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[Pages 369-371]

The Death of Devorele

by Zadie Chodaker

Translated by Sandy Bloom

Notes: The given name of the author of this chapter is not known; he just uses the Yiddish word for “grandfather.” The Chodak family was related by marriage to the family of Devorah Silberberg, the subject of this chapter. Devorah's sister Charna was married to Asher Chodak. Also, a village near Shumsk was called Chodak. This chapter was originally written in Yiddish and was translated to Hebrew by Dr. Gita Gluskin, then to English by Sandy Bloom with assistance from Rachel Karni.

 

I was born and grew up in Shumsk. My family was among the poor families of the town.

I studied in the cheder (school) and lived in the house of the rebbi (teacher) and his wife. In payment I had to help in the house: to remove the slop water, to watch the children of the rebbi and his wife, and shop for the family at Haim Aharon's store on the hill. The rebbi didn't spare his rod and he hit me with his leather belt while insulting and shouting at me. So I didn't have an easy life.

I also attended a Russian school in which the teacher seemed to enjoy hitting us, with his ruler or bare hands, for every small infraction. He especially hit the Jewish children if he found that someone wrote Yiddish songs in his notebook, or carried Hebrew-language books.

By the time I was 15, I was rather educated and knowledgeable for my generation. As “proof” of this my father hired me out to Mrs. Golda[1] from the Obych village near Shumsk, who employed me to teach her children for a salary of 25 rubles a term. I was a real modern teacher and taught the children to read Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian too. I also taught them Chumash with Rashi, Tanach, how to recite the prayers, how to say the blessings and recite the Shema, and other subjects which I wanted to know more about. In addition I had my chores: to take out the slop water, prepare feed for the cow and walk through the entire length of the village with a basket to buy eggs and other staples for business.

I was very happy when the Communist Revolution broke out in 1917. I was so happy that my heart almost leapt with joy. Everything in the hands of the common people! Everyone equal, no more privileged classes! No differences between Jews and non-Jews! We would all walk hand in hand to create a new world full of light, happiness and wealth. I marched together with all the others, holding hands in a huge demonstration with red flags, overjoyed and beaming with happiness. I sang the anthem so loudly that I became hoarse.

No more Czar! No more property owners! No more slaves, no more differences between Jew and non-Jew, and no more “cursed Jews.” All are equal! Very quickly I understood that I must not watch from afar; instead, my place was with the revolutionary army. With great enthusiasm I found myself among the ranks of the revolutionaries as a volunteer deep in Russian territory in the large commercial city of Saratov, on the banks of the Volga.

For family reasons I was allowed to return home to Shumsk. In the meantime the pogroms against the Jews had begun so I remained in my hometown. I was a member of a small weak self-defense organization in the town, headed by someone called Sender Millman. This organization was sometimes able to help in situations that were not really dangerous. We, a group of dozens of young men who were able to bear arms, would gather together to protect the Jews. One day I saw Avraham, a relative of ours, run out of his house half-naked to protect Jews near the dam. His beautiful dark-haired 18-year-old daughter Devorah ran after him shouting sadly, “Father, I beg you, come back! Don't make us miserable!” But Avraham, the son of Yoel-Zelig, ran to save people; he didn't realize how dangerous it was.

At the same time, a man on horseback wearing a strange-looking fur hat could be seen on the road near the house of Yisroel-Avraham Kotler. The man aimed his gun at Devorele and shouted in a drunken voice, “Shut up, little Jew-girl.” Devorele seemed to obey the man and was silent, but then she stumbled and fell to the ground. I ran to her and saw a pool of blood around her. She looked at me silently with her large brown eyes. I will never forget the strange expression on her face. “Help me get up,” she said, but blood spurted from her mouth and nose when I took her in my arms, brought her into the house and lay her on the bed. Then the blood burst even more powerfully from her mouth and nose and flowed on her body. The bed was wet with her blood.

The elderly doctor, Dr. Jakobson, determined that the bullet had penetrated her left breast and exited through her shoulder. There was nothing he could do to save her.

 


Dr. Jakobson of blessed memory

 

It is hard to describe the terrible scene that took place in the house of my relative. Devorele's mother, who was herself ill, kept fainting and screaming, “Save my daughter! Oh, G-d don't take my Devorele!” Devorele answered her in a weak voice, “Mother, forget me! Imagine that I never existed!”

The most tragic moment was when her father returned home and saw what was going on. He beat his head with his strong hands and screamed, “Lord of the Universe, I am the murderer of my child!” He kneeled near her bed with anguished cries. These were most tragic moments. It is doubtful if even a great playwright could present such tragedy on the stage.

But G-d did not listen to their cries. Devorele's condition weakened and became critical. She placed her pale hand on her father's head and in a weak voice she comforted him and said he should forget that he had a daughter named Devorah. She struggled with death and tried to sit upright but a blood clot choked her and burst from her mouth. Her head fell back on the bloodstained pillow and a terrible sigh tore from her chest. She shook a number of times. Her beautiful brown eyes opened wide and stared at some far-off place in another world. Her eyes did not move again.

Outside the sun was just rising.


Translator's Footnote

  1. Possibly this Golda was a daughter-in-law of Kovke and Edis Berensztejn. Their son Yisroel was married to Golda (Rabinowitz). For more information about the Berensztejn family, see the chapter “My Hometown Shumsk,” beginning on page 347 of this yizkor book, and its endnotes, as well as “Remembering Life in Lanovits” on the JewishGen.org KehilaLinks page for Lanovtsy. Return


[Pages 372-375]

Sara the Righteous

by David Chazen

Notes: This chapter of the Shumsk Yizkor Book appeared in both Yiddish and Hebrew. An English translation appears on pages 226-229.

 


 


Muni Chazen of blessed memory,
the secretary of the Shumsk Association in America.
One of the most profound personalities
from Shumsk.

 

[Pages 376-379]
Once Upon a Time in Shumsk

by Munya Chazen

Translated by David Goldman and Rachel Karni

Notes: Chaim Munya Chazen was born in the 1880s to Sara (Bermler) and Jacob Chazen. He was about 8 or 10 years old when Yossele Rosenblatt came to Shumsk. Chazen and his wife, Marjam, and their three children emigrated in 1921 to the United States, where he also was known as Hyman Chazen and served as secretary of the Shumsker Relief Society in New York. His name Munya has been transliterated elsewhere as Mony, Monya, and Muni. Marjam and Munya had another child born in New York. Munya died in 1957 in Florida. The Yiddish portions of the Shumsk Yizkor Book were translated to Hebrew by Esther Weinschelbaum and are online at https://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/szumsk/szumskh.html.

 

As a Child, Yossele Rosenblatt Prayed in Shumsk

We all know who Yossele was, and not only here in America. He was renowned and famous. His name was heard through the world.[1] However, not everyone knows that as a young boy Yossele had already become a name throughout Poland and Volhynia, and that in every city and town he visited in order to lead the prayers with his father on the Sabbath, people enjoyed the sweet sound of his singing in synagogues and study halls.

Even as a youngster, he frequently sang at the table of the Rebbe of Vizhnitz because his father was a Vizhnitz Hasid. He so impressed the Rebbe that his father received a letter from the Rebbe[2] giving his approval for little Yossele to lead the prayers in synagogue. His father then took him on a tour through the cities and towns of Poland and Ukraine.

For more than two years Yossele and his father traveled and spent each Sabbath praying in a different location. Whenever they left a town the people could not stop singing the praises of the little cantor Yossele.

In due time, over sixty years ago, Yossele arrived in Shumsk after his bar mitzvah[3] and led the prayer services for two entire Sabbaths. In those days when notices were put up in town about the arrival of a cantor it was not considered anything special because almost all cantors would spend the summer as guests in the towns, especially in the period between Passover and Shavuot known as Sefira, as well as during the Sabbaths until the week after the fast day of the Ninth of Av. It was then that cantors and choirboys would spread out around the towns. The notices would inform the public that the cantor would lead the prayers for the Friday night service in the central study hall, and on Sabbath morning in the central synagogue.

It happened that we did not have a regular cantor. The touring cantors were welcome and their stays were brief.

So it was that notices were posted around town that a cantor had arrived with a choirboy and would lead the prayers for the Friday night service before the new month in the central study hall and in the central synagogue Sabbath morning.[4] As a child I used to enjoy listening to cantors, and since my own father of blessed memory had his seat against the eastern wall, I was one of the first to arrive at the service.

The congregants at the service welcomed the cantor, who arrived with a choirboy, and people thought that the cantor would lead the prayers and the child would be the choirboy. However, when we began the Friday night introductory prayers, they set up a footstool for the boy so he could reach the bima. The boy wrapped himself in a small prayer shawl and stood at cantor's position. This was something amazing because in Shumsk we never had any youngsters lead the prayers, especially the Friday night prayers. But the boy's father had shown the approval letter[5] from the Vizhnitz Rebbe to our own rabbi, and the rabbi reported this to the congregants and asked them to settle down.

You can understand what kind of an impression Yossele made on everyone on that occasion with his singing. To this very day I can still remember how he sang “Mizmor Le-David” [“A Psalm for David”], “Mizmor Shir Le-Yom Ha-Shabbat” [“A Psalm for the Sabbath”], “Raza de-Shabbat” [“A Secret for Sabbath”], “Ahavat Olam” [“An Eternal Love”], “Hashkiveynu” [“Lay Us Down to Sleep”], and “Veshamru” [“And They Guarded the Sabbath”].[6] The congregants were enthusiastic.

Jews in Shumsk were expert in discerning good cantors. The congregants of our synagogue enjoyed the singing so much, they crowded the doorway and windows to listen.

On Sabbath morning the central synagogue was so crowded that following the prayer service no one could even push their way through. Everyone wanted to see the wonder child, and congregants wanted to make a mad dash to have a chance to accompany him by the hand.

There was a custom in town to invite the cantor as a house guest for the Sabbath. I arranged for my father to invite the father and little cantor to spend the Sabbath in our home.

I remembered that he would be spending the Sabbath with us, but on Sabbath morning when my uncle Hersh-Godel, who attended services outside of town, heard the prayers of Yossele, he told my father that he wanted him to spend the Sabbath at his home. My father was quite a bit younger than my uncle, so he could not refuse him.

In addition, my uncle was the richest man in town, as well as the gabbai managing the synagogue. After prayer services he would take visitors home, which was a common practice in town.

There were even quite a few wagon drivers seeking to get that privilege, but it was always the wealthy man who succeeded.[7] What happened in town after services cannot even be described. Everyone forgot about their workaday worries. Wherever they stood they would talk about the little cantor, Yossele. Women would hope that their own children would turn out as successful as Yossele, and could not stop praising his charm. They were more excited than anyone. They could have spent a whole day with him listening to him sing.

In the hopes of hearing another tune from Yossele, the congregants came together on Sunday near the house where he and his father were staying. They were disappointed, however, when they discovered that Yossele and his father were still at the home of the wealthy Hersh-Godel, where they were invited for the Sabbath morning meal.

My uncle was also a musician. He even led prayer services in the Odessa synagogue. However, he gave away what he earned for his work to cover expenses for new brides. So he would spend the High Holy days in a larger city not far from Shumsk and give the money away for new brides. He too was a wealthy person who had a hundred thousand rubles in addition to owning forests, fields, mills and estates. You can understand that after the beautiful Sabbath songs at the dinner table he simply could not tear himself away from them. After the havdalah ceremony at the end of the Sabbath he sent the coachman to bring their things from where they were staying and settled them in to two rooms at his home and arranged all their meals. He gave them the finest and the best he had.

My uncle did not do this for any personal benefit but because of his own grandchildren who were the same age as Yossele. Those grandchildren were impressed by Yossele's singing. They were educated, played piano and violin. After the havdalah ceremony they invited Yossele to their home where he sang while they played the piano. The whole time was spent playing and singing with Yossele. I had a great time and spent whole days there. I can still remember the tune that Yossele studied with them and which they then played for a long time.

When he stayed through Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, and the people in town saw that my uncle had delayed Yossele and his father, they were very resentful of my uncle.

However, my uncle knew that “money will solve everything,” and in order to pacify the people he arranged for Yossele to lead the prayers on the following Sabbath, which also turned out to be the first day of the new month.[8] The condition was that my uncle had to pay them as much from his own pocket as they received the previous Sabbath. The committee that had collected the money now saw to collecting as much money as possible so that the wealthy man would have to comply with his own pledge. Then people started to calm down.

They sang at my uncle's home the whole week until Wednesday. His grandchildren played piano and violin. It was a real joyous celebration.

When the community found out that Yossele would be leading services for another Sabbath, the community was overjoyed.

On Thursday afternoon my uncle asked the coachman to harness the horses and coach and take Yossele and his father into town [to stay closer to the synagogue], where he encountered a warm welcome. Father and son practiced the prayers for the new month at their lodgings. Their lodgings were packed with people the entire evening who came to listen to their singing. Yossele also led the services in the central synagogue the next Sabbath, and I can still remember to this very day the way he sang “Betzet Yisrael” [“As the Children of Israel Departed”], “Hashem Zachrenu” [“May God Remember Us”], and “Zeh Ha'shaar” [“This Is the Gate”] all the way to “Nagilah Ve'nismecha Bo” [“We Shall Enjoy and Be Happy with Him”]. The synagogue was packed with people. Women and girls filled the women's section, which was a very large area.

Although they left so many years ago, I can still hear with my own ears the various parts of the Hallel prayer, recited for the new month, which he sang. I will never forget it. I will also never forget how the Jews in Shumsk shed mundane worries and reached the “higher spheres” of happiness through music. The power of Yossele Rosenblatt and the spiritual level of the Jews of Shumsk were shown by his visit to our community.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933) was a Ukrainian-born cantor and composer regarded as the greatest cantor of his time. He held positions in Austria, Hungary, and Germany before moving to New York in 1912. He earned large concert fees and a singing role in the 1927 film “The Jazz Singer,” and he was called “the Jewish Caruso.” Return
  2. Because the date of the letter is unknown, it's unknown whether it came from the second Rebbe of Vizhnitz, Boruch Hager, who died when Yossele was about 10 years old, or from the third Rebbe of Vizhnitz, Yisroel Hager. Return
  3. Esther Weinschelbaum's translation to Hebrew adds that the year was 1896. Return
  4. It was typical for touring cantors to be heard on the Shabbat before the start of a new month. Return
  5. Youths under 18 and unmarried, even after their bar mitzvah, typically were not asked to lead prayers, certainly not on Shabbat. Hence the letter of permission for Yossele Rosenblatt. Return
  6. Yossele Rosenblatt even as a boy composed his own tunes to go with the words of the traditional psalms and prayers. Return
  7. Driving a wagon was not permitted on the Sabbath and was not done. The author is just using wagon drivers as an example of residents who were not wealthy. Return
  8. While men typically attended synagogue regularly, the special prayers and melodies for Rosh Chodesh, the start of the new month, were a particular draw. When Shabbat fell on the first of the month, many women were drawn to the services as well. Return


[Pages 380-381]

The Rich Man Who
Became a Bathhouse Attendant

by Munya Chazen

Translated by Shulamit Berman

Notes: This is one of many articles that Chaim Munya Chazen wrote years after he and his wife and children had left Shumsk for America in 1921. More about Chazen's life and family is in the introductory note on page 376 of this book's translation. The tone of this article, and much of Chazen's other writing, is nostalgic. His use of phrases such as “once upon a time” and reference to stories passed down through the generations suggest the stories are folklore and not necessarily 100 percent historically accurate. Yet they show how life in Shumsk in the late 1800s and early 1900s was conducted in strict accordance with Jewish law.

The Yiddish portions of the Shumsk Yizkor Book were translated to Hebrew by Esther Weinschelbaum and those translations are online at https://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/szumsk/szumskh.html. This translation to English was done from the Yiddish-to-Hebrew translation.

In the mid-18th century our town, Shumsk, was a village with no Jews. A man named David settled there with his family, and gradually the Jewish population grew from a village to a town.

This David Shumsker[1] – according to what we heard from our parents and grandparents – was a very wealthy man, whose property included brick foundries. As the Jewish population of the town grew, he built a synagogue and a public bathhouse. He also built two rows of shops in the marketplace, which were inherited by his descendants.

Over the course of time the old bathhouse built by Reb David was shut down by the authorities because it became dangerous to bathe there. They ordered a new structure with facilities that would cost several thousand rubles to build.

As was customary, meetings were held for the purpose of raising money. However, although there were wealthy people in the town, the town was unable to come up with the required sum.

Some people promised to contribute 100 rubles but no more. Meetings were held every week, but without the desired result. The wealthy people found a solution: They acquired large bathtubs and samovars or boilers for heating water, and bathed at home.

But what about the poor people? Incidentally, there was another issue: family purity. It was all very well for the rich, they could travel to another town [to use a mikve there] but the poor people couldn't afford it. So the town stopped all Torah reading and praying in the houses of learning and in the great synagogue on Shabbat while they sought a solution for building the bathhouse.[2] Shumsk was in turmoil for several months without reaching an agreement. The poor were beside themselves, it was painful to see their sorrow and anguish.

There was a family called Chazenim in our town, three brothers whose name was Chazen, so they were known as the Chazenim.

The oldest, Hersh-Godel, was a very rich man. The other two, Yitzhak and Yaakov, were also fairly wealthy, although not as rich as Hersh-Godel.

In those days Hersh-Godel's wealth was estimated at more than 100,000 rubles. He owned fields, forests, flour mills and estates.

It was therefore hoped that he would donate a large sum for the benefit of the town, but he did not. Meanwhile time was passing and there was still no possibility of building a bathhouse. When the younger brother, Yitzhak, realized that his older brother could not be persuaded to contribute a substantial amount, he took it upon himself to make sure the town would have a bathhouse.[3]

As we have said, he was not extremely rich. He owned some real estate, and he sold it all to obtain the necessary funds. Several months later we had a bathhouse with all the facilities. Shumsk came back to life. Yitzhak hoped the community would pay back the money he had invested. For the time being he could manage, until the money was refunded and he could once again take his place among the notables of the town. However, the community was in no hurry, what did they care? We now have a bathhouse, we have a mikvah, and we even have someone to supervise them. So let it be.

The town certainly paid him much honor. When the bathhouse was ready, they paraded him and his wife through the town all the way to the bathhouse, accompanied by a klezmer band. He was living temporarily in a four-room apartment, intending to give the business to whoever would pay back the money. It was a false hope, however. Who would pay thousands of rubles just to become a bathhouse attendant? Meanwhile he lived in hope that the Almighty would send someone to pay him back. Seeing that he had invested all his money in the bathhouse, he had no other source of income. The poor man was forced to support himself as the bathhouse attendant for the rest of his life.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. David Shumsker's family surname was Batt, or, in Israel, Bahat. Return
  2. Jewish law requires a community to have a mikvah, a bath for ritual immersion. A mikvah is a pool of water -- some of it from a natural source -- in which observant married Jewish women are required to dip once a month, seven days after the end of their menstrual cycle, as well as before their wedding and after childbirth, to achieve a state of ritual purity before having or resuming marital relations. Immersion is obligatory or customary for men or women under certain other circumstances as well, and for utensils acquired from a non-Jew and used for food. The existence of a mikvah is considered so important that a Jewish community is required to construct a mikvah even before building a synagogue. Since Shumsk already had a synagogue, the rabbi's drastic ruling was that the temple was not to be used on Shabbat until a mikvah was built. Return
  3. In Yisrael Sudman's recollections titled "The Move to Shumsk," beginning on page 129 of this yizkor book, it was Yaakov Chazen who set up the bathhouse, and Leib Yaninger then leased the site and managed it. Return


[Pages 382-386]

A Wedding at the Cemetery

by Munya Chazen

Translated by Shulamit Berman

Notes: Chaim Munya Chazen and his wife and children left Shumsk for America in 1921. Years later, Chazen wrote this and other pieces about Shumk's history and folklore. More about Chazen's life and family is in the introductory note on page 376 of this book's translation.

The Yiddish portions of the Shumsk Yizkor Book were translated to Hebrew by Esther Weinschelbaum and those translations are online at https://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/szumsk/szumskh.html. This translation to English was done from the Yiddish-to-Hebrew translation.

More than 70 years ago the cholera plague[1] that claimed 20 million lives in Europe[2] also reached our town, Shumsk.

The origins of the plague were unknown, but suddenly people began to feel pains in their stomach. They suffered for a few days and then dropped like flies.

There was a doctor in our town and two medical assistants but they were at a loss, because the gentiles brought sick people from the neighboring villages to the town's hospital, which was already filled to capacity with patients. They used every possible means to try and save them. In a handful of cases somebody was lucky enough to recover, but most of the sick died an agonizing death. The town was in a panic, everyone was fearful.

Young or old, everyone feared for their life. Nobody knew what tomorrow would bring, who would be cholera's next victim. People would suddenly feel ill, become gripped with stomach pains, and before suitable help could be obtained they would fall victim to the plague.

Day by day it claimed more and more victims, rich and poor alike. Despair struck every heart.

The disease broke out at the beginning of the summer and continued until Elul.[3] Sanitary conditions in the small town had always been far worse than in the big cities, so we were much more fearful. There was also a shortage of medicines and other measures to stem the epidemic.

The economic situation also played a part, causing the plague to spread like wildfire.

The Russian government tried every means to halt its progression. Senior authorities issued instructions that were hung in every study house and kloyz (small local synagogue), ordering everyone to observe rules of cleanliness.

But what good was that, when most of us had no way of maintaining sanitary conditions. The small towns had no sewage system, the river was polluted with feces and waste, and there was no other source of drinking water.

The epidemic spread swiftly due to the contaminated water. This prompted Dr. Jakobson,[4] the government-appointed director of the local hospital, to convene a meeting of the town notables and instruct them on the necessary steps they must take.

First and foremost, drinking river water was strictly forbidden unless it was boiled. All fruits must be cooked, not eaten fresh. Vegetables should be thoroughly washed in boiled water before they were eaten. Cow's milk must be boiled before given to children to drink. Personal hygiene must be strictly observed. Hands must be washed before eating and after working. Carbolic acid should be sprayed over polluted areas, and flies should be kept away from food and water.

In order to make things easier and to make sure everyone had boiled water to drink, two large containers were ordered from Shlomo the tinsmith for boiling water, which was then distributed free of charge.

The home of Shlomo Bat was rented for this purpose. That's where the containers were placed and water was boiled all day. From early morning to late at night people scurried back and forth with pots and kettles to collect the boiled water. Beds were also set up in the front room for people who felt ill, to provide them with first aid.

The doctor ordered all kinds of drops from the pharmacy, which were administered on candies. Strong young men, garbed in white like sanitary workers, were hired to help anyone complaining of stomach pains. Each day they brought sufferers to the house, laid them on the beds, massaged their limbs with ethyl alcohol, administered the doctor's drops, and let them rest. If the patient improved they took him home. If not, he was taken to the local hospital to be treated by Dr. Jakobson and his two assistants.

Several times each week the doctor and the police chief went out to check on the sanitary conditions in the town.

They ordered the outhouses and polluted areas cleaned. They distributed lime and ethyl alcohol free of charge so that these places would remain uncontaminated.

For us youngsters[5] this was a picnic. Cheder study was forbidden. The melamed (teacher) came to the house. One hour of study and we were done for the day. We went to the municipal committee where they gave out candies with menthol drops, then we spread out through the town and distributed the candies. If we discovered any sick people we immediately reported them to the committee. There was also a small wagon on hand to bring patients to the committee.

Perhaps these measures helped improved the situation. People were more careful and followed the doctor's instructions. Nevertheless the epidemic persisted. Each day brought new victims. The community council was in despair. Unfortunately the days were getting warmer. It was the month of Tammuz[6] and the heat sapped people's strength. They met with Rabbi Beirinyo[7] in the kloyz to come up with a plan. Every hour they divided into minyans[8] and every day they prayed and read tehillim (Psalms).

The women rushed to the cemetery to fall upon graves and entreat their ancestors.

Before Tisha B'Av[9] Rabbi Beirinyo was advised by Dr. Jakobson to announce in every kloyz that the fast was not obligatory for those who felt weak. He therefore instructed everyone to go to the cemetery to pray.

After Shabbat Chazon the community council met once again with the rabbi in the kloyz. They remained cloistered with him until very late that night.

The following day it was announced that there may be a special segula[10] (a talisman or supernatural cure) to counteract the plague. They simply needed to hold a wedding in the cemetery. In other words, the community council would marry off an orphan, which is considered to be a great mitzvah (good deed) among Jews. They would hold the wedding in the cemetery, with klezmers, and the epidemic would cease.

I'm not sure whether it was Rabbi Beirinyo who suggested this segula, but it's clear that he agreed to it.

Early in the morning the town's matchmakers spread out to find a suitable candidate for the groom and one for the bride.

The groom was easy, the Almighty provided him. He was Peretz the good-for-nothing, blind in one eye, lame in one foot, and a stutterer. He was already over 30 years old, with a sick mother to look after. Every Friday he went around town carrying a bag, collecting challah and bread for the entire week. People also gave him a few coins and a bit of meat or fish. He brought it all home to his mother and they lived off it for the week.

When he came to a house to ask for challah, girls would tease him: “Peretz, do you want to get married?” He would burst out laughing merrily, “Yes, yes.” Sometimes he would become quite bold and ask to kiss the girl, who would run away screaming while he chased after her with his bag.

This scene would be repeated in nearly every house. Peretz the oaf was happy to collect challah on Fridays.

In short, the fellow was a suitable candidate. The question was, where to find a fitting princess for this groom?

As the saying goes: Seek and you shall find. Indeed, He Who Ordains Matches sent a real beauty.

She limped a bit on her left leg, her right hand was immobile, she was slightly deaf, and her eyes were red.

The groom fell in love with her on the spot. He was quite ready to say Harei At (the betrothal vow) but his mother intervened. She was not prepared to let her only son marry without a dowry. “If the community wants to marry off an orphan,” she argued, “why should the groom be penalized? He won't stand under the wedding canopy unless he receives a dowry of 100 rubles in cash and a steady income.”

The council saw the logic of her argument. Several Jews got together. They collected 100 rubles, clothes for the bride and groom, and wedding supplies.

The wedding was fixed for Friday noon, the eve of Shabbat Nachamu.[11] You can imagine what went on that Friday. Pious men and righteous women busied themselves with preparations to make sure everything would go as planned. They prepared fine foods. Wine flowed like water. Everyone hoped the segula would find favor with the Almighty and the plague would come to an end.

The community gathered in the market square in front of the house where the wedding procession was to begin. Young girls dressed in their finest clothes arrived as the klezmer band started to play.

By around 2 in the afternoon the whole town was gathered outside the house, waiting for the rabbis and community leaders. They didn't have long to wait. Cake, lekach (sponge cake) and wine was distributed and the performance began after the bride was seated and the women had sobbed to their hearts' content.

The procession was led by the klezmer band, who played all the way to the cemetery. They were followed by the rabbis, the synagogue functionaries, and the community leaders. Then came the groom and his attendants, the bride and her bridesmaids, and the entire town. Big and small, everyone headed for the cemetery.

It's hard to describe what went on. The wedding canopy was erected at the cemetery gate, the bride and her bridesmaids circled the groom seven times, the splendid groom with his little goatee was thrilled to bits.

I recall that the ceremony went on until one hour before candle-lighting. The klezmer band escorted the bride and groom to his mother's house. The women dispersed to light candles and the men congregated in the prayer houses and kloyzes to greet the Sabbath.

It was never clear whether this segula helped stop the epidemic, and I don't remember when it actually ended. I only remember that when the weather became cooler the plague diminished. In any event, the wedding was a sight to remember.

I am only sorry that the couple did not live together amicably for very long. You know why? Because of the mother-in-law.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. The references to Dr. Jakobson and Rabbi Beirinyo indicate that this recollection is about the typhus epidemic of 1918-1922, which caused millions of deaths. Shumsk was probably hardest hit in 1918-1919. The typhus epidemic is mentioned elsewhere in this yizkor book, such as in Pesach Lerner's article about Dr. Herman Jakobson, the physician in Shumsk, beginning on page 199. Return
  2. This figure, 20 million deaths in Europe, aligns with the influenza pandemic – the so-called Spanish flu – that began in 1918, although estimates vary widely, from 17 million to 100 million. The World Health Organization cites an estimate of 20 million to 50 million deaths in 1918-1919 from this flu virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites an estimate of at least 50 million deaths worldwide. Return
  3. Elul is the last month of the Jewish calendar, corresponding to August or September on the Gregorian calendar. Return
  4. Dr. Herman Jakobson (1882-1934) completed his medical studies in Riga in 1911 and worked as a physician in Shumsk the rest of his life, according to his granddaughter Irma Benyaminov. Return
  5. Munya Chazen was born in the 1880s and was an adult, not a schoolboy, at the time of the typhus epidemic in 1918. It's possible that in this account he conflated the typhus outbreak with the world's fifth cholera pandemic, 1881-1896, which claimed 200,000 lives in Russia in 1893 and 1894. The Shumsk Yizkor Book was published in 1968, presumably with materials being written and compiled for some time before that, so the 1893-1894 time frame aligns with the opening words of this piece, “More than 70 years ago,” and likely with the author's early years in school. Return
  6. Tammuz is the 10th month on the Jewish calendar, corresponding to June or July, around the start of summer. Return
  7. Rabbi Yisroel Dov Ber Lerner, affectionately called Rabbi Beirinyo, was born in 1867, became the head rabbi of Shumsk after his father's death in 1907, and died in the typhus epidemic in 1919. He is recalled in a chapter of this yizkor book beginning on page 188. Return
  8. A minyan is a quorum of 10 people (at the time, men) required for Jewish public worship. Return
  9. Tisha B'Av is a day of fasting and mourning on the ninth day of the month of Av, which follows Tammuz. Return
  10. A segula is a protective or benevolent charm or ritual in Kabbalistic and Talmudic tradition. Return
  11. Shabbat Nachamu is the Sabbath after Tisha B'av. Return


[Pages 387-389]

Ata Her'eita

by Munya Chazen

Translated by Shulamit Berman

Notes: Chaim Munya and his wife and children left Shumsk for America in 1921. Years later, Chazen wrote this and other pieces about Shumk's history and folklore. More about Chazen's life and family is in the introductory note on page 376 of this book's translation.

The Yiddish portions of the Shumsk Yizkor Book were translated to Hebrew by Esther Weinschelbaum and those translations are online at https://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/szumsk/szumskh.html. This translation to English was done from the Yiddish-to-Hebrew translation.

In America, fifty dollars is nothing to write home about. It's really no big deal if a Jew can afford to pay fifty dollars to the synagogue on Simchat Torah for the privilege of being called to the Torah when the verses of Ata Her'eita (Deuteronomy 4:35) are read aloud. But in a small Ukrainian town, 70-80 years ago [at the end of the 19th century], a town where the number of wealthy men could be counted on the fingers of one hand, if one noble soul was prepared to pay fifty rubles for the honor of reciting the verses of Ata Her'eita, it was a very big deal indeed. But let's not weary the reader – let's get straight to the story.

My father[1] had two older brothers. The eldest, Hersh-Godel, owned forests, fields, flour mills and estates. He was considered a great man. Every motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) those who worked in his fields and his other branches of commerce would gather to hand over the weekly proceeds. The samovar stood nearby and everyone was treated to a cup of tea.

The second brother, Yitzhak, wasn't as rich at Hersh-Godel, but he leased the brandy distillery and he raised bulls that were fed on the dregs of the brandy-making ingredients. He sold his bulls in Warsaw, Bialystok, and other towns. In addition, once every three years he leased the river for fishing, when the waters were unrestricted. The fish were packed in barrels with ice and sent to the cities. Warsaw merchants would come to buy the fish and transport them by rail from Kremenets. So you see, Uncle Yitzhak was also able to maintain a lavish household.

In later years, when the government seized his business, he turned his hand to other enterprises. When the Czar's authorities shut down the bathhouse he built a new one. It was terrible to see tradesmen and beggars frantically scratching themselves because they could not bathe in the river. Women had to travel to other towns to observe the laws of family purity. My uncle Hersh-Godel was furious with the town and refused to fork out any money, so my uncle Yitzhak took it upon himself to build a bathhouse on condition that the town would refund his expenses in full. He erected a building with all facilities, investing some seven or eight thousand rubles in the venture. The governing body of the Jewish community was delighted. Escorted by a klezmer band, he was brought in style to the bathhouse. But nothing more. Everyone enjoyed the new bathhouse but my uncle never saw any of the money he had invested.[2]

` In the beit midrash where the three brothers had prayed for years, it was customary that on the eve of Simchat Torah my uncle Hersh-Godel would read the verses of Ata Her'eita, and in the morning my uncle Yitzhak would read the same verses. This tradition had continued for many years. My father told me that one year, on the morning of Simchat Torah, some people wanted to compete with my uncle and bid for this honor.[3] Since my uncle usually paid 10 rubles, they began to raise the price. The shammes (sexton) announced: “So-and-so is giving 12 rubles.” My uncle said, “15 rubles.” The amount was raised to 16 rubles. My uncle – “20 rubles.” The competitors were three congregants who were embarrassed to give up at this point, even though it was somewhat beyond their means. They made a final effort and called out: “21 rubles.” My uncle made a counteroffer: “25 rubles.” While they conferred among themselves, my uncle impatiently shouted, “50 rubles.”

Pandemonium in the beit midrash! Nobody could imagine such a thing. The paupers tried to picture what they could do with such a sum; small merchants wished they had it, it would save them from having to appeal to charity organizations. There were also those who claimed that my uncle said he wouldn't pay up, he only wanted to discourage his rivals. When it was brought to his notice that some people doubted his sincerity, he didn't hesitate but instructed his son Yisroel: “Go home and bring the Chumash Bereshit (Book of Genesis), but take care not to open it. Hold it tight under your arm.”

Yisroel hurried home and brought the Chumash Bereshit to my uncle in the beit midrash. He opened it at the page beginning “And these are the generations of Isaac.” There lay a 50-ruble note. Everyone rushed to see it, lying there like a king in a regiment. The news spread to other kloyzes (small synagogues) and people came to congratulate my uncle and wish him long life, wealth and honor. He had many friends whom he often helped, and his Jewish employees were proud of their boss who always treated them fairly. After my uncle read Ata Her'eita and after the hakafot (dancing with the Torah), he instructed his son to provide lavish refreshments for all those present. When everyone was feeling mellow with brandy they showed their appreciation by appointing him Chatan HaTorah.[4]

After the prayer services ended they went to his home to feast on roast duck. Then they proceeded to my father's house where the festivities continued. Singing and dancing, they spilled out into the street and made their way to the marketplace where they made merry until it was time for the mincha (afternoon) prayers. The shammes called the children “holy lambs” and they answered “baa-a-a.”


Translator's Footnotes

  1. The author's father was Yaakov or Jacob Chazen. Return
  2. Munya Chazen relates this story in detail in “The Rich Man Who Became a Bathhouse Attendant” on page 380 of this yizkor book. Return
  3. It was customary to auction off this aliyah, the honor of ascending to the platform and reading blessings or Torah verses, and all others, to the highest bidder. Such auctions are still the custom in some synagogues. Return
  4. The Chatan Torah is the person who gets the aliyah that finishes the reading of the Torah. This aliyah and Chatan Bereishit, the honor for the beginning of the Torah reading on Simchat Torah and is usually given to the rabbi or an important scholar, are the highest honors a congregation can bestow on one of their members. Return


[Pages 390-393]

A Mixup About an Eruv

by Munya Chazen

Translated by Shulamit Berman

Notes: An eruv is an area enclosed by a physical boundary, such as a wire or a wall, which symbolically extends the private domain of Jewish households into public areas, thereby permitting activities within the area that are normally forbidden in public on the Sabbath, such as carrying things from place to place.

The author of this piece, Chaim Munya, and his wife and children left Shumsk for America in 1921. Years later, Chazen wrote this and other pieces about Shumk's history and folklore. More about Chazen's life and family is in the introductory note on page 376 of this book's translation.

The Yiddish portions of the Shumsk Yizkor Book were translated to Hebrew by Esther Weinschelbaum and those translations are online at https://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/szumsk/szumskh.html . This translation to English was done from the Yiddish-to-Hebrew translation.

 

It happened in 1916. World War I was at its peak, and the fighting had reached the Russian-Austrian border, not far from our town, Shumsk.

Yoel-Zelig[1] devoted himself to charity matters. He spent every Thursday collecting donations for needy families who lacked the wherewithal to provide for Shabbat. He also made sure there was a fowl available to protect the souls of women in labor, and he frequently collected money for poor brides who needed a dowry in order to marry.

On Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays Yoel-Zelig worked for his own livelihood. There is something you should know: He himself was poor. Perhaps when he was younger he earned something more, I don't remember. All I remember is that on Thursdays and Fridays he went through the town collecting money for needy folk who had nothing for Shabbat. He also collected money whenever the town eruv needed repairs.

He regarded it as a great mitzvah (good deed) that Jews could be secure in the knowledge that they could carry on Shabbat. If, God forbid, the eruv was torn, as gentiles sometimes did deliberately, there would immediately be an announcement that the eruv was broken and it was forbidden to carry until Yoel-Zelig notified the goy (gentile) who lived near the eruv and whose job it was to ensure that it remained intact. The goy was paid for this, and it was Yoel-Zelig's mitzvah to collect money for this purpose.

An additional eruv had been installed by Rabbi Beirinyo[2] near Tseli Petrushka's house. It was in the shape of a folding wall, and it was stored in a locked shack near Tseli's house. Every Friday Yoel-Zelig checked that it was undamaged and reported to Rabbi Beirinyo.

In 1915, as the battlefront drew nearer to our town Shumsk, the area was flooded with soldiers, officers, and generals. They commandeered entire houses, leaving only one or two rooms for the homeowners. The war wasn't going too well. The Russians retreated from Lemburg (Lvov) to the mountainous region of Kremenets. In order to justify the defeats suffered by the Russian commanders, they harassed and persecuted the Jews, drove them from their homes and sent them into the Russian heartland. And as if that wasn't enough, they also accused the Jews of spying, passing secrets to the Germans, using a hidden telephone to inform the enemy, and so on and so forth.

When the Russian soldiers spotted the wire stretching from pole to pole on the outskirts of the town, they were overjoyed. They had discovered a clandestine telephone. An investigation was soon underway. Several townsfolk were summoned, but their explanations made no sense to the Russian authorities until the goy in charge of the eruv was brought in. He testified that what the Jews were saying was correct. Thank God, the matter ended with nothing more than great anxiety, but they were forced to take down the eruv, or to be more precise, the soldiers were given instructions to remove it.

No longer could Yoel-Zelig observe the mitzvah of the eruv. Great was his suffering to think that this would cause Jews to sin. He took some comfort from the fact that the eruv in the locked shack, the one belonging to Rabbi Beirinyo, still remained.

Every Friday he unlocked the shack and checked the eruv, pleased that it was still there. But there were soldiers everywhere, and it so happened that some soldiers peered through a crack and decided that the object within looked suspicious. They demanded that Tseli Petrushka open the shack and tell them what was inside. When he saw the soldiers he took fright and explained in broken Russian that it belonged to the rabbi.

Hearing that the object belonged to the rabbi they became even more suspicious and demanded the key, which was in Yoel-Zelig's possession. Tseli sent one of his children to tell Yoel-Zelig to bring it because the soldiers were waiting to see what was inside the shack. When he arrived and unlocked the door, they saw it was merely a folding wall so their suspicions were allayed. However, they were mystified to learn from Tseli that it belonged to the rabbi and needed to be looked after, and that it enabled Jews to carry on Shabbat. Moreover, Tseli's command of Russian was so poor that they still didn't know what he was trying to tell them. They arrested Tseli and Yoel-Zelig on the spot and took them to their superior officer.

Once this became known the whole town was seething. Fearfully they went to Rabbi Beirinyo to tell him what had happened. Everyone was in turmoil. Tseli's wife and children wrung their hands and sobbed bitterly. Who knew what they were likely to do to them? This was wartime, after all. In the home of Yoel-Zelig, too, there was a commotion. They couldn't understand what had happened in so short a time. Who should they turn to? What should they do? God alone knows what will happen to the two elderly Jews.

While everything was erupting, Rabbi Beirinyo sent for Reb Ya'akovke Berensztejn[3] and Itzik Shechver.[4]

They were trustworthy; they interceded for the community with the powers that be whenever there was trouble. He conferred with them as to what should be done. Apart from the matter of saving the two Jews, there was also the risk that Rabbi Beirinyo would be implicated, seeing that Tseli had said that the eruv belonged to the rabbi.

There was no time to lose, so it was decided that Itzik Shechver would meet with the officer who was residing in his house. He would explain that the two Jews had been imprisoned for no reason.

Itzik Shechver accepted the mission, but clarified that it would be better if someone accompanied him. May his name be remembered for good, because despite his fear of the danger he didn't refuse to enter into dangerous places. Now he had to approach the officer, as the only one who dared to plead for the prisoners.

Seeing that everyone was so fearful, he had the idea of asking Kostyuk the teacher to come with him. In fact, he explained, the teacher was even preferable. If a Christian was siding with the Jews it would make a better impression. He was sure he could persuade Kostyuk to accompany him to the officer because he always helped Jews in times of trouble. He made no distinction between Jew and Christian. He was a true liberal. Now, when two elderly Jews were being falsely suspected, he surely wouldn't refuse.

And so it was. Itzik Shechver went to Kostyuk, explained the whole story and asked for one simple thing: that he accompany him to the officer to clarify everything. Kostyuk was delighted with the invitation and the two set out together.

The officer received them pleasantly. They told him that they had come with one simple request: that the two old men be released under their recognizance. If the officer wished to see with his own eyes the Jewish significance of an eruv they would willingly bring it to him forthwith.

The officer indicated that he would like the apparatus brought to him, because from the report he had received it was unclear why the two Jews had been arrested. He had been about to send a committee to investigate the matter, but since they had explained everything, they should have it brought to him.

Avraham, the son of Yoel-Zelig, happened to be not far from Itzik Shechver's house at that moment, as if his heart had told him he would be needed to bring the glad tidings that his father and Tseli had been released. Itzik Shechver told him that the officer wanted the eruv brought to him; so he rushed home, hitched the horse to the wagon, loaded up the eruv and brought it to the officer.

The soldiers helped unload it and the officer went out to examine the “secret machine” lying on the ground that had apparently been discovered in the Jews' possession. After thoroughly studying it from all sides and seeing for himself that it was fairly rusty, he was persuaded that his soldiers had been somewhat hasty in arresting the two Jews.

The soldiers immediately loaded the eruv on the wagon and he instructed them to bring out the two Jews who had been imprisoned in a separate room.

He told them they were free to go and they thanked him. Kostyuk and Itzik Shechver also thanked the officer profusely before taking their leave. The town was happy and joyful when they heard of the release of Tseli and Yoel-Zelig.

The Jews of Shumsk continued to tell this story for a long time.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Yoel-Zelig apparently was Yoel-Zelig Zilberg (descendants in America have the name Silberberg), who is named as Devorele Silberberg's paternal grandfather in the chapter “The Death of Devorele” by Zadie Chodaker on pages 369-371 of this yizkor book. Zelig Zilberg was married to Freyda (Shpak) and in 1875 they had a son Avraham, according to the 1927 Shumsk residents list. Return
  2. Rabbi Yisroel Dov Ber Lerner, affectionately called Rabbi Beirinyo, was born in 1867, became the head rabbi of Shumsk after his father's death in 1907, and died in the typhus epidemic in 1919. He is recalled in a chapter of this yizkor book beginning on page 188. Return
  3. For more information about the Berensztejn family, see the chapter “My Hometown Shumsk,” beginning on page 347 of this yizkor book, and its endnotes, as well as “Remembering Life in Lanovits” on the JewishGen.org KehilaLinks page for Lanovtsy. Return
  4. Yitzshak “Itzik” Shechver or Szechwer was born in 1877 in Demidovka, in the Dubno district. His parents were Sura (Korsever) and Meir-Ber Shechver. He was a merchant and a Talmudic scholar. The family left Shumsk in the 1930s for Zdolbunov and later went to Palestine. Return


[Pages 394-397]

Disguised as a Russian

by Munya Chazen

Translated by Shulamit Berman

Notes: The author of this piece, Chaim Munya, and his wife and children left Shumsk for America in 1921. Years later, Chazen wrote this and other pieces about Shumk's history and folklore. More about Chazen's life and family is in the introductory note on page 376 of this book's translation.

The Yiddish portions of the Shumsk Yizkor Book were translated to Hebrew by Esther Weinschelbaum and those translations are online at https://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/szumsk/szumskh.html. This translation to English was done from the Yiddish-to-Hebrew translation.

Most of the commerce in Shumsk involved grain. Nearly half the town's inhabitants were grain merchants. We had some water mills for grinding rye and when the gentiles brought rye and other grains to make flour and grits, they gave some grain in exchange.

The Jews also ground wheat and rye, but they paid cash.

Finer types of flour were obtained from the larger flour mills in the vicinity of Shumsk. Flour merchants would buy all kinds of flour there and sell them in Shumsk.

The grain merchants sold their produce to the large flour mills in other towns. This is how business was conducted for a long time, until one Pinhas Teich from Kremenets leased the water mill. He had other commercial interests in Kremenets, so he handed over the small mill to his brother-in-law, Abraham Rajch.

Abraham Rajch was a very clever young man with great ambitions.

He was also well versed in Talmud and Hebrew. His conversation was usually interspersed with sayings of the Sages and quotes from the Midrash and the Zohar. But he was also able to discuss “God and the Messiah” because he was an atheist, despite the fact that he was said to be a yeshiva student.

Imagine, 50 years ago [at the beginning of the 20th century] a clean-shaven young man arrives in a small town and publicly desecrates the Sabbath, while speaking, in the dismissive tones of one who has gone astray to a bad culture, about the Talmud, the Midrash, the Zohar, Gematria [a Jewish form of numerology], secrets, and Notarikon [a method of deriving a word by using each of its initial or final letters to stand for another, to form a sentence or idea out of the words].

The chassidim were sorely plagued, because he mocked them and made fun of them. Nevertheless, within a short time the whole town loved him because of his charitable deeds and the many favors he bestowed on both Jews and Christians. On every holiday he sent the finest flour to the rabbis, in addition to supporting them with money throughout the year. When fish were caught in his river he didn't sell them but distributed them in town. It was only when the water level dropped once every three years and fish were plentiful in the nets that they were sold to merchants who came from Warsaw.

Before the water level was lowered the Jews of Shumsk gave the fish away for free. Many people earned a livelihood for a few months by helping to catch the fish, pack them, and transport them to the railway near Kremenets.

Abraham Rajch ran the small water mill for several years, but it wasn't enough for him. His brain seethed with ideas: he planned to build a larger mill with modern machinery. In this way he hoped to switch from water power to electricity, which would drive the large mill and light up the entire town.

Money was not a problem, since his brother-in-law was quite rich and he approved of the plan. But the matter dragged on for a while because he was secretly negotiating with the powers that be: the Regional Austrian Authority, which was authorized to grant concessions.

It wasn't easy to convince the bureaucrats of its necessity, but he persevered until he obtained a license, for a steep fee, but one which was valid for a long time. The venture required a huge investment of 50,000 rubles so he sought to insure himself for an extended period. It was said that the contract was for 99 years.

Work began immediately: They brought in Russian builders. Engineers worked out plans for the foundations of a five-story building to be erected on the water. First they brought large poles like telegraph poles smoothed to a point at one end. The town came to life; both Jews and Christians were employed. There were deliveries of bricks, sand, clay, lime, and other materials. The noise was deafening, day and night. The river was completely drained; the water flow was diverted to a sluice while work was underway.

The engineers began by presenting a plan of where to sink the shafts which would support the heavy structure. They installed a few tall pillars, and in the upper section they fitted a well-reinforced hoop through which they threaded a thick rope that pulled up a heavy log reinforced with iron, which was used to insert the large poles. It was probably extremely heavy, because it took 40 workers to pull it up and then insert the rods so deeply that only about 1 meter stuck out. A few weeks later the builders began laying bricks.

This work went faster. The five-story building grew from day to day. Within four months everything was ready. The electrically powered mill wheels began to produce wagon loads of flour, renowned throughout the region. Our town became stronger and people earned a good living. The flour mill operated night and day; merchants came from nearby towns to buy flour. Abraham already employed five Jews in his office to keep track of the accounts, among them Yekel Gejlichen[1] and Efroim Goldenberg.[2] One year later they established their own cylindrical flour mill and went into competition with Rajch.

I don't quite know the reason why Yekel Gejlichen and Efroim Goldenberg left their jobs with Abraham Rajch, but soon it was said that another cylindrical flour mill was being built with modern machinery on the site of the abandoned mill near Lepesivka.[3] There had been a small mill there for years. Since the nearby river flowed through the town, the engineers planned to erect a large flour mill. It seemed that they were not able to save much from the wages Rajch paid them, so they invited the wealthy Yekovke Berenstzejn[4] and the philanthropist Avraham Wilskier[5] to invest in their venture.[6] After spending many evenings in the home of Yekovke Berenstzejn they were able to finally discuss shares and percentages. More than one samovar of tea was drunk at Berenstzejn's large table before they could begin to build. They compromised on percentages, but when the time came to obtain a permit it turned out that they hadn't taken the owner into consideration. Apparently in order to obtain the contract they had to go to Moscow where the owner resided. What to do? During the reign of Czar Nikolai[7] no Jews were permitted to enter Moscow. There was no question of the owner coming to them. He was a senior official in Moscow and he insisted that they come to him to sign the contract. But it was forbidden for a Jew to go to Moscow! Once he got there, the official could protect him, but how he could get to Moscow, I have no idea.

The four partners, Yekovke Berenstzejn, Ya'akov Gejlichen, Abraham Wilskier and Efroim Goldenberg, thought up a plan whereby one of them would make his way into Moscow where he would be protected by the important man until the contract was signed. Their plan was for one of them to disguise himself as a Christian with Christian documents, and in this way he would gain entry. Once in Moscow he would be protected by the senior official until everything was settled.

After lengthy discussions around Yekovke Berenstzejn's large table, the lot fell on Efroim Goldenberg. He would dress as a Christian and carry out the mission of obtaining the signed contract without which it was impossible to begin work.

He was chosen not because he looked like a Christian. On the contrary, he was a typical chassid. If he was chosen it was because he was smart, wise, and clever, and they were sure he could carry out the mission.

It's not pleasant for a chassidic Jew to dress in Christian garb, but there was no alternative.

Efroim Goldenberg obtained a short fur coat like those worn by the Russians,[8] a green belt, a fur cap and galoshes, because it was winter. He packed his tallit, his tefillin, and some kosher food in a small satchel and set out for Moscow. You are perhaps wondering why he disguised himself as a Russian. It's because the Russians had beards. There was no problem with his payot (sidelocks); he could hide them behind his ears and the fur cap hid his ears.

The journey to Moscow was long, three days by train. Many things happened to him during this time. In particular he had great difficulty putting on his tallit and tefillin each day. Nor were things easier in the home of the senior official where he spent several days until the contract was signed. The return journey, while he was still impersonating a Russian, could serve as a story in itself. Here I only wanted to reveal how hard it was for Jews during the reign of Czar Nikolai to travel to Moscow. To do so they had to resort to means such as disguising themselves as Russians.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Yaakov Gejlichen, nicknamed Yekel, was born in 1866 in Shumsk to Keyla (Akerman) and Mikhel Lazer Gejlichen. Many members of the large and well-to-do Gejlichen clan immigrated to Palestine. Return
  2. An article about Efroim Goldenberg appears on page 207 of this yizkor book, and his daughter Rivka Ehrlich-Goldenberg wrote “From Shumsk to Tel Aviv,” beginning on page 415. Return
  3. Lepeskiva, just outside Yampil, is about 25 kilometers south-southeast of Shumsk. Return
  4. For more information on Yaakov/Kovke Berensztejn and his family, see the chapter “My Hometown Shumsk,” beginning on page 347 of this yizkor book, and its endnotes, as well as “Remembering Life in Lanovits” on the JewishGen.org KehilaLinks page for Lanovtsy. Return
  5. Avraham Wilskier was born in Shumsk in 1865 to Freida (Yakira) and Leib Wilskier, part of a large family in Shumsk. Avraham Wilskier married Chaya Sarah Stejnman of Shumsk. Children of these Wilskiers lived in kibbutzim near Lake Kinneret and hosted Shumskers who survived the Holocaust and arrived in Israel after World War II. Return
  6. The flour mill established by Yekel Gejlichen, Kovke Berenszteyn and Avraham Wilskier (Goldenberg is not mentioned) was known as the Rika Mill, according to Yekel Gejlichen's relative Avraham Moshe Gejlichen on page 151 of this yizkor book. Return
  7. Nicholas II, or Nikolai II Alexandrovich Romanov, was emperor of Russia from Nov. 1, 1894, to March 15, 1917. Return
  8. In the title and throughout this chapter, the word used for Russian is katsap, a Ukrainian word derived from tsap, which means goat. It is a derogatory term for ethnic Russians, in reference to their goatees or beards. Return


[Pages 398-400]

A Rich and Crafty Man – But Not After Death

by Munya Chazen

Translated by Shulamit Berman

Notes: The author of this piece, Chaim Munya, and his wife and children left Shumsk for America in 1921. Years later, Chazen wrote this and other pieces about Shumk's history and folklore. More about Chazen's life and family is in the introductory note on page 376 of this book's translation.

The Yiddish portions of the Shumsk Yizkor Book were translated to Hebrew by Esther Weinschelbaum and those translations are online at https://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/szumsk/szumskh.html. This translation to English was done from the Yiddish-to-Hebrew translation.

For obvious reasons I won't disclose his name.

In our town there was a very rich man. He owned forests, fields, estates and flour mills.

At that time [the beginning of the 20th century], some fifty years ago, his wealth was estimated at 100,000 rubles. He wasn't prepared to do much for the town, nor did he take part in community affairs; he lived a completely detached life. It was only with great difficulty that he was persuaded to part with a few rubles from time to time.

In the old home, the only way to obtain a large sum of money from the rich miser was if his father or mother died and the hevra kadisha (Jewish burial society) refused to prepare the body for burial until they received the necessary funds. Now the hevra kadisha had an opportunity, when they learned that the rich man's mother was very ill and the doctor did not hold out any hope because she was more than 80 years old, so they began to drink at his expense.

It was around Passover time. Every day the hevra kadisha permitted themselves to raise a glass. And indeed, she passed away on the seventh day of the holiday.

The rich man sat in his mansion outside the town and had no idea of the size of the debt he had run up with Zaydel's Leibche, who sold kosher-for-Passover schnapps. Right through the year there was plenty of schnapps in town because we had a distillery that manufactured it for the region, but on Passover, Leibche was the only one who sold kosher schnapps, which he brought from Rovno [Rivne] in bottles stamped with the hechsher (rabbinical endorsement) of the Rovno rabbi.

If the members of the hevra kadisha had simply asked for drinks, Leibche would not have trusted them because he knew them. It was precisely because he was one of them that he was very well aware that they were capable of imbibing everything he had, but this was at the rich man's expense, which was something else altogether.

So that Passover, the members of the hevra kadisha didn't stop drinking. They could barely stand on their feet. On the seventh day of Passover the rich man's mother died. They convened in the house of the gabbai (the man in charge of synagogue affairs) for consultation: since the old cemetery fence was broken, it was only right that the rich man should pay 2,000 rubles to install a new fence. After all, when if not now? Should they wait until he himself dies? Should they sit and wait until it pleased him to die?

“No! There can be no delay,” said the members of the hevra kadisha. “‘Today the world is born⁏ (an expression taken from the prayer book), today is the day we can obtain something from him. His mother only dies once, we must take advantage of this opportunity.”

“He will pay for his mother to ensure they prepare her body for burial and so that he may live to be 120.”

“Is there any doubt?”

“Anyway he is ours -- whether sooner or later … and what about his wife? When the time comes will he dip her in salt to preserve her?”

In this way the hevra kadisha poured out what was in their hearts, ending with a drop of bitterness.

The wealthy man was finally presented with the following ultimatum: “Since the old cemetery fence is broken, and since it will cost 2,000 rubles to repair, the hevra kadisha, with the approval of the gabbai, have concluded that you should pay the sum of 2,000 rubles for the fence.”

Messengers scurried to and fro but the rich individual was in no hurry to fork out the cash.

First of all, it was a holiday, and who pays cash on a holiday? Secondly, there was another brother who was capable of paying. Thirdly, the deceased was not at his house but at the house of the younger brother, so who were they threatening? And why 2,000 rubles? Wouldn't 300 rubles suffice to erect a fence?

Upon hearing the rich man's reply the hevra kadisha raised an outcry. Whoever heard of such a thing? To let a rich man get away with 300 rubles? It would barely cover the cost of the schnapps. Emissaries were again sent to tell him that he shouldn't be stubborn, it was a disgrace to the deceased. He should pay 1,500 rubles, a bargain price.

He listened to the emissaries and replied that his final offer was 300 rubles for the fence, but he was not going to pay for the whole town. Everyone must undertake to contribute to the cause, and as far as he was concerned, 300 rubles was a handsome contribution.

“If he fails her in these three ways, she shall go free, without payment.” [Exodus 21:11] If 300 rubles does not suffice, he won't pay a thing. There are three brothers, the debt is not only his. It is impossible to coerce him, the deceased is not in his house but actually out of town.

Upon hearing this response, the members of the hevra kadisha were perplexed. There were two opinions. One group refused to give in, while the other group was willing to accept 300 rubles from the wealthy man and another 100 rubles from each of the other brothers, for a total of 500 rubles.

As we have said, Zaydel's Leibche was a member of the hevra kadisha. He was a shrewd guy, and his opinion was valued because he was also capable of flexing his muscles when necessary; he belonged to the second group. He simply doubted that they would succeed in obtaining payment for the schnapps, so he decided to put an end to the matter. Time was passing, it was after midnight, what were they waiting for?

When he realized there was nothing to be done with this bunch of drunkards, he set off for the mansion with several men, obtained the 300 rubles, received the rest from the brothers and instructed the women to commence the tahara (preparation of the deceased for burial). He had already obtained the body with the help of others before disappearing into the dark night.

The following morning the events of the previous night became known, but Leibche was a fair man. He delivered the money to the gabbai after deducting what he was owed for the schnapps.

Although the hevra kadisha could not forgive Leibche for what he had done, they were afraid to confront him. But their hatred for the rich man, who got away with a pittance, smoldered deeply.

Ten years later he himself died. The hevra kadisha had already settled with the man's son-in-law, whom they brought from Kiev by telegram, that they would receive 2,000 rubles for a cemetery fence as well as a fence around the synagogue. He also paid for the schnapps they drank, this time at the rich man's expense. Thanks to the 3,000 rubles the community was able to erect a fence for the cemetery as well as a stone fence around the synagogue.

 

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