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A Conversation from Ancient Times

by Chanoch Lewin

Translated by Jerrold Landau

In memory of my parents: my father Reb Dov-Ber and my mother Minca, in holiness

A. Groyat and Okna

Smorgon is situated on the route between Minsk and Vilna, between the surrounding walls of forests. Its northern bounds almost touch the banks of the calm Viliya, flowing somnolently and thoughtfully through its channel of greenery. From the city's other sides, the boundaries of Smorgon touch two rivers, tributaries of the main river Viliya – the Groyat and the Okna. The first is a proud, strong river, flowing with strength, always hurrying as if it had to get somewhere quickly. The second one, the Okna, is calm, gentle, and weak, as if saying: “See, I am slow and sandy…” The “Beradim,” wandering poets and instrumentalists of Lithuania, would issue from the depths of their soul, through the strings of the bandura, the musical instrument of that area – a song of legend and story. The puffy [literally “full of skin”] eyes of the Beradim wandered through the space of the cottage of the farmer, into which old and young, women and children, gathered to hear stories from olden times – the extinguished eyes of the poets wandered through the space of the farmer's hut, imagining that they are seeing the young, brave Lithuanian prince Groyat, and his beautiful bride Okna.

The elderly “Wydolta,” the first of the poets and instrumentalists, who played the antique instrument and told in verse the story of the young prince who descended from the heights of the town of his father, the great ruler Gydmin [Gediminas]. The young knight descended from his white horse, and found the maiden Okna in the field. -- -- --

Okna stood before him, clear as the sun, decorated with dew-laden, perfumed, and decorated graceful flowers.

Then the knight Groyat took her, seated her on his white horse, and galloped away with the maiden, the queen of his dreams, to the palace of his father, the ruler, in order to request his blessing.

The father hardened his heart and said: “This one is not fitting for you, my son the knight. She is the daughter of a village, and you are a prince.”

Gydmin, the great ruler of a large city, sent the maiden Okna away. The sorrowful, morose maiden went down to the banks of the Viliya, flowing and descending eastward. The young prince Groyat followed in her wake, absorbing her shadow and concerned about the breath of her spirit. Thus did both of them go for two days and one night until they reached a rocky pillar on the banks of the Viliya River. They met at the top of the rock. The lovers embraced each other, and their golden joy lit up the waves of the river. Then Groyat said:

“My bride, perhaps the Viliya, the mother of rivers, will gather us up. In its depths we will build an abode of love forever.” Okna said:

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“Take me with you, Groyat my beloved, take me into the calm Viliya, where our life will flow forever.”
They spoke, and did not continue. Then they jumped into the river.

The mother Viliya took the lovers into its bosom. As they jumped, the rock upon which they stood split, and two rivers broke forth from the sides, forging for themselves paths through the forests and the fields in a joyous and splendorous stream – are these not the rivers Groyat and Okna?

People say, as time went on, a human settlement arose between these rivers, ruling over their dual essence.

This is the mighty Groyat bursting forth, and the dreamy gentleness of the Okna.


B. Smorgon, the Interpretation of the Name

It is said: Smorgon had a difficult name to identify. More difficult is the pronunciation of this name in the mouths of the gentile: Smorgonia. The interpretation of the name was not known for many years. Many worked on it. They asked the historians and turned to the secrets of legend – but came up with nothing.

It is said: The interpretation of the name is shrouded in mystery, and its meaning is obscured in the clouds of the past. Nevertheless, the tradition of the elders is the desire to solve the hidden secrets of the past, to reveal all, or at least some part of the footnotes of long-gone days. [Who really knows?] In any case, the following is told to us:

On the face of the wide world, situated between the Lycznik [Litchnik] and Przyboz forests, with the Viliya closing in on it from the north and the south, and from Zlasia (meaning: opposite the forest)[1], on the way to the “Dark Forest” on the route to Soli from the east and west – farmers of White-Rus[2], connected to the “Panim Lachim” (Polish nobility) who worked the land, and who ignored the law.

All the storehouses of the landlords were full of grain – while they and their households hungered for bread.

The houses of the nobility were constructed with planks, from the best forests of the area – while they lived in dirt shacks on the banks of the rivers.

The noblemen had relations with their brides first, and while they sent their children to forced labor.

When their souls became entangled [enwrapped] from agony and hunger, the farmers of White Rus composed a revolutionary song. From the depths of their being, the degraded souls of the vassals shouted out:

“You, oh Viliya, have you not seen how downtrodden [we are] from the contact with the lashes of the whip – the end shall come, the yoke will be removed!” (From a Byelorussian national song). Then it happened that the farmers could no longer keep the words of the son in their hearts. They took their axes and scythes, went up to the rocky hill, shouted with a bitter cry and said:

“We will no longer work for the landowners until we get land to grow bread

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for our children and wives.” When the voice of the farmers was heard through the decorated wall of the young nobleman of the Tyszkiewicz ruling family, the brave man rounded up his men and galloped over to the camp of the protesting farmers. They came to the edge of the camp, stood across from them, and the young “Pan[3] called out in a loud voice:

“Farmers, abandon your weapons and return to your houses!”
The farmers answered him in unison: “Only death will cause us to abandon our weapons. We will not move until our property will be secure in our hands.”

“So it will be,” said the young Pan, “Your property will be established.”

“And how will this be established?” asked the farmers of White Rus of the Polish nobleman.

“Did you not know, did you not hear that the land is measured by morag[4], a large unit of measure, and, v unit, its younger sister, called hajunja – for every morag of my estate, you will receive one hajunja for your inheritance. And now, tell me if I have spoken in justice?” They all answered: “Our master has spoken justly, thus let it be.” All the farmers rose up and stood on one side, and the young Pan of the Tyszkiewicz dynasty stood on the other side. They took an oath of faith, and wrote the words of the agreement in a book. They wrote it and sealed it, some with a seal of a man, and others with a sign of blood from their thumb – to keep and establish the words of this oath until the end of days.

When the people, the farmers of White Rus, returned to their homes, the women and children went out to greet them and asked:

“From where are you coming?”
The husbands and father answered in one word: “From Smorg-hajunja”

It is not known whether they succeeded in explaining the meaning of the name to their wives and children. It is known that the farmers were cheated by the ruling Pans, as [only] a small measure was given to them – a small amount of land, and the land was measured with a stingy eye.

After a long time passed, a human settlement sprung up there. In memory of the breakdown of brotherhood between the landlords and their serfs, the place was called:

A second version of the ancient legend follows:
In the decorated castle of Prince Tyskiewicz lived a Jewish steward of Khazar extraction, named Reb Avraham Kuzari. The prince brought the Jew from the large city of Kiev to be the steward of his house. The prince placed everything he had into the hands of Reb Avraham, for the man was wise and resourceful. His advice was always logical.

There was none like him in the country who conducted himself with such wisdom wherever he went. Pans from afar would frequent his door to get advice from him, and also to settle their disputes, both internal and external.

The young prince of the Tyskiewicz family took none other than he, Reb Avraham the Kuzari, on the day of the great dispute between himself and his servants, the farmers of White Rus. He,

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Reb Avraham and none other gave the wise advice regarding the distribution of land in measures of morag and hajunja – to assuage the anger of the serfs who were rebelling against their masters.
According to a different version of the legend, his wife and children came out to greet him upon his return to his city, and asked him:
“Is all well with you, my husband and our father?”

Shalom,” answered Reb Avraham.

“And from where are you coming?” they further asked him.

“From Smorgon,” responded Reb Avraham.

It is unknown if he succeeded in explaining the meaning of the name to his wife and children. It is known that due to his good advice, the prince of the Tyskiewicz family gave him a large inheritance upon which to build his house, in the place where the deal was struck.

Reb Avraham the Kuzari called the place Smorgon. As time when on, Reb Avraham brought in Jews from his native land, settled them there, and distributed to them land from his inheritance. He brought in a large population. They built many houses. There was a street which the gentiles called the Street of the Khazars. Future generations changed the name of the street to the Street of the Pigs [chazirim][5].

Let the name be a reason to nod the head, and [be] a joke and source of derision.


C. Bear Chasers


From time immemorial, the nickname “Bear Chasers” was attached to the Jews of Smorgon. It is possible for the distributor of nicknames to all living beings[6] to attach this nickname to the Jews of the city, and did not find any other suitable name for them other than this. They were not pursuers of profit, not even pursuers of pleasure, not pursuers of spirit, and not even pursuers of peace… but, specifically, pursuers of bears.

The writer[7] is speaking of the Jews of Smorgon to exclude the local gentiles, for we have never heard the gentiles being called such a name by their friends, even though, according to all opinions, they were closer to the boundary of the forests than the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The bears of Smorgon achieved renown, and their fame went afar. We are not talking about regular bears, as such are found in all forests; not of the sweet-toothed glutton that puts its paw in its mouth during a long slumber in its den for the entire winter as it watches a pleasant dream of the honey of the world, and not of its sting – but rather of that trained bear, with a beautiful back and a beautiful soul, whose paws are made up and whose breath is sweet, walking upright and standing on its hind paws, understanding hints and distancing itself from the fist. All its steps are human steps, bearing grace and charm to its owners and to everyone, knowing how to dance according to the musical instruments and the tunes. After each dance, “our master the bear” would place itself before its audience, spread its arms, as if to say:

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“I did my part, and now you do your part…” During its performance, it did not intend anything other than the good taste of this sweetness, the honey liquid that is called mead.

From which house of study did this “child” learn its teaching? – not from the Beis Midrash of Shem and Japheth, but rather from that of Ham. Ham in the literal sense – in the academy of bears that was founded by Count Potocki himself.

Where was this school of bears founded?

In Smorgon, at the end of the long road, as you come to the wide market along the way to the Przyboz Forest. There, Potocki founded it and set up its doors. From time immemorial, this street has been called “The Street of the Bears” (Berishe Gasse)[8].

There was a Jewish man
In Smorgon the capital.
Bedecked and decorated.
But not graced with property.
Lit up with good deeds.
The man's name was Moshe Ber (Moshe the bear). Not that his education was such, but rather because of something that happened with him.

This is what transpired: Reb Moshe was a straightforward man, happy with his lot. He was also poor, may it not befall you. He lived in a small hut, with his wife and many children. And his work? – he put his hand [in] at all jobs.

He was a water drawer, he lit the oven in the bathhouse, but his main livelihood was from the trees of the forest. Immediately after the High Holy Days, Reb Moshe would go out to the nearby forest, cut down trees, and load them on his wagon. Together with his children, he dragged them back to town to sell the wood to the residents. Reb Moshe conducted great publicity for his merchandise. He stood in the market, and declared to the public:

“In the Forest of Przyboz I was.
Lofty trees I saw
I cut down the tree – I will gird my loins
I will bring it to your houses, and pay, my sirs!”
The children saw and responded
“We will bring the wood, we will light the fire
The heat will spread, and the cold will disappear.”
Once, in the middle of the winter, the householders of Smorgon saw Reb Moshe return from his work in the forest. He was pulling his wagon laden with wood, and the kozowka (the furs, a short winter coat made of hides with the hair inside) was not on him. They went to greet him, and found that he was only wearing his kaftan, and was shivering from cold and hunger. They asked him

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to explain the situation, but he did not answer them. He only gestured to his wagon laden with wood. The people standing around turned their eyes, and saw his outer coat, the kozowka, folded on top of an [obscure] bundle atop the wood in the wagon. One of them approached and opened the bundle. What do you think they saw there? A wounded bear cub.

After some time, Reb Moshe told his story in short form:

“In this forest, there are chopped trees.
Among the trees, there was an abandoned bear cut.
He removed his coat and wrapped up the animal
He brought it hope, and raised it with the children.”
One cannot describe the great joy when Reb Moshe brought the little “child of the forest” to his home. The joy of the children was boundless. He fed it of their bread, gave it to drink from their cup, and set up a bed for it atop the hot stove.

When the stove was especially hot, the “berish”, the little bear, stood up on his hind legs. The children stood below, turned their thin necks upward toward the oven, shouted out loud, clapped their hands, and the “berish”, this little bear, danced to the tempo of their song.

As time went on, the cub grew up and became an [adult] bear. His “beary” soul was bound to the members of the household. He was their guard and their shadow.

“They gave it food at the right time
And it kept them from its kicks
It rejoiced and danced on the oven.
And drank a pitcher full of mead”
From that time, Moshe Ber Dov was given the nickname Moshe “the bear.”


News spread through Smorgon: the only daughter of Count Potocki, the apple of his eye and breath of his spirit, was dying.

Already this news had stopped being a secret, for the young princess had fallen into a “black melancholy,” may G-d protect us, some time before, and she was “flickering like a candle.” All the physicians that her father brought from the large land of Poland as well as from overseas left as perplexed as they came. Even the various soothsayers and strange women in white could not find any cure – nothing helped. The delicate girl sat dully, in a room inside a room. Food did not enter her mouth, and a smile did not appear on her pale lips. She only stared ahead with hollow eyes. People said, “She is flickering like a candle.”

A Jew, Reb Shmelke of Danyshev lived on the estate of Count Potocki. He was the steward of his house, and a wonderful advisor to his master. Count Potocki did not do anything simple or complex without asking the advice of “his” Jew. With time, Reb Shmelke married off his daughters

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to the sons of householders of Smorgon. He regarded himself as a resident in all aspects in his new city of residence.

One day, Reb Shmelke was sitting with the elderly count, conducting business with his merchandise and discussing many business matters. The door of the parlor [opened] in which the count and the Jews were sitting, and the elderly nanny burst in, wailing:

“My master, your graciousness, a terrible thing has happened. Your daughter the princess has fallen down, and who can raise her up?
The elderly count was perplexed, and called out loudly.
“Please save, oh Jew, pray to your G-d, Shmelke Sardacza!”
The steward responded:
“I will do as you say, only be strong and brave.”
After he spoke, he hastened out to the street, running the entire way.

The Jews of Smorgon were standing in the market, perplexed and astonished – where is Reb Shmelke from Danyshev running? The women looked out the windows of their houses and said to each other:

“What happened to Reb Shmelke?”
The children of the cheders [9] heard the tumult from the street. They peered through the cracks and said:
“Our master, Reb Shmelke, is running…”
And he, the Danyshever, Reb Shmleke, arrived at the house of Moshe “the bear,” roused up the residents of the house, and called out, saying:
“Reb Moshe, take the bear and follow me!”
“To where?” asked the owner of the bear to Reb Shmelke, “What is the hurry?” Even though he [intuitively] knew that if Reb Shmelke was saying something, he knew he what he was talking about.

Reb Moshe took the bear down from the oven in his house. He whispered in its ear, placed a sugar cube in its mouth and a chain around its neck, and pulled the bear after him. The bear uttered a growl of understanding, as if to say: “I am invited to a celebration.” It lifted its legs, shook its head this way and that, blinked its eyes as the dandies do, wiped its nose with its paw, spat out its spittle – and went onward! As if to say, “Take me after you, let us hurry!”[10]

Reb Shmelke of Danyshev ran
Reb Moshe “the bear” ran after him
Dragged behind them like a householder sitting
Our good “berish”.
The town was in ferment
The householders shouted in anger:
“To where, is this convoy going,
If not to Potocki the count?
The convoy already passed the market
Along the way to the Przyboz Forest.

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The lambs [i.e. young children] had already left the cheders
In which their souls were marching mightily
And the good animal was then pacing
Up the steps of the palace
To save the dying daughter of the count
To prevent a tragedy for Potocki.
You have probably figured out for yourselves that the Danyshever went to the count in this manner, and Reb Moshe “the bear” and the good berish following after them.

They were brought into the room of the dying princess. The delicate one was lying on a shiny silk mattress. A dull light shone whiteness on her golden hair, as the white rose of death sprouted upon her lips.

Then Reb Moshe approached the good “berish” and whispered in its ear… The bear checked and lifted one paw, and then checked its other paw. It stood upright, grasped the cymbals in its front paws, and clanged them!

“Clang the cymbal
And sing with all strength
A Divine song, the hymn of life
From the angels with white wings.”
And the “berish” is dancing and dancing, clanging the cymbals,
Say to the eyelids of the delicate girl
Open her eyes, the pitiful one.
Let the agony disappear, let the grief pass
From the bitterness of death that is with her – let her rise.
-- -- -- -- -- -- --
-- -- -- -- -- -- --

When Count Potocki saw the charm of life that was in the dancing bear, he commanded his servants to go out to the forests and hunt bears, starting from the forests of Smorgon and reaching to the forests of Bilo Bzh' – throughout the entire lands of Count Potocki.

Then, through the advice of Reb Moshe, the count built a brick, two-story house, with a large opening between each floor. The bears were placed in the second floor. A large oven was built for the house, whose fire did not extinguish day or night. Tongues of flames rose up from the oven, flowing through the heat ducts leading to the open space under the floor of the second floor. The floor got hot, and who would not be burnt through the heat?

The bears stood on top, checked their paws, which were indeed burnt by the fire. They began to jump and grunt in anger. They could not stand on their paws, for the fire was burning hot. They ran and danced, the poor things.

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Boiling tears flowed from their eyes, and their noses sniffed with flames. Reb Moshe “the bear” and his sons stood below, on the first floor, throwing blocks of sugar to the bears.

This did this task for many days. They heated and cooled the floor in succession, and the bears danced.

After a time, Reb Shmelke of Danyshev brought an instrumental troupe of Jews, who played below while the bears danced above.

When the bears concluded their “course of study”, their bellies were filled with Torah and wisdom: How, does one dance before the bride?[11] And how does one pace upright? And how do you execute a bow with a friendly face, and other such manners and customs? They would sell each bear separately for a great deal of money, in royal currency, to gypsies who traverse many countries, to distribute them throughout the wide world, where they would stand in the markets as the bears danced to the enjoyment of the audience. Then the gypsies would fill their pockets with “jingles”[12], so that they could sustain their bones with all good food as for Olnmishke the bear. Thus they called it (perhaps on the name of the first benefactor Reb Moshe “the bear”), so that it would not forget its master:

“The block of sugar will be put in its mouth
And its cheeks will be full of sweet mead
For who is as nice as he
Understanding music and dancing in a circle”
This bear school existed for many years in Smorgon. It was the famous Bear Academy. It existed all the days of Reb Moshe the Bear, and his sons who followed after him, “the bear pursuers.”

And I was still a youth, in my young days

I did not stand among the adults, I did not demonstrate in the gates.

My ears only heard legends and isolated stories

Told by my blind grandfather, to the honorable gathering

The story of Reb Moshe and the good “berish”

Who danced in the markets and growled on the street

Who tasted sweetmeats and sampled nectar

I will conclude my story with wishes of “all the best”.


D. The Story of the Cakes

“The cakes of Smorgon” were famous throughout the world. There is a story of a certain Jewish native of Smorgon who wandered afar during the time of the great world war, and ended up in Harbin. From there, he wandered southward through the Asian Continent and reached the isles of the sea. In the isles of the sea, the local children dressed up, as is known, in necklaces of colorful flowers on every holiday and birthday. They tied the wreaths on their necks, and went out in dances as the drum beat in front of them.

What did that Jew do? Since he ended up among them, he did as they did. However, instead

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of a floral wreath, he produced and affixed a wreath of small cakes, made by a baker, who colored them in all the colors of the flowers known in the isles of the south. The local residents came and asked him:

“What does this necklace around your neck do?”
He stood up and responded them in brief:
“Come to me tomorrow.”
This Jew from Smorgon returned to his home, called his wife, and said to her, “Quickly, knead dough.”

The two of them, the husband and his wife, stood the entire day and night making dough. They rolled it into long strips, and tied the strips around the finger, in the measure of a ring. They would pull and grab the edges. Later, they would place the dough-rings on the burning oven until they changed to a sparkly color like gold. In honor of the location, and in accordance with the custom of the people there, the small, brown cakes would be dyed in the color of live flowers. They would be place in strings to create a necklace of cakes.

The residents of the island came the next day and saw the necklaces that were tied on beams of reeds on the wooden hut. They tasted the small cakes, and praised their taste and aroma. The people purchased the cake necklaces for themselves and their relatives, paying in the national currency. They left, returned, and added more purchases to what they had already purchased. That Jew of our town earned the merit of the ancestors and the merit of the cakes – and earned his livelihood in a bountiful manner. After time, he affixed a sign onto the front of his house, advertising his trade:

“Smorgon Bagels”
Written in the vernacular, in the language of the natives, and the Yiddish language.

That is the end of the story of the Jew of Smorgon who found himself in the islands of the south. While he was still there, the making of cakes did not stop in Smorgon. Many residents of the town, especially the gentiles, did so in public in every place. They would export to the markets of the towns in the country of Poland, and advertise their merchandise. There were gentiles who purchased their cakes and tied them to their belts and the necks of their children, making necklaces of cakes, large, medium sized, and small. Their tastes were different: some sweet, other salty, and others lukewarm. Some of the dough was kneaded with eggs – they were crisp and tasty – an enjoyment to the palate. They spread their own fame, and were called Kazimir in the city of Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania. There, they were publicized with words of song:

Here it is in our language:

Cakes from Smorgon,
Gather together in crowds.
Purchase from morning until night
And in your houses – there will be food.
So what was the beginning of the cakes of Smorgon?

About this, I heard in the cellar of Reb Nota Kowarski. In his attic,

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Reb Nota worked in communal affairs and brought medicine to the sick of his nation, with healing for all their ailments. For Reb Nota Kowarski was a first class feldscher[13]. The large cellar of his stone house was dedicated to his wife and children to work in the baking of cakes. They were assisted by proper gentile women from the nearby villages and hamlets.

During winter evenings, gentiles would gather from all the nearby homes to the cellar of Kowarski. Children, students returning from cheder as well as their sisters all sprouted to life at the light of the wide oven, which contained long iron grates with various cakes atop. At times, several elderly women would come to the basement to warm their old bones at the oven and feast “their souls” with gossip and chit-chat.

The main point of the matter was that Welinka, an orphaned daughter of farmers, a Pole with a prying face, was present. She was raised in the house of old man Mytropan. By your life, if you have ever seen a gentile such as him – large, bony, and instilling fear.

But with the “instrument” in his hands – you have also not seen the dream. Mytropan knew how to play, and he made his musical instrument with his own hands. In form, it was unclear whether it was a double bass, or a drum with various extra strings stretched across it, some thick as rope, and some thin and thread.

Mytropan would bang this instrument with his right thumb, and strum the strings with all the fingers of his left hand. Simultaneously, he would open his empty mouth and expose his solitary tooth that remained, instilling fear on all the children sitting before him. “Welinka Dosza,” the old man would turn to his granddaughter, “Now, tell them stories from Grandmother, the refined soul. And I will make sounds with the strings of the instrument.”

“Welinka, begin your story
And I will make ringing sounds with my instrument
The story is sad, but not scary.”
And in the space of the cellar, the cellar of Reb Nota Kowarski, Welinka the orphan relates the gloomy story of the past.

“Mitka from the Chotor[14] loved the very beautiful Marilka, the daughter of the merchants. Her father refused to give her to him, for the lad was poor, not of a good family. Mitka had nothing other than the cloak on his body and his shepherd's flute. What would the lad do with his great love, where would he bear his pain? Perhaps the Okna, the ancient stream, would sweep away the flames of his pain with its current. Or perhaps he should give his oppression, and place his supplication before Jabducha, who weaves quaint strands of silver in the foliage of the trees on moonlit nights?

The Okna will carry Mitke's agony with its waves to the great sea – where it would be lost in the depths.

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Mitka went from Chotor to Marilka, the daughter of the merchants. He went directly to her house. For unfortunate Mitka?

And the witch Jabducha – to her must be brought a gift in the currency of sorcery, and where would he obtain such? Nobody was at the home of the merchant. They had all gone to a festive meal of the gentiles. Only the youngest daughter, the most beautiful Marilka, remained. The girl was standing, kneading dough to make cakes for their holiday that was to take place the next day. Her voice was raised in pleasant song.

Mitka opened the door quietly, stood before him at his full height, pale and sad.

“What is with you, Mitinka, that you came? And why do you look sad?”

“You asked two things, my beautiful one. To the first, to ask if you will come with me today. To the second, because I have no life without you…”

Then Marilka responded to Mitka from the Chotor.
“How can I follow after you, if you do not betroth me with a gold ring, as is the custom of men. Mitinka, purchase a ring. Buy a gold ring. Then I will stretch out my finger to you, and you can betroth me as a wife in accordance with the law and custom.”
Then the forlorn lover stood up, and responded to the beautiful one with the emotion of his heart.

“From where can I get a gold ring, my Marilka, being that I am a poor orphan, and have nothing in the world other than the love in my heart.” He did not reply anything [additional] for his heart was seething inside him, and his dark eyes were ignited with a strange fire. Then he turned to and fro, and saw Marilka busy with working the dough, and the oven was burning.

Mitinka quickly approached the dough. Before the eyes of his beloved, he took off a piece of the kneaded dough, made it into a ring around his finger, and then approached the burning oven and placed his hand in the flame. Thus did he hold his hand in the flame for a long time. Mitinka's face became pale, and his burning eyes dwindled, and were extinguished.

Then Marilka screamed. She hurried to her beloved and removed Mitka's hand from the fire. The finger was completely roasted, and, closed around it, was a wonderful ring, the work of an artist, in a form of beaten gold.

“Mitinka, my love,” whispered the lovely maiden, as she melted down in tears, “take me with you, my darling. Wherever you go, I shall go, for your love is as strong as fire, your heart is like a long hearth that will never extinguish.”

Then the two of them went to the Chotor, Mitka the shepherd, and the beautiful Marilka, the daughter of merchants.

Her father stood in his refusal, and did not bless the match. He also cut his daughter off from her property, so how would they sustain themselves?

Marilka kneaded the dough into wraps. Mitka would wrap them around his finger, as he had done at the time of the great ordeal. They would bake rings of dough in the oven. They would make cakes, and tie them onto strings so they would become a single unit. They would go out to the markets and proclaim:

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“Buy cakes for a penny
Then we can live, and not die.
Buy, matrons, and you too, oh master,
The best of the small cakes of Smorgon.”
Mytropan's strings became silent. A tear fell from Wilenka's eyes, and those seated in the cellar were all agitated and afraid.

The storyteller relates:

It is ended, but not complete
In writings such as this, you find but do not dream.
The wise person believes and the fool ceases
For at the end – my heart mourns.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. 'las' is forest in Polish. Return
  2. White Rus may not be geographically equivalent to White Russia. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Ruthenia and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruthenia Return
  3. Sir or Mister in Polish. See https://culture.pl/en/article/pan-poland-word-by-word Return
  4. A morgen is an obsolete unit of measure in Poland and other places. Return
  5. A play on words: Kuzarim and chazirim. Return
  6. A play on words of “The distributor of life to all living beings” – a description of G-d. Return
  7. The author is referring to himself. Return
  8. The following article provides some context: https://vetliva.com/tourism/what-to-see/pamyatnik-medvezhey-akademii-v-smorgoni/ Return
  9. Cheders are traditional Jewish elementary schools Return
  10. Song of Songs 1:4. Return
  11. A well-known Jewish wedding melody, based on a Talmudic statement. See http://www.zemirotdatabase.org/view_song.php?id=150 Return
  12. Jingling coins – i.e. pocket change. Return
  13. A medic. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feldsher Return
  14. Seemingly a location. Return


[Page 44]

Smorgon– The Story of it's Town and Destruction

by A.Y. Goldschmidt*

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay and Frieda Levin Dym

A Short Story of Smorgon

Smorgon is situated in the Vilna district, between the small rivers Neris and Vilnia (or Vilnele). When the town was founded–historians do not know exactly when––a small Jewish community began growing according to different legends. But in the famous Pinchas, “Kingdom of Lita”, which is found in the famous Strashun Library in Vilna, Smorgon is already mentioned as an outstanding Jewish settlement. From 1628 onwards, Smorgon was able to pay taxes to both the local community and the Lithuanian Kingdom.

Three years later, the residents were delighted to have their city of Smorgon enlarged and given the status of a city.

With time, the renown and importance of Smorgon grew among all the other towns, and the city evolved into an industrial and cultural center during the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1765, there were 649 Jews in Smorgon. In 1847, the Jewish numbers increased to 16,212 along with the non Jewish population slightly larger[1]. But Smorgon was still considered a small town of the Oshmiany region, similar to the times when it was considered part of Poland. When the Libava–Romener Railroad was built, Smorgon began to be recognized as a city of great status, and from this point on, its ties to the great and vast Russia were strengthened.

[Page 45]

After the peasants were freed (from the revolution), a rebirth of rebuilding and industrialization began, and Smorgon slowly gained a new and improved status as an industrial and commercial center. In parallel, a very strong populist movement grew within the city. In 1897 there were 6743 Jews in Smorgon; in 1900, there were over 10,200 Jews. And by 1914, there were over 31,000 people, of which 25,000 were Jews[2]. From this time on, Smorgon had the status of a large city.

At one time [beginning in the 17th century], Smorgon was known mainly for its “Berentreiber” industry (trained bears that performed for crowds). The largest part of the land was owned by the princely Radziwill family, the Potovskis, the Titchkevitchs and other noble families. Peasants remained loyal to their landowners. They all depended on one another.


The ruins of Smorgon after the First World War


The nobility were afraid to loose the loyalty of their peasants. This was the reason that they opened a school in Smorgon to train bears and to give the “Berentreiber” [bear trainers] a livelihood. In this way, they enabled a large part of the poor peasant population to start an industry in order to survive. These bears were plentiful in the nearby forests of Smorgon. The trainers with their students, known collectively as “ Smorgon Academia” and also known as “Honey– eaters”, (a Yiddish expression, meaning licking the benefits from the people), would travel all through the towns through Russia and Europe. The bears were transported in chains through the towns and they would dance for the audience who were drinking brandy and eating sweets: La–La–La[3]. This pleasant form of entertainment led to the development of breeding bears and consequently, the bear show would go from street to street through towns like Smorgon and Neazvich with the townsfolk deriving much pleasure.

[Page 46]

The people would gladly pay a few pennies for this form of entertainment. The Radziwill family earned quite a bit from this enterprise.

Eventually Smorgon, renowned as a city of “Berentreiber,”also became noted for its leather industry. There were 54 leather factories and 30 workshops, and their manufactured products were sent all over Russia: Carpathians, Siberia, Manchuria and Vladivostok, and throughout Germany. In Smorgon, there were also two tobacco factories, one soap factory, three seltzer warehouses, and two beer breweries. The town was also known for its bagels, “Smorgon Barankis”; the bagels were renowned all through Russia. In addition, there were 175 stores and shops, two sugar and two tea warehouses, a kerosene warehouse, an industry for wool shearing and knitting, and production facilities for knitting socks.

Most of the industry, the warehouses and the production [facilities], was in the hands of the Jewish population and not owned by the Christian population. This demographic was unusual; the Jewish workers were not discriminated against and worked alongside other workers, Lithuanians, Polish and Russians. No where in the world was an economy run by so many Jews.

Smorgon was also noted for its “farming colony” run by Jewish farmers in an area [a suburb of Smorgon] which was known as the “Karke”. The plots of land were given to those early settlers in the time of Nicolai the First which was during the Russian regime that was greatly influenced by Yitzhak Ber Levinson. Jews were given such parcels of land in the Ukraine, Reisen and Lita. The colony [Karke] was divided into 20 parcels and farmed by over 40 Jewish families until the outbreak of the First World War. The farmers worked the land and lived like Jewish peasants. They had their own Rabbi, a separate lifestyle and their own religious institutions.

Smorgon, as a new century unfolded, was no longer used to the old way of life. Yet, rich and educated Jews still did stick to the old traditions of helping the needy and doing good deeds.

[Page 47]

Jewish Smorgon, was endowed with fine religious institutions: two beautiful synagogues, seven “kloizim” (smaller synagogues), a Talmud Torah and three Yeshivas. Also, there was an Old Peoples Home, a Hospital, a “Gemilut Hesed” (loans for the needy), a Soup Kitchen which looked after the basic needs of the poor with bread and wood in the wintertime, a shelter for poor folks passing through, a special place for the beggars hanging around the Cemetery, and a place where poor widows and widowers would come to sleep and sort out clothing.

It should be noted that the founders of these institutions were: Zalman Rothstein, Gedalia Rothstein, Mendel Fineberg, Israel Sutzkever, Perevoztski, Zalmen Bitzkovski, Gedalia Solodocha, Avraham Yehuda Zvi Kerman, and Yacov Kavarski.

This patriarchal philanthropy which existed in Smorgon was very usual for those times. The livelihood of the entire community was directly related to the religious and pious duty of all.

The basis were the Kloizim, the Rabbis, the Heders and the Yeshivot.

The pride of Smorgon was the Rabbi Menashe of Ilya–most renowned throughout the Vilna community. Why was he the Rabbi of Smorgon but called himself “from Ilya”? The answer is that he got married in Ilya and lived there for many years. His father was then [living] in Smorgon, when Rabbi Menashe was born in 1767.

Rabbi Menashe from “Ilya” was one of the famous personalities that Jewish Russia produced. No one could measure up to his greatness. His greatness was like that of a “GAON” and a great idealist. He understood German and Polish and was educated in philosophy, mathematics and physics, chemistry and engineering. Even 150 years ago, he presented [ideas] in a speech that Jews should share their ways of earning a living from farming and adopt new ideas to build a better future in industry and commerce. His whole life was devoted to improve the lives of the poor Jewish masses. He even handed out newsletters in Yiddish to reach the most people. In those times, it was quite unusual for a “Gaon” to speak about those new, forward–looking ideas and teachings in those times, and with such vigor, determination and antagonism.

He did not [initially] want to be a Rabbi. In his later years, the people of Smorgon had to plead with him to become their Rabbi. He only retained the position for a year and a half. He stepped out of line with a fiery speech against the “Grabbers” (greedy people) which were spreading rumors.

[Page 48]

They demanded an apology and he got frightened. The townsfolk asked him to refrain from such speeches and distance himself from such controversial matters. So immediately insulted, he resigned from the Rabbinate. He could not remain silent when such issues needed to be addressed.

The Smorgon Rabbinate was also blessed with historical figures from the Shapira family, which goes back to the 12th century. More recently, in the first half of the 19th century in Smorgon, the most important of the rabbis was the Gaon, Rabbi Leibele Shapira, who was well known amongst his peers. He was also part of the Enlightenment and intellectual world as was Rabbai Menashe of Ilya and Rabbi Yossel Mazel. Rabbi Leibele Shapira was also a student of theory and mathematics. He was even well known in Israel by the name Rabbi Leibele of Kovno (Kovner) when he was the Rabbi in Kovno in his later years.

After [the tenure] of Rabbi Leibele in Smorgon, his son became Rabbi: Rabbi Chaim Avraham Shapira. Famous and smart, he sacrificed a lot in order to instill the Torah in Smorgon and to make the city a Center for Torah Study by founding an important Yeshiva. Three Yeshivas were opened in the city of Smorgon, and they became known to all the Torah scholars of Lithuania, Russia and Poland.

After the death of Rabbi Avraham Shapiro, his son in law, Rabbi Menashe Ginsberg became the Rabbi in Smorgon. Rabbi Menashe, extremely religious and of wise character, would spend his days and evenings studying the Torah and dictating sound advise. For this reason, the population held him in the highest esteem. One of Rabbi Menashe's sons, Rabbi Eischer, was the Rabbi in Paris; currently he is the Rabbi in Bronx, New York. Here in New York, Rabbi Menashe's two daughters, Baila and Perel, also lived.

Another Rabbi that lived in Smorgon was Rabbi Yehuda Leib Gordin (from Rechitza). He was important because of his New Age thinking, and his presence was held in great esteem throughout [the area]. Anti–Semitic rants and pamphlets started to appear in Russian and German against the Talmud, the Shulhan Aruch (Jewish code of law), and other [sacred writings within the] Jewish community, so Rabbi Yehuda Leib Gordin undertook to write “Explanations of the Talmud”, in which he explained and revealed the writing of Brachman, Luntostofski, Steker and other known writers. Rabbi Gordin explained the “High” (or Holy) morale and ethical teachings of the Talmud, built on the ethics of the spiritual teachers of that time. He sent his explanation to the Russian authorities, and he received their approval and many thanks.

[Page 49]

Rabbi Gordin also had a son, Abba Gordin, who rose to great fame as a writer in Yiddish–Hebrew–English circles.

Later, Smorgon, the once production oriented and cultured city, became broken and destroyed. Smorgon was at one point a city of industrial strength with thousands of workers and a wealthy middle class. However, exploitation grew and over time, and got out of hand. As a result, the Worker's Movement was established and its direction was towards Socialism. The pioneers of this movement were naturally the oppressed from Smorgon's society.

In the front row of this movement was the daughter of Rabbi Menashe's daughter–Liba Ginsberg, Sara Metlitzkaia, Schmuel Levin and Olga Bornstein. Their lives were entwined with martyrdom. From the very beginning, they were under the influence of the Narodnikas (a labour movement), Rubanova and Sinitski. (Exact information on their lives and their revolutionary activities can be read in the pages of the “Revolutionary Works of Smorgon–red[4].

Smorgon endured through all of the stages of Soviet political storms and grew alongside the new socialism of mother Russia. In the period starting June 1905, Smorgon was in the front row of the beginning of a colossal framework of a new world order. When the revolutionary cavalry fled, the situation was ripe for a cultural revolution. And so the building of a Romantic period of culture began (from 1907–1914). That began when Dovid Einhorn wrote “We will be left behind in our Synagogues according to our historical nature”[5]. Again, Smorgon survived this period. Here in Smorgon,

[Page 50]

a movement was started to “Russify” the school system (Russian–Hebrew/Jewish Cultural Institute). The Institute was formed to monitor the education system by modeling it on the system already established in Russia [which was funded] with private Russian “pensions” for Jewish children––essentially a state school that would teach Yiddish and Hebrew. Dr.Tzemach Schabad, the chairman of the Vilna committee of the brothers of “Friends of Higher Learning”, came to establish such a school.

In 1912, they invited a teacher named Israel Gurevitch from Nevernatzia Outchelitche. He was familiar in this form of Jewish/Russian education and met with important personalities of Smorgon to propose and discuss ideas to establish this type of Jewish School. The meeting took place in the house of Dr. Epstein, and the workload was divided among other modern–thinking individuals such as Arkady Gurevitch. After many discussions, large opposition arose, and the School was never established. However, they began to re–organize so children would be tutored in the evenings in Yiddish and Hebrew.

A large contribution to Yiddish education in Smorgon was made by the sons of Rabbi Gordin “The Gordin Brothers”, who were deeply immersed and broadly educated in new pedagogical and open minded ways of thinking (ideas). They wanted to institute a new and original way of learning that would produce a new generation of Jews. They started a school with new methods of teaching and upbringing. The children were proud of their teachers, and the name “The Brothers Gordin” became very well known throughout all of Lita (Lithuania). All their earnings were reinvested in their Cheder (school), and they devoted all their time and love for the Yiddish and Hebrew culture and language, a new pedagogical approach which they founded. In this new approach, new ideas were taught, sometimes revolutionary and controversial. Someone in the community started to spread rumors that the Heder should be closed. The “Cheder Metukan” was home to the famous poet Moyshe Kulback. Another Yiddish poet that comes from Smorgon is Abraham Sutzkever.

Smorgon used to publish all Yiddish and Hebrew newspapers, and bought Hebrew and Yiddish Literature books for their library. The “Yiddishe Welt” (The Jewish World) published by “Kletzkind”, was distributed to hundreds in Smorgon as well as the Hebrew publications “HaShiloach”, “Achiasaf”, “Tushiya”. Smorgon became a cultural center of great importance and [produced] youth with great and new ideals.


The First World War engulfed the world, and pogroms against the Jews began. Immediate assistance was needed, and food and lodging was provided all through the Kovna Gubernia (province). The expelled Jews from Kovno were forced to flee during [the holiday of] Smorgon Erev Shavuot. The entire population came to their assistance.

[Page 51]

Immediately, an organization sprung up to provide the necessary help, food and a warm place to stay, and also, medical help.

At night time, the first part of those fleeing from Kovno arrived. The entire town prepared [and] welcomed the folk during the evening and the entire next day of Shavouot. New arrivals came, over 600 people, mostly women and children, without their husbands. There were some rich folk, but the larger portion were without means. The greeting by Smorgon was heartwarming and honest, and the energetic youth were ready and able to help in this time of need. We gave them the food and special holiday treats that we prepared, and found them lodging and took care of all their basic needs.

Due to this outpouring of warmth and brotherly love for a people fleeing persecution and fearing for their lives, especially during the holiday of Shavuot, the expelled Jews did not feel alone, and for the second day of Shavuot, we all celebrated as brothers. This coming together in such a time of need with the outpouring of generosity and togetherness amongst all kinds of folk, regardless of their class, became very dear to us.

In several months, however, it was the Smorgoners turn to flee. The front was closing in, and the destruction of Smorgon began. The Jewish population was forced out with such haste and brutality that the Jewish folk, full of fear and chaos, scattered in all directions and throughout all of “mother Russia”.

There was no one there to welcome them with open arms and brotherly love as the Smorgoners did for their fellow brothers from Kovno. The bestiality of the Czarist army is characterized according to some folk by the following:

An officer saw a student, [named] Sobol, and yelled at him, “Did anyone remain in Smorgon? Remove yourselves immediately from here!”

[Sobol] replied, “My grandfather is in his sickbed, how can I leave him here?”

“Where is your grandfather?” demanded the officer.

[Page 52]

So the grandson took him home and showed him. Immediately the officer shot the sick man. Now, you can go, he [the officer] yelled like a beast!

Smorgon became a war zone. Death and destruction was everywhere, and until today, there is no place to return. From a 25,000 person city, fewer than 600 Jewish families returned. After 1917–1918, the city no longer grew and neither did the Jewish community. The wealthy Jews were no longer. Two World Wars took its toll.

There were no more factories and no more workers. No more Shapiros, no more Ginzbergs, no more Levins and no more Mitlitskis––only the bestial Russian “Endecas”. After this time, our lives were filled with the Nazis to torment us day and night. Our youth feels lost. No where to run! Doors are closed wherever they run! And they ask: G–d help us! Where will our help come from? Please help us!

(Smorgoner Memorial Book 1934–– New York)

* Murdered in the Vilna Ghetto Return

Translator's Footnotes

  1. There is a wide discrepancy in reporting the number of Jews in Smorgon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The number of Jews in Smorgon was likely lower than referenced in this chapter. https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias–almanacs–transcripts–and–maps/smorgon Return
  2. See Footnote 1. Return
  3. A likely reference that everyone was being happy and maybe even singing. Return
  4. The color red being a reference to communism. Return
  5. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5483–einhorn–david Return


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