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My First Journey Through Samogitia

Zamet (Žemytė)

56°10' / 21°19'

by Uriah Katzenelenbogen

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

My Desire to See Lithuania

In my early youth I vaguely sensed that Lithuania was not a Russian land, but a “Russian” province. The Czarist eagle–the regime of the Russian empire –only strode over her. What I read in Hebrew and in Yiddish told me about Jewish life and our past, but what I read in Russian took my fantasies to Russia's more remote areas, where a Jewish foot was not permitted to go. Our hearts were captured by the majestic descriptions and heart tugging singing about the Russian earth in the wonderful Russian literature–to the northeast as far as Siberia and down to the southeast, over the Volga to the Causasus. But, Lithuania? Barely a reverberation about Lithuania was heard from that which we read in Russian.

Perhaps I reflected about this for the first time when I saw a procession of Lithuanian peasants going through Vilna. There was a multitude of peasants–pilgrims on their way to the holy earth of Kalvarija, beyond Vilna. Their eyes were corroded by wind and sand, so many pitted faces. Barefoot, splashed with mud above the knees, their limping feet dragged and every once in a while, singing broke out. I heard Lithuanian for the first time in my life. The holy pictures were carried high, thrusting them to heaven. But it seemed to me that the singing, like a lament, was carried from the woods, from peasant earth. I, a 16-year old youth, accompanied them beyond the city, moving along close to the fences. The sun went down–red, red in blazing clouds. Outside the city, in Shnipishok [Snipiskes], the pilgrims threw themselves on the sand on their knees, and they slid themselves forward. I ran back. Our ecstasy of faith is a different one–between four walls, in shul, perhaps because we are in exile–and we are not drawn to holy paintings. However, my imagination spun a panorama of Lithuanian villages, mixed with Jewish shtetlekh and taverns.

And perhaps I was drawn to travel across Lithuania because like every city youth, I longed for the forest and distant borders, to go on a wagon and travel to a small shtetl. However, for me this was probably more fateful because I did leave for Birzh [Birzai] which was farther than Vilna. True, my mother had a distant relative there, Sura, the rabbi's daughter, whom I could ask about a room in which I could stay. However, as a 17-year old young man, I had a letter from a secret Vilna Lithuanian circle to a student of the Ponevezh Real [High] School.

Arriving in Ponevezh, I remember going on Toliker Street, when I suddenly jumped. At my feet a Jew sat on the pavement lifting his shoulder-length beard, as if the sun would take it away with its flame. This was the first Jewish paver that I ever saw in my life. Later, I learned that he worked with his three sons and that half of the marketplaces of Zamet were paved by the father and his sons and that in America, they scoff at this, that someone could earn a full livelihood from paving.

During the same evening, the young Lithuanians from the High School took me outside the city to a Lithuanian dance in the woods. It was still forbidden to publish in the Lithuanian language then. This was in 1903. Lithuanians came together secretly, danced and sang Lithuanian songs. And this was not allowed. There was a swamp and the croaking of the frogs and the cries of the water birds drowned out the singer. They sang about forests, about nightingales and shepherds and peasant life. Here they began a “hatchet dance”; they waved a handkerchief, greeting the chosen girl. Immediately there was a dance by the girlfriends accompanying a bride and they sang of heavenly goddesses–they pointed a finger at me and they explained about me with a word in Russian. Under the same twinkling stars, the Jews were slaughtered. Who of those singers of the past became a murderer of Jews? However, that night, my heart quivered under the stars, because we thought that they sparkled with the brotherhood of the people.

Wagon Drivers

There was no train to Birzh; I took a wagon. Now I am sorry that I traveled between the shtetlekh so infrequently on foot. Going on foot, one sees so much more. However, it was good to know the Lithuanian wagon drivers who would drive from shtetl to shtetl. They were not such hardened and crafty Jews as the so-called pashiver remizie [mean coachmen] wagon drivers of Vilna or those of the Kovne jatkever gas [Market Street] who carried “black” goods and had sturdy strong horses in harness. The wagon drivers who carried passengers between the Lithuanian shtetlekh had light little wagons with small horses. I can count more than a dozen shtetl wagon drivers who could be sat down in a house of study to learn. And many of them actually were former yeshiva students who with embarrassment urged on their horse with a gemora melody.


I lived at the edge of the shtetl in an attic. I endured several warnings in order to obtain the room; I hid here over the summer and was free as a bird. I would read until long after midnight because I had a heavy basket of books from Vilna with me. However, my landlady would be asked what I was doing in the attic throughout the night and why I had a light burning so late at night. She would answer that I probably sat there and planned statshkes (strikes).

At that time, the word socialism was still not often heard in Birzh. However, it was known that strikes were being held in the cities.

The owner of the house, Heshl Zinger, would get up at early dawn and say prayers aloud. In addition, he would drink eight or 10 glasses of tea. Later, peasants would begin to come to the house. They had a low-priced little shop, but a large house and a still larger stable. Peasants would buy a bagel, a pound of salt or a herring and rest in the house as 'in the vineyard of the Father' [i.e. very comfortably] for many hours. The house was packed on Sundays and on market days. On the doorstep or on a nearby stone, the peasant women would put on their shoes which they had carried tied together over their shoulders. They would walk barefoot on the sandy highway, not wanting to wear out their shoes.

There were two rabbis in the city, an old one and a young one, and there was great disagreement between the two sides. The meat tax was implemented by someone who came from Africa who would go through the shtetl in high lacquered boots with a whip in his hand and in a small hat like a hunter. He was from the old rabbi's side. The young rabbi, Rabbi Shur, who was a devotee of Hebrew and a Zionist, was too modern for him. There was fear of this “African” because he would slap the face of everyone he wanted to teach a lesson in the middle of a walk around the castle opposite the police commissioner's window.

Three young men, out of all of those from Birzh, are etched in my memory. Haim Bala Kamenetski (now in Philadelphia), five years older than I; a thin person of average height with fresh red cheeks and very near-sighted. He was a fervent follower of Ahad-Ha'am [“one of the people,” pen name of Asher Ginzburg]. However, he was reserved, tactful and quiet and not everyone knew of his Jewish world. Once walking with me around the castle he confided that he merged the Zionist spirit with Goethe's poetic pantheism. He waved his hand with his thin fingers spread to underscore how the universal human culture was crumbling into national cultures and that in Zion the Hebrew culture would rise again in a column of fire. I am still thankful to him, now in my in seventies, that I read the writings of Ahad-Ha'am with his help.

A second was Hirshl Golombek (emigrated to Glasgow, England [sic]), older than Kamenetski, but a tall, slender blond young man, a linguist, a good speaker–he would make a speech in Russian, at times in Hebrew, so melodious and his Yiddish was melodious. He also knew German, read French and English–all, it should be understood, from books. However, he was not a book worm. He swallowed books with a charming ease. He was a “political Zionist,” a Herzlist. He wrote to Odessa for some sort of hectographic reproduction [copy made using a glycerin coated sheet of gelatin] notebook in Russian to learn “mnemonics” (the art of developing the memory). Living in the hidden shtetl of Birzh, he hoped for a faster method to improve himself in the languages he knew and to learn more languages with the help of mnemonics.

Golombek also perfected his chess game, not only by playing as was usual at that time, but with methods from books. He owned the book “Play Chess” by Josef Yehuda Leib Zosnits (1837-1910), born in Birzh, who wrote about Hasidism and Kabbalah, but also was a mathematician and an astronomer. Oh, while still in Vilna, I had marveled at a thin Hebrew-German notebook by Zosnits that lay in my father's bookcase. This was a traditional calendar (Iddan Olamim or Perpetual Calendar) for Jews, Christians and Moslems. I found Zosnits's famous sefer [religious book], “Indeed, There Is a God” (published in Vilna, 1875) in several homes in Birzh. The non-religious or the half-pious (if we may say so) maskils [enlightened ones] read it more often. The truly God-fearing people looked askance at the sefer: “What is this! We need to prove that God is here?” When I was in Birzh, the local Jews were proud that “their” Zosnits was praised in New York as a writer and lecturer.

I remember a third young Birzh man–Borukh Mikhalson. He was exactly twice as old as I. Tall, bent, not so thin, nice hands, blue eyes, blond silken hair. He had installed hoops in the ceiling to do gymnastics. He was agile and strong. He sang heartily, was a fine violinist, also played the flute and, certainly, was blessed with a talent for painting. There were stories told about him that truly sounded legendary. Countess Tiszkewicz, who had an estate near Birzh, accidentally seeing Borukh'ke's painting of a human figure at the home of Mikhalson's father, a jeweler, decided to send the young man to Vilna to study painting at her expense. Borukh was then 15 years old. He lived in the Tiszkewicz's palace in Vilna (near the Vilija) for several years, went to the Vilna School of Drawing and had a private teacher. However, here he became the “happy” rival of the countess's son, who fell in love with an operetta singer. Michalson was sent back to Birzh. When I met him, he was a photographer, but he also painted pictures for landowners. He loved to play with the klezmer [musicians] on joyous occasions. Paid for his portion. It was said, he provides the refreshments for the klezmer.

He once showed me songs that he had written in Russian and also in Yiddish. These were smooth, ringing stanzas. However, he contemptuously smiled down on them himself and I agreed with him. At that time, he kept me there and I had to spend the night with him. However, he opened his heart to me that a curse hung over him; he wanted to do everything. He, himself repaired a lock, installed a window pane, made this table and the chairs, had sewn his own suit that fitted him as if he were poured into it–woolen cloth made with a peasant-like spinning wheel and woven–of a brownish chocolate color with dark red bumps. In the morning, as I still lay in my bed, I saw him bent over, with little cloths tied on his knees, so that he would not dirty his pants as he wiped the floor and earlier he had made eggs and cocoa for breakfast.

Eighteen years later, in 1921, I arrived in Birzh on a Friday (now on a little train), to visit the shtetl. However, I found Birzh engulfed in the flares of a fire. It was senseless then to set out to look for acquaintances and stay over on shabbos and with sorrow I turned around to catch the incoming train. But, here Mikhalson bounced over to me. He was still slender and good looking. His face was smeared with soot–he was the commander of the firemen. On the way, I was told that during the war years, he traveled with a Ukrainian theater troupe. He painted stage scenery for them, wrote music and even sang and danced on the stage.

I played chess and walked around the castle, around the thick, high walls–half-fallen–up hill and down, across the wide alleys with the three and with other young men–the Luria brothers, Aizik Heit (now in Philadelphia) and with several young Birzher son-in-laws. It was said that Napoleon once strolled around the castle and that there was a cave under the castle in which a treasure was hidden. And there were stories about the times of Prince Nikolai Radziwill the “Brown,” who, with his famous cousin, the Vilna Prince, Nikolai Radziwill the “Black,” spread Calvinism in Lithuania. The reinforced castle in Birzh was built by even earlier Radziwills in the beginning of the 16th century. The first Radziwills gladly welcomed and encouraged the Jews to develop Birzh. Birzher Jews felt powerful under the Radziwills. When the Jewish merchants from Birzh drove to a fair in Riga, which was then under Poland, and the Riga city authorities demanded a special fee from them, the Birzher Jews did not pay and they were arrested. The Jews made accusations against the Riga regime to Prince Radziwill, who sent a protest to the Polish government and the Jews were freed. Other, later Radziwills, severely persecuted the Jews and drove them from Birzh. In 1662, Duke Boguslaw Radziwill permitted the proclamation at every fair that there were no longer any Jews in Birzh. Permission to settle in Birzh was later again given to the Jews. However, they were tormented with large census taxes and other persecutions. But the number of Jews in Birzh increased.

As the dust would settle after a market day, at the market or along neighboring dirt roads, we would see gentiles bent to the ground with baskets in which they would gather horse droppings that they would trade with a neighboring peasant for a piece of bread or a small piece of cheese. And such poverty would cause heartache; just as my heart would ache sitting next to a Birzher Jewish shoemaker who repaired a shoe for me, hearing how he shouted to his five or six year old son not to hold the piece of sugar in his mouth “against the flow” when he drank tea, but under his tongue…

Photograph with caption: Birzher Large Synagogue

Birzh was a center of Jewish organ-grinders, in Birzh referred to as loyerleit, certainly originating from the German word Leierkastnman [barrel organ man]. However, in Birzh the word leierman was not connected to the German word leiern [to crank] (play on a barrel organ), but with loyern [to lie in wait for]–to ransack, to wander.

Near Chanukah, scores and scores of Jews with their organs and with small animals and birds–squirrels, white mice and parrots that would draw slips of paper with fortunes from a box–would set out from Birzh through the villages and cities. Rich organ-grinders even had monkeys, a small bear. They would lay aside their barrel organs, animals and little birds and be middle class like everyone else. They would come home at the time of the Days of Awe when, incidentally, the substantial mud started and it was not easy to wander. On simkhas torah, they would carry the old rabbi to the synagogue and celebrate with the Torah.

Photograph with caption: Birzher Minyan of Poaeli Tzedek
[Minyan of Doers of Righteousness, usually referring to grave diggers]

The organ-grinders' wives showed off their large earrings and golden bracelets and colorful wide clothing. I remember these women–with open full faces, but with their sad eyes. Their wandering husbands left them in a more permanent loneliness than the wives whose husbands were in America or Africa. The “American women” and the “African women” hoped that they would soon join their husbands. I think that because of their association with monkeys and exotic birds, jaunty young organ-grinders would leave for Africa and Australia in an easier frame of mind than the other young Birzher men.

I remember that in Birzh I once met an old, slender woman wrapped in shawls, although it was a hot summer day. Her face was creased with wrinkles, but she had glowing dark eyes. It was said that she was a Karaite [sect that rejects the Oral Torah] who came every three years to visit her parents' graves in the old abandoned Karaite cemetery. There were also two small streets in Birzh that were named “Karaiteska,” but no Karaites had lived there for generations. I was told that 130 years ago the Birzher Jews bought the Karaites's “church” and rebuilt it as a Jewish synagogue.

Photograph with caption: Birzher Hasidic Minyan
(photograph submitted by Samuel Evans)

After the brick Vilna synagogues and the orthodox synagogues, it seemed to me that the Birzher wooden houses of prayer (and even the brick cold synagogue) were crying in the wind and in the rain. The darkened boards and the roofs–how often it seemed that the roof of the synagogue in a shtetl cried to heaven. However, inside the Birzher synagogues, it was illuminated and clean and the praying would be invigorating. It was blissful outside, around the Birzher Hasidic minyan. Those praying approached the Hasidic prayer house with an open grandeur and would depart from it singing.

A story was told about an overly devout Hasid, Abraham, the tobacco pipe maker. His son was away in the wider world, studying and, he [the son] later wrote articles in Hebrew and German. Once when he came to Birzh to visit his father. Abraham supposedly laid his hands on his son's head and began to shout, “Impure spirit, out of my son.” His son shouted, “Foolish spirit, out of my father!”

I heard astonishing things about a former Birzher child prodigy. Reb Israel Salanter, who once examined him, is supposed to have disclosed that he would grow up to be a gaon b'yisroel [renowned Torah scholar]. However, he died very young. There is a strange little story about him that was passed around in Birzh. When he looked at a tree, he would immediately say how many leaves it had. So once there was a test. As he said the number of leaves on a large, full-grown tree, someone climbed through the branches and shook a heap of leaves into a bed sheet. When the child prodigy was asked how many leaves remained on the tree, he gave a number of leaves. When the heap of leaves in the bed sheet was counted, they found the same number as the amount by which he had decreased the number of leaves remaining on the tree.

At night, it was very quiet and safe in Birzh because guards stood at the market and at the edges of the city. I knew the market guard very well. This was an 80-year old Jew, but he still walked straight and had his little shelter between two small shops under the covering of a little roof. There he would sit in the rain and cold, or when he would become tired of going around the market, tapping the locks to see if they were locked. Every Friday he would come out of the bathhouse in a yellowed caftan with soaking wet peyes [side curls], going from shop to shop, collecting his weekly wages. Other shopkeepers owed him guard money for five and 10 years, but every week he would tell them the total amount they owed him. The quiet, lonely man who lived alone in a little room had a weakness for clocks. I counted 17 clocks on the walls of his little room. Clocks in antique cabinets, round clocks with Yiddish letters, ingenious alarm clocks with birds and music.

It was dark and dusty in the little room, but his clocks gleamed. He also has a collection of pocket watches. He would wind all of the clocks periodically and they were always going. He was miserly, did not taste a drop of whiskey, did not smoke, economized with his food, but he bought clocks so that they would measure the time of his last few years.

Through Villages

The son of the landlord with whom I lived had a horse and a wagon and he peddled through the villages. He also had as a helper, a destitute peddler, who went on foot. They would leave at dawn on Monday and they would return Friday afternoon. So I begged them to take me with them for one week through the poor villages. The helper was a yidele [fellow Jew] of my height; he lent me a worn out coat and old pants. I got a hat and a pair of boots myself. I promised them I would make myself useful, but to this day I think I ate their bread for free during the week. They did not let me pay for anything. They had a kosher pot, cheese and bread and butter with them. They received fruit and milk in trade for goods. We spent the night in darszines [Lithuanian: barns] on straw and hay.

I think the dogs at the gates barked more at me than at them. My landlord's son paid more attention to the horse, gave the price, traded his goods to the peasants for their products and, sweating, also, dragged the packages. The yidele helped with this; he cooked a little pot of kosher food from a batch of cereal or “common fish.” We also took with us three tin spoons with dairy wooden bowls.

Women peasants with illuminated faces tried on aprons, flowered kerchiefs on their heads–as many small mirrors as there were in a room, there were not enough. We had calico and cambric for clothing, linen of yellowish mitkal [coarse calico] for peasant underwear. We also sold two halves of a sawn herring barrel. Jewish shtetl shop owners, in partnership, would buy a barrel of herring that would be ingeniously sawn in two with herring in both halves. The peasants would tan small pelts in a primitive manner in the barrel halves to make into shoes. We also had needles and thread, small mirrors and small combs, pocket knives with wooden shafts, small shears and pencils–what was not in our wagons?

I saw a “hideout” in the village for the first time. Under a board of a closet hidden from the watchman's eyes were Lithuanian prayer books, a tablet or a Lithuanian alphabet with which to teach children.

Those traveling with me admonished me to pray with them in the peasant houses. Other peasants would point out a room in which to pray in which no cross or a holy picture hung. It was natural for them that my traveling companions would look for a corner in which to pray. Their God, the peasants knew, was not our God. However, the Jewish God was an older one in their eyes and a welcome guest in their houses.

When peasant women saw us in tefilin [phylacteries] and the helper wrapped in a talis [prayer shawl], they kept it quiet in the house; even a dog would not bark in front of the doorstep.

We received cash for the sale of small things; chiefly we bartered for small bundles of hog hair and horse tails for a pot of honey and a circle of wax, or for a pack of flax for a pelt. The Jews knew how much to lower the price for the sand that the peasants added to the hog hair and horse tails so that they would weigh more and the peasant was smart enough to haggle to the last. He had in his memory the shtetl prices and those from other peddlers traveling past.

In a few places, poor peasant women from the villages were brought into rooms, along with the beggars and orphan shepherdesses and the Jews were asked to give the poor women what they needed as an addition, without pay, and the Jews did this out of pity.

We traveled past forests and fields, heard the stories about robbers and bad people.

And I witnessed enough peasant poverty–small windows stuffed with rags instead of window panes, small smoke houses with chimneys under decayed straw roofs. And poor Jews greeted me. My traveling companions turned their heads away from a few, in order not to shame them because they had previously been in the Birzher middleclass.

And in the villages we saw eyes with trachoma, and the peasants told of the good-hearted Jewish doctors who healed them inexpensively.

Seeing Off Travelers to the U. S. A. and South Africa

In Birzh, I saw houses emptied of men for the first time in my life. My mother's relative, Sara, the rabbi's wife, was a widow, and the husbands of her two daughters were across the ocean. Such a thick loneliness hung in the man-less houses.

In Birzh, I saw the way a woman baked her last challah in her household oven. She “took challah” here for the last time, throwing a piece of pinched-off dough into the fire [a piece of dough the size of an olive is pinched from yeast-dough made and thrown into the fire of the oven as a symbol of an offering to God]. It was said in the shtetl that on every shabbos a Jew was called up to the Torah in the synagogue, because he was leaving. It was not necessary to follow the person departing when he went to the cemetery to see his tears when he said good-bye to his dear relatives. They took courage, had a good cry in their house and, in the street, they were all cleaned up and joyous–eyes washed in tears were seen. “Zei gezunt” [stay well] was said to neighbors and friends and to everyone. A non-friend, an enemy–everyone was forgiven and they forgave each other. The familiar streets were looked at again and the local people, too. May they all be healthy and happy! Who had not seen the way Jewish men and women would leave their homes “forever,” how they kissed the mezuzah of their door and the neighboring children? How the hearts of those emigrating and those staying broke…

One dawn, three packed wagons left from Birzh with families who were going to America and Africa. It was necessary to travel 70 verst [one verst is .66 of a mile] to the station at Seduva (near Ponevezh) to take the train. Together with the emigrants with their packed baskets and sacks, there also were those accompanying them and I was one of those.

The shtetl Vabalnik was halfway to the train, and the emigrants were accompanied until there. The wagons stayed close together on the way and there were shouts from wagon to wagon. Boys and girls sang, the wagons bounced and the fields danced with them. However, there was a gnawing sadness.

Among a departing family (Shagem), there was a young woman who was a watchmaker. She had her own workshop in Birzh, repaired all kinds of clocks and watches. I had never seen a woman watchmaker. And where in Birzh did this Birzher young woman learn to be a watchmaker? Her father, Shia Leib, a watchmaker, had intended to emigrate to Africa. However, they were a large family. She, the oldest of the children, for a time studied watchmaking with her father so that she would be able to help sustain the family after his departure, and so that the father in Africa would be able to save the necessary money to bring the rest of his family to join him.

Male and female peasants, who worked in the field, stood along the way with shaking heads wishing, “fur gezunt [travel in good health].” They knew that these were emigrants and they sent greetings with the Jews to distant America to which Lithuanians also began to immigrate in ever larger numbers.

In Vabalnik a local marriageable young woman, Golda Yafa (later an emigrant to Africa and later to Australia), who was to be married in a week and to leave Vabalnik, approached the emigrants. This young woman was noted in every surrounding shtetl as a writer, a poetess.

She wrote songs about “flowers” and she read aloud to her friends with swaying little melodies in a field near Vabalnik. However, she mainly was beloved by her friends for the letters she wrote to their fiancés and young men who had left for America and Africa. It was the opinion that her letters were not only beautifully written, but lucky, too. When she was a child, it was also believed that she was lucky. Her parents were then poor and took care of the mail. She would, both in summer and in the winter frosts, carry letters through the shtetl, and it was said that wherever the singing young woman would bring a letter, she brought them luck. Her friends kissed and embraced her, wished her luck and they quietly thanked her, with tears falling from their eyes in fear for their own fate.

The African Groom

From Vabalnik, I dropped in for a short visit to Ponevezh over shabbos–really to take a look again at “Little Vilna” as Ponovezh was called, and to borrow and to buy several books to take to Birzh to read. Of course, I had time to see the “African khosenim [grooms]” in Lithuania. Almost every one of them had shiny golden teeth, diamond rings on their fingers, a heavy golden watch with a chain crossed over the vest pocket. The African who I met in Ponevezh came from a tiny nearby shtetele. However, he was lucky to have a more urban bride–from Ponevezh. For the several days I spent then in Ponevezh, I stayed in the house where the African groom was located. This was half inn, half private house, an arriving guest in one chamber, another guest in the second–however the young man from Africa was all over. It was already a few weeks after shavuos [holiday commemorating the receipt of the Torah from God during which dairy foods are traditionally eaten]. However, the house was still yom-tovdik [in a holiday mood]. Blintzes, coffee and torte were served at the table and every arrival was treated with a goblet of wine. Every day, the groom and bride would come from the street with purchased gifts–an umbrella, a handbag. The bride already had the jewelry and earrings from before, on her neck and on her fingers. The bride was blonde, chubby, pretty and laughing, and the groom with brown, straight combed hair was also short and chubby. The entire room beamed with pleasure and the pride swirled to the nearby rooms. Neighbor girls would come in, wash and dress up, keeping to themselves in the corners and talking and laughing.

And I remember shabbos night. It was raining outside. Do you remember a summer night, a drizzle in Lithuania? The shingles from the roofs danced and the sun did not want to take its leave. We all sat around the table. The groom and bride would not go out into the street with an umbrella on shabbos and it was too early to light a fire. He talked about Kaffirs (African Negroes), how they came half naked to a Jewish store with a bottle of whiskey, and they bought a waistcoat and then immediately a vest of screaming colors, and they dressed up this way in 13 vests, one over the other. The day passed and the Kaffir had no more money. He sold the vests one by one, to buy whiskey… The Kaffirs usually maintained locked chests with the Jewish shopkeeper. There they collected the purchased clothing and jewelry, knives and tools. And as the chest became full, the Kaffir dragged it away to his village, to buy a wife. The African young man talked and it became eerie for us. He sounded a little overcome, aware that he was describing the beautiful homes where people lived in Cape Town and in Johannesburg, and how Jews had become very rich through diamonds.

A candle was lit, havdole [the ritual closing of shabbos] made, the bride went with her mother to a tailor about a dress, and the African young man secluded himself in my room. He looked in a book that I was reading. He once studied for a few terms in the Pasvalys yeshiva. However, he sat on my bed with his head down and he spoke very sadly for a long time. He only had a “cafeteria” in Africa (a cafeteria for Negroes) in a little rusted tin house. He slept there, the smell of stale sheep meat and of garbage from the kitchen. He had barely worked himself up to be a boss. However, how could he bring his beautiful bride there? He came to Lithuania to take a poor girl whom he knew from his childhood in his shtetele. He was afraid to tie himself to her through letters, wanted to look at her as an adult first. She was the daughter of a water carrier and he was the son of a village tailor. Both were children of deep poverty. However, there is no telling what children love. Meanwhile she left for America. By then young girls traveled alone to America–to a brother, to a groom. To bring a girl down to Africa, it was necessary to travel to her. How could he return without a bride, as there were no Jewish girls in Africa? Therefore, he was brought together with the Ponevezher girl. How could he be stingy to her? She was intelligent, had finished high school. However, his money would soon be gone; he only wanted what he needed to bring her back. He would establish a house for her in Africa–he wanted only for her to be happy.

Coming back to Birzh, I acquired the love of listening to Abraham-Leib Goldshtein–a wheat trader and the owner of a yard goods shop–and he had stories from Africa, from where he returned during the Boer War. Chubby, handsome and brotherly, with soft grey eyes that looked, I think, far over the shtetl, Birzh. He told me how he once came to a Boer farmer, who raised ostriches, for advance purchase of the feathers. However, when he seized an ostrich and wanted to pull out a feather, the bird pecked at his hand and tore out a piece of flesh.

A Look at Posvol

I left at the end of summer for Shavl, the second largest city in Kovner gubernia.

I did not travel the short way, but in a roundabout way thus avoiding traveling to Shavl by train, in order to be able to look at more shtetlekh. If a Jew from Lithuania would hear how I traveled from Birzh to Shavl, he would equate me with the peasant who was asked where his left ear is and showed where it was with his right hand. From Birzh I traveled to Posvol. Here, I was directed to an old woman–Mera Ita–white as a dove and very pious. She would exorcize the evil eye, but without payment, God forbid. A widow, her brother in Africa, who rose to a high military “rank” during the Boer War, supports her. However, Mera Ita was popular with the shtetl young people because she had three beautiful daughters. Two were seamstresses–great socialists in Vilna and the third was a Hebrew teacher in a shtetl in Courland, a fervid Zionist. I saw many peasants near wagons in the street in Posvol and it was not a market day and not a holiday. Why? These were patients waiting for Doctor Mer, who was famous in the entire neighborhood (later moved to Ponevezh). And everyone spoke about Doctor Mer with a blessing on their lips.


I traveled to Vashki from Posvol and was met by a downpour. A Vashki teacher (a warrior) went around with me to show me the shtetl. He was near-sighted, with a pince-nez, a head taller than I; the rain ran off him onto me. All the while, he bent over me while we carried on a debate about the Herzlists and the Ahad Haam Zionists. The Vashki teacher supported only Herzl. He stuck out a wet, rained upon hand and showed me the muddy shtetele, Vashki, from which he strongly wished to be free. He believed that Herzl would soon remove all of the Jews from here. However, the mud was over our boots and it was pouring; he led me to a shoemaker to dry ourselves off a little. The shoemaker's entire apartment was a very square room, but set neatly in order. The shoemaker pulled himself up, took off his apron and greeted us. He was a slender, handsome man, in his fifties with a fine combed beard. He prayed the afternoon prayer piously and, with measured movements, he invited us to the table. His vivacious wife served the food. I turned away the stool so as not to look at the low workbench near the window piled with soiled footwear. The potato rolled from my hand because I had not taken my eyes off the handsome middle-aged man. Well versed in books, he spoke a great deal and intelligently. From then on, I thought of him in many ways: Jews have great leaders of people, from before and after a Rambam. However, if such a Jew could turn up in such a surprising place, in a shtetl as with this shoemaker, there is no leader too big for our people.


From Vashki, I traveled to Zheiml. I had to remain here because the road to Kruk and from there to Yanishek had become so muddy that I had to wait a week until I obtained a wagon.

It was a common event in the fall and spring mud that a wagon would lose a passenger, who rolled down backwards into the mud, in the pitch dark night. It would suddenly get easier for the horse and with a pull ahead the driver would notice that someone fell out. Stopping, the driver would shout into the darkness of the night: “A-ho!” The confused passenger would be able to hear from the call where to return to the wagon. If the driver did not hear a cry from the passenger, he would light a lantern, tie the reins to a nearby tree and stride back and actually on occasion find the passenger asleep in the soft mud.

It would often happen around Purim time when large sacks of hops were brought into the shtetlekh to brew mead. The passengers would sit on the sacks of hops, to make the ride smoother. There actually was an art to keeping one's balance and not roll down from the shaking on the high sacks.

In the muddy season, drivers demonstrated a special mastery of whipping the horses so that they would not lose their footing. A horse would be provoked, lift the front feet in order to kick with the hind feet; there was no danger of it running away, only that of falling in the mud, barely saving itself.

In Zheiml, I chanced on a market day. There were many Latvians along with Lithuanian peasants because Zheiml was on the border of Courland. Earlier the Latvians paid with groshens; however, they demanded better goods. The Latvians wore boots; almost no one wore bast [fiber made from inner layer of tree bark] shoes. The Latvian women were in wide, not too long dresses with thick feet. Thick feet was a sign of beauty for the Latvians, and early in autumn the women would put on heavy woolen socks, so that their feet would look thicker. The Latvians were proud that they were not zameter [miserly people] and kept themselves separate from the Lithuanians. They would out-shout the Lithuanians in a tavern.

The Yiddish of the Zheiml Jews was a bit Germanized. In the surrounding shtetlekh, the Jews of Zheiml were referred to as “Zheimler goats” because there actually were many goats in Zheiml. However, I think that they were called this because they were a little modern and many Zheiml Jews trimmed and shaped their beards. Goats in a Lithuanian shtetele were not, God forbid, a sign of poverty. It was the businessmen who would maintain a goat, rather than a cow, because they take up less room and are easier to look after.


Leaving Zheiml, just outside the shtetl, the wheels sank into the mud. They were already sunk beneath the axles around the shtetele, Kruk. I did not get down from the wagon in Kruk, remained stuck for half an hour–probably on the main street. Incidentally, the driver had to take a package to a store. I saw that the people here obviously did not go outside of their houses willingly. A young woman in heavy boots stood ahead of the wagon and women yelled out to her from windows what things she should buy for them in the stores. This woman stood with unkempt red hair under the warm sun and laughed. Her feet were probably dry. She only bent to stuff the edge of her dress into her ankle boots that were evidently difficult for her to drag.

I left Janishik on the highway to Shavl with joy. The wagon with iron wheel rims really hopped over the highway and struck blows in my sides. However, I was happy that I would see Shavl which I had never seen.

The names of both cities, Ponevezh and Shavl, would be said together in Lithuania; one was only 90 verst from the other and they were the two largest cities in Kovna. One would imitate the other in styles and in businesses. Both cities, Shavl and Ponevezh were proud that in them had lived the Hebrew poet, Yehuda Leib Gordon. Ponevezh–on the shore of the quiet Nevjaska–was a quiet city, a settled one. However, Shavl was a fast-rising one, more enterprising.

I think in their lives, the two famous rabbis, Reb Itsele of Ponevezh and Reb Zechariah of Shavl, symbolized the two cities. Reb Itsele was easy going, patient, affable and a very quiet person. He would modestly express his thoughts at a meeting, as if he was ashamed to admit that he was right. He constantly studied and spread Torah in the city. The Shavler Rabbi, Reb Josef Zechariah, had an agile look and was very impetuous. Both Reb Itsele and Reb Josef Zechariah possessed lightning fast perception. Both would pick up a thought from someone they were speaking to before the other one finished speaking. However, Reb Josef Zechariah would interrupt everyone with contempt. If something did not please him, he immediately said so openly. Poor or rich, when he thought someone was unjust, he would be scalding. He was stubborn in communal matters, insisting on his opinion and implementation. He was also constantly studying, but apart from others, only for himself. Doctors considered him a very sick man and were surprised that he was alive. It was said that it was from momentum and, perhaps, his momentum had slipped into many Shavler Jews.

There were a considerable number of Jewish workers in Shavl. They led successful strikes and had then a “Bundist Exchange.” One strolled on the sidewalk past Jewish shops, among which was Lipshits' brightly illuminated bakery. The best snack to the strollers was a three-kopek pirozhne (a piece of cake) and, sometimes, a bagel and milk. Bold Jewish revolutionary young men transported Lithuanian alphabet and prayer books to Lithuania with illegal Jewish literature.

I was taken to Shavl to the room of a vegetarian, a Tolstoynik, a White Russian, who was an employee of the Shavl city management committee. A lame Lithuanian shoemaker with wooden feet had a workshop there. A thin, stooped little peasant with a strange whistling tooth; later, the well known Lithuanian folk poet, Yovaros, would come there. He would write Lithuanian songs and would come to the shoemaker's room to read them. A red-headed student, a Lithuanian, Kazimir Ventzlovskis (later chairman of the Social-Democratic faction in the Lithuanian Sejm) would come to take the songs and secretly sent them away to foreign Lithuanian publications. (The book Lita by A. Yerushalmi has an account, in “Shavler Ghetto,” of Ventzlovski's daughter who dared to help the Jews.) I had my first lectures in the difficult Lithuanian grammar in this room.


On a warm day I was brought to a field beyond Shavl by a wandering Lithuanian folk-teacher. Lithuanians would jokingly call such people direktorius (director). I saw before me a tall man, a little hunchbacked, with broad bones. Red hair grew on his face like rusted iron. Prickly whiskers and a stiff, rounded little beard. A face as of yellow lime. He told me that he was called “Yonas,” but, perhaps, this was not his real name. Yonas had an awkward gait, with his squinting eyes under overgrown red eyebrows, and I remember his hands, sticking out from short sleeves, with dirty nails. I ask myself, what did your students do to the Jews 40 years later? However, I remember well–if it is right or wrong that I should say–that here at that time a lightness poured into my bones. His unraveling garments with the patches on his pants and twisted, muddy shoes; he was thoroughly bored, did not wash, with dry lips, but he looked so wonderful in my eyes. He sat on the grass and I on a nearby stone and he told me how surreptitiously he taught Lithuanian to the peasant children in the villages. Each week he ate, according to the row of houses, with another peasant, so that at the end of the year, he again had his week of meals with the first. This happened very seldom, however, because the police severely persecuted such teachers. It often happened that he wandered to another village. He was cheerful, although he wandered for 15 years with his teaching. He had already been arrested so many time and his bones were broken by the uradnik [village policeman] several times. And yet… He would look around, knowing that he was being looked for, he always turned his head–thought that a uradnik would catch him soon. Here, he asked me that if I needed a bath, we should go to Shavl together–and, oh, did he need a bath! He knew that this day the Jewish bathhouse was heated, and there, he said, we would take a separate room, he would be able to tell me about Lithuanian mythology and about Lithuanian life, and no one would be able to persecute him. He would go first and I would go after him… and he answered so perceptively, why it would be no good for me to go first. In case, he was arrested, and I arrived, the police would notice me. However, if he were arrested on the way, I should go further away entirely.

In the bath chamber, I saw before me an exhausted body, whose head almost struck the ceiling. He spoke into the steam and soaped his bitten, scratched body, suddenly throwing his hand and laughing like a child; he did not understand why it was wanted that a people should forget their language!? A crazy government, the Czarist. And again he waved his hand, like a large bird freeing himself and he confided in me that he had a Lithuanian newspaper from America stuck in his boots. There, perfectly free, the Lithuanians publish periodicals and books in Lithuanian. He knew that Jews had other edicts against them and more severe. And again, he laughed like a child, in the firm belief that the oppression that people suffer, would go away, just like the carbon monoxide from the bath. People will live joined together.


From Shavl I traveled to look at the tiny shtetele, Gruzd. A young community merchant, Zundl Kartun, a young man of 28, who, I think, arrived from Africa, took me with him to his coach, with a harnessed, satisfied little horse. When we arrived near Shavl, we also took along a short little Jew who was traveling on the road. This was a little man with a fine, trimmed, red little beard like Czar Nikolei. Young boys ran after him and yelled: “Nikolei!” And we even noticed a certain similarity–such exposed eyes as in the pictures of Nikolei II. This was a wonderful little Jew, a little off his senses. And as soon as he climbed up: “Where are you taking me?” He was not calmed. “To prison?” He tore away to a side trail. Kartun was a blond, tall, strong and kind person. He smiled sadly and said that Gruzd does not have city crazy people, but a crazy person. This did not put us at ease.

The road to Gruzd was dry. The shtetele had a long straight street, a little undulating on the side, on the border–a little mountainous. I remember the house of the Kirshons in Gruzd–light, large rooms and very cleanly tidied up. The floors were like mirrors. I remember, however, a large brick empty cellar that was underneath, I think for a brewery that was once there. There were three daughters in the house, urbanely dressed. Their father died, their brothers left for Africa and America. Their mother, a pious and God-fearing woman, opened a small store in the market after her husband's death. A fourth daughter, the oldest, worked with her in the store. Was her husband on the other side of the ocean? She did not permit her three younger daughters to come to the market. They sat in the house and read books. In the house, most likely, there were more books, Russian and German, than in the rest of the shtetl. The oldest daughter–Rebeka–read Russian novels and she knew them so well that it is thought that she read the same novels by Turgenev, Tolstoy and Goncharov more than once. Blond, chubby and good-natured, she drank tea and solemnly spoke of the heroes she read about, in whose world she lived. The second sister–Frida–read Bialik and sang Hebrew songs and was delighted with her black braids that were down to her knees. The third daughter–Cilia–(now a doctor in Chicago), a 15-year old girl, was a revolutionary. However, she kept for herself a book–Spinoza's Ethics (in Russian) that was left by her brother. I immediately tried to read it and we began to split hairs about the first half page, because each of us had understood it–better, had not understood–differently. The oldest sisters willingly had their youngest sister speak loudly and fervently, because she drove the loneliness from the house.

The local rabbi came in later, for some religious book. He would also surreptitiously read books of the Enlightenment, also left by the departed brothers. He was a man of 30-some years, with a round thick little beard, a strong man with genteel hands. He lived in great poverty. He had to share his income with the widow of the former rabbi. She retained the right to sell yeast and shabbos candles in the shtetl, and, most likely, this was half of the rabbi's income in Gruzd. He had a mild open face. However, this time, when I saw him, he was angry: the young Zionists were taking the rebellious path of the Bundists. He could not sit still, shuffled closer to the window and looked into the distance to where he would want to tear himself away from the shtetl. He left suddenly.

The mother of the Kirshon daughters arrived. Overworked, tall, thin, with bright eyes, dressed in her daily clothing appropriate for the market, but her daughters welcomed their mother as a princess and she laughed quietly with them. The mother sat very modestly on the edge of a chair and told about a curious little Gruzd tailor who always recited Psalms and who would be invited to moralize before the congregation.

When the Kirshon's extra bright light was lit at night, the shtetl doctor came. Tall, strong, gray, but with a young red face. He was a real Russian, had converted there because of a Christian woman and turned up in Gruzd. As good a Russian as his was not often heard in Lithuania. He came in to share the just read “hot” liberal news from a Petersburg newspaper. He also talked of a recent short story by Gorky. However, right after Gorky's Bosyakes, he discoursed about the local crazy person. Last night, she–fat, short–danced in the street and today she is sitting as if stuck in a ruin, is quiet and does not want to eat. When he went by there, an old Jewish woman called him in and they were barely successful in getting her to eat a couple of forkfuls of food. Where she came from to Gruzd, no one knew.

It was also said that peasants around Gruzd rebelled on Nariskhin's estate and peasants in the surrounding villages with secret Lithuanian books were arrested. Why did Jews here have to be afraid? However, one talked very quietly and with anxiety. Drunks then even attacked a Jewish tavern near the shtetl.


I want to remember another shtetele from which I do not remember even one name. Half way to Moshaik. On the Libave-Romner [Liubavas-Ramonai] train lines, lay Popelian; a student from Popelian, who had vacationed in Shavl, took me with him one evening. A dry, clean shtetele, submerged in green. In the attic to which he led me up, blossoming trees pressed against the windows. A gathering of young people, washed, adorned, filled the room. Fruit was on the table; I thought just picked from the trees. Young men and girls sat separately and, yet, together. A pretty burning lamp on the blinding white tablecloth. A discussion, the first public discussion that I had ever attended in my entire life, took place among the Zionists and the Bundists. Perhaps the student and the “free university candidate” understood best the hot debates that were contested. However, it was clearly seen that there were sides; there were others who vacillated and did not know on which side their hearts lay. The “class-conscious” looked down on the indecisive from on top and with pity. However, soon there was much singing. Songs were sung by both parties and everyone sang with heart and ardor, even those “vacillating.” Popelian was too small at that time for its young people to split politically.

When they were finished speaking and singing, I was asked to say something. However, I did not know what to say. Here, the ragged book in my pocket was first noticed. I would always take something to read with me when I traveled somewhere. This time I had Mendele's Fishke the Lame. With a pounding heart, I agreed to read aloud the pages where Fishke the Lame goes bumping along with pots of cooked food that he carries to the cemetery for the blind orphan. Mendele did not, God forbid, break the young hearts with lit up cheeks that earlier were united in singing–in the beautiful shtetele, Popelian. Fishke the Lame was sincerely applauded (not me). A well-turned out girl with rouge called out in Russian with such words that I was ashamed: “The Abramovitch's book must be very interesting; it must be read.” And there was more singing and pears and apples and cherries were eaten. I was accompanied by friends after midnight.

The shtetele Popelian was decorated not, God forbid, to meet a special parade in the morning, but–the rising sun.

…arriving in Vilna after my first trip across Zamet, I took with me an unfulfilled longing for the shtetlekh of Zamet.

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