Mein Shtetl Unghen
|Dedicated to my parents, the martyrs,
Yakov and Freida Barkan, zl,
who were killed at the hands of
the murderers, 2 Tammuz 5702 (1941).
|My dear shtetl Unghen, in Bessarabia.
You have been destroyed, my shtetl, destroyed by the Nazi world-killers.
I bear you in my heart, like a golden treasure
With your dreams and ideals,
With your everyday uproar and arguments;
With the grace of your well-kept homes and dressed-up daughters,
As also with your squalid courtyards and deep puddles;
With your fineness and learning,
And with your ordinary, everyday people:
With your holidays and weekdays;
With your deep mentshlichkeit and broadheartedness,
And with your narrow-hearted stinginess…
With your virtues and faults,
But with grace everywhere, in everything,
You are tangled in my heart forever.
You, on whose earth I was born,
Where I spent my childhood and youth…
Trembling I take pen in hand To create your tombstone.
I stand as though by an open window, and I see you in the distance with my wide-open eyes. It seems like I am young again, and I see you as looked decades ago, before I left you. I see----- ------
A Tract of Earth
In the town of Unghen
There once was
Short, but pompous,
Rich as Korach, and spoiled,
Big-boned, but disjointed
With a long, thick mustache,
With a big stomach and pointed beard,
And eyes flashing and angry
A prince…Boznia was his name,
And he came from good stock.
Under the heavens high and blue
This belongs to the prince.
Three miles long, under the mountain,
It lies comfortably spread out.
And on the mount there blooms a world
Of villages and woods and fields.
The prince, innocently and righteously
The Jews call a gathering,
In these surrounding towns people had wives and children,
And they had long been interwoven there,
They prayed, they were a community, they traded together
How could they disappear from there so suddenly?
But the new thing beckons, even the hearts tremble:
How does one leave one's brothers and sisters?
They danced together at celebrations and weddings,
Were victims of pogroms, with their children shot;
Like their own skin they knew every path, every stone
How could one leave behind one's own blood and bones?…
But those villages beckon, green and fertile,
In the Prince's Courtyard
Ten Jews came to the prince's grounds
To take advantage of this gift, which was ordained.
They caressed their tidy beards into points,
They speculated, they dreamt, with flashing eyes:
That land flowing with milk and honey,
And the prince is wealthy and can afford it…
Nu, they stand there on the terrace, so wide,
And each one in the courtyard is alert and prepared.
Ah, Prince, be well!they cry, trembling silently,
Their Jewish hearts in earnest prayer.
And now here comes a short man, a fat man,
Nu, the trembling men remove their hats,
Jews, buy this land and build there a town,
I won't even take a thread of a shoelace,
As Abraham said in your sacred book.
You can build on my ground and it won't cost you much,
You can pay for the ground in an annual installment…
I don't want to make it a permanent sale
That is strictly forbidden in your holy Torah…
The prince is still and stands stiff as a wall,
You cannot be fooled by fields and gardens.
The first to move was Reb Shimele Weiss,
Like someone torn from a block of ice;
A short Jew, with a beard brown and wide,
And big bushy eyebrows.
He walked over boldly, with powerful steps,
Like a soldier who marches while singing a song.
Seeing Reb Shimele moving this way,
Gave the Jews the courage they needed.
In their hearts were mixed both hope and fear
But the dream dominated, and they stood there in line.
Beaming, the Jews return to their shtetl
Such a wonder! Such luck!
They forget their worries, no more chagrin
There are happiness and joy!
In shul on Shabbos they sing praises to God
For his great favor!
And right after praying for their new settlement
They drink a l'chaim.
Ah, that fertile place on the prince's grounds
Was ordained by God!
And such dreams have settled in their hearts,
Their fine leader, Reb Naftali, speaks up,
With stores and stalls conducted by Jews,
And the village farmers will come there to trade,
With milk and cheese and grain and fruit in their baskets,
And trade those for shovels and tools,
And the Jews will deal honestly with them,
And blessings will rule over our homes and our streets.
Then a second takes a deep breath, as if pulling a wagon,
Both are correct, Reb Naftali and Ephraim
And they all say together, as if in a choir,
Things should only be as Reb Zishe has said.
Another opines, He speaks like a rabbi.
What Reb Zishe has said is certainly good.
Then another pipes up, a gabbai from an old shul,
Pssshh…Reb Zishe is with Torah imbued…
And like trees full of leaves that blow in the wind
They chatter and move, each one like a child.
Where there is Torah, there is strengthsays Ephraim the carpenter
Now spread out the tablecloth and we'll give a l'chaim.
They talk and they chatter and they cackle like geese,
The Jews descended en masse on the lot,
And Yakov established a camp out of tents.
The land was deserted, uprooted, and bleak,
All covered with brush and with thorns and wild grass.
But the people believed, and in Heaven was God,
So they pulled out the thorns and they laid a foundation.
They worked full of joy, with chatter and song,
And they raised up their eyes to Heaven with thanks:
Our praise, our sweet Father, we must give to you,
So protect us forever, our bodies and souls.
Like brothers they made an agreement:
Echoing throughout the fields
Hammer, saw and iron, stone
And a song,
A new worlda pure dream
In every limb.
Heaven hears the praise and thanks--
The heart's song.
The prince has declared that the main road must be built
Pinye the Baker, a short little Jew, stands
With wood and brick and lime
Hey, my sons, with iron hands and
We build a home for ourselves!
And Berka the merchant, a middle-sized man
Though broad boned,
He thinks and strokes his beard;
He walks around dreaming of boards
And metal and stones
With his son, but he can't find a spot.
Three non-Jews are buildingthey measure and hammer and hew and grease,
And he points out to his son:
There is the room, and the kitchen and the shop and the walls and the doors
A merchant has to know…
We'll build there tomorrow with my wife and children
In peace and plenty,
A Jew, too, can prosper…
Outside it is spring, the sun shines like gold,
So work there, Jews; set your hands to it,
And we will have dew from Heaven.
And Moise the druggist, with his fine pedigree,
And Reb Shlomo Feldman walks with some pomp,
And the hammers come down and the saw make their noise,
And the Jews dream of dew and of rain
And familiar songs
Our children will increase
As they are fruitful and multiply,
And God will provide sustenance,
Plenty, and peace.
There will be generations of daughters and sons,
Until the end of days.
The springtime sun throws its beams on the earth
And the hammers bang, and the hands work;
His son took over the old bathhouse
And he wonders whether he should come here…
And there with steps fine and quick,
The sky is blue, the day is sunny,
Houses stand on the main road in two new rows
And gracefully reflect the sun,
While tunes and melodies
Rise up from Jewish skin and bones.
But now they have to think about their livelihoods
To nourish God's flock.
So as the buildings grew, they knew
The peasants would have to feel at home.
They spoke to the prince about this,
And so the morning came…
From the druggist whose powders are weighed by the ounce,
From the dairy and dry goods, from meal and from iron,
There lies a field that is empty and waste,
Where every Thursday a fair takes place,
A busy market, full of commotion.
The farmers come with a horse or an ox,
And they bring their grain and their wool and their flax.
And they bring the plenty of the fertile earth
Yes, mazel and blessing is there for the Jews.
The peasants arrive from their small villages,
Moldovans making a lot of noise.
By the side, in long rows on the ground,
Sit peasant women, kerchiefed and freckled, and selling eggs.
And peasants on wagons, with whatever one seeks,
Cry out to the heavens: Come, people, buy fruit!
And the Jews look around and they smile and they kvell,
And spread out their goods in their new market stalls.
Everything is for sale there, oxen and steeds,
And the people push and they shove,
And there stands a guy with some flat loaves of bread,
And Vulf the merchant goes after him;
The peasant haggles gallantly
Like a hen that squawks and then lays an egg.
And the slaps resound until one could plotz,
But the buyer hears not as he scratches his neck…
The Jew has a shop there and is helped by his wife
Oy a living, a living!he needs it for life.
And the market hums and strains every nerve:
You will eat your bread by the sweat of your brow.
One walks among wagons, oxen, and steeds,
She buys there some beads, like the wife of a lord:
The heavens are bright as the day lingers on,
And a new kind of sweetness fills everyone's bones:
How fine it is to live in this world!
This market has everything, whatever one wants
Such plenty and blessing in Bessarabia!
The souls are so happy in these fine men,
For this is the first fair in the shtetl Unghen.
In a wide shed, a high one,
A voice in a deep bass rings out far and wide,
And the carp and the pike, the finest of fish
That the Jewish wives buy for a fine Shabbos dish.
Now the daylight grows dim, though some sunbeams remain,
Jews Talk about a Prayer House
When God provided their first success,
Those Jews extolled and praised his worth.
They could not quell their beating hearts
Until they donned their tallis and tefillin,
And not just in a minyan, where God's light shines dim
But in a beautiful shul with a big crowd of Jews.
They would not be silent, ashamed, or embarrassed,
But on Shabbos they'd pray with a fine baal-tefilah.
As their hearts sing their praises, they remain true to their God,
And they'll hear a fine chazzan sing traditional prayers.
Since the river is there, they are happy and full,
Dear Jews, whether young or old
That's why human beings, especially Jews,
The highest degree of reaching for God
Is to busy oneself in the Torah so dear.
It's good for the soul to sing praises of God,
To have a fine shul and walk on God's paths.
So each one should pledge as much as he can,
And we'll build a beis-medresh with the help of our God.
Then Reb Zeydl exclaimed, My masters, my masters
Then Reb Shlomo stands up, the merchant in wood,
He talks as though he runs the town…
They all sit still, not expressing their views,
While thus spoke Reb Shlomo to those gathered Jews:
Dear Jews, the Torah is a valuable thing,
The trusting hearts of our eternal folk,
They bestow blessings unceasing on Reb Shlomo's head.
And from joy and exaltation
A pure spirit of donation.
For their house of prayer those Jews combine
A spirit of strength and holiness,
In order to preserve their heritage.
The vows increase.
Each promises more than he can afford,
And soon they hea
r That beautiful melody:
Oy praiseoy praise our God.
They stroke their beards,
While the stars and moon
But all's not settled for that small kehillah
Their holy souls thirst for heights,
They long to sing, they long to praise;
Then from their hearts and from their souls
They softly start to pledge.
We will offer; we will give to build a shul,
To find a bit of rest,
A comfort in a time of need,
A place to dream of their redemption.
Someone donates the Holy Ark,
The ways of the Earth are dark and they're hard,
The Shtetl Grows
The settlement grew both in length and in breadth,
And everything was nicer, more spread out.
Bitter fate would not afflict these exiled folk,
These Jews who sought abundance and to dwell with other Jews.
There was a main street full of stores where blessing reigned,
Soon joined by side streets for the laborers.
The people built their houses, small and poor, and lacking room for children,
But in their larger courtyards planted trees.
Thick filthy mud, deepened by the rains.
What would you like, my friend? What think you of this rain?
Before them lies the narrow street, a muddy dividing line.
Farmers come from villages, and then a neighbor comes,
So wife and children are cared for, and all trust in God.
The tailor sews, the shoemaker puts pegs in shoes
L'chaim, brother! one shouts, as he takes a bite of kichel.
Not far from there on Yossel's side he sits and shines and hisses:
Such fortunate people. The blacksmith fashions horseshoes
He holds the horses' foot while nearby stands a farmer from Wallachia.
The blacksmith sings, Happy is the man who walks not
[in the counsel of the wickedPs. 1:1].
Feivel's an observant Jew. His voice is gruff, but beautiful his soul:
No bread today? Tomorrow God will probably provide…
AndYossel, have you prayed today? Do not forget your God!
Then to his anvil he returns, and to the wagon wheel before him.
Thus house and yard, the shtetl grows and Jews increase in number.
So there stands Shmerke's lovely home, all proud and finely made,
While mixed together are the sounds of loud machines
And voices of the children, who buzz like bees.
Oy, children, says their happy teacher, stroking at this beard
Oh, children, you should be so glad that you were born as Jews.
And then one hears the melody of alef-beis and Torah
And righteous little eyes look up with fear and apprehension.
A young man still is Itzi-Ber, and proud of his vocation.
And there, at the end of that pleasant street,
Life's good for him, the water bearer, with his burden.
He works so hard and lives contented;
His little joke: God gives us bread
And I give water to the Jews.
And there before hima courtyard broad and open,
Where children's voices sound throughout the day,
And deep within, his little horse stands
As if he wanted to hide in his park…
Near his courtyard sits another forge,
And Moyshe-Lieb the wagoner dreams of loads
And then all at once, the street comes to an end.
There's the land for the market, the edge of the town;
Rough ground, no grass, an empty world.
But one hopes there for plenty, for the favor of Heaven.
From the home of the waterman, far down the street,
The noise of construction can always be heard.
Generations increase, and there soon comes a time
When the life of the Jews boils like water in a pot.
So grows the town and its valuable fair,
And Israel is a holy folk, sacred is its soul.
There lies the town, enjoying God's blue skies,
Old and young, the poppas, mommas, children,
Working hard and building more new homes,
Enjoying blessed peace and quiet.
But children with their hungry mouths need to be fed,
And hard the constant struggle to get food:
Some days those folk forget their great God
Because their hearts fear dreadful poverty.
But the Jews retain their ancient faith and trust
The Jew, however, looks around and takes a breath,
And then the government gave further help,
For there Romania lay across the way;
A bridge they built to cross the river Prut in peace;
From shore to shore it crossed the river there.
And though the waves did froth and foam,
The Jew seeks a living and prays and hopes in God…
And Sheika the tailor spends early morning at his machine
Bent over like a hunchback by his lamp
He sews because the farmer comes today to get his coat.
He moves his hands while unrest takes his heart.
And all the while he glances at the door
Lest this new day, may God Forbid, should bring bad news.
He hopes, instead, for paying customers.
Berl the baker cheerfully prepares for market.
The grain merchant Zeydl has a cart
And Shloyme Weiss, that wholesome Jew, stands in his shop.
He measures the wide pantaloons against his physique
And looks like a confused animal;
These pants, Solly, hang like a sack
He pulls them off in anger and disappears…
And Moyshe the clockmaker sits by the window
And Mendel the fish man stands among the peasantry
In the early morning light the drayman
Today one has enough to eat,
With butter, milk, and bread at night,
But tomorrow is another day, alas,
As if I never in my life have prayed.
And so the Jews, as if in water to their necks, survive,
The Jewish homes are humble, not so high,
But the Torah glows inside and gives off smoke.
Bodies broken with fear and trepidation
But the spirit is of steel and has been ever so.
They are made of iron, of rods and bars,
And from the Torah they draw great strength.
For a while the peasants are forgotten, and the rules
As the Jews knock on the gate of Heaven.
And then they seek a bit of food
Oy, Your people Israel require sustenance…
But for Jews money is not the end,
When the Jew says, Our God is one,
Though the Jew in the street must be servile and base,
Like a king he is proud, with his Torah so pure.
Outside must he hurry and carry his yoke,
But from childhood on he hears the rabbi's voice:
Oh little children, is not Ephraim my treasured son?
The holy Torah comes from Heaven!
And he points his finger upward with awe,
And the children see the Torah in Heaven.
Children, the Jews's burden is dreadful,
And the rabbi is aflame with sacred thoughts,
And the rabbi sanctifies that school,
They bring home the rabbi's words,
And their homes drink in that Jewish joy;
Holiness enters those homes
And erases the street's contagion and pain.
And by his Gemara sits the shochet R. Zeydl,
Oh Master of the World, I thirst for Your word.
This shochet has such joy, whether sharpening his knife
And ever in the shul sits the diminutive sexton,
In summer, in winter, in Shevat and in Tammuz,
To treasure the Torah, to understand and grasp it
One must always study it: Ah, our rabbis teach!
The Creator leads him on an easy path:
To sing the melody of the holy books.
Such a flame, such yearning burns within him
How does such a small body contain such fire?
And now in the shul there is a Mishnah fellowship.
The Jews see the sexton and are grateful,
And when Shabbos comes
By a light, by another soul.
And faith, belief, flares up,
And one rises to a higher world.
One's every limb, every step sings out
With praise for Heaven, with a song to God.
Come, let us sing for joy [Ps. 95:1], let us sing to God,
He created the hills with their paths,
In the morning the fine Jew stands blessed
My words amount to nothing, not a drop, not an echo
Oy, my Father, there is no God but you!
And he storms and cries out and shakes so much,
Thus with pride lives the Jewish community
Itzi-Ber the teacher and his wife Ettel
Were among the first to live in the town.
They filled the children
With awe of heaven and fervent belief.
Children of four and five
They taught with devotion and they rejoiced.
The yoke of Torah is easy to bear,
And the children learn; they recite and recite.
Modest is Itzi-Ber the teacher,
The children love their teacher without limits
The school is narrow, but the world is wide,
And the rabbi has wings as he talks and he beams.
And suddenly the children sit like mourners,
For Joseph has been sold to the Ishmaelites.
But in a moment their eyes shine brightly,
For righteous Joseph is second to the king.
Itzi-Ber the teacher becomes silent
And takes the children from heaven to earth.
Days pass, fly by, go by,
He liked to dress up, looking like a prince,
He would call on a child to recite
Let us hear: ‘Va'yomerand he said,’
And near the child he would hover to torment.
The poor boy tried to respond quickly,
But at the verse's end he would be whispering.
Then he received a smack from the rabbi's hand
That turned his face as red as fire.
In the Torah there is a rule‘No mercy in judgment’
In the town, economic conditions improve
Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa,
Andwhen in his purity Rabbi Yochanan ‘bared his arm,’
A room filled with light and beauty [a story in the Talmud, Berochot 5b].
And Rabbi Yochanan's wisdom? His strength, his manner
Were such that giving his hand to a sick man brought a cure.
And Rabbi Shaye was as inspired in song and praise
And thus the Torah of Moses and Akiva
Earlier the Gentiles had built a bath,
Petya, Vasily, Cyprian, and Vanya,
A little room where they could wash their bodies,
Then go to the inn or home to their wives.
As the settlement grew, so did Jewish life,
Both together, like a bright dream.
So the Jews built a bath for the Jews,
A sizable bathhouse they built.
When they roast themselves, they feel exalted,
But Jews live with Torah, with order,
The Jews enter the bath with a special feeling.
It's a pleasure, that bath, though that is not its goal.
The bath is beloved, considered a mansion,
Though one does not go there on Sunday or Monday.
People want to abandon the ordinary days
And their jobs, to encounter the holy Shabbos.
So in their hearts is the thought, like a ray of sun,
In the image of God was man formed.
So they go to the bath…and there
They sit for a moment just thoughtful and still,
Two old Jews sit there together
One says: Reb Zadok, will you do it yourself?
You have a brush that you can use to beat me.
The other responds: On the opposite bench it's now so hot.
One whips in the bathhouse, but not so in Hell.
So they clamber with brushes and stroke their beards,
And they whip each other and speak of the world.
Hey, steam! More steam!the cries ring out
And the shochet, who is young and still dry,
Back on the stairs Reb Zeydl goes carefully,
In the bath there is a hum, which gets louder and louder,
And with the help of a bucket he soaps and he washes;
And he regards with pleasure how everyone prepares
As the song says: Come, my beloved, to greet the bride.
And Reb Shloymele Feldman, the town's leading man,
At the top of the benches stands Dodl the wagoner.
Then people begin to hurry in a bit of a panic,
The last ones still there feel themselves in a bind:
Oy, soon will the cantor the service begin.
Then he will be raised up, this plagued son of man,
The Jews walk the path from the bath to their homes
To the poor among you who live in your land
Don't close your hearts but open your hand.
When your unfortunate brother knocks on your door,
Remember that your brother must live with you.
With God such a covenant was long ago sealed
And confirmed in the Torah for people to hear:
For Jews it's a lesson: One must help one's fellow
Remember, remember…and God will bless you.
You'll have success
But once in a winter
But the poor will ever be there
And the need is great,
And no farmers arrive.
In the house of the tailor
Are sadness and tears.
At the cobbler's it's bad:
One sees not a horse
Just frost and just cold,
That difficult winter so afflicted
Those children of our father Abraham
And there is no end to the snow and the winds
That whip the face.
Breyne, that thin old woman, is wrapped up
Says Gitl: When a person drinks from a river,
Says Breyne: I read in the book ‘Nofes Tzofim’
And make room for him and feed him,
The tired man.
Says Gitl: Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nasi, that great man,
Says Breyne: ‘Tzene U-rena’ has it right:
Says Gitl: My father, peace be with him, said
And says Breyne, Ha ha, you digress…
When should we go?
Let me just throw on my coat, my dear,
The shtetl lies there all covered with snow,
These women do not forsake the town
God's throne is made of justice and mercy,
What you eat is not mine.
Again that young man, Chaya-Liebe's son Yisroel,
Walks out with his booming voice:
Zusia Robel is giving out potatoes and onions.
Whoever needs should come and take!
Thus do these blessed people live,
A Dayan in the Shtetl
[A dayan is a religious decisor.]
A shochet's a shochet, the town needs a dayan
The Jews in the town never stopped arguing.
For judgments on prayers on tzedakah, and food
We are all tangled up and in danger of forgetting.
And then early one beautiful morning
People awoke to their usual problems,
But news spread like a rolling wheel
Through the whole town.
Reb Baruchl the Dayan was coming to town.
But God is our father, so this is what passed:
You won't have to lower your head or hide your face.
Pack up and leave those scoundrels;
One should honor and care for a father.
Come to my home and forget about them.
Leave those sons and their wives who bark at you.
Pack up your books, your tallis and tefillin,
And come to live with me In Unghen.
We will love you, care for you, brighten your life.
And so, with praise for Providence,
A great man in townthe Jews have a dayan.
Who holds the scale of justice and peace.
With his learning and righteousness he spreads light
And with his upright heart he reaches toward Heaven.
His long white beard and large eyes shine bright.
They bring greetings from Sages, from Moses himself.
Righteously, with his finger by his forehead, he delivers judgment
As if he stood by the Holy Ark in a sacred place.
What does the Jewess say? But he does not look at Leah,
The woman gonehe soars to the high realms
Ah, those six hundred thirteen commandments, no evil eye…that move men…
Shalom aleichem, sir…How can I help?
But shortly after my meal, I'm conquered by sleep.
I once heard a rabbi say, someone not you,
That one must study the Torah by day and by night.
The old dayan thought for a moment about Torah:
The soul thirsts and the people are observant,
Then he put the hat on and he says to the judge:
To bless the people, says the dayan, is quite a thing,
As it is written, Thus will you bless the people of Israel' [Numbers 6:23].
A Kohen who does not do the blessing is a problem,
Is a disgrace to the people. It's a sin of omission.
But you are a Kohena good manand I see your pain.
I will teach you Hebrew in a short time.
Come to me once a week, wash your hands,
And I will teach you the whole procedure.
And Reb Baruchl the dayan studies by night and by day,
For this elder the earth is many hued, like a rainbow,
And Reb Baruchl the dayan praises God for what has been,
(End of Part One)
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