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Childhood In Volozhin

M. Perlman

Edited by Mike Kalt

Vilno Street

Our First Apartment

The Perelman family changed apartments four times during our Volozhin childhood. The first one was on Vilno Street. It stood near the Sazhelka, the shtetl water pond. The west part of the single story wood house belonged to my mother's parents, and was rented to the district court. We inhabited the east side, our parent's property.

Both of us, Sonia and I, were born in Vilno, the big city, where mother chose to bring us into this world. It was a whole day journey, by horse and by railway, one way pregnant, back with the newborn babies.

The apartment had four rooms: the sleeping room, the dining room, Papa's “cabinet,” two entrances, a waste kitchen with a huge oven. The fourth room was rented. Objects I recall include the wall-mounted telephone, the leather sofa “kushetka”, the hanging musical wall clock, and the large mirror.


Our house, undamaged remains, until now on Vilna (today Sovietskaya) Street

Our house, undamaged remains, until now on Vilna (today Sovietskaya) Street
Four families (invaders from Ponizhe) are now living there.


The first event I am able to remember was my mother sitting on a jagged chair in the cabinet, beside the open fire of the high white stove. She sent me to get the iron rod (kocherke), to arrange the glowing coals. I was running fast out of the kitchen darkness, rod in hand, to mama, near the warm firelight, and I bumped hard into the chair edge. My face was covered with a mixture of blood and tears. The child has lost his eye! Feltcher Avrom Tsart, the shtetl medical authority, was alerted. He applied bandages and iodine. The eye was “saved”, but the scare and memory have been with me ever since.

In 1998, during our visit in Volozhin, we found the house. 4 families now occupied it. I recognized the oven with its original small wrought iron door, the place of my haunting first injury.

Russian was the first language I spoke. After the Russian revolution, our parents returned to Volozhin, which was under Polish rule, from Ukraine, where they both studied in Russian schools. Both of them, especially Mama, who was saturated by Russian literature, wanted boy to speak the language of Pushkin. Polish they did not know, and as for Yiddish, “he'll manage to learn it in the shtetl courtyards”. So the family members were named in the Russian manner, Mame Etl--Mama Etia, Tate Yosl--Papa Yosif, Mume--Tiotia, Feter--Diadia, Bobe--Babushka, Zeyde—Diedushka, etc.

As for my true mame loshn, eventually it became Yiddish. I succeeded in becoming skilled in the beautiful “Litvak” Yiddish. It caused me many struggles, especially the RrrrEISH, which I turned on my tongue softly like the shkotzim, instead of pronouncing it roughly, from the throat, as my court comrades did.

I'm still astonished when I think about the linguistic problems of our childhood. At home I heard Russian, we played with the court comrades in Yiddish, and the housemaid's language was Belarussian--we called it Goyish. The main language in my Tarbut primary school was Hebrew, and the government authorities communicated with us, Polish citizens, in Polish. It is a bit strange to require six-year-old children to hear, to speak, and to understand five languages. Nevertheless goles is goles (Diaspora is Diaspora).


Our ancestors lived in Volozhin, for at least a dozen generations. The town changed its sovereign frequently. At my father's birth (1898) the shtetl was part of Tsar Nicholas' Russia; at mine (1924) it was part of Marshal Pilsudski's Poland. We left our Volozhin home in Stalin's Soviet Union (1940). The fascists murdered our grandparents inside Volozhin, occupied by Hitler's Germany (1942). Now it is Belarus, a new entity with its own language, borders, flag, president, and history.

Jews, emigrating from Germany and other western countries, settled here starting in the 16th century. They formed self-governed congregations (kehila), lived in small burghs (shtetls), and preserved their style of life, speaking the Yiddish-Litvak dialect. As for me, I spent 15 years in Volozhin, a typical Litvak-land shtetl, but I have never seen a true Lithuanian goy (gentile), and never heard or seen a word in this language.

Nevertheless, to my knowledge, all my ancestors during the last two to three centuries were 100 percent “Litvak” born.

Yehoshua (Eliyahoo?) Perlman, our father's grandfather, was the Rov (Rabbi) of Vishnevo, a small village near Volozhin. Prior to WW I he made aliya to Eretz Israel, where he served as Rabbi of the town of Rehovot, changing his name to “Margolis” (Hebrew for “Pearl”). His son, Moyshe Perlman (I bear his name), married Malka Itskhaykin, Rabbi Hayim Volozhyner's great great granddaughter. Moyshe Perlman owned a wine shop and an insurance agency. They lived in the famous Volozhin Rabonim's house (Beys Harav), Grandma Malka's inheritance. Their children--our father Yosef, his sisters Haya Dina, Feygl (Fania), and brother Eli--were all born in this house. At the dawn of World War I, the whole family left Volozhin as the Germans approached the area. They spent the war in Nikopol, Ukraine, on the Dneipr River. The Perelman family returned to Volozhin at the end of the war. Feygl and Eli remained in Russia (Soviet Union).

Before the German-Soviet war (1941), Grandma Malka left Volozhin, and went to live with her daughter Feygl in Moscow.

My mother Etl (Etia), her sister Zinah, and brothers Osher, Itzhok (Izia), and Mordhay (Motia), were born in Volozhin. Her father, our Grandpa Hirsh Malkin, the son of Yoel-Moyshe Malkin (from Lunna), was married to our Grandma Haya-Riva, who was the daughter of Shmuel-Osher Marshak (from Alitus).

Hirsh Malkin as the head manager of the millionaire Heller's large forest exploitation company, which established its main office in Belokoretz, a forest hamlet near Volozhin. The family fled Volozhin in World War I to Konotope in Ukraine, and returned back home in the early twenties. Our mother Etia was exiled to Siberia, where she survived the war. Her sisters and brothers survived the war:

Our grandparents, Zvi Hirsh Malkin and his wife Haya Riva, lived in Volozhin at the breakout of World War II. They were transferred to the town ghetto. The Nazis and their associates murdered both of them at the second mass slaughter action, on Sunday, May 10th, 1942, inside Volozhin, near the ancient graveyard. May they rest in peace.

Zina, Izia, and Osher survived the war in France, Motia in Eretz Israel.

Our parents, Yosef and Etl Perelman, were married in 1923 and established their home in Volozhin. They lived in a wooden house on Vilna Street. In this house, my younger sister Sonia and I were born. The family's income came from the wood saw and steam driven flour-grinding mills that our parents erected and managed on the Volozhinka waterside. The Soviet authorities imprisoned our father Yosif Perelman and sent him to the Gulag. A month later they expelled his family, Mother Etia, my sister Sonia, and me, to Siberia.

Harav – House Of Our Father's Mother

(see picture page I-17)

The house of grandmother Malka, my father's mother, stood on the northern side of the market square. Graph Tyshkevitsh, the Volozhin and the district landowner, built a stone house in style of the estate mansion and offered it to Reb Hayim Volozhiner. The Yeshiva founder and his son Reb Yitsele were held in high esteem by the graph. Grandma Malka, Reb Yitsele's great-granddaughter, inherited the big house. She lived in this house together with her daughter Haya-Dina (my father's sister), her husband Yani Garber, and sons, Dania and Monia.

The main entrance from the market side led to the apartment through a broad wood staircase. On the opposite side, going down to the Yeshiva and Beys Hamidrosh Synagogue were narrow steep steps. On the bottom were the cellars in which my grandfather stored wine bottles prior to the First World War. Everything was big in this house. The rooms were large, the walls thick, the windows, through which you had a view of the yeshiva, were high.

My cousin Monia was tall. He was nicknamed Monie der Greysser (the big), while I was called Monie der kleiner (the small). And also small, to my luck, was my grandmother Malka. But the house was really big, large by our shtetl's proportions.

Babushka Malka was a gracious, beautiful woman, with totally white hair. A piano stood in the main room. Dania learned to play. My grandma's epigram was frequently repeated by the family members: “The teacher is already covered with gold and Dany never stops to play the octaves”. The octaves saved Dany's life. The Soviets, arriving in 1939, invited him to play piano far inside Russia. Dania remained in Russia and escaped the shtetl's destiny.

Our cousin Monia was two years my senior. He owned a large postage stamp collection and had technical abilities. He constructed a radio receiver and he made it work 65 years ago in Volozhin. During Stalin's pre-war regime, when he was a student at the town high school, Monia jokingly erased the moustache of the Soviet leader on a wall-newspaper. The Soviets did not share his sense of humor. He was arrested and deported to Siberia. Monia had the chance to be free and to join the Polish (“Anders”) army as the war started. They left Russia, then went to Iran, and than to Eretz Israel. Here he encountered our cousins from Vishnevo (Tsherna and Bluma--Rabbi Perlman-Margolis' granddaughters). Monia did not remain here, in spite of the insistence of his cousins. He continued with the Anders army to Italy. Monia “the Tall”, Malka Perlman's grandson, the son of Yani Garber, the Volozhin Judenrat's head, soldier in the Polish army, fell at the Monte-Casino battle, fighting the Germans in Italy.

His father Yani was born in Ukraine. He had a perfect musical ear. When he joined the Beytar singing group taking the “second voice”, the song became real, multi layered and, in my memory, wonderful. The Nazis, after occupying Volozhin, nominated him to be Judenrat head. On October 28th 1941, the SS ordered him to assemble three hundred people in the cinema hall to do some work. Yani Garber accomplished his mission. The Nazi commander told him to leave. At that point Yani realized that he was misled; the assembled Jews were not brought to work, but to be killed. He insisted that he should share the fate of his community. His demand was fulfilled. He was the first to be shot.

But let us revisit the big house during the thirties. When Sonia fell sick with a children's malady I was removed to live a while with babushka Malka. After the demise of his sister Haya Dina, our father passed the seven days mourning in this house. She was operated on for appendicitis, and died under the surgeon's knife in the tiny Volozhin hospital. I remember my aunt's covered corpse lying on the big chamber's floor with clothes covering windows and mirrors. The funeral was typically Jewish, without any flowers, with three prayers a day at the Perelman's house.

The Perelmans were called the “Stone Skulls” (moyer keplakh). The first reason was their stone habitation, the second one, not less important, was their erudition, education and behavior. The family head, Moyshe Perlman, was the sole person in Volozhin who used to receive daily and to read the magazine “Russkoye Slovo”--“Russian Word”. Aunt Haya Dina, although she spent her time in the vine shop, was always reading a book. All the children graduated from high school and even attended universities. (Eli was a doctor; Feigl was a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences). And among my Tarbut schoolmates, my father alone had a secular matriculation certificate.

Bierezno – Home Of Our Mother's Parents

Our grandparents Haya Riva and Eliyahu Hirsh Malkin moved during the thirties to Bierezno, a small town near Rovno. When summer was approaching, Mother used to pack suitcases and take the long, long ride to Bierezno. It was a wonderful journey to an enchanted place. I guard the memories--first the ride in a peasant's single horse cart to Horod'k rail station, thereafter the black steaming, smoking, and whistling locomotive approaching the station. Later we wondered at the fields and forests passing through the window frame; we were much impressed by the thunder-like noisy passage over the Nieman and Pripyat' bridges. I still have the taste in my mouth of the tasty excellent black bread with cold calf meat sandwiches. After the long trip, with two pieresiadka rail changes and a second horse cart transfer, we arrived in Bierezno at a late night hour.

If I have had to consider a place to be named Paradise, Bieriezno would be my choice. First of all the kindness of Babushka and Diedushka; then the house and garden. The large house where our grandparents lived was built from wood for a local squire pomieshtchick. Equipped with a large veranda, it stood inside a fruit tree garden with apples, pears, plums, cherries, round red small poretchkes, and yellow oval agress. Beautiful, tasty, delicious fruit, fresh picked up from the tree.

The house had a built in suke with a convertible roof that could be raised by pulling a cord. It was filled with novelties, including a bathtub with a true water faucet to fill it up. Nevertheless, the water had to be drawn from the well in buckets and transferred by hand into the boiling kettle.

There was a real camera on a tripod, which was operated by uncle Motia-Izia (I called each one of them in a double name). It was covered by a black sheet, and without any movement we stood long, long moments to be photographed. There was also a bicycle made in Germany by Durkopf, the “world best” bicycles producer.

But the crown of Bierezno was its river. Unlike our narrow, crossable-by-foot Volozhinka, the Sloutch was a water-full river, 20 to 30 meters wide, with a high steep shore on the village side and a sandy clean perfect plaza beach on the opposite shore.

Among the Bieriezno pleasures were the long sailings with Motia-Izia in their own rowing boat and the swimming and sunbathing with tiotia Zina on the sand shore of the beautiful river.

It was a shtetl, but a different one from our Litvak towns. Bieriezno was located in Volyn', a Ukrainian territory dominated by Poland, mostly populated by Ukrainian goyim. The major part of Volyn' Jewry was Hassidic.

The Rebe ruled his Bieriezno orthodox congregation. The Rebe had his court of devoted Hassidim. He possessed his Tish-table, from which the Hassidim used to collect the festivities' remnants, the so-called Shirayim. Those habits and practices we did not see in Volozhin. The severe Yeshiva with the studious Rabonim was the Misnagdim Resistance bastion against the influence of the Hassidic movement.

Bieriezno residents spoke a different dialect than the Volozhin “Litvak” Yiddish dialect. They turned our “O” into an “OO”; our “OO” became an “EE”. Our doss became in Bierezno dooss, and our hoon became heen. Also the typical melody changed. The Bieriezno children listened with amazement to my strange speech and teased me “Der Lootvak”.

Our grandparents lived in Bierezno (Volyn) until the mid thirties. Izia and Motia graduated from high school in Luninietz city (next to Bierezno). Izia and Zina left Poland from Bierezno to France. From there Motia with his wife, as pioneers (Haluzim) made their aliya to Eretz Israel.

The grandparents prepared themselves to visit the children, Zina, Osher and Izia, in France. Before the long journey they asked Motia to come and to stay at home. Motia left the Hakhshara in Kolomyya for some time and came home together with Irka Lilienberg, his schoolmate girlfriend. Hirsh Malkin could not leave the young couple alone. One day, just before the trip to France, he returned home accompanied by a Rabbi, by two men as witnesses, and with a Stetson “kapelush” (hat). After the huppe had been finished and the young couple married, as it should be, the old Malkins could leave Bierezno and go peacefully to Paris.

The Small Incline – Der Kleyner Barg

Our second apartment

We spent the summer of 1930 in Bierezno with my newborn sister Sonitshka. We came back to another apartment. A bad fungus infected the wood house on Vilna Street. The family was obliged to leave it for reconditioning. A Yeshuvnik, a so-called country Jew, from Bielokorets, the village where Diedushka Malkin managed Mr. Heller's Forest Contor (office) before the First World War, built a new house. Father rented it for our family to live in.

Volozhin was positioned on the main road from Vilna to Minsk. The shtetl was composed of two parts. Vilna Street on the west with the Market Square in the center was called Arouftsou--uphill. On the eastern side was the downhill part--Aroptsou. Aroptsou was built on two parallel slopes, the small one, Der kleiner Barg, ending before the Volozhynka; and the big one, Der Greysser Barg, beginning close to the Polish Kostiel, crossed the Volzhynka Bridge and reached the East town exit, to Minsk and the Soviet border.


Volozhin map - 1939

Volozhin map - 1939
(From page 8 of the Volozhin Yizkor Book)


The Bielokortser's house was located in the middle of the small incline. Mother accompanied me from this house to school. The main language was Hebrew, so we had to pass a preparation class for speaking and reading Hebrew. In the higher classes we learned Jewish history, Tanah, and Hebrew, in addition to the required-by-law general subjects like Polish history, geography, arithmetic and Polish language. We were in school the entire day, from eight in the morning until three or four in the evening, with a long pause in the middle. For lunch, we used to go home, a 5 minute run. Our way to school passed near the babushka Malka's house, beside the synagogue and the Yeshiva.

Our teachers came from surrounding shtetls. The school manager and arithmetic teacher, Yakov Lifshitz, came from Radushkevitsh. Yakov Finger, our Hebrew teacher, with his family came from Soll. Their son Benzike, my neighbor on the school bench, and I were excellent friends. Our beloved class tutor, the school choir and orchestra conductor, Mr. Baykalski from Zheludok, taught us Polish, history and geography. Mr. Taller came from Molchad' to teach the holy Bible. Ms. Rachel Melzer, our natural science schoolmaster, she alone was born in Volozhin. She married Shneur Kivilevitsh (Judenrat head in 1942). Rachel spoke to the children in Hebrew only, avoiding Yiddish, except during the pauses. We called our teachers “schoolmaster”, or “schoolmistress” (Adoni, or Gvirti Hamore'a). Very polite, we stood up as they entered the class.

Across the street from our rented home, lived Freydele di Rebetsn, the rabbi Avigdor Derechinski's spouse. We were in very close relations with her. Freydele was our babushka Malka's cousin and a best friend.

Although Father was the descendant of prominent Volozhin Rabbis, he was not very religious.

Mother kept the home and food kosher. The kitchenware and cutlery were separate, one set for meat and another for milk food. A special set was reserved for Passover. Hometz did not pass in our home. Father conducted only the first Passover night seder, but never the second one, as was the Diaspora habit, and it rarely lasted after the meal to reach the Had Gadya. Grandfather Malkin used to conduct a real seder with all the rituals, sayings and melodies. He strictly guarded the afikoman from stealing. The boys worked hard to “steal” the well-guarded piece of matza. They usually arrived to perform the theft when grandpa was deeply occupied with the kneydlah. The meal always ended with an obstinate negotiation about the price. The demand was very high, the offer very, very low. The resulting price fell somewhere in the middle.

On the important holy days like Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkoth, Passover and Shevouot, we dressed in our best clothes and went with father to the big synagogue near the Yeshiva. There, father had a reserved place at the East Wall. The most joyous holiday in Volozhin that I remember was Simhass Toyreh. The boys prepared themselves on the eve of the feast by borrowing small Torah rolls, called meguila, from the Yeshiva cellar, where scripts of the prophet books had been guarded.

The main Volozhin Hakofess, with multiple Torahs and meguiles in hand, took place in the Yeshiva. The Yeshiva boys were joyful, and with them the whole shtetl. They danced and sang songs such as “Ato Bohartonu mikol Hoamim… Veytoyras emes Nota beyssoyheynu” ”You chose us from all nations… and the Torah truth did You plant in our hearts…” lasting until late in the night.

A tale was told in Volozhin that once a group of Yeshive-layt discovered that vodka is made from potatoes. It was decided to try the happy-rending-liquid fabrication. They put a kettle full of potatoes on the fire. During the boiling, the hungry boys did not cease to test the hot food. After the hunger was satiated, all of them became happy. This event taught the poor Volozhin Yeshive-boys how to become Freylikh without vodka, just boiling and tasting potatoes.

During Yom Kippur day all the grown family members fasted. But we never had a Suke. So I was very happy when Freydele di Rebetsn invited me to her Sukot rabbinical diner. It was a home built Suke with a convertible roof, like in Bieriezno. Freydele, I believed, was the main personality in the family, but to my astonishment, she was deprived the privilege of having her dinner together with her sons and husband. She served us a beautiful cooked gefilte fish. The Row had the head, Chayim, the eldest son, the middle. Yona the youngest received the tail, and I contained myself and was very satisfied with a tasty spicy Litvak-gefilte-fish ball.

Speaking about religion makes me recall the Sabbath skating event. Returning from his Vilna business trip, Father brought us presents. Once it was a wonderful gadget, the first scooter ever seen in Volozhin. The sloping sidewalk of our inclined street was an excellent way to ride on the one foot “Hulay Noga”. From another journey, steel ice skates were brought. They were not made from wood like in Volozhin, and not from common steel, but from prestigious in those times and places, “pure Swedish steel”. I found this gift on a Friday mid winter morning. Returning from school, we spilled water on our house courtyard until it formed a small pool. By Saturday morning we had a tiny skating area. I utilized it ardently. My pleasure was great but short. The holy Shabes desecration reached our school management. Mister Taller, our severe Bible teacher, reproved me in front of the class and the skating sacrilege stopped.

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