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Folklore, Mode of Living

[Pages 137-141]


by Yakov Ilitowitz

Translated by Roslyn Sherman Greenberg

These are fragments from a handwritten diary by our eminent fellow townsman, Mr. YAKOV ILITOWITZ, who described from his wonderful memory, personalities, families and happenings from the old and modern Lida. He also describes his experiences in the Second World War under the Soviet rule, earlier in Lida, and later, as an exile in the Far East (shown in “B'Zchus” as an ardent Zionist and in addition a merchant that is called a “Borshoi”).  In our historical research, we extracted a lot from this rich informative material, but because of the goal and program of our book, we couldn't print it in full, and we have to be satisfied with a small portion thereof.

The old Lida, the Market and Lida Householders

Lida has a long history of hundreds of years. The Jewish population does also. The castle in Lida was built, as history shows, more than 600 years ago under the Lithuanian King Gedimin. The old Lida synagogue, which burned down 75 years ago, existed, as they used to tell, about 300 years. Among the children, there were many legends concerning the castle, which they certainly had heard from their parents. They used to say that under the two old trees on the castle hill, were buried a king and a queen. They also told that in the castle were buried big treasures, but one mustn't dig for them because the treasures were cursed. Those who tried to dig them up were pulled down into the earth…

From olden times, Lida had three central streets: Vilna Street, Kaminke Street and Crooked Street (Krume Street) (later changed to Suwalke Street, 3rd of May Street, and Mayer Moskowitz Street under the Polish rule). Where does the name Crooked Street come from? This is hard to understand. It seems backwards since the street from the market all the way to the farm is really a straight one. After the big fire, a new street, Sadove Street, was carved from the Synagogue Square to Kaminke Street. On the whole site there used to be a big fruit garden that belonged to the pharmacist, a Christian. Behind a fence of small wooden blocks, stood the pharmacists' apothecary and his house. After the fire, the pharmacist lost the garden, and sold building lots to Jews. The pharmacist bought out the Pole Stavinsky and she moved to Vilna Street. Later she sold to BERGMAN (Stara Pharmacy).

In the center of the city was the large marketplace, and in the middle a deep well, from which the residents of the marketplace and from the surrounding streets used to draw water. Before the fire, almost all the houses in the marketplace were wood. After the fire they built brick houses. The first houses in the marketplace were taverns, the principal things for the peasants who used to come to sell their farm products.

The owners of the taverns were the most respected people in the city. In olden times the tavern of MOSHE ELAZAR was well known. He was a relative of the old RABBI MORDECAI MELTZER. Later, BERE MOSHE BARAN, a Jew with a big influence in Congregation matters, himself not a scholar, at least wanted to keep the company of rabbis. His son-in-law, ROSOVSKY, was indeed the son of the well known Svianke rabbi, a scholar and an enlightened man, who sat in the store, which his father-in-law had given him, and looked in a book or a religious text. In the same house, there was later a SKLAD PHARMACY of BERE MOSHE's son, YAKOV. There was a tavern owner named MAYER. He was a short Jew, with a small beard. Most of the time he sat in the Bais Midrash, not so much out of piety, but because his three daughters ran his tavern.

Not far from him was the tavern of HIRSHE MORDECAI NECHOMS, a talented and energetic Jew. In a corner of the marketplace – on Crooked Street was the tavern of DAVID-YUDEL KAMENIETSKY, a brother of YASHE ELIE the Judge. He was a tall, lean Jew, with a handsome beard and a stately appearance. Besides keeping a tavern he was also from time to time a wood merchant. In another place was the tavern-restaurant “Zayod”, which was established in the fifty years before the last century by ISAAC LANDE, from the Vilna scholars (who did not want to be rabbis). In our times, the owner was ISAAC LANDE, a third generation later than the other ISAAC. In his wife's name, LIEBE LANDE, was a guest house. A “Zayod” with a stall for the horse of the wagon drivers, later also a hall for celebrations, and even later a stage for theatrical performances.

A little further on a side, near the Red Street (Krasni Pereolok), was the tavern of ETEL NATHUM LEIB'S, the wife of NOTTE LANDE (a grandson of the aforementioned ISAAC LANDE). The wife was the tavern keeper, and her husband, NOTTE, from time to time worked part-time. In the market days he sold glasses, before Succoth he dealt in esrogs and lulavs, and the rest of the time he sat in the Bais Midrash, occupied with the Talmud and Torah and the like.

There was a tavern keeper on the marketplace, CHAIM PINKUS. No one knew him by his family name, KAMINIETSKY, but every child knew CHAIM PINKUS. Besides brandy and beer, Passover he would make wine from raisins (the skilled master in his employ was Mayer, who used to “squeeze honey” for my father, JEREMIAH ILITOWITZ, i.e. separating the honey from the wax). There were three kinds of wine: a pot for under half a ruble, , for a ruble and for 75 kopeks. According to the price, Chaim would order to be poured: from vat number one, from vat number two, or from vat number three. But conjecture was that all three sorts were from one vat, which stood in the cellar…. Thus, at any rate, the wine-maker Mayer confided in my father his big secret.

Besides taverns there were other establishments on the marketplace. For instance, MOTTYE CHAIM BER'S (RABINOWITZ), whose house with the courtyard stretched up to Red Street. A very pious Jew, he used to pray with so much religious fervor, that he never prayed in public.

A neighbor of MOTTYE's place was SHMUEL STEINBERG, a rich Jew with a strong character. Between both places there was a small passageway which each claimed belonged to him. They both argued and fought all their life long. And markedly, they both died within an hour of each other, an early afternoon on Simchas Torah (about 1912). Jews learned a lesson that human arguments are foolish. The heirs submitted the matter to judgment.

Avreml, the Water Carrier

AVREML THE WATER CARRIER also had a relationship to the marketplace where he used to take water from the well. You can't talk about the marketplace and not mention AVREML. He was middle height, broad shouldered and strongly built. Children used to say that AVREML was born with iron rods around his body, which gave him strength. A fact is that even a grown man had a difficult time picking up AVREML's two big wooden buckets encased in iron hoops, even empty, not talking about when they were full. AVREML was an honest Jew and used to give full buckets. There were other water carriers, but no one had such big buckets. They simply did not have as much strength.

Winter or summer AVREML used to wear boots with high legs up above his knees. It looked as if the rest of his body was short. When he walked with the yolk over his neck, it seemed as if he was walking on stilts. He spoke with a loud voice and it seemed as if he was screaming. His wife would stand at a table on the marketplace with soft bread. This was a seasonal income. When AVREML went by her table, carrying water, he used to take off the full buckets, and chat with his wife.

On Sabbath, after the third meal (Shalosh Seudos), AVREML was a prayer leader in the small house of worship near the big synagogue.

Personalities from old Lida

It's a natural thing that my first memories are tied up with my own family, whose name was a password in Lida like the PUPKO family.

My father JEREMIAH ILITOWITZ, belonged on his mother's side to the PUPKO family – the Hanchik's, from the name of the founder of the family whose name was HANA. The Hanchik's were all advisors in congregational matters. Because of his pedigree my father was able to elude the “Chappers” (catchers) who used to snatch Jewish children to become soldiers for 25 years. This was the story:

When my father was still just a young boy, he once came out of the Bais Midrash where he was learning, on a late winter evening. Suddenly the “Chappers”, who had just come into the city, encircled him. The oldest “Chapper” lit his face with his lantern, and said, “Let him go. He is one of the Hanchik's.”

MASHE HANCHIK was the last one of the family to be known by that name. She had a hotel on an end of Crooked and Kaminke Streets (Zayezd). It was a big wooden building with stalls similar to the one that burned down. Later, on its place a two-story brick house belonged to the son of MASHE HANCHIK – HANA PUPKO, the shipping agent.

Naftali Saltz

NAFTALI SALTZ was an old Lida householder, from before the fire, but he came originally from Vilna, from the well known SALTZ family. His business was the horse post. In those times when there was not yet any train (and also later, in the places where the train didn't reach), the passengers used to rent horses from one horse-post to the next, where they would again change horses.

A middle sized man with a salt and pepper, not very long beard, he used to walk around his big courtyard, which stretched from Vilna Street almost to the river, with his hands stuck in the belt of his pants. He loved having “a little cup” from time to time. He had clout with the authorities. If he was asked to work something out with the government in a matter of business, or in a private matter (if this didn't hurt anyone) he didn't refuse. He didn't, however, mix into congregation matters. He built a small synagogue in his own courtyard (SALTZ's synagogue), but he himself was not a frequent visitor.

NAFTALI's son, a lawyer, was greatly beloved in Lida. He died young from an appendix operation.

“The Proizinisher Judge”

“The Proizinisher Judge” or shortened to “The Proiziner” (who remembers his name?) had a brilliant mind. He wasn't only a great student of Talmud, but also a wise man and full of humor. He also had a weakness: He loved brandy (and a liqueur, until the weakness shortened his life).

This was in the time of the Russian liquor monopoly. One day the Proizinisher came home to his wife with news – You hear, Sarah, there is salvation and consolation for all Jews. – “What is the salvation?” asked his wife? – “You will hear. Until now when one bought a flask of brandy in the Monopoly, one had to bring each time an empty flask. Now there is something new: Whoever brings in five empty flasks will receive one free.”

“Itche the Tshlen”

A password in Lida was “ITCHE THE TSHLEN”, a son of NATHAN SHIMEON PUPKO, founder of the first beer brewery in Lida. The name “The TSHLEN” comes from the fact that he was a member in the city management, a very smart Jew, one of the dedicated city social workers. One of his sons married a daughter of “MOTTYE THE CHALERNICK” (where the surname comes from, no one knows).

A second was the son-in-law of “YOSHE THE GOY”, called this because he lived in a small town among “goyim”. ITCHE used to joke about his two in-laws, that the Chaleria (bad one) will take the “goy”.

GERSHELE KAMIENIETSKY was a Proshene writer. He was called GERSHELE, not GERSHON, his real name, because of his short height. One used to joke that once he woke his wife, REITZE, in the middle of the night with a nightmare: he suddenly felt that he grew so much that he took up the whole bed. They lit the light and saw that he had turned around and lay in the width of the bed. But without joking, he was an intelligent man, clear in the Russian “Laws” and thus so scrupulously honest that he never made a good living. It was a miracle that his wife, REITZE, dealt with manufacture.

He also was “Tsheln” in the city Council. If it would happen that the Jewish members didn't take part in a session, and the city officer, JAKOBOVITZ, would bring the official report home to be approved, GERSHON would study the document one time and again another time. Then the rest would approve without reading it. “JEREMI,” JAKOBOVITZ would say to my father, who was also a councilman, “Sign it. GERSHELE already signed”, in other words, if he signed, there's no need to read it further.

First Steps in organizing Zionist Activities

It was in the days when the largest part of the Jewish Worker-Youth, and with them also wide circles of the Jewish Student Youth, in Russia and Poland, and also in Lida, were dominated by the ideas of the Revolutionary Movement in Russia. A group of well-brought up young people who were nationalists, caught up in the general enthusiasm which formed the first Zionist Congresses in the Jewish world, decided to stop being passive and to organize themselves.


With the assistance of Vilna Zionist worker, SHEINIUK, who was then in Lida as head worker at PAPEIRMEISTER's brewery, a Zionist Youth Organization was founded known as “Tzeirai Tzion” (Zionist Youth). As far as I know this was the first Zionist Youth Organization in Poland that used that name. When more young women belonged, they separated under the name “Daughters of Zion”, as a section of “Tzeirai Tzion”.

SHEINIUK also worked it out that PAPERMEISTER (whose son-in-law, KANTOR, was also a lover of Zion) should rent the organization the large wooden structure in his courtyard. It had three large rooms and a kitchen. The local was called “Chinaya”. This means a tea house, since Zionism was then not legal. But tea drinking was allowed! Thus, it became “Chinaya” or in Yiddish “China”.

“The Zionist China”

The number of members of Zionist Youth grew. Every evening there were many members in the “China”. Friday and Saturday evening the “China” was packed with visitors. Speakers would come from whom you could hear lively speeches.

In 1902 a new strength arrived in Lida, MOSHE COHEN, who was invited through RABBI REINES, Secretary of the young “Mizrachi” organization. He became the regular speaker at the “China”.

In 1904, the “China” had as its guest VLADIMIR JABOTINSKY. This was his first appearance in Lithuania.

The young Zionist movement in Lida had to overcome a great struggle, from one side with the “Bund” (the Socialist organization), and from the other side with the fanatical religious people, who said that one shouldn't “rush to destruction”, but to wait for the Messiah. The main struggle was with the people from the “Bund” who tried all kinds of things to hinder the Zionist activities.

In 1900 when the “Colonial Bank” was established, the Zionist Youth spread 1000 activists in Lida.

With the establishment of the Keren Kayemet (benevolent fund) for Israel, the collection of money began by various means. First, there was the Keren Kayemet coin box, which was put in every Jewish business and home, both among the rich and landowners, and also among the craftsmen. This again started a struggle with the Bundists who had young hangers-on in the craftsmen's houses. The young Bundists would throw the coin box somewhere so the mother could not put in her groschen (pennies) for Eretz Israel before she lit the candles on Friday night. A second means of money collection was the “Zionist Post”, which had its center at FRUME YUDELEWITZ's. Rosh Hashana wishes, invitations and congratulations for weddings and other happy events, were sent through the Zionist Post instead of through the government post, and the income went to Keren Kayemet.

The “Tarbut” School

A separate dedication that the Lida Zionists showed was for education of their children. Their ideal was a full Hebrew School.

The pioneers of the Hebrew School were: a young student, MATATHIAS RUBIN, a son of RUBE-HANA RUBIN (now a lawyer in Haifa) and his later-to-be wife, NOITE, at that time, RABINOWITZ. They opened a Hebrew class. They had no money for a place, so they taught in a room in the burial attendants' house of worship, with the approval of the trustees of the synagogue. From that class a Hebrew Gymnasia grew, which went up to sixth grade. It didn't go further because of financial restraints. The main effort was concentrated in strengthening the situation of the Folk School classes.

The seven-grade “TARBUT” school grew from year to year and the number of students went up to 500. The structure of CHANAN ILITOWITZ, on Sadove Street, became too small, and they began to think of a building of its own.

A building committee was chosen, consisting of representatives from “TARBUT” and the parents. The first one to volunteer to work for the undertaking was our friend BERL DWORETZKY. A building site was acquired by the committee free of charge from the Magistrate, not far from the Polish Government School. The Jewish population of Lida imposed large and small taxes upon itself. The SEGALNY's taxed themselves with bricks, the TARTAK's with wood material, and the iron business of CHERTAK-STEINBERG with iron products. Because of the endeavors of the merchants SHIMEON PUPKO and PINCHAS RABINOWITZ who were their customers, the cement factories gave cement.

After great strain, a three-story building was finished with a hall for calisthenics, and a warm toilet. There was a big housewarming to which were invited many guests. A separate “cake and brandy” party was arranged for the parents of the students, many of whom had taxed themselves, each according to his ability. It was a great celebration.

This was in 1939. The joy did not last long. When the Soviets captured Lida, the “TARBUT” School was closed.

April 1946

When we, the Lida inhabitants who had been sent to Siberia, returned after the war when the echelon stopped in Lida, I ran to take a look at the devastated city. I didn't have much time since the echelon had to leave. I just ran to take a peek at what happened to the building of the “TARBUT” School, if it had the same fortune as all Jewish buildings. But no, the structure from the “TARBUT” School remained whole, not touched, and I noted there was already a Soviet Government headquarters there. It broke my heart.

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