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[Pages 1203-1208]

From Pumpenai to Kaunas


55°56' / 24°21'

By B. I. Bialostotzky

Translated by Dr. Sonia Kovitz

These events took place when the Jews of Lithuania were one of the brightest links in the Jewish golden chain: in the days when yeshivas were thriving in Lithuania; when the remarkable faces of the Vilna gaon and R' Yitzhak Elkhonen shone down from the walls of almost every Jewish home; then in the days when word of modern ideas began to spread throughout Lithuania, and with the ideas came new faces on the wall: Mendele Moykher Sforim, Kh. I. Byalik, Dr. Herzl, Sholem Aleikhem, Y. L. Peretz; in the days when our precious Jewish young people began to flourish in Lithuania—with hope, political movements, and ideals!

In those days, at the beginning of this century, I was still a young boy. I saw the world for the first time as Lithuania! In each shtetl I saw something new, and the image of each shtetl still stands fresh before my eyes. Let us now, in these tragic times, when our Jewish Lithuania has been obliterated—let us try to bring back beloved images and memories from the depths of years past.

A very little shtetele, Pumpian, my native town—what is characteristic of it? What distinguished Pumpian from the other little shtetlakh in Lithuania?

We used to speak of “Pumpian mud.” Of course the mud was deep in Pumpian! There were days, especially around the time of Sukkos [Festival of Tabernacles in the autumn after the High Holy Days], when you simply risked your life to walk from Pushelat Street past the cemetery, or past the poorhouse to the synagogue. But then I also saw mud like that in other shtetlakh.

I also used to hear people speak of “Pumpian sacks [for begging].” But as we recalled it, Pumpian wasn't poorer or more destitute and didn't have any more begging sacks than the other Lithuanian shtetlakh. In the synagogue there weren't all that many beggars spending the night, and Pumpian, it seemed to me, didn't have so many wandering tramps that it was giving them away—so “begging sacks” are not really characteristic of my beloved shtetl.

Yet we do remember some other characteristics. First of all—the appearance of Pumpian. A large marketplace was laid out like an open hand with the fingers pointing in different directions. These fingers were the roads leading from the marketplace to other nearby shtetelakh. One finger—one road—led to Pushelat, a small village-like shtetele with only a few score Jewish families. A second road led to Posvol, which to us Pumpianers had something lofty about it, aristocratic… A third road led to Vabalnik. I heard all the children say that on that road robbers were lying in wait, murderers. Everybody was afraid to walk there, or drive there. A fourth road, the broadest, led to Ponevezh. And Ponevezh, the district capital, for a Pumpianer—what a dream, what a faraway, marvelous metropolis!

Four roads—four fingers. Nu, if it's like a hand, then where is the fifth finger? Yes, the fifth finger was a straight road, just like the thumb on a human hand, that led from the market right to the synagogue. I used to travel on all of those roads but my favorite, most beloved road was the one leading to the synagogue. Beside the synagogue was a small square surrounded by an iron fence. Inside, within the fenced area, was a stone overgrown with moss. What kind of a square is this? Why is a fence there? What kind of a stone is that?

I heard all kinds of tales about it, but we children came up with our own idea about the stone. For us it was mysterious—it was Mount Sinai. Lucky was the child who, unnoticed by the cranky shames [synagogue caretaker], managed to crawl over the fence and with a khumesh [Bible] in his hand climb to the very top of the Mount Sinai of Pumpian. I want to mention here that the writer Yakov Krepliak tells a tale from his childhood, in a shtetl near Bialystok, about a similar kind of stone that all the children also called “Mount Sinai.” This shows how close every Jewish child felt to the mountain where we received the Torah!

Thus in my childhood, that stone was Sinai. But when I grew up, I found out that the stone with the fence around it was one of our special gravestones. Generations ago, at the beginning of the 19th century, a “blood-accusation” took place in Pumpian. The Jews were put into jail and told: “Either give up the guilty Jew who killed a Christian child for Passover, or all the Jews will die.” At that time there was a Pumpian householder, Yisrael Pumpiansky, who chose kiddush-hashem [martyrdom in sanctification of G-d's name] when he took upon himself alone the despicable calumny. He told the priest and landowner: “I alone killed this child. The other Jews are not guilty.” And so the martyr was burned alive beside the synagogue. Afterward a stone was set at this holy place with a fence around it. But over time everything was forgotten. This was told to me later, in 1901, by my rabbi, Rabbi Hertzl, in the musar yeshiva of Ponevezh.

With this stone Pumpian, my Pumpian, was distinguished from the surrounding shtetelakh. Of course other holy and tragic events happened in those places too, but I never saw anything like our stone.

What else can I tell you about Pumpian? Not far from the besmedresh [synagogue] there was a Hasidic shul. Next to the shul stood a small Hasidic shtibl [prayer house] where the hasidim would daven [pray] every day—they davenned in the larger shul only on yom tov [yontif, Jewish holiday]. There it stood, big, gigantic, and as I just said, usually empty. Field mice lived in the courtyard and the ceilings. From time to time I would steal into the Hasidic shul and try to frighten the field mice. This was a game to me!

The Pumpian hasidim were Lubavitch, but I don't recall that in daily life there was much of a strict mekhitse [division] between the mitnagdim [opponents of Hasidism] and the hasidim. My zeyde [grandfather] made friends with a hasid who had a blond beard. Between them there was peace, even though my zeyde was a mitnaged. Both of them used to try to calculate, using verses in the Book of Daniel, when the Messiah would come. They didn't actually figure it out but they did have it all calculated.

My zeyde Hirsh Elie, the melamed [elementary Hebrew school teacher], was a type very characteristic of Lithuanian Jews. A melamed who was well versed in gemore [part of the Talmud], he was held in high esteem in Pumpian. His “standing” in the besmedresh was much lower, close to the door—he didn't want honors or a special place on the eastern wall. His place in the besmedresh was where a very old clock hung high up on the wall. It had large hands and a heavy weight on a long, brass pendulum. The “disturbance” went on without cease, back and forth, making the same monotonous noise: tick tock…so the time passed, hour after hour, day after day, over the gray head of my zeyde, but my zeyde did not stir from his place. He davenned, lay tefillin [phylacteries], and lernt [studied Torah while reciting it aloud].

Also my bobeh [grandmother] Khana had traits very characteristic of many Jewish Lithuanian women. My zeyde earned very little from teaching, his main task was waiting for the Messiah, but my bobeh was an eyshet khayil [“woman of valor” from Proverbs 31:10-31, recited by a husband to his wife on Shabbos]. She had a garden at home and with her own hands worked and weeded all the plots. From the garden she raised food that was sufficient for months. My bobeh supported zaydeh's household, and that was characteristic of many such Jewish women. If not for them, the community's economic situation would have been in shambles. The women made it possible with their labor for their devout husbands to study and to have conversations with the Messiah. These Jewish women kept the stores, went to market, stood at fairs, bought and sold, planted gardens, washed and sewed and spun and wove, and simply sacrificed their lives for the Torah of their husbands! My bobeh, may her memory be for a blessing, died in 1917 at the age of 83, far, far away in Simbirsk. What was she doing there? My bobeh Chana was forced to go there, along with thousands of other Lithuanian Jews, by the Tzar's uncle, Nikolai Nikolaevitch, during the First World War.

Thinking about my bobeh Chana, I remember something else that was very characteristic of her and other such Jewish Lithuanian women. She brought together the Jews and the village, the gentile world. She spoke Lithuanian fluently and would go to the village a verst [2/3 mile] or two from Pumpian to purchase wheat from the peasants and would also sell them goods from the shtetl. She established a strong connection with many gentile women. When the gentile women came to the shtetl on market days or holidays, before doing anything else they would always come to greet my grandmother. Such Jewish women were the salt of the earth, and there were many of them in my shtetl, just as in the other shtetlakh. My bobeh wove friendships with the gentile Lithuanians who lived in the area. Who would have believed that in 1941, under Nazi rule in Lithuania, so many Lithuanian murderers would rise up to murder our people!

My zaydeh and bobeh! He with his quietness, his sadness, and his nigun [melody] “My father said”—and she with her [hay yod], her rushing pace, her own way of doing things, and her little song: “Tap tap little hammer…” Later, new winds began to blow in Pumpian and new melodies were heard. My aunt, a stocking-maker, sang: “Though the window panes I see two doves flying” (a song by Eliakum Tzunzer). She also sang: “There where the cedar” (a Zionist song) and the Bundist song by Anski: “In the salty sea of people's tears.” She mixed all these songs together, and as she sang, her tears would flow. While I was growing up, for a long time I didn't understand—the ideas behind her songs were fragmented, in pieces, while the melodies were all mixed together. So strange!

[Pages 1208-1210]


56°04' / 24°24'

By B. I. Bialostotzky

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

The life of my father, of blessed memory, who died in Grodno in April, 1940, was tied to the name “Posvol.” Reb Khaim Yitzhak Bialostotzky was known as the Posvoler Magid [preacher]. He started his career as a magid in Posvol and was one of the last famous preachers who had a deep impact on the Jewish people, especially the poor common folk. There is very little written about the role of the preachers in our literature and research. Posvol gave its share of other famous personalities. It is enough to mention Reb Abele Posvoler.

Photograph with caption: Posvoler Magid, Reb Khaim Yitzhak Bialostotzky

Posvol lay on a mountainside and there was of course a lot of mud just as in Pumpian. In Posvol there was a silvery clear river called the Posvolke that to this day still sparkles before my eyes.

In Posvol there was a lot more commerce than in Pumpian, and more rich men. There was, I remember, a famous cantor. During my childhood, Posvol was a trifle. People traveled through Posvol and went farther and farther until they reached the great city of Riga. About Riga one would hear all kinds of stories and wonders!

I lived in Pumpian with my grandparents, and rarely stayed with my parents. But I remember two images from Posvol that I would like to tell about.

Opposite the marketplace in Posvol, across the Posvolke River, was a mountain. There were some houses there. In one of the houses my mother lived with the children. My father was still on the way home when I arrived from Pumpian for Passover. My father had not yet arrived—it seems he had to come from Birz. My mother had prepared everything: matzah [unleavened bread], wine and fish. The house shone for the Jewish holy day. But the ice on the river had melted and the river was a torrent. It was impossible to cross from one side to the other. Erev pesakh [Passover eve] my father stood on one bank and looked at my mother, and my mother stood on the other side and looked at my father. Jews screamed, gentiles put down planks, but the current was too strong. The ice floes were like a multitude of sea animals, pushing and breaking up…God knows what such a small river could do. My mother was alone for the seder and I had to be the “king” [lead the seder], but how could I be “king” when my and my mother's eyes ran with tears? Later when I was grown up, I read about something like this in a story by Sholem Asch and also in one by Y.J. Singer. This event was characteristic of Jewish life with its rivers and towns, so I wrote it down exactly as I had lived it.

Photograph with caption: Posvol marketplace

Now for the second image. In Posvol there was a large marketplace, and on one side of it, near a large blacksmith's shop, was the gypsy market—Lithuanian gypsies! The forge burned, sparks scattered, the hammer pounded, and the fiery faces of the gypsy horse dealers flashed before my eyes. I can still hear the crack of their whips. I remember fights in the gypsy market! Pandemonium! Stampedes! Mainly I remember fights between Jewish wagon drivers and a gang of gypsies. What were they fighting over? Well, over a horse! And the horse, with such a proud head, I remember, stood tied to a post and didn't even know that because of him human blood was shed.

Lithuanian gypsies! At that time they held an important place in the lives of Jewish children. People were afraid of them but ran to see their stunts. Lithuanian gypsies with their bonfires under the stars, their melodies, their fiery dances. The poet Leyb Neydus from Grodno once sang about them in a song.

When I read in 1945 that the Nazis had gathered together eight thousand gypsies in Lithuania and forced them all into the crematoria of Treblinka, a distinct tremor passed through my heart. My Jews, my family, my brothers—my heart bleeds for you and for our misfortune! But the death of eight thousand gypsies also brings pain. You with the whips and your black hair! In 1901 you did not know that in 1942 you would also be burned in the ovens.

[Pages 1211-1213]

(Panevezys, Lithuania)

55°44' / 22°21'

By B. I. Bialostotzky

Translated by Dr. Sonia Kovitz

I spent three years in Ponevezh, from the time I was eight years old until I was eleven. I saw or knew very few of the Ponevezh householders, the Ponevezh maskilim [“enlightened” adherents of the haskalah movement], the Ponevezh community leaders. I saw only the yeshivas of Ponevezh, for I was a yeshiva bokher [boy], or more accurately, a yeshiva yingl [little boy]. My father brought me there and turned me over to Rabbi Hertzl, a Jew with a keen glance, though often dejected. Rabbi Hertzl was one of Rabbi Israel Salanter's students and a musarnik [exponent of Salanter's teachings on musar, ethics] and my father probably felt that I could use a little musar. Rabbi Herzl's yeshiva for young students was in a poor kloyz [study house].

We studied gemore [part of the Talmud], but twice a week we would study musar. R' Herzl, I remember, had chosen 20 young students who he deemed worthy, that is, worthy to study musar. He would take us to his home, where we sat around a long bench with the rabbi at the “head” of the bench. It was afternoon—closer to night than day, and in the room it was dark. R' Herzl would, like a musarnik, recite musar in the dark. We could hear him “shokling” [rocking back and forth in prayer] and from time to time we cried out “Hear O Israel” or another holy exclamation. We shokled and looked at R' Herzl, who was immersed in a fearsome encirclement, a kind of cloud…and such purification would go through our young hearts. But R' Herzl did not make us good, rather in his ecstasy he set about making himself good, not his students. For him musar was aimed first of all at oneself, not a congregation. You should become a better person! And truth be told—just as long as the rabbi didn't direct any musar at me, during the hour of musar I wasn't afraid of anything.

A large number of us yeshiva boys slept in the kloyz, where our yeshiva was located, because they couldn't find any other beds for us in town. We slept on the benches. Each of us had a straw mattress that our mothers had given us. And at one time also a pillow. No! Few of us had pillows. Sleeping on just a straw mattress was in itself already a sort of musar. A little later the beggars and homeless would begin to gather in the kloyz. There was a sort of competition between us, the young boys, and the tramps. It no longer felt like home to us when we had to spend the night with the beggars.

Then we made sleeping places in the attic of the kloyz. Each one of us dusted off a small spot in the attic, put down our straw mattress, set over to the side our little box or basket, and this we called our bed, our mekom [special place]. I remember how we would crawl up the ladder to the attic to get to our sleeping places! All because of gemore and musar.

And then a new trouble descended on us young boys. A gang of troublemakers, hoodlums, wild kids started to pester us, hitting and stealing. Once they took away our ladder. R' Herzl became furious. In great anger and in great wrath and with his fiery red beard flying, he threw himself at the hoodlums and they threw themselves at him, but he went after them and they were driven away. We felt like great conquerors. But R' Herzl, poor man, paid dearly for his heroism. The hoodlums got even with him.

R' Herzl had a long, beautiful beard. Several boys waited for him at night in a narrow street near the large synagogue (the street that led to his home) and they caught him and they did not beat him, no! They did something much worse. They shaved off his beard! For seven days he was too ashamed to come to the yeshiva, and the oldest yeshiva student took over our lessons. On the eighth day R' Herzl arrived with a thick towel wound around and around his face. There was no end to his embarassment. Eventually his beard grew back, of course, but he never regained the impressive appearance that he once had.

I would like to mention a few things about the way of life of the young musar students. A couple dozen of us did not have all the “days” [arranged with families who provided meals for yeshiva students]. One lacked Monday, a second lacked Tuesday, a third Thursday—they had nowhere to eat on those days. So what did we do? A sort of “commune” was created among us. We put into the “fund” a kopeck that we had saved and then another kopeck. We also saved a piece of bread, a potato, a piece of herring. Every day we would prepare a poor “table” (on a bench) for the hungry. I was the secretary of this commune! Poor meals—only the tramps with their begging sacks would look at us with envy.

There was another yeshiva in Ponovezh—in the large synagogue. The older boys studied there, those between approximately thirteen and sixteen. The shames [synagogue caretaker] there was Reb Aryeh, a Jew of virtuous ways. Here is one of the things Aryeh did: every Friday a wagon drove around through the streets of Ponevezh and Reb Aryeh himself, or a helper, would call out, “Khallah for the yeshiva students!” And the Jewish housewives would appear on the doorsteps of their houses and toss khallah into the wagon. On Shabbos evening Reb Aryeh would distribute the khallah among the yeshiva students. Everyone received his own khallah. This was for the “days” when the yeshiva students didn't have a place to eat.

I remember that there were poor loaves of khallah made of dough and water, and rich loaves of khallah made with cinnamon and raisins, from the wealthy households. I don't know why, but Reb Aryeh would not give the musar boys any of the raisin khallah. Perhaps he believed that those studying musar should not be eating raisins, but this caused me grief! I longed for the golden, rich egg khallah! One cold night I ripped a hole in the pocket of my winter coat and got away with an entire rich khallah! This was probably the first sin that I committed in my life. Evidently musar didn't help!

There was a third yeshiva in Ponevezh–the yeshiva of great merit, the yeshiva of the famous sage Rabbi Itzele Ponevezher. One had to be older and among the very best—an ilui [prodigy]—to be able to study there. R' Itzele's name was known over all of Ponevezh! We, the young boys, would wait for him in the big street that led to the Karaites and holding our breath, we would watch him walk by with his close associates, his good students, debating Torah with them! In that street, that led to Shadeve, there were a lot of Karaites, and I felt something like fear of the Karaites. But Rabbi Itzele would walk along in the wide road without a bit of fear. This gave my young heart strength. One time I saw the khokhem [wise man] of the Karaites walk up to Rabbi Itzele and greet him with a very deep bow. R' Itzele looked at him, shook his head, and murmured something…then he turned around and quickly, quickly went to his yeshiva.

The shtetele Popelian was decorated not, God forbid, to meet a special parade in the morning, but–the rising sun.

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