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Sokolievka/Justingrad

Centuries ago, none of us knows exactly when, there already were Jewish families making their home in Sololievka, a little village in the Ukraine, but their written history begins only in the early nineteenth century. It being in agony, and it ends barely a hundred years later, in tragedy.

Where was Sokolievka? It was sort of on a line 120 miles south from Kiev, 160 miles north from Odessa, but those were far away places, remote from Sokolievka's villagers. For them the big town was Uman, about twenty miles to the south. Locala geography was more meaningful, centering on 'Der Teich', the River, and 'De Brick', the Bridge. Actually the 'Teich' was a pond, formed artificially by a dam or dike across a stream that came through the village of Popivka to the southwest, and 'De Brick' was really this dam of earth and brushwood, a quarter of a mile long across the 'Teich'. At the eastern end of Sokolievka, at the western end was Justingrad, and that is the beginning of the story.

This history begins in the despotic reign of Tsar Nicolai the First, who could think of no better way to placate the restless serfs and oppressed peasants of Russia, and keep them quiet, than to issue decrees: Jews who live in certain villages must move. Where to? No matter. Just move. In Sokolievka there were perhaps three dozen Jewish families when this ukase hit. Where to go? They were in 'galus'*, in exile, some of them since the Babylonian war 2500 years ago, some since Roman times 1700 years ago. Their forefathers had wandered a weary and trackless way through realms and kingdoms long forgotten, Parthia, Byzantium, Granada, Burgundy. Where to now?

At this critical moment, a blessing. The 'preetza', wife of the

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local lord who was master around Sokolievka, had title to vacant land on the western side of the “Bridge”, then open space, with only two houses. Eager not to lose their income from this hard working community, the 'poritz' and the 'preetza' suggested that these new exiles simply go across 'De Brick' and resettle there. So they did, and they named the new settlement Justingrad, in honor of the 'preetza', whose name was Justina.

And so we begin with our first document, the Wegodner Manuscript. This document, twenty-three bittersweet pages handwritten in Yiddish, was set down about 1929, by Levi Wegodner, a native of Justingrad/Sokolievka, then resident of Buffalo, New York, at the request of his children on the occasion of his fiftieth wedding anniversary. In the beginning….[1]

 

Hudel and Levi Wegodner
(Mr. & Mrs. Louis Wagner)

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The Wegodner Manuscript

Recollections of the Days of My Youth which I began to write on the day sixty-seven years are completed from the day I was born; also what my forefathers told me of their times so that it may be told to later generations.

 

Exile and New Home

I have begun to write my history; also the history of my parents at the request of my children: my recollections, and what my parents told me: Levi, son of Joseph Wegodner and Hudel, daughter of Avigdor Mintzer.

My father's father was Ephraim Wegodner, (and his father's name was Joseph). Ephraim dwelt in the town of Sokolievka, in Kiever gubernia, Russia, in the time of the Russian despot Alexander the First; and after him the Russian throne was occupied by his brother Nicolai the First (may his name be effaced!). Nicolai the Cruel issued a ukase, a decree, that Jews were not permitted to reside in 'kaziana' (crown) towns or villages. They could stay only in areas which belonged to 'preetzim, pannes' (feudal lords).

So the town of Sokolievka was driven out, although it had stood on government land hundreds of years. I myself have seen a tombstone there dated over 300 years old.

Fortunately the Jewish population did not have to wander far, only across the 'Teich' a mile wide. There lay an unoccupied space which was the property of a 'preetza', a woman of the nobility. The old 'preetza' was satisfied that these Jews should settle on her territory. It would give her a town, which would yield much more income than unsettled land. It was also an honor to have a town in her estate. This moved her to help each one, lending money, and timber from her woodlands to build their houses. Each one had to pay for a site to build a hose. This took place in the years 1840-1850.

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These Jews were then so impoverished that they did not even have funds to pay to transport their personal possessions across 'De Brick'. They took their houses apart used the best wood to make rafts, spread out whatever they had not been able to sell and so floated this “fortune” of theirs across the water.

This took place the day after 'Pesach' (Passover). To their misfortune the weather was very bad, rainy and cold. The weaker women and children were taken into a large house which had been erected some time before, with a large courtyard. This house belonged to Chayyim Lichtzieher, Chayyim the Candle Dipper. He had a little manufactory there where he himself made tallow candles, in those days our only lighting. A few women convalescing from childbirth were taken into the house. Each person's best possessions were piled together in the large courtyard. The rest of the people made shelters of straw, or holes in the ground, to protect themselves from the rain and the cold. No sooner was this set than 'helft Gott', God helps, and on Friday evening fire broke out in the Lichtzieher's house. Everything went up in flame. Nothing was left, no bedding, no chair, no table, a mound of ashes.

(In spite of this unhappy beginning, the villagers proceeded to help themselves.) At that time there was a famine in Russia. Russian construction workers came, working for their bare meals. If they earned a few rubles, they boozed it up. The town was practically all built that summer.

My grandfather Ephraim built a large inn and hotel for people traveling through. In those years there were no railroads yet. Traffic moved by horse and wagon. He also had a wine store. He used to travel to Bessarabia to buy wine to sell in other shtetlach in the vicinity. He also was a fine 'chazzan', (cantor). He used to ride out for the High Holidays to Nicolaiev and there earn 200 rubles, then a high rate (chanting the synagogue liturgy). He used to sing with the famous Tzalel, the Odessa chazzan.[2]

He died in middle age, at fifty-five, in 1867. I, Ephraim's grandson, was then three and a half and barely remember him. My father was then about twenty seven.

Ephraim's widow took over the house and the business of the inn. She was a second wife, not mother of my father or his brother Jacob. (My father and Jacob were the children of Ephraim's first

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wife Rachel whom he divorced when my father was three and Uncle Jacob was 1 ½). His widow remained with six children of her own, three sons, Velvel, Aaron, Abraham, three daughters, Sarah, Perel, Nessy. Uncle Velvel's first born was Samuel Wegodner, who died in Buffalo in 1921. Velvel had four daughters, Chayye, Rebecca and Aidel in Chicago; in Eretz Yisroel, Miriam, whose husband is Nathan Berdichevsky.

My father took over the wine business, and built a separate dwelling for himself, with his business in the same house.

My father's mother Rachel (who was divorced by grandfather Ephraim) married again but had no more children. In her old age, after her second husband died, she moved in with her children, and died in my father's house at age 71, after my wedding.

My mother's father was called Shmaia (Jacob Samson) and her mother Chayye, from the same town Sokolievka. His business was salt. They had two children, my mother and a brother Chayyim. This brother Chayyim was a great 'lamdan' (scholar) and a 'chochem' (learned man). He inherited his grandfather's property, but he had no aptitude for business, and quickly became poor. Grandfather Shmaia died when I was four years old from the Black Plague, which was then epidemic in our area. Hardly any home failed to give its sacrificial victims to the Angel of Death.

What I am going to tell you now is no legendary fantasy. It is true fact. When the plague was rampant it reached grandfather's house. It carried off Uncle Chayyim's wife and two children. Then it seized Uncle Chayyim. He lay down sick on Simchas Torah morning. Picture to yourself the grief of the parents, now about to lose their treasured only son.

At that time there resided in our town the Tzaddik Rabbi Gedalya Aharon (the grandfather of the Manastrishtsher Rabbi Rav Yehoshuala who now lives in New York).[3]

Grandfather ran to the Rabbi with a great outcry. The Rabbi was then seated at table with many Chassidim. Grandfather sobbed and cried out, “If I must give another sacrificial victim from my house, I want my self to be the sacrifice, and all of you, Rabbi and 'Yeeden' sitting here be my witnesses, join in blessing me to be exchanged for my son, my head for his, my hand for his, every limb. I bring a bottle of wine for all of you to pledge this to me.”

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He then went directly home, and fifteen steps from home he began to feel bad, and felt the cramps coming on. When he came into the house, he flung himself on his bed, and as he felt himself getting worse, so Uncle Chayyim took a turn for the better. By three o'clock grandfather was dead, and Uncle was recovering. This happened Simchas Torah in the year 5627 (1866), the same day that my mother gave birth to my brother Ephraim.

Grandmother Chayye lived another eight years.

My father Joseph was brought up in the spirit of those years: studied in 'cheder' and in the 'Bess Medrash”, no other schooling.[4] But he taught himself to write Yiddish and was a good writer in Yiddish when 90% could not, and to do accounts on an abacus (of ten wires with ten wooden rings, which was then in use). A majority then could not write numerals. Also there was a question of paper, of which they were very sparing.

My father had an aptitude for business, a clever man. He set up the first general store of groceries and furnishings, which he called a “Bakaleyena and Galanterie Artevic”. This business he conducted at home. “Home” consisted of two rooms and a kitchen Below there was a cellar, and that was the store. (I was then not quite six.) One night it was broken into and everything was stolen. Later a deal was made with the thieves to return the stock for 200 rubles, a great fortune that was. Well, the thieves tricked him out of the money, and at night brought back cases filled with flint stones. Father lost everything. He also suffered having to pay off paper notes at interest as high as 50% per annum.[5]

 

Kidnapping Children for the Tsar's Army

To give you a grasp of the further narrative, I must first describe the circumstances which then prevailed under the Tsars of the Romanoff dynasty. In 1825 – 1855, the throne was occupied by Nicolai Pavlovich, Nicolai the First, after the death of his older brother Alexander, who had warred with Napoleon, Emperor of France, and defeated him. This Nicolai was an extreme anti-semite and also very ferocious, like his ancestor Ivan the Terrible. Seeking to cozy up to the Church, and to cover up his cruelties to the Russian citizenry, he undertook to proffer Jewish souls to the Church.

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Well aware that it would be a difficult struggle to convert Jews, he issued an ukase to draft little children into the military service. The ukase required that each father who had two sons must yield one to be taken; from each with more sons, two would be taken at the age of eight and up. This ukase was sent to every town and village, directing that in every place a draft commission be set up, empowered to use police aid to seize the children. So in every town was set up a 'kehilla' (community board) to do this devilish work. 'Chappers', (grabbers, kidnappers) were hired to snatch children of eight and even seven years of age and bring them to the district assembly point to be assigned as soldiers.

These little children were shipped deep into Russia and handed to peasants to raise up to the age of eighteen, thrust in among strangers and compelled to apostasize. You can imagine the suffering of a child taken from his mother's apron, sent a thousand miles away, not knowing the Russian language, repelled by the food. Often the peasant hardly had food for his own children; having a strange child, and yet a Jewish child, quartered on him, you can imagine what happened to the Jewish child. A great number died from starvation, or from beatings. No one could demand an accounting for their blood, because their parents had no idea where their child had been taken. The younger ones were simply baptized. The older ones who refused to “convert” were subjected to such tormenting that there remained very few who were not “converted”.

Under Nicholai I such a soldier could say goodbye to life. Up to age 18, he was considered in training, and then he was required to serve for 25 years. Any one who might survive to find his way “home”, after this term of service, was old and broken down, without any trade to make a living. When parents had a child so taken, he was considered gone forever, and so parents would rather pray a quick death for their child than have him endure that dragged out agony. It is reported that Nicolai had said it would be enough if from a hundred such children there would remain one soldier available for service.

How long the period continued when this decree was in effect, I do not know exactly. (Forty years, L.M.) Some time later (during this period) the decree was revised to require each Jewish 'kehillah' to supply, each year, 5% for military service and the 'kehillah'

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was held responsible. Also it was permitted to a 'kehillah' to buy a substitute replacement. That meant they could hire some kind of vagrant tramp for a certain sum to volunteer for army service. This helped the richer families to buy themselves out. Sometimes the 'kehillah' would assess a tax on every family for this purpose.

Naturally it was not very respectable people who were chosen as such paragons, because a decent person would not accept such a post. The shepherds of the flock scented a fat morsel here. They imposed heavy taxes on the poor families, and when they could not pay their children or their orphans were taken and turned over for soldiers. The wealthier bought themselves off, while those who had access to the dish divided up the money.

To this end they would send out 'chappers' (snatchers, grabbers) with the permission and the help of the government, to bring in living merchandise. When the 'chappers' (grabbers) came into town, there arose a tumult; it was like a pack of wolves falling on a flock of sheep. Sometimes they seized a victim who was an only child in his family, whom they were not supposed to take, so they would invent a ruse, list an imaginary brother or two, and so take him.[6]

When the Jews were driven out from the crown shtetls, under Nicolai I, some shtetls were given a respite, not to have any soldiers taken for ten years. This was enjoyed only by those persons who enrolled in the Sokolievka census. Grandfather's family was enrolled in the Berdichev census, so they did share that privilege.[7]

I myself remember when there used to come 'chapper=grabbers' from the Berdichev 'kehillah', my father would go away overnight to another family, in fear for himself, even though he was already father of five small children. One could believe anything of those 'chappers'. Even though the 'chappers' were hated, still a 'kehillah' would employ such characters in order to meet the quota of soldiers rigidly imposed by the government.

(This decree lasted into the time of Alexander II. Then was worked out a law, the Manifest of 1874, that each one must go into military service at age twenty-one. Not everyone had to go at twenty-one: an only son, or the oldest son, or any whose brother was already in service, was exempt. From the rest, a certain percentage were taken by lottery).

In that time of Nicolai the First, when my father was thirteen

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and his brother then eleven and a half, one fine evening there suddenly arrived 'chappers' from the Berdichev 'kehillah' and took both children away that night, chained them with shackles, and carried them off towards Berdichev. Grandfather and the family were helpless to interfere. At that time there was no railroad yet. They traveled by horse. When they had travelled about 100 verst (65 miles) it was approaching Friday eve. These 'chapper-grabbers' would not travel on the Sabbath – such a crime as desecrate the Sabbath by travel they would not commit. They stopped in a village about 50 verst (about 35 miles) from Berdichev. 'Nu, Shabbos is Shabbos,” the Sabbath is the Sabbath. The 'chapper-grabbers' gave orders for fine Sabbath preparations; 'davinned' (recited) the evening liturgy, made 'kiddush' (blessing over the wine) from a big goblet, with good schnapps, and celebrated a good time, because they had packed two victims at a time. When they were well soused, they lay down on the floor to sleep. The two children were bound together by the feet, and my uncle was laid next to one of the 'chappers', his little foot chained to the 'chapper's' paw. The children lay awake, and when the 'chappers' were soundly asleep, the little fellow cautiously slipped his foot out of the shackle, and both slipped quietly out and away. A little distance off there was a little bridge to cross, where they saw some peasant lads spending the night in the meadow. The boys asked directions to some Jewish dwelling. The peasant boys fully understood the situation and gave good directions, to a local landholder.

They found their way there and knocked on the door. There came out a clean-shaven man, at which the boys burst into tears, in fear they had made a mistake, because in those years it was rare for a Jewish man not to be bearded. But he was Jewish, and he calmed their fears. He took a hammer and chisel and broke off the chains, fed them, harnessed up two good horses, to carry them off to some secure place.

Meanwhile the 'chappers' had become aware of the fugitives, called village police, reached the landholder's house. He tried to put up a fight, so my uncle managed to get away, but my father was retaken. The 'chappers' carried him to Berdichev, where he was confined, pending health examination and inductions procedures. Here he was kept three months.

After three months my father was brought before the sledevatl

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(examining official). He asked, “Your name?” Joseph. “Father's name?” Ephaim. “Family name?” Wegodner. “How many brothers?” I am the first and there is a one year old infant girl.

“Then you are only two males, your father and you, and f rom two such no recruit is supposed to be taken. But where is the second boy who was with you together? Isn't he your brother?”

“Well, where is he?”

He is not my brother. He is a stranger the 'chappers' themselves let him go when his father showed up and paid 300 rubles for his release.

The 'chappers' were stunned by this answer, but the sledevatl more readily believed the boy than the 'chappers' and ordered them arrested. The inquiries were repeated several times and after some more to do, my father was released. Meanwhile my uncle Yaacov took another family name, and for the rest of his life was known as Weinberg.

In time, Yaacov bought the Wegodner house from the other heirs, when all were already married, and set up a store in front. Uncle Velvel took over the inn and the wine business. All that happened when I was a child.

 

My History as I Recall from Childhood to Now

I was born in 5623, the 8th day of Cheshvan, as I know from my Bar Mitzvah. November 1862. We were five children: two sisters before me, Hannah and Deborah. I am the oldest of the sons. I had a brother Shmuel Abba, and a brother Ephraim who lives now in New York with his family.[8] The other children are already gone.

When I was four they sent me to a 'dardaki-melamed' (primary Hebrew school teacher) named Meierka. In two years time I already was graduated with a diploma saying that I knew how to 'daven well'. [9]

I would like to describe Meierka's 'cheder' for you. The 'cheder' was in a large house, without a ceiling. The ground was covered with bare clay which the 'bahelfers' (teacher aides) spread out for a floor. Wooden boards were not in use in any houses. The benches were simply boards laid on four legs. When a child sat

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down, the board sagged. There were four or five such benches and on each board twenty children were seated. The 'cheder' included over a hundred children in ages four to eight. There were tables, of two boards nailed together, a little higher than the benches. At each table sat two 'bahelfers', at each end. The tables were nine 'eilen' (ells). Sitting at each, on both sides, were ten 'kaddishlech', like lambs to slaughter.

This was the first class, where beginners learned the 'aleph-beis' (alphabet). The 'bahelfer' sat with a whip of eight thongs in his left hand and a pointer in his right. Every so often would be heard another squeal from a lambkin whom the 'bahelfer' had honored with his cat-o-nine tails on the bare skin, because the impoverished children did not wear any 'penselech' or 'meitkelech'. Their clothes consisted of a long shirt of coarse linen, with an 'arba-kanfos' and an old 'yarmelka' of their fathers. [10]

The second class had an older 'bahelfer' who reviewed the 'Chumash” (the Five Books of Moses) with the older children. At his table the wailing did not let up, because “In law there is no compassion”, (Ain rachamim badin).

In the third class the Rebbe himself sat at the table and taught Rashi (the Bible commentary) to the children. He was strict and severe. If you caught his eye, your blood would freeze. No child left his table without some marks on his body. No child dared to go out without permission from “Rebbe” or 'bahelfer'. Still they did have to let some children go out because the place was cramped for a hundred, and there really were not seats enough for all. The richer children had the privilege of sitting on the benches, the poorer the ground. That was in summer time. In winter they were all crowded into one room like herring in a keg. The children were eager for their tutoring turn to come, at least to be able to have a seat.

The tuition fee ranged from 1.50 rubles to 5 rubles for a term. The 'bahelfers' received 10 to 15 rubles a term. Every householder was responsible to give a 'bahelfer' (each year) one week's 'kest' (dinner as a guest at table) and 'Rosh Chodesh Gelt' (first of the month tip) of two to five kopeks. When the alleys were mired or the weather very cold, the 'bahelfers' had to carry little children to 'cheder' and home, on their backs. (Being so poorly paid) they might eat up the cooked food which a mother would send along

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for the child. The unfortunate child in 'cheder' had to 'nebech' eat a dry bit of bread or go quite hungry. So when the children were dismissed to go home, the 'bahelfer' would read them the 'kria-sh'ma' (bedtime prayer, i.e., intimidated them) that they must not talk out of school.

It once happened to me, that mother sent my cooked food along with the 'bahelfer' who ate it up and forgot to leave me even a little bit of bread. As I became good and hungry, I began to cry bitterly. The 'Rebbe' saw I was crying. When the 'rebbe' was out for a minute, the 'bahelfer' let me go, but warned me not to tell my mother about the cooked food. When I came home, my childish understanding carried me away to tell Mother that it had been good, so I said it have been very good 'rosselfleish' (pot roasted meat). Said she, “What 'rosselfleish'? It was knishes, six big knishes.” I broke into tears. So Father took me under cross-examination and figured out that I had fasted all day.

I was considered one of the 'nagidishe' (wealthier) children, so Father sent for the 'Rebbe” and gave him a full report. The 'Rebbe' began to beat the 'bahelfer', the 'bahelfer' struck back. Mother who was a 'Tzidkaniss' (pious and charitable woman) spoke up for the poor young 'bahelfer' and made peace. But I won a victory; none of them beat me any more.

I could write about other episodies from 'cheder' but enough for now. Well, I am six years old and Dad is seeking a “Gemara melamed' for me.[11]

To find a 'Gemara melamed' was not hard, but Dad sought a satisfactory 'cheder' with good fellow students, not just anyone at all. So he talked it over with grownups who had children of my age. These boys were Yaakovka, son of Rabbi Gedalyahu Aharon; Chayekel, son of the Rav Reb Shimshon; and Hershel-the Shochet's boy Raphael. I made a fourth. They hired a 'melamed' for us, Nissil, a Stavitsher, and rented a room for this 'cheder' from Alter the 'Gabai'. All four used to go together to 'cheder' and this 'Rebbe' began to teach us 'Gemara'.[12]

I remember the first lesson. He began in 'Bova Metzia' with the passage “Reish Lekesh said, following Abba Kohen Bardala.” To us clowns the name “Abba Kohen Bardal” was very funny, and

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so whispering and winking we soon had nicknames. Raphael the Shochet's son we called “Lekesh”, which fitted him. Chayekel we called “Abba”, Yaakov we called “Reish”, and me “Kohen”. The 'Rebbe' we called “Bardala” (little beard). In fact he did have a little goatee beard. And so we used to repeat after him the words of 'Gemara', not understanding the content, but chanting aloud like a poll parrot.[13]

While in this schooling we still had need for play, so I used to bring 'bukser' pods from our store, and swap them for buttons. This trading went on under the table.[14]

The 'Rebbe' had undertaken to teach the whole 'Gemara' and he left the 'davening' to us. Naturally we skipped the 'davenin'. So the winter season passed. On one fine 'Shabbos' day, father took me along, intending me to chant along with him from his 'siddur'. Oy, oy! I had forgotten it all. Well, he handed me a 'sholem-aleichem',[15] a fine howdy-do with a slap. I started to cry. His neighbor on the next seat, Rav Reb Shimshon asked him, “Why do you hit the child?” Father: “He has forgotten all the 'davenin' he used to know!”

Rrav shimshon thereupon called over his Chaykele, asked him to recite a verse in Hebrew, “Oy, yet a great disaster!” They call over the other two boys, and the same result. (They turn to) the 'melamed' who argues, “I have been occupied with teaching the 'Gemara”. The davenin I left to them.” Now the three fathers talked it over and decided we have to be given back to Meierka to re-learn basic Hebrew. You can imagine our humiliation being put back from 'Gemara” to the primary school 'melamed'. We boys agreed among ourselves that under no circumstances would we go back to the 'dardaki-melamed', so it was arranged for him to come to our 'cheder' for an hour each day and have us recite a few pages of Hebrew. He came now without his cat-o-nine-tails, which he really did not need for us, because in two weeks we were reading the Hebrew well. We only needed a refresher. Of the 'Gemara' which we studied, we knew about as much as a president of an American synagogue congregation or precisely, which weekly portion of the Torah was due to be read this “Shabbos”.[16]

So a year went by. The second year, we split up. It was too far to go to that 'cheder'. So I studied at Benny Issis', the third house from ours. Here I had other friends: Berel the Rov's, Gedalya

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Elyakum's, Meier the tinsmith's son, David Chayyim (a cousin of mine).[17]

The 'Rebbe' here had a boy Mott'l, they called him Mottekel. He was a wild one. This “Rebbe' owned a house, a 'Rebbitzin', a goat and a Mottekel. The first, the house, was dilapidated, with a thatched roof. When it rained, it was a picnic, we didn't have to study, because the rain ran right on to the table. They wold set out troughs, pots and pans to catch the rain. The second, the 'Rebbitzin', had an affliction in the nose, which constantly bled and ran. The 'Rebbe' said this was 'mereeden', so we believed that 'mereeden' (hemorrhoids) was a condition of the nose.

Their goat had three legs, because one had been chopped off. On its neck it wore an embroidery hoop, or a rim from a sieve, she should not be able to suckle herself.

The fourth part of the Rebbe's fortune, Mottekel, was a first class ice skater. He used to steal a sheepskin jacket from one of the pupils, put on the 'Rebbe's shoes no soles. He would throw down the jacket and run away to Konela to an uncle for three days, and the 'Rebbitzin' had to go to Konela, five verst away, to collect her one and only son.[18]

I remember the Rebbe's shoes because they were of Austrian leather, and inherited from his father Yossi-Motel's. When his father was dying, comatose, he put on his father's shoes to acquire them before his father's passing; they should not be considered as a dead man's shoes. When the shoes wore out, the 'Rebbe' had his own awl and cobbler's thread, and used to repair them till there remained from the original shoes only a patch on a patch. He used to say these were “lucky shoes”, that he had nothing in the house but this one pair of shoes. Really, why does one need two pairs of shoes?

The official shoe routine of the day: the 'Rebbe' rises in the morning, puts on these shoes and goes down to the 'Teich' just as Pharaoh used to go to his 'Teich'. The 'Rebbitzin' is still sleeping. The 'Rebbe' returns, sits down to tutor the children, so he does not need the shoes. He sits in stocking feet. The 'Rebbitzin' now puts on the shoes and goes to market to buy something for breakfast, returns from market and starts her cooking. The 'Rebbe' puts the shoes on and goes to the synagogue for the morning

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'davenin'. Returning from the synagogue, he no longer needs the shoes. After lunch the 'Rebbe' lies down for a nap. The 'Rebbitzin' dons the shoes, takes a stocking and four needles and goes to spend the day with a neighbor on her 'prizba'. Towards evening she comes back to cook supper. The 'Rebbe' takes the shoes and goes to 'daven mincha-maariv'.[19] Well, do they need two pair of shoes? Mottekel goes quite barefoot eight months of the year.

A year passed. A fire broke out. The 'Rebbe's house burned down with the three-legged goat and the lucky shoes. But the 'Rebbe's goat proved to be more 'mazeldik' (lucky) than the shoes, because the 'Rebbe' salvaged one horn to make into a 'shofar'. I think this 'shofar' is preserved in a Russian museum. They used to say this goat was a 'gilgul' (reincarnation) of Isaac's ram and that is why it was burned, like the ram substituted for Isaac.[20]

This 'Rebbe' moved away to Tolna. I was almost nine, and needed a higher-level teacher.

In the second house from us dwelt Mordechai the Rov.[21] He had a son a year or two older than me. He was also a wild fellow. To give you an idea of what is meant by a “wild fellow”. Summertime he like to go swimming in the 'Teich' as much as possible. When a 'goy' would bring horses to the 'Teich' to drink, he would mount on one and lead the other with a rope, both horses into the water for a dip.[22] When these were bathed, he would take another team of horses into the water, and so all day. When a wagon went by, he would hitch on for a ride. He used to pal around with ragamuffin youngsters. When a Gypsy came to town, leading a trained bear to do tricks, he was the first to lead all the barefoot boys running after the bear, or after the dogcatcher chasing strays. He also used to catch the best spankings from his father, but still he did what he wanted. He had little fear of the Rov, because his mother shielded him.

I never had any companions among the 'mark yung', the market youth. A market youth meant a loafer who would not go to school to learn to read and write, or 'davenin', nor learn a trade. These market youths grew up bums, more than half of them wild. It was a disgrace for a decent child to associate with them. I had my juvenile mischief moments in the 'Klois' and in the 'Bess Medrash' when the older folks left, each to his affairs. We boys

[Page 16]

would let loose, broke the prayer stands, got into fights pushing each other, knocked out a window pane, poured out the water can, slid on the floor and enjoyed other such kid stuff entertainments.

Berel the Rov's took me for a pal because Mordechai the Rov had given a room for our studies. The Rov and my father hired a 'melamed' for the two of us, for 50 rubles a term. The Rov promised that he himself would also tutor us. To my mother this was more precious than anything. Her wish, shared by all pious women in those days, was to have her own son become a Rabbi, and she thought this would make a Rabbi of me.

So we studied with a 'Rebbe' named Abraham Yitzchak Nachman. If he is still alive, may he be the 'kapporah', and if he is dead may the earth cast him forth.[23] He was a savage, a murderer. When my friend Berel caught a slap from the Rebbe, he responded with the heavy 'Gemara' volume on the Rebbe's head. If this 'Rebbe' wanted to settle accounts with him, Berel's mother the Rebbitzin would run in making a tumult, so they let up. The Rov himself was afraid of Berel. So the 'rebbe' used to let out his heavy heart to me. A gangster, a murderer he was. I had no defender, because my mother would not have stood up for me. She said, if the 'Rebbe' beats you, probably he has reason to, he beats you so that you will learn better.

So passed a bit of time. I suffered and was silent, till I thought it over and declared a hunger strike. I ate nothing all day, and at night only a dry piece of bread, till Mother noticed I was passing out. Without saying anything to me, she spoke with the “Rebbe'. So he stopped beating me so murderously. My father was too preoccupied with making a living. He never had a good word for me. That was then the mode. A child had no rights, only discipline and accusations thrown up, “Moshe Berestetski's boy learns better, writes better.”

That boy was really exceptional. He was born an old man, and all his behavior was of an old man. He never played with children. He could stay put by the 'gemara' eight to ten hours on end, and 'leren', or sit six and seven hours and write. He was an only child, his parents had no other children. He was built tall and thin, and with a born talent for 'lernen' and writing, but he had no great head for worldly matters, or to converse with a person. He was

[Page 17]

quite a 'nebbish'.[24] Since he used to 'leren' a great deal, he was better schooled, so he became quite a thorn in the eyes of the other boys his age. He was rather sickly. He died in Buki at the age of 35. He left seven children orphans. They are now in Boston with their mother who did not remarry.[25]

The second year I studied with Berel as buddy with a 'melamed' in the house of Mordechai the Rov., but with a different 'melamed', named Avramel Zippes. This Avramel's daughter is now in Buffalo; she is Nissel Veladart's wife Deborah.

When I was twelve years old, Reb Shimshon the Rov realized that he had no proper 'cheder' for his son Chayekel, so he spoke to my father to have me leave that one and have study with Chayekel as a buddy. We would have the same privileges. He would also contribute ten rubles a term more than my father and supply a room for study in his house. With this buddy I continued to 'leren' until my marriage, passing practically all my teen years there.

This Rov was a great 'yachson' (man of pride in status and kin), a great scholar, a pious observant Jew. His wife the 'Rebbetzin', Chayye Sima, was the mistress of the house. She managed a dry goods store in the house, and they had better livelihood from the store than from the rabbinate. Their home was open to poor people, with the best help they could endeavor to give. There were always poor people eating at their table as guests. It was not unusual to have five or six such guests on 'Shabbos'. They intermarried with the most prominent families. One daughter Zipporah is daughter-in-law to Rabbi Jochanan the Ratmestrifker Rabbi. Another daughter Treize is wife to a (descendant of?) Rabbi Israel of Mezibozh of blesses memory. In this atmosphere I grew up.

You notice that there was then no other schooling available in our shtetl except the 'cheder' and the 'Klois'. In my younger years, there was no one who could write an address in Russian. One had to go to the town secretary to have an address written. My father, who was a businessman and saw the world, understood that the coming generation would not be able to manage without writing Russian so he found a young man who knew how to read a little Russian and when I was eight years old, hired him to teach me. What he knew, I mastered in a month's time. Understandably

[Page 18]

I knew no grammar, because this “teacher” himself knew none. But I learned to read right and proper, so I could write addresses in Russian, and in addition to write a Russian translation – I was already a professor of languages.

Of the 'Haskalah' (Enlightenment) movement and its writings, we knew nothing. At that time, such were “Alien Books”, or “taboo-unclean”. One dared not study such books. No one subscribed to any paper. The first newspaper we read was just before the Russian-Turkish War in 1877, HaTzfirah, (The Dawn), in Hebrew, which someone brought from Uman, the “big Town” nearest Sokolievka. I was then fourteen. That was the entire range of culture. There was no physician, no apothecary, not even any church or priest, not even a post office. Even when I was already in America, letters had to be sent through Uman, and reached Sokolievka through the district administrative office at Popkivka.

When I was thirteen, a Bar Mitzvah, I was already being sought for a wedding arranged by a matchmaker. Dad answered that he must first see my older sisters married, and then he would think about me. Besides, each one had to serve in the military draft. Because I was the oldest of the sons, I had a deferment, but my father said he must find a guaranteed way for me not to serve. It cost him some rubles, and I was simply erased from the register, so that I was never born and in fact never will be born. A plague will the Tsar know of me. How will he know, when he is in Petersburg, and I am in Sokolievka? There are no talebearers in Sokolievka. Father did indeed carry out his intent and none of his three sons served.

But in time we had it ten times worse than Gehenna and worse than serving ten times, as I will describe in my further memoirs.[26]

Here the manuscript breaks off.


* Throughout this volume the last letter of the Hebrew and Yiddish alphabet is represented by an x wherever it was so pronounced in Justingrad/Sokolievka. Return

 

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