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[Page 264]

Stolpce My Shtetele

by Ahron Chayat, New York

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

My destroyed shtetl [town] – a headstone
My landsleit [people from the same town] – a gift.

I long for you, my dear old home,
My cradle, my mother's lap, my first song;
There where I wove my young dreams,
Where the pintele Yid [Jewish spark] awoke in me.

My sweet shtetl! You stand here before me in your full charm,
The houses, the streets and the market,
You almost were tal–umoter[1] [tiny] small,
You are baked into our hearts, we love you so fervently.

Here you stretch out idyllically near the Neiman River,
Where a playful water current twists,
Your waters have refreshed both the poor and the rich,
And the “ferry” goes sailing across their wet backs.

And so my little house, where my grandmother rocked me,
Put the tiny child to sleep with sweet notes.
Nearby knitted a sock with knitting needles at a small oil lamp,
Speaking of the world and of people, spotless of sin.

[Page 265]


Paromna Street


There again I hear mother's tender voice,
That at twilight Shabbos [Sabbath] drips like evening dew,
“G-d of Abraham” – murmurs the chaste woman's pure mouth,
And she looks for “three stars” deep in the blue heavens.[2]

And there the old kheder [religious primary school], my well of inspiration
And with the rebbe, pointer–whip, lash,
A clear ray rises early in my head,
Rashi, Tosfos [medieval commentaries on Talmud] floats through with a sharp flash.

My love and dear shtetl, my dream of reality,
With Jews without an ein–horeh [evil eye] a very considerable community,
Clergy, small shopkeepers and rich men too
A few “simple Jews,” artisans, harnessed with a heavy burden.

Slim means of support, scant, the income small and weak,
No groshn [small coin] of one's own, everything done on credit and loans,
And behold, a surprise, such a remarkable thing,
[They] indulge themselves: shamosim [synagogue sextons] two and preaching rabbis three…

The Rabbi, Reb Yehoshaya, the “purest oil,”
Barely survived on nothing,
Sanctified the shtetl holiday, Shabbos, the week, with Torah,
Shared the bit of bread with every poor man.

Reb Moshe from Zabludowa, fed the feminine folk
Who brought him here, with righteousness;
Comrade Sorockin, it was a complete secret,
Supported himself through metrikes[3] and the strength of the regime…

Reb Eliahu Machtey, oldest shoykhet [ritual slaughterer], a Jew, sweet as sugar,
He would slaughter a cow in the butcher's stall,
And as an experienced mohel [ritual circumciser], he was invited to every bris [ritual circumcision],
The reverberation of his shofar [ram's horn] would awaken Jews to repentance.

Reb Shlomo shoykhet, a Jew of an entirely good nature,
With a warm heart and wide–open hands!
Carried hope, help and consolation everywhere,
Often paid high interest for a “stranger's debt.”

Reb Josef Hasid, a quiet, dear Jew,
Did not tire pulling himself from house to house,
He forged a genuine chain of Yidishkeit [a Jewish way of life] from small coins
In the “judicial district” Yeshiva [religious secondary school] and in the small synagogue.

Reb Meir'ke, the geler [blond], do you remember him, the “eccentric”?
With spit and a twist of the nose, he laughed completely at the world;
Stood in the middle of the market dancing in a sack.
Gave all of the “show money” to the Talmud Torah [school for poor boys].

And Dovid, Chasha Leah's son, zealot, pioneer,
Ready to sacrifice for “a triviality,”
Broke every fence, every barrier,
Built a new “young Stolpce” in the Torah spirit.

The “teacher Alter,” dear veteran of Zion,
With youthful zest and silver–grey hair,
The brave man created history,
Planted ideals of Zion in the heart of a generation.

And who among you does not remember Motele Machtey,
The lightning–sharp mind, the busybody of the city?
Rabbi, alderman, Jewish character, “learned Jew”
Shouting commandments to the “upper crust.”

Do you remember the young man from Bialystok, the elegant young man
The gabbai's [sexton's] good son–in–law living on the community's fat kest,[4]
Pretentiously strolled with cigarette and cane,
And led the shtetl by the nose to his kehile nest.

Reb Shaul from the bathhouse, our Carlsbad spray,
On Passover he would kasher the entire city in the boiler,
Honored the best Jews with strokes of a [whiskbroom] on the “upper bench of the steam bath”
And all of the bosses hot er gehot in bod.[5]

Zlata Minya's daughters waited patiently to the tips of their very braids
For their betrothed and destined ones,
Their “appropriate possessions” were guarded as the eyes in their heads
With brooms they [swept] the dirt from Tsupik's Square after market day.

Chantshe's daughters at the “circle stores,” door by door,
Always dressed in spite like a wager,
Eternally angry, pouting like a true abscess,
Persuading each other of proposed matches.

[Page 266]


Avraham Sadowski


Of the people, Avraham Ful–Ful, the gazetszik [newspaper seller] and culture carrier,
Would pray Shakharis [morning prayers] with ardor and with zeal until noon
Then he went running to the train station for newspapers without an order, without a system
And in the evening, he came with “half–baked news.”

And if you hear gevalt [exclamation of alarm] on Pormana,
With a clatter of plates and grating from clay pots;
Do not be surprised; the struggle is already very old;
The “wife of the glazer” and Yedidi's Aba are struggling.

Shmuel, Khashe Breyna's son, covered with many medals,
With a “helmet” on his head, brass buttons and a uniform,
Gives himself airs, self–assured as if he deserved respect:
Chief of the firemen, who is equal to me?

Reb Lipo Dorski, a dear Jew with G-d in his heart,
Sympathized with the shopkeepers' and toilers' need,
To help them earn a piece of black bread,
Built up a gemiles–khesed [interest free] loan fund.

A tumult, an uproar, in the kehile room in the evening,
Getzel (Sagalowich) at the cashbox and Rivka (nee Machtey – wife of Getzel) at the book,
Here, merchants and the blacksmith borrow and pay back
And bring home a sack of flour, a garment and a pair of shoes.

Rywa's son, Mordekhai Feywl, a Jew with feeling,
Would run in the middle of the night: and do not think it is a joke,
To quietly bring a bladder [rubber bag], ice to a sick one
Lay a remedy on his head to lower his temperature.

Day and night, Yosef the painter strove
When the taste was bitter, to bring help to the needy,
Through the biker kholim [organization to visit the sick], [a] doctor, medicine, prescriptions,
Healed the poor man with drops, pills and rhyme.


A Group of Students

First row, sitting from the right: Dr. Ahron Lewin, two Christians;
Second row, standing from the right: unknown, Dr. Yitzhak Epsztajn, Kantorowicz, Lawyer Ahron Chais, Tanya Wolfson, Yoel Lusterman, Dr. Yakov Akslrod.


[Page 267]

The old Reb Yedidia, a shoemaker, drew his income,
Entirely from his trade, from the shoemaker's thread and awl.
Wherever anxiety, a misfortune stood watch,
[He was] a kind–hearted person, supported, helped countless [people].

Eli Shaul's son, Tanna, the most powerful man in the shtetl,
Gave the greatest advice with harsh words in the synagogue,
His wink to the butcher, to the wagon driver was – commandment,
Because he truly possessed G-d's house and the “money.”

Leibe, Esterke's son, the ataman of the khevre kadishe [burial society]
Gave the poor “the proper burial” not for his benefit,
At the banquet on 15 Kislev, he led the entire tempo,
“Overcharged” the rich corpse.[6]

Avraham the watnik [maker of quilted jackets] served devotedly at the synagogue lectern,
Calculated with his pen at the bank and at the interest free loan fund,
In his room taught each member of the household …
No one thanked him for all that he knew and could do.

A heavy heart always confided,
To the mothers of the city, the “Women's Committee,”
[Who] helped with a little money and a loaf of bread.
Not leaving the fallen at the mercy of a difficult fate.

My dear birthplace, with Jews of illustrious birth,
You had, on ayin–hora,[7] those of every sort and kind,
[There was] even one who performed the symbolic self–flagellation on the eve of Yom Kippur,
For the Jewish people as a whole.

Your young, woven from the threads of the shtetl,
With fervor and zeal and gusto in excited discussion,
Herzl, Trumpeldor, Borochov and Medem,[8]
Sharp tongues aired in passionate party quarrels.

Livelihood? Trade? Heavy industry?
A cask of kerosene, a ball of lime, a bundle of straw.
And free competition? What does that mean and how?
Because of the payment for a herring they spoiled it for a gentile…


Women's Union and Orphans Room and Board


[Page 268]

Ideas? Hotel “Europa” with Eloykim the owner,
Two people could barely [cross the threshold];
A bitter irony, a mockery, something fleeting,
Alas, a “continent” of …four by four cubits [a cubit equal about 18 inches 45 centimeters].

The community lived there idyllically,
A beautiful community of Jews equal to all people
A strong, familiar life quietly took shape
In comfort – poor and contented – colorful.

Until… like thieves from the deepest forest,
The Nazis robbed, murdered and raped there,
Like damaged animals in human form,
Our home and synagogue destroyed and burned.

Young and old in bunkers and in the forest,
Dared bold resistance like Samson against the Philistines;
Dealt with slaughter, fire, violence from murderers,
However, this was the last act.

From the empty ghetto dipped in fiery passion,
The murderers drove everyone, kith and kin,
With the last Shema [Shema Yisroel – central prayer of Judaism] at the sacrifice of innocent blood,
Went the funeral train in the march of death.

Now it is quiet there, everyone is gone with the smoke,
Their bones rest in a large mass grave,
And empty sadness wanders there from end to end,
The wind says Kaddish [prayer for the dead] over a cold stone.

Although I am far from you, wandering in a strange land,
You are like a “burning bush” to me; the trunk dried up,
From the blaze, you come to me resurrected from the dead,
You are fresh in my memory; you are entirely in flames.

My mourning has no boundary and no foundation,
I will never sew–up any krie–ris [rended mourner's garment],
So my wound will drip and bleed,
The snakebite will remain unhealed.

The years pass but my mood is lonely,
It is anchored in your ruins, ash and dust,
Your yahrzeit [anniversary of a death] will be faithfully observed,
A Kaddish for you to heaven, a praise for you to G-d.

By the flickering glow of the yahrzeit candle,
One of your sons mourns you and he swears,
Not to rest until you are restored,
Oh, dear Stolpce mine, on Mother Zion's ground.

Translator's Footnotes:
  1. tal–umatar – “dew and rain” – is part of a daily prayer recited during the months of drought in Israel; the text is printed in very small letters. Its use here indicates the smallness of the shtetl [town]. Return
  2. Shabbos ends when three stars appear in the sky. Return
  3. metrikes are the vital records recording births, marriages and deaths. Return
  4. Support provided to a groom for a few years after his marriage to enable him to study Torah. Return
  5. Carlsbad is a famous spa. Dishes, pots and pans and other household goods are placed in boiling water before Passover to kasher – to make them kosher for Passover. Whiskbrooms were used in steam baths to provide a sort of massage. “Hot er gehot in bod” is a play on words. Its literal meaning is “he had them in the bath,” but it is an idiom meaning “he did not care about them.” Return
  6. The leader – an ironic use of the word; ataman is the title of a Cossack leader. The khevre kadishe held annual banquets, often on the 15th of Kislev. Return
  7. On eyn hora, or more commonly, kein ayin hora means “no evil eye.” It is a phrase used after someone has been praised, adding the hope that the evil eye would not cause harm to the person being praised. Return
  8. Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, Zionist activist Joseph Trumpeldor, Marxist Zionist Ber Borchov and Bund leader Vladimir Medem. Return


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