Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov
Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch
Our house stood in the center of the town, at 121 Pilsudski Street, a small distance from the three synagogues, the fire department and the Polish police. Opposite, at a distance of about 100 meters, rose the eastern side of Castle Mountain (the Zamek).
Our house was large and wide; the bakery was on the bottom floor, a sort of half-basement, and above it was a spacious dwelling and a shop for bakery products and confections, delicacies, soft drinks and light meals.
Our house wasn't only large, it was also an open house. All of the family members had comrades and friends who would visit frequently and were honored with a glass of tea in our shop. Almost all of them had a clear connection, being graduates and friends of the Folkshul [Yiddish school] in Braslav [Braslaw]. On this point father, who was a supporter and active member of the management of the school, brooked no compromise. Whoever didn't support the Folkshul, at least passively, wasn't considered a close friend. And so, as I remember, our house was a meeting place for young people and adults from the circles close to the Folkshul. In our house it was possible to meet the outstanding youth of the town: Shayke [Shaya] Deitch, a talented dramatic actor, a tailor by profession; his cousin Yerachmiel Deitch, who had a clever sense of humor; Tsipka Levin, who was also a member of the drama club; Daniel Karasin, who worked as a printer and was a talented sportsman; Netzka Lin; Luska Segal; Munka Munitz, with her braids, who was active in HeChalutz HaTzair [The Young Pioneer, a movement for socialist-oriented Labor Zionist youth and an offshoot of the earlier HeChalutz] until she immigrated to the Land of Israel; Reinka Bank; Avromitske Ulman, a tailor and member of the drama club; Meir Kort; Machla Eidelson; Sara-Mirka [Sara-Miriam] Veif; Mashka Katz; the quiet and smart Beilka Goldin; her sister Dvairka [Dvora] Goldin, a talented dancer; and many more.
The living spirit among them was Shayke Deitch, who knew how to tell jokes and was always filled with the joy of life. This was a lively group. Father loved them and enjoyed seeing them in our house; he didn't miss even one show that was put on by the drama club. Father personally had a group of close friends who would visit our home: Zelig Ulman, who took part in all of the pranks of the town; Leibke Michals, who seemed born to partner Zelig Ulman in their pranks;
Meishke Biliak, one of the young people in the group, who today is in Canada; the brothers Nachke [Nachman] and Leizer Fisher, cattle dealers whose fists were well known among drunken Gentiles; Chona Munitz, a fish trader; Falka [Rafael] Fisher, a trader of crops and leather; Chona Biliak, a cattle dealer; Yoske Ulman, owner of the community bathhouse; Chaim-Aizik Maron, a wise and joyful Jew, a flax trader, whose two sons, Mendel and Yosef, are now in New York; and many others. I remember them on their visits to our house or in the shop, gossiping and mocking each other, and of course, arguing about public and political matters. Father, who was a regular devoted reader of the daily newspaper Der Tog and well informed as to what went on in the world, was the life of these arguments. Almost always these meetings would end with a gentlemanly card game and not a little tension, and pranks were also played during the games.
In his soul and his actions, father was a proletarian; he loved his people and treated the Gentiles who worked for us in the bakery as members of the family, working with them hand in hand. They'd eat with us at one table, and they had a spacious room to rest in; they deposited their savings with father until there was enough to buy a cow, a horse or tools for their families in one of the local villages. Two of them continued to work for us until the war broke out. At the time of the education talks that father gave me, sometimes with the addition of a slap on the cheek, he emphasized every man's obligation to work for his livelihood. And so all of us worked in the bakery during vacations from our studies. But he spared no effort or money to give us more than an ordinary, basic education. He sent my sister Sheyndel to study in the gymnasium [secondary school] in Vilna. For many years my brother Hirshke studied the violin, performing well; I preferred the fire department's orchestra of wind instruments. More than once, I greatly enjoyed looking at father as he listened with happiness to my brother's playing, especially when my brother played a rhapsody by Liszt. Father was an emphatic anti-Zionist. When I returned from the club of HeChalutz HaTzair, he'd ask me jokingly when we were setting out for Palestine. But while viewing the socialist wing of Zionism with some tolerance, he actively opposed [the anti-socialist] Betar and its leaders in the town, missing no opportunity to argue against them. He'd go with friends to the meetings of Betar that took place in the synagogues and interrupt them, arguing with the local heads of Betar of the time --- Shimon Gelishkovski, Shneiur Aron and Zusman Lubovitz, who's now in Israel --- and sometimes the exchanges grew very heated. But fate had a surprise in store for father. My brother Hirshke began to pursue Chana, the daughter of Shimon Gelishkovski, and the relationship between the young couple grew more serious. Father remarked with disdain, Just my luck if [Gelishkovski] has to be my in-law.
Father wasn't religious, but he observed Sabbath night and the Sabbath as days of rest. In the New Synagogue (Der Neier Minyan) [of the Hasidim] we had an honored place next to the Holy Ark, and father visited the synagogue on the Sabbath and holidays. Rafael Munitz was a good leader of the prayers. Father appreciated him very much and would join him frequently with his own pleasant voice in special prayers.
To the chapter on father's public activities should be added his membership in the fire department and in the leadership of the artists' association guild. In general, there was almost no public event in the lives of Braslav's Jews in which father, of blessed memory, wasn't involved. For him, public activity seemed to fill a deep spiritual need.
And then --- war broke out between Poland and Germany [in September 1939]. My brother Hirshke, who served in the Polish army, was sent to the front. For
many months, we received no news from him. Suddenly old age caught up with father, and worriedly he paced in silence. When the Red Army entered Braslav, we received word that my brother Hirshke had been taken prisoner by the Germans. Father recovered a bit and devoted himself entirely to the family and his granddaughter, but soon the decrees of the Soviet government arrived. Our bakery was confiscated, and we became the hired help in it. The officer in charge of supplying bread to the Russian army was appointed owner of our house, and each day he demanded that father bring him some vodka. He took orders for the bakery without understanding a thing about the profession, and in a rare moment father revealed to us with great bitterness his heart-felt feelings about the Soviet government, in language that went something like this: A wild beast has arisen in Russia, and its name is Communism. This new situation has quickly revealed itself in all of its sharpness and cruelty. Father's thick moustache began to turn white. He talked a great deal. He worked day and night, living in hope that my brother would be released from the German imprisonment.
In the Russian-German war [that began in June 1941], father was cruelly taken from us, never to return. After the war, I met Jews who told me how father and his sister Sara from Zamosh had been killed. His dear image is preserved in my heart. May these pages be a monument to his blessed memory.
Forty-one years have passed since we left you in fear and haste [in 1941], but also with the hope and belief that we'd quickly return home after the Red Army pushed back the Germans. But history decided otherwise. We didn't return, and I see you with unusual clarity in the eyes of my soul: undestroyed, untrampled, beautiful as you were before the bloodthirsty monster trod over you with his nailed boots.
If I succeed in putting on paper your story and all that I remember, then maybe I can contribute something to the erection of a spiritual monument to the memory of the extended Chepelevitz family in Braslav and the surrounding area, for father and my dear brother, whose burial place is unknown, and to the entire holy community of the Jews of Braslav and the region, innocents who were killed for no reason. May their memory be blessed forever!
Four thousand Jews lived in Braslav, earning a living in trade as well as from small businesses that were hardly sufficient to merit the description but somehow supported their owners; craftsmen, shoemakers, carpenters, harness-makers, tanners, hatters and bakers. The intelligent ones among them were without a doubt the tailors. They were divided into two types: the lower-level tailors who sewed clothing for ordinary Jews and the farmers in the area; and tailors like Yekutiel Kanfer, Benyamin Beilin, Falka Katz, Charat and Stavski, who sewed suits and coats for the wealthy people of the town, and mainly for the officials of the Polish government in the regional offices (starosta). A Jewish lad who wanted to learn the profession from these tailors spent the first year of his apprenticeship helping the tailor's wife with household duties in the kitchen and caring for the children. Only in the second year was he allowed to touch the buttons and buttonholes. But after a number of years the apprentices debuted as excellent professionals, whose name preceded them.
David and Efroike [Efraim], members of the Zarzhevski family, were unique professionals. They were painters and artists, and their special business was to draw portraits of the Christian saints on the ceilings and walls of the churches in Braslav and the surrounding area.
The Gentile woman Fima lived on Pilsudski Street across from the storerooms of the Kovarski family, and her business was curing shoshana [erysipelas, a bacterial infection of the skin]. A person who was sick with shoshana (which mostly affected the feet) would order a treatment from Fima, and the ceremony would be carried out at sunrise or sunset. Fima would cover the afflicted area with blue paper from the packages of Sabbath candles, whispering words whose meaning only she herself understood. But it worked, and many patients were cured by her treatment.
In Braslav there was a Polish policeman whose name was Bednarski. He was short of stature, fat, and nice to the Jews of the town. He liked gefilte fish, vodka and sweet Sabbath challah, and when he wanted these he'd come to the shop owners to check the cleanliness of the sidewalk and the shop, and all of them knew what he intended. He'd inform the traders and shop owners of bad intentions toward them on the part of anti-Semitic government officials.
The shops were spread out over the entire length of Pilsudski Street [the main street of Braslav], but the commercial center was in the square at the corner of Pilsudski and Third of May streets. In this square, which was near the two Christian churches, the Catholic and the [Eastern] Orthodox, were the shops and storerooms of Levi-Itza Veinshtein, Betzalel-Yankel Dagovitz, Luba Sheiner, Hertzka Shtol [Hirsh Stol], Velvel Mindlin, Hillel Fisher, Berta Rabinovitz, the Fridman family, Zalman Ulman, Leiba Zeif, two hotels of the Band family and the Ulman family, the alcoholic beverage store of the Lubovitz family, the large store of books and writing equipment under Polish ownership, the Polish community center --- Dom Ludzi [House of the People] --- the beer house and billiard table of the Charmatz family, the bakeries of the Chepelevitz family, Blecher and Shmushkovitz, Fisher's shoe store, and below them the factory for soft drinks, soda pop and beer of the Gens family who came from Vilna and --- opposite them --- the store of Yisrael Levin. Five hundred meters from the commercial center, the large store (known as Rolnik) was established by the Polish farmers' union in a large, splendid two-story house; there were storehouses for seeds, agricultural tools, and a modern bakery. One of the unofficial purposes of its establishment was to compete with the Jewish trade in the town. And indeed, the Fridman family's store, which was opposite the Rolnik, nearly went bankrupt.
On Wednesdays and Fridays, there was a fair [market day] in our town. Two large lots were allocated for this purpose, one for a fair of cattle and horses, next to the municipal slaughterhouse, and a second lot on the market street opposite the post office, for a fair of agricultural products. Early in the morning, the farmers from the area's villages were already there with bundles and sacks of flax, produce, chickens, fruit, milk products, eggs and the like. Peddlers stationed themselves along the fences and presented their merchandise on stands and tables; they called out loudly to the villagers to buy everything good for half free. Their voices mixed with the sounds of the bargaining conducted by the town's traders over prices of agricultural produce that they wished to buy from the farmers.
Toward noon, the Gentiles and their wives would go on a shopping expedition to the peddlers and shopkeepers of the town, finishing a successful market day with a cup of vodka and dessert of the cheapest kind of salted fish (taranes), which was large, tough as wood and very salty. The town's traders stayed busy for another long hour packing up their purchases and preparing them to be sent to Vilna by the train, which came to our town twice a day.
At the fair for agricultural products, the tone was set mainly by traders from the families Fisher, Deitch, Maron, Lotz, Veinshtein, Sherman and Ulman, who bought the majority of the crops and flax, which
after suitable processing were sent to Lodz [some 660 kilometers southwest of Braslav and in Poland]. On the other hand, the fair of cattle and horses was dominated by the family of Baruch Fisher and his strong sons Tevka [Tuvia], Motka [Mottel-Hirsh], Velfka [Zalman-Volf] and Avramka [Avraham-Yosef] --- the main suppliers of meat to the units of the Polish army in the area --- together with the extended Biliak family, traders of cattle, sheep and leather that were sent to the big cities. In addition to working together closely and living near each other, the members of the Biliak family were known for their warm temperament and great physical strength; Gentiles felt their fists many times when they tried to plot against the Jews. A well-known and unique figure in the horse-trading market was Maishke der barishnik [peddler or horse dealer]. In Maishke's hands a weak, thin horse would turn into one that was almost purebred. For some reason, Maishke wore his hat with the brim always behind. The gypsies, who were expert horse traders, also respected Maishke barishnik because of his expertise with horses.
A respected name among the horse traders and wagoners, and even among the Polish szlachta (nobility) who owned purebred horses, was the blacksmith Nachman-Chaim Gurevitz, because of his great expertise in shoeing wild horses. He carried out the shoeing with the help of his two strong sons, Mendel and Meir, who could subdue the wildest horses. Mendel and Meir would first honor the horse with several strong blows on the back with a flat hand, and sometimes also with a huge pat on the nose. After that, they'd grab the horse's foot and not let go until the shoeing was finished. The horses seemed to feel that not even they could play tricks on the Gurevitz boys.
Yoske Ulman was a unique character with a sense of humor; he managed the community bathhouse in Braslav. On Thursdays, the men's day in the bathhouse, he'd join actively in the conversations and gossip among the naked men sitting in the front room, after they'd absorbed a reasonable amount of steam and lashes with a broom of twigs. He'd hurry to inform the group that Shlomo-Itza the teacher and Berel-Shachna were coming to the mikvah [ritual bath]; both of them were well known in the town because each had an enormous kila [hernia]. All of the men, normally serious heads of families, turned quickly into joyful boys who wanted to see the two Jews immersing themselves in the mikvah. There, in the airing room of the bathhouse, I heard many funny stories from the unique lore of Braslaver humor.
I remember several funny stories from this lore: One concerned Feivush Fisher [a brother of Baruch and also the husband of Chaya Deitch], an honest man who worked hard all week cleaning and selling cattle intestines. He liked to eat a lot, and he especially enjoyed cholent and kishke [respectively a traditional Jewish stew, simmered overnight and eaten for lunch on the Sabbath, and sausage/stuffed intestine with fillings]. He was accustomed to finishing his Sabbath-night meal immediately after returning from prayers in the synagogue, a very abundant meal. After eating, he'd get up on the hot stove to sleep, and it was known that he'd wake up early on the Sabbath morning. The smell of the cholent rising from the stove all night would dance in his nostrils. So he'd get up quietly, take out the cholent, eat until he was satisfied, and put the rest back in the oven. His family knew that he did this, and so they prepared a very large amount of cholent beforehand. The residents of the town also knew this; only Feivush, of blessed memory, thought that no one knew. This was a secret that came out in the airing room of Yoske Ulman's bathhouse, and here there was no reason to be jealous.
Here's another story about a famous eater in the town: Yoske Yarom, the owner of a soft drink factory, arrived with other traders from Braslav at a hostel in the town of Turmont [Turmantas, about 40 kilometers west of Braslav and in Lithuania], to attend a fair. The owner prepared for them an omelet of 20 eggs in a single frying pan. When he put the pan on
the table, Yoske Yarom got up and said to him approximately this: What an omelet you made, tfoo [ugh] on an omelet like this --- and he spit on it. This upset the others at the table, and they demanded that he eat the omelet. To which he replied, So, good, I'll eat it. And indeed, he ate the whole thing himself.
And a story about Zalman Ulman, owner of a large store, who was scolding his sons Davidke, Abrashke and Itzke, three grown lads, because they didn't want to learn Torah; the teacher Rafael Munitz, one of the best teachers in the town, had said of them that they wouldn't even know how to say Kaddish for their father after he passed away. This they denied absolutely. So what did Zalman Ulman, of blessed memory, do? He lay down on the floor in the living room of his apartment, covered himself with a sheet, and said to his three sons, Here, I'm dead. Let's see if you know how to say Kaddish. Naturally this story and others became material for jokes and laughs by the wags of the town.
The next story involves Leibke Michals, who convinced the dental technician Yakobson to buy from him the lot next to his house, because he, Leibke Michals, had found salt in a pit that he dug on that lot [presumably a good omen]. Leibke showed Yakobson the pit, into which he'd earlier poured a large amount of salt. By the way, the technician Dr. Yakobson would frequently go out to fish on Lake Noviata [Nowiata], which wasn't far from his house, and he always brought home a respectable catch. A group of jokers began to take an interest in the matter and found that Mr. Yakobson, of blessed memory, (I should be forgiven for revealing this) was buying fish from the Gentile fishermen to take home.
The behavior of the gang of pranksters reached a peak in the commotion they caused involving the dentist [Shimon] Bergazin and family, when it came to driving a dybbuk from the dentist's house. This is what happened: Leibke Michals, Zelig Ulman, Liber Chepelevitz, Nachke Fisher, Chona Munitz and other members of the gang were playing cards one evening at the home of the Bergazin family, a few days after a neighbor of the Bergazins had died. Leibke Michals asked Bergazin and his wife if they'd poured out the water from all of the vessels in their house, as was the Jewish custom, and the couple replied that they hadn't known it was necessary. In that case, Zelig Ulman said with a completely straight face, he was worried that they were likely to find a dybbuk in the house. In view of the fright that took hold of the dentist and his wife on hearing this, the men promised to help them drive out the dybbuk. The couple were asked to keep the matter secret until the men could consult with the only person capable of carrying out the expulsion. The Bergazin couple believed every word. The next day, the two were told to get ready and prepare refreshments for everyone, as the expert had consented to carry out the ceremony. And indeed, Moishe-Baruch Bank, a grown man with a black beard, had been drafted to expel the dybbuk. He and the group arrived at the Bergazins' house, carrying a large collection of brooms from the bathhouse. The group stood the couple in the middle of the living room, covered them with a sheet and gathered around them, with each one waving a broom at the couple while Moishe-Baruch recited verses in a thick voice. After several rounds of this, the couple were told the dybbuk had been expelled and now they could set out the meal. The talk that went on in the town after the expert's mission to drive out the dybbuk can easily be imagined.
In Braslav there were three elementary schools: the Polish (powszechny) [comprehensive or seven-grade school, with instruction in Polish]; the Yavneh school [with instruction in Hebrew]; and the Folkshul, in which the language of instruction was Yiddish, and which was connected to the network of TSYSHO schools in Poland. The great majority of the Jewish children in our town received their basic education at this school. The school was located in two buildings, one of which had two stories, in a spacious, well-fenced-in yard on Third of May Street, opposite the Catholic church. The diplomas of the graduates of the school were recognized at institutions of higher learning. The staff of teachers, among them residents of Braslav, consisted of graduates of the Yiddish Teachers' Seminary in Vilna. Their salaries were low in comparison to other institutions of learning, but they spared no effort to provide the students with proper Torah and communal customs: They inspected the cleanliness of hands, nails and clothing; there were nature hikes outside the town, to the forests in the area; sports and group games. It's impossible to talk about Braslav without mentioning the teachers: Goldberg, short of stature, serious and very strict, who didn't hesitate to slap the ears of the students; the smiling, full-figured teacher Tutengerber; the teacher Koritzki from Sventzion, who's today at Kibbutz Gvat [in northern Israel]; the bespectacled teacher Bergman, who pursued Tsipka Levin in all seriousness; the teacher Chaim Munitz, a resident of the town who taught us to draw; the teacher Itka Fisher, a resident of Braslav and graduate of the seminary in Vilna, who had a thunderous voice and a hearty laugh; the red-headed teacher Eliahu Yonas, who was also a talented dramatic actor and took part in the drama club that was next to the school; the fat teacher Rabinovitz, who was amazingly light on his feet; the teacher Genia Fishfeder (Rabinovitz), who is today in Israel, married to a native of Braslav, Isser Rabinovitz; and the young and lovely teacher, whose name I don't remember, who married Shneiur Kovarski, one of the wealthy men of the town, owner of wholesale storerooms for food products and a supporter of the Folkshul.
School wasn't just an institution for education, it was also a center of cultural activity. It drew around it the youth and graduates of the school in a large drama club that operated intensively all year round and staged productions at a high, artistic level, of the best Yiddish repertoire, such as Chasia the Orphan, Urke Nachalnik and The Dybbuk, as well as plays for the students of the school. Besides the actors, all the members of the club took part in the preparations and rehearsals, busying themselves preparing the lighting and costumes for the actors. A number of excellent actors came from this dramatic club, such as Shayke Deitch in Young Vilna, Dveirka Goldin, a talented ballet dancer, and the two sons of Rabbi Herschel Valin, Meishke [Moishe] and Yisraelke [Yisrael], who immigrated to Israel and for many years were well-known faces in the world of the Tel Aviv theater and were among the founders of the Li La Lo theater in Tel Aviv. Outstanding members of the drama club were Gershon Viderevitz [Wydrowicz], Tsipka Levin, Ishike Levin, the Gilenson sisters, Leibke Band, Hirshke Chepelevitz, Danielke Karasin, Itzka Fisher, Chaike Bank, Avromitske Ulman, Baska Arklis and others.
The preparations for the traditional Purim party began two months before the holiday. All of the clubs and those close to the Folkshul took part in the preparations for the large party, which was a major event in Braslav. The party was held in one of the large halls (the card hall) next to the government offices. The
distribution and sale of tickets among the residents of the town and smaller places in the area (Slobodka, Zamosh [Zamosz], Dubina [Dubene]) were done by friends of the school and members of the clubs. The party was always a great success. The dancing continued until after midnight, with the accompaniment of two bands: the fire department's band of wind instruments and, alternatively, playing by Niuta Kantor on the piano, Hirshke Chepelevitz on the violin and Yaacov Feldman on drums. Significant profits were brought in by the buffet, which was prepared by women activists and wives of activists for the school. All of the profits were dedicated to operation of the Folkshul.
A regular, respected guest at the party was a representative of the regional government, Mr. Etrushko, who was short of stature, almost a dwarf. He was the son of a cattle and sheep shepherd from Slobodka, and had been adopted by the landowner who was his father's boss. He was sent to be educated and rose to the high position of manager of the tax division in the regional offices. At the party he'd invite the tall girls to dance, and after the dance he would gallantly kiss their hand.
Another exalted project was customary during the last years of the school: During the long recess, the students received a glass of warm milk and a large roll. All the students, without regard to economic standing, ate together. This contributed to unity among the students. The project required a lot of money, and the management of the school and its supporters made every effort to keep it going without interruption. A library operated next to the school. For a token fee, the residents of Braslav, mainly the young people, received books and the freedom to read in the hall of the library. The young took advantage of the library and its services in the best way, reading many books in Yiddish and translations of Russian and Polish literature. Chatzkele [Yechezkel] Vinokur is well remembered for his dedicated work in the library, which contributed a great deal to enriching the spirits and broadening the minds of the towns' citizens.
Beilka Deitch, the sister of Shayke Deitch, managed a kindergarten and earned great appreciation. After she completed her pedagogic studies in this field in Vilna, she returned to Braslav and established a kindergarten. Within a short time, she was beloved by both the children and their parents. The song Unter di Grininke Beymelech [Under the Little Green Trees], sung by the children in her kindergarten, became virtually an anthem of the children of Braslav.
When their primary education ended, young people in Braslav didn't have many options. Only a small proportion of them continued with secondary school; these were the most talented and strong willed, those whose parents had the means to finance their education in the big city of Vilna. Most of the young people, on the other hand, joined their parents in their local businesses or began to learn a trade with the craftsmen of the town. The hope for a better future, and for a way of life different from the one they saw their parents leading, was an important reason why many joined the Zionist youth groups. And indeed, dozens of young people joined the branch of HeChalutz HaTzair, whose clubhouse was open every day in the hours of the afternoon and evening, and where notable and varied events were held: talks between members, gatherings and lectures by emissaries from the movement's center in Vilna, evenings of song and dancing the hora, and trips to the local forests. There were summer camps in the village at the edges of the Dubkes [Dubki] forest that included camp life and guard duty at night. A number of members were accepted into kibbutzim in Vilna and other towns, to prepare for aliyah to the Land of Israel: Munka Shmutzer (Munitz), who made aliyah to Israel before the war; Shimon Modlin, who was active in the Braslav branch and also made aliyah before the war broke out; Arke Deitch, who made aliyah before the war and was among the first who landed in Haifa; the brothers Moshe and Yisrael Valin, who made aliyah long before the war broke out. All are in our community in Israel. There also was a branch of Betar in the town; one of its active officers, Zusman Lubovitz, is also in Israel. Occasionally, very heated arguments would break out between the two Zionist parties as to the rightness of their opinions and approach, but the Communist ideology enchanted many of the youth no less than the Zionist idea. Despite the fact that it was forbidden and dangerous, many young people in Braslav were drawn to it, and not only those who were poor; these were the best of the youth, who believed with perfect faith in the Communist redemption, and many of them found themselves under preventive arrest on the eve of May 1 [International Workers' Day, when political demonstrations were frequent]. Nevertheless, somehow young people succeeded in hanging red flags on telephone lines in the town and its approaches. In several incidents, residents of Braslav were put on trial for Communist activity. They
were defended by Dr. [Joseph] Chernikov from Vilna, who was renowned for his ability to quash accusations by the police and the Polish criminal investigators; for most of the accused, he obtained a complete acquittal. Who can understand the ways of fate? The lawyer Chernikov, who successfully defended dozens of Jewish youths, sometimes without payment, rescuing them from the clutches of the Polish criminal investigation department, was arrested by the Soviets in 1940. He was sent to Siberia and never returned.
Braslav was blessed with forests and lakes, and it was chosen by the Central Institute of Physical Education in Poland (Centralny Instytut Wychowania Fizycznego, or CIWF), as a suitable place for summer camps for vacation and sports training for the best sportsmen in Poland. Accordingly, for a few years before the war, both the Dubkes and Karpovitz [Karpowicz] forests were turned into camps of tents, sports fields and cultural installations; the shores of Lake Driviata, plentiful with clean white sand, became an anchorage with a huge number of kayaks, trampolines and racing boats. Groups of muscular, suntanned shkotzim and shiksas [disparaging Yiddish terms for Gentile men and women] were seen in the town wearing short sports pants, which was shocking to the people of Braslav. After a while, it became known that these young people were the cream of the crop of the academic youth and the best sportsmen in Poland, most of them from the big cities: Warsaw, Lodz, Poznan, Lublin, Cracow. After completing their studies, these sons and daughters of the Polish nobility were destined for the highest positions in central government.
Every Sunday evening, there was an artistic show for the residents of the town and the surrounding area, which was called the bonfire (ognisko). In the bonfire's light, singers, dancers and acrobats appeared before thousands of onlookers. Among these were a total of two Jewish performers --- one of them, Dr. Rapaport, would visit the synagogue on the Sabbath [the day before the show], drawing most of the residents to pray on that Sabbath. We, the young people, would spend a long hour each day next to the anchorage of the athletes, watching with fascinated curiosity as they jumped into the water and rowed in the kayaks.
In the winter, both lakes were covered by ice half a meter thick. The youth of the town spent many hours in good weather gliding over the ice on ice skates and snow sleds. A unique pastime was to go out to the middle of the frozen lake, about three kilometers from shore, to observe the groups of fishermen (Starowiery), grown Gentiles with beards and light-colored hair, who worked for the big landowner of Braslav, Shneiur Aron. Aron hired dozens of fishermen from the villages of Matseshe [Maciesze, 13 kilometers southeast of Braslav] and Ozravtzi [Ozierawce, six kilometers southeast of Braslav].
Shneiur Aron was a big exporter of fish to all the cities in Poland. To the Gentiles who worked for him, he behaved like a landowner. He was accustomed to visit the fishermen in an elaborate sleigh, harnessed to a thoroughbred horse with a special wagoner. When he appeared in the distance, the fishermen would take off their hats to him. The wagoner would take out a crate of vodka from the sleigh and give it to the head of the group, and the head of the fishermen would kiss Shneiur Aron's hand.
We'd end the winter day sometimes also by pulling the big sled that belonged to Yankel Levin's grandfather, with all of the friends in the sled in a big pile, sliding down the hill of Vilcha Street to the corner of Pilsudski Street, next to Ber-Leib Milutin's house, across from the house of Shimon Gens.
[In 1936, the year the photo was taken, Zuckerman (1915-81) --- seated in the center --- was working for the HeChalutz HaTzair Zionist youth movement, headquartered in Warsaw, Poland. Two years later, he would become secretary general. In April 1943, he would help to prepare the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and in August 1944 he took part in the Warsaw Polish Uprising. Zuckerman survived the war and immigrated to Palestine in 1947. There he established near Akko the Ghetto Fighters' Kibbutz and the Ghetto Fighters' House museum. The Ghetto Fighters' House is the organization that produced this memorial book in 1986.]
[In the photo, three natives of Braslav have been identified by a member of the Band family in Israel: Standing first from the left is Yerachmiel-Yitzchak Konin. Standing fifth from the left is Shachna Band, son of Avraham-Leib Band and Chaya. Sitting to the right of Zuckerman and wearing a beret is Feiga (Fania) Band, daughter of Mendel Band and Mira. Konin and Shachna Band died in the Holocaust, Feiga Band died in Israel in 1969.]
The fire department in our town was a volunteer organization; 99% of its members were Jews, only the chief --- a Pole, a retired officer whose name was Motel. His deputy was Beinish Milutin, a strong and bold Jew. When a fire broke out, the firemen were called by ringing a bell and blowing trumpets. In later years, an electric siren was installed. When they heard the alarm, the firemen would start to run to the fire department building, holding uniforms, a special axe and a shiny copper helmet. Here the great show began of grabbing horses to pull the firemen's tools and equipment to the location of the fire. Beinish Milutin, riding a horse, and next to him Shimon Per with a trumpet in his hand, first grabbed the horses of the Gentiles, on the strength of a town ordinance granting firemen the authority to take a horse from its owner when a fire broke out. In most cases, by the time everything was ready and the firemen arrived at the scene, there was nothing left to extinguish. If a fire broke out at the house of a Gentile with an orchard of fruit trees beside his house, the firemen arrived to find baked apples.
There also was a wind instrument orchestra next to the fire department. Among the 26 players, there was just one Gentile, a flute player whose name was Leon. He spoke Yiddish like we did. On official holidays of the country, such as Constitution Day [May 3] and Independence Day [November 11], the orchestra led the parade and played Polish marches. The orchestra was also invited to play at dance parties held by the clerical staff and high officers in the officers' casino [mess hall] or in the card hall. For us, the players, it was an experience to watch drunken Poles jumping around at length while dancing the mazurka and oberka and then, at the end, gallantly kissing the hands of their partners.
An electricity station was erected in Braslav in the early 1930s [or the late 1920s]. Within two or three years, kerosene lamps disappeared from the houses of Braslav. Electric lights appeared on the streets, in truth dimly, but this was still great progress. After electricity arrived, the first cinema opened in Braslav. The owner of the cinema, a Pole by the name of Bokovski [Bokowski], showed films twice a week, on Saturdays and Sundays --- silent movies accompanied on the violin by the teacher Shimon Efron from Kozian [Koziany, about 40 kilometers southwest of Braslav] and on the piano by Niuta Kantor. The hall would be full from one side to the other. The first movies shown in Braslav were The Black Pirate with Douglas Fairbanks and The Son of the Sheik with Rudolph Valentino [both released in 1926]. Parallel with the electricity and the cinema, the motor car appeared in Braslav; the first passenger car, a model Ford, belonged to the Polish ruler of the region, Vendof, and the driver, a Pole named Borkovski [Borkowski], drove proudly through the streets, followed by all the children of the town.
The train station was located at the end of Koliova Street at the edge of the town, and the way to it passed through streets populated by Gentiles. Twice a day, a passenger train came to our town, once in the direction of Duksht [Dukstas, about 45 kilometers southwest of Braslav and in Lithuania] and stopping on the way in the towns of Opsa and Turmont, and the second time in the [opposite] direction of the town of Druya [Druja, about 34 kilometers northeast of Braslav] and stopping in the towns of Slobodka and Druysk [Drujsk, about 19 kilometers northeast of Braslav]. Since the train had narrow tracks, passengers who wanted to go to Vilna had to transfer in Duksht to a train with wide tracks. The station also served as a destination for a Sabbath walk for the citizens of Braslav, for them to see who was coming to town.
Standing (from left): Efraim Zarzhevski, Reuven Deitch, Zusman Lubovitz, Yankel Band
Sitting (from left): Uriel Karasin, Beinish Milutin, Moshe-Chona Lin
In the winter, heavy snow covered the train tracks, and the train frequently got stuck. When that happened, convoys of sleighs were organized to maintain the connection to Vilna. In these convoys, hundreds of tons of merchandise and agricultural produce were transported to that city. When they returned, they brought merchandise for our town's traders. This was a difficult and exhausting trip that took almost a week altogether, there and back; it was 180 kilometers in each direction [this was presumably the road distance; as the crow flies, Vilna was about 165 kilometers southwest of Braslav]. Often the owners of the horses walked alongside their sleighs for many kilometers, pushing the sleigh up the hills with a strong shoulder. But such a trip provided a nice profit. Many stories circulated in our town about the troubles of the journey and their heroes; the brothers Leiba and Feivush Levin; Leiba-Meir Barmapov with his sons Maishke [Moshe] and Itzka; the extended Milutin family, who were known for their audacity and strength; the Shkolnik family, who were quick to anger and sought out any insolent Gentile who needed to be taught manners; Yudka [Yudel] Fisher, the strong man, who once rolled a drunken Gentile, together with his sled and his horse, into a ditch by the side of the road when the drunkard didn't want to open the lane so that a convoy could pass; the Biliak boys, who took part in the convoy to Vilna until they bought a car, which was the second motorized vehicle in the town (the first one belonged to Shmuel-Yosef Milutin, who opened the age of a motorized link to the city of Vilna); Hirshke Maron, a trader of flax and hay; tall Falka [Rafael] Fisher, a trader of cattle and leather; Yankel Amdur, owner of a shop and a leather trader, the son of the shochet [ritual slaughterer] Shalom-Zavel Amdur; members of the family of Arke Veinshtein, owner of a shop and a trader of chickens and eggs; Zalman Eliahu, and more whose names I don't remember, who were faithful representatives of the folk in our town and didn't hesitate to protect their honor, even when danger was involved.
The Draft (Priziv)
Young men close to the age of 21 were obligated to report to the medical committee of the Polish army. In the runup to this date, tension would grow among the youths, who preferred not to serve in the army because of the anti-Semitism, as well as the rigid attitude that officers took toward new draftees in general and Jews in particular. The candidates for the draft would go at night through the streets of the town, carrying out all kinds of practical jokes. They'd collect all of the outhouses, which in our town were located in the yards of the houses, and stand them in the commercial center, hanging on them the signs that belonged to the craftsmen and shop owners. They'd mix up the horses in the stables and other pranks of this type. But everyone took this in good spirit because it had been the custom for many years, and despite all their efforts to earn the rejection of the doctors of the medical committee and forgo army service, many of the young men of Braslav did serve in the army. Their stories of exhausting training, together with journeys made on foot over great distances in full equipment, were fascinating but they frightened the parents whose sons stood to be drafted.
Spring and Passover
In Braslav, no one needed a calendar to know that spring was approaching --- and with it the Passover holiday. It was possible to see and feel the coming of spring; the heavens opened more frequently to the warmth of the sun, even though sometimes there was still light snow that changed immediately into water and mud. The windows of the houses began to be opened for a short time during the day, after having been closed all winter long
in a double frame, with a filling of cotton wool and sawdust stuffed between the frames. Housewives brought out the warm mattresses and quilts to air on the windowsills. In the streets appeared the first wagons of the farmers from the villages. In the morning, the wagoners of the town found it hard to decide what to harness the horse to: the wagon or the sleigh.
The time arrived for the matzoh bakers in our town to prepare and make the bakeries kosher for baking matzot [unleavened bread]. In Braslav there were three permanent matzoh bakeries: Moishe der baker, whose house was at the end of Pilsudski Street next to the leather trader Hertzke Skopitz, and where matzoh was baked by hand; another baker, Abba Katz, whose house was on Third of May Street next to the officials' casino [mess hall] and who also baked by hand; and the bakery of Zerach Bogomolski, who dealt all year with the sale and repair of clocks and who installed a machine to make matzoh. Zerach Bogomolski's bakery enjoyed unusual success. First, everyone wanted to see how the machine worked. Second, the matzoh there was tastier. The place from which professional matzoh bakers came was the village of Dubina. Most of Dubina's Jews worked in Braslav in this profession, each year when the holiday approached.
Before the War --- And the War
In the first years after Hitler rose to power in Germany [in 1933], the Jews of Braslav didn't feel especially worried. But on the eve of the war between Poland and Germany [in September 1939], they were shocked when Jewish refugees from Czechoslovakia and Austria began to appear in Braslav on their way to the Baltic seaport of Klaipeda [the major port city of Lithuania and formerly known as Memel, it was about 370 kilometers west of Braslav]. When they saw that these Jewish refugees, who appeared well off and intelligent, were fleeing the Nazis with nothing, the people of our town felt --- maybe for the first time --- that anti-Semitism meant more than just being called Zhid [Jew] or the throwing of a stone, that it posed a threat to the very lives of the Jews. The community committee organized assistance for the refugees and helped them on their way to Lithuania. Statements began to be heard about the war to come. When the war broke out [in September 1939], the young men were drafted and sent to the front. On Polish radio, all day long just two sentences were heard: Listen, listen, he's coming and Listen, listen, he has passed (referring to German airplanes).
On the first day of the fourth week of the war, the Polish government began to evacuate the town, because the Russian army had crossed the border in the town of Disna [Dzisna], 80 kilometers from Braslav [actually about 72 kilometers east of Braslav]. The government officials informed the Jews of Braslav that they were leaving, and they left a number of weapons for protection against the villagers of the area who wanted to use the absence of government authority to carry out robberies and maybe even a pogrom. The Jews organized immediately in self-defense. The strong men, with Beinish Milutin at their head, blocked all the entrances to Braslav and stood patrol on all the roads leading to the town. In fact, groups of villagers made several attempts to enter the town, but they turned back when they saw Jews armed with axes, metal rods and a few rifles. The lack of government authority continued for a week, while the armed Jewish guards kept order. Then the Soviet government arrived, in the form of a military vehicle carrying a commissar accompanied by several armed soldiers, who took over the police building. Army units entered the town after them, and the Communist era in Braslav began.
The Hasidim and Mitnagdim were two important branches within Ashkenazi Judaism. Hasidism (Pietism) emerged in the 1700s in what's now western Ukraine as a movement for spiritual revival, spreading through Eastern Europe. Besides knowledge and observance of the Torah and Talmud, it emphasized immediate religious experience. By the late 1700s, the Mitnagdim (Opponents) came to refer to traditionalist Ashkenazi Jews who opposed Hasidic Judaism, emphasizing intensive study of the Talmud. Opposition to Hasidism was centered in Lithuania, particularly in Vilna. Return
Di Tsentrale Yidishe Shul-Organizatsye (Central Yiddish School Organization), abbreviated as TSYSHO or CYSHO, had been established in Warsaw in 1921 and continued to operate until 1939. Led mainly by members of the Bund (the Jewish socialist party in Poland) and Left Poale Zion (leftwing Labor Zionists), it sought to create a network of secular Yiddish schools under socialist auspices. (The Bund and Left Poale Zion differed politically --- the former was Marxist and anti-Zionist, the latter was Marxist and Zionist --- but each supported the use of Yiddish.) TSYSHO was administered by a central office in Warsaw and a central education committee in Vilna (which between ca. 1920 and 1939 was part of Poland, as was Braslav). According to The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, the curriculum consisted of Yiddish language and literature, Jewish history and culture, the sciences, math, music, physical education, arts and crafts and, in some cases, Hebrew. In addition, Polish language, literature and history were taught in Polish.
At its peak in the late 1920s, TSYSHO maintained 219 institutions with 24,000 students spread across 100 locations. These included 46 kindergartens, 114 elementary schools, 6 high schools, 52 evening schools, and a pedagogical institute in Vilna. The Vilna Realgymnazye, the crown jewel of Yiddish secular education in Poland, was the first modern high school in which Yiddish was the language of instruction. The pedagogical institute (the Vilna Teachers' Seminary) played a major role in the secular Yiddish school system, as both a training institute and a center for communicating new ideas in Jewish teaching. Return
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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