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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

November 19,2021

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.

Party on!

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.

July 16,2021

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.

June 18,2021

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.

March 5,2021

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

https://www.facebook.com/JewishGen.org/posts/3800831446605649

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

https://www.facebook.com/JewishGen.org/posts/3620874841267978

“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

https://www.facebook.com/JewishGen.org/posts/3604714196217376

"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

August 28,2020

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

https://www.facebook.com/JewishGen.org/posts/3302671699754962

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.

August 14,2020

“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

July 17,2020

https://www.facebook.com/JewishGen.org/posts/3203348059687327

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

https://www.facebook.com/JewishGen.org/posts/3162473853774748

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

https://www.facebook.com/JewishGen.org/posts/3143621722326628

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

https://www.facebook.com/JewishGen.org/posts/3089639711058163

“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.”

April 10,2020

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

https://www.facebook.com/JewishGen.org/photos/a.603500999672059/2911875985501204/

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

https://www.facebook.com/JewishGen.org/posts/2878165512205585

“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.”)

February 14,2020

https://www.facebook.com/JewishGen.org/photos/a.603500999672059/2831443816877755/

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.

January 31,2020

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).

January 24,2020

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.

January 17,2020

Poverty was a constant in the shtetls of Europe. Many were born to it, others fell into it. The latter was the case for Reb Benyamin the Tailor, a specialist in sewing by hand who was once overloaded with work until the arrival of tailors with sewing machines. But the poignance of this excerpt from the Yizkor book of Czyzew-Osada is the pain he felt about the grim situation that befell a family with no money and in debt.  “What will happen to them?” asked his wife, holding in the tears and pointing to the two boys, shriveled, with small, pale faces who stood near her holding on to her dress and the nursing child in her arms. “There is not a groshn of money in the house, not even a piece of bread.”

But Reb Benyamin could not hold back the tears as he trudged to the nearby villages to see if he could find some sewing work among the peasants.  Suffering poverty was not new to him, but “a man can only cry like this under oppressive need when the heart melts looking at his hungry and naked, shriveled small children.”

January 10, 2020

“My Mother’s Reminiscences of her Shtetl,” from the Yizkor book of Yedwabne (Poland), is a remembrance by noted scholar William W. Brickman who was born on New York’s Lower East Side in 1913. This excerpt is animated by the mother, Chayeh Soreh, whose “unparalleled sense of humor expressed itself in rhymes, bilingual puns, and stories” which Brickwell recounts in Yiddish along with the English translation. A priceless one is the comment she would make after going to a wedding or Bar Mitzvah meal that was wanting: "Fish un flaysh ayin lo roassa, tish un benk azay vi holtz," or “No one ever saw fish and meat, but tables and benches were as abundant as wood.” Immigrants on the Lower East Side whose practice of Jewish law in America did not match their standard in the Old Country would be characterized as follows : "In der haym, az er hot gehaysen Mendel, hot men gemegt essen fun zyn fendel; in Amerikeh, az men ruft em Max, meg men by em nor essen lox," or, “In Europe, where he was known by the Jewish name of Mendel, one could eat everything at his home; in America, with the non-Jewish name of Max, one can eat only smoked salmon.”

January 3, 2020

If there was an “appliance” that occupied a central place in many Jewish homes, it was the samovar. “Reincarnations of a Samovar” from a chapter titled “From Kheyder--to the Cemetery” in the Yizkor book of Dokszyc-Parafianow (Belarus) lovingly recounts the history of one family’s samovar, from the giving of it as a gift at the wedding of the writer’s grandfather, to its loss when it had to be sold at auction to pay off the “streams of endless different taxes” imposed by the Polish government to its miraculous reappearance after the author returned to his shtetl after the Nazi occupation.

The chapter is also full of wonderful descriptions of Jewish life, but the samovar is the star of this excerpt.

“What a samovar is to a Jewish home, I need not say...tea in the morning and evenings...hot water for washing diapers and swaddling cloths, bathing children, filling flasks and compresses, clean away bedbugs, blanching poppy seeds, washing laundry and for warm water for baking bread." It was used in times of illness to make steam for whoever was sick. But its gifts went beyond just its many practical uses: "In the long evenings of the cold winter nights when it was snowy outside, the blizzard clapping on the shutters, howling in the chimneys, the ice cracks, the windows are frosted - the house is heated, it is warm and the samovar boils on the table."

December 27, 2019

“We Want to Live” is in the JewishGen collection of Yizkor books but it is not a Yizkor book in the sense that it is a chronicle specifically devoted to a town or region. In it, Jacob Rassen describes the tragic events that occurred between 1941 and 1945 across Lithuania, Latvia, Byelorussia, Poland and elsewhere. This excerpt from the book begins in Dvinsk [now Daugavpils, Latvia] where a ruthless three-day aktion in the ghetto in November 1941 robbed him of his family and everything he loved, and drove him to the brink of suicide.  “But bit by bit other thoughts began to press into my mind," he recalls telling himself. "Why should I go away of my own free will, run away like a coward from the mean world, and not even lift a finger to take revenge on the heartless villains and criminals, the cold and conscienceless mass murderers, the beasts in human form?” He went on to fight with partisans who tracked down remnants of Latvian, Lithuanian, and German fighter units. “With what pleasure did I, myself, with my own hands, shoot three of the murderers who had, exactly a year before, at Zlekas, murdered my comrades?” he writes of that time.

He survived and returned to Dvinsk.

“I had not wept for a very long time, my heart having been turned to stone, but now ...now the accumulated suffering and pain tore open and broke out in a stream of lament and tears. I wept, bitterly wept, over the fate of those who were tortured and those who survived – over the bitter fate of all of us.”

Ultimately, he settled in America.

December 20, 2019

One of the most well-known eyewitness accounts of Nazi brutality is one written by German-born Hermann Friedrich Graebe about the mass-killing that took place in Dubno in 1942. Graebe joined the Nazi party in 1931, but soon became disenchanted with it and was openly critical about the Nazis’ campaign against Jewish businesses. He witnessed the Dubno events during his time as a manager of a German construction firm in the Ukraine — one that employed a Jewish workforce to build and renovate structures needed for railroad communications.

His account — “Testimony about the slaughter in Dubno” —is included in the Yizkor book of Dubno (Ukraine). Graebe was recognizied by Yad Vashem in 1965 as “Righteous Among the Nations.”

December 13, 2019

Hanukkah is approaching so I thought I’d help you welcome it with three vignettes of the holiday drawn from the Yizkor books of Strzyzow and Kaluszyn in Poland, and Gorodets in Belarus. Some extracts:

“When Hanukkah eve arrived and the Almighty was good to us children and sent us down the first pure white snow, it was for us the greatest happiness and exhilaration. Snowballs were thrown at the sextons while they were reciting the blessings during the candle lighting ceremony” ... “The Chanukah nights were studded with stars. The snow glistened as if to light up God's little acre. On Layzer Farber's hill squeaked little sleighs and on the sidewalks of the main street unhurriedly promenaded young couples dreaming of their future happiness” … “The Chanukah nights were bright and joyful. The smell of latkes wafted from all windows until late into the night. The Chanukah candles flickered slowly; one by one the shutters closed, and the night enfolded the little wooden houses of the town. From a distance one could hear only the creaking of the train wheels at the station at Mrozy. Or was it already the sound of the Angel of Death flapping his wings on his way to the shtetl” … “The lit wicks of the Hanukkah-Menorah, on the window sills of houses, light up the street around them and warm the hearts of children. I stand and watch the burning candle and Hannah and her seven sons march before my eyes. They paid with their life because they were not tempted to betray their belief and their people. Then I see Matityahu the Cohen and Yehuda Maccabee with his soldiers and it seems to me that the Hanukkah candles are in fact a yortzeit [memorial candle lit once a year] candle for the soldiers killed in the revolt.”

December 6, 2019

“With a heavy heart I walked around the shtetl where a warm Jewish life once pulsed.”

So begins “On the Vestiges of a Disappeared Jewish Life” from the Yizkor book of Czyzew-Osada, Poland. What sets this excerpt apart from others recounting their return to their devastated and unrecognizable hometowns after the Holocaust is the depth of the conversations the writer, Y. Dawidowicz, has with those who witnessed the horrors that befell the Jews of Czyzewo. Some of these were Poles who had been sympathetic to the Jews, including one old man who was threatened by Polish nationalists and, years later, could still barely speak because of the fear that had been struck in him. Another was a socialist who spoke of “Jewish friends whom I will never forget because of their honesty and heartfelt humanity.” After the liberation from the Nazis he then had to witness “the Night of the Long Knives” when leaders of the Polish underground slaughtered Jews who had begun to return. The criminals, he said, were never apprehended.

Dawidowicz encounters an old Christian women who broke down in tears as she remembered the horrible things that had happened, and when he told her not to cry, she said, “One must, one must; terrible things happened here.”

The old stationmaster of the town tells him in a tortured voice: "“We knew that they were being taken to their death and we did nothing but watch, as if they were dogs, not people with whom we had lived together for tens of years…”

In the end, Dawidowicz wrote: “I was tormented by disgust for everything around me and for myself. I had the feeling that I was walking around a terribly contagious filth of crimes and decadence that would not let me buy back [Jewish Czyzewo] at any price.”

November 29, 2019

“The next morning, the Brzeziner ghetto was empty of children.”

This one sentence from “There Once Was a Jewish Shtetl Brzezin” from the Yizkor book of Brzeziny, Poland is one of the heart-stopping reminders of the inhumanity of the Germans as they occupied Jewish towns. It started with house searches and looting, round-ups for work, insults, humiliation, beatings, and torture. Jews were stripped of the last remnants of their possessions. The Germans “wanted women, and the Judenrat had to provide women.” For a while, time went by with daily hardships and cruelties, “one could say, 'normally.' We somehow survived,” wrote the author of this account.

Then, in 1942, the order was given by an SS commander that mothers had to bring their children, up to the age of ten, to him. Mothers and children remain in the town square until 3 a.m. when a great commotion began and “the SS men tear the children away from their mothers …  Children scream and cry, “Mama, I want to go with you, Mamusia.” … The mothers plead, “Take us along also; we want to go together with our children.”

“Several days later, they did the same thing to the grown-ups that they did to the children … Within a short time later, the Brzezin ghetto was liquidated – Brzezin was cleansed of Jews.”

November 22, 2019

The phrase “turning back the clock” takes on a whole new meaning in this week’s chapter, “In Mezritch,” from the Yizkor book of Miedzyrzec Podlaski, Poland.

Brush-making was one of the big industries in Mezritch. The town had more bristle workers (1,200) than any other city in the Siedlce region in eastern Poland. At the beginning of the 1890s, the day of the bristle workers In Mezritch was 17-18 hours. They worked in low, small houses with awful sanitary conditions as they toiled with iron combs used to comb raw pig hair. They worked amid clouds of dust in the air during the work, making breathing difficult. The odor of pig hair mixed with that from the kerosene which was used to oil the combs, and heightened the stench that came from the lamps.

One wealthy factory owner named Mosehl Chazirnik put his own finishing touch on the long days of his workers. His factories would operate on Saturdays, after the Sabbath was over, until midnight. Workers, of course, had their eyes on the clock, but it “was a strange clock... it played tricks. It would be 11:30, and then suddenly move back to 11:15. When it was already 11:45…one would look at the clock, and see that it had fallen back by ten minutes.” That went on until, one night, a worker looked down the hallway and saw that “Moshel Chazirnik, wearing his housecoat, was standing on a stool near the wall clock, turning back the hands of the clock.” (I won't spoil the fun of reading what ensued after Chazimik was caught red-handed). To make a long story short, there was no more pig hair brushed that night. And for some time after. It was 1900 and the bristle workers went out on strike for the first time.

November 15, 2019

In the 1930s, Coney Island, Brighton Beach and Sea Gate in Brooklyn was home to many Yiddish speakers. (In more recent years, Brighton Beach has become more known for its large population of Russian immigrants, earning it the name “Little Odessa.”)  The area also attracted noted Yiddish writers including Isaac Bashevis Singer and his brother I.J. Singer. Among these authors was Yona Rozenfeld, perhaps best known for the autobiographical novel Eyner aleyn (All Alone) published in 1940. Rozenfeld is the subject of a chapter bearing his name in the Yizkor book of Kovel (formerly part of Poland, now in the Ukraine) by another novelist, Yohanan Twersky.

Twersky describes much of Rosenfeld’s life and work in his chapter, but what drew me most of all were his  descriptions of Brighton Beach where he moved in 1937. “The beach looked like an altar to sun and water when we stood at the windows of our apartment,” he wrote.  “It was summer 1937 and Hitler’s shadow was spreading and growing… (but) here it is easier to ignore world problems since they are only possibilities at this time.” What was harder to ignore was the sufferings of Rozenfeld who was dying of cancer, and the narrative of Brighton Beach and Rozenfeld become intertwined.

November 8, 2019

November 1, 2019

October 25, 2019

October 18, 2019

October 11, 2019

October 4, 2019

September 27, 2019

September 20, 2019

September 13, 2019

September 6, 2019

August 30, 2019

August 23, 2019

August 16, 2019

August 9, 2019

August 2, 2019

July 26, 2019

July 19, 2019

July 12, 2019

“The laughter of Jewish children will never again echo in the marketplace,” writes the author, Leon Bernstein. That laughter, he says, “the laughter of Lithuanian peasants must not disturb the rest of our murdered generation; young Lithuanians in their Sunday drunkenness must not compete with one another: I murdered three, and I, five…” He recalls times when Shkud was “a happy, lively shtetl,” such as in the 1920s when industrialization made the town a prosperous place, though it came at the cost of some traditional occupations.

“Only the heirs of its memory remain, a handful of Jews in America, in Israel, in South Africa.”

July 5, 2019

June 28, 2019

June 21, 2019

Schlomo Perlmutter was another returnee. In “Writings on the Wall,” he too found only a small handful of survivors (six) and was grief-stricken by the devastation: “There was no trace left of the beautiful station. Kovel was a mountain of ruins… There were abandoned houses, burned bricks, broken pieces of furniture. The grass growing on the side of the road dimmed its color.” Like Moshe Goodman, he was awed by what he found in the abandoned Great Synagogue. “Hundreds and thousands of writings were etched on its white walls. Scores of Hebrew and foreign letters were drawn on them. Letters written in pencil, ordinary and unsharpened, in colored pencils, with pen and ink and some even scratched with finger nails” — all “blood cries for help in their sentence to death” from the Jews held captive there before being killed. These writings on the wall were transcribed and collected in the Kovel book, and you can find them here: https://bit.ly/2WMZWVz

June 14, 2019

This is a long book (you can read the entire translation here: https://bit.ly/2IBlFuT) and I’ve excerpted a passage that describes the wonders of the town’s fairs and the fear sown by Ukrainians who were stirring up anti-Jewish passions in the area. (The good news is that the townspeople taught them a lesson when they tried to stir trouble). There are many Yizkor book accounts celebrating the fairs of the shtetls, but what I loved about this one was the way the narrator draws a vivid picture of the array of regional clothing and their colors. and the Babel of different languages of the different peoples who thronged to the town. “The attire was a witness to their lives,” he says. And of the business of the fair itself, he adds: “When I remember our market, I suddenly see before my eyes how the buyers and sellers slapped their palms strongly during the long and fervid process of haggling over the price – such sights were real theatrical scenes and I loved to watch these debates and slaps of the palms, until finally, finally… until both hands already were swollen.”

June 7, 2019

May 31, 2019

Soon word came “that it was still quiet in the Bialystok ghetto” where many Sokoly Jews had gathered, and Bubcha saw the chance for her and her family to be once again “together with their brothers the Children of Israel.” The young man in the household that had taken the Safrans in told her she faced certain death and implored her not to go. The ghetto is where the author of this chapter encountered her. “We parted, and I never saw her again.”

May 24, 2019

When his earnings were not enough, he worked as a helper in the synagogue. When the sexton’s daughter scandalized the congregation by converting to Christianity and marrying a Pole, Todres took his place, winning over those who were less than happy about his new role. He brought home every penny he earned to his wife (who cooked for him meals that were “very far from good and tasty.”) Todres’ story, “Image of Ordinary People,” is from the Yizkor book of Sopotkin, Belarus.

May 17, 2019

May 10, 2019

May 3, 2019

April 26, 2019

April 19, 2019

Unsurprisingly, many of the chapters in nearly every book contains accounts — firsthand, or passed-on to others — of the days of destruction. Those chapters, as hard as some of them are to read because of the horrors they vividly depict, tend to be the ones that get the most reaction from the Facebook page readers, followed by stories of when Jews fought back, either in their own occupied towns or by fleeing to the forests to join anti-Nazi partisans. Readers also respond to the heart-wrenching accounts of Jews who returned to their old homes after the defeat of the Nazis, only to find nothing.

But you can only serve up so many of these nightmares week after week. So I leaven stories such as those I described above with the many delights that can be found in the books: the description of the town fairs and market days, the food, the humor in the nicknames townspeople gave each other and the favorite sayings they adopted, the odd characters that could be found in every shtetl, and the lovingly-described rituals of weddings and religious holidays. There are also many stories about the grinding poverty and struggles to make ends meet, but although they can be sobering, they are also a testament to the resiliency of Jewish life.Individual chapters are too long to reproduce here in their entirety, so here are some short excerpts of the kinds of things I’ve described above.One of the biggest responses among JewishGen readers was to “The Last Will and Testament of Fania Barbakov” from the Yizkor book of Druya, Belarus which recounted the final short letters she wrote while she and her family hid in a bunker in the ghetto before they were discovered by the Germans.

April 12, 2019

April 5, 2019

Passover will soon be upon us and what better reading could there be than “Holidays and Ceremonies,” a long chapter from the Yizkor book of Rietavas, Lithuania (or Riteve). “Holidays were given to man in order that he should be with himself, with his thoughts and with his people,” the author writes. This is a chapter you may want to keep, because it vividly describes in detail the lives and traditions of the people of Riteve during the Sabbath and all the holidays of the year. The remembrance of Passover in Riteve tells of the ritual and celebration of the holiday, but also includes an “unforgettable” Passover eve when the community was thrown into “fear and panic” because of an event very similar to the one that led to the 1905 pogroms in Kishinev, Moldavia when a gentile boy went missing and Jews faced the same “blood libel” — that the blood of the lost child had been used for the baking of their matzo. Through a “miracle,” the boy was found and tragedy averted and the community could go on to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer and then Shavout which “carried the true grace of the awakening of nature” when “the earth would grow flowers and grass. The trees would blossom and the birds would sing.”

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attributed to an eyewitness.

March 4, 2016

END