My friend Leizer Dumesh was born in Vishki. I asked him if he could tell me about what life was like as a child in Vishki, because I wanted to be able to imagine what my grandfather's life was like there, 30 years before. This is his story. For more of his stories about his life and how his father and uncle helped his family survive during the war, please visit http://dumesh.dumes.net/leiser.html
By the way, although Leizer's grandfather lived next to my great-grandfather and we are both named Dumesh, we actually are not related, at least through our paternal lines. We have confirmed that via Y-DNA testing.
I was born in 1930 in Vishki and lived there until October 1940, when I was just a kid 10 years old; I was just a little Jewish boy and of course my memories of Vishki are very childish and naive.
What I’ve remembered my whole life is that Vishki was a big borough/town, full of people and life in full swing all the time. I was very much surprised when I found out on Dumes.net that in 1935 only 400 odd Jews lived in Vishki, my childhood memories made me think that there were much more Jews at that time. When during the war in Russia or after the war in Riga I was asked if Vishki was a big place, I always gave an estimate of 3000 odd people as an answer.
There was no industry in Vishki, mostly craftsmen and miscellaneous traders keeping small shops and stores serving locals and adjacent farms and villages. There were no employment opportunities for the young ones, so people were leaving Vishki for Dvisnk (now Daugavpils), Riga, Russia, America and other countries. My grandfather Genoch Dumesh had 10 children and by 1935 only families of his oldest daughters Geta and Elka and youngest son Israel (my father) were still living in Vishki. My grandfather on mother’s side, David Bleiman, had 7 children and by 1935 only families of his two daughters Keila and Bluma (my mother) stayed in Vishki.
Despite all this, Vishki was a very busy and brisk place for those days. Twice a week in the centre of town, on a rather big square, trading markets were organized with buyers/sellers gathering from all over the neighborhood, also from Kraslava, Dagda and other places. Trade was very boisterous; dairy products, poultry, meets, small and large livestock, fruits and vegetables, various crafts were sold there. Market-place was separated from the main street by a row of barns, warehouses and shops sided with one another. All the shops in Vishki were located on that street by the market. Whenever mother was sending me to buy some trifles (bread, salt, sugar, matches, etc) I went to one of such shops ran by Uncle Osik (Russian-Yiddish diminutive for Yoseph) and would always receive something tasty as a gift (candy, butter-scotch, halva etc). This place by the market always, except for Saturday, had a lot of people, horses and carts.
Between the Shulgas street and the road (which served as an entrance to Vishki for everybody) there was a big field. Twice a month, on certain days, Ferdmark (Yiddish for a horse market) was taking place on this field. Not only horses, but also cows, sheep, pigs and other livestock was sold there. Even more traders were coming to this event, even from Dvisnk and Rezekne. So, yes, I will dare to suppose that Vishki was a big local trading centre.
Of course, both rich and poor lived in Vishki. I grew up in a family of craftsmen. We were neither, today our family would be named middle class, and so it was, I guess. Father was a shoe-maker; he was cutting out leather billets for shoes. Mother was a dress maker of women dresses and coats. I won’t say that clients were coming in flocks, but they had their own clientele of local and neighboring farmers. Close to our house there was a house of David Bleiman (my grandfather on mother’s side), who was also a shoe-maker and often right there Grandpa David was sewing the shoes out of the billets my father would produce.
We lived on a street called Shulgas. It started from the Synagogue and wasn’t too big, about 600 – 800 meters long. There was a meadow after the street and a lake after the meadow. “Shul” and “Gas” are Yiddish for “Synagogue” and “Street”, hence the name of the street. If someone told: Lets go to the Shul in the evening, they meant Synagogue.
We lived in quite a big wooden house. Entering the house, one would first come to a workshop of my parents, a small room of about 16m2 with two sewing machines (one Zinger machine for regular fabric for my mother and other for leather for my father) and a big table for measuring and cutting the billets. Then there was an entrance to the living area, staring with a long room separated by a big brick stove heated by firewood. It was used for cooking and also heated the whole house up. On the other side of the house there was a yard, a small garden with apple, pear trees and berries. There was a also a vegetable garden about 10m2 – 20m2 large where potatoes, cabbage, onion, carrots and beetroot were grown.
Every spring some man with a horse was coming to the garden to dig up the soil and we followed him to seed the potatoes. He then came in autumn to dig it up again, so that potatoes could be picked. During plating and harvesting of potatoes also nephews of my parents were coming to help. There was a deep and cold cellar dug out in the back yard for storing the vegetables. Such gardens were quite widespread, at least on Shulgas street almost every house had them.
I won’t say our family was very religious, but we kept all the holidays and observed Shabbos. Every Friday mother was lighting the candles and prepared a festive dinner with delicious home made Khale. Me and my father would go to the Shule for an evening prayer. Before school, I went to a Chedera for a year or two. In general, I remember this time as a never-ending sequence of holidays and fests. After new-year holidays season after a short while Hanukkah was coming, then Purim, then Pesach… I loved these holidays very much.
I loved Sukkoths. I was helping my father to build Sukke and then we’d spend most of the week in it. Mother was cooking different munchies: cimes, gepektele fleish, teigelach, lekech, imberlech and others.
I loved Hannuke very much. Every house you’d pass had candles glowing in the window and everyone was treating us kids with latkes (kind of pancakes). Almost every house had latkes and almost every family had its own special way of cooking (out of flour, potatoes or cottage cheese) or serving them (with a berry dressing, or with apples, etc). Grandpa Genoch was making a beautiful dreidl for me, a four-sided whipping top with a Hebrew alphabet letter on each side, which we played with other kids. Also, I was receiving some hannuke gelt.
I loved Purim, it was always very much fun. Grandpa Genoch was always making me a very good rattle. Dreidles and rattles Genoch was making not only for me, but for all his grandchildren and grand-grandchildren, whom he had plenty. I was coming to the Shule with a rattle, what was going on there?! Kids were allowed to do anything, spinning rattles, shooting toy-pistols, shouting and making noise. It was pure joy in the Synagogue, everyone laughed and treated each other with Omentashen (small triangle cakes with sweet filling). My mother was very good in baking them. After the war in Riga mother every Purim was baking omentashen for me.
On Pesach mother in good time started to clean the house of chemez and preparing for the holidays, buying matzoth, fish, meat and other Passover goods in advance. Mother was very good in cooking gefilte fish. I loved the ceremonial dinners on the first and second Seder, speaking about traditions and roots of the holiday. I was asking father the Fier Kashen (four questions) and he answered. Anywhere I’d go on Pesach it was solemn and decorous.
And I did have places to go in Vishki. I had a lot of cousins, many of whom were of the same age. Families of my parent’s siblings Geta, Elka and Keila, all of them had kids and grandchildren. I loved visiting my aunt Geta the most. They lived on top of the hill by the 2-story Latvian school. Entering Vishki from Daugavpilsk side, not turning right on Rigas street but continuing straight, in some 500 meters there’d be this school and in some other 200 meters there’d be Geta’s house, it was right on the edge of Vishki. They had a big beautiful house and a whole household with a well kept colorful garden.
Now there is nothing left of this house, as it is with most of the Jewish houses in Vishki, including ours. Aunt Geta had a big family, had kids, grandchildren and even grand-grandchildren (I think). A lot of them were my age and I was allowed to go with them to the lake which wasn’t far away from their house. Some of grown-up kids would always take us there, most of the times I went there with Aunt Keila’s 15-year-old son Judl and his siblings. Lake was not far away from the centre of Vishki, after the Usdin’s house we’d have to turn left and then walk another 400 meters.
I remember when Soviet troops came to Vishki, “the Reds came” as we’d say back then. They were met quite well. Not far away from the Ferdmark they made a small tent camp for themselves. Me and other kids were running there to take a peek at the soldiers and they were very friendly and well-disposed, treating us with crackers and candy. Then the soldiers dug two poles into the field, stretched a white canvas between them and started to show movies, at that with sound. This was such a rarity for us, moving live pictures, we never seen anything like this and were shocked. We didn’t speak a word in Russian, but fancied what was going on the screen. The first movie I saw in my life was “We are from Kronshtat”, about adventures of marines-revolutionaries. Kronshtat was an island in Finnish bay, a marine base that protected St Petersburg from naval attacks. As I said, I didn’t understand Russian at all, but there was lots of shooting and fighting in the movie, everyone liked it a lot, grown-ups too.
When the Reds came, father left Vishki for Riga, found a job there at a leather-sewing factory, found a place to rent and in October 1940 came back to take us to Riga. “Us” being my mother, me, 6-year-old sister and one-year-old brother. And then on June 27 1941 when German troops already entered Latvia and were approaching Riga (on 1st of July Germans occupied Riga and on the 4th were burning Synagogues already) father sent us to an evacuation to Russia. He himself stayed and went through ghetto and concentration camps.
Thanks to the wisdom of my father, let his soul rest in Gan-Eden, we all are alive and now I have the utmost pleasure to share my memories of a beautiful place called Vishki with you.
Written by Leizer Dumesh in Sep 2007, translated from Russian by Vadim Dumesh