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[Pages 407-417]

The Kurland Litvaks

By B. Rivkin*

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross and Dr. Sonia Kovitz

With appreciation for the assistance of Dr. Simon Civjan
of the Tsivyans originally from Dvinsk, Latvia

*This piece was written for the book Lite several months prior to the author's death. He died in 1945 at age 62.
There was a region on the Dvina River with Kurland on one bank, Vitebsk District on the other, and Kovno District beyond—a region populated by a special type of Jew, neither Kurlander nor Litvak, but a combination of both. I will call them the “Kurlander Litvaks.” Since the events of the last quarter-century mixed all types of Jews together, the Kurlander Litvaks, no matter their number, must be described as a memorial.

On the west this region embraced Riga and on the east, Dinaburg (Denenburg, Dvinsk) and included the following towns: the twin towns Yakobshtat-Kraytsburg with the Dvina flowing between; Livenhof (Libemuze) located 25 viorst upriver on the Dvina [Russian: 1 viorst = 2/3 mile]; and Shtakmanshof (Dankere) located 25 viorst downriver. Fifty viorst from Riga midway along the road was Friedrichshtadt (Nayre), the circuit capital [county seat]. I myself am a Yakobshtater, Borukh Avraham Vaynroyb, with my true name “son of Abba Sheftl der furman [drayman].” Yakobshtat is thus for me the center of the world and the region. [After emigrating from Latvia in 1911, Vaynroyb became a literary critic and essayist in New York under the pen name B. Rivkin.]

How old was the town? In the old marketplace, which strangely was called the “new marketplace,” a large stone was mounted, and on it was engraved a year from the 13th century when a battle took place and German knights perished. This stone was their memorial. In the old market (or the new-old market) a corner area of green houses, with verandas decked with woven branches and leaves, served as a reminder of the Germans of old. Located behind these was the town's lustgarten [German: recreation park]. Near the Dvina, surrounded by huge old trees, stood a barred tower, taller than the trees—an abandoned military watchtower.

It is clear that the two towns—Yakobshtat-Kraytsburg—were founded on account of highway robbery and the strategic location. A viorst or two below the twin cities, the Dvina was humped or bent in the shape of a knee through the rapids—a narrow rocky descending slope over which the waters were eternally rushing, noisy and turbulent. Above the rapids the river spread out broadly between the two towns, and one had to squint to see the other side. In the spring when the river would flood the rapids, maykes, layves [types of boats], occasionally large steamers, and countless rafts would pass through freely. In the summertime the rafts had to stop, especially on the Yakobshtat side where the riverbank was flatter, to wait for the river-pilot to help them navigate the narrow crevices between the underwater-falls. In the deep waters a steamer, along with two boats with rudders and a ferry (pulled either by a steamer or a rope stretched across the river) made the twin towns into one. And this was of course especially true in the winter, when the Dvina froze.

As I now suppose, the two towns occupied an outstanding strategic position for conducting battles. Kraytsburg and its town center wound its way uphill. Two viorst beyond Yakobshtat, running the length of the town, stretched a chain of small hills, upon one of which the Jewish cemetery was located. I have proof that many a serious battle was waged in the vicinity of Yakobshtat: during the first world war, Yakobshtat was a permanent center of conflict and when Hitler marched into Soviet Russia, Yakobshtat had the dubious honor of being the first to be mentioned in the cables. And even stronger proof: in the center of town between the four synagogues there was an ancient military cemetery called “Vienna,” which served as a lustgarten for the kheder yinglekh [little boys of elementary Hebrew school age] in their free time. They dug in the sand and found skulls and entire skeletons, which they would examine with terror in their hearts while studying the anatomy of the human body. Afterwards, to revive themselves, they made little whistles from the soft willow branches so that they could proclaim their cheerfulness to the entire town. The beautiful bright highway to Riga lifted the heart and led to baronial courtyards and estates. The gloomy Grimik highway to Dinaburg led to a suburb of Brod inhabited by “Vanya's” [Russians], where the criminals of the entire region were from. All the other gray and sandy roads out of town led to Latvian villages.

And now to my main interest–the Jews, the Kurlander Litvaks. The population of Yakobshtat, more than half of which was Jewish, numbered approximately 8,000. Kraytsburg was a little smaller, but with a larger number of Jews. (Kraytsburg was in Vitebsk District, where Jews were permitted to live.) Jews occupied the town's center, the main street, and the side streets. The outskirts of town, which were constantly expanding, were occupied by Latvians, Russians and some Poles. Large houses and orchards, entire courtyards—belonging to Germans, wealthier Russians, and Latvians—were found throughout the length and breadth of the town.

Jews were the owners of large dry-goods stores, haberdasheries and hardware stores, and many were grain and flax merchants. Most important of all were the timber and lumber merchants who spent weeks and months in Tukum and in Riga. There were two match factories in Yakobshtat, which were owned by Jews. The main food suppliers for the Jewish shopkeepers and brokers were the two markets held during the week. Then there were the Jewish artisans: tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, cabinet-makers, tinsmiths, glaziers, blacksmiths, watchmakers and goldsmiths. There were many Jewish draymen with lightweight coaches on springs for passengers and heavier wagons for bigger loads. The station was located on the opposite side of the Dvina, about three or four viorst beyond Kraytsburg. Germans were the owners of the brewery and the two mills—the steam mill and the windmill. The pharmacist was German, as were the carpet-makers, bricklayers, printer, butcher, saddlemaker, and turner. The turner was an evil person, a “Hitlerist” for Hitler, who would start fights. But the maker of pipe organs, a gem of a person, also was German and he truly loved the Jews. The Germanized Latvians were bad, but the Russified Latvians were even worse, by nature true traitors. Most of the time the Latvian villagers and the Jews lived well together. One winter, my uncle, a peddlar, got rich. He became practically a soykher [merchant, businessman] when his sacks of grain and pelts burst open and took an entire winter to dry. What happened? He found favor with a Latvian farm-owner [who bought the lot].

Those who considered themselves true Kurlander Jews were the ones who had settled in Kurland prior to the early '80s, I believe before 1882. They were the yakhsonim [“Jewish nobility”]. Only they had the legal right to reside in Kurland. It was easier to study the Kurlander Jews among the balebatim [middle-class householders], since they constituted this type. Originally there were several kinds. One kind came from authentic Kurland near the Baltic Sea, from the towns of Tukum and Hoznput that lay between Riga, Mitave, Libave, and Vindave. The second kind—originating in White Russia and Kovno District—came mainly from Ponevezh and Birzh. Artisans, peddlars and teachers arrived. Also, naturally, came those who were lured by the lumber business on the Dvina. On rafts and because of rafts they came. In Yakobshtat-Kraytsburg they intermingled, influencing each other in character, behavior, and language, yet retaining the signs of their origins.

The original Kurlanders were the Yoelsons, Mayersons, Lilientals, Rozentals, Talerozes, and Koblentses. Even in America I can recognize authentic Kurlanders—by their heavy yet soft, fleshy noses from which seems to hang suspended five pood [200 pounds] of German self-importance and pomp, swollen with haughtiness towards the Litvaks. Ongeblozene indikes [puffed-up turkeys] is the nickname the Litvaks gave them. There in their Hoznput they spoke daitchmerish [Germanicized Yiddish], a kind of cavalier's German. The Litvaks were the Markushevitches, Komenetskis, Levitases and Lurias: rich as Korakh, yet democratic by nature. Even when stuffed to the gills with money, they let it be known that their origins are of the people. Even the sharp, keen-witted gemora-kop [“talmud-heads”] behave like proste khay-vekayims [plain and ordinary folks]. When these two types intermingled, an ideal democratism emerged. Picture democratic yahudim [German Jews] whose behavior is refined, modest, and friendly towards the poor!

The influence of the Litvaks was so widespread that all the shuls [synagogues] davened [prayed] using hasidic prayerbooks. Even in the private shul of the grandest and richest German Jew, Leytse Taleroz, they davened in the manner of ari hakodesh [the Holy Ari, Itzak Luria of Safed, 16th century mystic kabbalist]. All the shuls had small annexes called khabadnitses [Chabad, name of the Lubavitcher hasidic movement, is the Hebrew acronym for Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge], but no one studied Chabad there, rather the poor folk had separate kriyas [readings from the Torah] there so they could have their own aliyas [honor of being called up to bless the Torah reading]. Even the craftsmen's shul prayed with German-democratic-hasidic pomp. It was only the butchers who remained stubborn. Their little butchers' shul was the only misnagdishe one [opposed to hasidism]. The town was hasidic even though no one ever traveled to a hasidic rebbe other than the Lurias, who were originally from Birzh, relatives of Yehudah Leyb Zosnitz. No rebbe ever visited Yakobshtat.

The Kurlander influence on the Litvaks was felt mainly in the way of life at home, in home etiquette and its effect on the youth. Therefore I must return to the true Germans who were the original residents of the town. The Petersburg government was then in the process of Russifying the Baltic provinces. The German officials and magistrate had only recently been replaced by a Russian police administration and judicial system. As a kheder boy, I would see a shande-vagon [“shaming cart”] with a criminal tied to a raised seat being driven to the shandeslup [pillory] in the field where the soldiers were drilled. This happened in my time when the state school was converted to a six-grade Russian public school. In community affairs, however, the Germans still played a large role. The new officials—the inspector, the prison overseer, and the lawyer—were Germans who spoke Russian haltingly, carefully pondering every word. Also on the Jewish side the recent transition from German to Russian was still very apparent: the director of the Jewish school, a landsman [Jew from the same locale], spoke Russian with a terrible Jewish-German accent. By the way, a typical Kurlander Litvak, a poor yeshiva student, learned German while studying Hegel's philosophy and following Hegel, justified the giving and taking of interest. He insisted that his students learn dikduk [Hebrew grammar] and taught them the Bible using the [German] Biblical Commentary of Moses Mendelsohn [translator of the Torah into German and founder of the haskalah (“enlightenment”) movement to bring modern European knowledge to traditional Judaism].

In the middle class private homes, German still held full sway. The children were sent to Russian gimnazyes [high schools] in Riga and Mitave. In the Riga Polytechnic School of Dorpat University and in private homes, German was after all a sign of education, and tsum viderzehn [Yiddish adaptation of the German phrase “until we meet again”] and vilkomen [“welcome”] were heard spoken in fine style and seen inscribed over doorways, when the gracious lady of the house returned from the resort town of Doblen [Dobele, located near Mitava]. For the original Kurlander, German was exclusively the language spoken at home even by those who understood and were able to speak Yiddish. German set the social tone for both good and bad. Middle-class daughters traveled to Riga and brought back news of the wonders of the German operas that they had seen: The Jews, The Huguenots, and Vasco de Gama, in which an akrent [vessel] (a ship, that is) had sailed onto the very stage.

The slender blonde German frauleins served as examples for the middle-class Jewish daughters, and that is how these Jewish daughters felt and behaved, like genteel and dreamy “baronesses,” like “bewitched princesses.” And that is how they appeared in the eyes of the dreamy young men who were infatuated with these Jewish princesses.

Even madness took place in German. A young deranged boy, when asked to recite Schiller and Goethe, did so by heart, both backwards and forwards. And two spinster sisters from a formerly rich but now impoverished family, even in their melancholy were clever and delicate and had “fine feelings” [English in original], were poetesses with whom it was a delight to speak. The young men were deranged because of their unrequited romantic hunger for the love of the baronesses.

All of these good and bad influences entered into the psychological makeup of the Kurlander Litvaks. It was as if the recently arrived Litvaks, succumbing to the effect of the Kurlanders, were injected with a drop of baronial fantasy, indeed should have been vaccinated against baronial fantasy. While remaining democrats, they now thought much more highly of themselves. Because of their large numbers, they were able to prevail upon the established Kurlanders to relax their conceited attitude just a little, and become more mentshlekh, mild, and sensible. And so they arrived at a balance. There was even a difference between the balebatim of Yakobshtat and of Kraytsburg. Those in Kraytsburg unashamedly looked up to those in Yakobshtat. Yet there was a still greater difference between the Kraytsburg balebatim and the proste khay-vekayim [plain and ordinary] balebatim from the other Litvak towns.

The character of the Kurlander Litvak was reflected even in the faces of the Yakobshtat rabbis. Did you know or did you hear of Rabbi [Mordechai] Nurock, the community activist, politician, deputy of the Duma, and mizrakhi [Zionist group] leader? Nu, I knew him to be a gentle young man. His father was a rabbi in Yakobshtat. With his stately appearance and fine character, with his tolerance and spiritual aura, he was granted authority by all classes of Jews in Yakobshtat. And the common folk, not only the balebatim, were no less Kurlander Litvaks, but without the German books and the German pomp. The folk received in no small measure a dose of baronial fantasy through direct contact. Not all barons lived in palaces. Barons sometimes even hung around rubbish heaps, drunken and destitute. Once my father and his team of harnessed horses drove around just such a drunken baronchik for hours. Instead of paying my father, the baronchik insulted him: “You dirty Jew! Who do you think you're demanding money from”? My father hit him with a drayman's resounding smack right in his baronial mug. He immediately sobered up and handed his silver watch to my father as payment. This was the first watch whose tick-tock helped me fall asleep, and this is how I received my own drop of baronial fantasy.

The respectable Germans frequently related well to the Jewish common folk. My grandfather, Efrayim Vaynrib, was employed in a German brewery. The pipe organ master and the German owner of the largest food business trusted my father with thousands of rubles, and one should add that the German magistrate had more trust in the Jews than in the Latvians. I have a nice story to tell in connection with this. At the marketplace while waiting for a passenger, my father saw three drunken Latvians bullying a young boy who one week earlier had become an orphan, and this was his first outing with his father's team of horses. My father's heart went out to the young boy, so he grabbed a pole from his wagon and started to batter the three goyim [non-Jews] and laid them out half-dead on the cobblestones. My father was sentenced to serve a week in jail, but a year passed and the inspector, a German, left my father alone. After all, he knew that my father had been right. Another year passed and he began demanding his due, such as: “Abba Sheftl, how much longer? The district is hounding me to death—a Jew has been sentenced and hasn't served his time.” My father begged to be excused: “When do I have the time?” Then a little boy died in our town, and the inspector showed up: “Come, Abba Sheftl, after all, you have to sit anyway so you will sit shiva [seven day mourning period] with me. He took my father's talis [prayer shawl] and tefillin [phylacteries] and left. My father followed. In the daytime my father would daven and recite tehillim [Psalms]. At night he would come home. This is how he served his week's sentence.

Since I'm familiar with draymen, I have a suspicion that baronial fantasy would overtake them by way of a baronial horse. Whenever there was a capricous horse with a nik [Latvian: contrary streak], a drayman would buy it dirt-cheap from the baron. My father did the same. And it would take time before such a riding horse could be broken into a drafthorse.

Here's a story that's told. Once there was a blacksmith, a relative of ours, who lived on the road to Brod, the nest of Russian bandits, but he wasn't afraid of them. He was a big, strong man and so were his associates. This blacksmith was one of the first to leave Yakobshtat and travel to America. He had a baronial fantasy: he purchased a baronial horse, forged a large half-covered wagon in which he packed all his bed linens and household articles, and with his wife and daughters he planned to travel to Hamburg in it. But as soon as he tried to hitch the horse to the wagon, when he set the harness in place the horse took off at a wild gallop over fields, woods and hills. Hundreds of people began to chase after. They were on the verge of catching him when the horse devilishly jumped right over all the fences. The smith's journey to America was delayed by a full day.

I believe, so far as I can determine, that the “Kurlander Litvak” is not just my own invention. Whether of the class of balebatim or of the folk, he had a clearly recognizable type of face. But my strongest evidence is the melding of Kurlander and Litvak that resulted in a distinctive fused Yiddish, free both of daitchmerisms [Germanicisms] and Slavicisms. It is a litvish [Lithuanian Yiddish] that doesn't mix “sh” and “s.” A litvish based on clear logic and German grammar. This is the tongue used formerly in Kobrin and Hirshkan, both of Vitebsk District, purified of words mixing together Yiddish and Russian such as: stramgolovoy [proud or stiff-necked], gazlovoy [thievish], oyskorenien [uprooted], tseshtazhen [false honor]. The nearest approach to this Yiddish can be found among the Tsivyans [large branch of Latvian Jews] who, I know not how, wandered once upon a time to Danker (Shtakmanshof), and in the speech of Dr. [Max] Weinreich. This Yiddish must have originated in German Kurland, but was most likely ceremonially immersed in our Dvina. This Yiddish has its own special idioms and sayings, which deserve to be collected and accepted into general usage. I intend to collect more of them. For now, here is a deposit.

di dvina brent! [the Dvina is burning!]—an expression among kheder yinglekh [little boys of elementary Hebrew school age] that sets off a stampede.

kholem-noz [dreamer]

a knip ton biz men derzen riga [a pinch that will make you see Riga]

verfel [dice] for dreydel [Chanukah top]

shnoyflen for fonfen [to snuffle or mumble]

nik [capricious, unruly], mayzlekh [“mousy,” timid] referring to horses

sulia [sap of a birch tree]

anker—a small vessel for Passover mead that is sealed with a shpunt [bung].

a mensh a gornisht [a nothing, nobody]—a shtrund [from Italian il stronzo]

kankeres for trantes [rags]

shtrimling—a small smoked fish resembling a shproten [sprat]

ent zikh for enlekh zayn [resemble]

druml [little drum]—a tea-kettle made of sheet metal, wide at the bottom, narrow at the top, used to cook tea or coffee.

arayndrumlen in kop arayn [to drum something into one's head]. Elsewhere people say: er hot zikh eyngedrumelt.

ankreytik [susceptible]—in Kovno this means susceptible to illness, but for us a susceptible dama [Russian: lady] is a lady who makes a fuss.

As an additional example I will give the family surname “Vaynrebe,” which Galicia and Lodz made more Jewish as “Vaynrib” and our Yakobshtat made more Jewish as “Vaynroyb.”

One's very own accent with one's very own shtikl loshn [bit of a language]—that is an achievement. But even greater feats were expected from the Kurland Litvaks. The fact is, the Litvak was the prime achiever of all our movements. A plain and simple Litvak, particularly a Litvak with baronial fantasy, absolutely had to excel. Though it isn't really so. Kurlander lita was the place of origin of all them. In addition to the Tsivyans and Dr. Weinreich, there were Lilliput'n (Kretshmar) and Rakhel Luria (Roza Vulf), both of whom, much like the Tsivyans, wandered to Dankere; and Dovid Druk from Kraytsburg; and Grinbloy, a Yakobshtater. (Rakhel Luria and Grinbloy are already in the World of Truth.) Can you see the signs of baronial fantasy in all of them?

Kraytsburg, more litvish by a hair, excelled over Yakobshtat. All the movements came to Yakobshtat from Dinaburg and Riga by way of Kraytsburg. The Kraytsburger Dovid Druk, my first socialist agitator, came from Riga as an iskrovetz [follower of Iskra, “The Spark,” an early Marxist Russian newspaper founded in 1900].

And Dankere surpassed Kraytsburg. The first Russian revolution [1905] originated in the Latvian Forest Brothers movement. The Stalfer brother and sister risked their lives. I still regret to this day that my Russian brochure on “collectivism and individualism” was without my knowledge translated into Latvian and the Forest Brothers were arrested for it.

Here in New York there is now a Yakobshtat-Kraytsburg landsmanshaft [society of Jews from the same locale]. Its founder was a Kraytsburger—Avraham Baron—from the bakers' union. In Avraham Baron can one see a sign of baronial fantasy—even in his name! There was in the society a Mr. [Solomon] Katzen from the large family of Katzens from Yakobshat—and he was an even greater baron with fantasies—a relief-activist, a delegate, always engaged in plans and projects—but I don't hear from him. I suspect that the most active of all in theYakobshtat-Kraytsburg society are neither the Yakobshtaters nor the Kraytsburgers but the mekhutonim [relations] of their eydems [sons-in-law] and shvogers [brothers-in-law]. May their yikhus [pedigree] be inscribed along with the Yakobshtat-Kraytsburgers. Wake up, Yakobshtat-Kraytsburg, and row toward New York! And where is Libemuze? And where is Nayre?

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