By Maris Cohen, New Haven
Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan
Kurenitz was a tiny shtetl; nevertheless, it was greatly diverse. There were learned men, merchants, stores owners, vagabonds, tradesmen and handymen, wealthy and poor. I don't need to tell you that for every wealthy man there were dozens of poor. There were numerous personalities that deserve to be mentioned here; however, I will concentrate only on one person, Matia Pesach's. Matia did have a last name but we only found out about his last name in the U.S. In the U.S. they called him Max Zavodnick. In the old shtetl, we were not used to last names. It was unnecessary to know last names. There, we called each other by the name of the father, mother, grandfather, or grandmother, or their vocation or craft.
We knew each other as Laibe Mashe's, Yehuda Zushe's, Yechiel Kalman the doctor, Michael the forester, Ara the fisherman, Penia the metal merchant, Shimon the oilman. Asher the haberdasher, Mordecai the tailor, Eliyahu the smith, Yarochmiel the shoe repairman. There were two other Yarochmiels who were also in shoe repair, so we would call them little and big Yarochmiels.
The other was not big and not little. Just Yarochmiel the shoe repairman. The same way as the old people were named, so were the young people named. Yoshka Chaim's, Chaim Zalman Elya Yehoshua's, Baroch Vigdaras' (Zukerman), Mendel Faiga's (Alpert), Havas Rasile's (Shapiro- Alperovitz), Zalman Nachum's (Kastrel?), Leybzke Lea Atka's, Zertel Pinis' and Sara Reyzel Dvora Shlomo Sheyna Feigas'. If you just said Sara Reyzel Dvoras', people would not know the one you are referring to.
In our town, no one knew last names; nevertheless, the generation ties never ended and no one was ever lost.
Matia, son of Pesach, was a very unique person. A simple guy who could hardly read and write, on the other hand he could play various instruments. Violin, flute, clarinet. Matia would write songs and sing them during celebrations. In his nature, he was a comedian and his rhymes were always very original and charming. Why was he given this gift of music no one could answer. No one else in his family was a poet or musician.
Matia in his essence seemed to be attracted to far away places. His eyes had the look of restlessness and a deep desire of wondering. He was a tall man, skinny and dark.. His appearance was something of a gypsy. In our town, there was little respect for such people. The people of our town didn't understand or appreciate him, until one day when he did something that changed everyone's opinion. In the year 1890 all of a sudden there was inflation in prices and in the entire region the money lost its value. All the products became extremely expensive and people were starving. We found out that the merchants of the farming products took all the local products and transferred them to a nearby town, Smorgon, to sell them. While we in the shtetl were sentenced to starvation.
One day when there were ten carriages full of products on Smorgon's Street, ready to be taken out of town, The drivers were sitting in the inn of Yehuda Zusha's (Alperovitz) drinking alcohol, Matia stealthily went to the carriages and cut the sacks and let all the produce fall to the ground, for the townspeople to use. In this way, he revenged the townspeople's being left to starvation and none of the produce left the town. Everyone was very worried and Matia hid somewhere. However, he couldn't hide for too long. When he came out all the merchants beat him mercilessly. Nevertheless, everyone in town was extremely thankful.
We realize that Matia of all people fought the fight for the town. Everyone respected him for that. Here in America, Matia had many professions. For some time, he was a policeman traveling on bicycles around New York making sure the kosher butchers and restaurants were truly kosher. After a while he became a street musician. He would compose songs and would wander the streets of New York singing. Many of his songs became later songs that other singers sang in entertainment halls. The subject of his songs were usually tragic events. Matia would compose a song for every tragedy that occurred. In 1906 when the earthquake in San Francisco destroyed a large part of the town, Matia dedicated a song to the event.
When General Sarkhoum was burned in the port of New York (a cruise ship with hundreds of kids aboard), Matia arranged a song for the event. Also, when Russia lost the war to Japan, there was an original song for it. What was the root of the choice of Matia to sing about miseries and tragedies? Maybe, his life was very tragic in that he never reached the lofty desires that his soul yearned for. Whatever reasons it is his songs were always sad as his appearance was. Occasionally, Matia would come to New Haven. New Haven was the original settlement of the people who came from our shtetl. The first settlers in 1880 and 1890 chose it as their haven. Each time Matia reached New Haven, there was immediately a mood of holiday. We all knew that he would generate some excitement in the ambiance that was usually so dreary in our suburban sleepy town. And we were never disappointed.
Matia died in 1925 in New York City. He was 52. He left behind a son, who was an engineer, and a daughter, who lived in Philadelphia. When the daughter was young, she was among the most beautiful girls of Jewish New York City. Let's recall Matia, son of Pesa, a native of Kurenitz with this memorial for our shtetl.
by David Krivitsky
Translated from the Yiddish by his grand-nephew Sheldon Rice
With editing assistance by his wife, Rena Rice
|Love, joy and pain mixed together,
When I recall my birthplace.
With shingled roofs and soft clay pavement,
With the wooden planks next to the enclosed gardens
With the grand homes in the marketplace
Which I can barely see,
With the mud which no one will ever clean.
Images long forgotten loom up before my eyes,
I see the old rebbe as he
I see a gray autumn morning
I see the winter nights,
I see the dark Shabbos evenings,
I see the bright weeks before Pesach,
Love, joy and pain mixed together,
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