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[Pages 1279-1290]

Wilno, a Chapter in My Life

by Der Tunkeler [“The Dark One”]*

(*Josef Tunkl, died in NY in 1949 at age 69)

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Already in my youngest years I painted small people, houses, horses, etc. My young friends were impressed, but I was not yet accepted by the bigger ones.

Once I painted a large “picture,” namely: a Turk riding on a horse and holding a cup. The picture made a great impression and even evoked great controversy. Zalman-Itshe, the teacher of penmanship at our talmud-torah [school for young, poor children], who observed the picture through his fist, found that the picture, although it looked alive, was not correct because the Turk had one eye, one ear and one foot. The same for the horse.

Our city photographer, Mister Rend, even argued that it had to be this way because it was painted in profile. But the penmanship teacher argued, profile-shmofile, the make-up of nature has such a character that a person, even if he is a Turk, must have two eyes, two feet and two ears.

I added another eye, another foot and another ear to the painting of the Turk and, lehavdil [word used to separate the sacred from the profane], to the horse. And then everyone decided unanimously that I had a great “passion” for art and if I would develop this passion, I could grow up to be a great artist.

At that time a great cultural movement began to grow in Bobruisk. Many carriers of culture appeared in the Bobruisk arena.

They were then called “intellectuals” or “idealists.” They built two circles: to spread enlightenment – a second part of the group to spread education that was in Petersburg, and to develop art in general. And what dear, devoted idealists they were! With what sincere devotion did each do his sacred art! Students would give free lectures, pass out books to read, support the “artists” materially. A warm brightness stood over the city.

The dentist, Getsov, the chairman of both circles, of whom everyone acknowledged that he was a great idealist and intellect, gave a fiery speech that among we Jews a great deal of talent was being lost. Without the negligence, everyone could be an Antokolsky [Mark Antokolsky, Russian sculptor, 1843-1902] or a painter like Vorobeitchik (Vorobeitchik was our sign painter who with his own head learned to paint signs).

The Art Circle decided to send me to Vilna, where a school that was named Risovalnoe Uchilishche (drawing school) was located. A charitable evening was arranged for me so that I would have expenses for the trip. The authority and participation we had for free. One, a student, recited [Aleksei] Apuchtyn's der meshugener and Gorki's Burevestnik [The Stormy Petrel]. Senderovitch, the midwife, sang songs by [Simon Yakovlevich] Nadson, Drug Moi, Brat Moi Ustalyi Stradayushchii Brat [My Friend, My Brother, My Tired, Suffering Brother] and [Semion Grigoryevich] Frug's Unesi Moyu Dushu Vdal' [Carry My Soul Far Away] and it was a great success. The evening brought in six rubles. They gave me five rubles for my trip and the remaining ruble was kept for expenses for the evening.

A girl from the Circle, Arya's daughter Sura, gave me a letter to her mother in Vilna who had a small dairy shop on Daytshisher [German] Street.

It was cheerful at the train station. In addition to my intimates, friends from the Circle came to see me off. I remember how the chairman, Getsov, brought me the money, five rubles in cash. A second member gave me a small box of colored pencils. My neighbor, Majtin (Hilel Majtin, Arbeter Ring [Workman's Circle] teacher, died in N.Y.) gave me a volume of Niva, the most popular Russian illustrated journal at that time. The Hebrew teacher kept consoling and encouraging my father and saw me off with the verse: Do not give your power to strangers…

That is, that when I would become a great person, I should not give away my power and my talent to foreign nations, but I should give it to the Jewish people.

And the 15-year old boy went into the larger world – to Vilna.

I arrived in Vilna in the evening. The lamps, the congestion and the bustle confused me completely. I remained standing with a pillow and a quilt that was tied around with a string used to tie up a loaf sugar and did not know what to do. A ragged, barefoot gentile approached me and proposed: He would carry my pack to Daytshisher Street for three kopecks. He took my pack and we began to run. We went through a street with a gate. Here an elegant person rushed up, shouted, “Hat,” snatched my hat and threw it on the ground. The peasant who carried my pack told me that here one must take off one's hat because this was the Ostra Brama [Gate of Dawn]. Afterwards, we turned into a street, from there to a small alley, from the alley into another alley and were then standing near a small shop from which came the warm aroma of cheese and butter. A small Jewish woman stood there – the mother of the girl who had given me the address.

– How much do you have to give to him, the gentile? asked the woman in a soft voice that was actually as soft as butter.

– Three kopecks.

– Three kopecks?! Such a treasure of money? Did you ever hear such a thing? Leave it to me.

She began to bargain with him. In the end they came to terms for a piece of cheese.

She wrapped a piece of cheese in a page of paper from a notebook that had been written on and gave it to him. The gentile unwrapped the piece of cheese on which the mirror image of the letters were found, took out a piece of bread from his chest, ate the bread with the cheese and asked for a drink of water. He said “Thank You” and left.

In the house, the woman gave me a large plate of barley soup with a large portion and made a bed for me on chairs. Although the chairs were not all the same height and each chair had its own particular individual anarchistic movement, I slept well.

In the morning, the woman gave me a breakfast that consisted of two bagels with strong yellow butter, like an egg yolk.

The two bagels made a great impression on me. The bagels were very strange to me, very different from the Bobruisker bagels. The Bobruisker bagels were thick around, swollen and with a small hole in the middle. In general, the Vilna baked goods made an impression on me: the flat onion rolls, the buckwheat pudding for shabbos, etc. I felt something new in life, that I was in a new city, in Vilna and that a new world was beginning for me.

After breakfast I went out to the street, wandered in the alleys. The first thing that stood out for me was a large building of the Widow and Brothers Rom, the print shop. Instinctively I then moved slowly in the Synagogue Alley. I looked around in all directions and gaped. Here was Rameile's small synagogue, here was the Vilna Gaon's small synagogue, here was the large synagogue and here was Strashun's library.

I went up the steps. A long room. Jews were sitting and reading books, religious books and newspapers. A large portrait of a stately Jew with a gray, combed beard was on the wall – this was Strashun. A thin Jew with a dark, little beard, very refined approached me (Heikl Lunski – killed in Vilna in 1943).

– So what's new?

– Can I too read here?

– Certainly. What would you like?

– In loshn koydesh? [the holy tongue, i.e. Hebrew]

– In loshn koydesh.

He showed me a place, brought me a book. This was ha-boker or [Morning Light] by Gotlosser. I began to read with the greatest zeal.

A lively young man, impetuous, nervous and very nearsighted sat near me looking at a book. His name was Kalman Krapivnikov. Later, he was a socialist leader, committing suicide in a prison in Archangelsk gubernia [province].

He turned around to me and nervously asked:

– You are not local?

– No, I came last night.

– To the yeshivah [religious secondary school stressing Torah study]?

– No. I will go to the Risovalnoe Uchilishche [drawing school] here.

– You want to become a artist?

– Do you know where it is?

– No.

– I have a friend Zalkind here; he, too, is going to Risovalnoe Uchilishche. He will take you there in the morning.

In the morning, Zalkind led me to drawing school on Dvortsov Square. The school was not yet open. Meanwhile we took a walk. There was the castle with a cannon on the top that every day at exactly 12 o'clock shot with such a bang that one had to be careful. And there was the cathedral with the stone figures around it. Heavy, massive figures; these were the figures of our prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk – they all had such fat feet with crude, gentile faces, with tufts of hair and I imagined our prophets differently. I imagined them like Reb Matisyahu Strashun [founder of library in Vilna] or like the orator, [Tzvi Hersh] Masliansky who then had great success in Bobruisk.

Meanwhile the school opened. I wondered that my friend was going so boldly. I went in love and fear. He presented me to the director. This was an older, taller, half-grey man with a bent back. His name was Trutniev. He showed me a place, a drawing of a grape hanging opposite me, and told me to draw.

I sat as if in a stupor. The entire hall and the students, with the pictures on the walls, with the plaster figures – everything was new for me, fantastic, I was frightened and happy.

I did the drawing well. The director was satisfied and entered me in a book. My heart beat strongly and my left ear blazed in excitement.

Zalkind went out with me; Kalman Krapivnikov was already waiting for us and we all went to eat.

I remember they led me into a narrow alley where we three had to go like geese, one after the other. The sidewalk was so narrow in some spots that we could only go with one foot, one foot on the sidewalk and the other foot on the ground.

We enter a small restaurant. A Jew with an inconspicuous little yellow beard sat at the buffet, on which the food stood, over an open gemora [volume of Talmud].

We could get a fine lunch of five different foods in this restaurant for two peim [money of little value], that is, six groschen: bread for a groschen, a groschen for the milk from a herring – salty, for a groschen soup with grits, for two groschen the cooked chin of goat meat and for a groschen a fermented apple compote – which was called “a false wine.” It was as delicious to me as the best meal.

I began to absorb Vilna like water in a sponge. My bit of intelligence grew like yeast. I became a visitor in very great houses and everyone was concerned for me. At the Frydland home they were concerned about my flesh that I have enough to eat. They had a son who was a cripple; he was named Chaim. He gave me books. Their daughter gave me Russian lessons. The people in this house recommended me to a second house, Paperna, a paper manufacturer and here it was very good for me. A son, a student in the Real School, took drawing lessons from me. They had a servant and I taught her to write from a book of letter-writing. And she saved the best food for me.

I grew to be very much at home with the friends Krapivnikov and Zalkind and I learned a great deal from them. Krapivnikov was angry, excited and would often relate to me with anger. Conversely, Zalkind was easy-going, good-natured and nurtured me with goodness. But both were dear to me.

We would often stroll, coming to Glezer Alley together, where there was a Jewish market, to buy a pair of pants or a vest or even an entire suit for 30 kopecks. One could even get a winter coat for 50 kopecks.

We would stroll together near the Vilyia River and went together to Troker Street to look at Count Tishkevich's “statues” (two stone statues that held up the balcony of the palace that was then a great sight). We went to the cemetery to look at the ohel [small structure containing a grave, usually of a prominent person] of the Vilna Gaon, the grave of the ger-tzedek [righteous convert], of the young Vilna husband. Went to the large Vilna synagogue to hear the Vilna magid [preacher] (Reb Yitzhak Elchanan's son). I here must mention that not only because of Reb Yitzhak Elchanan did Vilna look up to Kovno. The yeshiva-bokh'rim [young men] from Rameile's synagogue would remember the yeshiva of Slobodke-Kovno and the maskilim [followers of the Enlightenment] would all remember the Kovno Mapu [Avraham Mapu, Hebrew writer].

And if we felt good and wanted to have a fling, we would go to Gitke Toybe's alley to eat cooked pears.

Oh, the work! I still see the dear Eidl with the dark, patched apron and with the soft, silk voice and warm pot of beans wrapped in a dirty rag. He would give a full measure of beans with a “crust” for a few groshn and wish you: “Es gezunterheit [eat in good health],” and also added a saying from the Torah.

And everything around was so Jewish, so sincere and so poor and so friendly. And we could absorb so much education and art here that my heart welled up with joy.

My studies in the drawing school went parallel to this. I painted flowers. From flowers I graduated to geometric figures. From geometric figures to ornaments. And Trutniev, the director, would always be satisfied with my work.

“It stands out,” he would praise me. That is, that the drawing distinctly jumps out. This was the highest art that the drawing should be so that one would think that one could take it in the hand.

In the end, like the majority of the students, I began to paint enlarged portraits of photographs. I painted so well that it was a complete likeness and expression, really the photograph itself. With luck, I began to earn money from the art.

I still carried on a close friendship with my friends, Krapivnikov and Zalkind. Our friendship was great, deep, more mature, but I felt that they did not tell me everything. Something had produced a secretiveness among them, important hidden matters that I did not understand. Apparently they did not yet find it necessary to inaugurate me into their secrets.

Kalman Krapivnikov was in still another clique – they were friendly young men – including Josef Baskin (may he live a long time), Moshel Katsenelnbogen and and Kalman Krapivnikov. I would often see all three together. They would have a very different interest in some other books. Along with the thin revolutionary brochures and books from Russian Narodniks [intellectual activists who “went to the people” in the 1860s and 1870s], their pockets were stuffed with enlightened Hebrew books and poems and also ancient religious books. Josef Baskin called this intimate triplet clique “my Vilna University” (Vilne, edited by Yefim Yeshurun, pp. 812-820). Moshel Katsenelnbogen drowned accidentally at age 20; all three were gifted young men and occupied a sort of “aristocratic” spiritual corner and probably each helped the other progress. Only Krapivnikov's friends were from middle class homes, but not him. It was not polite for me to be more strongly revolutionary in my declaration than the two of them. They often had heated debates. But I did not always understand their contents.

Later they began to take me with them to various readings and discussions. We went openly to some houses, to others a little cautiously. There was a library somewhere in one place on Hekdesh Street; we would all say that we had to love the craftsman. In a second place as, for example, with the writer, N. Golomb, it would be said that we have to love the Jewish people. And I did not understand why I should, actually, hate the Jewish people and why I should hate the artisans. I thought that I loved them both.

But I felt that something was stirring, that new winds were blowing around me, that it touched something and that new sprouts were coming out of the earth that needed to grow into something big.

Now I realize that I saw here the embryos from which came Zionism, the Bund, Jewish schools, the modern literature, [Hirsh] Lekert [shoemaker and a member of the Bund executed in 1902 for an attempt on the life of the governor of Vilna]., YIVO [yidisher visnshaftlekher institut – Institute for Jewish Research], the Vilner Troupe and more and more.

The life was succulent, noisy, self-confident and not boring.

A second cultural institution with which I became acquainted was the library of Dvoyra Frenkl on Zavalner Street.

This cultural institution was named Dvoyra Academy.

Dvoyra was a daughter of a rich, manufacturer-merchant from Kovno.

She, who had lived in wealth and in opulence, no longer wanted to live on unearned bread from her rich parents and decided to learn a trade in order to live the life of a toiling worker and to be independent.

Every day she would secretly go to a seamstress she knew to learn tailoring. She quietly learned this trade, left Kovno and her father's house, leaving her rich dowry with all of the fortunate matches that had been arranged for her and went away to Vilna. She did not take even one string from her father. She only took her library with her.

She rented a room in Vilna, placed a sewing machine there and began to work.

The room was not big. There was barely room for a little table, a few chairs, a bed, a sewing machine and a mannequin.

There were no bookcases. She kept her books under the bed. This was the “library.”

She quickly had enough work, acquiring good acquaintances and her small room became a meeting place for the young men from the yeshivah, poor students and workers who would come here to have a conversation, eat bread with tea and borrow a book to read.

Dvoyra always sat absorbed in a book with her short-sighted eyes. From time to time she pulled herself from the book and went to the sewing machine. If someone would ask for a book, she would send him under the bed.

– You see then that I do not have time. Excuse me, crawl under the bed and pick out what pleases you.
Therefore, the “library” was often packed. All kinds of feet could always be seen protruding from under the bed and all sorts of pants and shoes, whole, patched, unraveled and sometimes also a dress.

My friend, Zalkind, led me in here in order to make me aware. Dvoyra welcomed me, a novice, with great consideration, asked me who I was, from where I came and ended:

– You probably want a book; forgive me, crawl under the bed and pick out a book that you like.
At this time the library was being visited very little because only one pair of feet projected from under the bed in worn out belted pants and wrecked, low laced boots.

I rolled up the front of my garment and crawled under the bed. At once I saw a long face surrounded by the beginnings of a blond beard that was cut into a little Jesus beard.

Our eyes met as if we had agreed to – fun vanen iz a yid [where are you from]? – the face asked.

– From Bobruisk, and you?

– I am from Kovno. I studied in the Slobodker yeshivah. I was thrown out of there because of my apikorses [heresy]. Are you looking for a book?

– Yes.

– Here, take something. Here is Lunkevich's In the Struggle with the Strength of Nature, a good book. It will teach you more than a haskalah book [movement aimed at spreading “enlightenment,” i.e. modern European culture, among Jews].

I did not then understand what that meant.
– And what will you take?

– I will take Leah Sells Fish [in Hebrew]. Interesting.

And thus, lying under the bed, we became acquainted, started a friendship, carried out discussions, argued about God, religion, literature and crawled out.

In general, great debates, discussions about important matters, books, ideas and various other things often took place under the bed.

According to the feet that would jut out from under the bed, one could judge how hot and how strong the discussions would be. Because it was narrow under the bed and there was not enough living space to move one's hands, those carrying on the discussion moved their feet. It could be noticed how the feet did everything possible, they moved as if in a convulsion and this was a sign that the discussion there was very volatile.

Going out into the street, my new under-the-bed-acquaintance asked me:

– Is this the first time you have come here?

– The first time.

– And I am a long time attendee. I know Dvoyra from Kovno. A very interesting girl. And from rich parents, too. I had “eating days” [special arrangements for yeshiva students in the homes of locals Jews] at her home and Dvoyra would give me books to read. Thanks to her, I came to Vilna. She sent me money and travel expenses. But I cannot take money from her to live. She works, poor thing, by herself for a very difficult livelihood. In passing, he said to me: Do you still have your tefilin [phylacteries]?

– I have them, why?

– I have a request of you. I need to go to my grandmother in Nesvizh [town in Belarus]. I will receive a few rubles from her. I have to show her that I put on tefilin.

– And how will I pray [without tefilin]?

– You will not pray for a week. It will not result in a hole in heaven – saving a life is as important as keeping the Sabbath.

He became my new teacher. I remember that his name was Bernshteyn. He taught me apikorses.

And I must confess that I made progress.

[Pages 1289-1294]

A Contrabandist of the Jewish Book

by Morris S. Sklarsky

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

In autumn 1894, my father as khazan [cantor], shoykhet [ritual slaughterer] and mohel [one who performs ritual Jewish circumcision] moved from Ratnice to Slobodke. As I was the oldest son in the house, my father gave me to Reb Velvechik (Baynisevitch), the best melamed [religious school teacher] in the city. His only son, Noakh, was a teacher and he would teach “hours” [i.e. had a part time job] in Kovno. Noakh would give me forbidden Hebrew books from the Tushia publishing house and I would swallow them at night like matsah water. The books gave me terrific pleasure and I looked for ways to give them to my friends, students at the various religious primary schools in Slobodke. An idea was born in my mind about creating a sort of lending library (such a name did not yet exist in my childish head, only its vague contents) for my small friends. Said is done. It seems that I received help from heaven for the mitzvah [commandment, popularly translated as “good deed”] because at the time my father had completed the building of his own house – and I had enough boards, nails, hinges and locks to make a chest with a lid for my “library.”

To buy books I created a “campaign” among the richer young people, which brought in several dozen kopecks. After strong consideration I decided to buy books in Yiddish, because – I thought – the poor children could not read Hebrew and the richer could themselves buy the books that pleased them.

But as I was then, understand, only slightly knowledgeable about Yiddish literature, I went to Toyb the pakn-treger [book peddler] who was an expert on Yiddish books and I purchased from him Shomer's [pen name of N. M. Shaykevich] The Spanish Inquisition, The Lucky Shepherd and other such works of art by Bloshtein, Buchbinder and others. I locked the books in the chest and hid it in the lumberyard under the wood.

Twice a week I would secretly smuggle out “my library” and carry it into Yehoshua the pelt seller's courtyard. A sukkah was located there where “my readers” would come together conspiratorially. I would stand on the crate of books and give a sermon to the children about the importance of reading books. Then I would allot a book to each according to “his taste.”

But it happened that Bashe Perets's son, Shmuel, caught his son reading a story book. Earlier, he had given it to him in the cheeks [i.e. had slapped him] and later, when he learned that I was the one who was responsible, he came to my father with a complaint. For his part, my father also did not spare any slaps. After a thorough investigation I, with inflamed cheeks and tearful eyes, led my father, accompanied by several of my readers' fathers, to the lumberyard and uncovered for them the place where my “treasure” lay.

The bearded Jews threw themselves with zest on the unclean goods, carried them into our kitchen, examined and selected several books in particular and then with special pleasure threw them into the flames of our tile oven. Reb Shmuel the shoykhet and Reb Moshe Eliezar the shoykhet attended to the auto-da-fe. My grief at that moment can not be described.

Thus ended my first attempt at being a librarian in Slobodke.

Several years later when I was studying in Reb Hirshl's yeshivah I again tried to create a library for my friends. At first I would receive the books from the Zionist, Yudl Volfovitz, with whom I would meet in the house of our neighbor, Kalman Ip. Later, he advised me to go take books for myself in the library that was located on Meysim [Dead Man's] Street (behind the field well). The library was illegal and the books would lie there in a bunk. I would carry my contraband pushed under my jacket. However, once I was caught by the supervisor (the father of the deceased journalist, Y. A. Leizerovitz – Izidor Lazar). I received the proper portion of reproof from him and from my father – the appropriate portion of slaps.

After the reproof and after the slaps I gave my father a handshake agreement that from now on I would be good and pious. I maintained my pledge for several years until the yetzer-hara [evil inclination] of reading unpure books again attacked me during the intervening days of Passover 1903 – and I again went to the library near the field well, this time with my friend, Chaim Ruven Yankuner. We took Avraham Mapu's aheves-tzion [Love of Zion], which strongly influenced us, and made us true Zionists. A celebration was held that day in Bendet's house – “the founding-meeting” of the first Zionist organization among the young men of the yeshivah from knesset beis-yitskhak. On this occasion I related the plot of aheves-tsion and one of the young men delivered the book itself. I was again on my old path, a “supplier” of literature for young men from the yeshivah. I provided them with such unpure books as ha-toeh be-darkhe ha-hayyim [A Wanderer on the Path of Life], and the like.

* * *

At the end of 1906 I left for America and I returned for a short visit in the spring of 1910. A considerable Jewish intelligentsia already existed in Slobodke; I called them to a meeting and proposed to found a library.

My plan was accepted and we began to carry it out immediately.

We rented an apartment in a store at the start of Meysim Street, near Khanke, the daughter of Reb Shepsl (he was then the old dayan [religious judge]). The committee finished the shelves in a few days, then we began to collect the books that lay hidden in cellars and in attics. In a very short time we organized a very fine library with several hundred books in Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian. Taking part in the committee were: my former Russian teacher, Baylenson and his wife, Chaim Leibke (Meir Abramson's son), the Hebrew teacher, Ben-Tzion Fein (Itsik Michal the baker's son), Feike Ruf (daughter of Nakhum the feldsher [barber-surgeon]), Shifke (Shifra) Shtein (Itsik Shtein's daughter), Shabtai Blinder's two daughters, the apothecary Zinan, Sheike Yona Zaltsburg and his sister Chana Merke and Menashake Weber (son of Hilel the butcher). The responsible person from the government was a thoughtful person.

The library and reading room were open every day (except Friday and shabbos [Shabbat]). As I was only temporarily in Slobodke and was not occupied in any employment, I dedicated all of my time to the library work.

Bless God, we did not lack for readers; in addition to the town residents, the young men from the yeshivah would come surreptitiously. For the meager reading money that we would charge and from the money we put together during the course of seven or eight weeks, we already possessed capital of several dozen rubles from which we acquired new books for the library.

* * *

In 1920 I again came to Slobodke for a short visit. The Hebraic and Yiddish schools in Lithuania then grew like mushrooms after a rain. It was the same for the libraries. But there was a terrible shortage of new books. We could not think of bringing books from either Warsaw or Vilna where they were mainly located because of the strained relations between Poland and Lithuania. Dr. Olshvanger, the supervisor of the reading institution with the Jewish National Council in Lithuania had this idea: I, as an American citizen, should travel to Poland and buy Yiddish and Hebrew books there. The mission was very dear to me and I undertook it willingly.

Mishe Luria, the manager of the book division at the Jewish National Council, told me that the Jewish youth in the provinces simply yearned for a Jewish book. The old books had been read and a new Yiddish book was not to be had. He asked me to bring still more books. Noakh Baynisevitch, Kh. Rapalovitch, Yosha Rozenbaum and Kalman Zingerman called upon me about the same matter.

In several weeks I send packs of books from Vilna to Kovno [the cost of which] reached several thousand dollars. Among them were teaching books for the Yiddish and Hebrew schools, reading books and also mishnayus [the Oral Law] and Romm's Talmud.

The small contrabandist of Yiddish books in kheder and in the yeshivah became a knygnesys (in Lithuanian – book seller, above all, at a time when the Lithuanian language was still forbidden) of Yiddish books in very large bulk.

[Pages 1293-1310]

My Two Visits to the Lithuanian State

by Zivion (Dr. B. Hoffmann)

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

I do not know how large my share of Lithuania was, but Lithuania surely had a large share of me. I went to kheder [religious primary school] in Lithuania, I studied in the yeshivah in Lithuania and in Lithuania I experienced my first taste of haskalah [movement aimed at spreading “haskalah,” i.e. modern European culture, among Jews 1750-1880], which in great part set my later road in life.

It was in the Tailor's Synagogue of Krakinove where I read the first book of the haskalah. This was ha-toeh be-darkhe ha-khayyim [A Wanderer on the Path of Life] by Perets Smolenskin. It was given to me secretly by Mendke, the only son of Avraham, the shames [caretaker] of the beys-hamedresh [house of prayer], who stood out with his enormously-long elflock peyes [side curls] and with his unlimited hatred for heretical books.

I was then a boy of 14 and Mendke was a few years older than me. I was very much ahead of him in the gemora [Talmud], which I was already studying without a rabbi, or far zikh [for myself], as it was said, but he was my rabbi in the matter of the books of the haskalah. He would receive them from a library in Ponevezh [Panevezys].

Incidentally, it was also in Lithuania where I became a Bundist and it was also in Lithuania where I had the privilege to see the first “fruit of my pen.” True, it was very green and a very small fruit, but…

Short and good, Lithuania had in me, without any doubt, a great part, but I cannot boast that I had even a small part in Lithuania. But if I could not have a part in the living, creative Lithuania, let me at least have a part in the spiritual monuments that are being erected for the dead Lithuania.

About the dead, the most appropriate things to write are memories. I will here, therefore, provide several memories of my last two visits to Lithuania.

It is usually accepted that we should only extol the virtues of the dead. I disagree with this precept. I believe that it is better to describe the virtues of the living because they can gain something from it. But we can tell the truth about the dead because it does not harm them in any way.

My First Visit

In 1921 I decided to travel to look at the old world; how it looked after the war.

Among all the countries that I decided to visit on my trip, Lithuania, the Eretz-Yisroel in exile, as we tried to name it, was one of the most important, almost as important as Eretz-Yisroel.

If Eretz-Yisroel wanted to see the romantic Jew in me, Lithuania wanted to see the national Bundist in me. I, then still in my good Bundist years, dreamed so much about Jewish cultural-national autonomy. And here was a country where the Jews received such autonomy, so how does one not travel to see it?

True, Jewish autonomy in Lithuania, about which I read so much, was not something excessively splendid. Not what my Bundism desired. But, even with the kind of face autonomy did not have, it was still the first modern Jewish cultural, national autonomy and one had to see how it looked.

And because of Jewish national autonomy, to me the entire Lithuanian country became interesting. Lithuania, a country and, yes, what a country! An ideal democracy with equality, freedom and brotherhood and Jews lived there as in the Garden of Eden, as in a true Eretz-Yisroel. I read it so many times in the official reports from the Jewish Ministry.

And yet I was in Kovno, in the main city of the Eretz-Yisroel of Lithuania.

Kovno was in German hands for a considerable time. The Germans took Kovno right at the beginning of the First [World] War and held the city until the end of the war. But even the Germans with their complete thoroughness could not bring into Kovno even basic conveniences, to which people in civilized Europe and America are accustomed. They needed to pull down at least nine percent of the Kovno houses and build anew.

The Germans did wonders in Lithuania. They built an entire network of railroad lines there. They dug new roads and built new highways. They brought in electric lighting in places where previously no one knew what electricity looked like. In short, the Germans did everything to make Lithuania equal among people, but with all of their undertakings to Europeanize Lithuania, the Germans still could not help and in Kovno had to go “oyfn hoyf” [“to the yard,” possibly a euphemism for “outdoor plumbing”] the same way the Jews and the Lithuanians did.

But I do not want to insult the capital city of the Lithuanian nation. Externally, Kovno is a very beautiful city and with its beautiful mountain, with its Nemun [Nemunas] River and its surroundings grown with trees, it presents a splendid landscape. Whoever wants Kovno to please him should best look at it from the outside and not from the inside.

Things look much nicer from afar than they do from up close. This can certainly be said about Lithuania. The new Jewish Lithuanian land was lulled to sleep in a too beautiful cradle in America. But it did not really earn it.

Lithuania had an entirely democratic government, but a thoroughly reactionary one, a land where the Catholic priest was the spokesman and the tone-setter. A land of simple peasants whose highest ideal was the priest. The most beautiful dream of a Lithuanian peasant was, and probably still is, to have a son become a priest.

I arrived in Kovno on the 1st of May. In the Lithuanian state, the 1st of May was proclaimed as an official state workers' holiday. Yet the first image I saw, arriving in Kovno, was the arrest of workers at a meeting, who armed soldiers and police took to the police office. And as I learned later, in time, the police accepted the holiday – it began to make arrests on the eve of the 1st of May.

But I had not gone to Lithuania to see the Lithuanian police; I had traveled to see the Jewish national autonomy there. One had to go see it. I went to the Jewish National Council in the Jewish Ministry and looked and saw and decided that a cultural national autonomy actually would not be a bad thing if the Jews in Lithuania really had it.

The Jews in Lithuania did not obtain their national autonomy by fighting. It came to them as if it had fallen from heaven, just as the Lithuanian state fell from heaven on the Lithuanians. An entire series of happy circumstances for the Lithuanians made Lithuania an independent state. And the Jews also benefited a little with their portion from these circumstances.

Jewish national autonomy found itself, apart from everything else, under the control of the Zionist party, which therefore had to strongly take into account the opinion of Yahadut [unity], the organization of the Orthodox Jews under the leadership of the Lithuanian rabbis.

The Zionist Party enmeshed Jewish autonomy with Hebrew and the rabbis ensnared it with religion. The Zionist Party, whose entire theory was a denunciation of the [political] work in galus [exile], could not see the Jewish autonomy in Lithuania as more than a bit of preparatory work for Palestine and that is Hebrew. Therefore, they made use of Jewish autonomy for Hebrew schools, in order to prepare a Hebrew [speaking] young generation in exile for Palestine. The rabbis, again, looked at Jewish national autonomy for the strengthening of the Jewish religion because yiddishkeit [Jewish way of life] comes before everything and after everything – religion. The result was that the Zionists crippled Jewish autonomy with the idea of two languages – Hebrew and Yiddish – and the rabbis strove to make it a holy “synod!”


The Lithuanians, as mentioned earlier, simply procrastinated. They, themselves, did not dream at all thatthey would receive a separate state. They must principally be indebted for this to Germans and, after that, the Russian revolution.

The Germans organized an administrative system in Lithuania that could be transformed when necessary into a Lithuanian autonomy under Lithuanian rule.

When the Germans left Lithuania, they left the Lithuanians not only a more cultivated Lithuania, but also a complete state system.

What the Lithuanians very quickly and exhaustively learned was policing and surveillance. They excelled in this and copied well from the former Russia. Besides the police, however, the entire state apparatus worked as if sand had been poured into its wheels.

In order for the state machine to begin moving, muz men zi shmirn [it must be smeared]. Each wheel needed to be greased, from bottom to the top, or else – it mainly did not move from its place. But we do not need the word “shmirn.” In the new state new words were created. For the word shmirn, in Kovno the words “sam ponimayesh” (you know what I mean) are needed. And the greatness of “sam ponimayesh” depends on the size of the office and the importance of the matter.

And you should not wonder why in a new Lithuanian state one would need an old Russian word. There were minor officials in the Lithuanian state who were still obtuse in Lithuanian and it was easier for them to express things in Russian than in Lithuanian, particularly when it was a significant expression such as “sam ponimayesh.”

With regard to the language, the Lithuanians were no great chauvinists. If you did not know any Lithuanian when you came to Lithuania, you did not have to worry. You could speak together in Russian, in German, in Polish. Almost everyone in Lithuania understands one of the above mentioned languages. The streets of Kovno had inscriptions in three languages: Lithuanian, Polish and Yiddish. Credit, also, needs to be expressed. They were tolerant in relation to language. But conversely speaking, if they were tolerant, could they help themselves when they speak a language that even many of the Lithuanians themselves in the largest cities know very little of it, already evident with the other nationalities?

But what is the difference in which language one takes “sam ponimayesh,” as long as one takes. And no one can be blamed that he takes. From the salary that the government paid, the official could eat bread with a spoon and also not be sated. A quantity must be added to the livelihood willingly or unwillingly with “sam ponimayesh.”

And, perhaps, the government would not have been so very stingy and would have paid more, but it did not have more. Lithuania was given a state, but a naked and hollow one and almost without a groshen of dowry. They did receive something from the Soviet Union, several million rubles in gold at the conclusion of peace, but the several groshen went to pieces. Lithuania had no industry except for a few illegal distilleries and a few cigarette factories. And expenses – a great many. It had a very large army of soldiers and, perhaps, not a smaller army of officials in relation to its population. So, from where could it get so much money?

Lithuania possessed very few capable government people and capable officials. The Jews could have helped a good amount in this respect. The Jewish population then had incomparably more intellectual strengths than the Lithuanians. But the Lithuanians had very little desire to divide state offices among Jews, while anti-Semitism was found among the Lithuanians in a much larger measure. It did not matter that there was a Jewish minister with a Jewish ministry. He said that no noise should be made about such “trivialities.”

But, as the Lithuanian Jews were modest people, they said that they had no great complaints against the Lithuanian state. On the contrary, in general it was not a bad state for Jews. Yes, they were a little wronged? Well, what could one do?

My Second Visit

In 10 years I again visited the Lithuanian state.

It was in the beginning of the summer of 1931 when a desire awakened in me to make a trip to Europe. I wanted to make use of the opportunity to be at the International Socialist Congress that was held in Vienna and at the Universal Zionist Congress that was held in Bazel.

Understand that Kovno was the first Lithuanian city that I visited on my trip. The appearance of the city had greatly changed for the better in the 10 years since my first visit. I even found a new, modern hotel that the government had helped build. True, not first class but entirely passable. But perhaps because Kovno looked different, it looked strange to me. I longed for the small Lithuanian shtetlekh where I spent a certain time of my youth. I, therefore, chose a few that were particularly close to me. I had studied for several years in a religious primary school in Vashkai and I was a teacher for a few years in Pashvitinys. And traveling from Pashvitinys to Vashkai, I would stop in Linkeve [Linkuva] where I had relatives.

From Kovno, I went to Shavl [Šiauliai] by train and there I rented an old American Ford without a roof and I started out with it to see the world.

My first stop was in Poshvityn [Pašvitinys].

Poshvityn [Pašvitinys]

Poshvityn was once one of the characteristic shtetlekh in this part of Lithuania called Zamet. The shtetl had around 100 families and all of them had livelihoods, some a little more, some a little less, but they lived and even supported a rabbi, a shoykhet [ritual slaughterer], who was also a khazan [cantor], a shames [assistant to the rabbi], a bathhouse attendant and a few yeshivah young men. A significant number lived through crafts. There were five or six Jewish shoemakers, around that many tailors, a few glazers and dyers, a carpenter, a watchmaker, a miller, several wagon drivers, two or three melamdim [religious primary school teachers], a teacher, a feldsher [barber-surgeon] and the rest were peddlers, shop owners, traders and tavern keepers. A considerable quantity of English pounds, which came from South Africa to which a decent number of Poshvityners had set out to find their luck, would go through the town every week.

Not all Zameter shtetlekh has such a large number of “Africans” as Poshvityn. It is hard to say what the reasons were that one Lithuanian shtetl was strongly “African” and another not. Vashky, which was approximately as large as Poshvityn, was much less “African.” Vashky was more “American.”

It actually was not only chance that just one shtetl was more “African” and the other less so. Usually someone from a shtetl left for Africa and others came after him – first, close relatives and then good acquaintances. But not in all shtetlekh did a second, a third “African” and so on come after the first. In others it remained only the first one, or the second. Probably, it was something about the shtetlekh themselves that in one of them there were more such people who had the capability or the entrepreneurial spirit to leave their home and go so far on such an unknown road to seek luck. There was a shtetl Pokroi [Pakruojis] in the same area of Lithuania, which I think had more “Americans” than were in other shtetlekh of the same size in Lithuania.

I am sure that Pokroyer Jews were the first who discovered America for the Lithuanian Jews and it was the same Pokroyer Jews who discovered Africa for the Lithuanian Jews. And if someone will deny this to me, I will ask for historical facts and evidence. And if there are Lithuanian Jews in Mexico or Uruguay, I have no doubt that the first Lithuanian Jew there was a Pokroyer.

But I will leave the exploration of the Jewish wanderlust in the Jewish shtetlekh to historians of Lithuania. Here I will only say that I found a completely different Poshvityn. Poshvityn, the lively shtetl of the past, was no more. Poshvityn had become a dead shtetl, a desolate, castaway and empty shtetl where almost no young face was seen and where the few older people, who still remained, roamed around as if in a world of chaos.

Where are the young? I asked. What will they do here? They answered me with a question. As soon as they have grown up a little, they run from here. As long as they could, they ran to Africa and to America. Today there is no place to run, but there is nothing in the shtetl for which to remain. They run to Kovno, become halutz or halutza [pioneers preparing for emigration to Eretz-Yisroel] and they force themselves into Palestine. And if not, at least there is more room in Shavl than in Poshvityn.

There was no longer a rabbi in Poshvityn. There were not the means to support him. There was only a shoykhet [ritual slaughterer]. Unfortunately, the beys-hamedresh was empty. It was almost completely closed during the week, because it was difficult to gather a minyen [10 men required for prayer] for praying. There were no melamdim [primary school teachers]. The children studied in the government school where a young woman was a teacher. There were no Jewish artisans in the shtetl anymore. Only one Jewish shoemaker remained. The entire shtetl consisted of luftmentshn [idlers or people with no definite occupation]. A little trade, a little shop-keeping and air. Others have children in Africa and they sometimes send pounds and other have children in America and they sometimes send dollars. And others have nothing. One part of the shtetl that is named Zelonke has gone over completely into gentile hands.

Where did the Jewish shoemakers, the Jewish tailors and the other Jewish artisans remain?

The shtetlekh in Lithuania, particularly in the Zamet part, were still particularly characteristic in that they had a significant number of Jewish artisans. But in many of them there were almost no Jewish artisans. In Vashky, for example, I did not find any.

Ignoring that in the Lithuanian shtetlekh of that time there were many Jewish artisans, but trade then did not have much respect. However, with the Lithuanian gentiles, trade was a lineage. A Lithuanian young man who studied shoemaking, tailoring or another trade was a privileged noble, like his comrade who continued to till the earth or feed the cows.

It was easy for a Lithuanian gentile to out-compete with the Jews for trade, particularly in the small shtetlekh. The returning Jewish young, after the Lithuanian expulsion, did not have a place to learn a trade during their wandering. So that the gentile had learned the trade better, and secondly, he had a connection with the village from which he came and this gave him the opportunity to do the work for a less costly price. The Lithuanian artisan, in the main, had parents, brothers or other close relatives in the village from which he received food half free or entirely free. And when his cost of living was smaller, he could charge less for his work.

In Shavl, one of the largest cities in the Lithuanian state, I saw gentile tailoring workshops that employed more workers. And this was particularly news to me. That is, that the Lithuanian gentiles had progressed this far in pushing out the Jews from the trade.

Only one thing had progressed in the half-devastated Lithuanian shtetlekh. This was Zionism. Almost all Jews there were Zionists. And what else should they be there if not Zionists?

I am afraid to say that if I had remained a little longer in Poshvityn, I would have also become a Zionist. The small Jewish life there was so empty, so hopeless, so bare and desolate, that without dreams about a Jewish state in Palestine there would have been not only no content, but also not a bit of consolation.

Linkeve [Linkuva]

From Poshvityn to Vashky one goes through Linkeve. Thirty years ago I traveled on this road many times and I remember very well how we would travel. We would sit down in a hard, shaking driver's goods wagon and we would travel like this for five or six hours until we arrived broken. The road remained unchanged and the wagon that traveled over it shook and tossed just as it did 30 years earlier. But the wagon that shook me this time was a different one. It was an American “Ford.” To this day I cannot say if the road was hilly or pitted, but what is the difference, as long as it shook the bones when one traveled over it. They consoled me that it was only dry during the summer, so it shook. At the beginning of the year and in autumn, when the road became very muddy so that the wheels sank, it is as soft to travel as if in down…

And then I am in the middle of the market in Linkeve.

The same Linkeve as before, but the houses looked somewhat wretched, smaller and shriveled. But I did not have time to look around, as several Jews had gathered around the “Ford” and asked me if I was buying flax. No, I am not buying flax and they were not even interested in who I am. Only one of them, a young man, who chewed a thin straw with his front teeth, was not entirely sure that I was really not buying any flax. He claimed that this was a maneuver by me, that I really was buying flax because, if not, why had I come to Linkeve in an automobile?

But there were probably many Jews in Linkeve who had flax to sell because in several minutes there were other Jews around me who offered me flax. And even when leaving the shtetl two Jews stopped me who wanted to sell flax to me.

I was a little curious as to why the Jews in Linkeve were looking so intensely for flax merchants who would buy their flax. But I immediately understood – Jews want to do business. But when I arrived in Vashky I learned that it was more than doing business.

I did not stay in Linkeve for long. As I mentioned I once had relatives there. The rabbi of the shtetl, Reb Hirshl, was one of them and I would sometimes stay with him and have a talk about the world and humanity. He liked philosophical speculation and he could even bear my heresy that the sun does not turn, but it is the earth that turns. His opinion was that it is not important that it is the sun or the earth that turns as long as the brain did not spin. But Reb Hirshl had not been in Linkeve for a long time; he died even before the [first world] war and I had forgotten who the other relatives were.

I did notice one large change for the better in Linkeve: the streets there were paved with cobblestones.

Linkeve was famous for its muds. There was a saying that just like the Torah has no bottom, the muds of Linkeve have no bottom. There were many jokes and anecdotes about the muds of Linkeve. Some of them were good, but they have now lost their value. This is truly a shame.

Yes, the Germans left a small train that went, I think, to Ponevezh [Panevezys], as an inheritance in Linkeve. But the Linkeve Jews were not excessively satisfied with this inheritance. They argued as to why the Germans in building had not built a true railroad as they had done in Yanishok [Joniškis,].

Vashky [Vaškai]

Vashky, my shtetl, had barely changed in the 30 or so years that I had not seen it. It looked almost like the last time I saw it, but I did not feel that it was mine.

If a feeling was evoked in me it was far from sentimental or romantic. I do not have the right word to designate the feeling but I would say that it was a sort of pity.

Right upon arriving in the shtetl when I saw the two red spires of the church, a feeling of pity awoke in me, Was this the tall Vashky church, about which I once thought nothing could be taller? The two spires seemed as if they had shriveled and grew in their depth. They were not tall and looked so pitiful.

I had such a feeling 10 years earlier when I came to Vilna and saw the two well known statues on Troker Street. Once when I came to Vilna the first time, the two statues appeared as mighty as giants in my eyes. However, when I saw them a few score years later, they appeared as a pair of hungry and withered proletarians who need to carry such heavy loads on their weak backs. They appeared so pitiful in my eyes.

I received a very warm reception in the shtetl. The welcome took place in the rabbi's house. In the same house, where I once studied.

The rabbi of the shtetl was a handsome young man with a long satin beard. He was a son-in-law of the previous Vashky rabbi with whom I once studied. I resented that I no longer found my rabbi alive and I felt a kind of kinship with his son-in-law, despite the fact that I had not known him earlier.

And I had some kind of strange feeling when the businessmen of the shtetl sat around me and told me what the Jews in Vashky needed. No one spoke about what they lacked, only what the community lacked.

And I looked at them and thought: not so long ago, the Jews with the grey beards went to kheder with me and we received lashes from the same rabbi. How long ago is it that we and Budnik's son, Moyske Itse, would clear a slippery area on the pond so that we could ice skate better? We did it this way: We would lay him on the ice skating area and drag him by his feet back and forth until the ice would be rubbed flat and shiny. And now the same Moyske Itse has a grey beard! Not long ago he had been a small urchin with whom we would even not want to play kneplekh [buttons]. And Shmuelke, Zalman's son, who only yesterday ran around in short pants with a tail and with a running nose, today has grown sons and daughters and if it were not so difficult to arrange marriages in the shtetl, he would already be a grandfather!

But they did not think of the past kheder-years when we would slip out to the nearby fields to pull green peas, run off to ride the horses that grazed outside the shtetl or bet who could run around the bimah [platform from which the Torah is read] in the beys-hamedresh faster. Now they sat and talked about income. Until a year ago it was not bad in the shtetl; they bought and sold and made a living. The chief commerce was flax, but not only was the flax trade dead, they also simply were unfortunate. The misfortune came from the Soviet Russia. Earlier they would sell flax in England for 105 dollars a ton. Soviet Russia came and began to sell for 35 dollars! They could not deal in flax, and those who had traded in flax earlier became utterly destitute.

And when they told me this, it was then clear to me why so many offered to sell flax to me. And I also understood that my best help for Vashky would be if I could buy flax.

If the impoverished loan office that existed there would receive several thousand dollars Vashky could be restored a little.

It really hurt me that I am not rich and that I could not take out several thousand dollars from my pocket with which Vashky could be helped. I felt even worse when I could not promise that all of the Vashkyer in America would be able to put together several thousand dollars. I had to say that the times were bad in America and that several thousand dollars was a lot of money even for the Vashkyer in America.

The rabbi had another concern. They needed to build a new beys-hamedresh. The one here was old and if it were not constantly propped up with new trusses, it would have collapsed long ago. And he took me to see the beys-hamedresh. [Yes, the same beys-hamedresh that I had left, but the bimah was a different one. Earlier there was a bimah, a brick one with an oven in it for heating. Now, the bimah is wood, small, and the ovens are separate. I think it was better to chase around the old bimah. It was a great deal larger. The rabbi told me that the beys-hamedresh is the only kehilah [organized Jewish community] building that Vashky possesses and they must have a new building. I found almost all of Vashky in the beys-hamedresh and they asked me if I would do something. I had to obey. But what could I say to the Jews who had once been so close to me and now are so far? Now I try to remember what I said to them and I cannot. Only my impression of the gathering remains fresh for me. A heavy impression. The beys-hamedresh was dark; the air oppressive, somewhat stale and the people looked like shadows. But I do not remember what I said to them.

There were few young people at the gathering. Mainly, there were few young people in the shtetl. The young ran from the shtetl. What was there to do there?

There were no Jewish artisans in the shtetl anymore. Once, half of the shtetl consisted of tradesmen.

I promised that when I returned to America I would remind all Vashkyer who were in America that there is still a Vashky in the world and that they should do something for their old home.

Why did I leave my shtetl with such a heavy heart? I do not know if this was because I felt that the people whom I left behind in my shtetl were disappointed in me. They gave me so much respect, they gave me such a welcome that I never expected from them and what did I do for them? I could not even promise that I would be able to do something for them. Or was it because, looking at my former kheder friends, how old they had become, did I also think of myself? I looked at their grey beards and their worried and aged faces as if at myself in a mirror. Would I also have looked like them if I had not left Vashky in my young years? I suddenly thought about that, how quickly the time flies and how it takes so short a time to go from young to old. And I remember that once when I still went to kheder, the time did not go fast, it rarely moved. Then we wanted to be older, quicker, an adult, but it did not help. Time dragged so slowly that it seemed to me that I would never get out of the kheder. It is hard to analyze one's own feelings. I only know that it was difficult for me and that I wanted to leave my “home” quickly, where I was so strange.

I arose early. Two chickens in the courtyard who had bet as to who could crow louder had awakened me and did not permit me to fall back asleep. I could not learn which of the two chickens had won the bet. One had a thin little voice, a sort of soprano, and the other had a voice that was similar to a rasping tenor. They crowed a verse from a sacred book for a very long time and I did not wait for them to finish. I got dressed and went out into the street and saw how Vashky looked in the early morning sunshine. In truth it was not early. At least not for Vashky. It was seven o'clock and the entire shtetl was long awake. The men went to the beys-medresh to pray and the women had long before heated the ovens for baking challah [Sabbath bread]. It was early Friday. And strange: the ovens heated for baking challah more than anything reminded me of my childhood. And it was enough to awaken one picture in my memory and memories began of my childhood years. I stood in front of Dina Zalman's [Dina is either Zalman's daughter or wife] oven and watched how it was heating. A large, old Lithuanian oven which I had not seen for so many years. The oven had not changed at all, but Dina Zalman's had greatly changed. I did not recognize her. She was young and beautiful when I left the shtetl and today she is an old grandmother, wrinkled and bent.

Shavl [Šiauliai]

I asked the young gentile to “harness” his Ford and – goodbye Vashky. I traveled through a few shtetlekh, several villages, but I did not stop. I only had three days left that I could spend in Lithuania. I wanted to stop in the Jewish village, Pamusha [Pamûðis], not far from Linkeve. It is a small village with Jewish colonists who settled there a long, long time ago during the time of Aleksander the Second, or even earlier. I wanted to see if changes had taken place among the Jewish peasants in Pamusha since the founding of the Lithuanian state. But I was told that it had changed little and as I had little time, I asked my “Ford” to go farther and I thus went to Shavl, the second largest city in Lithuania (besides Memel [Klaipëda]).

Only do not have a false conception about the word “largest” which I use here. I do not know exactly how large the population of Shavl was, but I believe that Shavl would not be wronged if I said that the population was around 30,000. But I defer to you about how much I remember, I think the number was smaller.

Shavl impressed me that it looked Jewish as before. And I also had the impression that it looked decent as before. I even had a little free time and I strolled through the width and breath of Shavl. I even had time to listen to a khazan [cantor] and a choir in Shavl.

It was shabbos in the morning. The street was quiet and shabbos-like. And shabbos was also strongly felt in my hotel where I was staying. I found out when the train left Shavl for Kovno and I found out that I still had a full three hours to wait. The train left at one o'clock. That is, I had enough time to go to look at the city. I went through one street, a second and I heard that a familiar melody was being carried from not far way. At first, not so clear. But later, distinct and clearer. I knew what this was – a khazan and a choir were singing and I did not have to look for long for its source. Not far from me was a white brick building surrounded with an iron fence and I immediately surmised that this was the Shavl synagogue. True, it appeared a little too aristocratic for a Shavl synagogue, but I heard with my own ears that a khazan was singing.

I had the desire to go in. I had not heard a khazan for a long time. And, in any case, I did not have anything to do.

The synagogue was a large one and very beautiful, but half empty. I felt that they were looking at me. No wonder. All stood dressed in large talisim [prayer shawls] and I looked as if I were naked, without a scrap of talis on me. And at my age, it seemed, I needed to wear a talis. But probably I had prayed with the first minyen [10 men needed for prayer] and had come to hear the khazan.

The khazan had a very fine tenor voice, but sang contralto a little too much. I left the synagogue and started again on a stroll through the Shavl streets.

I must admit that I wronged Shavl. I saw little of the Shavl Jewish institutions and I did not investigate the Jewish life of Shavl. I swam more on the surface of Shavl, rather than getting to the bottom of its depth.

From the little information that I could gather in the short time that I stayed in the city, I found out that the economic situation of the Jews there was much better than in the small Lithuanian shtetlekh that I had visited. Shavl was a considerable center for Lithuania. Therefore, there was a substantial number of state institutions, military, official and so on. In Shavl there were also large leather factories and they all belonged to Jews. That most of the shops in by Shavl also belonged to Jews, is, of course, superfluous to say. There were also still a considerable number of Jewish artisans and Jewish workers in Shavl. However, strolling through the Shavl streets, I saw a few larger, gentile tailoring workshops. And this was new to me. I saw one gentile workshop where five or six machines were working. Once this could not be found. Tailoring was a Jewish trade; individual Lithuanian tailors could be found, but an entire Lithuanian workshop
was unknown to me. But the fact and the moral of this I already mentioned.


A great deal of water has run past since 1930. I do not ask what has become of the Jewish Lithuanian shtetlekh. I know that there is nothing to ask. What does the religious verse say: If the cedar trees are attacked by the flames of fire, then what can be with the blades of grass? But the heart still grieves when we remember that something close has been erased from the earth…

But I will not believe that it has been erased forever. This life does not let itself be erased. It always evolves into the new.

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