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A Wonderful Community

From: Sefer Vladimirets, 1963

Author: Charlie Shuk

** Webmaster Note: The following translation was generously provided by Diane Moore.  We have presented it here exactly as it was translated for us, except that where possible, I have added family names to the first names provided by "Cousin Charlie".  Because he chose to focus on daily life in Vladimirets, this chapter gives a wonderful and nostalgic look at daily life in the shtetl.

A Wonderful Community

I wouldn't be mistaken if I said that Vladimirets, our shtetl, was like other shtetlach in the area.  No great events happened there, except maybe the big fires that used to break out from time to time.  Jews lived there, generally, a hard existence, sweetened by Sabbaths and holidays.  Repentance and prayer and trust in the Highest were always support and help in the day-to-day hardships of living.

But the communal life of the Jewish inhabitants of Vladimirets was exemplary and wonderful.  It seemed that some artist had chosen and put in place each one, and each was fitted to his role.

I see the various figures, from Ben-Zion Velvel's, the aristocrat and scholar, to Ephraim Chaim-Meir's (KANONITZ), the contented porter and gravedigger. If someone died, he would dig the grave on behalf of the burial society, and also other graves just for the job.  Despite his oppressive work, he was happy with his lot and alsways in good spirits.  If he had a sack of flour on his back and his feet started to slow down, he would pick up in his free hand a stick from the street and whack himself on the backside, saying, "Go, Ephraim, go -- no dawdling!"   Sometimes he would pull out a philosophical thought: "I look only at the hindermost wheel" -- that means, I think of what comes after me, of my end. 

I see Chonihan the rich man, he of the stately appearance, or Yehushe Manasses, the typical poor man, and many more, without whom the town would have lacked its character.

Many surely recall how Wolf (BURKE) the water-carrier, beaten up by fate, used to pour out his deep sweet tenor, carrying the two full buckets and singing chasidic songs.  He would suddenly stop and turn to one of the passers-by:

"Hey you!  Why don't you die?  You'd see what a fine funeral we'd put on for you!"

He wasn't just speaking at random; he belonged to the chevra kadisha and was connected with the funerals.

Another like Wolf was called Asher.  He did various kinds of hard work; the reward for his labor was barely enough groschen to count.  Money had little value to him. He preferred to get sheets of paper, or newspapers.  He gathered the paper for a secret purpose.  But in Vladimirets people knew everything, and Asher's secret was revealed.  When the Messiah came and the dead arose, Asher planned to put the paper in their path, so his Mama wouldn't have to put her feet on the cold ground.

When Asher died, they found a whole pack of paper in his room.  When people didn't give him paper, his lips would start to mumble something secret, but he never hurt anyone.

Asher was also a water-carrier, but besides that, he supported himself by cutting wood.  He had two axes, a sharp one and a dull one.  When he was angry with someone, he would threaten him: "Next time I'll cut your  wood with the dull axe!" 

Also living in my memory are the various craftsmen.  Yitzchak Chaya's (BIK), the shoemaker, so hospitable.  Velvel the stitcher who led morning service in the Trisker Shul, and would refresh everyone with his heartfelt prayer.  I recall Shlomo the tailor, who had a special mission in his life B to make poor bridal couples happy.  He would fulfill this mitzvah with the help of his clarinet and his orchestra.  Chaim-Leib the shoemaker was one of the most esteemed members of the burial society.  Avrom-Aaron (BARIL), in addition to his occupation as a builder, used to engrave the inscriptions on the tombstones.  And Meir-Wolf (FELDMAN?) the carpenter also bound books, so he kept the holy books from wearing out.

My grandfather Aaron (SHUK) the shoemaker and my father Hershel (SHUK) the tailor used to go out every Purim as Purim-shpilers, and collect tsedakah money for needy families, which shows that our elders didn't worry only about themselves; the habitually tried to do good for others.

The rich homeowners, rich for our town, looked after various public needs, each in his way.  The bath-house, for instance, needed constant supervision, and certain Jews were found to take care of that.  There were those who concerned themselves with the eruv; for instance, if it should be taken down.  I remember very well how wealthy men worked together to establish a yeshiva in town.  Shlomo the rabbi's son and Michael the rabbi's son-in-law and other good Jews put their whole hearts into the education of the young generation.

The Source of Jewish Spirit

The source of Jewish spirit, in those years, was the cheder.  When a little boy was five, his father wrapped him in a tallit and brought him to Ephraim the melamed, or to Israel, the other melamed.  Here he sits, the little one, bent over the alef-bet, deep in the letters.  All at once is heard a kling, a coin has fallen on the table from a height, and the boy believes with all his heart that a good angel from heaven has tossed down to him the wonderful gift.

Ephraim and Israel were infant-teachers, who occupied themselves with planting Yiddishkeit in children's hearts so they would grow up kosher Jews and good people.  From them the youngsters learned alef-bet, and various blessings like the one for pouring water over the hands, for thunder, for a rainbow, for various foods, and so on.

And so it went until the boy was ready to learn Chumash.  One learned Chumash from the book of Leviticus, Vayikra. 

"Tell me, darling, why must a child learn first from Vayikra?"  And the child chants in answer: "We have begun to learn Chumash from Vayikra because the book is about the sacrifices, and as the sacrifices are holy, so is the child who begins to learn Chumash."

For the next "zeman" or level, the boys were turned over to the teachers who worked with them on Chumash and Rashi.  These were Rabbi Henich or Rabbi Baruch Hershels.  They were wonderful at explaining how the Tabernacle was built, with its various vessels, flowers and knops.  With a special sweet tune they would sing the translation from Genesis: "Va-ani - and I; bvo-i - as I came; mi-padan - from Padan Aram; meta - died; ali - to me; Rachel - Rachel...."

Henich's beard was yellow from the many cigarettes he smoked, with a special holder.  When he finished smoking and knocked the leftover tobacco out of the holder, we knew it was time to go eat lunch.

Baruch Hershels was a more modern teacher, without strictness, without straps and sticks.  Every day he would designate one of his pupils to go to his house and get the pot of tea which his wife, Esther-Sarah, would have prepared for him, nicely wrapped in a handkerchief, so the tea wouldn't get cold, and biscuits in a separate handkerchief.  It was a pleasure to see how the teacher refreshed himself with the hot tea and the biscuits.  We boys would meanwhile take advantage of the opportunity to get into mischief.

The Gemara teachers were Yankel the barrel-maker and Tsalye the maltster (brewer).  Both were good Jews and great scholars.  Whoever finished their school was already himself something of a scholar.

One must not belittle the system of cheder education; children who continued their studies with Yankel or Tsalye were not ignorant yokels.  Nor were those who had private lessons from Chaim-Shalom (BOKSAR), or from Nachman, who were considered teachers who turned out scribes.

But the city fathers, not satisfied with these conditions, founded a yeshiva.  As principal they brought in Rabbi Hershel from Rafalenke, a quiet Jew and a great Talmud scholar.  After him came Peretz Halaveshka from Dambrovits, red-headed and a bit wrathful.  He would sit by the bookcase and put his feet up on a stool.  He didn't need a Gemara, he said his lesson by heart, with his eyes closed.  And if there was any disorder in the class, Rabbi Peretz would take up his stick and with his eyes closed he always landed it in the right place.

Rabbi Zalman from Ravno, on the other hand, never used a stick -- a goodhearted Jew he was. Instead he kept in his hand a handkerchief.  If there was a tumult during the lesson, he would spread out the handkerchief on the page and close the book.  Now everyone knew that Rabbi Zalman was about to say something.  In a quiet voice he would preach to the pupils, and thus he achieved what he wanted.  Everyone respected and loved him, even the biggest pranksters.

But the yeshiva didn't last long, and the education of the younger generation was turned over to the local melameds again.

Tsharne the Midwife

[Note: Charne the Midwife is Charne Teitleboim Burko in the database)

I recall one day the news was brought to Ephraim the melamed's class that a boy child was born to one of the families.  The rabbi had hung a strap on a nail on the wall and sat writing out "Shir ha'maalot" (Ps.121).  Solemnity vanished from the cheder and all was happiness, especially when we heard that we were all invited to the house of the newborn to sing "Kiryat-sh'ma".

At dusk the assistant collected all the boys and we went to the newborn's house. We all came in with one loud exclamation: "A good evening to the mother and the baby!"  The assistant fastened the shir ha'maalot to the cradle rope and began to direct the chorus of boys, who sang verses from "Kiryat-sh'ma".  We finished up and yelled again, "A good night to the mother and the baby!"

We headed for the door, not all together but one at a time, while the midwife Charne stood by the door with her apron full of hazelnuts and candies.  She gave every boy a handful, whispering, "God willing, you should grow and prosper."

Bubbe Charne knew all the children by their names; she was related to some of them, but divided her treats equally among all.  But it might happen, one boy she didn't recognize. She would take a good look at him and ask, "Whose son are you, my darling?"  And when the youngster explained to her who he was, she would eagerly catch it up: "Oh, my darling, love of my heart, how could I not have recognized you?" and she would caress his cheeks with great love.

Though her means were primitive, nevertheless generations were born under her care. When there were difficult births, other means were used, such as "tearing at the gates of Heaven before the Ark", "appealing to the dwellers in the dust", and saying special prayers.  In those days it didn't occur to anyone, since there was a great authority like Charne to rely on, that a doctor lived in the town too, and a trained midwife.

Later, when I was older, I began, like everyone in the shtetl, to feel great respect for the dear old woman.  I learned that Charne worked not for pay but as a mitzvah.  In poor houses, Charne would spend more time with the mothers, and with their babies.  If a woman was alone and had no family, Charne would not leave her and would be midwife, mama and servant all in one.

At last, when Bubbe Charne could no longer work, her daughter Breindel took over her role, and she too saw it mainly as a mitzvah.

Generation to Generation

In Vladimirets, as in the other towns, people were aware of living contact between the generations. People there were called, not only by their own names, but also by the names of their parents and grandparents. For instance, Pinchas Moshe Yossel Benjamin's (Pinchas Moshe, son of Yossel, son of Benjamin) (GROSKI?) or Zelig Yehosha Miriam Devorah's (Zelig, son of Yehosha, son of Miriam, daughter of Deborah) (CHIZI?).  Some families had nicknames originating from certain circumstances or events.  Those who were called by such names never took offense at them. Many of the families present themselves to this day by those family nicknames, and see no problem with them.

One interesting nickname is "Trunkel".  ( A "trunk" is a drink.)  It was said that the first of the family to settle in Vladimirets was a Litvak.  This Jew had a horse.  Understandably, he spoke Yiddish to the horse.  One day the Jew led the horse to the trough and said to him, "Nu, give a trunk, a trunk, a trunk". 

Several goyim who saw him standing there with his horse called out to him, "Sto ti trunkaish, trunkel?"  (What are these trunks, Trunkel?)

In Vladimirets, people didn't need any more than that.

The Litvak's wife was a woman of valor and used to go peddling in the villages.  When the children of the village heard that she was called Trunkel, they ran after her and called out "Trunkel!"  Nu, what to do about that?  One day she came into the village with a load of bagels.  She collected the urchins and told them she would treat them to bagels if they would yell "Trunkel" louder.  The bargain met with the children's approval and they happily yelled "Trunkel" with their loudest voices.

The next time she came to the village, the children were waiting for their bagels.  But when she told them she had no bagels, they answered that in that case they wouldn't yell, and they didn't.

Illness and Healers

Modern doctors often say that if a sick person believes that a certain remedy helps him, he can be helped by the power of his belief and not by the power of the medicine.  From this is inferred how great was the power of the old wives' cures.  There was a whole codex of proven remedies, known to everyone. For instance, sour milk on a blister, a syringeful of breast milk for an earache, chamomile leaves and "worm-cabbage" for stomach trouble, garlic for toothache. If one was afflicted with hoarseness, "gogl mogl" was the thing to try (this was prepared from milk, sugar, and egg yolk).  Castor oil for constipation was available not only at the drugstore but at almost every grocery store. And if someone suffered from diarrhea, the remedy was to be found right at home -- juice of sweet black cherries. For pimples with pus, they used a paste made of flour and honey or baked onion. And for just pimples, spider web.

In those days people used to use cupping-glasses, they used to open a vein, place leeches, conjure an evil eye.  An expert in these folk remedies was "Joseph the healer." He used to drain blood from everyone, for a small payment.  He took out "bad blood",  thought to contribute to all kinds of illness.

If somebody became faint, one would think of Ben-Zion Velvel's, who had some concept of doctoral wisdom.  In serious cases Shedlovski the surgeon would be called.  In the town there was also a gentile professional doctor; he was only called when things were already really bad, and it would be whispered, "You know, So-and-so is dangerously ill, they've summoned the doctor to the house!"

But generally, even in a dangerous illness, people put little reliance on doctors, and turned to the ancient remedies like "measuring the holy place", "tearing graves", "falling in the Ark", kindling lights and saying prayers. And the Most High usually helped, and sent a "refuah shlemah" -- a full healing.

And in case one had no years left, and gave up the ghost, he would be brought in a proper and traditional manner to his parents' grave, and the people would give tsedakah and pray for his soul.

Here I should mention the "righteous vigil" of which my father was a member.  All night the members would sit by the sick people, take care of them and help the household in whatever way they could.

Once when I myself was ill with a bad case of typhus, I remember only how Sender TSHERNIAK sat by my bed all night. This shows the community spirit and how ready the Jews of Vladimirets were to help each other.

This community feeling was shown everywhere: in the evening promenade, when couples and groups carried on spirited discussions.  The groups would little by little grow larger and merge together in one company, which would finish the discussion by a fence or in one of the houses, where they lingered until late at night.

On the "prizbes" (benches beside the houses) the women gathered to talk and discuss the whole business of the world, while darning socks or knitting.  The women knew what was cooking in every house, and all of it was subjects for their conversation.

And the groups of Jews by the synagogues -- there you could hear various episodes that a merchant whom came from the big city had related, or the views of some more enlightened young man who had brought from somewhere a newspaper.  The commentary on what was written in the paper was given by the maskil of the group, or whichever Jew was most opinionated.

Generally in such a group would be found one of the town scoffers.  He would make everyone merry with his jokes and witticisms, and all would listen to him with pleasure.  Chief among them was Baruch Chaim Meir's (KANONITZ).   He was listened to with good humor even by his victims.  Yehoshe KUSHNER was also a master in this sphere.  He would work on his victim from all sides.  The victim would leave his hand sharpened up and polished off, and the company would be delighted.

And Itzik Chaim-Meir's (KANONITZ): all year he was a Jew like all other Jews.  But when Simchat Torah came around, he would take the town in his hand.  He and Yehosha the messenger would be dressed up early in long kaftans and streimels, take bags full of little pears, go through the streets and call, "Into the Shul!"  The pears they would then throw to the children who were running after them.

Suddenly they'd yell to the children, "Holy Sheep!"  And if the youngsters answered with a loud "meh-meh-meh" like little goats, then they'd throw handfuls of the pears, and all the children would run to snatch up the gift. 

Around noon Itzik Chaim-Meir's appeared again with a bag full of pears, and around him a whole collection of children.  Now he'd treat every child, provided that they should go with him to the rabbi, to demand from him the chametz that Itzik had sold him before Passover.

When Itzik Chaim-Meir's stood before the rabbi, the children's task was to pull on his caftan and beg for food.  Then he would turn to the rabbi and say, "Rabbi, you see, my children are hungry, and all my chametz is still with you from Pesach until now."

When he had finished his mission at the rabbi's, he would take a lulav, with a cucumber instead of an etrog, and go from house to house, orating about how people should say the blessings over his etrog, and then he would bless everyone with appropriate original blessings.  Then he went into the synagogue, up on the bima, and fixed the prices of various commodities for the whole year, and warned the community that, God forbid, it should make no speculations, a cubic meter or wood which was generally six rubles would this year be no more than 75 kopeks.

"Hear that, Meir, not a groschen more!"

"A pound of beef, the best, fifteen kopeks, no more!"

"You hear, Yankel Yehushel's, fifteen kopeks, and no more!"

Thus he would give out his orders, with a deep earnestness and strength, and the youngsters who stood around regarded him with great love and respect.  The next morning you'd see him again, just as usual, Reb Itzik the quiet and calm Jew who wandered over the villages with his merchandise.

A special joker was Leib from Cheftsevits, son of Tsharne the midwife.  For many years he lived in the village, then settled in Vladimirets.  I didn't know him well.  One day, during the Counting of the Omer, I heard Reb Leib call me from far off, so I hurried to him.

"Maybe you can tell me, boy, how many days into the counting we are?"  I answered him that according to the law, one shouldn't mention, before the blessing, the number of days.

"Sage by night" (one who thinks he's smart), said he to me, "after the blessing I will know the number and won't need your wisdom!"

I see that I'm dealing here with a real joker, and I resolve to follow him and spy out his doings.  I saw him meet up with a peasant he knew, and Leib asked him if he had brought him a present from the village.  The peasant began naively to defend himself and explain, "Leibinka, darling, what could I bring you from the village?  Look, I came from there on foot."

And Leib answers him: "True, you're absolutely right, you couldn't bring me much, but you could have brought something. Shall we say, for instance, a sack of potatoes, a pood of sponges, a pot of sesame, sixty eggs, or such like."

It's been told that one lovely morning he came to one of his neighbors:

"Tell me, why do you egg on your mice they should eat up my grain?" without a trace of a smile on his face.

At the time of the first world war, when Leib found himself on the road walking from the village to Vladimirets, he met two Russian officers and they stopped him.  They noticed that his coat was of military cloth, which belonged to "the exchequer", they explained to him how serious an offense this was, and Reb Leib was in great danger.  But a man like Reb Leib doesn't get rattled and lose his head.  He earnestly heard them out about his misdemeanor and entered into a discussion with them.

"You're quite right, the coat is indeed made of military cloth, but I think this is not a disqualified material that people are forbidden to use.  And a proof, the fabric has still a confirmation from the government.  The government has stamped the material, people should see that this is kosher."  And so saying, Leib picked up the skirt of his coat and showed them the stamp on the fabric.

"Stupid Jew that you are, " said the officers, "the stamp shows that the fabric belongs to the government and just any citizen can't use it."

But Leib didn't give up, and brought a new proof: "You're mistaken, my esteemed sirs, goods that have no stamp are defective, but goods that are stamped are kosher.  For example, a packet of tobacco, which I buy in the shop.  Who doesn't know that a packet of tobacco that is stamped is a kosher packet, and anyone can sell it, while one mustn't buy a packet of tobacco without a stamp?"  The officers saw that they had before them a complete simpleton, a dull mind, and they let him go. 

Reb Leib continued on his way with a smile under his mustache.

In a similar way, Pinchas the messenger saved his beard from the Polish soldiers, at the end of World War I.  The soldiers would have forcibly cut it off.  When they caught him, and had already begun their work, Pinchas stayed calm and earnestly asked them a question: "Be so good, mein Herren, and tell me, are you Catholics?"  When they replied that they were, he asked further, "Have you ever seen Jesus without a beard?"

The soldiers certainly recollected that Jesus is in fact always bearded, and the fact weakened their cruelty and they let him go on his way.  Around that time Pinchas went to America, and there too his cleverness got him out of trouble.

It was evening when Pinchas went all alone in one of the darkest streets of the city. Suddenly he felt that two suspicious persons were following him.  Pinchas happened to be carrying with him a big sum of money, and he was afraid they would rob him.  But he kept his head and began to walk slowly.  Suddenly he looked at the two followers and said, "Sirs, perhaps you'll do me a little kindness, and give me five groschen for a train ticket.  I'm left without money, it should never happen to you, and I can't pay travelling expenses."  The two strangers believed they had to do with some shlepper, and they gave him five groschen and did him a good deed.

There was great tumult in the town in the days of reporting for the army.  Those who were found fit to serve saw themselves as privileged beings, and went out on the town at night playing pranks, such as inserting a goat into somebody's house.  They disguised some of their number as policemen and went at night to the house of Asher Israel, the kosher butcher, banged on his door, and warned him that the street lamp was out, just to hear the shokhet and his wife defend themselves in Russian, which didn't come fluently to their mouths.  But these things were not typical of the town and were only passing phenomena.

Melodies I Loved

My parents' house was near the synagogues, so from my earliest youth I soaked up the sounds of all of them.  Each of our shuls had its own melodies and its nusach.  For example, the special melody of the psalm-reader, at dawn on Shabbat, I could hear from the Trisker shul, but the evening hymns from the third meal were much louder from the Stolener Chasidim.  The prayer "az yashir" the Stoleners sang with a special melody, and the others sang it like a regular prayer. 

It was characteristic of the Stolener Chasidim to do a lot of singing.  They sang in shul, in the street;  when their Rebbe visited the shtetl, they went all out;  but their melodies were few.    The Trisker and Stepaner Chasidim, on the other hand, had limitless melodies B for every prayer they had their gifted prayer-leaders like Ben-Zion the shokhet and Velvel Chaim Meir's from the Trisker; Michael the rabbi's son-in-law and Lazar-Leib the malt-maker were prayer-leaders in the community shul, and Nachum led morning prayers and Yankel the shokhet led the musaf in the Stepaner house. 

But one must confess and emphasize that the prayers which penetrated the soul and tore at the gates of heaven, the most heartfelt and fervent prayers, were those of Chaim Abraham Isaac's and Zelig TSHERNIAK, and they would pray from the heart and soul, their prayers were flames.  Also the best shofar-blower was from the Stoliner Chasidim -- Asher-Israel the shokhet.

My beloved melodies were many, and more than the differences, they recall the togetherness and harmony.

Often the various melodies melted together and echoed like a magical melody, around and around.. Sometimes you would hear a single melody from one who sat alone learning a page of Gemara.  Or a melody from one who had a Yartzeit, and stayed in shul after maariv, to say a section of Mishna.  Or the melody from a Jew who had bitterness in his soul and came to the shul to pour out his heart to the Master of the Universe.

Melodies, melodies -- they were all true expressions of the desires and ideals of the Vladimirets Jews, who perished so horribly.


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