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[Page 95]

Lost Tunes

by Yehoshua Alperovich

Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan

To this day I have a great love for music. When I walk down the street and hear an instrument played proficiently, my heart widens. I don't just enjoy hearing others play, I play a few instruments myself. It was in you, my little hometown, Kurenets, that I first heard songs and music played, and this was even before I got to know the professional players of Kurenets, the Kleizmers from Smorgon Street. I was about three years old, we lived on Myadel St. across the street from Hillel Kramnik, the father of Yosef Shimon who perished in the Holocaust [and his brother who moved to the US and changed his name to Kramer and lived in northern NY]. Not far from us, in the alley, lived Gotza (Dinerstein?), and from his house you would hear the sound of a violin being played. These tunes had a great pull on me, making me stop over at that house. And one time, when I walked over to the house with my mother, Z”L, I stopped her and I started crying and begged her that she should let me see what it is in that house that made that beautiful sounds. At first my mother refused, but finally she could not take my cries. She entered the house and apologized. She said to Gotza's family, “A child will stay a child. He doesn't let me continue walking, he demands that we should enter to see what is it in this house that makes that music.”

We were received graciously. Gotza was a Jew who knew how to entertain children and the old. He sat me on a high chair and started playing music for me. At first I was very embarrassed since all of a sudden I Became the center of attention and all the eyes were upon me, but slowly I got more acquainted with the place and the people who lived there.

From that day, I would come every day to listen to the music. One day I sat in Gotza's house for a long time and I fell asleep. During my sleep I somehow fell on the floor under the table and no one paid any attention, so I lay there in this sort of hideout and slept for a long time. Nighttime came and I didn't return home so they started looking for me. They went to Gotza's house but they couldn't find me. Gotza's family said that I was there much earlier but I left without them noticing. There was a great worry in town and they looked for me at all the neighbors' houses. Finally I woke up from under the table and started crying, so they took me out with great excitement and brought me home.

When I was about seven or eight, my two much older brothers, Yakov Hirshl and Berl David, came from Harkov, deep in Russia, and brought with them a mandolin. My brothrYakov Hirshl during the First World War was lost and we never heard from him again. Anyway, back to the days before WWI. This was the first mandolin in Kurenets. My brother would play the mandolin and I would listen. Slowly I became more courageous and started playing, and became very proficient, so now other children would come to our windows to listen to my playing and they looked at me with envy.

Many children were envious of me, but I envied others. Who? I particularly envied the Kleizmers on Smorgon Street, who in my eyes were most splendid in their playing. How can someone move his fingers so fast without getting mixed up? I kept wondering that. The Kleizmers of Kurenets were all members of one family (Fidler), and all musicians, an entire family that controlled the town with their music playing. They were blessed with all sorts of talents and specialties. The head of the band was old Itzha Noach. He was known in town also as a humorist or comedian, and it is true that it was like twin sisters for him, comedy and music. During wedding celebrations, he would make jokes while playing music, truly entertaining the audience. They said about Itzha Noach that one of the butchers encountered him in the street and treated him with superiority, so Itzha Noach said, “Hear me, you have no right to disrespect me. My profession is nicer than yours.”

The butcher said, “So let's hear why you think your profession is more respectable than mine. Let's hear it.”

“Ponder this,” said Itzha Noach, “when I go out to the street with my fiddle, who surrounds me? People. People who were born in the image of the holy. They all surround me. And you, when you get out to the street with a piece of meat in your hand? Who is surrounding you? Dogs. Beasts with wide open jaws accompany you.”

In the ninth of the month Av [a day of fast], it was a custom in Kurenets to go to the cemetery and cry and beg the people who had passed away to plead with God for the sake of the living that all would be fine in the coming year. Itzha Noach, his wife Nachama, and all their family members were all healthy, in good shape, but so that the Evil Eye would not take hold of them and so people would not say they were disrespectful of the day, they would also go, this old couple, to the cemetery. Many years before, soon after they were married, their first child died a few days after he was born. The wife of Itzha Noach looked for his grave and found it amongst the trees. She lay on the grave and begged and cried. She asked for his pity, pleading with him to go to the chair of the holy and speak to him on behalf of the nation of Israel, the house of Israel, and all the family members, and make him cancel any troubles and hard times.

When Itzha Noach realized what she was doing, he came behind her and said with a smile on his face, “Nachama, Nachama, everyone says you are smart, but did you lose your mind? Such a huge mission for the Nation of Israel you give to the hands of few days old baby? He will mix up the whole thing. You must stop crying. Let's go home.”

When he was in good spirits his specialty was doing magic-like tricks while he was playing. Sometimes he would play Der Pastachal (The Little Shepherd), and he would play the whole story about how the shepherd came in the morning and would blow his horn to announce for the cows to come to the meadow, and all the little details that happened in that story found their expression with his fiddle. You would hear the opening of the gate, the sounds of the cows mooing, and the sounds of the calves, the sheep, the goats, the rooster… And things he could not get out of the fiddle, he would use his throat and his lips. The audience would be roaring with happiness. I particularly remember the wedding of Chanka, the daughter of Nachama Shaina, whose family were neighbors of Itzha Noach. Since the families were close, he did a particularly good job at this wedding. I saw him play the fiddle on his back, Oifen Kleitza. He would put the fiddle on the back of his shoulders and play it on his back while making jokes.

But clearly not every wedding received such a wonderful performance. Here there was the long friendship and good neighboring that affected the party.

In each of the players there was something special, and during a holiday or during a party, you would like them not only for what they played but how they played. The first you would observe would be the very short Avramel, whose fiddle was bigger than he was. He played the batnoon (bass?) and I noticed that many times as if out of habit, for certain tunes he would stand on the tip of his toes. Avramel was an unhappy Jew. He had bad luck and all the bitterness of his life he carried quietly with a lot of internal pain. But what did we, the little children, know of all his suffering? A child who arrived at the age of 10 and became a little taller would stand by Avrameleh and quietly measure himself, and their hearts would usually fill with happiness because they were taller than Avramel. So he was used by the young boys as a measure of the time of passing from children to adolescents.

Avramel had a family and some sons. The glory of the family was his son Chaim Biyenish, a fiddler who studied tailoring and was loved and respected by everyone. One of his youngest sons, Velveleh or Zaev Fiddler, joined the partisans during the war and became renowned for his bravery.

A true artist among the Kleizmers was Leibe, or the way he was known to us, Leibe Der Fiddler. He knew how to play classical concerts and serious music. He always got the role of Batzen Die Kalla, and the women in the audience, when they just saw Leibe starting to tune up his fiddle, minutes before he played, already would take their handkerchiefs out and started wiping their tears.

The son of Itzha Noach, Leibe the Tall, played the flute. There was a time when he was part of the Minsk Orchestra, and for that time he was known not as a Kleizmer but as a modern, cosmopolitan musician. How I loved listening to his soft tunes on the flute in different variations. We, the children, loved him. He knew how to entertain us. We would surround him in big groups and would stand with our mouths open, as if we were swallowing every tune, and we would be in deep, up to the point of losing ourselves in a world of softness and beautiful sounds that the flute magically created. Leibe would trick us, and all of a sudden, as if to surprise us and remind us that there was a world of down-on-earth reality, he would bend all of a sudden and make a circular motion with his flute on our faces. The sounds would be sprayed on us as if we were sprayed by a hose. We would wake up as if from a dream, jumping back, first from fear and later we would start laughing. He would immediately stand straight and serious with an expression almost of severity, as if this was part of the play, and the music and everything was in the notes he had before him.

The fifth among the players was Isar. He was also the son of Itzha Noach. He played the baritone. He wasn't a truly professional player. There was no depth in his playing. The way he played, it seemed like he wanted to attract you with external effects. He was always very cleanly dressed and his instrument was so clean and shiny that you could hardly look at it because of the shininess. As far as we, the children, he would look at us with an expression that said, “Don't be scared by the loud sounds. It's only the instrument that makes those sounds. I feel a lot of love for you children.”

His main job was to accompany the other instruments and to fill the empty spaces between the other instruments' playing. He was almost like an announcer for the entire band, as if to say, “People, be ready! A wedding is happening in town. We are coming to you and you should also come towards us.”

A big crowd would gather to see the people who had just gotten married, and the “goy women” who would carry water, would come running with their buckets filled with water to receive the young couple and their families, who would be dancing in the market square.
At that time, in our eyes music was not something you could learn. We were sure that there was some mysterious way a person would be gifted with musical ability. We knew that someone could study shoemaking, tailoring, carpentry, and other professions, but we couldn't understand that someone could learn how to play, although I had learned how to play the mandolin.

One day, a young man came to town. We called him, Bentze der Tantzer, meaning Bentze who will make you dance. He had a dual job in town: he taught the young people how to dance, and he taught them how to play instruments like the violin, mandolin, and guitar. All the mystery of the ability to play disappeared. All of a sudden the town became filled with dancers and players and the kids were divided as talented or untalented, with a good year and a bad year, as it was customary to divide them in other professions. I was already able to play the mandolin, and became a professional, advising and making decisions for others. I was the one who said, “This child has potential, and this one does not.” I was already in my teens when Bentze der Tantzer became famous in town. I would like to also tell you that he was very talented in drawing, especially in making posters.

We would gather in the house of Yekutiel Meir Kremer. They had a son who was blind ever since he was four or five. His name was David. Many of us remember David, who was very involved with people. He would sit in the barn and touch the different things like the wheat, the flour, etc. All he had to do was touch a little bit and he could tell what type of flour it was, what it had been made from, and even what color of flour it was. Sometimes it seems as if he knew people by the way they walked or the way they breathed. His younger brother Chaim Zalman Kremer, would sit by him and read the paper to him. David who had the most wonderful memory, would observe every bit of information. He was like a hole in the ground that would not lose one drop. Everything that was read to him, from important essays on the news to the daily unimportant information, all was kept in his head as if they were papers in boxes.

In the house of Yekutiel Meir, people would gather for Zionist meetings because the young sons were very involved. In all the rooms of the house there was the constant smell of fresh bread that was being baked. One day, when I came to the house, David told me, “Yehoshua I want to ask you something.”

His eyes were looking straight up. I answered, “For you I will do anything you wish.”

I must say that everyone loved David and everyone wanted the best for him. We would measure the advancement of medicine by the ability to be able to give David his sight back. Many times we would imagine the image of David going to a large city with famous doctors and here he sits at the doctor's clinic, being taken care of, and when he comes out, all of a sudden he is able to see. We kept talking about the big cities in the world, but who would give him his sight back in Kurenets? Sherkvas the goy? Sherkvas the goy who is a doctor's assistant who has a huge stomach and was always conversing with the devil and the spirits?

One day, David was taken to the big city to see some famous doctors, and we were very disappointed with science when they could not find any treatment for him. So obviously now I was ready to listen to his request. “I want you to teach me the mandolin,” he said.

When I heard him say that, I was surprised at myself, that this idea never came to me before. I knew that usually blind people had a good ear for music. “I will be happy,” I said to him, “I think you will be very good at it.”

At that point I found out that this idea had come to him a long time before. His brother Yehiel bought a mandolin for David in Vilna, and brought it back to Kurenets. So David went and brought a case and opened it, bringing out a shiny new instrument. He held it almost fearfully, and his fingers patted the silk of the instrument. I took it in my hand and played a few chords and passages, and David stood across from me with his eyes open and his face, which had a little golden beard, appeared as if he was a holy image. He was about 24 at that point. On his face he had a kind smile, as if he was smiling to the tunes, and I started worrying. What if I couldn't fulfill his request? What if we find that he is not talented with music? It would be such a bitter disappointment I would take part in. For a minute I was quiet and as if he had read my thoughts, he encouraged me. “Don't be worried, Yehoshua. You will see that I will work very hard on this task and you will have no troubles from me.”

I started teaching him and after a short time he was able to play perfectly. And now when you pass by their house you can hear wonderful sounds from there and you knew that these are the sounds that David lives in. You knew very well that this was not a matter of fashion, as it was for others. IT was the essence of his life. One of the most beloved tunes of David was The Tears of Israel. It's as if he lived this music in every part of his being's essence, and playing it was as if he was praying. At one time I brought a guitar and joined his mandolin playing, and his happiness could hardly be described. Always he would get a little crowd of children who came to see the miracle of how a blind person could play, and they became also very happy.

Everyone, it seems, was a part of his tragedy. Old and the youth. Even the most wild kids would stand there and listen to him in holy quietness.

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Kurenets c 1922

Music playing surrounded the town. Some talents were discovered. One had an excellent ear and one had excellent technique of the fingers, and the town was filled with music that helped the youth express their sentiments and romantic feelings.The sound of the mandolin lifted the urges from the core of your being. Sometimes they would be exciting and happy, and sometimes full of nostalgia, all according to the rhythm of the song and its musical essence. One evening while I was sitting at my home, Yudith Yuda's, the wife of Abba Alperovich the Carpenter, came to me. She told me that her daughters Malke and Zisha, bothered her all the time. They wanted to learn how to play the guitar. She already bought them the instrument, and she was sure that they would be able to put it in their hands and the instrument would play. But there were no bears and no forests. The guitar is not a katrinka (a music box?). The daughters told her that you must learn how to play, and they would not leave her in peace, telling her that she must go to Yehoshua to arrange lessons.

She said to me that her daughters said, “Are we less than Ethel and Minya, the daughters of Itzha Haitza's [Itzhak Zimmerman, father of Charles Gelman]? They play and the heart widens when you listen to them. And look, mother, Batia and Dinka, the daughters of the rabbi are playing. And who is not playing now? Everyone is playing. Dvoshka the lover of Ilia Chaim Alperovich is playing. Leah the daughter of Dvorka is playing, and Chaika the daughter of Marisha Rikla is playing. Why is it our fate not to play?”

“They cry to me every day,” she said, “and my heart breaks each day. One day I passed by Itzha Haitza's house and I heard sounds of music and singing, and I was sure there was a wedding happening in town, so I Went by the window and saw a group of girls sitting in a circle, playing and singing, and Itzha, who was a very respected Jew in town, stood next to them, listening andsmiling. When they stopped playing he said to them, `Very beautiful, girls. Pleasant and pretty.'

“So at that point,” continued Yudith, “if a Jew like Reb Itzha finds it interesting, why should I get mad at my daughters? For this reason now, I come to you. You must test them and give them a lesson, and whatever others are paying, I will pay too.”

So on the appointed days I came to their house. Malke was already sitting with the guitar in her hand, playing. She had a narrow, beautiful face, with big black eyes and her curls fell like little bells on her face. The room was very nicely arranged, but despite the fact that the head of the household, Abba Alperovich as well as his son, were very professional carpenters, there was very little furniture in the house. In the corner stood a box covered with a table cloth, and on top of it there was a mirror. On the windowsills stood many little plants. After a short time, Zisha camefrom the other room. She was more full and sturdy looking than Malke. I started teaching them.

After a few months of teaching, both became members in the band that I organized, and Yudith, their mother, was very, very happy and proud. Not just mandolins and guitars the town knew.

New sounds started coming into town, the sounds of horns and bugles and trumpets. Shmuel Tsipilevich, Z”L, who was the head of the firemen, was a Jew who was busy with many different projects, and he decided that a brass band would be very beneficial for the fire department. During that time, the son of the head of the Polish public school in town, lived in Kurenets. His name was for Foremny. He graduated from the conservatory in Vilna. He was a very talented violin player, a composer, and a conductor, so he agreed to organize an orchestra or a band, and to instruct them. Formeny loved Jews. He did it voluntarily, with no compensation. He was very modest in his ways, and ran away from any publicity and honors. At first 40 people wanted to join the band, but slowly many left and there 12 men who became permanent members. We knew how to play a marching song, and we decided to have a parade of the firemen. Artzik, the son of David Lipa's, who was very tall, walked in front as the conductor of the parade. All the firemen dresed in shiny clothes, and at their head walked the band. Behind them were the water tanks and carts carrying hoses, pulled by horses. The parade went marching through all the streets of the town, and all the little children followed us. But this band was not only for the fire department. We played in the synagogue in different holy days. But here we wouldn't play marching songs, but Hasidic tunes. During Simhat Beit Hashoeva, we played in the synagogue that was filled with lights of the holy days. People were eating apples and enjoying themselves, and old people would dance, and each generation expressed its own way of celebrating.

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Sometimes we would have some trouble. At one time we left a party in the early morning hours when it was still dark. One of the guys wanted to check his big horn (tuba?), and it seemed there was some kind of trouble, when all of a sudden there was a huge, loud sound coming from the center of the market. It didn't take but a few minutes when from all the homes people started coming in their pajamas and started taking their cows out to the meadows, thinking that it was the shepherd, who's custom was to call the people to send their herds. We realized it would be very dangerous for us to explain to people who were half-asleep that it was a mistake, so we just ran out of the market to every corner.

And here comes to me the old memories from the fruit garden of the Paritzta [the wife of the local nobleman?]. This was the garden that my father would lease part of, and that's where we made our livelihood. But it wasn't just a way to make a living. We were very drawn to the trees and to being out in nature. Each one of us loved this garden in his or her own way. Zalman and I would build a sukha and we would put some hay on the floor, and with the mandolin and the violin, come there and play. In reality we were supposed to watch the garden, but I swear that we listened more to our tunes than to look out for thieves. So here children would come to listen and to see the sukha where we lived both day and night. Here we would meet Velvel Matta Leiba Kooperstooch's, my friend who was like a brother to me, and Yashka Mendel Heshkeleh's [Yosef, son of Mendel Alperovich]. In the evening we would light a bonfire and would sit around, singing and playing music. Many of the youths of the town would gather here. The beautiful Raiycha, the daughter of Naftali Alperovich, would come and her laugh, with its melodic sound filled with youthfulness, would echo in the woods. Chuba, the daughter of Zalman Mendel, would sit here quietly, deep in thought. Israelke, the son of Yoel Sheffer and Liba nee Gurevitz, would crack jokes. One story I would remember was about a most devout Zionist in town who made a mousetrap with a Jewish star on it. Another was that a certain Jew in town, during the big fire, ran home and the first thing he saved and put away was the ladder that stood in the entrance, and then when he ran back he couldn't go to the attic where the rest of his belongings were.
So the bonfire would be flaming and the trees would be filled with fruits, and then Arka, the son of Masha Rikla, would sing solo and how could you not listen to the beautiful voice of Arka?

Our home was always open to guests and friends. Near our house on Myadel Street, there was a little tree garden, and I remember that one time we decided to have a party in that garden. There was no electricity in Kurenets, so what did we do? We took bottles and cut off the bottoms, putting candles in them, and hung the bottles with ropes around their necks, and we had the illusion of electric lights.

My father had a great imagination but he always tried to connect his imagination to his actual deeds. My father decided to grow fruits of the land of Israel in Kurenets. Watermelons were very uncommon in our area. Usually we would buy a piece of watermelon that would be brought from far away for Rosh Hashanah, for the blessing of Sheheheyano to make the year sweat. So what did he do? HE collected all the seeds and said, “If God wills it, next year we will have homegrown watermelon.”

When spring came, Father put all the seeds in the ground, and before long little sprouts came. My father was extremely happy. At night he would cover them to protect them from the frost, and when the flowers fell and the fruits came, my sister Malke covered them with leaves and hay so that the cold earth would not hurt them, and during that summer that happened to be a warm one, a miracle occurred. Although the watermelons were small, they were sweet like honey. The first watermelon my father gave to Grandpa Hendel and to Zalman Bar the shohet who was his friend. Clearly we also ate the watermelons and were very pleased and we shared them with our friends and our watermelons became a major topic of conversation. Father saw in them the watermelons of the land of Israel, and he said, “We are the seed of Israel who were born in Kurenets, but in all our essence we belong to the land of Israel. Just like those watermelons who grew in Kurenets but belong in the land of Israel.”

Days passed, then years passed, and I immigrated to Israel. My heart was very heavy when I did it. It was very difficult to leave the nest of my childhood and youth, to leave my old father and my sick sister. “Don't forget me, my son,” my father whispered while clearing his tears. My heart twitched but I didn't show my feelings. I tried to smile a smile that was artificial, and it was immediately overrun by the tears that came from my eyes. Many years passed from that day, and until today, the little town that we so loved lives inside me. Inside me there are the images and the tunes. I see the little homes, the pavement that is cleared every Friday, and the balconies in front of each house. Each house had its own unique balcony. And the divers images; Shmuel Itza the blacksmith, a modest and quiet Jew who would work by the anvil every day. He would be standing there hitting the iron with his hammer, and his head would be covered with a kipa. Under his apron you could see the tallit. And here is Israel Alperovich, the butcher, with his sons Shmuel, Yitzhak, Zundel… each one holding the sedur in his hand on the way to the synagogue. [the family perished, but one brother survived and now, 2003, lives in Brazil] And Chaia, the mother, would be standing at the entrance of their home, and her eyes would be following them. And here I see Velvel der Klashnik [one who makes bicycles], a very smart Jew, tall and with a long, white beard. He was a God-fearing Jew that never strolled off the path of righteousness.

And here comes to me Avraham Shimon and Chana Leba his wife, their son Chaim Ben Zion started learning how to play the violin one day, and I was invited to hear him play. The family of Avraham Shimon was a very special family. Chana Leba was a righteous woman with a heart of gold. She was willing to give her soul for others. In days of rain and frost, you always saw her going in the street from house to house, to gather some donations for different people who were in trouble. People would joke that one time they heard her early Saturday morning in the synagogue saying to the heavens, “Good morning my good one. Here I am, your servant, Chana Leba. I came here to serve you as you deserve. Pretty soon your servant, Avraham Shimon, my husband, and also Ben Zion, my son, will arrive. Don't be worried that they are not here yet. They will not be late for the prayer. They are just finishing to drink tsikoriah with milk for the Sabbath.”

There were other women who spoke to their father in the heavens as if he was a real father. One of those was Tsipa, the wife of Yasha Leib. When she would milk the cow and try to give the milk to people who were needy, she would say to them, “What do you think? This is my milk? This is the milk from the cow! Do I give the cow the milk? No, God gives the cow the milk.” Then she would look at he sky and say, to it, “Gutenyou!, didn't I tell people the truth?”

They say in 1925 when the big fire took the entire town, Tsipa stood in the middle of the street, shaking her hands up to the sky and yelling, “Be wild you who created all, but you will pay from your own pocket for all of this!”

Who can describe all those dear images and all those sentiments and tunes that were lost? As a final, melancholy passage, always in front of me were the last parting moments in the train station in Vileyka, when my brother Zalman and I stood without words. At that moment I felt so much that I wanted the train to wait for a few more minutes. All of a sudden a sense that there was something very important that I didn't express to my brother. As if only this moment there was something that we both felt and it must be expressed, but there was no time. The cars started shaking, and Zalman went down quietly, and the train moved…

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