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[Pages 137-143]

How I arrived at Yiddish1

by Avrohom2 Kotik

Translated by Lucas Bruyn

During my early youth I didn't know what a 'kheder' 3 was or a 'beshmedresh' 4 . Not growing up in a Jewish street I never played or fought with Jewish boys; they just weren't around.

Mid 1888 I plunged into a Jewish 'shtetl' 5 where 'yidishkeyt' 6 oozed from every crack and cranny, where a Jewish atmosphere was all-pervading. Here everything was exclusively Jewish: private life, the beshmedres, the kheder; the personal names and nicknames, the language. Here there was a 'shul' 7 at least four, five hundred years old; here they kept an old 'pinkes' 8 relating stories from some 300 years back.

It all overwhelmed me. It was like being engulfed by water after falling into a river or a sea.

The name of that shtetl was Zabludove 9 , a place not far from Bialystok.

I arrived in the shtetl as a stranger with a foreign culture, but I arrived amongst kindred people.

There is a song by the Russian poet Lermontov 10 called "The Angel":

The human soul is always dreaming about things heavenly, because before a human being is born, the soul lived in heaven among angels where it heard heavenly singing. As soon as the Angel carries the soul down to earth, the soul forgets the melody of the heavenly song, but a trace of the song lingers on.

This way the angel constantly reminds the human of heavenly life and that's why man has such a strong longing for things not earthly.

These are the contents of Lermontov's song

If I were a poet I would write a similar song, describing a soul wandering in the course of many generations from one Jew to another, all living in the environment of a small Jewish shtetl. Finally this soul would end up in me, a Jew who when still an infant had been thrown out from the shtetl to start out on a journey wandering from one alien environment to another. But in his soul a trace of the life lived for generations had remained and had kept longing for that other life.

When I arrived in the shtetl, when I saw the life of the Jewish shtetl, I felt like a duck hatched by a the another species, say by a chicken, on seeing water. It plunges into the water, not heeding the chicken's frantic clucking.

My first introduction to Jews from Zabludove took place while I was still in Bialystok.

Following the instructions given me in a letter I went from the train to the Zabludove wagon-transport station 11 . It was still too early and I had to wait a few hours for the first cart-driver from Zabludove to arrive. Having reached an agreement about a 'passenger's' place I sat down next to the cart to wait for the departure. The coachman had assured me, that because it was Friday he wasn't going to wait long for 'passengers' and that he was intent on departing soon, in order to arrive in the shtetl before the blessing of the candles 12 . The coachman's 'soon' took two full hours. Finally the passengers, Jews from Zabludove, started to show up. The first one asked the coachman, "is that a Jew?", and only after receiving a "yes" in reply did he greet me with a warm "sholem aleykhem" 13 . The same with the second and so on.

In those days I used to be clean shaven and I wore a 'nihilist's' hat, a soft felt hat with a wide rim. In short, my appearance wasn't very Jewish.

Seven 'passengers' took their seats on the wagon. After leaving Bialystok the following conversation took place between me and the person next to me,

"Are you going to Zabludove?"


"For what purpose?"

"I have business there."

"Are you an agent for an insurance company?"


In those days I hadn't been out of the 'conspiratorial school' for long yet and there I had learnt that one should never say more than strictly necessary. I also happened to have a grudge against the Jews of Zabludove, because they had made me take 'the seat of honor', namely the place right above the back wheels and my soul was suffering from the battering.

I had the same dialogue with a slight variation with a second neighbor, then with a third and so on. The next one asked me, whether I was going to sell hides in Zabludove. The third one asked me if I was going to the mill - until all had questioned me without finding out why I was traveling. Finally one man asked me angrily:

"Well, why are you going to Zabludove then?"

To which I replied:

"To the pharmacy."

"Now really, why didn't you say so in the first place?"

We arrived in Zabludove at dusk. The next morning, when I was sitting at the breakfast table with the pharmacist, we heard loud noises coming from the pharmacy and we both ran out onto the porch.

In front of the porch stood a pack of boys, about thirty of them. On seeing me they shouted, "There's the new licencee 14 !".

That's how I became acquainted with the boys of the shtetl.

It was those boys who took the initiative in bringing me into contact with others in the place.

Soon enough I started to get better acquainted with the inhabitants.

It wasn't hard for me to get to know people in the shtetl. The customers of the drugstore were all Jews. Generally speaking, one was bound to get into contact with the Jewish population of the shtetl in one way or another.

During my first days I had the opportunity to get to know an interesting Jewish character: the coachman who used to bring goods for the pharmacy from Bialystok, Ayzik 15 , the coachman's ben-yokhed 16 .

When he saw me for the first time in the pharmacy he asked the pharmacist in a whisper: "Is that a 'Yehudi' 17 ?

Just for fun the pharmacist answered; "Yes".

Immediately the coachman took off his cap.

During the following days, coming early every morning to the pharmacy to find out whether they needed anything from Bialystok, he always took off his cap on entering and asked politely for the pharmacist.

One day he found the pharmacist in the store and having a chat with him he told a 'vits' 18 that made me burst into laughter.

Our coachman immediately put on his cap, shouting: "Aha, it's an ordinary Yid 19 , you had me fooled!" He was quite angry.

For some days he didn't come to the pharmacy. His father came in his place. This proud coachman who would take off his cap for a gentleman 20 was not willing to lift his cap for an ordinary Jew, his equal.

When his anger had subsided the ben-yokhed apologized and we became dear brothers.

Gradually I started getting to know the pharmacy's customers.

There are always some very sick people in a shtetl, who are visited by the doctor daily, and for whom it is necessary to come to the pharmacy every day. So it often happens that for some weeks you'll see the same faces over and over again every day, until these very sick people get better or die.

I would often engage in conversation with such temporarily steady visitors to the pharmacy. There wasn't much to do in the pharmacy, so there was time for a chat with the visitor while the prescription was being prepared.

One conversation I remember in particular. I had been woken up in the middle of the night. A man had come in with a prescription for a woman who had given birth and lost blood. I prepared the prescription and while it was boiling I started a conversation with the visitor.

He was a water carrier by profession, a man rich in children, all of the kheder going age: his income wasn't enough to buy them bread. To pay the doctor and for the prescription he had been obliged to pawn a pillow. He told me about his situation in a detached way, with a quiet voice, like he wasn't speaking about himself.

I often had such conversations. I came across people who hadn't any particular profession, who never knew on Thursday how they would cope on 'shabes' 21 .

The farmer, the village fed them, God would bless them with something, a bit 22 of rye, a bag of potatoes; who knows, may be a goose if it pleased God to lead a gentleman across one's path. I had people come by, who were dyers of farm spun yarn for farmers' looms, I met with tanners, with butchers.

I had come to the very core of Jewish life.

During one of my chats I happened to mention that I would like to hear a 'maged' 23 and from then on heralds from the shtetl would come running to tell me when a preacher was expected all the time.

I would diligently attend the sermons of such preachers and listen to them intently. The shtetl came to look on me as quite an odd licensee and more than once a client of the pharmacy tried to keep me from signing bills on shabes.

I got involved in the life of the shtetl and became close to the Jews around me.

Nevertheless I had come to the shtetl as a Russian intellectual 24 and I couldn't stop myself from bringing in culture in the form of Russian language and its cultural products. Naturally I made contact with the local Jewish intelligentsia.

Like every shtetl Zabludove had its own 'gvir' 25 : Heshl Hefner. His household was really Jewish, though in touch with the outside world. This rich man's children received their religious education from a special melamed 26 but had tutors and governesses for the other subjects.

During that period the governess was Ester Lap, daughter of the late rov 27 of Zabludove and sister to the young rov of Zabludove that had taken over his father's position. Hefner had a son, Wolf Hefner, a young man about two years younger than me.

There was one more intellectual in the shtetl, the manager of the State 28 Jewish school, Serlin. Everybody knows what a State Jewish school is. It was a outpost of Russian culture and Russian environment. All their energy and labor was spent on teaching Jewish children that didn't speak one word of Russian to speak and understand the Russian language.

Serlin was not a typical State school teacher. He hadn't finished the well known teachers' training institute in Vilne 29 , famous for producing institutional teachers 30 . He had been an external student and had only taken an additional examination in education. He was therefore not very remote from The Jewish sphere. He always partook in a minyen 31 that congregated at the gvir's place to say prayers on shabes and he would often pray at the 'omed' 32 . He never spoke Russian to a Jew. If the political constellation had been different he might have made a very decent Jewish folk teacher. He was obliged to carry out the official curriculum at his school. He had to carry out his duty assigned to him by management of the school, namely to russify Jewish children.

That was hard on him, for in his heart he wasn't a russifier.

In those days I regarded the Russian russification school as a normal Jewish school. How else could education be advanced, how could culture be imparted to Jews, if not through Russian? Naturally I took an interest in the Jewish school, so I was introduced to Serlin.

There we were, four intellectuals. It was only logical that we would unite and accomplish something.

Our first exploit was to set up a library for ourselves and for others.

Having thrown together our coins 33 we first took out a subscription to the magazine "Russkaia Mysl" 34 , which in those days set the trend among Russian magazines and in which they printed articles by Shelgunov 35 , calling up the intelligentsia to a broad range of cultural activities every month.

We also ordered some books for young people, such as the publications by the 'Komitet Gramotnosti' 36 .

Serlin's pupils, boys and girls, relapsed into illiteracy in Russian soon after finishing school. In the dense Jewish atmosphere they would forget the little Russian they had learned in school. What was wrong was that they never read books in Russian, simply because there weren't any. It was impossible for Serlin to set up a library on his small budget.

Some twenty years later I was in Zabludove and paid Serlin a visit. The library still existed in his school, "dispersing culture". It had already received support from the Petersburg based "mefitse haskole" 37 , and it had greatly increased in size. But the books which had been bought upon my arrival in Zabludove were still there. Serlin had kept them as a fond keepsake.

But I was not satisfied with just organizing a library. During a meeting of our foursome it was decided to open a shabes-school. We had a classroom for free and we ourselves would be the teachers. We didn't put a curriculum together.

We decided that I would start reading stories. By doing so we would get to know the make up of the audience during my readings and thus be able to put together a suitable program.

You must understand that since I was a man who had only recently given up giving guidance to workmen's circles, I wasn't really eagerly anticipating teaching the alphabet to students who were not even the children of laborers. Our target group was study house students.

Giving lectures would enable me to develop several ideas over time. That's why I started out with prehistory.

I read from a book that was considered the best on the subject at the time. If I am not mistaken, it was Shulgin's 'History'. While reading I used to add further explanations when necessary.

Not long after, on a shabes, we invited the boys to come to Serlin's school. These boys came from the overcrowded benches of the study house. They were very eager to get educated, they were craving 'haskole' 38 . About ten of them showed up, with inquisitive eyes and with their ears wide open, their souls ready to absorb science. But they got cheated.

I would start reading on shabes afternoon at three o'clock. On the first shabes I noticed that my audience was fighting hard against sleep. On the second and third shabes this battle got even more pronounced. On the fourth shabes sleep carried the victory and one boy in the audience even started snoring. I stopped reading and asked my audience if they were not interested in the book I was reading.

They gave me an honest answer, saying that they were very interested in the book I was reading, but that they couldn't understand a single word, because they didn't know any Russian.

Recalling that shabes, remembering the moment I got that answer from my audience, I always see myself standing there completely taken by surprise, slapping my hand on my forehead and shouting out, anyway, at least in my mind: "what a fool you are! Why don't you simply speak Yiddish to Jews - no need for tricks!"

This is how I arrived at the simple thought, that one ought to approach Jews in Yiddish. That is not to say that this idea was born in my mind at that very moment on that shabes. No, ideas don't strike as lightening from a clear sky 39 : they are born in the darkness of our subconscious, they go through a process of evolution until they finally emerge in the conscious mind in a clear form.

This idea of mine had been conceived first because of my inherited psyche, it had developed through my experience with the first 'Jewish workmen's school' 40 and by life in the Jewish shtetl, finally seeing the light at that moment on that shabes.

The logical consequence would have been that I would have started a new campaign, a Yiddish shabes school, but that was not in the stars. The shtetl intervened, or more correctly, the women of the shtetl. People had started to say bad things about our school. There were some who maintained to have seen with their very own eyes that people at our place had written during the shabes. We were forced to give up our plans for lectures, taking into account both the audience and Serlin's position.

However, the shabes school, no matter how short its existence, taught me one important lesson. I reached the decision to work in Yiddish only from then on.

That's not to say that I turned into a Yiddishist overnight - I still had to go a long way.

Even six years later, in 1895, I wrote in the introduction of a booklet published by me in the series "Popular Science Books" 41 :

"Jargon" 42 is for the time being the only language that can be used by the intellectual to disseminate information, new ideas and terminology among the masses. Only if we have reached the stage that in all shtetls well conceived elementary schools have been established and all Jewish children have the opportunity to receive an appropriate basic education, then we will surely give "jargon" its full retirement 43 , like to an invalid, who has his merits, but who has served out his time. For the moment being "jargon" is not an invalid yet and it still has to do its duty. That's why literature in "jargon" still has a right to exist."

I wrote that in the year 1895. I still considered Yiddish to be a jargon and a temporary phenomenon. I considered a Jewish school to be a school where Yiddish children were not taught in Yiddish. Of course, the point of view I reached in Zabludove was still crude because it had just taken root.

When a person starts out on learning the Alphabet, he has to go all the way from 'a' to 'z'. I had started in Zabludove on the 'alef' of my consciousness as a Yiddishist, from there I had to go to 'beys' etc., to arrive at the 'sof' many years later, reaching a complete and outspoken conviction as a Yiddishist.

1 yiddish = Jewish, the Jewish language of the Ashkenazim. Return
2 Avro(ho)m (c.s. Abraham). Return
3 kheder (c.s. heder) - a Jewish primary school; religeous school for children. Return
4 beshmedresh (c.s. beit-midrash) - a prayer and study house. Return
5 shtetl - 'townlet', a small town with a predominately Jewish population. Return
6 yidishkeyt - Jewishness; Jewish faith. Return
7 shul - a synagogue. Return
8 pinkes (c.s. pinkas) - a book of records. Return
9 Zabludove (c.s. Zabludow). Return
10 Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov, 1814-41. Return
11 text: Russ. padvorye - a yard. Return
12 On Friday afternoon, about 20 minutes before sunset. Return
13 sholem aleykhem (c.s. sholom aleichem) - Peace be with you. Return
14 Yidd. provizor. comp. Germ. Provisor: a pharmacist who has a diploma, heading a pharmacy in the service of someone else and being responsible for the technical part of the bussiness. Abraham Kotik would take his examination as an assistant 'provisor' in Warsaw in 1891 (Dos Lebn, p.217). Return
15 Ayzik>Yitskhok (c.s. Isaac). Return
16 ben-yokhed - an only son. Return
17 yehudi - a westernized Jew. Return
18 Yidd. vits (c.s. wits) - a joke. Return
19 yid - a Jew. Return
20 text: porets - litt. Polish nobleman. Return
21 shabbes (c.s. Sabbath). Return
22 text: an akhtsel - an eighth part. Return
23 maged - an itinerary preacher. Return
24 text: inteligent - a person belonging to the intelligentsia. Return
25 g(e)vir - a very rich person. Return
26 melamed - a teacher in a kheder. Return
27 rov - a rabbi. Return
28 text: kazooner = kazyoner. Return
29 Vilne = Vilnius. Return
30 text “lerers institutshikes”. Return
31 minyen (c.s. minyan) - an assembly of ten Jewish males. Return
32 omed - a cantor's desk; a synagogal lectern. Return
33 text: klingers. Return
34 Russkaia Mysl - Russian Thought, published since 1880. Return
35 Nikolai Vasilevich Shelgunov, 1824-1891. Return
36 Commission for Literacy, probably : S.-Peterburgskoe obshchestvo (society) Gramotnosti. Return
37 Distributor of Education, a Jewish cultural organisation, 1863-1930. Return
38 haskole (c.s. Haskala) - enlightenment; secular education. Return
39 text: fun der "heler hoyt". Return
40 described in chapter 8 of Kotik's book 'dos lebn fun a yidishn inteligent'. Return
41 text: visenshaftlekhe folksbikher. Return
42 Jargon - Yiddish, a term sometimes used by detractors of the language. Return
43 text: a "tshistaastavka": R. otstavke - retirement. A clearance for retirement. Return

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