Passages from Zeev Bernstein`s Autobiographical Book
"My Life, My Environment, My Epoche"
(Nathania, Israel, 2000)
These passages are taken from the chapter "My Roots", based mostly on the author`s father`s, Boris Bernstein`s (1895-1978) descriptions, as he told them to his children.
In the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century Yurburg was a little town in Lithuania with a population of about 2000 to 3000 people. Until it obtained its independence in 1918, Lithuania was a part of the Russian Empire and it was officially part of the "Province of Kovno" (Kovenskaya Guberniya).
Until 1917, when the Tsar`s regime was overthrown ("the February Revolution"), the highest representative of the central government in Yurburg was Prince Vasiltchikov, a relative of the Tsar, who conferred on him the rank of Prince and gave him a magnificient castle with a big park in the center of the town as well as all the lands in and around Yurburg. In the 1930s, after the Vasilchikov family had lost all its riches, the prince`s son, who still called himself "prince", lived in Kovno in poverty and begged alms from the former "Yurbrikers". From time to time he used to come to our house and ask my father "for five litas". Every time his begging was accompanied by the words: "This time I will bring you the money back without fail"Š
In the beginning of the twentieth century Yurburg was a typical "shtetl", as they were depicted in the Jewish literature of the previous century, e.g. in the works of Sholem-Aleichem, Mendale Moicher Sforim, Yehuda-Leib Peretz, Peretz Smolenskin etc. The houses of Yurburg were mostly one-floor wood houses, most of the streets were not paved, some of them were cobbled. There was no water main, and fresh water had to be drawn from wells. There was no sewage either. The "conveniences" &endash; a small outhouse over a deep hole and a gap in the floor &endash; were outside the houses.
Most of Yurburg`s inhabitants were poor Jews, mostly craftsmen or storekeepers. There were also woodcutters, water-carriers, laundresses etc. among the Jewish population of Yurburg. A special "class" were the town`s beggars: the shtetl and its environment were divided into "zones", every beggar (sometimes whole families) "worked" in his zone, and God forbid if a beggar were to "invade" another beggar`s territory!
One of the most prominent persons in those days was the shtetl`s coachman, Bentse der Foorman, the owner and "operator" of the single means of conveyance of Yurburg.
The Jewish character of Yurburg was seen everywhere. As every "shtetl", Yurburg had its rabbi, its dayan (religious judge), shochatim (butchers), chazonim (cantors), gaboim (managers of synagogues), shamoshim (attendants ot synagogues) , maggidim (preachers) etc. There were three chadorim ("cheders", religious elementary schools) in Yurburg and the names of the melamdim (teachers) teaching in them (including their nicknames) were Shmuel-Yankl der Freeshtick (Shmuel-Yankl the Breakfast), Zelig Tseebale ( Zelig the Onion) and Chaim-Nossin der Krok (Chaim-Nossin with the slit in the pants). In Yurburg, like every other shtetl, every Jew had a nickname, mostly based on some distinctive characteristic &endash; external or inner, and sometimes the surrounding people even did not know their fellows` surnames, but only their nicknames. Concerning the three "melamdim", it is not difficult to guess the origin of Chaim-Nossin`s nickname while those of his fellow-teachers are not clear (at least for me)Š
Among the "shamoshim" there was one called Ber der Soldat (Ber the soldier) who was always standing "at attention" during the prayer for the welfare of the Tsar. Asked for the reason of his strange behavior, he used to explain: "For 25 years I was eating the Tsar`s bread. Doesn`t he deserve that I stand "at attention" for him during 5 minutes a week?" The reason of this reverence was, that as a boy Ber was kidnapped by the Tsar`s kidnappers and forced to serve 25 years as a soldier: he was a so called "cantonist".
Every week, at the beginning of the Shabbes, one of the shamoshim used to go all around the shtetl`s streets, knock at the windows and proclaim loudly and with a steady melody: "In shool arine!" (Come to the synagogue). Every Shabbes and holiday a delegation of Yurburg`s dignitaries used to pick up the shtetl`s rabbi from his house and lead him with songs through the shtetl`s streets to the synagogue.
There were two synagogues in Yurburg. One of them, called by the local Jews "Beiss Medresh" , was a massive brick building. The other, called "Di Groisse Shool" (the Big Synagogue) was a tall wooden structure built in 1790 and extended and renovated in 1870. Due to its architectural forms and especially to its inner design which included artistic carving it was one of the most magnificient and beautiful synagogues in Lithuania , and the "Yurbrikers" were proud of it.
When Lithuania was occupied by the Germans (1941) the Big Synagogue was destroyed and burned down by the local Lithuanians and the Germans. The "Beiss Hamedresh" was turned into a storehouse.
Ze'ev Bernstein is a retired professor of linguistics at the Tel Aviv University. His father, Boris, was the head of the Kommertz Bank in Yurburg.
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