Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund It would take only a few hours to reach Lithuania from Courland. One did not drive in, but fall in.
I arrived during the winter in a small, secluded Muravjovo [Maeikiai] station from the rich and strongly pulsing Liboi [Liepaja] from where one could almost smell a breath from the other side of the Atlantic. The station was covered in snow, covered up by the wind and I came into the hands of the wagon drivers and heard:
No, no, the train does not go from hereAs if we had arrived at the hore-khoyshekh [legendary mountain of darkness signifying a distant location], somewhere in the Arctic. Muravjovo was called Mo¿ejki in independent Lithuania and appeared almost like a modern city. However in the treasured times of Nikolai II, almost 45 years ago, the entire area was cut off from the bright world.
From there, I thought, I must get away very quickly. I immediately took a coach and left for the small shtetlekh [towns], Siad [Seda] and Telz. The world knew of the Telz [Telsiai] yeshiva [religious school for older boys and men] of R' Eliezar Gordon, the well known head of the yeshiva. We always heard about a new fire in Telz. Incidentally, my travel from Petersburg to Telz was also connected with a fire that almost destroyed Telz completely. But, Siad? Who had heard and who knew of Siad? Here a heap of houses lay buried under the snow on the night of a winter blizzard. It appeared as a ruin that would fall apart with one good wind gust. How do people live here I asked myself.
The name of that shtetl would never have had a place in my memory if it had not literally persecuted me all of those years since I first saw it. In Brussels, in Oslo, finally in London, I met Jews in very good positions born in Siad. First, in London several years ago, I ran into an extensive family of doctors and their father, a resident of Siad. Jews from Lithuanian cities and shtetlekh spread out widely.
My first trip to Telz lasted some 15 hours.
The covered wagon squeaked and twisted in the thick mud. The entire surrounding world was gray and pale. Shabby and ragged human figures would appear as shadows and disappear. The snow turned to rain and I did not believe that I would ever arrive in Telz.
However, we arrived and I often remember the good trip, when several days later it was necessary to walk all the way to Raseyn [Raseiniai].
Half of Telz was burned. New houses were built. The inn, in which I was lodged, smelled completely of the freshly planed boards. But the yeshiva, a long, big building, a wide and airy room, almost entirely naked and without furniture, was already built and the work here was done with a true fervor and zest.
Here really, in the yeshiva to which the head of the yeshiva had brought me, I saw for the first time how much truth there was to the talk about the stifled temperament of the Litvaks. Young men studied in front of several reading tables along the wall, shouted, threw their heads, sang not only with zeal and fervor, but actually as if possessed. Their voices carried through the room and echoed in every corner. The clever old man pointed to the young men, They are studying, although this is not the time to study
Later, going around through the burned ruins of the city, it seemed to me that I heard voices from all over, not a lament and not crying, but the melodies of the gemara [debate and discussions in the Talmud] coming from the young, thin souls who quivered by the reading desks and actually convulsed.
* * *
From Telz we traveled further, gossiping. The muddy road became more difficult. At each station I asked that another horse be hitched up. A kopek a viorst [.6 mile] for a horse and we still did not see any city. At night we had to overnight in a warm inn and dragged again for an entire day until we arrived in Raseyn.
On this muddy, unendingly large road, I saw the poor, dejected Lithuanians, those twisted, bent, oppressed peasants, for the first time. At one of the stations where we changed horses, I gave the peasant, who had harnessed the wagon, a small silver coin and I immediately sprung up as if scalded: the peasant grabbed my hand and kissed it. I could not calm myself for a long time. The driver wanted me to understand how natural this subservience was in the area.
Immediately at my arrival in Raseyn I felt the taste of Jewish communal life. From my room in the hotel I heard the praying. The prayers were said with very great enthusiasm. I could not understand where I was. The owner of the hotel told me that there was a great to-do in the town; the city needed to have a rabbi and R' Haim Brisker (Soloveitchik) had himself brought one of his sons against the will of the second faction, who had earlier prepared a candidate. The exalted guests were lodged with me in the same hotel and the authority of R' Haim Brisker had drawn the entire religious community here.
Of the Jewish personalities in the city, the picture of the lawyer (private attorney) Levi, a truly grand elder, a handsome Jew with a broad beard and with a majestic, proud bearing long remains in my memory. Such a Jewish leader had to impress even the governor himself. He kept Jewish interests close to his heart. He would even have been suited for the Jewish community in Petersburg or Moscow. I met him again 25 years later in this same Raseyn, healthy, lively, as a giant tree in an old Sosnow forest near Nieman
From Raseyn I traveled by sled in a deep snow through the large forest to Baisegole [Baisogala] and from there to Ponevez [Panevëþys], where an active and tenacious Jewish community lived. Here I met with the representatives of the Jewish Colonialization Society, which once would sometimes come to us in Petersburg. Healthy, vigorous, sober Jews.
Everything was a wonder to me in this part of old Russia: interesting Jewish figures, kehilus, societies sprouted from the forests and from the mud, from the poverty, from the grayness as if through magic spells. They lived, they maintained themselves.
In all of the cities and shtetlekh, the most robust and most productive and the boldest element had already gone away over the Atlantic, many to South Africa. The emigration absorbed much fresh blood. Many communities remained without men. They lived off the dollars and pounds from those who had rescued themselves from the mud and were building a new life in a new home.
I see before me the old, simply emptied Vilkomir [Ukmerge] after each large emigration. An old rabbi with a long white beard, which twists all by itself like Michelangelo's Moses, and a city with women. It was by chance; on the very day when I arrived, the first automobile with passengers went from Vilkomir to Kovno [Kaunas]. Kith and kin went outside when the vehicle suddenly, as if from the clear sky, shook and began to move. The entire shtetl ran after it. The vehicle went as far as Kovno. Who in the shtetl then thought of going wherever their eyes took them, someplace very far? Tearing oneself from the grey gloom?...
Years passed. It happened that I was in Lithuania more times in Kovno, Shavel [Siauliai] and in small shtetlekh. Who among us then thought about the problem of a Lithuanian national movement, of a Lithuanian state, of Lithuanian-Polish and Lithuanian-Jewish relations?
But once, sitting in the Duma [Russian parliament] during debates about the brutal conduct of the Russian police in the Polish province, a small Lithuanian priest climbed onto the dais and began speaking about what the Poles were doing there to Lithuanians. I do not remember his name, He was from Suwalki. He was never noticed among the hundreds of people in the splendid Tauride [Tavricheski] Palace. In general, there was little notice taken of the Lithuanians. But the small man in his priestly clothing spoke so sincerely. He shouted so loudly from the dais into the room that his appearance became the sensation of the session. It could be seen how the members of the Polish Kolo [circle: a faction in the Second Duma] remained in their places as if struck by lightning and made grimaces, making a gesture of mockery. The Poles, a group of arch-reactionaries, were then playing the role of splendid isolation and elevated national pride. The small priest from Suwalki tore off their actors' masks and put them in the pillory [exposed to ridicule], so that people could see, and see thoroughly, who the real Polish martyrs were.
The Jews were able to have their representative in the Duma even after [Russian Prime Minister Pyotr] Stolypin altered the famous Russian constitution thanks to the good relations between Jews and Lithuanians. Naftal (Naftali) Markovitch Frydman, our representative in Ponevezh [Panevezys] in the third and fourth Duma, was chosen by Jewish and Lithuanian votes as the result of a pact among Jewish and Lithuanian representatives. This meant a great deal then.
Incidentally, if Kovno, the active and energetic Kovno, was well represented in the Duma by the indefatigable and creative Leonti Moiseievitch Bramson and the modest, sincere lawyer, Abramson, the provincial Lithuanian Jewry was well represented by the quiet, dreamy Frydman in the last two Dumas. The impression on his face would remind me of the sadness of the Lithuanian fields. Lithuania was at the hour of its redemption
Years and years again passed. Lithuanian waited for its hour. The First World War ended. Lithuanian Jewry recovered its breath together with Lithuania. Lithuania began to build. Kovno began to beautify itself. The new Lithuania was built in pain, always threatened by both Russia and Germany; but more than anyone, by Poland. However, in the midst of deep anxiety, in the midst of internal quarrels, personal and party struggles, the small nation was rapidly built. Trains, bridges and magnificent highways. With each year, another piece of land was pulled from the mud. Lithuania began to export the necessities of life all across Europe.
Jewish Lithuania also continued to build. Jews were represented in the government. For the first time, a Jewish ministry with Soloveitchik as Minister for Jewish Matters and the old community worker and lawyer, Rozenboim, as aide to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Here, not always and not everything went smoothly. Here and there it was possible to hear plenty of Jew-hating voices. However, Lithuanian Jews acquired courage. In Kovno, I happened to be sitting in the office of Soloveitchik, the Jewish Minister, hearing his telephone conversation with the Lithuanian War Minister about a group of Jewish arrestees somewhere in the province. Soloveitchik protested stormily, ordered, did not ask, but demanded as one who was fully entitled.
It was in the springtime of Lithuanian independence, when we demonstrated everywhere abroad and with truth the political respectability and loyalty of kleyn lita [Lithuania Minor or Prussian Lithuania] as a model for people to live well together.
In Copenhagen, Denmark, during the war and post-war years, I suddenly received an unexpected new hint about Lithuania. A year earlier, Age Meyer-Benedictsen, the well known Danish world traveler and ethnographic researcher, had published in Danish a fine book about Lithuania: The Awakening of a Nation. This book brought a mass Danish translation of Lithuanian folksongs (dainos), warm descriptions of Lithuanian folk life, studies of the Lithuanian folk character. I met Lithuanians in Benedictsen's house, among them the Savickis, one of the genuine Lithuanian diplomats in the nations of Scandinavia. I was associated with him for many years. Benedictsen, who died 10 years later, had visited many nations, lived in India, studied in Moscow, loved people from other nations and knew many languages, became very particularly interested, simply bewitched by kleyn lita. He wanted to acquaint the world with the Lithuanian people and their national aspirations. Lithuanian is not an easy language for a foreigner, but Benedictsen learned the language so well and lived in it so that he was able to make magnificent and numerous translations from the Lithuanian folk songs into German.
Thus it happened that I penetrated deeper and deeper into the Lithuanian phenomenon.
Almost 10 years later I was again in Lithuania. This time with Chayele Grober, my wife, for a long concert tour across the country. It was after the parliament, it was after the Jewish Ministerium. Ostensibly, there was friendship with the Soviet Union, but no relations with Poland. [Antanas] Smetona was in the Presidential Palace in Kovno. A fresh-baked bureaucracy with a military clique in the old, Russian fashion pulled the strings.
Jews answered the new situation. Something was oppressive and they were not calm and sure of themselves. But Jews are a people who do things, not only of spirit. They spoke a delicious Lithuanian and they supported Hebrew and Yiddish gymnazies [secondary schools]. Even in my Vilkomir of the pasta Hebrew theater-studio with the most modern performanceswasn't it just like God in Odessa! [Yiddish expression: Odessa was known for its free-spirited atmosphere]. Truly a strange mixture
A State Theater was in the center of Kovno. Its manager was a former actor from the Moscow Art Theater, a good friend of mine. He advised me to give the first concert in the Yiddish Theater because the State Theater would cost too much. But, I did not agree it did not matter, we would pay. We wanted a good stage and good lighting. And it was the State Theater.
The Kovno State Theater was really a splendor, with which the common people could be proud. The government gave money, as much as was needed. A beautiful stage was built with all of the newest specifications. First class drama was organized, a distinguished opera troupe, a good ballet, a magnificent, exemplary large choir and a fine, large orchestra with a fine Jewish conductor, [Michael Leo] Hofmekler. Day and night, all of the actors, singers, dancers and orchestra members studied, worked, truly created wonders. I could watch enough to satisfy myself. As if they felt that darks days would come and they must grab whatever they could, everything possible.
The first concert by Chayele Grober in the Kovno State Theater ended for us with an extraordinary surprise. During the concert, Zielinski, the director of the theater, came to Chayele Grober to thank her for playing well and invited her for a glass of tea with his dramatic troupe in the foyer of the theater after the concert. The foyer a magnificent room, entirely furnished with traditional Lithuanian furniture.
During the tea, Zielinski talked about Chayele Grober's Hasidic melodies and explained to the actors about what a treasure of theater art, Hasidic gesture and Hasidic facial expressions represent.
They could not remain too late at this improvised banquet because after one at night, no one was supposed to be in the street; there was a state of war in the city. Afterward, we gave a series of large concerts in the theater, but the Lithuanian performances were also worth seeing. For their operas, they used such great painters as Dobzinski, for their drama performances such directors as Michail Czekow.
On a beautiful morning, we received a phone call from somewhere and I did not in any way hear what the name of the shtetl was. It sounded something like Mozeyki or Maczeyki. Later, I learned that this was the former Muravjovo. It was a long trip; we arrived at three in the morning, but the trouble was worth it, because it was worth finding in the nest, a Jewish gymnazie, a Jewish bank, 400 Jews at a concert, not a shtetl, but a real city.
After the concert, there was a banquet with a speaker. We did not believe our eyes: a first class Jewish intelligentsia, educated teachers, doctors, readers of Yiddish and Hebrew literature, Jews who had the Jewish future in mind, and so little of the usual vulgar banalities. The people knew that they were responsible for the Jewish community and needed to provide something on behalf of the community.
We met a new Jewish multitude in a new Vilkomir, as well as in Telz, in Plungian [Plunge], in Memel [Klaipeda], in Wilkowyszki [Vilkaviskis], in Kybart [Kybartai], again in Kovno, in Yanove [Jonava], in Shavel [Siauliai], in Ponevez [Panevezys], and again and again in the very small nests. We could barely cover the expenses of driving together with the keyboard player, with the double taxes and all the plagues of such concert giving, but it was all worth it because it was true enjoyment to see how Jewish culture was revived after the expulsion of the First World War.
Several times when we came back from the expeditions across the country and, in the house of Dr. [Mendel] Sudarski and his wife spoke about our meetings, the dear people smiled and did not completely understand our enthusiasm. It is not seen, when one is too close to one's fellowmen. They also do not see their fellowmen well. But for us, this was a revelation.
Such wonderful Jewish settlements still lived then. And how terrible murder exterminated everyone. The few Jews, who through miracles survived all of the suffering and saved themselves how dear they have to be to us now.
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund It was 55 years ago when the Jewish workers movement had just begun to form. It should be understood that in this respect Vilna was also the cradle and was the first city in Lithuania, which gave a spur to the workers to take up the class struggle.
At that time, the working bristle workers also began to stir. The bristle workers represented an important component of the Jewish proletariat and approximately 1,000 of them were concentrated in Lithuania, particularly in Suwalkia in the cities: Vilkovishk [Vilkavikis], Kalvarija, Wierzbolowo [Virbalis], Neistat, Vishtinetz [Vitytis]. In addition to these, there were smaller groups of bristle workers in Ponevez [Paneveys], Kovna, Vilna and others.
The economic situation of the working masses was more than catastrophic. They worked without end. They would arrive at work during the early morning hours and ended work during the night and for all of this, the worker's reward was such that it was barely enough for him as a livelihood amid the primitive conditions in which they lived during the 90s of the previous century [19th century].
It was decided to send several agitators from the Vilna activist group, which consisted of people who played a leading role in the Bund and also in the All-Russian S.D. [Social Democratic] Party, to the Suwalki area in order to organize the bristle workers to struggle against the inhuman exploitation. In 1895, three bristle worker agitators came from Vilna to Vilkovishk where 400 bristle workers worked Motl Akyn, Shye Zaks and Zalman Kugl. The first attempt was made to organize. It proceeded with difficulty, great difficulty because not only the older workers, but also the younger bristle workers looked at the organizers with suspicion. He did not know what they wanted of him. He also did not understand the significance of organizing. Actually, this bristle worker had other ambitions; he wanted only to become an artisan (a master craftsman, who would then be considered as a sort of boss) and could himself exploit. Until then he had been exploited but he felt not the least wronged by this. The conservative idea that he needed to follow the paths of his father was as logical and expedient to him as the suggestion of the agitators to organize in the struggle for humane conditions. Therefore, the attempt to organize did not succeed and there were few workers who followed the call of the agitators.
Six months barely passed and two bristle workers again came to Vilkovishk from Vilna (May 1896) Avraham Aleksandrovitch (from Homel) and Urtshik. Their purpose was to organize the workers to struggle for a 10-hour work day. In order to increase the success of carrying out the action among the bristle workers, each of them began to work in a brush factory. The campaign was easier there and in a short time they were successful in organizing 70 percent of the bristle workers. A trade treasury was then created. Each of the organized workers paid five kopekes a week. The money that was collected was supposed to be provided to the strikers.
Thus began the preparation for the first statshke (strike). It was decided to begin the strike against the factory of N.V. Vindzberg where 120 men worked. The decision was to carry out the first strike against this factory because it had been easier to organize there. Avraham Homler, the organizer, worked in this factory. He was a worker-organizer in the full sense of the word. A man of 30-some years of age, not of small stature, solid in his bearing, serious in his attitude toward the worker's interests. Because of this, he succeeded not only with the workers in the factory where he worked, but in general with the Vilkovishkers and other bristle workers from the Suwalki area. He had become a worker not long before. Earlier he was exclusively a yeshivah-bukher [student in a religious school], studied without cost, then came from the city of Homel (therefore, he was called Homler) to Vilna and became a worker. In Vilna he began to be interested immediately in the illegal revolutionary worker's party and took an active part in the secret circles. Later, Avraham Homler was one of the founders at the creation of the All-Russian Jewish Worker's Bund. This worker activist organized the first bristle workers strike.
Naturally, the second agitator, Urtshik, the bristle worker, did not stand aloof, although he worked in another factory. He also carried out strike organizing in his factory and, in general, among the Vilkovishk workers. In the factory in which Urtshik worked, it actually was not so simple for him to carry on organizing because the working element there was very difficult to organize. Despite this, he spent so much time that he succeeded in organizing a large number of them. In order for him to be able to organize the factory, so that they could not dismiss him because he did not yet know the trade well, others would do his work for him, place it at his workplace and, to the master craftsman, it would be Urtshik who had made it. Urtshik, the organizer, already had great influence over the workers. And it is no wonder. Urtshik possessed an extraordinary strength at quickly winning the sympathy of the worker. The bristle workers, who were still quite inexperienced, were impressed by Urtshik's appearance. Small in stature, with a head of long hair a characteristic appearance for an agitator in that era sturdy, dressed in a red Slavic blouse with trim, he would give a fiery speech to the working throng somewhere in a forest outside the city. After the gathering he would sit in the circle of his worker colleagues and sing workers' songs with them. The worker group would be particularly inspired by this worker song:
In the streets,Urtshik, himself, would sing with great pleasure.
To the masses,
Freedom's spirit calls
With such entertainments and intimate conversations, the planned strike came closer. At night on one of the hot July days of 1896, when all of the Vilkovishk bristle workers were more or less prepared, a gathering of workers from Vindzberg's factory was called in Stav (a swimming place near Vilkovishk).
Sixty to seventy workers took part, mostly young, and it was decided to start the strike for a 10-hour work day in the morning. In the morning, except for the master craftsmen and a few older workers, the remaining workers did not come. This was the first organized protest.
In general, the owners and the master craftsmen did not understand the character of it. The concepts of organization and struggle were still strange to them. If a worker had a demand incidentally, they could not imagine what a worker could have as a demand he would come to the owner or master craftsmen and negotiate. But a joint demand by the mass, they did not, in general, understand what that meant. It immediately became clear to them, that this was a statshke (strike), that they, the strikers, intended to carry on until their demands were met concerning a 10-hour work day.
But if those who provided work were not clear about the concept of statshke, it was already clear to the Czarist gendarmes and on the same day, when the strike began, arrests also began. 10-12 workers were arrested. This did not frighten the remaining strikers. They continued the strike. And if on the eve of the strike they did not yet understand the significance of a strike, the class differences who supported their interests and who gave them work it became clear after the meddling of the Czarist police. The bitterness of the strikers then grew substantially and this was for them the first experience of class struggle. This was a lesson not only for the strikers, but also for the others in Vilkovishk who did not strike, but who were preparing to do so. Certain bristle worker circles from the neighboring city, Neustadt [Naumiestis], thought differently. At the call of the owners who were being struck, strikebreakers immediately came from there [Neustadt]. Despite the fact that strikebreakers worked in the factory, the first organized, stubborn struggle of the striking workers forced the entrepreneur to give into the 10-hour work day after two weeks of striking. After this the 10-hour work day also was automatically brought into all factories in the Suwalk area.
The first successful strike was a colossal event for Jewish workers in general and the bristle workers in particular. This strike also found an echoing repercussion in the columns of the Jewish workers' press. The successful strike received a great deal of space in the first edition of the periodical, yidisher arbeter [Jewish Worker]. Jewish workers in other lines of work, the tanners in the first rank, were encouraged by this, organized and began to carry on a struggle to better their condition.
For the bristle workers, the bristle workers strike was the first page of the calendar of struggle and so began passing page after page, struggle after struggle, until they reached an eight-hour work day and humane living conditions.
And thus the bristle workers in Lithuania were among the first who brought an eight-hour work day to Russia.
May it be recorded in history!
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund Of the genuine Jewish Slobodka, near Kovno, only the name remains. There are no more heavy, wide-shouldered, proletarian Jews with shaved necks, disheveled beards who would gather in groups on Sunday mornings down by the Viliya River to rent rafts and set out on the wide waters. There are no longer the beautiful Jewish daughters with the high hairdos who would go down to the sand every morning, passing through the small, twisted roads between the large amount of timber that always lay there, banging with their high heels over the long wooden bridge, which would be taken apart in the winter and, when the ice melted in the spring, the wealthy Iser-Ber Wolf would again put up. The old beis-hamedrash [house of study and prayer] that stood on a little hill is no more. Downhill spread the wide Viliya that divided Slobodka from Kovno. The melancholy melodies from the old beis-hamedrash sound no more: hoy, amar rava, hoy amar abayei! [woe, said Rava, woe, said Abayei; the debates of Rava and Abayei, 3rd century sages of the Babylonian Talmud, are considered classics of disputation]. The small butchers' synagogue where the musarnikes [adherents of musar a strict moral and ethical approach to religion] would gather is no more. The gemara [book of rabbinical commentaries on the Mishnah record of the oral traditions] would be put aside at nine o'clock at night and they would go deep into the small musar-seforim [books of moral and ethical teachings] and speculate in spiritual introspection: Oh God! What is my duty to my world? they cried with bitter tears and confessed their sins that they had never committed. The small Rebbe Hirshl's yeshivah [religious school for older students] is no more, where hundreds of young men and boys, whose mother's milk had not yet dried up on their lips and who left warm beds, came to swim in the deep seas of the Talmud, to speculate on what is above and what is below all of this is no more. The windows are broken and the homeless dogs howl there at night in the old beis-medrash and in the small butchers' house of prayer and in Rebbe Hirshl's yeshivah.
Many years passed, but everything stands so alive before my eyes as if it happened today. This was at the beginning of the present century [20th]. My small Lithuanian shtetl became too narrow for me; I was drawn to a larger yeshivah. I trudged for two days and two nights in wagons, in covered wagons and, arriving first in Kovno, I slept somewhere on a bench. The bridge that led from Kovno to Slobodka had been removed; it was right before pesakh [Passover]. We traveled by boats, among the large floes that were carried across the wide Viliya [River]. Arriving at the yeshivah, the day was bright and sunny. The city swarmed with recruits, newly arrived yeshivah bokhurim [young men]. They spoke in various Yiddish dialects. I arrived with a letter from the rabbi from my shtetl. I was examined and accepted in the fifth grade by Rebbe Hirshl. My possessions, were very poor ones, unfortunately what could my parents give to bring with me? Their poverty? I also had an address with me for a distant relative and my relative was a shamas [synagogue caretaker] in the grave diggers' small synagogue and actually he and his family had their apartment in a side room of the small synagogue. I was very coldly received, but I was invited to eat with them on the next Shabbos. This was my first Shabbos away from home.
Where will you sleep? he asked me. I shrugged my shoulders. Did your mother give you a pillow to take with you? Yes, I have one. So bring it here; you will sleep in the small synagogue. Later when I told other yeshivah bokhurim about this, they were jealous of me. Such luck! Such luck!
The first night I made my bed right next to the wall, added another bench laid down my small pillow that my mother had given me to take with me, covered myself over my head with my little caftan because I was afraid to look in the dark synagogue with the large windows, illuminated by only the yellow wax yahrzeit candles [candles lit on the anniversary of a death] the first time in my life I slept alone. With my parents I slept as A. Reisen sings: A healthy eight together in a bed for only two. And here such emptiness, such gloom, alone in the grave diggers' synagogue!
My friend, the shamas, informed me that I must get up before six o'clock because the first minyan [10 men needed for prayer] prays at six o'clock and my pillow, he showed me, I must keep in the small house knocked together with board in the courtyard where the ta'are board [board on which the dead are cleansed before burial] and the caskets are kept.
Just as I drew the caftan over my head, I immediately heard the mice gnawing at the tallow lights. Long, long I cried, had pity on myself and thus I fell asleep. As I woke up, it was already very light. An old Jew was sitting and reciting Psalms. I got dressed quickly, washed at the wash stand and left for the yeshivah. Little by little I became accustomed to the dark synagogue with the yahrzeit candles and with the hard bench. But one night, while it rained and thundered outside, and the lightning illuminated the large window, I shuddered when I suddenly heard above me, near the wall, where the little windows from the women's section were located, someone going back and forth. I had no fear of corpses or ghosts, but I was afraid of crazy people, for whom I had a sort of an inborn fear. My fantasy worked here I would take a look at the little window and a head with long hair, with wild burning eyes would look at me and laugh with grinding teeth. My first thought was to get dressed quickly and escape. But, where? And what would happen tomorrow? I lay with my head buried in the pillow and, out of pity for myself, sobbed. But, here I heard a voice speaking to me:
Do not be afraid, young man, we will not do anything to you. Sleep! Sleep!In the morning, as I told this to my friend, the shamas, he laughed. This was he mentioned the name of a thief always when he steals from somewhere, he comes to hide in the women's section, but I felt a warm appreciation for the thief, as even now, after so many years, I think of him with gratitude. My friend, the shamas, permitted me to take another person to sleep with me in the synagogue so that it would be cheerful for me. There was no lack of interested people. I chose a poor, dejected young man who sat next to me in the yeshivah, thin, embittered. I never saw him laugh. His eyes were always downcast; while studying he hummed quietly like a sick dove. I had great pity for him. I asked him many times to go with me to the city, to Kovno on neyem plan [Neuer Plan the more modern part of Kovno] and to the city garden where music was played, where it was cheerful, but he shook his head no. This was the dejected soul that I chose to sleep with me in the small synagogue. This did not bring me any joy because at night he would bury himself in a musar-seferl [small book of musar moral and ethicial teachings], crying and confessing with bitter tears. But once at night I woke up suddenly, I looked and he was not there. He used to sleep at my feet. At the reading stand, where a yahrzeit candle usually burned, he sat by the candle and was engrossed in something. I got up quietly from my bed, went to him quietly I saw that he was sharpening a knife. I immediately got an idea that the gloomy one wanted to kill himself. I called to him by his name, that is, by his shtetl name, because personal names did not exist. As he was from Zager, I called him Zagerer. He looked at me with such crazy eyes that I could no longer speak as a result of fear and I cried. Sobbing, I asked that he not do this and he gave me the knife.
Weeks of sleepless nights passed for me. I watched him, but one night he did not come to sleep. I had a premonition that something terrible had happened to him. When I came to the yeshivah in the morning, there was a tumult there. No one was studying, they spoke of the event. The Zagerer had been found hanging in the outhouse of the yeshivah.
The summer also passed; I graduated from Rebbe Hirshl's yeshivah and went to the old beis-medrash. At that time, the old beis-medrash was the center of the musar movement [movement stressing moral and ethical teachings]. Here I will pause a little longer. Hasidus never planted any deep roots in Lithuania. Hasidus could be born, thrive and grow in Moldova, in Volachia, in Poland and Galicia, where the environment was rich, possessed fruitful fields, mountainous scenery, thick forests, simple and healthy people and where sorrow reigned that God was not here. It must be joyful not any privileged people; all of the Jews were comrades. If you have worries, anxiety about earnings, troubles from children, make a short visit to the rebbe and with the participation of many, you will forget everything. The shekhinah [Divine Presence] does not rest on one who is sad. Be joyous! This doctrine never stuck to the Lithuanian Jewry.
The rabbis in Lithuania carried on a war against Hasidus. Lithuania with its flat, poor fields, melancholy environment was not an auspicious place for Hasidus. Therefore, there was terrain for a new movement Musarism. The ideologues did not reach the great masses, the common people. First, they went to the yeshivus. Musarism taught sadness, sorrowfulness, life is a valley of tears, an antechamber to the world of Torah. Then, purify yourself, torment yourself, prepare yourself for the world of Torah through mortification of the flesh, through immersing yourself in wisdom from above and wisdom from below.
Lastly, the musar movement was highly idealized in Lithuania. According to my modest understanding, it was greatly exaggerated. Sure, the musar doctrine of Reb Yisroel Salanter spiritually strengthened and morally elevated its followers, but in its unbending reality, the musar movement was not always in agreement with the Torah of musar.
Shabbos at night, the sun had already immersed itself in the Viliya. The Shabbos night sadness spread around the large courtyard of Rebbe Hirshl's yeshivah where the large building built especially for studying musar stood. The courtyard was enclosed by a large fence so that no stranger's eye should look in. Here, with the shutters closed and pitch black, hundreds of young men, younger, older, gathered together, standing pressed together, studied musar. The Shabbos night sadness grew and it was quiet, as if before a great storm. And one, maybe this was the mashgiekh [surpervisor] or this was an older young man, called out, Create a pure heart for me, O God, [Psalm 51:12], a second sang along, a third, a fourth. There was soon a general clamor, Create a pure heart for me, O God. Those who stood by the wall hit their heads on the wall. When the congregation grew exhausted, it became quiet. One called to another and again shouting and, again, hysteria. Ma'ariv [evening prayers] was prayed late at night.The time for studying was the entire week until nine o'clock at night. Then the mashgiekh, Nota Hirsh, banged on his reading desk and called out: Time for musar! The gemaras would be put away and the small musar-seforim would be taken out. The same shouting, the same lament would be repeated each night. One night small groups of young men came together and decided that when the time would come and the mashgiekh would bang, Time for musar, they would not listen. They would continue to study. However, the clever Nota Hirsh soon learned of this from his associates and decided to suppress the bund [alliance] and, if necessary, violent means would be used.
At nine o'clock at night as usual he banged on the reading desk and called out Time for musar. But a considerable number of the yeshivah students began to study louder. This aroused a fury from the musarnikes and they tried with violence to tear away the gemaras from the rebels. There was a tumult; the mashgiekh, Nota Hirsh, who knew in advance of the conspiracy, was prepared with the shtarke [the strong ones]. In the yeshivah healthy Slobodker konzhortnikes [Yiddishized version of katorzhnik, the Russian term for convict, used here ironically] arose to carry out the rebellion. Gemaras and reading stands began to fly in the air, there was shouting to heaven. It is difficult to say that these were hired fighters or just crude young people who came to take on a wrong against God. However, the shtarke were victorious. Dozens of the beaten were thrown out of the beis-medrash. Outside, groups immediately formed with the shout: To the Kovner Rabbi, Rebbe Hirshl (a son of Reb Yitzhak Elchanan, of blessed memory] because all knew that he was an opponent of the musar movement. Late at night a committee with torn and also bloodied clothing knocked on Reb Hirshl's door. His surprise was great. As he listened to what had happened and saw the injured young men, he went through the house, wringing his hands, talking to himself, They beat you. He sat down on a chair and sobbed. It did not take long. A meeting of 15 rabbis came together in Kovno. The whole matter was investigated. The musar movement was completely considered and the decision of the rabbis was that the entire leadership must leave the old beis-medrash. The old beis-medrash received a new name, knesset Yitzhak, named after Rebbe Yitzhak Elchanan. The musarnikes left for the butchers' synagogue.
What were the results, the writer of these lines is not equal to the task of describing, because after the event, he left both, both the musarnikes and the yeshivah.
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund
Out of my memory grows a small shtetele, Olshan [now Golshany, Belarus], which possesses only two streets, one the length and the other the width, and only the one that is the length is paved with cobblestones. The two streets cross the market which is half circular, a little downhill and unpaved. On one side of the market a series of shops, along the fence of the garden where the church is located. The second side of the market where the commercial connection of the shtetl is carried out with the four corners of the world.
Besides these, there were a few more alleys here, an area, about two streets in length that led to God's green world of fields and gardens. One such alley, along the river, led to the three Jewish institutions of the shtetl: to the synagogue, the hospital for poor Jews and the bathhouse. All three alleys were crooked and neglected.
The Jewish readers of my generation remember. The main income was from shops: small shops, without windows, actually booths, with a small amount of goods that were brought from Vilna with a wagon. Workrooms, or workshops a second main income, various workrooms small, where the owner worked himself with his own or a strange youth, larger workshops where the owner employed several helpers, young boys or young girls whom their parents would hand over to the owner for two or three years. The first year the apprentice was more servant than craftsman; cleaned the room, helped nurse the owner's children and watched what was being done at the table during work. For this the boss gave food and several rubles a year.
Other ways of earning a living: mainly butchers, bathhouse attendants, religious school teachers Jews in the market, on whom I will dwell here a little. A blood libel was invented about these traders, that they were idlers, darmoyedn [freeloaders], parasites, unproductive people. This feeling towards this group drove the Jews of every generation to become communists or else to make themselves productive. Two generations of Jews lived with the magic word: productivization [a movement for physical labor and spiritual fulfillment].
Were those Jews really unproductive?
To be productive is not only creating the product; it can also be distributing the product. A woman peasant in a village raises chickens. Collects their eggs and brings a few dozen to the city to the market. This was productive and what else?
How would it be if there were no Jews at the market who buy up the single dozen eggs, put them together into 60 eggs and send them to the larger markets? What would the peasant woman do with the extra dozen eggs? And how would the city have eggs to eat?
Was not this retail trade in the market, not only with a dozen eggs, but also with a small sack of wheat, or a calf, etc., a positive and necessary social function under those circumstances?
Today there is no distinction for us among the three economic functions: production, distribution and service. We consider each equally necessary.
True, there were too many traders for the same small sack of wheat, but does this make unnecessary and parasitic the fundamental function of trade? Is the worker an unproductive person because there are too many workers in the city and unemployment reigns?
But this is not what I intend to discuss.
Let us see what is remembered from the former Lithuania of small shtetlekh:
There were no Russian secular schools in the shtetl; the Jewish children, in all events, would not have gone. Boys went to kheder [religious elementary school] until they could read, that is, read a page of gemara [rabbinical commentaries on the mishnah, record of the oral law] by themselves. Those who wanted to study further went away to the yeshivah in another shtetl where they studied in the beys-medresh [house of study and prayer]. In addition to this, one went to a Jewish teacher with a ruler in his hand, who went without a hat and taught the children to write in Yiddish and arithmetic, and the higher classes even learned Russian. He held the ruler to use to hit the student over the palm of the hand if he did not write properly in the tetrad (Russian: notebook).
Young boys and girls were not permitted to go around together unless they were groom and bride. The young from the two sexes met in the synagogue on simkhas-toyreh at hakofes, the only time a womanly foot stepped over the threshold of the beys-medresh during prayer [simkhas-toyrah celebrates the annual completion of the reading of the Torah with the hakofes, a procession in which the Torah scrolls are carried around the synagogue seven times]. Or they would meet on a pretext, for example, a friend of a sister coming to the house. Among the very frivolous youth, several girls would go together and several of the boys together and they would toss a word to each other that is: the boys would toss a word and the girls would laugh.
There was no theater in the shtetl and I do not remember a time when a few jugglers would not visit the market and one of them wore a drum on his back and would bang the drum with a mechanism that was tied to his shoes with a string. There were acrobats from a circus, underworld types. There were no newspapers received in the shtetl, only sometimes did some people have books. The revolt against the Czar floated in the air, and in the larger cities strikes took place.
There were already Bundists and P.P.S-nikes [followers of the Polish Socialist party Polska Partia Socjalistyczna], but still everything was done very secretly. Several girls at a friend's house; several boys strolling outside; rarely all together on a shabbos evening in a corner of the woods outside the city, secretly, very secretly, with young guards on the road, to inform those gathered if someone came.
For those boys who did not want to study in the shtetl, there was nothing to do, unless they wanted to learn a trade such as tailoring or shoemaking. There were no complicated trades in the shtetl and employment, of course not. The young went around idly. The hope was to go to Smorgon [in Belarus] to a tannery or to another qualified trade, to Vilna for something higher. Or even to America.
It was both good fortune and a tragedy to go to America. When someone went away to America, he was sent forth with crying as if at a funeral. If a husband was in America, the wife in the shtetl was called di amerikanke [the American woman] and the children, di amerikaner [the Americans].
Thus, I was already an amerikaner before I was 10 years old. Perhaps that is why I remember so little about the shtetl, especially when our family was not rooted in the shtetl, but had arrived from somewhere else. And this itself is also a part of Lithuania:
My father was really a Dinaburger (Dvinsker [from Dvinsk]), a son of Itse Note, the scribe, who was a well known and remarkable figure in his time. My mother was a Gedrewitzer, the daughter of the Gedrewitzer Rebbe (really a rebbe and not a rabbi), who was connected with the important opening of Utian.
When they got married my father had rabbinic ordination from such as Reb Meir Simkha from Dvinsk and Reb Chaim Oyzer Grodzenski of Vilna (incidentally, a relative of my mother), but he did not want to be a rabbi and thought it better to become a shoykhet [ritual slaughterer]. How a shoykhet is better than a rabbi, I do not know. But he also did not earn a living from slaughter. Therefore, apparently, he was the slaughterer in several cities and once a famous Sephardic rabbi, Reb Chaim Hizkiyahu Medini, summoned him to somewhere in the Caucasus and I could have grown into a Cherkes [resident of the Republic of Karachay-Cherkessia located in the Northern Caucasus] with a dagger. My father could not agree to settle among Jews who sit on a pelt, eat with their hands and kiss the fingers of the khokhem [sage] (himself, that is) after praying
Many years later on the occasion of reading a novel about the life of the spiritual people in America, particularly of the Methodist ministers, I saw that they do not hold a position for long and often go from one city to another and in still other respects I noticed similarities, as for example, the small salaries, the need to lead the city of a rich county and that the children must behave better, at least in the eyes of the world, than the children of the middle class.
The physiological basis of the Lithuania of the past was eternal, but the circumstances, the environment, was medieval as around 100 years earlier in Western Europe.
Before this, a great deal happened to me.
Like many other child immigrants who enter the American atmosphere, I also wanted to forget what was on the other side of the ocean. And it was easy to forget when one makes a great change. I went through the entire mill of American education: public [elementary or primary] school, high [secondary] school, college and lived for several years in a small town in the Midwest where I was the only Jew in high school and one of only three Jews in the entire university. In time I moved to New York into the writing family. I threw myself into writing, in English and in Yiddish, although my fate to replace a general academic career with one as a Yiddish writer was first decided on my first trip across Europe in 1921 that also brought me to Lithuania.
I came as a stranger and looked with American eyes.
I found a very different Lithuania. The former frozen, neglected, poor and backward Russian gubernia [province] became a separate, free, independent republic that endeavored to emulate France and England. I spent several weeks in Kovno; then I rode across the province in a special carriage and visited several shtetlekh such as Pren [Prienai] and Yaneve [Jonava] and larger cities, such as Wilkomir [Ukmergė] and Ponevezsh [Panevėžys].
The new Lithuania was a different world. Outwardly, the change was slight, mainly in the shtetlekh. The same bowed/bent houses, the same unpaved streets with the outhouses outside. But, internally, a great revolution took place in the smallest shtetlekh. The physical change advanced a few hundred years. What particularly surprised me was the entrepreneurial activity of people that was something only seen among the pioneers in America. It was as if a sleeping giant with bound hands had awakened and unbound his hands. He now started to do things.
I remember a house, an inn in a small shtetl. It was the same sort as before. The same inn as from 20 years earlier, but the furniture in the room was a little different. The woman already spoke Russian, had graduated from a gymnazie [secondary school] and read a novel in French. Her husband could have been a man with an inn in France or Holland. There was already a caf in Kovno where music played and one could close his eyes and think that he was in Berlin, close his eyes because the clothing, the attire was still Eastern European.
It was later in autumn, the time of the cold rains and terrible mud even on Leysves Avenue. Jews and Christians could be seen in Perkovski's Caf , large dealers and manufacturers, teachers and writers and ordinary young people who searched for a warm, pleasant corner in which to flirt. There might also have been a caf on Fridrich Strasse.
There were khadorim [plural of kheder, the traditional elementary school], but they were replaced in the shtetl. Jewish education was transferred to the Jewish Hebrew secular schools and gymnazies, There were Jewish schools even in the small shtetlekh. I remember a small shtetele where the boys went to a kheder and the girls to a Yiddishist leftist school. Naturally, that school wanted to draw in the boys, too, but the fathers did not send the boys there because davenen [praying] was not taught there.
We happened to have the occasion to spend shabbos in that shtetl. I saw that in the morning on shabbos the shtetl was dead. Everyone was in the synagogue. In my conversation with the teacher from the Jewish school I told her that with us in America it was said that the school has to prepare the child for life. As life here is thus, that all young boys go to pray in the synagogue on shabbos, here such a school as hers needs to prepare the child for the local life and that means that he can pray in the synagogue. Then the school would have not only girls, but young boys, too. The teacher looked at me with open eyes and did not say anything to me. I was sure that she thought that something so crazy could only happen in America.
From the other side, I also had to criticize the Hebrew gymnazie in Kovno. I was then fresh from the psychology faculty and temporarily the director of the New York Jewish Teachers' Seminar. I had a connection with pedagogic matters. What I did not like were two things in the classes of the Hebrew gymnazie: First, too many languages were taught at once there Hebrew, Lithuanian, German and English or French, but the children spoke Yiddish and returning from Russia also could read and speak Russian. Secondly, it seemed to me that the orientation was too much toward Eretz-Yisroel.
I remember how I spoke of this matter with the Minister for Jewish Affairs, Soloveitchik, when his ministry still existed. However, I noticed that not only did the matter not interest him, but in general, he was so distracted that he did hear what was said to him. His entire position stood in the balance; he had greater cares of more pressing things. With the directors, naturally, he spoke differently. This was still their concern. My thought was that for the children who would graduate from the gymnazie who then go to Palestine, the instruction in the gymnazie would be worthwhile for them. But while they lived in Lithuania, they had to be helped to become citizens in their country, particularly when it had become an independent, free country where Jews even have national autonomy.
We need not forget that this was said in the era of golden dreams about minority rights in Europe and the time when Jewish autonomy was in the process of blooming.
However, for the directors, the matter of Palestine was a part of Hebrew and both together Zionism.
The Jewish energy poured over all of the shores in Lithuania of that time. Jews threw themselves into the wholesale trade, to international commerce, to manufacturing. The state looked to the Jews; the Lithuanians themselves still did not know Lithuania well. This means: the Lithuanian intelligentsia were educated in Russian and Polish and were weak in their own language not well enough to administer a state. And those who did know the language were not intelligent enough to be able to enter the apparatus of the state.
Later not only the Lithuanian intelligentsia but also the Jewish intelligentsia learned to speak Lithuanian. Some of the Jewish intelligentsia were later equal to the most educated Lithuanians in their mastery of Lithuanian.
But, apparently, something encouraged the Lithuanian Jews to believe that it was all a dream; autonomy was a dream and, perhaps, Lithuania was a dream.
An entire pleiad [a group of illustrious figures, usually seven] of Yiddish writers was then found in Kovno, just newly arrived from Russia with whom I first became acquainted. Among them were the now deceased visionary, bal-dimyen (pen name of Nokhem Shtif, the initiator of YIVO [yiddisher visnshaftlekher institut Yiddish Scientific Institute]), Ben-Adir (Yiddish publicist of the sejm group), Yissakhar Ber Ribak (a young, modernistic Jewish painter), and for many long years with us, der nister [The Hidden One Pinchus Kahanovich] and Dr. Mukduni, who edited a newspaper, neyes [News], at which the above-mentioned and other writers worked with him. I also published a series of articles there. I befriended this group of writers then and we would often meet in a caf or in my apartment. Instead of staying at a hotel where it is not so clean, I rented a two room apartment that was very modern for that time almost American furnished and lit. I created an American bar in one corner of my apartment where bottles of wine and whiskeys stood with smoked meat, sardines, cheese, etc. There was an open house and each could come whenever he wanted to, without invitation, and he could take whatever he wanted from the bar. I did this because my colleagues would not me let treat them in the caf although they were without means and the American dollar was then a great sum of money in Lithuania.
I remember a simkhas-toyrah at night; bal-dimyen, Ben-Adir, Ribak, Dr. Mukduni and I went to the Slobodker yeshivah to see how the hakofes went there. Naturally I had heard about the yeshivah in my childhood. Perhaps, therefore, the visit was so disappointing. A large synagogue, but cold and empty. The yeshivah members appeared to me as if exiled, frightened people. The older Jews tried to make it cheerful and stamped with their feet circling the bimah [raised platform in center of synagogue]. But it was visibly artificial enthusiasm. We did not stand there for long and it became not at all joyful for all of us in our hearts. We entered a residence of one of the writers I do not remember who exactly a poor apartment, but we were given a great deal of whiskey to drink and Lithuanian herring to eat. What surprised me then was to see how bal-dimyen (Shtif) drank whiskey from a glass poured it in, wiped his whiskers and poured a second glass. But, we were Jewish shikhorim [drunks]; bal-dimyen himself quickly faded, he had to go to bed. We could not lead Ribak home and left him on the way at a house of a family of our acquaintance where he awoke in the morning and did not know where he was, with whom he was and how he got there.
I traveled from Lithuania a little upset. I was not accustomed to a world that hangs in the air. In Michigan and in Iowa, and even in New York, everything has a firm ground under the feet at least in the consciousness of people, but in Lithuania no one wanted to believe that there was ground under their feet.
The writers that I met in Kovno were in certain respects on a higher level than the average writer from East Broadway [then the Lower East Side location of the forvets the famous Yiddish newspaper]. They were. That means: much more earnest; their internal connection with their function in society was much deeper. They lived and derived satisfaction more from Jewish culture. But they lived in Kovno as if in a railroad station. They intended to go to Berlin, where other Yiddish writers, such as ba'al makhshavot [The Thinker, pen name of Israel Isidor Elyashev] and Bergelson, had already gone earlier. But I had already been in Berlin on the way to Kovno. What is Berlin for a Yiddish writer if not a train station, but prettier? Instead of sometime going into Perkowski's Caf in Kovno, they would now go to the Romanishes Caf . I could not image then that one could also live at a train station. I thought, how would these writers fit in in America? And it seemed to me that here, too, it would be strange for them and here they would not have the Romanishes Caf .
I felt the difference between us and them.
And the same about Lithuania of that time in general.
I felt the momentum of new Jewish life in Lithuania. A terrific momentum in every area, in every phase of life, in commerce as in education, in culture as in politics. The momentum even carried a Lithuanian leader to Warsaw (even though there was no contact between the two nations because of the seizure of Vilna by General Czeligowski) and he tried to carry out something that neither England nor France could bring about making peace between Poland and Lithuania. In Poland it could not be imagined that a person should try something like this alone and it was believed that he was an unofficial messenger. Lithuania, again did not know what to say and how to behave. It was a sensation and one of the political curiosities.
Much politics and political fervor also held sway on the Jewish street itself. Jewish politics was greater than the Jewish community. The Jewish left (communists), Yiddishists, Hebreists and so on, carried on formidable quarrels, which seemed strange to me because with us the ideological struggle burned with a small fire with personal kerosene
The poorest movement and almost the most separate was the Yiddishists. I remember a class in a Yiddish school in which the already famous Yiddish pedagogue and very idealistic person, Helene Khatzkeles, was the teacher. The children went around dressed in patched jackets. There was a lack of books, other school tools and a clock for the children. Helena Khatzkeles then asked me if perhaps someone in America, the landsleit [people from the same city or town] would at least send a clock for the class. Naturally, she would have wanted man other things for her small children.
The sharp division between Jew and gentile, which autonomy exacerbated, also was new for me. We believed that we and the gentiles were one, one American people, not two, despite the fact that Jews were not permitted to live in certain houses or in summer places to enjoy themselves.
Being in Lithuania for three months, I had the feeling that the entire country was something unreal, not a reality, but a fantasy.
I will only report in order to end this picture; I found the entire Jewish community in Lithuania in great ruin. In addition to the several thousand returning Jews in Vilna and Kovno, two synagogue in Kovno, one in Vilna, I found two Jewish children's homes and schools one in Kovno, the second in Vilna in the Yiddish language, but with the same curriculum as in the other schools in Lithuania, and that they are supported by the government.
In the Kovno Jewish school I again found the same Helene Khatzkeles who again asked me to send something from America for the children in her school
Thus the great Jewish history of Lithuania came to an end
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