Translated by Khane Faygl Turtletaub
Donated by Marilyn Levinson
I lived in my hometown Lipkan, Bessarabia in Khotin County until I was twentyone years old. I have been away from there almost twice as long, but the city has been etched into my heart as if by a kind of magic. Even more yearning, accompanied by sorrow and suffering, was awakened in me, when the bitter news of Lipkan's total destruction and demise reached us from across the sea. Since my departure from Lipkan in 1920, I had been in constant written communication with my friends and relatives there. Their lives interested me, both their everyday lives and their Sabbath and holiday lives. This continued until the outbreak of the war in 1939. At that time, everything was interrupted as with a sharp ax.
My longing for Lipkan was surely not because of its extraordinary beauty or cleanliness. In those areas, Lipkan had very little to be proud of. The whole city was located in a valley; its streets neither planned nor paved were surrounded by hills. If it rained, or during Purim time, snowed, all the water and dirt from the hills pooled in the town, and since there was no drainage system, such deep mud was created that it didn't dry up until high summer. And when it did dry up, so much dust was created that it reached the heavens. The streets and alleys were so twisted and crooked, without any rhyme or reason. No street had a name. No house had a number. An address for someone simply didn't exist. It was seldom that a family's last name was known.
What was known were only the nicknames that jokers gave people. To illustrate, I will mention a few of these nicknames: Bufti, Kutetsh, Kada, Kazhade, Lapurgi, Bradivke, Khemrish, Shmoysh and so on. Other Jews had nicknames that referred to their trade: tailor, shoemaker, furrier, fur hat maker, wagon driver. Others were called according to their business: government intermediary, fabricstore owner, seller of grain, painter etc. People could live their whole lives without anyone knowing their real family names.
I myself saw a letter from somewhere far away arrive for someone like this
addressed using his correct family name, and the gentile mailman generally didn't know who it was. And whoever the mailman asked if perhaps they knew a person with that name, no one had any idea. So the mailman had to go to the Jewish elder and find out from him who the person was. Such things happened quite often. In addition to having all these crooked streets and alleys, the city was also divided into two halves by a dirty, narrow stream that, somewhere at the edge of the city, emptied into the Prut River which led to the Patyek River. In various places bridges were built across the Patyek. Otherwise, one would not be able to go from one street to the next. These bridges were made of wood and were only for pedestrians. They were so strong and massive that if one crossed it successfully, one could say the prayer thanking G_d.
In the middle of the marketplace there was a bridge, a long and very strong one. All transportation went over this bridge, from pedestrians to quite heavily laden wagons. That's how Lipkan was divided into two parts, a kind of ‘east’ and ‘west.’ But since such a thing as ‘east’ and ‘west.’ was unknown in Lipkan, one side was known as this side of the bridge and the otherthe other side of the bridge. If a person from out of town asked where soandso lived, and if soandso lived a bit farther away, the stranger was told to go to the other side of the bridge and on the other side of the bridge he would find the person he was looking for.
There was no park where one could go for a stroll or sit down to rest, not even the sign of one. There actually was a park, a rarity, one that was quite beautiful at the edge of town. This, however, was the landowner's private property, and it was surrounded by a high stone wall, so that not only could no one enter but no one could even look at it. Inside, not far from the formal gate, stood the house in which the landowner lived. This was an unusual structure, simply a marvel to look at. The length of the park was a good two versts. The landowner only lived there two months of the year, July and August. The rest of the year he lived in Petersburg and, it is possible, out of the country.
When it came to having a good spiritual Jewish life, Lipkan was renown and had reached quite a high level. This is why Lipkan had the reputation of being an important Jewish town not only in Bessarabia but occupied a place of honor in the whole world of Jewish culture, thanks to having six Yiddish and Hebrew writers who came from Lipkan.
Only in the year 1917, right in the middle of the First World War, after the Russian Revolution, when the Austrians occupied Lipkan, was the park opened to the general public. Only then did we see and marvel at the beauty and the spaciousness of the park and all its environs. How wonderful it was! Every evening people took walks in the park. Previously, people had only taken walks once a week, Saturday evening. Even that walk didn't last very long, because people became fatigued from walking and there was no place to sit and rest a bit.
The aforementioned situation relating to the landowner's park didn't last long. Several months later, the Austrians left Lipkan. The Romanians took their place and instituted their practices, which were very similar to those of Czarist Russia, and people had to say goodbye to a lot of lovely things, among them the park.
Lipkan also had a beautiful woods and so close by, one could actually touch it with one's hand, but one couldn't get into the woods. Not even if one got very close. It was surrounded by barbed wire on one side, and a Russian guard kept watch on the other side. That's where the Prut River was. It was the border between Russia and Romania. And right there alongside the woods the water was quiet and smooththe best place for smuggling. That's why it was so heavily guarded. So much so that it was useless to even talk about the natural beauty of the woods.
The same was also true of the Prut River. Quite a lovely river. Long and wide and good. [It had] little waves for bathing and swimming. Also very close to the city. On hot summer days it was a pleasure to swim in its fresh waters. The problem, however, was that everything there was very primitive. The area where one could swim, where one was allowed to swim, was perhaps the length of two quarters. The way to the shore was so crooked, so steep that one could [easily] break one's neck. The clothes that one took off were all full of sand. In the small area [permitted] the men swam, and a bit lowerthe women. In between the men and the women, the horses were bathed. The horses kept the men and the women separate. No one knew anything about
bathing suits. The men swam completely naked; the women in their long nightgowns.
There was one Jew, tall and wide with a wide beard. He had a booming [?] voice. Everything about him was wide. Such a person Eliezer Shteynberg used to describe as being happy with his lot [in life]… And this person did not swim nude. When he went swimming he would don his wife's apron. Other than in these two quarters, no one was allowed to swim. A little higher up, the woods began, and a little lower it was so deep that one could drown as soon as they stepped in.
For us boys, the walk to the Prut [River] and back home from the Prut [River] didn't always go smoothly. Many times we had to fight our way through with our fists and also with sticks. On the way to the Prut, we had to go through the mala, which is the gentile neighborhood. And when those insolent gentile boys saw Jewish boys going to the Prut through their streets, they sicced the dogs on them and threw stones at them.
Here there were also gardens and fruit orchards. Many fruit trees were located near fences. And when the fruit on the trees became ripe, they absolutely begged to be picked. And if anyone noticed a boy taking a chance and plucking a fruit, there was a big hullabaloo. One time, three Jewish boys were caught after picking several plums. Their naked bodies were so severely beaten with stinging nettles that they needed medical attention.
It was certainly not the fault of our Jewish boys if they were always drawn to a tree hanging heavy with fruit in a gentile garden, because there was no Jewish orchard or good Jewish garden. All these good things were to be found on the other side of the Jewish streets. And although one could buy fruit, good fruit, in the marketplace for a few kopeks, and these kinds were plentiful here unlike in Bessarabia, these fruits never had quite the same taste to us boys as those that we ourselves plucked from the tree. I believe that this was because of the longing a Jewish child had for nature from which he had for generations been separated.
In connection with this, I remember this case: I was then
eleven years old. It was the end of summer, before the High Holy Days, when they let Jewish boys out of kheyder early. Three versts out of Lipkan, on the other side of the city gate very close to the village of Zalitshe, there was a vineyard. This vineyard was leased to Jewish wine cellar owners in Lipkan. The grapes had to be picked at the end of the summer in order to make wine. A lot of hands were needed to do this. And since this coincided with the time that we boys were out of kheyder, we pleaded with the wine cellar owners to let us pick the grapes, even though compensation for this work was not even mentioned. The most important thing for us boys was that for at least the few weeks that we were out of school we be allowed to feel what it was like to be free and live in the lap of nature.
We left very early to walk to work, even though it meant walking several versts. That is why we were given a free lunch. Lunch consisted of hot corn mush with sheep cheese, which the ladies had made themselves. For dessert, we were allowed to eat as many grapes as we wanted.
All the while, we Jewish boys felt that we were in Paradise.
The vineyard wasn't the only thing that was outside the city. On the other side, right where the city ended, the fields began and there were gardens of all kinds of wheat and vegetables. Lipkan was surrounded on all sides with the beauty of nature. And everything in spaciousness and a kind of abundance that is indescribable. Gd had stinted on nothing! But in the city itself one rarely saw a tree much less a garden. There was practically no place to protect oneself from the sun on a hot summer day. Several very wealthy homes had a few acacia trees or rye [fields?]. But these weren't of great importance to the city; so Lipkan didn't have anything of extraordinary beauty to be proud of.
Lipkan wasn't considered too large of a city if one went by the number of its Jewish inhabitants. It was more of a town like many other towns on the Pale of Settlement of Czarist Russia. In Bessarabia, however, Lipkan had more prestige than many other larger cities, because Lipkan had a train station and was located not far from the Austrian border. Russia
exported a lot of grain to Austria, as well as poultry, eggs and other products, and that made Lipkan an important city of commerce. Through there a lot of business was done abroad. To repeat: there were twentyfour villages in the rural district of Lipkan. Twice a week, Sunday and Thursday, farmers came to Lipkan to sell their village products and to buy various necessities in the city. Thanks to this, small businesses flourished and craftsmen of every sort were able to make a good living. Of course, this wasn't equally true of everyone: some had it easier than others. This was already a matter of luck or depended on a person's abilities. However, Lipkan in general was a commercial city in every sense of the word.
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