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[Col. 349]

Pages from Svencionys - Memoirs

 

[Col. 351]

Sventzian Pages

by Shimon Kantz

Translated by Meir Razy

The native survivors of Sventzian contributed these fragments of memories, these grains of impressions, to resurrect the image of their lost nest, the nest that secures the soul of the destroyed body, a tombstone of feelings, love and longing. Memories filled with fire and tears for their town, their origins, their parents' and their ancestors' from time immemorial. The memories of their way of life, the Jewishness they lived in every day, weekdays and holidays. Their actions did not deviate very far from practical necessities. Earning their livelihood was not easy and the people of Sventzian had to work hard to provide for their families. They labored in various types of work, millers and bakers, tailors and shoemakers, coachmen and porters, wood cutters and water drawers[1]. Storekeeping, too, was a difficult life and hard labor, but when the time for spirituality came – everyone left their troubles, shook–off the dust of everyday troubles, and entered a spiritual, holy world that soothed the soul. This was one of the foundations of Jewish lifestyle in Sventzian. Everyone absorbed the spirit of Torah, everyone refreshed and renewed their souls by daily study according to his abilities, either a page of Gemara, a chapter of Mishnaiot, “Chaiey Adam”[2], or reading Psalms. These were the evenings, while on Shabbat and Holidays the devotion and purification of the soul were much greater. It is not surprising then that when the news about the project of collecting memories from Sventzian and its surroundings started to spread – survivors in Israel and abroad submitted their written contributions, the pages of this book, that were written with tears, blood and a lot of love. The pages of this book are telling the story of a modest people in a modest town, stories that touch everyone's heart in their exaltedness.


Translator's notes:

  1. “wood cutters and water drawers”: The Bible: Joshua 9, 27 – reference to despised, unskilled labor Return
  2. A book by Rabbi Avraham Danzig, published 1809 Return


[Col. 353]

My Town

by A. Hermoni-Ginsberg

Translated by Meir Razy

Although it is more than fifty years since I left my hometown in my early youth, and as far as I know – none of its houses, buildings or walls are still standing (before the second world war it had ten thousand Jewish inhabitants and now I hear that a dozen returned there and I doubt if these remnants will stay), yet in my mind's eyes I can still see my town as it was during my childhood, lively, aware and fast-paced; the town and its surroundings, simple and beautiful.

I remember sitting with my school and Cheder friends on the steep side of the mountain at the end of Poshmina Street, the mountain that blocked the view of the great world beyond it and, at the same time, linked us to the great world. From the peak of this mountain, or rather from the top of this fifty or sixty meters high hill, was the main road (the paved roads we know today did not exist in the country-side in those days) that connected us to Vilna, Daugpillis (Dvinsk, Dinburg, in those days), Kovna and the other main cities of “Tchum Ha Moshav”[1]. That road led to the new train station of Sventzian on the railroad from Warsaw to St. Petersburg that passed through Vilna.

That time, about sixty years ago, they had just started laying the narrow-gauge railroad from New Sventzian to Glubokye. Its western-most station was in old or “Great” Sventzian. The town acquired the railroad years after the town officials bribed the railroad planners to pass through our town. There is a legend, however, that this was done for private commercial reasons.

I remember how we, the Cheder kids, went to the end of Vilna Street to watch the prisoners of the local jail, who had been sentenced to hard labor. They were building the first bridge, hammering huge stakes with large hammers, in rhythm, into the banks of the Kuni River. The prisoners raised the hammers by pulling ropes up special scaffolding with pulleys on top.

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They encouraged themselves to pull the ropes by singing the famous song “Dubinushka” and scream “Y Ochniem” (let's hit). The singing attracted us, the children, to the construction site. Scared but fascinated we were curiously watching them, absorbing every word, impressed by the armed guards.

 

The Gate to the Big World

Writing this I remember my first ride on this road, the gate to the big world, and the postal carriage. The carriage was covered with a water resistant bonnet, pulled by a pair of big, healthy, fast horses. Springs connected the wheels to the coach. The coachman was responsible for carrying and delivering bags of mail, but he took passengers as well.

I was about four years old when we rode to my cousin, a Yeshiva student, who had received a large dowry for his wedding, in Vilna. We had to make a trip to the train station in New Sventzian in the postal carriage.

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I enjoyed my first trip very much, especially watching the dance of the telegraph poles, how they were disappearing in the back, faster and faster, as the horses increased their speed. I was especially happy when I saw a sparrow standing on the telegraph wire. It looked exactly like the picture I saw in my sister's picture book “My country” in the chapter about the post office and telegraph services. I remembered the place where I saw the sparrow and looked for it on the way back. I was very disappointed when it was not waiting there.

 

From one side of the town to the other

This was in one of the school holidays, Lag Ba'Omer or Tisha Be Av, when we were free, no school, no Rabbi, no Gemara, and groups of us went wandering in the forest. We even dared to sail on the lakes, swim and play. During the Tisha Be Av trips we would split into two groups and fight one another, following the Biblical edict: “it is for teaching archery to the children of Judah”[2], but instead of using bows and arrows, we used nuts and thorny bush branches. The person who had collected the largest inventory of “weapons” was the hero. Our mothers, following the special supper of the fasting day, were busy pulling thorns and nuts out of the children's heads. The children's crying was different from the previous night's crying over the destruction of the Temple.

I can still see myself sitting near the entrance to the town on top of the mountain and near the main road, among a group of children, who were my friends, enjoying the magnificent view of the town, like a colorful picture, spread over the large valley, framed by blue and green forests, the grey villages with red roofs, the silver lines of the lakes reflecting the sunlight and church bell towers visible near the horizon. I can still see, like it was yesterday, the tall buildings of the town: the two synagogues, the new one and the old one that had been rebuilt after the last fire. Prominent with their green roofs, the old synagogue stood with its round wall that held the Ark and the rays of the setting sun shone on its colorful glass in the tall, round windows, lighting them like lighthouses.

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Even the narrow Kuni river (“trench” was a more appropriate name for it) that was used as a badly smelling sewage line, which crossed the town from side to side, was respected only once a year when the Jews used it for “Tashlich” on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, even this river seemed to be pleasant and magic.

 

The Beginning

I searched for the history of Sventzian and the settling of Jews in it. According to the “Jewish Encyclopedia” (publish by Efron in Saint Petersburg), there were 462 Jewish residents in 1756 according to Pinkas Ha Kehilot. For 1847 the Encyclopedia lists the following:

Sventzian Region:   1544 Jews
Tverai (Tver) Region:   491 Jews
Linkmenys (Ligmyan) Region:   441 Jews
Adutiškis (Haydutsetshik) Region:   570 Jews

The Encyclopedia adds: “The census of 1897 (the last year I spent in the town and, as a graduate of the elementary school, even participated in the Census as one of the enumerators) the region's total population was 172,000 people, 12,299 of them Jews. Sventzian's population was 6,025 with 3,172 Jews. Hadishchuk – 2,247 people, 1,373 Jews, Novo Sventzian – 1,340 with 540 Jews.

Sventzian was lucky that the greatest Russian author, Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, immortalized this Lithuanian town in his monumental historical novel “War and Peace”. This is the paragraph[3]:

“It was only at headquarters that there was depression, uneasiness, and intriguing; in the body of the army they did not ask themselves where they were going or why. If they regretted having to retreat, it was only because they had to leave billets they had grown accustomed to, or some pretty young Polish lady. If the thought that things looked bad chanced to enter anyone's head, he tried to be as cheerful as befits a good soldier and not to think of the general trend of affairs, but only of the task nearest to hand.
[Col. 357]
First they camped gaily before Vílna, making acquaintance with the Polish landowners, preparing for reviews and being reviewed by the Emperor and other high commanders. Then came an order to retreat to Sventsyáni and destroy any provisions they could not carry away with them. Sventsyáni was remembered by the hussars only as the drunken camp, a name the whole army gave to their encampment there, and because many complaints were made against the troops, who, taking advantage of the order to collect provisions, took also horses, carriages, and carpets from the Polish proprietors. Rostóv remembered Sventsyáni, because on the first day of their arrival at that small town he changed his sergeant major and was unable to manage all the drunken men of his squadron who, unknown to him, had appropriated five barrels of old beer. From Sventsyáni they retired farther and farther to Drissa, and thence again beyond Drissa, drawing near to the frontier of Russia proper.”
A childhood memory stayed with me: A Catholic church stood at the end the long Vilna Street where two embankments followed the road to the city of Vilna. This was near the tall, thick pine forest. Behind it was the family grave of a Polish count related to famous family of count Potoski. On our Saturday trips we used to visit the forest, collecting berries and ignoring the busy lovers among the trees. People pointed to a house in the forest where Napoleon spent a night while escaping from the Russians.

Another childhood memory is about an old man named Strobyar, a client of my mother, who was about one hundred years old at the end of the nineteenth century. He used to talk, when he was drunk, about his youth when he saw the great French emperor, short and chubby, arriving at that house in Sventzian in an elegant carriage.

 

My Father's Home

My father, Chanoch (Henich) Ginsburg, was a scholar of religion, almost orthodox, but deeply committed to the idea of national Jewish resurrection in Eretz Israel. I do not know how he became so enthusiastic about this but I think it started in his youth in Odessa. There he was close to the founders of the Chovevey Zion movement. All his life he promoted the settling of Eretz Israel and neglected his store. My mother, a woman of valor, reigned over the big store (food, oils, paints, honey, wax, etc.) while my father only corresponded with the suppliers and agents. The local population recognized this arrangement by calling my father “Henich of Masha”, or Masha Genendle, belonging to Henoch.(Genendel could be maiden name) .

[Col. 358]

 

Sve0358.jpg
Henoch Ginsberg

 

All his life my father searched the Bible and other Jewish texts for references to his belief that affection towards the Holy Land will not cause a delay in “the end of times” (=the coming of the Messiah). He was a tireless propagandist who explained, lectured, told and tried to convince his acquaintances, friends and everyone who would listen to develop love towards the land of Israel and its settlers. My father published articles in books supporting Zionism, using a sharp style, sometimes in Aramaic. He replied to articles in “Ha-Melitz” newspaper and communicated with the intelligentsia in Vilna, especially the Zionists. Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenboim, who was the secretary of Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever (with whom, too, he exchanged letters) and Y. L. Appel, the secretary of the Zionist organization in the district of Vilna, all wrote in their memoirs about him with affection and admiration.

I remember a fight about a fence with a bad neighbor. A government judge, a Christian, came to mediate and the neighbor pushed my mother in front of him. The judge sentenced the neighbor on the spot to pay a fine of ten rubbles, a significant sum those days. The judge was flabbergasted when my father refused the money and asked it to be sent to the Odessa branch which supported Jewish settlement in the Holy Land. Later, when my father received a receipt for the payment – he gave the receipt to the judge.

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My father was the bookkeeper and the cashier at my mother's business, so he was able to hide a large part of the business's profit and dedicated it to his plans for settling in Eretz Israel. Unfortunately, one of the regular fires in the town which consisted of wooden houses burned the store and the house. The insurance did not cover the damage, and my father took all the money he safe-kept with his friend, one of the rich men in town, a Zionist, Mordechi Getzel Gurwitz, to rebuild his burnt-down business. Ten years later he took his new savings and gave them to Mordechi Getzel who went with others from Vilna and from Kovna to Eretz Israel to buy land for the Zionists of our region. They bought the land of Hadera and my father was one of its founders.

He did not realize his dream of coming to Eretz Israel and settling on the land he had bought. I took a month-long trip, where they arrested me in Jaffa because of the “red note”[4] and sent me back to the Russian ship I came on. This forced me to travel to Alexandria and back to Jaffa. This adventure gave my father a fatal heart disease that killed him.

 

Spiritual Center

Our home served as a spiritual center in the town where all the educated people with affinity to Hebrew literature, newspapers and the Zionist movement gathered. This was the early eighteen nineties, the pre-Zionist era. Among the many regulars from the intelligentsia was Shalom Levi Epstein, the elementary school teacher who was a Hebrew writer, a commentator, an assistant to the publisher of Ha-Melitz, and later the government appointed manager in Grudno, the principal of that school.

The following is not an exaggeration: my father lived in a small town in the north-west of Lithuania but his heart and thoughts were in the east. Eliezer Ben Yehuda created “the first Hebrew home in Zion” in Jerusalem in order to promote the use of Hebrew, and father started talking only Hebrew to us, the children. Thus, our home became the first Hebrew home in town, probably in the whole region. Many people made fun of him and considered talking Hebrew, the “Holy Language”, as pure arrogance and snobbism. But our house, over time, developed the atmosphere of Eretz Israel. The trial of Dreyfus in France stirred up emotions in Jewish homes all over the world and father read the reports and letters from Paris that were published in Ha-Melitz and Ha-Zfira.

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When the Turkish police arrested Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem for publishing an article about the revolt of the Maccabean (it was the during the time of Hanukah) – my father switched his attention from Paris to Jerusalem and he suffered many sleepless nights commiserating with the prisoner, Ben Yehuda, in solitary confinement in the Turkish jail in the Holy City.

My oldest sister was the most committed of us to speaking Hebrew. While having troubles giving birth, the un-sanitary operation caused infection and she was in a grave danger, but she insisted speaking only Hebrew until she lost conscious. She refused to speak Yiddish with our mother.

I remember that when Mordechi Getzel Gurwitz, the member of the delegation that bought the land of Hadera, returned from Eretz Israel, he brought my father a present – a bottle of wine from Rishon Le-Zion (this was before the famous Carmel Mizrachi winery started to operate). My father made a large reception in Warsaw for the members and supporters of Chovevi Zion so that each of them could taste the wine from “our wine-making brothers in the holy land”. The reception was very festive, father and others gave lavish speeches, and the wine was very sour. I entered the next room and found my oldest sister crying.

What is it, Fruma?

Don't you see how much efforts, tears, sweat and suffering are in each drop of this holy wine?

As noted, my father was educated, deeply religious, far from religious-extremism. His enthusiasm and commitment focused on the Zionist movement, which is – maximizing the number of Jews in Eretz Israel. He later joined the “Zionei Zion” branch who promoted practical labor in Eretz Israel, according to the method of Moshe Leib Lilienblum: another Dunam[5], another goat.

I can say that my father was a Chovev Zion outside of the home and a religious Jew inside it. He managed a strict religious lifestyle and we, the children, had to follow all the rules and mitzvahs and be careful of any transgression. I remember that our Catholic maid was keeping an eye on us and can still hear her calling us in Yiddish – go to the Beit Midrash, this is the first day of the month!

I spent my early school years in various Cheders. Most of the teachers were poor and the conditions in their one room apartments, where their wives cooked and their children wandered around, were intolerable.

This was the time when the new fashion of Cheder Metukan (=improved) started. Father brought in a graduate of the Vilna Rabbi School, a big man with a big beard, but dry and lacking any pedagogical skills, whom we, the pupils, did not like.

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The experiment of creating a Cheder Metukan in Sventzian was a complete failure and was terminated after just one semester. My father was forced to register me in the Government Jewish Elementary School. There, the language of teaching was Russian and only three or four hours a week were dedicated to Jewish studies. I continued my Jewish studies and practicing Hebrew in the afternoons with private teachers.

Every Saturday night, after the end of Shabbat, educated men and the leaders of the congregation gathered in our house around the boiling samovar they discussed small and big things, the policies of Bismarck, the friction between him and Kaiser Wilhelm (our town's politicians noticed everything) and got very angry while talking about the new edicts that were issued regularly by the bitter enemies of the Jews, Alexander the Third, the Russian Tsar, and his minister of the Interior, Yignatayev, who took away Jewish rights, limited the size of the Pale of Residence, and did everything to limit and to torture the Jews, “lest they multiply [6]”.

 

The King

One of the significant guests in the Saturday parties was the town's cantor, Rabbi Yodel. He was average as a cantor and a singer but he prayed with a dozen-man choir, mostly his sons, who were skilled and had good voices (like the Melavsky family of our times, but without the daughters). One of his sons became the cantor of Keninsburg, and I remember how this man told about his adventures abroad in one of the parties. He went, I think, to Keninsburg for medical treatment, an 8-10 hours ride from Sventzian on the fast train. In Keninsburg he saw military exercises with the Kaiser in attendance. One of the miracles he saw was a General talking into a tube and people said that another General, standing three kilometers away, listening to another tube heard the first General's voice. (This was an early telephone).

A unique character in the Saturday Tea Parties was Isaak who was called “Blue Lips Isaak”. He was a short old man, almost a dwarf, his long white beard covered half of his body, and he resembled a dwarf from a Disney movie. He wore a black old suite that emphasized his white beard. Unmarried, he dedicated all his time to studying Torah.

Why “Blue Lips”? He criticized everything in the town, especially the rabbis, beadles, and every rich man. When talking, he was getting very excited, trembling while froth came out of his toothless mouth and his lips turned blue.

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Another regular guest was Rabbi Israel Eli, the beadle. A simple man, tall and handsome with a gentle face, his thick long beard added respect to his appearance. In addition to his role at the Great Old Synagogue, he was a greengrocer who delivered cucumbers and cabbages to homeowners for pickling. He had a nice voice and filled in as the cantor when the regular cantor was missing. He knew that the crowd liked to go home early so he kept the prayers short. His services ended a half an hour earlier than usual and people would hurry home to enjoy the Shabbat delicacies. His greatest events were the High Holidays when he prayed in front of the congregation in a way that touched people hearts, women wept in the women section, until he cried out “The King”[7].

 

The “Chofetz Chaim” “Conspiracy” Against the Government

I remember my trip to Radun. I was about 9 years old and my grandfather on my father's side, an old man around eighty, lived there. The trip was difficult and torturous in a decrepit wagon of a Jewish coachman, through swamps and road hazards. It was autumn and we did not arrive at Radun until after midnight, which, compared to Sventzian was a poor village with unpaved streets where people walked in knee-high mud. This was my father's first visit with the “Chofetz Chaim”, who was a distant relative and lived in Radun. He received us affectionately and blessed us.

From Radun we went to the forest where my uncle had a business making charcoal. My aunt gave us a present or my mother when we left - a copper kettle for making coffee, and I said “For brass I will bring gold, and for iron I will bring silver”[8] (we had just completed studying Isaiah at the Cheder). My father was very happy to hear this from his nine years old son.

Half a year later the “Chofetz Chaim” arrived at Sventzian to promote his books.

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My father and his other admirers prepared an elaborate reception at the nicest hotel in town. Many of the important men in the town, the rabbis, the beadles, the Torah scholars, gathered after the Saturday meal at the hotel to listen to the guest. My father took me with him and I remember the intimate atmosphere of respect in the room. Everyone listened attentively, and he, a thin, modest, almost shy man, with his small yellowish beard, did not stand out or brag. He tried to minimize himself, talked very quietly, and then suddenly – knocking on the door and the long mustached Police Commandant with four armed policemen burst into the room, shouting: “This is an illegal assembly without a permit! Are you planning a conspiracy against our supreme government? Scatter immediately or you will be arrested!”

What an idiotic, embarrassing situation. The rabbis, the judges, the beadles, the rich people, most of whom are middle-aged - conspiring?

Someone tried to explain that they all came to listen to a religious lecture by a great rabbi, but the drunken police commandant continued: “Scatter! We know about your great rabbis and will not tolerate this!”

I suspect this was a joke played by a BUND member who wanted to show the police the absurdity of their witch-hunt and suspicion.

Anyways – the meeting was over and the “Chofetz Chaim” had to cut his visit to Sventzian short.

 

Important Jews

When I am thinking of Sventzian, my town, various characters are coming back like from a movie.

I will start with the people who influenced the daily life in the town and its surrounding areas at the time. First of them was Ber-Itze Bak, the beadle of the Old Synagogue. The synagogue was built after the great fire that destroyed half of the town and it was the largest. Ber-Itze Bak was a tall, straight old man who walked decisively with his wide, squared long beard and held strong convictions in his beliefs. He ruled over the congregation, poor and rich. His son Yulan Bak was an engineer who was very successful at Saint Petersburg became rich and established. In the early 1900s he founded the most popular and progressive newspaper in Russia – the Riech[9] that was the newspaper of the CADET[10].

And the Kovarski family, the richest family in town. They were famous in the vicinity and their good name was known far away. They were people who were large in body, in money and in spirit.

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The family founder, Asher Kovarski, was a banker, an aristocrat and the leader of the intelligentsia on the town. He and his sons were tall, handsome and pleasant, and even the government officials, both Polish and Russians (mostly anti-Semites), recognized the Kovarskis' superiority. I remember that when the town created a firefighting troop – two of the Kovarskis were nominated as commanders. We used to run from the Cheder to watch the firefighters training and we were very proud to see “our” Jews as officers, walking around in their impressive uniforms as equals with the top commander, the Region's Governor. Members of this family were important physicians, for example Horace, a pediatrician in Vilna. Another physician published medical books in Berlin. Lev (Leo) Kovarski, Nathan's son, a skillful engineer, became famous for his work with Frederic Joliot Curie[11] on designing the first nuclear reactor in Paris. When I saw his photograph, with the whole team in a French magazine, the rest of them looked like dwarfs next to him. He resembled the face and the body of his grandfather, Rabbi Asher.

The other rich man of the town, the “competition” to Asher Kovarski, was Mordechi Getzel Gurwitz. His appearance and character were the exact opposite. Rabbi Mordechi Getzel was short, obese, the lines in his face were hard but smart. His long, wide beard made his expression a little softer and added some fatherly grace. He too was a banker, but “private”. He was lending money only against secured collaterals. His son, Rabbi Nachman, educated and pleasant, projected the spirit of Jewish nobility in their house. They were both enthusiastic Zionists, and Rabbi Mordechi Getzel even joined the delegation from Vilna and Kovna that went to Eretz Israel and bought Hadera.

I remember Feivel the mailman, a tiny but quick man, who always ran in the streets and delivered letters out of his opened bag. He was not officially an employee of the Post Office (a Jew could not work for the Russian Government).

I knew only one special Jewish Post Office worker, a son of Sventzian. This was Mr. Solomyiak, who managed the Russian Post Office for the Russian Consulate in Jerusalem. He left the school for teachers in Vilna and came to Eretz Israel in the “First Immigration” (1882) but failed in becoming a farmer. The Russian Consulate needed an educated clerk and they hired him.

Mr. Feivel's position in Sventzian was semi-official. Only after the community leaders appealed to the manager of the Russian post office branch and paid him a large bribe did he agree to allow Feivel to be the letter carrier.

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People paid two kopeks to receive a letter and one for a postcard. Feivel paid half of his collected money to the branch manager. He was not allowed into the mailroom so the chief clerk separated the letters for the Jewish addressees and gave them to Feivel, who knew everyone. He learned the Russian language and signed for registered letters and money orders. Feivel was the bridge between America and Sventzian (immigration expanded at that time).

I have good memories of the medic Moshe Polack, a unique character at the time, a very popular person among simple people. I cannot evaluate his medical knowledge, but people trusted him more than they trusted the “modern” young physicians. Two physicians lived in Sventzian, a Polish or Russian gentile and a Jewish one, but people called upon them only in extreme situations. Moshe Polack sent his sons to educate themselves abroad, and one of them went to Paris and returned to Sventzian as an artist painter. He got sick and died that spring at his father's house. Moshe Polack was a relative of Michael Polack (who built the first cement mortar factory in Haifa) and of Sabili Polack. Michael was known as a liberal industrialist who treated his workers humanely and introduced many social improvements in his factory. He supported artists and initiatives for public education. I also knew Sabili who lived for many years alone in Paris. He was not a registered Zionist but he participated in all fund raising for Eretz Israel.

And there was Moshe Pachkon, a seventy plus year old painter, simple and humble, who painted all the houses, normally between Purim and Passover and decorated them with flowers and leaves. He was one of the creators of modern art in Sventzian. The paints he used, water based and oil based, left their marks on his cloths, on his winter hat and on his summer casquette. During the year he was hiding among his tools, his brushes, his pails and the samples. He was the center of town two days a year, Purim and Simchat Torah, when he drank a little and pretended to be drunk, and entertained children and the adults too. He wore a coat, clean but inside out, he gathered the little children around him, dancing and singing he would call “Holy Herd” and they had to reply with “mememe”.

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He considered this role that he inherited from his father, as a holy mission.

I will complete this imaginary procession with the butchers, big and manly. The most impressive was Rabbi Eliyahu, a giant man with long beard and very strong hands. He was not very educated. He was about eighty when he married his sixth wife, a woman from the near-by town of Linkmenys. Two of his wives died from diseases or during childbirth and he divorced the other three. When people asked him if he was satisfied with his new wife, he answered: “Blessed is God. I am very happy and from now on I will marry only women from Linkmenys.”

Finally I have to mention the “Day Eaters” students of the Yeshiva. Some students of the Yeshivas at Sventzian were fine young men who married the daughters of well-to-do families, families that supported their studying for three to five years until they earned the position of Rabbis. Most of them, however, were unmarried, less fortunate men. The Yeshiva distributed them among the families in town so each one of them would eat with one family on Sunday, with another family on Monday, etc. they were called “Day Eaters”, that is – they had an assigned day with an assigned family.

My father supported several “Day Eaters” and on Saturday he used to invite a visiting Magid or Chazan, and the guest told us about their travels and discussed Torah.

Among these guests were authors who tried to sell their books. One of them was S. Y. Yazkan. He was twenty-four years old and distributed a small booklet “Teach the Boy” that held sermons for a Bar Mitzvah and sample of various letters. Ten years later he became a reporter to Ha-Melitz and became the publisher of the largest Yiddish newspaper in Poland.

 

Fires

Fires were major milestones in the history of small towns. The forests provided beams of wood and using wood in buildings was much cheaper than using stones or bricks (concrete was unknown at the time). Roofing tiles were few and most roofs were covered with wood or straw. It is not surprising, then, that fires were common in the towns.

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Only large cities created Fire Departments, but in our town I saw two large fires by the age of fourteen. Once – the west part of the town, including our house, was burned and a few years later – the north part of the town. Only a few houses were insured, and generally – they only had a token coverage. Fires started and ended with cries and screams. A new type of “profession” was invented: those who would knock on doors collecting donations, the “burnt ones”. There is a story that one of the “burnt” men was asked if he had an official certificate that he lost his property. He answered: “the certificate was burnt too.”

My earliest major experience was with the fire that destroyed our house and most of our property. I was three years old. Father picked me up to look through the window. “Father! Look! Everything is red!”

“Fire!”
He summoned the whole family and the servant to take everything outside and to throw it far away from the building.

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We sat on the pile of furniture and blankets, my mother sobbing, and watched how the big house, the store and the storage were all going up in smoke. Our insurance was minimal and father took back the capital he had hidden, behind my mother's back with Mordechi Getzel Gurwitz. This had been the money he had designated for buying land in Eretz Israel. With it he rebuilt a large house that existed until the holocaust.

Half of the town burnt down at that time.

This was Sventzian with its rabbis, beadles, merchants, grocers and Yeshiva students. All this exists no more.

The Jewish Sventzian was eliminated by the Nazi troopers, the SS. It is told that blood thirsty Polish and Lithuanian auxiliaries participated in killing thousands in the Poligon concentration camp and Panerai neighborhood (aka Ponar). Thousands of Jewish families, old and young were shot by machine guns and rifles like a herd of animals. It is also told that murderers, in their craziness, forced the poor victims to dig trenches as their own graves.

Only a small fraction of the people of Sventzian immigrated to Eretz Israel in time to save themselves and you find them here in cities and towns.

I want these memories to serve as a memorial to that wonderful town, the Holy community of Sventzian.

 

Sve0368.jpg
Remembrance Day observed with the former residents of Sventzian

 

Translator's footnotes:

  1. The Pale of Settlement - a western region of Imperial Russia with varying borders that existed from 1791 to 1917, in which permanent residency by Jews was allowed and beyond which Jewish residency, permanent or temporary, was mostly forbidden Return
  2. The Bible: Samuel 2, Chapter 1, verse 18 Return
  3. Source: Project Gutenberg Return
  4. A travel visa (on red paper), issued by the Turkish authorities, allowing Jews to enter Eretz Israel for a limited time. They kept the traveler's passport to guarantee the traveler's departure Return
  5. Area measurement, a unit equals to 1,000 square meters, common in the Turkish Empire Return
  6. Reference to Exodus, 1, 9 Return
  7. The last word of the prayer, referring to God Return
  8. Bible: Isaiah 60:17 Return
  9. https://catalog.loc.gov/vwebv/holdingsInfo?bibId=14238144 Return
  10. CADETS (Constitutional Democrats): A Russian party formed in October, 1905, called Cadets from its abbreviated name for members of the Constitutional-Democratic Party, and also known as the "Party of the People's Freedom". Source: https://www.marxists.org/glossary/orgs/c/a.htm Return
  11. More about Dr. Lev Kovarski in column 69 of this book. Return


[Col. 369]

Flashes of Memory

by Moshe Svirski

Translated by Meir Razy

 

Sve0369.jpg

 

The town of Sventzian sits on the east bank of a small river called Kuna, a river that flows from north to south along the town and continues beyond its limits. Sventzian is one of the five county–cities in the region of Vilna, also known as “The Jerusalem of Lithuania”, with a population of about fifteen hundred families. They are mostly Jews but also White Russians, Pravoslavs, pagans, Polish, a few Lithuanians and a few migrating Gypsies. It was built more than five hundred years ago, at the time of Saint Yohan and named after him “Sviatey Yohan”.[1]

The Chief Rabbis at time were considered geniuses, for example Rabbi Shalom Tuvia. His lineage goes back to the Gaonim, he was proficient in all the secrets of our religion and its interpretations and became the chief rabbi at the age of twenty–five with a salary of five golden coins a week. This salary was enough only for minimal food but it did not limit his dedication, day and night to studying the Torah. He died at the age of seventy.

After Rabbi Shalom Tuvia ZT”L (=of blessed memory) the community nominated Rabbi Meir (Mayrim) Shafit, the Kabbalist. He later moved to Kobryn in the region of Grodno where he died. The Genius Rabbi Mayrim studied Kabbalah all his life and it was said about him that he “could read each man's heart”. He also knew a lot about astronomy and understood the movements of the stars in the sky.

A story about him is that when Rabbi Yaakov Kopil Kovarski's wife had difficulty during child labor – Yaakov Kopil went to see Rabbi Mayrim and to ask him to pray for her. When Rabbi Yaakov Kopil opened the door to Rabbi Mayrim's home he was greeted with a “Mazal Tov, go back to your wife who had just had a son.”

[Col. 370]

When Rabbi Yaakov Kopil got close to his house he heard the baby crying. He wondered how Rabbi Mayrim could have known, no one told him about the birth. This story spread in the town and the people understood that Rabbi Mayrim has Kabbalist powers. His reputation grew and placed him among the leading Jewish scholars of the time. Shortly before his death he was nominated as the Chief Rabbi of the city of Kobryn where he passed away.

 

From Yeshiva to High Schools

“Rich Chaimchik” Nathanson lived in Sventzian. People estimated his wealth at forty thousand rubles, and ten thousand ruble worth of gold and silver dishes, utensils and jewelry. He had only one daughter whom he married to a scholar called Rabbi Moishele.

Rabbi Moishele was educated, smart and sharp. The Sventzian Jewish community offered him the seat of Chief Rabbi when he reached eighteen but he refused the honored position. His father–in–law built a beer brewery for him on Vidzer Street, where he worked all his life and the successful business made him rich.

In time he became famous in the district, his business grew and he had sons and daughters but his sons did not follow him. They were interested in general education and instead of attending Yeshivas they went to high schools and universities. Some became physicians, some pharmacists. The Nathanson name became famous throughout the country.

[Col. 371]

His eldest son, Ze'ev Nathanson was a doctor at Dianburg (later – Dvinsk) and even the local Russian authorities respected him and in 1865 the Czar Alexander the Second gave him a gold medal. He died in 1890 of a heart attack, leaving behind a wife, children and many properties including big building that brought in four thousand rubles a year.

His second son was a pharmacist in Kovna. He, too, became rich – his pharmacy was the largest in town. His other sons spread all over Russia in places where they found business opportunities. Asher, Akiva Kovarski's son, married the granddaughter of Moishele around the same time.

Akiva Kovarski had two sons. The older, Shimon, lived in Minsk, was the son in law of Rogovin, who was one of the city's most respected and rich citizens. Shimon, too, was respected and rich. The second son, Asher, was respected and rich in Sventzian and one of its community leaders.

Rabbi Itzhak Isaac Tzernovski lived in Sventzian in 1860. He was very rich and very observant but had no children. The town had two synagogues at that time. They stood side by side and became too small for the growing crowds so Rabbi Itzhak Isaac decided build a new, larger synagogue. For this purpose, he built a brick factory, and also brought large rocks to support the foundation of the new synagogue.

As soon as the foundation was ready he died suddenly, leaving behind more than two hundred thousand bricks and building supplies.

The fire of 1872 consumed more than four hundred houses and most of the stores in the commercial center near the Catholic Church. Most of the town's businesses concentrated around the commercial center so many people lost their homes and their businesses too. They used the bricks of the synagogue to rebuild the commercial section. This fire broke after Rabbi Mayrim left for the city of Kobryn.

[Col. 372]

Rabbis and Philanthropists

When the residents of Sventzian started to recover for the catastrophic fire they decided to nominate a new leader fill the position that Rabbi Mayrim left. They chose a very old man, Rabbi Hashil, who was a scholar, smart and much respected.

The impoverished community could not pay him more than four rubles a week. His wife died earlier but after he re–married – this was not enough for them to live on. He asked the community for a higher salary and decided to leave Sventzian after they refused. The rabbi of town of Sieni, near Kovna (today: Kaunas), died at the same time and the community of Sieni asked Rabbi Heshil to move to their town. He accepted the nomination and lived there until his last day.

Sventzian was left without a religious leader after Rabbi Hashil left. A young rabbi, Moshe Yitzhak Ha–Cohen, the son of Rabbi Shmuel Isser, was the deciple of Rabbi Heshil and was married to the daughter of Shneur Kovarski. After Rabbi Shmuel had served as a judge for three years, Shneur Kovarski wanted to nominate his son–in–law as the Chief Rabbi of the town.

Michael Kovarski was another dignitary in Sventzian. His son–in–law was a scholar too, and he hoped to make him the Chief Rabbi. The controversy between the supporters of the two candidates developed to infighting, until the community decided to bring in an outsider as the Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Reines of Sieni, who was originally invited to Sventzian as a mediator was offered the position. He returned to Sieni to arrange his affairs and when he arrived back at New Sventzian he learned that Sventzian suffered the big fire. The remaining houses were used to shelter up to ten families and many of the poor families slept in the open air in the fields. Rabbi Reines stayed in New Sventzian searching for a new home.

[Col. 373]

After a few weeks he realized that the community will not be able to pay him or even to run the social services to help the poor and hungry. He called for a special assembly to discuss solutions and they decided that a committee of the Rabbi and some dignitaries would travel to Vilna to ask for its Jewish community help.

The people of Vilna helped Sventzian generously. The committee also applied for help from the Tsar Alexander Nikolayevich the Second who gave them four thousand rubles.

The committee also asked for help from people who left Sventzian, both in Russia or abroad, and collected another one thousand eight hundred rubles. The collected money was distributed among all those who lost their houses or businesses at the rate of one tenth of the loss. This helped the rebuilding effort and the town started to look like it used to be within a year of the fire.

Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Reines gained more respect and when the town started to recover economically they also increased his salary in recognition of his contribution and needs.

He resurrected the community rabbinical functions (synagogue, cemetery, slaughter–houses, etc.) and then Rabbi Yitzhak founded the organization “Somech Noflim” (=supporting those who had fall) with the mission to loan money to the poor without collaterals, without interest and with small payments over long time. He worked hard and long to make this a success by visiting each person who could donate for this worthy cause and the more money given to the needy – the more positive atmosphere surrounded the town.

He created the habit that once a year, on Shabbat Mishpatim (named after the Tora reading of that week, Exodus 21 – 24) were the laws of lending money are explained, of celebrating the success of the “Somech Noflim” organization in a festive dinner with wine.

[Col. 374]

In 1881 he decided to build a Yeshiva in Sventzian. He published his plans throughout the Jewish world, offering every graduating student the title of a rabbi with his endorsement as a Gaon. The Yeshiva started teaching in 1882 after he collected a thousand rubles and the Yeshiva improved the spirit of the town. Rabbi Reines hired four teachers of Jewish studies and three teachers of general education.

The Yeshiva had two types of students: the sons of the rich who paid high tuition fees, and the sons of those who could not afford the tuition and were supported by the Yeshiva. Rabbi Reines went to Moscow and Saint Petersburg trying to raise more money to support the poor students. He promoted the Yeshiva by publishing articles in the newspapers but the local leaders did not like his style. They used the Ha–Melitz newspaper to argue with him that the Yeshiva is not contributing to the community. As a result of the disagreement Rabbi Reines left the town in 1885, the Yeshiva was closed and its one hundred students spread to other places to complete their education.

Shortly after he left, Rabbi Reines was offered the Chief Rabbi position in Lida, where he stayed for the rest of his life.

 

The Aftermath of the Storm

The Jewish communities of Russia always knew that the Chief Rabbis of Sventzian were famous and great scholars, so after Sventzian was left without a Rabbi – many proposed themselves. Some visited the town and gave sermons in the different synagogues. One of them was a rabbi from Krok (Krakiai), a small Lithuanian town, who impressed his audiences while the town leaders ignored him because he had never introduced himself to them.

[Col. 375]

The simple people tried to appoint him as the Chief Rabbi without consulting the town leadership. This, of course, caused controversy in the town and the leadership brought in a rabbi from Myadel a nearby town, as their appointee. The community split between the two rabbis and things developed sometimes into fistfights. The Butcher had a problem as the supporters of one rabbi refused to buy meet from a butcher shop that did not receive this rabbi's endorsement of Kosher. After a year of chaos and disgrace the rabbis of Vilna decided to step in. They nominated three rabbis, The Magid Gaon of Vilna Rabbi Yaakov Charif (who later moved to New York), the rabbi of Serei and the rabbi of Shavli (Siauliai), to act as mediators and to solve the problems in Sventzian. The Magid of Vilna wanted to avoid a court hearing and arguments and tried to mediate between the two sides. This approach failed because each side was firm in its position so the court asked the two sides to select their representative. After listening to all the arguments, the court decided on a verdict, sealed it in an envelope, gave it to Mordechai Hurwitz and instructed him to open it only after three months. The arguments in the town stopped and three months later they open the envelope and read the verdict. The verdict offered the position to the rabbi from Krak for a year and a half if he wished. Then – the rabbi from Miadel (Myadel) can have the position for one year if he wished. Both rabbis had to leave Sventzian after the end of their terms, at this time the town must nominate a single rabbi for the whole town, for both the Chasidim and the Mitnagdim, and avoid any infighting. When the first rabbi completed his term – a major fire destroyed most of the town.

More than two hundred families were left without homes and work. Moreover – many disputes developed between those who lost everything and their neighbors how did not suffer from the fire. As a result, the City Council decided to stop issuing Building Permits until they brought in a surveyor, measured every plot of land and issued a Certificate of Location to each plot.

[Col. 376]

This process took a year and then the Council issued Building Permits only for brick buildings. This raised the price of bricks by seven times and people could not afford re–building without submitting themselves to heavy debts and high interest mortgages.

The results were very severe because many people could not afford rebuilding. They left the only town they, their parents and their great–parents ever knew. Many moved to America and never returned to their birthplace.

The controversies and disagreements subsided over time, the infighting stopped and it was the time to agree on a Chief Rabbi in a peaceful way. The town leadership sent a delegation to Vilna asking them to nominate a rabbi for Sventzian. The heads of the Vilna community asked the Gaon Rabbi Matityahu Shterson and Doctor Yoseph Fine to select the new rabbi. They did and sealed their decision for two months, expecting Sventzian to calm down even more.

The chosen rabbi was Pinchas Rozowsky of Plodnogy, a very educated man who could speak Russian, knew history and philosophy.

His wide knowledge made him friends with the Pravoslav Pastor of the region, Kuznetsov, and they met frequently at the rabbi's home for friendly talks and discussions.

[Col. 377]

Kuznetsov knew a lot about different religions, spoke Hebrew and did not hate Jews. A few years later he gave Rabbi Pinchas Rozowsky his special walking cane and the rabbi leaned on it every day while walking to the synagogue.

Rabbi Pinchas Rozowsky led the Jewish Community of Sventzian for the rest of his life and was buried in its cemetery.

Translator's footnote:

  1. Lithuanian Jewish Communities by Nancy Schoenburg and Stuart Schoenburg (Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library #14248) Return

 


Glorious and Proud Deeds

Chana Gerber (Yagur)

Translated by Meir Razy

I feel unworthy to write about the great love I have for my town Sventzian, where I was born, grew–up and spent my childhood and adolescence.

My family fled to Gomel during the First World War. My family was economically successful in Gomel but we wanted to return home to Sventzian after the war.

I want to emphasize that this was not the romantic yearning to the city's landscape. Its fields were not ours, its forests, lakes and parks were foreign to us. The simple Jewish people living there were the attraction.

A few thousand families inhabited Sventzian who without government support founded a large network of educational institutions in both Hebrew and Yiddish.

The Hebrew proverb “Envious rivalry among scholars increases wisdom”[1] matched the atmosphere of the town. The rivalry did not evolve into fistfights; people concentrated on discussing, explaining and convincing each other.

As a result – they built two libraries, two schools, two theaters, night classes and a multitude of educational activities for the youth. Everyone studies and even the poorest knew they had to educate their children.

We have to praise the good relationships between the intelligentsia and the simple people. They all worked for community institutions, donated to public causes, participated in gatherings and celebrations arranged by the various organizations.

[Col. 378]

These good relationships among people were manifested in the mutual aid activities. The society supported the poor and the helpless. Sometime – a loan with no interest, sometime – a nameless donation of a cart of wood, a bag of potatoes or flour for Challah. The recipient never knew who the nameless donor was.

It is not surprising that this atmosphere nurtured many institutions that helped the needy. A Jewish heart existed in every bosom.

The Zionist community that gathered around the Zionist youth movements was dedicated to Eretz Israel and did much to build it and to acquire its land from its foreign owners.

I will use this opportunity to mention Rabbi David Kuritzki who very enthusiastically worked for Eretz Israel and the Zionist movement.

We heard much about Eretz Israel from the “Melamed” (=teacher) Rabbi Pesach Wallak. He was the one who linked us to Eretz Israel, to the Hebrew language and instilled in us the love to the nation and to the homeland.

The He–Chalutz youth movement organized a farewell party for me just before I immigrated to Eretz Israel. It took place in rabbi Pesach's home where he celebrated the departure of each his pupils to Eretz Israel as an important holiday.

My heart screams with pain when I remember that this holy community was totally annihilated. It is hard to find any consolation.

We shall never forget.

 

Translator's footnote:
  1. Babylonian Talmud, Babba Batra, page 21 Return


[Col. 379]

The Shtetl and the simple folk

by Gershon Kuritzki

Translated by Meir Razy

 

Sve0379.jpg

 

Sventzian sat on the main road to Vilna, a city known as “Jerusalem of Lithuania”. The Jewish world acknowledged Vilna for its famous rabbis, its yeshivas and its modern education system.

The Yiddish Gymnasium (=High School) in Sventzian was considered one of the three best Yiddish high schools in the whole of Poland. The two Yiddish elementary schools in Sventzian had excellent reputations too.

The graduates of these schools absorbed the love of the Jewish culture and the Jewish people. They were the firsts to join cultural and pedagogical activities in the town and its surroundings.

The Pioneers movements established branches in our town. The He–Chalutz branch in Sventzian was one of the largest in the Vilna region. Hundreds of its members immigrated to Eretz Israel and settled in kibbutzim and towns.

The Young Chalutz branch in Sventzian was the first one in the Vilna region. Hundreds of its members took part in the Zionist and Jewish public activities and were the first to immigrate to Eretz Israel, legally or illegally.

The young Zionist people spent their time in the Pioneers Club singing and dancing, receiving guidance and education from their elders and making the mental preparations to immigrate to Eretz Israel.

Many of them joined the partisans during the years of the Holocaust. They sought revenge against the hateful Germans who had murdered the pure and holy Jewish souls.

Most of the population of the town were poor, working class people.

The town had two libraries, one was built by the Education Society and the other by the Art Society. They were not just libraries but actually club houses for workers and teenagers.

[Col. 380]

Two Drama troupes dedicated all their income to these libraries. Rosenthal and Friedman were the leaders of the troupes who brought the Jewish theatre to the town.

The simple folk, the average Jew, was preoccupied with providing for his family and educating his children. These simple people had a healthy sense of rejecting a life of ignorance or non–Jewish values. They overcame the economic difficulties of sending their children to Hebrew schools, educating them as proud people.

When they had the opportunity they were happy to move to Eretz Israel. Unfortunately, too few of them followed their children there. Those who stayed in the diaspora were annihilated.

The wheelers–dealers of Sventzian created the unique nature of the town. This made Sventzian famous and respected among the cultural centers of the Vilna area.

 

Sve0380.jpg
Sitting: Gershon Kuritzki
Standing: Leib Disniotik, Smuel Gordon, Pinchas Shulhaifer

 


[Col. 381]

A Town of Scholars and Educated People

by Shmuel Gurewitz

Translated by Meir Razy

 

Sve0381.jpg

 

Sventzian sits on an important road junction, strategically and economically, between Warsaw and Moscow and close to the railroad that links Warsaw and St. Petersburg. The town was established in the 16th century. A Polish legend tells that a Polish monk named Yan lived there before he moved to Vilna (Vilnius), where a catholic church was built and named Swinto–Yan after him. The Russians erected a monument for Muravjev “The Hangman” close to the church following the last partition of Poland. The Poles used to joke: “Kolo Swintigi Yana poshchily vilkigo Belavna”[1]

Sventzian became a town in the early 17th century. The Russian army passed through the town during the Napoleonic wars and later – the French army. The people of Sventzian probably remember the house on the left side of the Pravoslav Church on the road to Vilnius. Napoleon stood on the balcony of that house, inspecting his troops, a view that was memorialized in a drawn postcard.

Jews settled in Sventzian before the Napoleonic wars. It is told that the first two Jews to settle in Sventzian were Gurewitz and Kovarski. The large Kovarski family came from Kovarsk, a town near Kovna. One member of that family, the son of Shevach, the owner of the “London” hotel, published the book “The Genealogy of the Kovarskis”. All the members of the Gurewitz family are descendants of the first Gurewitz in Sventzian – Yerachmiel. The writer of this chapter is a seven–generation descendent of Yerachmiel (Hillel, Peretz, Hachil, Zvi, Zerach). I want to add a historic fact: when the government laid the railroad between Vilnius and Dvinsk – the leaders of Sventzian bribed the Chief Design Engineer so he moved the railroad farther north to New–Sventzian. They were afraid that the railroad would cause the town to grow into a big city that will be too expensive to manage.

Sventzian was known for its great rabbis: Hachil Yizerna Kapp, Reines – who started the Mizrachi movement, Pinchas Rozovsky, Amiel who later became the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Meirovitch, Polonsky.

[Col. 382]

Thousands of people attended Rabbi Amiel's sermons for two reasons. This was the time of the First Russian Revolution (1905) and both the “Bund” and the Zionists brought their best speakers to the Old Synagogue. The ultra–orthodox chose Rabbi Amiel who was thrilling the audience from all the political parties with his deep logic and pleasant presentations. Sventzian became known as “Little Vilna”.

Like Vilna, “the Jerusalem of Lithuania”, that was a city of educated biblical scholars, so on a smaller scale, became Sventzian. In 1907 Rabbi Amiel resurrected the Yeshiva that filled the void left after Rabbi Reines had moved his Yeshiva from Sventzian to Lida. The town experienced significant economic growth in the years prior to the First World War. The people of Sventzian remember the Market Day each Wednesday and the Winter Fairs. Government workers from the regional offices were customers of the stores. The main commercial source was in Vilna but the local merchants travelled to Warsaw and Riga too. Merchants from Vilna and many other cities and towns arrived to buy felt products. The felt industry was very developed and several factories employed hundreds of seasonal workers. There were factories for leather processing, for soap and for paint.

Starting at 1908 a weekly Russian magazine, Sventziansky Listock, was published. Its editor was Petishav. The Jews of Sventzian supported the newspaper financially but they read the large newspapers published at St. Petersburgh.

The Germans occupied Sventzian on the Jewish New Year Day of 1915 and the town's economy declined, never to return to its glory days. The social life continued and thrived, especially the youth movements. On one hand – the Zionist movements: Tzeirei Zion, He–Chalutz and the Young Chalutz, which started both the Hebrew night school and the Hebrew high–school, Tarbut.

[Col. 383]

On the other hand – there was a revival of Yiddish education with a primary school and, for a short time, even a Yiddish high–school.

At the same time, in 1918, the community enjoyed their first elected leadership. The elected leader and the driving force within the community was Yoseph Kovarski. What had he done for the town? I will quote from the eulogy I gave on the seventh day memorial (Shiva'a) in the Old Synagogue: “Why did the deceased (who died in Vilna) order that he be buried in Sventzian? He was a modern man and did not believe that the ground of Sventzian is softer than the ground of Vilna. We may understand his thinking as such: The people of Sventzian would participate in my funeral, would talk about me and would ask why had I moved to Vilna? What was the public benefit of this?

[Col. 384]

They will remember that I opposed the assistance we received from America from day one, assistance which included a shipment of canned food and low quality garments. They would remember that I fought for a productive type of assistance, that I prepared a plan to build a workshop with the goal of transforming it to a school. The students would become productive workers who will support themselves.” The people of Sventzian must fulfill the will of the deceased, and executing this plan will be the nicest tombstone for the memory of the first elected head of the community, Yoseph Kovarski.”

The community continued to exist as long as Sventzian was under the Polish government. Yosel Svirski was the leader after Kovarski but the community did not have another election. As was mentioned – the town did not return to its greatness and continued its slow decline until the arrival of the Nazi Germans, who annihilated all the Jews of Sventzian within two years.

Translator's footnote:

  1. Polish/Russian/Lithuanian translation – Saint John has been around for a long time Return


[Col. 383]

Morning and Evening Breezes
in Sventzian's Everyday Jewish Life

by I. Ben Ir

Translated by Meir Razy

(This chapter covers events of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I left Sventzian in 1907
and visited my parents RIP infrequently. Therefore, I do not have all the details of later events.)

 

The Klezmers

Movies did not exist in those days; neither did Jewish theaters nor orchestras. Jews addressed their desire of hearing music by listening to the synagogue's cantor and by attending weddings of family and friends. When marrying his daughter, even the poorest that lived on charity included the expenses for Klezmers in the budget as well as for a Rabbi, a cantor, and a beadle. Many times the Klezmers included a jester who presided over the ceremony and instructed the participants when to present the bride, when to cover her face, when to start the Chuppa ceremony and when to start dancing. The town's Klezmer troupe used to travel to towns and shtetels around Sventzian and nobody set a wedding date without checking the Klezmer's availability.

The head of the troupe was “Rabbi Yitche the Klezmer” and with him were his two sons–in–law: one of them was “Velvele der Zimbalist” and the other one played the “bandor” – a large violin–shaped instrument. There was another violinist who was blind in one eye and Moshe–Yehuda “the piper” (a flute player). People used to make fun of Rabbi Yitche, an old man who used to fall asleep while playing. The jester, Avraham–Leib, signaled the band to stop playing, but on occasions Rabbi Yitche continued playing while asleep until someone touched his hand. Sometimes they let him continue playing while the crowd enjoyed a good laugh.

The role of the Klezmers was to play while bride was led to her chair and then the jester Avraham–Leib gave a sermon when he was hinting to the expected behavior of a good Jewish wife. The accompanying music was sad and slow, matching the sermon that caused the bride and many of the attending women to shed tears.

[Col. 385]

After the sermon the Klezmers played a happy tune in order to cheer the hearts. The jester then announced the start of the procession towards the Chuppa. The Klezmers led the way to the Chuppa that stood outside, mostly in the synagogue's yard, with marching music. The also played Marches on the way back to her parents' home. They also played during the meal, but this time people who wanted to dance payed fifteen kopeks by putting the coins in a bowl that stood next to the players. They played and danced the whole night.

 

Nurses and Barbers

Sventzian had three Nurses. Two were known as “nurses” (feldsher) and the third – as “zirolnik”. I do not know what the difference between the two terms is. Nurse Moshe lived on Lintoper Street, Nurse Koppel lived on Vilner Street and “zirolnik” Yerachmiel who was the brother of Moshe lived in horse–trading market. Moshe and Koppel treated the well–off people and Yerachmiel was called by the poor people.

At my home we used Moshe. When someone got sick we summoned Moshe, who checked the sick child, instructed mother how to deal with the child and told us to come to his house in an hour or two for medicines. The visit and the medicine cost ten kopeks.

Yerachmiel was a nurse but also a barber. There were no barbershops in the town. The two barbers, Yakobson and Mendelovich, used to go from hotel to hotel and provided services to the guests and the rich people – land owners who came to town to visit the government offices.

The barbers served the government officials and visited the homes of the rich men. The son of Yakobson opened a barbershop in the home of Shevach Koppels on Vidzer Street in the late eighteen nineties. In the early twentieth century Kopele opened a barbershop for his future son–in–law.

Yerachmiel's shop was at the bathhouse. The Jews had only one bathhouse that was called “the Old Bathhouse”. A long bench at the center of the cool room served as the barbershop. Yerachmiel stood at one end of the bench doing his magic. Every man who wanted a haircut sat at the other side of the bench and the queue moved closer to Yerachmiel.

The older Jews used to draw blood every month or even every two weeks. Yerachmiel put several cupping glasses on their necks and once the blood accumulated under the skin he used to open the skin by cutting it with a razor blade and then placed the glasses in different spots.

That way you could see a row of naked Jews, cupping glasses on their necks and their blood spilled into the bathhouse's drain.

Nurse Moshe lived on Lintoper Street and his home bordered the store of Shreiber the pharmacist. The hotel of Chaim Yitche Rabinowich stood across the street. Once there was a strange event. The children used to play with a sling, a Y shaped tree branch with a strap of rubber that was used to fire little stones. Some children were expert shooters who used to hunt birds this way.

Someone hid in the attic of Chaim Yitche Rabinowich's hotel and fired into the windows of Nurse Moshe, breaking glass panes.

People searched for the shooter but did not find him. The next night the shooter struck again but was not found.

The town's people stood in groups discussing the event and then they all came to the conclusion that the hotel was haunted. People were looking for gremlins in the evenings and some even swore they saw one jumping from window to window breaking the glass.

Others did not believe in unnatural phenomena and helped nurse Moshe to search for the culprit. As a result – the “gremlin” stopped his destruction, but after a few days of quiet he continued breaking the few panes that survived the attacks, and then the “gremlins” left the hotel for good.

 

Tending the Sick

The town had a municipal hospital that was paid for by the duties on Jewish kosher meat but Jews did not enter it, primarily because of its non–kosher status. Jews avoided it even in a life and death situation. The community created a special institution, “Sick Duty”, for treating Jewish sick patients. The head was Shevach Kovalski and the treasurer was Moshe Levinson (who immigrated to Eretz Israel with his whole family and died in Tel Aviv at a ripe old age).

[Col. 387]

Almost all the town inhabitants were registered members of “Sick Duty”, having the privilege to get their medical treatment there. The poor received the services free of charge. The Sick Duty was well equipped and even the affluent families used it.

We have to remember that there were no nurses for hire at the time and having a sick person in the family necessitated that family members would devote their time to his needs, reducing their ability to carry on with their regular jobs. The institution took it upon itself to provide volunteers who stayed near the sick person at night and allow the family members to rest.

 

HEKDESH (Charity House)

Many things that were common in Jewish life in the Russian Diaspora are totally foreign to our young generation, for example – the Charity House that existed in every city and town and was synonymous with chaos and dirt. “Hekdesh” was the name for a hostel house dedicated to the wandering poor who went begging from town to town. Since they needed a place to pass the nights – each town had a community house for the wandering needy and beggars. No one needed to receive permission or to show any document, any Jew could stay there. Such a house existed near the synagogue in our town as–well, owned by the Chevra Kadisha (the funeral services) that provided its necessities. It was a one floor, three room big house. The family of the representative of the Chevra Kadisha took care of the house and lived in one room, one room was assigned for visiting men and one for visiting women. Benches near the walls around the rooms served as beds. There were no linens and every beggar placed his/her few belongings under their heads. People were quarreling many times about who would sleep where but the supervisor, a large man, stopped the fighting. When they ran out of bench space – people slept on the floor. The “guests” were beggars, out of luck people, losers who could not find suitable work. They all stayed at the Charity House.

 

Hachnasat Orchim (Hospitality)

The Hospitality service was more humane. “Respectable” people such as the Magids or the collectors of donations also needed a place to stay but were unable to pay. The town had a Hospitality house, managed by Rabbi Yitche Vidochinski who was referred to as “Yitche der Lerer”. He was the beadle of Hospitality house. He had never been elected, never resigned, and quietly managed the service without any community supervision.

All the town residents were members of the organization whose fund–collector was a retired soldier from Czar Nikolai army. He was going house to house collecting membership dues. The money was used for renting a room from Rabbi Yitche der Einbinder (the book–binder), a room that included several bunk beds, with a note from Rabbi Yitche Vidochinski, guests received a bunk to stay on and a pillow. Many times Rabbi Yitche Vidochinski gave the visitors some money so they would continue their journey and not stay in town at the expense of the community.

Once a year the community dedicated one Shabbat service for a fund rising benefitting the service. This was Shabbat “Vayira” where the Bible describes Abraham's hospitality to God's angels. The sermon emphasized the mitzvah of hospitality and encouraged the crowd to participate in a mitzvah by donating for Hachnasat Orchim.

 

The strange Life and Death of Shmerke

He had never married and since we knew him he was neither young nor old. He always had the same facial expression, the same sour look. His sparse beard was just colorless, neither black nor yellow. Whenever he spoke he complaint about something and it took some effort to understand what he was talking about.

He was a porter and performed any work that qualified as carrying. In the morning he carried water from the town's well to people's homes. He entered the homes with his yoke and two buckets on his shoulders, not greeting anyone with a “Good Morning”, standing at the kitchen's door wordless but his eyes were shooting “ lightning”. People understood that he was angry at them for not emptying his buckets quickly. He then poured the water into the house bowls or containers and left the house looking angry, without a word.

[Col. 389]

By noon all the houses received water and he left the yoke and buckets at a fixed spot and repositioned his rope from his waist to his back, signaling that he was ready to carry anything to anywhere.

He dressed in summer the same as in winter. The only difference was that in winter he covered his ears with a scarf and put on heavy gloves, and on very cold days he covered his boots with sack–cloth. Once a year, when the autumn rain started to fall, he bought a new pair of boots, but we never saw any new garment. We had never seen him during Shabbat or holidays so we did not know if he ever changed cloths. He patched his cloths with thick threads, by himself. Many patches were on his shoulders, where the yoke sat.

He was single, lived at his sister's home and payed her five golden coins (seventy five kopeks) a week for a place to sleep and a daily supper. She owned a butcher–shop and fed him like the rest of her family – meat, soup and a lot of bread. He had never complained about the food but he could not forgive her for “skinning” him.

She showed no sentiments. If he paid on a Thursday – things went well, but if he did not – she did not feed him on Sunday. On the Thursdays he did not have the money he used to start begging right after finishing his water carrying work. He stood at every shop door, saying “She, the shrew, threatens me that she will not feed me and even throw me out and I not have a place to sleep. Where can I get five golden coins? I had to pay the shoemaker for fixing my boots, last week I had to buy fabric to repair my cloths, one bucket is leaking and I must replace its hoops. Where can I find the money to pay for all of this? Mrs. so–and–so is marrying her daughter and had promised to pay me for bringing the water for the preparations. I told my wicked sister – here are three coins and I'll add two after the wedding but she did not budge. ‘I want the money now!’ she said”.

There were other weeks when he earned plenty. This was whenever there was a wedding in town. He was paid for bringing water for the cooking and other preparations and there was a custom that when the bride and the groom walked from the synagogue back home with the Klezmer – he met them halfway with two full buckets of water for good luck. For this he used his new Passover buckets that he place in front of the couple.

The whole entourage stopped, the groom threw a silver coin into a bucket and then the procession continued. Generous families used to throw more coins into the buckets.

His life was strange but his death was tragic.

Ice formed around the water well, sometimes higher than the stone circle round the well. The neighbors used to pay someone to break the ice and make the well safe, but on that day he slipped on the ice and fell into the well, head first. Passers–by saw the yoke and the bucket and carefully came to check the well. They saw only his boots. By the time they got him out he was already dead.

 

Ben–Zion Stolper's Meeting the Tsar

Ben–Zion was much respected in our town. His “place” at the synagogue was at the east wall and he was called for the “third” or “sixth” Torah reading. He was old when I met him when I was a teenager. He did not work, sat at home with his wife and made his living from the rent payed by his tenants and even more from money his sons sent him from abroad.

He was part of the intelligentsia and visited the synagogue only on Shabbat and holidays. Yiddish newspapers started to appear at that time but were not popular in small towns. I had never seen him holding or reading a newspaper.

Following breakfast he used to stroll on the sidewalk near his house or sat on a bench waiting for a passerby to join him for a talk. He used to tell stories from the time he had the “stoyka” – the concession of owning a carriage and horses that provided transportation services to the government, driving government people to wherever their work sent them. His stories were full of exaggerations and stupidities that made the listeners laugh.

Here are a few stories I heard him tell more than fifty years ago:

[Col. 391]

I received a telegram from the Governor that the Tsar is on a train heading towards our train station and he may want to visit the town. Prepare the horses!

Is this a small thing? The Tsar! I ordered the horsemen to clean and brush the horses; we used the new harnesses, put a pretty carpet on the carriage and went to the train station. In cases like this I did not trust the horsemen Ivan or Stepan and I sat in the driver's seat near the horseman.

We arrived at the station; it was a clear, cold autumn evening. I left the horseman with the carriage and entered the waiting room of the station, expecting the Tsar.

The place was busy, soldiers and officers everywhere, a train is coming and another one going but the Tsar had not arrived yet. I was cold so I started wandering around the station covered in my fur. Suddenly, without noticing the arrival of the train, someone touched my shoulder asking “how are you, Benz'l?” I turned my head and who do you think I saw? The Tsar! I stood at attention and said loudly “Life and health to your highness!” He patted my shoulder again and said “Good guy”. The Tsar and his minister approached the food concession, the minister drank a glass of Cognac but he had only a glass of soda with a touch of wine. I stood there looking at them and when they returned I called “the horses are ready, your majesty!” He replied “thank you, it is not needed” and went back to his train car and the train left.

A second story:
I once received a telegram from the minister to come to Petersburg to renew the contract for the stoyka. With such a telegram in my hand I did not need to pay for a train ticket. I showed the telegram and they let me on the train. And how I went? It was in the Second Class and Express. What is express? I'll explain: when you, children, go holding a stick touching a fence it makes ticking sounds. I tried to put my stick out of the window to touch the telegraph poles and it too made the ticking sound but it was so fast that I could not count them, and you know that the telegraph poles are far from each other.

And another story:

I used to buy the fodder for the horses myself. A stable owner cannot trust others to do it for him. The horses used to spread the fodder where they lay down instead of eating it and in the morning they looked thin. How can you drive them when they are hungry? So I had a rule – I myself bought the fodder, I did not save the expense and bought the best and this was positive. The horses were not hungry and did not waste the fodder.

Once I went to the market to buy fodder. It was a dreary day and only a few farmers brought fodder. I found one farmer that had two carriages with nice fodder. We agreed on the price but when I pulled out a twenty–five rubles note the strong wind blew it away. I could not see the flying note and could not try to catch it so I gave the farmer another note and told him to bring his carriages to my house. When I arrived to open the gate, what do you think I found? The twenty–five note that flew away was stuck to my wet gate.

 

The Chants of Leib–cheke the Skinner

He was not called Leib–cheke because he was small. On the contrary – he was tall, but he was warm and cordial with everyone, pleasant and happy at all times, his maxims and aphorisms funny and sharp.

His job was neither clean or easy, nor did it pay a high salary. His job was to skin animals in the slaughterhouse. The slaughterers in the town were poor and the man who worked for them could not expect a decent pay, but he was happy with the pay he received.

A small room next to the Old Synagogue was called the “Kloizel”. It was used as the prayer hall for the simple people. They hired a teacher who taught them each day a passage from “Man's Life” or “Jacob's Eye” between the Mincha and Maariv prayers, and read the Torah on Shabbat and holydays.

Leib–cheke volunteered as the “conductor” and served as the beadle of the Kloizel for free. He used to conduct services at various times and read Tehilim (Psalms) with elegance and a nice tune. The listeners could sense that his soul was ascending to heavens and that he meant every words he read.

[Col. 393]

He used to joke and show his happiness especially on Simchat–Torah. He used to assemble the children before the dancing with the Torah scroll, singing all the regular songs. He danced with them in a circle and called “Holy Herd”, to which the children replied “mememe”. And then he clapped his hands and shouted “kukuriku”.

Once, during a Simchat–Torah, while the children were very excited and Leib–cheke's face was glowing with happiness, a man approached him, pulled him by the coat and called “kit kit kit”. Leib–cheke became very serious, looked angrily at him, went to a corner, picked up a Psalms book and started reading while sighing loudly.

The synagogue became quiet and everyone looked at Leib–cheke. People told him that this was not the time for Psalms, the community needed him to lead the Simchat–Torah service, but he did not respond and continue saying Psalms for the rest of the service.

The dancing with the Torah was done very quietly that day without the normal spirit. The Holiday was not cheerful.

 

Rudner's Old Age

He lived next door to us in a meagre house, floorless, divided into two rooms. His son, who had many children, lived in one room while he and his wife lived in the other room. The son was a porter and if he worked for a full day he earned thirty to thirty five kopeks. The son's wife did not work outside the home as she took care of the children.

The old woman of the house made bread for bakers and earned five kopeks plus one loaf of bread for mixing, kneading and making loafs of bread filling one dough–trough. She was able to make four dough–troughs a day, earning twenty kopeks and bread the worth about ten kopeks.

The old man did not do anything, but at the end of each market day, and there were three a week, he went to the market and collected the animals' manure with a fork and a rake into a wheelbarrow and stored it in a growing pile near his house. Twice a year, in spring and in autumn, the peasants came and hauled the manure to their fields. They paid him in the autumn with the produce of their fields: potatoes, beets, carrots, cabbage and other fruits and vegetable that fed the two families for the whole year. He used to visit the peasants at their villages, bringing back groats, legume, ztirka flour (mixed flour that the peasants used for making soup) and wool they used to repair socks and gloves. If the visit had happened to be just before a holiday – he brought eggs and live poultry. He was satisfied with what he got and did not have to worry about his livelihood.

 

Talented People, Noble Spirit People and Noble Deed People

Fifty years ago, life in Jewish towns was wretched. The mind of competent children whose parents could not afford good education decayed and deteriorated and they could not exploit the good skills that nature had given them.

The exception were those who studied Torah, as our sages said: “ Be heedful the children of the poor for from them Torah goes forth”[1]. The Jewish nation's dedication to the Torah encouraged supporting Yeshivas and their students. This brought the blessing of great Torah scholars who, most of the times, came from the poor families of the nation. This is because they were not spoiled as young children and developed the commitment and dedication for the heavy load of Torah studies, as it was said: “A man does not fully understand the words of the Torah until he has come to grief over them”[2] this is how they made their great achievements.

The other study subjects were different. There were no supporters of learning and public scholarships did not exist, so skills were destined to deteriorate.

A few people from our town who deserved to be first class artists, had they had the opportunity, are described here. One was a comedian who could imitate people and even improvised conversations about ridiculous topics among some of them in a way that made the listeners laugh. All you had to do was start a conversation with him and he was flowing.

Another Jew had three sons. They lived across from the “Cheder” where I studied. The older boys studied metalwork and excelled in it but the youngest was not attracted to mechanics. After studying in the Talmud Torah he stayed home and started carving, sculpting and molding. His father did not stop him but could not help him either. They were so poor that they could not afford to buy him winter boots. He used his mother's boots to go to the outhouse and sometimes run out barefoot to urinate.

[Col. 395]

AT one time his father found a soft stone in the field. The boy decided to carve a statue of a man. He worked the whole winter using a small folding knife and when he finished we saw a statue of a man in a shirt, with a tie, nice and ornate. His father took him to Vilna and he was hired in a lithography shop and quickly became appreciated. I am sure that had he lived today he would be a second Antokolsky.

A third artist in town was Moshe Piatzkon, a painter par excellence. He was an old man who worked as a house painter. He left his mark on many homes by painting a picture inside the home. He did this voluntarily and was not paid for the picture. This was his technique: every house had a large, built–in baking stove that people used to sleep on during the cold winters. A rack stood next to each stove. When he finished painting the house Moshe turned to the children asking them what picture they wanted. Children used to ask for animals they had seen on the Simchat–Torah flags: lions, gazelles, doves, chickens with chicks or turkeys. Moshe climbed on the stove, using the rack to support his body, held the paint with one hand and the brush with the other. A line here and a line there and a lying down lion or a horned, running gazelle appeared. All this was done after his paid work, quietly and quickly. Sometimes the children commented that the lion did not look frightening and he said “if you are not afraid of a threatening lion – I can fix it”, he climbed on the stove, added a line here, a few dots there and the angry lion as ready to jump off the wall. He had never asked for payment for this creation. He was satisfied that he was able to express his artistic skills and he gained the title “Moshe Piatzkon”.

 

Rabbi Mordechai Leibes

He was an old man with a respectable look and made his living from rent and from his store. The store bore only his name but the salespeople were his two older daughters who remained unmarried although they were not ugly, were tall and attractive. He devoted his time to worshiping God and to doing mitzvot. He was regular at the synagogue and would come very early and study a chapter of Mishna, pray the morning prayers and read Psalms.

He was considered a benefactor and did many good deeds. He built a large Succah for the whole neighborhood; he bought an “Etrog” and let everyone say the special blessing for it, and distributed free “charoset” to anyone who came for it. I was a child when my father sent me for “charoset”. I stood among a crowd of children and adults, everyone holding a cup or a plate. Rabbi Mordechai drew “charoset” from a large bowl and without a word poured it into the cup or the plate. When people thanked him he only shook his head.

He used to share his snuff tobacco with all the attendants of the synagogue during weekdays and graciously let anyone sniff his special brand. One time his was praying “Eighteen” with a deep dedication. The prayer lasted longer than usual and one man who had finished his prayer quickly approached him asked to sniff the tobacco. Rabbi Mordechai ignored him and continued praying so the men tried to signal to him by touching his own nose. Rabbi Mordechai continued his prayer and the men left.

After he finished praying he went to that man and gave him his tobacco box, saying: “here is a gift for you. Next time I would like some snuff, I'll come to you and I promise that I will never bother you in the middle of a prayer.” The man understood that me had made a mistake and apologized profusely.

I heard that Rabbi Mordechai immigrated to Eretz Israel and is buried on Mount of Olives, let him rest in peace and let this note be a candle for his pure soul.

 

Old Men At the end of my note I must mention several dear Jews. One was Rabbi Bentzi Chaya–Rives. He was an old man with a majestic appearance whom I had never seen wasting any time in small talk. He used to come to the synagogue, open a book and study until prayer time. Between Mincha and Maariv he used to read aloud a lesson from Ein–Yaakov, explaining everything in clear words, not just translating the Hebrew. When he completed the lesson (and at other times) – he kept quietly to himself.

[Col. 397]

He was a clerk at the savings bank that “Yika” (JCA – the Jewish Colonization Association established by the Barron Hirsch in 1891) created in the towns of the Pale of Settlement. He managed the books, writing in his beautiful, clear handwriting and when someone approached him he used to raise his head from the book and looked at the person attentively, quickly and efficiently dealt with the request and returned to his work. His wife was not alive by then and he lived at his daughter's, Sarah–Michali and his son–in–law Baruch Seruko, who owned a bakery. They treated the old man exceptionally well and it was clear that they were proud of him. Their younger son Israel–ke was my best friend and later move to America.

Another old man who glorified the synagogue with his presence was Rabbi Shoel Michlishker, who used to spend many hours studying. He and his wife were old. His wife was called “Black Charni” and owned a store where many of the village peasants used to buy their supplies when they came to town for a market day. Most of them were “strovirdech” – a traditional Russian tribe. They used to grow their beards, just like Jews, and were true to their word. Rabbi Shoel used to leave his studies at the synagogue on market days and joined his wife at the store. His typical help was sitting at the door holding his cane. The customers were asking Charni for a price, turned to him and asked him “Your word of honor?” and he replied “My word of honor.” Some of them touched his beard, asking “in your beard?” to which he replied “yes.”

Charni did not need more help. She managed the scale and the cash and the customers admired her like a saint.

Another interesting character in town was Shimon “Der Broizer”, the beer brewer. He reached a very old age and died at the age of a hundred and three years. He used to walk from Vidzer Street, where he lived at his son's house, to the old synagogue twice a day until his last days. He stayed at the synagogue, studying in the morning and in the evening for hours. He liked all of God's creation and his love for all people was endless.

The lawyer Yishaya Levin was his son. He had two other sons and a daughter where he lived. I heard that some of his grandchildren are in Israel.

Blessed be the memory of them all.

 

Cholera in Town

I cannot state the exact date when the Cholera had spread in town. It was between 1893 and 1895. At first only the poor died and the number of children saying the “Kaddish” prayer was climbing from one day to the next. After a short time even rich houses were hit and the community started fighting the disease.

Elka Cathriel Chaim's, the mother in law of Sander Libman, was from a well–to–do family. One day there was a rumor that she got sick, but she died very shortly after and the town decided to fight the disease. They started by eradicating filth all around the town and disinfect those places with Carbolic Acid, and continued with prayers during the daily services. They also decided to bury “names” (torn pages from holy Jewish books that cannot be thrown away as garbage) as a merit of fighting diseases.

I was a child of eight or nine years old, studying at a Cheder of a Rabbi whose house stood in the yards of the synagogue. They took all the Cheder children to scout the streets, collecting the rags and other objects that people threw out of their homes. We brought these to several bonfires that were set to eliminate sources of the disease. We entered home of “The King of Prussia” where we found a treasure of rags he and his wife used as clothes and bed linen. Our supervisor ordered: Take everything! But “The King of Prussia” resisted saying these are his clothes and bedding and he needed them. He quoted passages from the Torah about the sanctity of one's clothes but the supervisor repeated his instructions and the children started collecting everything. The owner tried to fight back but quickly realized he could not stand in the way of so many children. He went outside, sat on a bench and cried.

 

Chevra Kadisha

The family of a person who had died approached the funeral committee that arranged the funeral. The payment was not set according to the value of the grave plot or the size of the inheritance. It was linked to the type of relationships the deceased had with the committee. If the committee was not satisfied with the deceased – they charged the family much more than for other funerals. These disputes were sometimes bitter and on occasion the government had to get involved, but the Chevra Kadisha always won. There were cases that the funeral was delayed by a few days until the family caved in and paid.

The newspapers of that period include a lot of criticism of the Chevra Kadisha and its treasurers. It is true that some of the criticism was true but it provided essential service to the community and one cannot think of society life without the service of “Chesed Shel Emet” (True Kindness). I will describe the essence of the Chevra Kadisha as I saw it in Sventzian.

[Col. 399]

Chevra Kadisha was not a regular organization with employees. Instead, all this holy work was carried out by volunteers. When someone died – the volunteer craftsman left his workshop and the volunteer shopkeeper left his store and tended to and buried the dead. They assembled at their office and agreed among themselves who will wash the body, who will prepare the shroud and who will dig the grave, everything for Mitzvah with no monetary reward.

The Chevra Kadisha was the first democratic institution of the Jewish community in the diaspora. As we know – money was a dividing factor in appointing people to community roles in those days, but the Chevra Kadisha was managed by equality. The fifteenth day of the month of Kislev was set as the day of “Gmilut Chesed Shel Emet” (=rendering the ultimate charity – a charity that the benefactor cannot reciprocate). The community members assembled at the synagogue, prayed together, read special prayers asking for forgiveness and many even have fasted on that day in order to atone their possible failures for respecting the dead people they buried during the year. After the last prayer of the day they shared a special meal.

That meal was normally given at the home of Moshe Rabinowitz. During that gathering they reported last year's activities and the plans for the coming year, and assigned responsibilities. Everyone could nominate others or be nominated. Also – if the income exceeded the expenses, they transferred the surplus to the community for other needs.

The chief treasurer at the Chevra Kadisha in Sventzian was Rabbi Leib Meinkin, who was also the treasurer of the old synagogue. He was an assertive man but very honest. People used to complain about him but no one doubted his honesty.

Let us also remember Benjamin of Trebotch, who was the undertaker and always asked the dead person to forgive his own family, the people who accompanied him to the cemetery and himself if anyone failed in fulfilling all details of the funeral.

 

Sve0400.jpg
Eulogy for Hirsch Levin

 

Shabbat in Sventzian

When Shabbat arrived half an hour before sunset, the beadle, Israel Elli, used to go to the Schreiber Pharmacy that stood at the center of the market and knock on the wood–shutter, twice and then once more. This was called “the knock to the synagogue” – Shabbat was announced and men were called to greet the Shabbat at the synagogue. Storekeepers used to close their businesses and hurried home where the women had already prepared for candle lighting. The street became quiet, here and there you could see a Jew in Shabbat garments crossing the market on his way to the synagogue. We must admit that the number of men attending the synagogue was not large and in the early Saturday prayers they did not reach “a Minyan” of ten men. However – Shabbat atmosphere covered the town and you could see that it was a Jewish town: the stores were closed and you could see Shabbat candles in many windows.

[Col. 401]

We can be sure that people lit Shabbat candle in every home. Even if their family was not very traditional they still observed the Shabbat. The streets were quiet and only very few people wandered outside.

Only we, the Cheder children and our Rabbi, had no break. We had to attend the Cheder after the afternoon nap and the Rabbi, his face soured, had to teach us like on every other day.

People started to show themselves outside after their noon nap, going to different synagogues to hear a sermon, sometimes about the weekly “Parasha”, sometimes the Talmud or Mishna, sometime a visiting Rabbi or Magid and then they prayed Mincha and went home for the “Third Meal”.

Later on – couples were walking from one side of the town to the other, in Kazantzisever Street to the street of the goats, on Vilner Street to the Pravoslav Church, and in the summer – to the Pine grove at Cherklichek. People enjoyed the fresh air of the forest.

The “White Group” used to meet in the yard of Yurcheke and enjoyed themselves on his swings. He installed swings for paying children. During the week we each paid him a kopek to use them but on Shabbat (when Jews did not carry money) he told us to pay on Sunday.

 

Tze–na U Re–ena and Children's Games

Every woman who could read kept the books “Tze–na U Re–ena”[3] (“Come out and look, you daughters of Zion”) and “Korban Mincha” (Sacrifice Offering) at home. The first book followed the weekly Torah segment in Yiddish and included the different explanations and interpretations such as Onkelos (the Bible translated to Aramaic), Rashi and others. The second book was a Yiddish version of the Siddur – the standard prayer book. Men did not read these books. Those who could read Hebrew used the Siddur and those who could not – went to the synagogue and listened to the sermons of the Rabbi. One reputable Rabbi did read the “Tze–na U Re–ena” aloud at his synagogue. This was Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the “Natziv of Vollozin”, the head of the famous Yeshiva of Vollozin that educated many important rabbis. His followers asked him once why he was reading the women's book? He said that he wanted to encourage men who could not understand Hebrew but could read Yiddish to have the courage to read this book. He wanted them to think that “If Rabbi Hirsch–Leib (his nickname) reads this book, we can read it too.”

The book was full of stories from the sages and pearls of wisdom that explained Judaism in a simple, clear language.

Our mothers used read this book aloud on wintery Saturday nights or on Saturday afternoons in summer and some of it penetrated the children's heads.

The author used special terms for each of the explanations. For example – when quoting Onkelos he wrote “the translation teaches”, for Rashi he wrote “Rashi does”, for the Midrash – “Midrash says” and for Rabbi Be–Chaye (Bahya Ben Asher Ibn Halawa, 1255–1340) – “Be–Chaye writes” and so on. When we, the children, had gathered in the Cheider on the Sabbath afternoon while the Rabbi was still asleep, we used to test each other to see if we remembered our mothers readings. We asked someone “what did Rashi do?” and he had to say “Macht” (“do” in Yiddish). Those who did not answer correctly were punished. They had to surrender something as a pawn to guarantee a later punishment.

The children who knew the answers became judges and they agreed on the punishment. One child had to skip five times around the table on one foot, one had to stand on his head near a wall and count to ten, and another one was hit lightly on his nose.

The game was loud and it woke the Rabbi up. He entered the Cheider room and started his lesson.


Translator's notes:

  1. Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim page 81 Return
  2. Babylonian Talmud, Gitin page 43 Return
  3. Bible, Song of Song, 3,11 Return

 

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