The Russian Revolution and Beyond, 1917-1920
Jacob: I was a kid that time, the age of--let's see, twelve, thirteen, bar mitzvah time. Then the revolution in Russia broke out. Well, there are lots of things to tell. That is something of history. But I tell you my modest part that I took in the revolution.
We all hated the regime of the Tsar, the Tsarist regime-all the Jews, I would say, and many, many millions of other people. When revolution broke out in Russia, we were happy. The hopes were very high. Now, we were thinking, a new life will start for all of us. We'll be free people, and we'll be able to express ourselves. We will be able to live in any part of Russia. Lots and lots of good hopes.
Well, so certainly for me, as a kid of twelve, thirteen years old, it was typical to be a revolutionary. We lived, as I told you before, in a city by name Pochep, in the northern part of Ukraine. It was not a big city, not a famous city, but the name was well known, because it was on the Moscow-Berlin line. So many trains pass through this railroad station, hundreds of trains a day. In the beginning of the war, trains were going to the front. Then, when the revolution broke out, hundreds of thousands of soldiers deserted, and they went back into Russia. So as a kid, I liked to go to the railroad station and to watch the trains, the echelons, what we call it. Sometimes I used to take with me my younger brother, Abba, Abel, and to show him. I was probably-let me see, seven, eight years older than he, so I was the guide, and he was just a kid, five or six years old.
Well, the revolution for me started at the high school. We call it in Russia, or maybe in many parts of Europe, by the name gymnasia. gymnasia is more than American high school. It's an American high school plus two junior grades. I was probably at that time in the fourth grade.
Rachel: How old were you then?
Jacob: I was then twelve years or thirteen years old. My education, as I said before, didn't start normally in time. I skipped classes, I learned in yeshiva before, so then when my parents decided to send me to gymnasia, I was prepared especially for a certain grade. That is something of history. But I tell you my modest part that I took in the revolution.
Well, the revolution in our school started with beating up the director! He was hated by all of us. His name was Petrov. First, he was an anti-Semite, so certainly, the Jewish people hated him. I told the last time some episode what had happened between him and me. I stopped him and demanded an explanation of his remark. Actually, the beating, I didn't do it. I was small fry, too young, but the older students did a good job on him. And we were just jumping around and enjoying it.
Rachel: What started the revolt in the school?
Jacob: You have to express your revolutionary spirit! So how to express it? Petrov was considered, according to the literature and slogans and everything, a servant, or a lackey-the Russians say a ka-kay'-of the government. So who wouldn't like to beat up a man like this? He was bleeding and thrown out somewhere. So that was my first expression of joy and acceptance for the revolution.
But as you know from history-I'll just mention briefly-the revolution started, and the leader of the revolution was Kerensky, wellknown name in history. Kerensky was a liberal. He was a member of the Duma. Duma is some kind of a parliament, not elected but appointed by the Tsar, and Kerensky was the most liberal of the Duma. So certainly, he was the head of the revolutionary movement. And pretty soon the whole movement parted into two branches, into two movements: the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. You have certainly heard about the Bolsheviks. Mensheviks, not too many heard. Mensheviks comes from the Russian word mensheh-means less, less demanding or minimal demands. And Bolshevik comes from the Russian word bolsheh-means demanding the maximum of the revolution. The Bolsheviks and Communists, that was the same, more or less. So the beginning was Kerensky's regime, and the Jewish people just enjoyed and were waiting for good times ahead.
It didn't take long. It was going on fierce fighting between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. Thousands of people were killed. The Russian front in the war with the Germans collapsed, and hundreds of thousands of Russians came back from the front, deserted, neglected everythingwithout weapons, some with weapons-and wherever they passed by, they were plundering people. They had to make a living. They had to eat something. In the same time, on the scene came Lenin. He was in exile. He was in Switzerland, in England, and he came secretly back to Russia, and then that gave strength to the Bolshevik movement, to the Communists.
Rachel: Where were you in all of this?
Jacob: Well, so I just want to give you a picture of what happened. The Jewish people were not happy with the Bolsheviks taking over. I wouldn't go into details about the revolution, but I'll go back to our family in Pochep. The people-and the Jewish people, especially, and our family, certainly-we were not happy. All kinds of restrictions started. All kinds of restrictions. Don't do this, don't do that. It's forbidden to do this, forbidden to do that. As you know, the Communist Revolution broke out in October 1917. The main concern became food, to make a living. Food started to disappear. In the part of Ukraine we lived was plenty of food before. This region was a part of the breadbasket of Russia. But now food started to disappear-less bread, less meat, less eggs. How to make a living? That was the main concern. We were just newcomers to this region. We lived there about two years only. So how to make a living? How would you make a living in situation like this? I don't know about you; thanks God, you had no revolution. You didn't go through these things, but I will tell you what we did.
First of all, we received cards. According to the cards, we were two adults, two people. It was written two people. Dveh dufi means two persons, and I as the intelligent in the family, the educated man, managed to change the dveh into dvenatsas. Dvenatsas means twelve. I just did forgery! I am ashamed to tell that your father did it, but your father was then at age twelve years, so you'll excuse him. So for a long time, more or less maybe a half a year, we received food on the card for twelve
persons. So we had plenty. The family was happy, and we shared the food with other families, especially with our Uncle Schindler and his family.
But to everything comes to an end. They caught me, and they investigated, they investigated the parents, and they threatened me to put me into jail or something. But somehow, I don't know what happened, it went through, and it was settled, and we got food only for two. For two persons was scarce; it was not enough.
So what business could we do in that time? We became, as we call it in Russian, meshoshnik. In English translation what it means, bag people or sack people-speculating, taking foods from Pochep to the more western parts of Russia and making profits, food or something. And from the more western parts of Russia bringing back, if we succeeded, some fabrics, some manufactured things into Pochep. It was illegal; it was punishable, but we took the risk. Who took part? Certainly, my father and myself--!was already a grown-up kid-not my younger brother. We used to take in bags, packed, and the bags sometimes put in suitcases, or without suitcases, and nighttime to sneak into the wagon, to go to the railroad, sometimes with a ticket and sometimes without a ticket. It was a mixed-up life at that time. And if we succeeded, we brought the foods to Vitebsk, Smolensk-two big cities in Byelorussia, White Russia. We used to sell it with profits, and if got, we bought some products there and bringing it back to Pochep. So that was the way of making a living at that time.
But that was not the main thing and the main hopes and fears that we had at that time. For us Jewish people started a very unruly, a very uncertain period of time. I say one word, and you'll understand what I mean. Pogroms. Have you heard of the word pogroms? That's a Russian word. A pogrom means destruction, if you translate in one word-beating, killing, and destroying. You can give many meanings. All the meanings are correct. Pogroms. We never know under what regime we are. Today we are under the Communists. Tomorrow, another commando squad; a group of soldiers could come in and take over the rule, and they are not Communists. They are anti-Communists. A few days later, they are chased away, driven out, and a group of Communists came!
Every group who came liked to punish the population. Ah, you were with them? Prove it that you were not with them.
Another group came. Prove it that you were not with them.
So we never knew what to say and how to behave. In our part of Russia changed from my time at least five, six times taking over. There was an army in Russian known as Keklouras army, anti-Communists. There was the army of General Deniken, anti-Communists. [With the fall of the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky to the Bolshevik Red Army in November 1917, a number of anti-Bolshevik forces assembled all over Russia, leading to the Russian Civil War.] So we never knew where to belong, and that was the main danger for the whole population, and especially for our Jews. It is well known when the people are angry, and people have to find a source to let out their anger, so they let out to whom? Certainly to the Jews. Hundreds of Jews, maybe thousands, in Pochep were taken to the jails or were killed on the spot.
So certainly, our thoughts turned back to find a way to go back home as soon as possible. You know our home was in Lithuania. Lithuania in that time, it was not Lithuania yet. It was called Kovno Gubernia, Kovno province. Our thoughts started turning how to come back home.to Lithuania.
Josh: Where was your bar mitzvah?
Jacob: Bar mitzvah? I'll come to this. My bar mitzvah. Well, in my time and in the parts of the world where I lived, a bar mitzvah was not considered a social event or a great ceremony, as it is in America, where you spend thousands of dollars and then lot of expenses to perform this ceremony. In my time, a bar mitzvah was considered a religious event. A boy reaches thirteen years old, he became a full-fledged Jew, with all the obligations that a Jew had. And a Jew had a lot of obligations in my time. They used to say, Si shver tsu zein an id. It's very difficult to be a Jew. You have a lot of obligations upon you.
So my bar mitzvah-interesting, I don't remember exactly my bar mitzvah. I remember a lot of things since I was five. It happened, I know. I was taken by my parents to shul, even though I don't remember
what shul it was, in Pochep. I was called to the Torah, a maftir. I said the brachas [prayers], and I was not prepared any haftorah to read. The baal koreh, the reader, read the haftorah. I was never taught haftorah to read. Maybe I lived that time in abnormal times, the revolution and sending us out from Lithuania. So I don't remember too much. Anyway, I remember it was in Pochep, I was called to the Torah, I said the brachas, and that was the end! We didn't make any party. A party I would have remembered. Maybe Mother made refreshments, tea.
Some remark: In that time, my religious views, or my orthodox religious views, changed. When we lived at home in Lithuania in our house, and the Bobbe Golda lived with us, I was mostly under her influence, and I observed all the orthodox Jewish requirements and laws, as a good Jewish boy had to do. I used to go to shut, not only on shabbas but weekdays, sometimes in groups together with the rebbe-the rebbe means the religious teacher-sometimes alone. But shabbas, certainly, I went with my father to shut, sitting nicely near him. I said all the brachas. Certainly, it was kosher food, no doubt about this, and my Bobbe Golda took care of this. The same was with my older brother. But now in Russia, when we saw already a wider world, my religious-what word to say?-my religious roots started to give in, and I neglected already a lot of things. I did not pray every day. After bar mitzvah, I didn't put on tefflin every day. In the beginning, I certainly did. And especially being in the gymnasia, I didn't care about all these religious things. So my life changed drastically in this particular way.
As I told you before, the first year being in Russia and in Pochep, I learned in yeshiva. We strictly observed the orthodox way of life. But now already, in the gymnasia years, I wouldn't guarantee for the same. Now, what other things can I tell what I have not told you about the revolution?
Rachel: You were saying that you thought your family was thinking about returning to Lithuania about this time.
Jacob: Yes. Lithuania was still occupied by the Germans, as we know from history-the Germans, the German army, not the Nazi army. Don't mix one with another. The word Nazi was not known at that
time; it was the army of the Kaiser Wilhelm. The Kaiser in Russia was Nikolai II. So the victory was-hard to say on what side! Both regimes collapsed, in Germany and in Russia. A few words I'll add about the regime. When Kerensky took over, the Tsar Nikolai-or in English, maybe you call him Nicholas; in Russian, pronounce Nikolai-and his family and his only son, Alexei, were alive. They were kept somewhere, maybe respectfully. They were not the rulers anymore, certainly. Now the Communists, the Bolsheviks, took over the regime. They didn't know what to do with the family. There was suggestion to send them out somewhere, in western Europe or to England. He was related to the English king. And somebody said, no, they won't do it, because somewhere abroad in western Europe, he'll get power again, and he'll start fighting us.
So the whole population of Russia one day, the whole population was surprised to the news that the Communists wiped out the Tsar's family. They killed him. It was a tragic event, no matter how we disliked the Tsar. But we couldn't take it, especially we Jewish people were softhearted, to hear that they killed Tsaritsa-means the wife-his daughters, and his only son, Alexei. They made it in a very low, murderous way. It was in Siberia, and they were kept, promised that they'll send them somewhere else. But one day, they were assembled all of them in a room, a small room. A few Russians-they call them at that time Chekists; chekists means the police; they are like police who executed a lot of things-so the Chekists came in, talked to them; suddenly, they took out the pistols, and one by one, they killed the whole family. That was the end ofTsar's family. We were quite upset.
Rachel: Were you back in Lithuania at this time?
Jacob: No. Lithuania was different world. Lithuania was still under the German occupation. We were still thinking, hoping, and planning, but we were still far away from Lithuania. We lived under the Communist regime, I would say, for almost three years. Hard life, hard way. In our school, a lot of things changed: a new director, new instructions, new songs, and almost every kid was inclined to be a Communist, to be a revolutionary and a Communist, because we hoped for a new life,
for a new start. How it worked out later was a different story. There were demonstrations every day, every day demonstrations, and we took part in demonstrations, carrying red flags, red banners. And there were new organizations for kids, and everyone was, willingly or unwillingly, drafted into this organization. I was among them.
From my old life, my old Jewish life, there was almost nothing left over, and the parents disliked it, certainly, and it started a disagreement between kids and parents. I remember one thing. Everyone was suspected that he, if not by acting, so in his thought, he's anti-Communist. Everyone! So the leaders of these youth organizations wanted us to spy on the parents and to tell them what our parents are thinking, what they are talking, and what are they planning to do. They demanded from me, too. I never told them. I was not put under hard test, but some kids came back and said, My father said so and so; my mother did so and so. So the parents suffered after that. It was a hard time, to switch over from one regime to another regime.
Finally, in Pochep occurred a pogrom. In English, we pronounce it po'-grom; in Russian, po-grom'. A little pogrom; only maybe twenty-five to thirty Jews were killed. Maybe a hundred families, a couple of hundred families, suffered. The pogrom was a little pogrom. In the big cities, in the nearby cities, were pogroms where thousands and thousands of people were killed. When we talk pogrom, it means action against Jewish people-a special word, pogrom.
How it started? A group of soldiers came back from the front, deserters, and they came to the city and Ah, we need food.
First of all, they broke into liquor stores. There was plenty of vodka still. When they had a good drink of vodka, then they started breaking other stores. When some people appeared and protesting, begging them not to do, they were killed on the spot. Then they started going from place to place, from house to house, killing, and pretty soon, the local people joined them, Ukrainian people. So it was, so to say, a little pogrom in my own town, Pochep.
Mter that, we intensified our actions, looking a way how to go back home. It was already 1919, probably, a couple of years after the revolution. And here we heard rumors. I remember well this period of time. I was thirteen, fourteen years old, already a grown-up boy. A child, a boy
at age thirteen, fourteen, at that time was like a grown-up man. He was exposed to all the news, to the rumors, to the actions, we say. So at fourteen years, I felt like a grown-up man, and I knew lots of things.
So the parents were planning to go home. And suddenly, rumors broke out that the weselentsee-we were called weselentsee, the expelled people-from the western region, from the Kovno Gubernia and the surroundings, can find a way to go home, and we intensified looking for a way to go home. So I don't know the details; I don't remember the details. My father was a specialist, probably, and more than my father was my Uncle Schindler.
Rachel, you know the Schindlers? Do you remember them from Boston? That was the children. So the father Schindler was young, and he knew a lot of things. Suddenly, we heard if we sign up at a certain day, at a certain place, we can start preparing for going back home to Lithuania. Certainly, we were happy to do it, but it took a long time to materialize. From saying to sign up until the day going home took a long time.
Now, what more details? I don't want to go into details. We'll come later if I remember something. So it was summer, I would say beginning of summer-!don't know exactly; I wouldn't be surprised it was in April, May 1920-that we started our way back home.
Rachel: Did you remember what Lithuania was like when you were going home?
Jacob: I remember Lithuania from the days we left it. I told you before, Lithuania was one of the three Baltic countries: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. Lithuania was on the Baltic Sea. Theoretically, you could imagine if you stand on the shore of the Baltic Sea in Lithuania, and you look north, you can see Sweden.
Rachel: Could you?
Jacob: Certainly, we could not. I say theoretically, because it was too large a distance. Maybe now with some instrument, you could. But we imagined this way, and that is on the map.
Well, I would characterize myself I was a guy, a kid, happy-golucky. When the tragedy was, when they were expelled from Lithuania in forty-eight hours-in twenty-four hours and then they increased to forty-eight-and people were crying and trying in the last minute to take their belongings what they could save, I was in my heart happy, wanting to jump and to dance, because it was such an event. Where do you have it? Now to go back home and to travel, I was glad, too. New events would start. To get rid of the gymnasia, of the teachers, and now look, we are going back to Lithuania. Who thought about the future, what will be? Kids of this age, of my age, don't think about the future. They think about what is their days. Especially I was happy that there was a family with us who had a girl my age-maybe she was older a year-and she was going with us, and I thought, I'm in love with her.
Rachel: Do you remember her name?
Jacob: I remember the name. Yes, Raisa, I forgot the last name. So she was going, and she lured me. Let's go home. We're going home!
I don't know, that gave some special dimension to my desire to go back home. Anyway, we were-I can't say exactly; I wouldn't be surprised there were about a hundred families of the first group to go back home to Lithuania.
It's easy to say to go back home. Finally, we sold what we had and what we could. We had very little belongings at that time. Our belongings were in Lithuania. We were brought to the railroad station, a couple of kilometers from the center of the town. We lived in the center. We were put into wagons-freight wagons, not passenger. In each wagon, I don't remember how many-ten families-anyway, it was crowded. Not so terribly crowded; I knew later on worse trips in such kinds of wagons. Amazingly, we were standing at the railroad station for almost a week, waiting for the train to start moving, waiting for the lucky engine, locomotive, to come and to take these wagons and to pull us to Lithuania.
But we were waiting and waiting a week, I am sure-maybe more-to go. Adults started losing patience, complaining. Somebody said, Let's go back to the center, to the city. Some did, some temporarily.
Some said, It is dangerous. The engine can come any moment and can start moving.
But for me, it was a happy time. The girl was there, and, as I said, I thought I was in love with her. So we spent together, walking around and looking around. So it was not too long for me, the waiting.
Well, to describe-finally, the engine came and start pulling the wagons, and we start moving the way home. We passed parts of Byelorussia. We passed cities of Chernigov, Cornel, Mahilov, well-known cities, and I remember we came to a certain place in Vitebsk Gubernia. That was already closer to Lithuania. And there-it was already, I would say, June or July, warm, beautiful days-we were ordered to go out from the wagons and to camp on a certain place, on a meadow along a river. Again, for me were happy days. We were waiting for two days, to rest, and then a new train will come to pick us up. But the two days were prolonged for many, many days, for weeks. I would not be surprised we stayed there for a month along the river.
Now, what else you want to know? Maybe too much, too many details, I am telling you. What else do you want? Ask me some questions. I will be glad to answer you.
Rachel: How long were you at that site before they moved you out?
Jacob: It took us a long time. I wouldn't be surprised three, four weeks we stayed there. And during the three, four weeks, the question is about food. That was the main thing. For food, as I told you before, everywhere they organized Jewish help committees. They supplied us with food and with small amounts of money. We were returning home, expelled people. So we had somehow.
I didn't myself in that time go into details how we get food and how much, but we had some food. But the time consuming, waiting and being idle, to do nothing and being between two fires. One side, we left the Russians, the Bolshevik Revolution; and we were going home where
Lithuania is still occupied by the Germans. And we are between, not far from the border. So that was killing us, the waiting.
Now, if you want to, before we leave Russia, before we leave the days of the Russian Revolution, if you want me to tell more details, ask, and I will try to.
Rachel: Is this the time your older brother left?
Jacob: Good that you asked me. Maybe you haven't heard before from me, but I told Josh. My older brother didn't stay with us in Pochep. He stayed only for a short time, maybe a few months. He had a sweetheart-that's the expression?-from Pumpyan, from our original town. They got separated, and after being in Pochep for a certain while, somehow he got information that she-her name was Kramer-that she and her family were moved to Ufa, a city in the Urals. That's before the Siberian territory starts. Urals divide Europe from Asia. So he told us, My dear parents, so and so. It was a period of time that he didn't talk to the parents. As you know, kids are kids, now and in that time. They don't tell their secrets and their actions to the parents. They don't discuss with the parents. He just told that he is going away. Where? To Ufa. We didn't ask. We means my parents, not me. I was just nothing.
Josh: We have just a few minutes left on this tape. Could you continue the story back to Lithuania?
Jacob: Okay. So he left us, and he lived in Ufa up to the end of the war, and he did not return back to Lithuania. Ufa from us was maybe three thousand miles. Later on, he settled in Moscow, and he stayed there, but he did not return back to Lithuania. Only my younger brother, Abel.
Josh: When did you get back to Lithuania?
Jacob: That's already a new chapter of life. Finally, finally, our echelon moved. We were settled back in the wagons, and from there on, didn't take long-maybe a few days, maybe a couple of weeks-and we were brought into Lithuania, into Ponevezh. Ponevezh was the nearest big city to my town of Pumpyan. It was about twenty-five kilometers, and what remained was to move from Ponevezh to Pumpyan.
That starts already a completely new story, on new grounds in Lithuania. There was no regime, no rule, in Lithuania. It was under the German occupation. We haven't seen any Germans. The city was ruled by itself But the Germans ruled the whole area, and they were also on the eve of leaving, of going out. That is, so to say, the days before the independent Lithuania started. If we'll have a chance to talk later, and I'll have a chance to tell you, I'll have to start with a Lithuanian government, with the Lithuanian country, how it was established, what the Germans did for the last days of their occupancy, and how our family and myself lived.
It's a completely new life started, for me and for all of us. And the girl what I told you I was in love with her, the moment we departed in Ponevezh-they went farther on, to Kovno-I forgot about her, and probably she forgot about me. In my thoughts, I was figuring sometimes I'll marry her or live somewhere, but that's only dreams and talk of a young teenager.
Rachel: So how old are you at this point?
Jacob: I was fifteen years old.
Rachel: What year is this?
Jacob: In 1920. I was born in 1905, January 19, if you want to know details. Well, and now it started a problem. How to move, how to go from Ponevezh to Pumpyan? There was no communications, no buses, no acquaintance, no farmers, and we were afraid a little bit. We are coming to the country. We were away for five years, over five years, maybe. We left everything ruined, and now starts a life from beginning,
from very beginning, and where, under what circumstances, what was waiting for us, and what's expecting us? So, as I say, what will be, will be. We had to move ahead.
Rachel, that's the destiny of Jewish people. Wanderers. You don't want to be wanderers. The circumstances make you to be a wanderer. And not secure with your place of living, not secure with the way of making of a living. Can you imagine I was only at this time about fifteen years old? I went already through being expelled from Lithuania, sent to Russia from place to place until we settled in Pochep, under three regimes-the Tsar's regime, the Menshevik regime, the Communist regime-pogroms, uncertainty, now running back from Russia back home, long, long trip, many weeks long, journeys, coming back to Lithuania, uncertainty. You are in Ponevezh even not knowing how to go home to your shtetl in Pumpyan. Certainly, my parents thought only about Pumpyan. That was our place. We left the house. We left stores and land, property, a few acres of land. Some people didn't return home, or they perished in Russia. Some people were not willing to. They adapted.
Rachel: But you returned home.
Jacob: My parents wanted only home. You see my brother didn't want to go home. He became adapted there. Some people came home, and they found new circumstances which they didn't like at all. And if you want, I will tell you what's going on farther in Lithuania.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
The Jacob Rassen Story Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2023 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 17 Aug 2018 by LA