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December 1, 2023
The power of “Nothing Has Changed’ from the Yizkor book of Krasnobrod (Poland) is in the way its author, Yakov Lochfeld, leads the reader from almost idyllic times in the town to the Nazi’s brutal reign of terror and extermination and then, coming full circle, to his return to the scene in 1950.
“I stand and stare at the empty places once filled with Jewish homes, once resounding with Jewish life… How long ago was it when, on such a warm summer day, the cheder boys would come out and play… When the snows came, the young kids would take their sleds and go sliding down the slopes of the Krasnobrod mountains… The shtetl lay sparkling white as if covered by a sheet. And when the sun appeared from behind the clouds, the roofs shimmered and sparkled as if studded with diamonds.”
Lochfeld takes a last look at the town, the forest and the river. The natural features had not changed. Everything stood as before, as if nothing had happened. Nature hadn't changed, he thinks. It was just Jewish life that had been extinguished, erased, and expunged.
November 24, 2023
In “My Good Father” from the Yizkor book of Czyżew-Osada in Poland, the father believed, that his son Simcha, with God's help, would grow up to be a mature, respectable, honest Jew.
Simcha briefly strayed from the path, sought to redeem himself and did so with his father’s help. And, for the father, it was a reaffirmation of his hopes for his son.
Fifty years later, Simcha still remembers the day that happened and writes: “My heart still quivers, as if it were yesterday.”
November 17, 2023
As with any town and people, Hrubieszów in Poland had its share of lowlifes: thieves, various types of beggars, fortune-tellers and soothsayers, card-players and dice-throwers, quack doctors and healers, brewers of abortion potions, and many others who did not belong to any known profession.
Shalom Vayner had a window into that world because his parents, by chance rather than choice, lived on the border of the unruly neighborhood that was home to “The Criminal World,” which is the title of this chapter from Hrubieszów’s Yizkor book.
Three angels had taken up residence in that quarter: the angel of death, the angel of poverty, and the angel of population increase, but it was the angel of poverty who appeared in all his grandeur: Slime and muck – physical as well as spiritual – reigned supreme, as the area was populated by the dregs of humanity. Curses and yells, swear words and wails were constantly heard, day and night, on weekdays and on Shabbat.
The residents had been forgotten by God as well as by men. They were completely ignorant and uncivilized. Many did not even know how to pray, and barely spoke. Their sons did not go to the Talmud Torah, but instead roamed freely in the market, snatching fruit and vegetables from the sellers. Many of them were used by thieves, especially on market days, when their small size and great agility enabled them to steal money from pockets and purses.
Shalom, out of loneliness, becomes friends with many of the children in this neighborhood. He was repulsed by their behavior and ragged appearance yet was drawn to them. They, in turn, became attached to him.
But there was too big a gulf for such a friendship to last, and too far a distance to go for the lives of the neighborhood children to change for the better.
November 10, 2023
More often than not, these Friday Yizkor book excerpts are memories of everyday life in the Jewish towns of Europe because they tell stories less known than the horrors of the Holocaust. But while the purposes of Yizkor books was to commemorate the places and ways of life that were lost, the mission to ensure that the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime would not be forgotten is one that stands out in all of the books.
That purpose is eloquently stated in the “Introduction” to the book of Maków Mazowiecki, Poland which recounts the challenges of collecting its stories from survivors and the heartbreak of the editors who read them.
At first, people refused to recall these bloody times whether in writing or orally because they thought it was the only way to transition from madness to normal human lives again. But eventually they recognized the importance of their testimonies so that they would be engraved in memory for all time.
When the editors began reading the Shoah narratives written by survivors, they were shocked, heartbroken and pained and had to postpone the reading to the next day. But even after reading them for the second and third time, some broke down crying hysterically while reading – and had to stop.
The history chapters, the memories and the poems about Maków Mazowiecki’s Jews – about their lives and traditions – were written by the city's citizens, most of them simple people who told things the way they happened. They left this testimony so their descendants would know what the Nazi murderers did to rip apart the Jewish communities of Europe, “not because we were the worst people ever, but because we were the best and weakest among them.”
November 3, 2023
When the epidemic rampaged through Shums’k in Ukraine, as happened in many towns in Europe, townspeople tried mightily to contain it by improving the awful sanitary conditions that helped its spread, drinking only boiled water, cooking fruits and washing vegetables before they were eaten, following strict rules of personal hygiene and dousing polluted areas with carbolic acid.
Yet, day by day it claimed more and more victims, rich and poor alike. In a handful of cases, somebody who had contracted the disease was lucky enough to recover, but most of the sick died an agonizing death. The town was in a panic.
And so came “A Wedding at the Cemetery,” the title of this chapter from the Shums’k Yizkor book.
The wedding was to serve as a segula, a talisman or supernatural cure that would counteract the plague. The community council would marry off an orphan, which is considered to be a great mitzvah among Jews. They would hold the wedding in the cemetery, with klezmers, and the epidemic would cease.
The town's matchmakers spread out to find a suitable candidate for the groom and one for the bride. The groom was easy: Peretz the good-for-nothing, blind in one eye, lame in one foot, and a stutterer who would support himself and his mother by going around town every Friday collecting challah and whatever else people would give.
The question was, where to find a fitting princess for this groom? “He Who Ordains Matches” sent a real beauty. She limped a bit on her left leg, her right hand was immobile, she was slightly deaf, and her eyes were red.
The groom fell in love with her on the spot.
It was never clear whether this segula helped stop the epidemic. When the weather became cooler the plague diminished. In any event, the wedding was a sight to remember.
October 27, 2023
Yizkor books have numerous chapters on how Jews revered and celebrated the Sabbath and many of them have been included in these Friday excerpts. Some details are the same; some are different. But they are all magical in the way they evoke how the arrival of the “Sabbath Queen” was a time for joy and prayer but also a time for respite from the hardships of life. Perhaps even today, “Shabbat in Town" from the Yizkor book of Przedecz (Poland) can provide a brief respite in troubled times.
People in town labored hard all week, but when Friday afternoon arrived it was possible to feel the change in the atmosphere. The beadle goes about town knocking on doorposts with his wooden hammer to speed up those who are late with their final preparations for the Sabbath. He calls out “Light the candles!” and stands on his tiptoes at every crossroad to see and hear how the Jewish community is welcoming the Sabbath.
The housewife is wearing her Sabbath dress and her head is covered with a scarf. She lights the Sabbath candles and blesses them with great deliberation. A sea of tears was shed by mothers when they lit the candles. They prayed for the welfare of the home, for livelihood with dignity and the health of all the family members. With darkness, the Sabbath candles shone through the windows, beacons of how much magic and how much soul were in them.
At home after the services, the table is covered with a white tablecloth and on it are the candlesticks with the flickering Sabbath candles, the two challot that are covered with a special napkin, a wine bottle and the Kiddush Cup which was inherited from a father or a grandfather. All these factors created a festive atmosphere at the house especially because for a large part of the townspeople it was the first meal during the week that the whole family sat together and delighted the meal with Sabbath songs.
October 20, 2023
Change took its time in coming to the shtetls of Eastern Europe. Towns lived in isolation until the advent of railroads began connecting them in the latter part of the 19th century. Many did not have electricity until after World War I and depended on kerosene for streetlamps and lighting homes. Until as late as the 1930s, automobiles were a rarity and people depended on cart and wagon drivers for transportation.
“And it Was When the First Movie Theater Arrived in our City,” from Volume II of the Yizkor book of Zgierz (Poland), is yet another advance that made an impact on peoples’ lives.
Arriving around 1911, the theater was modestly housed in the home of Shaya the Baker. The curiosity, especially among the young, was great: How can it be “living pictures” on a screen? How could this be understood?
But like the appearance of other things from the “modern” in a society steeped in tradition, it was not universally accepted. All residents of the town went to see the wonders of the movies – except the Hassidim, who regarded this as a gathering of scoffers. Torah students avoided even passing the movie house during the day when it was closed because they had heard that anyone who dared to go the movie theater would be thrown out of the Yeshiva.
Even the choice of movie – “The Land of Israel Being Built Up” – caused controversy. Those among the orthodox, and some of the Hasidim strongly opposed the film because they viewed Zionism and the estab¬lishment of the State of Israel as an anti-messianic act, conceived and born from sin. Even worse, men and women sat together during the showing.
But movies have the power to shape a culture, as we have seen it do in our own times, and their effect could not be ignored.
“Now, with the perspective of years,” wrote Zeev Fisher, author of this excerpt, “we can testify that many sons and daughters of our city, who left their parents during those days and made aliya to the Land of Israel – that these “living pictures” of this first, modest movie, were, to no small measure, a factor that enthused their imagination and whet their desire to make aliya and build up the desolate Land.”
October 13, 2023
“Gitl the Shoichetke” from the Yizkor book of Tyszowce (Poland) might very well be titled “Gitl the Saint.” Impoverished and shattered by the death of her oldest son, she devoted her life to helping the town’s poor, finding them food and firewood for the cold winters even though she had little of either for herself and her husband, Reb Abraham. Many in town thought he was well-to-do because of their generosity.
She would walk the town, hugging the walls, slinking off to the side in order not to be noticed. Thin and small, dressed plainly but clean. Her big dark eyes expressed sadness, rarely, rarely did they display a smile. Everyone knew that she had suffered a great loss when her son perished in the First World War. From that time on, she removed her wig, and put on a kerchief. She hung up all her holiday dresses never to be seen again. She shut everything within herself and continued on with her household, raised her other children, took care of her husband, and cared for the forlorn and poor of the shtetl.
To the needy that came for a piece of intestine, or a piece of fat, a piece of liver, spleen, and were too ashamed of the watching eyes nearby, she would say with a smile, “You can pay me later.” On frigid mornings you could see Gitl the shoichetke with an armful of wood on her way to a poor neighbor, or a closeted pauper. At daybreak, so no one would know, she would carry the pieces of wood to the frozen houses, and only after that, would she heat her own house. She did not dwell on her feeble strength but went wherever she was called.
While time healed some of the longing for her son, worsening times opened a new hole in her heart when her son Yankl moved to Canada. The only thing that kept her going was her daily work for the sick and hungry. Her preoccupation with the needy eased somewhat her great longing for her sons. She consoled other parents whose children also had left for the wider world in search of work and better lives.
When the time came for her to leave the shtetl, she felt as if she was leaving a part of herself. As she and Reb Abraham boarded a carriage for the train station, the whole shtetl accompanied them far along the sandy road.
A lamentation followed the disappearing carriage, “Gitl, how can you leave us?!”
October 6, 2023
“Who does not remember the delight of Khol Hamoed, the days in between Sukkot and Simkhat Torah. The joy and delight of the Holiday reached its peak on the last day of Sukkot – Simkhat- Torah.” - from the Yizkor book of Gorodets in Belarus.
Sukkot ends tonight to be followed by Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret. For the occasion, I have chosen two Yizkor book excerpts — one from Gorodets and the other from Ciechanowiec in Poland.
At the last day of Sukkot, the people felt relieved from the fear of the High Holy Days. Early in the morning, they prayed for a long time and would beat the willow branches on Hoshanah Rabbah, go to the Torah procession and the festival meal which would be festively prepared with kreplakh.
The holidays of Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret were joyful ones. People went to visit relatives and nearby places. Young fellows and girls came together to take a look at each other and matches were concluded. It was a commandment to be drunk. Even those who had not taken charge of a prayer book all year long were enjoying the conclusion of the daily Torah reading. Tables are set with wine, sponge cakes, nuts, candies and fruit. People drink, sing and dance. Then, the sukkah is burnt down, singing is muted and dancing has stopped. A longing gnaws at the heart.
September 29, 2023
Every Friday one would know that it was Erev Shabbos Kodesh by observing Reb Itzhak Leib Rusak who was known in Piotrkow Trybunalski (Poland) as the “Kalisher Baker,” a nod to the town where he was born. His preparations for the Sabbath started early. Everything and every corner of his home would be polished. Only things pertaining to Shabbos would be placed in the oven, such as challahs, eyer kichlach, roast goose, and other delicacies. Soon large, wide pots containing cholent would arrive to be cooked. Sometimes a few small pots would sneak in among them, as well as those of the Chassidic poor. The pots would be placed in the oven according to the status of their owners: those of the wealthy in the middle so that they would not burn, right in front of the pots of the poor, whose contents at times remained half raw.
The “Cheerful Baker” from the Yizkor book of Piotrkow Trybunalski (Poland) tells how Reb Itzhak Leib differed from the town’s other bakers. “A person does not live just to bake bread,” he would say habitually. For him, baking was really only a necessity in order to be able to support his family. Like the smoke from his oven, he more than once ascended to heaven in deep meditation, his eyes closed and his head held high as he delved deeply into Chassidic and rabbinical books on living a pious life and becoming a better person.
When bad news spread with the nearing of the Holocaust, the Kalisher baker did not succumb to bitter fear but would shake his head and say: “The darker the times, the nearer is the coming of the Messiah.” The last day inevitably came. The Nazis began to drive the Jews out of the ghetto for resettlement. He and his wife wrapped themselves in shrouds. Two thugs broke down the door, yelling “Get out, old man,” but they were momentarily taken aback at the sight of an old man dressed in the shroud with knives in his hand that he threw towards their faces. He and his wife sang out “Shma Yisrael” before two gunshots rang out. It was said that he died, not in fear, but with a smile on his face.
September 22, 2023
“Stories from Turka” from the Yizkor book of the Ukrainian town has a couple of vignettes that are worth a laugh, one about a husband who comes home after more than a few drinks and stuns his wife by asking for a divorce and the other about a marriage ceremony with a surprise ending, particularly for the celebrating couple.
Reb Hirsch teetered home and tells his wife to get dressed quickly because he is taking her to the rabbi to ask for a ‘get,” the document that formally ends a marriage under Jewish law. “Why all of a sudden do you want to get divorced from me?” she protests. “We already have grandchildren – in your old age did you decide that I am not suitable for you?” Hirsch says, “Fifty-five years was enough to be plagued with you…”
But the rabbi knows just how to deal with it.
Roizele was a little “odd” but not crazy and she met a Jewish worker from another town who fell in love with her. Everyone gave money for Roizele's wedding since she was poor and more than once could be seen around town in torn dresses. The wedding was planned with great pomp. People made sure that the wedding dress would indeed be decorated with various sparkling stones and pieces of metal, and the chupa was held in the middle of the Rynek where the town’s marketplace was.
The ceremony was heralded by drummers and flutists near the bridge where Roizele lived and by trumpeters on the rooftops.
Afterward, the town’s loafers arranged a different spectacle, building a makeshift room for the bride and groom so that they could have some privacy after the chupa. But like the rabbi who Reb Hirsch had asked to grant him a divorce, they had a trick up their sleeves.
September 15, 2023
“Military Conscription in Lipkan” from the Yizkor book of Lipcani (Moldova) begins with a lament about autumn, the town’s saddest season. Right after Sukkos, fall arrived with a thin rain that struck as sharp as needles and disheartened everyone as the well-known mud of Bessarabia formed and stretched far into the distance. It was said in Lipkan that “from a spoonful of water we would get a tubful of mud.”
But fall also brought with it something else, which completely embittered the mood of the small–town Jew: conscription into the Czar's Army took place in autumn, after all the Jewish holidays.
“Now one can really imagine with what intensity Jewish parents prayed during the High Holy Days. They were grateful that they had merited to raise a son to the age of twenty–one but saddened that they now had to give him up to be drafted and suffer the trials of army service for a whole three years; to be tossed somewhere far away; to be torn away from those nearest and dearest to him in order to serve dear Czar Nikolai.”
When the twenty–one year-olds received their draft notices from the government at the beginning of summer telling them to present themselves in autumn for conscription, they began to conduct themselves brashly, fearing no one, feeling they didn't have to answer to anyone. They would walk around all night singing songs, happy and sad, usually goodbye songs to their parent and also to their lovers.
The songs were filled with longing, sounding even sadder because of the stillness of the night. When they tired of singing, they played pranks: they would take down the signs of one shop and carry it over to another, and vice versa. They tore down bridges and carried them a few blocks away. The thugs in town, the village policemen and the town constables avoided starting up with them.
On their way home at dawn, they started to hum a melody – a prayer to G–d that they be freed from military service. Here and there a Jew would stick his head out of an open window to listen and say a blessing that their prayer be answered.
September 8, 2023
“Holidays and Festivals in Our City,” from the Yizkor book of Pidhaytsi (Podhajce), describes the first day of Rosh Hashanah in that Ukrainian town. The holiday took on the characteristics of a festival and a Day of Judgment simultaneously. The day of judgement was set to judge all living beings, and therefore it was appropriate to worship on that day with awe and fear, more than any other festival of the year.
In the synagogue, the shofar blower blew the traditional three blasts, whose sounds reverberated upon the walls of the synagogue. The sounds of the shofar frightened, but also excited and aroused the hearts of the worshippers. At the conclusion of the service, people returned to their homes to partake of the afternoon meal, to rest and to regain strength, so that they could set out from their homes in groups to the rivers and ponds for the Tashlich ritual.
When the crowds of worshippers reached the river, they uttered the Tashlich prayer, whose main theme is to “cast to the depths of the sea all of their sins”. In order to symbolize the casting off of sins in a realistic manner, people would overturn the pockets of their clothes and shake them out over the water.
Even after the prayers were finished, people remained standing at the banks of the river without moving. The last rays of sunlight lit up their faces. Their eyes shone and they began to show signs of life once again. Their voices echoed afar as they read the concluding verse of Tashlich: “They shall not shoot and not destroy on my Holy Mountain, for the land is filled with knowledge of G-d like the water that covers.”
September 1, 2023
“If there is no flour there is no Torah and if there is no Torah there is no flour” – a maxim from “Ethics of Our Fathers” (Pirkei Avot) which contains teachings from Rabbinic Jewish tradition.
Yizkor books abound with descriptions of market days, many of which have been presented here on Fridays. “Once Upon a Time” from the book of Turek (Poland) offers some unique perspectives. As the quotation from Pirkei Avot suggests, it ties together the importance of commerce and Jewish faith: “The ethereal and the material are bound together and one cannot exist without the other, so it was the Turek Jews had to work hard all week to ensure their material well-being as a basis for their spiritual one.” But it also makes vivid a ground-level picture of how livings were made on the two market days each week that determined people’s income for a week or more.
Competition was fierce and every Jew had to fight for every buyer and every penny. They all had “something” to sell and preparations for the day lasted from early morning till late. Not only merchants and artisans depended on it, but also teachers whose wages depended on their employer's incomes from the fair as well as a wife who would also trade something: salt, pickles, wax, or sweaters for the farmwomen.
Market day was not a matter of survival for Gentiles as it was for the Jews. For them, the day was not for buying and selling but for relaxation. They enjoyed moving between the stalls, feeling the merchandise, haggling and annoying the Jews as much as they could and ending the day with a meal and plenty of drink. The farmers were very choosy and did not trust the shopkeepers. Passing from shop to shop, they checked the merchandise. Several hours would pass until they made their mind up what to buy and where. Haggling on the price and checking the goods was, for the farmer, the right thing to do and he was not prepared to forgo that privilege. To the shopkeeper, that made no difference. The Jew used to ask for a high price and the farmer haggled to bring it down and, in the end, a deal was struck and the farmer thought he had a bargain and the other that he made a nice profit.
Friday's market was different from other days. By lunchtime the Jews closed their businesses to make ready for Sabbath. Children were seen carrying pots of cholent to the bakeries which did the cooking that Jews could not do themselves on the Sabbath. Every one of those pots could tell the story of the family — how big it was and their politics as well. If the bowl was wrapped in “Heint” the family was Zionist, if it was the paper “Jude” then it must be Agudath Israel (a religious party) and if it was “Nash Peshaglung” (A Polish-Jewish newspaper) then you could conclude that it came from a household which was Zionist and progressive.
Turek was full of life and the streets were suffused with Jewish spirit, which was why the author titled the chapter “Once Upon a Time.”
August 25, 2023
“In the old cemetery of Sanok there was a lone grave that stood out for its height. One day a year, fire would ascend from it at night, and a white dove with outstretched wings would hover over it during the day.”
“From the Legends of Sanok,” a chapter in the Yizkor book of that Polish town, a mother tells the tale of this strange phenomenon to her son. It is a story of a family that came from parts unknown, lived alone and had little contact with the people of the city. The father spent all his time studying Torah and did not pay attention to his beautiful daughter who was growing up every day until the time came that he began to fret that she would become a spinster, and he sought help in finding a match. Like all such tales, this one involves a prince. But not in the way you might think.
August 18, 2023
“The story of Yehuda Chepelevitz” from the Yizkor of Braslaw (Belarus) is one of those chapters that does a remarkable job of capturing the characters of the town and the roles they played in the lives of its people.
The Gentile woman Fima who lived on Pilsudski Street specialized in curing infections of the skin. Sufferers would order a treatment from Fima, and the ceremony would be carried out at sunrise or sunset. Fima would cover the afflicted area of the patient with blue paper from the packages of Sabbath candles, whispering words whose meaning only she herself understood. But it worked, and many patients were cured by her treatment.
On market day, the farmers from the area's villages were already there with bundles and sacks of flax, produce, chickens, fruit, milk products, and eggs. Peddlers stationed themselves along the fences and presented their merchandise on stands and tables; they called out loudly to the villagers to buy “everything good for half free.” Toward noon, the Gentiles and their wives would go on a shopping expedition, finishing a successful market day with a cup of vodka and dessert of the cheapest kind of salted fish.
In the hands of Maishke the horse peddler, a weak, thin horse would turn into one that was almost purebred. Even the gypsies, who were expert horse traders, respected him.
Zalman Ulman, owner of a large store, was frustrated with his three grown sons who didn't want to study Torah, so much so that a teacher said they wouldn't even know how to say Kaddish for their father after he passed away, something they vigorously denied. One day, he lay down on the floor of his apartment, covered himself with a sheet, and said to his three sons, “Here, I'm dead. Let's see if you know how to say Kaddish.”
After electricity arrived, the Polish cinema owner Bokovski showed silent films twice a week to packed houses, accompanied by a violinist and a piano player. The first movies were “The Black Pirate” with Douglas Fairbanks and “The Son of the Sheik” with Rudolph Valentino.
In the runup to the dreaded military draft, young men tried to ease the tension by going at night through the streets of the town, carrying out all kinds of practical jokes. They'd collect all of the outhouses and stand them in the commercial center, hanging on them the signs that belonged to the craftsmen and shop owners. They’d mix up horses in the stables. But everyone took this in good spirit because it had been the custom for many years.
In the first years after Hitler rose to power in Germany, the Jews of Braslaw didn't feel especially worried. But that changed as Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis began appearing in town. On Polish radio, all day long just two sentences were heard as German airplanes appeared in the skies: “Listen, listen, he's coming” and “Listen, listen, he has passed.”
August 11, 2023
Many Yizkor book chapters that evoke memories of long-gone shtetls do so by taking you on a tour of the town, vividly recreating their streets and the houses, shops, and the landscapes surrounding them. "Once There Was a Shtetl...” from the book of Belchatow (Poland) does that too but it is more a travelogue of the people who lived there, briefly capturing in short descriptions their names, personalities, trades and quirks as you move through the town.
At five o'clock in the morning, the first person you meet is “Stojkele,” the little gentile with the moustache, who roused the town from its slumber by reading aloud the various new “decrees” issued by the local city hall. Also making her presence known is Tsirl-Toybe, the butcher's wife, who would disturb the peace of the town with her horrible hiccupping that echoed through the surrounding streets.
The center of town was the old marketplace. Yankl Mareyne's tavern was nearby. He was a young man with a broad back and a pair of wild eyes. Amazing stories were told about his strength, about how he had grabbed the strongest gentile and threw him out of the tavern. People even knew enough to say that the town police trembled before him.
The “playboys” of the town, owners of the buses and some wagon drivers, congregated in the berze, a regular gathering place. The clown of this group of playboys was “Meylechl Kradnik.” His strength lay more in clever backtalk than in his arms. [His] every word was accompanied by clowning around. If a group of men were standing in the street arguing about world politics, Meylkhl would appear out of nowhere and cover them all [by throwing] a dirty sack over their heads, or he would push them, causing one to fall over the other and the group would break up. However, when it came to a contest of strength, his mouth was of little help to him. So it was no surprise to see him often sporting a black eye or with a bandage over his lip.
At the Talmud Torah, in a brick house that was one of the oldest in the town, were the teachers: Avraham Cukerman, a good, quiet person, who never lost his patience; Herszl Poszladek, an angry Jew, with stern eyes, who made the children tremble [with fear]; Avroml Ponczner with his glasses on his forehead, who was never stingy with beatings.
Reb Itshe Meyer was a very rich Jew, but had a reputation in town for being very miserly, someone who watched every penny he gave his wife. Everyone was looking forward to that happy moment that he would have to pay something of a dowry for his two not-very-desirable daughters, who were always seen walking together. This is how the town wanted to have its revenge for his stinginess.
On Pabiance Street one could find Manel, a used-clothes dealer who prided himself on sewing for nobles. His greatest pleasure was grabbing hold of the watercarrier, setting him on the table, taking a full mouth of water and spraying him from head to toe – then throwing him out.
Foreshadowing things to come, the chapter mentions the young woman Soratshe, who worked (unhappily) in her poor parents’ food shop. Soratshe was one of the most courageous female fighters in town. She encouraged everyone to believing in the eventual victory over the Nazis. At the beginning of the occupation, she received travel documents for Argentina, but the Germans did not permit her to leave, and deported her to a concentration camp, where she perished not very long before the end of the war.
The travelogue ends with a six-sentence lament which is especially moving because of all the stories that came before it.
August 4, 2023
This excerpt from the Yizkor book of Korczyna (Poland) captures in vivid detail the challenges, rigors and family life of a shtetl steeped in Hasid tradition from the second half of the 19th century to just after World War 1 -- “and who was not a Hassidic Jew in Korczyn in those days.”
It enables readers to experience the insularity of a culture confined by its traditions and customs. Reading a non-religious book was considered profanity and even a negation of religion. The Jews of Korczyn did not care about things outside their community. Newspapers were considered a waste of time which could better be used to study the Talmud. The same applied in schools: parents wanted their children to be raised as torah scholars. There were no yeshivas that combined religious and secular education.
Love did not exist in Korczyn 100 years ago [the book was published in 1967]. If a marriage was a result of love, the parents would not divulge it for it was considered in poor taste. Dating was considered a lewd business even if the parties came from respectable homes. To stand and talk to a girl in Korczyn was unheard of. To ask a girl on a date was madness.
To marry children was a challenging task and arranging a marriage was said to be as difficult as crossing the Red Sea, particularly as the economic situation of the Jews worsened. Young men had no professions or trades, so the only thing left to do was engage in commerce as their fathers or relatives did, often depending on a dowry to get started. If a girl had no dowry, her chances of marriage were very limited.
In most households, the mother provided the income, prepared the food, kept the house and worried about all the needs of the present while the father studied in the Beth Hamidrash and worried about the heavenly future for the family.
Things began to change after World War I. During the war, the Austrians drafted all men from 17 to 50 and many of them who had never left Korczyn in their lifetimes, suddenly met people from different cultures who were exposed to the modern way of life. Young people started to dress in modern fashion. Yeshiva students who studied in the Beth Hamidrash started to wear regular hats, trimmed their beards and peyot and began to read newspapers and general books. Parents began to realize that their children must be educated and trained to cope with the new threats if they were to survive. They could no longer isolate their children and expect them to survive on their own in contemporary times.
Yizkor books are full of chapters detailing all the factors involved in making a would-be couples was acceptable to the families, the size of the dowry, decisions about how the husband would make a living and where the couple would live. Then there are chapters that recount step-by-step the arrangements of the wedding ceremony, the traditions that were followed and the celebration that came after the knot was tied.
Many of these chapters have been the subject of these Friday excerpts.
“Five Daughters of Chaskiel Teperman” from the Yizkor book of Ozarow (Poland) provides a different perspective, looking at the experiences of five young women – some who had successful marriages, some who didn’t and one who never had a chance.
The eldest daughter, Feiga, married a boy from a neighboring village, and thanks to a generous dowry, the young couple were able to emigrate to Brazil shortly after the First World War. The second daughter of Reb Chaskiel, Ethel, married Laizer Melman, a young craftsman from Yosefow who made shoe uppers, and they had children and prospered.
Leah stuttered so hard that it was difficult to understand the tangle of her words, an impediment that stood in the way of her finding a suitor. But a marriage broker spotted a young student on the benches of a Yeshiva who could make a suitable partner and the union was celebrated in an atmosphere of gaiety. After the marriage, her husband set off to Warsaw with the dowry to buy goods he could sell to make a living. But he was waylaid by two merchants with macabre results. He was so shaken he left to join Feiga in Brazil, leaving Leah and her daughter behind with her father.
Raizel-Sarah was vivacious, stylish and her beautiful blue eyes enhanced her charm all the more, and she caused many boys' heads to turn in her wake. Her father did not worry about her chances, saying, like the businessman he was, that “In my opinion, she's pre-sold merchandise.” A match was found. The couple fell head over heels in love and got engaged. All seemed well … until the would-be groom got cold feet.
Marmarle, the youngest daughter, had no luck. After her mother died, she had to devote herself to caring for her aging father. Her beauty faded over time and she could no longer even count on an attractive dowry. Prematurely aged, she resembled a dried-up tree, without branches or leaves and no longer lived on dreams or secret hopes.
July 21, 2023
“In Zinkov, Podolia province, Ukraine, there once stood a house. It had stood there since ancient times. If one took the time and trouble to rummage among the oldest gravestones in the cemetery, one could find the names of the ancestors of the family that had lived in the house. And these ancestors, I was told, had built the house with their own hands. The house was strong and solid, built of hard stone, with thick walls. It seems to me that the house stands to this day; I cannot believe that it was destroyed.”
There are many chapters in Yizkor books summoning up cherished memories of peoples’ lives in the towns they once had lived and then ceased to exist. They are infused with great sadness, but also vivid recollections of what made them special to the writers. Such is the case with “Memories of My Home in Zinkov” from the Yizkor book of Zinkiv, Ukraine. (While the text uses the town name of “Zinkov,” JewishGen’s Yizkor books are indexed by their modern name, in this case “Zinkiv.”)
From a window of the house that is central to these memories, one could see the changing colors over the hills surrounding the town from the black cultivated fields to the green grass, from green grass to waves of ripe grain, and flocks of sheep in the early morning climbing up the winding white paths among the fields and rolling down again at twilight.
But windows are not only for looking out; they are also for looking in. Between two large photographs of the author’s grandparents on a wall inside the house hung a large-faced wall clock that serves him as a metaphor for things that would not last: “The clock was surely showing the hours and minutes accurately, but who would be interested in noticing that? It was probably doing the same thing and showing the hour and minute when I left the house, never to see it again. And once again, no one paid attention… Only the clock itself knew, ticking away the flying time and ringing out the hour, day or night.”
July 14, 2023
Sasov in the Ukraine had three “doctors.” That job description is in quotes because, as was the case in many other Jewish towns, they were not fully trained medical doctors but “royfes” whose skills included the removing of teeth, the letting of blood, the opening of ulcers and treatment with leeches and cupping glasses. But the main part of their livelihoods were barbering and shaving. Full-fledged doctors usually were not sent for unless a case was terminal and they most often arrived after the patient had stopped breathing
“Doctors in the Town,” a chapter from Sasov’s Yizkor book, offers lively portraits of the three. The common side among the trio of doctors was their love of brandy. The lion of the group was Rev Mordechai Ya'akov who drank such quantities of brandy that the townspeople wondered how a Jew, advanced in age and shrunken in body, could do so without ever seeming drunk.
When a child complained of a stomach-ache they called Reb Mordechai Ya'akov. He arrived importantly, was seated on the chair near the bed, and required first of all a small glass of brandy, in order to get warm. After examining the child, he announced: “There is nothing to do until tomorrow morning. In the early morning take a little spit from the mouth on an empty stomach, spread it on his stomach and after an hour send the boy to the cheder.” For good measure, he murmured a charm against the evil eye before he departed.
Baruch Yakir's specialty were the leeches which he boasted did not leave one murderous drop of blood in bodies of his patients among the peasants and said that if the people in the neighborhood were restful and healthy, they only had his leeches to thank. Menasheh the doctor knew the importance of making a good appearance. If a peasant came to him in a one-horse wagon to take him to a sick relative in a nearby village, he refused to ride until a second horse was harnessed to the wagon which made an impression on the villagers and served as fine attribute to his expanding practice.
"And is it not a wonder," the chapter concludes, "that in the care of these doctors generations were raised, reached a good old age, succeeded in raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren, healthy and whole in body and soul?!"
July 7, 2023
“Bringing Salvation Before Its Time,” from the Yizkor book of Szczebrzeszyn (Poland) is a kind of morality tale that the author said he heard as a boy in cheder.
It is winter, the town covered in snow, when an odd character shows up claiming to be a Radziner Chasid who heard in his shtibl of a cave that led to Eretz Israel which he intended to descend into and find whether it indeed led to the salvation of the promised land.
In the caves of the mountain in Kovencik, the Jews from the time of the expulsion from Germany, had found a hiding place, not daring to settle yet in the occupied settlements. In all probability, most of the Shebreshiner Jews came from these harried and persecuted Jews.
He set out for the cave and the shtetl held its breath waiting for news. When winter passed, and the mountains were covered in green, he had not returned.
The townspeople forgot the whole affair.
Then, one day, he unexpectedly reappeared, fatigued in appearance and with his feet covered in rags.
He brought with him a message.
June 30, 2023
“Eight Chapters about Horodenka” from the Yizkor book of that town in Ukraine is drawn from a memoir titled “There Goes a Mensch” (Ot Gait a Mensch) by Galician-born Alexander Granach who would become one of Germany's most successful actors of both the stage and early cinema during the Weimar Republic. In the memoir, he recounts the first half of a life that took him from remote Jewish shtetls to a career as a renowned cinema star who appeared in the German film classic “Nosferatu” and later in supporting roles in films with Greta Garbo, Spencer Tracy, and Ingrid Bergman.
This excerpt takes full advantage of his cinematic eye in its portrait of Horodenka. One snapshot:
“The tiny homes, sthtiblach, stood one next to the other, because it cost less to build on to a neighbor's wall. One house rested against another. It stood and held on to the other like a shivering, swooning person, afraid to stand unaided, alone. Here lived the poorest of the poor: shoemakers, sewing machine operators, carpenters, metal workers, barrel makers, millers, furriers, bakers, and all sorts of draymen and carriers — toiling men who loitered about all day in order to earn five coins for bread for the blessed household.”
Just as enjoyable are the stories he tells about his rambunctious life as a boy and a young man.
Picture him on market day:
“For us young folks, it is a wild holiday. We're happy just being included in the tumult. We carry kvass in glass urns to sell. It's sort of a mixture of apple juice, and a home-concocted brew of Feivel Kvasnick, who would smack us in the ear if we didn't sell his brew.”
The boys would use ditties to make their pitch:
Buy our kvass
Don't be an ass
It's the latest, it's a treasure
Go and drink it. What a pleasure.
There’s much more, including a scene in the cheder when he and his fellow students took advantage of the teacher’s habit of napping with his head on the table and fixed his beard to it with wax. He also gives a fuller account than I usually see in Yizkor books of how young men and women of his time – the first generation that had forgone the use of a matchmaker – conducted their courtships.
June 23, 2023
This excerpt from the Yizkor book titled “The Jewish Community in Tarnogrod” (Poland) is a remarkable account of the journey of a child in the shtetl, from birth to graduation from the heder.
It begins with a description of the homes in which the children were born and raised. The houses were small and, aside from the rich, often had single rooms with beds arranged at 90-degree angles and bench-beds for the young. Tarnogrod Jews had large families and when there were many children, four of them slept on the bench-bed, two at the head and two at the foot, and the other children slept on a plank. They were fed all week on kasha and beans, or millet and honey.
Women gave birth at home. For 8 days after the birth, until the bris, the mother and the newborn lay behind a sheet hung like a curtain. A psalm was attached to the sheet and the walls to drive away evil spirits.
A Jewish boy began heder when he turned three. The education of girls was not considered important; they only needed to learn to pray. But a boy attended heder daily from morning to night.
The melameds who taught in the heder had hard lives and would take out their frustrations on the students. A whip with seven leather straps was always on the table. Fear of the whip destroyed any desire to go to school and children often had to be dragged there, crying and trying to escape along the way.
The streets had no lighting and in winter the teachers did not have time to complete their lessons while it was still light. They sent the children who were still beginners home before dark while the older students stayed after dark, finding their way home with candle-lit lanterns and wearing heavy boots to tread through the mud.
A boy would attend until 13 when, it was hoped, he would graduate as a learned man.
June 16, 2023
“At My Grandfather’s in Nowy Dwor” from the Yizkor book of that Polish town is a loving memory of the town and the author’s maternal grandfather, filled with vivid descriptions of life and customs there.
Yankev Litman was raised in Warsaw but he would visit Nowy Dwor in the summers where he ran around barefoot and carefree around the street stalls and carriages in the market place, the pump in the sandy areas of the poor part of town where ducks would bathe in muddy puddles, and the barracks on both sides of the road over which the carriages would rush to the train station. A far cry from Warsaw where he walked around in patent leather shoes.
But his fondest memories were of his grandfather, “a man of dignified appearance, with a high forehead and dark brown, kindly eyes, which would emit from under his bushy brows sparks of joy and sometimes anger.” He was a pious Hasid who fulfilled all his religious obligations, but he was “not a fanatic” about it. Yankev saw his grandfather as someone who well understood modern times, its social changes and national aspirations, even though he himself was bound to the old way of Jewish life. His grandson was as important to him as any of the pious Hasidim despite his having joined a Zionist group (anathema to many Hasids).
Yankev cherished the memory of the Sabbath in his grandfather’s house.
“At home, the room with the big, white–covered table was bright and shone with a holy cleanliness. Grandfather would make kidush, his head held high, his eyes closed, his voice loud and dramatically quivering and with a melody I will never forget. We all stood around the table, not daring to sing along. After washing his hands and saying the blessings, grandfather would cut a piece of challah for each person and with the same ceremonial solemnity with which he made the kidush. And not until we started eating did the solemnity turn into a familial warmth with expressions of satisfaction and cheerful singing.”
June 9, 2023
“Jewish Life in Khotyn” from the Yizkor book of that Ukrainian town is a collection of short stories and memories. Here are two of them:
“The General Reveals himself…Like Joseph to His Brothers” is an account of the conscription into the Tsar’s Army that Jews faced starting in the early 19th century. Due to the difficulties towns had in filling the quotas, a decree was issued in 1853 to allow boys to be snatched from their families. They were taken far away so they’d forget their families and Jewish origins. Such a fate befell 6 year-old Mendl in 1908. From time to time, the family would remember their vanished brother. Those memories faded. As the phrase goes, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Many years later, Mendl reappeared … but he was no longer the Mendl they had known.
“Mindl, the Ritual Slaughterer's Wife, Goes to the Rebbe” is a striking example of the rivalries among Hasidic sects. Khotyn was home to followers of the Sadhura, Chortkow, Zinkiv, and Kopychyntsi rebbes, among others. Before a holiday, people would start preparing to travel to the rebbe and spend the holiday there. Mindl was a fervent adherent of the rebbe of Sadhura, though her husband was a Czortkow Hasid which was not unusual. This presented a challenge. In addition to the refusal of Hasids to ride in the same cart as a woman, there was trouble when a driver would seat followers of two different rebbes in the same cart. There was swearing, and people said that they would not travel with Hasids who were loyal to a different rebbe and, eventually, the driver had to give in. This is the story of how Mindl managed to finally make her holiday trip.
June 2, 2023
“The Shtetele Divenishok” from the Yizkor book of that town in Lithuania does not have a central theme but it is a wondrous treasure trove of the details of Jewish life there.
Meyer Yoshke Itskovitsh takes us with him to the river where townspeople went to swim. The women and men bathed separately but the boys would hide and marvel at the girls, particularly in Itskovitsh’s case, a “blonde and beautiful” gentile who did not differentiate between Jews and Christians and was well aware of being the object of attention. Her father was not a friend of Jews, but Jews from the shtetl brought their cows to him (“Excuse me,” adds Itskovitsh “Not to him but to his bull.)”
The fire fighters' brigade consisted of only Jews, so it was no wonder that more than one house burned down. When a regional inspector stages a “false alarm” as a training exercise, he watches in despair as the brigade shows up with a barrel and torn hose that were so far apart no water came out at the other end.
Before market day, Jews pleaded with God that it would not rain and several looked for particular signs on whether their prayers would be heard: If on Wednesday, the day before market day, the cows came in from the pasture and Mayer Nozi's black cow was leading, it was certain that it would rain in the morning. But if a heifer was in the lead – it was certain to be a nice day.
Alter Yashe Nashe had “recipes” for every illness and fever. He would smear a cooked-up pap on those who were ailing and the irritation would fade in days, or he might swing a black hen around over his head and soon the problem disappeared.
Buying a horse was a science: First you looked him in the eyes, to see whether he was blind; then in the teeth, in order to ascertain the age; and finally you drove him to see how he ran and be sure that he did not limp. But sometimes, even a horse that was just skin and bones might gallop if bought from a Gypsy, thanks to the help of pepper or alcohol in an unmentionable place.
So it was in Devenishki, “where Jews lived, various kinds, poor and rich” and “all were equal.”
May 26, 2023
“The Poet of Hatikvah” from the Yizkor book of Zolochiv (Ukraine) is the story of N Herz Imber, born in Zloczow in Galicia, whose late 19th century poem “Tikvosenu” reflected Jewish hopes and yearnings for a homeland. After being set to music, it eventually became “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem.
A world-wanderer who settled in New York during the last years of his life, he became a comic figure in his Lower East Side haunts, making the rounds of cafes in the evenings where he would pay for his liquor in verses improvised on demand until he had to be carried home.
His “Tikvosenu” often was chanted by Jewish immigrants to a folk tune of uncertain origin but they rarely connected it with the gaunt immigrant until he introduced himself. But after his death, ten thousand people lined the streets for his funeral and followed the hearse through the narrow streets chanting the words of the poem.
Imber became a heavy drinker and he died a dismal death on Simchat Torah in 1909. He was found unconscious on Forsyth Street suffering from starvation and cheap whiskey. A Jewish newspaper ran his obit with the caption: “On this day, all drunkards are sober”.
May 19, 2023
Poverty was no stranger in the shtetl, and “Kove Street,” from the Yizkor book of Sokołów Podlaski (Poland) is a wry, sometimes humorous and vivid look at what it was like for a lane where a majority of the town’s poor people lived.
”In almost every little wooden house one could find five families of a couple of dozen souls. The ‘proprietors’ of those old, hunchbacked huts used boards to fence off narrow little alcoves like cages for chickens and stuff more tenants into them.”
Each house had an oven, in which there stood an iron tripod, on which all the women cooked. Wood was supplied by the proprietress. One such landlord was a Jewess with a drawn, sour face who kept close watch with her small, beady eyes to make sure that her tenants did not use an extra splinter of wood. There was much mayhem when anyone tried to cook a pot of beans for shabes dinner, which was all some families could afford. “Look here!” she would shout. “I did not rent you an alcove so you could cook beans!”
For the poor, just one day – Shabes -- shined out to their eyes and gave them delight. On every other day, before the sun was up, wagon drivers hitched up their wagons; village-goers went out to the villages; shoemakers, tailors sat down at their workbenches. They toiled without eating the whole week, hoping to be able to bring home a little flour, kasha, a chicken; often a fish, in order to create comfort for the wife and children for the Sabbath.
There are many characters to meet: Shmuel Yankl, a shoemaker who could not make a pair of shoes; fat, pompous Kalman Ber, a tailor of hand-crafted peasant trousers; and, And, Hilel-with-the-tripe, a Jew who had never eaten a good piece of meat.
May 12, 2023
“What I Remember About Stavisht” is a chapter from the Yizkor book of that Ukrainian town which suffered greatly from the violence against Jews that erupted after the Russian Revolution of 1919.
Most of the chapter is an almost idyllic portrait of Jewish life there. The town, owned by a wealthy Polish magnate named Count Branicki, was surrounded by ponds that teemed with carp, perch, and other kinds of fish which provided tasty meals for the holy Sabbath feasts. In the nearby forest, summer groups of boys and girls would stroll among the fragrant pines. On the synagogue street and surrounding streets lived the artisans: tailors, cobblers, carpenters, butchers, and waggoners. Though, as in many shtetls, there was also a poor class of tar makers, rope makers, peddlers who spent their weekdays traveling from one gentile village to another trying to make a living.
Relations were generally friendly with gentiles of the neighboring villages and farms who would come to the marketplace and shop in the rows of weather-beaten Jewish stores. Sometimes, they would fight among themselves after indulging too much in the whiskey shop, but the old town policeman would bring peace and, afterwards, they would once more crowd into the Jewish inns to drink and eat some good food.
But the closing paragraph of this chapter is a chilling one.
May 5, 2023
”A holiday resembles a person. It changes and it is affected by the environment and time. Each holiday has its own character and local color.’
Lag B’Omer begins Monday evening. A chapter by the same name from the Yizkor book of Gorodets (Belarus) is a colorful description and history of how people in the town celebrated the holiday, which symbolizes the Jewish people’s resilience and fighting spirit.
Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer. Lag is Hebrew for 33 and. “Omer” is a measure of barley that was offered at the Temple in Jerusalem each of the 49 days of the counting. It begins during Passover and is completed on Shavuot and is considered a mourning period for a Second Century plague which killed thousands of a revered rabbi’s students, so weddings or parties, even haircuts, are prohibited, except on Lag B’Omer.
One mark of the holiday was feasting on dairy foods. Why? A footnote quotes a scholar of folklore who said: “Lag b'Omer occurs in spring, when there is a sufficient amount of milk; for who among the Horodets Jews did not have a cow? Blintzes are prepared on a festive occasion.”
Another sign the holiday was at hand was the arrival of barbers from neighboring shtetls to trim the hair of Horodets Jews who had not had a haircut since Passover.
For the town’s youths, the holiday was a special treat: “There was no learning in the kheder…we could do whatever we wished…we were permitted the pleasure of bathing in the river of Horodets because it was a day where nothing was forbidden” unlike on other holy days.
And when the day was over, they looked forward impatiently to the next Lag b'Omer.
April 28, 2023
A strong thread runs through Yizkor books of the attachment Jews feel for the towns where they grew up. Some ofj these chapters tell of Jews who returned to their devastated birthplaces after being uprooted during the Shoah or other events and their hearts break as they remember things that are mostly gone.
“A Day in Makow” from the Yizkor of Makow_Mazowiecki (Poland) has a somewhat different perspective. Rather than bearing witness to death and destruction that have already happened, it is a premonition about things that will be lost forever.
It is Spring, 1932 and a young student named Menakhem who has been studying at the university in Warsaw returns to Makow where he graduated from high school four years earlier. He wanders the streets and nearby meadows reliving the pleasures of his days there. B Bbvvvvvvv Neighbors remember him and he feels connected by thousands of threads.
But some things have changed. Strangers now live in the house of his parents. An old man who had been the guard at his high school who used to ring the big bell during the breaks recognizes Menakhem and happily presses his hand. “The good days are gone” he says to him. “The silence is a sign of looming death.” Tears well up in the eyes of the old guard.
The town has become smaller and the youth want to leave; there is no work in town, no future. He senses the emergence of a new youth and thinks: “A generation leaves and a new one comes.”
His heart aches on the bus back to Warsaw as he sees the forests around Makow recede into the distance.
“Who knows when he will return, he thinks. He is overtaken by sorrow. Perhaps, already then he had the premonition that this would be his last visit to Jewish Makow. He turned his head wanting one more glance of the town – but it had already disappeared, disappeared forever.”
April 21, 2023
Lippe the Wagon Master,” a chapter from the Yizkor book of Augustow (Poland), is a hoot.
Lippe is a true scoundrel. He likes his liquor (preferably brandy, 92 proof). He is an accomplished horse trader but of a special kind: to acquire merchandise, he never bought a horse but would steal one. This he did only from Jews because gentiles would go to the police while a Jew would not turn over one of their own to the gentiles. His M.O. was to have his “students” break into a stable, make off with the horse and then, in effect, ransom the horse back to its owner.
In his yard, he had a kind of beauty parlor for horses. When he wanted to sell an old horse, he would file its teeth to hide its age and, before showing the animal to a customer, he spread spicy pepper under its tail so it would stamp its feet and swing its tail like a young horse. Another ruse was to dye stolen horses: “A white horse would turn to black with shoe cream, to brown with chicory, to yellow with onion skins, the way they color eggs for Pesach.” He’d bring the horse to the buyer at dusk when vision was weak.
The narrator of this story came to know Lippe because his father (who himself became one of Lippe’s victims) had arranged for Lippe’s daughter to take him in as an infant and wet nurse him. Part of the contract was to supply her with 35 bottles of beer a week which was supposed to increase milk. (The things you learn in Yizkor books).
Decades later, the boy – now a married man – returns to see Lippe again. Lippe is now old and bent, but one thing hasn’t changed: his yen for brandy strong enough to make him “feel a tickling in the belly.” In that craving, he would be disappointed.
April 14, 2023
“According to the market's appearance one could readily determine what day of the week it was. Each day the market had a different look.”
“The Old Market” from the Yizkor book of Mlawa (Poland) is different from the many chapters I have posted about big market days in town because it is a portrait of all the days of the week and the colorful characters, shops and daily life you might encounter at any one time.
On Saturdays and holidays the market was quiet with few people passing through it. On Sundays, it was full of peasants waiting in front of the church for the priest. Mondays and Wednesdays were gray days -- tired people moved about unwillingly and with no goal in mind. Tuesdays and Fridays were the trade days when, from all sides, man and animal streamed into the Old Market and all the streets hummed and bustled with activity.
The chapter is rich with the description of activity in the market on the busy days. Usually quiet Jews changed so during market days that one did not recognize them. People forgot themselves entirely as they rushed to lay hold of a sack of grain, or a cow, or a chicken. All the Jewish stores in the market and all the stalls were chock-full of peasant men and women who had come to town to buy goods. For their part, the peasants came carrying straw baskets filled with butter, cheese, cream in earthen pots, cherries, strawberries, or even fowl. One farmer led a cow, another, a flock of geese.
When the peasants felt a penny in their pockets, they craved a drop of brandy. After one gulp came a second, and yet another. Tempers flared… Screams and curses echoed in the air. No market day went by without blows and blood.
The other big event during the week was when the train from Warsaw arrived with the newspapers. All waited impatiently as though the newspaper could alter their entire way of life. When the bundles were unloaded, they fell upon them like a swarm of locusts and then scattered to read them in private or gathered in groups to hear them read.
Afternoons the market rested.
April 7, 2023
In the depth of the winter of 1942, Jews in a labor camp in Lutsk (Ukraine) staged one of the first rebellions against the Germans during a siege that lasted an entire day. “The Uprising on the Eve of the Liquidation of the Camp” from the Lutsk Yizkor book tells the story.
They were armed with only one defective gun, axes, knives, sticks, stones and bottles of acid. Arrayed against them were German artillery and machine-guns, and troops of Ukrainian nationalists. They were determined to die in combat before “going like sheep to the slaughter.”
“The mere daring to raise a hand against the Germans instilled a spirit of heroism and self-respect on everyone. The desire for revenge - even the smallest revenge - fulfilled their wishes. The Ukrainian blood, which was spilled before the eyes of the Jews, was like oil for the fire.”
One of the few survivors was Shmulik Shiloh who lived to tell the story and later became a renowned Israeli actor, director and producer. He escaped death by going to a hiding place he had prepared where he covered himself with peat. A couple appeared and tried to do the same but there wasn’t room.
The young man covered Shiloh with more peat and said to his wife “Never mind, either way we will not stay alive, but he might be saved. He is a boy, he might succeed.” And he turned to Shiloh and said: “If you remain alive, remember, remember us - remember, because you must avenge the revenge of us all. Do you hear? You must avenge the revenge of us all!”
With this account, he remembered.
March 31, 2023
n “Between Two Mountains,” a story by the Yiddish writer Isaac Leib Peretz from the Yizkor book of Biala Podlaska (Poland), an unnamed Hasidic disciple tells about two rabbis who were at loggerheads because of very different outlooks in their approach to Hasidic teachings.
One “mountain” is the Rabbi from Brisk about whom the narrator says “If the Torah is an ocean, the Rabbi from Brisk is the whale in that sea.” The other is Noah who had been a devoted disciple for years but left when he became disillusioned with the Brisk rabbi’s strict adherence to orthodoxy in the study of Torah. Noah went on to become the rabbi of Biala.
Noah felt the Rabbi from Brisk’s Torah was a “dry Torah” — focused on its laws rather than the lives of people. “It was not the Torah of life, it has no joy,” Noah believed. “It is made of iron and copper, it has iron laws… It is elaborated, deep, but only for a talented minority!”
Years later, the Brisk rabbi comes to Biala where his daughter was undergoing a very difficult, life-threatening childbirth. And there he re-encounters Noah.
“And the two mountains met,” the narrator says. “I wonder how I survived it.”
The stories of Peretz reflected what has become known as a “neo-Hasidic” point of view, which believers hoped would revitalize Jewish religious communities by working to make its ideas relevant and accessible to a changing world. "Tsvishn Tsvey Berg," the story’s Yiddish title, was published in 1900.
March 24, 2023
One of the prominent players in the life of the shtetl was the marriage broker, given the challenges of finding appropriate matches agreeable to the parents and the complex negotiations over the terms of the union.
Marriage brokers have popped up in previous excerpts I’ve posted about weddings but I enjoyed “Yankele Gotlib the Marriage Broker and His Family,” from the Yizkor book of Ozárow (Poland), because, in this chapter, he is the star and the reader follows him as he plies his trade.
Ever on the lookout to make a match, he strolls up and down the town’s Main Street inspecting the crop of marriageable boys and girls.
“Yankele had an infallible talent for nosing out those whose destinies could be harmoniously joined” and a keen intelligence for strategizing how to make the matches happen, whatever the family’s station in life. If a marriage failed to take place, he knew it would harm his precious credibility.
But the “canny marriage broker lacked neither wiles nor solutions equal to any challenge,” and this excerpt describes one of his successes and how he did it.
As a bonus, I’ve added the happy story of Yankel of Lasocin, the next chapter in the book. This Yankel needed no marriage broker. On a trip to Ozárow to market his eggs, cheese and chickens, he made one more sale — convincing his friend Itche-Nissim over a cup of tea to have their children marry. And the preparations began.
March 17, 2023
There were different types of schools for Jewish youth in the shtetls. Many were attended by Jews only: cheders, Talmud Torahs, state-sanctioned Yiddish schools and and the secular Tarbut schools that taught Jewish and general studies. But there were also state and community-run public schools where Jews studied alongside Poles, Ukrainians and other gentiles.
The elementary school in this week’s excerpt. “Jesus of Nazareth Wears a Hat,” from the Yizkor book of Lezajsk (Poland) was one of the latter.
In many such schools, Jewish students suffered from overt anti-Semitism at the hands of the teachers and their classmates and so it was the case in the school described here.
Matityahu Spergel, the author of the chapter, recalls how priests would enter to teach the religion of Jesus to the Christian students, and the Jewish students would leave. A Jewish teacher would separately lead a class on the religion of Moses and Israel.
When the two groups came back together, the Christian students would regard the Jews with glances of suspicion and condemnation as if as if they were guilty for the death of Jesus.
“They took revenge against us daily. During recess they would beat us terribly. We were always the minority in the school. When we returned home, they would storm after us, calling out ‘Hora onto the Yids.’ They would strike us upon our heads with their rulers or schoolbags. We were forced to flee. As we fled, they would throw stones upon us. The teachers follow after us, looking upon the groups of their students with indifference, and without any action.”
As to where the hat of Jesus comes in, you’ll have to read the story.
Lezajsk was also commonly known as Lizensk which is a spelling used in the book. JewishGen uses the modern name of towns in its indexing.
March 10, 2023
“A Girl in the Storm” from the Yizkor book of Turka (Ukraine), “is one of the most poignant Holocaust testimonies I had ever seen,” according to its translator, Jerrold Landau who has worked on many books.
The girl was Ester Roter who witnessed and survived four German aktions — enduring the mass killings around her, the death of family members, the constant need to go into hiding, the pangs of hunger and thirst, and living in fear of never seeing her mother and father again.
After the fourth aktion, her parents found a Ukrainian family in the village of Komarnik who agreed to harbor her. Her father said: “You must remain alive. You have seen and understood everything that happened. Most of our family has already been murdered. Someone must remain alive to tell the story of what happened. You, as a child, have great chances for this.”
On the day of her departure, he carried her to a wagon. As the wagon moved quickly away, she saw through her tears “the precious image of my father getting smaller and smaller. He continued to walk straight, without turning his head toward me. His image disappeared in the distance. That was the last time that I saw him.”
This is a long chapter and I am posting excerpts from the last half which begins with her separation from her parents and recounts the rest of her journey which was a difficult one, but one with a happy ending.
March 3, 2023
Shtetl life may have reflected simpler times, but as many Yizkor book chapters make clear, there was nothing simple about courtship and marriage. There were a series of intricate steps, from the making of the match to the elaborately choreographed celebration of the event. At play was the would-be bride’s age, the labor of the matchmaker, the negotiation of the dowry, the pedigree of the family, the number of years the groom would be supported by his father-in-law and the house he would be given. Matches could be chewed over by the townspeople at large. Not in the equation was “love” as a deciding factor.
Things changed with the times as youth movements brought boys and girls together. “This Event Happened in Lanowitz,” from the Yizkor book of Lanivtsi (Ukraine), attests to those changes with an account of young people who braved the wrath of their parents and took things into their own hands.
Shlomo Pacht, the author, met two girls at the Hechalutz (Young Pioneers) clubhouse and fell in love with both the moment he saw them. One of them visited him at his house and when she left, his father asked what she was doing there. “Remember you are a son of a tailor. Find your friends within your class. Do not push yourself into the elite circles,” he said. “They will ridicule you and destroy you.” Her father came one day to the clubhouse, pulled her by the hair, beat her and dragged her home.
The mother of the other girl reacted in a similar manner when she came upon the couple at a spring on the outskirts of town, and after beating her, shouted “Better to fall into the arms of a Gentile boy than into the arms of a tailor.”
The rest of the story recounts what happened afterwards.
February 24, 2023
“Did He Not Promise You” from the Yizkor book of Sochaczew, Poland is a story about Kalman Yankel, a not-very-prosperous water carrier whose name often was used as an insult or a rebuke. “Mothers would warn their lazy children – ‘You will turn out like Kalman Yankel.’ Storekeepers would insult each other by saying – ‘All you are is a Kalman Yankel.’” He said little, may have been simple-minded and kept to himself even in gatherings. When not dragging his heavy pails of water, he would go to the river and fish. Nobody ever told stories about him, except for one incident.
He was fishing at the river when a carriage approached and a merchant came out, undressed, and entered the water to bathe. Kalman was busying himself with a fish he had just pulled from the river. After the merchant left, Kalman noticed a paper bag next to his basket. Inside, was a large amount of silver and gold coins. Some peoples’ hearts would race at this bounty, but to Kalman the coins were just “dead heads” and he buried the bag.
It is not a spoiler to say that the distraught merchant returned and Kalman gave him the money back because the rest of the story is about how his wife reacted when she found out her husband had not taken the handful of gold coins that the merchant offered him as thanks.
February 17, 2023
“Jews and Christians — The Relationship between Neighbors,” from the Yizkor book of Edinet (Moldova) describes how the two groups co-existed in the years between World War I and World War II. For the most part, the relationship was a symbiotic one — especially when it came to commerce — and thus peaceful on the surface.
Christian farmers from the surrounding areas played an important role in the economy of the city and many Jews depended on them for their livelihoods since the Christians had to come to the Jews to acquire clothing, shoes, haberdashery, baked goods, tobacco, and alcoholic drinks.
Still, there was an underlying tension, given that there had been a pogrom in 1917 that was still fresh in memory. While Christians felt “quite fine” among the Jews, Jews did not feel at ease in the Christian Quarter. The wealth and lifestyle of the Jews evoked jealousy among the Christians. Jews believed that their neighbors were waiting for the day there would be another pogrom so they could steal Jewish possessions. “ ‘Come with the sacks and then rob them’ was their line.”
All this was a prelude to events recounted elsewhere in the book. As World War II unfolded, the Romanian Army, which was allied with Nazi Germany, drove out the Soviets who were then occupying the town. Its soldiers went on to incite the local population against the Jews, resulting in the massacre of several hundred people.
February 10, 2023
“As It Happened Yesterday” differs from most other books in the JewishGen Yizkor book collection. Rather than being comprised of chapters contributed by multiple authors, it is the work of one writer, the Yiddish poet Yosl Cohen, who wrote this book to memorialize his family and the people in Krynki, Poland where he was raised.
The book contains vivid portraits of five generations of his family as well as other characters in the town and how all of them lived their lives. “To the New, Strange World”, a chapter that recounts his emigration to New York around 1911 stood out to me because some parts reminded me of my grandfather’s journey — the train ride to the border, being smuggled across it and arriving at Antwerp where he boarded the ship for the 23-day voyage.
Conditions on the trip were not pleasant for Cohen and fellow immigrants crowded into the “tween” deck: “Food was procured in a feeding trough, just as for animals. A sailor brought the trough and threw the food (on tin plates) with a big wooden cooking spoon. Every day there was the same food: A piece of herring in dirty soup, mashed potatoes, and sometimes a piece of black meat that looked like it had been rolled in mud.” They were treated badly by the sailors, and by the time they “saw the shore of America, our joy was not only to have arrived in the new land, but also to know that we would now be delivered from this ship.”
But there is a happy ending. His father, who had emigrated a couple of years earlier, greets Yosl after he and others pass through immigration and head for the boat to Manhattan. (Cohn writes in the chapter that he landed at Castle Garden, but the translator says he actually came through Ellis Island):
“Joy pulsates around me and beside me, people hold each other, nestle together, talk with understanding and love. The buildings Papa has led me out of are moving farther and farther away.
“’The ship,” Dad says to me, ‘is about to take us to New York!’”
February 3, 2023
Many Yizkor books have chapters — and even whole sections — on the Zionist movement. Some of these can be dry reading such as names of those involved or dates of various events and activities. What I liked about “Zionism in Vishogrod,” from the book of that town in Poland, was the context the author gave to the rise of the movement such as the generational differences that gave rise to it and the political, social and religious schisms that followed in Jewish communities.
Martin Menachem Silbershtein notes that, like many small towns in Poland, Vishogrod was devoid of any modern social activity until the beginning of the First World War in 1914. Its people knew nothing about Zionism, as well as about socialism and other modern or movements.
Until then, young people were “brought up by tradition-abiding parents, who did not let enter any new ideas into their souls; so naturally they followed into the footsteps of their parents.” They went to cheder, studied for bar mitzvah, helped their families make a living and ended up working in the trades of their fathers.
Then, in the 1920s, the young people “woke up.” They started organizing, founding libraries, letting “their eyes roam and opinions progress,” and, with the aid of the culture and organizations they created, trying to shape their own lives. The library,
aimed at broadening the horizon of the townspeople, was named “The Zionist Center” and became the focus of Zionist activity in Vishogrod.
The Center would become a battle ground of contending parties, particularly a leftist youth movement that framed the debate as “Zionism — reality or utopia.” It was an argument that would last in the town until World War II and the Holocaust ended it.
January 27, 2023
In much of Orthodox Judaism, Torah study is a way of life for males who forgo other occupations and study Torah full-time, something that is a current cause of controversy surrounding Israel’s Haredis.
Such was the case with Reb Khayim-Zorekh whose story is told in a chapter titled “On the Old Path” from the Yizkor book of Augostow, Poland. He had the fortune of marrying into a well-to-do family where he had no need to worry about making a livelihood and could sit like his father-in-law, studying the Torah. “Several years after the wedding, the only path he knew was the one leading from the house to the synagogue and the synagogue back to the house.”
But time and circumstances changed, and the family had to find a way to get him to go out into the world by himself, at least for a few hours a week, and try to earn a few dollars.
And so he did, to almost comic effect. Khayim-Zorekh’s plan was to approach Americans who had been returning to the area after Poland regained its independence and buy dollars from them that he could resell to local moneylenders.
He was lost in almost the first moment he stepped out the door and into the noise and commotion of the market where he had not set foot in years. His first attempted transaction ended in a calamity that is described in the chapter.
When his wife saw how distraught he was after his experience, she exclaimed “Where was my head that I sent you off into the market?” And through the kindness of her heart, she brought about a happy ending for Khayim-Zorekh.
January 20, 2023
Przytyk, Poland was the target of an infamous pre-Holocaust pogrom in the late 1930s and was the impetus for the famous Yiddish song "S'brent yiddn s'brent" (Our town is burning) which is the title of one of the chapters in its Yizkor book.
Incited by the Endecjna (National Democracy) party, farmers and drunk riffraff went on a rampage on March 9, 1936. Armed with sticks, poles, threshing sledges, stones, and some with guns, they broke into Jewish homes, cracked skulls, broke furniture and windows, dished out blows, and sowed ruin and destruction. They had no mercy on the elderly or children. During this violence, they murdered the shoemaker Yosef Minkowski and fatally wounded his wife Chaya who died later in a hospital.
“In the Dwelling of the Minkowskis” is a short, but poignant account by the writer Shloyme Berlinski who visits the house in the pogrom’s aftermath. He sees a jacket splattered with blood and “blood, blood, blood” on the floor. The ax that was used to kill the shoemaker. A broken bed, doors and windows. A shoemaker’s bench lying upside down with its three legs in the air, “helpless, like a bound calf.” He also is moved by the “peaceful” parts of the dwelling that spoke to him of the lives they lived before the tragedy.
He finds a short, wrinkled old woman, Minkowski’s mother, standing near the stove, her face hardened by weeping. She speaks to him of her anguish.
January 13, 2023
The watch in “A Chronicle of Watches” from Yizkor book of Jezierna (Ozerna), Ukraine belonged to Wilhelm Klinger, a Jew who had been a much-decorated Austrian officer in World War I. The silver Omega had been a gift from his grandfather when he entered the army.
His wife urged him to hide when the SS arrived in Jezierna. He refused, saying: “I know the Germans well, we went hand in hand with them in the war against the Russians and the Italians in 1914-1917; this is the people of Goethe and Schiller. They are soldiers, and soldiers do not murder, they are not thugs. I was also a soldier.”
Klinger always had the watch with him. He treasured it like “amulet from a rabbi” that protected its owner from all evil and bad trouble. He had it with him when the SS took him from his home, shot him in the head and kicked him into a pit.
This is the story of how it came into the hands of his son-in-law, the author of this chapter; how it was taken from him by two thuggish German soldiers, and how he got it back.
January 6, 2023
One of the most feared and brutal groups in the Nazi vanguard was the Sicherheitsdienst or S.D. which served as the intelligence service for the S.S. and was a key perpetrator of the Holocaust.
Jews referred to the group as “The ‘Black Students,’” the title of a chapter in the Yizkor book of Hlybokaye in Belarus. The S.D. arrived in Hlybokaye in May 1942. With this “angel of death already sitting in the city,” the town’s Jews scrambled to build hiding places in attics, in cellars, under the floors, and in the gardens. They dug deep holes in cellars as well as making fake rooms in the walls and disguising staircases that could be reached through closets, ovens and cupboards. All this they had to do clandestinely so as not to attract the attention of the S.D.
They placed some hope in the promises of the German civil administration that the S.D.’s visit would pass without bloodshed and townspeople would only suffer material loss. The Minister of Justice advised the Judenrat that the S.D. would leave more quickly if a large amount of gold, jewelry, clothing, footwear, and money was assembled and given over to it.
But that proved to be a deadly ruse.
December 30, 2022
“Memoirs of an Antopol Physician-Partisan” from the Yizkor book of Antopol, Belarus is a tribute by Dr. Pinchas Czerniak to a small band of brave doctors who joined with a group of partisans in their fight against the Germans.
“There were many examples of quiet heroism mingled with tragic resignation on the part of Jewish physicians,” Czerniak writes. “These facts deserve to be recorded for posterity. For the present I wish to dwell on some of my colleagues who managed to break out of the claws of the brutes and bec
Lacking basic medical supplies and equipment, “We always had to improvise, to create something out of nothing. Not only were we called upon to take care of the health of our fellow partisans, but also to look after the local civilian population to receive their sick and wounded and to combat epidemics.”
“It is difficult to convey to the reader what each one of us did and under what conditions!” Czerniak says. “In the midst of battles, of thousands of dangers, in the woods, fields, marshes, caves, pits, under the open sky, under a tree, in a primitive tent, or in a rural cabin, at best: under the hot sun or in a slashing rain, in a snowfall or hailstorm, here by day, there by night, and as often as not under the hostile looks of non-too-friendly strangers.”
But convey it he does, in moving detail.
December 23, 2022
“A person drinks only once from the days of childhood. It is from Skalat's streets, its alleys, and its landscapes, that this city took form… You are unable to free yourself of the feeling that this city is part of your being, and you carry it inside you wherever you turn” — Chaim Bronshtain.
A story that many chapters in Yizkor books tell is the long journey from memories of what had been, and what was later lost for those who survived the Holocaust. “Reflections with a Cry of Pain” from the Yizkor book of Skalat, Ukraine is one of those stories.
Bronshtain wistfully recalls the hot days of a Skalat summer when he and other youngsters would run in the streets amid the wagons of farmers and peasants, and the dark winter nights when, lantern in hand, he would walk home from his studies in the cheder in a snowstorm, feeling warm inside despite the cold.
Then came 1941. The Red Army had retreated and, on their heels, came the din of “automobile horns and noise of wheels” announcing the arrival of the Germans.
One Aktion followed another. Some survived but many, many disappeared, until half way into 1943, there is no more ghetto. There are no more Jews. There are no more Aktions.
When the day came that the city was liberated, the last remnants of its population stood mute, suppressing their grief, and were not even able to cry. Soon, they were to leave for good “the giant cemetery whose name is Skalat” knowing they would always hear the cry of the tortured, and no longer be able to find rest for their souls.
December 16, 2022
“Under the Beams of the House” from the Yizkor of Dusiat, Lithuania puts you right inside a typical shtetl home where you learn how it was built and what it was like to live there, the food that was prepared, how it was stored, what the occupants did to keep warm, the plumbing (or lack of it), and life without electricity.
One of my favorite anecdotes in the chapter was this:
“I was a little girl and my mother sent me to Reb Wolfe [the baker] to buy a loaf of bread (“a funt sitnice broyt”). My mother taught me to address him politely: “Good morning Reb Wolfe, may I please have a pound of sitnice bread.” She told me so many words, how to address him and what to ask for, that I became confused. I turned things around and said: “Good morning sitnice, may I please have a pound of Wolfe.” This angered Reb Wolfe and he chased me out. I returned home crying and embarrassed.”
Its presentation differs from other Yizkor book chapters in that the editor, Sara Weiss-Slep, compiled the chapter from different interviews she had conducted with people who had lived in the town and stitched their reminisces together as if they were all in the same room. “I wanted to create for the reader the feeling that the people are here with us, that we can imagine hearing the sounds of their laughter and, in contrast, the vibrations of their voices and pain,” she wrote.
One bonus feature of the excerpt is that it contains two recipes for sweets that were popular on holidays: teiglach and ingberlach.
December 9, 2022
Jews in Kuty — formerly part of Poland, now Ukraine — strove to live peacefully with their Polish and Ukrainian neighbors using various methods to counter rising anti-Semitism, but it grew and gradually poisoned the long-lasting peaceful relations between old neighbours. With the establishment in 1918 of the Polish Republic, of which Kuty was then a part, Polish anti-Semitism passed from words to deeds.
“Kittever Heros” from the Yizkor book of that town recounts how three young men organized a self-defence team to repel attackers and take away “their appetite for messing with the Jews.” It was “woe to the ‘sheigets’ [gentile youths] who fell into the hands of one of the team” after committing acts of hate, whether it was beating Jews or spreading anti-Semitic propaganda.
The town is referred to as Kittev in the book, but it is the practice of the Yizkor Book Project to use a town’s current name. It became part of Ukraine in 1991.
December 2, 2022
Many chapters of Yizkor books are accounts of events and Jewish life after the turn of the 20th century, particularly the memories of those who survived the brutal years that began with the rise of Nazism. So, “Belchatow in the Year 1898” from the Yizkor book of that Polish town caught my eye because it promised a snapshot of an earlier time when it was under the thumb of the Russian Empire.
Belchatow was mostly populated by Jews with the few Christians being Shabbos-goyim. It was a town of small wood and brick houses, low with pointy roofs, covered with grey wooden shingles, on which grew moss. Others were covered with tar paper.
It was a cloistered place: “The shtetl was open on all sides, but the world did not enter.” People did not know of books, of newspapers, of periodicals. The six weekdays were filled with work, which took up all of the people’s interest and all of their enjoyment in life. Eating, sleeping were in order to be able to work.
When people became sick, the shtetl Jew did not immediately run for the doctor. First, they used their own remedies: a wet handkerchief for a headache; wolfberry for vomiting; fennel tea and castor oil for stomach aches; garlic and pepper and ground horse teeth on burned coals – for toothaches. If that didn’t work, they went to the apothecary. When leeches and cupping glasses needed to be applied or a tooth had to be pulled, they called the feldsher [barber-surgeon]. Finally, after a remedy against the evil eye had been said and the women prayed in the synagogue for a cure, the doctor was called.
The shtetl did not know of childhood. Boys went at a young age to the kheder where they often suffered the tyranny of the teacher. It was “a prison in which the child was held from the morning until night” and learned only the “Holy Language” and not writing, arithmetic, history, science or geography. Later, the young ones left for an apprenticeship.
The teaching of the trade began with the boy as an apprentice, usually 13 years old when he was rented out for four years — years of “pure slavery.” Afterwards, he became a journeyman, hoping to marry and become a boss.
November 25, 2022
At the end of each week, we have been featuring excerpts from Yizkor books in JewishGen's archive. You can find the archive of past Yizkor book excerpts here: https://bit.ly/3aCH1ak. If you are not familiar with the JewishGen Yizkor Book Project, please click on this link: http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/faq.html
World War II occupies a central place in Yizkor books because of the horrors of the Nazis’ “final solution” and how it was seared into the memories of Jews who survived it.
World War I afflicted the lives of European Jews in a different way, particularly in what is now Poland. While Poland did not exist as an independent state during the war, its geographical position between the fighting powers — Austria-Hungary, the German Empire and the Russian Empire — put Jewish communities in the crossfire of a conflict where the fortunes of war were constantly shifting, resulting in terrific human and material losses.
“Hrubieszow During World War I” from the Yizkor book of the Polish town recounts how its people coped with the fear and uncertainty that war brought, whether through the military mobilization at its outbreak, the disruption of life, or the waves of soldiers who flooded the town — sometimes Kalmuks, Bashkirs, Tatars, and Circassians, and, most-feared of all, “the Cossacks and their bloodthirsty faces.”
November 18, 2022
To take a walk along the length of “Warsaw Street,” a chapter from the Yizkor book of Mlawa (Poland), is to journey among all the characters, sights and ways of life that evoked the richness of life in the shtetls. Many Yizkor books have chapters devoted to the main streets of their town, but this one is remarkable in the stories it tells.
The street started off as a corridor to the Old Market with its trade in fish, fruit and vegetables. “Haim the Red” could be seen sitting on the fruit stalls with his daughter Rifka, who went crazy two weeks out of every four. “Rifka the Black,” the most veteran huckster there, wore a warm coat in winter she and held a pot full of glowing embers between her knees in order to keep warm.
Further on, one came upon little houses, mostly made of wood. The street's inhabitants filled the air with noise. It was here that the organ grinders lived, the rag pickers, the drivers, coachmen and itinerant peddlers as well as artisans and storekeepers.
Then stood the tall iron pump in the middle of the street to provide water for people and animals. Every day it creaked and groaned with each pull of its bent iron handle as it sluggishly went up and down. Sometimes two or three people had to hang on to it in order to draw some water. In the winter, a mountain of ice would cloak the pump and the water-carriers had to put glowing embers on the ice to melt it.
There was a store that also served as a delicatessen where one could eat a piece of herring and polish it off with a slice of sponge cake, drink a glass of tea or a glass of soda with syrup which was measured out in small wine-glasses made of white metal.
And beyond that, a “warm and open Hassidic home” erected on what had been the street’s largest courtyard. From morning until late at night, the doors never closed. People came to discuss matters of Hassidim, to ask for advice, to drink a glass of tea, and to play chess. “If the walls could speak, they would tell how Zisa-Reizel, with the aid of other housewives, wisely and gracefully conducted the complex and secret work of bringing money and bundles of food and clothing to respectable families that had fallen on bad times.”
There was much more after that along Warsaw Street until it reached the cemetery where Mlawan Jews found their final resting-place.
November 11, 2022
“The Old Cemetery” is a section from a chapter titled “The Eishishok Surroundings” from the Yizkor book of Eišiškes, Lithuania. It was among the places that attracted youths of the area with their “atmosphere of myth and mystery.”
Overgrown with low wild bushes and with most of the tombstones deeply sunken in the ground, the cemetery had not been used for over 200 years after it had become too small to absorb all the village dead. It became surrounded by fields of gentiles who began annexing the land and ploughing it, despite pleas not to desecrate the memories of the righteous buried there for centuries.
One hot summer Sabbath, a group of youths — hearts thumping with fear — decided to risk the trip through hostile gentile territory to see the old cemetery with their own eyes. An “expert” among them pointed to places where the peasants had tried to plow the sacred ground.
And that recalled a legend about the miracle that put an end to the cemetery’s desecration.
November 4, 2022
I’ve previously posted excerpts about Russian conscription of Jewish young adults but went back to other chapters about it after coming across a term I hadn’t seen before: “Khapers.” Khapers (catchers) were employed by local kehillas to help find children and men who were subject to the Russian Empire’s military conscription laws and hand them over to authorities. They were the objects of fear, loathing and hatred by the Jewish masses” as was the ruler whose edict they were carrying out, Tsar Nikolai.
“Kidnapping Children for the Tsar's Army” from the Yizkor book of Sokolivka, Ukraine focuses on a particular aspect of conscription of Jews: the taking of young children with the goal of converting them to Christianity.
Leon Wegodner, the author, refers to khapers as “chappers.” He wrote this in 1929 at the age of 67, drawing also on what his “forefathers told me of their times.” The abduction of children, who were known as “cantonists” — a reference to the military institutions to which they were sent — began in 1827 under Nikolai and continued until the policy was abolished in 1856 under a new tsar. The cantonists were sometimes sent to Russian farmsteads in remote villages with the same goal of conversion.
When the chappers, often violent men, came to town to bring in their “living” merchandise, Wegodner says “it was like a pack of wolves falling on a flock of sheep.”
As for the draftees who ended up in peasant homes, “You can imagine the suffering of a child taken from his mother's apron, sent a thousand miles away, not knowing the Russian language, repelled by the food,” writes Wegodner. “Often the peasant hardly had food for his own children; having a strange child, and yet a Jewish child, quartered on him, you can imagine what happened to the Jewish child. A great number died from starvation, or from beatings.”
October 28, 2022
Heschel Holoshitz was a miser without comparison. He bemoaned every penny he had to spend, even for food. He and his wife lived on stale bread dressed with onions or a bowl of sauerkraut. On the Sabbath and holidays, they satisfied themselves with a poor meal, just so that their fortune should not decrease.
And so it was no wonder then that he accumulated during his lifetime a sack full of gold coins.
"The eccentric Heschel Holoshitz” from the Yizkor book of Stryzow (Poland) is the story of the reckoning he and his childless wife faced as they grew older and began to think about the hereafter. They worried about how they could secure a corner in paradise when there was no heir to say Kaddish after their departure.
The solution came at a price in gold so high that it almost caused Heschel to faint when he heard it. But the fear that he and his wife might die before ensuring their place in heaven overpowered their lust for money.
October 21, 2022
When “The Names of the Bride and Groom…” was written, “World literature…read in translation…was secular, romantic, and poetic. Love was the daughter of the heavens, and we fell in love with love.”
But in the shtetl, things could be much different as this excerpt from “The Legend of Corzele,” in Ukraine recounts. “The parents did not agree that love would be a fundamental factor in the marriage. They would say, ‘There is no assurance that those in love will continued with their pleasantness. Love blinds. It can come after the wedding.’”
There was the dowry to be negotiated, the number of years the groom would be supported by his father-in-law and the house he would be given. But if love at first sight was not in the equation, the work of finding a good match fell to the marriage broker, or shadchan, who “had his eyes in his head as he attempted to solicit the interest [of both sides], to get them to meet, and to allow those who ‘speak of their honor’ to get to know each other knowingly or unknowingly.”
Much of this chapter goes on to describe all that followed through the lead-up to the wedding, the ceremony itself and the celebration that followed. I’ve posted excerpts about weddings before, but I found this chapter to be one of the most detailed and descriptive.
October 14, 2022
The melamed was a fixture in the shtetls, giving lessons in Hebrew and religious instruction to young boys in a cheder, which was often in the teacher's own home. The melamed could be learned and skilled — or an ill-trained teacher who might also be eking out a living as a butcher or gravedigger. The salary was usually low, and many lived a poor life.
“Melamdim and Teachers,” from the Yizkor book of Gorodets (Belarus) celebrates their role in the community with a series of profiles of the town’s teachers.
There was Sender who loved small children very much and used to say: “When I die, I want to be buried among the small children.” When he was asked: “Why among the small children and not near the Rabbi?” he would answer with a smile: “Simple, I want to be able to cheat them of the Friday bandes (boolkes) [baked rolls].”
Shmuel was a cobbler but was more adept at studying than at cobbling. Younger and better cobblers made it difficult for him to make a living. But the younger cobblers respected him and asked him to be melamed for their children.
Chayim Itzik never learned pedagogy, but to a certain degree he was a pedagogue, who understood the physical and mental structure of the child. For example, he nailed a strip of wood between two legs of the table so that the children could rest their feet on it. He set the inkwells in sardine-cans and fastened them one to the other so that the children would not overturn them.
Alter Shefe had a knack for business and was known for his “dirt-cheap” eight-ingredient kvass. But he needed more income and later established a monopoly over the citrons used at Sukkoth. His citron trade was a blessing for his students because they were exempt from studying when he went out of town to get his next supply.
October 7, 2022
Nobody knew how or when he arrived in the town. He had quietly appeared several decades previously as one of the groups of beggars who made the rounds to the doors.
But in all the years he lived there, he had a personal secret he kept in a small notebook.
The tragic day finally arrived when the deep secret became known to everybody. He was childless and isolated in his death. His death lifted the veil from the secret and it quickly became a wonderful legend in the town, one that is described in “Shmuele the Walker,” a chapter from the Yizkor book of Czyżew-Osada, Poland.
You can find the book online here: https://bit.ly/3SwolN9
The translation of the book is also available in print. You can order it here: https://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/ybip/YBIP_Czyzewo.html
September 30, 2022
When the dread time arrived in Jewish towns when boys turning 21 had to enroll in the military, fathers would groan and mothers wring their hands, but the youths were less dispirited: there were two ways that they dealt with it. One was to spend the next few weeks following regimens that might get them rejected, like not eating and drinking enough. The other way of passing time during the weeks of “self-torture” was conjuring up pranks to play. As “An Event in the Shtetl” from the Yizkor book of Mlyniv & Muravytsi (Ukraine) says: “When one is young, one can make a comedy out of a tragedy.”
In this case, the youths wanted to play a special prank that the shtetl would remember and consulted Shmuel, the town joker.
“I have a plan for you,” Shmuel the joker said.
“Today is Thursday night and tomorrow is Friday before Shabbes. And Jews have to go Friday to the bath to steam their bones and to wash in honor of Shabbes. I want you to heat up the community bath, and to let all the craftsmen and the poor to come in for free, without money.”
This predictably did not delight the more well-to-do. The chapter recounts how it all played out.
You can find the book online here: https://bit.ly/3DSAh7d
The full Mlyniv & Muravytsi book in translation is now available in print. You can find details on how to order it here:
September 23, 2022
What must it be like to think your freedom is at hand, after enduring the horrors of Dachau, only to have that belief dashed?
“Journey to Life” from the Yizkor book of Radom (Poland) takes place as the American Seventh Army was converging on Dachau. The SS began to evacuate the Jews, loading them on a train where they endured more discomfort than during all the years in the camps.
At one point, the passengers, certain of their impending deaths, were let off the train and were stunned when a large truck pulled up with loaves of bread for them.
“Oh, what a day! All could not be well with the Third Reich. Such a feast could be equated only with the imminent defeat of Germany.” And, one German officer announced in a loud voice: “Kamraden. Hitler is dead! You are free! You are free to go where you please. The war is over!”
Suddenly, they heard the familiar whistles of the SS men who surrounded them. They were prisoners again.
But salvation was soon to come.
September 16, 2022
Some of you may have seen or heard news coverage about the controversy over Hasidic private schools in New York City built to educate children in Jewish law, prayer and tradition, and whether they provide adequate education in secular subjects.
I’m not going to touch on that subject with a ten-foot pole, given its sensitivities, other than to say that one of the articles reminded me of the many chapters I have seen in Yizkor books about cheders. Some of these chapters are positive accounts about the important roles of cheders; others describe stern (and often ill-paid and ill-suited) teachers who struck fear in their students as they drill them on Jewish learnings.
“Childhood Years in Buberika,” from the Yizkor book of that Ukrainian town, walks the reader through the days and years of a cheder. Children study there for six years until the Bar Mitzvah, when the graduate becomes what the author calls “a functional Jew.”
What is interesting about this account is the way the author contrasts children entering the welcoming atmosphere of the nursery school or kindergarten in modern times to the greater rigors of the cheder.
He does the same with today’s Bar Mitzvahs and their great (and often costly) celebrations, gifts for the Bar Mitzvah boy, but requiring far less religious devotion and obligation: “In those other times, it was quite different. The Bar Mitzvah boy suffered long months, learning all kinds of laws of the Talmud, using the phylacteries, the laws of prayer, laws of blessings, rituals of cleanliness, and other little laws without end.” And afterwards, “For you alone, the Bar Mitzvah boy, life has become a little more difficult. Not a single gift do you receive, only a heavy yoke is put upon you, a yoke of 613 mitzvot…”
September 9, 2022
Although it didn’t require the visit of holiday ghosts or lessons on the importance of opening one’s heart to others, “Shime-Leib the Miser” is a Scrooge-like redemption story. (This section from the Yizkor book of Ozarow, Poland is part of a longer chapter titled “Family” that is well-worth the read for its other stories by going to the book via the link below).
Shime-Leib had no use for friends (“They all lead you astray”) or girlfriends (“Only good for squeezing money out of you!”) His only pleasure was going to an inn on Saturdays where, “screwed into his chair, he would watch the others drink, never buying a drop for himself.”
But all that changed when townspeople took pity on a wife deserted by her husband and came up with the idea: “So why not arrange a little marriage between her and Shime-Leib? Sure, he's stingy and cantankerous....but even he has a heart like everyone else. If she were kind to him, maybe he would change.”
He did. And like the reformed Scrooge, he took under his wing his own version of Tiny Tim.
September 2, 2022
“The Great Shlepper” from the Yizkor book of Rivne (Rovno) in Ukraine is the story of one of the many occupations of Jews — in this case, a group of around fifty members whose livelihood came from unloading or uploading big wagons. But as a group of men whose strength enabled them to do those jobs, “the big porters” played another important role in the community, namely, fending off attacks on their fellow Jews. Lacking any real protection from the police, they were the unofficial police that curbed the peasants when they threatened trouble. The Polish police were lenient with them since they freed them from worries and from what they considered the contemptuous job of protecting Jewish peddlers and storeowners.
“The Great Shlepper” in this story was Liebel Spojnik , who was considered the prime of all the “big porters” because he was stout and muscled. He stood up for the Jews in another way. When a famous wrestler came to town and dared anyone to fight him, Liebel’s friends urged him to take the challenge even though he was nervous about his lack of experience. The bout didn’t have a “Rocky”-like ending, but suffice it to say his performance was seen as a successful protection of “Jewish Honor.”
August 26, 2022
This week’s Yizkor book selection is an excerpt from a chapter titled "The Judenrat in Mizoch (Ukraine) Had a High Moral Standard, But…"
The role played by the Judenrat during the Nazi occupation is one of the most controversial aspects of the Holocaust period. The Jewish councils often performed a balancing act: on one hand, they felt a responsibility to help their fellow Jews as much as possible, on the other, they were supposed to carry out the orders of the Nazi authorities - often at the expense of their fellow Jews.
In some Yizkor book accounts, the Judenrat are portrayed with bitterness and even hatred depending on how they conducted themselves. Yehuda Broinshtein, who wrote this chapter, had a somewhat measured view of the Judenrat from his experience with them in Mizoch, as evidenced by the title he chose for the chapter: “Of course, we also did not exactly have it easy with the Judenrat, but the relationship we had with the Judenrat was ideal in comparison to that of other places.” He says they “did not lose their humanity and even kept their morality and righteousness,” but balancing the demands of the Nazis and trying not to harm Jews “could not be done.” And he relates events that illustrate this.
The Germans would promise personal safety and comfort to the members of the Judenrat but ultimately, after fulfilling their duties, Judenrat members were killed together with the rest of the Jews.
August 19, 2022
Before the horror of the Nazis, Jews suffered and died through waves of pogroms earlier in the century. Many began with a “blood libel,” or the accusation that Jews murdered a Christian child to use its blood for ritual purposes, like the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev which captured world attention.
“The Pogrom of the 1st to the 3rd June 1906” from the Yizkor of Bialystock (Poland) was not rooted in that libel but in pre-meditated attacks orchestrated by anti-Semitic Russian police and officials.
What stands out about this excerpt is its detailed account of the genesis of the pogrom and how it was carried out over a series of days. The toll it took was 80 Jews killed and more than 80 wounded. Three plants were robbed, along with 120 stores and houses of commerce and more than 100 residences.
The Bialystok pogrom differed from all earlier pogroms on Jews in that it took place in the time when Russia already had a State Duma [lower house of parliament] which undertook an investigation of what happened and concluded that the pogrom was prepared by the police and the highest government powers. Instead of answering these findings, the Czarist government, embarrassed by this finding, dissolved the Duma.
August 12, 2022
“Weddings in our areas” from the Yizkor book of Mezhirichi (Ukraine) describes the elaborate choreography over the course of a week that leads up to the wedding ceremony.
On Sunday began the foreshpiel (foreplay) at the bride's home her friends were invited to see the dowry trunk ... Monday was the day for the groom's friends for whom there would be all sorts of herring fish and wine, cake and cognac, while recounting memories of bachelorhood … Tuesday was the poor man's day when a meal was served and the bride's father handed out alms and the guests sang and danced till evening ... On Wednesday, the aunts arrived ... On Thursday, more arrivals, this time the out-of-town guests … The "chuppah" (wedding ceremony) was always held on late Friday … The big celebration is held on Saturday night after the Havdalah, the ceremony marking the close of the Sabbath day, when the public is invited to the "wedding" for a celebration brought alive by dancing.
The chapter fills in the details.
August 5, 2022
“Jews and Christians — The Relationship between Neighbors” from the Yizkor book of Edineţ (Moldova) describes a kind of peaceful co-existence that lasted for a time between the two communities, although it was always an uneasy one for the Jews. For the Christians, it was another story: “When a Jew, whether a young boy or an adult wandered into the Christian quarter, he did not feel at ease. On the other hand, the Christians felt quite fine among the Jews.”
Part of the balance derived from what each side provided for the other. The food produced by the Christian farmers was a key element in the economy and Christians did a variety of tasks for the Jews. A Christian was postman; he was the one who heated the oven in the winter Sabbath early mornings in the Jewish homes; he was the guard of the Jewish cemetery; he would guard the memorial candles lit in the courtyards on Shabbat and the Jewish holidays; he was the cowherd for the herd of cows. As for the Christians, they had to come to the Jews to acquire clothing, shoes, haberdashery, baked goods, tobacco, and alcoholic drinks.
But this state of affairs was not to last because of the jealousy the Christians felt over the wealth, and the lifestyle of the Jews. “Many of them harbored evil plans in their hearts and waited for the day when they would be able to have a pogrom and steal all the Jewish possessions.”
And ultimately, that is what happened.
July 29, 2022
While this excerpt is titled “Memoirs of Konotop” from the Yizkor book of that Ukrainian town, it focuses on the village of Grigorovka where the author’s father settled. Grigorovka was a large Ukrainian village where the peasants and the Jews seemed to co-exist in relative peace, even if the peasants’ references to the Jews as “zhids” was not exactly an affectionate description.
Two things make this excerpt worth reading. One is that it paints a colorful picture of the lives of both communities which in certain ways mirror each other, even though this is more an account of how the peasants lived than it is of the Jews. The other is that the chapter makes you see and feel Grigorovka in its descriptions of the details of almost every important aspect of village life, and at its close, the beauty of the countryside.
July 22, 2022
Yizkor book chapters that recount the details of daily life in the shtetls make for a pendulum that swings between gauzy remembrances of the joys of life there to testimonies to the widespread poverty, unsanitary conditions, muddy streets and families squeezed into small wooden houses.
Conditions could also vary by the period a writer is describing. Mendl Machtey puts his finger on this in “Sixty Years Ago,” a chapter from the Yizkor book of Stowbtsy, Belarus (formerly known as Steibtz).
“One cannot compare life in the shtetl in the years 1930-1940 [to] the simple, primitive life of a provincial Polish-Russian shtetl at the end of the19th century and the beginning of the 20th century,” he writes.
Machtey recreates a portrait of Stowbtsy in those earlier times. Unpaved streets, some full of mud and stagnant pools of water; the shabbily-built houses of poor people not built for the cold winters; and, the lack of good well water in some parts of town that meant an average home owner had to find a suitable well, fill a small barrel with sufficient water for a whole day and carry it home himself.
But this chapter does not read as a lament or cry of woe: it is a remembrance of how people coped and did their best to go on with life. What drew me to it was how well it captures Stowbtsy during the period the writer describes. It is worth reading for its details which make you feel that you are there.
July 15, 2022
A Double Miracle” from the Yizkor book of Szumsk (Ukraine) recounts the dangers that the town’s Jews faced in the chaotic period following the Russian revolution when the provisional government collapsed and civil war between the Czarist regime and the Bolsheviks spread through the country. Poland took advantage of the situation and attacked Russia, penetrating deep into its territory before its troops could regroup.
Jews soon found themselves in the cross-hairs when followers of Symon Petlura, one of the leaders of Ukraine's unsuccessful fight for independence following the revolution, saw they could not prevail over the Red Army and unleashed their fury on the Jews, killing and looting in every town and city and leaving a swath of destruction in their wake.
But disaster was averted in Chelm thanks to a right-minded Christian Commisar “who protected the Jewish population with all his heart.” He helped them get rifles and ammunition for a Jewish defence force should it be needed, and when the threat of a pogrom loomed over the town’s fair, deployed militia and policemen to search wagons entering the town for weapons and to head off any disturbances.
That was the first miracle. But it was impossible for the day to pass quietly: One of the armed Jewish soldiers who, like the others had been forbidden to leave their homes unless something happened, walked into the market in uniform and with his rifle and — accidentally or not — fired a shot. The peace that had been maintained was under threat.
That was when the commissar worked his second miracle.
July 8, 2022
In “The Miracle of the Last Jews in Chelm” from that town’s Yizkor book, the Gestapo is preparing to evacuate as Soviet forces approach. The sadistic and murderous chief of the prison where the Jews were being held was getting drunk on whiskey. The writer of the chapter encounters him and summons the courage to say, “Herr Chief: As you know, we are the last Jews in Chelm and our fate lies in your hands. If you want, we could remain alive. We are the last of the last.”
He says, “One thing is clear. If I remain alive, you will remain alive; but when I die, you too will die.”
Some time after, the prisoners hear in the distance the sound of cannons and Soviet planes bombing the German’s escape routes. “It was for us like a beautiful rhapsody, just as if nature wanted to present a magnificent concert with our long time torturers…We wanted to look into the eyes of the Germans, to see their nastiness mixed with fear.”
The prisoners hid in a cellar catacomb — a night full of nightmares — listening to the sound of battle and wondering what the outcome and their fate would be.
In the morning, the prison courtyard was packed with Russian soldiers. The Germans were gone except for tired and broken down soldiers staggering back from the front.
Liberation was bittersweet:
“It was July 22, 1944, a lovely, warm day. The sun shone brightly, or maybe that was just what we thought. But where would we go? Where was our home, where were our families and friend, where were our people, where were our good Chelemer Jews? The town was empty. A town without Jews, and we, the last of the Mohicans, the last Chelemer Jews, now felt the entirety of the tragedy, the heartbreak.”
July 1, 2022
There is much to enjoy in “Only Memories Are Left” from the Yizkor book of Dokshytsy, Belarus. I can only compare its words to a vivid painting in its descriptions of the town and its environs.
“Sprinkled with beech trees, the road traverses the forests and the villages… There is silence and only the herdsman's flute dares interrupt the bliss… Not only the flute shatters the tranquility - A great sound suddenly is heard: " Ku ku-ku ku-ku ku-ku ku" - among the tree tops - the mockingbird… A flock of snow-white doves flying among the trees. An eye-full of blossom and new life! A new spring has conquered the land…Autumn - sheafs of standing corn - like wigwams. The smell of dry hay... And, in winter, whiteness and frost. Trees tops and house roofs covered with snow. At home - plated windows. A blazing stoked fire-place, and the windows full of blossomed frost lilies.”
The same eloquence touches stories of Disha leaving for America, the bonding of the people over the making of matzoh as Passover approaches, the joy of the children at the advent of Hannukah, young people sitting on the hay in a barn singing, with feelings of nostalgia, warmth and love all around.
And the lament that ends the chapter after all these things have been wiped out by the Holocaust:
“In the town: streets, alleys, squares, markets, synagogues and schools. Children, boys, women, grown-ups, elderly - everything is gone to dust. Only stories are left, memories, nostalgia and a heart torn in infinite grief.”
June 24, 2022
“The Fortune Teller,” from the Yizkor book of Sadagora (Ukraine) reminded me of a famous article in the New Yorker by Joseph Mitchell in 1942 about the gypsy population on the Lower East Side in which he described the livelihood and strategems of the “dukkerers,” or fortune tellers who “preyed mostly on ignorant, middle-aged women” who were worried about their health, their futures or what their husbands might be up to behind their backs.
The chapter tells the story of “a sly old Ukrainian woman (who) could read the past and the future from the lines on a hand, read a fortune from playing cards and kernels of corn, show an old maid her future husband at midnight in a mirror, and – when necessary – procure magic bottles from the devil.” Sometimes, her “readings” are helped by several of her shady assistants who pick up gossip they heard in the town about a client and give her a convincing card to play.
One such customer bemoans her husband Metro who stole ten kroner from her and got drunk.
“I know that,” lied the babushka rapping with her magic staff on the table. “Be still! I know everything, and now just listen … Here is a magic bottle. When Metro sleeps, rub it on his hands so that he will drink and steal less.” She rapped her magic staff on the table and the session came to an end.
As might be expected, the old fortune-teller had run-ins with the police which she quickly solved by bribing them and saying, “One hand washes the other, and both wash the stupid people.”
June 17, 2022
A main character (and he is definitely a “character”) in “Hundreds of Episodes, Curiosities and Happenings” from the Yizkor book of Kurow, is Shmuel the shammes and grandfather of the author. A tipoff to Shmuel’s personality is that a section of the chapter dubs him the Motke Khabad of the town, referring to a Yiddish humorist and trickster from Vilnius whose jokes were legendary in the Jewish world.
His many talents as the synagogue’s shammes, or sexton, included being the life of the party when he was invited to a wedding as a friend or relative, and not in his official role. In one instance, he used his wiles to salvage a wedding party that appeared to be heading south because of the disdain that wealthy in-laws from Warsaw were showing the Jews of Korev. You can read the chapter for the backstory, but this was the result:
“It became cheerful, whisky was brought out, wine and many delicacies appeared, and two wagon-loads of wood were bought for the bes-medresh. Shmuel shammes started partying, he distributed copper frying pans, rolling pins, brooms, pokers, shovels and he became the conductor of this orchestra. Everyone danced and sang. The Warsaw visitors emptied their travel chests and half drunk sang: ay, ay, ay, korever, korever [oh, those residents of Korev!]”
Shmuel was also a champion of lonely orphaned women and he made it one of his missions to see that they got married.
June 10, 2022
Accounts of Jewish holidays in Yizkor books often fall in one of two categories. In one, there are many wonderful and reverent descriptions of what the holidays represented and how the Jews in the towns of Eastern Europe observed them. The other category is far less joyful: remembrances of holidays which Jews struggled to observe in concentration camps, holidays on which Nazi aktions were carried out, holidays that came and went in the face of impending death.
This week, Jews celebrated Shavuot, one of the joyous (rather than solemn holidays) in which they offer thanks for the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai and the annual reaping of the wheat harvest, and celebrate with dairy foods.
But in the region of Novogrudok (Belarus) the pall of the Nazi occupation cast its shadow over Shavuot. As recounted in a chapter in its Yizkor book titled “How I Survived,” the Jews of the town — although “depressed and subdued” by their subjugation — felt a spark of hope with the advent of this happy holiday. All was made ready, even though people of the town “were also prepared for wandering, the last wandering before death.”
And so it came, starting with expulsions of people from their towns, carrying all the memories of the homes which they knew they were leaving forever.
“They thought of the disturbed holy day. They regretted their disturbed life, they looked on to the dark skies for an answer, but they found no answer. The world was deaf and dumb to their sufferings. The sky was covered in a cloud like armour to make sure that the tragedy of the Jews would not be seen or heard.”
June 3, 2022
As is the case with many Yizkor book chapters, there are two stories to be gleaned from “Portrait of the town at the beginning of the 20th century” about Radomsk in Poland. But is easy to see how they are related. The chapter begins by describing how cut off Jews in small towns were from what was going on in the world, in a way that would be unimaginable in today’s world of newspapers, cable news and the Internet and other sources of information. But that account is intertwined — as becomes evident in the chapter — with the rise of Zionism, which was a source of major conflict, particularly with the Hasidim movement that disdained it. This constricted atmosphere extended to what books were available and what language they were written in. One result was that people “knew nothing then about any movement other than the Chasidut (Hasidism). We did not know what a political party was back then and there were not many parties anyway.”
“The Jewish street was static, frozen in time,” writes Shlomo Krakowski, speaking of the late 19th century. “The Jew in those days, although busy with family and livelihood difficulties, enjoyed hearing news of world events such as politics and wars … (but) not even one Yiddish newspaper was published in all of gigantic Russia for its three million Jews.” The two newspapers that people could get, at least a day late, were in Hebrew, published respectively in Warsaw and St. Petersburg.
During this period, Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, published a newspaper article laying out a strategy for creating a “safe haven” in Eretz Israel for Jews. “The sensational idea did not prompt the reaction it should have from the Radomski audience,” wrote Krakowski. “The vast majority was indifferent. The masses who did not read newspapers never even saw the article.”
But it did plant the idea among some of the town’s young men to create a Zionist Society, something that aroused fierce opposition. Charedi Jews promptly declared war against anyone who favored Zionism, and even the intelligentsia kept their distance.
Krakowski was part of that movement, and looking back, he laments: “Sadly, Zionism did not last long in Radomsk or across great Russia. It ceased to exist after a few years. The Czar authorities waged a massive war on Jewish and socialist worker's movements that also crushed Zionism whether it did not understand the differences between these movements or out of spite…After a short period of Zionist activity, the movement was banned across Russia.”
May 27, 2022
JewishGen researchers are well familiar with the Russian “revision lists” which were used to levy poll taxes because they can be a gold mine of information about their ancestors. “The Revisor,” from the Yizkor book of Kamenets (Belarus) puts a human face on the dreaded auditors who came to town every year. What makes this chapter so much fun is its descriptions of how people in Kamenets (and probably elsewhere) figured out ruses to avoid levies that could amount to hundreds of rubles. This was no small matter since the levies could amount to 600 rubles (the equivalent of $14,500 in 2019 U.S. dollars) and a typical worker around 1900 might earn 180 rubles yearly. And 600 rubles was the assessment that potentially hung over the head of the author’s father.
“So when lovely summer came around, you could count on it—that one day the assessor, or the auditor, would suddenly come by, and would inventory all our household possessions: the bedding, the inherited copper pans, the brass candlesticks, the mortar-and-pestle, and all the other items… everyone was seized with fear.”
So, with no further adieu, I’ll make way for this wonderful account of the stratagems people of the town used to lead the revisors “down the garden path” and hold on to their hard-earned money.
May 20, 2022
“Immediately after they took my father, which happened in the first weeks of the German occupation, hunger knocked at our door. My mother who worked and sewed her whole life was broken after losing father. She could not advise us on how to get food…Our house was without a breadwinner.”
“Hunger,” a chapter in the Yizkor book of the vanished town of Zhetl, Belarus (known today as Dzyatlava) is about what the title says. There were many ways Jews suffered under the German occupation — brutality, extermination, rampant anti-Semitism — but this account focuses on how central the struggle for food was in the lives of Pesie Mayevsky’s family.
In their continuing, desperate search for food, the family scoured the forest for mushrooms and tried to find enough money to buy what they could. Her mother sells what she could of the children’s’ clothes and she and the children knock on farmers’ doors to take in work in exchange for something to eat. One farmer gives them a pile of frozen small potatoes in exchange for work, giving them half of what they earned, but Mayevsky writes: “A pile of frozen potatoes, a treasure in our starving home! It took a lot of suffering and self sacrifice to obtain them.”
In the ghetto, Mayevsky’s mother, brother and sister were killed. She and others ultimately escaped. But hunger pursues them.
May 13, 2022
The title “Our Child Saved Us” from the Yizkor book of Voronovo (Belarus) sums up what this week’s excerpt is about. It is Kay Lisorki’s story of how she and her husband survived the ghettos and later the hardships they faced after they fled to the forest and had to constantly keep moving because of frequent Nazi raids.
I puzzled over this chapter, trying to decide whether such a young child actually spoke the things Lisorki attributed to him, or whether this was something figurative: that the love they had for their child and his courageous demeanor was what kept her and her husband going, and the words he said were those she heard in her mind. The boy was 1 year and 22 days old when the story begins; the writer does not say how much time the story spanned.
“On the dark wandering roads during the days of Nazi horror we suffered a lot of hunger, dampness, and cold that broke our souls and spirit. But he, the tiny little man, suffered all those things with the patience and spirit of a grownup man, and even better.
“And so because of him and thanks to him we survived.”
May 6, 2022
“The Tarnow El Capone” is a section of a long chapter titled “Memories, Personalities and Types” from the Yizkor book of Tarnow (Poland). I’m not sure how Al Capone became El Capone in this translation other than the fact that the Hebrew letters for “Al” and “El” are the same — אל קפונה. A more “modest edition” of the original, the Tarnow “Capone” was, some 70 years ago, the head ruler of the Tarnow thieves, known in general by the name Yidele Ganev [Yidele the thief] or Yidele Motz (“motz” being a mixture of rogue, rascal, clown and scoundrel).
Yidele Motz introduced a system (that he learned, probably, from the real El Capone): wealthy Jews would pay a certain “tax,” thus they would buy “insurance” against burglary and theft, for a given time.
On one occasion, Motz took affront when he was asked how he managed to pull off a particularly difficult burglary.
“The young man has some nerve!” he exclaimed. “It is real chutzpah to ask such questions. I have been a thief for several decades and believe me, it is a very difficult and exhausting occupation… and this curious young man expects me to explain in one moment how these things are done…”
April 29, 2022
“The Great Rescue” from the Yizkor book of Rokitno (Ukraine) is Baruch Goldman’s memory of how he and other children escaped death at the hands of the Banderovtzis — followers of Stepan Bandera whose Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, along with its partisan army, strove to eliminate all ethnically non-Ukrainian elements from Ukrainian soil (including Jews, Russians, Poles, Gypsies) and, for a time, collaborated with the Germans in the hope of achieving this goal.
This period of time has played a significant role in political discourse over the course of the current Ukrainian crisis, forming the basis of Vladimir Putin’s distorted justification for the Russian invasion as an offensive to "denazify" the country.
As the title suggests, the chapter recounts how the people in it saved themselves.
April 22, 2022
“Reb Shabtai the Tavern Keeper” is part of a longer chapter titled “Characters and Personalities” from the Yizkor book of Rozhnyativ (Ukraine). But it is really two stories in one.
The first part is about the tavern. Thanks to a big dowry and having a spacious house, he decided to open the tavern in one of the rooms that had a “heavenly window” facing the road to the marketplace and business center. At 5 a.m., he would open the blinds wide, and place an empty liquor bottle with a plate of herring into the window as a sign that liquor and appetizers were being sold. Part of the fun of reading this section are the thumbnail descriptions of his “regulars”: a Polish shoemaker who would return several times a day till he used up his money, “Anna the drunkardess,” and “Eliahu of the Marketplace” who took a drink in the morning instead of breakfast because he couldn’t afford a meal.
But there was another side to Reb Shabtai. After he closed at 8 p.m., he would dedicate his entire time to prayer, charity, and good deeds. When his daughters grew up and got married, Reb Shabtai gave up working in the tavern completely and his thoughts focused on the troubles of his people and whether and when Redemption would arrive.
He was particularly moved when he came across a man who he heard sighing. The man was troubled because winter was coming, his livelihood was waning, he had no wood to heat his house and could not even afford to buy warm clothing for his small children. Reb Shabtai, whose heart was filled with the agony of all Jews over the difficulties of life, said “Sighs come from the heart of a man, perhaps it is possible to help you a little.”
And he did.
April 11, 2022
As Passover approaches, I thought it would be timely to share “Sabbath and holidays in Strzyzow” from the Yizkor book of that Polish town. The chapter has an extensive passage on preparations for Passover, but as its title says, it includes preparations for all the holidays, as well as for the Sabbath. The details are wonderful, from descriptions of the traditions that accompanied each, the way peoples’ lives revolved around the holy days and the food: borsch, goose, homemade cheese cakes, cheese kreplach, sour crème and sour milk, and wine made from raisins.
This was new to me:
“A distinctive feature of Passover was the escorting by Jewish family members of the gentile water carriers to and from the city water pumps. The Jews feared that the water carriers might tamper with the water and would not be kosher for Passover. (Until the destruction, Strzyzow did not have running water or electricity).”
April 1, 2022
“My father told me there was an expression around town: ‘He left to close the shutters (most of the houses were low) and went to America.’”
“The Jews of Makow in the New World” from the Yizkor book of Makow (Poland) is a snapshot of the great emigration to America and elsewhere by Jews feeling the weight of poverty, anti-Semitism and possible conscription into the Tsar’s army. It touches also on the difficulties faced by those who trying to acclimatize in a new world, particularly the Lower East Side of New York. (A similar chapter in the Yizkor book of Luninyets (Belarus) described that as “falling into the great kettle of turmoil of New York.” https://bit.ly/3uEFcCC
). It could be difficult to find work, an apartment and coping with a new language — not to mention “longing for wife and child, for the quiet life of the small town, the old home.”
March 25, 2022
“During the Years of the Holocaust” is a long chapter from the Yizkor book of Rozniatow (Ukraine) which recounts the expulsion in 1941 of the town’s Jewish population with the choice of going to any of four places of refuge: Halicz, Dolina, Krechowice, or Kalush.
Two passages stood out to me. The first was the story of Hirsch Gelobter who, as a cattle merchant, had many contacts among the gentiles in the area of Dolina where he chose to go. He would walk, for entire days, through the town to see how he could help the weak and the poor and used his contacts to procure food for the community. “There was no home, no Jew, who did not know him and the good deeds that he did for them.” He also showed his courage by trying to intervene with an S.S. man who was beating elderly Jews. The S.S. man then turned to Gelobter and started to beat him with his gun, but the 60-year old man fought back and left his tormentor “wallowing in his blood like a slaughtered swine.” Gelobter had always told people that he prayed to G-d that he would not fall alive into the hands of the Germans. His request was fulfilled in a dramatic and heroic manner.
“My Wanderings” describes the experiences of the chapter’s author, Yeshaya Lutwak, who writes “Like a wandering dog, I went from one ruin to another” as he sought to survive the horrors inflicted by the Nazis and Ukrainian Militia on Jews like himself who were expelled from Rozniatow. What he saw, and the stories he was told, are ghastly.
March 18, 2022
“There had never before been a war such as this, just as there had never been an evil and malicious power such as this…”
The chapter “Fortitude of Spirit” from the Yizkor book of Czestochowa (Poland) stood out to me this week because it captures, in the Jewish experience, what it takes to fight back against an overwhelming force, as is happening now in Ukraine.
The author, Yeshayahu [Szaja] Landau, writes of the Jews facing defeat and death: “Without being able to even dream of gaining freedom, they waged a desperate war not in order to attain victory, but for the sake of doing battle! Not in order to save themselves, but to save the honour of their People … The sons of Częstochowa were among those who marched in the path of the rebellion and resistance. Just a small number of audacious individuals, who rose up to revolt against the plot of extermination, stood boldly in front of the cruel enemy's fierce machine”.
March 11, 2022
We are commanded to get drunk on Purim so we can't be too pious!"
The joyous — sometimes raucous — holiday of Purim begins Wednesday and this week’s Yizkor book offerings celebrate the occasion.
The first and longest chapter is “Purim in Town” from the book of Jaroslaw (Poland). “As if under a magic wand, the city changed its normal appearance” when the day came. The streets filled with costumed and dancing people, with the greatest applause going to Achashverosh (the king of Persia) and Queen Esther, the savior of the Jews after the king was nearly tricked by his evil adviser Haman to put them to death. Local businessmen would lay out festive tables in their homes with food and drink and groups of men would burst in to perform a skit and down several cups of whiskey. The day after, “More than one person had his bones aching, others developed a bad cold, and the greatest number of the young performers was so hoarse that no one could hear their voices.”
Then we go to Radzyn (Poland) for Purim in “The Rabbi’s Court,” where once a year, the solemnity of the place suddenly disappeared. The acting and love songs performed to recall the holiday’s story “are not kosher all year round for pious Jews' ears, even for the Tzadik (spiritual leader) himself.” And all “know that only on Purim night can they loosen the reins and allow the body to taste earthly pleasures. Tomorrow total holiness will reign again in the court.”
The last stop is “Purim in Papa,” from the Yizkor book of that town in Hungary, a short item that is good for a chuckle.
March 4, 2022
“And this is how time passed, day-by-day, week-by-week.”
“The Nest of Need” from this remarkable chapter in the Yizkor book of Bilgoraj (Poland) were the words use to describe a courtyard with low, densely packed houses filling three sides. From this vantage point, the author sets out to capture the cycles of life over the course of a year, portraying its joys and hardships and its beauty and the squalor.
There is so much in this chapter that different things will stand out to different readers. For myself, I was struck by the state of poverty and unsanitary conditions in which many lived. In spring, the thawing ground caused the streets to be “flooded with water and whatever waste people emptied out of the houses,” and when the mud began to dry, the debris attracted vast clouds of flies that “waylaid every passerby, settled on the windows and the walls, (and) forcing themselves into houses.” People aged prematurely and “children were brought into the world, partners in need and poverty.” Cramped houses mostly consisted of one room with a vestibule, the large kitchen and the stove with its hearth taking up a third of the room and no creature comforts. Children woke up “with red, bitten, and scratched, bloody bodies, with red, swollen lips or eyes from bedbugs and other insects.” Many children woke up hungry.
But the chapter also has many happier moments: the celebration of the holidays and the beauties of nature in each season, the happy cries of youngsters running through the streets playing hide-and-seek, the “cozy warmth” of the homes of the fortunate on the Sabbath. It greets the arrival of summer when the “old pear tree in the courtyard began to come back to life” and the small, boarded up windows of houses were opened wide, throwing off the lime packing which had been nailed and glued around the windows in winter to keep the cold out.
“This is how people lived here, and thanked God,” the author writes. “Born here, grown up here, and with great effort and sweat, earned a living. They lived in a confined narrow world, through time and generations, until Hitler annihilated everyone, and everything.”
February 25, 2022
"We are commanded to get drunk on Purim so we can't be too pious!"
The joyous — sometimes raucous — holiday of Purim begins Wednesday and this week’s Yizkor book offerings celebrate the occasion.
The first and longest chapter is “Purim in Town” from the book of Jaroslaw (Poland). “As if under a magic wand, the city changed its normal appearance” when the day came. The streets filled with costumed and dancing people, with the greatest applause going to Achashverosh (the king of Persia) and Queen Esther, the savior of the Jews after the king was nearly tricked by his evil adviser Haman to put them to death. Local businessmen would lay out festive tables in their homes with food and drink and groups of men would burst in to perform a skit and down several cups of whiskey. The day after, “More than one person had his bones aching, others developed a bad cold, and the greatest number of the young performers was so hoarse that no one could hear their voices.”
Then we go to Radzyn (Poland) for Purim in “The Rabbi’s Court,” where once a year, the solemnity of the place suddenly disappeared. The acting and love songs performed to recall the holiday’s story “are not kosher all year round for pious Jews' ears, even for the Tzadik (spiritual leader) himself.” And all “know that only on Purim night can they loosen the reins and allow the body to taste earthly pleasures. Tomorrow total holiness will reign again in the court.”
The last stop is “Purim in Papa,” from the Yizkor book of that town in Hungary, a short item that is good for a chuckle.
February 18, 2022
An article on Miriam Weiner’s Routes to Roots Foundation site notes that “One of the most dreaded aspects of Jewish life in Tzarist Russia was conscription into the army. For a Jew, service in the army of Batyushka Tzar (our little father the Tzar) was a four-year nightmare of endless abuse, beatings and attempts at forced conversion.”
I’ve posted several chapters before about the efforts of Jews to avoid conscription, but this excerpt from the Yizkor book of Edinet (Moldova) is one of the most detailed accounts I’ve seen. A bribe of an official could get a person a “yellow” ticket which meant a postponement of service. But the big prize was a “white,” or exemption ticket. Beyond bribes, there was having a medical or physical defect. “There were good defects which you could easily get a white ticket, and not so good defects, which you could get a yellow ticket.” A kind of profession grew up around this in the villages — defect-makers.
Others, called “hozlech” or “little hares” sought to avoid conscription by going into hiding and they often were hunted by “hare catchers.” And when the majority did end up getting conscripted — “stupid people, who were not looked after, and poor people” — the best outcome was to be taken into captivity by the Germans (this was the time of World War I) because it was considered a “good captivity” and the parents of the soldier rejoiced.
February 11, 2022
Life was not easy for the melamdim (teachers) who taught in the cheders. They were ill-paid and often had to work an array of side jobs to make ends meet. “Two Friends – One Father” from the Yizkor book of Szumsk (Ukraine) is principally the story of Simcha Melamed (the last name referring to his occupation) but it also paints a colorful (and booze-filled picture) of his friendship with fellow teacher Zusia.
This is a story with two threads. One is about the poverty of their profession. Simcha’s wife complains, ‘If only you were a woodcutter, then I would at least have the wherewithal to prepare Shabbat and something to heat the house with.” But the other is the twist in Simcha’s lonely life after his young son, and later his wife pass away. A matchmaker persuades him to meet a 30-year old orphan and they married.
At the reception, some wags wished him “a brit one year from now,” which they mostly said in jest, because Simcha was already nearly 80.
Yet, miracles can happen.
February 4, 2022
This heartbreaking passage, “The Great Tragedy of Three Small Orphans,” is part of a long section in the Yizkor book of Kovel (Ukraine) titled “Thus the City Was Destroyed” by Ben-Zion Sher. The chapter revolves around the last days of life for the Jews who were rounded up and held in the Great Synagogue before being taken to their deaths. This was the site of the well-known writings on the synagogue wall — the last laments and cries for vengeance penciled or scratched on the wall in Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish. (You can find the writings here: https://bit.ly/344pVld
The whole chapter from which I took this passage is a graphic account of those last days. Sher and several others managed to escape by jumping through a high window, cushioning their fall by first throwing 10 coats to the ground. The tragedy of the orphans begins when Sher encounters a woman who recognizes him and brings him to an attic where she is hiding with three children. They “lay on the floor, for they couldn't stand on their feet…they looked like living skeletons.” He managed to find and cook food for them. Four days later he returned to see if they had recovered but “When I saw them – my heart fell.”
January 28, 2022
Sports had its place among the many aspects of life in the Jewish communities of eastern Europe. “Youth and Their Activities in Yurburg” from the Yizkor book of Jurbarkas (Yurburg) in Lithuania tells the story of “The ‘Maccabi’ Federation in Yurburg.” Sports can be a refuge from all the rigors that life presents, and in Jurbarkas, “all those who loved sports found a home in the Maccabi club, without any connection to their personal outlook on life.” The club had a special section for soccer. The chapter has accounts of matches against German and Lithuanian teams which did not turn out well, the former because of defeat and the latter because of the brutality of the Lithuanian youths.
The games continued through most of the thirties even as the situation of the Jews in Yurburg and in all of Lithuania worsened. But as with so many things Jewish, they were gone by the time destruction of Jurbarkas occurred in the summer of 1941.
January 21, 2022
Just like most towns had their “royfes” —barber surgeons with no formal education who cared for people when there was no doctor, or one a person could afford — they had their “bobbes” who were the midwives families depended on to bring their children into the world. The profession of bobbes was an inherited one just as was the case with the royfes.
“Two Bobbes” from the Yizkor book of Horodets (Belarus) is the story of Bobbe Mindl and Bobbe Chaya-Zlate. For decades, Bobbe Mindl delivered children of Jewish mothers, and almost the whole shtetl were her “Children”. She did not wait for them to get sick: when scarlet fever was raging, she would bring a red band or sew garlic in a sack and put it around the child's neck. When the town’s old Rabbi passed away, she brought her “children” pieces from the Rabbi's shrouds as a charm for long life (he was almost 100 years old when he passed away).
For Chaya-Zlate, her profession as midwife was a sideline income, while her chief income was drawn from teaching. Bobbe Mindl was the more popular choice, but many wives preferred Chaya-Zlate because when they were in labor, she used to tell jokes and humoristic episodes, and though the wife was in great pain, she would still laugh through them.
January 14, 2022
The advent of railroads in Jewish Eastern Europe during the latter part of the 19th century was a turning point in the lives of many towns and, like all bellwether changes, brought with it the good and the bad. The trains connected shtetls that had been isolated from each other and greatly increased the speed of travel. It enabled information to travel and for the spread of ideas, and for isolated shtetls to have access to wider society. There also were less happy consequences: The Yivo Encyclopedia notes that the building of railroads and the rise of major urban centers helped create new regional and national markets that undercut the economic base of many shtetls.
“A Train Passes Through Town,” from the Yizkor book of Mlawa (Poland) captures the changes in life after the railroad arrived. Before then, it took half a week to get to Warsaw by wagon. Now the trip took less than four hours. New means of livelihood sprouted up that had to do with trains. Hotels and restaurants opened for the travelers coming from far away. While the train may have taken away work from wagon drivers who had provided much of the transport to other places for people and goods in former times, the fact that the train station was several miles from the town created new opportunities for coachmen to take passengers and merchandise to the depot.
“The Jews of Mlawa set out much more readily for other cities. New government institutions appeared in town. Slowly the patriarchal forms of life began to disappear.”
January 7, 2022
I first came across the concept of “Kiddush Hashem” when I was overseeing translation of the Kovel (Ukraine) Yizkor book. Literally translated, it means “Sanctification of the Lord,” which manifested itself in accepting martyrdom to glorify Him. A chapter in the Kovel book (https://bit.ly/3mThxLt
) contains a riveting scene in which Rabbi Nachum-Mosheleh Twersky tells a throng of Jews about to be executed by the Nazis: "In a few minutes we will fall into this pit here and nobody will even know where we were buried and nobody will recite the Kaddish for us. And we so wish to live...Let us, however, united at this moment in a desire to sanctify the name of the Lord by renouncing even the Kaddish. Let us stand before the Germans in joy that we sanctified the name of the Lord."
That spirit runs through “The Hasidic Dance in Oswiecim” a chapter from the “Oswiecim; Auschwitz Memorial Book” recounting how Jews prepared to face their march to the gas chambers. It is hard to know how much of this is an actual historical account or folklore (or a combination of both), but in either case, the chapter illuminates the deep meaning of Kiddush Hashem. Its main figure is the “Dancing Rabbi,” who had earlier “conquered the crematorium ovens of Auschwitz,” and later inspired his young Hasidic followers in Bergen Belsen to face their death in the spirit of Kiddush Hashem. But this time, it led to a different and surprising end.
December 31, 2021
If you thought American politics are increasingly polarized to the point that some members of each party see their rivals not just as opponents, but enemies, then read this account of the battle between different groups of Hasidim from the Yizkor book of Biala Rawska (Poland) titled “Memories from the Past.”.
The town’s longtime rabbi left to assume a rabbinical seat elsewhere. A new rabbi was to be chosen by election, setting off a contest between the dominant group, the Gerer Hasidim, and the Aleksandr Hasidim. It almost amounted to “a civil war because the entire city of Biala consisted almost entirely of relatives or in-laws. There were cases where entire families were deadly enemies.”
The Gerer candidate won, but there was another election after the Aleksandr Hasidim challenged the vote as dishonest. The Aleksandr Hasids won the second round, a short-lived victory because a rich Gerer in Warsaw convinced the governor to intercede and put a Gerer in the post.
During the elections, the Gerer Hasidim dragged Jews to vote for their candidate and the Aleksander Hasidim dragged them to vote for their candidate. Threats were made. Reminiscent of “walking around money” often used to buy votes in the wards of many big American cities, the writer of this chapter remembers “his father came home from an election meeting of the Gerer Hasidim with a certain sum of money to buy whiskey or use other means to get votes for the Gerer candidate.”
Bitterness was such that the quarrels continued to flare even after the new rabbi arrived.
December 24, 2021
Sura Ajzensztadt was one of many Jews who chose to leave Europe in the 1930s as the dark clouds of anti-Semitism and Nazism increasingly grew more threatening. She went to Canada while her family relocated from Kurow to Warsaw.
“I Left Only By Train and By Ship But Not With My Heart,” from the Yizkor book of Kurow (Poland) is how she begins her story about the anguish of being separated from a family she would never see again.
“The train carried me with the greatest speed farther and farther from my old world. There remained, however, memories engraved in my mind. I rescued the memories from the fire. They have strengthened me and comforted me in my loneliness, in my isolation. They have lifted my spirits and awakened faith in me in moments of despair and pain, in moments when I heard from the distance as if truly with my own ears the thunder of German cannons, when it was as if the boots of the murderers were truly treading on my heart, on my brain.”
She fondly replays in memory the gentleness and decency of her father. She recalls the happy days when she was a young girl during the time when she “could not yet see the shadows of life, the need and the want, the evil and the hatred which pressed in from all sides.” She remembers the poverty of the town, but how it didn’t stifle taking joy in its life and the human warmth of its small homes.
The people she writes about perished, but she says, they continue to “live in me, in my mind, in my feelings.”
December 17, 2021
Many Yizkor books have chapters devoted to “characters” in their towns. The ways they lived their lives, their quirks and how other people regarded them often prompt a smile, or sometimes sympathy, but always provide a feel for the people whose stories may not be heroic or dramatic but whose existence was part of the fabric of the shtetl.
This week’s excerpt from the Yizkor book of Iwye (Belarus) provides several snapshots of town characters. So, meet Shimen, whose survival technique (whether it was selling fruit or getting workers to follow his orders) was to strike a piteous pose in hopes of getting people to do what he wanted; Peyshke the painter, who lacking samples to show a Prince, pulled up his long coat to show him the color he would use, but forgot his trousers were completely torn; Leyzer, convinced by town jokers that he was a holy man, proceeded to give a sermon that ended up getting him pelted with wet handkerchiefs; and Hirshl, whose voracious appetite proved to be his undoing.
December 10, 2021
In 2018, Poland outlawed blaming the country for any crimes committed during the Holocaust, prescribing prison or a fine for accusing the state or people of involvement or responsibility for the Nazi occupation during World War II. In 2021, the government moved to set a 30-year time limit on legal challenges over confiscated properties, in effect axing thousands of claims.
That’s why “Jews and Poles in Jaroslaw and Their Relationship in the Years 1918-1945” from the Yizkor book of that Polish town is instructive, adding testimony to the numerous accounts in other books about the poisonous and often murderous relationship Polish officials and many people had with their Jewish populations. The author, Mundek Hebenstreit, notes that prior to 1930, while “the Jews and the Poles, in large numbers, behaved towards each other with a certain contempt,” the Jews in Jaroslaw were not under “the terror of anti-Jewish excesses of the Polish population.” But after that, as Germany headed towards Nazism, the relationship began to deteriorate across the county and Hebenstreit writes: “We, the Jaroslaw Jews, felt the looming windstorm.”
Hebenstreit notes the ultimate irony for the Poles in the 1939-1945 period: “Only after the Germans expelled the Jews from the city, did the Poles begin to understand the danger that the German occupation brought for them as well.”
December 3, 2021
Yizkor books are filled with many different kinds of chapters: heart-rending stories of hardship, suffering, families torn apart, the horrors inflicted by the Germans and also accounts of heroism, bravery in the face of death, acts of faith, eking out a living against the odds and people who made special marks on their communities.
“Volozhin Memories” from the Yizkor book of Volzhin (Belarus) falls into another category, that is a favorite of mine: reminisces that paint word portraits of the daily life of a shtetl. Shoshana Nishri – Berkovich begins on market day, when peasant farmers in their distinctive garments poured into town and goes on to describe how the Jewish population lived in the time before electricity and running water. She describes the typical single-floor houses built of wood (increasing the frequency disastrous fires), the kitchens in which the housewives cooked (and especially, baked bread), ice-skating on a frozen lake and skiing in the hills, how people came together in times of mourning and trouble and how they rejoiced on happy occasions like weddings.
November 26, 2021
If you lived in one of the shtetls and got sick, there’s a good chance that you would call on the town’s royfe. The royfe filled the gap left by full-fledged doctors, who were not numerous in the small towns of eastern Europe (and more than most could afford). Unlike a doctor who went through rigorous education and training to earn a medical license, the many royfes never even went to elementary school and their profession was hereditary, handed down from grandfather to father to son. The rich went to the official doctor if there was one; the less-fortunate depended on the royfe.
The Hebrew term “royfe” is equal to a “barber–surgeon: someone who could perform surgical procedures including bloodletting, cupping therapy, teeth–pulling, and bone–setting.” And that describes Moyshele, the royfe of Zinkov (Ukraine) whose “practice” is the subject of a section of the town’s Yizkor book titled “Zinkov Folklore.”
Moyshele was a “three-in-one”: a royfe, a barber and a pharmacist. And there’s a delightful passage in this excerp
I’ve posted many excerpts about market days in Jewish towns because they are always so full of life and detail, and each one has something different to offer. This passage from the Yizkor book of Brzozow (Poland) is kind of a coda to a long section about its market day when neighbors, workers from the field and peasants conclude their business and head to the pub “to moisten their throats a little.”
“The pub is full to overflowing ... The air is thick and foggy with cigarette smoke… A bottle of vodka is opened; glasses are lightly knocked against each other and drunk to be followed by herring and rolls. … Talk begins about the business of the day, what was sold for how much. With each glass spirits improve …One blabbermouth boasts, to the admiring laughter of his companions, how he got one better of a Jew, selling him shoddy goods at a fantastic price.”
Sometimes, spirits get a bit too high and the hard-working publican, in addition to serving his customers, has to keep the peace.
November 12, 2021
“Areih Zilberstein, the candlemaker,” from the Yizkor book of Gombin (Poland) is the story of an old man’s grief and longing for a son who had left for America and raised a family there.
Ironically, it is recounted by a young man who himself was about to make that journey, leaving Gombin for good.
Sitting one night on the steps of the synagogue, Arieh said to him: “You Yoinele, will soon see my son and my grandchildren. I am sending with you a piece of myself. My feelings, my longing… I am planting in you a piece of my soul.”
“Tell my son that I pray for him day and night… But please don't tell my son and grandchildren that my heart is broken from longing”.
November 5, 2021
She came to notice in the ghetto when, on Rosh Hashanah, Jews gathered for holiday prayers at the old synagogue where there were almost no prayer books, and almost no one who could serve as cantor or prayer leader. Everyone waited. Suddenly, a tranquil voice was heard, and before the ark stood a teenaged girl who recited the prayers from memory, passage after passage.
“The ‘Korczak’ of the Telshe Ghetto” from the Yizkor book of that town in Lithuania tells the stirring story of Tova-Golda Amlan from the little town of Kvėdarna whose people had suffered mightily under the Nazis. A girl who “was like an angel to everyone. Twenty-four hours a day she was busy helping others.” The reference in the title of this chapter was to Janusz Korczak, who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation and refused offers of sanctuary in order to remain with the orphans under his care, even when they were deported in 1942 to Treblinka, where they all perished.
Tova-Golda became like a mother to the suffering children of the ghetto, their plight made worse by a diptheria outbreak. And like Korczak, she refused to leave them even as the day of liquidation approached.
October 29, 2021
A fixture of the Jewish shtetl was the shabbos goy on whom people relied to perform tasks that were prohibited by Jewish religious law on the Sabbath.
A section from the Yizkor book of Zgierz in Poland profiles Wawzyn, the Shabbos goy in that town: “Everyone, young and old, knew Wawzyn, who used to walk around barefoot, with a strip around his pants, which drooped a bit lower than his belt. By nature, he was a very good gentile. He spoke Yiddish like any Jew in town, and was involved in all Jewish matters. He knew all the laws. Were it not for his gentile traits, such as shaving his folksy, yellow, constantly growing beard, sipping the “four cups” ten times a day, and various other trivialities, he could be a considered a perfect Jew.”
In the book of Rokiskis, Lithuania there is Tzimtzerevises who could not always be relied on. “His peasant blood would draw him to his village and, during the summer, his soul would long for green grass, for birds and for summer nights, and in winter days he longed for a little dance and a flirtation with a full-bosomed village shiksa” and on some Friday nights, it was necessary to run to faraway neighbors to catch the Shabbos goy from the next street.
October 22, 2021
“Maybe, maybe the storm will pass over us and not touch us…”
In 1941, the “non-aggression” agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union (known as the Malenkov-Ribbentrop Pact) came to an end after just two years. The pact had allowed both countries to carve out spheres of influence in Europe and gave each a free hand to each to carry out their conquests — until Hitler, having bought the time he needed, launched an invasion against his “ally.”
Some in Orheyev (Orhei), Moldova hoped for the impossible, that the onslaught they feared might not come, but for most, it was a debate between fleeing for their lives or, at least, dying in their own beds.
But for those determined to flee, the unhappy question was summed up in the title of this chapter of Orheyev’s Yizkor book: “Where Does One Run to ?!”
Riva Milshteyn-Rozenfeld’s account describes the attempts to get somewhere to safety that met obstacles at almost every turn. Her journeys with her children were marked by exhaustion, hunger and misery.
“The best and the richest pages from my life story were torn away…and a new leaf, a leaf with inhuman humiliation, from indescribable bitter hunger, hardship and mental anguish and rivers of tears…the page from…homelessness taking shape in my heart.”
October 15, 2021
“Yossel Joreder the Rabbi of the Thieves,” from the Yizkor book of Stawiski in Poland, was only a rabbi in the sense the title is used to describe someone’s mentor or a puppeteer pulling the strings. On one hand, he was regarded as a fine person and “outstanding householder” in town, but on the other, everyone knew that he earned his living through robbery. He seemed to be able to preserve the “respectable” side of his reputation because he did not actually commit the robberies himself but served as a kind of consigliere and middleman to those who actually carried them out. And, townspeople were grateful that he would “work” only with thieves in far off places.
He did not meet a happy end.
October 8, 2021
“In the house, Grandmother works hard and with her, sons and daughters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, grandsons and granddaughters – an entire populace.”
So writes the author of “A Mother’s Refrain” from the Yizkor book of Ostrolenka, Poland who appears to have grown up in the area of Bialystock, about 70 miles distant. It was a sentence that captured for me the tradition of the Jewish household in the old country.
For A.S. Sztejn, there are memories of “joyous sunny days at the end of summer; golden ripe grain interwoven with colorful wild flowers spreads everywhere” on the leased estate managed by his grandfather until it fell on hard times, and the “sons and daughters left their parents' nest” for other towns.
Then came World War I with the contending armies committing plunder and theft, scorching fields, ruining houses, and causing tumult and panic in Jewish towns.
His story is filled with loving memories of his parents who created, for him, “a perfect Jewish home.” Sztejn emigrated to Israel in 1953, but he never forgot the refrain that his mother was so attached to and would repeat during the hard times the family endured.
October 1, 2021
“I still had some hope that one day I would see the town of Kurenets with its Jews the way I wanted to see it, but to my great sorrow it was never to be.”
Yizkor books are filled with chapters about Jews who longed to return home, and did so, after the Nazis were defeated. This excerpt, “A Small Remnant” from the Yizkor book of Kurenets in Belarus, is an eloquent addition to that trove of stories about going home again. The endings are rarely happy, marked by grief over the many that had been lost and towns that were beyond recognition.
Daviv Motosov had left Kurenets in 1941 when Germany invaded Russia and had hear the rumors of bloody massacres and annihilations carried out by the Nazis. As the Red Army began driving out the Germans, he donned a Red Army uniform and set out for home clinging to the hope that “maybe someone from my large family in the area had survived.” But it soon became clear to him that “I would not find any of the dear ones alive, and soon I would enter a huge graveyard that was named Kurenets.”
The rest of the story is best told in his own words.
September 24, 2021
How did Jews earn a living in their towns in the years before World War I? That’s the question that’s asked — and then answered — in this section from a chapter from the Yizkor book of Drohitchin in Belarus. What makes this excerpt so readable is that is more than just a laundry list of occupations but a description of life that makes you feel you are there. The fairs and market days, with the hurly-burly of selling and buying, were a big part of making a living, and the writer notes wryly, “You could never even find such an assortment of merchandise and bargains in Woolworth's stores.”
Bakers and tavern-keepers particularly did well too, thanks to the peasants who came to town in a holiday mood. But some of them didn’t hold on to their earnings for very long. “It was easy for them to drink down a bottle of whisky all at once. By the time a peasant drank half a bottle, he had already forgotten how much it cost him, and often returned home to the village with empty pockets, after having drunk the value of a horse or other animal.”
September 17, 2021
Sukkot starts on Monday, a holiday of rejoicing after the solemn observances of Yom Kippur and the Days of Awe. To mark the day, I’ve gathered vignettes from Yizkor books from towns in Belarus and Poland. The Hasidim in Gorodets sang and danced. The “Festival of Joy” in Piotrkow Trybunalski describes the importance of finding a suitable estrog which “requires expertise in [its] quality, as it does, for instance, to choose the wine for the four cups on Passover.” In Lezajsk, “The children concerned themselves with the beauty of the Sukkah. Hangings made of eggshells and feathers, colored by singeing with a flame, hung from the ceilings.”
But as the Germans occupied Jewish towns, an account from the book of Chrzanow relates how celebrating Sukkot entailed risks because the commandment to eat and sleep in a sukkah meant it was not possible to hide in a house and observe Judaism there as on other holidays.
September 10, 2021
What makes “Yom Kippur in Gostynin” from the Yizkor book of this Polish town so poignant is that the memories of that sacred day — when the writer, Shmuel Keller was young — were evoked by services he attended years later when he lived in New York. All the traditions, rituals and the many family members and friends described in this moving account are still very much with him. As was the premonition of what was to come reflected by the laments and anguish of many worshippers. “Only now, after the terrible destruction of the Holocaust, can we understand why the Jews cried so bitterly.”
“This world exists no longer. It was completely cut off. This world will always remain alive deep in our hearts and memories.”
September 3, 2021
Rosh Hashanah arrives Monday evening, marking the Jewish New Year and the beginning of the Days of Awe that end with Yom Kippur. Or, as captured by the traditional saying quoted in one of these Yizkor book excerpts, “On Rosh Hashanah it will be written, and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed.”
I’ve gathered remembrances of the holiday from the books of Piotrkow Trybunalski (Poland), Ritavas (Lithuania), Dokshytsy (Belarus), Nesvizh (Belarus), and Kurenets (Belarus). Some tell similar stories: the magic moment when the shofar is blown, the food prepared for the holiday, the joy of the day as well as the solemnity and even trepidation as the Day of Atonement drew nearer. Other excerpts strike more serious notes. A sermon that stirred emotion and tears as the Magid raised his “splitting voice” and intoned, “The day of judgement is coming fast.” The final excerpt is a grimmer one, recalling the arrival of the Germans as Rosh Hashanah began.
August 27, 2021
One reason I like the many chapters about a town’s market day that appears in their Yizkor books is the detail about the food, the goods being peddled, the arguments, the bargaining, and the characters you meet there. Each one of these kinds of chapters have their own special charm. Such is the case with this excerpt from “Krinik During the Week” from the book of that Polish town.
All the stores, booths and stalls are besieged. The women work hard at haggling over a fowl to buy for Sabbath. Jews walk around among the densely placed wagons of peasants who come from nearby villages, rummage in the sacks and haggle some more. In the restaurants and eating houses, peasants sit with companions, treating themselves to vodka and snacking on herring and sausage.
At day’s end, Jewish storekeepers add up the cash, thanking God there will be enough to repay their loans, money for tuition and enough to make the Sabbath. As business winds down, the market place looks like the aftermath of a battle. Quickly, “it catches its breath and is wrapped in silence.”
August 20, 2021
The Sabbath was such a central part of Jewish life in the shtetls that it is hardly surprising that so many Yizkor books have chapters about how it was celebrated in their towns. Preparation began days in advance: the shopping for the staples of the Sabbath meals, housewives bringing their cholent to the baker to keep it warm for the next morning, or buying a newspaper to have something to read on Saturday. Then there were the rituals of the holy day and the merriness that followed.
One thing that stands out in all these accounts, in addition to the sanctity of the day, is how much the Sabbath was a respite from the rigors of life. Such is the case in “Sabbath in Mezritsh” from the Yizkor book of Mezritsh (Miedzyrzec Podalsky) in Poland:
“One could already notice, in the early evening on Lubliner Street, that the Sabbath was slipping away. Young and old strolled along the street, saying to each other, ‘Tomorrow, Sunday, the toil of the week begins again.’”
August 13, 2021
Conflict between the older and younger generations is nothing new, and that includes the Jewish communities in the shtetls. But in my readings of Yizkor book accounts, these seemed to grow sharper in the early 1900s. Often this had to do with the involvement of many younger Jews in social action organizations like the Bund or the Zionist groups that had sprung up and were disdained by many older and more traditional Jews.
But this story in the Yizkor book of Mogilev (Mahilyow) in Belarus by the Yiddish writer and playwright David Pinsky, who was born there, looks at the growing cultural gulfs between young and old in a much more personal way. The first paragraph in “Altinke – Cute old one” sets the scene. (“Altinke” means “old people).
“The young people are bored to sit with the old and hear their ear ripping chant, the entire strange thing gnawing and disturbing, and they have – with the exception of a few young people, that are still left here – gathered in another room. There they breathed freely, smoked their cigarettes, conducted their conversations and felt far from the old.”
The central character in the story — “old grey Reb Zelig, small, settled, broad shouldered and joyful Jew, with a Chassidic essence” — bemoans this state of affairs and makes an energetic effort to bridge the barriers of age.
An introduction to the chapter describes the empathy with which Pinsky writes about an older generation that “goes by in front of the readers’ eyes, like a sunset, yet leaves over after itself something of a longing. The reader himself does not know, if it is good that the generation is going away or if it is bad…”
August 6, 2021
“A Wedding in the Shtetl” from the Yizkor book of Yedinitz (Edinet) in Moldava is yet another account of such a joyous event that can be found in many of the books. Aside from all the wonderful details and dialogue, how can you resist a chapter that has a character like Sholom the joker “a tall, dried up little Jew, lively as quicksilver, with a long neck and a dancing Adam's apple in the very center, with a ragged, thin, little beard” who gives his advice to the bride’s in-laws.
July 30, 2021
“I boarded the train. On the steps I looked around once again at my friends, and I saw my mother as she stood in the crowd of travelers. She held her hands out to me. They shook in the air, like white birds who try to protect their fledglings from danger.”
As the shadows of impending horror and death stretched further and further over the Jewish towns of Europe, people began to leave for America, Eretz Israel and other faraway destinations. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture how heart-rending it was for the families and those who chose to go. But what struck me about “My Last Day at Home” from the Yizkor book of Wolomin in Poland were the details Shmuel Zucker remembered of his parting. On the day he made Aliyah to Eretz Israel: how he could hardly see through eyes blinded by tears as he made his way to the train, or the image of his mother, “bent over as if her heart would break into little pieces,” and speaking to him through her sobs.
July 23, 2021
“When we think of and bewail the millions of dead, tortured and subjected to horrible deaths that are impossible for the human mind to comprehend, we plant an eternal flame, a yahrzeit light, for such illustrious figures who, in the last moments of their lives, demonstrated such proud humanity and dignity.”
“A Wolomin Mother Becomes a Martyr” from the Yizkor book of that Polish town is the story of one woman’s courage and sacrifice that saved the life of another. When the Germans took the town into their iron hand, one of their demands was that all Jewish women bring their fur coats to the Gestapo. One tried to safeguard her coat by putting it into the care of a gentile, who informed on her. The Gestapo quickly summoned her. But her mother-in-law, Rochele Loskovki, told her “Chutshe, you're not going…They demanded Mrs. Loskovki, so I will go. You have young children for whom you have to stay alive.”
And she went in Chutshe’s stead, and paid the price.
I’ve posted many excerpts here about weddings and marriage customs but I found this one to be charming. “A Wedding in Mlynov,” from that Ukrainian town’s Yizkor book recounts the memories of a young girl visiting her grandparents and getting swept up by the celebration. “Silkele,” says a neighbor, “dance for me like you do at home.” He tells the klezmerim to play a cheerful tune and she dances while the crowd claps enthusiastically. She hears someone saying: “Here is a worldly child.” Her description of the wedding has all the wonder of something seen through a child’s eyes.
July 9, 2021
“From Bad to Worse” is a long chapter from a section in the Yizkor book of Voronova, Belarus titled “Holocaust and Heroism.” The setting is September 1939 when the Germans and Russians invaded Poland, and the country’s army collapsed the next month. Swept up in this maelstrom was Meir Shamir who joined the Polish army during a general mobilization, eager like many Jews to fight the Germans. Such was the case despite the long history with the Poles who had caused suffering for the Jews. But he said, “We were totally aware of what awaited us; we knew exactly what the arrival of Hitler would mean for us.”
As the army disintegrated, Shamir was one of the many who scattered, never quite sure whether the Germans and Soviets held the upper hand and running the gauntlet of hardship, horror, danger and even prison.
But he made it home.
July 2, 2021
“Only stories are left, memories, nostalgia and a heart torn in infinite grief.”
“Only Memories Are Left” from the Yizkor book of Dokshitz (Dokshytsy) in Belarus is one of the most beautiful, evocative descriptions of life in the shtetl I have read, so I didn’t try to shorten it as I do with some very long chapters. Everything is here: town life, descriptions of the countryside, the work people do, the challenges they face, the cheder, and the celebrations of holidays. There are also accounts of those who chose to leave for America or to make Aliyah to Eretz Israel, and the emotions that these decisions stirred, knowing that they would remember Dokshitz forever.
June 25, 2021
I had not known of Vita Kempner until I read a review of a new book “The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghetto.” Kempner, according to the article, “was a partisan leader in Vilna, who had escaped through the bathroom window of her small town's synagogue to command fighters on the front line.”
That led me to a chapter in the Yizkor book of Kalish, Poland about “Those Who Fought Back” and a section in it titled “"Kalish Women in the Resistance – Vitka Kempner." One of her missions was to mine a rail line used by the Germans, an operation that had to be carried out at night in order to get back to the ghetto at dawn in time to report for work. When she was asked what she had thought during the long night, she answered: “How to do the job without falling into their hands? I was sorry that I had no cyanide of potassium with me.”
The chapter recounts how the mission turned out.
The cheder (or heder) was an institution of Jewish shtetls that you come across in just about every Yizkor book. Jewish children started learning the Hebrew alphabet at the age of three and then went on to the cheder where they would study the Torah and the Five Books of Moses.
The cheder experience could be inspirational and an indispensable part of Jewish education, not to mention where boys met, interacted, and made friends. But it could also be a terrifying and less-than-optimum learning experience. Much of that depended on the melamed, or instructor, who could be learned and skilled — or an ill-trained teacher who might also be eking out a living as a butcher or gravedigger.
In “My Educators” from the Yizkor book of Mikulince, Ukraine, Haim Preshel’s experience had a shaky start. How could he think otherwise when he heard his teacher mutter under his mustache that he had a “goyisher kop” (a Gentile's head). He would wonder as his lessons went on, why the teacher kept him in the cheder, and while he speculated on the Rebbe’s reason, he also thought, as he kept at his lessons, that “Perhaps I myself changed as I grew, and my head ‘opened’ suddenly.” As he later remembered his days in school, he wrote “Rebbe Yitzhak Moshe, what I have written here was written in your honor.”
There is some wonderful dialogue in the chapter.
June 11, 2021
I never thought I’d encounter the word “discotheque” in a Yizkor book. But there it was in a section with the subhead “Vishnevets Discotheque” from a chapter in the Yizkor book of this Ukraine town titled “Vishnevets in a Trick Mirror.”
As you might have guessed, the author used the term to project back in time to what he considered to be the equivalent of a discotheque when he lived in Vishnevets.
“Properly speaking,” says M. Averbukh, “in those days no one had any concept of anything called a ‘discotheque,’ even in the most modern, avant garde countries in the world. In the early 20th century, God protect us, but according to the mode to this very day, in Vishnevets there was a place of amusement suited to that generation's tastes.”
I’ll leave it to the actual text to describe the pleasures of a discotheque-like place where young men and women gathered together after a week of work to satisfy their Sabbath rest. As a bonus, I’ve added a short excerpt from the “Book of Klezmer” that describes dances that were popular at the time, although it’s hard to summon up the vision of a discotheque of our era featuring a Klezmer band.
June 4, 2021
“Poles buy only from Poles.”
Jews did not only suffer pogroms and other forms of violence and repression in the years just before the Holocaust. The Poles with whom they had lived aggressively put an economic squeeze on them in the form of boycotts of Jewish shops, and many of those who picketed outside them were people who the owners had known. There were also young men from peasant families who came to town to try their own hands at business and grew jealous of the greater success of the more experienced Jewish merchants.
In “Wysokie on the Eve of the Holocaust” from the Yizkor book of that Polish town, these events helped convince the chapter’s author to depart for Israel. For a while, he wondered if it was the right thing to do, “fleeing from a sinking ship.” But as he heard more depressing reports of the decline of Jewish fortunes back home, he began began to view Wysokie differently than he had as a young person. “This was a romantic, unhappy Wysockie. I sometimes think that the blue–painted wooden houses are sinking, and shrinking, and I hear the cry of young people seeking emigration to the Land of Israel for creativity and a better tomorrow.”
May 28, 2021
The stories in most Yizkor book chapters are resurrected from memories of survivors that were written in the years after the Holocaust. But there are also contemporaneous accounts of events that occurred in the form of letters written at the time.
“A Letter from Hell,” from the book of Podhajce in Ukraine, was written by Yehoshua Weiss to his brother in New York. He used the pseudonym Bin-Nun, a biblical reference to Joshua (Yehoshua) the son of Nun.In the letter, he recounts a pogrom that occurred on Yom Kippur. His father, wearing his tallis, was shot in his bed. His mother and other Jews were rounded up and sent to Belzec.
He reserved particular bitterness towards the Judenrat who were seen by many as Nazi collaborator and by others as a necessary evil which permitted Jewish leadership a forum to negotiate for better treatment for those taken captive by the Germans. To Weiss, “The Judenrat was an institution that had a bloodthirsty spirit for Jewish blood.”
May 21, 2021
In 1933, a circus passed through Glubokie (Hlybokaye) in Belarus and one of the performers, an unprepossessing man who struck townspeople as a ” poor, dejected outcast” stayed behind.
No one could imagine that this poor, dejected, outcast who was nicknamed “Tzirkovetz” (one who is part of a circus) could possibly be a German spy.
But by the end of the summer of 1939, before the German attack on Poland, the results of his undercover work began to make themselves felt. In 1941, he showed up as part of the German Civil Administration “But he was no longer the downcast, pitiful, lonely character, but outfitted in genuine German, sparkling new Fascist uniform. He now looked like a authentic Hitlerite hangman.”
“The German Spy Vitvitzki” from the Glubokie Yizkor book is an account of the increasingly vicious role he played under the Nazis. “Whatever happened to him, this bloody German spy will remain in the memory of the few surviving Jews of Glubokie and the surrounding area, as a symbol of the hateful, freakish reptile, who carried with him death, destruction and annihilation…”
May 14, 2021
Shavuot starts Sunday evening. It was a tradition for the Stratin Hassidim, who were active in eastern Galicia from 1820 until the Holocaust, to travel from their towns to visit the Rabbi from Belz and “to be next to him and warm himself in his light.” On the eve of Shavuot, it was both customary and a great obligation to study the Torah all night and to say the “Tikkun for the night of Shavuot.”
But in this excerpt from the Yizkor book of Bobrka (Boiberke), Ukraine, “The incident with the Rabbi from Stratin on the holiday of Shavuot,” there was a crime that led to a sad ending. There were few hotels or guest houses in town, so many of the visitors stayed at the homes of relatives and friends, or even with people they didn’t know very well. But while the Rabbi and his Hassidim were busy in the synagogue reciting the “Tikkun”, silver articles and gold jewelry were stolen from his apartment.
The rest of the chapter tells the story of the suspected thief, who was badly treated and not given his rights before ultimately being returned to his town. “The elders of the generation still remember the incident, but no one knows what the end of the unfortunate was. Also, they don't know who the real thief was; the matter remained a mystery even today.”
May 7, 2021
“Letters from Dotnuva” in Lithuania is not a Yizkor book but is part of JewishGen’s Yizkor book collection. They provide a unique and very personal account of an extended family, some of whom remained in Dutnova, some who immigrated to New York and others that made Aliyah to Israel and recounted what they faced there.
The central character is Freida Shapira who went to live with a beloved aunt in Forest Hills, N.Y. in the mid-1930s. In 1998, after Freida's death in New-York, her son Norman Danzig found a collection of letters that had been sent to her; more than half were written in Yiddish and the rest in Hebrew. (If you follow the links on each letter, you will see photocopies of the originals). Most of the letters are from family members to Frieda, beseeching her to write more about how she is and what she’s doing, worrying about her health and grieving with her after her aunt died.
But I’ll start this excerpt with a letter Freida wrote two weeks after arriving with New York in 1935.
“Last Sunday we drove with our uncle many hours to see the city,” she wrote. ”I lifted my head up to see the height of the tall buildings, but it's hard to see the end of them. There are long streets which belong to Rockefeller. One building, they say, has eighty stories. I started counting, but I couldn't hold my head up for so long.”
But she was also thinking of home and family.
“What about you? How do you feel? I can imagine you waking up at 5 in the morning where it's cold and dark, but what there is to do? Do you wear the warm coat? Do you have warm socks? What do you hear from the family at home? Write the truth to me about the home and family and everything that is happening to you. Oh how much I want to know about everything.”
I have not included all the letters given the large number of them, but have attached specific URLs to the ones in this post. Even in this small selection, there are many characters, but you can find a list of them here: https://bit.ly/3h2fH9c
April 30, 2021
Jews during the Nazi occupation faced death in multiple ways: in the ghettos where aktions loomed, in the fields outside the ghetto where Germans and other enemies hunted them and aboard transports taking them to a death camp. R. Bachrach experienced all these things in her chapter titled “In the Miedzyrzec Ghetto” from the Yizkor book of Biala, Poland. (Miedzyrec was a city in Biała Podlaska County).
On two occasions, she survived by jumping from train transports headed for death camps — an escape described in many Yizkor book accounts. Usually, it was by managing to reach a small window in one of the cars. In one deportation, bound for Treblinka, the prisoners broke through the barbed wire covering the windows and Bachrach’s mother woke her up and pushed her out. A second time, a year later, an old woman on the train asked who intended to jump and divided her money and jewelry among them, giving Bachrach 300 zlotys, a watch and a necklace that she would need to help her survive. Another woman put a stool under a high window so she could squeeze through. But other dangers awaited
April 23, 2021
One topic common to many Yizkor books is a description of the town’s market day. Market days were a vital part of the economy on which people depended for the earnings that would carry them through the week and beyond. They were also raucous affairs where people socialized and drank, Jews mixed with gentile traders and customers, and the shouts of goods being hawked and haggling over prices filled the jammed marketplace.
In one sense, you can say if you’ve seen or read about one market day, you’ve seen and read them all. But what is always appealing about these accounts, however similar, is that each has its own unique cast of characters who are vividly described. Each has different ways of recounting the “art of the deal.” Descriptions of the foods are delights. But more than all of that, market day was a microcosm of Jewish life in the shtetls, and chapters like these seem to capture all of it.
“At the Market: A Jewish Town's Struggle for Bread” is from the Yizkor book of Kolbuszowa, Poland, although this particular translation comes from a well-known anthology of Yizkor book chapters titled "From a Ruined Garden."
I think I can give you a little taste of this chapter without spoiling it, just so you know what I mean. Here’s a favorite passage of mine:
“The first rays of God's sun meet with signs of preparation for a busy day. Shutters open. Jews with their tefilin bags under their arms hurry home from early services. The Biale vegetable growers, who had arrived the previous night in order to secure their accustomed spots, creep out from underneath the wagons where they've spent the night, and begin to sort out their produce. The ‘Bialer goyim’ are well-acquainted with the things Jews need for their Sabbath table. Onions for fish, parsley for soup, little cucumbers with dill for pickling, and carrots for tsimes. A growing human stream, together with containers and merchandise, pours forth from all of the back streets, Jews bearing crates, poles, and boards get ready to build their ‘pavilions’ at the Great Weekly Exhibition.”
April 16, 2021
I have learned a lot from doing these weekly explorations of Yizkor books over several years, but I occasionally come across stories that stump me, due no doubt because I don’t pretend any expertise in the complex traditions and laws better understood by devout Jews and scholars. In this case, the subject is the awarding of aliyahs — Torah readings — on Sabbath and festival days.
“Calling up 4th to the Torah” is a chapter from the Yizkor book of Lanowce (Lanivsti) in Ukraine. Yitzak Meir Weitzman recounts the travail of the town’s Gabbai, the good-hearted Shaya Nathans, who had the task of selecting congregants for the readings of the Torah. (One reason for those travails may be that Nathans had returned to his home town from the U.S. and “adopted the American approach”). He encountered this challenge: “Offering the 4th Aliyah to a congregant is a form of contempt. It was a way to make light of him.” Weitzman never spells out exactly why this is, and the only explanations I could find are that it was the custom never give a Kohen or a Levi any Aliyah after the first two, and that this Aliyah fell on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of every month on the Jewish calendar which was considered a minor holiday.
The chapter recounts how this issue was resolved, although not without its tense moments.
April 9, 2021
“The Story of Kopel Percowicz” is one of the accounts included in a long chapter titled “Tales of Tykocin Holocaust Survivors” from that Polish town’s Yizkor book. Percowicz details the hardships and fears of life in the ghetto and his long journey of survival during which he escaped death several times. It ranges from his low points when, in despair, he “descended into a world dominated by drunkenness and a total dependence on alcohol” and could often be found rolled up on a sidewalk “drunk as a lord,” to his moment of resistance when the “blockmeister” in the barracks of a worker compound sought to punish him with 20 lashes and he shouted ““Let me die with the Philistines!” and sprang up with the last of his strength and smashed a chair on the head of the deputy and then stood on his neck till he gasped for air, until his assailant stretched “out his hand to me said: ‘I give you your life!’”
After the liberation, he found himself in Bialystock where a Polish policeman called him “a Jew-boy.” At that point, Percowicz realized: “I immediately understood that there was no place for me in that contaminated land” and he emigrated to Israel.
April 2, 2021
“The Forest Girl, “ a chapter from the Yizkor book of Mizoch, Ukraine is an account of Kayla Goldberg-Tzizin’s journey of survival as the town’s ghetto was about to be destroyed. It is a story of emotional ups and downs, from the comfort she experienced from non-Jews who sheltered her group to the despair of being hunted like animals.
The passage that moved me comes towards the end, when after the liberation in 1944, she found herself in Zhytomyr and was taken into the home of an “actual angel in the form of a woman.”
“I had not seen a traditional Jewish home since the day we were imprisoned in the ghetto, and here, on a Friday, we had come to a house where candles were lit in gleaming silver candlesticks, the house was shining with cleanliness, and there were beautiful Jewish dishes on the table –– and on top of all that, the house was full of Jewish survivors. “
The translation project for the Mizocz book is being accomplished by university students. This initiative was launched by Larry Broun, a retired Federal executive and the project coordinator, and Orian Zakai, who is the director of the Hebrew Program and teaches Hebrew language, literature and culture at the George Washington University. GW students Yonatan Altman-Shafer and Corey Feuer were the translators.
March 26, 2021
Passover begins tomorrow evening, so it’s fitting to offer this account of the holiday from the Yizkor book of Ciechanowiec, Poland. The rituals — from the cleaning of homes, the sale of any leavened food that is found, and the preparations for the Seder meal — will be familiar to you, but it is enjoyable reading nevertheless. The author remembers a quotation from the Talmud that ““Eating matzo during Pesach is like desire to the bride,” though he wryly adds: “you have to admit that, actually, these two desires are not that similar.”
March 19, 2021
In this chapter from the Yizkor book of book of Zloczew, Poland, Israel Katz relates this scene from a wedding: the bride among her women friends while in the next room, there were only men, speaking of Torah. “None of the men even cast an eye towards the women, who – as appropriate for women – were busy with 'silly matters.'”
“Women of Zloczew” is a portrait of the woman’s place in the Jewish shtetl, playing a role that was subservient to men but, at the same time, the very foundation of family life. A man went to Cheder and studied the Torah and became the head of his household. “The woman had to be a loyal servant for him, and run his household, bear his children, and was a help for him, or many times she herself was the one who worked for a living. For all that, her entire reward was the pleasure she had that her husband earned respect or that he was given a prominent Aliyah.” For the morning till night household chores, “the day was too short.” And, she would often help earn the family’s living. When she gave birth to a child, the father was the recipient of pats on the back and mazel tovs, with friends “winking with their eyes as to what an accomplishment he had achieved.”
Katz tells of a young woman on her wedding throne as an entertainer sang a melody that started with the line “Cry, dear bride, cry”… and the bride actually was able to cry, because at that moment when her throne was dismantled after the wedding, her relative freedom was ended.”
March 12, 2021
I often come across chapters in Yizkor books that are clearly fables, or at least, probably not entirely accurate accounts of real events. True or not, the common thread is that they shine a different sort of light on how Jews saw and thought about the world in which they lived. One such chapter was “The Devil was out of Work” (https://bit.ly/30r2c9l) which described his struggles in trying to lead Jews into sin.
This week’s excerpt “Devils” — from the Yizkor book Siedlce, Poland —tells the story of a peasant family called the Devils because they believe they were afflicted by them. The head of the household came to see the town baker (Yossl) who many peasants revered because of his wisdom, and told him: “Devils had shown up, had tormented him for a long time and made a shambles of his home; they killed sheep, lamed horses, and spoiled the milk of his cows.”
Yossl devises a ruse to help rid the peasant of these fears.
Yizkor books are full of accounts of Jews who sought to escape ghettos when it became increasingly clear that the people in them would be exterminated in an aktion or sent on trains to the death camps. Even though death might be a near-certainty for those who remained, escape had its own dangers because the Germans had issued decrees forbidding Jews from leaving the ghetto under the pain of death.
Strategies for escape abounded, and in the case of Rose Greenbaum-Dinerman, hers is captured by the title of her chapter in the Yizkor book of Gombin, Poland: “Survived as an ‘Aryan.’” She and her brother considered taking the own lives as conditions worsened, but chose to take the risk because “we also knew that we must cling to life to the very end, no matter how small our chances of survival, to spite our enemy.” They left the ghetto, going their separate ways, but Rose and the group she was travelling with were captured, turned over to the Gestapo and taken to the ghetto in Strzegowo, northwest of Warsaw.
As the terror there increased, Rose dyed her black hair blonde and fled to the “Aryan” side, seeking shelter by knocking on doors and when they opened, saying “Jesus be praised!” Each house was a gamble, and she had several close calls. But she lived to return to Gombin after the Liberation.
February 26, 2021
“The Testimony of Rudolph Rader” from the Yizkor book of Skalat (Ukraine) is a first person account of Belzec, the Nazi concentration camp in Poland. While the horrors he relates make difficult reading, chapters like these are part of the remembrances of Jews who have suffered or perished that Yizkor books were meant to provide. Before the war, Rader had resided in Lvov, and remained there until August 16, 1942. He spent four months in Belzec and survived because he was one of the workers forced to assist the Germans in the “death factory.” That also proved to be his salvation when a Gestapo agent in charge sent him under guard to Lvov to find tin that was needed at the camp. “’Don't escape!” he told me.’” But that exactly what he did when his guard fell asleep.
After the liberation, Rader returned to Belzec because of “a strong desire to see the place in which the Germans “had asphyxiated two and a half million human beings who wanted very much to live.” By that time, the Germans had covered over the site with greenery and Rader found himself walking in a field until he came to a fragrant pine forest. “A deep silence prevailed there. Amidst the forest was a large, bright forest field.”
February 19, 2021
Purim is next Friday, the joyous holiday that celebrates the saving of the Jews from a threatened massacre in ancient Persia. (So joyous that the Yizkor book of Klobuck, Poland notes that during the holiday, Jews are permitted to drink alcohol to the point that they cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai, referring to the Persian villain Haman who wanted to kill all Jews in the empire, and the Jew Mordechai who defied him).
Here are three excerpts from the JewishGen Yizkor book collection that celebrate the holiday. At the center of these is the Purim-shpil — the skits performed at festive meals with performers dressed in masks and costumes depicting the characters in Book of Esther, which recounts the Purim story.
The Purim-shpilers would receive money, food or drink in return. They come in “adorned with brass buttons and their faces are smeared with soot. They position themselves and play-act the story of Purim – from beginning to end,” recalls Tzivia Greenglass writes in the Yizkor book of Gorodets, Belarus. “The red Haman used to scare me,” he admits.
The account of the holiday in the Yizkor book of Czyzew-Osada, Poland describes the different kinds of shpilers: those who performed to collect donations for worthy causes, the needy who used the opportunity to get money and good for hungry families, and young men who needed to raise money for equipment before they went into military service or money to ransom themselves from the draft.
The last excerpt is not from a Yizkor book but is part of the JewishGen Yizkor book collection. “The Book of Klezmer” also recounts the pageantry described in the other chapters, but my favorite passage was about the food: “The dishes still leave me with a taste today,” the writer says. “Such an atmosphere it was. The koyletch [challah] tasted like the Garden of Eden. Then there was the fish of the day, and the gildene yoyikh [the golden broth, or chicken soup] …The mother made a sweet dish called palave. Just as one would never have a seder without a parsnip tsimmes, one never had a Purim meal without palave. In the palave there were small raisins mixed in with a grain. We called it ‘kish-mish.’ “Purim is next Friday, the joyous holiday that celebrates the saving of the Jews from a threatened massacre in ancient Persia. (So joyous that the Yizkor book of Klobuck, Poland notes that during the holiday, Jews are permitted to drink alcohol to the point that they cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai, referring to the Persian villain Haman who wanted to kill all Jews in the empire, and the Jew Mordechai who defied him).
Here are three excerpts from the JewishGen Yizkor book collection that celebrate the holiday. At the center of these is the Purim-shpil — the skits performed at festive meals with performers dressed in masks and costumes depicting the characters in Book of Esther, which recounts the Purim story.
The Purim-shpilers would receive money, food or drink in return. They come in “adorned with brass buttons and their faces are smeared with soot. They position themselves and play-act the story of Purim – from beginning to end,” recalls Tzivia Greenglass writes in the Yizkor book of Gorodets, Belarus. “The red Haman used to scare me,” he admits.
The account of the holiday in the Yizkor book of Czyzew-Osada, Poland describes the different kinds of shpilers: those who performed to collect donations for worthy causes, the needy who used the opportunity to get money and good for hungry families, and young men who needed to raise money for equipment before they went into military service or money to ransom themselves from the draft.
The last excerpt is not from a Yizkor book but is part of the JewishGen Yizkor book collection. “The Book of Klezmer” also recounts the pageantry described in the other chapters, but my favorite passage was about the food: “The dishes still leave me with a taste today,” the writer says. “Such an atmosphere it was. The koyletch [challah] tasted like the Garden of Eden. Then there was the fish of the day, and the gildene yoyikh [the golden broth, or chicken soup] …The mother made a sweet dish called palave. Just as one would never have a seder without a parsnip tsimmes, one never had a Purim meal without palave. In the palave there were small raisins mixed in with a grain. We called it ‘kish-mish.’ “
February 12, 2021
One reality of life in the Jewish Pale was the grinding poverty. This excerpt, "Poverty and Hardship in Bobruisk (Belarus)" is from a longer section of its Yizkor book, titled "Bobruisk In the Nineteenth Century ."
"Here lived in old cut-up pants porters and shoemakers and tailors - also beggars, hunchbacks, sick, coughing, and wives, which stood with their baskets in the market,'" writes the author of this chapter. People wandered to different places in southern Russia or to America "to find a piece of bread." Poverty also gave rise to youth gangs and a "Jewish underworld" and to brothels frequented by the great number of soldiers in the city. By the end of the 19th century, sparked by the Russian revolutionary movement, poverty was also a driving force in people joining the workers' movement.
Go to the book: https://bit.ly/3jtpjJ8
February 5, 2021
"Due to the fact that, for the most part, the authors of memoirs and lists in the Yizkor book are men; I wish, as a woman, to memorialize and perpetuate the stories of several righteous women."
So writes Miriam Har-Zohar in a chapter titled "Righteous Women" from the Yizkor book of Rozniatow, Ukraine. Among these were women who "did their work due to their warm Jewish hearts and their sense of responsibility. They conducted their work quietly and without fanfare; they gathered a bit of flour, a bit of sugar, some foodstuffs from here and there and brought it over to needy families. They did this in a secret fashion, so that nobody would know who the donors were. Thus, the recipients would not be embarrassed by the public knowledge that they were needy."
You can go to the book here: https://bit.ly/3j3IKYJ
January 29, 2021
Many of the Yizkor book excerpts I post here are dramatic accounts of struggles against poverty, terrible suffering, death at the hands of the Nazis, and acts of heroism and devotion. But you also can find a deep satisfaction in evocative accounts of ordinary Jewish life in a shtetl, from loving descriptions and memories of the streets people once walked and the characters who walked them.
Here are three short chapters from the Yizkor book of Piotrkow Trybunalski, Poland - "Conjunctions in the Past Tense," "Peretz Street" and "City Stereotypes - written by Ben Giladi who settled in New York, Marya Pigus, in Paris, and Yakov Leber, who emigrated to Qiryat Tiv'on in Israel.
Perhaps Giladi speaks for all of them when he writes, "Youth passed quickly for us. Our minds are charged with vivid memories of the only place on earth where we experienced the greatest thrill of all - our childhood and our youth." Or, when Marya Pigus thinks of the old, neglected streets in the town which "cradled the poor houses in her arms, as a loving mother, and felt the joy and pain of its inhabitants." Or, when Leber recalls "Once, every city and town in Poland had its characters, at whom the people poked fun, thereby gladdening the sad moods of the inhabitants."
So spend a day in Piotrkow Trybunalski. You can find the full section here: https://bit.ly/3sPUmTH
January 22, 2021
As I finish writing these words I am just 55 years old. I find myself satisfied in rich, large America. However, I am still in exile. I remained the only one of my family, the inheritance of my family - the ash dispersed over the world, that is a part of the six million annihilated Jewry. I absorb this. I will carry this for as long as my eyes see the world."
So wrote Rafal Federman in a chapter titled "From My Life" from the Yizkor book of "The Jews of Czestochowa, Poland which was published in 1947. She was born in a struggling household in the 1890s and lived through a pogrom in 1902. She went on to live an increasingly political life including risking herself to preserve stores of illegal literature written in Yiddish, and then became an active member of the Polish Bund, a socialist party which promoted the autonomy of Jewish workers, sought to combat antisemitism and was generally opposed to Zionism.
Like many Polish Jews in 1939, she was one of an estimated 15,000 Polish Jews who found temporary refuge in politically independent Lithuania, most of them in Vilna. But ultimately, she and her comrades found themselves in danger there, and she escaped to America. But still in her heart was what she left behind.
This excerpt is only part of a longer story. You can find the entire chapter here: https://bit.ly/38UBbQM
January 15, 2021
"My Experiences" is a chapter of a long section in the Yizkor book of Kurów, Poland titled "In the Bunkers, Caves, Stalls, Fields and Forests (September 1939-May 1945): Memories from the Survivors." It is the story of Zahava Fogelman, also identified in the title section as Golda Ackerman, her married name. ("Zahava" happens to mean "Gold" in Hebrew). What drew me to this chapter is how long her journey was after the Nazis descended on Kurow, how much fear she constantly felt, how much cunning she showed and how many horrors she witnessed, including the brutal end to the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the persecution that continued at the hands of Poles after the Germans were defeated.
Back in Kurow after the war, she decides to move on once again. "I want to flee from Poland, and no longer walk on soil that is saturated with Jewish blood and surrounded by sheer haters. The only thing left in Poland is an enormous Jewish cemetery."
The structure of this chapter is a little unusual. The first two paragraphs appear to be a summary of Fogelman's life, referring to her in the third person, whether written by her or someone else. The narrative then transitions to the first person, which is presumably Fogelman's voice, although I can't be certain. But in any event, the story speaks for itself.
I've edited down this excerpt because of its length, while trying to retain as much as possible its chronological flow and most dramatic moments. You can find the full version here: https://bit.ly/35sOKVt
January 8, 2021
I never imagined that I would come across a Yizkor book excerpt about New York City's famous Stage Deli which closed in 2012 after a run of about 75 years.
Actually, it is mostly about its founder, Max Asnas (spelled "Osnas" in this chapter from the book of Koidanov, now Dzyarzhynsk, in Belarus). The Stage became a magnet for celebrities ranging from actors and comedians to sports stars but in this account, Max's sister Lilly, who was the cashier, tells the writer: ""They are not my kind of people. I have little in common with them. I think more highly of Avram Reisen and other Yiddish writers than of all the Broadway folks with whom Max associates. He feels like a fish in water with them. I feel a lot better being with my friends, with Koydenov folk."
The excerpt recounts Max's eventful journey to reach New York and appears in the book which was published in 1955. Asnas died in 1968.
You can find the book here: https://bit.ly/3nXHNCV
January 1, 2021
Some of the most poignant and heart-breaking stories to be found in Yizkor books are those of people who had to flee their native towns and spent years in exile or hiding, dreaming of the day they would return to the places they loved. Those dreams usually ended with the discovery that what they had hoped to find was irrevocably lost.
One of those accounts is "My Return Home" by Ethel Keitelgisser from the Yizkor book of Radzyn, Poland. Ethel said good-bye to her parents in 1939, a few days before war broke out. "Fate drove me and my family to Russia," she wrote. "Like abandoned dogs we wandered to all the corners of that great land." In 1946, she was able to return home. This is the story of what she found.
You can find the book here: https://bit.ly/3pH6Day
December 25, 2020
This excerpt, from the Yizkor book of Dabrowa Górnicza, Poland reminded me of a sermon a rabbi told his congregation about his experience with a woman who was studying towards conversion. After attending her fiancé's family Seder, she said, ""Rabbi -- there was so much yelling and interrupting at the table -- no one agreed with anyone" - and then wondered how after so much tumult, things changed to laughter and joking during the meal, and everyone hugged when the night was over.
To which the rabbi replied: "Welcome to Judaism, where arguing is the national pastime."
This excerpt is titled ""Klayn Michale" [Little Michael], the joker of Jewish Dabrowa" and most of it is about him, but it begins with a section called "The arguments clubhouse" where Jews "with a very developed sense of humor" gathered to "to joke about every subject that was spoken about…Usually they were serious arguments and on a high level, but they would get into jesting mood, and would tell entertaining stories, fine jokes: they would speak humorously with a touch of self-mockery, making fun of one another with incidental jibes, insults and even juicy expletives and the rule that was not surpassed amongst them: no one took it to heart, and at the most they would reply with even greater jibes."
Enter Klayn Michael into this den of kibitzers, where he "fell straight into the lions' mouths." With war looming, Klayn was down in the dumps and in no mood to be cheered up. "What do you know happened today?!" he told the others. "You apparently come from an imaginary world and see rose colored daydreams." His words were met with "a ruthless hubbub of ridicule and hurtful defamations."
The dialogue that follows is priceless. And in the spirit of that seder I described at the top, it ended with the declaration, "You should live till a hundred and twenty, Klayn Michale" and everyone slapped him on the back.
You can find the chapter here: https://bit.ly/3rjV6Q7
December 18, 2020
Hershele Kurlap, the title character in this excerpt from the Yizkor book of Wyszków, Poland, was a fisherman and considered the Rebbe of the fish market. A tradition he clung to with fervor was never having a Sabbath meal without a guest. One Sabbath, he found himself without a guest and this is the story of how he scoured the shtetl to fulfill the commandment to find one.
This is only part of the chapter. You can find the full version here: https://bit.ly/3aaa6tL
December 11, 2020
“As soon as the autumn rains ended, the soaked ground was covered with frost, and the first snow dressed up the shtetl for Chanukah.”
So begins this chapter from the Yizkor book of Kaluszyn, Poland, one of two excerpts you will find here on Chanukah which began yesterday evening. The other is Sierpc, also in Poland.
The joys and rituals of the holiday that are lovingly described in these chapters are little different than they are today. A break from school for the children! (“The most important part of that Chanukah festivity was that I did not have to return to cheder after supper.”) The dinners! (“The smell of latkes wafted from all windows until late into the night.”). The menorah! (“As father lit the first candle, we children put our hands on his hand so that we could take part in the commandment of lighting the Chanukah candle.”) Chanukah gelt and games! (“After dinner, Father gave us children Chanukah gelt and we sat on the floor with the neighboring children to play lotteries, dominoes and dreidel.’)
These memories of the holiday include one ominous reflection by the writer of what was to come as he remembered day's end: “The Chanukah candles flickered slowly; one by one the shutters closed, and the night enfolded the little wooden houses of the town. From a distance one could hear only the creaking of the train wheels at the station at Mrozy. Or was it already the sound of the Angel of Death flapping his wings on his way to the shtetl…”
Chanukah in Shtetl from The Memorial Book of Kaluszyn, Poland (Go to the book: https://bit.ly/39MZ9OK
December 4 ,2020
"Over A Glass Of Tea With Nikita Khrushchev."
How is that for an attention-grabber among titles of Yizkor book chapters? This one is from the book of Rokitno-Wolyn and Surroundings in Ukraine.
Khrushchev, of course, is remembered for many things, ranging from his "secret speech" in 1956 in which he denounced the late Josef Stalin’s “cult of personality” and brutal rule, to his uncharacteristically garrulous personality he had as a Kremlin leader (including the memorable scene of pounding his shoe on a table at the United Nations after a delegate accused the Soviet Union of trampling freedoms in Eastern Europe.
Khrushchev was certainly no angel, having, like other Russian officials under Stalin, made his way up the Communist ranks through either loyalty to him or fear of him, and enabled Stalin in his purges and other crimes. When the author of this chapter, Baruch Shehori, met him it was about a year after Khrushchev arrived in the newly liberated Kiev in 1943, wearing the uniform of a Major General.
This portrait of an amiable and sympathetic Khruschev is what it is, a memory of one encounter at a time after the yoke of the Nazis had been lifted from Ukraine. It was translated by Ala Gamulka, who has worked on many of JewishGen’s Yizkor books (she helped me finish the translation of the book of Kovel) and knew Shehori.
You can find the book here: https://bit.ly/2JjkSTE
November 27, 2020
I probably share too many Yizkor book excerpts about market day in the shtetls. But the reason I am drawn to them is the vibrant picture of life that each presents. The reconstructed conversations that let you hear the way people speak and what they say. The portraits of real characters that they offer. The feel for the (shall I say, “robust”) haggling in each negotiation about a purchase.
“Once Shmulye Feyde said to a peasant while haggling;
– You want two gildn for such a handful of wood (30 Russian kopeks). I can carry it home on my shoulder!
– If you carry it home all at once, take it without cost! – The peasant said to him.
– Shmulye said, I hold you to your word.”
You’ll have to read the excerpt to see how that turned out. But when all was over, it was off to a tavern where “several glasses of 95 proof spirits were drunk, roasted goose was eaten and they went as good friends.”
And, rounding out these accounts, dealing with shoplifters — “those who would miss no opportunity at lifting anything they could lay their hands on.”
Here are excerpts from the book of Rohatyn in Ukraine, and Czyzew-Osada, Kolbuszowa and Brzozów in Poland
November 20, 2020
Many Yizkor books have portraits of humble people who are unlettered, poor, mocked and who eke out their living in the lowliest professions. But over their lives, they prove their worth, and even mark those lives with acts of nobility. Such is the case with Noyke, the title character of this excerpt from the Yizkor book of Wyszkow, Poland.
Noyke was a “simpleton,” could not read a single letter of Hebrew and often the target of derision (not to mention a beating) from young people. But when the town came under attack by German planes, it was Noyke who “ran through the streets and shouted: ‘Jews, save yourselves! Jews! Jews! Save yourselves!’”
And he ended his life as a hero.
You can find the book here: https://bit.ly/35zmbpF
November 13, 2020
I suspect that much of what is described in “Jewish Foods in Lithuania,” from the Yizkor book of Lite, could be said about the many other Jewish communities of eastern Europe. This account starts with a celebration of “sours” — beets (borscht), cabbage and sorrel. Yes, there was kreplekh, tzimmes, latkes, a never-ending list of ways to use potatoes which were eaten two or three times a day, herring, and all manner of breads from challah to dark rye. But as one husband answered when his wife asked him if he was satisfied with the food she had prepared, he answered: “Of course, but unless I have even a little bit of sours, I am not a person.”
This thorough account of Jewish foods moves far beyond “sours” to all the foods common to Jewish households, the poor ones and those better off, and some of the descriptions almost amount to recipes.
I have to admit one of my favorites was the passage about herring, which the writer called “a national dish.” “A herring was eaten raw ‘from the barrel’ … tearing off only the outer skin, in certain cases only the laske (scales). Others dipped the potatoes in ljok (the liquid found in the herring barrel) and maintained that this was the ‘true taste.” The herring was also baked, often baked in sweet, sweet-sour, fried, as well as being chopped with onions…” You, no doubt, will find your own favorites.
You can find the book here: https://bit.ly/3eKya6KSierpc
November 6, 2020
“The Weekday Krinik,” from the Yizkor book of that town in Poland, could probably also be titled “A Day in the Life of a Shtetl” since it resembles so many scenes described in other books. “Dark gray smoke, in the early morning, rising from the houses into the still half-dark sky, announces that in Krinik a new workday has begun.” The streets grow lively as the husbands are dispatched to work and the children to school. Perhaps no one is busier than the wives: “They clean house, do the laundry, mend shirts and clothes. They go to the food store, the baker and butcher…Loaded with baskets and bags, the wives return home to cook lunch. The fire is started in the oven. In cast iron pots they cook meat or dairy lunches.”
Then there is market day. “Jews walk around among the densely placed wagons. They rummage in the sacks, look at the peasants' packs and they haggle. They slap the gentiles' hands, a sign that they have come to an agreement… Jewish butchers buy a cow, calves and sheep. Horse dealers try out the horses. They look at the horses' teeth. Their neighing and the mooing of the cows mix with the shouts of the buyers and sellers… Peasants sit with companions, treating themselves to vodka. They snack on herring and sausage. They talk loudly. With each glass emptied, their voices rise. Their faces are already red, their eyes half closed from drunkenness. Some embrace and kiss. One of them starts humming a melody, and half-drunk voices join in.”
“The Weekday Krinik” is part of a longer chapter “Our Shtetl Krinik: which can be found here: https://bit.ly/3eoJNAj
October 30, 2020
Once the Germans were routed in World War 2, many Jews who weathered the Nazi storm hiding in bunkers, or in the forests or who had sheltered in other countries began to make their way back to the towns they were forced to flee. They did so with a range of expectations and emotions: the hopes of seeing a familiar face or place that still stood, and of making a life again in the town in which they were raised.
“Tarnogrod’s Surviving Remnant” from the Yizkor book of that Polish town captures this sense of longing and the realities Jews faced when they emerged from their hiding places or came home. Many hoped that the shtetl would once again become a Jewish settlement.
Those hopes were soon dashed. The enmity and anti-Semitism of Poles who did not want to see a return of the Jews made itself felt through violence and expropriation of Jewish houses and shops. Jews were robbed and told to leave on pain of death. “It appeared that the Tarnogrod Jews' attachment to their town was so strong that even after the night of attack by bandits some families remained, thinking that the danger would pass,” wrote Nachum Krymerkopf in this chapter. But “in 1946, when the last victims … were murdered by the Polish bandits, not one Jew dared to stay in Tarnogrod.”
You can find the book here: https://bit.ly/35nX47W
October 23, 2020
This week’s offering is a collection of Yizkor book excerpts about practical jokes. Every society has its pranksters, so why not the shtetls of Europe? Some of these border on the side of cruel humor when it came to the victims, such as Reb Mendel in the first excerpt. But “it turns out that the city's clowns also have a Jewish heart, and when they realized that their prank agitated R' Mendel's soul, they decided to let him go him and find another victim for their practical jokes.” Not so much for poor, pious Chaya Shlia who, when fooled into thinking that she heard G-d speak to her, “returned home crushed and in agony.” Pranks on others were more in the general tradition of youthful mischief-making, like removing the wooden steps from the door of a person’s house, so that in the morning the members of the household would not be able to leave their home.
October 16, 2020
I cannot introduce this excerpt from the Yizkor book of Mikulince (Mikulintsy) Ukraine any better than to steal its first paragraph: “This is a dramatic story which begins in the shadow of the Nazis. A friendship between a Pole and a Jew. After the war, the two of them met in America. The Pole died and willed his property to the Jew. Now, the Jew is turning over the inheritance to the deceased's brother in Poland.”
Titled “Righteous Gentiles,” it is the story of Mendel Helicher who served as an officer in the 54th battalion of the Polish Army until the Germans vanquished his unit of 125 men, only six of whom survived the war. His savior was was the last commandant of the unit, Zigmund Brishevski, who was the only person who knew Helicher was a Jew. Brishevski died in Jersey City in 1965, and in his house, was one last testament to “my friend Martin Helicher.”
Click here to go to the book: https://bit.ly/3lTLYys
October 9, 2020
Almost every Jewish community had a mikveh, where Jews went for the ritual bath to cleanse themselves of deeds from the past. Unmarried women went to the mikveh prior to their wedding, and married ones did so after their monthly cycle. The function of immersion in the mikveh was also required for conversion to Judaism.
This week’s excerpt about the rituals of the mikveh —from the Yizkor book of Mikulince (Mikulintsy)in Ukraine — is part of a longer piece titled “Yosha the Sexton.” It is Yosha who takes the author there when he was a young boy. “Naked bodies of grown men shocked me at first,” he recalls, providing a vivid description of the experience. For a bride going to the mikveh, “an appointment had to be made in advance with the female bathhouse attendant and the matter was kept secret.”
You can find the full chapter here: https://bit.ly/3jxcj4o
September 25, 2020
Yom Kippur begins Sunday evening. This excerpt from the Yizkor book of Podhajce, Ukraine about the observance of the holiest day of the year needs little introduction other than saying that its account will make you feel like you are right there in the shtetl from Kol Nidre to the day’s final prayers.
When the services in the synagogue were done, "The day turned into twilight. The wax candles cast a gloomy light, and all the worshippers felt as if a new spirit entered into their beings, and new powers were granted to them."
You can find the book here: https://bit.ly/3hKqpOi
September 18, 2020
Rosh Hashanah begins this evening, and here I bring you two excerpts from Yizkor books about the holiday, one from Gorodets in Belarus and the other from Podhajce in Ukraine.
The sounds of the shofar fill these memories of Gorodets in its chapter titled “Rosh Hashanah” and of Podhajce in its telling of “The First Day of Rosh Hashanah, and the Observance of Tashlich.”
In the the crowded Gorodets synagogue there is “a holy stillness…An intense chill runs through the body. The sound of the shofar is carried throughout the whole street. The tones produced by the shofar feel like an effusion – outpouring of a desolate spirit of hundreds and hundreds of years of living in the Diaspora, mixed with the closeness to God.”
In Podhajce, “The crowds of worshippers reached the river, and their lips uttered the Tashlich prayer, whose main theme is to “cast to the depths of the sea all of their sins.” The author writes “when the prayer was done, “personal oppression was lifted from the heart. However, the masses of worshippers remained standing at the banks of the river without moving. The last rays of sunlight lit up their faces. As I looked around, I saw the bent forms of those standing in prayer at the banks of the river straighten out.”
September 11, 2020
This week’s excerpt, “Shabbosim, Holidays and Weddings,” from the Yizkor book of Klobuck, Poland is a charming snapshot of the arrival of the Sabbath — the women and girls hurrying to the baker with their cakes and challah, the fisherman surrounded by almost all the women of the shtetl looking to buy his carp, giant perch, pike and bream, Jews with their small packages of underwear headed to the mikveh, the synagogue service ending with the rabbi reciting the Shema Yisroel and 18 benedictions of Shimoneh Esrei, and the fetching of the cholent for the Sabbath meal.
You can find the book here: https://bit.ly/31VNglg
September 4, 2020
“When the month of Elul arrives, you immediately sense the special atmosphere that has enveloped the town, the atmosphere of the approaching Yamim Noraim, or Days of Awe.”
So begins “On the Holidays,” a chapter from the Yizkor book of Golub-Dobrzyn, Poland, It seems appropriate for this first week of September when hearts and minds of Jews around the world turn to the upcoming High Holy Days. This account traces the change of mood that comes upon the town and how the sense of Judgment Day “places its mark upon every single person.” It moves through the prayers of Rosh Hashana to the solemnity of Yom Kippur. And when the fast day is over, the mood begins to change. “It is as if even the street looks different: the light of a full moon casts a glow over it, chasing the shadows away, as if it wishes to announce a renewed life.” Finally, there is Simchat Torah. The writer of this excerpt tells us: “Anyone who has not seen Simchat Torah being celebrated in the town has never seen true joy.”
To go to the book, click here: https://bit.ly/3lA41uc
In early April, 1945, the prisoners of Buchenwald could hear the distant sound of artillery from General George Patton's advancing Third U.S. Army, At about 2 p.m. on April 11, American tanks appeared in the beech forest after which the camp had been named. There was gunfire. Most of Buchenwald’s 5,000 SS guards had already fled. By then, thousands of the prisoners had been forced to evacuate by the SS by foot and train to prevent their rescue. Patton was so disgusted by what he found that he ordered the mayor of Weimar to bring 1,000 citizens to Buchenwald to ensure that the German people would take responsibility for Nazi crimes, instead of dismissing them as propaganda.
“Remembrances of a Survivor,” from the Yizkor book of Belki, Ukraine recounts in first person the days leading up to the liberation, the flight of the Nazis, the reactions of American soldiers to what they saw when they entered the barracks, and how the inmates, spared from death, responded to their liberation: “They gathered to pray, to cry and to say Kaddish for their dear ones. In spite of all, they somehow found the strength to overcome their grief and anger, and rose above everything.”
You can find the chapter here: https://bit.ly/3aTBF97
August 21, 2020
The beis midrash (“House of Learning”) was a central part of Jewish communities described in the Yizkor books, and many chapters are dedicated to memories of them. It was a place to study Torah that could be located in a synagogue, a yeshiva or other communal building. But it was also a place of camaraderie where, after studies were done, Jews might repair to a nearby tavern to “refresh their hearts with Akevit (Aquivit)” or the bakery whose aromas wafted through the beis midrash windows every morning.
Those pleasures are what I enjoyed in “The old Beis Midrash” from the Yizkor book of Sierpc, Poland, particularly the description of the offerings of the tavern: “Whisky, tasty herring with onions and peppers, and oil cookies freshly baked… Homemade cigarettes made from fresh yellow Russian tobacco, five for a kopeck.”
The priceless part of this excerpt is what happens when the local excise officer makes an inspection … and how the owner and fellow Jews dealt with him.
“Woronow Jews observed ancient religious traditions that had been handed down from father to son… Without this religious base and these customs our lives were meaningless… God was the foundation of the Jew's dreary, indigent life.”
So begins this account of “Jewish types, their character traits, fanatic; customs and religious mysticism; religious and folk songs” from the Yizkor book of Woronow (Voronova) in Belarus. But along with traditional Jewish worship, there were strands of “mystical belief in dreams, remedies, signs, destiny, astrology and magic.” When a woman was in labor she was led seven times around three Jews who were praying, in prayer shawls and phylacteries,” reciting psalms and the Prayer for the Sick.When a person had a toothache, he was "talked out of it," the "evil eye" was driven away. To keep the evil eye away, mothers would attach an onion with salt to the child's underwear, or tie a red cotton string around its wrist. Mitzvahs included wearing four tassels on undergarments; not mixing meat and dairy dishes; not wearing clothing made of cloth that mixed linen and wool; a mezuzah in every Jewish home.
This excerpt is filled with wonderful detail and anecdotes and personalities revolving around life in Woronow and the ways it was interwoven with religious faith.
August 11, 2020
In “How They Spent leisure Time,” from the Yizkor book of Borshchiv (Borstchoff), Ukraine, Shlomo Reibel tells of the ways the Jews of his shtetl took pleasure from life. There were the spiritual pleasures such as the listening to the davening of a guest cantor or when someone would come to give a sermon. And, then there were the secular pleasures provided by performers, visiting gypsies, street singers, the circus and even boxing. ("Naturally, on the placards, the nationality of the boxers would be stated and there would be added a question of this nature: 'Who will win, the Jew or the Hungarian?'" The full chapter is much longer and can be found here: http://bit.ly/2vH1vuq
July 31, 2020
In 1827 Nicholas I issued a statute making Jews in Russia liable to personal army service and canceling their prior privilege of providing money ransom instead of conscripts. Conscription often was tied in with the payment of taxes. If a family was late in paying their taxes, a family member could be conscripted. Even after this occurred, they would still owe the full amount of taxes. Prior to 1827, Jews in Russia were forbidden to serve in the military.
Yizkor books are replete with accounts of Jews who left the country to avoid conscription and about those who remained and pursued all sorts of stratagems ranging from disguising their names to finding ways to get rejected for medical and physical reasons.One story in my family said my great-grandfather from Kovel deserted the army where he was a drummer and came to the U.S. Hard to confirm, but I did note that he was assessed a tax by the Kovel County recruit office for 300 rubles the very year he left for America in 1904.
I have previously published a few of these accounts about Jews and Russian conscription, but have come across some new ones worth sharing. One is “The Recruit” from the Yizkor book of Vishnevets (Ukraine) which said that two of different means of avoiding the army included chopping off a thumb or pulling out all of one’s teeth. “Military Conscription is Likan” from the Yizkor book of that Moldavan shtetl said that one of the saddest seasons of the year was Fall which, aside from the foul weather, included the “bitter addition” of the Russian conscription which followed the High Holidays.
Conscription was so dread that there was a saying — Gekrogn a krasne bilet—iz gevezn porkhe-nishmose — which meant “He got a red ticket (draft notice) …”he almost died of fright. Or more simply a way of saying “He got bad news.”
From the Yizkor book of Lite (Lithuania) https://bit.ly/3fcPZKz
July 24, 2020
Full-fledged doctors were few and far between in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and the gap was filled in large part by feldshers (alternatively spelled as “feldschers”). Feldshers were old-time barber-surgeons. They were more than a nurse and less than a doctor, but in Eastern Europe, they often had the status of a doctor and were mentioned in town records dating back to at least the 1600s.
I’ve gathered for this week excerpts from Yizkor books, most of them from Polish towns. The fedlshers pulled teeth, applied leeches to the ailing, and supplied patients with medicines and home-made remedies. An anesthetic for dental work could mean “placing a cotton wool soaked in liquor or 96% alcohol inside the tooth.” When a real doctor did appear in a town, it could be to the dismay of the established feldsher as recounted in an excerpt from the Kaluszyn, Poland book.
From the Yizkor book of Szydlowiec, Poland (https://bit.ly/2WHdhS6
In curating these weekly excerpts, I try to strike a balance between the powerful but brutal stories of the Holocaust and other sufferings of Jews in the era covered by Yizkor books, but it can be challenging given that, by their very nature, large sections of each book are devoted to these recollections. That said, there are also rich stories of daily Jewish life and customs and some readers have said, that while the horrors Jews underwent must be remembered, they would like to see more of these stories as well. So, I’m always on the lookout for them though, to be honest, some make less interesting reading than others.
“Our Shtetl Krinek,” from the Yizkor book of Krynki, Poland is a marvelous example of an account that captures with vivid detail Jewish daily life — from the town coming alive in the morning, the bustling activity in its streets and alleys, the grand spectacle of market day to the solemnity and celebration of the Sabbath.
It’s almost like being there.
You can find the book here: https://bit.ly/3j5VnlN
July 10, 2020
One of the bitterest divisions among the Jews of Eastern Europe — which persists among Jews to this day — was the clash of beliefs between the Hassidim and Zionists. The very religious were concerned that secular nationalism would supplant Jewish faith and they believed that it was forbidden for the Jews to re-constitute Jewish rule in the Land of Israel before the arrival of the Messiah. There are echoes of those beliefs today in the ongoing debate in Israel over whether ultra-Orthodox Jews should be exempt from military service so they could dedicate their lives to study of Torah.
This conflict is brought to life in “The Youth and the Aging,” a section of a chapter titled “Way of Life” from the Yizkor book of Turobin, Poland. The 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which Britain announced support for a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine, gave added energy to the Zionist movement. As young pro-Zionists began to organize and establish a Tarbut library, older Jews became incensed. “The aging, who were usually very devout, were not neutral and almost decreed that nobody rent a room to the criminals who were forcing the End of Days and unifying in Zionist groups,” wrote Yaakov Avituv.
Some blamed hardships that befell the town on the Zionist activity. When large swamps formed in early spring after the thaw, a stench rose from them in the days before Passover that kept away the peasants who shopped there and idled the shopkeepers.
“Gentlemen!” declared R' Yerachmiel Bronshpigel at a meeting, “we see clearly that all the troubles have come upon us because of the criminals and the library. It disseminates those books among our sons and daughters, who day and night read what is forbidden and improper. Why are we still silent? We need to begin a holy war.”
The members of the Tarbut persevered and even staged the play “Joseph In Egypt” for Passover and had the tacit support of many common Jews. But pioneers hoping to make Aliyah had trouble finding work or affording the cost of doing so. Avituv laments, “It is possible that many of those who perished in the Holocaust would [have made] aliya had the rich men of the time contributed support.”
July 3, 2020
Two very different things loomed large in Zalman Wendroff’s memories of growing up — his hard-to-approach but awe-inspiring mother and the centrality of the family’s large samovar. (Wendroff went on to become a well-known Yiddish writer).
In “On the Threshold of Life,” a chapter from the Yizkor book of Slutsk (Belarus), he recalls being told how proud his father was on the day of his circumcision “but my mother did not demonstrate much joy. She knew – another child, another worry on her head.” His mother, who almost single-handedly ran a soap factory, was a “stately woman, proud, authoritative, always calm and controlled” who, when she did not like something, tersely pronounced “This is not good.”
“I loved my father very much, but did not fear him in the least,” Wendroff writes. “My love for my mother was more like awe of G–d, mixed with real fear. This G–d–fearing sense was like a stone wall between us…”
As for the samovar, it “was ‘large’ not only in size, but in the role it played in the house.” The large samovar was only used on festive nights and on Shabbath. The Shabbath nights “were the only evenings when Wendroff’s mother feels that she is still alive on this earth.” Worried about money, she saw the Friday night large samovar as “one of the means of maintaining the reputation of an ‘open house’” at which neighbors, acquaintances, important people, scholars, and maskilim [“enlightened” people”] could gather together.
You can find the book here: https://bit.ly/2ZsxImJ
June 26, 2020
ne of the most powerful Yizkor book passages I have read contains the words of Rabbi Nahum Moshele who spoke to a throng of Jews who were about to be slaughtered In Kovel (Ukraine). What he said was remembered by Ben-Zion Sher in a chapter from the Yizkor book titled “Thus the City was Destroyed.” This excerpt, subtitled “The Vast Slaughter in Brisk Square,” recounts the massacre and how Sher survived it.
Scholars have described what Moshele said as being in the tradition of “Kiddush Hashem” — religious martyrdom in a time of persecution. One writer cited Moshele’s speech in his exploration of how the Jews found the spiritual power to endure their suffering.
In a voice choked with tears, Moshele laments that “our flame is extinguished” and that “No one will come to prostrate themselves on our graves, no one will say Kaddish for us, no one will hold memories of us in his heart.” He says the people have sinned but asks the Lord what sins have been committed by the children and infants “that your wrath be spilled upon them?”
He ends with a confirmation of faith.
““Jews, we are approaching martyrdom. Let us be united as one person. Let us go to our deaths with gladdened hearts. This horrible moment shall pass, and the merciful Lord above us will give our souls repose under His wings.”
The Kovel book translation is now fully complete. You can find the book here: https://bit.ly/2YrJxKs
June 19, 2020
Occasionally, I come across a chapter in a Yizkor book that is a fable, and some have been about the devil trying to cause Jews to stray from their pious paths. This one, “The Devil was out of Work,” from the Yizkor book of Shebreshin (Szczebrzeszyn), Poland has to be the oddest of those I’ve encountered so far, and perhaps I should preface it with “Parental discretion is advised.”
R' Shmuel Yakov one day noticed that the devil was standing beside him.
So R'Shmuel forced a cheerful expression on his face. He extended his arm to the devil and asked, “How are you, R' Devil.”
“Oy, R'Shmuel, I don't feel so good.”
“Probably overworked yourself, R' Devil, because it's very hard now to make Jews sin. It's no small matter.”
And from there, the Devil launches into tales of how he lured Jews into temptation. I’ll let him speak for himself.
June 12, 2020
In curating these weekly Yizkor book excerpts, I have come across numerous accounts of pained Jewish parents, facing death for themselves and their families, who would put children in the keeping of a non-Jew in hopes it would ensure their survival. In many cases, the willingness to take in such a child was not an act of mercy or altruism, but greed — whether it was for money or to put the child to work. And in many cases, that same greed stood in the way of families' efforts to get their children back after the Nazi horror was over.
Such is the case in “A Baby Girl Captured by the Gentiles,” a chapter from the Yizkor book of Mikulince (Mikulintsy) Ukraine by Zalman Pelz. This is the story of a child given up to a Polish woman on the promise of her return if any of the family survive, the cruelty the woman inflicted on her, and the struggle to get her back years later.
June 5, 2020
“Leah Tziger [née Pinchuk]” is a chapter from the Yizkor book of Rafalovka in the Ukraine. It is the story of a young girl’s struggle to survive after she and her family went into hiding and escaped the liquidation of the ghetto. Her father did not make it, and she and her mother were caught by a Ukrainian policeman as they set out on the road.
“We knew these were our last moments,” she writes. “I don't know whether it was the survival instinct and the human will to live, or the horror stories I had heard about the cruelty of the Ukrainians that prompted me to say: ‘I'm running.’ ‘I wouldn't want the last thing I see to be blood spraying out of you,’ my mother whispered. I told my mother she would see my blood even if I stay - I chose to die running and spare myself torture and cruelty.”
And off in her school uniform she ran, on the long and twisting path it took to stay alive until the liberation.
You can find the book here: https://bit.ly/303tGmK
May 29, 2020
The “Ancient Tombstone According to Legend” is an origin story of the founding of a Jewish settlement for Jews where, once, only one Jew had lived in solitude “like a juniper in the wilderness.” The legend is told by a speaker who heard it from his father who “received it by word of mouth from his father's grandfather, something that had been passed on verbally for several generations” about a time hundreds of years earlier “there was no sign or trace of this place on which our town sits.” It’s unclear which town it is since the chapter comes from the Yizkor book of Sosniwiec and the surrounding region in Zaglebie (Poland), and it appears in the section on Zamblegian settlements.
May 22, 2020
A section of the Yizkor book of Švencionys, Lithuania is titled “Heroism.” It contains the accounts of “the Jewish heroes from the region about the daily battle they fought in the ranks of the various partisan units within the regular Lithuanian division. In simple language, in plain words, the heroes, these heroes recount their experiences.“
The subject of “The Revenge on this Bright Day” was an odious Nazi named Freidrich Olin (I could not find out any more about him) who showed up in Sventzian in “a dark, chequered suit, recently pressed, his patent leather shoes stepping lightly, quietly shining from far away.” He had brought with him a new camera and the ensuing slaughter that he oversaw was, for him, like a “suspense film never seen on screen. He is enraptured.”
A young partisan named Shimon tells his commander: “For our tortured people, for those who were murdered – I shall kill and the enemy will be defeated. I promise you, Comrade commander, Olin will not escape my hands!…”
He was true to his word.
May 15, 2020
One of the childhood memories of Pinchas Sherlag was sitting on a bench next to the stove in his family’s small, cramped house looking at something on the floor in front of him wrapped in linen. “I observed it with half an eye, not knowing how precious a treasure it concealed. It was my dear mother.” And he realized he was an orphan.
What drew me to this chapter — “In a Little Town” —from the Yizkor book of Chorostkow (Khorostkiv, Ukraine) was the fact that the story begins in 1855 when the author was born. So many of the chapters I have curated here are accounts written by people describing lives and events at the turn-of-the-1900s and through the grim years of World War I and the Holocaust.
So, Pinchas Sherlag’s coming-of-age account was, for me, like being transported back in time. He traces his life from its poverty-stricken beginning, how his parents treated him, to his efforts to earn a living, his schooling, getting married (and later cheating on his wife).
Along the way, he provides vivid pictures of the customs and times in which he grew up — what people ate, how they coped with illness and epidemics, the “terrible stories about evil spirits” they passed on, the rituals of a Jewish wedding, the arrival of the newly-invented sewing machine, and small character portraits of the people who his path had crossed.
May 1, 2020
“On the day of the liquidation, as though heaven sent, there arrived a peasant acquaintance, Vasil Vaika from Kozmatch, to save me and my child.”
So begins the account of Chana Weinheber-Hacker from the Yizkor book of Kolomey (Kolomyya, Ukraine). It is one of several testimonies in a chapter titled “Khurbn,” the Yiddish for Holocaust. As the sound of shooting from the ghetto made clear that the extermination of Jews there had begun, Weinheber-Hacker found herself in peril from an “old witch” who threatened to reveal her hiding place to the Gestapo unless she was given more money — and the amount increased by the hour.
After three days, the peasant showed up with his wagon. “The Escape,” as this testimony is called, began “with fear of death and hope of being saved” for the three women, including Weinheber-Hacker, who were dressed to look like peasant women whose husbands had been called to work in Kolomey, and their children, hidden under the hay. The group reached a new hiding place where they crowded — seven people in all — in a small attic over a cow’s stall.
“The peasant was a wonderful person. He rightfully wanted to keep us alive even though he knew very well that his head was at stake.” The danger for him was very real, and ultimately Weinheber-Hacker and her group had to undertake a new journey to safety.
April 24, 2020
“Black clouds never carry good omens, especially not for us Jews.”
So ends “A Hot Summer Day Before the Storm,” a chapter from the Yizkor book of Rachov-Annapol, Poland. The scene it paints is that of the town’s Jews heading for the cool waters of the Wisla River on summer days “when the sun whitened the basalt paving of the road and scorched the soil of the fields, and the heat in the small huts left no air for breathing.” Parents and children paddled in the water, and even elderly Jews stood in it up to their beards. But on the banks, men brooded about the ominous signs in Germany where Hitler’s enmity for the Jews was becoming clear among other threats, and a cloud came over this day of pleasure in more ways than one.
April 17, 2020
The Sabbath has arrived, and in these troubled times, I found this excerpt about the celebration of the day and its loving description of shtetl life comforting, and a reminder that there were happy days in towns and villages who would undergo such hardships and destruction.
The allure of this account is in the details, so I won’t spoil them other than to share with you this lyrical ending:
“The shul grows dim [as the sun sets and the lamps stay unlit]. Jews stroll about the shul, singing their prayers with utter sweetness. It is a holy atmosphere. People are transformed into shadows. The prayer-leader is also a shadow, and all are bound up into one prayerful choir. I feel as if the roof is opening, the words floating up, up, becoming luminous, and turning into fiery arrows, shimmering and flashing like lightning-bolts. In turn, the heavens open, angels with fiery wings are singing praises to the Throne of Glory. Elye-Leyb is standing, humbly, next to Him.”
To this day, the last laugh of our dear, sweet children echoes in my ears …”
This is a heart-breaking account by Helen Kajman of events that culminated in a prison cell in Bialystock in 1943, aptly titled “The Last Laugh of the Children of Ostrolenka” from the Yizkor book of that town in Poland. It is a story of children who suffered but also found moments for games, and singing and telling stories. It is also the story of anguished parents who knew they could do little for their children, particularly the hungry and sick.
“Szlomit, my child, do you blame me?,” Kajman tells one of her two children. “I won't be able to help you, I won't be able to save you.”
One night her daughter sings a song for the prisoners: “Everyone listened intently. From the depths of her little heart, her thin voice, expressing longing and love, shattered the darkness and the heavy atmosphere in our cell. When she finished, she said to me, “I sang to my father. Every evening, we will hug each other like this and sing, just like I did today. Right, Mother?”
On a Thursday in December 1943, the children were cruelly taken away. Forty-four children, of 312 Jews.
April 3, 2020
“The epidemic was halted thanks to the supervisory efforts of the authorities over hygiene and meticulous cleanliness, as well as to the fact that no person was permitted to travel from city to city without an examination and a shot against disease.”
How familiar does this sound now? This excerpt from the Yizkor book of Zawiercie, Poland goes beyond the title of the chapter, “The Sanitation Situation in the City.” Sanitation was an obvious place for the excerpt to start given that poorer people did not have the kind of access to good hygiene practices as the well-off, and that sewage often poured in the streets. But the chapter goes on to describe how women in childbirth were cared for (“It was a fact that a Jewish woman never gave birth in a hospital”), remedies against the “evil eye” and the power of incantations.
March 27, 2020
One theme I’ve seen across many Yizkor book excerpts is how crucial children were to the survival of their families and towns as they tried to survive under the boot of the Nazis whether in towns or ghettos. “About the Heroic Role of the Jewish Children During Nazi Rule” from the Yizkor book of Tarnow, Poland puts a spotlight on this story and how important the children were in getting food to people and helping in many other ways. They would stand on endless lines for food and endanger themselves by sneaking post German guards in order to smuggle bread, flour and potatoes. “The intrepid Jewish children filled an original, rebellious, function with a rare heroism,” recounts the writer of this chapter.
But these “small children from five to eight years old, with small emaciated little bodies” paid a price like all Jews. They were beaten when caught, and the first victims during the Nazis’ murder aktsias and deportations were the Jewish children.
March 20, 2020
There are two threads that run through “My Home Town, Kalvarija” from the Yizkor book of that town in Lithuania: an account of the reasons that so many people started to emigrate elsewhere and how memories of the shtetl led to so much longing for what had been and was no more.
Israel Matz was born in Kalvaria in 1869. After emigrating to America in 1890, by which time many Kalvarier Jews already had deep roots in New York and elsewhere in America. He became an accountant, then entered the pharmaceutical business and founded the Ex-Lax Company in 1906. He was a dedicated Zionist throughout his years and worked to keep Hebrew as a living language, and just a language devoted to rituals and prayers.
Unlike others who disembarked upon the day of his arrival, there were no family or friends there to meet him, but others “began to console, encourage and express sympathy for me. After all, Jews are merciful and sons of the merciful!” As a prelude to recounting his memories of his home town, he recalls: “When they asked me, “Where are you from?” and I answered, ‘From Kalvarija,’ the sympathy changed into a sort of expression of envy. If this was so, they said, you are already taken care of—Kalvarier Jews here are all well off.
I think you will enjoy reading his descriptions of life in Kalvaria — both the joys and the hardships.
March 13, 2020
I struggled this week to find a Yizkor book excerpt that felt right to me. The last few weeks have been grim ones for many, out of fear of the coronavirus, the sicknesses and deaths it has caused, and the disruptions to peoples’ lives. As important as it is to constantly remind ourselves of the overwhelming horrors of the Holocaust, my heart wasn’t in a dark excerpt. A pleasant slice-of-life chapter also seemed out of place this week.
So, instead I collected some passages about caring for the sick — “a custom so embedded in Jewish tradition that even the non-religious Jews observed it scrupulously,” according to the Yizkor book of Zloczew, Poland. Part of the tradition was represented by the concept of Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick), which also was a social institution in many communities. “We know that a healthy person needs a friend, the sick person needs even more a human being that is willing to listen to him,” the Zloczew book says. The book of Rozniatow, Ukraine remembers that family members of an ill person “would leave their business and activities and devote their energies [which] would be drained from the effort of caring for the sick person,” and that Bikur Cholim would find ways to give them some rest. A chapter in the book of Sokolivka, Ukraine recounts: “When an epidemic broke out, such as the cholera, there were people who volunteered to wage war against the disease. Healthy and courageous men did not flinch from the danger.”
March 6, 2020
“Verdict Without Appeal” is an entry from the diary of Dr. P. Czerniak in the Yizkor book of Antopol (Belarus). It is a chapter that drips with bitterness, born of the author’s indignation about the fate awaiting himself and other Jews, but also the very in-your-face insult of living life as someone deemed inferior to a “pure-blooded” former classmate who had risen in the world despite his incompetency.
Dr. Smirnov had been a bad student in high school but went on to become director of health services for the region after attending a university where the Czerniak had been refused. “When the Germans arrived, he became important - a man with Slavic Aryan blood in his veins and a diploma in his pocket. It did not matter much what he had, or did not have, in his brain.” Czerniak lived in the ghetto, but “whenever something happened in the hospital, which Dr. Smirnov did not know how to handle, he would come running out of breath to ask my help.”
Czerniak, who had been left alive because there were no Christian doctors in Antopol, writes: “Why is this absolute nonentity now a free physician in control, even though it is clear that the distance between him and the Jew-dog is the distance of long years of evolution of the human species on earth? Why, after all, is he sure of his life and is entitled to it, while I am sure of death and am not entitled to live?”
As the two of them walked together one day, Smirnov answered the question.
February 28, 2020
One of the most contentious face-offs in the Jewish shtetls of Europe was between the Hasidim and Zionists, who Hasids fiercely opposed on a variety of theological and spiritual grounds, but most notably because they saw it as a secular movement. (Zionists also found themselves in competition with Jewish Bundists who favored fighting for economic betterment at home rather than emigration to Israel). “Herzl’s Memorial Day in Staszow,” from the Yizkor book of that Polish shtetl, recounts the efforts of a group of young students to press the cause of Zionism in their town by marking the anniversary of the death of Theodore Herzl, who founded the movement.
The account provides an insight into what motivated some young Zionists. The author remembers that “from childhood on, I constantly felt that in Staszów you had to live in fear,” whether from Christians, Russian soldiers or Polish police. But when a letter arrived from an official of Hovevei Zion (the “Lovers of Zion”), thanking the students for wanting to further the cause, “it was like a spiritual catharsis, which freed us from those fears.”
The students gave it their best try, but all did not go well after an ardent Hasid stepped in.
February 21, 2020
“The history of Jewish names is a study on its own and leaves a wide valley to wander in” begins “The Study of Names” from the Yizkor book of Bobrka (Boiberke) in the Ukraine. It’s an often amusing account of how Jews acquired decent names, indecent names and nicknames, not to mention names glued to people by the authorities “and at times with malice.” One protection was the Jewish tradition of naming children: “Each Jew, apart from his name he carried his father's and his mother's names and the name that was added to him from his connection to his respected mother in-law… Could you bring it to your mind that a father will name his son using an indecent name?”
For some, it did not work out for the best: one young woman had “reached the age of marriage, but a savior was not found for her, because her father's name was “Hershel Berer” meaning Blen [bath attendant], an occupation that was not considered to be proper for match-making.” Or they had to go through life with nicknames like Leyzale the Floy [Flea] (due to her miniature size), or Yankel Zindel, meaning, Yankel the Stammer (because “cut of his speech was not very smooth.”)
Keila Yevreyski-Kremer is in a suffocating, overcrowded railroad car packed with Jews who are starving and in near-panic as the train heads to Treblinka. She stands up on tip-toe to look out a little narrow window to see the world she would soon have to leave forever. “The earth is covered with a thick layer of snow, shining against the light of the moon. In the wide white field stand little trees, set in rows, standing motionless in the stillness of the evening,” she writes. “The air is pure, transparent. A great wide world is around us; no one can be seen anywhere. And here in the car – what a contrast! Hundreds of people lie tossed about, without air, and are being led to the slaughter. “
“On the Road to Treblinka” is a chapter from the Yizkor book of Goniadz, Poland. It is a wrenching account of that train trip. But some of the doomed decide to try to jump from the train, one crying out: “Let's not lose courage. We'll never be too late for death. Let's go on running; when the train is moving let's jump through the window. I'll jump; who will come with me?”
Kremer was one of those who did: “And by jumping to my death I chanced to remain alive.”
February 7, 2020
J. Orbach’s wife Chaike had been caught by the Germans during a rebel group operation and murdered by the head of the Gestapo in Grodno, Poland. Both of his children would meet the same fate at the hands of “the bloodthirsty murderer Kurt Viso.” Later, Orbach found himself in the woods with other Grodno refugees remembering “our past beautiful lives” and thinking of revenge. As told in the chapter “The Past Horror,” from the Yizkor book of Zaglebie (Poland), the band learns that the men of the Grodno Gestapo, including Viso, are heading for a meeting in a nearby town. Their leader says he knows they can’t hope to kill all the Gestapo men, “but we can and we ought to say that Viso shall not reach it alive." They attacked the car carrying the Germans with automatic weapons and grenades. The peaceful stillness of the woods filled with the sharp screams of the Germans.
Viso was not killed that day. But Orbach saw him brought to justice years later.
One dark cloud that hung over the head of many Jews in the Pale was the prospect of getting conscripted into the Russian army. This loomed large after Czar Nicholas, in 1827, made Jews liable to army service and cancelled their prior privilege of providing money ransom instead of conscripts. In “Military Conscription in Lipkan” from the Yizkor book of that Moldovan town, the writer recounts: “There were four ways to get out of being drafted, and these four ways were each designated with a ticket of a different color. There was a white one, a blue one, a red one, and a green one. A white ticket meant that the young man was very ill–with heart disease or tuberculosis, or something else of which he had no hope of being cured.” There were many ways to achieve this ranging from starving one’s self or shaving one’s head so as to look younger than the required age of 21 to the examiners. Other Yizkor books have accounts of young Jews maiming themselves (such as by cutting off a finger). If someone did not report for the draft, his closest family had to pay a fine of 300 rubles (a fine that was apparently levied on some of my own ancestors who left Kovel for America in 1904, according to records I found).
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is on Monday. There are many gripping accounts of that tragic time contained in Yizkor books. I wanted to find an excerpt for this week that captured those memories in a special way. There is perhaps no more eloquent expression of grief and pain and anger than what people say when they know they are facing death in days or hours. Such last words were written by Jews on the walls of the Great Synagogue in Kovel (Ukraine), where they had been rounded up and taken to await extermination. They wrote with pencils, pens or whatever other implements they could find. Shlomo Perlmutter, who visited the synagogue after the war, was struck by one note whose writer “had obviously spent much effort to do it with his finger nails in the hard wall… There were dried blood stains near the writing.”
The notes which follow Perlmutter’s account speak for themselves.
Poverty was a constant in the shtetls of Europe. Many were born to it, others fell into it. The latter was the case for Reb Benyamin the Tailor, a specialist in sewing by hand who was once overloaded with work until the arrival of tailors with sewing machines. But the poignance of this excerpt from the Yizkor book of Czyzew-Osada is the pain he felt about the grim situation that befell a family with no money and in debt. “What will happen to them?” asked his wife, holding in the tears and pointing to the two boys, shriveled, with small, pale faces who stood near her holding on to her dress and the nursing child in her arms. “There is not a groshn of money in the house, not even a piece of bread.”
But Reb Benyamin could not hold back the tears as he trudged to the nearby villages to see if he could find some sewing work among the peasants. Suffering poverty was not new to him, but “a man can only cry like this under oppressive need when the heart melts looking at his hungry and naked, shriveled small children.”
January 10, 2020
“My Mother’s Reminiscences of her Shtetl,” from the Yizkor book of Yedwabne (Poland), is a remembrance by noted scholar William W. Brickman who was born on New York’s Lower East Side in 1913. This excerpt is animated by the mother, Chayeh Soreh, whose “unparalleled sense of humor expressed itself in rhymes, bilingual puns, and stories” which Brickwell recounts in Yiddish along with the English translation. A priceless one is the comment she would make after going to a wedding or Bar Mitzvah meal that was wanting: "Fish un flaysh ayin lo roassa, tish un benk azay vi holtz," or “No one ever saw fish and meat, but tables and benches were as abundant as wood.” Immigrants on the Lower East Side whose practice of Jewish law in America did not match their standard in the Old Country would be characterized as follows : "In der haym, az er hot gehaysen Mendel, hot men gemegt essen fun zyn fendel; in Amerikeh, az men ruft em Max, meg men by em nor essen lox," or, “In Europe, where he was known by the Jewish name of Mendel, one could eat everything at his home; in America, with the non-Jewish name of Max, one can eat only smoked salmon.”
January 3, 2020
If there was an “appliance” that occupied a central place in many Jewish homes, it was the samovar. “Reincarnations of a Samovar” from a chapter titled “From Kheyder--to the Cemetery” in the Yizkor book of Dokszyc-Parafianow (Belarus) lovingly recounts the history of one family’s samovar, from the giving of it as a gift at the wedding of the writer’s grandfather, to its loss when it had to be sold at auction to pay off the “streams of endless different taxes” imposed by the Polish government to its miraculous reappearance after the author returned to his shtetl after the Nazi occupation.
The chapter is also full of wonderful descriptions of Jewish life, but the samovar is the star of this excerpt.
“What a samovar is to a Jewish home, I need not say...tea in the morning and evenings...hot water for washing diapers and swaddling cloths, bathing children, filling flasks and compresses, clean away bedbugs, blanching poppy seeds, washing laundry and for warm water for baking bread." It was used in times of illness to make steam for whoever was sick. But its gifts went beyond just its many practical uses: "In the long evenings of the cold winter nights when it was snowy outside, the blizzard clapping on the shutters, howling in the chimneys, the ice cracks, the windows are frosted - the house is heated, it is warm and the samovar boils on the table."
December 27, 2019
“We Want to Live” is in the JewishGen collection of Yizkor books but it is not a Yizkor book in the sense that it is a chronicle specifically devoted to a town or region. In it, Jacob Rassen describes the tragic events that occurred between 1941 and 1945 across Lithuania, Latvia, Byelorussia, Poland and elsewhere. This excerpt from the book begins in Dvinsk [now Daugavpils, Latvia] where a ruthless three-day aktion in the ghetto in November 1941 robbed him of his family and everything he loved, and drove him to the brink of suicide. “But bit by bit other thoughts began to press into my mind," he recalls telling himself. "Why should I go away of my own free will, run away like a coward from the mean world, and not even lift a finger to take revenge on the heartless villains and criminals, the cold and conscienceless mass murderers, the beasts in human form?” He went on to fight with partisans who tracked down remnants of Latvian, Lithuanian, and German fighter units. “With what pleasure did I, myself, with my own hands, shoot three of the murderers who had, exactly a year before, at Zlekas, murdered my comrades?” he writes of that time.
He survived and returned to Dvinsk.
“I had not wept for a very long time, my heart having been turned to stone, but now ...now the accumulated suffering and pain tore open and broke out in a stream of lament and tears. I wept, bitterly wept, over the fate of those who were tortured and those who survived – over the bitter fate of all of us.”
Ultimately, he settled in America.
December 20, 2019
One of the most well-known eyewitness accounts of Nazi brutality is one written by German-born Hermann Friedrich Graebe about the mass-killing that took place in Dubno in 1942. Graebe joined the Nazi party in 1931, but soon became disenchanted with it and was openly critical about the Nazis’ campaign against Jewish businesses. He witnessed the Dubno events during his time as a manager of a German construction firm in the Ukraine — one that employed a Jewish workforce to build and renovate structures needed for railroad communications.
His account — “Testimony about the slaughter in Dubno” —is included in the Yizkor book of Dubno (Ukraine). Graebe was recognizied by Yad Vashem in 1965 as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
December 13, 2019
Hanukkah is approaching so I thought I’d help you welcome it with three vignettes of the holiday drawn from the Yizkor books of Strzyzow and Kaluszyn in Poland, and Gorodets in Belarus. Some extracts:
“When Hanukkah eve arrived and the Almighty was good to us children and sent us down the first pure white snow, it was for us the greatest happiness and exhilaration. Snowballs were thrown at the sextons while they were reciting the blessings during the candle lighting ceremony” ... “The Chanukah nights were studded with stars. The snow glistened as if to light up God's little acre. On Layzer Farber's hill squeaked little sleighs and on the sidewalks of the main street unhurriedly promenaded young couples dreaming of their future happiness” … “The Chanukah nights were bright and joyful. The smell of latkes wafted from all windows until late into the night. The Chanukah candles flickered slowly; one by one the shutters closed, and the night enfolded the little wooden houses of the town. From a distance one could hear only the creaking of the train wheels at the station at Mrozy. Or was it already the sound of the Angel of Death flapping his wings on his way to the shtetl” … “The lit wicks of the Hanukkah-Menorah, on the window sills of houses, light up the street around them and warm the hearts of children. I stand and watch the burning candle and Hannah and her seven sons march before my eyes. They paid with their life because they were not tempted to betray their belief and their people. Then I see Matityahu the Cohen and Yehuda Maccabee with his soldiers and it seems to me that the Hanukkah candles are in fact a yortzeit [memorial candle lit once a year] candle for the soldiers killed in the revolt.”
December 6, 2019
“With a heavy heart I walked around the shtetl where a warm Jewish life once pulsed.”
So begins “On the Vestiges of a Disappeared Jewish Life” from the Yizkor book of Czyzew-Osada, Poland. What sets this excerpt apart from others recounting their return to their devastated and unrecognizable hometowns after the Holocaust is the depth of the conversations the writer, Y. Dawidowicz, has with those who witnessed the horrors that befell the Jews of Czyzewo. Some of these were Poles who had been sympathetic to the Jews, including one old man who was threatened by Polish nationalists and, years later, could still barely speak because of the fear that had been struck in him. Another was a socialist who spoke of “Jewish friends whom I will never forget because of their honesty and heartfelt humanity.” After the liberation from the Nazis he then had to witness “the Night of the Long Knives” when leaders of the Polish underground slaughtered Jews who had begun to return. The criminals, he said, were never apprehended.
Dawidowicz encounters an old Christian women who broke down in tears as she remembered the horrible things that had happened, and when he told her not to cry, she said, “One must, one must; terrible things happened here.”
The old stationmaster of the town tells him in a tortured voice: "“We knew that they were being taken to their death and we did nothing but watch, as if they were dogs, not people with whom we had lived together for tens of years…”
In the end, Dawidowicz wrote: “I was tormented by disgust for everything around me and for myself. I had the feeling that I was walking around a terribly contagious filth of crimes and decadence that would not let me buy back [Jewish Czyzewo] at any price.”
November 29, 2019
“The next morning, the Brzeziner ghetto was empty of children.”
This one sentence from “There Once Was a Jewish Shtetl Brzezin” from the Yizkor book of Brzeziny, Poland is one of the heart-stopping reminders of the inhumanity of the Germans as they occupied Jewish towns. It started with house searches and looting, round-ups for work, insults, humiliation, beatings, and torture. Jews were stripped of the last remnants of their possessions. The Germans “wanted women, and the Judenrat had to provide women.” For a while, time went by with daily hardships and cruelties, “one could say, 'normally.' We somehow survived,” wrote the author of this account.
Then, in 1942, the order was given by an SS commander that mothers had to bring their children, up to the age of ten, to him. Mothers and children remain in the town square until 3 a.m. when a great commotion began and “the SS men tear the children away from their mothers … Children scream and cry, “Mama, I want to go with you, Mamusia.” … The mothers plead, “Take us along also; we want to go together with our children.”
“Several days later, they did the same thing to the grown-ups that they did to the children … Within a short time later, the Brzezin ghetto was liquidated – Brzezin was cleansed of Jews.”
November 22, 2019
The phrase “turning back the clock” takes on a whole new meaning in this week’s chapter, “In Mezritch,” from the Yizkor book of Miedzyrzec Podlaski, Poland.
Brush-making was one of the big industries in Mezritch. The town had more bristle workers (1,200) than any other city in the Siedlce region in eastern Poland. At the beginning of the 1890s, the day of the bristle workers In Mezritch was 17-18 hours. They worked in low, small houses with awful sanitary conditions as they toiled with iron combs used to comb raw pig hair. They worked amid clouds of dust in the air during the work, making breathing difficult. The odor of pig hair mixed with that from the kerosene which was used to oil the combs, and heightened the stench that came from the lamps.
One wealthy factory owner named Mosehl Chazirnik put his own finishing touch on the long days of his workers. His factories would operate on Saturdays, after the Sabbath was over, until midnight. Workers, of course, had their eyes on the clock, but it “was a strange clock... it played tricks. It would be 11:30, and then suddenly move back to 11:15. When it was already 11:45…one would look at the clock, and see that it had fallen back by ten minutes.” That went on until, one night, a worker looked down the hallway and saw that “Moshel Chazirnik, wearing his housecoat, was standing on a stool near the wall clock, turning back the hands of the clock.” (I won't spoil the fun of reading what ensued after Chazimik was caught red-handed). To make a long story short, there was no more pig hair brushed that night. And for some time after. It was 1900 and the bristle workers went out on strike for the first time.
November 15, 2019
In the 1930s, Coney Island, Brighton Beach and Sea Gate in Brooklyn was home to many Yiddish speakers. (In more recent years, Brighton Beach has become more known for its large population of Russian immigrants, earning it the name “Little Odessa.”) The area also attracted noted Yiddish writers including Isaac Bashevis Singer and his brother I.J. Singer. Among these authors was Yona Rozenfeld, perhaps best known for the autobiographical novel Eyner aleyn (All Alone) published in 1940. Rozenfeld is the subject of a chapter bearing his name in the Yizkor book of Kovel (formerly part of Poland, now in the Ukraine) by another novelist, Yohanan Twersky.
Twersky describes much of Rosenfeld’s life and work in his chapter, but what drew me most of all were his descriptions of Brighton Beach where he moved in 1937. “The beach looked like an altar to sun and water when we stood at the windows of our apartment,” he wrote. “It was summer 1937 and Hitler’s shadow was spreading and growing… (but) here it is easier to ignore world problems since they are only possibilities at this time.” What was harder to ignore was the sufferings of Rozenfeld who was dying of cancer, and the narrative of Brighton Beach and Rozenfeld become intertwined.
November 8, 2019
November 1, 2019
October 25, 2019
October 18, 2019
October 11, 2019
October 4, 2019
September 27, 2019
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July 12, 2019
“The laughter of Jewish children will never again echo in the marketplace,” writes the author, Leon Bernstein. That laughter, he says, “the laughter of Lithuanian peasants must not disturb the rest of our murdered generation; young Lithuanians in their Sunday drunkenness must not compete with one another: I murdered three, and I, five…” He recalls times when Shkud was “a happy, lively shtetl,” such as in the 1920s when industrialization made the town a prosperous place, though it came at the cost of some traditional occupations.
“Only the heirs of its memory remain, a handful of Jews in America, in Israel, in South Africa.”
July 5, 2019
June 28, 2019
June 21, 2019
Schlomo Perlmutter was another returnee. In “Writings on the Wall,” he too found only a small handful of survivors (six) and was grief-stricken by the devastation: “There was no trace left of the beautiful station. Kovel was a mountain of ruins… There were abandoned houses, burned bricks, broken pieces of furniture. The grass growing on the side of the road dimmed its color.” Like Moshe Goodman, he was awed by what he found in the abandoned Great Synagogue. “Hundreds and thousands of writings were etched on its white walls. Scores of Hebrew and foreign letters were drawn on them. Letters written in pencil, ordinary and unsharpened, in colored pencils, with pen and ink and some even scratched with finger nails” — all “blood cries for help in their sentence to death” from the Jews held captive there before being killed. These writings on the wall were transcribed and collected in the Kovel book, and you can find them here: https://bit.ly/2WMZWVz
June 14, 2019
This is a long book (you can read the entire translation here: https://bit.ly/2IBlFuT) and I’ve excerpted a passage that describes the wonders of the town’s fairs and the fear sown by Ukrainians who were stirring up anti-Jewish passions in the area. (The good news is that the townspeople taught them a lesson when they tried to stir trouble). There are many Yizkor book accounts celebrating the fairs of the shtetls, but what I loved about this one was the way the narrator draws a vivid picture of the array of regional clothing and their colors. and the Babel of different languages of the different peoples who thronged to the town. “The attire was a witness to their lives,” he says. And of the business of the fair itself, he adds: “When I remember our market, I suddenly see before my eyes how the buyers and sellers slapped their palms strongly during the long and fervid process of haggling over the price – such sights were real theatrical scenes and I loved to watch these debates and slaps of the palms, until finally, finally… until both hands already were swollen.”
June 7, 2019
May 31, 2019
Soon word came “that it was still quiet in the Bialystok ghetto” where many Sokoly Jews had gathered, and Bubcha saw the chance for her and her family to be once again “together with their brothers the Children of Israel.” The young man in the household that had taken the Safrans in told her she faced certain death and implored her not to go. The ghetto is where the author of this chapter encountered her. “We parted, and I never saw her again.”
May 24, 2019
When his earnings were not enough, he worked as a helper in the synagogue. When the sexton’s daughter scandalized the congregation by converting to Christianity and marrying a Pole, Todres took his place, winning over those who were less than happy about his new role. He brought home every penny he earned to his wife (who cooked for him meals that were “very far from good and tasty.”) Todres’ story, “Image of Ordinary People,” is from the Yizkor book of Sopotkin, Belarus.
May 17, 2019
May 10, 2019
May 3, 2019
April 26, 2019
April 19, 2019
Unsurprisingly, many of the chapters in nearly every book contains accounts — firsthand, or passed-on to others — of the days of destruction. Those chapters, as hard as some of them are to read because of the horrors they vividly depict, tend to be the ones that get the most reaction from the Facebook page readers, followed by stories of when Jews fought back, either in their own occupied towns or by fleeing to the forests to join anti-Nazi partisans. Readers also respond to the heart-wrenching accounts of Jews who returned to their old homes after the defeat of the Nazis, only to find nothing.
But you can only serve up so many of these nightmares week after week. So I leaven stories such as those I described above with the many delights that can be found in the books: the description of the town fairs and market days, the food, the humor in the nicknames townspeople gave each other and the favorite sayings they adopted, the odd characters that could be found in every shtetl, and the lovingly-described rituals of weddings and religious holidays. There are also many stories about the grinding poverty and struggles to make ends meet, but although they can be sobering, they are also a testament to the resiliency of Jewish life.Individual chapters are too long to reproduce here in their entirety, so here are some short excerpts of the kinds of things I’ve described above.One of the biggest responses among JewishGen readers was to “The Last Will and Testament of Fania Barbakov” from the Yizkor book of Druya, Belarus which recounted the final short letters she wrote while she and her family hid in a bunker in the ghetto before they were discovered by the Germans.
April 12, 2019
April 5, 2019
Passover will soon be upon us and what better reading could there be than “Holidays and Ceremonies,” a long chapter from the Yizkor book of Rietavas, Lithuania (or Riteve). “Holidays were given to man in order that he should be with himself, with his thoughts and with his people,” the author writes. This is a chapter you may want to keep, because it vividly describes in detail the lives and traditions of the people of Riteve during the Sabbath and all the holidays of the year. The remembrance of Passover in Riteve tells of the ritual and celebration of the holiday, but also includes an “unforgettable” Passover eve when the community was thrown into “fear and panic” because of an event very similar to the one that led to the 1905 pogroms in Kishinev, Moldavia when a gentile boy went missing and Jews faced the same “blood libel” — that the blood of the lost child had been used for the baking of their matzo. Through a “miracle,” the boy was found and tragedy averted and the community could go on to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer and then Shavout which “carried the true grace of the awakening of nature” when “the earth would grow flowers and grass. The trees would blossom and the birds would sing.”
March 29, 2019
March 22, 2019
March 15, 2019
March 8, 2019
March 1, 2019
February 22, 2019
February 15, 2019
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February 1, 2019
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December 29, 2017
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