Translated by Ronni Kern
In my village of Shemezeve, there was a population of 2,000 peasants who worked the land, while the Jewish population was extremely small in number. Though I left the shtetl of my birth when I was not yet 17 years old, I can still remember 25 Jewish families, and the little shul by the market square across from the church, which was topped with a gilded dome, proud and bold. Our tiny shul would be packed on holidays and [remembering it] leaves my heart filled with a deep longing for those days and years.
My father, Yekhiel Kazhdan, the feldsher (barber-surgeon), shared himself with everyone, in poverty, joy, and suffering.
As in all shtetls, the way of life was in every respect primitive. Occasionally, merchants would visit with dry-goods to sell, and this would lend a festive atmosphere to our village.
During the grey, frozen, winter days, which seemed to stretch out endlessly, my village did not falter nor flag. Children went to school in the kheyders [to study Jewish subjects] and also learned Russian.
Among Jews you would see no ignorant people. Most of them knew how to write a Yiddish letter. There were no divisions among us there. And so the years shuffled along, at times better, at times worse.
At a celebration a wedding, or a bris [ritual circumcision] the entire village rejoiced and participated. We would parade the bride and groom into the street with music, heading down to the market square, where next to the shul the wedding canopy would be set up and ready. The klezmer musicians played, the new parents-in-law danced with each other joyfully, and you could feel the Divine Presence permeating the village.
After such festivities, the grey, stolid, cheerless days would return, especially in the summer, when the days were long. True, nature did give us the gift of her splendor: green poplars, beautiful flowers; but these could not dispel the despondency of the young, who had the notion that somewhere else there was a more interesting world.
Little by little, emigration's appeal reached even our far-flung little corner. People began leaving for the new world. We hadn't experienced much that was exciting [in our little village]. However, I do remember an incident that we suffered through one time, on a particular Sabbath evening: As in all small shtetls, where no newspapers were accessible, we made do with getting our news by word of mouth, including a little gossip and stories blown out of proportion that possibly never even happened. [On this occasion,] a rumor had spread that a pogrom [organized massacre] would break out in our shtetl after shaloshudess [the third meal of the Sabbath, eaten before dusk]; the Gentiles of the village, apparently, had definitely made up their minds. No one wanted to believe it, because we had always felt comfortable with them. Nevertheless, wild imagination took possession of everyone. I will never forget this. It was a hot day. At twilight, thick black clouds began to close in, as if conspiring with the evil rumors. This only increased the panic. Even now I can picture Pesha Berls, wringing her hands. She gathered all her children together and came running into Kapulyer Street. Oh, how she implored the black clouds: God, have mercy on us! And so, all of us sure of what was coming, we gobbled down our shaloshudess and prepared to face the pogrom straight on. [Of course,] the Gentiles of the village had known nothing of all this, poor things, and the whole episode ended happily. But I will never forget the terror.
In the summer months, fires would break out because of lightning, which would ignite the thatched roofs.
We don't have many Shemezeve compatriots in America. My brother Lazer died in the First World War. My father-in-law, Reb Elyeh Eisenson, from Optsin, died in the Lyuban pogrom. I was married to his son, Aaron Eisenson, who endured a great deal in France during the First World War as an American soldier.
[Photo caption: Uniformed soldier: Lazer Kazhdan]
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