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[Page 289]

A Backward Glance

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Our Big–City Shtetl

by Yisrael Yaakov Pagir (United States)

Yisrael Yaakov Pagir


Our native city, the playground of our childhood, the beginning of our experience of the world, the city in which we were born. In our young minds, from the passing years, from the Dizzy Mountain – Yanova, I see you. You remain etched in my memory.

Your houses spread out from Keidaini Street until the endless highway, from our clear, running, flowing Vilya River until the cemetery mountain. Some of our Yanovers also lived on the other side, first Velvel Fromer and later Shneur Sesitzky, the Kozianer Rabbi. Ferries driven by long ropes connected the other side to our native city. The ferry floated majestically back and forth, always transporting and bringing new customers.

I see your streets and alleyways, your schools and Beis Midrashes, your kloizes and Hassidic shtibels, and – on the other hand – the Russian Church and graveyard not far from the [Jewish] cemetery, as well as the Catholic Church in the middle of our Jewish city, where the Christian folk from the surrounding villages used to gather for their religious services to request good upon themselves. On their holidays, the Jewish shopkeepers of the Yanova market waited for the village folk to come to make their purchases, so that they could earn their livelihoods.

I heard the bells ringing from their churches / On Fridays before candle lighting, I heard the synagogue caller summon everyone to the synagogue with all his might / I witnessed your weddings, and heard your musicians play as the bride and groom were led to the chupa [wedding canopy] near the kloiz / and I witnessed the joyous parents on the wedding day of their children, as everything was adorned with gladness.

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I witnessed your funerals and heard the eulogies and recitation of Psalms. The Talmud Torah students would call out “Your steps should be before Him” as they walked behind the coffin. The shamash would clang the pushka [charity box] and call out “Charity saves from death.” I witnessed your Simchas Torah festivals with Jewish joy and heartfelt gladness / and I witnessed and felt the fear of a pogrom that was perpetrated upon our city with terror and suffering.

Yanova! I saw your youth defend Jewish lives. They prepared well for a pogrom, and twenty Jewish youth sat with non–empty hands at each of the eight synagogues and kloizes / And because of this, the evil gentiles from the surrounding villages forgot about the designated day / No gentile came to Yanova that day even for medical purposes / Nobody saw a gentile / Our city became almost completely Jewish:

The miller and the bread maker
Even the woodchopper
Furriers and the smiths
All were dear Jews.
Shlomo the shaver and barber
Leizer the chimneysweep
Bentze the deaf sentry
Izik Segalovsky – who had one son and eleven daughters.

The finest beauties of our city with Jewish charm, everyone had a beautiful daughter of Zion. Itzik Dembo the carver and Itzik the tinsmith / who knew how to crawl nimbly upon roofs / they were the heads of the fire command / and other Jewish lads, who together formed the Jewish fire brigade.


Keidainer Street

It should have been called the Russian Street, because only Russian residents lived there, with large gardens, orchards with fruit trees, and flowers with a variety of fine colors that, with their beauty, beautified the old, small houses that barely had the energy to stand. Only one house on the street was a beautiful one – the one in which the pristov [police chief] lived. In that same courtyard was a “women's gathering place” where the majority of the girls were our Jewish daughter from well–to–do parents, 14–15 years old, speaking Russian amongst themselves, dressed in white aprons and black dresses, with combed heads and intertwined long braids. Such beauties one cannot find, encounter, or see in today's modern world. It was only our Jewish daughters who were so charming, our own Yanovers.

Whoever has not seen our Keidainer Street on the holy Sabbath Day in the summer months has never seen beauty. The street was long, straight, and unpaved. There were three steps leading up to the sidewalk, and cherry trees were planted on both sides in the front row. The cherry trees were blossoming in the warm spring, and the entire, straight street was decorated with white blossoms. As the cherries grew, the trees turned green and then red. Such a stroll on that street would lead past the water mill, which milled flour for the Sabbath challos. A narrow path between thick trees wound toward the Dizzy Mountain.

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A forest and a field with shadows of trees, fresh air and the usual aroma of pine trees, and the smell of strawberry gardens refreshed and brought joy to everybody's hearts. Upon that mountain, everybody fulfilled the Sabbath need for joy and beauty that they were seeking.

Bashful brides and grooms, who were afraid of the evil eye – the bride would stroll on Keidainer Street with her girlfriends, and the groom would walk in the same direction with his friends. When the groom encountered the bride on that stroll / he took her by her hand / the embarrassed friends followed the bride and groom / and there was joy and mirth. The young, bashful, Yanover boys on Breizer Street who wanted to guard their eyes from women / ran away or fled / however, one could find the beloved girl with her beloved lad on Dizzy Mountain / and the lovers did not have to wait long or hope fruitlessly / everyone was glad with the Sabbath joy / until one had to return home toward evening.

On the other hand, there were also idealistic youth in Yanova, who were seeking some sort of human accomplishment.

Dizzy Mountain was the best place for the Yanova parties to gather. The pine forest disguised everything. Our Talmud Torah teacher Yachnovitz delivered a speech to all the Jewish parties at a gathering in the forest. I was a member of the S. S. youth[1] along with Shmuelke Brandwein, the son of the Kaplitzer teacher, and Davidka, who worked in Chaim Levin's optical shop. They did not drive us away. Guards were placed to warn if the police were coming. In total, there were six policemen and one police chief in Yanova, but we did manage to put up proclamations with red ink. The guards were to give a signal that we had to separate into small groups. This is how the day of joy for everyone on Dizzy Mountain passed.

When the sun began to get lower upon Dizzy Mountain and the shadows of the trees got longer, everyone set out for home. Everyone could see Yanova from the top of the mountain. The golden sun lit up all the roofs with its last rays /
Whether the house was low or high /
Whether the house was straight or crooked /
The sun lit up everything.

Keidainer Street witnessed the nicest parade. The Jewish youth escorted their Sabbath, dressed up and admirable. Their way home led through Breizer Street, and this was possibly the nicest thing that Breizer Street had ever witnessed – the Jewish youth in their element…

Happy is the eye that saw all this[2].

Translator's Footnotes
  1. This is not the S.S. that is notorious from Nazi times, but rather a pre–war youth movement. Return
  2. This is actually a quote from the Yom Kippur Musaf service, after reminiscing about the Yom Kippur Temple service. Return

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Productivity, Cultural, and Innovations

by Efraim Zilberman (America)

Efraim Zilberman


Jonava was one of the most important and well-rooted Jewish communities in Lithuania. Throughout the 19th century, it quickly developed into a large Jewish settlement on the lovely banks of the Vylia, 30 kilometers northeast of the capital Kovno. As a child I recall how the older generation used to mention with anguish the “great fire” which afflicted the town in 1905. The fire destroyed the entire town in one night. Not long passed before new brick houses and six fine, large Beis Midrashes were built in place of the old wooden houses. Already before the First World War, the population reached 5,000 souls, of which 3,500 were Jews.

In 1915, the Jews of Jonava experienced the decree of the Czarist authorities: in 48 hours they must leave their homes along with all of the Jews of the Kovno Gubernia. The Jews wandered out to various cities in Czarist Russia. Some paused in Vilna and returned to the town immediately after the Germans marched in. After the end of the war in 1918, the rest of the Jews who had gone deep into Russia returned to their Jonava. The rabbi of the town, Rabbi Chaim Yitzchak Silman returned along with important activists of the time such as Reb Abba Pogirsky, Chaim Levin, Shmerl Stern, Yaakov Gloz, and A. Abramson. They began to rebuild Jewish societal life. The Talmud Torah was renovated. It was led by the veteran Hebrew teacher of Jonava Shaul Keidansky. A small Yeshiva was founded, as was a charitable fund for Jewish artisans and shopkeepers which later developed into a large Jewish public bank. A Bikur Cholim (organization for visiting the sick), Linat Tzedek (organization for providing lodging to wayfarers), and other such institutions were founded. Jewish life began to pulsate again in Jonava. Jews also had a majority in the city council. For several years, the mayor of Jonava was the honorable communal activist Reb Chaim Levin.

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Jonava was especially known for its large number of Jewish artisans and laborers. The well-developed center of the Jewish furniture factories in Jonava with their dozens of Jewish carpenters produced modern furniture for all of Lithuania. “Jonaver furniture” was a known item. There were large Jewish sawmills and brick kilns there. Jonava also had a large Jewish match factory called “Oran” and several modern rolling mills in which many Jewish people were employed. Jonava had a “Smith Street” where there were dozens of Jewish smithies which produced worked metals and special light wagons for the Lithuanian marketplace. In addition, Jonava had dozens of Jewish tailors, shoemakers, quilters, tin workers, locksmiths, belt makers, furriers and potters. Jewish hands made all types of things in the town. On account of the Vylia, Jonava also had a large number of barges. Jewish toilers earned their livelihood by binding together and driving the barges. Even the Jonava Jewish wagon drivers and coach drivers were known throughout Lithuania. The town also had a lively, temperamental youth with right and left leaning organizations. The Zionist movement was led with enthusiasm by the veteran Zionist Moshe Ivensky, particularly the years 1923-1925. Many people also immigrated to America and Africa. Jonava also had good sports clubs – Maccabee and Hapoel.


A Maccabee march in the Girialkac Forest


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