Translated by Judie Goldstein
In order to have an idea of the Krinker Kavkaz [mountain], one must imagine the Bialystoker haneykes or the Grodner yurzike [areas of the cities]. In this yurzike I spent a year, while I studied in the Grodno Yeshiva. I supported myself at the yurziker owners and ate days [boarders at the yeshiva were given meals by local families as a good deed] at their homes and I felt as if I was in Kavkaz. This was also an area settled by the poor, in houses built without any planning, one large confusion of narrow streets, mixed up with a few underworld characters.
The Krynki fire broke out on a Friday morning in 1904, on a hot summer day. Yenta's forest burned, and the kids ran to see the fire. First going outside the shtetl, we noticed that Krynki was burning. Engraved in my memory is the image of how the Kavkazer poor were arranged on Vigon, each with his bundle, at the river that ran past Alter Ayon's water mill and that it was late, just before the Sabbath. The wives did not have anything to bless the candles with and they were stretched out along the river and cried aloud.
From the time of the fire our parents started a new chronology and designated each event according to how many years since the great fire.
This was the time when various political organizations began that later had such a great influence on the masses. In the evenings dreamy young girls sat out on the balconies and sang their folk songs, such as: You Love Me But You Do Not Take Me As Your Bride. The Kavkazer young boys were still busy chasing pigeons or directing wars against each other.
Since 1905 these youngster had become unrecognizable. My uncle, Moshe'ke Shmuel Abrahamel the Melamed's, would come to my father, Chaim the carpenter, to discuss overthrowing the Tzar. After the fire Kavkaz revived. Our famous Zshabieh Street was made wider and there were already brick houses there whereas previously no such thing had been seen on those streets. And later, after a long battle between David the Lapinitzer baker and Cheykl Olean, David won the lawsuit and broad Sokolker Street was opened and cut through Zshabieh. Lastly, before the Second World War, the Town Council renamed one of the Kavkazer little streets after I.L. Peretz.
I also cannot forget the constant wars that the Kozoltchik family carried on with the Akhims, a branch of the Kirschner family.
And although Kavkaz was marked with its poor, when the Sabbath or High Holidays arrived, Kavkaz was indistinguishable from the rest. Combed, cleaned up, the Kovkazers sat down at the table as equals with the rich. What they might not have to eat they had in holiday spirit.
I remember my grandfather Shmuel Abrahamel the melamed [teacher], of blessed memory. He always taught about ten to twelve children, from Kavkaz. There was no contract stating when tuition was to be paid. This was not how things were done. My grandfather was forced to go a little hungry. But that is during the week. Should his Sabbath really be so bitter we still have a great G-d, who performed a miracle. My grandfather had the concession for the city eyrev [wire strung around a town to classify it as enclosed private property so object may be carried on the Sabbath] and therefore also the right to go around the city on Friday to collect eyruv money. He would come home tired out just in time to bless the candles but still in time for the Sabbath.
Kavkaz also had its own besmedresh [synagogue, house of study] where almost always the trustee was a wise man. He did not live in Kavkaz. The sexton of the Kavkazer besmedresh was Chaim Ascher. Everybody respected him because he was a scholar. There was a cozy feeling in the besmedresh, not the snobbishness of the large besmedresh of the rich men.
In that atmosphere I spent my childhood and perhaps it left its mark on everything I did later.
After the Krynki fire Kavkaz grew larger and became nicer. But after Hitler's fire there remains only to say: Yisgdal vyiskadash [two first words of the prayer for the dead] mighty and holy is your name, our Krynki.
Krynik lies in a fertile valley, surrounded by crystal clean springs from which a passersby would bend down to drink the refreshing water. Kvaln [springs] were called in our language krenitzes [springs] and from that word came the town's name, Krynik, just as Bialystok because of its white ground, or Halinke because Matys Halinker lived there
Around the shtetl were spread out Prince's Courts. I cannot forget Virion who owned the spring where we would go during the summer. Saturday after cholent [slow cooked stew that was served on the Sabbath for lunch after being kept warm overnight in the bakery oven] we went there to drink and wash our eyes and make bets as to how long we could hold our hands in the cold water. For hours at a time we children would stand around the spring and wonder how it could boil and boil and yet the water was still cold. The Hasidim would go there every Erev Pesach for mayim shelonu [water left standing overnight to be used to knead matzos for Passover] and on the road back they sang Psalms of praise. Ayon and the aristocrat from the city would allow themselves to send even the madmen to the spring to get water for tea.
From the above mentioned spring and from other springs in the area, wound the crystal rivers and spread like a wide lake whose waterfall carried to the Krynik mill the new mill (although a dozen years ago it was already old) and still a lot of mills. It is impossible to calculate the number of ways that this small river would be used. It was used into wash Viryon's sheep and to whiten the gentile's linen; besides them, all the women rinsed their laundry there and my mother would beat my shirt against a rock with a large wooden prianik [Russian: stick].
I still remember the large pack of things that Yankl the dyer would carry to the river to rinse. Quiet, without noise, the river flowed, never raging, never protesting, swallowing everything and going on its way. Even when my grandmother went to wash out a curl, the river did not refuse her. All the filth from the one time dye factories and later the tanneries would be thrown in the river and it would swallow it and continue to flow.
Only once a year, in the spring, would it get angry and over flow its banks and rage with tumult and commotion, and this because it was not able to take in all the water from all the surrounding mountains.
The map of Krynik looked like an inkstand with the ink spilled out onto a sheet of paper: The round marketplace in the center with a row of stores, that lay like a twisted loaf on a large white loaf. In the middle of the stores, a gate. On market days the pickpockets made a living there. The stores, made of clay and twigs, all in the same style, a door with a shutter always open, summer and winter, the roof, with a large overhang with heavy wooden posts to protect the people from rain during markets days or fairs. On both sides of the stores, stalls. From there all kinds of things were sold, from food to ceramic bowls. Around the marketplace taverns, which means large house with still larger stalls in front of the house a rail to tie up animals that the gentiles brought to sell on market days.
From the marketplace the streets and alleys went off in various directions. At the end of every street Christian houses. The street certainly had Russian names, but they were always called by their Yiddish names and nicknames, such as: Mill Street, Sokolker Street, Pottery, Blacksmith, Shishlevitzer, Church Street, The Halinkerkers Street, Government Office Street, Tannery Street, Bath Alley, the Narrow Street, etc.
Krynki also had a Kavkaz and a Tiflis where the palaces were located in our shtetl.
As known to tan leather, tree bark was used. And to get the bark a lot of raw material was used in Krinik. When the factories became larger and a lot more bark was needed, Varion went into business. He bought a strong steam engine, built a large structure and a gigantic stable where there was enough room to store bark for the entire winter. The manufacturers would pay Virion for bark by the pound.
There were not only fires in Krinik I also remember a flood. It happened in the summer of 1902. The weather was beautiful. The wives were rinsing their laundry in the river near Nashelnitze. Suddenly there was a cloud burst from the castle side. This was not just any rain, but a wall of water that went to the mill and took everything with it. The women at the river barely escaped with their lives and the roof of Virian's large stable that was full of bark for the tanneries, was dragged away lying on its side as if it were a hat. Also the bridge near the mill collapsed. For me, then still a small boy, as well as for my friends this was an extraordinarily interesting event, but for Eli the Miller it was destructive. Also for Count Virian this trick of nature cost him money.
The workday in the leather factories, in their first years, would begin at five o'clock in the morning and end at dark during the summer, and nine or ten o'clock at night during the winter. Five minutes after five o'clock in the morning the entrance gates were already closed. This was called farshlofen a frishtik [missing breakfast by sleeping late]. This happened once to me when I worked for Aizik Krushenianer in the factory at Abraham Moshe the mirror faltzer.
I was 11 to 12 years old. One winter night I awake and notice that it is light outside (from the newly fallen snow). The wall clock says, and I think, that is already late. I quickly get dressed and do not even pour water to wash my hands. I run through the deep snow (there was no footpath) to the door of the factory. The door, I see, is closed. I go back home with my head hanging: farshlofen a frishtik. I run into the synagogue and to my surprise the clock says only two o'clock. I put my ear to it the clock is working. I turn back towards home and go back to sleep.
Krinik was an industrial city and as was customary, the factory workers occupied the seat of honor among the laborers in the shtetl. But in Krinik there were also artisans of all kinds: shoemakers, tailors, cabinetmakers, carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, locksmiths and so forth.
This is in order to mention some of them who, before my time, were famous for their great talents. I will begin with the foundation, that is, with Pinchus the mason. His foundations of natural fieldstone were amazing, beautiful and strong. His vaulted cellars were famous throughout the Krinik area: no blazing fire would ever destroy them. While plastering the outside of the Krinker synagogue, he fell along with the scaffold but landed on his feet. During the winter he would drive around as an agent from Israel, on his head a shtraymel [large round hat edged with fur] like a Hasidic rabbi. He was truly a nice man.
The rebuilding of the shtetl after the fire was achieved by a lot of masons: Aizik Herschel, Eli Chaim, Michel and Alter Lantz's, Israel Elisch's etc.
And some of the carpenters were: Shmuel Azshar's, Yosel Motch's, Eli, and the best carpenter in the shtetl, - Meyer Fischel's, a short man with bent shoulders, but a clever craftsman.
Levi the cabinetmaker (Saroki) was the best in his trade in Krinik. He was also an inventor.
The second best cabinetmaker was Eli Meyer Fishel's (Eli Masoliner). His work was fit for a museum. Their names were perpetuated through their work in the Krinik synagogue.
Levi's son, Efrim, was famous in Grodno Province for his ability to draw a rarity among cabinetmakers. Boruch Stoliarski was smarter and had more work than the others.
Israel the blacksmith was the best in his trade. And the best tailor was Itche Vigdor Mendel's. Nachman Velvel Itche's had for dozens of years led the large tailor's trade in Krinik.
The shoemakers Sheyma and Moshe Meyer were artists of their trade. There were also shoemakers in the shtetl that had a name not only as good craftsmen but also for their sense of humor and to play a trick on somebody, so that people would derive pleasure from them.
In olden days the aristocrat and nicest business owner in the shtetl was David Todros's (David Mareyni). His wife, Eda Liba was a daughter of Reb [Mr.] Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar [19th to 20th century Jewish religious movement that stresses moral edification] movement. Reb Israel, while searching for a son-in-law, would also preach in the Krinik synagogue. Once the brass chandelier that hung from a rope over the bima [pulpit] made him so nervous that he shortened his speech.
The city had once gotten its preacher, Hershele Dubrover, excited. The common people had him really sacrificed for him. One of his students had once in the large besmedresh yelled out loud:; So, will the rabbi not question our decision? What he meant was, decide the question.
Krinik also had a pious man, Reb Yosele, of blessed memory, and a miracle worker Aizik Benyamin Zelig's.
There were a lot of Hasidim in our shtetl, followers of a variety of rabbis such as Slonimer, Kotzker, Cobriner, Carliner, Novo-Minsker and Stoliner. The Stoliner Rabbi, Reb Smuel'ke would visit Krinik twice a year, as well as the Kobriner, Reb Machum.
Cantors did not have too much luck in Krinik. The shtetl always paid good wages to the rabbi and the ritual slaughters, but a cantor was like a firth wheel on a wagon. When one would arrive in Krinik for a Sabbath, everyone would pray at the first minion [quorum of ten men] make kiddush, [benediction pronounced on bread or wine on Sabbaths] eat well and go to hear the cantor. He might have been the best cantor but they all ruined it going feh, feh!
In Krinik there was a custom that Friday before the evening parshe [portion of the Pentateuch] bhelusach, the holy tunes would be played in the synagogue. The custom went back a long time, but the Rabbi Reb Boruch annulled the custom, because it made the women late for candle lighting.
Krinik was the only shtetl that owned a chapel, and everyone in the area would make use of it.
The revolutionary movement in Krinik drew young people as members. People would laugh at these revolutionary youth and tell several funny stories about them. For example, young girls would not scrape potatoes, because Nikolai is the Tzar, or that one called for the freeing of the hens from the hen house, and other stories like this.
The Krinik community leaders scarcely thought about the working masses. So they would not invite the artisans to the meetings about city business.
But the shtetl had common people who would not be led by the nose. They would prove that the community leaders were arranging city business in a way that was liable to be unjust to the labor masses, for example by taking over the meat tax, the yeast tax, or the bath - soon there was an outcry, as if the heavens had opened. They already called a stop to the reading of the law in order to call the attention of the worshippers to these grievances and created a terrible scandal. Leading them was Yosel Yekels and after some derision, Krinik became happy.
Yankl Yehuda the blacksmith was especially distinctive. It was his custom to immediately turn to the rabbi. He prayed with the first minion, ate a large onion or garlic and left for Reb Boruch's. The rabbi, only just awakened, wrapped in his morning gown, sits down in his armchair to receive Yankl Yehuda. He yells Good morning, rabbi!, reaches with both his hands for the arms of the chair and loudly rattles off the entire story for the rabbi. Reb Boruch begs him: I am a sick man, leave me alone! But Yankl Yehuda does not quit: Rabbi, you must listen to me from a to z! And that is what he did day after day.
His son Lipa, was a different type: He did not get mixed up in community business. He would drink liquor and go to sleep.
One winter morning, when it was burning cold, he went intoxicated from the monopoly [a place that sold liquor], to creep near Motl Staike's on the large stone, took off his boots and called out: Thank G-d, at last I am home on the oven!
Also Leyb the writer (Leybe Furie) was a modern kind of man. In the course of a dozen years he taught the Krinki young boys and girls to write Yiddish letters. He was the Yiddish writer in the shtetl. People would say: Writing is good in this world and studying is for the world to come.
About Yudel Bertchekov's, the joker of the city, one could write an amazing book. His witticisms were heard everywhere and all of Krinik delighted in them.
In Krinki one would call a resident, even a respected citizen, by his original, private given name. At least one and perhaps two names would be added. So, for example, the writer of this article was called Avrahamele Itche Schachne's. Almost everyone was called by three names and not necessarily with a surname. Take for example my neighbors. They were called: Abrahaml Herschl Berl's, Niome Velvel Itche's, Moshe Chona Faivel's, Chatskel Abraham Tzale's, Zelig Shlomo Rubin's, Leibe Mordchai Shimele's, Zeydke Libe Rashke's, Shimon Jankl Alik's, Yankl Mordchai Slomo's, Yankl Moshe Avraham's, Avrahaml Mote Irye's, Shiya Shmuel Moshake's, Avrahaml Meyer Leyb's, Chatskel Leybe Esterke's, David Avraham Leybl's, Velvel Chona Paya's, Efrim Leybke Shmaya's, and Toybe Chana Chaya's. Others were called by four names like Pinie Minie Faygel Yehoshie's.
How did Krinki children spend their free time? Friday, for half the day and on the Sabbath after lunch, they went to Virian's forest, the woods, and Yenta's orchard. Summer they bathed in Virian's pond and during the winter skated on the lake and then went to the besmedresh to warm up. At the end of the summer they would pick chestnuts near Yenta's courtyard. Sabbath evenings the children would go for a walk on Shislevitzer Street to welcome the sheep and animals during their return from their pasture in the fields.
The last years before the First World War Krinki blossomed with its leather industry and with its great rich men. But the greatest honor was obtaining for our shtetl the Maltcher Yeshiva that was located in the Kavkazer besmedresh. The gemore [volume of the Talmud] tunes resounded from there day and night. Krinki on one side was then full of freethinking young men with shaved chins who were full of revolutionary ideas; and on the second side, religious young men, growing beards. A lot of them later went over to the tannery camp, having been infected with mutiny and left their studies.
Krinik had a large number of mentally ill. The most intelligent of them was Meyerim (I will explain about him separately). There were also other types in the shtetl that during Purim or Simchas Toyrah would be in a jolly mood. Leybe Motche's and Shmuel for example, would turn over the kapotes [long, black coats worn by Orthodox Jews] to the left side, put on hats, creep up onto a stall and call into the synagogue. Leybe Motche's would then use the opportunity to talk to the rabbi or the wealthy men about a scholarly matter.
Krynki, like other towns, had its share of dark people, the inferiors of the Jewish community, operators and thieves who would steal anything from a hinge to a horse. The thieves were grouped in gangs, each with its rabbi and they never betrayed each other and never took over each other's living.
One of the famous ones was Henoch Hillke's. Once he arrived in Zelve for a fair and made good business, filing his pockets with the merchandise. In the end people looked around and knew that a Krinker was there at the fair. They immediately chased after him with a couple of good horses and Henoch was brought back to Zelve to the rabbi. They would not give a Jew over into gentile hands, unless they were absolutely certain that he was the thief.
The rabbi ordered a hearing. So he was brought to the synagogue so that he could swear on a Torah scroll. Henoch went up to Holy Ark, opened the curtains and in a loud voice screamed: Torah! Torah! Defend your honor! People want a hearing for Reb Henoch son of Hillke he is accused of being a thief! The people heard it all and they were very frightened and Reb Henoch son of Hillel was set free. From then on the name Krinker Thief meant smart.
These dark people would be the Purim actors in the shtetl and in other presentations. Who does not remember the King with the Horse, Rabbi Refol with the paper crown, and Mayer Aba with the drum?
We also had informers who would betray the revolutionary activists to the government. Several of them were active on the Tsar's side at the beginning of the twentieth century. One of them, made his living from freeing those arrested after he had betrayed them.
Also in the twentieth century there was in Krinki a nasty informer, Yankl Kopel the ozshiranktchik, who served as a secret agent for the police. He would get money from everyone he could and if people did not cough up he would inform on them saying this one is a Communist and he would be taken off to jail. Later when the Polish government found about his antics, he was arrested and they wanted to be rid of him. But he managed to escape and hide.
The only doctor in the shtetl was Pan [Polish: lord] Jejkovski. He thought of himself as a professor and his practice also included the surrounding towns, such as Brestovitz, Amdur and also all the courts and villages.
A sick person would turn to him when all the other healers and remedies had failed. It would often happen that it was already too late and the doctor could not help.
When the Krinki population grew and Dr. Jejkovski was older, the government built a hospital outside the city. Naturally, Dr. Jejkovski moved over there and it was too difficult for him to make house calls in the city. Krinki found a doctor, a young man, but the people did not have faith in an untried doctor and so they would run to the old one. Very often he would tell them to go to the doctor in the city.
You have a doctor he would say it does not matter, he is good; when he will have put a few people in the cemetery through his mistakes, like I did, then he will be an even better doctor.
In Krinki there was also a Jewish doctor Goldberg. He was called the lupatch, because he had thick lips. He was a pious Jew, and would pray everyday in the besmedresh. But he did not make a living and he left Krinki.
While he was packing his furniture and piano, I got the courage to ask him why he was leaving us. His answer was that a doctor in Krinki was like being an organ grinder: he stands in front of the house or a courtyard, and plays various melodies. Whoever has God in his heart, waits for a penny and if not then the organ grinder gets tired of playing and goes away.
You, Krinkers, he claimed, wait until the Sabbath for a visit when I must not take any money and you must not give any. So if somebody has God in their heart they would pay me during the week. But some pretend they do not know, and others forget entirely. So I must say 'adieu' to your Krinki.
The city also had a pharmacist and a pharmacy but at Cyvia Mzik's stall there were more medicines than at the two pharmacists together.
There was also a midwife who had finished a course of studies, the Polish Stepanovshtchikhe. Also there was a grandmother, Miriam Reyzel, Moshe the cantor's wife. Every Purim she would send her children a lollipop as shalakhmones [gifts exchanged by friends and neighbors on Purim]. She was always afraid of a Jewish competitor. As it happened one of Eli the miller's daughters went to Vilna to study and came back a certified midwife with a diploma, dressed in a nice cape and a hat.
Miriam Reyzel saw her as a strong competitor, so she played a dirty trick and the young woman had to run away from the city in the middle of the night without her cape.
Also no branch of medicine was missing in Krinki: from exorcising the evil eye, to getting rid of a toothache, fear, swellings and doing cupping (drawing blood).
A patient used all these old wives' remedies and if they did not help then the patient would go to a healer. There were a lot of these healers in Krinki: Piave the healer, Abraham Meyer Piave's, Motl the healer, Yankel Motl, Shimon Ber the healer, Simcha the barber-surgeon and Feyshke the barber.
Pan Jejkovski, the Krinki doctor was a tall Christian with a thick Polish mustache and a fat, red nose. Exactly how old he was, nobody knew. Old Jews claimed that he was a specialist, only G-d help us, nobody should need him. He was never alone and walked slowly.
On a summer, Sabbath during the day, while walking through the Jewish streets, to call on a Jewish patient, all the children would welcome him with a good Shabes The children would take off their hats and he would give them each a pat on the head to inspect them to see if a child is clean or not. He always got along well with them.
For a visit he would charge thirty kopecks. He would not take any money from a patient who he knew could not pay this amount. Furthermore, in the besmedresh it was said that for poor women who had given birth he brought a hen and a bottle wine. And people delighted in telling these stories and to be sure the Pan Doctor is one of the pious among the gentiles and after his death he will be allowed into the Garden of Eden.
The Krinki Jewish Community Council paid him one hundred rubles a year as a reward for his unpaid visits to the poor. Customarily at the end of the year the Council would pretend that they did not have any money for him. This would start a lot of trouble in the shtetl. Poor Jews would stand for hours, with hats in hand, at his closed door. Jewish women would be screaming and crying that their daughters were having a difficult labor and he had to come to save them this minute. But the Pan doctor would not move. He would only say: Go to the Council. They have to pay me what they owe. There was turmoil in the shtetl. Some ran to the rabbi and others to the councilmen. This did not help. So they used an old Jewish solution: that means they did not allow prayers and readings on the Sabbath; The men did not leave the bima [pulpit] until the rabbi and several responsible men said that they would settle with the Pan doctor the next day.
The majority created such a tumult even during the cold, dark winter days when the wet penetrated the small, poor huts and one could not get rid of diseases. After the obstacle of reading the law, the next evening, Jews were seen going out in the deep mud with large lanterns in their hands and behind them, in high galoshes, was the Pan doctor, singing quietly a Polish song, on the way to visit the poor.
With the outbreak of the First World War, the Pan doctor was activated and we never saw him again. People said that he died in Russia alone. If he went to the Garden of Eden, nobody knows to this day.
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