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[Pages 67-68]

Pozhar! Fire!

Translated by Judy Grossman

A major conflagration broke out in Dusiat in 1905. It was said that several horse thieves intentionally set fire to the “bathhouse' alley”. The fire spread to Der Milner Gass (“Miller's Street”), and many of the Gentiles' homes went up in flames. The peasants got together and decided to avenge themselves on the Jews. Unrest was rife, and there was fear that a pogrom would break out. The young people in Dusiat organized a large defense group. Young people from Salok (Salakas) and Zarasai (Novo-Alexandrovsk) also joined the group. Fear of the pogrom was especially great on the Sunday and Wednesday.

A great fire broke out in 1910, which destroyed almost the entire shtetl by fire. Only the Hassidic Synagogue and the homes of Itze Mashiah and Chanoch Kehat remained standing. It is hard to describe the town's tragedy. Men, women, children and the elderly wandered through the wet ashes. Everyone had lost all their possessions. Children cried heartrending tears, and no one consoled them, because everyone was sunk in depressing despair… Wagons filled with food and clothes arrived quickly from the nearby towns and shtetls, and a respectable amount of money was also collected in the shtetls. Assistance also arrived from America and South Africa for the rehabilitation of the shtetl. They reconstructed the great “Beth Midrash” (Synagogue School). In 1912, the shtetl was again standing…[1]

Esther Pomus (Orlin): How can you recount tales of Dusiat without mentioning “di sriefe” (“the fire”)? In my memory, the word “fire” is a mass of children in the house.

Our house bordered on that of Gentiles, and in order to save their house from the fire they also had to save ours. It was a wooden house of one storey, with a large dining room!

After the fire our house was filled with occupants: Grandpa Chanoch Chatzkel and Grandma Sore-Beile (Katz) lived in it, and also Aunt Freidke Chatzkel (later Levitt) and my parents Elya and Rochel and their seven children, and Aunt Chaya-Tzipe Slep (Chatzkel) and Uncle Emanuel and their children joined us, and with the birth of their little son Micha in our house, the number of people living in it reached twenty-two, among them fifteen children! The house was always filled with noise and happiness.

Several children slept in the same bed (but even after the sleeping space was “enlarged”, I continued sleeping in the same bed as my sister Rivka). We managed to get along despite the crowded conditions, and it's a fact that we remained on good terms with the members of our extended family.

Taking leave of Esther Orlin beside her parents' home, before her immigration to Eretz Yisrael on March 29, 1937.

From right to left, standing: Yehuda Slep and his sister Elka, (-), (-), Esther Orlin, Zelda Charit
Seated: Kehat Slep, (-), Rivka Orlin, Micha Slep

Shayke Glick: The elders frequently spoke about the “pozhar” and the “pozharnikes” (the fires and the firefighters). But in my time the firefighting warehouse was more often used as a theater.

Generally young people volunteered to be firefighters. Most of the town's residents were Jews, and so most of the responsibility fell on them. However, the Gentiles also took part in the firefighting.

In the folklore of the shtetl you will find stories about “the first fire” and “the second fire”, about “the big fire” and “the small fire”, and about “fires” in general. To determine the date of various events they stated “before the fire” or “after the fire”. I remember the fire that destroyed the flourmill.

Among the folk tales the story of the woman who came out and shouted (in Yiddish): “Gevald! Gevald! Pozhar! May you live as I have strength to shout” is very prevalent.

Yitzchak Toker: I remember a very hot day, when a fire suddenly broke out. The entire street was on fire. The roofs of the Gentiles' houses were made of straw, and those of the Jews - of wood, and nothing stopped the spread of the fire. I remember that people particularly tried to rescue their bedding, but everything was burnt, our house as well, and we moved to live in a small house beside the lake.

People used to say that the Gentiles lit the fire so that afterwards they would have work in reconstructing the houses…

Batya Aviel (Levitt): Some children were playing beside the river, barefoot and wearing only underwear, when suddenly the fire broke out at the edge of our shtetl, Dusiat. The shtetl was crowded, and burned down in a short amount of time. And I – at the time I thought only about my new shoes that I had left under my bed, and I burst into tears. I was, perhaps, five years old at the time.

Shayke Glick: When the fire broke out, apparently in 1910, my mother found shelter in the bathhouse. The burned people having been evacuated to there and to the synagogue. Suddenly a rumor spread that the rioters were approaching the bathhouse, and my mother fled from there.

Masha Gershuni (Slep): My mother fled from the fire and hid in the bathhouse. I was born there in 1915.


  1. [29] Chaya Malka Kruss-Glussak and Nachum Blacher. From Our Shtetl Dusiat, p. 338, in Yizkor Book of Rakishok and Environs, Johannesburg, 1952.) Return

[Pages 68-69]

With Unbent Heads

By Yosef Yavnai (Slep)

Translated by Judy Grossman

Following the pogrom, the Cossacks arrived in the shtetl, not so much in order to protect the Jews but to prevent a revolution. The Jews felt safe, although not enough to resist a pogrom, but in general they did not bow their heads.

Relations with the Gentiles were reasonable, although restrained. I remember that the Gentiles greatly respected my uncle Eliyahu Orlin. He was a flax merchant, and they would come into his yard, have a drop to drink and bring him vegetables, and they called him “Elkes”. We weren't afraid to move among the Gentiles. Lithuania at the time was under Russia occupation, and it was actually the Lithuanians who lived in fear.

I recall a sickbed visit Avraham-Hirshke Orlin and I paid to a Gentile who lived in the village of Podusiat (Padustelis), not far from Dusiat. This Gentile was chopping wood when his axe fell and cut off his leg. When we reached his house, Avraham-Hirshke went into his room, and I remained standing in the doorway. The man called to me to come in, his wife served us fruit, and he was happy we had come. Avraham-Hirshke spoke Lithuanian well with them. At that time we also visited another Gentile, the shoemaker. All in all, we felt at home in Podusiat.

Shayke Glick: Beyond the bridge there was a Tatar neighborhood. Unlike the Christian Lithuanians, there was no incitement against us by the Tatars. Some of them even spoke Yiddish, and we related to them as our brothers, “the children of Abraham”...

Daniel Ben-Nahum (Prochovnik): The Tatars and Jews from Crimea, many of them Karaites, had been brought by Prince Vitautas – at the beginning of the 15th century – to reinforce the population of Lithuanian cities.

Yosef Yavnai (Slep): We loved our Tatar maid, Mazalina, and when we angered our mother, and Mazalina would threaten to leave us if we continued to misbehave, we were afraid she really would leave and immediately settled down. When she knew that a skirmish had broken out in the market, she would warn us not to go there. I remember once seeing her lying on the floor, as drunk as Lot (nephew of Avraham Avinu)…

Miryam Slep: The Tatar woman Amina also raised us, and we loved her.

Baruch Krut: Beyond the bridge lived the Tatars Bronke and his wife Aminke. We had good relations with Bronke. When he had a circumcision for his son he invited me to the celebration.

Rasya Tal (Kagan): We also had a maid, and we spoke Russian or Lithuanian to her. I recall that when a chicken was slaughtered and there was doubt as to whether it was kosher, we would give it to the maid instead of throwing it out...

Malka Gilinsky (Feldman): The kitchen in our home was kosher; the cabinets were half meat and half dairy, and our maid was very careful about this, even with the towels.

Chana Fisherman (Pores): There were good relations, especially the Baron family, with the Gentiles of Russian origin, who were deeply hated by the local Lithuanians.

Yitzchak Orez (Aires): In Silvitzkes Wood, among the birch trees, lived Gentiles who were good neighbors of the Jews. I recall that in the Skineiker Forest lived a Gentile woman who read the cards, and she foretold the future of at least one of our girls…

Shayke Glick: There were anti-religious and anti-Semitic Gentiles in the shtetl. I remember that Valulis, who was intelligent, and Pakalnis were among them.

Masha Gershuni (Slep): And I remember that as children we never skipped a Gentile funeral. We were especially fascinated to see the funeral ceremony that took place in a special room at the entrance to the church. I remember the funeral ceremony of the Lithuanian pharmacist's younger daughter, who like her sister also died of tuberculosis. The body lay in a casket, dressed in a fancy white dress, and her face was so white. If my mother had known that I was there, I wouldn't have made it to Eretz Yisrael!

Shayke Glick: As children we used to play pranks. When the funeral procession left the church, with the priest and the altar boys marching at the front, everyone reciting prayers in a monotone, we children used to look on from afar and in a monotone like them whisper a meaningless sentence (in Yiddish): “Yoshke, Yoshke, why are you so skinny? – Because you don't eat any hay or oats”…

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