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[Page 264]

Stolpce My Shtetele[1]

by Aharon Chayat, New York

Translated by Esther Libby Raichman

My destroyed little town – a gravestone
My fellow-townsfolk – a gift.

I long for you, my dear, old home,
My cradle, my mother's lap, my first song,
There where I wove the dreams of my youth,
Where the essence of Judaism, awoke in me.

Sweet shtetl of mine! Stands before me, in all its charm,
The little houses, the streets, and the market,
Although you were so very small,
You are engrained in our hearts; I love you so deeply.

Here, you stretch idyllically along the Niemen River,
Where a playful water current twists,
Your waters have refreshed the poor and the rich,
And over their wet surface the “ferry” sailed.

And here is my little house, where my grandmother rocked me,
And with sweet sounds, put the tiny child to sleep,
Nearby, by the light of a small oil lamp,
She knitted a sock with knitting needles,
And spoke of worlds and people, free of sin.

[Page 265]

Paromneh Street

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

And here, the old cheder[3], source of my inspiration,
And the Rabbi with a small whip, in our midst.
A clear bright ray threads through my head,
A Rashi[4], Tosafot[5], floats through in a sharp flash.

My dear, beloved shtetl, my dream that is so real,
With Jews, good people[6], rather a large community too,
Clergy, small shop keepers, and the rich – quite a few,
Mostly “simple Jews”, artisans, burdened by a heavy yoke.

Little means of sustenance, scant, rewards small and weak,
No groschen of one's own, all done on credit and loan,
And behold a surprise, such a remarkable thing,
They indulged in two beadles, and Rabbis three …

The Rabbi, Reb Yehoshua, the “purest of olive oil”,
Barely survived, on nothing at all,
With Torah, he made holy the shtetl's festivals, sabbaths, weekdays,
And with every poor man, a bit of bread he shared.

Reb Moshe from Zabludowa, for the ordinary women folk,
Was nourished by his righteousness, a virtue that brought him here,
The Rabbi Sorotzkin, it certainly was no secret,
Supported himself by metrikkes,[7] and the strength of the regime.

Reb Eliyahu, the oldest shochet,[8] a Jew as sweet as sugar,
Would slaughter the butcher's cow in the butcher's stall,
As an experienced mohel[9], was invited to every brit[10],
And repenting Jews were woken to the call of his shofar[11].

Reb Shlomo a shochet, a very good-natured Jew,
A warm and generous heart he had,
Who valued above all, compassion, help and hope,
And sometimes paid high interest for a “stranger's debt”.

Reb Yosef a chassid, a dear, and quiet, Jew,
Never tired of dragging himself from house to house,
With small coins, he forged a genuine chain of Judaism,
In Yurzdikke district, in the yeshiva and in the small synagogue.

Reb Meir'ke the “ginger”, you remember him, the “eccentric”?
Stood in the middle of the market-place dancing in a sack,
With a spit, a twist of the nose, he laughed at the world,
And gave all the “show money” to the Talmud Torah[12].

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

The ”teacher Alter”, loyal veteran of Zion,
With youthful zest and silver-grey hair,
Created history, this brave man,
Planted Zionist ideals into the heart of a generation.

And who among you does not remember Mottele Machtey,
With a dazzling, sharp mind, the nosy parker in the town,
Non-orthodox Rabbi, alderman, a Jewish public legal officer, a “learned Jew”,
To repeal orders, he reached out to the powers that be.

Do you recall the young man from Bialystok, the elegant one,
The synagogue leader's pleasant son-in-law,
living off the community's lucrative kest[13]
Pretentiously striding with cigarette and cane,
Leading the shtetl by the “nose” to his communal nest.

Reb Shaul of the bathhouse, our Carlsbad[14] fount,
Would on Passover, kasher the entire town in the boiler,
Honored the finest Jews with lashes [of a whiskbroom]
on the “upper bench of the steam bath”
And did not care about the rich.

Zlatte Minye's daughters, until they had truly grey braids,
Waited patiently for a match, for a predestined mate,
Their “anticipated possession” guarded with longing,
Swept the dirt with their brooms at Tshupik's place, after market-day.

Chantshe's daughters in the “shop queues,” door by door,
Always dressed just to spite, like a wager,
Always angry, pouting like a true abscess,
Persuading each other about proposed matches.

[Page 266]

Avraham Sadovsky

Avrem'el Ful-Ful, the “newspaper seller,” the people's carrier of culture,
Would say the morning prayers until midday, with ardor and zeal,
Then run to the train station for newspapers, without order or system,
And arrive in the evening with “half-baked news”.

And if on the “ferry”, you hear a clamor,
With a clatter of plates and the grating of clay pots,
Do not be surprised: the battle is already quite old,
The glazier,[15] and Yedidi's son Abba, are coming to blows.

Chashe Bryne's son Shmuel, with many medals bedecked,
With a “helmet” on his head, brass buttons, and a uniform,
Pouting, self-assured, as if he deserved respect,
Chief of the firemen, who is equal to me?

Reb Lippo Dorsky, a fine Jew, with G-d in his heart,
Sympathized with shopkeepers and the toilers' needs,
Helped them to earn a piece of black bread,
And built the charity for interest free loans.

In the community small prayer house, in the evening a tumult, an uproar,
Getzel at the cashbox and Rueve at the book,
The merchant and the blacksmith, borrow and pay back,
And bring home a sack of flour, a garment, and a shoe.

Peshe Riva's son Mordechai Fyvel, a Jew with feeling.
Would run in the middle of the night: do not think this is a joke,
Then to someone sick, he would quietly bring a bag of ice,
Place it at his head, as a remedy to lower his fever.

Yosef the painter, strove day, and night,
To bring help in time of need, when bitter was the taste,
Through Bikkur Cholim,[16] a doctor, medicine, prescriptions,
He healed the poor with drops, pills, and comfort.


A group of students

First row, seated from right: Dr. Aharon Levin, two Christians
Second row, standing from right: unknown, Dr. Yitzchak Epshtein, Sonye Kantorovitsh, Adv. Aharon Chait, Sonye Volfson, Yoel Lusterman, Dr. Ya'akov Akselrod

[Page 267]

The old reb Yedidyah, a shoemaker by trade,
Made a living from the shoemaker's thread and awl,
Whenever an anxiety, or a misfortune stood watch,
This kind person supported and helped countless souls.

Tanna, Eli Shaul's son, the most influential man in town,
Had the greatest say in the synagogue, uttered with harsh words,
To the butcher, the wagon-driver, his wink was – a command,
Because G-d's house and the “money”, he truly possessed.

Leibe, Esther's son, the Burial Society's leader
Did right by the poor man, for no personal gain,
At the feast on 15th Kislev, led the entire pace,
And “overcharged” the corpse of the rich.

Avraham the quilter, served devotedly at the pulpit,
At the bank and Gemillut Chesed[17] he calculated with his pen,
In his cheder, he taught every member of a household,
Not one to thank him and appreciate what he knew.

The “women's committee”, the mothers of the town,
In whom a heavy heart, always confided,
They helped with a little money and a loaf of bread,
Never leave the fallen, at the mercy of a difficult fate.

My dear birthplace, with Jews of illustrious birth,
With things of conspicuous goodness of every kind and sort,
Even one who would “symbolically flagellate,”
For all the “Jewish people,” every Yom Kippur[18] eve.

Your youth, woven from the threads of the shtetl,
Engaged in discussions with gusto, zeal and fervor,
Herzl, Trumpeldor[19], Borochov[20] and Medem[21]
In heated party disputes, aired their sharp tongues.

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?
Over the price of a herring, they fought with a Gentile …


Women's Society and Welfare for Orphans 1926

Above: Women's Society 1926
Bottom: orphan committee in Stolpce
Women's names in bottom row from right: Rubin, the Rabbi's wife Mrs. Lieberman, Neifeld, R. Vinereich
Names of women in top row are illegible

[Page 268]

Achievements? Hotel “Europa”, with Elkayim, the owner,
Two people barely able to push their way through the door,
A bitter irony, a mockery , fleeting,
Alas, a “continent” of cubits[22] four-by-four.

A community lived there idyllically,
A beautiful community of Jews where everyone was equal,
A strong, familiar life, quietly took shape,
In luxury – poor, in content – colorful.

Until … like bandits from the deepest forest,
The Nazis there, robbed, murdered, and raped,
Like beasts of prey in human form,
Homes were destroyed and burned.

Like Samson against the Philistines, young and old,
in bunkers and in the forest, dared boldly to resist,
Dealt with murderers, in slaughter, fire, and violence,
But this was the drama's last act.

From the deserted ghetto, dipped in fiery passion,
The murderers drove everyone, kith and kin,
To the sacrifice of their innocent blood,
And with the last Shema[23] the funeral train went on the march of death.

Now it is quiet there, everything went up in smoke,
In a huge mass grave, their bones are resting ,
An empty sadness wanders there, from end to end,
And the wind says the Kaddish[24] over a cold stone.

Although I am far from you, wandering in a strange land,
You are like the “Burning Bush” to me, the thorn bush trunk,
From the blaze you appear to me, as if resurrected from the dead,
And in my memory, you are fresh, but entirely in flames.

My mourning has no boundary, no grounds,
I will never sew up my mourner's garment[25],
My wound will continue to drip and bleed,
And the snakebite will remain unhealed.

The years pass by, but my mood is forlorn,
Anchored in your ruins, ash, and dust,
Your yahrzeit[26] 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,
A son of yours mourns you, and he swears,
He will not rest, until you are restored,
Oh, beloved Stoibtz of mine, on Mother Zion's soil.

Translator's Footnotes:
  1. A shtetl or shtetele is a small town. Return
  2. Three stars – the appearance of three stars marks the end of the Sabbath. Return
  3. Cheder – a religious primary school for boys. Return
  4. Rashi – commentaries by Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, paramount Bible and Talmud commentator of 11th century. Return
  5. Tosafot – medieval commentaries of the Talmud. Return
  6. The text says ayin hara – the evil eye – referring to people of goodness and beauty, bearing no evil. Return
  7. Metrikkes – registration of births, deaths, etc. Return
  8. Shochet – a ritual slaughterer. Return
  9. Mohel – ritual circumciser. Return
  10. Brit or Bris – circumcision. Return
  11. Shofar – the ram's horn blown on the High Holy days. Return
  12. Talmud Torah – tuition free elementary school for poor children. Return
  13. Kest – room and board for a young couple, provided by the bride's parents for an agreed period of time to allow the son-in-law to continue his traditional studies. Return
  14. Carlsbad refers to the famous spa. Reb Shaul would purify utensils specifically for Passover, for the entire community, in the boiler of the bathhouse. Return
  15. The glazier in this text, is a female. Return
  16. Bikkur Cholim – organization for visiting the sick. Return
  17. Gemillut Chesed – the interest-free loan fund. Return
  18. Yom Kippur – the Day pf Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Return
  19. Theodor Herzl and Joseph Trumpeldor were Zionist leaders. Return
  20. Ber Borochov was a Marxist Zionist. Return
  21. Medem – Vladimir Medem, a Bund leader. Return
  22. Cubit – a biblical measure equaling 18 inches or 45 centimeters. Return
  23. Shema – a central prayer in Judaism, that expresses the monotheistic nature of the Jewish religion. Return
  24. Kaddish – the mourner's prayer for the dead. Return
  25. Tearing of clothes - the custom of tearing clothes is a sign of mourning for a close relative. Return
  26. Yahrzeit – anniversary of a death. Return


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