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Childhood In Volozhin (cont.)

Nicknames And Child's Play

Most of Volozhin inhabitants were known by their nicknames. I recall Nahum the Hairdresser's story. Like the majority of the shtetls' much-estimated citizens he was blessed with a hernia (kile in Yiddish). It was a remarkable one, and the “Nahumke der Kilun” nickname stuck to him. The thing was growing and it became a must to be removed. After the operation had succeeded, the nickname did not match his possessor any more. A special name-giving session was called. The clever guys made a decision, and the nickname was changed to “Nahumke der beskilnik”--the last word is Russian and it means “The Hernia-lacking Nahumke”.

My best friend and nearest neighbor on the small incline was Hayke di Kadelihe's. Why Kadelihe's? Her mother Gitl had married Kadl. After his death, the widow became Kadelihe and to her daughters stuck the nickname “Hayke di Kadelihe's, “Merke di Kadelihe's” and so on.

The Kadelihe's single-room house was situated some fifty feet uphill. Once in a winter day, sledding down to the frozen Volozhynka streambed, our sleigh fell in an ice rupture. Wet, frozen, and afraid to show my miserable appearance at home, I found a reheating and drying refuge in “Di Kadelihe's Lezhanka”. It was the upper part of the big oven, serving as a bed for the whole family in the Kadelihe's single room house. All my life I'm thankful, and I remember this poor good family for the warm and dry shelter.

In another house up the small incline lived Arke der Photograftshik's (photographer) multiple-children family. This specialist produced during the twenties/most of the pictures that now exist of Volozhin. One of his sons was my playmate. I used to visit them. With astonishment I would follow the family's lunch. Arie's wife served her husband the whole food dish. Arie after selecting the best of it used to distribute the rest to his children.

How did we, children, play in Volozhin? Apart the classic games like “hide and seek”, “classes” and “tzizhik” (a small stick sharpened from both sides, placed in a square mark on the ground, bounced by a racket beat and flown away by it's second hit) we had our special entertainments:

On summer days we had the Volozhynka shallow stream. On the left beach, beside a large green grazing meadow we found a suitable place. The Volozhin boys, mostly from Aroptsu, among them Leyshke Shimen-Itshes, Eyzerke Finger, Hayim Lungen-Leber, Berl der Tzigayner, Itshok Hame-Leytshes and some children from Arooftsu like Avromtshe der Guiber, Voolke-Ptsholke, The Altman brothers Langer Shabes and Koortser Freytig (Long Sabbat and short Friday), Arke dem felcher's, Leybke Goylem, and many others, had done the work. They would cut reeds in the long stem-grass. The reeds were spread across the riverbed. It formed a Hadge - a barge, which held the water. It was the best swimming pool I remember. Swimming “corners”, header and feet jump – a true water playing paradise. But, to our great disappointment, its existence was short. As soon as the water flow to sawmill steam boiler was restricted, the angry kettle-heater arrived. In a rage, he would destroy our achievement, cutting off the joyous adventure.

Also, the sawmill area had been a place for children's games and activities. The sawdust hill, piled up to heat the steam engine, was a perfect place for all kinds of games that required tunnels, pits, and hills. The rectangular towers of crisscrossed planks served as hiding and climbing places.

But the best and most popular playing object was the railway cart-vagonietka, which were used to move trunks and boards. The cart was built as a rectangular wooden block frame, mounted on four iron wheels. It moved on a narrow railway by gravitation, or by hand pushing. The real pleasure had been the downhill descent riding on the cart frame. But, like the Hadge-barrier swimming, the cart-vagonietka rolling was not entirely legal. The quick and heavy rolling carts could be quite dangerous.

The Volozhin children took advantage of the heavy snows that covered the shtetl slopes and the hills in its vicinity in winter. They also exploited the low temperatures that covered the Volozhinka and the town–water pond (Sazhelke) with solid ice. Sleds, ice skates, and skis were hand-made. These transport tools were able to slide at significant speed, on the inclined, frozen, almost empty, evening streets. It was a real pleasure. But we had to be careful to avoid the enemy of our winter sports. Seizure or destruction of our sleds and skating devices was a hobby of Mr. Kasko, the Volozhin policeman.

Father, I think, understood the importance of sports. He used to tell with a shadow of pride about his traversing the Dneipr in Nikopole, swimming from shore to shore. Later I demonstrated before Sonia a similar deed, traversing the Siberian Irtish River. All of the presents that our father used to bring from his Vilna business trips were meant for sport or to physical training. Among them we received, steel ice skates, bicycles, fabricated sleds, barbells, skis etc. We used it to our wealth and pleasure.

A year after the shabbes skating fiasco, the town authorities arranged for efficient use of the small water pond. It was used in winter for ice-skating, and in summer days for kayak sailing. We made excursions on bicycle, on skis, or by foot to the forests and rivers in the vicinity.

My sister Sonia and I were far from being athletes. But we carried Father's teaching. Both of us spend a lot of time swimming, skiing, skating, bicycling, sailing and so forth, as do our children and grandchildren. I hope that our young descendants will read this story, and remember sometimes, their Grandpa, Yosif Perelman, when performing physical culture.

The Big Incline - Der Greysser Barg

Our third apartment

The family mill business was limping. The steam engine was the source of the trouble. Costly breakdowns occurred often. Old and inefficient, it needed to be replaced. A new engine and kettle were ordered from Danzig. The engineer, Mr. Pollak, arrived from Warsaw to supervise the infrastructure preparations. He was given the children's room. Each morning he used to stand bare-chested over a basin of cold water to bathe. This action impressed me deeply.

The family invested all of its savings and even more in the mill renovation. The infected house on Vilna Street was dismantled, but the overall work did not yet begin. Often I was sent home with a message asking for payment of tuition fees. At home the spirits were low. Father collapsed under his burden of the debts. Mother twisted to bind the edges.

Renting the big Belokortser's house became a heavy load. One day a horse-harnessed cart arrived to make a move, transferring furniture pieces and peklah down the big incline. Arriving at Bunia and Osher Yiche-Ber's house at the Pilsudski Street (originally Minsk St.), on the west side of the Volozhinkas' bridge, all our belongings were unloaded.

Osher Yiche-Ber's house had three parts. In the front façade overlooking the street, lived Osher the landlord's family. We had to stay in the two-room apartment in the rear. Both apartments were divided in the middle by a common kitchen with a huge Russian oven. The backside of the oven formed a surface, which together with an additional corner, was the living place for both our families' housemaids. Here in Bunia and Osher Itshe-Ber's “posterior”, as Mother used to say, our family found a refuge, hoping that better days would come.

In this backside apartment I made my first and serious acquaintance with the printed word. I began to read in the Bielokortser's house. The first pleasure book I remember was in Hebrew, the Pentateuch “Bereishis”. I attempted to read the holy but exciting book prior to learning it. I used to read it at evening in bed, covering my head with a cap to respect the book's holiness.

But the heavy, serious, true juvenility reading I did in this two-room apartment. It was implemented in the Polish language. My cousin, Monia the Tall introduced me to the Volozhin district library Biblioteka Seymikova, which was located inside the District Governor's House, the place from which I used to draw my life pleasure. On my way to Volozhin, 60 years afterwards, one of the main sites I intended to visit was the “Biblioteka”. Here we borrowed and consumed the literature of our youth: The Desert and the Jungle, Quo Vadis, By Sword and by Fire, The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Last of Mohicans, Ivanhoe, White Fang…written by famous authors such as Sienkevich, Reymont, Dickens, Pruss, Mostovich, Mickevich, Dumas, Jack London, Sholom Ash, Tolstoy, Sholokhov, Cooper, etc., etc. It was a world of beautiful fiction, which we hungrily absorbed in our native shtetl.


The District Governor's House

The District Governor's House was built by Graph Tishkevitsh in the 19th century
Photographed by author in 1998.
Inside on the ground floor was situated “my” library the “biblioteka Seymikova”.


When the Soviets took over the house, they could not find any ovens inside the building. After some research they found in the cellar a big incinerator and a stack of tree beams to feed it at cold weather. The heat passed to the chimneys on the roof through channels in the walls and so it was warmed. By a central heating system built in Volozhin 200 years ago.

People I know from the Polish western side of Belarus, including my relatives, preserve and love all written words said, and particularly sung in Russian. At the same time they detest and despise even the sound and tone of the Polish language. I'm not a lover of the Polish people; I did not love them when growing up under their rule in Volozhin, not after their deeds during the Shoah, and especially not after the recent publication of the Kaydany Jews Butchery, purely Polish-made. But my massive Polish language reading, when I was very young, left its footprints. During and after the war I had few opportunities to read, to hear, or to speak Polish. But when it arrives and I encounter it, I'm pleased very much.

My Bar Mitzvah was celebrated in this small backward apartment. I learned the Torah reading from my Bible teacher, Mr. Taller. The ceremony took place in the great synagogue. The Torah was read in Ashkenazic Hebrew. A table was spread inside the apartment. The Droshe was said in a pure Litvak Yiddish. My “big” Ihess, descending from the Volozhin Yeshiva founders and leaders, was much appreciated during all those ceremonies.

Father subscribed to the Jewish daily journal “Nash Psheglond”, printed in Polish. I participated in its reading. There was published in serial form Shneyer's novel “Noah Pandreh”. The novel's story was a fictional portrayal of the deportation of the whole Polish Jewish population to Madaskar, and its return, because, as per Mr. Shneyer, the Poles could not manage their country without Jews. History proved to the contrary. Father also did not agree with Mr. Shneyer. He was persuaded that the Jews must leave Poland and settle in Eretz Israel. But words and actions were two different things. Also… nobody was ready to buy that “stumbling mill business!”

On The Volozhinka Shore

Our fourth (last) apartment

On the Pilsudski (Minsk) Street southern side, on the streams, some five meters higher than the beach was situated a well constructed from wood. The entranceway to our wood sawing and flour grinding mills passed beside the well. Further up along the street was our new home. In that wooden house we spent the last three years in Volozhin.

The house had two entries. The front entry went from the street to the dining room and through a fixed stairway to the attic. The rear, the more frequently-used and more spacious entry room, was joined by a door to the kitchen, and through a staircase, the cellar. A high- tile-lined oven, located in the center of the apartment, at the corners of the four rooms, heated all of them. Inside the kitchen stood a huge oven, for all kinds of cooking and baking.

Every Thursday evening Mother filled two wood receptacles (deyze) with dough. One, containing ordinary dough, was designated for Hales, the other, enriched, for cakes. Both of them were covered with blankets and were put in a warm place to ferment during the night. The next day, early in the morning, began the “Short Friday” workday. The well-arranged wood pieces burned in the huge oven. The good food was boiling, and the Hales (bread for shabes), bondes (potato bread), Zemelah (kind of croissant), and other tasty specialties were baking.

All four apartments, like all of the dwellings in the shtetl, lasked running water, sewer and water toilets. Water was drawn from the well, dragged home in buckets, and stored in a wood barrel. A small outside shack built over a pit, with a seat made from wood, served as the family toilet.

Our grandparents, before coming to Volozhin, had gone to France to see their children and grandchildren living abroad. They were impressed by the journey. Paris--the big town, the underground metro, the broad avenues, and the royal palaces--overwhelmed them, especially my grand mother Haya Riva. She was still disappointed, not meeting the famous elegantly dressed women on the streets of the City of Light. But fortunately she was invited to hear and to see Carmen at the Paris Opera, so she had also the opportunity to see the audience. Here, our Grandma Haya Riva understood, as we had been told later, the real a la Paris dressed “Parisiennes” moved not by foot, not in buses, and not even by metro, but were driven in luxury cars. In summer 1938 we had a guest, Aunt Zina, our mother's sister, who came from Paris to visit her family in Volozhin.


The last photo in Volozhin - 1938

The last photo in Volozhin - 1938
From left: The author in Gymnasia uniform; Grandma Malka Perlman;
Tante Zina Dreyfuss, Sonitshka, Grandma Haya-Riva; Uncle Yani Garber;
Grandpa Hirsh Malkin; Mother Etia; Father Yossif, Cousin Moola Malkin


The school year 1937-38 was my last year in the Hebrew Tarbut School. A horse-market functioned from time to time on the other (west) Volozhynka side, opposite our mill-plant. Most of the time the yard stood empty. This year the yard changed. The active Volozhin mayor, Pan Trechinski, the former Polish Povshehna school manager, worked hard and efficiently to build and to establish on that place the first high school in Volozhin, the Polish gymnasia. Just when I finished the seventh and last tarbut class, the gymnasia opened its doors. The acceptance of students was based on two criteria: the candidate's knowledge, and his religion.

I prepared myself for the examinations very, very seriously. The examinations in written and verbal forms took place in the classrooms of the Polish public school, the “Shkola Povshehna”, in July 1938. I was not sure as to my success. We waited outside the building to see the list. It appeared on the wall. Among the lucky one hundred, ten were Jews, exactly 10%. They knew arithmetic--the Polish Numerus Clausus specialists.

Among the ten, five came from our Hebrew Tarbut School, and the other five were from the Povshehna. (Their names are listed in “The Volozhin Gymnasia-High School” article).

Prominent among the ninety gentile students was the Starostianka--the Volozhin district Starosta's (governor) daughter. The Starosta's office was in the same stone building, built by count Tyshkievitsh in the 19th century, where my Seymikova Biblioteka was. He lived in a beautiful villa in the Domki--the prestigious quarter of the Polish functionaries. The high school students could choose the foreign language they wanted to study. Most of them preferred German, and some of us chose French. The Starosta's daughter and I were among this minority. Our French language teacher was a Polish nun. She came to the lessons dressed in a typical Jesuit nun's costume. She was a good teacher. I still remember the popular songs she taught—”Freres Jacques”, “Au Clair de la Lune”, and more. Her teaching during one year, once a week, helped me later to learn this language, passing 18 months in France.

I visited Volozhin in 1998. The Povshehna School, the Gymnasia, the Starosta's office building and villa remain as they stood 60 years ago. In the Gymnasia, I recognized my school bench in its same place. The starosta's villa was converted to contain the Volozhin Municipality museum, with a little corner for Jewish life (maybe?). The office building is well maintained but I didn't find my library, the Seymikova Biblioteka. The Tarbut School left no sign, nothing. Only a small green hill remained where our Synagogue stood.

As for teachers, all of them were Catholic Poles. We had to call them “Professor”. Pan Konopnicki, the School director, was very liberal and bright minded. He taught mathematics, but not too much. The main part of his lesson focused on public matters, on politics, and so forth.

The Polish language teacher, Mr. Protasievitsh, a clerical school graduate, did not hide his anti-Semitic sentiments.

my Tarbut, Jewish Kehila school, I was accustomed to excellent grades. In the gymnasia high school an earthquake occurred. In the first half-year estimation certificate I found two E grades, in Polish language and in history. Each one was strong enough to retain me for a second school year in the first Gymnasia course. I was glum and deeply depressed. At home I was strongly reprimanded by my parents. Being a Jew was not an excuse. “You shall work hard and be smart”. So I took myself to work. I made serious study in ancient Roman history. In Polish composition work--“what do I want to become in the future?” I answered “A workman”. “Why?” “To strengthen and glorify Poland!” My anti-semite professor was astonished reading so strange an answer from a Jew-boy A part this exercise, my Polish writing, also was not bad. At the end of the school year I had a few good grades, without any E-grades. Our family could breathe with relief.

My first Gymnasia 1938/1939 School Year was also my last one.
On September 1st, 1939 the World War II broke out.
This date became also the last day of my childhood.

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