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[Col. 895]

This is How We Joked

Heshl Kovarsky

Translated by Janie Respitz




Here are some expressions that express the hardships and bitterness of our poverty in our Shtetl, that help illustrate the dire situation of the Jews.

Here, for example, a Jew complains:

“Twice a year, it is difficult for a pauper: summer and winter”

Another expression laughs with lizards and says: “A poor man's dairy pot never becomes a meat pot”.

The poor man met a rich man! He is happy because he never sees a piece of meat, so he runs to the Rebbe to ask what to do. But there is a problem: “The pauper's Kishke is a bag with holes”.

As much as he eats, he is never satisfied. The reality is, food is really just talking about food: “Lots of singing, but little noodles”.

So, therefore, this is what we say: “When a poor man makes a wedding, the dog gets a fever”. Thank God, in our treasure of folk sayings, we have this one for the preacher:

“God loves the pauper and helps the rich man”.

This is not, God forbid, a complaint against God, and not a curse, but as a law of nature. Maybe, who knows? If the Bible can make reference to this, why can't the folklore of the Jews of New–Sventzian do the same?

From the naked poverty that rings in all the holes is only one step. Here is another expression: “Problems appear first on your face”. And, “When problems don't appear on your face, they lay in your heart”. “The road paved with problems, is the road to the cemetery”. And finally: ”The narrow grave is a sure house”.

It happens, that poverty gets ugly, and it's difficult for one to battle against so much tragedy that cost him years. He then looks for a brother to join forces in his fight to earn a living. The next expression explains this with humour: “The ne'er do well and poverty, pay the teacher in cash”.

The poor man's disappointment is big! “Two paupers can't make one Shabbes”.

And: “Keeping the Shabbes is easier than making the Shabbes”.

Here is the evidence:

[Col. 898]

“When it rains gold, the pauper is standing under a roof”.

All of our sayings agree. They all talk about the hardships of the luckless. Everyone agrees that the luckless are like magnets that attract troubles. Here are 3 more sayings:

“When a luckless man slaughters a chicken––he goes”.

“When he winds a clock––he stands still”.

“When he has a wife, she goes into labour Erev Pesach”.

There are many types of luckless, quiet and hot headed. The first kind does not cry or complain. Rather, he knows: “When you get used to your problems, it's hard to part with them”. He also knows: “Bad luck and charm, cannot be bought in a store”.

He has made peace with his fate. There is nothing he can do to change it. “As far as you walk, you will never arrive at joy”. “To have bad luck, you must also have luck”.

The next saying talks about the second type: “You go to a wedding and forget the groom at home”.

Sometimes the luckless man makes a fuss, you think he can actually make changes in the world. Here is a saying about such a hot headed fool: “He accomplished so much, he shot the moon”.

[Col. 899]

Or: “Fool, where are you running? ––Let them think I'm doing business”. Or: “Don't worry, Grandmother is already married”.

Even in the ghetto under the Germans, the Jews of New–Sventzian did not stop telling jokes. These jokes were filled with bitterness and terror. There were expressions that showed we did not loose our sense of humour, even in the worst of times. No one is around who remembers all of them. Here are a few from those times:

[Col. 900]

“What's new Reb Hershl? What could be new. It's real and miserable–together––really miserable!”

It was remarkable in those days to see a Jew carrying a heavy sack on his shoulders. This was a topic for a joke: “What is he carrying in such a heavy Bag? The bag is full of sins. Sins? Yes, everything in his bag is a sin to throw away”.

Another time we would want to comfort him, and tell him help is on its way. He answers: “Salvation is behind our backs, but the angel of death is only in front of our nose”.

[Col. 899]

Cheders (Talmud Torah classes)
and Batei Midrash (synagogues and study rooms)

Max Shutan

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay




My father was Chaim–Faiva, my mother was Rochel Gutel. They had 3 sons, Shalom, Meir (el) and Gershon and 2 daughters, Chana and Miriam. They lived on Shul–Street, in a house that belonged to Rabbi Leib Schwartz. On the other side of the street lived Rabbi Ratzker. Very often we played and the Rabbi sat in his enclosed balcony and studied. He had a tradition of calling us over and examining the 4 corners of our prayer shawls. If everything was OK, he gave us candy.

At 6 years old I went to study in the cheder of Michal, the Shamash of the Chasidic Minyan. He lived on the Shul–Street, next to the fire station.

He was an old Jew, he could hardly see. He wore glasses held together with 2 strings wrapped around his eyes. On his table lay his Aleph–Bet (alphabet book) and he always held a large pointer with a large feather. The anticipation of my first day was great. At 10 in the morning mother arrived and the Rabbi was full of praises for me, so she threw me several kopekas (coins). The Rabbi then said, that the angel from heaven threw this at me, in order that I continue my studies. This was my first cheder. After the first year I knew the alphabet quite well,

[Col. 901]

then I was sent to another cheder, to Leib Schwartz, to Shmuel Gendel, the Sventzianer teacher, and to Eliahu Meir Katzkelavitch.

In our shtetl during the time of WW1, a Russian Folk– Shul opened and many Jewish children studied at this school. Father wasn't happy that we children should have a “goyishe” (gentile) upbringing, and after lunch he sent us to a teacher to study Hebrew, Tenach, Shulhan Aruch and a page of Gemara.

We also had a Talmud Torah in our town, the teacher was Shmuel Bikson. He was a Jew that loved to tell stories. We have to mention Yose the Shamash, from the small synagogue, that also had a small cheder. We had 3 synagogues in our shtetl. The large one, the small one and the Chasidic Minyan.

Saturday mornings and Friday evenings everyone went to his own synagogue, this was the tradition and all obeyed.

In the Large Synagogue there was a Gabbai Rabbi Shimson Berman and the Chazzan was Schulman.

However, the Chazan couldn't work together with the schochet, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, and he left New Sventzian and in 1912 arrived in Darfat (Estonia) where he served for many years as the Chazan–Shochet.

After his departure there was no shortage of cantors to lead the prayers, and many of the wealthy folk wanted to lead morning services.

[Col. 902]

From those times I remember the most well– known Balei Tefila was Rabbi Shmuel Nachum Kovarski, Chaim Yoniski, Yacov Rudnitski and Rabbi Leibe the shamash.

An interesting personality was Rabbi Dovid Ring. He loved to buy “blessings” and distribute them during the High Holidays and no one was able to convince him otherwise: he used to say that “with all the blessings our house will be full”.

The atmosphere in all the synagogues was joyful. If someone had a complaint, he slapped his hand, and we had to listen to the problem.

There was no shortage of Torah Readers. …

Naturally, there was often discord and it created unrest in the synagogue.

They screamed, didn't talk, became angry and upset, taking several hours until things calmed down.

The main speakers were: Eliahu Yosef Kovarski, Velvel Popiski, Dovid Ring and Chaim Leib Segalavitch.

This is how we conducted our lives in the shtetl until the first world War, Jews were involved in their business and their religious lives.

No one thought, that in another generation there would be destruction of the shtetl and in its place piles of ash and bones and the whole Jewish way of life would be annihilated and forgotten.




[Col. 903]

The House of Mendel the Schmidt (Blacksmith)

Leib Popiski

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

On Kaltinianer Street, between the small houses of Rafael the butcher and Yose the driver, was the house, slightly removed and on a higher foundation, built from sweat and tears. All around there was a fence, flowers planted in rows, high windows on all sides. The appearance of this house, stuck between the two neighbours' houses stood out, this was the house of Mendel the Schmidt. (Blacksmith)

In the autumn, when the skies were covered with its grey blanket, without a ray of sunlight, in the heavy rains, the water would pour without end into the valleys.

We often saw Mendel, in his high boots, standing in the middle of these waters and piling sandbags around his house, so the water wouldn't enter his workshop (smithy) where he had to work.

Two rows of stone, wooden boards and quite primitive bags filled with sand made an entrance to his house.

Behind his house, in the valley was a substantial piece of land and after the first frost, it became a first class slide (for the children's sledding) , which” called and beckoned” the Jewish children of the shtetl,” come use me”! Use me to your heart's content!

One Friday, when the frost crunched and crackled underfoot, Areyeleh, on his way to his grandfather Moishe–Chloine for a little Gemara learning, peaks past Budken's two bare trees, looking at their nakedness with pity, remembering better days–summer, when you could enjoy yourself. Oy, those bad thoughts! You are everywhere! Do not remain here, do not dream of this! It is still winter! Leave the poor tree alone,

[Col. 904]

he is not going to give you anything! Your questions are worthless. A slide is not for a Jewish child? He berates me! Why are you haggling? Torah is Torah! Don't run away!

In a split second, Areyele, finds himself on one side of the street, and with steady feet is marching towards the sleigh run.

Near the doorway of Mendel's workshop, Areyele slows his pace, as he wants to avoid Mendel's eyes lest he sees him. No wagons are passing by! But, Chaim, the tailor's son fell and hit his head last year and after a few days died. From this time, no more children here! This were Mendel's warning!

Areyele is now in the valley behind Mendel's house. A freshly covered snow, soft like feathers, covers the slippery slide. He brushes off the snow, and takes a couple of runs. He is content!

––Areyele–a voice cries out–––What is this? Shabbos is fast approaching!

Areyeh freezes in his tracks, as if his boots are glued to the earth! He remains in his place: from where did this Jew suddenly come from? Before Areyeh”s eyes the Jew appears, tall, black eyes with a smile on his laboured face. Soon, Areyeh's small hand was in Mendel's, bringing him to his house and helping cross the high wooden the sill.

It was already Shabbos when he found himself inside the house. He was surprised to see the order, the cleanliness, that was in every corner!

A pale, fine yellow sand covered the workshop. Every stone was its place, arranged according to the size of each stone.

[Col. 905]

I am standing here in amazement! After some time the door opens. A young woman, in a sleeveless short fur coat, her hand intertwined and her fingers trembling from the cold enters.

Her black hair shines, her braids are woven with a red ribbon and tied back in a bow.

––father–she says–bring the visitor inside. He is going to freeze.

This is Sorke, I sense in my heart, barely able to catch my breath, a little cold air finally brings me to my senses.

Yes, the same Sorke that goes to school with me, and is in my class, the same red cheeks, the same beautiful face, always dressed in a clean white apron. Always happy and cheerful, with a bashful smile on her face. She even played hide and seek with us and when the young lads needed a fifth to fill in, she was always was willing to participate: she was like one of the boys.

Without standing on ceremony, Sorke opened the door and invites me in. Areyeh looks around the room, which is filled with the “shine” of the Shabbos light. He looks around, the entire length of the room which was covered with planks, some colored. He notices two small doors, in another color, which must lead to the bedrooms. On the left of the entrance was a large baking oven, next to it a smaller one, which was probably to warm the house. They were hidden behind a wall hanging. To the right of the door, there was a table on 4 legs on which stood a jug with a wooden cover. A cooper pot all shiny, awaits the guest with fresh water to drink.

On the other side is a table covered with a white damask tablecloth, sparkling white, woven in a small box design, and by the walls are two colored benches colored.

There are also some small tables and a stool.

Leah'ke is standing at the table, Sorke's older sister, preparing the table. She places the candle sticks, which are polished and sparkling.

She is careful when lightening the candles, so that the wax does not drip.

[Col. 906]

Laah'ke places the two braided challahs on the table, which she baked early in the morning for the Shabbos and covered them with a cover embroidered with a Shabbat blessing.

In the middle of the room, on the eastern wall hung two pictures of good pious Jews, with beards and payot, and felt hats on their heads. Another picture of a Menorah, with an inscription: Menorah from the Great Synagogue.

–––Sore'la–Mendel says to his daughter.

–––Ofer a glass of tea to our guest, he must be frozen through and through, he needs to warm himself.

She goes to bring him the glass of tea, as her father requested.

Leah'ke is waiting at the table ready to bless the candles (bench licht) , lights first one, then the other, quietly murmuring to herself, probably the “bracha”. She covers her eyes, several tears are flowing down, just like a true Yiddishe “mama”.

Mendle and Areyeh enter, kissing both mezzuzahs.

Mendle then slips out and goes to attend his Minyan. Under God, everyone is created equal. We are all his Children! Mendel's sacrifice, he wants to make peace before he is welcomed to the other world. He takes his seat, which he has for many years.

The Aliyahs for the Shabbat and holidays are of little consequence. He listens, trembling, God forbid he has bad thoughts! Whichever Aliyah them give him, is fine, as long as he can perform another Mitzvah and make another blessing on the Torah.

These are the “Mendels”, devoted Jews, good with warm hearts, that were murdered by the Nazi murderers together with their Lithuanian, Polish, Latvian, Ukrainian helpers, in the most bestial manner!

[Col. 907]

Shabbos and Week days of my childhood

Shalom Shutan

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay


Shalom Shutan


In memory of my parents: Rochel Gitel and Chaim Faive , my sister, Chana and her family, my brother Gershon and his family

The” pride” between my mother and my father, how to teach us children, is etched in my memory. Our father, a religious Jew, like others, didn't understand, that children and young adults needed to know Yiddishkeit first. To learn Hebrew was necessary in order to daven, to make a blessing before eating and drinking, and in order to say the night–time prayer. When we got older we needed to know the parasha of the Chumash. A little Tenach and a page of the Gemara. Of what importance is it to “write” a letter in Yiddish, Hebrew and even an English address? Elia Meir or Shmuel Hendel, and others are there to teach us!

Mother had different ideas! She wanted us children to learn Yiddishkeit, not only to write a Yiddish letter taught by the teachers, but to learn Russian or world history. We cannot rely on these teachers (Meladim). In order to be all equal with all people, today's children have to go to school to learn the necessary curriculum. In our shtetl the children had to attend Russian folk shul together with the Christian children, then in the afternoons, they had (Meladim) teachers to instruct on Yiddish lessons.

Of all the memories I have, my first upbringing was (lesson) by the teacher Gutleib Schwartz from Shul–Street, he taught me Hebrew and later I went to study with Rabbi Leib the shamash of the Old Synagogue, who taught us Chumash, Tenach, and Gemara.

As the Shamash didn't teach writing, I later went to study with Shmuel Hendel,

[Col. 908]

who, besides teaching Yiddish studies also taught us to write. His cheder was at Dovid Sachar's house, in a back street off Kaltinianer Street.

Finally, father gave into mother's demands, and I started the Russian Folk–Shul until noon, and after that I went to study Tenach, Chumash and Gemara.

It was very difficult in the Russian school, like grammar, mathematics, geography and history. The tongue that was used to Yiddish, couldn't adapt very well to the Russian language. We felt like foreigners, we couldn't adapt easily.

Later under the German occupation, we were ordered to attend a German school in the German language. The teachers were Jews, and it was easier to understand.

Understandably, it sounded like a new dialect to us!

Another fight! Jewish children have to learn in their own mother–tongue, Yiddish! My sisters and brothers were lucky to have this new school in Yiddish and to study in Yiddish.

[Col. 909]

After my sister Chana completed her studies she went to nursing school and then worked in the Jewish orphanage.


Shabbos in Shtetl and in the Synagogue

We welcomed the Shabbat with great pride. Fridays always appeared different than the other days of the week. Mother was occupied with the preparations for the Shabbat. The house was busy, Shabbat was our “guest”, and a guest must be received with a better meal. Mother was baking and cooking the entire day. We children had classes until noon. The house was sparkling clean, the white table cloth covered the table, and we put on our newer and clean clothing. When the sun set, mother blessed the candles, and we children went with our father to pray at the Old Synagogue. We returned home, with a “Sholem Aleichem” and a “Eshet Chayil” a woman of valor in honor of our mother, father said the “Kiddush” and the whole family sat for the festive meal, which consisted of, fish, meat and “kreplach” (meat dumplings) . Kaltinianer Street was quiet. In all the homes it was the Shabbat. The candles were flickering in the windows, as if they were all rejoicing with the Shabbat.

Shabbos morning we went to pray.

The two synagogues are nearby, one on Kaltinianer street, the other on Shul Street. We children were not so concerned with the praying, we were more interested in our childhood games. We are running around and making noise. We studied the parasha the entire week! The Haftarah was sung on Friday with a heartfelt nigun in cheder. Our fathers needed to race for their Aliyahs. These are not our worries now!

We discussed where to linger about, after lunch when mother–father take their dreamy little nap. Where can the Jewish children go? The only place where we didn't fear the Christian children was at the mill in Finfelka. At the edge of Kaltinianer street, a leap across the rails of the small train line and next to Dovid Ring's house, which is on Baranover Street, next to the larger rail lines and we are arrived in the Finfelker woods. The manager of the mill was Dovid–Ber, his first wife was Malka. They had 1 daughter, Sura Hiena,

[Col. 910]

who married Shimon–Ruben Kovarski, after her mother's death. His second wife was called Badane and they had 2 sons our age and we went on this journey with them.

This journey to the woods in summertime was a great pleasure. The birds were singing, the squirrels sprang from tree to tree, the cuckoos squealed with a koo–koo, the red wild strawberries and the black berries were so plentiful, that grew on low bushes. We stretched out on the grass and we swallowed those berries!

Shabbos was quiet in Finfelke. The mill is resting, the wheels are not making noise, the water tires them out. The river Zemiane is running quietly, gracefully.

When Dovid Ber died, Finfelke was taken over by Michal Yafe, who we called Michal the Miller. Michal's family consisted of 2 daughters: Gitel and Chana, and 4 sons. Yosel, Tevia, Abraham and Benjamin. His children didn't work at the mill. Their fate was tragic. Bandits started a fire and he and his wife were burned together with the house.

When the sun started to set , I remembered we had to return home. We were tired from our Saturday outing. We indulged in a very cold flask of water on the way home.

Saturday ends, our hearts are lonely. We return to the shtetl to go pray Mincha. Until it got dark, the Mincha started. Jews were standing in all corners and speaking. I can't make out their faces, but I recognize them by their voice. On the long table small lamps are sparkling and the Tehilim (Book of Psalms) are read by Yehuda–Moishe the Schmidt.

We can hear a bang on the table by Rabbi Leib shamash, that Ma'ariv is beginning. A voice with wailing tones says” He has mercy”

After the eighteen benedictions the synagogue lights up. Rabbi Leib says the Havdalah after the prayers and we, young ones, push to drink some wine. We wish one another: Have a good week! We leave the synagogue and we say good bye to the Sabbath.

Our mother, at home, ends the Sabbath with saying: God of Abraham, Yitzhak and Yacov”. Father comes home from the synagogue with a warm good week”

[Col. 911]

Our mother answers, a god week and a prosperous week”. A healthy week! And I think, too bad, another week!


Three years of German Occupation

In September 1915 the German occupied New–Sventzian.

They didn't care that New–Sventzian didn't belong to the front, but the war had an impact on our daily lives. Food, like other things, were confiscated. They left a ”note” when they took away these products, instead of money, often with a text “ for a 2 legged pig, we took a 4 legged pig”.

A period of forced labour began. We had to provide workers for all the importants orders, like digging trenches, load and unload all products for the military, also provide workers at the depot to repair the railroad lines, and bring the articles of the military from the small station to the larger one.

For this work the following were always taken: Sholem Shutan, Chaim Elia Tzepelovitch, Shabtai Shmuelevitch, Schmuel Broide, Elia Kulback, Mendel Tzinman, Asriel Itzikson, Dovid Levine, Berl Umbrash.

On the train the workers were: Yekutiel Ring, Leizer Ring, Hirch Zeplovitch, Meirim Shutan, Tevia Yafe

Newspaper –sellers: Yacov Scvartz, Sura Antelept,


Jewish railroad workers during the First World War

Sitting from the right: Mendel Tzinman, –––––,
Standing: Shabtai Schmuelevitch, Leizer Ring

[Col. 912]

Jewish railroad workers in New–Sventzian during WW1

Yacov, –––, Eltshik Tzepelovitch, Yacov Scvartz, Eltshik Kulback, Shloime, –––, Shabtai Schmuelevitch, Sholem Shutan, Kasriel Itsikson


Those that had to do the maintenance of the railroad were: my brother Gershon Shutan, and Dvoretski worked as a waiter in the canteen.

In the large labour camps the Russians worked, the Jewish prisoners were friends with the Jewish youth. They would come with the German guards to the Jewish homes. They were often invited as guests[1] to Jewish families for the holidays. In New–Sventzian, as in other towns, the military command was the exclusive authority. Later, there was a representative in charge of the civilian population. The representative chose representatives from the Christian and Jewish communities to help him with the administrative duties.

The Jewish representatives were Zavl Bernstein–chairman, Chaim Gordon, Elia Elperin, and Leib Kovarsky. Th Jewish police was: Zalman Maimon. Rafael Shutan ran the fire brigade. The German occupation during the first World War was difficult. The attitude to the population was brutal, forced labour, hunger, illness, typhus and annihilation of those sick with Typhus. In 1918, when the Germans left the region, I went with my brother Mayrim and Leizer Ring to work on the trains in Germany, and lived there until 1934. With the rise of Hitler in Germany, I returned to New–Sventzian.

  1. German soldiers were billeted in the home of Raitza (Gilinsky) and Schlomo Yavnovitch in Kobylnik during WW1 (see Kobylnik Addendum: Autobiography of Meir Yavnovitch) Return

[Col. 913]

The Yadisker (from Yadi/Yodi)

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

Not far from New Sventzian, a small shtetl called Yadiski was located.

In this shtetl lived Rabbi Shimon Rutsteyn with his family, sons and daughters. The family had strong ties to New–Sventzian because of the shopkeepers, which lived there.




Friendly and homely was” Chone or (Chanoch) Rutsteyn” to all the Jews of New Sventzian. Always hopeful and full of life, he lived in harmony with all. With most he was intimate and full of giving. His friends found him always eager and ready to undertake everything, even through hard times.

For the high holidays, the family of Rabbi Shmuel went to New–Sventzian. They prayed in the Old, later called the Larger Synagogue.

Later 2 sons moved to New–Sventzian. Yacov and his wife Chasia and son Hirsch on Sventzianer Street, Ahron Leib and his wife Yehudit and children: Chaia, Zelig, Teiba, Chana and Devorah on Kaltinianer street.

The “Yodishker”, excelled in 2 areas, friendly and peaceful. Living in such a small village, the love for the land was rooted in them. Their grown children in the shtetl also possessed those traits.

He was involved with the fire fighters. He was a Zionist organizer. He was a culture–activist. He took part in the school and library building. He was an organizer in the drama club and even as an actor.

[Col. 914]

Even his 2 daughters Teiba and Devorah followed in his footsteps. Teiba was active in the drama club and took part in many plays until she left New–Sventzian for South Africa. Even Devorah, the youngest, followed in this manner.

The older brother Zelig, who didn't have any economic advantage, later on, when he was in South Africa, showed his energetic and devotion in his quiet and unspoken ways. He always was ready to attend the needs of those who survived the trauma of the Holocaust from our region.




Like his younger brother, “Zelig Rutsteyn”, also showed his love for our shtetl, to his family, and to his friends. His practicality, his energy, his beliefs were in all that he did. Not only for individuals but also for groups, his help was for all Sventzianers. Even in his new home, he performed his devoted duties.

A warm and heart–felt family, simple, not seeking the limelight, without seeking recognition, they performed their holy deeds for the community.

Cut down by the Lithuanian and German wild animals: the younger active–committee member Chan (och) or Chone Rutsteyn and his sister Devorah.

Zelig died prematurely in South Africa.

May his memory not be forgotten!

[Col. 915]

The Melody of Youth Work

by Israel Manor

Translated by Meir Razy

Quick Childhood Impressions

The most memorable image etched in my mind is the snow on winter nights, white snow forms impressions of small houses. The snow crunches under the foot, illuminated by a white light and a long, meandering road. The black forest spreads out on both sides of the road on the outskirts of the town. I see the town in the fall - the mud, the rain, the gloom.

Saturday evening: My mother's mother blesses the candles, singing her regular tune. She looks like she is always dressed in the same gray, simple dress. Her eyes are intelligent and calm. She is withdrawn and always has a smile on her lips.

The grandfather enters. In winter he wears slippers, takes water from the barrel with a heavy zinc dish and washes his hands and is always groaning. His beard is yellowish, his face is lined, his eyes look tormented, and he is always hurrying, restless. He was a Lubavitcher Chassid who never knew what happiness was. Even on the Simchat Torah night in the synagogue, when he danced with the Torah, his joy was mixed with pain. He always hurried to assist whenever anyone was in trouble; he rejected all the pleasures of life. He felt that he had to settle for a small lamp and dried bread.

This man seemed to have a greater affinity to nature and animals than to humans. Indeed, it seemed to me that he was comfortable only with the domestic animals – a goat, a cow, chickens and a cucumber bed. In the summer, when he was not rushing to his sons' stores and helping them (one son owned a grocery store and had a talent for acting, another had a shoe store and had a purebred dog in his yard) he enjoyed sitting in the garden. He was complaining about the heat and cooling himself by waving a newspaper at his face. It seemed that only then was he relaxed.

A big chest of drawers, a magical world for a child, stood in the dining room. A bundle of silver coins from the Tsar's period, coins with a special smell, were kept in one of the drawers, and I, the boy, often had to fight my desire to pull a few coins from the bundle. Nevertheless, the temptation was intense. Once I almost slipped one coin into my pocket, exactly at the time that he appeared. I could barely close the drawer.

My father's father's house, built entirely with red bricks, stood in the town's main square.

In the evening of a winter day, he walked heavily through the corridor into the dining room, which was crowded with heavy furniture.

[Col. 916]

He would rub his hands, quietly uttering the word “Barechen”, a word that could not be translated into any language, a magic word that supposedly solved every problem and involved a kind of nullification of everything. He sat at the big table that held a big samovar, and then the other word: “Nu”, which also has no meaning except in Yiddish, and its essence is both a question and an answer, would come out. Then he sipped his tea and listened to whomever was in the room, and again - “Barechen”. He liked to stand in front of the mirror that was hanging on the wall and comb his black-silver beard. He used to slowly comb his beard whenever something bothered him, and paced slowly and heavily through the room. I do not remember him ever showing a sign of irritation.

Yet it was a vital man who enjoyed a hearty meal, material goods and afternoon naps. He preferred common sense over any eccentric approach to life, including education.

He was fond of a number of folk sayings, through which he clarified human behavior to himself and to others. In addition to the famous “Barechen” he liked to say: “When a dog snaps the cake, it indicates that the cake deserved that”.

When the two of them met - my paternal grandfather and my maternal grandfather, the “Mitnaged” (=opposing the Chassidic movement in Judaism) and the “Chassid”, the two brothers-in-law, because my maternal grandmother was the sister of my father's grandfather - it was a borderline comic situation. One talked fast and nervously, his mouth shot out broken words and sentences, predicting only blackness, and became irritated by the silence of the other. And the other one - sat back comfortably, almost motionless, thinking slowly, and did not even utter the word “Barechen” that, I have no doubt, floated somewhere in his mind.

His wife was a quiet woman, very kind and active. She was always busy but never in the frenzy of doing anything. Always dressed in a gray or dark-brown dress, her face was showing that she was very intelligent and her heart was open to everyone. She was always ready to feed any poor person. She was ready to feed us, the children, from morning to evening and loved the abundance of food and the cooking in abundance, even when their financial situation was precarious. If the word of the grandfather was “Barechen”, her word was “Eat!” and it was always said with a good spirit. She tended to be modest but she actually managed the whole house wisely.

[Col. 917]

She projected motherhood, but without any traces of prominence or the desire of being authoritative. This type of a woman is rare.

One night, when our grandfather was visiting our town, an urgent telephone call came from his town. The phone said that the grandmother was mortally ill; in fact she was no longer alive by then. She died a sudden death, and I have the memory of seeing him through the open door of the children's room, I was about ten years old at the time, standing in front of the mirror in the corridor, combing his beard, not showing any emotion.

It seems to me that even on his final journey, when everyone was driven to the town square or driven out of the town to the forest to be murdered, he walked slowly and heavily, withdrawn, his head tilted, resigned to his fate. They had a grocery store run by their daughters and we, the children, were attracted to the magic of the candies in tin boxes. When such a box was opened and the smell of candy spread through the air, it was like a holiday.

In a meandering street, a small, collapsing, wooden house stood as if it had already sunk into the ground. The door and windows were very low, as if they were touching the ground. One had to crouch down and descend a step or two to get inside.


The end of town life

In recent years, that is, before we left the town forever, that house was already locked. At the time, my father's and my mother's grandfather lived in this house. I remember him in a very vague way. He was about ninety years old when he died.

I vaguely remember his large beard, his unsteady movements, his penetrating eyes, and his tall, already bent figure. He was a typical patriarch, talked very little and was meticulous about his honor. His thin, lean, bent wife, whose head was always covered with a head kerchief, disappeared and vanished completely in his presence. One day he fell and died of old age. She died a year later of cancer.

My grandfather's house stood in the main square where farmers gathered on market days to sell their produce in the open air farmers' market. The air carried the odor of tar mixed with the smell of apples, pears, onions and garlic, and the whole area was filled with the sounds of cow mooing, horse neighing and geese honking, while the stone floor was getting covered with animal droppings.

In the summer, on Saturday afternoons, there was silence in the square. Life seemed frozen. Only flies buzzed and children darted on the steps in front of the shops and at the entrances to the houses.

[Col. 918]

And sometimes the word “Shkotzim” was uttered by an old man. Sometimes the word “Shkotzim” had a completely different flavor when one of the gentile boys suddenly appeared and threw a stone. A fight ensued, stones were thrown from both sides and hatred ignited. Even if these stones did not hit the body, they scratched the soul. Stones were thrown mostly near the railway station, at the end of the main street, the non-Jewish area.

The stationmaster or the conductor always stood on the platform of the railway station, sporting a red cap, waving his flag and watching the passing trains. There was something mysterious in the hat that hinted to unknown adventures in the distance.


It was over

Indeed, one evening, it seemed to be Saturday night, we went on a train like that but not to Vilna, where we lived and where we would return to after the visit with this grandfather or that grandfather, but to those unknown distances. We were not the only ones who set on the long trip. It seems to me that two other families where on the same train. The whole town, young and old, gathered. The platform was full of people who came to say goodbye, filled with emotions and nostalgia. Many wiped tears, others asked in a trembling voice to carry wishes of peace to the land of Israel. The Land of Israel was a place of the desire of the heart, the center of longing, the yearnings and the shore of hope. It seems that this exciting event was something of a fear, bordering on mysticism and holy rituals. Many left at later times. Many stayed.

Again - the mud in the fall, the snowy night, the heated stove, the “Barechen”, the “Nu”. Until a day came and everyone was taken to be exterminated. It seems that only the stationmaster in the red cap is still on his guard and the passing of time did not change him.

Indeed, when I have the opportunity to see Chagall's paintings, surrounded by poetic, falling snow, a goat, a cow, a falling house, a Jew holding the Torah scroll – an illusion is created that the town still lives somewhere and the famous synagogue in the town still stands on its hill! This may be the humble Hasidic synagogue where my grandfather danced with the Torah scroll with his tortured eyes. This may be the synagogue of the Mitnagdim, where everyone stood wrapped in their prayer shawls on Yom Kippur and sought to reduce the evil decree by weeping, prostrating, and crying out to Heaven.


Indeed, all this is over.

Only the smell of the chest of drawers, the coins, the “Barechen”, the slippers, sometimes floats into my consciousness! The shabby houses of Chagall, the Jew walking with his stick and his backpack over the rooftops, are all gone.

[Col. 919]

Yehushe Kovarsky, the Artist and his work

Kalman Lichtenstein

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay and Janie Respitz

One of those outstanding personalities of New Sventzian, we have to recognize the artist Yehushe Kovarsky, the son of Zalman and Chana Leia Kovarsky.

Yehushe was born in 1907. His father and uncles (brothers of his father) had the concession during the Czarist Regime over all the train stations, such as the stations, train cars, bridges, etc.

From an early age, Yehushe showed an interest in print making.

In 1924, he finished the gymnasia. His fate brought him to Eretz Israel. At 17 years old, he made Aliyah and arrived at the Kibbutz, and, as if it was meant to be, he started his artistic career influenced by the original Jewish light–motifs, taken from Biblical times: by chance in the Kibbutz, Yehushe befriended a Yemenite immigrant, a middle aged wonderful character. Through him images of King Solomon's Temple came to life: the Menorah, the Alter, whose forms, colors and contours were passed on to Yemenite Jews from generation to generation.

The Yemenite described, and Yehushe painted. This partnership lasted 2 years, the time he spent on the Kibbutz. This period left an indelible mark on Yehushe's artistic development, continuing to create a style of mystical, Jewish symbolism.

After leaving the Kibbutz, Yehushe spent a few years in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where he continued to develop his artistic talents.

[Col. 920]

Yehushe Kovarsky in front of one of his canvasses


In 1928, we see him again in Vilna. He now stands on the soil of his fate and life impulses. He studied in the Vilna Art Academy for 5 years (1928–1932). These were the years when his artistic personality was crystalized. The Classisism of Vilna's Academy did not blur his individual style. But it did not prevent his teachers from preparing an exhibition of his work. This was Yehushe's first exhibition, which took place in Vilna.

In 1933, Yehushe goes to Paris to further enhance his work. He visited galleries and met world masters, learned modern art, practically and theoretically. A total different experience happened at this time when he met the Japanese artist who introduced him to far Eastern art.

[Col. 921]

His efforts were concentrated since 1924–1927, not in far, but in near, in the Jewish East. In 1935 he settled in Eretz Yisrael. That same year, his second exhibition took place in Tel Aviv. From 1935–939 he created many interesting paintings of Israeli landscapes, types and personalities of the young pioneers and also of the old communities.

He did not rest on his laurels. He left Tel Aviv and settled in Safed, the old home of mysticism and Kabbalah. Up high in the Galilee the artist would spend the next 5 years, in 1940–1945. It was during this period he produced many paintings expressing a deep Jewish world.

In contrast to his melancholic Galilee period, he later refreshed in his Samarian period, when he moved to the beautiful, green vineyard colony.

[Col. 922]

From Zikhron Yacov. Here he found sunny variants for his creations.

In the early years of the independent Israel 1944–1950 he began to paint warnings of the abysmal contemplations (probably a period of darkness that followed after the second World War) which will be shown at his third exhibition in Tel Aviv in 1950.

This new chapter would take form in his American period. In 1951 he was invited to America to exhibit his work in a few galleries and museums.

Lastly: Let us remember, Yehushe Kovarsky was a loving Lithuanian Jew, strongly tied to his Shtetl, to his extensive family and to New–Sventzian Jews, who were dear to him and who remained alive and prevail in his work until today.


Painting by Yehushe Kovarsky


[Col. 923]

New–Sventzian, My Home Town

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

Edited by Rhoda Miller

In disheveled fever– nights, you are still meaningful, my dear little shtetl with your long days and early evenings. I see your low houses with your great Jewish poverty and joyful Jewish holidays, your small streets that smelled of kneaded bread and brined cucumbers, with its beautiful skies, with your fragrances, herring and Jewish self– confidence.

I see the faces and the stares of your Chassidic Jews, its craftsmen, the boys and girls thirst for education which filled the air with their proud Jewishness from the Folk–Shul, and the resonating sounds of the Hebrew language of the Tarbut Shul.

I hear their voices and the night is filled with sounds of unrest–as from the awakening of springs and summers, they disappear in a single breath, lost with the knowledge of what was to come: with their hidden footsteps through concealed plains.

A Holy flame is now lit before our eyes, even from those that sang revolutionary songs and also from those that sang “Our hope has not yet been lost…”

My New Sventzian, you are soaked in Holy blood, you are now a site of devastation, and the earth beneath you still burns from “Holiness”, from the shadows of 80 years of Jewishness of your thousands of proud Jews from all the surrounding towns who were sent to Poligon. Who is going to bring you back and rebuild you? My Holy shtetl, you were devastated to your foundation and have become a frightened tombstone. The mass grave! the thousands that perished in Poligon from all the surrounding shtetls, who is going to replace and rebuild you, my holy town, you are famous only for your mass grave.

My dear, Holy Jews of New–Sventzian:

I know, I will never again see your faces again, I will never have the opportunity to see you again. You will never cease to appear before my eyes, full of light that glows from generations of Yiddishkeit.

I hear your voices and I stand ashamed for your premature death, you gave me the strength to live and I remind myself of the debt I owe, that gives me purpose(continuance) and gratitude. Each day I feel your suffering and from that I draw my strength so that your last days will not be in vain.


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