Esther Gitel had 20 children, of whom survived only three boys and six girls. The girls were married to geniuses. One of his sons-in-law, Eliezer Edelstein was a has-been. He was a genius who threw off all of the strength of the Torah and was caught in the web of sex. He was thought of as a learned person who changed his ways and he became the center of other learned young men who became doubters and unfriendly cynics towards the rabbis, as was customary in those days.
Eliezer not only was a learned person, he also knew Russian and had a big
library with books from the enlightenment movement. He had a wild group of
followers. The second son-in-law of Rabbi Yasha was a great grandson of the
genius Rabbi Chaim from Volozin. Rabbi Yasha went straight to Volbzin and chose
the most learned and the best of the Yeshiva students as has son-in-law. He
chose him since he surpassed even himself in knowledge. This student turned out
to be Zalman Sender Shapira, the Rabbi of the town of Krinki, the famous
scholar of Torah. Rabbi Yasha brought the genius to his home and after the
wedding he remained in his home for five years.
Rabbi Zalman Sender corresponded about Torah matters with all the great Rabbis of Russia. His house served as a center for all kinds of young Torah scholars, his home was exactly the opposite of that of his brother-in-laws, Eliezer Edelstein.
Rabbi Yosef's sons were divided into two opposing houses. It was like water and fire, each group disliked the other and heavily disagreed and cursed the other. The Eliezer house was popular and well liked in the city. They had excellent relations with the mayor and all the important officials of the city. Both houses, including Rabbi Yasha's house, acted as spiritual centers of the entire city. I came to Kobrin after Purim, but Rabbi Yasha, who was supposed to reimburse me with the money of my scholarship, was lacking funds and couldn't do that at that time. Since I was young and a relative and a fine student there was no mention of money. They fed me and they were happy to have me. At their home there were always parties and reflecting about those days I am happy that they did not have the money at that time to pay me back; so I stayed. They used to say, Spend your time here. It's always fun and happy in here, in our home. I had a very good time there. I forgot the Gemara and ceased to think about putting money away and thinking about afterlife.
Being a warm hearted person and a sociable person, I enjoyed the three houses immensely. I spent some time at Esther Gitel's and her son's home whose house was always bubbling with noise and people. I liked spending time in all three houses. At Eliezer's they were not religious but they were excellent people who cared about their fellow man. They appreciated the Bible and studied it. In those days we did not study the Bible. It was against the Hassidic movement to which my father belonged. The only book from the Bible which my teacher taught me was the Book of Joshua. In the house of Rabbi Eliezer I sat, studied the prophets, and enjoyed immensely the words of Isaiah and Jeremiah.
The words of Isaiah made a great impression on me, where he scolds the
Israelites on behalf of God and tells them that it is not the celebrating and
the coming to the Temple that is important, but the righteousness and helping
the poor and the deprived. The Maskilim, the enlightenment group, used to teach
secretly to some of the Hassidic rabbis and students Isaiah and the other books
of the Bible. I gave plenty of thought to the reason the Hassids thought very
badly of the Maskilim. On the other hand, the house of Eliezer, the Maskilim,
were beautiful people. I grew to love them dearly.
Previously, before coming to Kobrin, my life was all about praying, studying and fasting. I chastised myself previously. I felt that this was God's will. But, alas, God did not ask for that from us. He asked us to care about each and to do good deeds. I never paid attention to the horrible poverty of my home town. Nobody cared about others' sorrows. All they cared about was for one's happiness and that was it. I learned in Kobrin at the house of Eliezer to observe and to care about the poor and the suffering. So when I went back to my home town I changed my ways completely, I who never was bothered by the misery and the suffering of others. And in the end I was reimbursed the worth of my scholarship. I received the money coming to me and left the house of Eliezer in Kobrin. I proceeded to follow in the steps which were taught to me at Eliezer's home. The days that I spent there are worth all the money in the world.
In those days the Kleizmarim, the music players of Kobrin, were very well known. Rabbi Shapsel was the head of the group. He could not read music, but when he played everyone had tears in his eyes. He was so famous that Paskevitz, the Governor, heard of him and sent for him to play for him and his staff in the palace. He was very impressed with him to the point that he asked him to convert to Christianity. He even offered to teach him to read music if he would convert to Christianity. Rabbi Shapsel adamantly refused. He said, Even if you make me a prince, I won't change my religion. He stayed three days in the Governor's palace while playing for hours and hours for his friends. When he saw that he would not convert Rabbi Shapsel, the Governor gave him a thousand rubles and a recommendation letter indicating his talents. The Governor Paskevitz even offered to introduce him to the Czar with the hope that by doing so the Czar would do better by the Jews. Rabbi Shapsel got away from the palace.
With the thousand rubles he bought himself a house and continued to play for
the rich ones in the region of Grodna. There was hardly a rich person's happy
event that Rabbi Shapsel and his group did not play for. In his group he even
had a comedian who was very talented. When Rabbi Shapsel started singing he
always started by clearing his voice and the women after a while begged him not
to sing any longer since they could not stop crying. That strong was the talent
and the impact of Rabbi Shapsel on his guests. The group had a comedian who was
an old man, but he was very funny. Again the public used to beg him to stop
since it ached to laugh so much. I remember that at one of my family's weddings
the comedian, Rabbi Rubilah, presented to the crowd a riddle in a joking
manner. The crowd and the guest loved him very much.
by Chaim Kovrinitz
(Mr. Chaim Kovrinitz, may he rest in peace, was one of the home owners and one of the most learned people in Kobrin. Chaim Kovrinitz survived the Holocaust and made his way to Israel when he was already an old man. Before his death he brought his life's story to the editorial committee.)
I, Chaim Kovrinitz, was born in Kobrin in the region of Grodno. My father's name was David Yoel Ben Yakov Kovrinitz. My mother was Chaya Rivka, the daughter of Rabbi Israel Shalom Halevi Rabinovitz who was the associate to the Rabbi of Kobrin. He was the one who did all Rabbi Meir Merim Shafit's written work although the Rabbi signed his name on all official papers.
Rabbi Meir Merim Shafit, may he rest in peace, was an outstanding Rabbi, even though he did not know how to read or write in Russian. In contrast to him, Rabbi Israel Shalom was an enlightened person who knew Russian, Hebrew and was very knowledgeable in Biblical matters. At that time, there was hardly anybody like him in the city. After the death of Rabbi Meir Merim, the townspeople decided to hand to his son, Aharon Shafit, the position of the Rabbi in the town.
When I became four years old, they wrapped me with a Talit. They took me to a cheder, a school of learning, to learn the Hebrew alphabet and the prayer book. After a year they turned me over to a teacher of Torah, and after two years I knew the five books of Moses almost by heart. I began the studies of Gemara. I was then seven years old and that was the way it was until I had my Bar Mitzvah at the age of thirteen. My father used to pay twenty-five to thirty rubles, and the teacher could add a few more boys to my group. This is what I recall from those days in Kobrin.
I recall, as well, an old city, houses made out of wood, very old houses and
built low, close to the ground. Some of the houses were covered with tiles, but
most of them were covered with straw. The streets were wide. The names were
Brisker, Pachter, Ratner, Hardenikes and Yiddishe Gasse, which was changed
later to Pinsker Street. Over the Mochevitz River, which cut the town in two,
there used to be another town by the name of Zamochevitz, which consisted of
three streets, Bovroisker, Tavliar and Ganchresker which was named like this
since it was inhabited primarily by new Jews who used to make pottery from
clay. The houses were also low and the roofs were covered with straw.
As I heard, they discovered an old book from the year 1200 written in Polish. Recently they discovered in the empty field next to the old cemetery on Pinsker Street a tombstone buried in the ground and because of its antiquity one could not make out the writing on it. After extensive attempts they translated the writing as The Learned Person. From the year 1400 until the year 1600, no other cemetery existed in Kobrin but the one on Pinsker Street.
From my childhood I recall that there were in Kobrin twelve Ashkenazi schools of Judaic learning and four Sephardic schools of learning. Besides those, there was also a large synagogue which I will describe here in detail.
The synagogue was a square building approximately 54 by 54 cubits, 24 cubits
tall. It had a big gate which was situated in the Western Wall and next to it
were two doors. The big gate was for the men. Through this gate one could enter
a hall which divided the temple, north to the south, into three parts. This was
the women's area. On the south side there was a room which was dedicated to the
seven best men in town. In it there were a table and chairs. In the middle
partition there was a big gate decorated with a sign in big letters saying,
This is the gate where righteous will come in. The floor of the
congregation was lower than the whole floor by more than two whole cubits
because of the quotation from the prayer, from death I called you
up. One used to go down there through very wide steps and arrive among
the congregation. Across the entrance, in the distance a few cubits, they built
a house out of bricks as tall as two cubits. On it there was a very nice
railing entwined with the stairs made out of iron. There were two entrances,
from the north and from the south, which lead upstairs. Through these entrances
the Torah readers climbed up to the bimah. Especially handsome was the Holy
Ark, which reached up to the ceiling. What shall I say? Every time I saw this
Holy Ark, my heart beat faster and I cried, especially the first time I saw the
Holy Ark. Painted on this Holy Ark were animals and birds. When I was a young
lad I truly believed that those animals and birds where alive, and I was always
afraid of the antlers of the deers, which I was afraid would swallow me. There
were three compartments. The bottom compartment was the compartment of the
Torah Crown. Painted lions held the two Ten Commandments tablets. On the second
compartment was a drawing of a Hassid wrapped in his Talit, gesturing the
Blessing of the Kohanim, the priests. On the third compartment a sign was
written saying the Crown of the Kingdom. There an eagle was drawn,
with two heads. His wings were spread and he held with his feet a citron, a
palm branch, and a myrtle. When I was a little boy, I refused to believe that
all these were just drawings, and not real.
Under the Ark, on the Bimah, there stood a big bear. He was situated from south to north while his head turned to the west side. After many years the Rabbi gave an order to remove him from his place since there was a custom that during the Simchat Torah and Shmini Atzeret, as a joke, women would ask each other, Did you kiss the bear already? It happened also that women, during their pregnancy period, were scared of the bear since he looked so real. The drawings of the clouds were two cubits big. On them were also drawings of many animals and birds. On the west wall were drawings of tigers, eagles, deer and lions and above the drawings was a sign: Strong as a tiger and light as and eagle, runs like a deer and strong as a lion, we're here to obey the will of God in the heavens. The ceiling had holes through which came down chains made of sterling and under those chains there were huge sterling lamps. The windows were very high, fifteen cubits from the floor. Everything was a bit like the temple house. It was done artistically and with great care.
During the era of Nicholas I, a decree was given to kidnap children from the age of five and up. The Jews were given the task to kidnap from their own according to quotas they were supposed to fulfill. Once kidnapped, the Jewish children were hidden in the third room in the hall which was named The Community Shtebil. Originally meetings were held in that room. At the time of Nicholas the Great, some changes were made in the building. They put on the windows rods made out of iron to prevent the parents from forcibly freeing their children and taking them home.
Now something about the the Jewish schools in Kobrin. There were twelve: one on
Ratner Street, two on Pachter Street. From another school all that was left was
a wing of a building. That school was from the inheritance of a rich man by the
name of Solovetshik. Another building which used to be a school that was made
out of wood was built by the rich man Michael Potzeter. Two schools were on
Kobriner Street and one was on the alley by the name of Talmud Torah. Another
was the big school donated by a man by the name of Plyer, another was the one
next to the Mochevitz River and yet another was the one given by the rich man,
Yasha Sheinbaum. Another was given by the rich man, Rabbi Shinshon Solovietzik,
and one school was at the Temple itself, which was called the Gasse Religious
School. Last, but not least, was one called, Chayei Adam, the life
of the person. All of the schools were deteriorating badly when I was there. On
the roofs grew weeds and inside they were dark and the ceiling was low, very
close to our heads. But still, during holidays there was not one Jew who did
not come to the schools and to the congregations to pray.
by C. W. Lichtenstein
Among the many obstacles to the Jewish youth, who called themselves the Enlightment Youth during the House of Romanov in Russia, one has to include the service of the youth in the army. The attitude of intellectual youth towards the ruling House of Romanov was negative. So was the Jewish youth's attitude; therefore they tried to be exempt from serving in the army.
Our brother, Chaim Weitzman, finished his studies in high school when he was too young to make graduation at the official age. By the time when he was supposed to be in the army, he was already busy with his scientific work at the university and involved with his Zionist work. Chaim Weitzman never liked the army and its regime. As a young lad he was adopted by his uncle, who had no children, and he was considered his only son. Only sons were exempt from the army since they were supposed to s.upport their old parents. This law worked fine for the non-Jews since they were the majority who went to the army. The quota for the exempt .Jews was full since many were trying to emigrate to the U.S. and that disturbed the only son law. The Jewish director of the local induction office suggested that Chaim add a few years to his age so as to be above the age of army induction and qualified for the law of the only son. He was sure that Chaim Weitzman could be exempt from the army.
His father agreed to that and Rabbi Israel Tzmirinski, or as he was known, Israel Der Padvaltchik, fixed it so he would not go to the army. One has to point out that the young who attended the universities, as long as they went to school, were exempt. Therefore their studies took twice as long in those days to finish. Those studying in foreign universities were not exempt from the army. They were forced to appear before the army committee on time. But Rabbi Israel suggested that Chaim Weitzman present a certificate stating that he was sick.
I remember how we stood next to Chaim's bed and tried to ease his burden, the
burden of the healthy person who is obliged to lie in bed. A few days later he
really did become sick. He was worried about the amount of money that was to
paid for his exemption. Although we tried to amuse him, he gradually became
really sick. The committee that came to check him after two weeks of being
bedridden found him to be really sick. The military committee extended his
exemption for one year. The certificate of exemption was sent to Kobrin which
was the region city of Moltilay, the hometown of Chaim Weitzman.
Chaim Weitzman became weary of the game of appearing sick before the committee year after year. When his extended exemption was up he traveled to Kobrin from Moltilay his hometown with the pretext of political reasons. In Kobrin he met the wealthy land owner who was also in charge of army induction of young Jews. Chaim Weitzman told him the truth, that he never wanted to be in the army and that if he were forced to go into the army he would emigrate to the United States. Since he was very busy with his scientific studies, he felt that he would better benefit the science world than the army. The intelligent gentile looked at his face, which expressed intelligence and sincerity, and was convinced that Weitzman would contribute more to science than to the army. He concluded the interview and said, Your next step is to appear before the deciding committee. You have my full recommendation not to be inducted to the army since it's obvious that you are not a soldier, but a man of science. He handed him the white certificate which indicated that he was also free of army reserve duty.
This was the first diplomatic mission that Chaim Weitzman participated in and succeeded. When he told his father about the event his father was very proud of him and he added that it was best that Chaim Weitzman did not consult him because his advice would have been to act in another manner, which could have proved detrimental, and he added, Now it ended happily and you did it all yourself.
From the book By the Shade of Our Home by Chaya Weitzman Lichtenstein
by Nehemiah Wornick
The Schtibel · The Hassidic School of Slonim ·
The Rebellion Against the Jacket (Modern Attire) ·
The Starched Collar and the High Hat (Stove Pipe Hat)
Three major fires occurred in Kobrin. One in 1895 in the little Zamochovitz, another in 1896, the fire of Ratner Street and vicinity, and the third in 1905, the fire of Pinsker Street. After each fire the city was rebuilt and improved.
The Slonim Schtibel, the Hassidic School, burnt to the ground in the second
fire. The Schtibel was rebuilt and enlarged in a new location in the southeast
part of the city. There were three ways to get there and they were all
dangerous paths. The first way was through the religious school, the Beit
Hamidrash of Ratner, next to Yitzhuk Cholonitzy. There lived the barrel maker,
who had a big dog and hooligan sons. When we tried to peek at his horses we
were attacked by the dog and the hooligan sons. The second way was not as
dangerous. It was between the Kobriner Schtibel and the house of Rabbi Davidel.
For years there was bad blood among the youth concerning who was a greater Rabbi, the Slonim Rabbi or the Kobriner Rabbi. The danger was severe for a person walking alone. The worst path was the Nardnikes way since it bordered the other two ways.
If you made it to the Slonim Schtibel it was well worth the effort. There was a wide garden with plenty of stones we used against the enemy for defense. The Slonim Schtibel had two heating stoves made by an artisan of iron. A bronze lamp, brought from Warsaw, hung in the middle. The Holy Ark was old. It had survived the fire and it was different from the redesigned building.
When the Schtibel was filled with worshipers one could find among them the finest of the city, the rich, the learned and the average people. I used to see Rabbi David (the judge), a tall good looking Jew with a beautiful blonde beard. He never raised his voice throughout the prayer unless it was called for. Next to him sat Rabbi Michael Chaim (the ritual slaughterer), who was a great learned Hassid. I recall Rabbi Zalman Tishes (the judge) was tall and a very well known Hassid. Issac Ben Issac was among the wealthiest Jews in the city and when I met him he was already old and could not stand on his feet from weakness. His son Nachman Baerman, the Hassid, used to act as a mediator between the Jews and the authorities; as witnessed by: Mordechai Shochat; Yitzhuk Alinik; Yehoshuah Marcosi, Hassid and Torah teacher; his brother-in-law, Yakov Chaim Marcosi, the father of Noah and Abraham Marcosi; Yeshiah and Moshe Asher, the sons-in-law of Baerman; the two Mintzs; Yosef Chais and the little Yosef. I can still see in front of my eyes the old Shamash, Menachem Hillel, who was blind in one eye, and us, the young kids, giving him a hard time on Shabbat afternoons. Yosef Leib Baerman was a great musician. On Friday evenings he always started with the song Yismechoo and finished with other well-known chants with great enthusiasm.
The Rabbi of Slonim visited Kobrin once during the winter and once during the
summer. At the entrance of the Schtibel he had a special room for himself. The
Slonim Rabbi, Rabbi Schmulki, was an enlightened and beautiful Jew. He was
short with a wonderful beard. His preaching was difficult to understand since
he made long pauses between words, but he was a great leader. From far and near
people came and stayed for a week to hear his words. He never stayed more than
one Shabbat. When he happened to come on Shabbat during Hanukkah, there was no
end to the happiness of his flock, the Hassidim. They had a party every night.
Once the Rabbi was dancing enthusiastically and Yitzhuk Alinik stopped him in the midst. The Hassidim wanted to beat-up Yitzhuk Alinik because they felt that he had interrupted the Rabbi's ritual of cleansing souls through his praying while dancing. Three things were forbidden in the Slonim Schtibel: the jacket, the hat and the high starched collar. My part was to fight against the ban on these items.
I was seven or eight years old when on a Friday night in the summer, Kaile, my mother, dressed me in a short jacket and sent me to the Schtibel. When I came in, Yosef Chais hit me and yelled at me shagitz (gentile). I started crying and my father, Mordecai the Shochet, did not come to my defense since he thought that by wearing the short jacket I was desecrating the holiness of the Schtibel. He immediately sent me home. The next few years my friends and I tried repeatedly to come to the Schtibel with short jackets and high hats but failed.
Once on my way back from a wedding in Brisk, where I was already studying Gemara with Yoshua the Melamed, I proceeded to the Schtibel to pray, still wearing the starched collar. As I stood for the Amidah, the prayer for which you are supposed to stand, Nachman Baerman noticed the starched collar and the same thing happened as when I had worn the short jacket. I went home and missed the rest of the prayers.
A few months later, during Succot, one of the richest people in the community, Mame Moshe Asheris, came to pray. There were only a few worshipers in the Schtibel. Among them were Mordecai Bar from Zamochovitz and his son, both of them orthodox Hassidim. When they saw Moshe Asheris, who was then eighteen years old, wearing a short jacket, they approached and insulted him. Moshe Asheris said that this was none of their business. Immediately they grabbed and beat him up.
This event was covered by many papers. Moshe Asheris did not return to the Schtibel for a few years. The Slonim Hassidim were ashamed about this episode as well. Still they did not allow anyone to come to the Schtibel with the short jacket, the starched collar, and with the high hats.
The rule remained intact for a few years. However a year later, on a Friday
night, we were walking with short jackets when we entered the Schtibel for
services for Mincha Arveit. Nachman Baerman again started to push me toward the
door. This time I pushed him back. He fell and just stared at me. Nobody dared
to intervene since we were a few, younger and ready to fight back. The ban on
the short jacket was removed and since then we came to the Schtibel with short
jackets, starched collars and high hats. Nachman Baerman never spoke to me
again until the Shabbat before I left for America.
Kobrin had its share of fires. The word fire scared everybody in town, especially during the night, when we waited, half-dressed, to hear what the situation was. If the fire was severe, we were supposed to pack our things and go to a safe place. The fires caused extreme damage.
I will describe how the fires were extinguished before we had organized firefighters in the city. When the cry fire was heard, the police took over. Martichka, the local clerk, ran and whistled. When he bumped into a man with a horse and buggy he cursed at him in Russian and shouted, Son-of-a-bitch. Run and bring the bucket of water to the fire. Behind Martichka, the old man, Shakuder, walked slowly, also whistling and mumbling something no one could hear. An older policeman with lots of medals on his chest dragged his feet slowly behind the first two, clutching his rifle to his chest and whistling.
And the tall Pavlovitch runs around and cusses and tries to disperse the mob in order to get to the water pumps in the market to fill up the buckets.
At that point Kachlinski from the police would arrive on his horse. He was the big specialist on extinguishing fires.
One morning the supervisor was walking his dog next to his home. His dog's name was Kalev. We had heard that the old supervisor had retired so we were anxiously waiting for the new supervisor. After two weeks the new supervisor arrived. He was a tall, good-looking Gentile, always smiling, a good-hearted man who liked the bribes which were given to him. He did not believe in middlemen.
The homeowners in the city were not happy with him since he was very clean and meticulous. Once in a while you saw a rich man taken to jail for not keeping his property intact.
Slowly and gradually Kobrin started to take a nicer shape and developed into a full-fledged town. At the corner of Brisker Street and the market across from the Petrovlousek Church they hung big lights that lit the market and the streets in the vicinity. At dusk youth gathered there to observe how Kachlinski lit the lamps. While busying himself with that chore, he neglected to notice that many Gentiles had gathered in that spot and were instigating pogroms against the Jews.
Once a fire broke out in the town and the supervisor arrived immediately. He
did not like the procedures for putting out the fire. A few days later, he
posted fliers around town, calling upon the Jewish and the Gentile youth to
come and volunteer as fire fighters, appointing himself the head of the group.
Many volunteered, including important homeowners, including Nachman Baerman and Wolfka Solovitshik, who was single and had a long beard. The Supervisor and the lean priest from the Church arrived. The priest was also called Krasnitsky because he looked like Krasnitsky the teacher. Rabbi Aharon Yoshua Shafit came to prove that Jews and Gentiles were both interested in the success of the firefighters.
They were told to come in a week to be fitted with new uniforms and to be trained for the tasks.
A week later all that came were divided into three groups. The first group included all those who trained with axes and hammers. They were supposed to be the first to enter the buildings that were on fire. Their commander was Moshe Kartzinelin. Their hats were red. The second group's task was to put out the fire. This group had all the machines, pails for bringing the water, and two hoses which the supervisor had purchased. Their commander was Vostavski, the clerk. Their outfits were blue. The third group's task was to save the contents of the homes and to see that there was no looting. Their commander was Dubinka. Their outfits were yellow. The general commander was Corporal Hamershlag, who was of medium height with a big mustache. He was a proud and excellent commander.
In a few weeks they were molded into a great brigade that learned to march in unison. The first group trained to climb on the highest roofs with ropes and ladders. They practiced on the firefighters house, which was not very high, then they moved to train on the slaughterhouse on Brisker Street, which was taller. At the same time, the second group trained with the equipment and the third group trained how to get into a burning house and how to salvage all the items in the house.
The supervisor bought two machines. Since one was in the shape of an apple and
the other was in the shape of a pear, they were called the Apple
and the Pear. All the townspeople came to see them. The hill next
to city hall was filled with people who watched the firefighters in training.
The supervisor bought two good horses. He made Kachlinski and another officer
certify firefighters. A few weeks later the hats and the uniforms were ready.
They also received the axes and the trumpets. The material of the uniforms was
black and the buttons were made of shining silver. Each uniform had an emblem
of an axe and a rope. The hats also had an emblem of an axe. When they appeared
in town attired in these uniforms, people cheered while the musicians played
marching songs. All the pillars of the community, Jews and Gentiles as well,
happily watched the parade which started from the hill and passed through the
city up to the red hospital.
On Brisker Street they stopped for a brief rest. When they returned they went through Voldova Road, Sedova Street and the Post Office in the direction of City Hall. Later they were treated to wine and refreshments.
I recall the picture of the parade which was taken by photographer Appelbaum. For many years the picture was shown in the window of his shop. Who knows if that interesting picture still exists?
Shimon, the barber, added charm to the parade. He was tall and had a thick beard. He was an older man. While in the army he served as a medic. For the parade they let him carry the first aid bag and the red cross on his heart. He marched proudly and with a special dignity. I recall more names of those who participated in the parade: Moshe Finefeld, Shimshil Mashes, Yosel Yetskovski, Pines, Resnick, Gedalia Markilis, Shima Ritzenburg, Shika Yosel Rochtsos, Simcha Leah Rishlis, Kachanki, Dubinki, Vasilbiski, Moshe Kartsinelen, Savitz.
Vavel Margodi, who had grown some, still used to like to come to the rehearsals. He went to America but came back and was again involved with the firefighters. The three Moch brothers and also the Shimanskis, Hena Gar, Yodel Voladevski, Label Bosniak, Mame Solovietzik, Kantsiper were also among the firefighters.
Thanks to the firefighters, many fires were prevented in the city. Although the cries, fire, fire!, and the sound of the trumpets scared everyone, we felt secure.
After a while, the supervisor bought another firefighting unit which was pretty and wonderful. One thing we did not have which the towns of Brisk and Bialystock had, was a watchtower. Twice a year we had two important visitors from the region of Grodno. They were government officials. One of them, Svitopollack-Merski, later became an official in Plava, which was later destroyed by bombs. The other official was Stolifan. Both praised the fire department.
The supervisor wanted to create a fund for the fire department so he created a fire tax. Every farmer had to pay three coins per buggy entering the town of Kobrin on the way to the market. This law almost brought pogroms on the Jews of Kobrin.
When the time came for the Taritsa Fair, after the holiday of
Shavuot, the supervisor ordered the firefighters to put on their uniforms and
hats and to guard all the entrances to the town of Kobrin and to enforce the
three coin tax. At first the farmers did not object, but when they heard the
firefighters speaking Yiddish among themselves they started to scream,
Cheating Jews, and immediately yelled, Hit the Jews.
They proceeded to follow through on their threats. Jewish blood was spilled and
a relative of Shima was hit so badly that he was taken to the hospital gravely
The farmers continued their way to the city and who knows how badly this would have ended if not for Yankel the blacksmith and a few more courageous Kobriner young Jewish men. Yankel was busy in his store when he heard that they were beating up Jews. He took an iron bar and ran to the Polish cemetery where the farmers were sneaking through to get to the town. The farmers were whipping the Jews with their horse whips and chains. Yankel was a large man with hands of iron. He ran into the farmers and hit them without mercy.
The situation changed immediately. Now the farmers were the ones being wounded and beat up. They started to retreat. However, they tried to attack the Jews again when the supervisor arrived, accompanied by police and soldiers. When the farmers saw them they dispersed.
Shima Ritzenburg now lives in Washington D.C. in the United States and Yankel
the blacksmith passed away recently after a long and difficult illness.
When the war started between Russia and Japan in 1904, the two battalions of Tsranomorsky and Tamensky were sent to the Far East. The two battalions sold everything they could not take with them. Among the items were musical instruments. The supervisor bought all the musical instruments. He hired a band leader, a Polish guy by the name of Dubozinsky. Dubozinsky was an older person who was a very good musician and played very well on the cornet. He was also a big drinker. He took his work seriously.
Among the first registered to be in the Kobriner band were Hene Britaver, who
was a barber by profession, a good looking man who played the violin and
cornet; Baruch, who was an old bachelor, played drums; Shimshon Trober, who did
not read music but everybody agreed he was an excellent
Telegramashpiela. Later the supervisor announced that he would like
to have young men who intended to study music register for the firefighter
band. These are the young men who were accepted: Chaim Chamotinsky, who played
first clarinet; Gershon Yosef Rachatsis or Hortos, who played second clarinet;
Yosel Vinograd, who played second cornet; Yodel Mazritz, who played first
cornet; David Mazritz, who played flute; Gershon Pader, who sang baritone;
Baruch Klezamer who sang tenor; Yankel Hatper, who played trumpet; Gadalia
Novick or Savistner, who sang bass and Maier Yosel, the grandson of the
comedian Katcher, who played the big drum. A few Gentiles received second-rate
instruments. I received the bass clarinet.
Hene Britava was the main player. We were assembled for a rehearsal. First they gave us the instruments and the music. Slowly we moved forward with our progress. Dubozinsky was an excellent teacher and in a short time we knew how to play the hymn, The Guardian King. Later we switched to playing waltzes and other light melodies. We learned the religious melody, Cala Slavan, and the two military marches, Stradelitz and Toska Pa Radino. We gradually added to the repertoire overtures and other compositions. Chamotinsky and Gershon Fedder played solos.
The rehearsals took place every evening. People stood by the windows and listened. That is how we spent the winter. By the time spring arrived we knew our parts by heart.
At the welcome ceremony for the supervisor and Hammershlag, we played the Welcome Hymn and other hymns. Hammershlag commented that we were excellent. The supervisor told us that we should start learning to play different dances. Our repertoire grew bigger and bigger. On the fourth of May, the day of the coronation of the King Nikolai, all kinds of celebrations took place throughout the state including in Kobrin.
We were ordered to play by the Church. We were not very happy about this since our parents' reaction was, Play next to a Church! The supervisor heard about this. A policeman was sent to our homes to warn us to come to our assignment and our parents could not do anything about it. At that point they were sorry we had joined the band.
Throughout the summer we were busy playing. The youth strolled in the avenues and listened to our overtures. We played things like Zashizen Za Tzari, Natashka, Malarsieski Pasani and also show tunes and waltzes. In the midst of the summer, a carnival arrived in our town. They erected a big tent on the sand. We played there every evening with the exception of Shabbat. After we played for three weeks, Chaim Chamotinski and I were chosen to remind the supervisor to pay us. At the beginning he refused by saying that here we had a chance to visit the carnival every evening. However when we explained to him that we were the Firefighters Band and not the Carnival Band, etc., he agreed to pay us.
Over that time we had many rehearsals. We played until Krashnetzi
day. One day we were told that the next day, which was the second night of
Krashnetzi, we were supposed to play at the Citizens' Club and we had to be
ready for that event.
This was an important event as far as the supervisor was concerned. Our parents were not pleased with this at all since the holiday was connected to Jesus.
We did not like it either for an additional reason. We were supposed to play from the evening to the early morning without a break. First we played for the kids and from midnight we played for the adults. The event was attended by a lieutenant by the name of Chovarski who was a great dancer. He gave us a very hard time since we were not allowed to stop in the midst of somebody's dancing.
Since most of them became drunk, they spent their money feverishly on us and therefore we made quite a bit of money. When we returned home we were extremely tired. Due to our success, we started playing in that club every two weeks.
The war in Japan continued, the Russians losing. The Russian fleet was sunk and thousands of soldiers lost their lives. During that period of time, one day Kobrin experienced a fire. The streets of Pinsker, parts of Somohovich, Nordnikes and the market were burned. It was difficult to put the fire out since both sides of the streets were on fire. Firefighters came from Brisk to help and together with the local firefighters they worked very hard. Due to their efforts the city Kobrin did not burn completely.
When the war was over, the few soldiers that survived the war came back. We were supposed to participate in the welcoming march and play in their honor while the supervisor and the city dignitaries joined the procession. When the train arrived with the soldiers, very few came down. They did not appreciate the music. They were tired from the forty days of the trip. But worse, their eyes spelled out the suffering and atrocities they had seen in the war. The officers, who traveled in the first and second class of the train, felt less tired and were in a better mood.
In the course of time, the band leader Dobzinski left. The supervisor hired the
Jewish gentlemen by the name of Koszniatz in his place. He hailed from the
famous players in Kubala. Each member of his family played an instrument.
Koszniatz was an excellent cornet player. He played the violin and other
instruments as well. When our battalion was sent to war, Koszniatz was invited
to be our conductor. He was a very good-looking man, tall and blonde. His
uniform fitted him nicely. He was known as a very patient musician. When the
war was over he found himself without a job. He applied for and received the
job of the conductor of the Firemen's Band. He organized a balalaika band and
he toured with his band throughout Russia.
The first things that we started learning was the Eugene Onegin, the cavalry hymn and the Strauss Waltz, Hell in the Forest. We worked very hard but we were very happy.
Koszniatz was not very happy with his job since his family was very poor and his salary was not sufficient for them. He decided then to join a band of klezmorim. They wanted him primarily as a cornet player, which he was not interested in. His love was the violin.
Shabtil, the old man, was already eighty years old. He wanted very much to take his place in the band. However Hene Britva was also interested in the position. A disagreement erupted. Britva and a few other musicians stopped coming for rehearsals.
Koszniatz called me, Chaim Chamotinski, Gershan Fedder and Yosel Vinograd and told us that a young man from the Firemen's Band was about to get married and we were going to play in his wedding without pay. We agreed and told our parents about the event. However, we had to get the permission of the supervisor, not to mention permission from our parents. Chamotinski and I were chosen to try to convince the supervisor to give us the permit to play at the wedding. Our parents were visited by Koszniatz himself. He did not do very well in our home. My parents refused to give me permission to play at the wedding since they were very orthodox Hassidim. Other parents agreed to give their permission. I promised Koszniatz to play at the wedding even though my parents did not agree and thought that a Klei-Zemer, a band player, was beneath our family standards. On the day of the wedding I arrived with my cornet and played with the rest of the band. At that time Koszniatz became our sole conductor.
One morning the Kobrin community received an order to clean and decorate their homes and surroundings since the Christian Bishop was about to come to visit Kobrin. Everybody was busy cleaning and decorating including the police. Slowly and gradually the town looked very nice. The Firemen's Band and the Army battalion were ordered to go to the train station and greet the great Bishop. Our parents were extremely upset about this. Nachman Bearman went to the Supervisor and tried to persuade him not to send us on this mission. However, the supervisor was adamant that we go.
On a cold morning, on one of the days of the month of Cheshvan, we stood
waiting for the Bishop to arrive. When he came out of the train we started
playing. He came by and asked each of us who we were, blessed us and threw on
us some Holy Water. Since I stood among the first I received quite a bit of the
Holy Water on myself.
Later the Bishop rode in a wagon with other dignitaries and the parade continued through the streets of Hontcharsker. We followed behind him, playing our hymns, until we reached the corner of Zamochovitz and Nikolsker where at that time there was a small church. The Bishop entered the church for a short prayer and from there he continued walking with all of us behind him. We were supposed to follow the parade. We passed a bridge and then we arrived at the main church of the city. The place was filled with Gentiles who had come from the surrounding villages. We saw very few Jews. Most of them had stayed at home since they were afraid that something would happen to them.
The prayer and the service did not last very long. From here we continued to the Petropvlovsek Church. After a short service and throwing some holy water on the audience, the service and the parade were over. The mayor of Kobrin came to us and thanked us, however he ordered us to come that evening to the Citizens Club since the party was going to take place there in honor of the Bishop and since we were supposed to play for them and for this very important event.
When I came home my parents were very sad and very upset, especially my Grandfather Michael Chaim, who looked at me sadly and said, What a day I lived to see, my grandson in the Christian churches and in front of whom? In front of a Bishop and a hater of Israel. He continued sadly, It's better that you go to America and my eyes won't see this shame. I did not tell them at that moment that I had to play that evening as well.
At four o'clock we gathered at the Citizens Club to play for all the dignitaries and the people. While they ate and drank we played our tunes. Suddenly the bishop got up and said a few words and left. All the rest of the people left behind him and the place was suddenly empty. Since the tables were filled with all kinds of foods, we sat down. As we were very hungry, we ate and drank for quite a while. This day was made known in the city and to every Jewish family, how we allowed ourselves to eat non-Kosher food and drink their wines. The decision was made in my, home that I was going to America.
That same winter we had the pleasure of being visited by a band of famous
players from Byelorussia. The supervisor of the theater, Mr. Sagadeteshni, and
his wife Mirava, and also the lead player, Kaliyoshni, were very famous
celebrities in Russia. The theater was located on Pinsker Street at the home
Abramel Abram. The house was not finished yet. The walls were not built and the
theater was erected in the middle. The theater was very successful. The first
show was called Kemara. They continued towards Jidovka
and continued also with Tziganka. They also put on the Life
of Adam by Andriyav and the very famous social drama by Tzirikov,
Klezmorim supplied the music for the shows since we had to be there every night as fire fighters. We were not supposed to pay for the shows. At the end of the season the mayor ordered the group to dedicate the last show's income to the fire fund. Kuznitz the conductor wrote the overture by the name of Vezitiya Palavani and he prepared us to play the overture for the show. On the night of the show the place was filled with dignitaries, officers and many other Kobrin people. At the beginning we played all kinds of music. Toward the end we played the overture by Kuznitz and the audience was very much taken by it.
A few months afterwards I started getting ready to go to America. On a warm evening we got together at the fireman's building. We had our instruments and we proceeded to go to the river. We sailed on boats while singing and playing and many people were standing at the bank singing and listening to us. We spent the whole night like this and at dawn we returned home. The day of my departure arrived. We got dressed up with our uniforms. While holding our instruments we went to Appelbaum for a picture session. I received the picture when I was in America. Chaim Chamotinski sent it to me.
In the evening before the day of departure we played at the Citizens Club and Kuznitz let me conduct the band while it played the hymn, Stradalyatz. I did very well and in my honor they played Taska Pa Radino. I had tears in my eyes. My friends came to the train station with me and Chaim Chamotinski came with me to see me off up until Brisk.
Forty years have gone since I left Kobrin. To this day I can hear the hymn
Taska Pa Radino and I miss my hometown Kobrin, which was destroyed,
very much. And I miss the inhabitants. Where, where are you, people?
On the street where the congregation used to be there was also an old bench and
the mute guy used to sleep on it. We used to call him Aba since
this was the only sound that he could manage. Nobody knew who he was or where
he had come from. However, near the end of the nineteenth century and towards
the beginning of the twentieth century he was already a middle-aged man. He was
short and his beard was white. In the congregation he was the associate of the
Shamash and sought also as the helper of Rabbi Shafit.
Although he was mute and deaf, he was very bright. He knew everything. During weddings and Bar Mitzvahs he used to come first and help. He always got paid for his services. When a Hassidic rabbi arrived in town he came immediately. It was difficult to understand where he received the messages about those events. He knew all the children's names and who their parents were. When we teased him he told our parents and we ended up in trouble. To those who were very nice to him he was very nice as well. When I came to America in 1907, I found out by coincidence who he was and everything about his background. In the factory where I worked in America I met a guy by the name of Pesach. When he heard that I was from Kobrin he asked me if I knew a mute guy there. When I answered yes he said that he was his brother, actually his half-brother, and it came out that he was from Ratna. He mentioned that when the mute was a young lad his mother died, his father remarried and he became a nuisance, so one day they put him on a carriage and drove him up to Kobrin where they abandoned him. He was barely eight years old. Since then he had stayed in Kobrin and nobody knew where he came from.
The Crazy One
There were two hospitals in Kobrin. One was -Jewish, on Pinsker Street, and the other was the city hospital or, as it was called, the Red Hospital. The Red Hospital was located on Brisker Street behind the barracks. In the Jewish hospital there was a man by the name of Sander, the Crazy One. He was tall with a thick black beard. As it turns out he was a bright student since he knew the Bible well. He was also learned in the Gamara and at any time when somebody recited a verse he knew how to complete it. He could also sing Russian songs and could recite Russian poetry beautifully. He used to like to eat the heads of the herrings and when one asked Sander whether he would like a head of the herring he would get very excited.
Sander was very delicate and the youth would tease him a lot. When the minister of the region, Stolifin (the one who was shot later while serving as the interior minister) visited Kobrin, his visit included the Jewish Hospital. While there, surrounded by dignitaries, Yakov Chaim Markozi, the administrator of the hospital, asked Sander to sing the hymn, God the Brave King, in honor of Stolifin. He sang it once and Stolifin stood there saluting while he sang. When he finished he started singing it again, while Stolifin stood saluting. When he started to sing it the third time Stolifin told Nachman Baerman to make him stop since Stolifin had difficulties saluting since his hand was semi-paralyzed.
In 1905, during the fire of Kobrin, the Jewish hospital burned to the ground
and Sander was left without a home.
He wandered day and night looking for shelter. He stopped answering questions and from a friendly person he turned into a mad and dangerous person. Then they put him in the Red Hospital and he was never seen again.
On Naradnikas, not far from the Chayei Adam congregation lived an older couple by the name of Abraham Yitzchak Hachalfan and his wife and their only son Vavel. Abraham Yitzchak was a handsome tall guy and was a Yanovi or Liboshi Hassid. On the other hand, his wife was short and skinny. Their son, Vavel, who was born when his parents were older, was a good looking boy, tall and strong. When he was young he became a rebel.
During one winter night in 1894 on Saturday evening after the havdalah service he dressed in his best clothes and left home without saying where he was going.
When on the next day he failed to return home, the town in Kobrin was in turmoil. There were many theories on his whereabouts, like maybe he became a Christian and ran off with a Gentile girl to a far away country. His parents were broken hearted. The winter passed and he was still missing.
In May, 1894, on the holiday of the coronation of the Last Nicholai, the town was in a festive mood. The stores closed and the community went to the congregation to swear their loyalty to the Tsar. Suddenly people started running from the Jewish street and you could hear them shouting excitedly, Vavel, Vavel was found. All the town people started running aimlessly.
A carriage was seen and in it was Vavel's parents. The carriage was traveling in the direction of the old cemetery. There on the lawn one could see the horrible sight Vavel's headless corpse. They recognized him by his clothes. The Kobrin municipal judge had been rowing in a boat and suddenly his oars bumped into Vavel's corpse. The corpse was pulled out of the water and, to everybody's amazement, the head was missing.
The mystery of the death of Vavel was never solved.
When the Zionist movement started in Kobrin the first to join were the intellectuals of the Jewish community. Some of the names I still remember: Baruch Gerber, Beryl Chobas, David Moshe Chatan Valpshichas, who is currently living in New York and serving as a Rabbi in that city, and a few others as well. At that time the Slonim Rabbi, Rabbi Shmuelke, came to Kobrin on Shabbat. He used the occasion to establish an organization by the name of The Holders of the Religion. The aim of the group was to fight the Zionist group which by now called themselves the Shabtai Zvi group. All Hassidim were registered to be members of the new group, including myself since I was post Bar Mitzvah. Every Thursday we met at the Slonim Schtibel and there we used tell Hassidic stories. However, the Zionist group did not stay passive either. They had meetings with the purpose of enforcing and informing their group about their aims. They decided to call a big meeting and invite a famous speaker to speak. A young scholarly rabbi by the name of Hecht was brought to speak. He was known as an excellent speaker. The event took place at the Brisk Beit-Hamidrash. When the Hassidim learned about this, a big turmoil occurred, especially among the Hassidic organization The Holders of the Religion. The Hassidim made a decision that they would rather sacrifice themselves for the sanctification of the Holy Name than let the Zionists have their meeting.
The leader of the Hassidim was the elder Michael-Chaim, the ritual slaughterer, may he rest in peace. I will take care of this, he said and he continued. Trust me. We will follow the biblical saying, and you will wipe out the bad from your community. The Zionists also decided, no matter what, that the meeting will take place.
Both sides started to enlist their followers and they were all looking forward to see who would win. Before the evening, a great number of people started flowing to the Brisker Beit-Hamidrash, part from curiosity and part from their interest in Zionism. When the afternoon service was over, Hecht started his speech. Suddenly some of the audience started stomping their feet and chanting loudly. Hecht stopped his speech.
I saw my grandfather, Michael-Chaim and many other butchers surround the speaker.
He is not going to speak! they yelled loudly. Blood is going to be shed.
The meeting was interrupted, but it continued later in a private home. The
Hassidim could not stop the movement and a year later a big meeting was called
in the Brisker Beit-Hamidrash and nobody disrupted it.
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