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[Page 265]

Living Conditions


Education and Sanitary-Medical Situation in Lenin

by Avraham-Yitzhak Slutzki (New-York)

Translated by Yocheved Klausner

Interrupted Education…

The name of our shtetele will not be found on a regular map. Lenin was situated in the Polesia woodland, at the gate of the well-known “Pinsk Marshes,” and on the bank of the “Slutch” river, an affluent of the big and rich Pripyat River, which cut through the right side of the “Pinsk Marshes.” The shtetl was one of hundreds of shtetlach in the “Jewish Pale of Settlement” – the area where the Russian Czar governments allowed the Jews to live… In this area there was almost no industry, in particular not in the small towns. For the Jews, other sources of livelihood were closed as well, by the strict limits that the governments imposed. They were not allowed to own land in the villages and work the land. No wonder that poverty and need were always present in the shtetlach.

In our shtetl Lenin, some of the inhabitants made their meager living with the help of a cart and a horse – they were the “wagon-owners” [the balegules]. During the winter they carried wood from the forests to the ice covered rivers, preparing for the springtime when the logs would float down the thawed river, to the lumber mills.

In the beginning of the winter, the wagon-owner would buy a working horse and begin working as soon as the first snow fell and the rivers and marshes froze. Work usually ended at the beginning of spring, after the snow melted; then the wagon-owner would sell his horse and be out-of-work during the entire summer.

The living conditions of the craftsmen – tailors, cobblers, tanners and others – were not much better. Neither were to be envied the small businessmen, and the other so-called “merchants” or plain peddlers.

In short: The Lenin Jews – with very few exceptions – lived a difficult life. The material state affected, naturally, the general cultural state of the shtetl residents. In my childhood years, Lenin had no decent educational institutions. The shtetl lacked the means, as well as people who would be able to take care of cultural needs. However, the situation greatly improved in the later years: a “Modern Heder” [heder metukan] was opened, and in a short time it developed into a regular advanced school, which could serve as a model for the neighboring shtetlach.

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The initiators and founders of the Modern Heder were the teachers Yehuda Rubinstein, Nissan Bergman and Aharon-Leib Zeitzik.

I was not lucky enough to be one of the pupils of the school, because my parents preferred the old Heder, where we learned the prayers and a little writing. There were other Hadarim [plural of Heder] with very capable teachers [melamdim], but the pupils were mostly from well-to-do families. My fate, as the fate of other poor children, was to complete their “education” at the age of eleven-twelve years, and to be taken to the marshy forests to help their parents haul the logs, or to learn a craft as a tailor, a cobbler or a carpenter.

This happened to me as well. My melamdim praised my qualities and my diligence, but nothing came out of it. When I was thirteen, my parents took me out of the heder and “gave” me to Avner Golub (now in Israel) to learn to be a carpenter.


The Sanitary Situation

Understandably, due to the poverty and troubles, the sanitary situation in our shtetl was far from brilliant. Epidemic illnesses and fires were common guests in the place. The shtetl was


“The Great Street” in the spring

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clustered in a small place, surrounded by water and swamps, and many houses did not have the necessary sanitary facilities. All this caused diseases, especially children's infectious diseases, which often cost the lives of tens of young children… We had no decent medical care; we could say, with very small exceptions, that “there was not a house where there was not one dead.” (Ex. 12:30). There were families, where the angel of death took two or three children.

Another curse of the shtetl was the frequent fires, the common reason being overcrowding. In the last fire that I remember most of the town burned down; an interesting fact about that fire was that the government suggested that the houses should be rebuilt in a less crowded way and with better sanitary equipment. This plan, however, demanded that some of the houses would be left out, and the residents opposed that, naturally. An assembly was called, and it was decided to send a delegation to Minsk, to the Governor. Elyakim the tavern-owner was one of the delegates, and the plan was called off: the houses were rebuilt in the same crowded way as before.


Medical Help

The supervisors of the health situation – and sometimes over life itself – in the shtetl were Hershke the doctor and Israel the doctor. Both were interesting people, but their medical knowledge was limited indeed. They would prescribe medicines, or “powders,” that were prepared in a primitive way. In many cases the sick person recovered only because of the psychological effect. Such “miracles” happened only in the light illnesses, but when somebody suffered from a serious illness the end was unfortunately sad. There was also an old lady who lived in the Jewish Street, by the name of Sheine Rochel, who cared for a special type of sick people and gave them self-produced primitive ”grandmother” medications. The sick were mostly from among the wagon owners, who tore their guts by hauling the heavy logs in the forest. She would massage their bellies and hope for the best. As a remedy for a blow she would apply a honey cake, for a wound – a baked onion; she had also remedies against the “evil eye” and many other troubles.

So, this was the way our Lenin Jews lived – and died…


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