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MEMORIES OF TWO GENERATIONS

by

Alexander Ziskind Gurwitz, San Antonio,Texas 1929.

Translated from Yiddish by Rabbi Amram Prera.

(Takes place in 1885).

In the Yakertrinaslavar (sic) Gubernia there were a large number of German settlements, and twenty Jewish ones. When we drove into the first German settlement, we thought we had arrived at a city. Only the tall standing rows of grain and straw, near the house, revealed that this was a farming community. The colony was divided into streets in very orderly fashion. And the streets themselves were paved with stones. The houses were spacious and well built, with one and two stories. Some were of stone, others of wood. Beautiful gardens surrounded the homes, with all manner of flowers In the summertime. Attractive fences encircled them. The streets had trees on both sides. There were fine storage bins for the grain, and stables for the cows, horses, and sheep. There were also large, beautiful shops with all manner of goods, a splendid church, and a school for the children. Everything was built in a most orderly fashion. The residents of the colony were healthy looking, fresh faced. It was evident that they lacked little, and they were carefree. We drove through several of these German colonies, and they were a11 much the same. All lived in an orderly pattern, did their work responsibly, ate at fixed hours. They worked well, lived well, and amongst them were numerous affluent people. The peasant villages were, by contrast, quite poor. But their streets, while not as fashionable and dotted with elegant houses, were equally clean and attractive. Their houses were smaller, but they sparkled white, coated as they were with chalk. It was a lovely sight, the street lined on both sides with glistening white little houses, roofs made of straw,  crystal clean windows, and the chimneys stark white. Near the house stood large bundles of straw. Very little wood was to be seen, for In Mali-Russia there are few woods. They heated their houses with straw, or with 'kerpitch', made of refuse of the cows and the sheep. Inside, their houses were scrupulously clean, not like those of the Lithuanian peasant where the pigs lodge in the house. The earth inside was coated with yellow clay. In the center stood a low table, surrounded by yet lower stools. This was the dining room for the peasant and his family.

 

The Jewish colonies were established by Czar Nicholas the First. He settled a large tract of land with Jews. He promised them the moon, but of course he kept none of his promises. The early pioneers fled into the surrounding villages because of the abuse heaped on them and because of the hard work. The hardier ones remained. 1 went there with the thought of settling in one of these colonies. But one look at their life and ways and my enthusiasm fled. When we entered the first colony (I have forgotten Its name), we saw in the distance, between two mounts of snow, tiny low cottages. No trees, no fence around the house. In order to get into the house of the Jewish farmer, we first had to go through a large structure where the horses and cattle stood behind boards. A small lamp illuminated the house, which was divided into two areas, one served as a storage bin for the harvested grain, the vegetables etc. The other served as the residence. Near the frost covered window stood a table and stools. A large stove warmed the house. A small sleeping area was covered with a curtain. This was the entire house. The typical supper consisted of black bread, herring, dairy barley soup. We slept on top of a mountain of grain and breathed of the spoiled potatoes. Friday evening, in all fairness, we found a genuine Jewish table, with Zemirot and a generous portion of brandy. But the Challah had neither taste nor texture. The black noodles were accompanied with a scrawny piece of lamb's meat. Our dessert consisted of steamed carrots. The next morning we all went to the synagogue which was small. There was no Rav, the Shokhet handled all rabbinic duties. I inquired: "Why do you live so poorly ? Why do the Christians live in such more comfortable, affluent style?" They replied that it was because of their large expenses to support a Rav, Shokhet, Melamdim, which the government does not support. I replied that the real reason was because the Christian tilled his land diligently whilst the Jews had their mind on business. In the second colony I sought the rabbi, a young man dressed in a thick caftan with a flat black hat. He was carrying a load of straw. He threw the bale to the ground and swept the ashes from the stove. When I asked him why his years of study and wisdom were so wasted he replied with a sigh. I wondered how the Rebbitzen could be satisfied with such a match. Yet I realized that when the rabbi doffed his work clothes, donned his rabbinic garments and looked every bit the gentle sage, she stood looking at him with love and happiness. The rabbi said:" What do I lack? Bread Is given to me. Water is carried to me. Several ruble of honoraria I receive during the year. My life is peaceful so that I can sit and study Torah as much as I wish. Honor they accord me more than I merit. So what Is missing from my life? What more do I need ? My wife is also content with what we have." But I, not being accustomed to this kind of life, did not envy either the rabbi or his wife, nor their compensations.

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