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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/3eKya6K
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
- As if suffering through the horrors of the Nazi occupation was not enough, many of those who survived grappled with sorrow and loss when they returned to their home towns and found little or nothing left of the people and places they had known. “Dabrowa without Jews,” from the Yizkor book of Dabrowa Gornicza in Poland, is Juda Parasol’s account of returning to the town where he was born after a 15 year absence. He had been expelled to Siberia and, while there, received a last letter from his father wishing the family could be together again. But they had all died in Auschwitz. “Now I am standing in front of my father's house, and tears of murdered blood wash the windows,” Parasol laments. “The doors in front of me are locked and a cold, distant wind blows from them. The heart no longer wants to believe that here once lived Jews.”
November 1, 2019
- “My Shtetle Vizna,” from the Yizkor book of Slutsk in Belarus presents a vivid and wonderful slice of daily life during a week in the town — from the bustling of the market place to the celebration of the Sabbath. (Vizna is west of Slutsk, near Bialystock.) It begins with the author’s mother driving the family’s cow along with a stick, the Jews dashing to synagogue, a woman hawking her pierogis, and the meticulous preparations and observation of the Sabbath, described in great detail. After services, the author remembers, as a boy, strolling “past the ritual bath, to the woods. We talk, swing on the trees and I hear words in the swaying of the branches. I touch a leaf and feel a pulse in my body. I lie down in the grass. My gaze wanders toward the tops of the tall trees. On the way home, fields with stalks of corn spread before us, swaying, bowing, falling to their knees; they are speaking to us.”
October 25, 2019
- As the Nazis began to liquidate the ghettos, one of the ways Jews tried to hold on to life was to set up labor camps to do work for the Germans. One such community of Jews who did so in 1942 was Skalat, in western Ukraine. As recounted by Abraham Weissbrod in the Yizkor book “Death of a Shtetl,” life in these camps was miserable: “After several weeks people were hardly recognizable: spiritually broken and physically exhausted, with no will or reason to live.” It did buy time for those who labored there, but as word spread of annihilations of other camps, the Jews there knew they were living on marked time. In 1943, there was an “action” that took the lives of about 200 Jews, with small groups managing to escape. That opened the chapter to a second cause of hope for survival with the arrival of Soviet partisans who drove off German and Ukrainian fighters and reoccupied the town. “Many Jews believed that salvation had truly arrived” but that, too, proved to be illusory. The partisans departed, the Germans returned and the SS machine-gunned all the Jews they could round up. This final mass murder put an end to Jewish life in Skalat.
October 18, 2019
- You’re living in a small shtetl in Belarus, or anywhere else in the Pale, and you get sick. Or have a toothache. Or get something in your eye. You need a doctor. A dentist. A pharmacy to duck into and get some eye wash. But in many towns, there was no doctor, or dentist or pharmacy. The “doctor” in town had never studied medicine and, in “Folk Medicine” from the Yizkor book of Horodetz (Gorodets) Belarus, the author’s father became a widely-known healer pretty much by accident. The “dentist” was Asher Dovid, the town’s ritual slaughterer, whose technique was to talk away the toothache. (You could also put garlic on the hurting tooth or “or wear the left shoe on the right foot against Jewish customs). If there was no pharmacy to get some eye wash for the bit of sand in your eye, there was always Yitzhak Aharon who “was an expert in licking an eye.” There were also midwives, exorcists and specialists in casting spells to deal with different ailments. And so, “This is how Jews lived, became sick, recovered and died in Horodets.”
October 11, 2019
- As a young girl, Esther Brand was “Saved by Righteous Gentiles” — the title of her account from the Yizkor book of Turka, a town that sat by the Stryj River in western Ukraine. At times, she walked the streets not wearing the yellow Star of David patch as ordered by the Germans on pain of death, but one day she was overtaken by fear and put it on her arm. She approached a farmer to ask if he would like to purchase kitchen utensils from her house in exchange for food, but once there, he said to her: “I saw announcements that you must be prepared to go to the Sambor Ghetto. We have no children at home, and we want to perform a good deed in this world and save a young soul from extermination.” And for two years, he did just that, hiding her in a crate, and then a haystack and then his attic. She witnessed the fate she had avoided befalling other Jews of Turka, watching from a window for hours as the Jews were being marched to the Sambor ghetto, “walking with suitcases, packages and sacks. Some wept, and others were just sad. From time to time, they peered backward, as if to cast a final glance at their houses in which they and their ancestors had lived - and who knew if they would see them again.” Esther did get to see Turka again after the Soviets drove out the Germans. But all that was left “was a heap of ruins, without any Jewish remnant.”
October 4, 2019
- The New York Times reported last week that “for years, there have been fragmentary reports of almost unbelievable acts of faith at the Nazi death camps during World War II: the sounding of shofars … traditionally blown by Jews to welcome the High Holy Days.” Experts found these accounts credible and a shofar said to have been blown at one of the camps is part of a traveling expedition with a stop at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust JewishGen.org is an affiliate. (You can see the article here: https://nyti.ms/2kYS0Up) Such a memory is recorded in a chapter from the Yizkor book of Strzyzow, Poland titled “’Kol Nidre’ in Auschwitz.” The Jews of the camp had “had promised ourselves for a long time that this year we would conduct Kol Nidrei services,” and, those who could, gathered in one of the barracks to offer their prayers. From outside they could hear wailing — the sounds of 4,000 suffering and naked women being marched to the crematorium. The rabbi’s “voice was heard in the stillness of the barracks as if an echo was responding to the wailing of the women. His voice sounded clearly and when he reached the verse: ‘who shall perish by fire...’ -- a lamentation came out of everyone's throat, repeating the Rabbi's words as if from the world beyond." “And suddenly, in the middle of the prayers, the sound of the shofar was heard.” After the services were over ...“The crematoriums, which were surrounded by a grove, were burning all night. The ovens were not big enough.”
September 27, 2019
- During World War 1, it was the Russian Army that the Jews of Vasilishki, Belarus feared as its soldiers made their Great Retreat as the pre-Nazi Germans advanced. “People went from one to the other, seeking advice as to how to rescue oneself because one heard that when the Russians leave, they cause pogroms, rape women, destroy everything, and set fire to the shtetl. This caused everyone to be deathly afraid.” “Yom Kippur in the Forest,” a chapter from the Vasilishki section of the Yizkor book of Shchuchin, Lida District, Vilna and Grodno Gubernii is the story of Jews fleeing for their lives as the holiest of days approached. It was cloudy with a light rain as they reached what they hoped was a safe haven and ate the last meal before the fast on Erev Yom Kippur. The Russians did loot the houses before they left, but the story had a happy ending. The people were able to return to their shtetl. “That Sukkoth was truly a time of rejoicing for the Jews of Vasilishok.”
September 20, 2019
- Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe are nearly upon us. What better way to get into the feeling of this time of year is a chapter in the Vasilishki section of the Yizkor book of Shchuchin, Lida District, Vilna and Grodno Gubernii, now Belarus, titled “About the Old Home”“The approach of a holiday was felt in the air, especially when it was Rosh Hashanah,” wrote Yosef Ben-Abraham. He goes on to describe the town’s devout observation of Yom Kippur and the “awe and fear for the Day of Judgment.” On Rosh Hashanah, the stores closed early, the men with their wet beards could be seen returning from the mikveh and “dressed to the hilt, people hurried to synagogue.” And, as Yom Kippur approached, people “prepared ‘Yom Kippur Drops’ (ammonia) with which to revive a faint Jew or simply wake up a sleepy one by holding it to their nose and quickly run away so that they would not know who did it.”“When the High Holidays were over, it was as though a stone had fallen off one's heart. Everyone believed that the compassionate and Merciful One had listened to their prayers and will probably inscribe them for a good year.”
September 13, 2019
- Most of the Yizkor book excerpts I present each week are dramatic ones: harrowing tales of survival, grim tales of death and struggles of daily life. But I found myself touched by this affectionate portrait of a father in this chapter from the Yizkor book of Rokiskis, Lithuania. In “My Father’s Nigun” (melody), Shlomo Rubin remembers how his father — someone who had no education beyond the cheder and at a young age “had to hitch himself up to the wagon of life” — would wake up early, and fortified by tea, “read the Psalms with such a touching melody that engraved itself deep inside me.” He was a man who saved the best of the fish he sold from his cart for his poorer customers. And he was a man moved to copious tears in the synagogue, particularly during the Day of Awe, when his cries sounded like they had been “torn from the deepest cells in his heart—the pain that had collected in him during an entire year.”
September 6, 2019
- Yizkor books are full of accounts of Jews resisting the Nazis and other anti-Semites who persecuted them: uprisings in the ghettos of the camps, acts of heroism against those who tried to murder them, partisans dealing justice to the enemy. Aharon Moravtchik tells a different kind of story in “My Small Revenge for the Heinous Crime” from the Dayvd-Haradok (David Horodoker) Yizkor book. He “had lost my entire family, my wife, my four children, my parents, brothers and sisters, the entire Jewish community of my home town.” He had kept a list of names of those who had committed these crimes and, after the war was over in 1946, he resolved to “be the blood-avenger for my David-Horodoker brothers and sisters,” tracking down those involved in the atrocities that befell his town.
August 30, 2019
- “The horizon for the young Jewish common people was very limited,” writes Enoch Stein in a chapter on the small town of Raguva in northeastern Lithuania (from the Yizkor book of “Lite,” the Yiddish word for Lithuania). Work could be scarce and one of the respites of life was the arrival of the newspapers which were devoured “from the first page to the last, including advertisements, promotions and announcements.” Another diversion was romance — whether it was the arranged marriage or “the flirt” which produced marriages that came about “through love.” Stein recounts one arranged marriage, which didn’t work out so well, and recounts how young people set about to make matches on their own. This is an excerpt from a longer chapter.
August 23, 2019
- A “little brat” appears publicly "in broad daylight before a crowd of 10,000 goyim," kept them electrified for two solid hours, openly ridiculed Nikolai, and in order his ministers and nobles … “Truly the Napoleon of Lechowitz!” In this week’s excerpt, “Faivel Rivkin hits Nikolai,” from the Yizkor book of Lyakhavichy, Belarus Nikolai must be Tsar Nicholas II, no friend of the Jews, who reigned from 1894 until he was forced to abdicate in 1917 by the revolution. And the Monopoly must refer to the monopoly the government imposed on liquor distilling in 1897 which severely affected Jewish economic activity and was a reason many emigrated to America. This chapter tells of the “chutzpah” of 16-year old Faivel whose impassioned speech led to the sacking of the state liquor store leaving a mess of “crushed shelves and heaps of little pieces of glass” … and a lot of very drunk gentiles.
August 16, 2019
- The Nazi extermination camps epitomized the horror of the Holocaust, but so did the terrifying experience and inhuman conditions suffered by Jews packed into the trains that took them there. Some knew for sure what their fate would be, some did not or clung to slim hopes that they might survive. Zvi Faigenbaum “had no illusions concerning the intentions of the Germans” and was determined to escape. “We Jumped from the Railway Car of Death, from the Yizkor book of Wierzbnik, Poland, is his account of that escape, which he made with his daughter, and others in his rail car. Then it was a long journey through country where even sympathetic Poles feared for the lives if they helped or sheltered a Jew. Ultimately, he reached the Łuków ghetto. “For a time we were safe,” he wrote, “but only ‘for a time.’”
August 9, 2019
- “The Past Revisited” from the Yizkor book of Piotrkow, Poland is another story of a return “home” after the war and the Holocaust. Ben Giladi walked the streets that had once been alive with Jewish shops and street life but “now everything was closed and empty.” He remembered the delicatessen where “delicious wursht and parovkes had been a gastronomical treat.” He saw the schoolyard where he had seen Jews being killed. The synagogue still stood but was roofless and with its interior destroyed. “Such are the memories we cherish,” he wrote. “They are more than nostalgia for a home town. They are the memories of our earliest beginnings. Earliest beginnings may not always be pleasant, but they remind us of our youth and of our flesh and blood. We honor these all the days of our lives.”
August 2, 2019
- “During the entire time I was in Treblinka, my thoughts moved in only one direction: not to die in such a horrible way,” writes Dudek Lewkowicz. His story. “What I Saw in Treblinka,” from the Yizkor book of Piotrkow Trybunalski, Poland, is a catalog of cruelty and horrors starting with the deportation of Jews from the from the Piotrkow ghetto to the arrival at the death camp and sorting of the prisoners, and finally the tortures suffered within it, added to by an outbreak of typhus. Many thought of trying to escape but few had the courage to try. “We would be running from one danger to another. Where could a Jew go then, and who would have permitted him to enter, especially in that region where poor Ukrainians lived.” But Dudek planned carefully and, with a friend, made his escape. The dangers facing him were not over, but he lived to tell this story.
July 26, 2019
- Yekhiel Kirshnbaum remembers that after the Germans had been defeated, there were Jews who believed they could return home and live peacefully in Poland even after the brutal experiences of Nazi rule and the war. He tried and found “that turned out to be an illusion. I too had fooled myself.” His chapter from the Yizkor book of Minsk-Mazowiecki fittingly is titled “City Without Jews.” He had survived a pogrom in Minsk where a beating by hooligans put him in a cast for nine months, and then hid out until the liberation in the Praga district of Warsaw. Returning to Minsk, he walked the city “without meeting a single familiar and cheerful face” and where people looked at him as if he was a madman. He tried carving out a life in the “new” Poland for the next 24 years and decided it was a mistake. “It's good that nothing will ever again bring me back to this place which has become so strange to me,” he writes. He left for Israel in 1968. This is a section from a much longer chapter that you can find here: https://bit.ly/2Y5b01e
July 19, 2019
- “My Shtetele Vizna” from the Yizkor book of Slutsk in Belarus is a pleasant interlude after so many weekly excerpts recounting the suffering of the Jews in Europe. Yisrovl Kantor lovingly describes the people and daily life of the town in happier times. The first paragraph sets the tone of this story: “The sun has still not arisen in the sky, but there's already a gentle warmth in the air. The Jewish cattle crawl out of their stalls and arrange themselves at the marketplace in a herd. The sound of their mooing mixes with the crack of the cowherd's whip. A young gentile lad with a blond, wind-tossed forelock gazes into the distance with small, keen eyes. My mother drives our cow along with a stick. It joins the others heading toward the pasture.”
July 12, 2019
- Jews both prospered and suffered grievously during their long history in Lithuania. “My Shtetele Shkud” (Skuodas) tells of both. The chapter is from a book titled “Lita,” a history of the 700 years life of Lithuanian Jewry. (Lita refers in Yiddish to the area where Lithuanian Jews lived). The Jewish Lithuanian population before World War II numbered around 160,000, a number that swelled to more than 200,000 as Jews fled Poland believing they would be safer there during its short-lived occupation by the Red Army. Under the Nazi occupation in 1941, 180,000 had perished in pogroms and organized mass killings.
“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
- “Every city has its madmen.” Tarnow, Poland was no exception according to a chapter in its Yizkor book titled “Tarnow Types.” The central character was not a "madman" in the "raving mad" sense, but best described by the name townspeople used for him: der shtumer [the mute]. He was also blind and deaf. He made his living from begging but would “not take more than the smallest coins from anyone. If he received a larger coin he would immediately put his hand in his pocket and all at once remove the [amount] that he had to return.” He knew each house by the feel of its mezuzah and “appeared at every residence on the same day of the week and even at the same time.” To the author, “what was in his heart, in his thoughts” was something that could only be guessed.
June 28, 2019
- Among the many groups who persecuted the Jews of Europe — the Germans, Ukraines, Poles — there was also the Cossacks. “Petlura,” a chapter from the Yizkor book of Tlumacz, Ukraine, takes its name from the infamous leader of the Ukrainian pogrom bands, Semion Petlura. Petlura was a Ukrainian nationalist whose band first fought to drive the Germans and then the Bolsheviks from the Ukraine but then were responsible for pogroms between 1917 and 1919 during which it was estimated that at least 30,000 Jewish men, women and children were killed, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The arrival of a Cossack band brought panic to Tlumacz: “Suddenly a bugle sounded from afar, then drums and hoof-beats. There they came! First a rush of cavalrymen, swords drawn,” then came an “army of Cossacks each with a whip in one hand and a banner in the other.” The Cossacks brought their brand of brutality to Tlumacz, then “without fanfare, they vacated the town.” (Petlura was assassinated in Paris in 1926 by a jewish anarchist named Sholom Schwartzbard whos parents had been among 15 members of his family murdered during the pogroms).
June 21, 2019
- Some of the most crushing and heart-rending experiences of the Holocaust came after the war when those who had survived the Nazi exterminations returned to their home towns in search of people or places they had known. Two chapters in the Yizkor book of Kovel (once Polish, now part of Ukraine) describe these journeys and the tragic discoveries of people who had been born and raised there. Moshe Goodman, author of “On the Rubble,” was one of them. He wrote: “In the old town, where the ghetto was located, there was not one house standing. Only the Great Synagogue remained untouched- a witness to the great destruction.” His grief was only allayed by a miraculous discovery which I won’t spoil for you by repeating here.
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
- “Summoned from the Ashes” is an entire book by Daniel Kac, a noted Polish writer of Jewish nationality who composed his works in Yiddish. It tries to recapture the sweep of Jewish life in Kolki, Poland. There is an unnamed narrator who has been asked to contribute to a Yizkor book but only feels comfortable recounting his memories to a note-taker. It is not clear whether the memories are that of Kac himself, or an individual or the composite of people Kac talked to.
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
- “The Evacuation from Ksiaz” from the Yizkor book of Miechov, Charsznica and Ksiaz (near Krakow in Poland) recounts the first stages of how the Germans and their henchmen uprooted and eventually destroyed Jewish communities that had existed for generations. It started with the Germans demanding that Jews hand over their valuables and belongings, while Christian “neighbors” hovered close by looking for “bargains” among the things that soon-to-be-banished Jews left behind. Even worse was the fact that the herding of Jews into wagons and carts to be taken away from their homes occurred on the Sabbath. “The pain was enormous, unbearable. Not because of the property and belongings left behind did the heartache, but the desecration of the Shabbat that they were forced to perform and for the fact that we were forced to leave the town in which Jews had resided for tens of generations.” This excerpt is from a much longer chapter that can be found here: https://bit.ly/2MvlQgc
May 31, 2019
- “In the Fight for Life,” from the Yizkor book of Sokoly, Poland is the story of a beautiful young woman named Bubcha Safran who gave up a safe haven with a caring Polish family for the Bialystock ghetto so that she could live — and ultimately — die among Jews. When she and her family first fled the elimination of Jews in Sokoly, they were shunned by Poles when they sought shelter and food as they made their way to the forests in the harsh cold. One night, from the top of a hill where she was standing with her increasingly frail and weak parents, she saw a single light shining from a house and decided to try once more. To her surprise, the woman who answered the door invited them all in to get warm and to eat, and the Safrans became part of the household. But her turning point came when she was asked one night to sing a song and choked with tears at the last line: “Walesam sie jak opetany pies!” (I will wander like a dog without a home!).
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
- This is the story of an “ordinary” man. It is perhaps not as dramatic as many of the Yizkor book chapters presented here, but it is a portrait of a man “happy with his portion of life” who worked many jobs, each of which provides its own picture of life in the shtetl. In the beginning, Todres was a water-carrier, then a grave-digger ("When his work was done, he used to take out from his pocket a bottle of whisky or spirit and drank, but he never was drunk.") and undertaker.
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
- Itsik Trastinetski was one of a group of Jewish activists rounded up by political police in Poland, all of whom were subjected to torture. His own treatment was brutal and when his captors saw that he was physically broken to the point that further torture was superfluous, they then tortured his closest friends within his sight. He was taken to the town hospital, still bound in chains, where people from other wards hurried to hear what he had to say, even as doctors closed the windows so he could not be heard in other pavilions. Trastinetski’s sarcastic response was ““See, my hands and my feet are bound in chains, but you cannot close my mouth…” and with the call “Long live freedom!,” he gave up his spirit. Such was “Itsik Trastinetski's Martyrdom,” a chapter from the Yizkor book of Kremenets, Vyshgorodok, and Pochayiv.
May 10, 2019
- Between the world wars, the situation for Jews in Devenishki, then part of Poland and now in Lithuania, became grim in the face of widespread hunger, mass unemployment and heavy taxation by the government. Many young Jews, “full of ideals of justice and brotherhood,” attempted to cross the border to Russia in the mistaken belief they would find better conditions under the “progressive” Bolshevik regime. They were mistaken, as Eilohu Wiener recounts in “Under Confinement with Russians, Poles and Germans” in the Yizkor book of Devenishki. Wiener and his friends were taken by Russian guards to a camp where they “realized that we had been foolish and had gotten ourselves into a venture for which we might pay with our lives.” They were interrogated daily and pressured to return to Poland to spy. Then the Russians released them and years later, Wiener learned the answer to the mystery of why they were let go. His ordeal was not over, but ultimately he escaped the coming Holocaust and lived out his life in Israel.
May 3, 2019
- Yitzhak Pasternak was a survivor. He eluded the Nazis roundups of Jews and escaped capture at the frontiers. He found refuge with a farmer who he worked for. He survived typhoid. While his freedom lasted, he regularly smuggled food to the ghetto at Nowy Dwor, sometimes carrying 40 kilograms of meat, flour and sugar on his back. In the ghetto he found his “little brother and my father. They were in great distress, starved out, broken, lonesome without the killed mother.” He survived typhoid. He was caught once by the Gestapo and beat severely but let go. But ultimately, he ended up in Birkenau. As the Germans faced defeat in 1945, they began deporting Jews from Birkenau to leave no evidence of what had happened there, and he escaped once again. In the end, the Russians brought liberation and he made it to Israel, "a free Jew.". His story, “I Fought Out Life by Myself,” comes from the Yizkor book of Wyszogrod (Vishogrod), Poland.
April 26, 2019
- This week’s excerpt from the Yizkor book of Czyzew-Osada, Poland is another story, like so many other in these books, about the painful decision to leave one’s shtetl and emigrate to another country in the face of mounting anti-Semitism and the dark cloud of Nazism approaching. It begins with an encounter between the writer, Mordchai (Motl) Szczupakiewicz, and a “tipsy” soldier (presumably from the Polish Army) at an entertainment for officers returning from maneuvers, during which the officer cavalierly said to him, “The most difficult problem is how to free the country from Jews.” The years to come brought a pogrom that left many badly wounded “and a dark cloud of need and want hovered over the shtetl. The final hope of making a living ran out. The idea of leaving became stronger.” And so Szczupakiewicz left for America, where he was successful but always felt his ties to a city that was no more, “a city with Jews destroyed in great pain, in inhuman agony.”
April 19, 2019
- I have been curating excerpts from Yizkor books every Friday on the JewishGen Facebook page for about two years. This article is an overview of what I have learned. I was invited to write it for Shemot, the Journal of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain, which has kindly give permission to repost on JewishGen. In the years after the Holocaust, many Jews who either fled Europe before the onslaught of the German genocide or managed to survive, produced books of remembrance — Yizkor books — to memorialize those who had perished. But they also used these books as a way of recapturing what life was like in their shtetls and towns during the generations before the end came. More than a thousand of these books exist, providing a rich trove of material for Jews researching their family roots and also hoping to get a sense of the kinds of lives their ancestors lived.
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
- Unlike many other books among the JewishGen Yizkor collection, “The Scroll of My Life” is entirely a memoir by Michel (Mikhl) Radzinski describing his upbringing — and decision to leave — Siemiatycze, a town of 3,716 Jews in eastern Poland near the border of Belarus. Amid rising anti-Semitism and threat of pogroms, Radzinski “encountered a strange fearfulness” as he ventured out on a market day. Further burdened by the “despair and sorrow” he had observed among his fellow Jews, he told his father that “when all is said and done, I see no way out for me here. I have decided to leave." Radzinski wrote, “I have never forgotten that discussion.” It was a sad and wrenching moment that many other Jewish families must have experienced.
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
- “Jewish life hundred years ago in Korczyn” from the Yizkor book of Korczyna in the southeast tip of Poland, is a wonderful compendium of details about life in this mostly Hasidic community which had a population of about 1,000 in 1900. You learn how the men and women dressed (a married man always wore a streimel, or fur hat, and married women had their heads shaved and wore a kerchief); what people did for the sick; and how the Sabbath was observed. Parental respect has its own section of the chapter: “In those days, the father was the patriarch of the family in all respects and his word was law.” There is much to say about the rituals of marriage from the work of the matchmaker to the day before the wedding when the “excited and nervous” bride and groom first met: “Love did not exist in Korczyn a 100 years ago. If a marriage resulted as a result of love, the parents would not divulge it for it was considered in poor taste.”Korczyn met the fate of the other Jewish communities during the Holocaust. It is noted elsewhere in this book that “With the end of the war, 15 men and one woman survived the German occupation and 11 men and 6 woman survived in Russia the war. These are all the survivors of the Jewish community of Korczyn.“
March 22, 2019
- “With the death of millions of Polish Jews, a vast treasure of Jewish folklore, the product of generations of creativity, was lost as well.” This week’s Yizkor book excerpt (from Chrzanow, Poland) is an attempt to preserve them ... “to save this tiny remnant from oblivion.” In the past, I’ve posted several chapters full “sayings” that usually, with dark humor, captured the flavor of Jewish life and reflected some of its hardships. But this collection from “Folklore” is richer, with more detail. Rather than just brief sayings, each item — even if only a tale — provides its own window on Jewish life, often wryly told. One of my favorites was about a young man trying to get out of military service during World War I by convincing the doctor he was crazy. When he was certified as insane, someone asked him how he had done it, and he answered: “"You have to be a little bit crazy to begin with and for the rest, you rely on God."
March 15, 2019
- It all came to a head when a poor Jew, wife of a wagon driver, brought a chicken with a broken wing to one of the rival Hasidic rabbis in town. After he initially pronounced it “treyf,” he saw the tears in the woman’s eyes, took it into his kitchen, came back with a chicken in hand and “said with joy: ‘Yes, the chicken is kosher.’” (As you’ll see, there’s a twist to what the rabbi did). This exacerbated the already heated rivalry between the two Hasidic dynasties and their rabbis in Czyzewo, Poland. Insults had been hurled between their followers who, at one point, came to blows. I should stop and note that this account, from “The Great Peace” in Czyzewo’s Yizkor book, is subtitled “A folk tale about Czyzewo in the past.” But even if imaginary or embellished, it certainly reflects the competition among Hasidic groups that is described in other Yizkor books. And it makes for good reading.
March 8, 2019
- “How Chelm Was Saved From a Pogrom in 1905” from the Yizkor book of this Polish town is an account of how the community fended off the kind of tragedy that resulted in the slaughter of Jews in Kishinev after the Russian Revolution in that year. Through a combination of the Bund and other Jewish political groups, and aided by Christian students and workers, Chelm prepared its self-defense and was able to plant “spies in the camp of the enemy” to give advance warning of any attack. When word came that it was coming, the town was ready “to meet the bloody enemy face–to–face.” The defense group had ten revolvers, not to mention butchers with their knives and carpenters with their hatchets. “No pogrom took place that day in Chelm!,” wrote Shmuel Winer. “A day of sadness became a day of joy.”
March 1, 2019
- This week’s excerpt, from the Yizkor book of Horodenka (now part of Ukraine) is one of the most gripping among the accounts I’ve posted here of the many horrors that befell the Jews of Eastern Europe. I want to say it is “beautifully written,” but “beautiful” seems an inappropriate word to describe such events. The outbreak of the First World War inflicted constant fear, brutality and death as the Russian army and the soon-to-crumble Austrian-Hungarian empire battled over towns in Galicia. The resulting devastation all but wiped out Horodenka and its Jews. “A town languishes in the midst of unending suffering,” wrote Leon Yurman about this period in his chapter titled “Blue-green Tongues.” As combatants on both sides ravaged the town, Yurman captured it this way: “War roared. An orgy of celebration. Swarms of soldiers. The earth became black and scorched. The broad fields, the ‘breadbasket of Galicia,’ was bleeding to death.”
February 22, 2019
- “Fayvl the Mailman” had some very different duties and responsibilities than the postal workers you know today. Aside from being revered in his town as a great Torah scholar, the elegantly-dressed Fayvl Shapiro was the man to see for many of the Jews who had families that joined the great migration to America and other countries, and who sent money back home to their relatives. Getting that money was a complicated process in the days before Western Union or Venmo, as this chapter from the Yizkor book of Svencionys, Lithuania recounts. So, to send their gifts of “5 dollars, 10, 15 or sometimes even 25 … people from Sventzian all across the world slowly learned that they should send money only to Fayvl Shapiro” … and so the mailman also became the town’s banker. But eventually, times changed.
February 15, 2019
- Most Yizkor books have accounts of schools in their communities and many were about cheders (spelled in this week’s excerpt as “heder’) where instruction in Hebrew and Judaism were the main curriculum. I often run across accounts where memories of the cheder experience were less than happy ones, usually due to a tyrannical or ill-tempered teacher (to be fair, many of these teachers were underpaid and had to supplement their incomes with menial work elsewhere). Such was sometimes the case in “Pesach Melamed's Little School,” a chapter from the Yizkor book of Deblin-Modzjitz, Poland. When the fidgeting, noise and uproar of his students got the better of him, Pesach Melamed would brandish “his disciplinary whip, a goat's foot with 12 thick tails” until the children shrunk in fear. That’s exactly what convinced Yarme-David to bring his sons to the school because he though Pesach Melamed’s whip and “ferocious glance” were evidence that he wouldn’t take any nonsense. But faced with Yarme-David’s kid, who had to be dragged kicking and fighting all the way to the school, Pesach Melamed tried a different approach.
February 8, 2019
- Imagine being nine years old, and witnessing and enduring the horrors of the coming Holocaust. Yehudit Przenica leaves nothing of that to the imagination in her remembrance of the war’s outbreak in “A Child on the Roads,” from the Yizkor book of Nowy Dwor, Poland. She became breadwinner for her ailing family by begging for food from town to town, she watched as Germans dug ditches and buried Jews alive, she was hidden by a priest who the Germans cruelly tortured to find out where she was, and as soldiers searched for her with flashlights, she hid in a deep grave where she “felt dead bodies under my feet” and worms and animals crawling over her. But she survived those time to hand down to us her story.
February 1, 2019
- Dark humor (but humor nevertheless) was one of the ways Jews in the shtetls dealt with the afflictions of poverty and oppression. “This is How We Joked” from the Yizkor book of the Svinzian Region in Lithuania compiles a list of those popular in the community of Novo-Svencionys (New Svencionys). How can you argue with: “To have bad luck, you must also have luck.”
January 25, 2019
- “The water carrier was always the lively nerve of the town” begins this excerpt from the Yizkor book of Zgierz, Poland titled “Yaakov Aharon the Water Carrier.” This is affectionate portrait describes the important role Aharon played in the life of the community, his dogged devotion to his work … and his loneliness. In his old age, he composed his epitaph for his funeral monument: “Here is buried a straightforward and upright man, who earned his living for all his days through the toil of his hands, Reb Yaakov Aharon…”
January 18, 2019
- "From Slavery to Redemption,” a chapter from the Yizkor book of Halmeu, Romania, contains a first hand account of the horrors of Auschwitz. It is part of a longer chapter that recounts the arrival in Halmeu of the Germany army in 1944 and the hardships of the Jews there up until the time they were herded onto a transport to the death camp on the eve of the Shavuot festival. (You can see the full chapter here: https://bit.ly/2sqwUi4). “We reached the place of desolation on Sunday,” wrote Malka Schwarz. “We saw only electrified wire and S.S. troops … We arranged ourselves five people in a row, and in accordance with the gestures of the smiling captain, Dr. Mengele, we continued onward, some to the right and some to the left. The elderly were sent to the left, being told that they would be taken in a car, whereas the younger people would go by foot. Thus, they separated me from my weak mother and grandmother – and I did not know that this would be forever.” The account of life in the camp speaks for itself, but for the lucky few, it ended with their liberation by American soldiers. Still, many died afterwards even under their care. “The few who remained alive attempted to begin a new life with a broken heart that will never heal.”
January 11, 2019
- “Defense in October 1905,” from the Yizkor book of Yekaterinoslav-Dnepropetrovsk (Dnipropetrovsk) in Ukraine, captures the drama in the town when its Jews first become aware that a pogrom was gathering steam and would soon be at their doors. The pogrom in Yekaterinoslav-Dnepropetrovsk was part of a wave of pogroms that broke out between 1903 and 1906, claiming thousands of Jewish lives. As its title implies, much of the chapter is devoted to how the community organized its defense, the battles that ensued and the extent to which it succeeded in ending it . The “official” count of casualties, according to the author, was 126 Jews were killed in the pogrom by the “rioters” and the soldiers' shooting, and 47 rioters were killed, although he put the number of dead rioters at 63.
January 4, 2019
- One of the joys of life in the shtetls — as well as an important part of peoples’ livelihoods — was when it was time for a fair. There are many chapters in Yizkor books about them and this one from the book of Rokiskis, Lithuania is about “A Fair in Kamay,” (or, Kamajai) a town about eleven south of Rokiskis in the northeastern part of the country. “The poor shtetl waited for weeks for the fair, since on the day of the fair the poor Jews found it easier to earn rubles.” The preparations were intense. The author’s mother worked all night to get her baked goods ready, the peasants gathered their cows, calves, oxen and pigs, and sleds were filled with wheat, eggs and chickens. As the pace of the fair picked up, there was, among all those who came to sell or buy, “arguing, bargaining, gesturing with their hands and swearing all the false oaths in the world.” Stories were told, troubadours and musicians performed. And, of course, there was whiskey.
December 28, 2018
- From Chasidic Synagogue to Revolutionary Activity" from the newly-updated Yizkor book of Jadow, Poland is a different kind of story than many of those which I have posted here. Max (Moshe) Goodman was the son of a Chasid, but despite his father’s hopes for him to grow up as a religious Jew, but he found “yoke of Torah was too heavy” and ultimately his father, saying “one can be a religious Jew and also be a worker” agreed he should learn a trade that would “befit our family.” Goodman went to Warsaw to apprentice as an engraver. It was the time of the first Russian revolution in 1904-1905 and he was exposed to the “great revolutionary events and general strikes in all parts of Russia… and social movements of workers, students and scientists.” It was also a time of fierce pogroms, and Goodman would carry a weapon with him to defend himself and fellow Jews. His association with the Zionist movement and other political activities finally landed him in prison and exile. But he did one day make his way back to Jadow, and by 1910, had settled in America. His detailed account provides a unique portrait of the times.”
December 21, 2018
- In “I Was a Girl in the Vishnevets Ghetto,” Rachel Sobol paints a meticulous portrait of ghetto life, the heartbreak of what she saw, and her own survival after the ghetto’s liquidation amid the deaths of so many others. Vishnevets is in western Ukraine, about 110 miles east of Lviv. Sobol doesn’t say what town she had lived in before she and its other people were rounded up. One of her starkest memories — “the one that is carved deepest in my mind” — was passing a girl she had known who was staring vacantly into the distance as she walked the streets and who “ended her life in front of everyone as a madwoman in the ghetto…” She recounts a chain of painful memories that “grab me and don't let me go.” She tells how she lived “in the shadow of new fears, waiting for something horrible to happen.” After the liquidation of the ghetto, Sobol was among those who managed to escape their hiding places and ultimately was taken in by a farmer who took her in and then passed her from family to family and between their friends until she “reached the end of the Holocaust.”
December 14, 2019
- While it is natural to be the most interested in Yizkor book excerpts from towns with which JewishGen Facebook followers have roots, there are many accounts I come across that are such vivid and detailed depictions of what life was like in a shtetl that I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. “Life in Jewish Tluste,” a small town in eastern Galicia now part of Ukraine, has such a chapter. Dr. Abraham Stupp, the author, who was born in 1897, saw himself as straddling the generations between those who lived there at the turn of the 19th century and those who soon after had to face the hardships of World War 1 and the horrors of the Holocaust. A large part of his remembrances recount the schooling of young people like himself, but for this excerpt I have picked out the parts that provide portraits of daily life — the market days, the various classes of merchants and tradesmen (plus the not-to-be-trifled with “women hagglers"), the celebration of the Sabbath, what people wore, what they ate and the changes that occurred with the coming of the war. He ends his story with this reverie: “And only in this period, which is both tragic and full of glory – the period when one–third of the Jewish nation was killed in such a cruel way, in which the independent sovereign nation of Israel was established – I came to the correct understanding of the Gemara words: – May the Messiah arrive – but my soul will not see him coming. Our generation was witness to the destruction of two different kinds of Polish Jews. It was destined to live in a sea of troubles, blood and tears, in a way that no other generation had experienced before.”
December 7, 2018
- “An explosion in the forest” from the Yizkor book of Rafalovka in northern Ukraine, is one of many accounts that can be found about Jews linking up with groups of partisans to fight the Germans. After the Rafalovka ghetto was liquidated, four young Jews found a small partisan group in the forest and the Russian captain in charge asked them to perform “a special task, which was to blow up a train on the railroad between Rafalovka and Sarni. The young men had almost no military training and their first effort met with failure when the mine they planted on the tracks did not explode as the train passed. But the next time they succeeded, earning the partisan commander’s praise: “You are mighty warriors.”
November 30, 2018
- In the towns where the Germans conducted their deadly hunts for any living Jews, many families took refuge in bunkers where they hoped they could survive. “The heroic struggle of the two heroes, the Adler brothers” is an account of one such bunker from the Yizkor book of Tarnogrod in eastern Poland, about 60 miles south of Lublin. It is an incredible story. The occupants of one such bunker were seized with fear as they heard the footsteps of German soldiers above their ceiling, and they tried to remain silent as possible. So much so, that one mother strangled her crying child to help make sure that the 30 people hiding with her were not found. But the story takes a dramatic turn when, knowing the Germans had picked up their trail, two brothers — one armed with a cleaver and the other with a revolver — decided to take the attack to the Germans, emerging in broad daylight through a hidden door. They took their toll on the stunned Germans but, inevitably, it did not end well or for those who they tried to protect. But “This incident made an extraordinary impression on everyone who was in the street at the time. For a long time the Poles in the town spoke of it and told of the superhuman bravery of the two Jews.”
November 23, 2018
- Pity the poor tailors: “All week long they worked very hard in strange homes, often in anti-Semitic atmospheres; often they would hear mocking remarks from ignorant, coarse Germans but would not respond. This is how they lived, week in week out, and thanked God when there was enough work and they could earn enough to bring home a few rubles for household expenses and to pay off debts and to prepare for the Sabbath.” Or, the dried fruit merchants who had the misfortune to be sleeping overnight in the orchards they leased from Germans when the "VolksDeutsche" decided they "wanted to have some fun on the Jews' account." They covered themselves with sheets and ran past the fruit dryers' straw huts with their howling dogs. After thoroughly frightening the tradesmen and their children, the Germans departed after what they called their "wachnacht" with "much laughter and satisfaction. "
November 16, 2018
- There were no good choices for Jews after Germany and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 that carved up Poland, Lithuania and other countries into spheres of influence. (A main German aim in the pact was the “nonaggression” agreement between the two countries that allowed Germany to turn its attention to other targets — until Hitler ended it by attacking Soviet positions in Poland). As Germany tightened its grip on Poland, many Polish Jews sought refuge in Soviet-occupied Lithuania. Among them were the Drucker brothers who found themselves “lost, wet, hungry and exhausted” along the Polish-Lithuanian border. That was only the start of their hardships, according to “Residence in Siberia,” a chapter from the Yizkor book of Jordanow in southern Poland, 30 miles south of Krakow. First they were betrayed by a farmer at the border and turned over to the Soviets who detained them in prison and then condemned them to three years forced labor. After what seemed like a “never-ending” trip of many weeks in railway cars with barred windows, they arrived at a camp where lack of food, lack of medicine and harsh weather caused many prisoners to be sick and physically drained by the hard work. This is the story of the Druckers’ ordeal and that of those who suffered along with them, and how they learned to cope and survive..
November 9, 2018
- This week’s excerpt, “Two Years in a Dark Pit,” is part of a longer chapter in the Yizkor book of Radzyn, about 40 miles north of Lublin, in eastern Poland. After “the Gestapo murderers knew that we had nothing more for them to squeeze out of us” in money and peoples’ last remaining valuables, Sarah Fass knew that it was time to leave with her family and hide out somewhere before the Germans carried out their “final curse on the Jews.” They found their sanctuary with a peasant who had prepared a high hay stack in his barn to help hide these “six Jewish souls.” There they eked out an existence of dwindling food and the hardships of winters for two more years. You can find the full chapter here: http://bit.ly/2Qo1mnn
November 2, 2018
- The early 1900s saw many political and social movements sweep across the shtetls of Europe, such as the Bund which was a secular Jewish organization that shared many core beliefs of Marxist groups that sought the liberation of all workers. But while the Marxist idea of a “workers’ paradise” seemed to have a natural appeal in countries where many were oppressed by low wages and intolerable working conditions, few Jews were Communists and those that were, according to one historian, “rarely cared about Jewish concerns and often virtually stopped being Jewish.” This account of “Jewish Communism in Vishnevets”, from the Yizkor book of that Ukrainian town, tells of life after the Russians arrived in 1939 and two local Jewish Communists rose to power during the time the Russians held sway. These two “two started to ‘purify’ in the Stalinist style and to distribute power and its benefits among their family members, relatives, and brothers in ideology, providing them with a secure income on the backs of the people they evicted from their jobs.” Historian Steven Zipperstein, reflecting on the impact the rise of Communism had on Jews after the 1917 revolution, recalled a bitter “joke” from the era: ““The Trotskys made the revolution but the Bronshteins [Trotsky’s original Jewish name] will pay for it.”
October 26, 2018
- According to its Yizkor book, “Stryj on earth was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943, in the year 5703 of the Jewish era.” Eleven years after the extermination of the Jews in this Ukraine town, Jonah Friedler recounted the terrible and blood-chilling events that began with the arrival of the Germans, the establishment of the ghetto, and the hardships and horrors the people suffered not only from the Nazis, but especially the Ukrainians who he called “the axe in the hands of the Gestapo.” Friedler’s account can best be summed up in his own words: “Death is a dreadful thing, but sevenfold more dreadful was the way that led to it.” (This long chapter has been excerpted; for the full text visit here: http://bit.ly/2PiLVPW)
October 19, 2018
- As disheartening it is to recall the anti-Semitism and pogroms that made life miserable for the Jews in the years before the Holocaust, there is some sense of satisfaction to be taken from “Jewish Young Men Give the Cossacks a Lesson,” a chapter in the Yizkor book of Lowicz in central Poland. The story actually takes place in Bolimow about ten miles to the east of Lowicz. Envision a group of Cossacks, after a few bottles of whiskey, galloping on their horses through the marketplace with whips in their hands, being confronted by a few young Jewish men, still in their fringed shawls. As the author says, “It was a sight to be seen,” and so was the outcome.
October 12, 2018
- One kind of chapter I often come across in Yizkor books, and have published here before, is a compendium of Yiddish nicknames or sayings that were popular in a town or region. These are yet another prism for getting a feel for daily life. Such is the case with “Nicknames in Chrzanow,” a shtetl in Poland that’s a little less than 40 miles from Krakow. So, you learn that “knaytsh” was a tavernkeeper who served beer on credit on the Sabbath, since he wouldn't take any money. And a “kozemashin” had its origin in the business of an enterprising Jew who came up with the idea of bringing a booth with a stove and sold “roasted potatoes and chestnuts, drew apple wine with seltzer from a copper jug, and most impressive, had a sort of roulette game- a wheel with a wooden stork in the middle.”
October 5, 2018
- “I Lived With Mentey” from the Yizkor book of Kovel in Ukraine is a horrifying account of an evil man, clearly a representative of the Germans, whose life and actions were guided by the simple proposition that “There is no place at all for Jews in the world.” I have not been able to identify who Mentey was, or the position he held, but the events in this chapter clearly take place some time after October, 1942 when the Kovel ghettos had been liquidated and Jews who had tried to escape were rounded up and held in the Great Synagogue until they, too, were led to their deaths. The “eye witness” who was the source of this account was one of six Jews remaining “in the open” and owed his life to the fact that Mentey needed his skills as a shoemaker. But that did not save him from witnessing a litany of cold-blooded horrors at Mentey’s hands.
September 28, 2018
- In addition to all of the narratives, histories and remembrances of shtetl life one finds in Yizkor books, I always take pleasure in coming upon “real-time” accounts of how life and business was conducted (and adjudicated) in the Jewish towns of Europe. Such an excerpt is “From the Community Records of Korelitz” (Karelichy) in Belarus. Here you see how “community chiefs” and others dealt with a woman who traveled with a non-Jew without a chaperone, tailors who overcharged for their goods, the struggles — especially for those not well-off — of the obligation to provide ceremonial meals after a circumcision or what to do about a Jewish man caught with a married women in a closed room. (Material enclosed within brackets are notes from the writer of this excerpt or the translator].
September 21, 2018
- Eliezer Schenker has made an appearance once before in these weekly excerpts in his account of his return to Oswiecim (Oshpitzin ) in Poland after the Germans were defeated in 1945.(Oshpitzin was the name from which Auschwitz was derived). This excerpt, also from the Yizkor book of Oswiecim, is the “before” of his “before and after” memories. Titled “The King of the Jews by Courtesy of Hitler,” the first half of the chapter focuses on the German efforts to administer Jewish towns through the Judenrat, with a focus particularly on a Munik Merin, a Jew, who, according to one historical account, “apparently dreamed of establishing his dominion over all of the Jews of Europe in the shadow and under the aegis of the Nazi regime.” Merin arrived in Oswiecim with a letter signed by Heinrich Himmler which began “Israel Munik Merin is acting under my orders.” Ultimately, Schenck resisted Merin and refused to manage the Judenrat in Oshpitzin. He then fled the village. The excerpt of the chapter I present here is Schenker’s account of what transpired when it became clear that life in Judenrat-administered towns was only an illusion that was brutally dispelled as the Nazis’ true intentions became clear.
September 14, 2018
- This excerpt from the Yizkor book of Golub-Dobrzyn, Poland describes the devotion and mood of the Jewish townspeople during the “Days of Awe,” starting with the preparation for observance of Yom Kippur and an account of the day and its prayer services. It is a period in which “you immediately sense the special atmosphere that has enveloped the town.” As the conclusion of Yom Kippur approaches,” the writer notes that “the mentality of those who are praying changes: the melancholy expression on their faces has faded away and has been replaced by a feeling of confidence … Their hearts have been filled with faith, with the belief that their community prayers have been accepted and that they will merit a good and blessed year.”
September 7, 2018
- Rosh Hashanah is upon us, so what better time to bring you “The First Day of Rosh Hashanah, and the Observance of Tashlich” from the Yizkor book of Podhajce (Pidhaytsi) in the Ukraine. The holiday was seen as both “a festival and a Day of Judgment simultaneously” and in the packed synagogue “no joyous smile was seen on the face of the worshipers, who conducted themselves with more seriousness and somberness than usual.” Later, the crowds of worshippers went to the river to “cast to the depths of the sea all of their sins” and, even when they were done, “remained standing at the banks of the river without moving. The last rays of sunlight lit up their faces.”
August 31, 2018
- “The Last Will and Testament of Fania Barbakow” from the Yizkor book of Druya, Belarus are 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. The notes are sad (“How I wish I could survive and attain a little bit of the goodness of life”) and a cry for revenge for what happened to her people (“Brothers from all nations, avenge our deaths!).” She hid the notebook in the bunker and somehow managed to let a Christian family friend know the location of the letters before she was murdered.
August 24, 2018
- “Blood Stained Feathers: The Life Story of a Shoah Survivor” is included in the Yizkor book collection for Nowy Sacz, Poland, (or, Sandz, in Yiddish). In a chapter titled “Evening in the ghetto of Sandz,” author Mordechai Lustig provides a chilling account of German atrocities (“Heart breaking screams, shootings, killings, supplications followed by deadly silence) and the cold-blooded murder of his father, mother, brother and sister who were all buried in a mass grave at the site where the other Jews had been killed during the previous evening. Lustig survived and spent time in a series of labor camps before being sent to the death camp of Mathausen in Austria, which the allies liberated in May 1945. Later, he was to move to Israel and join the Israeli Army. But as he wrote in this excerpt, “The picture of my dead family would remain with me as long as I live.”
August 17, 2018
- “The Cheerful Baker,” from the Yizkor book of Piotrkow Trybunalski, Poland is really two stories. The first part recounts Reb Itzhak Leib Rusak’ work as the town’s baker, using his oven to cook the cholent brought to him by the townspeople for the Sabbath, to baking the matzoh for Passover, and all the elaborate preparations that required. But he was also a deeply devout and learned man who would habitually say, “A person does not live just to bake bread.” The part of the chapter you will read here shows his strength and courage as the Nazis closed in on the Jews of the town.
August 10, 2018
- “Grandma (Safta) Marisha” from the Yizkor book of Kurzeniac (Kurenets), Belarus is a story of poverty — a mother who had to wrap cloth around her son’s feet because she could not afford boots for him — that evokes the sadness, the struggle and feeling of shame that came along with being poor. But this particular story is one with a happy ending thanks to “the wonderful deeds and the heart full of pity” of the title character, Safta Marisha.
August 3, 2018
- Erich Handke was regarded as one of the most brutal of the Liepaja SD men. SD was the abbreviation for the Sicherheitsdienst, or intelligence agency of the SS and Nazi Party and Liepaja was an alternate name for Libau in western Latvia, on the Baltic Sea, the scene of a series of massacres during 1941. “Witness for the Prosecution” is a translation of a chapter in a 36-page booklet, that is part of the Yizkor book collection titled “A Town Named Libau.” In it, Arnold Engel writes “For twenty-nine years I had dreamed about having the opportunity to testify against this brutal man – Handke.” Around 1971, Engel got his chance when Handke and others went on trial in Hanover. In his account, Engel identifies Handke and then recalls his crimes in chilling detail. Later, Handke was sentenced to eight years in prison, but died after eight months.
July 27, 2018
- This week’s excerpt from the Yizkor book of Ciechanowiec, Poland is a little hard to sum up. It is titled “Ciechanowiec Humor” and some of the anecdotes in it fit that bill — like the Hasidic who had played cards late into the night and when he dozed off in shul the next day and a neighbor had to nudge him when he was called to Torah, awakened with a start and shouted “I pass, I pass.” But other items are more like pages from life in the town, describing the arrival of gas street lamps (before their arrival “if there were no moon, you could see little” at night), the advent of electricity (“Who does not recall the thrill of that first night when electricity invaded our homes?) and the first appearance of a radio (to listen, you got in line for the privilege of paying ten groschen to use an earphone for half an hour).
July 20, 2018
- "Perhaps I was drawn to travel across Lithuania because like every city youth, I longed for the forest and distant borders, to go on a wagon and travel to a small shtetl," says the author of this chapter drawn from a larger collection of writings about that country. The young man who made this trip journeyed north from Vilna to Birzh [Birzai] near the Latvian border. The result was a wonderful travelogue worth reading in its entirety (http://bit.ly/2mwM6r3) but one short section I found particularly moving was when he witnessed a scene that repeated itself over and again amid the rising tide of those emigrating to other countries. It starts: "In Birzh, I saw houses emptied of men for the first time in my life. My mother's relative, Sara, the rabbi's wife, was a widow, and the husbands of her two daughters were across the ocean. Such a thick loneliness hung in the man-less houses."
July 13, 2018
- “The Last Sabbath” is a chilling part of a longer chapter from the Yizkor Book of Remembrance for the Communities of Shtutshin, Vasilishki, Ostrina, Novi Dvor, and Rozanka. On 26th June 1941, the first unit of the German army entered Shtutshin (Shchuchin), 37 miles east of Grodno in northwest Belarus. (This was four days after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in “Operation Barbarossa.”) After a period during which the Germans appointed a Judenrat to help them administer the town, the horror and violence steadily increased until May 9, 1942 when, as the authors wrote, “For reasons of malice and hatred, the Germans set the Sabbath as the day of killing and extermination.” According to this account, “Of the 2,500 Shtutshin Jews, who were in the town or other parts of the area during the Nazi conquest, only thirteen individuals were discovered alive at the end of WW2.
July 6, 2018
- One type of chapter I see in many Yizkor books are odes to whatever river runs through or by a shtetl. Writers extol their beauty (when appropriate), their importance to the town’s sustenance and the people swimming in the summer and skating in the winter. Such is the case with this excerpt from the Yizkor book of Chorzele, Poland, about 70 miles north of Warsaw. This wonderful chapter, filled with stories of all sorts, celebrates the Ozhits River which, as far I can tell, is one and the same as the Orzyc River. First and foremost, the Ozhits was the town’s main source of fresh water because the big well in the middle of the market place was filled with dead cats, (“no matter how many cats died in Chorzele, that's how many turned up in the market place well.”) What would Chorzele have done if it had had to carry out the tashlikh ceremony of symbolically discarding sins on Rosh Hashonah without its beloved river. Then there were the washerwomen who “bullied and abused” it by arraying “themselves along the river from dawn until late at night, washing, rinsing, wringing, pounding and smacking on their washboards.” In the summer, stark naked Chorzelers “would enjoy God's beautiful world and refresh their bodies in the sweet stream” and in the winter, they hacked ice from the frozen surface so that they could cool themselves off in the summer.
June 29, 2018
- This week’s excerpt from the Yizkor book for Voronovo, Belarus, about 40 miles due south of Vilnius, is one window on the thoughts, shock, emotions and fears that ran through the minds of Jews as the horror of the Nazi occupation closed in on them. In this account of three days in May 1942, the immediate danger was not the Nazis themselves. “We look at who comes to kill us,” writes Keileh Grodzenchik, describing what those crowded in his parents’ house woke up one day to see. “They are not strangers: they are the Poles–– your close neighbors–– your acquaintances. There is Eyseltchok, there is Bibik, Burshu and others that you went to school with and with whom you built a friendship, and here they are… We are shut in, enclosed, surrounded by Polish predatory beasts and by German soldiers.”
June 22, 2018
- Many of the Yizkor book excerpts I post here have a particular subject, but I sense from comments I’ve received that readers also enjoy accounts that paint a general picture of life in a shtetl that exudes the texture, feel and sound of a community. Such is the case with “Daily Life in the Town” from the Yizkor book of Golub-Dobrzyn in Poland, about 100 miles northwest of Warsaw. It recounts the passage of the seasons, the unpaved roads, the joys taken in fairs and market days when “the town would awaken as if to a new life,” the tribulations of the poor and the “pious women” who served the town as community volunteers. “There was a long list of customs that were specific to the town,” Avraham Dor writes. “Some had been initiated during periods of joy, others in periods of grief. But with the passage of time, as new ideas made their way into the small towns, including our own, some of these customs fell into disuse.”
June 15, 2018
- One of the dark periods for Jewish communities in the Russian Pale of Settlement in the 19th century began in 1827 when Czar Nikolai issued the Cantonist Decree requiring them to provide recruits for military service. Under the order, the Jewish communities had to fill the debt of military service with people, and not with money as had been the practice. The term of service was 25 years, which began at age 18. But “the most bitter of the cruel laws” imposed by Nikolai was to take Jews aged 12 to 25 with the aim of forcing religious conversions to Christianity by sending the younger ones to Cantonist institutions— “small, weak, trembling children [stolen] from their mothers. In 1856, Aleksander II repealed the edict permitting the taking of children up to 18 as soldiers.
June 8, 2018
- “How was I saved from Destruction?” is the title of this week’s excerpt, which is from the Yizkor book of Kovel, now in the Ukraine. It is a question answered by the writer, Miriam Goldstein. The key to her survival was an old Polish couple who took her in along with three other Jewish children in 1943 and his them in a ramshackle structure that served as a barn, silo, cow-shed and pig-sty. Goldstein muses over the couple’s reasons, but quotes the wife as often saying “I'm likely to go to the gallows for one – why not for twenty!” The arrival of “Ukrainian hooligans” eventually forces them to flee, “hungry, exhausted, hunted and desperate," expecting every minute to be killed, but they were able to return to return to Kovel after it had been liberated by the Red Army.
June 1, 2018
- One kind of reminisces I frequently come across in Yizkor books are compilations of “Clever Expressions (Sayings)” in Yiddish which is the case with this excerpt, from a longer chapter titled “From Dzialoszyce Folklore” in the Polish shtetl of that name. Each community had its own variants, some of which I’ve posted previously. So, with the often-used caution “Der orl iz meyvn kol os. The gentile understands every letter. [Be careful what you say],” here is the latest installment of these.
May 25, 2018
- “Fight with Death,” a chapter from the Yizkor book of Polonnoye in northwest Ukraine, is a well-written and detailed account of the grim struggle for survival under the Germans. The county town of Poninka had been “merry long ago,” but in the “dread and awful winter in 1942…it seemed that Poninka was dead” after many Jews were “terminated” and others sent to the Polonnoye ghetto. That left only three families, including that of the barber known as “Yasha,” who is the main figure in this story. It was not too long until Yasha had to leave his house and go into hiding. The Germans search relentlessly for him and for whoever was hiding him. He endured through days of fear and privation. Finally, as the Russians advanced, the Germans left, but “Poninka was empty again.”
May 18, 2018
- This excerpt from the Yizkor book of Slutsk, about 60 miles south of Minsk in Belarus, has a particularly poignancy because it is presented as a series of letters from the writer to his brother recounting the terrible events of the Nazi occupation and the exterminations that followed. “Dear Brother Ezriel,” The first letter starts, “You want to know the circumstances of our mother's death.” We learn the answer as well as the writer’s own efforts to join the armed resistance to the Germans and his own fight for survival, and determination to return home after the Germans prevailed. “I lived through so much!” he wrote. “Was it possible? Is this the bitter truth? The Slutsk community is wiped out. Where are the Jews of Slutsk?”
May 11, 2018
- Yizkor books are full of accounts of Jewish communities menaced by violence and attacks from gentiles or full-scale pogroms that caused much death and bloodshed. There are also many stories of towns where local Jews formed self-defense groups to fend off these threats as much as they could, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. “Massacre in Beitch” from the Yizkor book of Biecz, Poland has a somewhat different twist: a new officer of the gendarmerie, who the townspeople initially assumed was Christian, and became a savior when a “wild mob” of over three thousand had gathered to do their worst.
May 4, 2018
- This being Friday, what better time to read “Sabbath in Town" from the Yizkor book of Olyka, Ukraine, about 21 miles from both Lutsk and Dubno. This is another account of how Jews in relative or real poverty scrimped during the week with their reward being a joyous (and food-filled) celebration of the Sabbath. Nathan Rosenfeld’s account starts with the preparations that begin as early as Wednesday, the men’s pilgrimmage to the “public bath to clean themselves up from the impurities of the week,” the services in the synagogue which was “filled with light from oil candelabras and shining candelabras” and of course the Sabbath feasts that followed: “Kugels cooked with a lot of goose fat, plus kishke, cake and cookies… recitation of the blessing on a full glass of vodka … Chopped liver spiced with goose fat is served, followed by the cholent and delicacies.”
April 27, 2018
- Yizkor books began appearing after the end of the Holocaust to remember the towns whose Jewish traditions had been wiped out, the people who tragically died and those who managed to survive. Most of the chapters I have seen in doing these weekly excerpts, aside from those which are straightforward histories of a town’s origins, are accounts and reminisces of lives and events that tend to go back only as far as the late 19th century. Sadly, another source of the history and lives of the shtetls that dated back to earlier times and is mostly lost to us is the “pinkes.” In one of the two Yizkor books published for Kovel (not the one translated for JewishGen), there is a chapter titled “What is a Pinkes?” (http://bit.ly/2J7WG0G) which described a “book” added to over many generations. In Kovel, the book was held by the burial society and a rabbi in the chapter described its contents this way to an inquisitive youth whose father hoped to be the next host for the book: “A pinkes, Leybele, is a book in which all of the unusual events and occurrences that take place in a town are recorded, both good things and, God forbid, not such good things . The good things are recorded, so that the generations that follow us will learn to behave well and will also perform good deeds. The bad things that happen, may we be spared, are recorded so that people may know not to do them and also so that the One Above will pity us and see that no evil harms us in the future. Amen.” This chapter from the Yizkor book of Zabludow, Poland provides actual entries from a surviving “old ledger” whose contents spanned 170 years, from 1646 to 1818.
April 20, 2018
- I’ve posted several excerpts about the tensions — for lack of a better description — between the use of Yiddish and Hebrew in many shtetls. Usually, the context has been the cultural and generational differences among the Ashkenazi, the Orthodox and the Sephardim. “How I arrived at Yiddish,” from the Yizkor book of Zabludow, Poland, near Bialystok, is a different take. (The title in the book’s index is a bit different: “How I Succeeded in Yiddish.”) The author, Avrohom Kotik, is a self-described Russian intellectual who had grown up in a neighborhood where there were no other Jewish boys and who in 1888 came to Zabludow “where 'yidishkeyt' oozed from every crack and cranny.” He was among “kindred,” but in the Yiddish-saturated culture felt like “a duck hatched by a the another species, say by a chicken, on seeing water.” One townsman called him a “Yehudi,” or Westernized Jew. This is his story about how he ultimately came to “a complete and outspoken conviction as a Yiddishist.” It's also an account of the effort to "Russify" the schools.
April 13, 2018
- This story, from a newly-translated chapter in the Yizkor book of Kovel, Ukraine (a project I am managing on the JewishGen site) combines three elements often found in accounts of Jews rounded up by the Germans: the kindness and courage of a righteous Gentile, hiding in fear in miserable, cramped bunkers without food or water and, finally, the blessing of escape. This translation came to me from Philip Friedman who had a relative translate it for him when he saw the account was written by Lola Friedman Ingber, his father's first cousin. At one of the dreary moments in the bunker, where death cries from above could be heard, Ingber remembers thinking: “Has my day finally come? I am so young, and yet my feet are nearing their grave. Will they lead me tomorrow to the gallows for my final descent?"
April 6, 2018
- Jewish tradition holds that every generation has 36 saints (lamedvavnikim or Tzadikim, meaning "hidden righteous ones") on whose piety the fate of the world depends. The number 36 corresponds to the 6 days of creation, and the 30 days of an average month. In a sketch of "Reb Zalman the Poor: An example of a repentant sinner in Yampol", from the Yizkor book of that town in the Ukraine, the editor notes that many of the inhabitants believed this mysterious man was genuinely one of the 36, perhaps, in part, because he spent so much time "of his time with the sick and the wretched poor, helping to find medicine for them." Although he lived in Yampol for 30 years, no one knew where he was from. When asked, he answered with a laugh: "“Idiots! Why are you bothering your brains about where I come from, it would be better to ask where I am going!” This is his story.
March 30, 2018
- Passover begins this evening. I have posted in the past several Yizkor books excerpts about the preparations for the holiday in the shtetls of Europe, which often began in earnest right after Purim, and the joyous celebrations of it. This week’s excerpt from the Yizkor book of Yedwabne (Jedwabne), Poland is very different. The "The Unforgetable Passover of 1943" tells the story of how Jews imprisoned in the death camp of Birkenau managed to have a Seder. The author of this chapter, Rabbi Chaim Yitzchak Greengrass, writes “The celebration of this Seder night left imprints on my soul. Now, when I perform the Passover service, I understand the meaning of the statement that each man in every generation is obliged to consider himself as if he personally was redeemed from slavery into freedom.”
March 23, 2018
- "Koze Street" from the Yizkor book of Sokolów Podlaski, Poland explores in great detail the lives of the poor in a Jewish shtetl and their struggles when it came to obtaining the essentials of life with the proprietors who did business there. "The people on the street worked hard all week, as hard as the Jews in Egypt...Laboring, toiling, they went the whole week like a horse in harness," scraping by during the week to put food on the table in order to "bring home a little flour, kasha, a chicken; often a fish, in order to create comfort for the wife and children on shabes." The chapter reads almost like a play, with running dialogues between the "pani" — the main proprietors of that street — and the people to whom they showed little generosity. If there is a happy ending to this, it's the joy the poor took in celebrating the Sabbath.
March 16, 2018
- I can do no better job in introducing this chapter from the Yizkor book of Suvalk (Suwalki) Poland than whoever assembled this collection: "Yiddish folksongs in Eastern Europe knew no boundaries. The melodies went from country to country, wherever Jews lived and wherever Yiddish was their language. Nevertheless, there were some Yiddish folk songs which were characteristic of one country or even of one region and were sung there more than elsewhere. Suwalk Jews were no exception. We show here some of the songs which were especially popular over 100 years ago."
March 9, 2018
- Here are two often humorous accounts from the Yizkor book of Yedintzi (Edinet) Bessarabia about two of the common occupations for Jews in the shtetls — butchers and water carriers. The butchers, aside from supplying their wares to customers, “themselves used to like feasting and enjoying meals with varenikes, meat-filled knishes, and dairy bagels that used to swim in oil or butter. They themselves were broad-shouldered, with stuffed bellies and their wives were also rolly-polly, heavy-set.” As for the water carriers, “their water-carrying was dramatic. During the winter frosts long icicles would hang down from their barrels and cans, just as they did from the roofs.” They also had to deal with young pranksters who would like to sneak up on them and pull the cork from their barrels.
March 2, 2018
- Reb Meir Moshe, a blacksmith, lived a good life in a village where he was the only Jew among Christians, according to this tale from the Yizkor book of Olkeniki in Lithuania. He had the respect and affection of the Christians farmers but was lonely among them like other lonely Jews who were scattered in the nearby villages. Then a miracle happened, and he and other Jews like him in those villages and found themselves and all their belongings transported to Olkeniki. “No matter where Reb Meir looked he saw Jews from the neighboring villages” and as he and others settled in and made their lives, “The beauty of the town and its residents' generosity, attracted the hearts of the Jews who lived in the area.” Aptly, the chapter is titled “Legend and Reality in the town of Olkeniki.”
February 28, 2018
- “Purim in the Shtetl” is a vivid account of the holiday celebration in Kaluszyn, Poland, about 35 miles east of Warsaw. S. Ben Moshe-Aaron recalls that “even before Purim started, the shtetl acquired a festive mood.” Boys got out of school early and roamed the streets in colorful costumes, the reading of the Megillah was rehearsed, women made treats for the holiday and then quit the kitchen and got into their finery to go to synagogue, and then the “festivities lasted late into the night.” The townspeople feasted happily “believing that Haman was annihilated.”
February 23, 2018
- This account of “Tragic Encounters” in the Yizkor book of Sarny has an unusual twist. Yaakov Tzuk relates instances of murder, accident, and misfortune that had shaken the town with the result that there was “practically no connections of friendship developed and stuck [with the Gentile population] because of their malevolent attitude towards the Jews." He then ends with an incident on Yom Kippur when a group of Subbotniki asked to come into the synagogue and say something but was driven away. This group was a Russian sect of Christian origin who had adopted Jewish customs and practices and held their Sabbath on Saturdays. Tzuk later visited their place of worship and wondered afterwards if this was an opportunity lost.
February 16, 2018
- A recurring subject in Yizkor books are accounts by survivors of the Holocaust who returned to their home towns after the defeat of Germany. In “Stones Tell the Tale,” Eliezer Schenker writes of his return to Oswiecim in Poland, a name from which Auschwitz was derived. Jews called the town Oshpitzin. Schenker and his family arrived “shriveled, hungry, dressed in tatters and penniless…and stood at the train station of my birth-town without any possibility of recognizing it.” He describes movingly his visit to the cemetery which had been desecrated and where he found a bomb crater where his mother’s grave had been and he set a task for himself to help restore it. Later, he asked himself if it was “right to abandon the remaining vestiges of the cultural and religious heritage of Polish Jewry to the Poles” and he decided to stay, which he did for ten years.
February 9, 2018
- Chapters in some Yizkor books are drawn from published works in addition to the reminisces of the many contributors who grew up in the towns or survived the Holocaust. In the book of Lowicz, Poland, a chapter on “The Annual Fair” actually came from a work of fiction — “Reb Shloyme Nogid,” or “Wealthy Shloyme,” published in 1913 — written by Sholem Asch, regarded as the most popular and important Yiddish writer in the first half of the 20th century. It is a marvelously vivid account of a fair held after harvest time and, although fictional, no doubt is an accurate snapshot, especially given that Asch was born in nearby Kutno, 27 miles away. Asch writes that the annual fair provided Jews with half their annual income, and for Shloyme, “it was customary to take a hundred zloty in small change and lend it to the poor people during the market days.” His descriptions of the different people who came to the fairs are priceless — the Gombin people (who “lived with the earth, learned to catch fish in the dark rivers”), the Gostynin “wives” (“a slap from such a woman was something that one was careful to stay away from”), the Zachlin young butchers, Krashnewitz horse–dealers, among others. “All this was scrambled together: it was the roar of the great yearly fair.”
February 2, 2018
- Many were the struggles in Jewish shtetls between the Hasidim and the misnagdim, rabbinical and communal leaders who were opponents of Hasidism, many of whom were Ashkenazi Jews. (The Yivo Encylopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe presents a fuller history of the conflicts between these groups: http://bit.ly/2FuWirk). These tensions could escalate from “cursing to fighting” as recounted in “The Great Quarrel” from the Yizkor book of Czyzewo, Poland. In this instance, which occurred in the mid-1890s, the issue was the selection of a shoyket (ritual slaughterer) to take the place of one who was retiring. When the rabbi of the city introduced his choice at a packed meeting in the beis-hamedrash, the Hasids “left in a great tumult” and found their own candidate. The result was that “The shtetl was divided into two camps. And in the course of two years not one day passed that some bloody fighting did not take place…”
January 26, 2018
- The shtetls of Europe were rich in folk remedies and incantations whether it was about protecting the well-being of the newborn, countering the evil eye, or trying to cure illnesses, as recounted in this excerpt from the Yizkor book of Zawiercie, Poland.. When the remedies didn’t work, the fallback was turning to “pious G-d fearing Jews, pious scholars who knew how to recite incantations against the evil eye.”
January 19, 2018
- The pogroms that befell Kishinev (Chisinau) in Moldava in 1903 and again in 1905 drew a worldwide outcry. The 1903 pogrom followed a false rumor that Jews had killed a young Christian boy to use his Christian blood to prepare matzo for Passover. The 1905 protests began as political protests against the Czar but turned into an attack against the Jews. Pogroms were not new to Kishinev as noted in this excerpt from the Yizkor book of Chisinau. One had occurred in 1881 “but the rioters left after being shamed thanks to courageous self defense by the local Jews.” Such was not to be the case in 1903 and 1905, as this excerpt recounts.
January 12, 2018
- The story of Tuvia Bielski was well known even before the 2008 film “Defiance” that told the story of the refuge for Jews he created in Belarus’ Naliboki forest and his campaign of armed resistance to kill German collaborators and undermine Nazi missions. His efforts are also recounted in detail in “The Partisans of Tuvia Belski,” a long chapter in the Yizkor book of Navahrudak. The chapter chronicles that beginnings of his “otriad” (brigade), his emphasis on “on absorbing all Jewish escapees,” a detailed description of the camp and life in it, and the health problems endured by people in the camp. What follows here is an excerpt that brings the story to a close by telling what happened after the liberation and what the people of the otriad found when they were able to return home. The “Commander” in the excerpt is, of course, Bielski.
January 5, 2018
- One of the many sensitive subjects of the German occupation of Jewish ghettos in eastern Europe was the role of the Judenrat. Established upon German instructions, these Jewish municipal administrations were required to ensure that Nazi objectives (like assisting with deportation lists) were implemented, but at the same time, these groups often tried to provide basic community services for ghettoized Jewish populations in the tradition of community councils that had existed for centuries. The Germans created another institution in the ghettos which was a more direct tool to carry out their policies — the Jewish police (or, Jüdischer Ordungsdienst). The tension between Jewish townspeople and these institutions comes to life in “The Yellow Patch,” from the Yizkor book of Bransk, Poland, which gives an account of efforts of the Judenrat and police to enforce the requirement that Jews wear the patch, and the resistance it met. A second chapter from the Bransk book, that I include here, is a more detailed account of the police.
December 29, 2017
- As I’ve written here before in introducing Yizkor book excerpts, the coming of the railroads to the shtetls of Eastern Europe starting in the mid-to-late 19th century brought about big changes, both by connecting communities and changing the economies and livelihoods in the towns they reached. But in many towns, the train station represented more than a place to go in order to greet visitors or to travel somewhere. In Wyszków, Poland, 31 miles northeast of Warsaw. the station was a place for townspeople to gather. “It was at the station that our youthful dreams appeared to have the possibility of breaking through the daily routine drudgery… and look through a 'window' to the wide world.”
December 22, 2017
- “A Wedding in Town” from the Yizkor book of Kobylnik (known as Narach since 1964) in northwest Belarus takes us through the incredibly intricate steps of marriage, from the making of the match to the celebration of the event. At play was the would-be bride’s age, the labor of the matchmaker, the negotiation of the dowry and the pedigree of the family. Much of this in Kobylnik was chewed over by the townspeople at large: “Marriage became a public topic upon which everybody trampled, and this exaggerated curiosity only ended when the daughter reached the wedding canopy.” Things changed with the times as youth movements brought boys and girls together, resulting in marriages without matchmakers or middlemen. But the wedding ceremony remained unchanged and the author gives a lovingly detailed account of one such celebration.
December 15, 2017
- “For Ten Kilograms of Sugar,” from the Yizkor book of Staszow, Poland, is yet another of the many accounts in this literature of Jews struggling to survive in the woods while hunted not only by Nazis but also their own neighbors, be they Poles or, in other cases, Ukrainians. The title of this chapter refers to the 10 kilograms of sugar that the Germans paid Poles in and about Staszow for each Jew delivered to them. “The fight against our countrymen was incomparably more difficult than that with the Germans, because the Germans didn't dare to show up alone in the forest, even during the day, without the active assistance of the Poles,” wrote Perl Golflus. It was an ordeal that only came to an end when the Russian army liberated the area, prompting Goldflus’ father to cry out, ““Children, we are free.”
December 8, 2017
- The shtetl of Czyzewo, which lies about 80 miles northeast of Warsaw, in Poland, had its own prized community of residents besides the human inhabitants: goats that roamed its streets and alleys, finding food where they could. But first and foremost among this herd was the title character of this Yizkor book chapter: “The Holy Billy Goat.” He was a “bokher” that freely roamed and “people actually honored him and made way.” There was one town resident who didn’t share this reverence for the Holy Billy Goat, but he soon learned his lesson.
December 1, 2017
- Many shtetls in the Pale were arenas for political, ideological and social competition among three groups: the Hasidim, the Zionists and the “Bund” (Der Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund, or General Union of Jewish Workers), a group driven by the young Jewish intelligentsia who sought to make cause with a new Jewish working class that was woefully underpaid, overworked and discriminated against. It was Zionism that prevailed in Rokitno (Rokytne) in northwestern Ukraine, which had formerly been part of the Russian Empire and later Poland. The “The Origins of the Zionist Movement” from Rokitno’s Yizkor book traces the history of this struggle.
November 24, 2017
- What was it like to make aliyah and find a new life in Eretz Israel? Rivka Machneimy was a fiercely independent 17 year-old woman and kept a detailed diary after she went against the advice of her father, Baruch Hodorenko, a leading Zionist. “How will you earn a living when you have never worked even one day?” her father asked. “I replied: ‘There must be other people like me and they are working…’” She writes, in the Yizkor book of Bendery, Moldova of the daily work, struggles and hardships, including the scourge of malaria that ravaged the settlers who sought to transform the desert lands and swamps. She performed all sorts of labors from kitchen work to learning how to drive a truck, and during her time working in the fields proudly wrote in her diary: “After a few days I was earning as much as the men.” She had a child. This is her story.
November 17, 2017
November 3, 2017
- "I go to the bath two times a year, whether I need it or not." "Marriage is like castor oil, you have to take it all at once."
- Last week, I featured a Yizkor book excerpt about the use of nicknames in eastern European shtetls. This week, from the book of Iwye (also Ivye) in Belarus. I bring you a compilation of witticisms, anecdotes and idioms that had ingrained themselves in the culture of the town, which the author called “is just a minute part of the rich Ivye folklore.”
October 27, 2017
- One kind of chapter that I have seen in several Yizkor books (and published some examples before) was the custom in many shtetls to coining nicknames. As this installment from the Yizkor book of Chrzanow, Poland, “These nicknames were individually earned-some referred to one's occupation; others expressed physical qualities (, while still others had to do with the owner's character.” So, from “Bobe” to “Shivtser,” here’s a list of monikers used by the townspeople of Chrzanow.
October 20, 2017
- The shtetls of Eastern Europe were filled with all sorts of characters whose occupations made them stand out, and I have to admit I never heard of this one until I came across a chapter from the Yizkor book of Kielce, Poland— a “badchan” or jester. They were a staple at weddings in the old country, moving things along with their jokes and commentary. I probably haven’t gone to enough weddings, but I see online that the tradition exists among Jews in the U.S. and elsewhere as well. So, here is the story of Josel the Badchan whose performances were received by audiences “as if the air was saturated with laughter, and it broke to pieces in the thunder of laughter. People would forget their problems and sufferings at such a time, and their worries and give themselves over to the laughter.”
October 13, 2017
- Many cultures have their stories of singular women, inspired by heavenly visions, who made a mark on their communities or countries by thrusting themselves into roles not traditionally accepted by society. “The Maiden of Ludmir” is one of those and her story is told in the Yizkor book of the small town of Volodymyr Volynskyy which, during the time she lived, was in the Russian Empire, afterwards passed to Poland and now is in northwest Ukraine. She was born Khane-Rokhl Werbermacher, a birth that — according to the story — came about after her mother, seeking to avoid a divorce after ten childless years of marriage, traveled to Chernoybl to ask a “great righteous man and wonder worker, who was known to bless barren women” to intercede for her with his prayers. Said to be born in 1806, “The child awed all who saw her. She had an angelic face, and as she grew up, her spiritual graces increased.” The YIVO Encyclopedia says. “She apparently was intensely pious at an early age and her biographers state that in her teens she had a heavenly vision during which she claimed to have received a ‘new and lofty soul.’ From that point on, the Maiden acquired a reputation as a healer and miracle worker.” The tension in her story was captured by the vision she had after falling ill. She had appeared before a “heavenly court, which would decide whether she would live or die.” The prosecutors said that she did not behave in the way that wise men had ordered, that she performed commandments that women were not commanded to perform, that she had taken upon herself the yoke of the study of Torah and observance that were required of men, and since her love was that of a woman and she had been created a woman, she was desecrating the honor of the Torah.” The court was persuaded to ask her to speak and she said,”I shall not die but live, and tell the deeds of God.” Her request was granted and her soul soared higher. Another account of her can be found in “The Maiden of Ludmir: A Jewish Holy Woman and Her World” by Nathaniel Deutsch (http://bit.ly/2z9osWC).
October 6, 2017
- Last week, I posted an excerpt in the Yizkor book of Czyzewo, Poland subtitled “The Order of the Wedding Ceremony,” a wonderfully detailed step-by-step account of the celebration of a marriage. This was part of a much longer chapter titled “A Regular Market Day.” It, too, is beautifully written — full of detail, portraits of the people, what was being sold, the haggling and humor — so I couldn’t resist posting it.
September 29, 2017
- A long chapter in the Yizkor book of Czyzewo, Poland — a shtetl sitting on a railway line between Warsaw and Bialystock — provides a rich snapshot of daily life. The full chapter is titled “A Regular Market Day,” something that is the subject of chapters in many Yizkor books. But the part of the chapter I thought I’d share is “The Order of the Wedding Ceremony,” an account that almost makes you feel you were there.
September 22, 2017
- Yizkor books are filled with the wrenching accounts of the dark side of the history of the European shtetls — the Holocaust and the pogroms, persecutions and anti-Semitism that preceded it. But they also preserve the flavor and texture of daily life among the Jews of these towns, through accounts ranging from loving descriptions of the food people ate to the folklore passed down through generations. Such an account comes from the Yizkor book of Chrzanow, a small town in southern Poland a little under 40 miles west of Krakow. It is similar to chapters I’ve published here before, recounting old sayings, beliefs … and humor: “Rabbi Naftoli used to say jokingly that he wasn't afraid of the dead, because he always had two dead men right next to him. Yukl Dodek was always dead hungry, and Tall Yoske was always dead thirsty."
September 15, 2017
- It is a cold winter in Rokiskis, a shtetl of about 2,000 people in northeast Lithuania. Not much new happens there. Then one day, “a strange dark Jew, with burning dark eyes, a red hat on his small head, with peyes with two large valises” got off the train. Some of the townspeople thought he was a Turk because of the red hat. But Reb Yitzhak Khyun had arrived from Eretz Israel where he had moved to from Yemen. And so, “the shtetl had something to talk about – and the snow continued to fall on the horse and wagon, and on the red hat of the dark, little Jew, until he was swallowed in the half darkness of the apartment of Nusen the shoykhet” who took him in from the cold. Then the Shabbos night Reb Khyun had been waiting for arrives, the night he gives a sermon.
September 8, 2017
- It may be a far cry from Grossinger’s, but “The Summer Resort in Struza” from the Yizkor book of Ożarów, Poland sounds a bit like a shtetl-era ancestor in this account . Ozarow lay just west of the Vistula River, about midway between Kielce and Lublin. The woods and fresh air of the nearby village of Struza attracted many people to this small town. “Whole families in search of a healthy environment would come from far away in old carts laden with their baggage.”
September 1, 2017
- “Christian – Angels” tells the stories of Christians who risked their lives to shelter and save Jews from Svir, Belarus, a town near the Lithuianian borders 81 miles northwest of Minsk. Dr. Chanoch Swironi gives several accounts of these “Christian saints, who deserve to be part of the history of the Jewish martyrdom” in a long chapter in Svir’s Yizkor book.
August 25, 2017
- This week’s excerpt from the Yizkor book of Staszów in southeastern Poland relates some of the “Superstitions and Folk Sayings” popular there and in other shtetls. They range from this advice — “To protect against the evil-eye, use seven pieces of bread and seven pieces of hot coals — to this unpromising reflection on life: “You can live to 70, and still remain a fool.”
August 18, 2017
- The second ghetto containing the Jews of Globokie (Hlybokaye) in Belarus was liquidated on June 19, 1942. “The sun rose, the acacia tree blossomed and the slaughterer slaughtered…” with 2,500 Jews killed in one day, according to the Yizkor book for the town. In “After the Slaughter,” Eilat Gordin Levitan wrote about the death, desolation and devastation witnessed afterwards by the survivors.
August 11, 2017
- 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?'"
August 4, 2017
- I have a weakness for Yizkor book stories about food. This one is from the Book of Borshchiv in southeast Ukraine. One of the foods celebrated is kugel which, the writer says, “played a great role in the life of the Jews” and spawned many proverbs, such as “If you said of someone that he eats kugel in the middle of the week, you are saying that things could not be better for him.”
July 28, 2017
- Anti-semitism in the shtetls of Europe is hardly a new topic but what I found interesting in this chapter in the Yizkor book of Szumsk (Shums’k) in western Ukraine was Shlomo Batt’s account of how, starting as a boy, he learned about it and experienced it, including an incident from when he was about seven that was his first experience of it. He also notes the ambivalent attitude some held about Poles who “suffered and were oppressed for many years and the antisemitic feelings that caused them to act irrationally.”
July 21, 2017
- A reality of life for much of the Jewish population in Eastern Europe was being poor, and this chapter, “Poverty and Hardship in Bobruisk,” from the Yizkor book of this town in Belarus, 86 miles southeast of Minsk, is testament to that. In its large poor quarter 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.” The poor suffered the winter in cold houses, scrambled for work and were victimized by gangs and a “Jewish underworld” that took advantage of conditions. One result was to make the town’s poor quarter, known as Sloboda, ripe for the appeal of Russia’s revolutionary movement.
July 14, 2017
- Anyone who has read the Leon Uris book “Exodus” or seen the movie will recognize this account — “I Made Aliyah on the Eve of the Holocaust” — from the Yizkor book of Roktyne in western Ukraine which had a small Jewish population of 663 in 1921. Sarah Yasmin writes of the squalid conditions of the decrepit ships, the fears of people who knew the “chances to reach Eretz Israel were dim” and the British efforts to turn away refugees.
July 7, 2017
- The title of this chapter from the Yizkor book of Mlawa in north central Poland speaks for itself: “Superstitions, Remedies and Cures.” Visiting within the boundaries of “this world and the next,” are dybbuks, witches, birds whose behavior can be good omens or bad, the evil eye, sensations of the body that portend things to come (“If the right hand itches, one will count money”), and a variety of cures for ill health ranging including the treatment of colds by inhaling the smoke of burning feathers, scorched hair, or scorched cow hooves or horns. There were even remedies to help avoid being conscripted, including practitioners who chopped off fingers, pulled out teeth, and supplied salves that caused the entire body to look as though it had been afflicted with boils. And all this without health insurance.
June 30, 2017
- The coming of the railroads to the shtetls of Eastern Europe in the late 19th century brought about big changes, both by connecting communities and changing the economies and livelihoods in the towns they reached. The impact varied from large town to small town. For instance, Kovel in northwest Ukraine had 2,647 Jews in 1847 and that number grew to 8,521 in 1897. With the laying of the railroad line, the Yizkor book of Kovel says “the city threw off its old form and reinvented itself. Almost magically, wide, paved roads began appearing in the city … Next to the old city, whose aging houses were decaying and whose streets were small and narrow, there arose a fresh new city on the sands full of energy and beauty. Alongside the new houses and streets there arose a new Jewish settlement in the city, brimming with life.” That was a mixed blessing because the emergence of Kovel as a major railroad hub for several lines made it a strategic battleground during World War 1 and World War 2, a time of great suffering. Mlawa in north central Poland, a much smaller community with about 1,500 Jews at the end of the 19th century, also experienced much change when the Vistula River Railroad (or, Kolej Nadwiślańska) opened in 1877, connecting Mlawa to Kovel through Warsaw. As this excerpt from the Yizkor book of Mlawa relates, “All of a sudden the world was within reach. Before then it took half a week to get to Warsaw by wagon.” But it also meant changes for Jews whose coachmen had been the primary source of transportation to the outside world before the railroad came.
June 23, 2017
- There were multiple dividing lines among Jews in the European shtetls – those who were Ashkenazi and those who were Hasidim; the poorer, unlearned Jews and those who were better off. Such was the case in Debica (Dembitz), in southeast Poland, about 75 miles east of Krakow. Tensions among them often ran high but there was at least one ice-breaker – when winter came, the town’s gulley froze over and you could go skating. As this excerpt from the Debica Yizkor book tells it, differences disappeared at the rink and “everyone showed what they could do.”
June 16, 2017 NO POST
June 9, 2017
- R’ Mendel was widowed in his 50s and left with seven seemingly unmarriageable daughters in his household. This became something of a joke to the city clowns of the small town of Akkerman in the Ukraine who gave them the nickname “Benot Zelophedad” who, in the Biblical account of them, raised the case of a woman’s right to inherit property in the absence of a mail heir. But unexpectedly, they married off one-by-one, perplexing those who wondered how “Mendel's daughters [would] be grabbed like fresh buns when everyone knew that they were not so fresh and they had no dowry.” This chapter is from the Yizkor book of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyy, as which was formerly known as Akkerman in southwest Ukraine not far from Odessa.
June 2, 2017
- This week’s excerpt from the Yizkor book of Nadworna (Nadvirna) in the Ukraine – “A Hand Which Stuck Out from the Mass Grave” – tries to come to grips with an agonizing question that haunted many Jews who had seen their people murdered by the Germans during the years of the Holocaust: The “ feeling of guilt which probably bothers every one of us: why did we not have the courage and the "Gewure" [which I believe means “strength” in Yiddish dialect] to do what one of our people, Simson [Samson] has proven himself able to do in the olden times, long past?”
May 26, 2017
- Many Yizkor books have chapters dedicated to describing the businesses and work of tradesmen in their communities. What I liked about this chapter from the Yizkor book of Gombin (Gabin) in central Poland, about 65 miles north of Lodz, was the chance to excerpt some of the most interesting (at least to me) nuggets about each type of tradesman and their customers from a chapter by Jacob M. Rothbart titled: “Jewish Artisans in Gombin.” The Jewish population of Gombin was about 2,500 in 1900.
May 19, 2017
- Many of the small shtetls in Eastern Europe relied on traditional remedies for sickness (think “leeches”) and some found themselves without even a real doctor. This section of a longer chapter (http://bit.ly/2pRSetN ) in the Yizkor book of Tarnogród, Poland described another well-known practice, “Removing the Evil-Eye.” Tarnogród, about 60 miles south of Lublin in the eastern part of the country, endured a cholera epidemic in 1916 without a doctor (in 1921, the Jewish population was 2,238). In epidemics or more normal times, here is how the people of the town coped.
May 12, 2017
- The title of this week’s excerpt from the Yizkor book of Mikulince in western Ukraine tells the story: “A Baby Girl Captured by the Gentiles.” The author, Zalman Pelz, and several members of his family survived the destruction of the town by the Germans and were later taken to a camp in Siberia by the Russians. When Jews were allowed to return to Poland after the liberation, Pelz learned as he embarked on the trip that his sister, realizing her end was at hand in the ghetto, gave her daughter to a Polish woman on the condition that the child would be given back if any member of the family had survived. The story then takes a long and tortuous path, but I won’t spoil the ending
May 5, 2017
- The fear of being put out of work by advances in technology has been around since the Industrial Revolution, and is back with us today as people wonder how robotics and Artificial Intelligence will affect human jobs. And so it was true even in the shtetls of Eastern Europe as described in this excerpt from the Yizkor book of Kalish in Poland. Working in a textile factory was a grueling job in the best of times and usually did little to raise laborers out of poverty. In “The Clattering Machines,” Simon Horonchik writes of the “monotonous days ran on like long grey threads” with “the only ray of light for which their eyes looked out was the Eve of Sabbath and the Sabbath.” Then the threaders and embroiderers worried about a darker future when the new machines arrived.
April 28, 2017
- Excommunication is a term most frequently heard in the context of Catholic excommunication, but it also exists in Jewish tradition, known in the Torah as “herem,” This week’s excerpt is a short one from the Yizkor book of Wyzszków, a town about 30 miles northeast of Warsaw. (In 1897, it had a Jewish population of 3,200 in 1897 and in 1921, shortly before the event described in this excerpt, about 4,400). In his account titled “The Excommunication (der kheyrem)", Borukh Yismakh/Ismaj describes such an event and how it shook and divided the community.
April 21, 2017
- This week’s excerpt (http://bit.ly/2paQKxY) from the Yizkor book of Wyszogrod, Poland is “With Mengele” – a firsthand account by nurse Golda Salcberg of SS physician Josef Mengele who was infamous for his inhumane medical experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz. To Salcberg, Mengele was a “human monster I was seeing for days on end and he keeps haunting my nightmares till now.” She wrote: “I used to observe his face…Sometimes a foolish smile of self-satisfaction appeared on his face when he saw a Jew dying.”
April 14, 2017
- This week’s excerpt is from the Yizkor book of Bransk, Poland, which was newly donated to JewishGen. It is bluntly-titled -- "Jew–Murderers Sentenced to Death" – and is an account of a detachment of Bransk partisans who decided to take revenge on a Pole who had been responsible for Jewish deaths. The unit of 64 men fights on till August, 1944 when the Russian Army nears and then returns their village to find it empty of Jews. The unnamed author writes: “How hardened we have become in the 21 months of living in the forest, a life of animals, not of humans and our hearts melted away, our eyes that long ago had lost the ability to shed tears, were suddenly filled with bitter tears.”
April 7, 2017
- With the arrival of Passover, I have collected some excerpts about the holiday from a number of JewishGen Yizkor books. From the book of Antopol in Belarus, a description of the preparations, from the cleaning of the house to the setting of the Seder table. From Stryżów in Poland, more on the gathering of the foods for the feast. From the book of Belki, once part of Hungary and Slovakia, and now in the Ukraine, the search at the height of winter for the best ducks and geese. From Debica, Poland, the baking of matzah shmura. And again from the book of Belki, a short passage about the religious ritual at the Seder table.
March 31, 2017
- One of the interesting studies of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe is how language and dialects varied. In some towns, struggles between the use of Yiddish or Hebrew raged. Some schools conducted lessons in Hebrew and some in Yiddish. Similarly, some congregations conducted services in Hebrew and others in Yiddish. But there were differences even among the varieties of Yiddish that were spoken. In this excerpt from the Yizkor book of Bedzin in Poland, Dawid L. writes of the dialect used there (including a mouthwatering list of names for popular Jewish dishes since, as Dawid L. notes, "Będziners were known as great eaters"). Bedzin was 38 miles from Krakow, and in 1900 had a Jewish population of nearly 11,000.
March 24, 2017
- This week’s excerpt (http://bit.ly/2nLS8G8) is a newly-published chapter in the Yizkor book of Kovel, which is one of my projects. In it, Mordechai Leiberson gives an account of his return to Kovel after the war, which will be of special interest to those particularly interested in Kovel since he gives an almost street-by-street account of the extent to which the Jews and the places where they lived and worked and prayed had all but vanished. During its history, Kovel had passed from Russian rule to Polish and back to Poland, before becoming part of the Ukraine. It was a major railroad hub which made it a major strategic objective in both world wars. When the Germans invaded in 1941, there were over 17,000 Jews in Kovel, about half the city’s population. The community was wiped out in Oct., 1942. When Leiberson returned, he found “a great wasteland.”
March 17, 2017
- “The Devil was out of Work” by Pinchas Bibel is a fable about the devil’s machinations to lure good Jews from the paths of righteousness. At the end of the tale, the devil laments that “today, when I think up a nice little sin for a fine Jew, by the time I get to him, he has already done it himself. Yes my friend, it's really tough! I'm in danger of not only losing my livelihood, but to be completely liquidated.” The chapter is from the Yizkor book of Szczebrzeszynin Poland.
March 10, 2017
- This week’s excerpt, “A Dispute Between Neighbours,” is from “Memories of Ozarów” in Poland, a town that had a Jewish population of 2,557 in 1898, that grew to 4,284 by 1939. The Rybas had two stores, one of which was a renowned schmaltz herring shop, and shared a narrow alley with the owner of a high-quality shirt and lingerie business. As you will have guessed by now, the two merchants came to loggerheads over the use of the alley. As the dispute headed for a hearing before the rabbinical tribunal, “a plan for revenge brewed” in the mind of Alter Ryba, who laid a clever trap for his neighbor — one which I will not spoil by hinting at what it was.
March 3, 2017
- This week’s Yizkor book excerpt is actually a two-for-one because the subject is weddings and marriage. In the shtetls of eastern Europe, before the marriage, there had to be a matchmaker. As the first excerpt, from the book of Korczyna, Poland, begins: “If a marriage resulted as a result of love, the parents would not divulge it for it was considered in poor taste.” And then we get to the joyous part in an excerpt from the book of Krements in the Ukraine which describes in wonderful detail the festive atmosphere in the town where “the entire Jewish street, rich and poor, rejoiced for a week before and and a week after the wedding.”
February 24, 2017
- Like many Jews, Yakov Handshtok yearned to revisit the small town where he was born. In his case, it was Ryki, Poland. If you drew a straight line from Lublin to Warsaw, Ryki was about 40 miles NW of Lublin and 65 miles SW of Warsaw. The Jewish population there was about 2,400 at the end of the first World War, about two-thirds of the population. On arriving, Handshtok found “the same town but without its Jews. The soul of the town had been taken. It was as if it had been snuffed out, as if it had died.” He encountered some Poles he had known from when he lived there who spoke of the punishment that awaited them from God for what had happened and the “strange feeling” he had that they “still couldn't get used to living on earth soaked through with Jewish blood.”
February 17, 2017
- This week’s excerpt from the Yizkor book of Radomsko, Poland (http://bit.ly/2kB7uLD) is a story that could be told over and over again as the Jews of Eastern Europe struggled with mounting economic hardships and persecution — the moment that a family decides “We’re going to America.” Those were the words said by the father of Sarah Hamer-Jakhlin when his business began failing. The day before leaving, Sarah woke early to walk one last time about the city “to take a quiet leave of the streets and little alleys, of the shops, of the trees and greenery, and of the people.” Her description of what she was seeing for the last time brings the town and its people alive. When a friend of her father sees her and asks why she is so pensive, she tells him the family is leaving, that she doesn’t want to go and starts to cry. He pats her back and tells her: “Nu , don't cry, Surale. America is a better country than Poland for Jews.”
February 10, 2017
- One of the hallmarks of the Jewish towns in Eastern Europe were the wooden synagogues first built in the 17th and 18th centuries, part of what some scholars have called a “golden age” of Jewish shtetl history. Hundreds were destroyed during the Nazi occupation and “survive” now only through photographs and drawings. In this excerpt (http://pewrsr.ch/2lccF1X) from the newly-added Yizkor book of Pabianice, Poland, an engineer named named Dawid Dawidowicz writes of wooden synagogues of Lutomirsk and the very small community of Stercew, both in the vicinity of Lodz. The image accompanying this post has some of the photographs and drawings from the article.
February 3, 2017
- This week’s excerpt is a very short one from the Yizkor book of Gostynin, Poland, 65 miles WNW of Warsaw. It reminded me of the last days of the Jews in Kovel, Poland who are remembered for their writings (http://bit.ly/gPGbfj ) on the walls of the Great Synagogue before they were taken to their deaths. This excerpt is a last letter from Avraham Seiff of Gostynin who had been taken to the concentration camp in Konin about 60 miles further west. He and the others knew the end was near when the Gestapo came to the camp on August 7, 1943. As another survivor wrote in the same Yizkor book (http://bit.ly/2kHFV4p), “We decided not to allow ourselves to be led like sheep to the slaughter, and that as the last choice open to us - if it were to become clear that the end was near and that we were to be martyred as Jews.” On August 9, they set fire to the camp and then Seiff and others hung themselves.
January 27, 2017
- This week’s selection is more light-hearted than some of the Yizkor book excerpts we’ve recently posted. In the Yizkor book of Dzialoszyce, Poland, a town about 27 miles northeast of Krakow, Dov Bejski writes of some of the folklore that had also been lost in the Holocaust, or as he says, “songs, legends and stories, proverbs and riddles, and comedy and jokes that were created over time.” This chapter offers the bonus of 32 “clever sayings” in Yiddish. Sources vary on the Jewish population of Dzialoszyce just before the German occupation. The Yizkor book itself said, “Of the 10,000 Jewish residents of the town, 4,000 were shot and murdered, and the rest were sent to extermination camps.” You can find the full JewishGen translation here (http://bit.ly/2jIPZZO). This translation is also available in print (http://bit.ly/2jI3jgF).
January 20, 2017
- Some of the saddest and most poignant accounts in Yizkor books are from people who returned to their towns after the war in the late 1940s and the 1950s to see what had become of the destroyed Jewish communities. That is the story of Lippe Fischer who left Jezierna (Ozerna) in western Ukraine, just west of Ternopil, days before the German approach. She joined refugees fleeing to the South Caucasus and was arrested when she fell into the trap of Turkmen, in league with the Soviet NKVD, who promised to smuggle her and others across the border to Persia for a few hundred rubles. Fischer spent 10 years in a Soviet prison camp. On her release, she was determined to return home. This is an excerpt from a much longer chapter that you can find here: http://bit.ly/2jNeq4N
January 13, 2017
- Just about all of the Yizkor book excerpts we have featured here on JewishGen’s Facebook page are from the Pale of Settlement and the Ashkenazi Jews who lived there. This week we offer something different: an excerpt from the Yizkor book of Salonike (Thessaloníki, Greece) which is subtitled “The Greatness and Destruction of the Jerusalem of the Balkans.” The particular chapter selected from this book is “The Golden Age” (http://bit.ly/2i2RzB0) which describes the Jewish experience in Salonike from 1492 to 1590. Many of the Jews in Salonike in this period were the Sephardim expelled by the “Catholic Monarchs” Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon whose marriage in 1469 united their kingdoms. They were disturbed that Jews that had converted to Christianity to avoid persecution or worse — known as “conversos" — were insincere in their conversions and that those who continued to practice Judaism in secret were trying to draw back other conversos. They issued an edict of expulsion in 1492 and any Jews who did not convert or leave were to be executed. Many Jews fled to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire of which Salonike was a part. The excerpt opens with a short description of why this was a “Golden Age” and contains a list of the rules and laws that the rabbis of Salonike made for the Jews who lived there.
January 6, 2017
- This is a story of liberation from a Nazi death camp as the Germans were going down to defeat. The account is from the Yizkor book of Pabianice, Poland, a town near Lodz that in 1938 had a population of 8,357 Jews. The Germans occupied the town in September, 1939. In this excerpt, “How I Survived the War,” Jehojszua Birnbojm tells of being taken to Auschwitz and later moved with 252 other prisoners to a nearby sub-camp named Althammer about 10 miles west of Katowice. In January 1945, as the Soviet Army was approaching, the Germans sent 400 of the camp’s prisoners on a Death March, Most were killed along the way. Left behind in the camp were those too sick, mostly due to overwork, brutal treatment and inadequate food. Birnbojm had survived the camps so far because he was a skilled locksmith. He was one of those left behind after the toll of near-starvation and working “half naked in temperatures of eighteen to twenty degrees Farenheit” caused him to fall unconscious one day while unloading a wagonful of stones. On January 28, 1945, the Russians liberated the camp. Birnbojm was a free man, but his sorrows were not over.
December 30, 2016
- This short excerpt from a longer chapter in the Yizkor book of Szczuczyn, Poland (http://bit.ly/2iaMJpD) is a particularly sad and wrenching one as its title suggests: “The Last Night with My Children in the Bialystok Prison.” In the previous chapter, Chaye Golding-Keyman had written of herself and fellow Jews hiding in an underground bunker in February, 1943 as the Germans were deporting those in the ghetto to the camps. In November, after the ghetto had been shut down without water or power, she and 44 others found themselves in Bialystock Prison which, in its own way, was a relief: "Here it was different than under the ground – even better,” Goldman-Keying wrote. “There [in the bunker] it had always been dark, narrow, stuffy and frighteningly quiet; and they [the children] had had to sit. Here the room was large. One could go freely from one end to the other. One could talk as loudly as one desired. The children could call their mothers, or call out: Bobe, Yosele, Moyshele, when you wanted. Here it was light even though we were in the cellar. We had four windows with iron bars. The boys became accustomed once again to light." But that, too, came to an end.
December 23, 2016
- I have a particular interest in Bialystock, Poland because that’s where I believe my great great grandfather came from before his arrival in New York City in 1888. So, I greatly enjoyed this Yizkor book account of the “The first Bialystoker in America” by a David Sohn. (I did find a David Sohn on Ancestry who came from Bialystock and worked at the Bialystoker Home for the Aged and Hospital at 228 East Broadway, but there are other Sohns and I cannot be sure that this is him). Here he tells the story of Simcha Tzfas who arrived in New York in 1842 and whom he met at a Bialystoker’s home on Henry Street on the Lower East Side. (Which is one of the places my great great grandfather lived. Who knows?). Tzfas lived to the ripe old age of 103, and during an eventful lifetime, joined the California Gold Rush of 1848, fought under General McLellan just before the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, travelled to Israel and indulged his passions of taking risks and enjoying life. You can also visit BialyGEN (http://bit.ly/2hmsB0N). Meanwhile, here is the story of Simcha Tzfas. (http://bit.ly/2hj6Gdk):
December 16, 2016
- One of the many dramatic episodes of Jewish resistance to the Nazi slaughters during the Holocaust was the story of “Rosa (Roza) Robota -- The Holy Heroine from Ciechanow,” a chapter included in the Yizkor book (http://bit.ly/2huBeW6) for this Polish town 47 miles NNW from Warsaw. In 1931, it was home to 4,571 Jews. Robota was born there in the early 1920s and was active in the Ciechanow ghetto when the Germans occupied the town. After losing her entire family, she was imprisoned in the first women’s camp at Auschwitz.. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive (http://pewrsr.ch/2glGmj3), the Jewish underground in Auschwitz requested her help in organizing the smuggling of explosives from the a munitions factory at Auschwitz to members of the Jewish underground and the Sonderkommando (work units made up of death camp prisoners). Women prisoners smuggled the explosives in match boxes to Robota who passed them on to the Sonderkommando. Based on information from a half-Jewish undercover agent, the activities of Robota and her accomplices were discovered and they were arrested. Despite the fears of the camp underground that, under torture, Robota and the others would provide information about other plotters, they did not do so. This is an account of the revolt of the Sonderkommando on October 7, 1944. This Yizkor book is also available in print (http://bit.ly/2hcw4P2).
December 9, 2016
- One of the most infamous of all eruptions of anti-Semitic fervor in the years before the Holocaust was “The Pogrom of 1903,” recounted in this chapter (http://bit.ly/2fWHl91) from the Yizkor book of Chisinau (Kishinev), Moldova. On Easter day of that year, mobs - believing Jews had murdered a Russian Catholic boy -- killed 49 Jews, severely wounded 92, injured at least 500 others, and looted and destroyed 700 homes, according to one report, although other reports vary in the specifics. The violence was stirred by anti-Semitic newspapers that Jews murdered the boy - who was actually killed by a relative - so they could use the blood in the preparation of matzoh. The pogrom, followed by a smaller one two years later, stirred a worldwide outcry and prompted thousands of Jews to leave for the West or Palestine.
December 2, 2016
- Throughout all of Poland, where would you find a town’s poor “living like one family in a single house, with a tradition of several generations?” One such place was the town of Turka where a community of the poor called “Chalivkes” lived together in a two-story house. This account (http://bit.ly/2fQhrzO) describes not only the depth of their poverty, but their generosity of spirit in taking in others in need who, according to Moshe, came to Turka from all over Poland. Turka had a Jewish population of nearly 5,000 in 1910 when it was still part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. It is about 140 miles west of Ivano-Frankivsk.This Yizkor book is available in print (http://bit.ly/2fkVHQp).
November 25, 2016
- “We Jews are not angels,” writes Shaul Ginzburg in a chapter of the Yizkor book of Minsk, Belarus titled “The Thief” (http://bit.ly/2fhNvyB). Like people of all nations, the Jews of eastern Europe had their criminal element and, in this excerpt, Ginzburg tells the story of the brutal career — and equally brutal punishment — of the Dillinger of the Minsk region, who was known as “Boytira.” Minsk, the capital of Belarus, was one of the largest and most important communities in Russia during the 19th century. In 1900, when it was part of the old Russian empire, it had a Jewish population of 48,000. There is also a KehilaLinks site for Minsk which you can find here: http://bit.ly/1RAm3Wf
November 18, 2016
- As you read through Yizkor books, one common theme is that among the hardships of anti-Semitism, pogroms, persecution and poverty, Jews of the shtetls had another common enemy — fires. Many towns were particularly vulnerable because many of the houses were built of wood, and the local fire brigades, when they existed, were ill-equipped. This excerpt by Avraham Yaffe from the Yizkor book of Goniadz, Poland (http://bit.ly/2g879yL) is a good account of this. The Jewish population of Goniadz, 29 miles west of Bialystock, was about 2000 in 1897 when it was part of the Russian Empire and had fallen to 1,135 in 1921. This book is available in print (http://bit.ly/2fwB4NE) and there is also a KehilaLinks site (http://bit.ly/2fNCuCu).
November 11, 2016
- As people who have gathered on JewishGen as part of their search for our ancestors, we all have the yearning to make discoveries that will bring them alive for us, and we all regret the missed opportunities of not asking more questions of the generation that came before us. That’s why this excerpt from the Yizkor book of Devenishki, Lithuania caught my eye: “I got to see a picture of the people I love.” In it, Nili Itskovish gets a wish fulfilled. Her story originally appeared in "Davar LeYeladim," a popular weekly published by the Histradutfor children, published between the years 1936-1985. Devenishki (or Dieveniškės in Lithuanian) is on the border of Belarus, about 35 miles southeast of Vilnius. In 1900, when it was part of the Russian Empire, it had a Jewish population of 1,225. There is also a Kehilalinks site for the town (http://bit.ly/2eJqiVP)
November 4, 2016
- This week’s Yizkor book excerpt tells of the “Superstitions, Remedies and Cures” known to the people of Mlawa, Poland, a town of 4,854 Jews in 1900 when it was still part of the Russian Empire. Mlawa is 65 miles north-northwest of Warsaw. Whether it is the omens of a bird tapping at the window or dogs howling at night, warding off the “evil eye,” or curing colds with the smoke of scorched feathers, this account captures, as its author says, the town’s “land of imagination and dreams, of unnatural images and visions.”
October 28, 2016
- Among the many famous rabbinical dynasties among the Jews of Europe was the “golden chain” of the Izhbitza-Radzin Hasidic rabbis founded in 1839 by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Lainer (sometimes transliterated as “Leiner”). “The Golden Chain,” a chapter (http://bit.ly/2elgWlF) in the Yizkor book of Radzyn, Poland, tells the story of Shmuel Shlomo Lainer, the last of that line in Radzyn as the Nazis took over. Author Leib Rochman recounts the rabbi’s call on the Jews of the town to flee into the forest to join the partisans, in order to carry the fight to the Germans. This is a stirring account of a heroic effort to spirit the rabbi to safety as the Gestapo sought to hunt him down, only to end in his death. Descendants of his later carried on the rabbinate in B’nei B’rak in Israel. Radzyn is about 40 miles north of Lublin, near Poland’s borders with Belarus and Ukraine. In 1900, when it was still part of the Russian Empire, its Jewish population was 2,853. There is also a Kehilalinks site for the town: http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/Radzyn_Podlaski/
October 21, 2016
- In the shtetl of Amdur (Indura, in Russian) there were two types of wine drinkers: those that drank, not for the sake of drinking, but to make Kiddush as the Torah ordered, and those that frequented the town’s taverns for less religious reasons. This week’s excerpt is from the Yizkor book of Amdur, titled “Amdurer Wine House Keepers” (http://bit.ly/2ei0YVz) is an account of them. Amdur had a population of 2,194 Jews when it was part of the Russian, and later became part of Poland, situated 14 miles south of Grodno.
October 14, 2016
- This week’s Yizkor book excerpt, “Under the Beams of the House,” (http://bit.ly/2e4QNlz) is a wonderful snapshot of life in the shtetl of Dusiat, Lithuania, from the homes in which people lived to loving descriptions of the food they ate. (There's a recipe at the end for Dry Teiglach). What makes this account different from other excerpts I’ve posted is it isn’t a chapter written by one person, but a gathering of interviews of Dusiaters arranged to sound like a conversation. The book was compiled by Sara Weiss-Slep who had been inspired as a child by the stories her father would tell of Dusiat. She says in her foreword to the book “I loved listening to those stories time and again. While growing up, I did get to know some of the Dusiater (Jews of Dusiat) when they held their reunions where emotions would bubble up like springs, and recollections of mischievous childhood would mingle with tears of deep sorrow and mourning…Some parts of the book, especially Life in the Shtetl and The Annihilation of the Shtetl, are told as if the narrators are gathered together and, in much the same way as in the old days, are sharing memories with one another, adding and intertwining their words with those of others. With this form of presentation, 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.”
October 7, 2016
- The death of Shimon Peres sent me looking for the small village of Vishniewa, Poland (Wiszniew) where he was born in 1923. Located about 56 miles northwest of Minsk near the Lithuanian border, it was part of the Second Polish Republic from 1921 to 1939. Vishniewa’s Jewish population about the time Peres was born had fallen from 1,463 in 1897 to just over 900. That population was wiped out in 1942 by the Germans. This week’s excerpt is from the Yizkor book of Wiszniew. In this account (http://bit.ly/2dBH3o1), Ziska Podbersky writes of the revenge that 300 Vishnevan partisans exacted on those who carried out and sympathized with the work of the Germans. There is also a KehilaLinks site that can be found here: http://bit.ly/2dvNNSD
September 30, 2016
September 23, 2016
- This week’s excerpt is from the Yizkor book of Częstochowa (Czenstokov) about 60 miles northwest of Krakow in Poland. Its Jewish population in 1931 was 25,588. The book is titled “The Destruction of Częstochowa” and its focus is entirely on the brutal events that followed the German occupation that began in 1939. This short chapter (http://bit.ly/2cjsQJp) titled “Traitors” described the activities of Jewish swindlers who preyed on those who believed they could fix things with the Gestapo to free arrestees. This book is available in print (http://bit.ly/2cr1JNb).
September 16, 2016
- This week’s excerpt from the Yizkor book of Lubtch and Delatich in Belarus is about food in the shtetl … cooked, fried or baked with various kinds of fat. In “Lubtch Foods” (http://bit.ly/2chI2WC), K. Hilel writes of delicacies and staples, lists favorite foods for the holidays and provides a Yiddish glossary of words for the implements needed to prepare them, from the “boike” (a small barrel for churning butter) to the “katuch” (a place under a baking over for keeping chickens).
September 9, 2016
- This week’s excerpt (http://bit.ly/1UnV7tE ) recounts the story of Jewish self-defense groups that battled anti-Semites and their pogroms in the years before the Holocaust. It is from the Yizkor book of Dubossary (Dubasari) in Moldova. It is from a much longer chapter, "Self-Defense in Dubossar" by Yehayahu Kantor. The book is also available in print (http://bit.ly/1VKTb3i). There is also a KehilaLinks page (http://bit.ly/2ceaXvV) for this town, bordered on the west by the Dniester River and not far from Kishinev, the site of a brutal pogrom in 1903 that attracted world attention. In 1897, it had a Jewish population of 5,219, and in the mid-1920s, it had a Jewish population of 3,630.
September 2, 2016
- Some of the recent postings have been about the grim side of the story the Yizkor books tell, so for this week, a little something different. This excerpt (http://bit.ly/2byXQaD) is from the Yizkor book of Brzezin (or Brzeziny) in Poland, about 13 miles east of Lodz and about 70 miles west of Warsaw. The Jewish population numbered almost 4,000 in 1897 when it was still part of Russia. This chapter by Abe Rosenberg describes another slice of shtetl life: how Jewish sports came to Brzezin. This book is also available in print: http://bit.ly/2c9zgsq
August 26, 2016
- Among the many painful and moving memories of the extermination of the Jews recounted in Yizkor books comes from Kovel, then and now a central rail hub that is now part of Ukraine, in the northwest, and during its history had been part of Russia and Poland. The Jewish population was about 20,000 when the Germans arrived in 1941. The process of liquidation lasted until October 1942. During this time, about 1,000 Jews tried to escape but were rounded up and taken to the famous Great Synagogue before they were ultimately taken to meet their deaths. While awaiting their end, many wrote notes on the synagogue's walls in Hebrew, Yiddish or Polish. Here are some of them. A complete record can be found in its Yizkor book (http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/kovel1/kov483.html#Page487).They speak for themselves. When the Soviets re-occupied the city, they used the synagogue to store grain. The walls were later painted over and the synagogue was turned into a textile factory. There is also a KehilaLinks page for Kovel, which you can find here: http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/kovel/kovel.htm
August 19, 2016
- This week’s excerpt (http://bit.ly/2bkJAQx) is from the Yizkor book of Zgierz in central Poland about seven miles from Lodz. In 1932, it had a Jewish population of 4,547. This chapter recounts the story of a small group of Jews trying to flee to Russian-controlled territory in 1939 to escape the Germans. There are many accounts in Yizkor books of “righteous gentiles” — those that did their best, often at risk to themselves, to show humanity to Jews in the years of the Holocaust and even see to their safety. Such a story is told here by W. Ben Shimon in “This Must Also Be Written…” This book is also available in print: http://bit.ly/2bfl1RT
August 12, 2016
- This week’s excerpt (http://bit.ly/2bhaQkF) is from the Yizkor book of Molchad (Maytchet) in Belarus, a little over 100 miles southwest of Minsk. The Jewish population of the town was 1,888 in 1900. The author of this account, A. Ben-Shalom, had hooked up with a Russian partisan group, as he recounts in his article, “The raid…and the meeting.” He remembers it as an unexpected opportunity for revenge for what the Germans had done in the town, but his story takes a haunting twist. This book is also available in print at http://bit.ly/2aA8fwm.
August 5, 2016
- This week’s selection is from the Yizkor book of Sierpc, a town in Poland about 77 miles northwest of Warsaw and 23 miles north of Plock. In 1897, when it was still part of the Russian Empire, it had just under 3,000 Jews. This excerpt, “A Pious Jew from the Older Generation,” (http://bit.ly/2amG3Pb) is a remarkable story of a couple who lost their own child and then took the child of a poor fisherman widow into their household. The account, written by Elisheva Rabinowich, based on her grandfather’s memoirs, takes a surprising turn and has a sad and stern ending dictated by the pious old Jew’s strong beliefs. A shortened version follows. The book is also available in hardcover (http://bit.ly/2aptTmu).
July 29, 2016
July 22, 2016
July 15, 2016
July 8, 2016
July 1, 2016
- This week’s excerpt is from the Yizkor book of Klobuck, a town of about 1,000 Jews in 1897 when it was part of the Russian Empire, and later became part of Poland. It sits roughly between Lodz and Krakow. The chapter (http://bit.ly/295kcwH) is titled “My Grandfather – the Pious, Believing Tailor.” In it, Moshe Goldberg tells the story of his grandfather Chaim Moshe, and one thing that struck a chord with me was the recounting of Chaim Moshe’s thoughts and emotions as his children left to move abroad, in this case to England. They sent back photos of themselves in new world finery, and this reminded me of highly-posed photographs of my own grandparents that they sent back to their families to show the success they had achieved. This Yizkor book is available in print (http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/ybip/YBIP_Klobuck.html) as well as online.
June 24, 2016
June 17, 2016
June 10, 2016
- This week’s excerpt is “Self-Defense in Dubossar,” (http://bit.ly/1UnV7tE) a small town in Moldova whose Jewish population number 5,219 in 1897. Dubossar was 23 miles northeast of Kishinev which suffered a wave of pogroms in 1903 and 1905 that drew world attention. Yehayahu Kantor recounts, in this excerpt from the full article, how Jewish self-defense groups fought back. In addition to the translation in the online JewishGen Yizkor book collection, it is also available for purchase in published book form from the Yizkor Books in Print Project (http://bit.ly/1VKTb3i).
June 3, 2016
- This week’s excerpt is from “Shards of Memory: Messages from the Lost Shtetl of Antopol, Belarus.” Antopol is situated about halfway between Pinsk and Brest, in the marshy region of Polesia. Its population in 1900 was 3,137. In addition to the translation in the online JewishGen Yizkor book collection (http://bit.ly/1t1RHXF), it is also available for purchase in published book form from the Yizkor Books in Print Project (http://bit.ly/1t1RmUL). For those with access, there is an interesting article in the New Yorker from 2014 — “The Book of Antopol (or, Can We Ever Know the Past?)” — that can be found here: http://bit.ly/1XQeh0l. The excerpt is titled “The Murder of Yonah the Miller” (http://bit.ly/25BkBig) which the author, A. Slonimski says occurred in 1908. It reads very much like it could be a plot of a TV crime drama.
May 27, 2016
- This week’s excerpt is “Reb Shabtai (Spiegel) the Tavern Keeper” from the book of Rozniatow, a shtetl in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in southeastern Galicia, in the region of Stanislawow, about 25 miles west of Ivano-Frankivsk.In 1900, it was part of the Austrian Hungarian Empire , later Poland and ultimately the Ukraine. Its Jewish population was 1,589 in 1890 and declined to 1,349 by 1921. The book has a map of the town (http://bit.ly/1W8D1Sc ) with numbered houses and a chart listing who lived in them. This is one of the books that the Yizkor Books in Print Project has published in hardcover and which can be ordered here http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/ybip/YBIP_Rozhnyativ.html There is also a KehilaLinks site for this town http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/Rozhnyatov/Rozhome.html. The excerpt is a wonderful description of a small tavern (and some of the drunkards it attracted) and comes to a touching end when Reb Shabtai, now retired, encounters a fellow Jew badly in need.
May 20, 2016
- This is an excerpt (http://bit.ly/1rSmuoO) from the book of Dokshytsy in Belarus, a small town 69 miles north of Minsk. It’s Jewish population in 1897 was 2,762. In “The Death of a Martyr Chaya Bloch,” Zvi Markman recounts the weeks after the German occupation during which Chaya’s pregnant sister, Khayke, is summoned to appear before the Gestapo. Wanting her younger sister to live in order to have the child, Chaya decides to turn herself into the Gestapo in hopes they will mistake her for Khayke. There is also a KehlilaLinks site for Dokshytsy: http://bit.ly/27wNNFL
May 13, 2016
- Zionism could be a sore subject in the Jewish towns of Europe in the early 20th century. Many Jews were inspired by the movement founded by Theodor Herzl to promote migration to Palestine in order to create a Jewish state. Others, like General Union of Jewish Workers (Der Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund) strongly opposed it because they believed in improving conditions at home and saw emigration to Palestine as escapism. Many older Jews, too, looked askance at the movement. This week’s excerpt (http://bit.ly/1T7Q5qw) is from the book of Bendery in Moldova, a town 31 miles from Chisinau (Kishinev) which in 1897 was home to 10,564 Jews. It’s titled “Yehiel the Cobbler Teaches me Zionism” and is by Leah Steiner.
May 6, 2016
- This week’s excerpt (http://bit.ly/1pWk4nA) is from the book of Wolkovisk or, in Russian, Volkovysk. Said to be one of the oldest towns in southwestern Belarus, it is situated about 55 miles East of Bialystock and 45 miles southeast of Grodno. The Jewish population there was 1,282 people in 1766, 5,528 in 1897 and grew to 7,347 in 1931. Jews made up a little more the half of the town’s population in the early 1900s, most of them living in the center, while non-Jews lived around the periphery. In this excerpt, “Wolkovisk – My Native Town,” Moses Einhorn starts with a short description of its setting and later provides a vivid account of the Sabbath. There is also a KehilaLinks site: http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/Vawkavysk/
April 29, 2016
- This week’s excerpt is from the book of Rohatyn, now part of Ukraine, about 40 miles south of L’viv. The Jewish population was 3,503 in 1890 when it was still part of Galicia in the Austrian-Hungarian empire, but declined to 2,223 in 1921 after it became part of Poland. In a chapter titled “Within the Town,” Yehoshua Spiegel starts off by describing a typical market day in the shtetl (http://bit.ly/1rfPh6q).
April 22, 2016
- This week’s excerpt (http://bit.ly/1ThJrus)is from the book of Stepan, which had been part of Poland and is now in northwest Ukraine, just south of the border of Belarus. In 1897, its Jewish population was 1,854. Much has been written about Jews who resisted the Nazi occupation or struggled to survive. This is an account by Yonah Rassis, who had been imprisoned in a forced labor camp in Kostopol shortly before the annihilation of the community in 1942, and who, along with hundreds of others, decided to escape.
April 15, 2016
- This week’s excerpt (http://bit.ly/23vrmkJ) is from the Memorial book of Nowy-Dwor, a shtetl about 17 miles northwest of Warsaw. In 1900, shortly before this chapter was written, Nowy-Dwor was under Russian rule, but later was part of Poland. In 1897, the Jewish population was 4,737. As in many Jewish communities, there were active political movements, ranging from Zionism to groups advocating social reform and labor rights. This is the 1905 account of Simkhe Waga describing the work of – and the dangers facing – Jewish activists.
April 8, 2016
- The Passover holiday approaches, so it seems fitting to share this excerpt (http://bit.ly/1oyG5Ip) from the Yizkor book of Horodetz that describes the feverish preparations for the holiday undertaken by the Jewish residents of the small Belarus shtetl as well as how they celebrated it. Horodetz is in the Grodno gubierna, between Brest and Pinsk. In 1897, 684 Jews lived there among 1,761 non-Jews. While Horodetz is the name used in the JewishGen Yizkor book title, it is also referred to as Gorodets which the book’s translator says is the Russian pronunciation. The book says that, with the coming of the Holocaust, “ Jewish hearts no longer beat there… It was a Jewish village and now it is no more.”
April 1, 2016
- This week’s excerpt is from a chapter of the Yizkor book of Minsk in Belarus. At the turn of the 20th century, Minsk was home to 47,562 Jews who made up about half the city’s population and was then one of the largest Jewish communities in Russia. This excerpt (http://bit.ly/21UXvfB), “The Home of My Father, the Maggid of Minsk,” describes the array of synagogues in the city and its suburbs, which included ones organized around various professions – something that was new to me.
March 25, 2016
- This week’s excerpt is from a chapter in the Yizkor book of Belchatow, titled “Belchatow in the Year 1898” (http://bit.ly/1XNjbJq). Belchatow is in Poland, about 90 miles southwest of Warsaw, and 13 miles west of Piotrkow, the town mentioned in this passage. In, 1900, the Jewish population was 2,987. A JewishGen KehilaLink page for Belchatow can be found here: http://bit.ly/1ShORVJ. The Jewish Virtual Library says that the final liquidation of the Jewish community here took place in August 1942. No Jewish community was re-established after the war.
March 18, 2016
- This excerpt (http://bit.ly/1QPdtVu) from the Memorial Book of Rokiskis in Lithuania was sent to us by Susan Stone. Rokiskis is about 90 miles north of Vilnius, near the Latvian and Belarus borders. In the early part of the 20th century, the number of Jews living there hovered around 2,000, just under half of the town's population. The majority of Jews in Rokiskis were Hasidim. The history at Yad Vashem records that on August 15-16, 1941, the Jewish men were taken from Rokiskis to a nearby village and shot to death in pits. On August 25, the women, children and the elderly, some 3,200 people in total, were murdered. In addition to the Yizkor book, JewishGen has a KehilaLinks site here: http://bit.ly/1SKOqFJ
March 11, 2016
attributed to an eyewitness.
March 4, 2016
- This excerpt is from the book of Lyubcha (http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/Lyubcha/Lyubcha.html#TOC), a small shtetl of five streets in Belarus, about 60 miles west of Minsk. Its population in 1897 was 2,463. The chapter is titled “There Once Was a Jewish Village Called Lubtch” and it has a lyric description of daily life: “Darkness still lies over the village, but the morning star is shining and announces the arrival of a new day. “From the darkness emerges a figure- a broad shouldered, black wrinkled Jew, like a gypsy. A bag with food hangs down from his shoulders, a long whip clenched in his right hand. He has a deep, thick voice which pierces the quiet of the dawn. This is Moshe-Grunim, the village herdsman, who leads the village cows to graze in the meadows along the Neiman River....