What is this? I asked curiously. Coronation-they said-coronation!
The word coronation remains etched in my memory. Until today, I can't forget the joy-the beaming Jews with the Torah in their hands.
I loved Bobruisk, the city on the shore of the Berezina. A clean city, wide, four cornered streets, trees and gardens, white sand that gleamed in the sun.
Only one street was paved in Bobruisk, Shosi, which was never heavily used. Often we would hear the screeching of a wagon, laden with bundles, which was slowly being dragged to the mill or from the mill, or another time, a wagon of wood, accompanied by two farmers with hatchets and saws, ready right after the sale, to prepare another load with sharp, gleaming saws and splendid hatchets.
The old street-the wide sandy way, that went from the train to the center, to the market-was full of holes. More than once it happened that a horse, together with a wagon, would sink into such a hole and get stuck. Then one could see a picture that was part of the Bobruisk panorama: the horse straining with all his might, trying to pull, but unable to. His master hitting him with a stick all over his skinny, dried up carcass. People come to help, try to get close to the wheels, push and scream. The driver hits and hits and curses...people and horse, struggling with all their might. The wheels collapse, the wagon overturns.
The people rest for a while, the horse too and soon they try again: Heh, heh, heh, a bang with the stick…the horse's bones shatter and it's the end.
From afar there appears another horse and wagon, but the volunteer helpers leave-let someone else earn the mitzvah.
In the fall, the streets were one big swamp. The Muriavska and the marketplace are impassable, one sinks in the mud, perhaps a quarter of a meter deep. There are no treads, a pair of boards, thrown over one swamp or another, and one maneuvers over them, balancing with outstretched hands, if one doesn't want to sink….
There was a religious Jew in our midst, the blind preacher, who fasted twice a week, Monday and Thursday. He ate only three potatoes a day. He wrote books in Hebrew and was supported by everyone. We regarded him as a holy man. He lived in the court of the Gvir [rich man] Rabinovitch. The court was paved and clean and it was an honor to live there. The preacher lived to 83. The whole town accompanied him to his eternal rest. The funeral left from the Misnagdisher shul, where the service took place. The coffin was carried on shoulders the entire length of the swampy Muriavski Street to the cemetery. There was no shortage of helpers. Everyone wanted to touch the coffin. That day hundreds of Jews waded through the swamp with their boots….
My mother loved cleanliness. The floor of our house was always shining, like a mirror.
She would wash her hands and face three times a day-which was unusual in those times. She also taught us to love the truth, honestly and gentility.
Mother worked in the kitchen all day. Friday was the hardest day. Although we were a family of 12, father, mother, and ten children, father would always bring a guest for Shabbos. A soldier or an old Jew, or some wanderer, who had gotten to the synagogue and the caretaker would allot him to the townspeople for Shabbos.
Friday evening, mother rested. She sat next to the set table and waited for father and his five sons to come from shul and the daughters, my sisters, from their walk by the shores of the Berezina.
The odor of the delicious food, the clean white tablecloth, the challahs and Sabbath candles filled the house. Mother was happy with her work. The Sabbath candles shined on her face.
My father was a bookbinder. This work didn't provide a living. Who needed to bind a book? The person carrying the package would knock on the door and present a small story of twelve pages for half a kopek. This book could be read unbound.
Later, father got a position as a state caretaker. In plain Yiddish that is a cemetery person. Matisyahu Ben Yehuda-the cemetery man-a fine Jew with a broad, black beard, fresh red cheeks and black eyes, a high forehead and a black satin yarmulke, like a crown. The unfortunates would come running to father and ask him to remove the corpse quickly, because-a pity for the family… . Father would give them a note for the chevra kadisha [burial society], which had to prepare the body.
Father's position caused us quite a bit of suffering. People said that it was our fault that people died.
In that time there was founded the first hospital in Bobruisk which lent bathtubs, syringes, steam machines, cups for bloodletting and glasses.
Once my mother sent me to the hospital with a note for the doctor.
What is your father's name? asked the man from the hospital.
Matisyahu, I answered.
Mates the cemetery man? he asked, afraid.
Because of you, people die he shouted, and his eyes bulged. He didn't want to lend us the utensils and in fear he circled the room-such was the superstition in those times.
Reb Chaim, the head of the yeshiva, an old Jew with a gray beard and two bright clever eyes under his silver glasses, was the darling of the town. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. He had a good word for everyone. During his speeches, people would sit as though bewitched, he spoke so well. He was also a mohel and would often come late. He certainly would have been at two or three brisses that day. He must have drunk a few glasses of whiskey at each place and had a piece of freshly baked honeycake with raisins, which smelled very good, too. So when he came to shul, he was in a good mood. He sat near the Gemorah and sang a Hasidic tune. He was a Hasid and believed in the Baal Shem's teaching: Fire goes up, ash falls down.
I heard him once in the morning, at Slichos. He was standing on the bimah, wrapped in his tallis over his head, he held the Torah in his arms and was singing. His beautiful voice enchanted. His face was red, his eyes closed. He was then in heaven, speaking to God….
In my childhood, I was religious and I observed all the commandments. I knew the Psalms and the five books of the Bible by heart. When I prayed, I cried, because in the Shulchan Aruch it is written that one must cry for the Diaspora, so I cried. Bitter tears poured from my eyes. The boys often laughed at me, poked me and pushed me: See, he's crying! and with great difficulty I managed to tear myself out of their hands. The older people marveled at me and wished they would have such children.
Mendel the driver, who liked his whiskey, would stop his cab when he would see me in the morning as I was going to shul. It's a mitzvah, it's a mitzvah to take people such as you, he would say, seating me in his cab…and taking me to shul. His horse would stop at the bar and Mendel would joke:
My horse knows where to stop in the morning….
Bobruisk was proud of her yeshivas and learned people. It was a religious city.
But in the beginning of the century changes began to take place in the Jewish life. Young men with long hair and shirts tied at the waist over their pants, began to show up in town and talk of strange things….
Later we began to know that they are called Socialists. It was hard to understand their strange, queer name!
Socialists? Or zizilists-a women asked uncertainly.
The yeshivas began to empty. There weren't many pupils, and the few that were left, began to read revolutionary books… . The new times took Bobruisk by force.
In that time the Zionist movement began to exert more and more influence in Jewish life.
The town talked about a Dr. Herzl…heated discussions took place between the Zionists and representatives of the revolutionary parties, who decidedly battled Zionism.
The Socialist-Revolutionaries and others, with their fiery speeches and bold manner, attracted more of the young people, bewitched their minds.
One day some young men came to the synagogue and wanted to hold a meeting. The caretaker tried to chase them away. Dudel Henechs took an empty revolver out of his pocket and stuck it under the caretaker's nose. The caretaker relented….
I remember, it was Shabbos and a circle of Jews with long beards, in black long coats and yarmulkes, were standing and talking about the bitter times, when a group of young people, boys and girls, broke the boundary and started in with them.
Nakhe was the leader. He had left his wealthy family (his father was a bourgeois) and went to learn to be a shoemaker, in order to be a true proletarian. He was an eloquent speaker. Before he started to speak he took a cigarette from his pocket, lighted a match, and smoked. The match flamed brightly. And it inflamed Jewish hearts.
On Shabbos? they called as in one voice.
The young people surrounded Nakhe, looked at him intently and paid close attention. Soon the revolutionary march was heard, We Will Strengthen Our Spirit in the Struggle, the red flag was unfurled and they left for the small forest.
In October 1905 soldiers and Cossacks on horseback suddenly appeared in the streets of Bobruisk. The inhabitants hid in their homes. From wherever, a young man would appear, waving a red kerchief and yelling Down with the Czar! When the Cossacks would chase him, a second would appear from a different place and yell Down with Nicholas! and the Cossacks would turn their horses around and chase there where the scream was coming from.
I remember that the Cossacks once took revenge and murdered a Jew-cut off his head with a saber. There was a big funeral in which the whole town participated. It was a very tense situation, but no unrest ensued. No Cossacks appeared.
The news that the Czar had signed the constitution reached Bobruisk that evening. People went out in the street…they crossed the Shosi in great numbers. They all were going to the Polygon where Nakhe was to speak…
And…suddenly, like a storm, a scream went out Cossacks are coming! Cossacks are coming! The crowd ran in all directions. Nakhe tried to calm them.
Don't run, he screamed. The Czar himself has signed the constitution….
It was a voice calling in the wilderness.
The field was empty. No living soul was left, only Nakhe himself, a solitary battler in the field.
No Cossacks came and they began to assemble again, picking up the red flag, making small speeches and singing revolutionary songs, celebrating.
Down with the Czar! Down. Until late at night they celebrated. The Shosi near the pharmacy was filled with people. Nakhe was wounded in his hand, by a coal. He ran into the pharmacy, quickly ran out with a bandaged hand and called out heatedly:
Down with the Czar! Down!...
Hurrah, the masses joined. A shot and another shot, Hurrah!
It is said that someone committed suicide, he shot himself in enthusiasm and ecstasy-he was an anarchist. There were no police around.
On the second day, newspapers from Warsaw brought the terrible news: pogroms on Jews in all of Russia and terrible fires. The Czarist Manifesto was no more than a provocation by the guards.
There was no pogrom in Bobruisk.
However there were anarchists storming the town. Two Russians went into a tobacco business on Muriavksa and demanded money and they shot him. The town lived in fear. Later the anarchists sent a letter to a rich family and asked for money in the style of American gangsters-or else they would murder them.
Two policemen hid in the house and when the anarchists came and assailed them, they shot the two policemen and ran away.
Later they murdered Karpenkin, the well-known Bobruisk governor. At the time of his funeral, we prepared for a pogrom. Farmers from the surrounding villages assembled in the town secretly armed with axes and knives. They stationed themselves near the church on Muriavskaya with a holy picture and crosses-and Jews understood that that means destruction, rape and robbery. The iron bars on the windows of the businesses and homes were drawn, drivers looked around in fear and let their horses hurry to the street.
There was a good policemaster in Bobruisk. Whenever there was a tumult, he would appear in town, in his bright uniform accompanied by policemen and dogs. His belly protruding with a golden saber at his side, and order was restored. The people respected him. They thought well of him. He was German. But a good person. Because of him, the Jews were spared a pogrom.
Since that time, much water has flowed, a lot of blood was spilled, wars, revolutions…. Bobruisk became a big city, it is said, unrecognizable. There are no more goats lying on mounds of earth, shepherds no longer drive flocks or cattle through town in the morning, one no longer hears the sad songs of the farmers returning to town in the quiet summer evenings….
Bobruisk is no longer what it had been.
I lived through the 1905 revolution with my parents, brothers and sisters in Romny. I remember it still as yesterday, how going home happily after a demonstration, along the way I met a large group of young people, healthy village gentiles with big, fat sticks. I wondered, what sort of group it is; I first understood when I got home and saw the frightened faces. They already knew, there was going to be a pogrom.
At that time we lived in the courtyard of a Christian, at the end of the town. The two Christian workers in my father's soap factory protected and loyally watched over us, although they would disappear from time to time and return with stolen Jewish goods. We and many of our neighbors who were hiding with us, came out only afraid (but untouched). It seems that after the pogrom, my parents decided to liquidate the business and go to America, where my two older brothers already were. But liquidating the business did not go so quickly.
I was not accepted at the gymnasium [high school] in Romny, notwithstanding the excellent results on the examination. So they decided that I should go to Bobruisk, because there was a private gymnasium there, where Jews were accepted without restriction. Associated with that gymnasium was a Russian teacher, Zvirka Goditzki. For short it was called Zvirka's gymnasium. The gymnasium was a landmark in Bobruisk, because Jewish youth had an opportunity to go through a course in a gymnasium and after an examination, under the supervision of a state-inspector, to receive a diploma, which opened the doors to the university, if not in Russia, outside it.
Aside from the students from Bobruisk, there were many Jewish youngsters at Zvirka's from the surrounding towns and villages, like Paritchi, Slutsk, Svislovitz, Ihume [Igumen] and others.
I came to Bobruisk in 1906 and lived my youth there until 1913.
The environment in Romny was Russian. In truth, the older generation spoke Yiddish, but the daily language of the young people was Russian. Jews were spread over the city. Outside of the synagogues one didn't feel a Jewish community life in Romny. It could be that I was too young to notice Jewish activity.
The picture was quite different in Bobruisk. In Zvirka's gymnasium, Jews were close to 99%. The streets where we lived and walked were always full of Jews. There were many synagogues (I, by the way, didn't go) in our neighborhood. My grandfather's home, where I stayed, was a true Jewish home-a religious Yiddish-speaking home. There was a Yiddish theater in the town. Serious pieces as well as vaudeville were performed there; there were Jewish parties. In one word, a true Jewish world. One points today to those years, as a Jewish ghetto life. We didn't feel that because we lived in our own Jewish world. This did not prevent us from befriending the Russian intelligentsia and enjoying Russian literature.
After staying with my grandfather for two years, my parents, three brothers and two sisters came to Bobruisk.
Like the rest of the family, I was very disturbed and anxious with preparing to leave Russia and go to America, as my parents had decided. My father had sold his soap factory where he had worked so hard. I don't remember exactly what was done with the furniture. I only remember that we took in our wagon, wicker baskets with bed clothes, pillows, quilts that we unloaded when we came to Bobruisk. We had to stay in the town for a short while to say goodbye to the relatives on my father's side.
But my grandfather argued with my parents, that he was an old man (he was then 65) and that it was difficult for him to run the business and who goes to America? Except if one is running away from the military or is bankrupt or has committed a crime or is dying of hunger… and he the grandfather is willing to hand over a good business from which the whole family earns a living-grandfather's two married sons, two unmarried daughters.
Grandfather argued for a long time until he convinced my father and we remained in his house.
My grandfather meant well. He could not foresee that if not for his advice, my parents would not have perished at Hitler's hands!
We lived in Bobruisk on Shosi street, not far from the Muraviasker main street-I until 1913 and my parents until 1919. After 1919 my parents moved into Alter Katznelson's house, after he left for Eretz-Yisroel.
Opposite our house on Shosi street, lived a religious, rich Jew, Zalman Margolin, who had his own house of prayer. On the corner of Muraviosker street there stood two more synagogues: the big synagogue of the Misnagdim (Enlightened) and not far from there the synagogue of the Hasidim. On the same side of the street as our house was the wine business of the Yochvid's. One of Yochvid's sons was the well-known in Bobruisk and its surroundings Nochke the Police master-a fine and good young man. Regarding him there is another chapter in this book, because his activity in Bobruisk is an interesting chapter of the Jewish political life in those times.
On the same street the Luria family lived. From that family it is worthwhile to remember Basia, who later married Shmuel Niger and Rivke (Rivele), who became Kalmanovitches wife. With Rivele and her brother Moma we were, my wife and I, very friendly. Rivele perished at the hands of the Germans a short time before Kalmanovich.
I remember that every time that Niger would be at the Luria's, was for us, the young neighbors, an event, because we knew that Niger was a writer, a critic and such important guests we didn't often see in those years.
In a courtyard not far from our house lived a Jew named Vinokur. He earned a living from his garden of flowers. We thought that flowers were a Gentile matter, so in our eyes he appeared to be unusual. I remember, how I and also others, would come to him respectfully to sometimes buy a flower or flowers for our young girlfriends.
I don't remember if flowers were usual in a Jewish house, if one doesn't consider understandably, green branches for the sukkah.
A bit farther from Vinokur, across the street, was a house that in my youth became very close to me-the house of Berl Rozovsky on Alcovski street-where little Rozovsky grew up. We became friends when I came to Bobruisk and have remained dear friends our entire lives, that means over 55 years.
At that same Shosi street, about twenty minutes from us, there was a building of the Jewish vocational school. That building was later bought or rented by a renowned director of a Russian gymnasium. That was where Zvirka's gymnasium was. I remember also that this private gymnasium with justice was one of a small number of such high schools, where Jewish youngsters could study and get a diploma, which gave them the right to enroll in a university, seldom in Russia, but often out of the country. In this gymnasium studied and finished their studies, aside from me, my three brothers and my wife's three brothers.
I don't remember any Jewish activities in or associated with the gymnasium (we spoke Russian among ourselves) or interest on the part of the students in the Socialist or Progressive parties. It was, in truth, a time of underground party life in Russia between the years 1907 to 1913. From my student days out of the country I remember a lecture by Chaim Zhitovsky (in Bern, 1914) that made a very strong impression on me.
Why the students at Zvirka's were so removed from Jewish activities and culture I now find very hard to understand or account for, because at this time there was an active Jewish theater. I remember how I was enthusiastic about Hirshbein's troupe and the actresses Nemi Orlevska and Clara Young. I would be drawn to the theater every evening. I had to hide from Zvirka's spies, who had to guard us from smoking, from going to the theater in the middle of the week and from other such sins.
An important place in the Jewish cultural life in Bobruisk was occupied by the library and the choir. In both of these, we have to remember a young man, who died young, but in his short life accomplished a great deal for Jewish Bobruisk. He concentrated about these two institutions the best that Bobruisk had.
I mean Shmuel Katzenelson, or as we called him, Shmulik. From his family stemmed many known personalities and activists. Rachel, his sister, later known as Rachel Rubashov (now, Rachel Shazar, the wife of the third president of Israel-Zalman Shazar); a sister Frieda Comsky, a true tiller of the soil in Israel all her life. His brothers Abraham Katzenelson, who changed his name to Nissan and was the first Ambassador from Israel to the United Nations and later Ambassador to the Scandinavian countries; Reuven Katzenelson-whom I remember with special praise for not changing his name-all his life the director of a hospital, first Hadassah and later Emmamit; Joseph Katzenelson, who gave his life to save Polish Jews from Hitler's catastrophe.
Besides these mentioned we must not forget Shmulik's wife Rada and their children Zvieh, Faigel and Esther-all these years until now, teachers in kibbutzim and their son, Kalman, a writer and publicist in Israel.
All those whom I recall, should be thankful for Shmuel for the life and interest in Jewish life, which he planted in them. Shmuel was not a party person, not a Bundist and not a Zionist, as was the mode then-he was a true, whole Jew.
In Bobruisk there was a city library but the bit of money which one had to pay for the books was a burden for the poor Jewish population. Shmuel Katzenelson and a group of Jews-through their efforts-organized the Jewish Popular Library. The library had many Russian and Hebrew books, but most were Yiddish. There were found, I mean, all sorts of Yiddish books of the time. The readers paid very little, about five kopeks a month, and practically all Yiddish readers borrowed books from the library and certainly all the Jewish children in the town.
The library had one paid librarian, aside from a slew of young activists. Among them: Yezevsky, Pashkovsky, Zalman Plotkin, who later became the Secretary of the Bund Party and remained in Russia: we still don't know what happened to him. And another one, Berl Katzenelson-who later had such a great influence on the building up of Israel and the rebirth of Hebrew. But in Bobruisk among us, he was a heated 100% Yiddishist. In the library he didn't speak a word of Russian and he influenced the pupils in the high school and the activists in the library to speak Yiddish.
Since there were Russian books in the library, the readers would often ask for the books by their Russian titles. I remember how a girl once asked Berl Katzenelson in Russian for Dostoyevsky's White Nights. Berl asked her in Yiddish if she meant White Nights and then he gave her the book.
We, the young volunteers lived a cultural life with the library as a center. The responsibility of handing out books and recommending books led to a feeling that we are doing useful work. And that's really how it was-because to know which books to recommend to read, for different ages, education levels and interests, we ourselves needed to read a lot of books; we even had meetings with readers (conferences) in which an activist would tell the contents of a book and the meaning. Rachel Katznelson (now Rachel Shazar) I remember, was the leader of the conferences. Understandably, romances happened between the volunteers… one romance I remember very well because…it was between me and Kaila Rozovsky. We married in 1918; we were friends since 1908.
With the choir, which Shmuel Katzenelson organized, was led by a Bobruisker Jew named Katz. The choir only sang Jewish songs. It also was an information center for the young Bobruisk intelligentsia. The library and the choir gave us the feeling, that an echo of the Diaspora marches-from one generation to another-continues in our language and our culture.
Speaking about the cultural life in Bobruisk, one must remember the teachers, who prepared the young people for the state examinations to receive a high school diploma. They were young men and women, who didn't want or more often couldn't get into the government gymnasia. They called them externs. Among these teachers were Rosenthal, Yezevksy,and Maitin. Hillel Maitin later left for America where he taught Yiddish in a Workmen Circle school. He also translated many Russian songs into Yiddish.
I also remember a teacher, Leib Levovich, known in Bobruisk as a respected and gifted Hebrew teacher. Kaila studied Hebrew with him for seven or eight years. He implanted in his students a love of literature, Hebrew, and Yiddish and respect for the Jewish ethic.
My grandfather, Avigdor Minkin, was very religious, like everyone around him. He never missed Mincha [afternoon prayers], Maariv [evening prayers] in shul, no less than Shacharis [morning prayers]. He would get up very early and study until breakfast. I listened attentively to his Gemara tune but I didn't become any more religious because of it. A year before my parents moved to Bobruisk, I became a bar mitzvah, 13 years old. I was afraid that my grandfather would force me to go to shul for the bar mitzvah, make a speech, put on tefillin, and pray every day. Until today I don't understand why my grandfather did not demand that of me like every grandfather of that time. I think it was because he was a quiet, gentle person; he understood my feelings; he saw that I was far from that…and he didn't want to force me.
My uncle Itche was very different. People would often tell he would slap his son in shul, before everyone because he skipped a prayer, prayed too fast or looked away from the prayer book and other such crimes. I remember that my grandfather would often reprimand his son that that's not how things are done: one is not allowed and it's not nice for him, for his son, or for people.
My quiet grandfather, who it seemed couldn't speak three words of Russian, would nevertheless, when business required, travel to the big city to deal with Russian executives of the railroads and the factories. He would return with orders for his merchandise and old, washed out linen which was used to clean the machines and for his paper factories.
Some words now about the youth of Bobruisk, not about the party affiliated youth, although my sympathies were with them and I had a revolutionary mindset. I remember that even in Romny I went about with proclamations of the Russian Social-Democratic Party: in Zvirka's gymnasium I would sing God Bury the Czar instead of God Protect the Czar. One time they almost caught me-and would I have been in trouble!...
I don't mean the older youngsters, like Sorke the pharmacist's children, Blume Katzenelson, Hilke and Ita Alexandrov, Ugarsky, Lipa Levenson, Tsherniaks amd others. They were close to Kaila. I wasn't close to them.
I mean those young people who I knew well: tThe pupils, the externs. We would meet, aside from the library and the choir, at Russian or Yiddish events, at a concert or more often on the Muraviosker street, where we would often stroll back and forth many times, practically every evening. There I would meet my future wife, Kaila Rozovsky, Zipporah Eisenstat-the only friend present at our wedding in Odessa and Kaila's cousin Frieda Katzenelson, now Frieda Komsky in Kfar A ZR; Mendel Elkin's brother Isaac, who fell at the time of the First World War; Mendel's sisters Rosa and Manya; Rivka-Elkin's sister and the Okuns.
I also met a young man Greenstein, who ten years later, in 1919, was a high official in the Kiev KGB. Then my father-in-law, Ber Rosovsky, was arrested, because they wanted a big contribution from him, although the Bolsheviks had already taken everything away from him. This Greenstein took our side and with his help (or without his help), my father-in-law was released.
We got to know Greenstein a little better then. He once showed me his revolver and said, that on that same day he shot Vera Cheberiak. All the Jews knew then, that Vera Cheberiak was the most important false witness in the sad well-known Beilis trial in 1913.
I recall here Mendel Elkin's family. His house was a very poor one, but the children and his friends felt very comfortable there. Mendel's modest father and mother enjoyed having the young people gather at their home. I would often stay there overnight, lying on a quilt on the floor.
Mendel Elkin and his Rivke I then knew very little. The difference in ages was too great. I would seldom go to his home with his brothers and sisters who were my friends. He had a nice apartment but he was seldom at home. I knew that Mendel was friendly with a lot of writers like Peretz Hirshbein, Niger, Donia Charney, Kalmanovitch, and others. He protected them from serving in the army because they worked in his forests, for the government. He prevailed upon Peretz Hirshbein's troupe to play in Bobruisk for a longer time. He was a patron of the Jewish arts-unique in the days of Bobruisk. We met again in New York in 1924, and became close friends. Mendel Elkin drew us into active membership in YIVO and Yiddish cultural life in New York. Thanks to him we became known Yiddish Jews. We also became active in one of the Sholem Aleichem schools in the city.
From the Bobruisker landscape, associated with my youth, I remember the forest near the town; the walk near the old Bobruisk fortress where we would often stroll; the Berezina lake, the historic site of Napoleon's defeat, but for us popular as a spot for swimming and boating. The waters of the Berezina would often be used by big ships and in would sail in small boats (in Russian dushegubka, because it was easy to lose your life in the lake) to Paritchi-a Jewish town forty miles from Bobruisk. This trip by water was made by Reuven Katzenelson and Kaila and later I did this trip with a friend.
After finishing high school in 1913 I seldom came to Bobruisk. The reason: a year out of the country, the First World War, later the revolution, which drove us from one city to another, from one university to another. I would pass through Bobruisk and stay there for several days. Those were short visits. The last time in 1921, I was there a little longer, because Kaila got very sick with asthma during a visit to my parents. The known doctors in Bobruisk, Reygorodsky and Paperna, advised us to go out of the country, because they didn't have a cure. At that time they didn't know that dust is one of the most important causes of asthmas and there was a lot of dust in the house. There were no vacuum cleaners then.
We therefore prepared to leave the country. It was in the year 1921. We said goodbye to our parents and we never saw them again. With Kaila's father, her brothers and sisters, we parted for the last time when we left Kiev for Bobruisk. Although Kaila's father and my parents consented to our leaving, they surely had heavy hearts. We were also troubled because we felt that we would see them for the last time. And that is what happened!
We never saw each other again but we were connected by mail. Kaila and I felt fortunate that we could help them as we got settled in America. The material support helped them to live through the hard years of the Russian Revolution-the years of hunger. However, we were unable, to everyone's sorrow, to save them from Hitler's slaughter.
My parents, David and Lena (Lana) Minkin and my father's two sisters, Leah and Rachel, were killed by the Nazis in Bobruisk. My father-in-law Ber Rozovsky and Kaila's sister Rachel lost their lives in Kiev-in Babi Yar.
That is how our chapter of Bobruisk ended. We often think: if we planned to leave the country (go abroad), I wonder if we would go to see Bobruisk. The streets and the houses are probably the same; but not the people-our Bobruisk, the familiar soul of our dear Jewish Bobruisk is no more.
That Bobruisk lives in our memory-the Jewish Bobruisk, full of Jewish life and native Jewish intelligence and Jewish inhabitants, with Jewish problems, hopes of redemption and freedom. In our memory that destroyed Jewish Bobruisk will always live.
Because when I recall being in Bobruisk, I remember the World to Come, which I bought in Bobruisk….
That was you remember when I was in Bobruisk. You are a Bobruisker.
It was wintertime.
A snow fell. But the snow melted and became muddy.
The Bobruisker mud doesn't need to be described to you: you are a Bobruisker.
The hall, where the evening was to take place, was lighted with many candles and lamps and illuminated the mud all about until the Aksina, where I stayed.
And because it was light and not far, I walked from where I was staying to the hall.
I went alone with my pack of writing, manuscripts, which I was to read.
Along with me, but a little to the side, was another person, plowing through the mud, which was lighted by the candles and lamps in the hall.
The person who was also walking along, plowing through the mud was a woman.
At first she walked on a side. Then, much further on, she came a bit closer to me.
Until she was quite close to me.
It was not too far from the hall.
You should be well she said to me with a shy smile and from her accent I understood that she was a Litvak, may she be well. Please excuse me bothering you. Are you going to hear Sholem Aleichem?
If you are going to hear Sholem Aleichem, I have a great request.
What is it
I'd like you to take me to see Sholem Aleichem. You will earn a mitzvah. You will acquire the world to come. I am a poor girl. I work as a servant. I support a mother and two small sisters and when I can tear away a groshen, I bring it to Ginsberg and lend it in a passbook for Shabbos. I heard that Sholem Aleichem is here. And I'd like to see him. And it costs a bundle. And I don't have it. See, I'm asking you, earn a mitzvah, take me to Sholem Aleichem. You will acquire the world to come! You know, how I managed to get free. If my mistress, the shrew, should know, she would tear me apart. See, earn a mitzvah, take me to Sholem Aleichem you will acquire the world to come!
Good. I'll take you to Sholem Aleichem.
We were at the door. That is at the ticket window.
Let the girl through…
And before I looked around, she was inside and lost in the crowd, which filled the hall so full, there was a smell.
If not for that, said Zayde Mendeli, I'd be outside. We turn around to the girl.
At the first performance, I didn't see the girl and almost forgot that I had started to acquire the world to come.
At the second performance, I noticed in the second or third row a beautiful moon and two eyes, which stuck to me like leeches.
At the third performance, the moon shone at me from the first row.
At the last performance she was in a crowd of boys and girls, who encircled me around the table, wanting to be closer, and this girl had such enthusiasm that she was a bit on a side, a sign of wanting to be closer than the rest. Without looking, I saw how she was maneuvering her elbows on both sides, the right and the left. Her face was no longer a moon but a sun, a summer sun.
Saying that she heard me was not sufficient. She was with me among all my characters, she laughed with them, and sighed with them. She almost helped me read. I looked at my scripts and saw how she laughs and how she sighs and how she nods her head and winks her eyes.
She didn't applaud like the others. She let out a deep sigh, and took both hands and then hit her head with her hands, left, turned back looked at me and again left. She turned back and then left again.
Meanwhile, they began to carry out the benches. After the reading there would be dancing. How does a literary evening end without dancing? What will people say? Gentiles dance and we have to do dance along. Dance in good health, I'm going home.
I settled down, took my package of writings and marched home.
I stole out of the hall. It was very dark, as usual after an evening in Bobruisk, I don't have to tell you: you are a Bobruisker….
Until my attendants, a pair of young men, found their boots, I was standing outside alone, near the door and for a while I looked into the Bobruisk darkness.
Suddenly, from somewhere, a pair of hands, firm, healthy warm hands around my neck, drew my head and kissed me, a hot, friendly loud kiss was bestowed upon me.
May you be healthy. May you live long! You have acquired the world to come…
It's lucky it was dark; it's lucky my attendants were looking for their boots; it's lucky no one saw the world to come, which I earned.
My attendants came out with a lantern which lighted the Bobruisk mud.
We enjoyed plowing through the mud, talking about the evening, chatting and laughing.
Together with us, but a bit on a side, another figure was plowing through the mud.
The figure turned left, parted from us and disappeared into the darkness of the Bobruisk night.
Greet Mr. M and also all those in Bobruisk who believe in the world to come.
There is a proverb: After a fire one becomes rich. That proverb truly applies to Bobruisk.
Ten or fifteen years ago, before the great fire, Bobruisk was an out-of-the-way, respected Kasrilevke. Who knew of Bobruisk then? And if one ever remembered her, it was not her, but the fortress, which had lost its purpose so many years ago. Her reputation-Bobruisk first received its proper renown after the fire and not for nothing. While Jewish cities were burning, God have mercy, no one had a fire like Bobruisk. Therefore a great miracle occurred. Like a phoenix, the town came out of the fire renewed and young, not recognizable: beautiful paved roads, wide sidewalks, green trees, large walls, lighted streets; a telephone, signs a la Berditchev, but in a Litvish manner: Haberdashery, Grocery with a broad A (in Yiddish)… rich and well-ordered stores. In no Jewish city have I seen such clean orderly business, where butter is given not with the fingers and all foodstuffs are wrapped in clean paper. Indeed, it deserves a blessing.
Today, the Jews-they are like new creatures, modern, proud, renewed! The Bobruisk businessman is getting rich. Not just this and that but a merchant whose business isn't bad. In the beginning of summer as soon as the river is passable it gets lively. The important businessmen and rich men were then in Yekaterinoslav with their group's rafts. Those waiting in line, whose rafts had already passed, were very happy. The first were pompous. The town paid attention to them because they brought capital. Whoever comes with a heavy wallet-is happily received by the town. He dresses and primps himself, gives someone a living, buys a gramophone and lets it be known Don't be a fool, come over here.
He certainly doesn't think of himself as a fool. As a newly rich man, he'd like to do another a favor…he gives advice, speaks with authority. Now he is the wise man and it seems important. If anyone looks in the archives and in the Hebrew collection book which was issued in Bobruisk he will learn that Bobruisk existed from the earliest times. On a hill near the railroad depot, they will show you a spot circled with linden trees and they will tell you that it was once a Jewish cemetery. A hundred years ago, when they built the fortress, they dug up the graves and brought the bones to another place. But one grave, of an unknown holy man, did not allow itself to be taken. So those in charge commanded them not to move it and to fence it off. Today they will say that Bobruisk was once poor. But she was already rich, but in a hidden way and now her time has come to show the world.
But how was Bobruisk revealed? Again the only excuse: wood! The entire region is supported by the forest. One is born with wood and buried with wood. The lumber industry was developed in Bobruisk not long ago. Fifteen years ago the railroad charges were reduced. Before-there was only one way-the water-and one needed a lot of capital to drive big rafts. Now it pays to send small amounts by train and those with small amounts of capital were drawn into the business. Most importantly, prepared lumber and wooden articles are delivered from here. More than thirty sawmills opened in the area. Many foreigners have come aside from the southern market. Many doorstep, oak staves are sent to Austria, Germany, and England. All sorts of boards to Belgium. Here all sort of kegs are produced (for Rostov), shingles (for the south), shovels (for the trains), barrel rings (for Chavkaz, the Donev region, Cherson), troughs and so forth. There was also a business in charcoal, which was sent by wagon to the south.
Almost all the business was in Jewish hands. The Jews began them and developed them energetically. The village took a big part in the business. The Jew gave the farmer a sample and he would work in the winter at his leisure. Many employees, agents, commission brokers, only Jews, were involved in the trade. The farmer was not as poor as in other areas, and he gave business to the stores. Jewish capital streams in here from the villages and small towns and does business here. As long as a Jew accumulates a bit of a nest egg, he is drawn to the town: some because of their children's education, some who are out of work because of the new developments and some who simply want to live better culturally. Therefore the city grew. Prices of houses rose.
The fire on her part worked in the favor of the town. Luckily the fire broke out when Bobruisk began to grow and get rich, so the fire wounds were able to heal quickly. Today more than half a million ruble donations, which poured into the town, also had an impact. So it was possible to rebuild the ruins. The rebuilding was done with bricks and that gave much work to the tradesmen. All together this raised the city to a higher level.
In truth, once again poverty was felt in the Sloboda and in the Minsker Plan but not like it had been. The Minsker Plan was the same as the slum in Homel, looks better but there is much groaning there. There is no more work in the city. Scarcity increased and poverty began to whistle. It went so far that there was a meeting in the big synagogue, to do something for the poor people who couldn't bear the need.
Still Bobruisk makes a good impression with her liveliness and worldliness. And the poor people? I ask you, what sort of face would a Jewish city have without them? Certainly there is a portion in the Gemara: there will be poor people in Israel.
The good economic situation worked to the benefit of the Bobruisk Jews, especially the young. She had seemed like other cities before. Once, until Kasa's circular, almost the whole town were externs, and not because of laziness but because of prosperity. In Bobruisk they studied the course. Now there were no more externs and everywhere they took to bookkeeping; to teaching; whoever emigrated to America, Eretz-Yisroel: the rest, who the parents did not allow to emigrate, and who didn't want to be bookkeepers-studied English. English was in fashion in Bobruisk. Everyone studied English. This speaking English developed a new dream. A large portion of the youth, mostly those in the gymnasium, who had finished their studies and the boys, who had not yet begun to work, dream and have worldly dreams with fantastic plans of writers: they would often go to the Berozhe wood in the evening, near the fortress to dream…and if you were there on a summer moonlit evening you would see Bobruisker dreamers in couples, pale with closed eyes, going about quietly.
This was a special Bobruisk silence.
This is not to say that Bobruisker youth punish themselves. Bobruisk is not Pinsk.
Here most of the young men are happy and the girls are also not sorrowful, and the crowd is lively. There is card playing, billiards-these customs take place even when it is not summer. And about four in the afternoon one can meet tired groups of young people.
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