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[Page 80]

About Life in Lipkan
in the Past and Folk Figures

 

Military Conscription in Lipkan

Translated by Khane Faygl Turtletaub

Donated by Marilyn Levinson

The saddest season of the year for us was fall. It started right after Sukkos, It arrived sad and with a thin rain that struck as sharp as needles and disheartened everyone. Immediately mud formed, the [well–known] mud of Bessarabia. And this mud stretched far into the distance, until the true frosts of winter arrived to limit it and froze it until spring. Then the ice thawed and the mud once again spread out with greater momentum than in the fall, so we actually got it from both ends: the mud of the fall that lay frozen a whole winter now came alive with the addition of the new spring rains. In our town it was actually said that from a spoonful of water we would get a tubful of mud.

How the Jews of Lipkan got such an accurate measurement, I do not begin to know, but there is one thing I know from Kabbala, and I want everyone to know it: that if a Lipkan Jew says something, one doesn't question it: what–who–when. If someone says ‘perhaps’–It is so. A sign–well, you see it before you! After the spring came the lovely, dear, warm summer and plain and simple turned the mud into dust. That's how dried up the mud became.

And this [cycle] repeated itself year in and year out.

But so my narrative doesn't also get bogged in mud, l will return to the main point that l had in mind: autumn in Lipkan.

Except for the fact that fall came in with sadness and severity [?], it also brought with it something else, which completely embittered the mood of the small–town Jew.

This bitter addition was that the conscription [into the Czar's Army] took place in autumn, after all the Jewish holidays. Now one can really imagine with what intensity Jewish parents prayed during the High Holy Days. They were grateful that they had merited to raise a son to the age of twenty–one, but saddened that they now had to give him up to be drafted and suffer the trials of army service for a whole three years; to be tossed somewhere

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far away; to be torn away from those nearest and dearest to him in order to serve dear Czar Nikolai.

Although not all the boys in Lipkan were drafted at the same time, the whole town was, nevertheless, enveloped in sadness, because a drafted boy usually had, in addition to his own parents, sisters and brother even grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunts. And if a draftee was married, he had family on his wife's side as well. So the days after the High Holidays brought only worries and troubles to the town, and it affected the whole town.

For the mothers of the drafted young men, this started right after Passover. Right after saying the prayers welcoming the month of Iyar, one could tell from the weeping in the women's section, which mothers had sons who were going to be drafted.

And the fathers, although they were also filled with sadness, did not show it until the last minute. They played the role of heroes. A whole week people were busy, some with business, some with trade. On the Sabbath, after the prayers, after coming home and eating, they went to the tavern to drink a glass of wine with a good friend, and in some ways to ask this friend his advice about the best way to get a green ticket for his son. In those days, the days of Nikolai, there were four ways to get out of being drafted, and these four ways were each designated with a ticket of a different color. There was a white one, a blue one, a red one, and a green one. A white ticket meant that the young man was very ill–with heart disease or tuberculosis, or something else of which he had no hope of being cured.

A blue ticket was given to someone sick, but not very sick. That meant that he wasn't inducted in the regular army, but a blue ticket could be called up during war; he could be asked to serve behind the front lines. In the meantime, he was free of military service. The first time that blue tickets had been called up was during the First World War; 1914–1918.

A red ticket was given to someone who had a minor deformity. He was freed from regular army service, but during a war these red tickets were mobilized right after those in the army reserves.

A green ticket was given to those who were actually well, but at the time of induction he wasn't feeling up to par,

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or he was undernourished, or he was shorter than the military requirements demanded and he was scrawny[1] and underweight.

A green ticket meant freedom for a whole year, so that the inductee could get well, improve in health and grow a bit.

One could get such a green ticket year after year up for up to three years. After the third year came the final decision of the [Draft] Committee: either the prospective inductee was drafted into the Army or he was completely freed.

Now we know why the parents pleaded with G–d and left no stone unturned to at least get a green ticket. It meant that you had torn your child out of fonye's[2] talons for another year.

In order to get a green ticket from the Committee, one could not completely depend on a mother's tears at the beginning of a new Jewish month, or on going to the cemetery during the month of Elul to pray at [an ancestor's] grave. One could not even depend on a father's seeing the appropriate person.

The person himself, the prospective inductee, also had to do something so that he completely repelled the Committee. And in order not to be liked by the Committee, he had to look to be weak, in delicate health and a bit stunted in growth.

In order to achieve all of this, one had to work on himself for several weeks before presenting oneself for induction. One had to lose weight. This job meant not sleeping at night, eating unsalted things without a Jewish flavor,[3] so that one didn't enjoy it. In this way, one lost quite a bit of weight and one's face took on a yellow cast. And so that he would also be lacking in height, he completely shaved his head the day before. If such a person appeared before the Committee, he had to prove in black on white that he was truly twenty–one years old, because according to how he looked, one would think he was at best no more than sixteen or seventeen years old.

At the beginning of summer, when the twenty–one year olds got their draft notices from the government saying that the coming autumn they had to present themselves to be drafted, they all became happy and hopeful and began to conduct themselves impudently, fearing no one, feeling they didn't have to answer to anyone and were easy with their hands.[4]

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The thugs in town, the village policemen and the town constables avoided starting up with them.

The inductees would walk around in groups and only at night, because that would cause weight loss and it would slightly impair one's health. Sometimes this helped the inductee and the Committee didn't like the way he looked–and sometimes not. For the most part, it didn't help. It also depended on which doctor made the final decision.

It was worthwhile to familiarize oneself with the characters of the doctors, before one had to stand as an inductee.

In Khotin, the regional capital of this Russian district, where the inductions took place, there were two doctors, who always sat on this Committee. They had been appointed by the government as sworn physicians. One doctor was Jewish with the name of Kalpatchi. He was so honest and earnest about this mission, which had been entrusted to him by the Tsarist Government, that he closed his practice three months before the inductions and did not take any new patients for fear that someone would “defile” him with some gift or other.[5] He protected himself against this very strongly. He even tried to protect himself from any suspicion that might, G–d forbid, fall on him. I think that this was due not so much to Russian patriotism or simply to protect himself against Jewish interest as to [uphold] Jewish honor, so that a Jewish name might not be sullied.

The Jews, however, did not want to see it that way and thought of this Kalpatchi, this Jewish doctor, as a horrible person.

Just the opposite of this Jewish doctor was the German Colonel, Dr. Gibhalt. He was also a provincial doctor, but it appeared that even though he was paid by the Russian government, his interests lay more with Germany than with Russia. He was interested in seeing that Russia had a few less soldiers. He saw this as doing Germany a favor. And that is why he never sought any military qualities in an inductee. It was more the opposite [he wanted] to free him. For several rubles, he would examine the prospective inductees several weeks before and give them advice about what they might complain about so that he could present an argument to the Committee not to induct them. And if

[Page 84]

he found a minor fault in someone, something that was not very obvious, he augmented it and embellished it with things of his own devising, so that [the young man's] liberation was assured. And he actually wasn't afraid that his clean German name would suffer because of this, or that for some reason people would discover his secret. It didn't bother him. (We have here an example of German honesty and devotion to country, which he considered an honor…to the degree that we may believe a German even after he has sworn fealty to another country's government.)

Although army inductions occurred right after the High Holidays, well into autumn, the twenty–one–year olds began to prepare for it at the beginning of summer. The preparations consisted or: getting together and walking around all night singing all kinds of songs, happy and sad, so that they touched one's heart. They were usually goodbye songs to their parent and also to their lovers. Although these songs were sad, filled with longing, they were even sadder because of the stillness of the night. They actually threw fear into the hearts of people who heard them through an open window. And if there was someone who didn't want to be up throughout these nights, he had to “pay” by providing these “guys” with several bottles of wine. That was the custom.

When they tired of singing, they played pranks: they used to take down the signs of one shop and carry it over to another, and vice versa. They tore down bridges and carried them a few blocks away, and other such pranks.

In the middle of the night, they would stop into the bakeries and spend some time with the bakers as they worked, because the bakers only worked at night. There, in the bakeries, they would soothe their hearts with a fresh bagel or a fresh roll. The workers at the bakeries were a sincerely happy group, so they would carouse there the rest of the night.

On one such midnight [walk], this gang of twenty–one–year–olds stopped in to see Godl the Baker, who lived near the little Strelisker Synagogue. The bakers had not yet gotten down to work. It seemed that it was still too early. The dough in the kneading troughs was not yet ready to be worked on. One of these workers was lying on the cover of one of the troughs, asleep. He slept like the dead. The guys tickled him, and he didn't even move.

[Page 85]

So they decided to play some sort of trick on him, one that he wouldn't forget, The tied a long rope to one of his legs, and they went far away from the house, so no one could see them, and from there they began to tug on the rope.

Suddenly, he [the sleeping baker] felt a sharp pain and woke up. He saw no one around him, so he could only imagine that demons from the nearby synagogue had found their way into the bakery and they were tearing him to pieces. Out of fear, he threw himself on the ground and began to scream with the shrieks of one possessed: “Save me! The demons are tearing me apart.”

Neighbors came running. Zeydele the Beadle of the synagogue heard the screams, ran in and turned on the lamp so there would be light. Only now did they see that a rope was attached…. so Zeydele the beadle cut the rope–and the pains stopped.

“What kind of demons? No demons!” argued Zeydele the Beadle. “I have been living under this synagogue for so many years already and never met with anything like this. You won't convince me that demons live in my synagogue. Never heard of such a thing!”

In the middle of all this, the twenty–one–year–old guys come in and Zeydele shouts: “There they are, the demons!” And it was soon clear that these were the demons, but no one took them by the hand. Who wanted to start up with such a gang of twenty–one–year–olds, whom even the village policemen and the town constables feared?

Little by little, the baker calmed down, recovered his composure and got to work getting the bread ready for the oven.

Outside dawn was already breaking and the twenty–one–year–olds were also, as usually happened at this time, going home to take a nap.

And as usual, on their way home at dawn, they started to hum a melody–a prayer to G–d that they be freed from military service. It was a mixture of Hebrew and Volokhish,[6] a kind of parody of the tune used in the custom of hoshanas.[7] The words went like this:

Hoshana [repeated at the beginning of 12 lines[8] going on to mention various cities and ending with “may no man be conscripted” from this city.]

Hoshana, no man from Biserika

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No man from Podureh; No man from Dniester, No man from Khotin, and certainly no man from Lipkan shall be conscripted.

This was sung with such warmth in the quiet, blue summer dawns of my former Lipkan that one had to be made of iron to hear that and not shed a tear.

Here and there a Jew stuck his head out of an open window to listen to this heartfelt melody and gave the twenty–one–year–olds a blessing that their prayer be answered.


Footnotes:

  1. In the original: missing some breadth. [Trans.] Return
  2. Fonye is a derogatory word Jews used to describe the hated Russians. [Trans.] Return
  3. Having a Jewish flavor meant that it was delicious. Anything not having a Jewish flavor wasn't worth eating. [Trans.] Return
  4. Ready for a fight. [Trans.] Return
  5. As a kind of bribe. [Trans.] Return
  6. A Rumanian dialect. [Trans.] Return
  7. Walking around the synagogue with willow branches once each day and seven times on the seventh day of Sukkos (Hoshana Rabba). [Trans.] Return
  8. Two lines at the bottom of p. 85 and the rest on p. 86. Return

 

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