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[Page 49]

Old Kryvitsh Lights Up In My Memory

By Yehoshua Katzovitch

Translated by Emma Zahler

Edited by Dale Rosengarten, great-niece of the author

Memories of my beloved little home town are many-faceted mirrors: From afar a vision will appear, an incident may reverberate in my ears, an event once heard described – all suddenly become illuminated. A mysterious power carries me far away –

Honored editor!

Our very own well-known Menachem-Mendl[1] would probably have expressed it differently and written it better. But since I am not Menachem-Mendl and you are not Sholem Aleichem, this fervent infatuation of mine for Kryvitsh will be worded in the manner of Shya Katzovitch – a simple man. How this much-loved little home town is remembered, how it looked and how it felt to live there – Kryvitsh – How tiny you were in the great wide world. And how great loomed the world outside. And yet, at the same time, the world is small as well.

Thus I recall, and imagine – Kryvitsh, Novo-Sibirsk, Tashkent, Tsimkent and Sanok – Vilna, Warsaw – all of this from an ordinary man from Kryvitsh, all this to be packed into a little book. Perhaps it is presumptuous of me to assume the task of portraying my home town, as it looked in the last decades of the nineteenth century – from tales I heard as a boy, as I saw it with my own eyes while I went to school, and later as a young adult up to the time of the first World War.

In the last half of the nineteenth century, Kryvitsh had a street which was a “vyorst” in length (about 2/3 of a mile) and ran from the Russian public school past the Polish Catholic church to the south, up to the Greek Orthodox church of the Byelorussians at the north end. Then there were a few houses beyond the Polish church on the right side. And, even in those days, there was a bridge from that road over the river Servetsch, leading to Dolhinev-Kraysk – a town in the vicinity of Minsk, which, after the first World War, remained a Russian Territory. A bit farther on, after a few scattered houses, you reached a square, which intersected the long street. On the right there was Bath Street, on the left, the Miadler Street. The aforementioned long street reached our little town all the way from Molodetshne, Vilayke, Kurenitz, and Gayke or “Givki” – a Jewish colony of agricultural workers. Then it went on past Kryvitsh Boyd, Dakshitz, Glubak, Polotsk.

Railroads around Kryvitsh did not exist at that time. Until 1905, the nearest train line was the Molodetshne-Smargon run, a spur of the Vilna-Minsk line. In the year 1903, the rail line from Lide to Polotsk was begun. This line was to encompass the towns of Vilayke, Kurenitz, Boyd, Dakshitz, and Glubok – all the way to Polotsk.

Up until the days of railroad construction, Kryvitsh was, like all the other little towns, in the grip of desolate poverty. The years, then, of railroad employment provided a measure of livelihood and led to expansion of business. In this way, my little home town benefitted and grew as well.

At the end of the nineteenth century, our little town was only sparsely populated. Chaim-Mordkhe Toyger's great grandfather on his mother's side, Hoyshe (Yehoshua) Shulman, back at the end of the eighteenth century, had built an inn with stables, halfway along the road, where wayfarers could find a place to rest for themselves and their horses. There had already been built at a corner opposite, a tavern and a stable, belonging to the Kryvitsh manor itself. This tavern was managed as a lease-hold from the lord of the manor by a Jewish innkeeper. When I was a young boy (at the beginning of our century), one of Hoyshe's sons, Mendl Shulman, was the lease-holder of the manor tavern. Soon the third corner of the street was occupied by Joel-Shloyme Gindlin, a son of Gindlin, the dairy lease-holder of Berozovke. At the fourth corner, Leybe Bunimovitch built a house and settled there at about the same time. These four houses represented the pattern of the town and typified its appearance at the end of the last century.


How a little town grows

The land area occupied by the town itself as well as significant plots surrounding it were all owned by the nobleman, the lord of the Kryvitsh manor. From time [to] time, such land areas would be surveyed by employees of the lord at requests of prospective clients who were considering settling in the region and possibly building houses with space allowed (according to financial means) for gardens or farms. Some of these home-owners had built their homes on inherited lands which reached all the way to our river, all the way to the Servetsh river. Of course, annual tolls had to be paid, in proportion to the area that was used.

My grandfather, Arye-Leyb, may he rest in peace, as I heard tell – had actually been a factotum of the lord's, because he was a good builder of houses and other types of structures. It was from him that my father, Yitzkhok-Yakob, may he rest in peace, learned his skills. Because of his building talents and blessedly gifted hands, my grandfather received an entire acre of land from the lord. This land was adjacent to the large fruit orchard which belonged to the Polish Catholic church. His payments were only two rubles a year.

Down, closer to the river stood a small, primitive bath house, where men and boys used to come to wash and bathe. Actually, this bath house was used chiefly by women for ritual immersion, since it received very little use during the summer. One bathed in the river. In the winter, because of a shortage of wood, the bath house was not heated by Yacob, the proprietor. But, for the women customers, it was necessary to warm up the “mikve.” As a result, the poor men had to wait to use the bath house until the spring, before Passover.

The lord of the Kryvitsh manor, in those days, and the owner of the town, was a great card player, as well as a great “womanizer.” He would pursue “skirts” at any expense, and money would be no object. It is clear to see that a man with those two “virtues” could never have enough money. Even treasures and entire fortunes would not suffice. In short, what's the use of talking? This profligate life-style of his brought him into complete bankruptcy. He no longer possessed the financial means with which to conduct the manor with its expenses as well as the whiskey distillery, which used potatoes as its basis. He was forced to give up his entire fortune and land holdings, the manor as well. The entire property was taken over by a Jew, Liberman was his name. Whether that was his family name or his given name is not clear to me. And neither do I know from whence he came to us. It seems to me that a more authoritative account could be provided by Yehoshua Arye-Leybs – Haym Toygets son-in-law, who was a great grandson of Libermans.[2]

The new estate manager, Liberman, soon presented himself as a brilliant administrator who ruled the entire estate together with the distillery, knew every detail of the tax system, with a sharp eye and an iron hand. He saw to it that all his directives and orders were carried out promptly. In the course of a brief period of time, our Jew, Liberman, became the factual master of the town, of the manor, and of its fields and surrounding woods. He had arrived in town with a large family with far-flung branches, together with a tutor for the children and even with a ritual slaughterer (a shokhet).

His blessed organizational ability, his efficiency, and expertise in commercial matters, his dexterity in financial dealings, as well as his clear-headed business sense, all helped swiftly to pull the estate business from out of the mire. His business dealings went brilliantly. All of the above mentioned talents of his were productive for our little town as well. He contributed greatly to its growth and prosperity – as my subsequent lines will make vividly clear.

He expanded employment opportunities for Jews; recruited many of them to work on the estate, in the fields, and in the woods. He was concerned for the livelihood of the everyday Jew … Here I must mention an entirely extraneous factor – one concerning a military decree, which had the effect of attracting many Jews to our town and actually doubling our population. It was in matters like these that Liberman was instrumental both directly and indirectly.

Worthy editor! When you read “Tevye” by Sholem Aleichem, and you reach the portion[3] “Go!” and “And so they traveled,” then it is certainly no literary invention and no poetic trick designed to make you laugh. It is of a true, full-blooded life reality that the great Sholem Aleichem was able to tell us – with his good wise smile and the tear in his eye. The reality was that all the bitterness of life did not ever cease to be bitter, all the woes and calamities really were calamities, but we read and we laugh without collapsing and bursting. Sholem Aleichem speaks to us out of Tevye's mouth about events which shattered and destroyed Jewish lives, uprooted and driven from their dwellings and their livelihoods and

“and they traveled.”…

It is about these evil decrees, the resulting conditions and events that I, Shaye Katzovitch, will tell in the coming lines.

Many years before I was born, a military decree was issued by the Russian Czar, driving out all the Jews from the rural villages in which they lived and earned their livelihood. They were forced to move to cities and towns. From my reading of history, I gathered that this decree went into effect at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was to have been implemented completely between 1804 and 1808. However, even the authorities became uneasy at times, seeing how difficult this task would be. Exceptions were permitted here and there. Some Jews were allowed to settle on farms in the “new Russian areas,” that is, those which were annexed after the Russo-Turkish war, like Kherson, around the Black Sea, and farther.

This decree was never actually abolished, but from time to time, it was observed only in the manner of a “law without power.” Periodic reviews carried on perfunctorily resulted in continuation.

And now I come to the weekly Torah portion “Go!” and “Travel,” this time into Kryvitsh. This took place, I was told in the eighties or the nineties, the last quarter of the nineteenth century. At that time, the great influx occurred, from the rural areas into Kryvitsh. “Each Jew together with his belongings.” I will attempt, in my own way, to recount who, what, and from whence, this “travel” took place into our little town. (I am not even certain that this was in my own earliest years.)

Leybe Katzovitch and Todres Sud together with their families came out of the village Zadubiyeniye, five vyorsts from our town. Reuben and his son Eliahu and family out of the village Filipke, and this started bringing in an entire dynasty of Filipkers. Together with their goods, the family Mayer out of the village of Lahoyke. Leybe had come with his son Berl out of the village, Yazne. Tzvi-Hersh Katzovitch came out of the village Frudnike. And there you have Yehuda Nafta and Moshe-Abraham Koydonov. Dan Taytz, a shoe-maker from the village Motzky, Moshe Nofe, the blacksmith, also from Motzky. Dov-Ber from the village Zdrelevitsh had also heard the call to all Israel – Berl the Zdrelevitsher. Many others float up in one's memory: Abraham Mordecai, the shoemaker, out of the village Churtoy – Abraham Yitzkhok with an old father from Churtoy, and also Itzkhok Meltzer as well, from Horodzishtze and Shmuel out of Nievieri. Then there was a Katzovitch family – a mother with three sons and daughters from the village Sivtze.

All of these above-mentioned arrived in our town with their large families – which in turn, spun out still more new families and suddenly we began to feel crowded – especially in the tiny little synagogue of ours which had been built even earlier than the sixties of the nineteenth century – as I had heard tell. Let's not forget that among these newcomers were genuine Judaic Torah scholars, not simple riff-raff. And how could such a populus [populace] live out their lives as Jews without a suitable synagogue and a study house? And here we are faced with such crowding. Then, children of Israel, what does one do? As one can understand, a group of the most responsible citizens convened and considered alternatives. And they noted: After all, there existed in this community, a Jewish prince, the lord Liberman. That certainly was nothing to sneeze at. And thus, they went directly to this source, to request his help in this serious matter. “Otherwise, whence cometh our help?” If not, these Jews would not be able, God forbid, to carry out their commandments … And actually, that is what took place. Liberman responded, received them graciously, and acceded to requests. It was a matter of “said, and done!” In the early winter days, trees were cut down in the forest, and brought into town. In the course of the summer months, the building of the lovely study house in a new location on Miadler Street was completed. It was bright and joyous. Now there was enough space for all those newly-arrived in the little town, as well as for travelers from courts, settlements, and villages nearby. Because there remained a few lucky ones, who, thanks to a series of fortunate circumstances, managed to avoid that bitter decree of “Go!” and “Travel!” The noblemen landowners in their areas, some felt that they could not manage without these Jews, and thus, they remained, for the time being. These fortunate ones did not need loans, did not have to resort to buying and selling. As a result, the noblemen appointed some of these Jews as economists (accountants), record keepers, factors, managers, etc.

Among these, for example, were Gershon Martzinova and his son Aaron-Kopl in Pokutsch; Zalman Gutman (Berkes) and his father, Shmuel-Leybe in Motik; Meyer Beres – in Borovik, and still others. For the holidays and Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur (the days of awe), all of the latter would come into our town and contribute to the festivities – “the greater the crowd, the greater the joy.”

Anyone who never saw these festivities and the joy at the completion of the new study house could never have seen a happier time in Kryvitsh. This is what has been related. Unfortunately, we cannot establish exactly when this took place. I may not yet have been brought into this sinful world at that time. Told as a sort of legend, by my parents, they related, that that Rosh Hashonah and the following holidays, our own lord Liberman and his family, including his sons and daughters, daughters-in-law, sons-in-law, and grandchildren, came down from their estate into our town. And every Sabbath and holiday of the year. In subsequent years, he continued to come down, but not as frequently, and with less festivity. As for the old synagogue, which had been too small to serve the enlarged town population, it was turned into a sanctified rest home to give shelter to any indigent traveler. The place was fenced in to keep out stray cows and goats. One particular Jew, Rafael-Yitzkhok, took on the supervision of the place, and saw to it that the needs inside as well as outside were cared for.

The newly arrived inhabitants of the town soon became established, putting down roots. Marriages were arranged, engagement contracts were signed, and weddings performed. Here is a true story I heard tell: Berl Zdrelevitsher had a fine son – his name was Mendl – well built and mature. The ritual slaughterer[4] of Kryvitsh, Zalmen-Sholem (I don't remember his family name) had an eye on young Mendl, and began inquiring about him, and making efforts to attract him to his home. Of course, this was all intended in the long run to “purchase” him for a son-in-law. Zalmen-Sholem, the shokhet, was also a fine cantorial singer. At the beginning, he would tutor Mendl by himself. He taught him midrash as well as cantorial technique. Later he sent him to study at seminaries in Vilna, Warsaw, and Koenigsberg with the greatest cantors of the day. Coming back to Kryvitsh, after he was crowned by his professors as qualified cantor, he married the shokhet's daughter (who was not quite fit) and became the town cantor of Polotzk. A few years later, the Jewish community of Dvinsk hired him as their town cantor.

Many years later, I, the writer of these long-forgotten chapters, had occasion to meet Reb Mendl, the town cantor of Dvinsk. At that time, Reb Mendl was already quite an old man, while I was a young man. This was just after the first World War. I met him right in Dvinsk. I had remembered him from his two visits to our little town to act as prayer-leader in our study house, when I was quite a young child. At that time, he stayed as a guest at the home of relatives. At that time, he had already been married for the second time, as I heard tell.

And so the town grew steadily, struggling with poverty and need; within the narrow confines of this place there was truly no room for the development of a broader economic base. Despite this, together with daily shortages and difficulties, there grew an urban settlement. Life welled up, sparks of hope lit up. A faith and confidence glowed. It was the “one in heaven” who would continue to help, and thus the constant spinning of Jewish tradition. Already at that time, people were aware of each individual's responsibility for his fellow-man. It had to be one for all and all for one … otherwise it would have been impossible. No one was permitted to fall – if help could possibly be forthcoming. This is how marriages were planned, new families were created. Organizations were set up to advance financial aid to needy brides, to help the poor, to adjudicate disputes. An institution was established with the purpose of aiding needy individuals for Sabbaths and holidays.

Newly-arrived people helped with everything. Understandably, there were among them, individuals who were needy as well. Our wealthy philanthropist, Liberman, helped us. But things do not always happen as people would like. It is a matter of fate. Sometimes, God helps one to arrive at a high degree of economic success and suddenly everything slips away, and all goes with the “butter side down,” down hill … Liberman fell seriously ill, and traveled to distant regions to seek a cure. Without his supervision, his vigilant eye, his daily administrative orders, the business began to fall apart, to founder and to sink. After a while he turned dangerously ill and died. Sunk in debts and obligations, the far-branching family split up and fell apart. His son with married children remained in the town Dunilovitch with Liberman's wife. There in Dunilovitch, Liberman had owned another estate – Michalin. Why, actually did they decide to remain in Dunilovitch? I don't know. One of the Liberman daughters, Mariasha, and her husband Bunimovitch – a great scholar with a large family, remained in Prudnik near Kryvitsh next to a water-mill which Liberman himself had built. Many years later, this mill, after passing through several heirs, became my property.

Everyone in town knew this rule: When God gives, he sometimes [gives] much, and sometimes not forever. One must always be alert to the possibility of ruin.


Oh, livelihood!

How does one earn a living? Where does one obtain enough to celebrate the Sabbath and have a bit left over for the rest of the week? How to earn a livelihood, that chasing after a bit of bread for wife and children? These questions were the constant companions of the Jews in the town – ever since my earliest childhood memories up until the bitter end … It's easy to say – that livelihood is earned mutually, one from the other. But in reality, things do not work that way. Simply, because the next man is also in need … Can a pile of crumbs make a loaf? Can the hollow fill up by itself? So, where does one go to get the wherewithal for a living?

Before World War I, market days occurred very infrequently: almost not at all, or perhaps at most two or three times a year, as I recall. The weekly markets began only after the first World War, and were an important basis of the economic life of the town and a major source of earnings for the majority of the Jews. During my earliest years of my own childhood, and later, when I had to go away to do my military service for the Czar, it was only the skilled craftsmen who possessed the means to earn the few “gilden” needed, right in their own homes. However, the great majority of Kryvitsh Jews were not craftsmen. And so, a course of peddling, brokering, and dragging around in the neighboring villages developed. Sometimes, a Jew would go to a village where he was known, possibly having once lived there, and the peasants would know him and offer him a place to spend the night, give him a baked potato, or maybe a glass of milk and a piece of bread. The goal here, in these village houses, was to collect hoar-bristles, perhaps a calf-hide, or a little calf. Sometimes, there was a pole-cat which a farmer had caught in a trap. This is how many Jews spent the week, in search of earnings for his livelihood, wandering amid villages. It was not until Thursday evening or Friday morning at the latest, that they returned home with their collection of “merchandise.” On Sunday mornings, and sometimes even late Saturday night, came one “Alseiler” (Yehiel, as I remember his name) who bought and sold everything. He would collect the goods and hand over the few gilden they were owed, making it possible for them to return to the villages the following week, and still to have a bit left for the needs of the family. Peddlers of this sort were called by the names of the villages in which they did business, like Leybe Brushier, or Todres Zadubener, etc.

In addition to peddling, crafts, and small business, all wretched livelihoods, almost everyone had a garden of some sort near his house – some were larger, some smaller, a goat or two sometimes. Only rarely was there a cow. Right after Passover, peasants used to arrive with their carts and horses, and with their plows and harrows, and they readied our gardens. This was their way of earning something. They could be hired to do their work for a measure (quart) of salt, or a flask of naphtha. This is how great the poverty was. “As the Christians fare, so fare the Jews.”

So that, by several weeks before Shabuoth [Shavuot], everything was ready to plant – potatoes, carrots, turnips, beets, cucumbers, cabbage, onions, peas, beans – and everyone looked up at the sky and hoped for rain – so that the crops would be ready that much sooner. In the month of Ab (July-August) we began to eat the produce of our hard work, that of all the family members sharing the tasks. We reaped our crops and we had food to eat, and even to sell. We exported a bit, especially sour pickles and sourkraut [sauerkraut] – a small supplement to our earnings.

It was during the summer that we had opportunities to earn a bit. At the beginning of Tamuz (June-July), the mushroom season started in the surrounding forests. And if there was a good bit of rain, we couldn't afford to miss the opportunity to take advantage of the prolific mushroom crop. Women, girls, and children set out to the woods to harvest the mushrooms. Everyone knows that mushrooms depend on luck – some people are able to find them sooner, others later, some gather more, others less. Altogether, quite a significant quantity of mushrooms was gathered. In the evenings, when the cattle come back from the pasture, our mothers at home began to sort out the different kinds of mushrooms we brought home – yellow “lisitzchkes,” “padasinofkes,” and “borovikes” (these were the best: dark brown on top, and delicate velvet-white beneath.) It was the latter variety that we used to dry out, and hang in garlands for the winter. We obtained quite a good price for the ones we sold at export, to towns like Vilayke, Smargon, or Vilna. There were, of course, some poisonous varieties which had to be discarded. We children did not yet know how to distinguish between the poisonous and non-poisonous sorts. Our mothers used to roast the yellow “lisitzches” and cook them with a few young potatoes, add a bit of milk, or perhaps even some cream, and it was the most delicious meal in the world.

At about the same time, or perhaps somewhat later, we used to get up early (without even saying our morning prayers) and dash out to the woods to pick berries. The Kastivitzer forest was an inexhaustible source of blackberries and later, wild strawberries. But this used to cost us. It was necessary to obtain a “note,” that is, permission, to enter and to leave the forest. The season fee for this was two gildens, for either an individual or a family. We used to come home in the evenings, exhausted and bent over from the weight of the heavy baskets. On our way out of the forest, the overseer would be there, checking to see whether we had our “notes.” If anyone ever tried to sneak in with[out] a “note,” he would be caught by the guard, and would be given enough about which to “sing and to say.” … There was no shortage of woes.

Soon came the autumn months. Families would begin to prepare for the winter. We would go through the process needed to manufacture sourkraut [sauerkraut] for our own use as well as for export. Barrels of cabbage would receive additions of cranberries, a delicious variety of pear, called “sapezhonke,” and also whortleberries. Other barrels would contain cucumbers being cured in bay-leaves, dill and brine. We used to sit during the long evenings and shell beans, peas, and lima beans. Across the entire house, from one wall to the other, hung garlands of onions. In the oven, carrots and plums would be drying out slowly to provide for the Sabbath “tsimes,” over the course of the winter. The interiors of our houses would turn dark, even in the middle of the day, from the dense fog created by the steam. Opening a door, one would be greeted by the dark of Egypt![5] The odors and scents of the herbs filled the air and it was warmly pleasant and fragrant.

Despite all these business deals and “export” possibilities, together with supplements to our incomes, with all these gifts, there were very few blessings. It was the lack of easy rail transport that curtailed our opportunities. It was the greatest concern of every family how to cope with the winter – and not only regarding food. We were more or less supplied with food. It was a problem, how to obtain the few gildens needed to buy some necessities like a cartful of wood. This was needed for cooking and for heating up the stove, called a “hruba,”on top of which children often slept. That was difficult to obtain, very difficult. But everyone somehow finds a way. “Never give up hope.” At every opportunity, a couple of good pious women, with red kerchiefs on their heads, got together, pooled their resources, and bought a load of wood which they distributed to needy families, to ailing widows – once, and yet again, all winter long.

Just as it was a difficult problem to obtain heating in the winter, thus it was with getting a bit of meat for the Sabbath, or perhaps, sometimes during the week. Only a few Jews kept cattle. Young calves would be born during the months of Tebeth, Oder, or Shvat (December, January, February to March). Why actually in these months? The answer must come from mother Nature herself.

After permitting the calf to be with its mother for eight or ten days, it would be brought to slaughter. The thigh muscle (sinew of the femoral vein) together with the entire hind-quarter was bought up by Gentiles – sometimes by the priest, or by the organist of the Orthodox Church, or by the secretary of the town council, or by some other official – for a ridiculously low price. The kosher parts, although, would be kept by the shokhet for his own use. Sometimes a Jew would actually buy a calf in the market, and there would be a bit of meat to eat. Those Jews who were not very prosperous would buy the giblets – the innards, such as the lung, liver, and spleen, together with the tripe, the feet, the head, and all – for only one gilden. Those who could afford it bought up a whole side of the veal and would be well provided with meat for the Sabbath and for the entire week. Merchants and skilled craftsmen even could afford the price of a cartload of wood. And, … thus passed the winter.

For us children free time was often dull and gloomy. There were not enough diversions. Of course, one had to attend to the daily prayers, even to study a page or two of the Mishna (laws), to read a bit of Ein Ya'aquov (a collection of Talmudic legends), in addition to the obligatory “kheder,” but there wasn't much to do for diversion around the house. Only at Khanukah, was there a bit of authorized card-playing and dreydl. Even this could become boring.

But as children we never suffered from boredom. Mischievously, we always found ways to have fun – we would play with buttons, beans, and nuts. Girls drew pictures and played with pebbles. Out of doors, boys played with sticks which they threw at improvised targets. Gangs of boys would play at “war” with one another, but never with malice. Sometimes, a boy would have a snowball or a rock hit him in the head. To this day, I myself bear a healed scar on my forehead – testimony of a wound inflicted by a piece of wood containing a nail, which a pal of mine threw at me in the course of one such “war.” My father was furious, and my mother nursed my forehead with cold water from the well for a long time. Hishia Arye Leyb's uncle Abraham Aaron took over the task of nursing my wound. He would dip a cloth into a little bottle, and apply it to my forehead. To me it felt no different from the cold water used by mother, but three or four weeks of his treatments actually healed my wound.


Types and Images

Years passed quickly. No longer was I a child, nor was I an adolescent. I was an adult, and suffered no sense of inferiority. In fact, I had become independent, a thriving forest merchant. As I stood in the woods one day, I suddenly had a feeling that I was experiencing a vision. Looking around, I heard sounds, echoes, and colors I had never before noticed. I could not understand how I even deserved to experience such a vision, feeling sinful and vacuous. It was a sort of natural phenomenon filled with such delightful colors, stormy sights, and sounds – that might have found description somewhere in an ode in the literature of the world. In short, there I stood, admiring God's little world. The sun was illuminating the entire forest, rains had freshened the trees. Yet all the trees were varied and differentiated. Some were tall, erect trees, not bent over like giant men might be, and their highest green branches were covered with leaves thickly like heavy forelocks. Yet here and there among them, stood puny little trees, with crooked and twisted branches, like question marks. As for the questions, “why is it so?” “How is this possible?” I remain with no answer.

Again and again an unanswered question surfaces in memory. As in several decades ago, I asked, and still ask: “How is it possible? How come? How then?” During the time when old Kryvitsh was so impoverished, when Jews in the town were abysmally poor, suddenly there developed two wealthy Jews, grown rich and powerful overnight. One of them was named Yosef-Yitzkhok – but in Kryvitsh slang, it was Yoshe–Itshe, even shortened to Yoshitshe. The other was Yosef-Yohna, the magnate (Poliskin). True, their lives were no better than those of all the paupers, and possibly even worse than that of any other Kryvitshers. But they were wealthy and powerful. It may seem only like a story, but that is how it was. They had been partners dealing in all sorts of animal hides. They would buy up any they could obtain, even sometimes second hand – buy up everything and have it reworked in Nievery. After processing, the skins would be collected and sold.

Yoshitshe was blessed with good fortune and kept growing richer steadily. Yosef-Yohna (Poliskin), poor thing, had no luck, and he grew steadily poorer. Eventually, they parted and dissolved their partnership. Even then, the impoverished Yosef-Yohna was not too badly off. It was hardly necessary to make a collection for him …

Reb Moshe (Anshilevitsch), the village chief, and Pesakh-Yitzkhok (Zuckerman), vice village chief and government rabbi, were the official powers with regard to Jews in the town. They actually had very little responsibility and not too much to do. One of them, the vice-chief, had to do all the recording. The second had to rubber-stamp. If a Jewish family had a baby boy, they had to take the trouble and graciously request of Pesakh-Yitzkhok that he issue a birth certificate. But this could not be accomplished without the services of Moshe, the chief. He had to, personally, apply the signature and seal. With regard to government matters, including terminology, our Moshe, the village chief, was an expert. He used to make a solemn ceremony; sitting at his desk, he would slowly take out his rubber stamp, cough several times, and used the steam from his mouth to soften up the stamp. Only then would he carefully apply the stamp to the paper, making sure that the impression would be a clear one, “small but good.”

In addition to the job of village chief, he held another position, which supplemented his income. Our town did not have its own induction center, nor did it have a steady police officer or a police department. In fact there was not even a post office. All mail came into nearby Dolhinev. From that bailiwick, a wagon would be sent to us. Moshe, the village chief, would be on hand to wait for the arrival of the mail wagon and pick up all the “Jewish” letters. One of Moshe's sons would be there and call off the names of those to whom any mail was addressed. This used to be an occasion for a kind of an informal social gathering. Actually very few people carried on extensive correspondence. At that time, anyone considered himself fortunate indeed to receive a letter from a child or a husband in America. For a domestic letter, the chief would receive one kopeke in payment, and for a letter from America, two kopekes. In addition to all this income, the town chief also had a garden and a few goats – he was well provided with a livelihood.

Now I recall the figure of our second town luminary – Pesakh-Itshe, the government rabbi, the secretary of the community record book (Pinkes) for the Jewish community. It was his responsibility to keep an accurate record, and also to be on the alert as to what young man had reached the age of 21, so that he could be sent to do his army service for the Czar. In our town, Pesakh-Itshe was a revered personage. He would lead prayer services, and was an honorable and respected family man. The fee for entering a new-born boy in the “pinkes” was 50 kopeks, a half-ruble. In spite of this, it was hard to earn a livelihood, and so he had to do a bit of teaching to supplement his income.

In addition, he had to worry about “errors” being discovered in record-keeping, which it was necessary to correct promptly. Such an ambiguity even occurred with me. Suddenly, it was discovered that I had not been entered in the “pinkes.” To make amends, he immediately informed the Vilayke district I was of age to be enlisted, that I must appear before a review committee. How old was I actually or for the record? I couldn't have been more than 18, but since I was a healthy and well-built youth, the committee judged me to be 20. So it was that in 1910 or so (I am not sure of the exact year) that I was sent away to serve the Czar.

And this is how Pesakh-Itshe earned a few extra kopeks to supplement his income. Even he needed the supplementary help that came from his garden.

And now, another figure appears on the screen of my memory: Khone-Shimen Poliskin, the father of the wealthy Yosef-Yonah, he with his long slate-grey beard, and typical appearance. Although his son was a rich man, he lived with his wife Sheyne in a house which was about to fall down, could hardly stand. Of course, like most Jews in our town, he had a garden, actually neighboring that of Pesakh-Yitzkhok. In addition, he was a “professional” dipper of tallow candles. In those years, his was the only source for candles both for the Sabbath eve blessing in homes and for candles for the altar in the synagogue or study house – they cost a groshn apiece. They burned with such smoking that they almost asphyxiated the worshipers. And even to this day, in my advanced old age, I can see myself running holding tight in my fist (it was only a few houses away) the large three-groshn coin together with a kopeke – five groshn together, in order to buy the candles my mother needed.

In this way, I receive other guests out of my childhood, my youth, and from later years as well. I seem to see before my eyes, Reb Zvi-Hirsh Katzovitsh from Frudnike, may he rest in peace, who has been interestingly described in another part of this book, by my young friend Josef Shmir – as our editor wrote to me in a letter. Thus I will talk of him only briefly and mention that he lived to be 113 years old.

But I must tell about his very little sister, Sarale, who lived to 102, as Zelig Katzovitch told me. He was a nephew of Sarale's. She had a very unusual “hobby.” She used to “lend” out shrouds. How can one “lend” shrouds? Here is how: She used to sew shrouds for herself, but if God's will makes another woman die before she can use her shroud, Sarale would lend the corpse hers. And this kept happening repeatedly. So that again and again, she would have to sew up new shrouds, and each time, as soon as one was ready, she would try it on to see how it fit, and how she would look as a corpse. The only mirror in her house hung high up on a wall. Well, in order to see how she would look dead, Sarale wasn't lazy and climbed up on a bench, turning to all sides to see whether the fit was a good one.

Of course Sarale and her shrouds are gone. Now lowers before me and wants to “catch” me Shimen “Khapun.”[6] I never did know his actual family name. Everyone in town called him that. He lived in a tiny broken-down hut near the river Servetsh. His appearance to this day haunts my memory. He had long unkempt hair, dressed in multi-colored, soiled, ragged clothes, something like today's “hippies.” Children used to be afraid of him. The story that circulated about him was that he caught children and sent them away to military service for 25 years as “cantonists.” This is what they used to be called, and would be sent to distant outposts.


My Mother's Sabbaths in old Kryvitsh

Every Sabbath eve, my mother, may she rest in peace, would bless the candles in five brass candlesticks. Before this, of course, would be the regimen of cleaning and polishing, in order to get the brass to gleam. She would rub two bricks together to obtain a kind of brick powder, which was a wonderful polishing agent. This was what she used on the candlesticks, and it was far more effective than the chemical polishes in use today. I have already mentioned earlier my Friday afternoon errands to Khone-Shimen (Poliskin), the candle-maker. When I got back home with the candles, my mother was ready: Dressed in her long Sabbath gown with a new cloth on her head, her face clean and shining with a joyous light in her eyes – all finished with her hard day's work. The floors had been swept and covered with clean yellow sand, everything in the house was immaculate. Her hands shielding her eyes, she recited the blessing over the candles. For all of us children, it became Sabbath at that moment.

All of the Jewish housewives in town lit their candles at precisely the same time, even though there was no clock in the town. How did every mother know the precise time? Simple! One just took a look outside on the street to Leybl Brusher's house. If his wife Ruth had already lit her Sabbath candles, it was time for everyone to light candles. This was a sign for all – this was the “town clock.”

According to the same town clock, all of our fathers would get ready to greet the Sabbath, in the study house. They would wash up, dress in their Sabbath coats, polish their boots or shoes. Some of them even used polish on them. Not all, of course, were made of the same “dough.” There were several really fine Jews like Reb Shmuel Zilbergleyt, Yakob-Leyb Shulman, Leybe Brusher, Leybe Bunemovitch and my father, Yitzkhak-Yakob, and a few more. They would arrive at Sabbath services, neatly dressed, their beards combed, and they greeted the Sabbath properly. Reb Shmuel Zilbergleyt (or Reb Elye the Filipker) sang the prayer “L'kho dodi” beautifully. After completing the evening prayers, they all greeted one another with a hearty “Gut shabes!” And then they returned to their respective homes.

When my father arrived in our Sabbath shining little home, he greeted us with his warm, broad “Gut shabes,” and so delightfully sang out “sholem aleichem,” welcoming the Sabbath queen “malakhey hashoreth” into our home. But what he really meant was this as a greeting to us children and to our mother. How dear it was to look at my father singing the hymn lauding the woman of the house: “eyshes khayel.” It seemed to me that mother and father were kissing one another through their eyes … And we children were overjoyed.

After father had recited the blessing over the wine (kidush), and then the blessing over the fragrant, freshly-baked “khale” which was cut in pieces and distributed to all of us – we dined – on whatever God had provided that week. And afterwards, we all sang the blessings in gratitude for the food (zmiros). How lovely and how good were those Krivitsher Sabbaths once long ago in my mother and father's house – long, long ago in my luminous, far-away childhood years.

Today, in the gleaming memories of my setting sun, I stand rapt, with eyes gazing at you, my little home town, Kryvitsh. You have disappeared without a trace. No more are there any of your Jews, kneaded out of that good “dough.” No longer are there any of your simple souls, your Yashitshes, your Yosef-Yoses, no longer your town chiefs, your Khone-Shimens, nor your Sarele, the shroud lady – all of them gone! May none of these types and figures, shadows and silhouettes, contours and colors, places and scenes ever be forgotten! None of these will ever come back to us – it is we who will go to them. I am readying myself for that journey – to them! Will some one of them greet me there on that other side?

“A tragedy befell my home –
Doors and gates are ajar –
For the evil ones, the murderers,
Those who murder little children.
Those who hang old men on gallows,
Those who spare no one.
Deep pits of red clay –
Once I had a home. ”

From Deep Pits of Red Clay
by Shmuel Halkin


  1. Translator's note: Mendele Mokhr-Sforim, known as the “grandfather” of Yiddish literature. Return
  2. See also: Kryvitch, My Home Town, Memories and Eulogies written by Yehosua Ben Arye-Leyb – in subsequent chapters. Return
  3. Translator's note: Reference here to the weekly reading of the Torah portion – in this case “lekh-lekho” and “vayiso.” Return
  4. Ritual slaughterer or “shokhet” Return
  5. Reference is to one of the plagues of Egypt mentioned in the Hagada. Return
  6. [illegible] Return

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