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Sefer Vladimirets

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Back to Days Gone By

From: Sefer Vladimirets, 1963

Author: Moshe Appelboim

** Webmaster Note: The following is a translation from Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov as sponsored by George Zilbergeld. Notes for clarity or explanation have been provided in brackets.

BACK TO DAYS GONE BY

My imagination carries me far from the white, lovely homes of the Hebrew city, from Tel Aviv, to that small town, to Vladimirets, which lies between the forests and fields of Volhynia.  Many generations of Jews shaped their lives in its houses – small houses of wood and stone.

Prior to World War I, life flowed calmly through the town.  The view of Volhynia was lovely; the fields were wide and from them rose the fragrance of grasses – the fragrance of fields, and the singing of birds; combined with all these was also an unique, sweet and melancholy song – a Chassidic song, full of longings for the Promised Land and for everything exalted and good.  

The lives of the Jews in this small town were not easy – their lives were a struggle for existence.  But over their grey days there always shone the light of their longing, and it was that which sweetened the bitternesses of life.  Our town knew many situations:  days of joy and sorrow, despair and danger, but the spark of hope for a better life and the redemption of our brothers always flickered… Here, I see in my imagination our faraway childhood, a childhood of the compassion and caresses of our mothers, in the light of sweet dreams.  Here, there appear before me the cheder and the beit midrash [study hall] , the songs of the Chassidim and the Sabbath candles, the narrow lanes, the quiet view of the surrounding woods and forests; the market, full of villagers in their colorful clothing – bartering and selling, noise and confusion – a lively, bustling town.

IN MY MIND'S EYE

In my mind's eye, I raise the image of my father, which is connected to the Sabbath day, and especially to the pleasing, sorrowful melodies of the chapters of Psalms and the weekly Torah portion, Sabbath and holiday songs – "and Jacob was a flawless man, sitting in the tents of Torah."  My father spent most of the hours of the day busy with Torah, learning "Chok L'Yisrael" ["Law for Israel"] and Talmud.   He would enter our textile shop only occasionally to give a bit of help to my mother, who bore the burdens of our livelihood, the household and the children.

My father's knowledge of Torah was very deep.  He also was familiar with Hebrew, Russian and Polish literature.  By nature, he was far removed from everything having to do with trade, with bartering and selling.  He was an honest, innocent man.  In this respect, my father acquired a great deal of good will, even among the farmers, but especially among the Jews.  If one of the customers wanted to be certain about the nature and quality of the merchandise, he would go out of the store and into our house to ask my father's advice, and his opinion was always accepted without argument.

I remember an incident that occurred at the time of World War I: the situation in our shop was bad and the turnover was very small.  Reb Chaim-Leib, the shoemaker, came to buy fabrics for wedding clothes for his son-in-law, and after he had already chosen an expensive English fabric for the jacket, he nevertheless went into the house to hear my father's opinion about the quality of the goods.  After my father checked the fabric, he told the buyer that the goods were indeed of very good quality, but not of the choicest kind that Reb Chaim-Leib was looking for.  The customer took my father's opinion into consideration and the purchase was cancelled.  This matter caused my mother a great deal of sorrow, but she greatly respected my father and bore her pain in silence without criticism.

I remember that there was written, in my father's handwriting, on the first page of my father's chumash [book containing the first five books of the Bible], an order of the Rebbe, Rabbi Aharon of Karlin, whom the Chassidim called "the great Rebbe Aharon":

"Joy is not a commandment" – was written at the top of the page – "but joy causes fulfillment of commandments.  Sadness is not a sin, but it can cause a sin!"  

Abba [Father] never spoke about his parents and entire family, all of whom had been murdered by robbers and their bodies burnt, in the village Osovyetz [probably now Ostrowiec, Poland] in Polesia [Poland], which is near Drogoczyn [now Drohiczyn, Poland].  I found out about this terrible tragedy afterwards, from my brother.

Abba would wake up early and recite Psalms, and then he would review the weekly Torah portion.  The tune he sang when he recited Psalms was so pleasing and so full of faith and exhilaration that I would also wake up just to listen to his voice.

Beloved by all of us was my sister Nechama – an intelligent, understanding girl, not only regarding household matters, but also in matters of trade; at the same time, she was very sensitive.  During the long winter nights she would sing folk songs to us in Yiddish, Russian and Ukrainian.  Of all of her songs, my favorites were the sweet Ukrainian song "I Saw the Wind Break the Birch Trees" and "The Waggoner Is Urging the Horses Onward."

At family parties and celebrations on holidays and Sabbaths, when we exchanged visits and we all were sitting together at the holiday table, the joy was multiplied.  My Uncle Moshe Eisenberg, of blessed memory, who originated from the town Motol, loved to tell us his insights from the Zohar.  He studied the holy books all his life, especially the Zohar, and he had a great talent for explaining and reciting different matters from the Torah.

In comparison with Uncle Moshe, our Uncle Gedalyahu Shlita, of blessed memory, who was witty and had already tasted the waters of the Emancipation, was accustomed to season his statements with humor.  He always stated the minimum, which included the maximum.  My father, who had been branded by the murder of his entire family near Drogoczyn, nevertheless aroused in himself the obligatory joy at these family gatherings, and his unique songs cast some of his good spirits over us.

We were educated in the cheder schools – the Rabbi was overly strict with us, especially on Thursdays, when we were ordered to review the entire weekly Torah portion with commentaries and explanations 

Mottel Elkele's was the trouble-maker among the children.  He rained his questions on our teacher, Henich, whose patience would end, and he would honor Mottel with the strap.

"Rebbe, why are there dots over the word vayeshakehu?" – asks Mottel.

"Don't ask so quickly.  Rashi says because Eisau wanted to bite him, but his pity was aroused."

"And why did Eisau, who was Yaakov's brother, want to bite him?"

"Because Eisau was an evil person."

But Mottel found a new question for every answer…

Gedalyahu Wolock, who was called by us children "Sarah's Gedila" in his mother's name, would bring all kinds of things from the forest and garden with him to the cheder – mushrooms, seeds and fruits.  In the month of May, he would honor us with a box that let out a strange noise.  The box was full of "May crawlers" that we would shake out of the trees.  When World War I ended, their family left the town for America.  We children remembered Gedalya and missed him greatly.

The chief speaker for the group of children in the cheder was Mendele's son Eli.  We were very polite to him, because of his brave deeds in the skirmishes and wars that we children loved to conduct among ourselves.  But he also was wonderful at telling us horrible stories about robbers and ghosts – a story about a Jew who travelled in his wagon bringing goats to a fair, and in the middle of the road, suddenly the goats got up, applauded and disappeared, because they weren't really goats; they were demons.  And other stories of that nature, which filled us with fear.  I woke up in the middle of the night with nightmares about these stories more than once, and my mother would calm my fears with soft words.

My cousin, Moshe Shlita, or, as we children called him, "Gedalya's Moshe," loved to tease us with all kinds of nicknames, and because he was blessed, like his father, with a sense of humor, he knew how to touch the vulnerable point in each of us.  Since he was the landlord's son, he would ride a bicycle, which he would bring inside the cheder with him.  The Rebbe would see this and remain silent.  We children looked at him with envy, and also with curiosity.  I remember that once, when he came to the verse "for I stood in awe of the wrath" [Deuteronomy 9:19] he pointed at my nose [the Hebrew word af for "wrath" also means "nose"], which was swollen after I had received a blow from the horse belonging to "Shlomke the Bird," or Shlomka Patichka, as he was known in the town.  And why, at the age of 80, was he called "Shlomke the Bird"?  Once upon a time – so it was told – at the "time of the panic," when he was 13 years old, they married him to a 12-year-old girl.  When he was called up to the Torah, he took out a "little bird" from under his tallit that he had put there to play with, and the name stuck to him for the rest of his life 

Among the songs of my childhood, I loved:

"In the Temple, in the corner of the room, the widow Bat-Zion sits alone,

The widow is putting her son Yudele to sleep

And she sings to him a song about the life of his wanderings in the world."

Or the song:  "On the road a rose is rolling." 

My brother Sender loved to sing these songs, and I would listen to them with great emotion.

OUT IN THE FIELDS 

At the end of summer, I found an enormous pleasure in the potato harvest.  This was our actual contact with "Mother Earth" and the wonderful view of Volhynia, which we were so far away from during the rest of the year.

In our town, almost every Jewish family had a milk cow.  Every Jew would sell the refuse from his cowshed to one of the farmers.  In exchange, the farmer would allot a field to the Jew for planting potatoes, according to the number of wagons of refuse he received.

At the end of the summer, before the holidays, we would go out early in the morning with the farmer in his wagon to the field, to harvest the potatoes.  We were accustomed to giving our refuse to our acquaintance, the farmer Jozef Shamay, whose lands bordered the forest.

The sun had just risen when we went out to the harvest; creation was only beginning to awaken.  The aromas of the grasses in the fields mingled with those of the pine trees in the forest.  As soon as we arrived at our field, the farm women began to work.  With hoes, they dug the potatoes out of the ground and threw them into baskets.  From the baskets, the crop was emptied into sacks, which were put down next to the wagon.

The joyful songs of the birds and the sound of a shepherd's flute filled the air.  At noon, we all would sit around a bonfire, in which we baked potatoes.  In the afternoon, the farm women began to sing the Ukrainian song, "The Winds Are Blowing."  They finished their work toward evening.  At sunset, when the wagon was loaded with sacks of potatoes, we would return home.

Of all our games, we loved flying kites best.  And don't think it was easy to make a kite.  To do that, one needed agility and skill, as well as varied materials, such as the appropriate paper; planed, lightweight and thin boards; glue, fabric for the tail, and string, a great deal of string.  We did this task with love and fear.  Indeed, we invested a lot of energy in doing it, but the greatest pleasure was mainly when the kite lifted higher and higher in the sky, until it looked like a tiny whirling dot, and we children held onto the string and led the kite, controlling it…

We would look at the kite that we had made, flying like a bird in the sky, with awe and reverence, and more than once, we worried lest the string break and the kite disappear with the wind.  And the wind – that was what we prayed for, for this game.  A light, but not strong, wind was the most desirable for the day on which we flew a kite.  More than once, we went out of the town and ran with the kite all the way to the mariak, the tower that was two kilometers from the town on the road to Polovlya.

We left the town at a run, and our hearts beat faster with fear when we passed the street of the goyim [gentiles], lest the non-Jewish boys come out and set their dogs upon us, but it was all worth it for this pleasure – to fly our kite near the mariak.

It was two years before World War I.  I looked out our bedroom window toward the meadow stretching toward the road leading to the villages of Lipno and Chinocz and saw a spectacular sight:  there was an air balloon on the horizon, and running after it, all excited, were Jews and farmers from all over the town.  At the head of the pursuers, riding on horses, were the priest and the police.  With a single jump, I found myself among the crowd.

Young and old alike, all were excited and wondering:  Where did this balloon come from?  The knowledgeable said that a man was riding in it.  It was unbelievable, an absolute miracle.  And in order to solve this riddle, all of us were running after the riders.  Here, the balloon began to drop lower and lower, until it fell in front of the forest, on the road to Lipno.

The riders had already reached it, and we pushed after them, rubbing our eyes to see the strange man in the air balloon – what kind of creature was he?  Did the creature have wings?  Or maybe some magic?  To our disappointment, a man carrying a rod and a strange kind of umbrella came out of the balloon.  The police began to roll up the balloon, from which a strange odor was issuing.  Finally, when they finished rolling it up, they picked it up and carried it to the police station, accompanied by the entire large crowd – old and young alike, Jews and goyim.

The strange guest and his balloon made an enormous impression upon the Jews of Vladimirets, and I thought about it more than once.  There was a rumor in the town that he was a German spy who had come to us, but for us, the matter remained a mystery.  And always, when we flew our kite, we remembered this visitor and his air balloon.

HEART-WARMING TIMES

I can see the holiday parties of those days – all of us eating in the large hall in the new, luxurious house built by Gedalyahu Shlita.  The table was magnificently set, and we enjoyed the food, served on shining silver trays.  The entire family gathered here, old and young, each one sitting in his allotted place.

In my childhood, I loved to imitate the movements of the adults and thirstily drink their words.  In such a meeting as this, there was a great deal of fascination for a child's eye that could look at everything, and his ear, that could listen to everything being said.

It was especially pleasant for us children when Uncle Gedalyahu would lovingly pinch our cheeks and distribute holiday gifts to us.  Our Uncle always had an attractive smile.  He was full of jokes and cheerfulness.  Yitzchak Levin, whose countenance inspired love, was a master storyteller.  It was said of him that his mouth spewed precious gems.  Each one of the relatives was a world in himself, and the uniqueness of each one of my relatives aroused my curiosity 

Uncle Moshe Eisenberg was a man of the Book, immersed all his days in the revealed and hidden Torah.  At holiday parties, he took the trouble to clarify and explain a verse or vague chapter.  But his sons, Zeev and Yaakov, were fervent for life, mixed with the farmers, and loved farming and horses.

What all of the diners had in common was their strong love for the Jewish life of the town and Jewish tradition.  At the Purim party, the town shed its worries and great and small Purim actors mixed with the diners in the big house.  The feeling was that a thread of comradeship connected all of them together.

In those days, we were not yet familiar with the game of soccer, and before the Pesach holiday and during summer vacation our favorite game was the nut game.

When the time came and we were freed of the burden of cheder, we joyfully burst out into the square between our house, the Pravoslavic house of worship and the Polish [Catholic] church.  Our pockets were filled with large and small nuts that we received at home, and here we began our games.  The game had many forms:  in the "eye game" one of the children would put a few nuts on the ground and his friend would shoot a nut at them from a distance of several steps.  If he succeeded in hitting the target, he would win the nuts, and if he missed, he would lose.  In the "hole game" we would dig a hole in the ground and carefully roll a nut into the hole.  Whoever succeeded in getting it inside would win, and whoever didn't succeed would lose.

There also were different bets in the hole game, by pairs or alone, and there was a guessing game about a nut hidden in one's fist – "round or pointy?" In other words, which part of the nut was upward, the upper, pointy part or the lower, rounded part? 

All of the children, large and small, of the town gathered in this square, and the happiness was great.

When the supply of nuts dwindled and our pockets became empty, my cousin Moshe Shlita and I ran to our good Aunt Yenta, who would take nuts out of her pantry drawer and fill our pockets again, and then we returned to the square.

Sometimes we met our good Uncle Gedalyahu as he came out of his office, and he would cheer us with his encouraging smile.  When we made noise in the house during our games, he never rebuked us.  He would hint to us with a finger and smile.  Consequently, he remains engraved in my memory as "the good, smiling uncle."  Sometimes, when the office door was open, we saw our uncle absorbed in a chess game with Rabbi Shlomo Shlita.  But most of the time, the door of his room was closed and we were careful not to make noise and not to disturb the grown-ups.

Out in the square, we felt like fish in water among all of the boys hopping and jumping around the holes.  As soon as we appeared in the square with full pockets, we immediately were surrounded by our friends, and all of them would invite us to play with them.  I could always rely on the look in my cousin's eyes; he knew who to choose.

Children whose pockets were empty of nuts found other games to play.

If an argument broke out among the players and someone was given a "hole in his head," we would run excitedly to Chava Bas' pharmacy, which was nearby, and she would kindly bandage our wounds and send us home.

INNERMOST THOUGHTS

Every child in the town knew the four questions of the [Passover] Haggada by heart, as well as the explanation "We were slaves in Egypt…" but the questions that bothered me in my childhood and that awakened my innermost thoughts were not in the Haggada.  I could not find any answers to them; even the Rabbi did not know how to solve them.

One of the questions that bothered me was – what purpose did the Angel of Death see in grabbing Leizer ben Yehoshua, "the Angel," from us when he was so young?  A handsome boy lived in our town, and his name was Leizer.  His footsteps were light; his appearance was endearing.  Suddenly we found out that "Leizer is no longer here."  With a heart filled with confusion, a while later I entered their bakery to buy bagels and I was afraid to look into the beautiful blue eyes of the girl named "Bushke," Leizer's sister.

Why did the Angel of Death also steal our Uncle Avraham-Moshe, the father of Yitzchak Levin and Rachel Gellerstein, in the prime of his life?  That was the second question.

I remember that once, when Rachel Gellerstein and her husband Baruch-Leib from Brisk were visiting our town, when Aunt Chaya  served the guests at her table the splendid, delicious raisin wine – which she made herself – I looked into Rachel's attractive shining eyes and thought of the story that my mother would tell about Avraham-Moshe, as if he were one of the 36 Righteous Men.  All his life he sat and learned Torah in the synagogue of the Trisk Chassidim and suddenly he was taken away, a few years after his marriage.  My mother's story was wrapped completely in the unknown.

I wondered about this story a lot during the beautiful nights, in the light of the moon that travelled between the banks of clouds.  My heart would fill with fear of the Angel of Death, who, as told by the children in the cheder, had thousands of eyes, and would sneak into the dwellings of Man as one who sees but is unseen.  But on the night of the [Passover] Seder, when we reached the song "Chad Gadya" and the verse "and the Holy One, blessed be He, came and killed the Angel of Death," I would be seized by a spirit of revenge:  here, finally, that evil Angel was killed by the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself, in all His glory.  But after Passover, the black Angel again spread his wings.  I began, then, to wonder about the secrets of Creation and the reason for life; many questions gnawed at my little brain, for which I had no solution.

I began to also study the world closest to us, among our gentile neighbors, who lived in the streets that were so far away, yet so close to us.

Once, on my way home from cheder, I was surprised to find strange guests on our street.  On one corner sat the village priest.  To the side stood Arsin, the farmer.  He was the one who had the best horses, fast as eagles.  Also standing there was a Jew from Olizarka, the nearby village.  All of them were speaking in whispers with my brother Sender and Yaakov Eisenberg.

"What are these visitors doing in our house?" I asked my brother Gedalyahu.

In time, the matter was explained by what happened.

On one of my brother Sender's trips from Rivne [now Rowne, Ukraine],  when he was bringing packages of merchandise with him, one package fell off the farmer's wagon in a village near the town.  It was a large package of goods, worth a great deal of money.  This was a very great loss.  In the beginning, they thought it was an ordinary loss, but after a time they found out that it was not a loss, rather, the package was stolen.  The goy waggoner purposely dropped the package.  The matter took place at night, when the young lad sitting in the wagon dozed off.  The farmer hid the package under a tree and later sold it to a Jew from the nearby village.

When the priest found out about the matter, they began to consult as to how to rescue the Jew and the goy alike from the "Chad Gadya" – in other words, from prison.  I remember that the goy was not at all afraid, because he knew that no evil would come to him from these Jews, especially since a Jew was involved.  And my cousin Yaakov Eisenberg could be trusted to know how to arrange the matter.

The event of the package, and the terrible tragedy at that time in the village of Molczadz [in Belarus], where a Jewish family was burned alive by gentile robbers – these two events caused my rest to be upset, and I began to wonder about the gentile world around us.  And this gentile world was so far away, yet so near.  Every Sunday the neighboring farmers would come to us.  They would sit on the fence around our house, smoking their long pipes, talking and telling their stories.

Our gentile neighbor, Jozef Shamay, befriended me.  He invited me to sit down.  He loved to tell about those days "when Grandfather Chenia was still alive."  The man was old and sturdy; he had the contentment of the villagers. The town was surrounded by forests and fields.  More than once, I went out with Jozef to the wide-open spaces of field and forest, enjoying the wonderful views.  But nevertheless, this was a gentile world, and the connection to it was accompanied by questions.

STREETS AND IMAGES

Our town, its view, its alleyways and streets, are strongly connected in my memory with its images.  Every street had its nickname; every person had his nickname.  The first street you would enter, coming from the narrow-gauge railroad station that we called the "Koleika," is the street that the Jews of the town called "the street of the craftsmen."  It is connected in my memory with its swamp and the croaking frogs, with the muscular Jews who lived from the work of their hands.  The name of the street brings to mind Reb Chaim-Lev Kamin, the shoemaker with his box of tobacco, who prays in the synagogue of the Trisk Chassidim, and Reb Shlomo, the tailor and klezmer musician, with his long white beard, who served under two crowns at Jewish weddings – the crown of his craft and the crown of his music.  When I remember Reb Shlomo the tailor, in whose house I sat more than once, impatiently waiting for my new Passover suit, I immediately remember the tune he would always play after a wedding ceremony was over:

"Why, my kitten, are you angry?

And why do you go with a lowered nose?

Perhaps you want to know your pedigree

I will tell you who and what you are."

 

Or, in Yiddish [transliterated]:

"Far vos bist du kotikil berogez

Un far vos gais du arafgelest dem noz?

Efshar vils du vissen var is dein yichus

Ken ich dir dartseilen vew un vos."

Playing this tune on his flute, he would accompany the young couple on their way from the ceremony, which was held in the open space between two synagogues – the large synagogue, known as the Synagogue of the Congregation, and the synagogue of the Trisk Chassidim.  This tune, and this open space, bring to mind the image of our town's young rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Shlita, who was always elegantly dressed.  He looked like a university professor.  He spoke quietly, was very scrupulous about aesthetics, and loved works of art.  I also remember Reb Michel, the cantor of the large synagogue – a short, lean Jew who was an outstanding Torah scholar.

 

In our small town, the distance between the two streets – the street of the craftsmen and the street of the yeshiva students – was not large.  The continuous meeting between the images of both of these worlds was in the study hall.  All of the Jews of the town would flee to the study hall, which they embraced on weekdays, but mainly on Sabbaths and holidays – they came there not only to pour out their conversations with the Creator of the World, but also to bring up their longings for the Jewish world.  At the hour when the cantor would trill, in his tender voice, "and our eyes will see your return to Zion," the heart would fill with a strong desire and longing and the eyes would fill with tears by themselves, and the entire congregation would become

a single person, and a single song would burst from its heart – "when will You rule in Zion?"

 

A WEDDING

 

The most elegant wedding in our town, which is engraved in my memory from the days of my childhood, was the wedding of Beila, the daughter of the elderly Rabbi Yitzchak Eliyahu Shlita and the mother of Rabbi Moshe Shlita, who lives at present in the holy city of Jerusalem.

 

At this wedding, when I was a boy, I saw for the first time a Jewish celebration that exceeded all boundaries.  I remember the "Cossacks" – these were Jews who dressed up like Cossacks and danced through the streets of the town.  The sewers Zeev Kanonicz and Baruch Shuch were costumed in strange garments with red sashes, and they sang the Yiddish song:

 

"Der bester ma'achal

Iz faren beichel

Borscht mit kartoffel."

 

And what it means is:

 

"A heavenly blessing

And vitality for the intestines –

Potatoes and borscht."

 

The large congregation completely filled the Rabbi's house and also stood crowded together outside to see the reception of the groom's parents, who had come with the groom, Rabbi Shlomo Yaakov, from Galicia, and to hear the choir-orchestra of Pisi from Kolki, which had become famous all over Volhynia.

 

Reb Pisi's violin sang with both happiness and sadness as one, and the flute and bass answered it.  The comic told jokes to the bride and groom.  The bride was dressed in beautiful clothing and the groom in his Galician outfit – a velvet kapote [in Yiddish, a bekishe, a long caftan-like coat worn for holidays & simchas].  He was modest and shy, and after the ceremony he was dragged, against his will, into the circles of dancers.

 

The Jewish freilechs was played in honor of all the guests.  Drinks were supplied, as required.  The in-laws and the guests mingled with the Jews of the town – those from Galicia were dressed in shtreimels and velvet kapotes, and those from the town, in clothing made of fabrics from Lodz and Kiev.  Everyone danced:  Stolin Chassidim, Trisk Chassidim, and the ordinary people, circles within circles.  And it appeared to me that our entire town, including its youth and its elderly, was dancing at this celebration.   Suddenly, they began, like they do on Simchat Torah, to exchange shtreimels and hats.  I saw our uncle, Gedalia Shlita, wearing the shtreimel belonging to the rabbi's son, Shlomo Shlita.  The klezmer musicians played, conducted by Pisi, the famous chief klezmer.

 

Years later, when the Poles were in our town, Pisi conducted a concert in the synagogue of the Stolin Chassidim.  Many of the Russian and Polish intellectuals were present at that concert.  I remember that the Jew from Kolki with a white beard conducted the concert with the assistance of his violin, and amazed his enthusiastic listeners with his playing.  This concert remains engraved on my heart to this very day.  I remember that several of the Polish teachers who had completed studies at a conservatory were very excited and full of amazement at the elderly artist, who had never formally learned to play the violin and who took off to such heights of artistry.  Recently, when I heard a concert by Yehuda Menuhin, I thought to myself that also Pisi the klezmer from Kolki was no less an artist.  But the world was open to Menuhin…

 

This concert, that Pisi the klezmer dedicated to us in the synagogue of the Stolin Chassidim, was for the purpose of "supporting the fallen."  My sister Nechama and my brother-in-law Nathan Tscherniak were devoted to the matter with all of their warm souls, and because of that they did not encounter any opposition by the zealots among the Stolin Chassidim to holding this concert in the synagogue. The chairman of this organization was Mrs. Beyla Kushner, the daughter of Shimon Weisblat.

 

On summer Sabbaths, we children would learn Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] at home with our father.  "He who travels and stops his learning, saying 'how lovely this tree is' and 'how lovely this plowed field,' is regarded as if he were guilty against his own soul."  And how difficult it was for us children to sit in the cheder or at home, when we were entranced by the nearby lovely views of the town – the blooming trees; the small pool next to Yisrael Beider's  brickyard hinting at us, and in the air, birdsong.

 

THE DAYS OF QUIET ARE OVER

 

With the outbreak of World War I, the days of quiet were over, and many troubles came to our town.  On the Ninth of Av, 1915, when we came out of the synagogue, we heard weeping and wailing coming from the home of the mother of Yaakov and Eliyahu Kotz.  Mrs. Kotz' husband was among the first sacrifices of this War.  Rumors spread that "the Cossacks are coming."  In his imagination, every Jew saw Cossacks as violent men galloping on small white horses, with Tartar daggers in their belts and thirsty for Jewish blood…

 

One day, many battalions of soldiers arrived in our town like a band of locusts, in cars, on horses and on foot.  To us, the children of the cheder, it looked like we were seeing Midian and Amalek descending like locusts on the camp of Israel.  That evening, a large fire broke out in the liquor factories in town.  Soldiers were entering the houses and taking everything they wanted.  A great fear fell upon us, and people began leaving the town.

 

All of the Jews of the town went out to the neighboring villages.  I remember that our family and a few dozen others went to Ozero, named for the lake next to the village [The Polish word "ozero" means "lake."].  We bought wagons and horses from the German settlers who had been banished to Russia, and loaded the wagons with all our possessions – mainly clothing and merchandise – and went out on the road.  The entire exodus and journey of the Jewish families from the town to the villages was drawn in my imagination like the Exodus from Egypt.  The picture of the long line of refugees still hovers before my eyes.

 

At dawn, we were already outside the town.  I was a young child then, and I was very happy that our family had been fated to obtain a wagon, in which I sat with my brother Gedalyahu.  The wagon was hitched to a small horse that we called "Muchik."  On this journey to the villages, there were many funny things – before we came close to the village, when we were passing through the forest, a rumor spread through the camp that "Uncle Velvel" (meaning, the German Army) was approaching the town.  The news took wing and the women of our town, who were afraid of the Cossacks, began to fall upon each other's necks with kisses and tears and blessings of "mazal tov" because, here – "Uncle Velvel is coming."  But we quickly found out that this was a celebration in vain, and the Redeemer was still far away…

 

We arrived, tired, at the lovely village next to the lake.  Our family, the family of Uncle Gedalya Shlita and the Eisenberg family, were welcomed by Moshe from Ozero, a warm-hearted Jew who was very happy to fulfill through us the custom of welcoming guests.  The days we spent in the village are preserved in my memory as a very pleasant experience.  The beautiful view stole my heart.  Here, we are going out to the pasture with my big cousins, Yaakov and Zeev Eisenberg.  The pasture was large, and the horses were grazing next to the lovely lake.  Here, the first rays of the sun kiss the waters of the lake, and here is evening and nightfall.  My cousins Zeev and Yaakov Eisenberg tether the horses, make a large bonfire, and sit down to bake potatoes.

 

These days, which to me were very beautiful, passed quickly.  Here, we are parting from the village.  My Uncle Gedalyahu Shlita, the landlord of the town and his family, are preparing to travel far from the battlefront to the city of Rostov.  Our family, and all the rest of the Jews of our town, returned home.  Before the War broke out, my Uncle built a beautiful house according to a Petersburg plan, and now he was selling this house to us.  When we returned from the village, we found the town full of soldiers – a Russian battalion with many, many officers and thousands of soldiers.  The town was ruled by a military atmosphere.  I was a small boy, and I was drawn by the shiny buttons of the Russian officers.  I wanted officers to be quartered in our house, not simple soldiers, and I wanted these officers to be quartered in the houses of my relatives:  in Uncle Eisenberg's house, in the neighbors' houses, in Zeev Kanonicz' house, in the Beiders' house, and in Chava Bas' house.

 

It was 1915, and I was ten years old.  One morning, I was on the way to the large synagogue for the morning prayers, and when I reached my good Uncle Gedalyahu's big house, I heard a Russian army tune through the open windows.  The notes of the song drew me to quietly sneak up to see the new tenants, the Russian officers of the military command, who had arrived in our town and were billeted in my uncle's big house.

 

I peeped into the large hall.  I saw the officers' coats hung on the walls and shiny boots in the corners of the room.  I saw tall officers walking around inside.  I remembered my uncle's song that he would hum during a chess game and my cousin, the little girl with curly hair, and I was overcome by feelings of mercy for my relatives who had gone far away from the town.  Something began to bother me.  For a time, I was unable to move from the place.  I turned toward the window of the "office" to see the commander who had taken Uncle Gedalyahu's room, and suddenly I was frightened by a voice calling out, in Russian, "Boy, what are you looking for here?"

 

I ran away with a jump, and fled to my Uncle Moshe Eisenberg's house.  Uncle Moshe was absorbed in a treatise of the Talmud, and his sons were not at home.  I remembered the morning prayers, and headed toward the synagogue.  I intended to enter the large synagogue, but suddenly I heard a voice coming from the synagogue of the Stolin Chassidim.  It was a powerful voice – not a voice, but rather a "lion's roar."  I entered and saw the Chassid, Reb Chaim-Avraham Yitzchaks, in tallis and tefillin, praying alone.

 

Reb Chaim did not stand in one place, but ran back and forth near the holy ark.  His face was glowing; his speech was fiery.  His entire body was swaying and he was moving heaven and earth, in the sense that "all his bones were speaking."

 

Of course we knew that the Stolin Chassidim prayed with devotion and fervor, but this was the first time that I heard such prayer, the prayer of a man who reached the summit of upper worlds until he did not sense anything around him.  After Reb Chaim the Chassid finished his prayer, I took out my siddur and began my own prayers.

 

And again, my inner thoughts of the morning arose: "Merciful and compassionate G-d," I prayed, "grant peace and blessing to the world and return to us from Rostov our good Uncle and his family and Aunt Rachel and her family, and gather us together from the four corners of the earth."  My heart yearned, and when I finished my prayers, I felt relieved and ran home.

 

That day I left the house and ran down the path leading to the "Ksyondezh Woods."  The fields spread out on both sides of the path.  Light breezes came and caressed me.   It was quiet all around.  At a distance, Pinchas Malach's windmill could be seen.  I found a place next to one of the trees.  I laid down in the grass and fell asleep.

 

The War brought changes in the livelihood and occupations of the residents of our town.  Many of the town's Jews began to bake "bolotchki" – rolls and cakes, for the armies that camped there and for those who passed through the town.  A very great number of army battalions passed through the town on their way to the front – a Russian army of all of the peoples and of all types.  They came by foot and by car, and there also were battalions of horsemen – Cossacks galloping on their horses and Circassian horsemen – and they all bought baked goods from the Jews.  Many of the town's merchants now began to deal in new livelihoods.  Trade became broader and branched off, but at the same time, the town clearly began feeling the suffering of war.  Women were widowed of their husbands, who fell at the front.  Jews suffered beatings at the hands of soldiers and Cossacks.  And to this day, I remember how Aharon Reznik was beaten by soldiers.  The fear of what was to come was great.  There was an incident involving a Circassian officer who came to our house and threatened my brother Sender that he would hang him if he didn't sell him some brown velvet.  My brother Sender was totally confused and didn't know what to do.  My father approached the Circassian, held out the keys to the shop, and suggested that he enter the shop himself and take what he wanted.  The officer calmed down, took the keys, and opened the shop.  He cut a piece off the package of velvet, and left behind payment for it.

 

WINDS OF SPRING

 

But happy and amusing things were not lacking, especially for us children.  At the time when the Russians returned and conquered Warsaw from the Germans, they made a public celebration in the market square next to the church.  They lit barrels of tar and made a large bonfire, and the Russian captain announced a prize for youngsters who would come out to wrestle.  The first two volunteers were Nissel, the Jew from Bila village, and Staczek, the Pole.  And when Nissel lifted Staczek in the air and threw him on the ground, the joy of the Jews was indescribable.  Was it a small matter? – A Jew defeated a goy and won a prize!  Nissel defeated Staczek three times, accompanied by cheers.

 

Two weeks later, we watched a Circassian and Cossack dance, in which the Circassians danced in their native costumes to the sound of the Russian accordion.  Some of them were costumed in horse and camel skins.  Indeed, the War also brought with it some hours of merrymaking.

 

The many changes that took place in the town during the War were also apparent afterwards.  The winds of spring began to blow in the vicinity.  No longer was the town quiet and conservative – the contact with the armies that had come from the wide world awakened desires for that world – the youth began to leave the town for the big cities – and when they returned, they brought with them new ideas.  More people began to read secular books and to learn Russian.  Various social sciences drew the hearts of the youth, who began to establish various organizations.  I remember the Bnei Zion Association, which was composed mostly of 13-14-year-old boys.  There even were two girls – Bushka Rizhy and Perel Weisblat – who were members of this Association.  At that time, Sender Tscherniak organized the first Bnei Zion choir and taught us the first Hebrew songs:  "Carry a flag-pole and flag to Zion," "Be Strong," "HaTikva," and more.

 

Most of our parents did not, however, regard the value received and the excitement in a positive light.  More than once, arguments erupted between fathers and sons on the background of ideology.  But generally, our fathers were tolerant and matters did not reach severance.  The Rabbi, Rav Shlomo Shlita, who was part of the Agudat Yisrael camp, was learned and had broad knowledge of the world, also related to Zionism with tolerance.  Even the Stolin Chassidim, who were more religious than the rest of the Jews of the town, did not regard us with hatred.

 

Here, I am reminded of a dispute that broke out in the large synagogue because of the priestly blessing.  It was a Passover holiday which fell on the Sabbath, and the custom in this synagogue apparently was not to say the priestly blessing on a holiday that fell on the Sabbath.  But since the War was still at its height and our young Rabbi was holding a reception that Sabbath for Jewish soldiers who were guests in our town, he found it necessary to say the priestly blessing that day.  Many Jews in the congregation were upset by this, and the matter caused a serious dispute.

 

The Zionist fortress in town was the home of the Tscherniak family – the sons and daughters of Zelig Tscherniak, the Stoliner Chassid, all were Zionists and were dedicated with all their hearts and souls to Zionism.  They would receive delegations from the Jewish National Fund and Keren HaYesod, conduct public meetings, organize parties and even present plays by amateur actors.

 

In fact, no great events took place in Vladimirets.  However, an ordinary event, such as a lecturer coming to town, was enough to arouse excitement.  An ordinary lecturer or speaker would come – and the large synagogue, or, as we called it in Yiddish, "de kahalishe shul" – would be filled with a large audience to hear rebuke and consolation, or the arousing speeches of delegates from the Zionist movement.  Mottel Burko, for example, would listen to a lecturer with his hand supporting his ear, and it could be seen that he lived the words of the preacher with all his soul and might.  More than once, one of the listeners would shed tears.  That is how it was among the men, and no more so among the women in the women's section.  This would occur mainly when the lecturer would describe the sufferings of Gehinnom.  Sometimes there were lecturers whose intention was not merely to tell, but to bind.  I remember one speaker from Lublin who saw that the audience was not paying much attention to his lecture, and in order to welcome evil, he turned to those present with these words:

 

"Gentlemen, you must rescue a Jew from the fire of Gehinnom!"

 

The large audience suddenly paid attention to the preacher's words.  Silence prevailed.  Wonder and amazement were apparent in everyone:  what Jew is this lecturer, wrapped in his talis, referring to?  Is he requesting mercy from the audience for himself?  And his words were heard again, this time with an explanation:

 

"Gentlemen, you must rescue an innocent and honest Jew from the fires of Gehinnom.  Because in the World of Truth," the lecturer continued, "they interrogate every person who dies regarding his deeds in this world, and the results are determined according to the testimony and proof in the hands of the person being examined, whether he will be sent to the Garden of Eden or, Heaven forbid, to Gehinnom.  That is how it is with an ordinary Jew.  But with a preacher, they use a special unit of measure – in other words:  the enjoyment that the public had from his words when he spoke.  They certainly will ask:  how is it possible to measure and estimate this enjoyment?  The matter is very simple.  The amount of enjoyment is measured according to the money that the preacher receives from the public.  If the public gives generously, that is a sign that his words were words that came from the heart.  And if they do not give, it is a sign that his words were not accepted in the hearts of the Children of Israel.  Therefore, I request from you, Gentlemen:  treat me with justice and kindness and rescue me from Gehinnom."  The preacher concluded his words with a heartbreaking melody.

 

Regarding preachers such as these, Ben-Zion Fridman gave his own interpretation.  He would say:  "Do you know why, in our Holy language, a preacher is called a darshan [interpreter]?  To teach you that first of all, they interpret for themselves."  Ben-Zion, who would come and go in and out of our house, was a learned and sharp Jew, and he always knew how to weave the proper verse into the proper place.  He would fulfill the commandment to visit the sick, and, as a Trisk Chassid who didn't like sadness, he would spice his words with jokes.  "Your teeth are sharp and grinding, and don't you know what Rashi says about the angels 'and they ate'? - They pretended to eat, because the food burnt in their mouths."    "Don't regard yourself as being sick," he said to me once when I got out of bed after being ill with typhoid, "consider the years and find your health."

 

The Russian Revolution brought a spirit of awakening and rejoicing to the town.  I remember one stormy demonstration in which all of the residents of the town gathered and went out to the marketplace.  Soldiers, with flags in their hands, marched at the head, followed by two groups of citizens – the Russians and the Jews.  The military band played a Russian march the whole time.  After the general demonstration, the Jews conducted a private gathering next to the large synagogue, in which they expressed their hope that the great miracle of the Revolution would bring redemption to the world and to the Nation of Israel.

 

After fiery speeches by several youngsters, many of those gathered blessed each other, and everyone stood up straight to his full height and went out to the street, feeling that he was a person with equal rights.  The Russian word "citizen" was heard in every direction.  At the end of several weeks, we were surprised to see the Jewish citizen Alter Bik dressed in an official uniform, with a pistol in his belt.  Bik had been chosen as the civilian police officer.  This was regarded by everyone as a sign that the Revolution had really brought salvation to our people.  I remember how Alter hurried with his pistol to chase a robber, and behind him ran a group of children from all corners of the town.

 

Simultaneously, news of the Balfour Declaration arrived, and the heart was drunk with all of the good things expected for us.  I remember the large meeting that then took place in the large synagogue.  A great, Zionist speech was given at the time, I think by Shlomo Goldberg.  In the middle of his speech, the son of Velvel the Shoemaker suddenly stood up and shot with his pistol into the air.  By doing this, the lad wanted to teach us two things:  first, that he was a revolutionist, and second, that he, as a revolutionist, was not satisfied with the Balfour Declaration and was opposed to Zionism.  These events flung the town about like assaults by destructive storms which also bring the clouds of blessing and their rain.  The youth began to leave the town.  Those who returned from far away brought with them new doctrines that split the youth into streams, each stream with its anthem and its flag.  In the flood of the Revolution, part of the youth was swept into the large, stormy Russian sea, but the majority of the youth remained faithful to the eternal yearnings of Israel and its ancient hope.  This period before and during the Bolshevik Revolution was overflowing with events and changes – regimes departed and regimes arrived, and with every regime, new troubles and new horrors occurred.

 

At that time, a minor yeshiva was established in the town.  The yeshiva was concentrated in the synagogue.  We, the Talmud students, learned in the women's section of the large synagogue.  I remember our Talmud teachers, each of whom was an image in himself:  Reb Peretz, a learned and powerful Jew with a lot of energy.  He required us to review every problem a hundred and one times, so that our learning would be well-known to us.  We began with the Mishna "four main types of damages" and reviewed it until we had memorized it.

 

The clothing and outward appearance of Reb Peretz did not arouse the respect he deserved.  In comparison, we were fond of the head of the yeshiva, Reb Hirsch, who was a Jew of majestic appearance and whose words were a pleasure to hear.  He would explain the contents of the problem and the conflict among the sages before we learned it; he gave us a survey of the entire matter and Rashi's commentary, and afterwards we would begin our actual learning.

 

My brothers Yehuda and Gedalyahu also learned in this yeshiva, as well as several boys from Rafalovka.  Among them I remember Yaakov Sarid, who is presently the Deputy Minister of Education and Culture in Israel.

 

At that time, in the town there also were teachers of Russian who came to teach the state language to the Children of Israel.  There also were young people who had lived for a number of years in Russian cities and had returned to the town, who were beginning to aggrandize themselves with their clothing and to spice their mama-loshen [native tongue] with all kinds of Russian and secular expressions, until the town jokers began to make fun of them.

 

FAR AND NEAR

 

The guests who came to town from the cities of Russia and the natives of the town who returned after they had spent periods of time in the big cities, as well as the villagers of Polesia who settled in Vladimirets during the years of the War, would tell us their impressions of faraway places – about the Dneiper and its tributaries, about the steppes of Ukraine, and more. One of the relatives of my mother's family, Benjamin Suskin, whom we called "Benjamin from Nowosilka," lived at that time in a room in our house, and he would tell us about the rafts that sailed down the Styr and Vistula Rivers to Danzig [Gdansk].

 

The forest trade began to spread in our area.  Jews would buy forests from the landowners – they would cut down trees and process them into rails for the railroad tracks.  Large firms in Russia dealt in this branch of trade, and thousands of Jews in Polesia and Volhynia found their livelihoods in it.  One of the forest traders who would come to us from Kiev was our cousin Yitzchak Levin.

 

Yitzchak Levin emanated a special magic upon us youngsters – he had a good temperament and his appearance awakened respect.  He knew how to tell about the Jews and describe their lives.  His talks about Chassidism and Judaism were pleasant to hear.

 

But all of this contact with the wide, far-away world did not take from me my love for our own assets, assets of our nearby world. Thus, I loved to occasionally enter the old study hall of the Trisk Chassidim.  It is true that I entered in order to warm up a bit on cold winter days, but I also loved the atmosphere in there.  In this study hall the heated stove spread its warmth on very cold days.  Most of those who prayed in the Trisk synagogue were simple people – working-class Jews, craftsmen and peddlers, who travelled around to the villages and bought goods from the farmers:  mushrooms, skins, pig hairs and the like.  Among them were Jewish scholars, such as Ben-Zion Millstein, the shob [ritual slaughterer and examiner, e.g., of the lungs] for this synagogue; Ben-Zion Fridman, and more.  Most of those who recited Psalms early in the morning before the first prayer quorum were working men and craftsmen.

 

When the Rabbi arrived, the study hall would be filled from end to end. All of the Trisk Chassidim would sit around the Sabbath table, their faces radiant from the Torah of Rebbi Nachumche, the Rebbi with two voices.

 

The air was as if it were saturated with secrets and mysteries that the Rebbi brought from "the orchard."  Even those who did not understand the depth of his Torah would sit and listen out of devotion and would enjoy his brilliance.  This Chassidism of Trisk was full of an aura of mystery.  It did not have many songs; a film of sadness was spread over it.

 

The Stolin Chassidism was different.  It was full of happiness and joy.  The speech of Rebbi Yisraelke from Stolin was full of animation.  He mixed with his followers.  One of the most frequent things among the Stolin Chassidim was dancing, and their prayers tore the heavens.  Among the veteran Chassidim of Stolin that I remember were Reb Zelig Tscherniak, Reb Shmuel Volok, Shmuel Frumis, Reb Aharon Reznik, and more.  I enjoyed the synagogue of the Stolin Chassidim on the last day of Pesach, when they would dance all evening, singing the songs of the Haggada.  They also had a custom of enacting the splitting of the Red Sea – they would pour pails of water on the floor and then the dancers would dance over the "sea."  Even during the times of emergency, the flame was not extinguished and the Jewish soul continued to find warmth and radiance in Chassidism.

 

After the fall of Kerensky, there was chaos in the land.  The regime was unstable and everyone did whatever he wanted.  Gangs visited the town and claimed from the Jews sums of money that they were unable to pay.  The streets were flooded with Bolshevik propaganda booklets.  Provisions were used up, and we were forced to fulfill the verse "you will eat bread and salt, and you will drink small measures of water."  My brothers Yehuda and Gedalyahu would trudge 30 kilometers to Borynicze to bring from there 10 kilograms of salt, a provision that was scarce in those days.  In exchange for salt, it was possible to obtain potatoes and bread from the farmers.

 

The disease of typhoid spread among the soldiers that were living in our house, and the family became infected by them and also fell ill.  This disease caused the death of our father.

 

Afflictions and troubles of all kinds assailed the town.  A regime departed, and a regime arrived.  The Bolsheviks fought with Petlura's gangs and other gangs.  Fear of them compelled the youth to organize themselves for the purpose of self-defense.

 

TO PLOW AND TO SOW

 

Something happened in Vladimirets.  Storeowners deserted their shops; peddlers deserted their stands and went out to the field to plow and to sow.  Among them was also the Rabbi, Rav Shlomo Shlita, of blessed memory, in person. 

 

How did this happen, and when?

 

It was after the October Revolution in 1917.  Light and darkness were mixed.  Next to the post office and the city council flew banners with multicolored drawings.  On top was written the slogan in Russian, "Whoever doesn't work, doesn't eat," and below it a drawing of a poor village woman with a basket of eggs, kneeling and groaning under the burden of a kulak [a wealthy Russian peasant] who was tyrannizing her.  A fellow was riding on the kulak, an intermediary, and over all of them was a fat priest in a black gown, trampling them with a heavy boot.

 

In those days, Yudel Rabin, the barber, or as he was called, "Yudel der sherer" would quote a verse while he was working:  "It is written in their holy Torah," – he would say to those sitting in the barbershop and listening to him – "Fahn yidda a subaka berasha – these village goyim, who gathered from all of their holes, are fighting with the Panehs – Nu, what will the Jews say about this?"

 

And in the study hall of the Trisk Chassidim, Mendele Yisraels is dancing.  During Kedusha , when the word "kadosh" [holy] is said three times, he sighs, "Oy, oy, Master of the Universe, gevalt!"  His handkerchief is stained red from his kapote.

 

After the morning prayers, Ben-Zion Fridman, the town's doctor, enters, swinging his cane and surrounded by a group of men.

 

"Nu, comrades" he begins, with joking words.  "What will you do with your sharp, grinding teeth? 'I will give you clean teeth in all of your cities.'"

 

And the rumors become true.  The Poles are withdrawing, and the Polish residents of the village farms near the town – Vydymir and Khoromtsy – are accompanying the Polish Army.  They are leaving their homes to join their brothers.

 

The Holy One, Blessed be He, sends the cure before the plague.  The Poles are selling their parcels of land and the Jews of the town hurry to jump at the opportunity and buy.  Whoever was able to, went and bought.  We bought part of a holding in partnership with the Kantor family, who are presently located in America; the Eisenberg family bought, as well as many others.  Rabbi Shlomo Shlita, of blessed memory, also bought himself a parcel of land in Khoromtsy.

 

Little by little, the shop-owners took the merchandise out of their stores and hid it in their homes.  Now they were prepared to receive the guests returning to town for the second time.

 

The first battalion of the Red Army appeared.  The soldiers are standing in the market street after the review, next to the shops of Chaim Pinchuk and Meir Weiner.  Their chests are bare, their hair is wild and their clothes are wrinkled and torn.  Their footwear was odd and strange.  Some of them had leather boots and some had felt shoes, sandals and shoes made of straw (fustulehs).  They were wearing all kinds of hats.  Seen among them, in the first row – miracle of miracles – was the "vasser-treger"- the water drawer of Vladimirets – Korilo.

 

"What kind of an army is this?" wondered the women of the town among themselves, "if Korilo the water drawer is marching at the head of the line?!"

 

The entire town made fun of this stupid goy, who filled the water barrels for the town's Jews.

 

"Korilo," Avrahamele Beider once asked him when he had already filled two barrels of water for the Bas family, the owner of the pharmacy, "how much is six plus seven?"

 

The goy from the village began to count:  "Five, and another five there must be.  And so I estimate ten, and another one and another one. " And in the middle, he forgot the calculation – "No, apparently you want to fool me.  This is a complicated calculation."

 

And here, this Korilo now appears in the first ranks of the soldiers.  His mouth is open a bit, and little children stand next to him, pulling on his clothes, and he is smiling and enjoying himself.

 

That is how the town welcomed this mixed multitude of "barefoot Reds."

 

Ten portions of speech now descended upon the town, and a strange language that our forefathers never heard:  "requisitions," "contributions;" commissars go and commissars come.  And the Jews escape from the houses and go out to the fields.

 

Who is this that is exploiting us, because we are a nation of shopkeepers?

 

"And because of our sins we were exiled from our country, and we were distanced from our land," prays the town, and wakes up at dawn to plow and sow the fields.

 

And they sleep in the threshing floors, in the fresh straw, like in the days of Boaz and Ruth.

 

And the rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Shlita, works diligently as required by law, and he does not flinch from any labor, because Rabbi Shlita, of blessed memory, was a man of purpose and firm decision.  And the Rabbi's brother, the town's Hebrew teacher Reb Pinchas Shlita, who played the violin and taught mathematics, also had this stubborn characteristic. Rabbi Shlita acquired good will in Volhynia, as a Torah scholar and an active rabbi.

 

The town's shopkeepers breathed the wonderful air of the fields and listened to the sounds of the forests, and the days passed, until harvest time arrived.

 

"Did you see the Rabbi with the scythe in his hand?" whispered the jesters of the town, among them Yehoshua Kushner.

 

"'He who works his land, will be full to satisfaction with bread.'  This is a verse from Mishlei (Proverbs)," argued Reb Michel,  the son-in-law of the elderly Rabbi Eli.  And the Rabbi held the scythe, and cut the wheat.

 

Once, during the harvest, he didn't straighten the scythe, and he cut his finger.  And on the Sabbath, at morning prayers, the Rabbi walked erect in his pleasant way to the congregation's synagogue, and his hand was bandaged.

 

And all around everyone was whispering:  "The Rabbi hurt his hand at the harvest.  The Rabbi's hand was hurt."

 

"The value of these things cannot be measured:  corners of the field, and the first fruits, and seeing the service in the Holy Temple, and charitable acts."  The tune is sad.  It is full of longings and pouring-out of the soul for other fields, with corners and first fruits -  "…and to your city Jerusalem you will return, with mercy," the cantor, Reb Michel, cries tearfully.

 

"Our Father, our King, be compassionate and answer us…"

 

I remember the first Sabbath on the farm.  The night between Thursday and Friday, I slept with Chaim Kantor on the threshing floor, in the hay we had harvested during two days.  But the next day, on the Sabbath, my longings for home increased, and because the distance was 10 kilometers from the town, I walked home with Chaim.  I snuck into the house so my father wouldn't see me, because I knew that he would be very angry with me if he knew that I had walked farther than was allowed on the Sabbath.

 

AT THE END OF THE WAR

 

There was a war between the Poles and the Bolsheviks.  The Russians withdrew to Korosten.  We heard that the Hallerchiks, the Polish rescue forces [led by General Jozef Haller] were moving back and forth, and we heard the same regarding the forces of General Bulak-Balachowicz.  A great fear fell over the town.  Rumors reached us that immediately upon the arrival of Balachowicz' forces, they rioted against the Jews.  But we were lucky.  The Balachowicz and Ukrainian forces were not the first to enter the town, but rather it was the Polish Hallerchiks, who "only" chopped and cut off the Jews' beards.

 

The first sacrifice whose white beard was chopped off was Pinchas Rizhy, who was nicknamed "the Angel."  He came on the Sabbath to the synagogue with his face covered by a handkerchief, so no one would see him without a beard.  The Hallerchiks grabbed him at his flour mill outside the town, and there they brutalized him.  Who knows what lengths the Hallerchiks would have reached in their sadism, were it not for the Polish priest, who went up to their officer and requested that he stop the cruelty…

 

I remember that Pinchas Rizhy had in his possession some remaining notes of money from all of the regimes that he had saved from his hard work at the flour mill.  We still had mostly 500 ruble notes, which were called "tahkers," a lot of Kerensky's "Kerbubenchi" notes, and more.  And it appears to me that it was Yehoshua Kushner, who loved to joke, who said that Reb Pinchas could decorate all the walls of his house with these notes as if they were wallpaper, because overnight the notes became worthless paper.

 

World War I and the years of the Revolution caused storms in our town.  The events that came suddenly upon us exacted payment in many homes.  The previous, ideal contentment was cut off.  Another period began.  In spite of the ravages of time, our town knew the agitation and activity of youth.  The kids became Billy-goats, and those who played in their childhood with nuts now embraced musical instruments.  Groups of friends went on hikes in the neighboring forests, singing the songs that the town had learned from its surroundings – songs of the farmers and soldiers' songs that they had brought from Russia, and also Yiddish and Hebrew songs.

 

We would spend the evenings together, sitting on the fence of the Kotz family's house, or next to the Bas family's pharmacy.  Yehoshua Melamed would play the mandolin, Yerachmiel Bas accompanied him on his guitar, and the singing could be heard from afar.

 

The years of war and the hardships could not cut off the connection between those who remained in the town and our relatives in Rostov.  My brother Sender described his impressions of Rostov when he returned from there, and on the Sabbaths he told us about the life of Gedalyahu Shlita's family, and the life of Rachel Goldstein, who had been widowed in Rostov of her husband Baruch-Leib.

 

And after the war, when the news reached us that they had returned to us, I remember how great the joy was when we met.  Rachel Goldstein's sons were dressed in Russian overcoats, and I wanted to hear their stories from there.  And again we sat down to eat together, and this was not like the luxurious party in the big house, but a party around the samovar in Uncle Moshe Eisenberg's house.  A snowstorm howled outside.  The windows were frozen, decorated with all kinds of frost flowers, and we sat in the warm house, listening to Yitzchak Levin's descriptions of the days of the Revolution.  After that, spring broke out – this was the Russian song of spring that echoed in our home, a song that Uncle Gedalyahu Shlita's daughters brought back with them.

 

Now, there wasn't enough room in our small town for all of the superbly talented people, and many wished to conquer new fields of science and culture.  Among these were Uncle Gedalyahu Shlita's daughters, who were excellent students in the Polish gymnasia [high school] and all of whom completed their education at the university in Warsaw, but mainly Breindele, who immediately found a respected position in the field of medicine.

 

During this period, the HaChalutz, HaShomer HaTzair and Beitar movements began to operate in our town.  Many of the town's youth went out for pioneer training and merited certificates [from the British Mandate, allowing them to immigrate to the Land of Israel].  This aliya brought with it a wave of awareness and Zionist activity.  The youth worked and acted on behalf of the funds, and from time to time there were Zionist meetings and speeches of a high standard.  I remember that the classic speaker in town was Reb Shlomo Goldberg, who always began his Zionist speeches in the synagogue with the words: 

 

"For almost 2,000 years, we have been in exile."

 

A HEAVY SHADOW

 

I left the town for a number of years, and I realized that I was always homesick for the home of my childhood.  From the last years there, an incident remains in my memory that happened with the lawyer, Mr. Greenberg, who came to our town from Plonsk and lived in our house.

 

Lawyer Greenberg, who came to find a livelihood in our town, was experienced in his profession, but his nature was to push himself into a place where he was not wanted.  The town's Judge Gen and his Ukrainian secretary Karil, who took sweet counsel together in matters of law, were harmed by the appearance of the guest in the courtroom, who wanted to prove that matters of jurisdiction were more familiar to him than to them, and that he was more expert than they in legal matters.  It was the evening of a summer day, a Friday, and Mr. Greenberg went out to walk and breathe the air.  The townspeople had already lit the Sabbath candles, and were enjoying the pleasant Sabbath songs.  Here, there were frightening cries – suddenly, Greenberg appeared at our door – his head was wounded and dripping blood.  Unknown persons had pulled out knives and stabbed him three times in the head, and then disappeared…

 

There was great fear in the town, but there were wise-hearted men in the congregation who knew how to announce their opinion the next day in the synagogue and to make conclusions from the incident:  this was the fruit of a person who was accustomed to sticking his nose into a place where he wasn't wanted.

 

The relatively quiet times that the Jews knew in the first years of the Polish regime changed completely. Before Hitler came into power in Germany, the atmosphere became more oppressive from day to day. These days were a chain of worries about livelihood, a hard struggle for existence. Heavy taxes were imposed on the shop-owners, and everything was put under the fear of what tomorrow would bring.

 

The town continued in its path of inner life – life of trade, life of the study hall, life of culture and Zionism, as usual.  But outside his home, the Jew, when he went outside, when he travelled, when he visited a government office, felt the bubbling hatred of his Polish and Ukrainian neighbors.  And here, the news also arrived of the new oppressor of the Jewish nation who had arisen in Germany, and the arms of hatred and poison began to spread farther and father.  The heavy shadow that was seen grew gloomier; it spread over all the neighboring countries.  The black forces of hatred began to flood Poland.  The earth was burning under our feet, and many young people began to leave our town and join the illegal immigrants who were leaving the exile and going up to the land of their dreams any way they could.  Groups of pioneers who had completed years of training, or those who received other emigration permits, left the town for the Land of Israel.  Those who remained behind in the town looked at those leaving with disappointment.  I remember that we would accompany people who were leaving in a large procession up to the train tracks.  These parades of wagons and pedestrians, singing songs of Zion, were frequent then.  Every one of the escorts prayed in his heart that the day would come when he also would be able to sail in the ship "Polania," which in those days gained a praiseworthy reputation.

 

I remember the last days that I spent in our town, before I emigrated to the Land of Israel in 1936.  The day before I left, I sat at a party overflowing with love, with my sisters and brothers, at the home of our Uncle, the Eisenberg family, of blessed memory.  I parted from my sister Nechama and her precious, dear children – Yaakovel and Lifsheli, with warm kisses.

 

And here, I am on the ship ”Polania," and it is sailing over the blue sea.  My eyes see the sea, but my spirit is still in my town, in Vladimirets.

 

In those days, I saw in my dreams the traditional ladder from the Bible, standing on the ground.  But its top did not reach the heavens, rather to one of the miraculous ships.  And on this ladder all of the Jews of our town – women, children and the elderly – are climbing, to the sound of song, headed for the Land of Israel.

 

But miracles occurred only in dreams.  Cruel fate wished otherwise… In truth, the town was similar to a ship … the town was similar, not to a miraculous ship, but rather to one that the stormy sea was tossing around to swallow.  The people on board feel the coming tragedy, but only a few of them succeed in saving themselves…

 




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