Memories of a boy from Chechelnik
By Nachman "Niacky" Hofferman
Thanks to Mark Menzer and Nancy Chizik who send me this great story
In 1904 there was the short lived revolution about which I learned later in history books, and from the excellent motion picture, "Potemkin". But I remember seeing the Cossacks that came to our town to keep the population in check. They were a fierce looking lot in the large fur hats, which they wore even in the summer. They were mounted on small, but very well trained and agile horses, with sabers and long lances sticking upwards. In their hand they had leather knouts weighted with a piece of lead.
At the small provocation, they used the knouts on the backs and heads of the population; especially on the Jews. When they simulated an attack formation, the lances were lowered forwards and they wielded the unsheathed sabers. The horse and rider acted in unison. They were both hated and feared by the common people.
I also recall the piercing cry and wailing of a woman whose husband was drafted and sent to the Russo-Japanese battlefront.
I went through all the childhood ailments. I remember only the measles. It was in springtime. I had a relapse because I insisted on going out to play before I was fully recovered. A sister was born when I was about three, but I have no recollection about the event. Later on she became a pain in the neck, because she always wanted to stick to me and my brother. In those years, this was out of the question.
My next vivid recollection is from about the age of eight. At that time my two little brothers, aged about three and two, contracted a fatal illness called in Russian, the inflammation of the brain. I believe it was some strain of meningitis. The doctors could not do anything, and on a Friday evening when my mother lit the Sabbath candles, they both expired. Mother and we children started to cry and wail. But my father said that on the Sabbath you are not allowed to cry and nobody cried until the next evening when the Sabbath ended.
I fell ill with the same sickness, and the doctor came and checked, but could not do anything. The fever was very high, and one day the doctor said it's the end when I passed out and he went away. But the paramedic of the town revived me. After about three weeks the doctor went away on his yearly vacation. The nearest doctor was ten miles away and my father brought him to see what he could do. He advised to take me to Odessa about two hundred and fifty miles away and put me in a hospital. I remember being in a children’s ward and doctors coming in groups to check up on me. They told my father that I had one chance in a thousand to stay alive. And even then, it would not be worth living. Somehow their prognostication was not true. Nature was kind to me and I'm still here to tell the tale. Recovery took quite a while, and I went back to chedder. The only after effect been that I remember, is my penmanship was never as good as it was before the illness.
On or around 1911 we had the shocking news of the Bayliss process. Around the Tsar and his court, there was a group called "the black hundred". They were not black in color, but in their soul, and they were in the thousands. Their aim was to befuddle the miserable workers and peasants; to channel the wrath of the angry, hungry mobs from the government and put the blame on the hapless Jews. They instigated programs, encouraged killings and plundering. The clergy helped by labeling the Jew antichrist and accusing them of using Christian blood for the Passover matzos.
Some of the blackguards murdered a Christian youth, drained his blood, and dropped the corpse in the Jewish neighborhood.
Bayliss was arrested and accused of the ritual murder. Terror struck in the hearts of every Jew in Russia. The famous or infamous Protocols of Zion were printed and distributed among the population. They were supposed to be factual proof of ritual slayings and use of Christian blood for matzos. Incidentally, our famous auto builder Henry Ford financed and distributed the Protocols of Zion.
Luckily the Jews from all over the world and many, many Christians from all over, and from Russia came to the aid of Bayllis and after a long trial he was acquitted, and officially the legend of the ritual murder was disproven. But the ignorant and the blackguards still keep the legend alive to this day. I was too young to feel the terror at that time, but it left a scar.
I was progressing from one "chedder" to the next higher, where the studies became more complicated. At the same time, I was learning Russian, math, history and geography with a private tutor. You can be sure I had no time to play. Somehow the idea of studying for the rabbinate evaporated. A fresh breeze came up in the "shtetlach". A new set of teachers, young and dedicated, used new methods of teaching, trying to revive the Hebrew language. They did not concentrate on the religious interpretation of the bible and prophets, but on the historical value of the bible and prophets and their poetic beauty. We learned to speak Hebrew among the youth, and Russian, but in the home Yiddish reigned. My bar mitzvah (13th birthday) was nearing; my father began thinking about my future. He sensed that I was not cut out to be a merchant. Jews were not accepted into schools except by quota, which meant considerable graft.
My father could not afford that much.
We heard that in Palestine they started the first Hebrew high school - Herzlia. My father suggested to the father of a classmate of mine to send the two of us to Palestine to study in Herzlia. The man did not agree, and my father did not want to let me go by myself. A year later, the man changed his mind, and sent my classmate to Palestine, where he eventually became a lawyer.
Before I step over the threshold from childhood to manhood (according to tradition, at 13 years of age at the Bar Mitzvah the youth becomes responsible for his deeds. Hence the expression, "today I am a man"). I want to add a few incidents which will put more light on the life in that era.
At the top of the town was a large open plaza where peasants and horse traders bought and sold horses. The buyers went around examining the horses, looking in their mouths to ascertain their ages according to their teeth, and feeling their legs. When they met their specifications, the trading began. This was accompanied by slapping each others palms. "How much do you ask?" "How much do you offer?" This went on for quite some time until, with sore palms, they agreed on an acceptable price. Then, they went to a saloon where they drank wine, vodka or beer - sometimes all three - paid the money and the buyer got the horses. Usually this was a big event because that amount of money was a large part of the peasants’ possessions. Sometimes the shiftless Christians and their Jewish collaborators got a hold of the tipsy seller and divested him of his money and whatever else he possessed.
At the foot of the town there was another plaza where they traded cattle. The procedure was the same as with the horses except that here was cow shit and at the other, horse shit. This was never cleaned, and eventually became part of the soil.
Sunday was also a trading day but on a smaller scale. The peasants went to the Russian (Greek) Orthodox church which was just on the border of the town. The gentry, which were mostly Polish and Catholic, went to their Cathedral which was also on the edge of the town, their bells chiming and calling the faithful to services. Being that they had to pass the town, they brought their products to sell, and again, buy in the stores things they needed.
The stores were all in Jewish hands except the drugstore which belonged to a Polish man, and the government liquor store which sold bottled vodka of a 100 proof which was pure alcohol, 60 proof which the non alcoholics drank, and 40 proof which the peasantry drank. There were no legal saloons, but being that most drinkers don't enjoy solitary drinking, there were quite a few illegal places where they could sit with cronies, buy drinks by the glass, and have something to eat. The police and government tolerated it for a price. There were a few fancy stores where the gentry and the richer Jews bought whatever they needed, like a general store where fancy foods imported from the big cities and from large European countries, and other luxury items were sold; and a dry goods store where the best woolens, cottons, and silks were sold. There were a few good tailors who made custom tailored clothes and also a shoe store where ready-made shoes from Peterburg and galoshes were sold. This was again for the affluent.
The poor ones, especially the peasants, went barefoot in the summer and in whatever they could put together in the winter.
Mostly boots or felt boots in the snow. These they wore on their feet that were wrapped in rags to keep them warm. Socks were rare. The middle class wore shoes custom made by shoemakers and, in the mud and snow, galoshes on top of the shoes. Socks were woven by the women in long winter evenings, and were darned and redarned again and again as the heels or the toes wore out.
There were a couple of hardware stores where iron, tools, and other things were sold and general stores where you could buy herring, kerosene, foodstuffs and housewares.
Actually there was one bazaar on Monday when peasants from all around the town came in with their carts carrying things to sell on the open market. On the two main streets they parked their carts laden with product; fruits in the summer, grains after the harvest, also chickens, geese, eggs and dairy products.
They unhitched their oxen or horses, fed them and tried to sell whatever they had at the time.
The women of the town came out to look over and buy what they needed. There were no set prices and haggling went on until they settled their differences. There were also a few women that bought for resale to the more affluent women that disdained to go out and bargain with the peasants. None of them became rich, as the so-called rich could drive a hard bargain too. The grain was sold to small dealers, among them my father and grandfather who resold it in greater quantities to commissioners who, in train carloads, sold it to large millers and to exporters. Here too, were no set prices. The competition among the buyers was fierce.
The price fluctuated according to the prices set on the grain exchanges in the large cities. But the peasants, being illiterate, knew nothing about it and did not want to know.
They wanted more than the trader could afford to pay. Some of the unscrupulous buyers agreed to pay those prices, but to make up for the difference, they cheated on the scale, sometimes more than to even up the price. The honest buyers were forced to use the same tactics or starve. As a youngster I saw this practice and developed an antipathy to business and commerce.
In the flour store, the merchants, covered with a fine dusting of flour, sold fancy white flour, rye and corn meal by the two hundred pound sack which those who could afford, bought. This was delivered by a burly man who carried it on his back tied down by a rope for a few kopecks (cents). The distances were not great, but it was not an easy way to make a real secure living.
There were open butcher stalls where kosher meat was sold. The butchers were tough and made sport with their women customers. Chickens were slaughtered by a "shocket" (a ritual slaughterer). They had to be learned men, as they had to know all the laws of "Kashrut", which included the knowledge of the health of the fowl. They also slaughtered cattle for the meat.
In fact, almost anything could be bought and sold in town.
The Jewish population was not homogenous. It consisted of distinct different castes. The elite were the learned, that came out of generations that devoted their time and energy to study, and the rich who amassed wealth. They often intermarried, mostly a rich girl to a poor deserving young man. The rich parents supported the pair, enjoyed their offspring and basked in the glory and respect of the son-in-law, who continued his studies.
Next came the "lealaleation" (middle glass) store keepers, traders, commissioners, who had some learning, half decent incomes, homes and tried to make life better for their children. For some reason, to me unknown, the people who earned a living by the fruit of their labor were looked down upon, even though sometimes they were prosperous.
This is contrary to what I learned about our ancient times when artisans and workers were highly respected. Some of our greatest ancient rabbis were artisans. In those days the accepted rule was that a person should not make a living from studying or teaching the Torah. The only reason I can think of is, that to become an artisan, it required a long and hard apprenticeship, and they had no time to study. Being ignorant in studies was almost a disgrace. On the bottom of the ladder were the poor and ignorant. They were the wards of the society and, of course, did not merit any respect. The only thing that bound those castes together was their being Jewish, which meant that they were prey to any scheming official, priest and even the lowest peasantry. They were not protected by state and law.
The houses were mostly of wood and clay, with roofs covered with straw or wooden slats. There were a couple of brick homes with tin roofs; one of which belonged to the richest man and was of two stories. Most of the homes were highly inflammable, especially in the dry seasons. There were no fire departments, no volunteer organizations and no fire apparatus. When a fire occurred, people were summoned by ringing the church bells. Both Jews and non-Jews ran to fight the fire. It was no easy task as water had to be carted from the river or wells and poured by the bucket brigades. Mostly the people tried to salvage the possessions and concentrated on the homes adjacent to the burning building by wetting the roofs and patting out the sparks that landed on them. There was no organized system, and if there was a stiff wind, a large part of the town went up in smoke. Insurance was not available, and the victims of the fire and to depend on charity to help them to rebuild and resume a normal living. Usually the people, not only of the town but of the neighboring towns, responded to pleas for help.
The fire hazard of the peasant homes was even worse, as they had adjacent stacks of dry hay and straw.
In the back of the two main streets, which had both stores and homes, were two strictly residential streets. They were not paved, and in the rainy season were a mess. There was a large brick painted white synagogue, which had two small chapels. It was used for praying only. In contrast to two large study synagogues which were used both for praying and studying. Some people spent a lot of time so study either in groups or by themselves. There were no teachers. It was learning for the sake of learning, and to fulfill the "gods" commandment to study the Torah.
I was the third son born to my parents. The second died before I came into the world. The oldest one was about two and a half at the time. A few months after I was born, my parents decided to take up residence outside the town among the peasants astride the main road that led to the town in order to intercept the peasants bringing in their products for sale. A peasant built a house to their specifications, two large rooms and a kitchen with a spacious oven. Between the two rooms there was a double wall, hollow inside lined with bricks, which was used in the winter to make a fire to keep the rooms warm. Wood was used as fuel.
Occasionally straw was used in the center heating chamber. It made a beautiful flame, but did not keep the heat for long. A foyer separated the living quarters from a large magazine for business purposes and store room. The floor was packed earth. The windows had extra frames with panes, which were installed in the winter in order to keep the rooms warm. In the foyer, there was a large barrel which was filled with water lugged in buckets from a well about a block away.
At the tender age of four, my father led me a mile and a half to the Cheder (school) to start my education. I use the word "school" with reservation. The teacher, or "melamed" as he was known in Hebrew and Yiddish, had no training to teach whatsoever, except that he knew the rudiments of Hebrew. Unable to earn a living any other way, he took in little boys to teach them the alphabet and to put words and sentences together.
Being poor, his house was dingy. One of the rooms had a large table where he instructed the children, usually four or five at a time, to recognize and memorize the alphabet. The Hebrew alphabet has no vowels; instead it has certain markings which indicate the pronunciation. So, after the child mastered the alphabet, he had to learn and remember the combination of each letter with its marking. Such as a, o, e, etc. It was a slow process. Each parent paid for his child by the season, six months.
The payment was meager, so the "so called" class consisted of about thirty children. While each little group was at the table with the teacher, the rest of them played around, summertime in the street, wintertime inside the house. The method of teaching was simple by constant repetition, and the rod helped to hold the attention of the tots to the task of learning.
After a year or two, the boys were transferred to another "melamed", where they started to learn the prayers and Torah. Here were only about a dozen boys, and the teacher was a more learned man. Each school week, which consisted of six days, twelve hours a day with an hour for lunch, the children studied the portion of the Torah for that week. It was a hard grind both for the teacher and students.
At about the age of eight or nine the study of the Talmud was added to the curriculum, again, with a more learned "melamed". Writing and a little arithmetic was also included.
To learn the language of the land, a private tutor was hired who also taught a little math, geography and history. As you can figure from the schedule, there was no time for play, as the only free day, Saturday, you had to attend services and be ready for tests given not only by father, but any other member of the family or interested neighbor. Most of the teachers were poor and had a lot of troubles. They were usually rough on their charges, some even to the point of sadism. Luckily my father made a point to tell the teachers not to lay a hand or rod on me, but to tell him if I misbehaved. He could mete out the punishment himself. And he did it too. Even if it hurt, it was not humiliating.
I was above the average student with a quick grasp; so much so that my grandmother was dreaming of adding another rabbi to the family tree. At a young age I developed a passion for reading, at the beginning in Hebrew, and later also in Russian.
There was a library run by a group of volunteers where you could take out books. I read a lot about Jewish history with the historic heroes, the Maccabees, Bar Kochba, the wars with Babylon, Rome, Greece and Egypt, the intrigues of the kings, the sufferings of the Jews under the Poles, the Spanish Inquisition, the crusaders.
I felt rage at the injustices and developed hatred towards the Catholic Church, the Polish gentry and the Spaniards[...]
Unfortunately the rest this text is missing. According to Nancy Chizik it is not clear whether some pages were lost or if Nachman never finished it. We have considered that this testimony of Chechelnik's life was important enough to publish it as is.