My small shtetl contains 300 families; all together about 1500 souls. Some tailors, a few shoemakers, a number of blacksmiths, a small amount of butchers, three big synagogues, and two minyans. A few melamdim (teachers), talmud torah, and many chadarim. The big world is far from here, and a foreign concept to the inhabitants. They know only the neighboring towns Vileyka, Smorgon, and Molodechno. Of Vilna and Minsk: most townspeople had only heard, very few had actually traveled so far. Most of the people who had traveled had left originally to serve under the Tsar's army. These men tell amazing tales, stories that could not be believed by anybody in their right mind.
There was a young boy named Bentze Dodge's. He was the son of one of the wealthiest families in the region. His father was an agricultural merchant. They had an extravagant home in the middle of the central market. Behind the main house stood their barns and storage rooms. Bentze would never mingle with the town's children. He was a son of the highest status family every one else was beneath them. It was not a matter that could be easily overlooked considering that his uncle was the famous Mr. Bitzkovsky from Smorgon!
Bentze had a little puppy, and because he had to keep it a secret from his father, he hid the puppy in one of the barns, and there he would feed and care for him. Bentze poured the affection he withheld from his peers into this little puppy. He would think constantly of new ways to please the little pet. One day he decided that he would begin warming the puppy's food. The boy put a makeshift stove in a hidden corner of the barn, and from then on, he would warm the dog's food.
A day came when Bentze was not carefully watching the cooking. A fire started and spread to the hay that was next to the little stove, the flames grew and grew. The boy was very scared, and instead of running home and getting help to extinguish the fire, he escaped from the barn with the dog, dashed across the adjacent garden, and hid in the shtable (the torah study place) of the Chassidim. It took but a few minutes, and the whole barn was engulfed in flames. In only an hour all of the homes and the stores in the central market were in flames. The flames swallowed the little wooden shacks. Like wild beasts, they jumped from home to home, from street to street, gaining might with each new conquest, until they consumed the whole town with a red, burning rage. The little ashes flew to the farthest homes like smoldering black butterflies. Soon the town was covered with a cloud of dark smoke. The central market leapt with flames.
The confused Jews deserted the town and ran first to the fields and gardens behind their homes and then in the direction of the neighboring village of Poken. They carried babies, bags, and dishes whatever they could save. At evening time, all that was left of the community were the fireplaces and the blackened frames of the buildings that had stood only hours before. The ashes and dust had finally begun to settle. Broken plates and sacks of bedding cluttered the outlying fields. The abandoned bits and pieces appeared to the returning townspeople like open graves. As the smoke disappeared, the totality of the destruction became more and more obvious. Except for Eliyahu Yehosha's mill, and a few homes in the far end of Midel Street, the whole town had surrendered to the fire.
Days passed and the Kurenitz community began regaining its old spirit. Townspeople began rebuilding the stores and houses. When they had finished rebuilding the town was nicer than it had been before. Ringing the markets were modern, two story homes. The new stores were built in the fashion of Smorgon. They had even built shelves in the barns. The new synagogues were larger and more beautiful. How had the inhabitants been able to afford to rebuild a town that exceeded what they had ever had before upon the ashes of their old homes? This was a riddle that no one knew how to answer.
Bentze grew up and was a student in the high school in nearby Vileyka, and when he graduated, he went to the city of Dvinsk to further his education. In the town, amazing stories about Bentze circulated. The people said that he was so successful in Dvinsk, that the governor of the whole province respected him and often invited him to his home for tea time. Others would say that Bentze was leading a movement to abolish the Tzar's authority. Yet others said that Bentze was coming to Kurenitz anytime, and would take care of abusive employers like Asher the haberdasher, that enslaved his assistants, and Eliahu the blacksmith, who spent his days in the house of prayers, instead of working in the smithery, or the shoemaker Yerachmiel. Rumors spread that Bentze was planning to come to town to assist his relative Masha Bitzkovsky from Smorgon in dividing her father's riches amongst the laborers.
One morning Bentze appeared! Pandemonium reigned. No one had seen such a personality before. Bentze was tall, he wore spectacles and a black top hat, and carried a cane in his hand and a fancy shawl over his shoulders. A few young women who worked as tailors claimed they knew the truth about this charming and inexplicable man. This was a prince that pretended to be Bentze and had arrived to search for his lost princess. It didn't take many days until everyone had discovered the true reason for his visit. Bentze had remembered for all of his days the annihilation that had arrived at his hands, and agonized about how to pay for his crime. He swore a vow that one day he'd repay the town for the destruction he had caused. And now he had returned to fulfill his promise.
Bentze gathered a group of children, boys and girls belonging to the poorest families and established a school to teach them Russian and math. His students approached their non-religious studies with the same enthusiasm as they put into their religious studies. People in town began expressing their discomfort with what was happening. The religious people started threatening But we're talking about Bentze Dodger, who had drank tea with the governor of the whole region!
I don't know if Bentze repaid the town for the destruction he caused, but this I know for sure: Bentze helped to enlighten dozens of boys and girls, and encouraged them to explore the world passed the pale of settlement.
They will remember him with deep love, and I am one of them.
Kurenitz my beloved, somber hometown! Good, honest Jews were raised on your land. Some were simple, common people that never left the town's limits. Others became well known. Some of them that I will mention are: my Cheder friend Eliahu Golov the Yiddish poet that was well known in Russia, Baruch Zukerman, Samuel Dickstein, and others
Kurenitz was destroyed at the hands of the wild Nazi beasts. My brother in law, Yosef Zimmerman and my relative Elke Rachel were slaughtered with the rest of the town's Jews. I don't know who is there now in the place that's called Kurenitz, but the earth where I saw my first flicker of light exists. The fields and the forest where I played during my early childhood still exist. The heavens where I heard for the first time the sound of my mother's voice exists. And all this will be kept for all eternity and live in my heart.
|Fire in Kurenitz (not the 1880s fire, but in the 1920s)|
Here, I would like to tell of one of Nachman's heroic deeds that I not only heard about, but actually saw with my own eyes. Still today, the occurrence is fresh in my mind, as if it happened yesterday. It occurred on market day, a day where thousands of farmers from the villages would gather in the town's market to buy and sell. They brought eggs, cows, chickens, and harvest produce to town, in order to exchange them fir either money, clothes, or tools. Otherwise they'd patron the town's inn and drink away their sorrows, pint by pint. The market day spanned the entire day. Thousands of people, loud sounds and colorful stands filled the square. Here and there, struggle or fight would break out. Two gentiles would hit each other until they bled. Another gentile would be caught stealing. These were the usual occurrences marking market day.
It got worse during the evening, when the farmers began harnessing their horses and leaving for their villages. By this time, the market was full of drunks. The merchants quickly collected their merchandise and locked their stores. The peddlers, with their little stands, hurried away before the hour of curfew arrived.
I would help Noach David the haberdasher sell his hats that were hanging on the wall of a store next to Yuda Zusha's house. On the other side of the market, across from the yard of the synagogue, stood the tiny store of old Basha Beyle selling oil, salt, and sardines. A farmer came to the store, bought some oil, took the merchandise, and subsequently, refused to pay. What could the old woman do? She couldn't take the merchandise by force. Her only choice was to stand there begging and crying. She pleaded that this oil would be her only sale that day. She stood there crying and the drunk farmer stood laughing. More and more farmers gathered, surrounding Basha Beyle, mocking her. Nachman approached the area, and without asking questions, he faced the farmer who had refused to pay. He grabbed his shirt and squeezed the collar until the man's face turned green and he started choking. The farmers had stopped their mocking. Instead, they all jumped on top of Nachman. So, what did Nachman do? He lifted the farmer up in the air like he was a ball, and threw him in the direction of the approaching mob. The mob spread and many of the villagers fell on the ground, but that was not the end of it. Now, more villagers attacked Nachman. Nachman took a metal pen that was sitting on top of a salt bag, and he started striking them left and right up and down with it as if it was a huge crane. Nachman was not selective in his aim. He hit anything in his sight-heads, faces, shoulders, etc., and the villagers were falling in front of him and prevented other villagers from reaching Nachman. Nachman was able to reach them even beyond the falling bodies. Though we deeply believed in Nachman's strength and heroism, it would be hard to guess the outcome of the fight if a policeman wouldn't have come. It was a short skinny gentile that talked in a nasally voice. Not very heroic looking figure. But his uniform and the hat he was wearing with a silver symbol impressed the villagers. They were used to having great respect for the shiny symbols. So when the policeman arrived, the fight came to an end, and the villagers departed.
Old Basha-Beyle immediately locked her store and left, Nachman hung around and looked huge to us, with his wide shoulders. He observed the market plaza with a content look on his face, whispered something in the ear of the policeman, and then they left together. Nachman was a very unusual man. He never showed his strength just for show off, but was always immediately there when the weak needed his help. As I remember him, he was very modest, never trying to be the "front" man. I never heard that Nachman fought with anyone other than for saving the weak. Nachman died during a typhus epidemic that spread in town. And when we heard in America that he died, we refused to believe. For us he will always be a superman that no one could rule.
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