v Svencionys, Lithuania (Columns 433-464)
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[Col. 433]

The Jewish Fire Brigade Prevented a Pogrom

Abrasha Bak

Translated by Khane-Faygl (Anita)Turtletaub

[Photo]

When I was still a child, I was drawn to the Fire Brigade when I saw my father taking part in their exercises. I could hardly wait until I was 17, when I was finally accepted as a member in the Fire Brigade (only because I had a lot of pull), and I could don the blue uniform with the red stripes and every Sunday take part in the exercises with the ladders and ropes.

It once happened that on a Monday night a fire broke out on Pashmener Street at Tevye's, the maker of felt boots. He had oxygen that had exploded and fed the flames. We threw ourselves into the work, and with the water from the Kune River we put out the fire. In addition, we were successful in containing the blaze and protecting all the surrounding wooden houses. This made us even prouder.

At that time, fires were not an infrequent occurrence. The bells often rang calling the [town's] population to gather in the courtyard of the firehouse. It sometimes happened that strong winds prevented the sounding of the bells to be heard, and the people did not hear the alarm.

It was only when Zalman Bikson and ________[1] took over as managers that we organized events [such as] flower days, and took out loans. For the money we [made], we erected sirens and became motorized, [that is] we bought a car and other necessary appliances.
This helped us tremendously. We got rid of the horses that panicked at every fire and trembled as they were harnessed to the [water] barrels, [and even] at the sight of our shiny hats and burning torches. The bell that indicated to all to clear the road for us, caused the horses to become very

[Col. 434]

fearful, and it was sometimes impossible to prevent them from galloping wildly away.

The Fire Brigade was located on Kaznatseyshter Street (Pilsudskiega)[2]. As soon as the siren sounded, the first ones [to arrive] were from Lintuper and Pilsudski Streets: Yoyel (the wigmaker), Vilkomirski, Meyer Shapiro, Bere Leyb Grinfeld, Dovid Kavarski, Lulinski and others. From the marketplace and the synagogue courtyard [came]: Moyshe Hirsh Bushkanyets, Bikson, Yoysef Goron, Leyzer Gordon, Zalman Matskin, Leyb Matskin, Henekh Sorski, Yitskhak Bak, Avram Bak, Menke Gurvitsh, Yankev Kramnik, Dovid Gurvitsh, Gershon Gurvitsh, Alter Kaltun, Dovid Rokhin, Nakhum Rokhin, Vermes, Yankiv Leas, Shayke Liberman, Avram Gurvitsh, Motl Kil and others.

[Photo]

The Fire Fighters of the city

When the war broke out and the Poles were running away, they abandoned everything. We, the fire fighters took over and prevented a pogrom. We took control of the weapons that we found in the police station. We took the caches of whisky and alcohol over to the hospital and kept order until the Red Army arrived.


  1. The name of the person who helped him is missing in the original. [Trans.] Return
  2. I think that this means that the firehouse was on the corner of Kaznatseyshter Street and Pilsudski Street or that Kaznatseyshter Street was originally named Pilsudski Street. [Trans.] Return


[Cols. 435-436]

Tin Names[1]

(From the poem 'Mason[2] Hirsh')

M. Natish

[Photo]

Gray Sabbath, piously-despondent Elul –
Locks threaten – iron fists –of closed thresholds;
Arms of bars –
Spread on shutters, doors:
--In any case, there is nothing to touch! …[3]
Yellow paper with bleeding, calligraphied
Letters on black doors:
“These stores for rent”…
Rubbed out signs,
Tin names of the tattered
Business-trade-swindle scribe that remained…
Meat stalls. A red cow – looks from the rusted tin [sign]:
Large eyes – measured with compasses;
The gentle eyes of a child …
The cow holds an ax in its teeth,
[And] smiles sadly to itself…
A small sack of flour, a loaf of bread –
A black knife sticks out of the middle…
A glass of tea, a slice of lemon
Boiled with it…
Iron, plow, saw, miter, a pair of oxen …
A long stocking, a child's dress with short little sleeves spread out:
Shows a hand
A dressed up dandy:
Second-hand clothes…
Black boots for work…
Wig-maker, brush and comb in hands held up
Over the swelled [?] head of his client…

[Cols. 437-438]

The mirror opposite him, a glance – behind him!
That is how the wigmaker looks in the mirror…
An eagle with a crown; a crooked beak held high –
A monopoly; tobacco, cigarettes…
Golden letters on black marble: the apothecary;
A green snake wound around a lifted cup – thin –
Doctor of medicine…
A finger points to a yard: a midwife, in there…
Dentist from ten to four –
The door of the glassed-in porch stands open…
Lawyer – defends in court. A Jew. A black countenance.
Piles of money pressed into fists. A curse sticks in the heart –
Shouts to the neighbor:
“Pay the taxes!”…
Taxes, taxes, taxes –contributions! …
“Public School – Culture,” Star of David, a palm in the middle…
Pioneers. “Hora Dance.” Scream –
A gathering…
A Jewish secular school with 7 grades
(the sign dangling [?] in the wind,
Window panes – stained with ink.)
The movie theater. Only plays once a week – full…
“Educational Society” fallen in ruins,
Youth – progressive, out of pranks…
Wind orchestra, hoarse brasses, marches resound
On the Sabbath…
The library, dark, quiet.
Books – moldy, dusty – –
Rehearsal: Bergelson's “The Bread Mill”…
“Pasterunek, F. F.” from flogging on the roof – a whip…
Electric – heavy sobbing, like a goose…
High fences, rusted barbed wire…
Jail…
The yellow painted train station:
A small train, like a rat, runs quickly by –
Position, gymnasia, seminar,
The fire fighter's tower, like a giant
Lurks with bells sounding in the distance for certain danger…
The Magistrate, an emblem with two little fish.
A watch bricked into the lime tower,
Hands, frozen fingers point in black at ten…
A small orchard – fenced in,
Opposite the white church – up high
(The church with a reputation);

[Cols. 439-440]

Three little trees. Flowers all mixed up among the weeds.
(The Magistrate plowed up a stretch of the marketplace to make a park.)
The priest's house on church grounds:
White letters scream from the red roof
To the peasants in the marketplace and at the fairs:
      “Here we drink tea! . .
      “Here we buy inexpensive bread!…
      “Here we avoid Jews!”
A reading room dedicated to “Holy Theresa” –
So that the Lord's word not be forgotten! …
Horses unharnessed, sacks of wheat on heads.
Penitents [?] pray opposite the church.
Crows pick at steaming dung on the stones near the park. . .


  1. This is a selection of a larger poem and is printed as one column in the middle of the page. [Trans.] Return
  2. Meaning a bricklayer, not a first name. [Trans.] Return
  3. The ellipses mean that part of the poem has been omitted. [Trans.] Return

 

[Cols. 441-442]

Imaginings

[photo]

[Cols. 443-444]

Figures

Shimon Kants

The people of Sventzian did not write the life stories or biographies of famous Torah scholars and well-known pious rabbis in their burning desire to immortalize the close figures of their town. These are no more than brief life sketches of simple Jews, sincere and honest, whose virtues and comportment were like pieces of heaven on Sventzian land, and that is why they etched themselves so deeply in the memories of the surviving Sventsyaner Jews. They were sharp minded Torah scholars and G-d-fearing religious people, modest mothers and grandmothers. Lively merchants and artisans, old-time musicians and young workers, who sang of spring, of love, and in their Internationale[1] one could hear the weeping of kol-nidre and the longing of the “Bney Heykhala.”[2] Today, their whole lives would be considered no more than a tale that disappeared. But the yearning for beauty that they carried within themselves and left as a legacy for the survivors will never be silenced. And every indication [is important], even if it is no more than dry dates and [descriptions] of ordinary events recounted in quiet words issued from choking throats hidden deep in a living spring. This is the spring from which the surviving Jews of Sventzian draw their special individuality and the full rivers of longing for Jewish and ever-lasting human beauty. Just as we use wood to feed a fire, the Jews of Sventzian, now scattered to all corners of the world, use the memory of these extinguished and murdered figures to feed the burning fire in their hearts. The beauty of these figures, who are described here, did not derive from gold or silver, not from steel and iron, but from the deep humanity, from warm human actions, [that serve as] examples for future generations.


  1. That is, their anthem. [Trans.] Return
  2. “The Sons of the Divine Temple,” a song usually sung at the third Sabbath meal. [Trans.] Return

 

[COL. 455-456]

Bread

Menke Katz

Translated by Janie Respitz

And the suffering–––
The children were taken from Badan
And Sventzian
Carried away on lost roads;
Alone during nights filled with terror
She hears
Each of her children – hungry wolves roaring.
She hugs Yosinke in his sleep
And speaks of sick dreams:
Oy, who shall I, who shall I lament first?
The children of Badan wandered,
On separate roads – lost roads,
During starry nights and dark nights.
The children of Badan wandered–––
Among echoes of shooting,
Among far away cries of wounded soldiers.
Each one searching for lost luck:
Bread, bread, B–R–E–A–D!!

 

[Col. 457-458]

On the Gallows

Hirshe – Leyb Tarshish

Translated by Janie Respitz

Mentke packed the wagon with cushions
And fastened himself as a horse,
With Blumke by his side – for prosperity,
He led her by her thin hand.

Through hidden paths, through crowing fields,
These two wandering children
Measured the distance with the cushions in the wagon–––
Perhaps he will exchange a cushion
For a piece of bread.

Mentke thought,
Blumke would help push the wagon–
But when Mentke cried,
Blumke only helped him wail.

The evening accompanied them –
Through swampy meadows,
Next to quacking ponds,
And suddenly the children were shown:

A Jew hung from his Tefilin on a tree
His hands crucified, speared through a cross.
Around him the wind
Blew pages from a torn prayer book,
And in the Pentateuch–––
The blood moaned
The prayers of Moses our teacher.

Blumke moaned with all her limbs
To the setting sun:
This is Hirshe Leyb Tarshish, Hirshe Leyb Tarshish,
The assistant beadle of the Hasidic Shul.

Hirshe Leyb Tarshish on the tree,
Rocking in a prayer like prayer
Like he used to do–––
When on rainy nights,
He would sit at distressed Jewish graves,
And with blessing chase away all the thunder and lightening
And with greatest intention mumble:
–Oh God, You be more of a Lord, and me more of a slave.

Menke Katz

[Col. 459-460]

Mentke caressed the hanging toes
And kissed the damaged Tefilin;
Hirshe Leyb Tarshish, Hirshe Leyb Tarshish,
Who will now, during the month of Elul,
Would fight the first cold winds
And intoxicate his thin body –––
With prayers and tasty wine.
–––Who will now understand as you do,
The confessions of the dying that are humming ––– end of summer flies;
When the mossy houses in the Shul court yard
Shine in the gold of autumn.

––Hirshe Leyb Tarshish, Hirshe Leyb Tarshish,
When will hunger stop, like a worm–
Crawling through our bones,
I would break the strong tree in a moment
And in my wagon filled with cushions–––I would make you a soft bed;
I would run with you back to Sventzian,
Place on the purification board of the dead
And then among the finest graves–––
Lay you to sleep peacefully…
In the evening the fire played a prank
On Hirshe Leyb.
His dead beard,
Now smelled of April's blossoming flowers.

The hanging tree,
With all its leaves –––
A scented dust turned
And Hirshe Leyb
Like a scarecrow, chased the bids from the tree.
Late in the quiet evening,
Mentke and Blumke wailed;
Hirshe Leyb Tarshish, Hirshe Leyb Tarshish,
The assistant beadle of the Hasidic Shul.

 

[Col. 461-462]

Returning Home

Hirshe – Leyb Tarshish

Translated by Janie Respitz

For whom–––
Does the July night get dressed up,
Who can still enjoy her haunting beauty–––
If not Mentke and Blumke,
Who are now coming
From the nearby hill
And see ––– now not in a dream,
The starry rooftops of Sventzian.

Around the mountain – juicy sorrel is blooming.
Every leaf is washed by the purest dew.
On Pashmen Street –––the frightened homes
Are tugged toward the strong mountain.
Behind the locked shutters,
Everyone's hearts are racing–––
As if they were being chased.

In the Shul court yard. –the empty shambles,
Chaim Meir from Svir blessed the new moon
With his own prayers,
With a kerchief with fringes–––instead of a prayer shawl,
Wearing one girl's and one boy's shoe,
Like half girl and half boy–––
He does not tire of praying:
–OH moon, moon,
Give me a piece of bread–
You will be blessed in the world to come,
as you are blessed in this world…
Ishieh the blinker blessed the new moon
In a moaning Kol Nidre melody:
Ay –Ay– Ay–, Ay, Ay–, Oy –Oy,
His eyes a disaster, his eyes a lament.
If man had not seen God's shine
The blindness alone would be day;
If there were no eyes anywhere,
There would not be any tears–––
Ay– Ay–Ay, Ay –Ay, Oy–Oy–Oy.

 

[Col. 463-464]

The Last Man

Menke Katz

Translated by Janie Respitz

Eltzik stated
Am I the only one from the entire human race that remained?
Did the whole world die
And I alone was fated–
To live for the sins of all generations?
And maybe,
They already brought me to my burial place
And I am dreaming – the world is a grave?
He wanders–
He tries to pull at a limb
In order to ask himself, if he is alive–
A red stream freshens his dusty skin.
He shouts over the shouting wind,
As if suddenly every stone attacks him:
I'm alive–––I'm alive–––––I'm alive!
And as if with a stranger's voice,
These familiar words resound:
Mama, Berke, Mentke, Blumke, Yoske,
And Dvoyreke?
She shines with a frightened smile:
Oy, Elinke, Eltzik, Eltzik,
For you –
The blue little flowers in my blond braids;
For you–
The raw scent of my 15th of April.

Eltzik–
Pieces of names are floating by,
With a golden sunset in every letter.
The names break and rise with the wind,
As if looking for their lost God.
The names flicker from the destruction of the Holy Temple
And find their way back,
Through the broken, green sills
And lay like patches on the torn tablets.
The silent names are said in prayer:
Oy, burdened God,
Let at least Eltzik – the last man,
Remain in our angry dream.

 

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