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[Pages 38-43]

During those Days

From the Memorial Book to Moshe Eliezer Kramer

Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan

The remote shtetl of Kurenets during the 1860s achieved a significant position in the spiritual life of its neighboring communities. It was well known for its brilliant Jewish scholars and respectable Jews and was recognized as a central headquarters for the Lubavitch Chassids in the Vilna region.

Truly it was a small and fairly poor town, but despite this, it was able to carry four synagogues of Chasidim, and one Beit Midrash of Mitnagdim. It should be noted in her favor that it was amongst very few towns of that time where Chasidim and Mitnagdim lived in harmony with one another… The winds of Haskalah [Enlightenment] that had already spread in the big cities hadn't reached her borders yet. Her Jews lived as their fathers and the fathers of their fathers had lived, peacefully and asking for very little. And the whole shtetl was like one big loving family.

The first that influenced her in the ways of Chasidut was the well-known Gvir, the Righteous Rabbi Zalman Kurenitser. And until today, all the town natives are very proud of him. Adding to his glory were well known scholars as well as other respected men from those days like Rev Yehuda Lev Ephron, Rev Yehuda Zusman, Rev Josef Halevi, and others. Days passed and the magnificence of the spirit of Torah was reinforced by Rev Zishka Z”L, one of the glorious geniuses of the generation and one of his tzadiks.

About the greatness of Rev Zishka, the Chassids would tell wonderful anecdotes of his splendor, and until today, everyone mentions his name with love and endearment. From all the tales that were embroidered about his personality, it becomes clear that he wasn't just a genius, God-fearing person, but he was also blessed with ingenuity and his influence was big over his flock. Rev Moshe Lazar Kramer, who was blessed to study in his youth in the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Zishka and knew him very well and was very close to him, would often say, “If there is a Jewish flame that is burning in me, it's all on account of Rev Zishka…”

Rev Moshe Lazar was born in the year 1867, and his parents at that point lived in Kurenets. After seven years, they moved to the nearby village by the name of Ostashkova. There they leased a farm and a dairy, and there they lived for the rest of their days. The Paritz, the nobleman who owned the village, when he got know Michal, the father of Moshe Lazar, as he found out his honesty and his charming personality, liked him very much and became his confidante. He appointed him as the manager of all his businesses and made him well known amongst all the other noblemen of the area. He made a very good living through numerous, varied enterprises, and endowed large funds for good deeds. Once in a while he would travel all the way to Lubavitch to the Chabad rabbi, at first it was to Rabbi Mendeleh and later Rabbi Shmulke…

… In all the towns in the area, amongst them Kurenets, Ilia, and Ratzke, he was renowned for his generous gifts to Jews that had lost their money, or Jews who were needy. His wife would go every Saturday night to the little town of Ratzke and would give meat, chalahs, bread, and butter to the poor. She had the habit of raising geese every year and she used the meat to give to the poor and the feathers she gave to insolvent brides for their dowry. A guest who came to their house would always find tables laid out with splendid food and beds ready for any guests who were in need of a place to sleep.

When he was still very young, Moshe Eliezer Kramer showed much talent. He had a very sharp mind and a very fresh memory, and when he arrived to the age of Bar Mitzvah, he made a beautiful sermon [drasha]. Rav Zishka was very impressed and bestowed magnificent praise for the lad before his father, and said that he must be sent to study Torah in the yeshiva in Ilia. When he finished two years of study in the yeshiva in Ilia, he returned to his home and started working on the farm. Since in his very essence he was full of energy and a true entrepreneur, no work was too difficult for him. He worked in the fields, he carried tree trunks from the forest, he took care of the livestock, and he grew up to be a strong young man who spread fear amongst the other villagers. At one time the Christian villagers tortured a Jewish traveling peddler who went through the villages with his merchandise. When Moshe Eliezer Kramer came by and saw what they did, he quickly ran to the Christian hoodlums and beat them up to teach them a lesson. He was an absolutely fearless guy, and during the darkest of night he would walk in the deep forest fearlessly. One time the villagers played a prank and when he went alone in the forest they came to him dressed in white sheets, carrying torches in their hands. And like that they surrounded him. When he saw this parade he immediately understood that it was a prank and he ran to them and started beating them up as hard as he could, and since then their admiration for him grew tenfold.

When he turned 17 he wedded. His wife, Rachel Elka, was from a well-known Chasidic family from Dvinsk. She was the only daughter amongst male children who were renowned for their Torah knowledge. One of her brothers was Baruch Hadesh from Vizi. Other than his brilliance in Torah studies, he was also a well-known businessman. One time when he came to Smorgon for business, he encountered Rev Michal Kramer, and after they had a conversation he (Rev Michal) mentioned his son Moshe Lazar. He told Rev Baruch how his son was an excellent Torah learned man and also a good provider, and that he was looking for a bride from a good family. Rev Baruch told him that he had a sister at the age of matrimony, and that he was looking for a respectable groom for her. So they decided amongst themselves that he should come Ostashkova with his sister to meet the family. First, Rev Baruch went to Kurenets to Rabbi Zishka to hear his opinion about this match, and Rav Zishka said glorious things about the boy and his father, recommending the match…

After the wedding the young couple lived in the house of Michal in Ostashkova. The first years after the wedding were wonderful. The house was filled with plenty, and the family lived in harmony and friendship. They saw their daughter-in-law as a true daughter, they respected her good sense, her high taste, and the charm of her ways. Very intelligently, the city girl was busy with teaching her groom the manners of the big city and she tried to change his village boy habits. She made sure that he had regular hours for studying the Torah, and she would sit across from him, listening with pleasure to his studies…

… Until he reached the age of 20, he spent his days in pleasantness, but then came a period of troubles. Since he was a strong person and healthy both in his body and mind, he had no chance of avoiding military service. In order to do it, his only choice was to leave the village and for three years live in hiding until he found a way to be released from his obligation. But as soon as he got out of one trouble, he encountered a second, even bigger problem. This was the issue of the Fravozitlestevo, meaning the permission to live in the village. At that point in time there was an order by the Czarist government that prevented all Jews from living in the village. This order did not hurt Jews who lived in the village prior to that time. They were allowed to stay there with their children until they reached the age of 20. Any children who were above the age of 20 were ordered to leave the villages immediately. So now, Moshe Eliezer with his wife and his three babies was ordered to leave Ostashkova. For a short time they lived in a village near Ilia, and they were able to do it at the mercy of the local official. Except they couldn't stay there for too long since the governor of the region found out about it and he ordered them to leave the place immediately. The Jewish family disregarded the order and stayed there, and when the governor found out, he became very angry and sent an emergency order to the head of the village to immediately kick out the Jewish family and to prevent them from taking any of their possessions other than what they wore at the moment. This order came on the afternoon of the eve of Yom Kippur. Two strong Christian men entered Moshe Lazar's house and ordered him in the name of the law to immediately leave the village. No amount begging or pleading that this should be done after Yom Kippur could help him. He had no choice but harness the horses to the carriage and to put his wife and children there and go on their way. The entire family cried bitterly. Only he held firm and didn't cry. He started putting his belongings on his carriage as much as he could, and when the Christian men tried to prevent him from doing it as their orders had said, he told them;

“ Preventing me from doing it would cause me such devastation that I would not be able to control what I would do and You would find yourselves in danger, and you would not be able to get out of here alive.”

Hence they left him alone, and they even helped him load his belongings.

Consequently on the eve of Yom Kippur, at a late afternoon hour, the poor family arrived at the little town of Ilia. With difficulty he found an apartment for his family and started looking for some way to earn a living. Since he had a horse and buggy, and since he was a strong man, he started all kinds of hard labor, bringing wood from the forest, rocks from the fields, and any kind of job he encountered. Despite all of it he had little earnings, and if it wasn't for his father's help, he would not have survived.

He would say that those years in Ilia were the worst years of his life. In later years, when his situation greatly improved, he would talk about that time with humor. He would say that there was one good thing that he learned during that time, which was that while he was walking through the forests and the fields, he would say passages from Psalms and for that, all the chapters of the book, he could recite by heart.

After years of toil and poverty, he accepted that there was no sense in continuing such a life and he decided to leave Russia and immigrate to America. At first his father was very much against this plan, but there was an incident one-day when Moshe Eliezer Kramer brought wood from the forest. His carriage drowned in the mud, and Moseh Lazar worked for many hours trying to get it out. By coincidence, his father passed by and when he saw him in his misery he started crying and immediately gave him permission to go to America.

The preparations for travel were made secretly, and no others in the family knew about it. The carriage that came to take him didn't meet him at the house but waited for him outside of the town. To his family members he said that he was going for business to a nearby town for his job. Only his father came to see him of, he walked with him until they were far from the town. There they said their good-byes…

The Kramer Family

… After many years in America, where he became very well off and renowned, Moshe Lazar traveled to his hometown Kurenets in the year 1920. He was 56 years old and during those days there was war between Poland and the Bolsheviks for control of the area. Truly it was many years that his soul yearned to see his hometown and to meet with his relatives, and to go pay his respects to the graves of his forefathers. But this trip, more than it was for himself, was for the sake of other people. He was a messenger of Mitzvah or charity. He had with him more than $25,000 that he planned to divide amongst hundreds of families in Kurenets and the surrounding towns that were devastated and impoverished during the days of the war. Many, many came to see him off at the ship, and he received many blessings from his friends, other Kurenets natives in America. One old man, Shmaryahu Fingerhut, couldn't contain his excitement for the moment, and he immediately made a vow to roll twice if Moshe Lazar would return peacefully from his trip. The old man did complete his vow.

The Cohen Family
kur39.jpg [33 KB]

Until he arrived at Warsaw he didn't encounter any difficulties, but here on it was a difficult road. He found out that the Bolsheviks were coming near Kurenets and to travel in such a situation near Vilna, especially since he had 4 million in Polish marks inside a suitcase, was very dangerous. But he didn't bother thinking about all the troubles he might encounter and he went on his way to Minsk. The town was already blockaded, and when they came they stopped him and took him to the commanding officer. He was then imprisoned and the money he had was confiscated since they suspected him of helping the Bolsheviks. But after the officer checked the letter of commendation that Moshe Kramer received from the Polish government in Warsaw that explained that the money was to be used for charity, and after examining the State Department papers from Washington, he returned the money to him and released him. Since he was very brave and he knew the language very well, he was able to get the passport to go to Kurenets and immediately went on his way.

All the train cars were filled with military men and arms. Traveling on those trains was very dangerous. In spite of all this he was able to arrive at Molodetszna, which served as a train crossroads from many places. He arrived that night and was to take a second train to Vilejka. The train was filled with drunken soldiers and he was the sole civilian in the entire station. He had to wait for the next train for a few hours, and this was very dangerous. When finally the train was going in the direction of Vilejka arrived, it contained only two cars, and those were filled with soldiers who wouldn't let him go up. After much pleading the conductor let him stand near the furnace with him.

When he went up on the train one of the soldiers helped him carry one of the two heavy suitcases. He smiled and said, “Oh, you must be carrying a huge amount of gold in here” and ordered him to open his suitcase. Moshe Lazar who was clever and had thought of such a possibility had put the money deep inside the suitcase and covered it with clothes, and on top he put some bottles of alcohol and food. So when he opened the suitcase nonchalantly, in a very good and humorous spirit, he took out a bottle of brandy and offered it to all the soldiers. After one toast after another, all the bottles were empty. As the soldiers were filled with good spirit, they became friendly and offered him a place among them. They didn't bother him anymore.

In Vilejka he got off the train and walked from the station to the town, about 2 km away, holding the suitcases. When he arrived he went to a hotel and invited all the heads of the town. He divided about four or five thousand dollars among the residents and saw him as a sort of savior angel. The way from Vilejka to Kurenets he did in a carriage that was filled with soldiers. He paid them one hundred dollars to guard him.

When he entered Kurenets he immediately realized the destitution. The houses were broken and falling down. The windows were covered with rugs. Many of the doors were locked and the streets were empty of all people. In a short time the town had passed hands nine times from the Russians to the Germans to the Polish. This occurred on Sabbath night, on the P of Balakh. As soon as he arrived in town he visited the grave of his parents. The town stood exactly at the front. The Polish retreated and the Bolsheviks came close. The Rabbi of the town begged that he should not stay here since it was so dangerous, and that he must leave the town with the retreating Polish army, which would respect the fact that he was an American citizen. But he was adamant about staying and all the begging was to no avail. “The first reason,” he said, “ it is the eve of Sabbath and there was no such danger that would make me disrespect the Sabbath.” He continued…”Second, why is my life more dear than the other residents of the town? Maybe it was an order from Heaven that I should die in Kurenets to be buried next to my forefathers.”

The next day the Bolsheviks came to town. It took six to seven days for the parade of conquerors to pass through. The soldiers of the Red Army were very poor and didn't have any uniforms. Their clothes were tattered. In the first two weeks they behaved themselves and didn't hurt anyone, but on the third week they started some troubles. At first they took all the food from the residents and only left amount sufficient for one week. After that they printed their own money and they disallowed any of the Czarist or Polish money. But the farmers in the area refused to sell any food for the new money, and the situation became more and more severe. He stayed in the town more than one month without being able to leave. Hard days came for him as well as for the rest of the residents, and he knew a period of starvation. The bread at that point was made from a little bit of flour mixed with hay, and as much as the residents of the town tried to help him, they could not. Sometimes they would share potatoes that they had found in the field. In spite of all of this his spirits were always good and every morning he would get up to say a psalm. And his voice would awake others and make them get up for prayer.

For many days he sat in the synagogue, studying and telling stories to people. Between Mincha and Maariv, he would read before the congregation from the Midrash and Eyn Yaakov. During those days it fell on the fast of the ninth of the month of Av, and later on he used to say he never cried as much as he did on that day.

kur040.jpg [30 KB]
The Krivitzki family of Kurenets in America

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