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[Pages 1203-1208]

From Pumpenai to Kaunas

by B. I. Bialostotzky

 

Pumpenai

(Lithuania)

55°56' / 24°21'

Translated by Dr. Sonia Kovitz

These events took place when the Jews of Lithuania were one of the brightest links in the Jewish golden chain: in the days when yeshivas were thriving in Lithuania; when the remarkable faces of the Vilna gaon and R' Yitzhak Elkhonen shone down from the walls of almost every Jewish home; then in the days when word of modern ideas began to spread throughout Lithuania, and with the ideas came new faces on the wall: Mendele Moykher Sforim, Kh. I. Byalik, Dr. Herzl, Sholem Aleikhem, Y. L. Peretz; in the days when our precious Jewish young people began to flourish in Lithuania—with hope, political movements, and ideals!

In those days, at the beginning of this century, I was still a young boy. I saw the world for the first time as Lithuania! In each shtetl I saw something new, and the image of each shtetl still stands fresh before my eyes. Let us now, in these tragic times, when our Jewish Lithuania has been obliterated—let us try to bring back beloved images and memories from the depths of years past.

A very little shtetele, Pumpian, my native town—what is characteristic of it? What distinguished Pumpian from the other little shtetlakh in Lithuania?

We used to speak of “Pumpian mud.” Of course the mud was deep in Pumpian! There were days, especially around the time of Sukkos [Festival of Tabernacles in the autumn after the High Holy Days], when you simply risked your life to walk from Pushelat Street past the cemetery, or past the poorhouse to the synagogue. But then I also saw mud like that in other shtetlakh.

I also used to hear people speak of “Pumpian sacks [for begging].” But as we recalled it, Pumpian wasn't poorer or more destitute and didn't have any more begging sacks than the other Lithuanian shtetlakh. In the synagogue there weren't all that many beggars spending the night, and Pumpian, it seemed to me, didn't have so many wandering tramps that it was giving them away—so “begging sacks” are not really characteristic of my beloved shtetl.

Yet we do remember some other characteristics. First of all—the appearance of Pumpian. A large marketplace was laid out like an open hand with the fingers pointing in different directions. These fingers were the roads leading from the marketplace to other nearby shtetelakh. One finger—one road—led to Pushelat, a small village-like shtetele with only a few score Jewish families. A second road led to Posvol, which to us Pumpianers had something lofty about it, aristocratic… A third road led to Vabalnik. I heard all the children say that on that road robbers were lying in wait, murderers. Everybody was afraid to walk there, or drive there. A fourth road, the broadest, led to Ponevezh. And Ponevezh, the district capital, for a Pumpianer—what a dream, what a faraway, marvelous metropolis!

Four roads—four fingers. Nu, if it's like a hand, then where is the fifth finger? Yes, the fifth finger was a straight road, just like the thumb on a human hand, that led from the market right to the synagogue. I used to travel on all of those roads but my favorite, most beloved road was the one leading to the synagogue. Beside the synagogue was a small square surrounded by an iron fence. Inside, within the fenced area, was a stone overgrown with moss. What kind of a square is this? Why is a fence there? What kind of a stone is that?

I heard all kinds of tales about it, but we children came up with our own idea about the stone. For us it was mysterious—it was Mount Sinai. Lucky was the child who, unnoticed by the cranky shames [synagogue caretaker], managed to crawl over the fence and with a khumesh [Bible] in his hand climb to the very top of the Mount Sinai of Pumpian. I want to mention here that the writer Yakov Krepliak tells a tale from his childhood, in a shtetl near Bialystok, about a similar kind of stone that all the children also called “Mount Sinai.” This shows how close every Jewish child felt to the mountain where we received the Torah!

Thus in my childhood, that stone was Sinai. But when I grew up, I found out that the stone with the fence around it was one of our special gravestones. Generations ago, at the beginning of the 19th century, a “blood-accusation” took place in Pumpian. The Jews were put into jail and told: “Either give up the guilty Jew who killed a Christian child for Passover, or all the Jews will die.” At that time there was a Pumpian householder, Yisrael Pumpiansky, who chose kiddush-hashem [martyrdom in sanctification of G-d's name] when he took upon himself alone the despicable calumny. He told the priest and landowner: “I alone killed this child. The other Jews are not guilty.” And so the martyr was burned alive beside the synagogue. Afterward a stone was set at this holy place with a fence around it. But over time everything was forgotten. This was told to me later, in 1901, by my rabbi, Rabbi Hertzl, in the musar yeshiva of Ponevezh.

With this stone Pumpian, my Pumpian, was distinguished from the surrounding shtetelakh. Of course other holy and tragic events happened in those places too, but I never saw anything like our stone.

What else can I tell you about Pumpian? Not far from the besmedresh [synagogue] there was a Hasidic shul. Next to the shul stood a small Hasidic shtibl [prayer house] where the hasidim would daven [pray] every day—they davenned in the larger shul only on yom tov [yontif, Jewish holiday]. There it stood, big, gigantic, and as I just said, usually empty. Field mice lived in the courtyard and the ceilings. From time to time I would steal into the Hasidic shul and try to frighten the field mice. This was a game to me!

The Pumpian hasidim were Lubavitch, but I don't recall that in daily life there was much of a strict mekhitse [division] between the mitnagdim [opponents of Hasidism] and the hasidim. My zeyde [grandfather] made friends with a hasid who had a blond beard. Between them there was peace, even though my zeyde was a mitnaged. Both of them used to try to calculate, using verses in the Book of Daniel, when the Messiah would come. They didn't actually figure it out but they did have it all calculated.

My zeyde Hirsh Elie, the melamed [elementary Hebrew school teacher], was a type very characteristic of Lithuanian Jews. A melamed who was well versed in gemore [part of the Talmud], he was held in high esteem in Pumpian. His “standing” in the besmedresh was much lower, close to the door—he didn't want honors or a special place on the eastern wall. His place in the besmedresh was where a very old clock hung high up on the wall. It had large hands and a heavy weight on a long, brass pendulum. The “disturbance” went on without cease, back and forth, making the same monotonous noise: tick tock…so the time passed, hour after hour, day after day, over the gray head of my zeyde, but my zeyde did not stir from his place. He davenned, lay tefillin [phylacteries], and lernt [studied Torah while reciting it aloud].

Also my bobeh [grandmother] Khana had traits very characteristic of many Jewish Lithuanian women. My zeyde earned very little from teaching, his main task was waiting for the Messiah, but my bobeh was an eyshet khayil [“woman of valor” from Proverbs 31:10-31, recited by a husband to his wife on Shabbos]. She had a garden at home and with her own hands worked and weeded all the plots. From the garden she raised food that was sufficient for months. My bobeh supported zaydeh's household, and that was characteristic of many such Jewish women. If not for them, the community's economic situation would have been in shambles. The women made it possible with their labor for their devout husbands to study and to have conversations with the Messiah. These Jewish women kept the stores, went to market, stood at fairs, bought and sold, planted gardens, washed and sewed and spun and wove, and simply sacrificed their lives for the Torah of their husbands! My bobeh, may her memory be for a blessing, died in 1917 at the age of 83, far, far away in Simbirsk. What was she doing there? My bobeh Chana was forced to go there, along with thousands of other Lithuanian Jews, by the Tzar's uncle, Nikolai Nikolaevitch, during the First World War.

Thinking about my bobeh Chana, I remember something else that was very characteristic of her and other such Jewish Lithuanian women. She brought together the Jews and the village, the gentile world. She spoke Lithuanian fluently and would go to the village a verst [2/3 mile] or two from Pumpian to purchase wheat from the peasants and would also sell them goods from the shtetl. She established a strong connection with many gentile women. When the gentile women came to the shtetl on market days or holidays, before doing anything else they would always come to greet my grandmother. Such Jewish women were the salt of the earth, and there were many of them in my shtetl, just as in the other shtetlakh. My bobeh wove friendships with the gentile Lithuanians who lived in the area. Who would have believed that in 1941, under Nazi rule in Lithuania, so many Lithuanian murderers would rise up to murder our people!

My zaydeh and bobeh! He with his quietness, his sadness, and his nigun [melody] “My father said”—and she with her [hay yod], her rushing pace, her own way of doing things, and her little song: “Tap tap little hammer…” Later, new winds began to blow in Pumpian and new melodies were heard. My aunt, a stocking-maker, sang: “Though the window panes I see two doves flying” (a song by Eliakum Tzunzer). She also sang: “There where the cedar” (a Zionist song) and the Bundist song by Anski: “In the salty sea of people's tears.” She mixed all these songs together, and as she sang, her tears would flow. While I was growing up, for a long time I didn't understand—the ideas behind her songs were fragmented, in pieces, while the melodies were all mixed together. So strange!


[Pages 1208-1210]

Pasvalys

(Lithuania)

56°04' / 24°24'

Translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein

The life of my father, of blessed memory, who died in Grodno in April, 1940, was tied to the name “Posvol.” Reb Khaim Yitzhak Bialostotzky was known as the Posvoler Magid [preacher]. He started his career as a magid in Posvol and was one of the last famous preachers who had a deep impact on the Jewish people, especially the poor common folk. There is very little written about the role of the preachers in our literature and research. Posvol gave its share of other famous personalities. It is enough to mention Reb Abele Posvoler.

Photograph with caption: Posvoler Magid, Reb Khaim Yitzhak Bialostotzky

Posvol lay on a mountainside and there was of course a lot of mud just as in Pumpian. In Posvol there was a silvery clear river called the Posvolke that to this day still sparkles before my eyes.

In Posvol there was a lot more commerce than in Pumpian, and more rich men. There was, I remember, a famous cantor. During my childhood, Posvol was a trifle. People traveled through Posvol and went farther and farther until they reached the great city of Riga. About Riga one would hear all kinds of stories and wonders!

I lived in Pumpian with my grandparents, and rarely stayed with my parents. But I remember two images from Posvol that I would like to tell about.

Opposite the marketplace in Posvol, across the Posvolke River, was a mountain. There were some houses there. In one of the houses my mother lived with the children. My father was still on the way home when I arrived from Pumpian for Passover. My father had not yet arrived—it seems he had to come from Birz. My mother had prepared everything: matzah [unleavened bread], wine and fish. The house shone for the Jewish holy day. But the ice on the river had melted and the river was a torrent. It was impossible to cross from one side to the other. Erev pesakh [Passover eve] my father stood on one bank and looked at my mother, and my mother stood on the other side and looked at my father. Jews screamed, gentiles put down planks, but the current was too strong. The ice floes were like a multitude of sea animals, pushing and breaking up…God knows what such a small river could do. My mother was alone for the seder and I had to be the “king” [lead the seder], but how could I be “king” when my and my mother's eyes ran with tears? Later when I was grown up, I read about something like this in a story by Sholem Asch and also in one by Y.J. Singer. This event was characteristic of Jewish life with its rivers and towns, so I wrote it down exactly as I had lived it.

Photograph with caption: Posvol marketplace

Now for the second image. In Posvol there was a large marketplace, and on one side of it, near a large blacksmith's shop, was the gypsy market—Lithuanian gypsies! The forge burned, sparks scattered, the hammer pounded, and the fiery faces of the gypsy horse dealers flashed before my eyes. I can still hear the crack of their whips. I remember fights in the gypsy market! Pandemonium! Stampedes! Mainly I remember fights between Jewish wagon drivers and a gang of gypsies. What were they fighting over? Well, over a horse! And the horse, with such a proud head, I remember, stood tied to a post and didn't even know that because of him human blood was shed.

Lithuanian gypsies! At that time they held an important place in the lives of Jewish children. People were afraid of them but ran to see their stunts. Lithuanian gypsies with their bonfires under the stars, their melodies, their fiery dances. The poet Leyb Neydus from Grodno once sang about them in a song.

When I read in 1945 that the Nazis had gathered together eight thousand gypsies in Lithuania and forced them all into the crematoria of Treblinka, a distinct tremor passed through my heart. My Jews, my family, my brothers—my heart bleeds for you and for our misfortune! But the death of eight thousand gypsies also brings pain. You with the whips and your black hair! In 1901 you did not know that in 1942 you would also be burned in the ovens.


[Pages 1211-1213]

Panevezhys

(Panevezys, Lithuania)

55°44' / 22°21'

Translated by Dr. Sonia Kovitz

I spent three years in Ponevezh, from the time I was eight years old until I was eleven. I saw or knew very few of the Ponevezh householders, the Ponevezh maskilim [“enlightened” adherents of the haskalah movement], the Ponevezh community leaders. I saw only the yeshivas of Ponevezh, for I was a yeshiva bokher [boy], or more accurately, a yeshiva yingl [little boy]. My father brought me there and turned me over to Rabbi Hertzl, a Jew with a keen glance, though often dejected. Rabbi Hertzl was one of Rabbi Israel Salanter's students and a musarnik [exponent of Salanter's teachings on musar, ethics] and my father probably felt that I could use a little musar. Rabbi Herzl's yeshiva for young students was in a poor kloyz [study house].

We studied gemore [part of the Talmud], but twice a week we would study musar. R' Herzl, I remember, had chosen 20 young students who he deemed worthy, that is, worthy to study musar. He would take us to his home, where we sat around a long bench with the rabbi at the “head” of the bench. It was afternoon—closer to night than day, and in the room it was dark. R' Herzl would, like a musarnik, recite musar in the dark. We could hear him “shokling” [rocking back and forth in prayer] and from time to time we cried out “Hear O Israel” or another holy exclamation. We shokled and looked at R' Herzl, who was immersed in a fearsome encirclement, a kind of cloud…and such purification would go through our young hearts. But R' Herzl did not make us good, rather in his ecstasy he set about making himself good, not his students. For him musar was aimed first of all at oneself, not a congregation. You should become a better person! And truth be told—just as long as the rabbi didn't direct any musar at me, during the hour of musar I wasn't afraid of anything.

A large number of us yeshiva boys slept in the kloyz, where our yeshiva was located, because they couldn't find any other beds for us in town. We slept on the benches. Each of us had a straw mattress that our mothers had given us. And at one time also a pillow. No! Few of us had pillows. Sleeping on just a straw mattress was in itself already a sort of musar. A little later the beggars and homeless would begin to gather in the kloyz. There was a sort of competition between us, the young boys, and the tramps. It no longer felt like home to us when we had to spend the night with the beggars.

Then we made sleeping places in the attic of the kloyz. Each one of us dusted off a small spot in the attic, put down our straw mattress, set over to the side our little box or basket, and this we called our bed, our mekom [special place]. I remember how we would crawl up the ladder to the attic to get to our sleeping places! All because of gemore and musar.

And then a new trouble descended on us young boys. A gang of troublemakers, hoodlums, wild kids started to pester us, hitting and stealing. Once they took away our ladder. R' Herzl became furious. In great anger and in great wrath and with his fiery red beard flying, he threw himself at the hoodlums and they threw themselves at him, but he went after them and they were driven away. We felt like great conquerors. But R' Herzl, poor man, paid dearly for his heroism. The hoodlums got even with him.

R' Herzl had a long, beautiful beard. Several boys waited for him at night in a narrow street near the large synagogue (the street that led to his home) and they caught him and they did not beat him, no! They did something much worse. They shaved off his beard! For seven days he was too ashamed to come to the yeshiva, and the oldest yeshiva student took over our lessons. On the eighth day R' Herzl arrived with a thick towel wound around and around his face. There was no end to his embarassment. Eventually his beard grew back, of course, but he never regained the impressive appearance that he once had.

I would like to mention a few things about the way of life of the young musar students. A couple dozen of us did not have all the “days” [arranged with families who provided meals for yeshiva students]. One lacked Monday, a second lacked Tuesday, a third Thursday—they had nowhere to eat on those days. So what did we do? A sort of “commune” was created among us. We put into the “fund” a kopeck that we had saved and then another kopeck. We also saved a piece of bread, a potato, a piece of herring. Every day we would prepare a poor “table” (on a bench) for the hungry. I was the secretary of this commune! Poor meals—only the tramps with their begging sacks would look at us with envy.

There was another yeshiva in Ponovezh—in the large synagogue. The older boys studied there, those between approximately thirteen and sixteen. The shames [synagogue caretaker] there was Reb Aryeh, a Jew of virtuous ways. Here is one of the things Aryeh did: every Friday a wagon drove around through the streets of Ponevezh and Reb Aryeh himself, or a helper, would call out, “Khallah for the yeshiva students!” And the Jewish housewives would appear on the doorsteps of their houses and toss khallah into the wagon. On Shabbos evening Reb Aryeh would distribute the khallah among the yeshiva students. Everyone received his own khallah. This was for the “days” when the yeshiva students didn't have a place to eat.

I remember that there were poor loaves of khallah made of dough and water, and rich loaves of khallah made with cinnamon and raisins, from the wealthy households. I don't know why, but Reb Aryeh would not give the musar boys any of the raisin khallah. Perhaps he believed that those studying musar should not be eating raisins, but this caused me grief! I longed for the golden, rich egg khallah! One cold night I ripped a hole in the pocket of my winter coat and got away with an entire rich khallah! This was probably the first sin that I committed in my life. Evidently musar didn't help!

There was a third yeshiva in Ponevezh–the yeshiva of great merit, the yeshiva of the famous sage Rabbi Itzele Ponevezher. One had to be older and among the very best—an ilui [prodigy]—to be able to study there. R' Itzele's name was known over all of Ponevezh! We, the young boys, would wait for him in the big street that led to the Karaites and holding our breath, we would watch him walk by with his close associates, his good students, debating Torah with them! In that street, that led to Shadeve, there were a lot of Karaites, and I felt something like fear of the Karaites. But Rabbi Itzele would walk along in the wide road without a bit of fear. This gave my young heart strength. One time I saw the khokhem [wise man] of the Karaites walk up to Rabbi Itzele and greet him with a very deep bow. R' Itzele looked at him, shook his head, and murmured something…then he turned around and quickly, quickly went to his yeshiva.

The shtetele Popelian was decorated not, God forbid, to meet a special parade in the morning, but–the rising sun.


[Page 1214]

Keidan

(Kedainiai, Lithuania)

55°17' / 23°58'

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

I was in Keidan in 1905 when I was 12 years old. My father had taken me along on his trip then, on his preaching trip through the Lituanian shtetlekh [towns]. He wanted to teach me Gemara [Talmud] himself and, therefore, he took me with him. Thus, I saw a great many welcoming shtetlekh.

My father had to “inform” each shtetl or each gabbai [sexton] or each shamas [synagogue caretaker] about the sermon that he would give in the house of prayer. I remember that it would always be easier and preferable for father to go to the shamas than to the gabbai. Gabbaim often would be angry, puffed up. However, the majority of shamosim [plural of shamas] were good-natured, dear Jews.

I remember that the gabbai of the large house of prayer in Keidan said to my father: “It is better if you travel farther; the Shirvinter [Širvintos] Magid [preacher] and the Mazirer Magid are here now, why do we need a third one?”

However, the shamas of the house of prayer said to my father: “Our Jews will hear you. The other two will leave soon.”

Preachers were loved in Keidan. Mainly the artisans in Keidan would cling to a Magidim [plural of magid]. Simple people in other Lithuanian shtetlekh [towns] also loved the magid. Preachers played a very large role in Lithuania. Their effect on the congregation was no less than of all kinds of miracle workers who were in Ukraine, Poland and Galicia. Instead of coming with miracles, the magid merely came with reproaches and with strict talk that penetrated deep into the heart. Avrom Reyzen, our great writer from Koidanov [Dzyarzhynsk], Minsk gubernia [county], described such preachers in his stories with love.

The Dubner magid was descended from Lithuania, from the classic preachers who had influence in Vilna at the time of the Gaon [Vilna Gaon – Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, well-known leader of non-Hasidic Jewry in the 18th century]. The remarkable Kelmer magid, who described gehenem [hell] as perhaps not worse than the

[Page 1215]

Italian poet, Dante had done in his poem, Inferno. The Grodner magid, Elyokim-Getsel, the remarkable magid, who left behind him many students of preaching, made an impression in Lithuania. My father considered himself a student of Reb Elyokim-Getsel. The two well-know magidim, the Shirvinter and the Mazirer, also made a strong impression. Some magidim also somewhat embodied what we today call “folkshpiel [folk play] theatricality.” The magid came with a melody, with a small song and with poetic pictures, with examples. There were magidim who also wove humor into their sermons. They used deeper talk for more scholarly Jews and also knew the secret of simple talk for the simple group and for the Jewish woman.

Some magidim brought the motif of social justice into their sermons. Elyokim-Getsel, the great chastiser, would found societies, principally of workers. And he would give simple sermons especially for them so that they would understand. He would study Mishnius [Talmudic commentaries] and Khumish [Torah] with them and tell then dear fables… Many future Jewish cultural workers and worker activists emerged from his workers' society. Other preachers in Lithuania did the same thing. Their reproach was not just an individual reproach taken from a book of moral instruction. Their reproach often also carried social ideas.

I heard the Shirvinter [magid] and I see him now before me, alive, a Jew with wide shoulders, with a wide, bony face, with a high forehead. His preaching melodies were a kind of ecstatic call to God. He had a somewhat revolutionary quality. He had complaints about the public, but would also have complaints against the Creator of the World; why do the Jews suffer so much? And then he would return to the public…

Two or three years later, after I had been in Keidan, I found the same Shirvinter magid in a tragic situation actually in Shirvint. He had become fond of hard liquor and became a drunkard. This drove him to insanity. I saw him lying in a side room of the synagogue in Shirvint. Occasionally I would see the former magid awaken in him. His former sermons would be ignited in him and he would run to the bimah [platform in the center of the synagogue]. He would begin to recite [a sermon] with a melody and it would not concern him if someone were in the house of prayer or not.

[Page 1216]

The Shirvinter Magid died there on the hay mattress in the side room of the house of prayer.

The Shirvinter Magid, whom I had met in Keidan, gave his sermons with a melody that was more musical and was expressed theatrically. He wore a cape. With his blond hair and his blue eyes, he looked around with such a mischievous lightness. He was somewhat closer to the new kind of magid who arose through Zionism – the “orator.” Zvi Hirsh Masliansky, who had an effect on America for a long time and died here [in New York], was, I think, its father, the classic one. Of all the orators, Masliansky's influence in the old home was particularly in “Great Lithuania” – Kovno, Vilna, Grodno, Minsk and Suwa³ki gubernias [administrative units].

Let us return to my memories of Keidan. The Shirvinter and the Mazirer departed and my father gave his sermon. After the sermon, an old tailor took him for a glass of tea. The tailor lived right near the house of prayer. We found two young tailors, his apprentices at the tailoring house. Later, a few more tailors arrived. It was as if the tailors in Keidan had a certain historical connection to each other.

I heard about a remarkable historic event from the same old tailor a few days later. This is the true story about the revolution and uprising of the Keidan tailors, which took place at the beginning of the 19th century around 1815.*)

This is a story about how a Keidan member of the middle class raged against a tailor; why had he dared to come into the house of prayer wearing a velvet yarmulke [skull cap]? Only a rich man, a member of the middle class was supposed to wear such [a yarmulke]. A fine was imposed on the tailor. This set off the artisans and a revolution, arguments and even blows started. It reached the count and then all the way to Petersburg.

Some sort of trifle. The Keidan tailors, the Keidan artisans! They would not let anyone push them around! Well, well! The rich men had to give in! The Keidan tailors always remembered the revolt of their great-great grandfathers with pride, that they should be permitted to

*) See Wishnicer, Mark, Dr. “Jewish Trade and the Artisan Guilds in Lita,” in the book Lita.
[Page 1217]

come to the synagogue in velvet yarmulkes and in satin jackets equal to the members of the middle class.


In Janova

(Jonuva, Lithuania)

55°05' / 24°17'

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

I was in Janova in 1904 or in 1905. [I found myself] in a stormy sea because, Janova was raging as was generally characteristic for our dear Lithuania. They were fighting over a khazan-shoykhet [cantor-ritual slaughterer]. There already were two sides in the shtetl even before he had come to try out. One “yes” and one “no.” I remember what my father would say in his sermon about the first thing that appeared in the world after Adam was created. One of the first things was, “two sides.” One side must always fight against another. Thus it was in Janova, too. Before [they had] the facts, the sides already were fighting. Who wanted to hear a magid when they were so furious?...

Later, I too, saw the khazan-shoykhet candidate about whom they were fighting. A short Jew, similar to Yosele Rozenblat, that khazan also had a wonderful tenor voice. However, how could his voice help him if the opposing side did not want him? Suddenly, the opponents spread a rumor that he had said a cow at a butcher's was kosher when he should have said it was treyf [unclean – not kosher] and he did it so that the butcher would be on his side! He left in shame. He did not receive the position.

I watched similar town quarrels then in other shtetlekh. This only showed the customary and entrenched life in the shtetlekh. And now? There are no quarrelers and no quarrels!...


In Shirvint

(Shirvintai, Lithuania)

55°03' / 24°57'

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Shirvint lay between Vilkomir and Vilna. The entire shtetl extended principally from “Langer Street” [either the name of the street or a “long” street]. I was in Shirvint in 1906. This was during the time after the failure of the first Russian Revolution.

In that turbulent, but wonderful time, I, a young Talmud student, found myself in Shirvint at my uncle's [house].

I saw in Shirvint that Jewish life was splitting in various directions, in various trends…

My father and several of his friends represented the modern

[Page 1218]

folksy Enlightenment. They lived on the words and on the ideas of Avraham Mapu, Perec Smolenskin, Yehuda Leib Gordon and Szmuel Frug. Mendele [Mocher Sforim – Sholem Yankev Abramovich – considered the “grandfather of Yiddish literature”], too, had entered their spiritual treasure. And they, my father and his friends had an influence on Shirvint.

Then I saw another circle there that belonged to the Russified members of the Enlightenment. They went to Pushkin, to Chekhov, to Tolstoy and to almost no Jewish sources. That circle would come together in a rich house where the oldest daughter would play the piano – Chopin and Beethoven. That piano player gave me my first lecture, without payment, in the Russian language. It was a great mitzvah [commandment – often translated as good deed] to the rich girl to teach a yeshiva [religious secondary school] student… She did not want to have anything to do with Yiddish. I later learned that she and those closest to her joined the revolutionary group that led Iskra [Spark] (Iskra, too, did not want to know about Jewish life).

There was a third group in Shirvint, also members of the Enlightenment, who were already [speaking] Russian but only because of their careers. They were mostly merchants who were friends of the regional police superintendent and military officials. One [member] of that circle was my relative, a great merchant, who lived in a beautiful house near the corner of Vilkomir Street. I then hob gegesn teg [had “eating days” – as a yeshiva student, his daily meals were provided at various homes] and I ate “Thursdays” with my rich relative. I remember that I ate in the kitchen where on a Thursday, the regional police superintendent was having a meal with my relative and his wonderful wife. Oh, what was happening in my relative's house! The extra bright lights burned glowingly. The table was fully set with wine and with whiskey and a turkey was fried in the kitchen with great pleasure…

Such relatives and such rich men were not very beloved in Lithuania. They would only be of use to do someone a favor in times of a “draft.”

In addition to all of the groups I have mentioned, there were the regular people in Shirvint and there were among them a rabbi, the learned Jewish men, the attendees of the house of prayer. In the houses of prayer, the Gemara-yinglekh [boys studying the Talmud] sang and sang again the old, old Gemara melodies: “Omer abeye [words in the Gemara symbolizing the teacher: “the teacher says”], the teacher said.” The boys there were 14-15 years old and during the new days that came, a sound of a new longing slipped into their melody.

[Page 1219]

This was the longing that was expressed in Reisin's Mai Ko Mashma Lon [Monologue of a Yeshiva Student] and Bialik's HaMatmid [The Talmud Student].

And once in a late winter night, the door of the house of prayer noisily opened and there entered:

Chaim the shoemaker-youth, Bentsa the tailor, Yoska the watchmaker, two young bakers and more young people whom I saw for the first time. And a young man in “brass buttons” entered with them. This was the son of a well-to-do family who was a student in the Vilna Realshul [secondary school]. A young man, who would give “pleasant lessons” – in both Hebrew and Russian – also entered.

We, frightened, young Gemara students, were dismissed.

What did this mean? Why did they come here?

Later, I heard talk that “friends” came together in a kind of “detachment” – in a drużyna [squad] to protect and to defend Jewish possessions from the pogromists. This was Jewish self-defense! The self-defense [organization] from Shirvint, like black clouds, constantly brought terrible news: They are beating Jews!

This was a wonderful, encouraging self-defense that appeared so full of heroism in very many Jewish settlements. This was the self-defense, about which the poet, A. Liesin had written his great poem, Der Shmid [The Blacksmith].

(Althougt Liesin was a Minsker, he lived in Kovno for years, in Slobodka and then in Vilna. Thus Liesin, also belonged without a doubt to us – Lithuania!)

The irons glowed
Glowed and glowed.
He forged the daggers
Forged and forged;
Revenge glowed in the irons.
The holy red;
[He] banged with the hammer to beat the soul;
– A fight to the death.

A fight to the death – the bandits!
A fight to the death – the hangmen!

Liesin wrote this heroic poem to sanctify the name of Shmuel Fridman, a blacksmith from the shtetl, Brisk. A father of five children who forged weapons for self

[Page 1220]

defense in 1905. Fridman was shot at his smithy by Cossacks. It was during the years when I saw the other shmidn [blacksmiths] in Shirvint – with their strength and with their idealism!

One of the older gemara [Talmud] young men, aged 23, was with we young gemara students. I have already forgotten from where he came. I think from Shavli [Šiauliai]. He was the one who gave we younger gemara students modern, worldly books in Yiddish… The yeshiva [religious secondary school] student then also joined the Shirvint self-defense organization.

Thus, the “members” met in the house of prayer several times. They prepared. They decided what to do, how to carry it out, if it were necessary… Once I saw how everyone was given a whistle; a few hid “something” in their boots…

And once, the “members” stopped the reading of the Torah in the house of prayer to call attention to a grievance. They spoke with authoritative words to the congregation. There was a tumult in the house of prayer. I do not remember exactly what it was about.

And a market day arrived, a Wednesday or a Thursday. It was around 9 in the evening. The “group” was again in the house of prayer. This time they stood in the anteroom whispering.

Suddenly a whistle was heard from outside and it was terrifying and wonderful at the same time to see how the young people went outside and left – in the darkness.

What happened?

Ten drunk peasants, agitated by the “Black 100” [Russian anti-Semitic league], had attacked a Jewish house in a corner of the city, near Vilna.

And in the morning I heard: that the “group” beat and wounded the peasants, that the others [peasants] had provided a tenth one to bother the Jews in Shirvint!…

How my heart cries now for Shirvint, which has been erased by the Nazis and Lithuanian partisans.

All of the Jews from Shirvint were driven on the road to Vilkomir and all of them buried in prepared pits three viorst [a viorst is about one kilometer or .62 miles] outside Shirvint.

The old cry from The Book of Lamentations torments my heart and binds itself with the Jewish cries of all generations and binds with our last cry, with the cry of our third destruction…


[Page 1221]

In Tavrig

(Tauragė, Lithuania)

55°15' / 22°17'

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Between the years 1907 and 1914 I was in Tavrig for a few months every year.

There was an effervescent Jewish life in Tavrig. At that time there was a rabbi there who was well known in the Orthodox world; there was a remarkable type there, a dayan [religious judge]; there were respected members of the middle-class, well-to-do shopkeepers Jewish merchants there, who were in Prussia two or three days a week. Some of them would be in Prussia the entire week and they would only come home for Shabbos [Sabbath]. Jews would “go” through Tavrig because it was close to the Prussian border and they [the Jews] would also cross into Prussia. If one was in Tavrig, there was always the feeling that one was standing near the border, that one stood on a strip of land that divided two nations; that the other side of the border led to a wider road into the distance…

As a child, when I was in Pumpian, I thought that there, where heaven came down to earth outside of Pumpian, was the end of the world; that beyond the low strip of heaven lay the Mountains of Darkness…(Hershele [Ostropoler] and Mendele Mocher Sforim's Dos Vinshfingerl [The Wishing Ring] felt and thought the same…)

As is said, there was a colorful Jewish community in Tavrig when my father was a city preacher there for several years until he left for Grodno. However, at that time I clung to the awakened Jewish young people and not to the kloyz [small synagogue]; to the former “Amar Abaye” [“said Abaye” – a Torah sage, words often found in the commentaries] was added Amar [said] Reb [Theodor] Herzl (the Zionist) and Amar Reb Israel Zangwill (the Terriorialist) and Amar Reb Ber Borochov (the Poalei-Zionist –Labor Zionist) and Amar Reb Mendele [Mocher Sforim](the first great writer in the Yiddish language!).

New thoughts, new feelings and new visions enveloped the young Jews. We left the kloyz, perhaps left too quickly, but that is how it happened at that time of newness, of excitement, at the time when the children revolted against their fathers…

There was a strolling area in Tavrig at and around the fence of a garden in the middle of the city where the young people were in ferment and agitated! There were already parties in Tavrig: Bundists, Poalei Zionists, Zionist-Socialists (the Socialist-Territorialists), as well as Sejmowces [Jewish Socialist Workers Party]. And each group argued with the other, debated, quarreled!

[Page 1222]

However, the soul of the new-Yiddish literature hovered over all of the party divisions. Everyone carried around Fishke der Krumer [Fishke the Lame] by Mendele Mocher Sforim; everyone devoured Sholem Aleichem's golden humor; everyone immersed themselves in the fine points of Y.L. Peretz…

In Tavrig (as in Shirvint) a druzhine [squad] was created, a boyevoy otryad [armed detachment], during the days of awakening and of “straightening our backs”; during the days of struggle to support the city (that is, the Jews) from attackers, from reactionaries and from pogromists.

This is a story of what happened:

The main area for strolling in Tavrig little by little moved to the rounded, twisted road around the church. The road lay on a hilly area. When we walked on the road we saw the distant valleys and the fields. And on the other hand, the road carried so much romanticism.

Suddenly a young, wild gentile, a strongman appeared with a number of his assistants and they began to attack Jewish girls on the hilly road. The leader, the wild strongman became a specter, a devil, for whom we trembled. All kinds of stories began to be carried through the shtetl about the calamities that were happening. Until talk began to spread that he had raped a Jewish girl.

The druzhine held a secret discussion about what to do. – It was a secret.

This wild gentile needed to travel on the road that led to Shavl a few times a week. We began following him.

And he was found hanging on tree a few viorst [a viorst equals a little more than a kilometer or .62 miles] outside Tavrig.

What happened? How? No one knew. But the Jewish girls finally could rest. The fear had passed.

Tavrig! The last city of my former home! Between the years 1908 and 1911 I mainly lived in Kovno. A few months each year I would be in Tavrig with my parents.

Until finally Tavrig led me to the border and I left for America.

There were Jews in Tavrig who often were involved with the border. If some also went through Tavrig in the secret smuggling of goods, with contraband, I do not know. I do know that there were Jews who helped “draftees” cross the border… These Jews had contact with several

[Page 1223]

gentiles whose huts and stables stood outside the forest, right near the border. And the “stables” were very important. And the “stables” were very important. Those who would cross the border illegally would often have to stay a day or two in the stalls among cattle and swine.

A Jew with a small wagon and an old horse took me out of Tarvig at dawn. No more romanticism! No more mountain road! No more parents!...

The small wagon took me a viorst or two and stopped at the woods. Then a gentile suddenly appeared with another small wagon. I moved to the second wagon. Taking me to a forest, I was asked to get down [from the wagon] and I was led into a small house. I was locked in a stable at night. At four o'clock in the morning, I and six more young Jewish children were led through the forest, through snow, through water, until we were told that we already were across!

On the other side, there again was a gentile (I think a German) who led us further to a small house; we waited again, traveled again. Many of us suffered until we wanderers arrived at Ellis Island.

However, before I stand at Ellis Island, I will describe the years I spent in Kovno.

From Pumpian to Kovno! This was a long route! Because on the way – from shtetl [town] to the city – the young Jews went with so much hope at that time, with so many expectations, with so many dreams!


In Kovno

(Kaunas, Lithuania)

54°54' / 23°54'

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Kovno was the mother who so regally lay at the Neiman [Neumunas River] and at the Villya [Neris River] and stretched out her arms to welcome the Jewish children from all over Lithuania! The dreams and the strivings of all of the young people, both from the Orthodox and from the new-worldly [enlightened], went to, soared and yearned for Kovno!

The pious young men came here and immersed themselves in the spirituality of Slobodka [Yeshiva – religious secondary school]! The non-matriculated students, those who had prepared privately for the gymnazie [secular secondary school], for the “six classes [levels],” came here! To Kovno were drawn the young men with diverse “notebooks,” [filled with] poems, with stories – to show the great thinkers! Here came the party leaders,

[Page 1224]

all who dreamed and searched for redemption for the Jewish people! Here, to Kovno, came all of the enlightened young people, all the grammarians, to look at [Avraham] Mapu's “church” at Aleksoto Mountain! Everyone, everyone came and rushed to Kovno!

I lived in Kovno for three or four years and to this day I cannot forget the city. I have seen many cities since then but I think that Kovno is the most beautiful city I have seen anywhere. The majestic Neiman on one side and the Villya on the other side! Then their remarkable flowing together, the merging, which can be best seen when one stands on the Aleksoto mountain above the Neiman.

And the city itself! The Plocheschadnaja [Square] where Napoleon, according to legend, lost his hat; all of the abundant Jewish streets; the new plan. The former Nikolaevsky Prospekt (Laisvės Avenue), the paved street on which the Choral Synagogue stood; the road that passed the [military] headquarters that led to Shantz [Šančiai], where the military camp was located. Everything represented the wonderfully beautiful and, in addition, the deeply Jewish, Jewish-rooted city.

One bridge led to Slobodka, the Torah, to old, old Yidishkeit [a Jewish way of life], to the yeshivus [religious secondary schools] that played such a large role in Lithuania.

A second bridge over the Neiman led to the Aleksoto Mountain. I saw the new Jewish young people strolling on the bridge, which led to a newness, a novelty, to a new Hebrew, to literature and to education.

 

lit1224.jpg
A group of Jewish beginner writers in Kovno (1909)

Sitting from the right: A.B. Bialostocki, Ben-Tzion Bloch and Kalmen Zingman. (Remaining unknown)

[Page 1225]

Two bridges, but there still was a kind of internal connection between them. This was the internal connection of a national group, of Jewish national inheritance.

In that year, from 1909 to 1910, Bal-Makhsoves [“The Thinker” – pen name of Israel Isidor Elyashev, a neurologist, the first Jewish literary critic] was in Kovno. The dramatic circle would go to him for advice and he would welcome everyone nicely and genteelly, and his wife – a beauty! – wanted to run a sort of aristocracy in their home. Those who dreamed of becoming writers would thus go to him and if he saw a “spark” in someone, he befriended him.

The poet, Leib Neidus, was then in Kovno. He was studying in the Kovno Real School. He was still very young then. He wore long hair, would love to (as the poem says…) sit by a fireplace and play a harmonica. While in Kovno he published his first poem and in the Warsaw Romaner-Zeitung [Novel Journal] and a second poem immediately after that in Litwin's Lebn un Visnschaft [Life and Knowledge]. Oh, alas, young men, a little younger than him, were jealous of him! He was already published!!!... At first he wrote poems influenced by Dovid Eynhorn (who comes from Volkovysk). But then L. Neidus found his own way. He later left for Vilna.

The young Jews in Kovno were “organized” then. Each one had to find a [political] party – this one or that – the way a young man needs to search for a bride…

And the discussions, the arguments, the enthusiastic hair-splitting among the parties did not cease…

We had great guests in Kovno: Vladek debated with the Zionist-Socialists (S.S.) Danieli ([Yosef] Chernihov); Aron Czenstochower – [Aron] Singalowski (also a Territorialist) debated with [Moshe] Olgin, which finished the debates a little in Kovno then. I am sure that the great discussions and arguments between Beis Hillel and Beis Shamma[1] were not such heated “evenings!” The leader of

[Page 1226]

S.S. [Zionist-Socialists] at that time in the city of Kovno was M. Regalski, who is now in Argentina where he works as a writer and Zionist. The leader of the Bund in Kovno gubernia [county] for a time was Max Lipetz[2] who was known for his oratory. Lipetz later was in America where he was the labor editor for the Forverts [Forward]. He then returned to Russia. He became powerful there and then was purged…

[What about] the great literary meetings that took place in Kovno? Sh[muel] Niger once came to explain what [Y.L.] Peretz meant by “di goldene keyt [the golden chain].” It was because there was upheaval and joy then in Kovno.

And among the great guests, A. Litwin (from Minsk, lived in Vilna for a long time) would come from time to time, with his stillness and his love of the people. Litwin would walk around and search for a new Yiddish folksong and a new Yiddish writer… He advised young people who yearned to write and had “something” in themselves.

And Bal-Makhsoves shone with his medical practice, with his knowledge, with his European ethics and with his great love for the renaissance in Jewish life.

In the awakened Jewish secularism – in that Yidishism [Yiddishism – Yiddish linguistic and cultural movement] – was no less a religious flame than there was in the Musar yeshiva [secondary school emphasizing the study of ethics] in Slobodka! That one [the yeshiva] maintained the ancient shout: Shema Yisroel [“Hear O Israel” – the first words of Judaism's central prayer]. But the new Jews, the modern ones, through all of the programs and through all of their creations also shouted Shema Yisroel – “Listen Israel [the Jewish people]! Listen to the new word: listen to the new news!”

Thus it was in Kovno at the beginning of the current [20th] century.

The Kovno of Reb Yitzhak Elchanan [Spektor] and the Kovno of Mapu; the Kovno of Slobodka and the Kovno of the new, dazzling young people!

From Pumpian to Kovno – what a wide, wonderful country road it was!...


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Beis Hilel and Beis Shammai refers to the “disciples” of the sages Hillel and Shammai. Hillel and Shammai had contending interpretations of the Torah; Hillel was considered kind and gentle and Shammai was strict and uncompromising. A comparison is being made between the debates of the political groups in Kovno and those of the followers of Hillel and Shammai. Return
  2. Lipetz's given name was David, not Max. Return

 

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