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.
|The [old] Jewish cemetery in Braslav, before it was vandalized and destroyed|
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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