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[Page 259]

Neighbours, Friends, Teachers and Acquaintances

by Yitzkhak Epshteyn (Kfar Neter)

Translated by Janie Respitz

 

Gitl Leyzer the Glazier

Leyzer the glazier's street was specifically a Jewish street. If one would get lost there, he would have to first of all, pass through Vevke Alpert's fence and almost always meet his friend Dovid Senderovsky carrying on a dispute about socialism, democracy or the social revolution. Who knows how long these disputes would have lasted if Vevke's wife, Khaya Sorke the seamstress had not come out onto the porch to put an end to the revolution.

Continuing on our way we would pass Areh the carpenter's house. A bit further on is where Shaul the teacher lived. A bunch of little ones sat around his table and their lesson filled the street with song. Across from Shaul the teacher was Leyzer Elye's house. The head of the Zhetl Yeshiva lived there.

When the head of the Yeshiva would cross the street on his way to pray at the middle House of Study, where the manager was Avrom Moishe Kravietz, all the residents on the street would tremble. His tall body and fiery black eyes made a huge impression on me as a child. I looked at the head of the Yeshiva as if he was the high priest going to perform prayers at the Zhetl “Holy Temple”.

At the end of the street in the shadows of the trees, the well bubbled up. Here, Tcherne's River, the Zhetleke, divided this street from the rest of the world.

On the other side of the river there was a different world, non–Jewish. From a distance we could see the house of the Polish priest.

Here at the border between the Jewish and Gentile worlds, at the river where frogs would constantly croak, stood the small hut belonging to Leyzer the glazier and his wife Gitl of blessed memory.

Threads of love connected our house to Gitl's house. My father Mayrim, of blessed memory always said that Gitl is the truest, cleanest soul with no match in the world. Father would often go to Gitl's house to hear kind words.

Saturday morning, a winter day. Outside is snowing and stormy. My father said to me:

“Come my child, let's go to Gitl”.

The snow is scraping under our feet. The street was silent. The trees are covered in snow. We fall into Gitl's house and love and warmth embrace us.

Good Shabbes! Good Shabbes!

Gitl's face is glowing with joy.

“Leyzer! Mayrim is here” she says to her husband who is standing behind the oven.

Leyzer sits at the table and begins to tell us about his experiences in various villages where he made windows for the farmers.

“In the village Danilovitch, the bridge was broken and my horse almost broke his foot. In Krutchilovitch, the Gentile Vasilyuk gave me a sack of potatoes for glazing half a window. Dear Gentiles! When they see me from a distance they shout: “Our Leyzerko”. But he told us the Gentiles in Zashetch, were bandits. “They even took away the footbridge so I would not be able to cross the river”.

Gitl brought tripe and dumplings with goose fat to the table. My father tasted a dumpling and closes his eyes from sheer delight.

“This tastes like heaven” he said, “it simply melts in your mouth”.

 

Leyzer the Glazier's Wife Gitl Recounts

Gitl's face beams with joy. She and my father have been friends since childhood. Gitl would tell me how my father would play in her parent's yard.

Once, on a market day, a wild ox got loose from his rope. There was panic among the Jews and Gentiles. People began to run over and under the wagons. The ox grabbed a Gentile with his horns, lifted him up high and threw him on the ground. Lifted him again and again, thump on the ground, until the Gentile turned into a pile of bones with his entrails pouring onto the ox's horns as he ran from Yoshek Leyzhe's house to Khienke Malka Motke's, passing Avrom Moishe Kravietz's, Khane – Gatshikhe's, until Berl Khadzelaner's and Velvl Hinde Mayrim's house.

There was a terrifying stampede in Zhetl. Jews were shouting: “Here O Israel!”

Christians were crossing themselves. Candles were lit at Yosef Zashetcher's,

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and people began to recite psalms in the House of Study…

But the wild ox kept on running with the bloodied head and ran into Gitl's yard, where my father was playing in the sand. Gitl ran out and started to shout:

“God in Heaven, show us a miracle: let the virtues of our Mother Rachel protect us!”

And a miracle happened: the wild ox, running at great speed, jumped over my father and ran away…

Father looked out the window.

“Soon” said Leyzer, “The frost will end. It is almost the end of the month of Shvat. In Adar the sun is higher and after the stork will come”.

A calmness covered the house surrounded by a world covered in snow. And here, at the banks of the little river, stands a small house, where Gitl's warm, humane heart beats.

Suddenly Gitl sighs. It has been a long time since she had received a letter from her son Hirshl, who is in Russia. God knows if he is alive. Leyzer also sighs.

“The Gentile gets smarter” he says to my father. “One day when I arrived in Pagier, Seredo the farmer said to me: “I will no longer have you make my windows for my panes. I will travel to Baranovitch and buy ready made panes.

Shadows creep into the house. The Sabbath is almost over. My father also sighs, as the Sabbath is departing…tomorrow he must travel to Zheludok to buy leather.

The shadows grow larger…you can hear a quiet murmur from the oven. Gitl recites “God of Abraham”.

 

Vevke Khaye Sorke's Husband

Vevke Khaye Sorke's of blessed memory, or Vevke Alpert of blessed memory, was one of the freedom fighters from the fifth year (Translator's note: the fifth year is 1905). His wife, Khaye Sorke the seamstress would sit at her sewing machine day and night cutting clothes for the village women in Moldutch, Zazhetche, and Pagier. Vevke would run the household as Khaye Sorke never had enough time.

In his free time Vevke would write Mezuzahs with his friend Hirshl Velvl while they argued about socialism. On the Sabbath in the summer Vevke would sit on his porch and read the “Folkstzeytung” out loud. The neighbours would stand near his porch and listen to the news as Vevke explained everything calmly and slowly.

In the summer, together with Hirshl Velvl, Vevke would rent an orchard from the nobleman Bukhvaytz in Yanovtchizne. They would place a large covered wagon in the middle of the orchard and when the apples and pears were ripe they would sleep in the orchard. Later, Vevke took a new partner, Yoshe Kalmen's (Yosef Sovitsky).

On the Sabbath, guests would come visit the orchard and taste the various fruits.

In his free time, Vevke's old friends would come to visit and the wagon would ring out with songs such as this:

Oh, good friend, when I die
Carry the red flag to my grave…
The red flag with red colours
Sprayed with the blood of the working man.
And then in my grave I will listen
And hear my song – my freedom song
And tears will flow
For the enslaved Christian and Jew.

This is how the summertime passed in the fruit garden of Vevke Khaye Sorke's.

 

The House of Leybe Kaplinsky

Leybe Kaplinsky of blessed memory was the biggest lumber dealer in Zhetl. He came from an old family of lumber dealers from Dershave. His house was on Novoredker Street, surrounded by a beautiful painted fence. Wealth and magnificence oozed from his house.

There were always guests sitting in his large reception room, especially lumber people who all had the mystery of pine trees floating on their faces with happy worry free smiles.

The men from the fragrant forests, where the peasants would cut down pine trees would be transported by Berl the tiller of blessed memory. Shaul Kaplinsky of blessed memory, Khaim Hershl Shatzkes of blessed memory, Leyzer of blessed memory, Volfe Frfl of blessed memory, Motke Belitzki of blessed memory, Yisroel Yenkl Kaplinsky of blessed memory as well as Shmuel Shvedsky of blessed memory, who was not a lumber merchant, but the head of the Zhetl fire brigade, sat, played cards, ate goose fat cracklings and drank tea.

My father, Mayrim Epshteyn of blessed memory and the chief of the Zhetl fire brigade and former fighter in the fifth year sat with his friends from the fifth year, with Shvedsky, Yosef Mushes and Grisha Kheves.

In the fifth year a strike broke out among the Gentiles in Yatzuk and they refused to take the cut trees to the sawmill. My father then went to

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Yatzuki, penetrated the strikers, and from then on the peasants brought the cut trees regularly.

Leybl Kaplinsky requested we sing:

“There in the forest daisies grow…

You are looking for daisies and I found the most beautiful daisy in the forest”.

As a child I would often go to the Kaplinsky's to play. Leybe Kaplinsky would grab me onto his lap, pinch my cheeks and say with greatness:

“You will be a hero, just like your father!”

I would jump off excited and run to the street. Here, another world was revealed to me. There were small poor houses. This is where Hirshl Haydukovsky, Borukh the glazier and Molokhvsky and their families lived.

I ran further. Here was the house of Moishe Izik Lusky, here were the gypsies and beside the gypsies was the house of Alter Zamotchik, the grain dealer. And here was our garden, the tannery and Lusky's house.

This was the end of Novoredker Street. From a distance you can see the white birch trees which extend the length of Kvatere until Novoredok. The story told in Zhetl was the birch trees were planted by the Czarina Catherine the Great when she took over Poland.

The road with the birch trees goes all the way from Zhetl to St. Petersburg…

I ran to the birch trees with wild joy. The road stretches very far. From one side the meadows grow green and on the other side, the Zhelon forest.

My soul struggles with the infinite distances, to the wild force of nature, and instinctively I sing:

“Volga Volga”!

As I run along the road I see non Jewish wagons taking wooden boards to Kaplinsky's sawmill. The peasants remove their hats and say good morning, and one says to the other: “do you know who that is? He is Mayrim Epshteyn's son, the friend of our merchant Kaplinsky.

I run into the Kurpesh forest and pick the blue spring flowers. Who could have imagined then that at the spot where I felt so happy there would be a mass grave where my dear mother of blessed memory and other Zhetl martyrs would find their cruel death.

 

Our Neighbours

Khoniye the butcher was our neighbour. He and his brother Avrom Senderovsky were Hasidim who would travel to the Slonim Rebbe. Their father, the old Meir Senderovsky would always receive the Rebbe when he came to Zhetl.

Friday nights you could hear Meir's voice throughout the yard singing Hasidic melodies.

Khoniye would spend the entire week travelling through the villages buying calves and sheep and bringing them to his brother Avrom.

On Saturdays, after the evening prayers, Khoniye would run to the new House of Study, stand in a corner and recite psalms. This is how he would pour his heart out, asking God for a good new week.

Yosl the bricklayer (Lozovsky) was highly respected on the noble estates for his fine work. He and his wife Mayteh live with us in our house.

Across from us was the house of Moishe Tentzer. When Moishe Tentzer would leave his house to go to the House of Study, he appeared to me as the High Priest in the holy Temple. He walked so majestically and kingly.

The second house was the bakery and it belonged to Moishe the tinsmith. He used to be a tinsmith, but later became a baker. That's why they called him “Moishe the tinsmith”.

The third house across from our yard belonged to Eleh the carpenter (Itzkovitch) and his wife Mushka. Before the war, Eleh Itzkovitch left for the Land of Israel and settled in Petach Tikva.

 

My Grandfather's House

My grandfather's house, or as well called it “The Brick House” was across from the Zhetl Church in the half circle of the walls which surrounded the marketplace.

My grandfather, Feyvl Rabinovitch, of blessed memory, known in Zhetl as Feyvl from Skidel was a pious Jew who served God with his entire soul.

During the first German occupation when most of Zhetl's Jews were starving, my grandfather was the only one who supported the poor population.

My grandfather would come to us to collect food. In the middle of the night he would knock on the door of a house in need and quietly place a bit of sugar and bread on the table, wish the sick a

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full recovery and as he left, warned them not to tell anyone about his visit.

At that time, Shaul the religious teacher and his family lived in dire need. Thanks to my grandfather they managed to get through this difficult time.

My grandfather's older son (not counting those who lived in other cities) was a socialist. His friends were: Meylekh Shvedsky, Borekh Dvoretsky, Yisroel Ber Rabinovitch, Shloime Khaim Vernikovsky. His younger son, Efraim was a Zionist and his friends were: Artchik Goldshteyn, and Shmuel Izraelit.

My grandfather's eldest daughter, my mother Feygl of blessed memory, was the most educated and well read in the family. My mother was able to quote excerpts from the Russian classical writers such as: Tolstoy, Lermontov, Pushkin, Gorky, Chekhov and others. My mother's friends were: the white Peshke, Aneh Shapiro, Geleh Komai, Merl Izraelit who now lives in Israel and Etl Ovseyevitch.

In 1905 Zhetl revolutionaries threw a bomb at the Czar's train between stations in Navaliyenie and Yatzuki. As a result of this assassination attempt, grandfather's eldest son Leyzer of blessed memory had to run away to America.

His younger son, Itche, who was active in the revolutionary movement in Zhetl and Grodno shot two Czarist ministers in broad daylight in St. Petersburg. He escaped and went into hiding. He was eventually caught and was sentenced to death by hanging. His sentence was carried out in St. Petersburg on June 6th, 1906.

Itche's tragic death greatly affected my grandfather. His tall lanky body became bent and his beard, completely grey.

In the evenings my grandfather would study a page of Talmud with Moishe Tentzer of blessed memory and Vevl Hinde Mayrim's of blessed memory. When they finished my grandmother, Frumeh Simeh would serve them hot tea with a sugar cube.

Two large white cats would always lie at grandfather's feet and when he finished learning he would pour them a plate of soup with crumbled pieces of bread. He would pet the cats and say: “Take pity on God's creatures”.

As a child, grandfather's youngest son, Hirshl of blessed memory, would come over and call me over to my grandfather to hear him recite a biblical chapter. A new world would be revealed to me when I would sit at grandfather's table and listen to the passages from his mouth. A world of rabbis from the first two centuries C.E. walking in the gardens of the Creator.

When grandfather came to us and entered the orchard, a holiness swept over the garden. My mother would ask me to pick a few pears and grandfather would make a blessing. All the kids would stand and look at grandfather in awe not able to say a word.

 

Our House

Our house was on Novoredker Street, the house of Mayrim Epshteyn (or Mayrim Mashke's).

We had a museum of albums, photographs and pictures of revolutionaries from the fifth year. As a child I would spend hours looking at these pictures.

This one is my uncle looking down at me, Itche Rabinovitch who was killed on the gallows in St. Petersburg. In the picture his cape is thrown over his shoulder. A second picture: Dovid Nodlshteyn, one of those involved in the attempted assassination on the train in Novoliyenie.

A third picture: the fire brigade in Zhetl. The founders of the brigade in 1902: my father, Borukh Mirsky, Shmuel Shvedsky and Khabash are standing beside the Zhetl shed wearing shiny helmets on their heads. On the left is the Zhetl orchestra with Avromtche the blacksmith (Avrom Busel) at the head.

The fourth picture: the leader of the Zhetl Poalei Zion: Shloime Khaim Verenikovsky.

The regular visitors to our home that I remember from my childhood were:

Borukh Mirsky of blessed memory, one of the founders of the Zhetl fire brigade. He lived on Slonimer Street. His orchard was the nicest in all of Zhetl. He would always tell my father how many more trees he needed to plant and how well the orchard was blooming that year.

Yosef Lusky of blessed memory (or Yoshke Leyzhe's) would come often to my father. They would go for walks and reminisce about their childhood.

Shaul Kaplinsky of blessed memory would also come to us. He would go with my father to Mendl the scribe of blessed memory (Mendl Mirsky) where they would organize events for the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund. It was established that every Chanukah an evening for the Jewish Agency would take place at Mendl Mirsky's house, and on Purim, an evening for the Jewish National Fund at our house.

My father loved nature. His goal was to educate others to love nature as well. He loved to go out walking on a cold winter night when the snow was crisp under his feet and the moon shone in the cold sky. He would drag boys from their homes and go sliding on the lake, and then go marching

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through the snowy fields. Father would recount his memories from his heroic youth, from the fifth year. We would listen to these stories with bated breath.

Working the land was foreign to the Jewish population of Zhetl. Plowing, cutting, sowing and planting was the work of the gentiles. However, my father was a different type of Jew.

At the end of Novoredker Street, we had a small field surrounded by Gypsy huts. Father put all his energy and love of nature into that field. At dawn he could be seen going with his scythe to the meadow and driving a wagon of hay. Just before his death he managed to plant a few fruit trees.

In time Zhetl educated a few to work the land like Kalmen Sovitsky, Zalmen Grin, Mordkhai Alpert, Zalmen Shepshelevitch and Leybke Lusky.

However, father got sick and after a few years of being ill he died on a quiet Friday afternoon. Avrom Ivenitsky said a few words at his open grave.

This is how the life of Mayrim Epshteyn ended.

 

My Teachers

The main teacher of Zhetl youth was Yosef Muchnik of blessed memory. He was the most knowledgeable in Hebrew, bible and Jewish history.

There were seven of us that studied with him: me and my friend Avreymke, Yisroel Polansky, Mayrim Yakomovitsky, Veveh Kravietz, Noyekh Alpert and Itche Kravietz.

I quickly learned to write stories in Hebrew. Our teacher Muchnik liked my writing and would always give me a “five”.

My mother would take my notebook and go to experts with my work. A good Hebraist in those years was Avrom Ivenitsky.

Another Hebrew teacher was Moishe Ganzovitch, my uncle Khaim's brother.

The third Hebrew teacher was: Bender, who died recently in Israel (Herzliya).

I would go with Avreymke to him to learn. Bender, the teacher, with a smile would explain Bialik's poems to us or teach us a chapter of the bible.

He would also tell stories about Zhetl's heroes. How the Zhetl hero, the deaf Hirsh, would split open the heads of Gentiles with an iron crow bar on market days.

The fourth teacher was: Bielski, Gutke the baker's son.

My Hebrew education stopped with these teachers when I began learning Russian.

Libkeh Shvedsky, Hertz Leyb's daughter, was my first Russian teacher.

Her sister, Esther Ivenitsky was also my Russian teacher. She lived with her husband, Avrom Ivenitsky, in her father, Hertz Leyb Kaplinsky of blessed memory's house.

Khaim Kaplinsky, the veteran of the Bundist movement in Zhetl, who spent many years in exile in Siberia and now lives in Lodz was also my Russian teacher.

Khaim Kaplinsky lived in the house of the Christian Lubetsky on Lipover Street. He collected butterflies. He had a large board with many varieties of butterflies hanging on his wall. In the middle of class, if he would see a butterfly flying in the yard, he would grab his cap and run outside. When the butterfly would land on the ground, Khaim Kaplinsky would swiftly cover him with his cap. He would come back into the room happily and pin the butterfly to the wall.

I ended my Russian period with Khaim Kaplinsky and began my Polish period.

My Polish teacher was Namiyat who lived with his grandfather Oreh the carpenter. My Polish period ended with Namiyat and then I began my Yiddish.

The Yiddish school was then situated on Lisagura Street near Kovolevsky's house, across from Hirshl Aron's Tzegelnieh.

Our teacher Lieberman came to Zhetl from deep Lithuania. He lived with Aron the tailor. I used to go there for private Yiddish lessons. Yudl Bielski or as we used to call him Yudl Halubek studied with me. He was shot by the Germans.

 

The Romantic Years in Zhetl

Our classes ended in the evening. My friend Avreymke and I would go to the orchard. I would climb a tree, shake it, and soft ripe pears would fall to the ground. As we bit into them

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our eyes would close from great pleasure: the taste of paradise! These were the famous “Tzitrinke” or “Tzukravke” pears that grew on the big tree in our orchard. As we ate the pears the juice ran down our chins.

It was getting late. Avreymke had to go home, far, far away near the cemetery.

Every night I take Avreymke home. I gather some courage and tell Avreymke I am not afraid even though my heart pounds from fright as we approach the cemetery.

We hold hands and begin to walk…We enter the marketplace, pass the circle stores, walk through the narrow Mitzl's alley or Khienke Malke Motke's alley, past solid Shiye's house and past the new, middle and old Houses of Study.

Here is the Talmud Torah. We cross the footbridge over the Pomerayke. Avreymche Busel's house, Khaim Kaplinsky's yard, Hertz Leyb's house, Bushlin's smithy and Shaul the carpenter's workshop.

We are now in the heart of Lisogura. The wind is blowing from the green meadow and we breathe freely.

Tall poplar trees are rustling over our heads as we approach Kalmen Hirshl Maytchik's house. This is where his kingdom begins, this is where he rules with his strong hand and with his son.

We continue to go further. From a distance we can already see the cemetery. On the hill stands the small house of Yisroel Ber the gravedigger. We are overcome with fear. Instinctively, we grab each other. We arrive at Grayevsky's house and right beside him, under the shade of a big tree is where my friend Avreymke lives.

This was the time of Poland's liberation where from every corner, from every tree and blade of grass you heard the words of Mickiewcz, Slovatsky and Sienkevitch.

As we plod through the Lisagura mud we would recite the words of those poets in a loud voice. We were so engrossed in our recitation, we would fall into the mud or remain standing by a broken fence.

Avremke's house was covered in straw and a stall was attached to the house. In the yard there was a barn from which emanated the scent of fresh hay. An old tree stood in the middle of the yard which spread its branches over the entire house.

When Avreymke would enter the house, sit down near the stove and begin to tell Sienkevtich's story “Fire and Sword”, it seemed to be that the Tatars had surrounded the yard, waved their swords, and facing them would be Zoglobo shouting: “Hurrah!”

Avreymke's father, Mordkhai of blessed memory would come sit with us and tell one of his stories.

“Listen children, to what happened to me in Russia. When I served in the Czarist army I wanted to swim in the river. We took off our clothes and jumped into the water. However, I fell into a whirlpool which pulled me into a chasm. I lost all my strength. Having experienced all the wars in Russia I thought to myself, this is where I will die? In this small river? Will I survive to see my wife and children? I don't remember what happened next. A strong hand grabbed me by my hair, lifted me high and threw me on the ground.

When I finally opened my eyes, Vasil was standing beside me with a kind smile. Vasil saved my life. Yes children, the Russians are good people and I will never forget Vasil.

This is how Mordkhai, Avreymke's father, concluded his story.

They brought hot lentils to the table. I ate the lentils and black rye bread with a great appetite.

Suddenly the door opened and Maxim entered. He was a tall peasant with kind eyes who often helped Mordkhai work in the fields.

The small kerosene lamp lit the walls with a pale glow. The tree in the yard rustled. Avreymke and I began again to recite excerpts from poems by Mickiewcz as well as “Eugene Onegin” by Pushkin. It seemed to me I was in a world of heroes and dreams, of gods and goddesses.

In the corner, Avreymke's sister Khayke was reciting a poem:

“We will break the iron wall”…

The night stretched on and we continued to talk and tell stories.

These were the most beautiful years of my life, the time of youthful romantic charm.


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Communal Activists and Public Figures

by Yitzkhak Epshteyn (Kfar Neter)

Translated by Janie Respitz

 

Avrom Ivenitsky of blessed memory

Avrom Ivenitsky was a romantic with a big soul. At night he would walk and recite excerpts from the writings of the Russian writer Lermontov.

He loved nature and sports. Even in the winter he would swim in the Zhetl Lake.

Friday nights he would give lectures. He also wrote a book: “When Paths Cross”, where he described his experiences as a Russian prisoner of war. He also wrote the history of Zhetl.

Avrom Ivenitsky worked for a short time at Zhetl city hall and like Herman Frenkel, had to put up with the chicanery and persecutions from the authorities. He taught for a longer time in the Yiddish school.

 

Herman Frenkel of blessed memory

Herman Frenkel was not born in Zhetl.

 

Dzy265.jpg
Herman Frenkel of blessed memory

 

He came to Zhetl from Lodz. There was an expression in Zhetl which said even a strong swimmer can drown. This means that Herman Frenkel swam for so long until he “drowned” in Zhetl and married Shmuel Shvedsky's daughter: – Khane Malka.

Khane Malka had a bubbly personality full of energy and courage. She called her husband: “Frenkel”.

“Mr. Frenkel, come eat, Mr. Frenkel, how are you feeling, Mr. Frenkel, when are you giving your lecture”?

Herman Frenkel was one of the best teachers in the Yiddish school. In general he was very smart, loved people and had an exceptionally sharp memory. He knew his way around all questions. The youth loved him very much. In our free time we would besiege Shvedsky's “porch” just to be able to hear a few good, clever words from Frenkel.

He worked for a short time at Zhetl city hall, but they soon realized he was smarter than them and was unwilling to flatter the nobility. They actually fired him and he was left without a source of income.

Frenkel had a huge soul. He would often repeat the words of Y. L. Peretz:

“As long as it takes for love and peace to arrive – the fruit will be spoiled. Time is not a dream”.

He was not very successful as a bookkeeper for the Soviets. He saw this was not the path toward love and peace. His heart suffered.

Herman Frenkel, the large soul, could not bear the Soviet regime. I was disappointed and one bright morning died at work of a heart attack.

His wife Khane Malka organized his funeral and made an effort for it to be impressive. My uncle Mikhl Rabinovitch delivered the eulogy at his grave.

 

Khaim Ganuzovitch of blessed memory

Little flowers, garlands, drawn on the frosted windows,
And the wind howls up the chimney.
All is good now, beside the happy fire in our house,
Until the kerosene in the little lamp flickers out,
Until the clock angrily mumbles: It's late!
It is time to lie in the soft warm beds.

My uncle Khaim Ganuzovitch would always recite this immortal poem by Mani Leyb in the long winter evening hours, when he would sit with Khaim Vernikovsky (Emeti) and Mikhl Rabinovitch at the Zhetl “Solkes” (attics) and dream about a nicer, better life.

We called attics “Solkes” in Zhetl. In these attics, my uncle Khaim Ganuzovitch and Shloime Khaim Vernikovsky, founded the Poalei Zion (Labour Zionist movement) in Zhetl. Khaim Ganuzovitch was one of the most active members of the movement.

After Shloime Khaim's death, Khaim Ganuzovitch, Moishe

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Mirsky and Yehoshua Ovseyevitch took over the administration of the Yiddish Folkshul.

Khaim worked for a long time at the Zhetl bank. His intelligence and devotion earned him many supporters and friends.

Khaim Ganuzovitch was killed with the first 120 victims.

 

Velvl Izraelit's House

Velvl Izraelit's brick house was in the marketplace in the same row as Shvedsky and my grandfather's houses.

Velvel Izraelit was one of the most respected older established men in Zhetl. His house was one of the nicest and was called by his wife's name: Velvl Hinde Mayrim's house.

In the evenings Velvl Izraelit would sit in the House of Study and learn a page of Talmud with my grandfather Feyvl Rabinovitch and Reb Moishe Tentzer.

On the Sabbath after prayers, Reb Moishe Tentzer would go home with Velvl and his wife Hinde Mayrims.

When Velvl Izraelit died his children came from all corners of Poland. His eldest son Shloime came from Latvia.

 

Khaim from Zhibertaychin of blessed memory

Saturday morning, the dew sparkles on the grass. The trees sway quietly and from among the shrubs, the nightingale sings.

From a distance you can see the estate Zhiberaychin which belonged to the nobleman Damayko (whose pedigree stems from Polish aristocracy and is mentioned in the epic poem “Pan Tadeusz”).

The Zhibertaychin estate is dipped in green. An alley of white birch trees leads to the palace and at the entrance to the estate stands a large oak tree.

I am a shepherd! I bring our well known horses to pasture, the “bay horse” together with all the shepherds – on the green fields doused with dew. Suddenly, the tall slender figure of Khaim Zhibertaychin (Khaim Leyzerovitch) sneaks out of the estate.

A tall slender Jew, with a white patriarchal beard, dressed in his Sabbath best.

His three grandsons: Yitzkhak, Yekhezkl, and Asher hold his hands as they stride toward Zhetl.

They walk quicker, faster because today is The Great Sabbath. Rabbi Saratzkin will speak today in the old House of Study. They pass me but I hide among the bushes so they will not see that I am bringing the horse to pasture on that Sabbath morning.

 

Aharon Alpert of blessed memory

Who in Zhetl did not know the high balcony belonging to Archik Efraim Hirshl on Novoredker Street? His business did well, beginning with nuts and ending with haberdashery.

Archik's feet were paralyzed when he was young. His children: Disheh (who lives in America) and Yentl would help push his chair from his house to work and back.

Archik was an old fighter from the fifth year. He would sit on his porch and people would gather to ask advice or pose political questions.

 

Yisroel Asher Mayevsky of blessed memory

A cold winter morning. The snow scrapes under the feet. It is Tuesday, market day in Zhetl. The farmers' sleighs arrive at the marketplace and line up in a row. The female farmers climb down from their sleighs covered in fur pelts with garlands of dried mushrooms. The scent of the mushrooms permeates the marketplace.

 

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Yisroel Asher Mayevsky

 

These are the famous mushrooms, ceps that grow in the Akhanov, Batchkevitch and Orlin forests.

Yisreol Asher stands at the end of Khane Gatshik's house. He is the mushroom merchant and an expert in this field. The farmers go to him with their mushrooms and he examines the merchandise.

After the transactions, when the farmers leave, he examines the marketplace. His eyes look far off into the distance. He sees the rain falling in Batchkevitch forest, the earth gives off steam, the smell of fresh pitch enters your bones, and the last rays of sunshine shines through the tops of lanky pine trees. Black and red berries sprout out of the moss together with the mushrooms, the famous ceps, the same ceps from which he earns his living. Yisroel Asher lets out a sigh:

It's hard to earn a living these days, the boycott against the Jews is strengthening and the farmers are selling their merchandise to the Polish cooperatives.

He smokes a cigarette and walks nervously among the sleighs looking for fresh goods.

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Tcherne the Miller of blessed memory

Tcherne the miller's mill stood at the edge of town on the street that was called Tcherne the Miller's Street. It was a purely non Jewish street. Except for the few Jewish families like Meir the tailor, Isar Serebrovsky, the old Mukovozhnik and Yokhe Bulansky, the street was inhabited by Christians.

The big mill stood surrounded by tall willows.

On the other side of the Zhetelke were green meadows. If you left the narrow streets of Zhetl toward Tcherne's mill you could breathe more freely. The cool scent from the lake, the pleasant scent from the blossoming willows, the hum of the water wheel, the green meadows on the other side of the river, the monotone croaking of the frogs all helped a person to relax.

Tcherne the miller ran the mill on her own. Her husband died long ago. She was a heroic woman and carried all the burdens and difficulties on her shoulders.

When Tcherne the miller allowed the boat to be tied there with great joy. Groups of friends would row far over the still waters until the priest's bridge serenading on violins and guitars.

On Saturday mornings, Tcherne the miller would go out for a walk. She would sit in the boat and her children would row far, far over the still waters. Tcherne would sit like a queen, her large figure with broad shoulders would protrude from the row boat as she looked with great pleasure at her mill from the river.

 

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In a boat on Tcherne the miller's lake

 

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Lost Talents

by Soreh Epshteyn – Shoar (Natanya)

Translated by Janie Respitz

With the publication of this “Zhetl” book I feel it necessary to eternalize my close family members who excelled as stage actors.

 

My Aunt Khashke

So many years have passed. I barely remember her. As a child I would run to her rehearsals, my hand in hers, so she would not lose me, God forbid…

She played all roles, tragic and comic, and always well.

I saw her often on stage and I will never forget when she played the role of “Mirele Efros”. She was a hero in acting, in life and also in death…

At the first mass slaughter, Khashke stood at the mass grave with her two small daughters and son.

Her little boy Fyevele cried. He was afraid of the Hitler dogs and their guns, and she, Khashke, calmed him.

“Don't cry my child, it doesn't hurt…” only a great mother can offer such comfort.

 

My Cousin Soreleh

Her daughter Soreleh was very talented. Her main talent was acting. In all her performances she gave her very best bringing great enthusiasm to the spectator. The school inspector noticed her and showed interest in her talent.

As I have mentioned, Soreleh was beside her mother at the first slaughter.

“Let down your blonde braids,” Kahshke said to her. She saw how beautiful her daughter was. Maybe they would not have the heart to kill her.

As it was fated, Soreleh and her older sister Fridaleh remained alive for a few more months, until they sent them back. Perhaps it was their fate to lie in the same mass grave with their mother and brother.

 

My Uncle Mikhl

He was a teacher in Gutke's house, an autodidact, taught children and studied on his own, and finally became a teacher and educator in Sofia Markovna's high school in Vilna. He was known as an important pedagogic force while at the same time endowed with dramatic talents and especially excelled as a director.

The Yiddish press in Vilna always gave his productions great reviews.

His special talent was recounting stories and episodes from the town, exciting his audience. This was an art.

My poor uncle Mikhl, if you succeeded to be saved from the Hitler dogs, why was your fate so cruel?

In far off cold Russia, you had to watch as your wife and young daughter die of hunger and destitution. That is when your kind heart collapsed…

 

My Sister Mirele

She grew up to be beautiful and talented. Her face was like a Madonna (this is how she also characterized uncle Mikhl). A nice voice, perfect pitch, the tones of the mandolin would quickly guide her small feet to a fast dance.

She would often perform in the school shows and delight the audience.

I see her playing the role of Hagar (who Abraham sent into the desert with her son Ishmael), where she asks pity from God: “A drop of water, a drop of dew” she said with such feeling and a tremble in her voice that it made the audience cry.

As a student at the teacher's seminary in Vilna she continued to perform on stage.

Here in Israel, I have received a few clippings from the Vilna press where she is mentioned as “the Rising Star – Mireh Epshteyn”!

This is all that remains… I keep it as a sacred memory.

*

Many years have passed. Life goes on, old wounds harden, sharp pains dull. Life's daily struggles dull the delicate feelings.

However, whenever I see a theatrical performance and I breathe once again the theatrical art of my old home, memories of my acting family awaken anew; I see them alive, moving, singing, dancing and stretching out their tender hands to me. I am happy to be with them again.

Poor, spirited souls, you will continue to live forever in my memory, I will never forget you!


[Page 269]

Public Figures

byShabsai Mayevsky (B'nei B'rak)

Translated by Janie Respitz

What Jew does not know there are 36 disguised righteous men in the world? Outwardly, they leave an impression of a simple man, but in fact they are secretly extremely righteous and when nobody sees them they devote themselves to concealed important things.

 

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Shabsai Mayevsky

 

One of these 36 men had to be the beadle of the new House of Study Reb Binyomin Hirshl.

He was a simple man not incredibly smart and quite an unlucky person. Since he could not earn a living managing the House of Study, he would buy and sell bottles and always lost money. The story I will now tell you about him made me realize that he was not merely a simple man, but in fact one of the 36.

During the First World War the Germans took Jews for forced labour building highways. Hungry and barefoot, Jews would sneak away from the highway and come to Zhetl. The German's gave an order that anyone who will let a stranger into his home will be punished by death. Since Jews would not dare allow these men into their homes, they would go to the House of Study. The Germans learned of this and warned the managers they would be held responsible if strangers were found in the prayer houses. The managers were frightened and did not permit these foreign Jews to enter.

This is when the unfortunate found a saviour in the person of Reb Binyomin Hirshl, the beadle of the new House of Study. He took these people into his small house, then went from house to house collecting bread, and let the Jews stay until they recovered. Then he would collect some money for them and send them off.

One fact I remember. Right after the war the postman brought a letter from America from one of the men saved by Binyomin Hirshl the beadle.

The letter writer said he was among those that Binyomin Hershl took into his home. Since he was swollen from hunger, he remained for a long time, until he was healthy. Then he left for America. From that day on, he sent a few dollars every year.

Here in the Land of Israel, I once met a man in Petach Tikva. When he heard I was from Zhetl he called me over: “one of the 36 secretly righteous men lived in Zhetl”. Then he proceeded to tell me the aforementioned story that happened to his brother who today lives in America.

When I would enter the House of Study late at night and see Binyomin Hirshl light the fire in the oven and then lie on a bench and wait for the wood to burn I would think: “is he really in fact one of the 36”?

 

Moishe Ruven Mordkofsky of blessed memory

Moishe Ruven of blessed memory was very well respected in Zhetl. He was a devoted Zionist and a volunteer in many institutions. I would like to emphasize what he did as father of the orphans.

I remember a family in Zhetl by the name of Bransker. They were apparently refugees that came from the city Bransk. Both parents died young and left a house with small orphans. Moishe Ruven arranged for them to eat in peoples' homes, looked after them and arranged for them to go to Heder. The children also ate in our home.

Moishe Ruven would often come to the Talmud Torah to see if the children were coming to school and how they were learning. When he found out the boy did not go to school he would come to our house, wait for him to finish eating and then approach him, sometimes with kindness and sometimes with anger, just like a real father, until he prevailed upon him to return to school.

I believe if one would point out that this man was among the 36 secret righteous men, Moishe Ruven would be welcomed into their “society”.

 

Reb Mordkhai Rabinovitch of blessed memory

Saturday evening, after evening prayers Jews from all over town would stream to the “Hasidarniye” for the thirds Sabbath meal.

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Jews would delight in the melodies of their Sabbath songs which would be sung by Reb Yakov the ritual slaughterer and other Hasidim.

One of the Hasidim who had remained in my memory is Reb Mordkhai Rabinovitch, or as we called him Motl Tulye's.

When the Rebbe would come to Zhetl for the Sabbath, he would stay with him. On Tuesdays, market day, you could find him in the Hasidic prayer house reciting psalms. When I would see him on a market day reciting psalms so sweetly, I thought, if King David would come by, he would enjoy listening.

 

Yisroel Berl the Gravedigger

In Zhetl, we rarely referred to someone by his first name. Practically everyone had a second name.

There were however individuals who were only known by their first names. Yisroel Ber belonged to that group. If someone in Zhetl said Yisroel Berl, everyone knew you meant Yisroel Berl the gravedigger. There were two reasons. Firstly, there was no one else in Zhetl with that name and secondly due to his special occupation.

Everyone in Zhetl knew that sooner or later Berl would take care of them. This is why his name evoked fear in young and of course, the elderly. If someone wanted to tell how he had faced danger he would say: “I could have been lying in Yisroel Ber's garden”.

One day, Hilkeh the clown, an old happy Jew who loved to tell jokes came to Yisroel Ber and said:

“Yisroel Berl, what do you say, do I have time to make a few more pairs of boots”?

Yisroel Ber immediately replied: “you can't die in old boots”?

One thing that differentiated Yisroel Berl from other gravediggers was that he was a Talmudic scholar. It was rare that a gravedigger was learned, but Yisroel Ber was.

Yisroel Ber was my religious tutor when I was a child.

A group of boys studied with him. He was devoted to his teaching with heart and soul. He did not waste any energy or time. His explanations of the Talmud were great. If he had to leave class early for a funeral, the next day's lesson would be longer to make up what we missed.

Thanks to his devotion, I still remember all 57 pages of Talmud he taught me until today.

As it is known, Yisroel Berl's father, Reb Khaim Meir was also a gravedigger in Zhetl. Everyone wondered how such a simple man offered his children such a good education. Yisroel Ber once told us what his father said to his children:

“Either you learn Torah, or I'll bury you”. His children chose the first option. They were all Talmudic scholars.

Let these lines serve as a remembrance for my teacher, Reb Yisroel Ber of blessed memory.

May his soul be eternally bound!

 

The Zhetl Yeshiva and the Yeshiva Boys

In my time the Zhetl Yeshiva was under the leadership of Reb Hirsh Khurgin of blessed memory. Boys came to study from other towns and the small Yudl Meir would go from house to house collecting food for them. Boys from Zhetl who graduated from the Talmud Torah also studied there.

Boys from Zhetl had a good reputation in other Yeshivas due to their numbers and cleverness. You could find boys from Zhetl in the following Yeshivas: Mir, Radn, Volozhyn, Kletzk, Kamemnietz, Grodno, Baranovitch, Slonim, Navaredok and Ayshishok. Some studied for a few years and then went into business or found a job. A few continued studying until they became rabbis, ritual slaughterers or heads of Yeshivas. In many cities and towns throughout Poland and abroad you could find rabbis, ritual slaughterers and other functionaries of Jewish religious and communal life who came from Zhetl.

A large number of Yeshiva boys were murdered by Hitler, may his name be blotted out, together with the other Zhetl martyrs and some managed to come to the Land of Israel and other countries. May these lines serve as a remembrance candle for my friends who spent their best youthful years with me in the Yeshiva, but did not live to see the prophecy come true: May you find refuge on the Mount of Zion.


[Page 271]

The Tailor from Zhetl

by Yakov Indershteyn (Kibbutz Eylon)

Translated by Janie Respitz

If not for the noise of the children playing on the road. If not for the people in work clothes shoving one another curiously around the postal bag which just arrived from the city; if not for the questioning glances of people from their verandas, Berke would have sworn he was dreaming.

It is really like a dream. Here is a man on a verdant sunny winter day going to the road to meet the night bus. He walks slowly and feels his little daughter's hand in his and thinks: a ship has arrived with illegal immigrants. The newspapers say they will be freed today. Perhaps today the group of youth will arrive, the group our kibbutz has been waiting for, for so long. If so, it is worthwhile to walk to the road to meet the bus. It was a custom of Berke's to greet the new arrivals. It's nice to approach a new person, who looks at everything nervously with questioning eyes and the shyness of a greenhorn. It is great to go up to such an individual, look him in the eyes and say:

“Shalom, my friend”!

Berke loves to do this.

Since the ships began to reappear at the port, since the day when the kibbutz decorated their gate with flags and flowers and a large white banner which reads “and our children will return home”, Berke started a tradition of taking his little daughter on the “good deed walk”, to greet the new immigrants. He wanted her to get used to waiting for the arrivals!

Berke went to the bus and…what happened?

“Father”?

His father, Shleymke the tailor, wearing his cap that cast a shadow on his pale boney face, stared at his son with his black eyes.

“Berke, my son! Is this not like in a dream?

Father's cap was old and wrinkled. It had lost its shape. It was the type of cap worn by craftsmen in Zhetl. Father's hat was usually a dark grey colour, but not always because sometimes it was made from scraps left over from suits that Shleymke the tailor would make for Passover or Sukkot.

It is worthwhile to mention something else: on hot days, father would wear a cap made of white fabric together with a white alpaca jacket. This was his seasonal outfit on hot summer days. Clearly, we are talking here about the Sabbath or between afternoon and evening prayers during the week.

On those evenings Father would walk through the streets of town. Sometimes he would stop to watch the firefighters practice, sometimes he would mix with the crowd at the marketplace who were waiting for the bus which was coming from the train station, to see people coming from the outside world.

Here, on the bench near the hotel, sits the “fallen” nobleman Lisovsky, who lost everything he had in a card game. He only has one pleasure in life, playing with his aristocratic dog.

“Rex! I said no Rex!”…Ah, hello tailor!

This is how Lisovsky combines reprimanding his dog with greeting Shleymke the tailor. Since Lisovsky had been excluded from Christian aristocratic society which consisted of the judge, police commander, postmaster and neighbouring noblemen, since he became a bitter pauper, he has been living at Hotel Europa. True the Rabinovitchs are Jews, but you could reach an agreement with them about rent.

The same was with clothes. Clearly, you could not compare Shleymke the tailor to the big city tailors who sewed clothing for the nobility. His Polish was also not great. However, Shleymke had a great virtue. Although his work was fine, he didn't kill himself to make money. Lisovsky respected this trait and he liked him. Whenever he saw him, before my father had a chance to say a word about the money he owed, Lisovsky would say good morning:

[Page 272]

“How's it going tailor? Are you well? Quiet Rex! Quiet!”

The last words were for his “aristocratic” dog, who snuggles up to the nobleman and tries to lick his fat cheek. Heder boys, apprentices and other curious people stop to see this wise dog who understands the nobleman's Polish. Father removes his light cap and smiles at the nobleman:

“Good morning” he says in Polish.

The nobleman does not stop caressing his dog which awakens a sense of pity in Shleymke for this poor man:

“What else does he have left in life besides this dog”?

He turns his head and suddenly sees how the shadows on the cobblestones at the marketplace are stretched out, the domes on the church under the thin crosses shine with a pale redness reflecting the sunset fire, which was ignited far off over the priest's roof, until Tcherne the miller's lake. Delayed peasant wagons head home slowly over the cobblestones. The horses then bolted due to the noise of the oncoming bus.

Father stood there a while longer looking at people with dusty shoes who were bringing secrets from the outside world in tightly tied suitcases. It appears that it is only the head of the Jewish community returning from a mediation session with the Starosta (Government official) and Shushan the dry goods merchant returning from Lodz where he bought a bit of merchandise. A woman disembarks. She was returning from visiting doctors in Vilna, and finally the “amiable” guest, the executor of the taxes who comes every week to extract the last pennies from the town's Jews.

All of a sudden father feels an emptiness around him which makes him sad.

What was he waiting around for?

He's had enough of the dirty bus and the dressed up driver Feyvele with his jodhpurs and shiny black boots. He must think the town has forgotten about his importance, this wagon driver! Simple being…Shleymke the tailor smiles to himself.

With arms folded behind his back my father walked down Synagogue Street. Here it is one of two things, either, in the middle of the synagogue courtyard a large circle of craftsmen have gathered and are listening to Eli the pavers stories and talking politics, or they are listening to the sweet voice of a wandering preacher pouring out of the packed House of Study.

The topics discussed in the courtyard change quickly. Khaim Meir already finished his exaggerated stories from the Caucuses, and they already talked about matters of the Dumas: about Pilsudski who beat up his deputy in the Brisk prison; about new bandits roaming around the forest. This is how the conversation rolls until they talk about town issues, about the election for the Society to Aid the Poor and the scandal at the bank.

Around them, common folk are pushing as not to miss a word, especially because in the middle stands the clown and heretic, Eli the paver. When Eli begins to rail against everyone and laughs at the whole world, Shmaya the shoemaker loses his patience and says:

“Tell me Elyieh, What will you do in the world to come when they ask why you don't have a beard? What will you say? Huh? Elinkeh!” Shmaya the shoemaker looked around with a victorious smile.

“What do you mean” said Eliyeh, “I will answer: this is how it is. I was born without a beard and died without a beard!” The crowd laughed but Shmaya would not give up.

“But then they will say to you, you were born without teeth, why did you return with teeth?” Eliyeh quickly replied:

“I'll tell them: what do you want from me? Go yell at my teeth!”

The crowd burst out laughing. The pious Jews ran for evening prayers.

 

A summer Sabbath

The whole family was in bed enjoying a Sabbath nap.

Good Sabbath! Get up lazy bones, even the rabbi and his son in law left for prayers! This is how Shloime the tailor ran into the house after praying with the first quorum. My father was used to praying at dawn, summer and winter. The House of Study was packed with tailors, shoemakers, wagon drivers, all hard working Jews who worked hard to eke out a living until late at night.

Chanukah at dawn. The House of Study is heated and every corner is lit. All the lamps are burning. A Chanukah menorah stands on the window sill with all its candles lit. A group of craftsmen stand around all wrapped in prayer shawls. The orphan boy who sleeps in the House of Study yawns. Father's cap is still wet from the snowstorm that whipped his face as he walked the House of Study.

[Page 273]

“So guys, what are you waiting for? It's already daylight outside!” said Moishe – Zelik the peddler. During the day Moishe – Zelik walks from one village to the next selling colourful kerchiefs, needles and all sorts of pins to the gentiles.

Borukh the shoemaker who had not finished reciting his psalm of the day grumbled:

“You never have any time! What's your hurry Moishe Zelik”?

Motke the saddlemaker bangs his lectern. He wants to give the cantor a sign to begin prayers, but suddenly he is uncertain: maybe it really is too early? Motke turns to the window, wipes the wet pane with his hand, covers his face with both hands and touches the cold pane with his nose. Motke sees the disheveled branches of the pear trees at the old cemetery have already emerged from the wintery, night sky, he turns his head to the crowd and bangs his lectern. As the cantor begins the room fills with the mumbling of prayers, the na´ve prayer of Jewish craftsmen.

Father stands at his lectern which is covered with a damp fur and on that, his prayer book. The little boy Berke sees clearly how his father is really enjoying praying today.

Years later, when Berke will walk through the small Jewish towns with a saw in his hand, sawing and chopping wood, working hard in the sawmills together with other pioneers who are preparing for the work in the Land of Israel, as he walks over fields with spring flowers under his feet somewhere in a secluded corner in far off Galilee, he will carry, on his thirty year old shoulders the heavy burden of so many destroyed Jewish town. Berke will preserve in his memory that Chanukah morning, the picture of his father the tailor, wrapped in his prayer shawl, enjoying his praying with the craftsmen in the warm, lit House of Study. He will then remember the biblical passage: When stars sing together in the morning…

My father would not only pray early in the morning on weekdays. Out of habit he would wake up early on the Sabbath too and go pray with the first quorum. Then he returns home and says “Good Shabbos” and wakes everyone up:

“Wake up already boys! Tell your mother she has slept enough. It is a beautiful summer day, delightful!”

He loosens the tie he wore in honour of praying, opens the top button of his Sabbath shirt. He quickly takes a bite of the Sabbath challah while glancing at the headlines of Friday's newspaper (which his oldest son brought home Friday evening).

After looking at the headlines he pushes the newspaper aside. There will be time for this later. He puts on his white alpaca jacket, looks at himself in his large tailor's mirror to check that his cap is not crooked and shouts at the boys, the idlers.

“My boys only know about books, they don't even think about praying. Even the gentiles cross themselves, but my boys… ah!

His raised hand falls in despair. He angrily opens the door and walks out of the house.

Berke, still lying in bed, smiles and puts his book aside. He stretches and enjoys a big yawn. He knows his father's refrain, an old song which he hears every Sabbath, and he knows the anger will not last long.

He knows where his father has gone. Every Saturday after praying he takes a walk through town to hear the news of the week. Later, he walks down the gentile streets to the highway. My father, the tailor, is very curious to see what the fields look like on both sides of the highway.

Berke, the kibbutznik in the Galilee preserves another memory:

A sunny Sabbath morning. A white path winds through the fields of loose corn stalks, like waves over the ocean. A man is walking slowly along the path, accompanied by his shadow. Both hands behind his back with his eyes wandering back and forth.

This is my father, Shleymke the tailor, with his white cap and alpaca jacket. This is his “traditional” walk, checking out the fields…

My father wears a cap like all the other craftsmen in Zhetl. It is no wonder that even today, on a winter day at dusk in a village in the Galilee, Berke sees before his eyes his father's head with that cap!

It's almost certain, this is how his father would arrive.

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But he did not come. Where did you ever hear about fathers who arrive these days at dusk?

Does that mean that everything told about father's arrival was a dream? Perhaps not a dream but a hallucination born of sleepless nights?

Shleymke the tailor will not be coming to his son in the Land of Israel. Such a pity. A craftsman like him is hard to find. He probably would not have engaged in this work on the kibbutz as our clothes are very simple.

However, if you knew how difficult it was for Shleymke the tailor to sit idle, you would understand how a whole field of work would have opened for him. How passionately he would have sewn winter coats for us, long and short, and not necessarily from new fabric. He was a master at using used clothes to make something new…

And just coats? You think, God forbid, that he would not be able to sew shorts or blouses? If that's what you think, you are making a big mistake!

Friday mornings, all his work from the week is finished and delivered to the customers, the wealthy men in town, and everything on credit. He did not have a groshn for the Sabbath. My mother's grief could tear your heart out, but what was she to do?

At such a time, as if miraculously, a gentile would come in with a piece of linen requesting a few shirts for Sunday. That is when his sewing machine would sing the nicest folk songs, just like father! The gentile sees how quickly the shirts are being made so he pays for the shirts in advance.

My mother would then run to the store to buy something for the Sabbath, and who now can be compared to us?

What do you have to say now? Of course he would have sewn shirts and blouses for us.

You ask, would have he sewn for the children? And I ask you: what would he not sew for them? They would all be treated as if they were his own grandchildren! He would invent various styles of coats and all types of suits for them. He was a great master of children's clothing.

A pity my friends, that we did not have the honour to greet Shleymke the tailor in the Land of Israel. He never even saw his grandchildren. He left this world exactly when Berke's daughter was born.

No, the Germans did not slaughter him. They did slaughter mother and the children in the big slaughter in town. Since my father was a craftsman, the enemy sent him to a camp for craftsmen in a neighbouring town. Did you hear how tens of Jews escaped from that camp? If not, it's a pity, because it is not a usual case.

When father arrived in the forest he did not have a gun so the partisans did not take him in. Young men worked tirelessly to find guns. For someone my father's age this was too difficult.

Shleymke the tailor met gentile acquaintances and tried to talk to them. When would he meet them? Winter nights he would knock on the windows of huts of his former customers. Often the peasant would chase him away. Others would threaten to set their dogs on him. But one man lent him an ax to build a “dugout” deep in the forest, another gave him his son's old rags which Shleymke the tailor repurposed and earned a piece of bread for him and his youngest son who was saved together with his father.

My father sewed without a sewing machine, with his ten fingers. He pushed the needle into used thick cloth, sewed and clothed entire villages just like in the good old days. During the day he worked in his dugout and at night he went to the peasant's huts looking for work and bread.

However, my father did not live to come to the Land of Israel. He is not alive. A few rumours reached us. They said he died from typhus as did his little boy. Others said he was killed by an enemy's bullet during the big raid in Lipitchansky forest.

As for Berke, he still goes every day to meet the bus as he did before. His brother Avreyml who served in the Red Army has survived! He can never be sure that he won't arrive on any given day. If not today, he can come tomorrow, and if not he himself, perhaps a letter from him. When Avreyml will arrive, Berke will fling his arms around his neck and both brothers will cry and bemoan the fact that their father did not have the honour to arrive on the bus at dusk on a winter day in a village in the Galilee.


[Page 275]

Zaydke

by Yakov Indershteyn (Kibbutz Eylon)

Translated by Janie Respitz

Good Sabbath!

Good Sabbath!

Shshsh! They are banging on the table!

Ah, Zaydke? We'll soon hear some news.

And Zaydke, with his long black beard looks down at the crowd with scary eyes and shouts:

“I am informing everyone that by Wednesday we have to pay a fourth installment of the business tax. By Thursday we will have to pay a fine with interest except for “bribes”.

Be quiet! I am informing everyone that on Thursday there will be baths for women, and Friday, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a steam bath! Once finished, Zaydke steps down from the platform where prayers are led from, arrogant.

When boys misbehave during prayers, playing with nuts and making noise, who quietens them with fiery slaps?

Zaydke, of course.

If there is going to be a fair on Thursday, how do we inform the gentiles? Zaydke stands in the middle of the marketplace on a wagon, bangs two pieces of wood together and shouts in Russian:

“Come hear people, I have news for you!

When Gentiles in their Sunday baggy panties and white linen blouses hear Zaydke's voice they come running from Centre Street, dragging their barefoot kids in long underwear. Village boys in caps with shiny visors, worn like tough guys on the side, wearing riding breeches tucked into shiny boots, with their girlfriends, dressed up in colourful dresses gathered at the waist, with fired red makeup on their cheeks, run faster to hear Zaydke's news.

When Zaydke sees the large crowd he begins to rant:

People, bring your pigs, your mares and stallions, your chickens and hens, Thursday, there will be a fair!

Bring potatoes and rye, cows and goats, Thursday, there will be a big fair!

Aha! Zaydke! A demon in your father's father! (A curse with humour).

They wipe their whiskers, send their wives to buy a challah, a gift for the children that stayed at home in the village. Then they harness their horse, time to go home!

At Maysheke the Ox's, the door opens quickly and a tall Jews with a black beard enters, carrying under his arm an old rubbed out briefcase. (Translator's note: Mayshke is called an ox, which can also mean a fool)

Good morning Reb Moishe.

Mayshke the Ox with wire glasses on the tip of his nose, in his shoemaker's apron and cotton jacket answers him:

Good morning and a good year. Oh Zaydke, a new paper? Apparently a new problem?

Mayshke the Ox forgets to talk in rhyme, his habit since he became a master of ceremonies at weddings, and begins to talk, like everyone else. The reason for his excitement was Zaydke's note demanding taxes which says we must pay. Zaydke takes out the paper and says:

“You have ten days to pay. This is for the sign, the blackboard with the shoe. Sign here and give me five groshn for bringing it.

The neighbour's son signed in Polish and Maysheke the Ox makes three exes (XXX) and scratches his neck.

“From where do you think I have five groshn…”

“Never mind,” said Zaydke as he quickly turned to leave. It was obvious he was not happy. “You'll pay me next time.Have a good one!”

Zyadke wanted to be paid for everything. Even a tax notice! If anyone thinks Zaydke lives only off these five groshn, he's mistaken. The city administration pays him every month to deliver notices and hang announcements. But when Zaydke delivers a notice, don't be selfish, give him something for his efforts.

What? Is he any worse than Romanovsky the postman. He gets money from anyone he delivers a letter to even though the post office pays him every month!

It's true that Zaydke's notices bring trouble. But it is not his fault, he would be happy to deliver good news as he complained about this to his relative, Tuvyie Idl, the butcher at the house where all the butchers gather in the evening with large bloody pelts.

Zaydke has other jobs on the side. He walks through town with an alarm clock and sells lottery tickets. It only costs 10 groshn a ticket and you could win

[Page 276]

a new alarm clock. Tailors and shoemakers buy these tickets for their children and try their luck. Meanwhile, Zaydke earns a few groshn.

* * *

Lately, Zaydkeh has become active in the community. He goes every Friday to the craftsmen's homes and calls out: “Five groshn for apples!” in order to understand this next exploit I must share a bit of history.

Every Friday evening Shmuel Kustin, the head of the Jewish community reads from the Pentateuch in the new House of Study. He talks in a weak feminine voice and explains the portion of the week. The word Khazal (all of our sages) flies from his mouth. Khazal said this, Khazal asked that, Khazal here, Khazal there.

Out on the street it is bitterly cold. In the House of Study the stove is hot. Jews are sitting around, craftsmen, peddlers, tired from the whole week, their hands spread out on their lecterns. With their heads in their hands, they sleep. From time to time Zaydke's voice wakes them up:

“Get out fellows, I'll slap you silly!”

This is how Zaydke received a group of school boys, frozen from skating who rushed into the House of Study to warm up. It doesn't take long before Shmuel Kustin lulls the craftsmen back to sleep.

This is what occurred every Friday evening. However, near me is the 20th century, and it is impossible that the 20th century would avoid Zhetl, just as it is impossible that the tax inspector would not come to control the tickets of the Zhetl craftsmen and shopkeepers.

The 20th century descended on Zhetl with talking movies, political party meetings and candy stores open on the Sabbath. However going to the movies costs money. Jews stand on the other side of the wall and hear a hoarse voice talking in English, French or other languages, who the hell knows what. On Friday evenings, men and women listen and thoroughly enjoy pictures that are talking on the other side of the wall.

The second exploit of the 20th century were lectures and meetings. Precisely on Friday evenings the speakers came and gave passionate speeches, for free. The Jews of Zhetl took their wives and children and went to listen. Ay, it's cold in the classrooms of the Yiddish school and Tarbut School. Who doesn't allow them to sit in their coats? But when the crowds gather, it warms up, Jews take a nap just like during Shmuel Kustin's talks in the warm House of Study. Other shameless people sit in the beer house cracking nuts and listen to Hirshl Meir's stories about the war.

Is it a wonder that the heated House of Study began to empty Friday evenings? Shmuel Kusitn was disappointed that he could longer delight people with his talks.

But our Zaydke did not lose his head. He went through town collecting five groshn, and for one zloty he bought a few baskets of frozen apples and shouted from the platform where prayers were led, during prayers, that during the reading of the Pentateuch he will distribute apples. And that is what happened. It became a custom, every Friday evening, after reading the Pentateuch, Zaydke distributed apples. Older Jews made a blessing, took a bite then put the apple in their pockets to bring to their grandchildren.

True the House of Study is not full like it used to be in the good old days, but Shmuel Kustin no longer talks to the walls and people still take naps during his talks.

Is this not thanks Zaydke's praiseworthy action?


The Last Badkhn
(Entertaining Rhymester at Jewish Weddings)

by Yakov Indershteyn (Kibbutz Eylon)

Translated by Janie Respitz

Among those who prayed in the old House of Study were the rabbi, scholars and community big shots with their sons in law. Those who prayed in the new House of Study were craftsmen, peddlers and small shopkeepers.

Where was it the happiest on Simchas Torah? Of course, in the new House of Study! Mayshke the Ox led services, or as we called him when he got old, Reb Moishe.

When a group of kids saw that Mayshke turned his black cap with the visor backward, and started to jump around carrying the Torah, they really felt it was Simchas Torah all over the world! Everyone loved to crowd around Mayshke and hear his rhymes.

Mayshke does not only talk in rhyme on Simchas Torah, but always, when he is in a good mood. Don't forget that Mayshke the Ox is a Badkhn, although this is only a side job.

[Page 277]

His main job was a shoemaker. A type of holiday coat.

The story goes that when the old Badkhn Avrom Moishe died, Mayshke the Ox went to his widow and bought the large book of rhymes the old Badkhn made up and collected over the years. In order to get used to his new job, Mayshke began to speak in rhyme:

Soreh Leah my love

You are the jewel in my crown.

Perhaps you know,

Where's my whetstone?

This is how he talks to his wife who rummages through the pots. When he got used to speaking in rhyme, it became his language and he didn't even realize he was rhyming.

*

A few weeks before Passover Mayshke dismantled the wall between his kitchen and workshop and built a Matzah oven. This was a time when everybody thought himself a big shot. They could not even spin shoemaker's thread, but they made strikes and unions: older workers from the Matzah bakeries got together, organized a strike, and went around to all the matzah bakeries and took away their rolling pins.

One o'clock in the morning, just before the first oven was lit, we heard wild cries at the rabbi's on the street where Mayshke lived. Curious heads peeked out from the double windows.

“What's going on?”

You can hear Mayshke screaming:

“They beat me up, they should suffer from stomach pains!”

People asked from all sides: “Who did this Reb Moishe, who?”

He answered:

Alter and Berl Yokehs, cursing them, in rhyme…

It was a surprise when during a wedding, Mayshke raised his head high, faced the in laws with his grey beard: brought his pointer finger to his thumb, closed his eyes and hummed;

The bride's sister Taybele,

Came to see her sister become a Vaybele. (Wife).

Wishing everyone a good week,

Musicians! Begin the hum…

Pick up your instruments,

Show us some fun.

As he says these last words he opens his eyes, winks at Avreymche the blacksmith, a sign for him to play his fiddle. Khaim Aryeh begins to blow sideways into his flute and Aryeh the drummer, the old musician, bangs his drum as the dancing begins! What a delight!

* * *

Lately, Mayshke the Ox hardly ever performs. People are making quieter weddings. The political parties confuse us and brides and grooms are embarrassed to make a huge fanfare.

But Mayshke preys on his talent. I heard that he once approached a group of young Zionists, boys in shorts who sing all night and don't let their neighbours sleep, and asked them why don't they put on a show? He was ready to rehearse “The Sale of Joseph” with them. He once staged this at the Talmud Torah and the whole town came. He said they loved it.

Turns out the boys showed no interest in his suggestion. Nothing came of it. Mayshke, or as we called him in his later years, Reb Moishe, had to be satisfied with his old profession, fixing shoes. Once in a while he would hum a melody from the play “The Sale of Joseph”.

“The old father Jacob with his twelve sons,

Would travel there and back”!

In the middle of singing he would remember the boys who made fun of this little theatre piece. Mayshke became angry, threw down the old shoe, put on his coat and cotton cap and went to the new House of Study to hear Yisroel Ber read beautiful Talmudic commentaries. Meanwhile, he remembered that not so long ago, on Simchas Torah, he stood in the middle of the House of Study and sang with everyone:

“There is no God like our God,

Let us thank our Master!…


[Page 278]

The Shiluvsky Family from Haleli

by Moishe Mirsky (Montreal)

Translated by Janie Respitz

The family of Khaim Shiluvsky, known as Khaim from Haleli lived in the village of Haleli which was 5 kilometres from Zhetl. They were well off people who owned the water mill.

 

Dzy278b.jpg
 
Dzy278a.jpg
Khaim and Nekhama Shiluvsky

 

Zhetl suffered economically under German occupation during the First World War. Destitution and hunger snuck into many homes. Even wealthier people who had enough money to buy bread faced difficulties due to the edicts of the occupiers.

The Shiluvsky family was not indifferent to the suffering many of the homes in town experienced.

Khaim Shiluvsky and his wife Nekhama of blessed memory could not rest. They would come to town every day to inquire who was suffering, who lacked bread, making every effort not to embarrass anyone, God forbid. With a warm heart and open hand they helped all those in need especially those who had been well off and lost everything.

This modest, kind charity was not easy to do. It was against the law and doing so could face harsh punishment from the Germans, may their names be blocked out.

Mrs. Shiluvsky was a quiet fine woman. Her modesty and humility helped her diplomatically to distribute bread to the hungry. If the family in need was not at home, she would leave bread and potatoes for them.

Their kindness was well known in the region. Everyone knew you did not leave the Shiluvsky's house hungry.

Later on, during the Polish – Bolshevik war life was very difficult and people began wandering from town to town. The roads were filled with refugees and the Shiluvsky's house was transformed into a charitable kitchen. Day and night pots of soup were made and bread was baked. People came to eat and received a care package for their journey.

The war also caused other problems for the Shiluvskys. Bands of robbers would often visit at night, taking what they could often accompanied by beatings.

The Shiluvsky family was convinced there was no place for Jews in Haleli or anywhere in Poland. Therefore they sold all they had, left Poland and settled in Canada. This is how they saved themselves and their children who in the meantime married and live in Montreal.

The horrible experiences and the terrifying news they heard about Jews in Poland took a toll on Mrs. Shiluvsky's health. She died on November 8th 1942 leaving her husband, Reb Khaim, four married daughters, two married sons and by then, eight grandchildren.

Today, there are, spare the evil eye, seventeen grandchildren of which some are married.


My Mother Leah Hinde Merim's of Blessed Memory

by Miriam Izraelit – Davidovsky (Givatayim)

Translated by Janie Respitz

In Zhetl my mother was called Leah Hinde Merim's. She was born in Vilna in 1866. She married in Zhetl in 1885 and lived there for 46 years.

My mother's maiden name was Kuhel. Her father, Yehoshua Kuhel was a well educated man and a successful merchant. My mother comes from a very fine family which included the Iserlins, Levin – Epshteyns and Shapiros.

My mother of blessed memory was one of the most important women in Zhetl. She was energetic, smart, beautiful and progressive. She always tried to help other people as much as she possibly could. She never differentiated between rich and poor. She treated everyone with respect. She had a personal account for the Interest Free Loan Society and never refused those in need.

My mother of blessed memory also served as the manager of women during childbirth and the Society to Aid the Sick. She made sure someone spent the night with sick people, often sending her own children.

She would often visit the Yeshiva and bring boys home to eat. Every Friday she would make sure the poor had a challah and food for the Sabbath.

She died on Chanukah 1931. Honour her memory!


[Page 279]

Efraim Belagolovsky – Kharmoni of blessed memory

by Nekhemia Aminoakh (Kfar Avraham)

Translated by Janie Respitz

Efraim son of Khaim Belagolovsky was born in 1890 in Lodz. Until the age of 13 he studied in a Yeshiva. In 1906 he joined “The Young Zionists” in Lodz. From 1908–1912 he was elected onto the council of “The Young Zionists” in Lodz and was an active member of “The Society of Lovers of Hebrew”. Efraim Belagolovsky describes this period in his writings which he had left for us.

“On Saturday morning when my friend Nakhman Rozin of blessed memory and I were standing in synagogue speaking Hebrew, a tall young man came up to us and asked:

“These boys speak Hebrew and I don't know them?” This was Yekutiel Davidovitch (Today Ezroni, a Hebrew teacher in Tel Aviv).

He took us to the illegal “Mizrachi” school which was in an alcove, under the roof on Vskhodnia Street. Neighbouring “Mizrachi” was the “Young Zionist” association. The members of “Mizrachi” were predominantly Hasidim who were chased out of their prayer houses for the sin of Zionism. These Hasidic religious Zionists provided protection in their synagogue to the secular, young Zionists.

At age thirteen I worked as an assistant in a store and I worked from 8 in the morning until 11 at night. Socialism was extremely attractive. However, I was not satisfied with my nationalist feelings I had felt from childhood. From all the Jewish socialist parties, I felt most comfortable with the “Poalei Zion” (Labour Zionists).

My friends and I did not see the national question through the eyes of Borokhov. The national question for us was not any less important than the socialist one. We knew that when the social question would be answered, the world would still be faced with the national question.

Also with the socialist question we were closer to the S.R (Social Revolutionaries) than the S.D (Social Democrats). I was also a member of the professional union of the P.S.D.”

In 1913 Efraim Belagolovsky organized the Zionist youth in Kastrama. During the German occupation from 1915–1916 he led the Zionist association in Zhetl. He visited cities close to Zhetl to help organize Zionist activity. In those years his thoughts were clear, and he expressed himself succinctly in writing which he used as a source of income.

It is clear why Efraim Belagolvsky organized the General Zionist association in Zhetl. If there had not been a German occupation he would have organized the “Young Zionists”. But at that time in Zhetl it was impossible to crystalize the image of the association. Zionist aspirations demanded broader and less clarity in the party sense. This way, all Zionist youth from the various political leanings could join the same club.

In 1918 he was a member of the board of “Young Zionists” in Bialystok and a member of the Zionist Centre and the “Young Zionists” Centre in southern Lithuania.

In 1920 he participated in the second conference of “Young Zionists” in Warsaw and was elected to the “Young Zionists” Centre in Poland. He participated as a delegate in the Fourth Zionist Conference in Poland.

From 1920 –1926 Efraim Belagolovsky worked as secretary and as an instructor for the “Young Zionists” Centre in Lithuania. In 1926 he immigrated to the Land of Israel where he was a member of Mapai and worked as a bookkeeper for the construction company “Solel Boneh”.

E. Belagolovsky participated in many international conferences. He was a delegate to the 12th, 13th and 14th Zionist Congresses, The International Conference of the “Young Zionists” and ORT in Danzig and the Conference for Lending Cooperation for European Jewry.

After his death his friends in Israel wrote:

Efraim Kharmoni (Belegolovsky) was the symbol of a socialist personality. Honest in every sense of the word. Always worked for the poor masses. Everywhere he worked he acquired good friends and a good reputation.


[Page 280]

Zhetl Writers

Collected by M. Dunetz

Translated by Janie Respitz

 

Menakhem Mendl Merlinsky

Menakhem Mendl Merlinsky was born in Zhetl in 1853. As a young boy he studied in the Yeshiva of the esteemed rabbi Rabbi Yitzkahk Bar Asher. He excelled with his knowledge and mastery of Talmud. He was self taught in Hebrew and grammar and soon became proficient in Hebrew literature.

He married at age 17. He was very poor and supported himself giving Hebrew lessons in wealthy homes. He studied Russian and German and mastered both languages perfectly.

In 1876 he began to write for “HaTzfira” on science and literary topics, including the articles “The History of the City of Bombay and its Inhabitants”, “Mount Ararat”, “Mount Etna” and others. In 1886 he opened a Hebrew school in Bialystok. His works were also published in “Magid Mishna” and “Hakol”.

Menakhem Mendl Merlinsky was one of the great Jewish enlighteners of his generation. His son in law was the well known Bialystok man of letters, Peysakh Kaplan.

 

A. Ben – Avigdor (Avrom Leyb Shalkovitch) 1866 – 1921

Although A. Ben – Avigdor was born in the neighbouring town of Zheludok, he can be considered a Zhetler. As a young child he moved with his family to Zhetl. His father was Avigdor the untrained old time physician. Ben – Avigdor studied and was raised in Zhetl and this is where he took his first literary steps.

In 1889 his first article was published in “HaMeilitz”. In 1892 he began to publish the large collection “Sifrei Agura” (Penny Dreadfuls – cheap serialized stories). He was one of the founders of “Akhyasaf” and “Toshiya” publishing houses. In 1905 he helped found the Vilna newspaper “HaZman” (The Time).

He fought for Herzlian Zionism and was a supporter of Herzl's Uganda Plan. In Warsaw he was the founder of The Hebrew Writer's Union, which he chaired for many years.

 

A. M. Dilan

A.M. Dilan was born in Zhetl in 1882 to old Jewish aristocracy. His name in Zhetl was A. Zhukhovitsksy. As a writer he used the name: Dilan.

In 1904 he left for America. In 1910 he debuted in an anthology called “Literature” and since then published poems in various periodicals and journals like: “Dos Naye Lebn” (The New Life), “Shriftn” (Writings), “Di Feder” (The Feather), “Der Onhayb” (The Beginning), “London Renaissance”, “Tzukunft” (The Future), and others. He published in book form a collection of poems called “Gele Bleter” (Yellow Leaves) (Published by “America”, New York, 1919), illustrated with drawings by Z. Maod which is one of the most magnificent works of Yiddish literature.

All of Dilan's poems are penetrated with deep melancholy and present human fear and suffering, despair and death. He died in New York.

 

Avrom Ivenitsky

Avrom Ivenitsky was born in Zhetl to his parents Dov – Ber and Dishe. After experiencing the First World War he married Esther Kaplinsky, the daughter of the honourable Zhetl businessman, Hertz Leyb Kaplinsky.

He worked for a short time as a teacher in Zhetl and then as vice – mayor. He participated in various literary works. He was the author of the book “When Roads Cross”, a diary of a Jewish prisoner of war, published by the Union of Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Vilna, 1924.

 

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