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My Dear Shtetl Mihaileni

Translated by Artur Hecht

1. Instead of a Preface
A Nostaligic Jew with a Terrific Memory

To write the preface to Dr. Zisu Lebel's monograph is a duty of honor towards a man of great merits.

I think, we should first mention that Dr. Lebel is a remarkable humanist, animated by the nostalgia and love for the places of his birth, for his shtetl Mihaileni in the Dorohoi district. Dr. Lebel has a terrific memory and he succeeded in rebuilding the epopee of his life, which is uncommon to many of us.

He talks about his native town, about other places in Romania, writes about his wanderings during the second world war - when he fought in the Red Army and reached the Stalingrad area - he describes life in Russia, in Uzbekistan and Kirghizia, he evokes his fight to obtain the right of emigration to Israel and then his coming to Israel, the land of his dreams. In his book we can find sweet words in “mame lushn", old songs, popular sayings, detailed descriptions of meals - the salt and the pepper of the good meals prepared by this man who led his life on three continents,

I was very moved to read Dr. Lebel's manuscript. One can feel the particular warmth with which he describes the personality of his grand-father, melamed at Mihaileni, playing an important role in the author's education. It is evident that Zisu Lebel fully absorbed the Judaic values that flourished in the Judaic climate of Mihaileni during the thirties.

Zisu Lebel was only 16 when he left the town Mihaileni. He was a mature young man, who had already accumulated a lot of life experience and he was able to leave his parents home and look for a place for himself in the world. He also had a deep Judaic knowledge which he still retains.

His unusual memory recalls tens of Jewish figures from the mosaic of Mihaileni, Jews from all the social levels, as well as their daily lives, customs, their houses and streets, happy or sad moments. His warm heart reveals rural and urban landscapes, forests and rivers, chirping birds and lovely doves.

Mihaileni has been described by other people too, although not many. This shtetl gave to the world Jewish writers and painters, famous rabbis, and scholars of Judaism. Dr. Lebel joins the famous group of those who immortalize the former Jewish town in live colors, in an interesting manner. As a shtetl Mihaileni, the former home town of a few thousand Jews, does not exist any more, but it comes to life now thanks to the humanist Dr. Zisu Lebel.

Seeming to contradict his calendar age, Zisu Lebel continues to have a young heart - even if a few years ago he had a heart attack! He preserves his vitality, his capacity to be enthusiastic and to dream, to fight against the forgetfulness that threatens the previous generations. Mihaileni is the kernel of the present work - but the author's memories also revives other spaces from his rich and troubled periods of his life, making his book a valuable document for the historical treasure of the Jewish people.

I am glad for this work of Dr. Zisu Lebel, whose publication I have encouraged, and I am sure it will be read with great interest not only by people born in the Dorohoi district, but also by everybody who wants to get closer to the specific perfume of a shtetl in this part of Romania.

With this work, our organization - that has edited the monumental volumes dedicated to the Judaism of Dorohoi - inaugurates the collection “The Memory Bank”, in which other Jews born in Romania will also be able to publish their memories.

Shlomo David, President of The Organization of the Jews Born in the Dorohoi District

2. Instead of an Introduction

I have many grandchildren here in Israel, as well as in the USA; and sometimes they ask me questions about my life. They are curious to know what was life like during the second world war, which, for them is only a chapter in history books. They ask me about the place where I was born and where I spent my childhood, the shtetl Mihaileni, and about the people and the way of life there. They ask a lot of questions, questions which indicate the depth of their interest in my past.

The children of today are exposed to huge amounts of information, whether from the communication media or from the Internet, or by direct contact while traveling all over the world. Yet, they still seem to be interested in, and often amazed by, the sort of life I lived only half a century or seventy years ago in a Romanian Jewish shtetl.

When I read the books dedicated to the Jews of Dorohoi, edited by Mr. Shlomo David (president of the organization of the Jews Born in the Dorohoi District) I realized that other people of my generation are asked similar questions. And that there are many people who reached their “golden age” and feel the urge as well as the necessity to bequeath their memories to future generations, memories of a past worth knowing and preserving. This is why, here in Haifa, in the spring of 1998, when I was 76 years old, I began to put down on paper a few of my memories, a few of the things that I went through, events which were often difficult challenges. My personal luck played a major part in helping me overcome some of those challenges and eventually allowed me to reach the land of Israel.

I confess to my misgivings at the beginning. After all, I am only a Jew born in Mihaileni, who worked at one thing or another in the small towns near Dorohoi and in Chernovitz, then, spent more than three decades of his life in the Soviet Union, including the period of the Second World War, and eventually reached his final home in Israel. Who in the world would be interested in this story? There are so many Romanian Jews that have survived the Holocaust and can tell much more dramatic stories. Nevertheless, I published a few notes in the third volume of books dedicated to the Jews of Dorohoi and its surrounding shtels, and soon found out that they were read with interest by other people and in particular by the former Jewish residents of Mihaileni and their descendants. I was told by some of them how much they appreciated the way I rendered the shtetl atmosphere and how they were moved when they encountered the name of a relative, a long forgotten friend or an acquaintance. Thus I overcame my inhibitions and decided to put my thoughts down on paper, mainly for my own grandchildren, but also for future generations in order to prevent the loss of those fragments of life.

3. My Home

I was born in Mihaileni, in the Dorohoi district, on May 4, 1922. That was 17 years after the marriage of my parents Lebel Shaia and Mahlia, nee Bergher. I had six siblings Iancu (born in 1908), Avram Leib (born in 1910), Esthera (born in 1911), Shlomo (born in 1915), Clara (born in 1919), and Goldita (born in 1929).
I remained in Mihaileni until 1938. At the age of 16, I left Mihaileni and tried to find my fortunes in the world - as many young people used to do at the time.

Our parents were working people. To support a family of nine, my father worked at an alcohol factory in Zvoristea, in the Botosani district. He was the factory administrator for 20 years. His manager was Max Goldhammer, a good friend of my father. Both of them had learned in the “heder” of my grandfather, Iosif Lebel. My father was a religious man and he was very honest.

I was told a significant story concerning his honesty. Max Goldhammer's main help was Mr. Sholdeshter, who was suffering of a heart disease. One morning, when my father entered that man's home, he found him dead in his bed. There was a large sum of money in the room, in plain view. My father called the man's family and comforted them and did not leave the place until he made sure that the man's wife took all the money and put it in a safe place.

My father came home only once in a few days and he brought with him lots of food. In the cart he brought apples and plums - and my mother used to make an excellent povidla (plum jam) out of those plums! - he also brought large bags of nuts, as well as ducks and hens. He always organized his business so as to be able to stay with us at home during the holidays.

My parent's house was on Carol Street, no. 208-210 {the main street of the shtetl}. It was a big building with two entrances, built in 1908-1910. It was bigger than other houses on our street and it could be seen from far away. There was plenty of space in it, there were four rooms. In the kitchen there was a big oven for the Friday "hala” - always fresh and tempting. Many good “home made” meals, were prepared in that kitchen. From the kitchen there was a long passage towards the courtyard and another passage towards the street. In the courtyard there was a big stable. The house also had a high, big, clean garret. There they kept cages with hens fattened for Pessah. In the big courtyard, there was a garden where they grew pumpkins, corn and cucumbers. At the back of the courtyard there was a toilet and a kennel for our black, tall dog. There was also a playground for the children, to prevent them from messing up the house.

In 1930, when the owner of the factory died, my father opened a carpentry and furniture workshop which he named “werkstatt". This workshop assured the “parnassa” for himself and his family, as well as for the people who were working there. The workshop was built like a “suka": The walls were of hardboards and it was roofed with corn leaves. This is where we used to eat before Pessah, while all the “hametz” was being burnt in the courtyard. There were six or seven workers in the workshop, among them there was a one Romanian, Spanu {the glabrous}, and one German, Leopold. The other ones were Toivie Butalas, Leibus, my brothers Leib and Shloimo, and the brothers Hersh. They were making doors, window frames, chairs, cupboards and various other wooden objects, and even furniture with a special glossy polish, like a piano, the finished products were stored in the stable.

Toivie, was a good worker but he had a bad habit: At noon, when he went home to eat, he used to take a handful of nails out of the workshop's box of nails. My mother, let God have mercy on her soul, has seen this many times and eventually told my father: “Look Shaie, Toive is carrying away our nails”. To which my father replied: “Mahlia, he said, he is building a house, and he needs the nails”. My mother did not answer. She did not agree with my father but did not want to fight with him. She used to go around quietly and mind her tasks. In 1958, when I visited Mihaileni, I did not find Toivie's house. Three quarters of the houses I remembered were not there anymore. Only two rooms remained of our own house and the tailor Moishe Mordchai Ungureanu lived in them.

During the First World War, my father was drafted in the Romanian army and sent to the front. He fought at Marasti and Marasesti and was wounded. When my mother heard that my father is in hospital, she left home and went to see him. He had a leg wound, and she stayed with him until she brought him home. After that his leg always bothered him. He was decorated several times, among others there were crosses given to him for bravery on the battle field. He had documents signed by King Ferdinand and Queen Maria. Sometimes, I was playing with the decorations received by my father. In view of the fact that he fought in the war, was wounded and decorated, he was asked to join the party of Marshal Averescu. Not many Jews received such an offer. My father accepted it. My brothers also served in the Romanian Army. Iancu at the 4th Pioneers in Cernovitz, Leib at a unit in Iassi (1st Wing of the Air Force, 1st Pursuit Squadron if I remember well), Shlomo served in the infantry, at Hotin, and Lipcani, together with Moishe, Idov Cohen's brother {Idov Cohen, was a writer and a member of the Israeli Kneset}.

As for me, I was very fond of pigeons and took care of them, with the help of my brothers. My passion for pigeons was to last for a lifetime. When I lived in Kirghizia, I built a pigeon coop that, at one time, hosted as many as 30 pairs of pigeons. Even today, I am not indifferent when I see pigeons flying or playing.

My elder brothers and sisters told me that our parents liked to entertain guests (relatives and friends) for the holidays. Many of them were orphans who asked my parents to be their godparents - my father used to help them as much as he could.

My father enjoyed the song "O, Tanen Baum” (“O, beautiful fir tree”). He had a friend called Tecuceanu and sometimes they sat down to drink a glass of wine, at our home or at Tecuceanu's. On those occasions, he liked to sing an Yiddish song, from which I can still remember: “If God wishes, we'll remain alive and we'll see each other again". Friday evening and Saturday morning, my father took me to the synagogue. On the market days, he often took me with him to Siret. Father used to buy timber from Hungarian merchants, put me on top of the timber to watch it and then brought it in a cart to Mihaileni. Sometimes he took me to the places where he was working. This is how, I went to Zvoristea, where he used to set window frames and doors.

At home we used to call my mother “Mutter”. She was from Bucovina, where they used to speak German and when she was in a good mood, she used to sing in Idish or in German. I remember one of her songs: “Es vert kimen a Zeit” - “The time will come” - which included the verse: “The time will come when iron trains will girdle the world”. My mother was a very active woman, as if she was unable to stand still, she always found something to do. Our house was very clean, like a museum. Only guest entered the living room. They wanted to see the furniture, furniture that, today, you can find only in antique shops. Our guests were served with bitter cherry jam and cold water, poured out of a wooden jug.

My parents lived in exemplary harmony, they understood each other without words, only through a look. I never heard them quarreling, or, God forbid, hurt each other with harsh words. The atmosphere of the entire family was affected by the relations between my parents.

When I was 16, I left the town and went to Roman to my brother Iancu, who also left home at the age of 16. At the time I joined him he was married to Roza and they were living on Decebal Str, no. 13 in their own house, and went on living in Roman until 1950, when he made alyia,

My sister Esthera got married in 1938. At the time it was a customary to give a dowry to daughters, and in order to provide for Esthera our father sold the family house in Mihaileni and moved to live in Radauti. My sisters' wedding took place at the house of my cousin Israel in Radauti. The party lasted all night and there was a lot of food. Among the sweets that were served I preferred the fluden (I still enjoy today the fluden my wife prepares on special occasions), we listened to music, we danced. But the good mood faded away in the morning when we noticed that some of the neighboring houses were decorated with flags adorned with the swastika.

Father found a job at a weapons factory in Roznov, near Targu Neamt, in the land of Brosteni that belonged to prince Nicolae, king Carol II's brother. At the end of June 1940, in the wake of the Molotov Ribentrop agreement, Soviet Union forces occupy Basarabia and Northern Bucovina and the region of Hertza. The war against the Soviet Union starts a year later, on the 22nd of June 1941. On the eve of the event, the Jews from Siret were evicted from their houses and deported to Radauti. My mother's brothers from Siret came to join my parents in Radauti and stayed there until the entire family was evicted from there as well and deported to Bersetz and Mogilev, in Transnistria {the region east of the Dniester that was occupied and attached to Romania}. Very few returned from that man made hell on earth. {On the 21st of June 1941, the entire Jewish community of Mihaileni were also evicted and deported to Dorohoi, from where, in November 1941, were also deported to Transnistria.}

Let us never forget our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents that died before the natural end of their lives, may they rest in peace and never be forgotten. May their names be blessed, and may they remain in the memory of future generations!

My parents life ended tragically. My younger sister Goldita, who accompanied them to Transnistria, told me how my father died in 1941 in the camp at Bersetz, in Ukraine. After his death, he was put in a cart that was carrying the corpses to a common grave in which they were simply dumped in. Mother did not know what happened. Goldita came back to the small room where they were living, and between sobs, told my mother that father has passed away. Mother, took my sister's hand to her lips and said “If your father is dead, I want to die too, I can not live without him. Go to aunt Dora, she will take care of you”. These were my mother's last words. She passed away just at that moment, to be together with father in another world. My parents were a little more than 50 years old. This is why my children did not have the opportunity to know their grand-parents and my grandchildren did not know their great-grandparents.

My brother, Avram Leib, was sent to Transnistria with his wife and six children. He was lucky enough to survive the concentration camps. After coming back from the deportation, he emigrated in Israel.

Let us never forget our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents that died before the natural end of their lives. May they rest in peace, may their names be blessed, and may the manner of their death forever remain engraved in the memory of future generations!

4. My Grandparents

My grandfather, on my father's side, was nicknamed Jempala (I do not know why). Once, he owned a shop of new and used clothes, but I remember him as a melamed; he had a “heder” where children, between the ages of 4 to 7, were learning reading Hebrew and the Jewish traditions and prayers. Some of his pupils (“talmidim”) are still living in Haifa: Huna Cocosh, Moina Covrigaru - a barber, the son of Smerl Beigl Maher {Beigl Maher means Covrigaru in Romanian}, perhaps also Haschel, the son of Meer Leib, the shoemaker. My grandfather was an educated man, he knew several languages, Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Romanian, Polish, and he also studied Latin. He was interested in astrology and accumulated a lot of knowledge for that time. He cultivated beautiful calligraphic handwriting. I learnt the alef-beit {the Hebrew alphabet} with our grandfather Iosif Lebel, as well as the Romanian and German alphabet and arithmetic.

He was not a tall man, but for me as a child, he was tall and imposing. He had a large white beard, always combed, and on his head a black square skull cap. From his mouth I received for the first time the significant admonitions: “kuvad” - respect for my elders in general and for my parents in particular; and “mitzva” - good deed; “zdaka” - charity.

In my mind, I can still see him sitting beside a table with ten or twelve boys around him. On the table there was a leader whip, made by one of his former pupils - the son of the cobbler Meir Leib. He rarely lifted the whip as a warning but I have never seen him hitting anybody. We, as children, followed the motions of the whip, but frankly speaking, as we knew him, we were not afraid.

During the recesses, when my grandfather went for a cup of tea, we used to play in the passage. Sometimes we used to scratch ourselves to bleed to use the blood to write in red letters. When my grandfather found out about our odd ideas he prepared pots of colored ink to put an end to our queer ideas.

On the wall there was a blue and white metal little box and on it some words in Hebrew. I did not know what they meant but I knew that it was supposed to contain money collected for the Eretz Israel. One day my grandfather caught me trying strenuously, and without success, to shake loose some money out of the box. On his question on what do I want the money for I answered embarrassed that I need it to buy wheat for my doves, from Shmil Bruker. He took gently by my hand and led me outside. There he showed me his neighbor's Oishie Haikes granary. “Under the granary” he told me “you can easily find all the leftover wheat you may want”.

Often he used to come to our house, always with some bundle under his armpit, with one thing or another for our house. He used to sit down at the kitchen table, my mothers empire, who understood the hint. My grandfather loved potato dumplings with fried onions and chicken or preferably goose fat. He could “finish” two dozen of those easily. In the meantime, my mother used to put on the gramophone a record with the melodies and the songs he loved.

Moina, who owns a barber shop on Nordau Str. in Haifa, says that my grandfather enjoyed jokes and he remembers a story that happened at the Bank of Small Credit. Once, my grandfather needed a loan and, while talking to the bank clerks, he bet that he could do something that none of the other people there could do. They did not believe it. They settled the bet. And, can you imagine what Jempala did? He had a long beard. He took the tip of his beard and began to chew on it! As no one else in that room had a beard, he certainly won the bet!

He also liked to retell proverbs. I remember he used to say in German “Morgen, morgen nur nicht heute, zagen aile faule leute” (“It's only the lazy people that say tomorrow, tomorrow and not today”) or “Was du heute kanst verzorgen, das vershie nicht auf Morgen” (“Do not postpone until tomorrow, what you can do today). Another saying I remember, and which is worth mentioning: "One hand washes the other, and both of them can soil the face".

Sometimes, grandfather was singing in Yiddish: “Die Schifn shvemen ken America tvelaf -- fertzen teig” -- (“The ships bound to America sail 12 to 14 days and all along the way they throw you back and forth''). The song said that on the ship there were some short Jews and some beautiful women, and they were complaining "Oi vei, we are shaken".

As I wrote above, my grandfather liked to joke and the story of one of his practical jokes is still retold in the family. Once, he asked my grandmother to cook varenikes {dumplings}. My grandmother answered that she will cook varenikes on some other day. My grandfather insisted that he wants to eat varenikes on that very day, but my grandmother refused to give in.

Then the unexpected happened. My grandfather went to a closet, where they kept the family money, took a heap of banknotes of 500 and 1000 lei and put them on the table. From the heap, he took one and he slowly started to tear it to pieces. “If you do not make me vareniches I will tear them all !”, he threatened my grandmother. She began to yell that my grandfather has lost his senses and ran across the street, where one of their daughter lived, to ask for help. When she returned to the room, my grandfather was about to start on another banknote. My grandmother implored him to stop and promised him that she will cook on that day as many varenikes as he wants.

My grandfather took the heap of banknotes and returned them to the closet. He collected the thorn pieces and threw them into the trash bin. All the time he was very calm. Sometime later he showed my grandmother and other people how he fooled them, the banknotes were not real. At that time, there were no post office boxes in the town, and Peter, the coachmen, used to fetch and carry between the Post Office and many of the people. At the end of the year, when he used to come around to wish his customers “Many years” and to receive the traditional tip, Peter used to bring some advertisement banknotes printed on regular paper, on which it was written 500 or 1000 lei. My grandfather used to keep those “banknotes” and during the years he collected a heap of them. He tore two of those in order to convince his wife to prepare for him the food he wanted!

At he beginning of this century, one of my grandfather's daughters, Sophie, my father's sister, left Romania with her husband Morris Cohen sailed to Canada and settled there. They corresponded often but my grandfather was suffering because he could not see her, and in fact he never saw her again. He got a few of her pictures which he framed, hung on the walls, and used to look at them often and sing nostalgic songs.

My grandmother, my father's mother, was called Ghitla. She was a skilled fortune teller. Most of her clients were women and girls, seldom a man. My grandmother was a good psychologist, understood people's hearts and knew how to talk to people who needed advice - because, in fact, people resort to fortune telling when they are at a turning point in their life and do not know how to react to situations which affect their future. Grandmother did not receive money for tarot reading, I think she was even pleased to talk with other people and be asked for advice. In return she received presents of eggs, butter, cheese, flour, fruit. She did not even need as many things as she was given. When there were too many things gathered, she used to come to us and give them to mother. Sometimes she called me and said “Trug!” {carry} and I took the presents and gave them to my mother.

Grandmother Rivkala, my mother's mother, was living in Siret, with uncle Israel, my mother's brother. When I was visiting her, she used to put in my pocket one or two lei (Romanian currency) telling me: “Nem, koifzah epes..,” {take and buy something}. I remember her as a very old person, I think she was ill, she stayed in bed most of the time. She lived up to 90 and died in her own bed. She had 13 children, 5 of them survived - four sons and a daughter, my mother.

5. Holidays

Mihaileni was, and still is, a small town, and during the time when the Jewish community was flourishing, there were no more than two thousand Jews living in Mihaileni and the surrounding villages - Vladeni, Rogosheshti, Candeshti, the Lower Sunauti and Upper Sinauti {In 1859 the Jewish population of Miahileni reached it's peak: 2472, 67.6% of the total population of the town, according to an official 1930 census, the number of Jews in Mihailaeni was 1490 out of a total population of 3686. Thus the Jews made up about 40% of the population, the largest percentage in any Romanian town}. There were nine synagogues functioning in the town, almost all of them on the New Street, that is to say the Bottom Street. There was only one synagogue on the Big Street, that is on Carol St., opposite our house. If they lacked a Jew for the “minian", they used to call my father. He used to put on tfilin every morning. When I was 13 and had my barmitzva, and I also put on tfilin there. That was the first and last time I did it.

One of the most important synagogues of Mihaileni was the old synagogue, - the “Wooden Synagogue”. A great fire destroyed that venerable synagogue in 1934, a building that had been there for more than a hundred years. I still remember the feeling I had when I touched pieces of melted glass from the windows. Moise Itic, Perla's son, whose barber's shop was next to the synagogue, tore his shirt as if he was morning the death of a close relative. {This was the first synagogue built in Mihaileni. The Wooden Synagogue of Mihaileni survived in one of L. Bertisch drawings.}

The central and main events of the Jewish life in Mihaileni were the Jewish holidays. Every Friday, from 11 or 12 o'clock, the boys started walking on the streets and announcing: “Es ist shoin shabes!” (“It's already Sabbath!”) and people were closing the shops and workshops. The men were going to the steam bath, some of them - like my father - were accompanied by heir sons. In the hot steam room there were steps, and the higher you went the hotter it was. The people had wooden pails with cold water near them and little brooms made of lime leaves with which they were massaging their backs. They were also refreshing themselves with cold water in a wooden pail or they were immersing later in a cool water pool. Those who could afford it, received a massage at a price of two or three lei.

In the evening, people went to the synagogue. After the prayer at the Synagogue, each Jew who came home felt like a king in his family, as the saying goes “Er is gevein a meileh” {he became a king}. My mother used to light two candles set in candle sticks made of bright brass. She used to recite the prayers and end with a few words in Idish: “Ghizant, atzluha, in a brucha of ole Idishe kinder in of intz oihat” {Health, success and blessings to all the children of Israel and to us too}. The meal used to be better than usual, completed with well fried white pumpkin seeds and cold fountain water. Still, not everyone could afford a better meal on Friday evening.

Saturday, for breakfast, my mother used to prepare “beilik fisholah”, pieces of chicken, prepared like a small fish. I do not know how the meat was prepared but, amazingly, when one ate it one had the feeling that one eats fish! Saturday morning, my mother used to call us to the table and give each of the children one or two “fish”, in a spicy sauce. We used to dunk a piece of fresh hali into the sauce, it was delicious. We all liked the “beilik fishalah”, but my brother Leib was particularly fond of them. Leib was working and had money of his own, so, careful to hide it from my mother, he would lift his hand in which he had one or sometimes two lei, and we knew that we were offered a trade. The problem was to do it without my mother's knowledge, which did not agree to Leib's methods and to the fact that we were ready to “sell” the food on the table between us. Whoever gave him a beilik used to put it stealthily in the elder brother's plate, and also stealthily, used to get paid for it. We were convinced that we can carry out the business without our mother's knowledge. But she knew what was going on, and knew when the fish made its stealthy way from one plate to another. Once, after I gave Leib my fish, and got up, ready to leave the table, my mother stopped me and said: You are going to play, take another beilik to gain some strength. Actually she gave me the beilik out of her own plate. On Saturday, after we got the money, we could get frayed water melon pips, and on Sundays, we could buy Stolverk toffees or other sweets, at the shop of Iancu Wagner.

On Saturday nights, when father came back from the Synagogue, my mother used to greet him with the words: “A gite voh, a parnusandiche voh, in a freilihe voh - zoln mir ubn “ {Let us all have a good week, a breadwinning week, a happy week}.

On Hanuka, we received the dreidele (humming tops) to play with. We made them spin around and watched them in delight until they fell down on one of their sides. My siblings and I got money from our parents, grandparents and other relatives. We also enjoyed the ceremony of candle lighting. For eight days we used to light thin candles: one candle on the first evening, two on the second one, each evening one more candle until we had nine candles, with the shamash included. We were also saying the prayer: “Baruch Ata Adonai Eloienu Melech Haolam, Asher Kidisanu Be Mitzvotav Vetzivanu Leadlik Ner shel Hanuka.

And what a fun it was when we put masks on Purim! We used to put on one of our mother's or my sister's skirts, or we took somebody's coat and turned it upside down, or we made a cardboard mask and put it on our face and walked along the streets shouting to people we met: “A ghitn Piram molah vi ich ghei folah die burt it mir long des veib is mir crank ghit mir a grater in stipt mich arois...” {a good Purim angel, wherever I go I fall, I have a long beard, I have a sick wife, give me a coin, and throw me out} In the evening the young people, older than us, used to disguise themselves. They were well dressed, masked their faces and talked in whispers, lest they be recognized: “Psh, psh, psh...” They used to stop in front of the houses where the lights were on and Purim was celebrated. They asked for permission to enter and they said a few texts they had prepared, in order to make people laugh. People that received them were usually well-to-do people who rewarded the young men with sweets and some coins and tried to discover their identity. Our family also used to receive young masked people. Mother used to prepare special humentashes with poppy seeds and povidla, strudels, strengladah, baclava, fluden, dough with honey and other terrific delicacies. The cakes were put on different plates on the floor. On Purim days, mother was sending sweets to my brother Iancu, who lived in Roman. Mother also used to send me to deliver sweets to relatives and friends (“Mishloah manot”). I was glad to do that, because the people that received my mother's presents used to reward me with some money which I used to buy notebooks, Harthmuth pencils black and colored, and sometimes I also bought a pigeon - I was always fond of pigeons! People who received sweets from my mother used to treat their guests with their own sweets and they used to give me their own delicacies to carry home.

The preparations for Pessah included buying potatoes, eggs, fats, the preparation of the borsht prepared in an oak barrel, a little bigger because the neighbors that came had to be treated too. People also took care of the chicken in their garrets, they castrated the cocks to make them fatter.

For Pessah, I usually got new clothes - a suit, a shirt and shoes. We, the children, were enjoying all sorts of games with nuts. Sedernacht was bringing all of us around the table. Father was at the head of the table, on a pillows, and all of us sat merrily around him. We were all clean, tidily clothed, for the holiday. Mother used to lay on the table various Pessah delicacies and sweet red wine from which we also allowed to have a few sips. We were gladly waiting for the question: “Ma nishtana halaila haze mi kol haleilot...” Each year we were reading the Hagada and I knew by heart some parts of it. We were all singing with joy on that holiday evening, and we shouted merrily after we found the Aphikoman {the hidden matzo}. After that, I was very tired and went to sleep.

Next morning, when we woke up, we received the Pessah meal: a boiled egg with onion and chicken fat, or keizalah from matzo flour or from fresh grated potatoes or from boiled potatoes, or borsht. Related to the Pessah meals, I still have to mention, how much I enjoyed the matzos with goose fat, which was a delicacy. But when we lacked goose fat, we contented ourselves with matzos dipped in salted water! All those were imbedded in my memory for years to come. When I remember the lotches and the borsht my mother made on Pessah, it makes my mouth water even today!.

One of the tasks of the community before Pessah was to prepare the necessary matzos. I learned that today the matzos used by the Jews of Romania is brought from Israel. Sixty years ago, the Jews of Mihaileni were eating the matzos produced in their town during one month, by only five-six young local men!

The matzos factory was at the back of the courtyard of the Jewish school, in a house of 4 or 5 rooms, usually inhabited by the school staff. Between 1930-1933, the school principal Blitman, his wife and their son lived in that house. One month before Pessah, two of the rooms were set aside for a little factory that had an oven there. At the edge of the oven there used to be a “shiber” who pushed the matzos. His name was Aizic Wagner, brother of Iosala Wagner. Their father was Avrum Stoler, gabai at the synagogue. They lived across the street from our house, and as far as I can remember, Sternberg, an old man, a furrier by trade, who used to guard the matzos factory, lived with them.

In the second room of the improvised factory, there was a machine handled by an old man, Mr. Rahmil. He saw to it that the rollers between which the dough passed through should be at the right distance so the matzos should be neither too thick, nor too thin, lest it crumbled. The rollers were turned by a few boys from the school, who replaced each other when they got tired. The boys who carried the dough to the oven announced their coming with a shout “Matzes in oivn!” (“matzos in the oven!”). In the room there was also a person who mixed the flour with water in a big, white tub, according to some specific rules, and kneading the dough all the time to prevent it from sticking to the rollers. In the first room there was also a scale, each buyer took as much as he or she thought they needed for their family or as much as he or she could afford. They also paid for the basket in which the matzos were carried - at that time, there was no packing paper or cardboard boxes. Those that did not want to pay the extra price brought from home a pillow case which could contain 4 to 5 kg of matzos. The rich people could afford to order also “eierashe matzes” - matzos with eggs and sugar.

Aizic Wagner, saw to it that the matzos would be ready in time, sufficient to satisfy the demand and of good quality. He was married and had a boy called Milu. Among the people who worked in the matzos factory, there were Hersh Shalet Stoleru, the furier Iancu Chijner and my brother Shloima.

After Pessah there came Shavuot. Then, we used to gather some herbs with a particular smell and hung them at the kitchen door. Mother was preparing tasty meals with cow cheese. One of the meals we were impatiently waiting for was the corn bread with sour milk, accompanied by fresh green onion and sour cream. Who is still preparing things like that today? Who is still cooking a bitter-sweet meal? Or a good “rosl fleish” {roast beef} that seemed to get us drunk, or a stew with corn bread cut with a thread - as mother did?

And then the fall holidays - Rosh Hashana, Yom Kipur, and Sukot, when I used to be together with my parents, my siblings, my cousins and the rest of our relatives, I used to feel that I am the most lucky person in the world.

Before Sukot we, the children, used to go to the Molnitza {a brook flowing near the town}, where osier willows were growing. We used to cut branches and make oishanes with seven little leaves and seven little branches and sell them for 1 leu a bunch. We did our best to avoid “puseldiche” leaves among them (leaves with little holes), has ve halila! People who came to pray in the synagogue used to buy oishanes from the children. During the prayer, the little branches were beaten against the table, then thrown away. At the end of Sukot, on Simhat Tora, we went to the synagogue for the acufas {the Tora Scroll being carried around the synagogue}. We carried feindolah (litle flags) with a red apple stuck on the flagpole. We used to kiss the Tora Scroll and wish the people that carried the Tora “ir zolt derleibn iber a iur in asah iurn mit der gante mispuhe” (“let you reach next year and many other years with all your family”) and we were answered back “Gam ata, gam ata” (“the same to you, the same to you”). Old traditions, preserved for centuries and which I still recall with pleasure and emotion.

Saturday was the day of the week that we most longed for. On that day the school was closed, our parents did not put us to work, we used to eat better than usual, and play longer than usual. As people say today, we were recharging our batteries for the next week. And among the Saturdays, the best ones for our games were those that fell during Pessah or during the Christian Easter. For Pessah, our families used to buy us new clothes, presents, and sweets. For Easter, we used to receive from our Christian neighbors painted eggs and pound cakes. Some of the eggs were painted with flowers or other drawings. I loved the pound cakes.

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