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[Col. 493]

Once upon a time

L.Shimoni, Haifa

Once upon a time, there was a city called Suwalk. Like other cities in Luthania; lively, vibrant – a city of Poles, Russians, Letts, Germans and a few tens of thousands of Jews, all mitnagdim, with heads of iron and brains of iron: “other times, other strengths”.

It was a beautiful city, lying between two hills: the Augustow hill and the Kalverie hill, surrounded by thick forests, girdled by a nice Jewish river – the “black Hanah”, and a few kilometres to the east, the famous Vigrer ossuary with its medieval cloister where there were mummies and embalmed monks.


The main street, Koskiuszko, once the main highway


At the present, Suwalk is criss-crossed by fine streets branching out from the grand Peterburg Street, two kilometres long, with horse chestnut trees, cranberry business and willows, growing along both sides. In the heart of the city, there is a grand park, and a few steps away, Shulgas [Synagogue Street] with the old hundred-year-old buildings of the synagogue, the Bet Midrash and the famous tailors', cobblers”, butchers' and bricklayers' kloyzn, where there was more discussion and politicking than praying. This was a firm mitnagdic centre with only one Hassidic shtibl, where children would follow wonderingly behind a Jew with side locks and a Hassidic hat.

Magistrate - - a large plaza with a Greek Orthodox church and the buildings of the gymnasia – where

[Col. 494]

Czar Nicholas's six regiments would parade every holiday, playing music and singing: “Bozhe Tsarya Khrani”,[1] and the workmen - - “Bozhe Tsarya Kharani “ “and bury him”.[2]

The two crooked streets of the town had a thousand charms. The “Dolek” which was thickly populated by Jewish artisans and merchants, and the Vigde Street; with butchers, woodchoppers and Polish workers.


Suwalk City Park


The plaza where music was played.

Besides the park, with the wide sidewalk where, on the Sabbath, Jews promenaded and Christians on Sundays, my Suwalk also had a grand “Arcadia”, a garden with greenhouses, booths and a wonderful orchard keeper[3]. A lake with little islands and row-boats; - the Augustow forest around the city which, in the springtime, would intoxicate everybody in the area with its paradisiac fragrance.

Jews and gentiles lived together in peace – visited one another, borrowed money from each other, attended each other's weddings and funerals, knew each other's names, joys and woes. A city, which until recent years did not have pogroms, or any other racial riots. A dear city!

Suwalk had a weakness for nicknames, which families carried as though they were heraldic crests. For example: Piorunes? [----], Soltistn (head of village, big shot), Boltrikes (?), Kroytniakes [cabbage?]; “the teachers”, the “hunchbacks”, and so on.

[Col. 495]

These nicknames were mixed up and linked up to the most obscure limbs, like climbing plants. It was forbidden to call someone by his nickname to his face, or enmities would arise, which would last for years, and from generation to generation. However, nicknames were used behind peoples' backs. It was simpler and heartier…

There were whole dynasties of artisans deeply rooted in the town for generations. Among them, the locksmiths and mechanics were well known. The “Tsvillings” and the “Daykhs”, to which this writer has the honour of belonging. These were two families tied together by marriage and neighbourhood, well-to-do and poor, who built their world with hammers and pipes, and sent their descendants to all the continents in the world. They had a large representation even in Erets Yisrael.

Suwalk had wonderful Jews, mostly simple, kind, ordinary people whose names have not gone down in history.

Now, after the destruction of Suwalk, let us recall some of these types, so that they may be remembered for a long time.


The “Nikolaevski” soldiers

Streletski, a man like an oak tree. His chest covered with medals who spoke Russian like a born-Russian; father of unmarried sons and daughters; wealthy, patriotic, ready to split anyone's head if anything against the Romanvos was said.

looked like a nobleman, was as grey as a dove and, was by nature, as good as a saint. In 1909, in his house, was founded the first Jewish gymnasium in Lithuania (Shvartsman's). He died at age 100.

Gavriel Slup. Very poor; as tall as a pine tree, with a beard like the fragrant hemp, in which citrons are packed. He made clocks with wooden works and invented a wonderful snuff that no chemist in the world could duplicate. He used to carry this snuff around from synagogue to synagogue on Yom Kippur, to revive people who had fainted from fasting. He would hand out the snuff dressed in his white robes, with his head covered by his prayer shawl. Rabbi Tevele Katsenelenboygn used to

Gavriel Slup spoke Yiddish with difficulty and Hebrew, not at all. He knew that one should stand at

[Col. 496]

attention like a soldier during the Kedusha prayer and that, when the Torah was taken out of the ark, it should be saluted and instead of :”amen”, one responded with: “Khorosho” “Tshudno” and “Prilitshno”. That when called to the Torah, one stood up straight. He never parted from his medals, or from his big gnarled stick. He loved royalty, like a mother loves her only son. He died like a saint during the Ne'ilah Prayer [closing prayer] on Yom Kippur, in the synagogue after he had distributed his snuff, as usual, straightened out his robe, wrapped himself in his prayer shawl, and when the last shofar blast was blown, he thundered forth “Kotsheno” [learn or study?] – and so ended his 102 years of life – near the open ark in the big Suwalk synagogue.

We had almost a quorum of such “Nikolaevski” soldiers.[4] Now further:

Motye Bok ---. A soldier of the Russo-Japanese war – by trade, a tailor. A professional bachelor with three “George” medals on his chest. Lived on his pension and from patching up clothes [?]. He was a great patriot, wore his soldiers cap with the red badge[5] and used to dye his grey moustache with the intention of possibly marrying someday. His pension amounted to one rubble and 15 kopeks a week, which was distributed in Saini, not in Suwalk, so he would walk there on the twentieth of each month, covering about 80 kilometres on foot. On the Czar's birthday, the cantor and choir were forced to sing the Russian hymn: “Bozshe Tsariya Khrani” before all of the school children and their teachers. On these occasions, Motye Bok would put on his new clothes and his medals and stand at attention together with Gavriel Slup in the same line as the policemen.

I remember how he left Suwalk.

Motye Bok ate only black bread with creamed curds. He ate it with appetite – with relish, “musically” and would sometimes fall asleep in the middle of his meal, then wake up and continue eating. Once, a bunch of practical jokesters in my father's workshop, nailed down his loaf of bread to the table while he was asleep, then woke him up. Motye grabbed the bread then almost fell down in fear. The bread did not move. It was fastened to the table. When he discovered the reason for this, he made this farewell speech to Suwalk:

“Even 'Fonye's' russkies did not treat bread like this at Port Arthur”. Motye tore the bread from the table with trembling hands; broke it into his bowl of creamed curds, ate it up, put on his

[Col. 497]

soldier's cap, gathered up the crumbs, kneaded them together, ate them up; pinned on his medals and left – disappearing forever. No trace of him was ever found?

Rebbe Fishl, the “Frenchman”. A man in his eighties. He was a wheat merchant. One of Napoleon's dearest friends that he had ever had in the world. His knowledge of French served the entire city. Rebbe Fishl had been in France in 1871 – until the end of the Paris Commune or rather the French Revolution. He never tired of telling about those glorious bloody days on the streets of Paris. About the Parisian commune and of his personal acquaintances who were part of it. And, one never tired of hearing his stories of the roasted mice which he had eaten to keep body and soul together…Delicate people knew at what point he would begin to tell about the mice and they would make a getaway. But we youngsters would listen to these stories eagerly, and in return, Fishl would give us candies and would let us use his bath houses on the “Black Hannah” for free.

Beynish the “philosopher”. A rich lumber merchant who used to eat candy and read the “Kuzari” during prayers with such devotion that he would burst into song. That is why he was called “the philosopher”.

Moshe Punsker, the feldsher.He had a nasal voice, did not move without his bag which contained his equipment, such as cups [for cupping], a jar of leeches, thermometers, an enema, boards, castor oil, Valerian, bandages. He was the best-loved man in town and according to the doctors; he knew more about medicine that modern doctors with university degrees. I remember well how he helped us in every instance of sickness, not only with medicine, but with wonderful stories which helped us swallow the last drops of the bitterest medicines, and endure the heat of the cups. We do not have such hearty practitioners of folk-medicine any more.

Yehudah the bookbinder. A renowned trench man, who, between books would snatch a game of cards and eat up an entire goose, including the feet, washed down with 5-6 quarts of beer; go to say his afternoon prayers and come home hungry as a horse.

Moshe “Little Fiddle”. In his sixties, a dwarf as small as a six year old. He made his living as a letter writer for [illiterate] maid servants, writing documents at the magistrates and entertaining at celebrations where he would do tricks, such as,

[Col. 498]

writing with a pen held between his toes, and would eat colossal quantities of food. He used to explain his appetite this way: In the other world, people would be assembled from parts; organ-by-organ, and there were giant storehouses of hands, feet, heads, bowels, hearts, kidneys, intestines, stomachs, etc. He was put together very small and he was sent to get a stomach. When he went into the stomach storehouse, he saw, hanging from the wall, thousands of stomachs of all sizes. Since he was so small, the only stomach he could reach was the longest one there as he could not reach up to the smallest.

We also had R'Ayzik, the gravedigger, who lived at the cemetery on the other side of the river.

Although only he was the gravedigger, the entire family was called “the gravediggers”, including the grandchildren and in-laws. He was a dear person, with a beautiful white beard; good natured and kind. His house was on the cemetery grounds on the other side of the Taharah-shtibl [where bodies would be cleansed and shrouded in preparation for burial, according to Jewish law]. His door was always open and anybody would be welcome to his household goods, the dresser, the large clock with the wooden works made by Gavriel Slup, the sleeping bench, the cupboard where, behind the glass doors, stood his Passover beakers and his old spice-box, and the pictures of his American relatives on the walls – real “lords”. Two of his sons left “without a fare-thee-well”[6] One was a Bundist; the other a Communist. Nevertheless, they were also nicknamed “the gravediggers” even though they were both tailors – good hearted souls, the two of them.

Since we're talking about the gravedigger, we must also mention one famous member of the Hevra Kadisha, David Punsker. He would take special charge of dead children and put the tiny bodies in the giant pockets of his burnoose, which he wore summer and winter. He was a giant of a man, and when we would meet him on the street, we would step aside – frightened.

We should also mention Sarah the granny. The famous midwife who delivered thousands of children, not with instruments, but with her knobby hands and with the most beautiful folk-tales. When she died, her body was accompanied to the grave by her thousands of “children”, all carrying candles in their hands.

Now we come to R'Moshe the watchmaker. He knew by heart all of the chronicles of the Polish “povstanie”, with all of its heroes and deeds. He would talk and tell stories day and night, until he lost touch

[Col. 499]

with the boundaries between fact and fantasy. Once, during the war, a bomb fell not far from his “business”. He was sitting bent over a clock with his magnifying lens on his eye. At the time the bomb fell, he was telling about the famous Jewish “Povstanets”, - Yonah the Fisherman, who used to smuggle arms from Prussia via the rivers and lakes. Because of the shock of the explosion, R'Moshe the watchmaker bit off the tip of his tongue and it fell into the saucer of benzine on his table. Moshe the watchmaker had a special “physiological” approach to clocks. For example, if a solider bought a pocket watch of the “onion” variety and would come the next day and complain “What happened? My watch has stopped”. Moshe would look at him calmly and ask: “Tell me the truth. Didn't you hold it out in the cold?” The Greek[7] would scratch his head and answer: “Tak totshno - - I did”. “So you stupid ox, the watch caught cold!”.

* * *

Christians were mixed and mingled in Jewish life. I must mention one of them named Adam. He was a patcher[8] and worked for the Khanavitshes – the military tailors, who had a widely branched family in Petersburg. Adam spoke Yiddish well, said the blessing over bread, could chant the Kiddush [over wine] and would say the prayer over the tsitsit[9] with the children. When he had a disagreement with Jews, he would avoid the judiciary, but bring his case to the rabbi. “How the rabbi will judge, so is good”.[10]

The Strazshniks (Police) used to come for schnapps and honey cake every Sabbath. I remember how the policeman who used to patrol near our house (near the post office) used to let me polish his gun and teach me the “Torah” of the revolver, and when he would take a nap in our store, we would stand guard [to wake him] if we saw his superior officer approaching.

The mistress of the vice-governor, Madame Tatartshikova, lived on the top storey of our house. She was so close to Jews that through her, we were able to settle all kinds of Jewish affairs in the governor's council and also to get to the “Voyinske Natshalnik”.[11] and redeem Jewish children from the draft with “Katerinkes” (hundred rubble coins).

All the Germans lived in our neighbourhood. Their church was opposite our house and Pastor Ridl was my German teacher. One Sunday, while hunting pigeons, I and another

[Col. 500]

brat, threw a rock into a window of the church. The rock fell on the Pastor's prayer book. Can you imagine that 52 years ago, we were able to settle the matter without a pogrom, but only with a simple: “Please forgive us, Herr Pastor”.

Of my melamdim and teachers, I must mention my Rebe named Lerner. A scholarly Jew with an iron head, who knew all of Bialik's poems by heart. He taught Bible, Hebrew literature, arithmetic, grammar, even “nature studies”. In the afternoon, we had a special teacher – a Christian – for Russian and German.

There was another melamed named Burde. He knew Hebrew grammar very well. He would forget to come to prayers. He had an assistant named Reuven, who was exiled in the “fifth year” [1905?] to Siberia. He used to take us children to the Arcadia to swim and taught us to cry out: “Doloy” and only the tune of the Marseillaise, because he did not know the words.

There was a “Heder-me-tukan”[12], where Hebrew was taught in the Hebrew language, and a Jewish gymnasium which did not last long.

There were two trade schools for Jews. The language of instruction was Russian and the teachers, Mariampolski and Robinzon wore hats with cockades and were considered government officials. I attended such a school, which I loved, especially because of my teacher who had studied a great deal of Russian literature and would recite whole chunks of the classics by heart. We used to sing accompanied by a violin and, in 1910, they began the teaching of Yiddish language and writing, two hours a day.

The Ledvinavski's were the maskilim[13] of town; one a bookkeeper – the other a teacher, also my teacher. His house was the home of every rebel. He taught us mathematics, French, Polish and German. Before that war[14], we studied Lithuanian with the Lithuanian teacher, Kubulius, who knew Yiddish better than many present-day Jewish communal leaders.

The Ledvinavski [Ledvinovski] home was a meeting place for “Reds”, gymnasia students, externs[15] and students on leave. There the plans were made for the future liberated world.

Suwalk had a street called “Moshe the Carpenter's street” where the working class concentrated. On one side of the street was the “Mali-Ratsek”, whole quarter of the greatest poverty, the professional beggars, coachmen, poorest artisans and tramps. Not far away were the large leather factories. All of these would spread a bad smell for miles around, but the Jews would argue – “A smell that gives bread is sweet”.

As in a dream, I remember bits and pieces of the fifth year [1905?] when my father had to leave for America and my uncles would hide in our big antique clothes closet. Demonstrations, torchlights, shooting, killings by police and Cossacks, red flags, the Marseillaise, expropriations, riots by the military and the word: “Siberia” filled masses of Jewish homes.

The government rabbi, Zeligman, lived in our house. He was a very well educated, worldly man whom everyone liked and treated with respect. His son, Yosef Khatskel, then a student, (later director of the Riga Bank, of a gymnasium, and editor of “Golos Bielostoko”) was a fiery revolutionary. A sentence from one of his speeches in that year is still in my memory. He thundered forth:

“See how the barbarian Chinese knew how to revolt against the accursed old regime while you, cultured Russians, have not been able to achieve it up to now”.

Such words cut like knives, incited the passions and led to demonstrations and barricades.

Since it was a border town, Suwalk had a large military presence. The well-dressed officers and their ladies, the officials and the large number of government appointees, gave it a certain presence.[16] They knew little of Jews. In addition, the large lumber business, the nearby border, smuggling of contraband, the leather industry and the fisheries, altogether, brought wealth into the town, which grew, was beautified, built up and spread out in length and width.

Various banks sprang up. Private banks of the Shaynmans and the Glikshteyns – the Riga Bank, a Polish commercial bank, a Polish gymnasia was built (the Commerce School), which began to breed the disease of anti-Semitism in the neighbourhood, but which did not infect the general population until the Polish occupation of 1919-1920.

[Col. 502]

Until 1918, the cultural centre of town was the library – a room in the community council, where the youth would congregate to borrow Yiddish and Hebrew books, and where the intellectual boys and girls would become acquainted with each other. There was another kind of cultural centre - the newspaper sellers – not far from the church on the Peterburg Street, where people would wait impatiently for the train bearing the “Haynt”, “Moment”, “Birzshevie Viedomosti”, “Retsh”, “Berliner Tageblatt”, and the “Fosishe”.

People used to subscribe to these newspapers in partnership, read them thoroughly and look for hidden meanings even in the advertisements. There were commentators on the political news, like Rabbi Itshe, a fiery German patriot, whose foot had never stepped on German soil even though it was almost next door. His opponent was Khanavits, the military tailor who had the most beautiful daughters in the province, whom he had married off to young men from Peterburg, Jewish “Russkies”, like oak trees who besides “Shema Yisrael”, did not know anything of Jewishness.

When the debate would heat up between these two darling Jews, the crowd would gather around them and each side had its supporters. My father, peace upon him, was on the Russian side and my grandfather, may he have a shining Paradise, was on the German side, and I was neutral, but -----------------


Translator's Footnotes

  1. God protect our Czar Return
  2. Obviously there is some special derogatory meaning in the changed pronunciation of the last word, but I don't know Russian or Polish. The first two words mean God & Czar Return
  3. That is what the word seder ---- means, but it does not make too much sense, even though the “Arcadia” is probably a conservatory Return
  4. These were the “cantonists” taken into service as young boys, who began their service at age 18, and served the Czar for 25 years. Many of them died – some were converted to Christianity and only the fit survived Return
  5. Was unable to find word “okolishok in Yiddish or Polish Return
  6. The text reads: “on-a-zayt” which I take to mean: “on-a-zayt-mir gezunt”, which I translated as: “without-a-fare-thee-well”, but the description does not seem to fit. Return
  7. Derogatory word for solider Return
  8. Patched clothing? Return
  9. Ritual fringes Return
  10. Attempt to follow text where word Paskenen, which means make judicial decision, is given as Pashn – Adam's mis-pronunciation Return
  11. I could not find the translation of this Return
  12. A modern Hebrew school Return
  13. Enlightened Jews Return
  14. World War I? Return
  15. Students working for diplomas via examinations Return
  16. Lliterally, patronized taste? Return

[Col. 503]

Melamdim (Teachers)

Moshe Shelomi-Fridman

The experiences of a Jewish household in Poland are those of a world which has been destroyed. But, in my memory, the faces of those who were annihilated and the images of my destroyed home town live again, exalted in love and gentleness.

Here, before my eyes, is the kheyder (primary school) of Gotlib. He was a dardekey melamed (teacher of alef-beys) and we children were deathly afraid of him. He had a thin rod which fell upon our childish hands quite often. Nevertheless, he was a “Jewish bandit”. When a little boy would cry from pain, he would embrace him, hold him close, caress him and calm him with a smile.

Lerner, the melamed (teacher) was his opposite. He taught khumesh (Pentateuch). He was a thin, dark, frail man. He never smiled, but he was gentle and refined. My greatest punishment was a sorrowful glance from his dark eyes. I would feel than as if I were cutting short his span of life. But, this did not stop us smart alecks. We would attack the teacher's goat at every recess and so exhaust and frighten her that she would stop giving milk for hours – and our poor teacher needed it badly.

Lerner lived on Shul-gasse (Synagogue Street). In the same house, there also lived Robinson who would come to the kheyder three times a week to teach us Russian. We hated it, not because of the language, but because of …the dark. On those days when we stayed longer, it was already dark when we left for home. Of course, we each had a lantern with a candle, but what did you do when someone threw a snowball into your lantern and broke it?

Berman had a modern kheyder. He was in the same house where Rubbi Lurie z”l (may his memory be a blessing) had taught Hebrew in Hebrew, Hebrew literature, grammar and Bible. Berman was a blond man with a hot temper and he was always angry. He loved the Bible and his teaching was full of sweetness. Rabbi Berman used to invite us over on Saturday afternoons and have one of us read aloud from children's journals such as Bikurim and Iton Katan. He used to leave the room so that we would fee free, and he would come back only if there was a danger of a fight breaking out.

This teacher was already somewhat influenced by the spirit of modern pedagogy.


A kindergarten in Suwalki – at the end of the thirties


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