to return to my town and to find it as I remembered it and as it was engraved in my heart, with the dancing candlelight in the windows on Sabbath eve . . .
I returned to Braslav, the place where I'd lived and dreamed, but found neither my beloved town nor its people.
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