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[Pages 292 - 295]

My Hometown Kamay*

(Kamajai, Lithuania)

5549' N 2530'

by Binyamin-Michel Hurwitz

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Kamay is a distance of 22 km from Rakishok (Rokiskis) and 12 km from Ponemunok; 17 km from Sviadashits, from Uzpaliai 24 km and from Dusiat 28 km. There is a river that flows into the Vilye, and nearby flows Lake Petrastzik and the wide and beautiful Lake Saol. A beautiful landscape spreads out around the shtetl, with large and thick forests, which are ringed by the villages of Ruzh, Navar and others.

The Jews farmed the lakes and they alone caught the fish, which gave them a livelihood. The fishermen Moishe and Zundel were particularly well known.

Before the First World War, 65 Jewish families were counted in Kamay. Trade was in Jewish hands--there was not one Christian shop. There were very few craftsmen, only two blacksmiths, 2-3 tailors, two shoemakers, two glaziers, and two shingle-makers. There was one Christian wigmaker. None of the craftsmen were experts. For the most part, when one wanted to have a proper garment made, he traveled to Rakishok, which was sort of a metropolis compared to Kamay.

There were peddlers and a few local merchants. Several supplied eggs to Riga. There were a couple of inns. Klezmorim (musicians) were brought from Rakishok for weddings. The mail was handled by a Jew.

There were no doctors in the shtetl, but there was a feldsher (barber-surgeon), who was named Chaim Shalom. He would give a diagnosis of catarrh (inflamed mucous membranes) for every illness. He later became Kamay's official rabbi. He would make the remedies for the sick himself. This caused resentment with the pharmacist in town, Yoshe Ber Garber, the Meshtzanker. [Translator's note: Meshtzanker is a derogatory or ironic use of the Slavic word which denotes a resident of a city as opposed to one who lives in a village. In this case it implies one who gives himself the air of someone who lives in the big city, but actually is just one of the “plain folk.”]

It happened that Yoshe Ber denounced Haim Shalom to the government and he was arrested. However, Haim Shalom was a Jew, a tzadek (righteous man) and very distinguished in Kamay. A stir was created in the entire town and in the end, he was freed. Both the Jews and the Christians were infuriated by Yoshe Ber and this forced him to emigrate to America. After his departure, a Lithuanian took over the pharmacy.

The shopkeepers and craftsmen waited for the market and the annual fair. If the fair fell on a Shabbos, it was postponed to another day of the week. The peasants from the town and the surrounding areas were also concerned that the annual fair not take place on a day when the Jews would be unable to trade.

Only a few Jews were rich. The remainder was a poor mass of people. The greatest paupers were Leibe-Mote and Shlomoh Glezer.

Poverty was great in Kamay because of the frequent fires. The fires would occur because flax was made in the houses. The largest fire occurred in 1915. Almost the entire shtetl [burned] down. The poor who lost property did not have a roof over their heads. The neighboring towns such as Rakishok and others immediately sent help for the suffering Jews.

There was a time when one lived in great fear of a pogrom, mainly at the time of military conscriptions. The gentile recruits would get drunk and break Jewish windowpanes.

Once, in such uneasy days, a young Jew shot from an attic and hit a gentile child. There was a great panic in the town. All of the authorities from Rakishok came together to investigate, but the guilty one vanished.

It happened that three village gentiles came to Kamay, in order to carry out a pogrom in the town. The Jews called out the Cossacks, who drove away the peasants.

Half of the [people in the] shtetl were Chasidim and half were Misnagdim (opponents of Chasidism). There were 2 shuls and 1 large shul, in which there was davening only on the Days of Awe. For years the large shul was unfinished: without a ceiling and without a floor.

The Misnagdim Rabbi was Reb Leizer Luft. He gave lessons in Talmud and had a kind of Yeshiva in which 30 children [from outside of Kamay] studied, who “habn gegesn tayg.” [Translator's note: were invited to residents' homes for a day of meals.] The Birzer Rebbe, Reb Yitzhak Agulnik, studied at this Kamayer Yeshiva during his early years.

Before Leizer Luft, Rabbi Elihu Gordon sat in the rabbinical chair. Rabbi Gordon's son, Hirshe Leib, now lives in America and writes often for the weekly periodical, “Der Amerikaner” (“The American”).

Later, Rabbi Leizer Luft's successor was his brother-in-law, Yisroel Zisel Dvartz, who is now a bank officer in Israel. The successor to Rabbi Yisroel Zisel Dwartz was the Rabbi Reb Meir Fein. He is now in America. Rabbi Leib Tiger, who perished at the hands of the Hitleristic hangmen, was the town rabbi in the final years.

The Chasidic rabbi for a long time was the old man Reb Leib. There were two shoykhetim (ritual slaughterers): Abraham Leib on the Chasidic side and Shlomoh – from the Misnagdim (opponents of Chasidism). Later the shoykhetim were Efrayim Zilber and Benzion Shkliar. There were often quarrels among the Chasidim.

I remember there often occurred an appeal because there was no money to buy wood. One was wont to take away the talisim (prayer shawls) during the Shabbos prayers, in order to coerce contributions for wood and for repairs for the shul, or lhavdl (Translator's note: word used to separate something sacred from something profane) the bathhouse.

There were chederim (religious schools), Bes Medroshim (synagogues), a Chevra Kadisha (burial society). The principle workers of the Chevra Kadisha were: Zorah Elihu Zilber and Kaleb Sapozhnik. They would take pledges of burial money. The melamdim (teachers) of the chederim included: Manish, Leizer-Zalman, Bencie, Hirshe. Manish was a Gemara-melamed (teacher of the Gemara – the discussions on the Talmud), and when he died, all of the shops were closed. Leizer-Zalman was a sort of modern melamed.

Magidim (preachers) would often come to the shtetl. It is recalled how a magid came and gave a drosh (sermon) at random to the world, without a tefilin (phylacteries) strap and without any content, and at the end he called out: “Gentlemen, I planted cucumbers and they did not grow, and now I preach because I have to make a living.”

The words of the magid moved everyone and everyone contributed to him, in order to help him.

Although there were simple people in the shtetl, they made an effort to educate their children. Simple Jews had fine children, Bney Torah (scholars). Even the bathhouse attendant had a son who was a scholar.

Kamayer Jews woke up at dawn in order to go to shul. Leizer the Kamayer, who was called the Tilim-Yid (the Jew who said Psalms) because he could say nothing more than Psalms, was known in the area. At the end, he lived in Rakishok, and one would meet him saying Psalms in the street or in his home.

Good hearted Jews lived in Kamay. They helped each other with interest-free loans. There were pious women who would go out among the houses with baskets to help make Shabbos for the poor people. On Passover, no Jew would receive his matzoh from the matzoh bakery until he had paid his alms to provide Passover needs for the poor.

There was barely any modern cultural-communal life before the First World War. Just like Sholem Aleichem's hero Zeidl, in Kasrilevka, there was one subscriber in the shtetl to Hatzfire. [A Hebrew periodical published in Warsaw from 1862 to 1931.] His name was Pesakh Shreier, who had the nickname, “Der Meshugener” (the crazy one). There was a small library in the home of Barukh Hurvitz. And there was a group of Zionists. Yisroel Ziel Dwartz traveled as a delegate from Mizrachi [a religious Zionist organization] to the Zionist Congress, and when he returned, he brought with him from the outside a “thermos.” This was a surprising invention for Kamay.

The revolution in 1905 also made a mark in Kamay. The leader of the revolutionary movement in the shtetl was a Christian, Shmeiski Yurnish, who was a seminarian and later abandoned his religious studies.

I remember how in 1905 Shmeiski Yurnish led a large meeting at the market. Three red flags were hung in the center of the market. A great mob came together, and the Czarist Police Commissioner and three guards were surrounded by the revolutionaries, and they were forced to remove their police hats and to hold the red flag.

Later, a punishment battalion of Cossacks arrived. There was panic in the shtetl. The Cossacks chased after Shmeiski Yurnish, but he disappeared. The anger [of the police] was let out on his small wooden house, which was demolished by a cannon.

Shmeiski Yurgin then ran away to Switzerland and returned when the Lithuanians established their regime. He was a school administrator and a great friend of Smetana. He was later shot by Smetana's opponents.

In 1915, the Jews left Kamay because of the proximity of the Russian-German front. Only 10 Jewish families remained in their homes. They were sent to forced labor at the Rokiskis train station.

The years of the Lithuanian Republic, after the war, were marked with very intensive cultural activity; there existed a school for manners with 60 students. The [female] teacher was Yeruzalim, a Shavler girl. – Parents sent their children to study in Ponevezh and Vilkomir.

The town's carriers of culture were Haim Asher Zilber, Binyamin Michel Hurvitz, Efrayim Zilber, Benzion Shklar, Gershon Farber, Tabakhowitz (?) and others.

Later a large library opened and Zionist pioneer activity was carried out.

There are no precise details about the Holocaust in Kamay. My cousin, Elke Beier, ran from the shtetl at the last hour before the Germans arrived. She reported how the Lithuanian rowdies and devils had – before the arrival of the Germans – caused vexation and humiliation for the Jews and killed several Jews, too.

* I express my heartfelt thank you to Mrs. Mariashke-Palavin for this information. Return

[Pages 297 - 298]

A Tear in Memory of Kamay

by Peretz-Zev Hurwitz

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

Kamay was a Jewish shtetl (town), like hundreds of shtetlech in Jewish Lithuania.

Just as in other shtetlech, there were two sides [to the dispute over Judaism] in Kamay: Chasidim and Misnagdim (opponents of Chasidism). The Chasidim had their house of study, rabbi and shochet (ritual slaughterer) and the Misnagdim, too, had their clergy and prayer house, as well as a large shul (synagogue) in which little doves and little birds settled. Reb Leibtzik, of blessed memory, a Lubavitcher Chasid, was the rabbi of the Chasidim. He was a tzadek gomer [Translator's note: completely holy] and shook off all the burdens of this world.

The shochet, Reb Abraham Leib Atlas, of blessed memory, was an aristocratic Jew, whose son lives in America and has a position with the Reform Seminary in Cincinnati.

The Shamas [synagogue sexton] Reb Hirshe was a good Jew [Translator's note: literally, a good person]. Fine people were: Shimeon Smatkin, Shmuel [the son of Mendl, Welwe the son of Mend], Zalman the son of Shmuel, Yosef Ber the pharmacist, Haim Shalom the feldsher (old-time barber surgeon), Zelig the shopkeeper who sold hides, Pesakh Agulnik, Reb Leizer Zalman and many others.

I remember that the misnagdim had several rabbis. Reb Bunim Camekh, of blessed memory, whose son occupies a very distinguished place among the Orthodox in America, was from the old generation.

When the Rabbi Reb Bunim Tzamekh settled in Dusiat, the rabbinical chair was taken by Rabbi Elihu Gordon of Vidz, of blessed memory, who was a scholar and a preacher, too. He wrote many seforim (religious books). His two sons and two daughters are in America. One son, Dr. Hirsh Leib Gordon, is a well-known and learned doctor and the other son, Yakov Dov, occupies a rabbinical chair.

After Rabbi Elihu Gordon settled in Vilna, a young man from the Telzer Yeshiva (religious school of higher learning), Reb Eliezer Luft, of blessed memory, who was a great scholar and a God-fearing person, substituted for him. He was an adherent of the educational school of thought that influenced me, because I was his student.

In my time, the Misnagdim shochet was Reb Shlomoh – a scholar and God-fearing man. His son and daughter are in America, not far from New York.

The sextons were: Reb Mordekhai, of blessed memory, and Reb Naftala Hertz, of blessed memory. Reb Naftala Hertz was a fine bel tfila (person who leads the prayers). His two children are in Baltimore.

The proprietors of Kamay were: Leizer Shira Rives and his brothers Mendl and Noakh and several other families.

There were dear and sincere Jews in Kamay. The old ones died and the young generations were born. Thus was the succession of the world.

Later the younger generation spread over the world and a large number are found in South Africa, Canada and America.

Though the shtetl was a small one, it had much charm.

A large marketplace was in the middle of the shtetl and four streets stretched from it: Shul Street, Mil (Mill) Street, Brik (Bridge) Street and Meszczanski Street.

The tavern stood in the middle of the market like a large well-to-do proprietress.

Each street had its assignment. The Shul Street served to go to daven (pray), as well as, God forbid, to a funeral; the Bridge Street for traveling to Rakishok and to larger cities; going on Friday to the bathhouse, to stroll on Shabbos to Tzipuke's Forest and to the Bar Forest to gather berries, and in winter the children skated; the Mill Street for fetching water or to wash laundry in the river; Meszczanski Street – to travel to Pomenunok – to the train station, from which one traveled to Africa and America.

No trace of Kamay remains. It all perished and was erased. The survivors are spread over the entire world, where they must continue Jewish life in the Diaspora and to help build a new life in the Land of Yisroel.

Am Yisroel Khai!
(The Jewish People Live!)

[Pages 299 - 301]

Reminiscensces of Kamay

by Tirza Franklyn-Yaffa

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

At 12 years of age, I left Kamay with my mother and sister to emigrate to South Africa. This was a Thursday in December 1938. Almost all of the Jews in the shtetl accompanied us to the train station. Although there was a frost outside, they all waited until we left, wishing us warm blessings – an easy trip and a safe arrival in faraway South Africa.

I remember how a woman from Natzunisk especially came to send a greeting to her friends in Africa, not knowing their name and address.

My remembrances of my birthplace, Kamay, are very foggy. Yet, I remember several Kamayer Jews clearly, such as:

Efrayim the shochet (ritual slaughterer) slaughtered poultry and was a melamed (teacher), too. The students respected him greatly. The cheder (religious school) was across from our school, and the young kheder boys would run around on the little hills of garbage, which stuck out like the humps [of a hunchback];

There was another shochet, who was named Bentzil. He had a store, and slaughtering was a sideline for him;

The rabbi in the shtetl, Yehuda Leib, was a very young man, the son of a rabbi. His income came from the selling of yeast, and he received a percent of the community tax. In school, he taught us the Jewish customs and prayers. His wife was a religiously advanced rebbitzin (rabbi's wife) and already wore a modern sheitl (wig);

The gabai (sexton, assistant to the rabbi) of the shul was Aba Kil. He was a cripple, limping. I knew his daughters Sheina and Henya very well. Henya was married and had a beautiful two-year old son, Leizer Dovidl. He wore a blue woolen coat. The second daughter, Sheina, got married in Rakishok and had a dry goods store. I heard that she survived, and her brother, Ruvin, perished in the war;

I remember Moishe the Shamas (synagogue caretaker) and his family.

More than anything else I remember the Kamayer school. We were approximately 50 male and female students. It was a preparatory school with five classes. The chief teacher was Yankele Khrit of Dusiat.

I was a student in the fourth class. The curriculum consisted of the subjects: modern Hebrew, Hebrew grammar, Jewish history, nature studies, Jewish customs and prayers, the Lithuanian language and the history of Lithuania, singing and gymnastics.

We had a beautiful school choir and we often gave performances. It was a joyous life with carefree years as children.

We children really loved the yom-tovim (religious holidays). Every yom-tov had its beauty and power of attraction.

Few Jews survived the immense and difficult catastrophe of our people.

I will list several Jews who eluded the Hitleristic harsh decrees:

Yosel and Feiga Levin, with their daughter Zelda and son-in-law Yakov, and a younger daughter Shulamit and son Mantcik; Yosel's mother-in-law with her young daughters, Pesele and with a mother and two brothers (a third brother was killed);

Berl-Leib Brikman, with his children: Beilke, Manuhahke, and Zeldele;

Aba Kil's daughter and her family;

Gershon the “Preparer” (quilter) and his wife and their family;

Elya – Itsl's daughter and her husband and family;

Yisroelke Zilber, a son of Haim Asher Zilber and a family of 11 people;

Saul and Lese Goldes;

Itzke Tudrus, who returned to Kamay after the war;

My uncle Yosel-Levin and his family.

These people and families saved themselves from death by escaping to Russia. On the eve of the arrival of the Germans, they left the shtetl and succeeded in running away to the Soviet Union.

However, the rest of the Jews remained in Kamay. It hurts my heart that shortly after our departure for South Africa, all of the good and pious Kamayer Jews who did nothing bad to anyone perished so tragically at the hands of the Hitlerist Fascists.

[Pages 302 - 305]

A Fair in Kamay

by B. Sachs

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

The marketplace occupied the place of honor in the shtetl and was widely spread out, dominating the neighboring alleys and streets. The houses and shops that surrounded it on all sides seemed to appear humble and shrunken out of fear and regard for the great number of peasants who would come to Kamay on market days to sell their village wares and, at the same time, buy the goods they needed.

The villagers and the Kamayer traders carried out a vibrant market trade during the middle of the week. However, there was an even greater event with even more excitement when a fair would come to Kamay.

Kamay sparkled and the idyllic Jewish shtetl quickly changed its garb, its face. On a fair day, peasants [male and female] from the vicinity, near and far, would convene, even from villages that were 30 versts from Kamay. [Translater's note: a verst equals two-thirds of a mile.] The shtetl would be crammed with peasants, butchers, horse traders whose racket echoed strong and far.

The Kamayer shopkeepers did not sleep the night before a fair and were busy sorting the various articles for the next day. They sorted each article with deliberation, order and zest, so that they would tempt the customers. The various goods truly stuck out of the shelves like ripe stalks in a cornfield.

My mother was busy at the oven the entire night, baking iced and tasty cookies and bagels. She was determined that her baked goods would be the best and they were of all flavors in order to tease the nostrils, the appetite, of the fair guests. A great fire smoldered in the oven and she spread the hot glowing coals symmetrically with a poker. She rapidly began kneading the dough, which already had risen above the edges of the kneading trough, which was wrapped with old quilts.

At Rikl's “China” teahouse, they were awake at night preparing for tomorrow's income. The pot-belly copper samovar was scoured and cleaned so that it functioned well. Dozens of glasses with bowls, plates of herring; containers of whisky were secretly prepared…

Was it any wonder that the fair brought such cheerfulness and activity to Kamay? The poor shtetl waited for weeks for the fair, since on the day of the fair the poor Jews found it easier to earn rubles. The hope of a good income gave them courage, and worrying Jewish faces radiated with the appearance of a bright morning.

The peasants, too, prepared for the road during the night. Each of them considered which cattle they should sell, either the one with the turned up nose or the anxious cow, which pig and ox and how many measures of rye and which poultry. They cleaned the legs of the cattle with straw and they fed them potatoes and barley.

During the night before the fair they did not sleep, and before the cock crowed, all of the sleds were filled with wheat, eggs, chickens, etc. Cows and calves, oxen, pigs and goats were firmly tied to the harnesses with ropes and they went silently after the peasants in their coarse brown woolen coats and in heavy pelts, step after step. Peasant women in their sandals and high healed shoes, with wicker baskets in their hands, wrapped with red woolen shawls and in wide petticoats and in linen aprons, which were adorned with red borders of knitting wool, prudently and compliantly followed, as in a caravan. When dawn began to break, the pace accelerated and the horses and livestock were driven with spirit, in order to arrive at the great Kamayer fair in time.

The buying and selling between the Kamay merchants and the peasants began at the turns in the road and at the edge of the shtetl. Jewish traders waited in advance and they immediately made a connection. Arguing, bargaining, gesturing with their hands and swearing all the false oaths in the world. Bickering started that was louder than the squealing of the pigs and the quacking of the chickens and geese.

The congestion and screaming in the market place grew greater and greater and among the Jewish market traders, Yankel the prankster distinguished himself in the tumult by telling a spicy story about Africa and the black Africans who reached 60 feet in height and had only one eye in their forehead. Although the ice-frosty snow tugged at the fur-wearing peasant who clapped one booted foot to the other in order to warm himself, the story of Africa and of the frightening African snakes and scorpions held him.

The fair was spread out on all the streets and alleys, on all of the shtetl's rows and courts. Many poor people and beggars swarmed around and there were street musicians and blind village troubadours who begged and repeated monotonous heartbreaking melodies, one after the other, on all kinds of instruments, from a barrel organ to a whistle.

These melodies drew clusters of peasants and also tall Aleksei, the proprietor of the brickyard that was located 6 verst from Kamay. Aleksei pushed apart the surrounding peasants with his fists, made a place for himself and began to dance the kazatska with authentic peasant-like rage so that the ground shook. His high spirits exhilarated the remaining peasants, who strongly applauded him, drowning out the heartbreaking melodies of the troubadours and the street musicians.

Aleksei was considered the strongest peasant in the area, and all would shake in deadly fear of him. He loved to march in with his gang of peasants to the thicket of the fair and everyone would give way for him. He would be avoided particularly when he was as drunk as Lot.

Jews sold whisky surreptitiously. Hanaka, a short woman was involved in that, too. She would bribe the Russian officer (policeman) so that he would pretend ignorance.

She was afraid to sell whisky to Aleksei, because when he became drunk, he created a scandal and with his feet he knocked down Hanaka's door, cursing her with ugly words, asking why she would not sell him more and more whisky.

Because of this she took care not to sell Aleksei any vodka.

Although Aleksei's wife was of short stature with flaxen hair and blue eyes, she had power over him and when she would see him drunk, she would slap his face. Then he meekly pulled his fur cap over his eyes and shuffled away from the thicket of the fair in the direction of the bridge, accompanied by the loud whistling and laughter of the peasants.

There were many colorful incidents during the fair. There was no absence of scuffles and in the courtyards lay around many drunk peasants who drooled and wheezed wildly and crazily.

Only when evening fell did the excitement diminish. For the most part, the peasants departed.

But in Rikl's "China" the peasants drank vodka in public, singing folksongs, accompanied by a harmonica.

The peasants' horses stood tied to the "China's" fence and rummaged in the snow and gasped from boredom and tiredness. On the ground, near the wagons, one could notice a drunk peasant lying on the filthy snow, with a naked, disheveled chest, gesticulating drunkenly and babbling chopped up, unintelligible talk.

Only when the Russian police officer appeared late in the evening, around eleven o'clock, did "China" become empty of peasants. Drunk peasants left the teahouse, shaking at the order of the policeman, and among the clods of snow, they barely found their way to the harnessed horses.

The horses moved from the spot and the sounds of the bells merged with the notes of the melodies from the intoxicated peasants in the sleds, who lay there like lambs.

Because they feared the drunken curses, the Jews closed their shutters and firmly bolted their doors. The earnings for the day were counted and recounted by the light of a smoking lamp or a tallow candle.

Children were not yet asleep either, their sleep disturbed by the excitement of the tumultuous day. They told each other of interesting episodes during the passing of the day, and they drooled with enthusiasm, especially when they spoke about Hirshke the fisherman, who had fought with six Lithuanian peasants in the market and how he bloodied each of them.

Hirshke's strength teased their childish fantasies and, with the distant echo of the bells of the parting peasants and the quiet sound of the counting of the coins, they fell asleep on the hard floor, dreaming of Hirshke, the strongest Jew in the shtetl….

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