"The Life and Death of a Shtetl"
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Personal memoir written by Howard Margol
Unpublished work, completed June 1, 2000
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This is a personal memoir written by Howard Margol,
"The Life and Death of a
unpublished work, completed June 1, 2000.
Permission to use his photos as well as the full story of Pushelat has been
graciously granted by Willie Mann, Johannesburg.
This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc.
and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
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destroyed Jewish communities.
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The Life and Death of a Shtetl
by Howard Margol
(with the help of Willie Mann)
Pushelat (Pusalotas), a small village in the central part of Lithuania, has
existed for hundreds of years. It is located about 12 miles Northeast of the
fifth largest city in Lithuania, Ponevezh (Panevezys). It is not known in what
year the first Jews arrived in Pushelat but according to the 1816 census, Jews
were living there at that time. On the 1882 census, 811 Jews are listed as
living there. By then, it was more of a
rather than a village. In 1897, 920 inhabitants were Jewish out of a total
population of 1,200. After the turn of the century, emigration began to have
its effect and the number of Jews living in Pushelat was about 500. In June
1941 when the German army invaded Lithuania, approximately 200 Jews remained in
Pushelat. Today, the population of Pushelat (now Pusalotas) is 1,100 and no
A good friend of mine, Willie Mann of Johannesburg, South Africa was born in
Pushelat in 1913 and spent the first fifteen years of his life there. What
follows is mainly Willie's story and his remembrance of what life was like in
I want my grandchildren to know how Zaida managed to live and grow up without a
motor car, television, computer, electricity, running water, inside sewerage
and even Coca-Cola, for Pushelat had none of these 'musts'. Life was quiet and
primitive. News from the outside world reached us via the Kovno daily Die
Yiddishe Shtime to which three or four families would subscribe jointly.
We would wait for it with much anticipation, eager for the news
which was often days or even weeks old.
There was not a single motor car in the
- and all the traffic to Ponevezh had to go by horse and cart during the summer
and by sleigh in winter. During my time there was no railway or bus service.
fifth largest city in Lithuania, was a great city of learning and commerce. It
was famous for its outstanding
and the great Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, who later transferred the
to Israel. When the odd car did pass through
the children ran after it in great excitement. It had no doctor or hospital, so
for minor ailments we used to go to the only chemist, who was a Russian. For
serious illnesses we had to travel to Pumpian (Pumpenai), only four miles away,
where there was a
- an unqualified doctor - or to Ponevezh where there was a Jewish hospital. In
charge of this hospital was the famous Dr. Shachna Mer who was one of the few
Jews in Parliament, the
When my brother Zorach - a brilliant scholar at the Ponevezh Yiddish Mittel
School - was home for the school holidays and for some reason decided to climb
the roof of our house and fell down breaking both his legs, my mother began
frantically looking for transport. My father and I were in South Africa by
then, so after much panic he was rushed to Pumpian. The
was not of any great assistance so my brother was transported by horse and cart
to Ponevezh where he spent months at the Jewish Hospital. Gangrene set in and.
he suffered a horrible and painful death. My mother was devastated and it took
her months to get over this tragedy. When she arrived in South Africa she would
not talk about it and would not allow any of us to name a child after him
During our time there were about forty families living in the
and our elders told us that prior to World War I there had been over a hundred
families in Pushelat. Mass emigration began, mostly to
, as the Russian Czar, Nicholas II, conscripted Jews into the army, forbade them
to live in Russia proper, and generally made life difficult for us. America at
the time had an 'open door' policy and anybody who could write a European
language could enter the country. Yiddish was considered to be one of these
In 1911, two years before I was born, a major fire occurred in Pushelat. The
wooden synagogue was destroyed and 77 Jewish houses sustained damage. Jews from
Pushelat, living in America, sent money to rebuild the synagogue. A decision
was made to have the Rabbi, Ruvin Brug, hold the money until a new synagogue
could be built. Rabbi Brug had graduated from Vilnius University as a
pharmacist. The shtetl could not afford a full time Rabbi so Rabbi Brug
supported his family by being a pharmacist in Pushelat. Lithuanian burglars
found out about the money being held by Rabbi Brug, robbed him, and murdered
him and his wife Frida in the process. Their two sons, 4 year old Mejer, and 2
½ year old Israel, survived. Today, Rabbi Brug's grandson, Ehud Barak, is
the Prime Minister of Israel.
The three main streets in the
had no paving, sidewalks, names nor house numbers so post had to be collected
at the post office. The postmaster was Mr Beinarawitz, a Lithuanian, and his
house was near ours. His son was born blind and he became my constant
companion, speaking only Lithuanian. The streets were sandy and passable in
summer but in spring when the snow melted it was most unpleasant as
developed and it was heavy going for the carts.
As far as 1 can remember there was only one telephone in the whole Jewish
community, at Isaac Frank's house. Isaac was the
of the shul, a very prominent man, and in case of an emergency he allowed us to
use the phone. In my time there was no Rabbi as the community was small and
poor. Almost all of the houses were built out of wood, as solid logs were cheap
and available, as was labour - no trade unions then. The roofs were made of
solid wood but this was not always so. Originally, the houses had thatched
roofs but the shtetl learned from bitter experience that the thatch caught on
fire very easily. Today, in Pushelat, the roofs are made of tin. There were
also a few brick buildings, one of which belonged to our cousin Velvel Witten,
a well-known poet. Another belonged to the Gillelovitz family, a house full of
girls, so we usually congregated there. The building even had a balcony - the
only one in the
At the top of the marketplace was the big Catholic Church - the Lithuanians
were all Catholics. The church was surrounded by a vast cemetery, which in turn
was surrounded by a high stone wall. We were scared of the church but I sneaked
in once or twice. The icons, religious pictures and other relics overawed me
and it was all so strange. Across from the church lived the priest,
on a huge estate but he did not worry us too much. Our relations with the
Lithuanians were cordial and there were no
during my time.
The main centre of activity was the
- a solid two-storey brick building which was the heart of the shtetl. This
that was completed in 1913 after the wooden synagogue burned down. The main
hall had two large tiled stoves that were always lit during winter, as it was
extremely cold. This hall was only used on
For daily prayers we used a small room heated in winter with ready-cut wooden
logs - there was always a tall stack of them in the open yard - as Lithuania
had no coal mines. Prayers were held three times a day and we boys were
every day, which we duly did. The
had no toilets, as there was no running water in the
and no indoor plumbing.
To the left of the
was a large garden. Next to the garden was the Berman family house and our
house was next to it. The
has many wonderful memories for me. We boys used to climb up to the loft from
the woman's section and catch pigeons that had a nest in it. I did it mostly
with my best friend, Hilke Koton, who unfortunately died in Johannesburg at an
early age. The
used to chase us and it was always great fun getting away.
presented no problem and I did not have to practice for it or take lessons, as
all of us knew the Torah well. My father was already in South Africa and my
and herring. She bought two or three bottles of lemonade (no Coca-Cola in those
days!) and everything went off well. No presents were given nor expected.
was comprised mainly of Jews except for the municipality - the postmaster, the
teachers and the single policeman as the Lithuanians all lived on
Only on Sundays and Christian holidays was it invaded by hundreds of peasants
who came to attend church services. They used to leave their horses and wagons
in the Jew's yards and each Jewish family had their regular customers. Into our
house they came in their Sunday best, went to the small toilet in
the yard and did the shopping in our grocery room run by my grown sister and
myself. Ma was a very enterprising woman and expropriated a quarter of our
house for a press and dyeing business. The peasants used to bring their
homespun and hand-woven cloths for her to press, which brought in some
Unlike Henry Ford, she used all colours. This was the only one in the
and she was extremely busy. To this day I do not know how the press worked.
We had a large house according to Pushelat standards, with a big kitchen and
large oven heated by wood, where Ma baked the daily bread,
on Friday, and
In the wintertime, some of us would vie for the privilege of sleeping on top
of the oven. This was sheer bliss.
Next to it was one big bedroom with three beds so the boys had to sleep two to
a bed, head and feet at opposite ends. Since we kids did not bathe that often,
it was neither very pleasant nor comfortable. The next room, a quarter of the
house, a large
stove, a big table for us kids to do homework and more beds for our parents,
sister and the other boys. We also had a big cellar under the house where we
kept potatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables for the winter.
Besides being a large family - seven boys, one girl - we also had Ma' s mother,
blind ever since I can remember, very skinny and totally bedridden. She stayed
with us all the years I can recall and died only a short time before I left for
South Africa. She must have been close to a hundred. Besides all of us we had a
girl cousin who was very poor and often slept at our house. She now lives in
In order to bathe, Ma used to heat up water from our own well on Fridays. (This
water was not drinkable). We used to bath one after the other. The communal
bath outside the
was only used four or five times a year, before the
Thursdays were for men and Fridays for women. Before
huge pots of boiling water outside the building were used,
pots and pans and cutlery tied up with string. There was no Lux or Palmolive
soap, only homemade kind.
Jewish weddings were always exciting and festive for the entire shtetl. In
1922, Dinah, one of six daughters of Yossel (Joseph) and Mara Rocha
(Schemer) Gillelovitz, married Beryl Melamed from Pagiriai, son of
Nachema and Chana. Dina's brother(s), Chaim, was in the
Lithuanian Army stationed in Ponevezh. He came to Pushelat for the wedding
and brought with him a Lithuanian Army band. I do not remember whether they
arrived in a vehicle of some kind or a horse and wagon. I do remember them
starting to march down the street in Pushelat, playing very stirring martial
music. All of us kids fell in behind the band and marched with them. It was a
very exciting time in Pushelat. All of the Jews as well as hundreds of
Lithuanians came to watch them march and to listen to the music. It was the
only wedding ever held in Pushelat that had a band play music. A year ago, my
friend Howard Margol in Atlanta, Georgia sent me a photograph taken at the
wedding. Fifty-six people were in the picture including the Army band. There
I was, sitting on the ground in the front row.
Gilelovich-Melamed Wedding in Pushelat - 31 March,1922 - Beryl Melamed (age
33), from Pagiriai, son of Nochemia and Chana, married Dina Gilelovich (age
23), from Pushelat, daughter of Yossel and Mera Rocha (Schemer). Schochet
Moise Abram Kulber officiated. (Pushelat had no Rabbi at the time).
had no bioscopes or theatres, we made our own entertainment, mostly Yiddish
plays. Our cousin Velvel Viten and our sister were main organisers and I well
remember the following plays.
King Lear, Yankel der Smid
and the very popular one,
Motke der Ganaf.
Velvel roped me in at the age of twelve as the secretary of the jury. It was
all in good fun.
There were only four or five in our age group as the others emigrated soon
There were dozens of girls, so we boys were in great demand. In summer, Friday
and Saturday nights were the highlights of the week for us-young boys and
girls. We used to go for walks in the moonlight, past the cemetery, past the
church for want of anything better to do. I remember those walks, full of
innocent fun and much laughter . . . the joys of youth! Also, the girls and we
boys walked to the big bridge on the river, halfway to Pumpian and swam there.
No bathing costumes were available or necessary as the boys swam on the right
side of the bridge and the girls on the left. We had lots of fun. In
wintertime, we used to go on sleighs in the street, as there was no motor
Girls, being in the majority, decided to form a society and
were founded. We used to meet at the bridge with the Pumpian society of the
same name, and uniforms were made over weekends. On the cultural side my mother
started a library of Yiddish and Hebrew books, which were well used. The men of
made a living by going to the nearby
to buy chickens, eggs, sheepskins and intestines. They cleaned the intestines,
and these were in great demand in Germany for making Vienna sausages. Before
Christmas, geese were much sought after, so we used to force-feed them and
export them to Germany together with lots of dairy products. Germany was
Lithuania's biggest trading partner in dairy products. But the main income was
derived from drafts: nearly every household had a father or son in South
Africa, or in the United States, who sent money in the form of drafts. These
could not be changed in Pushelat as it had no banks so everyone had to go to
Ponevezh where there was a Jewish bank (Elizur's). They also had to do shopping
there, as Pushelat had no clothing, or shoe shops. In Ponevezh ice cream was a
great attraction for us as it was not available in Pushelat.
The year 1925 in our shtetl was memorable for two events. The first one was a
family affair - Ma's brother Joseph Witten (Viten) arrived unexpectedly from
Jacksonville, Florida, where he had a
department store, to visit his mother and sisters. My mother's sister Soro-lta
Berman was our next door neighbour. Uncle Joseph brought us lots of presents of
clothing and shoes. To our great surprise and joy, Bobba recognised his voice
as soon as he walked in and great was her joy. He stayed with us for two days
and donated 50 dollars to the
, which was a fortune in those days. It was used to repaint the
in all the colours of the rainbow.
The second event - a national one - was the opening of the Hebrew University in
Jerusalem. A radio with a loudspeaker at full volume was installed in the open
marketplace and all the Jews gathered there to enjoy the great historical
event. We listened to the speakers, Dr Chaim Weitzman and Sir Herbert Samuel,
even if none of us could understand English or even Hebrew.
My mother was quite well off by Pushelater standards. Father sent her a
£10 draft every month, and when I got to South Africa I sent her a £4
draft, so with the exchange rate of 50
to the pound she had plenty of money, more than she could spend in Pushelat.
She paid no rent, no electricity or water accounts, and no income tax or
insurance. There was a small municipal charge. We had a plot on the outskirts
where we kept a cow and chickens. We had our own milk, eggs and butter, and
grew our own potatoes and other vegetables. Herrings - the main diet - we
bought by the barrel; they were cheap, and the Holland herrings, much in
demand, were our staple food together with potatoes.
We baked our own bread and
The only thing we had to buy was meat - veal was very inexpensive - and we only
bought red meat on Yomtov from the Kotons, the only
butchery. I was so sick of veal that when I arrived in South Africa I would not
touch it for years. My mother was therefore safe and secure and did not want to
leave Pushelat. It was only my father's pleas, along with mine and my brother
Sam's, that made her change her mind. She just managed
to arrive in South Africa as she was in one of the last ships to arrive in the
country, with Jewish immigrants, before Jews from the Baltic were no longer
When I finished at the primary school in Pushelat I begged my mother to let me
study further in Ponevezh as I used to get good marks. I enrolled in the
Ponevezher Yiddishe Mittel School, which had four classes. We wore very nice
uniforms. In summer we used to walk home barefoot. In the winter lifts had to
be arranged to and from Ponevezh and Pushelat. We had excellent teachers,
poet Leib Bassman, and I received a very good education. I passed with flying
colours and came second in the school.
I was just over sixteen, not knowing what to do in the future, when a
registered letter arrived with visas for me to enter South Africa and enough
money to pay for a train ticket to Kovno, then the capital city. There were
more train tickets to Libau, Latvia, where I took a boat, the
to London. Together with my best friend in Pushelat, Hilel Peisa (Hilke)
(Phillip) Koton, we boarded the ship Garth Castle and arrived in
Cape Town, June 23, 1929, never to return to my Pushelat.
Arriving on the same ship with Willie and Hilke, also from Pushelat, were
Jankel Sapira, Boruch Gurvic, Osif Davidzon, and David Zuk.
THE DEATH OF A SHTETL
From South Africa, we corresponded with Mother on a weekly basis. In one
letter, Ma wrote about how Pushelat acquired a Rabbi after being without one
for several decades. The Ponevezher Rabbi Kahaneman arrived in Pushelat one
morning his first visit ever called the elders together, and
asked them a favour. There is a young Rabbi in Ponevezh with a wife and
children who was conscripted into the army. The only way for him to get out is
to get a job as a Rabbi. He appealed to the community to help him out
thus earning a big mitzvah and emphasised that it will only be a
paper appointment, as he knew the community was poor and small in
numbers. He thus had no intention of burdening them with a Rabbi. What could
the elders do but agree with him for, after all, the Rabbi was one of the top
Rabbis in Lithuania and head of the famous Ponevezher Yeshiva. The elders
signed the papers for it and were happy to earn such a big mitzvah.
Several weeks later, on a bright morning, a large horse-drawn wagon arrived
in Pushelat with Rabbi B.J. "Yossel" Pagremanski, his
wife, Taube Berlin, three children, furniture, boxes, chickens, etc., ready
to settle down as a Rabbi. The shtetl was in shock! How could the Ponevezher
Rabbi play such a trick on them? The leaders of the shtetl approached the
newly arrived Rabbi and expressed their concern. He smiled and replied,
will provide. To help pay the expenses for the new Rabbi the elders
to give him a concession of the supply of yeast to the entire community. As
every household baked their own bread, it was of some help. As the new Rabbi
had said, God will provide.
The shtetl lived in peace. They got on well with the Lithuanians and there were
no pogroms. The wives and children who had husbands and fathers in South Africa
joined them as the Immigration Act luckily made provision for families to be
re-united and the shtetl emptied. The remaining families kept on getting
drafts from South Africa, as well as from relatives living in other
countries, and the shtetl lived on. Happily, my mother and family decided to
rejoin us in South Africa just in time before World War II broke out on
September 1, 1939.
In 1940, Russia occupied Lithuania and it became a Soviet Socialist Republic.
To appease the Lithuanians, Russia returned Vilna, and the Vilna District, to
Lithuania and made Vilna once again the capital. The Poles, under General
Zeligovksky, had captured it from the Lithuanians in 1918 and had refused to
give it back. I remember how in every shtetl and city there were notices and/or
statues saying, We will never forget Vilna. All relations and
communication between Lithuania and Poland had been severed. You could not post
letters nor telephone or travel to Poland and the teaching of Polish was
forbidden. The Jews in the main were happy with the new situation as they
believed it would safeguard their physical well being as the Soviet
constitution guaranteed full equal rights to all its citizens irrespective of
race or religion. Yiddish schools, newspapers and theatres soon appeared and
flourished for a time and the universities were open to all. However, the rich
Jews suffered as their businesses and factories were confiscated.
In Pushelat, a Soviet Council was proclaimed but with no enthusiasm from the
Lithuanians. My cousin, Velvel Viten, was appointed Chairman of the Council
(Mayor) of Pushelat. He was a Leftist as were most of the Jewish youth. Velvel
was a self educated intellectual and a poet of note. I well remember how he
used to read poetry to us, some of which was published in the Yiddishe
newspaper. He was already married to Soske, the beautiful youngest daughter of
Nochum-Bere Setzer. They had a baby. The first act of the new Soviet Council
was to expropriate the vast estate of the Gallach (priest). It was
divided among the poor peasants and Betzalel, the poor son-in-law of Bere Koton
the butcher and they were the lucky ones. Betzalel had a big family, like most
of the Jews, and some of his sons escaped the Holocaust by joining the Red
Army. The Jews in Pushelat got used to the new situation.
This uneasy but history-making period only lasted a year for, on the 23
of June 1941, the Germans attacked Russia without warning. Within days the Red
Army began to withdraw from Lithuania and the Germans advanced throughout the
country. The Lithuanians did not wait for the Germans to arrive. The
Siauliste (Lithuania Voluntary Militia) started rounding up Jews
and Russians and the first victims were the municipal council. Velvel and his
family were the first to be shot. Some of the Jews were rounded up and taken to
a thick forest on the road to Janishkel about 1 ½ kms away. In a clearing,
they were shot and buried in a mass grave. Twenty Jews hid in the small
building at the entrance to the Jewish cemetery normally used to prepare the
bodies for burial. They were soon discovered and all were shot to death.
When my good friend Howard Margol, in Atlanta, Georgia, questioned some of the
Lithuanian elders on one of his visits to Pushelat in recent years, he was
given vivid descriptions of how the Jews were murdered there. He was told how
the Lithuanian bandits grabbed the small Jewish children by their
ankles, swung their bodies around, and smashed their heads against a wall or
tree. The shtetl had only one doctor, a Jew by the name of Joseph Shapiro. One
of the Lithuanian women offered to convert Dr. Shapiro to Catholicism and marry
him but to no avail. As Doctor Shapiro tried to attend to the wounded, he was
brutally murdered. It is not known exactly how many Jews were murdered in
Pushelat by the so-called Lithuanian bandits. The Germans forced
the remaining Jews into the ghetto in Ponevezh. In September, 1941 all of the
Jews in the ghetto were herded into the nearby Pajnoste Forest and murdered
Of all the Jews who were living in Pushelat on the 23
of June 1941, only one man escaped. After the war, he lived in Kaunas until he
died in 1992. His son, Janush Boris, still lives in Kaunas. Pushelat is still
there today but, as a shtetl, it no longer exists.
Howard Margol, a native and former resident of Jacksonville, Florida is
President of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies.
His father was born and grew up in Pushelat. In the 1920-1930's, thirty Jewish
families from Pushalot lived in Jacksonville, Florida.
Photos from Pushelat from the past
Photos from Pushelat of today
Murder in Pushelat The Ehud Barak Connection
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