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[Page 211]

Chapters of Local Life

In My Parents' Home

By Michael Pochachevski

Translated by Dr. Samuel Chani and Jenni Buch

My mother was of short stature, but a handsome and wise woman, gentle and modest in her demeanor. Only deep in her heart she prided herself on her prestigious origins.

She was the daughter of a famous teacher who had wandered in towards the east from Western Europe, seeking refuge in the Torah, after the sun was setting in the west.

My mother was orphaned as a child and was brought up by a stepmother, a woman who disgraced her piety; she had married my grandfather with the hope of procuring a good place in the coming world. Despite her status and righteousness, she was a difficult person who really gave her stepchildren a very hard time, to the extent that my grandfather married my mother off at a very early age.

My father's parents were well off - my grandfather was socially active and owned a factory that he had established without means or money, but by a lot of hard work and skill. He was also distinguished himself - he was descended from the author of 'Tiferet Israel”, a commentary on the Mishnah, but because he was orphaned since childhood, he had to work and had no time to give himself up to studies. My grandmother married him after he had already established himself. She was a woman of valor with extraordinary skills – she helped him in business until her good name was known in the whole area – the business was conducted with an open generous hand. At the same time she was a great housewife and brought up and married her children to famous families.

My grandmother was a clever woman with a good heart – she would take the food out of her mouth to share. Her financial situation being excellent, she decided that all her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren should surround her like a queen in the beehive. Her four married sons and two daughters ate at her table, which was usually set in readiness for all the workers in her factory – drivers, porters, and everyone who was connected with the business. All those men were counted as sons of the house. Also, the woodchoppers and water carriers from the district would come and eat their midday meal as if in their own home, and every beggar who came at mealtimes would receive his share.

When I was a small child a fire broke out in our street and this patriarchal house was burnt to the ground. It did not last long and in place of this house a two-story brick house was built. My grandmother gave instructions to the architect to draw plans to build the house in the form of a beehive to accommodate all of her children. And so it was. The entire family shifted into the new house. They ate together and gathered collectively in the spacious dining room, which adjoined the rooms for the aged relatives. Until today, I have never forgotten the Sabbaths and high Holydays, when the children, small and large, sat around the table with the Queen at its head, how much pleasure and enjoyment she derived!

When Succoth came in the year 1866, the beehive buzzed with the expectation of the coming holidays – all slaved feverishly – also I was amongst the grandchildren that was busy preparing the Simchat Torah flags, the celebration was disturbed however, in the middle of the holidays there was an outbreak of a cholera plague which claimed thousands of victims … also our house was not spared and grandmother fell victim in the middle of Simchat Torah. This was a tragedy that I had to face front on in my young life – the sorrow permeated every corner of the house. With the death of the Queen the beehive emptied of all its contents. The first sign of the disintegration of the house was the separation of the main common dining table from the previously held and honored tradition of communal dining. My grandfather, seeking consolation from his grief, threw himself into business and community affairs and the private family matters he handed over to his elder sons to watch over “the tribe of brothers together….”

The first to leave the house was my father –he could not come to terms with the collective structure of the household – because he believed that it caused laziness in many members of the family. Regretfully, not all the children had inherited their mother's love of work and the spirit of love thy neighbor as thyself in which my grandmother was outstanding. She had excelled as the head of the family and the management of the household.

My father's exit was a revolt against holy tradition in the eyes of my grandfather.

He was enraged and in great anger disinherited my father. Only years later, when he had quietened down in the last years of his life, did he repent and return his rights to him. My grandfather's great love of work was not inherited by all of his children. However, they did inherit his special qualities – a spark of the mechanic was in all of us. Nothing was too difficult to take on - they loved the business. I was four and a half years old when our town received its first railway line. When the line reached the River Bug that flows with a strong current 8 kilometers from our town, the Jews beat their brains wondering how it was possible for this railway to cross this dangerous, impudent river. This especially intrigued my father –when they started to erect the iron bridge over the river, he ignored the law on the sanctity of the Sabbath and went to look at the works.

He always loved mechanical things. He didn't wait and took me, his only son, along with him. My mother did not know that he planted a love of manual work and skills in my young heart. She cried bitter tears over the fate of her poor child that was forced every Sabbath to take the long walk to see the building works.

This seed that my father planted in my young did its work – I also developed a love of mechanical skills. Machines and constructions have always fascinated me. The reigning customs of our Jewish world were against the development of my talents. My mother, who was conforming very much to tradition, would not allow me to learn a trade. She very much wanted me to develop my spiritual side, inherited from her own father, the famous scholar. My mother, who was true to the tradition, believed that tradesmen were more lowly people, who were only born to serve the talented students. They could not expect more than to end up in Hell.

Despite this, my mother was a good-natured soul who cared very much for her children and therefore I did not have the courage to rebel against her. However, when the time came and I was fed up with the meaningless life of my childhood in our town, I developed a strong desire to do something productive. I decided to leave the family nest and go out into the greater world. A battle developed in our home and when I saw the tears shining in my good mother's eyes l could not withstand her pleading any more.

Later when I came to the age of military service, my father with great efforts and much money, obtained the exemption rights of the only son. For all my desire to leave the empty life and to take up a trade – nothing became of that.

In the Beth Hamidrash (Synagogue school)

My only place of refuge was the place where I spent most of my time as did the other children of my age, and that was the house of study. There I had the opportunity to observe people and learn about life. Here I will recall several figures:

Reb Baruch Hirsh the Blacksmith.

I remember him – despite of his 70 years he was physically healthy and had a strong voice. When the city would listen to the first prayers asking forgiveness, Baruch Hirsh would recite the prayers - old and young alike would patiently wait to have the pleasure of hearing him praying. Once, I was carried along by the crowd to go and listen to how he expressed his prayers. He did not have a sweet voice but every word that came out of his mouth was heart rending, mournful and penetrating with the pain of thousands in the Diaspora.

It is interesting how Baruch Hirsh became a blacksmith. In the past the respected merchants and businessmen of the Jewish community would go to the Heads of the Yeshivas looking for talented, clever youths – capable scholars for their future sons in law. When it came time to marry -the dowry and board were given for several years so that the son in law could sit and study in the local yeshiva. Then when the sharp awakening of “what and how will we eat?” arose, then one would get rabbinical ordination, or learn Schitah (ritual slaughtering) so that one could make a living from that profession. Not one of these 'holy vessels ' ever took to trade or business.

As for Baruch Hirsh they said that he was a learned jewel of a learned scholar. He was studying in the yeshiva of one of the neighboring towns. In our town there was a blacksmith, knowledgeable in Torah, and he had an only daughter. He wished for a learned and clever student as a bridegroom for his daughter. He went away and found Baruch Hirsh – a yeshiva student who had all these talents – in addition he could hold a melody with a beautiful sweet voice. When he would lead the congregation in prayer, he would give them great pleasure. He was even lengthening the prayers – people left his prayer house on Sabbath and the high Holydays later than from other places of prayer. This young man had a very good reputation and everybody wished for such a son in law. However, from time to time, a strange thing would happen to him. This refined young man would role up his sleeves and labor in the heavy work of the blacksmith's workshop. He learned the trade properly and took the place of his father in law. He exemplified the adage: “Leave the rabbinical and love the trade”. However, he did not forsake his love of the cantorial singing. In his old age he gave up blacksmithing and became a renowned bookseller in the district. But the name of Baruch Hirsh – blacksmith, stayed with him all his life. The older people would tell stories of him and his anvil, and how he would not even perspire at the hardest of tasks. Yet when he led the prayers on the Holydays, he would be bathed in perspiration and fresh clothes were brought for him so that he could change in the special room allotted to him in his prayer house. Towards the end of his life, the doctors forbade him to lead the prayers because he would collapse and faint from his deep emotions and fervor.

At the north wall of our prayer house in Brest there was for many years a distinctive man – Reb Shmaye of the herrings. No one else would come as early as he did. He always stared intently at his prayer book – Reb Shmaye was there rain or shine, he never missed a lesson or public prayer. He would not mix into the affairs of the congregation, such as the election of new officials or conflicts within the congregation, and would always distance himself from such matters.

He was a big merchant of herrings –his business demanded much work, nevertheless, he found the time to pray and did much for charity. He would quietly walk around the prayer house every day after praying and collect donations in order to help the poor and downtrodden who were ashamed of their circumstances. At this time, he would delicately avoid those who could not afford to give anything. All donated very willingly. Those he omitted would run after him to give a donation in spite of his refusals.

Another duty that Reb Shmaye performed was – our town was next to the famous large military fortress where many Jewish soldiers were serving. Thanks to the efforts of the Head of the Jewish community, the soldiers would receive permits to come into the city and be with for fellow Jews on the Sabbath. On Friday evenings they would come to the prayer house closest to the fortress, which was our prayer house, so that we received a great share of these soldiers. Who else would look after them other than Reb Shmaye? . On Friday nights, he would cut the prayers short, he would take the soldiers to one side and allot them each to a person as his guest for the Sabbath. At the same time he would use his wisdom to match everyone suitably. The rest he would take to his own home without asking his wife if there was enough to eat…

Only once a year would this quiet distinguished man become very merry and uproarious, and that was at Simchat Torah. He would dance with the Torahs around the bimah and sing with the youngsters who would crawl all over him, pulling the skirts of his garments, and he would roister with them. Many disapproved of the behavior of the children towards such a distinguished personality, but he stuck to his own habits with his 'herd'. Hearing the baa baa baa bleating sounds from his herd would only increase his merriment and he would dance and sing with them until late.

An unchangeable custom was that the rowdy crowd of congregants would accompany Reb Shmaye through the streets with noisy singing and dancing to his home.

He would whisper into the ear of a trusted youth the secret location of the “goodies” - the delicacies that his wife had prepared for them. The thief acted very quickly, got the containers from their hiding places, and the crowd immediately began feasting.

Reb Shmaye would pretend with a stern face that he was outraged at this thieving – in the meantime, eager hands passed the containers from person to person and tore at the delicacies, making a mess and getting honey on their clothes. Reb Shmaye would again become merry and take much pleasure, laughing with a full mouth – the only time in the whole year that he laughed wholeheartedly.

The following morning at prayers, he would go about quietly, collecting donations with a subdued mood and a serious expression on his face. No one could understand this marvel –how Reb Shmaye, who carried all the sorrow of the world on his shoulders, was capable of such joy and celebration.

Reb Elyahu Hirsh was entirely different. It seemed that god himself had appointed him to seek out the sinners in the congregation. He was one of the elders at the east wall, a tall elder with white hair and a long beard. He was alert to everything that occurred inside the prayer house. It seemed like he was sitting and learning a certain chapter of Gemarrah and steeped in his book, but his eyes searched from side to side and every corner. Woe to the person who (in his opinion) transgressed! Reb Elyahu would attack immediately - loudly berating him for his lack of discipline and respect.

Because of his behavior, our prayer was crowned with the nickname “Gendarme of God”.

This Jew had a hidden power – everyone was afraid of his stare. He would offend everybody, but no one took offence. Amongst those who respected him were important, wealthy businessmen and great scholars. Educated men and those who believed themselves to be educated – all of them accepted our gendarme, Reb Elyahu Hirsh's accusations - without complaints, excuses or evasions.

Etched into my memory is the persona of a great man –Rabbi Arieh Leib Feinstein, who was recognized as one of the most enlightened men in our city. In these same rooms of our prayer house he studied the history of our city. He researched and extracted for “Ir Tehilah”, his famous book. The fanatics denounced this great man. They boycotted him during the elections for the kehilla and prevented him from receiving any official positions. Nevertheless, Rabbi Arieh Leib showed great resolve and energy to bring about important reforms in our city.

I'll mention one of his achievements: We had a cemetery, a wide-open field, away from the city amongst the cornfields. There were trees and bushes with happy birds in them, but when they began to build a railway line close to the graves, the whistle of the locomotive would disturb the eternal resting place. Not only that, our cemetery became open to every stray passer-by. The railway workers who were not known for their love of Jews turned the cemetery into a through- way and defiled the graves with unspeakable acts – the shame and sorrow was great. None of the community leaders could do anything about it. Only the heretic, the banned Rabbi Arieh Leib Feinstein, did not rest and defended the weakened honor of the Jews.

He sent letters with petitions and demands to the Government, and described these criminal acts as great offences against humanity. He demanded that the Government allot money collected from the kosher meat taxes to build a wall around the cemetery.

His intercession met with receptive ears, and after long negotiations and great efforts, the Government issued a permit in the name of A.L. Feinstein to build a stone fence around the cemetery with monies from the meat tax. The sworn opponents of Arieh Leib could only gnash their teeth at this affair and were greatly annoyed, but none dared oppose him openly. They consoled themselves with the argument that one man alone would not be capable of carrying out such a task. But hundreds of Jewish laborers were involved in building this wall and several months later everyone who wanted to enter the cemetery had to knock on the locked gate, and wait for the guard to let them in.

What payment did Arieh Leib receive? The fanatics were pondering on how to discredit him and they devised a libel that he misappropriated kehilla funds. He was arrested by the authorities. But through the efforts of leading citizens, the government sent a special representative to oversee the accounts and it emerged that he was innocent and was released.

From the stories that I heard in my father's home, there is etched in my memory a story of one of the luminaries of our city - Reb Yehuda Arkader. An official and treasurer of the kehilla, he administered with a strong hand. Yehuda Arkader had two sons, good-looking youths, aged 16 and 17. The youths would sit in the prayer house and study. Yehuda Arkader did not have the time to supervise their studies, and as his sons did not come to him and no one betrayed them, he was certain that they were on the right path. He saw his sons only at the Sabbath table, and when on one Sabbath hey were not there at the table, he was very puzzled and found out after questioning that his sons had gone astray. They had become Chassids and gone for the Sabbath to the famous Rebbe, the “miracle worker “, at Niezvitch.

This news hit Yehuda Arkader like a thunderbolt. He was a devout Mitnaged. He sat at his table for the whole of the Sabbath and did not speak a word. After the Sabbath, he tore his clothes, said the prayer for the dead, and sat shiveh. He was inconsolable and could not be comforted over his great loss. The heart of this diligent, hardworking Jew was broken and never healed. He went around in a depressed state until a heart attack ended his suffering. Many years later, I met those two brothers both of them renowned Chassids. Their children were of my generation with long ginger side locks, (peyes), brought up by rabbis and righteous, religious men. One of them did not fit into the mould of the Chassids and at the age of 18, he stole away from his home, taking with him gold and silver. He fled to St. Petersburg, and entered a music academy. His family blotted out all memory of him…

Over time a rumor circulated that the famous singer in the Imperial opera was the grandson of Reb Yehuda Arkader. His name was Yonaleh the Redhead.

So that the orthodox women should not feel left out – I will now recount about several orthodox women. One of them was Esterke Harkavi – her married name was Minc.

She owned several businesses and was a manufacturer of cigarettes. She also owned a beautiful shop with good wines. Her office there served as a sort of club for high-ranking government employees. Esterke was beautiful in appearance and a woman of valor. Her mouth spoke real pearls; the high-ranking officials had pleasure in conversing with her, because she was just as clever as she was beautiful. I remember her as a mother to 15 sons and 1 married daughter, but nothing had lessened of her charm and wisdom. She really worked miracles, everyone who had troubles would come to her for advice: evil deeds, disputes with the law, problems of all kinds would immediately come to her for help. She was rarely at home, even on Sabbath and the High Holydays. Also it was difficult to meet her at her shop as she was always away, traveling to meet high-ranking government officials, the authorities at the fortress, and members of the tribunals. No one could refuse her. At her request, often against their will, they would cancel unjust regulations and laws – she saved many from life imprisonment, forced labor and death.

All the Jewish soldiers called her Mama Esther. Due to her efforts, they could maintain their faith, despite the attempts of many gentiles to assimilate them. Also those arrested and held in prison were treated better thanks to the intercessions of Esterke Harkavi. Thus her short life was one chain of good deeds. This flower was cut down young. She left behind a good name and 16 young human beings who did not have the opportunity to acquaint themselves with their great mother. Let us remember that one of her sons was the first Brisker Jew to go to Eretz Israel, and was one of the leaders of BILU.

Of the women of our town, I wish to mention one more, whose memory was unforgettable – Hannaleh, the wife of Zalman. A small thin woman, who walked slowly, spoke slowly and little. Her husband was one of the wealthiest merchants in the city – a tobacco wholesaler and merchant, he was a very respected personage. Their home was one of the most impressive and distinguished in the city. Their children were beautiful, it seemed that he was the most fortunate of men – but he would say that his home lacked one essential – a homemaker.

Hannaleh was never at home. In the early morning she would leave for the dairy, buy warm milk and divide it up between the poor, the sick, and the expectant mothers for whom she cared. From there she would go to the synagogue and pray the morning prayers. Then she would go with her friend Fraidlin with a red kerchief on her head to the stores to collect donations. With that money she would buy food for the widows and orphans who would be waiting impatiently for it. In the afternoon, she would go to the houses of the wealthy to collect whatever she could get. She would put out a large cloth and collect everything that she received in it, bread rolls, bread, butter, cheese, all kinds of medicines, clothing for the poor and sick. By the way, she was also a nursing sister –she would tend to the sick, changing their dressings.

Accompanied by Fraidlin, they would visit the inns and hostels to collect donations from the guests. No one could refuse this virtuous woman. They would all give according to their means with open hearts. When it came to the evening prayers, she would run to the synagogue to hear them, and from there she would run back to the dark neglected houses of the poor. Sometimes in the middle of the night she would visit the sick, and console the fallen and downtrodden.

In the Government hospital where entry was forbidden, you could find Hannaleh at every bed. In secret she would leave every patient with something to lighten their hearts – the only one who was unhappy with Hannaleh and had a full mouth of complaints was her husband, Zalman.

The goodness of another woman should also be recalled. Beile Ruchel the Banderke – she was named after her husband's profession –he was a barrel maker in his good years. A skilled tradesman in the art of wood maturing, over time he became unemployed and a lazy layabout. Beile Ruchel supported her husband and 6 small children, carrying heavy baskets of bread and fruit with her own hands. In the morning she would leave her small children and run to deliver small warm pastries to the houses of the rich for them to snack on. She would drag her bags from house to house with an empty stomach. Could she eat before she had fed her own children?

Years went by, winters and summers; there was no improvement in her life until the following happened: on an Autumn day, the rain stopped pouring down and the unpaved streets of our city became like pools of water, the mud would rise to neck -high. Beile Ruchel went with her heavy baskets, dragging her feet through the mud, and loudly complaining to God. She could not lift her mud soaked skirt and dragged herself along. Gradually she came face to face with a carriage harnessed to five thoroughbred horses, sweating and foaming at the mouth. From inside the carriage appeared a young man in the uniform of a general. He glanced at Beile Ruchel and asked the carriage driver to top. He shouted Beile, Beile… our Beile was so preoccupied with her misery that she barely heard anything, the passers by understood and thought that the young man wanted to buy something and told her to stop. Seeing this beautiful uniform, she came closer with trepidation – he asked her in Russian “is your name Beile?” She answered: ”yes, my name is Beile Ruchel”. He immediately stretched out his arms and took her baskets and sat her down in the carriage. The horses went forward and everybody stared at this sight wide eyed with wonder.

As the carriage sped on, Beile Ruchel slumped in fear, her teeth chattered –who knows, maybe someone had libeled her? Woe to her children!! She calmed down as the officer began to speak. He told her that as he drove past her, he recognized her as the daughter of a teacher from whom he had learnt the alphabet. He remembered how good she had been to him – it had left a mark in his memory, and he wanted to help her as much as possible, with one condition. For the time being, he would not reveal his name to her, which would have to remain secret, as he was taken away from his home as a child. The carriage proceeded to the fortress and arrived at a beautifully built government palace. He got out and said to Beile, this is where I live, come in and meet my wife and children. Beile Ruchel stepped down from the carriage, not knowing what to do, what would happen to her? The officer took her hand and went up the stairs into a salon with expensive Persian carpets and introduced her to his wife. This is my Beile, the daughter of my first teacher, who instilled humanity in my heart. Treat her as a sister. The young and pretty wife of the general did not hesitate and said, we are actually sisters - I am a Jewish daughter. Tears of joy welled in the eyes of all three.

As they calmed themselves, the general and his wife began seeking ways to help Beile Ruchel. They agreed that from that day on, Beile Ruchel would conduct their housekeeping. She would buy everything for their household from the stores and make a living from this. Furthermore, as the general was the head doctor of the large hospital inside the fortress, and the wealthy Jews came to him asking him to treat their sick at his hospital - he would not see them directly but only through Beile Ruchel. From then on, everything changed for Beile Ruchel. Her customers wondered what had happened to her and her baskets, and the school students wandered why Beile Ruchel's children came dressed in good clothes and shoes. And one could come across Beile Ruchel in the shops and stores buying supplies.

The doors at her home are not still all day – all are asking what has happened? A real tragedy, has the doctor from the fortress gone mad? He would not admit one sick person to the hospital for any money in the world without the intervention of Beile Ruchel! Once again, Beile Ruchel is tired and exhausted at night, no food has reached her mouth. Saving lives is above everything else. She does all his without compensation. The doctor at times receives a handsome present from his patients, this money he gives to Beile Ruchel. However, she goes from house to house distributing this money. She would not sell her portion of paradise for any price.

At the officer's club in the fortress, Beile Ruchel is the subject of much gossip. She delivers many kinds of expensive jewelry that the wives of the officers desire. The sellers of this expensive jewelry give her various precious items to sell –once again she drags her bags full of foreign imported jewels worth thousands of rubles. Thus she conducted her business, without knowing how to write and not knowing how to speak Russian. She spoke with all the high officials, a kind of Esperanto – a mixture of several languages. Her honesty and charity awoke trust in everyone. From all her dealings she did not receive more than food and clothes for her and her family. She did not want to profit in this world.

The writer Nechama Pochachevski,
wife of Michael Pochachevski


Types of poor people in Brest at the end of the 19th century


Two Brest Ladies
at the end of the 19th century


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