THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ISAAC COHEN
Chapter 1 : Early Childhood, Family & Education
Early Childhood | Cheder
| Yeshiva | Family
Early Childhood [back
In the years of mass emigration form Lithuania, I often heard
immigrants refer to their town of origin as "in der heim," at
home, even by those who were already established with their families in this
country a number of years. This nostalgic reference to the place of their birth
seemed rather strange to me. I could not understand why they still regarded it
as their home, despite the great hardship most of them suffered there and the
fact that they were obliged to emigrate abroad, in order to find a better and
more secure home and livelihood in England.
It was only on reaching a maturer age that I began to understand this
longing for their native town, where their parents and generations before were
born and lived out their lives. The memories of their old home, with all its
associations, the relatives and friends and the communal institutions with
which they were connected, were obviously deeply embedded in their hearts and
minds. Such sacred memories of theirs, as I then realised, could not easily be
forgotten by them !
Having been the sixth child born to my mother, of blessed memory,
arrival into this world could not have made a great impression upon the family;
though it might have been marked by the fact that this occurred on the day
after Rosh Hashonah. I assume that, conforming with the practice at that
time, I underwent the process of being "swaddled," my entire body
bound with a broad bandage during the first months of my infancy. This was
supposed to have been a preventative measure against rickets, which was
then prevalent amongst children. This mode of "dressing" an infant,
appeared to have gone out of practice in the early years of 1880's, due to the
fact that a more effective remedy was discovered for that complaint. The former
practice, however, had the advantage over the modern method, at least, which is
in vogue at the present, inasmuch as the mother did not have the trouble and
expense of providing a "trousseau" for her newly-born infant !
I hardly have any knowledge of my ancestors. For apart from my
parents of blessed memory, I have some childish memory of my maternal
grandmother Bobbe Rhoda, Oleho-Hasholom. I only saw her when she
was lying sick in bed, in a semi-dark room; and remember exchanging only a few
words with her, which she spoke in a very faint voice. She kept on moaning now
and again, because of the pain and discomfort she suffered from at the time.
She evidently succumbed to her illness and passed away shortly after that. My
other grandparents probably died either before I was born or when I was a vey
young child, since I have no recollection of them at all. I was told that both
of my grandparents were learned and very pious men.
There were not any specific happenings during the first five years of
my life, except for some childish illness with which I was laid up for a
time. My "medicine" consisted of numerous glasses of highly sweetened
(milkless) tea, which I was pressed to drink, and to which I took a strong
aversion. I often had to be coaxed and sometimes even bribed with a kopeck
before I could be persuaded to drink the stuff !
At the age of five, I started going to cheder.
And as father had to leave home at the time, he arranged with a relative of
ours to take me there for my first lesson, having supplied him with some copper
coins. These were for the purpose of acting the role of the angel, by dropping
them on the Hebrew primer whilst I was repeating after my rebbe: Kometz
Alef-O, Kometz Bais-Bo etc. At my second lesson the following day, I
was already able to read complete words, at which I felt quite elated. I doubt,
though, whether any further progress by me was very spectacular!
My Rebbe, Isser Nachman's (Nachman was the name of his
father-in-law) was a rather delicate looking man, of small stature and slender
build. He had a thin, scraggy ginger beard and freckles on his face. The latter
became very profilic in the summer; and I often got into trouble on account of
it, from losing the place in the Siddur ( prayer book) out which I was
reading. As I was in the habit of gazing on Reb Isser's face and its striking
features, with which I seem to have been fascinated, as were many of the other
boys in my class !
My rebbe's wife had the rather quaint name of Maitze. She was
a frail and undersized woman, a good few inches smaller than her spouse. She
had a perpetual worried look on her face---not without reason, I imagine. They
had two very nice children, who were apparently well brought up, as I never
heard them cry nor make a noise in the house; nor would they come into the room
whilst we were having lessons.
Reb Isser's house consisted of one fairly large-sized room, where the Cheder
was held, and used as the living room of his family after Cheder hours;
and, of course, on Sabbaths and Festivals. There was also a small sized bedroom
and a tiny kitchen. The rooms were sparsely furnished, the main one containing
a large table and a backless form on each side of it, and a chair at the top of
the table, on which the rebbe sat when giving lessons. There was also a
book-case or shelves fixed into the wall for the Sephorim; and besides
some plain wooden chairs and a few odd things, a small bedstead in the far
corner of the room, for one or both of the children. The bedroom was also
plainly furnished, containing two single beds, a chest of drawers and a few
small articles. There was a complete absence of cupboards or wardrobes, all the
clothes being hung on hooks fixed to the walls. Not unlike the majority of
houses in town, the floor-boards were void of covering of any kind. Reb Nachman
had a room to himself, some annexe at the rear of the house the interior of
which I have never seen. But I should not think that this was better furnished
than the other rooms of the house. The walls and ceilings were white-washed,
and usually renewed yearly, Erev Pesach (on the eve of Passover).
Having been too young for a proper appraisal of Reb Nachman's
character or rather characteristics, I can only say that he impressed me as
being quite a peculiar type of man. He was an old widower, of a very taciturn
nature and rather grouchy, with a set frown on his face; and not once have I
seen a smile on his wrinkled visage. He always gave me the impression that he
resented the "invasion" of the house by a lot of noisy youngsters. I
had no idea as to whom the house belonged, nor did I know the conditions under
which the old man shared his domestic life with his daughter in that domicile.
My own guess is that upon the marriage of his daughter, it was arranged between
the parties concerned that Nachman's son-in-law took up his residence, together
with his newly-wedded wife, for a given number of years, at the home of his
father-in-law, under the terms of "sein auf kest." This
meant that the father provides the young couple with free board and lodgings,
in lieu or as part of the dowry settled on at the betrothal. There was usually
a marriage contract executed in those days when a couple became engaged to be
married, in which was stated the amount of the dowry promised by the girl's
father. Reb Nachman was probably bereaved of his wife before the expiration of
the period of "kest," and he therefore remained with his
daughter and her family and lived with them for the rest of his life.
It would, of course, be wrong to draw conclusions from my childish
impressions of Reb Nachman and to assume that he was merely an old, grumpy
ill-tempered man, lacking in common courtesy and being devoid of human
kindness. His taciturnity and apparent misanthropie demeanor, was likely due to
the mental stress he sustained through the loss of his wife. Or he might have
suffered at the time from pain and discomfort due to some ailments which aged
people are often subject to, relief from which was not easy to procure about
eighty years ago. I know this much, that Reb Nachman was a devout, G-d fearing
man and, to my knowledge, had never missed attending the regular services in Shool(synagaogue)
three times daily, beside the regular shiurim (religious lectures)at
Recalling my Cheder days at Reb Isser's, what strikes me most
is the penurious life my rebbe and his family led. I cannot help wondering how
he contrived to provide the bare necessities to feed them, even on a near
starvation diet, out of the exceedingly small income from his profession of melammed,
a teacher of beginners. I don't quite remember what his fees were, but I
believe, it did not exceed five or six rubles for a zeman, (a
half yearly term.) I have never seen the family sit down to a set meal during
the week. The mother and children were likely fed on scraps in the bedroom or
kitchenette. Occasionally I saw my rebbe eat his lunch whilst giving a
lesson; a small bowl of "bob," boiled broad beans, which he
peeled with his pocket knife. He appeared to be enduring this one course
"repast" vey much, washing it down with a glass of cold water. The
only substantial meals the family might have enjoyed, were those they had on
Friday night and Shabbat, as well as on the Festivals.
This low standard of living was apparently common amongst these melamdim,
who had little or no pedagogical training. That calling was generally adopted
as a last resort by men who failed at everything else to earn a livelihood for
their families. I believe that it was more like an act of charity than anything
else on the part of my father, to have sent me to Isser's cheder for two
or three terms, in order to receive from him some elementary instructions of
After being in my "preparatory school" for twelve or
eighteen months, and I was able to read Hebrew fluently, (I doubt, though,
whether grammatically) and had almost mastered the translation of the first
book of the Pentateuch, father sent me to a more advanced cheder, that
of Reb Chaim Leibe, where I remained for the rest of my Hebrew
instruction---until we left Krottingen for Sunderland, roughly a period of five
Reb Chaim Leibe was a middle aged man, who appeared to be of a very
pleasant disposition; and I felt quite at ease when he first examined me. The
test , I assume, was in order to find out how far I had advanced in my studies
at Reb Isser's cheder. From his remarks I gained the impression that he
was satisfied with the progress I had made. Then, together with the other new
pupils, he examined us in the parts of the Chumash (Old Testament) we
had already learnt. And after grading all the newcomers, we were assigned to
and joined some of the existing classes in cheder.
Reb Chaim Leib`s house was much more spacious and better
furnished than that of Reb Isser`s. It seemed palatial in comparison with the
latter and there were many more pupils and of a more advanced age than those at
Isser`s cheder. My new Rebbe`s earnings were probably twice as
much as that of my former Rebbe. Besides, his wife carried on a small business
from their home, that of baking lekach (honey cake) and sponge cakes. We
boys also enjoyed some of the benefit from this business - the pleasant aroma
of the freshly-baked lekach and occasionally being treated to some of
the scrapings which stuck to the bottom of the tin!
There was hardly any difference in the method of teaching between the
two chedarim. Both teachers taught us to translate the Chumash word
for word from the Hebrew into Yiddish, repeating, parrot-wise, after them in
sing song fashion. Grammar was entirely ignored by both my Rebbes, nor
were we taught to write Hebrew. I thus remained ignorant of even the rudiments
of Hebrew grammar or how to write in Hebrew anything but very simple words,
which I sometimes copied out of the Siddur by myself.
There was also but little difference between my two Rebbes in
the exercise of discipline by them. Some of the boys often displayed a lack of
interest in the lessons, whilst others misbehaved themselves. But, unlike the
sterner teachers in some of the chedarim, who resorted to corporal
punishment, Isser`s and Chaim Leibe`s corrective measures were that of
"imprisonment" of the culprits, making them stand in the corner of
the room for a given time, varying with the nature of the offence.
For the first few months our class continued with readings out of the Siddur
mainly with unfamiliar and more difficult parts than I had been used to, such
as Pirkei Aboth (Ethics of the Fathers), the "Song of Songs"
and a number of selected Psalms etc. We soon started on the second book of the
Pentateuch, Exodus, with some commentary of Rashi and so gradually
progressed through the whole of the Chumash. During my last couple of
years in cheder, our class learnt regularly the whole of the current
weeks sedra. We also did some translation of Tenach,
commencing with Joshua, which I found to be very interesting and even thrilling
in certain parts.
The hours spent daily in my second cheder were considerably
more than the first one. We started at nine and finished about six oclock
in the evening, except on Friday, at noon, and, of course, being off all day on Shabbat.
Classes were adjourned for an hour during the week-days when we went home
for dinner. Some of the poorer boys brought their scanty meals in the morning
for their dinner, spending five or ten minutes over this their mid-day meal and
passed the rest of the time in play.
We were not occupied all the time with lessons whilst at cheder.
So when the Rebbe, who was the solitary instructor, was taking a class,
the rest of the pupils were free to play about, out of doors in fine weather,
or else indoors, in a small room adjoining the large one where the cheder
was held. Those who were backward with their lessons had to remain in the class
room and were set to do some revision. Looking back to the years at cheder,
I have to confess that I cannot recall a single instance of having
distinguished myself in any way at either of the two chedarim I had
attended. My weakness in this respect showed up badly when my father examined
me on Shabbos when he was at home, on the weeks work at cheder.
I used to feel embarrassed when I was unable to give the correct answer to the
questions father put to me.
Yeshiva [back to
It was in later years that I fully realised my fathers
disappointment in connection with my Hebrew studies. He had naturally
entertained the hope that all his sons would show promise of Jewish
scholarship, even though to a lesser degree than that of his own. But that
aspiration of his only materialised in the case of my eldest two brothers, Bere
Arye and Hirshe, who had a long course of study at famous Yeshivot,
Shavel and Tels respectively. Both of them
were apparently naturally endowed with great intellectual powers, in addition
to their strong desire for learning, which seemed to have been inherent in
their nature. By assiduously applying themselves to their studies, they
attained a high standard of scholarship, mainly in Talmudic lore. In
addition to that, though not included in the Yeshiva curriculum, they
both studied Tenach and its principal commentaries, as well as Hebrew
grammar. They did this privately, without the aid of a teacher, and mastered
these subjects whist being engaged in their regular Talmudical studies
at Yeshiva. The time they spent on these "extraneous" studies
seemed to have no adverse affect upon the latter, with which they pursued
assiduously without intermission.
My other elder brothers, Shmere and Elye, who were their
juniors by a few years, were likewise Yeshiva bachurim of a kind. They
belonged to that category of youths who learned semi-privately at the Battei-Midrashim
in some neighbouring towns. They attended Shiurim and were assisted
in their studies by some of the older bachurim. This was the general
course followed by the young novice until he qualified for acceptance into a Yeshiva.
But my brothers` terms as novitiates were cut short before reaching that stage,
due to the fact that Shmere accompanied my father when he left for England in
1888, whilst Elye left Lithuania together with us the following year. They
therefore were deprived of the chance of a course of study at one of the Yeshivot.
Both of them, however, increased somewhat in their knowledge of Talmud by
attending regularly the Gemara Shiur conducted by father after we
settled in Sunderland.
Bere Arye and Hirshe remained in Lithuania after our departure from
Krottingen for England. The former had already married and settled in Vorno,
whilst Hirshe stayed on waiting for his re-examination in connection with army
recruitment, which was adjourned the previous year. He had hopes of being
exempted from service on his forthcoming medical examination. The reason for
him taking the risk was that of saving Bere Arye having to pay a penalty of
three hundred rubles, to which he would have been liable in case of
Hirshe`s failure to appear for his examination. He, unfortunately, passed the
medical exam and consequently was drafted into the army. But, to our immense
relief, he made a miraculous escape from the barracks a few hours before he was
due to be transported to one of the uttermost districts in Russia. So after
hiding for a time, he managed to get across the Russian frontier into Germany
and straight away came to Sunderland. Bere Arye had it all organised: his
escape and hiding places, and finally assisted in smuggling him out of
Reverting to "Yeshiva-bachurim", usually after barmitzvah,
a father would send his son to a nearby town to continue with his studies. It
was presumed that by living amongst strangers and by associating with other
students, the youth would be inclined to study intensively and would be
encouraged to attend Shiurim, which were usually held in the Beth-Hamedrash.
He would also receive assistance from lads who were more advanced in their
studies. In some cases the reason for sending boys away might have been due to
the economic condition of the parents, especially those with large families.
For these Yeshiva-bachurim were maintained by the prevailing system of
"essen teg" (literally eating days). This meant that the local
Jews fed a boy for a day in the week. Those who could afford it, would often
extend these invitations to two and sometimes three students. Acceptance of
such hospitality by Yeshiva-bachurim was not considered in any way
derogatory or humiliating, since this was carried out on a reciprocal basis.
For the parents of those youths usually fed Yeshiva-bachurim, who came
to study in their town.
It was not always smooth sailing for the lad who embarked upon his
new career as a Talmud student. Obtaining the right number of "Teg"
might be difficult. This often happened when a boy went to a town where he had
no relations or friends to assist him to secure the full quota of
"days" for the week. In that case he would have to rely on the shamash
to do so. That gentleman, who usually acted as a "booking agent"
(free of charge) for newly arrived yeshiva-bochurim, was not always
inclined to unduly exert himself in this matter. Some of them held the view
that it would not do dem yungen bocherel any harm to have a "leidigen
tog" , a vacant day, which was subsidised by a few coppers out of
the communal fund, so that the lad would not have to starve. Occasionally a
vacant day would be observed as a fast day!
An even greater problem than this was the question of obtaining free
sleeping accommodation. One who was unable to do so and could not afford to pay
for this service, had no alternative but to sleep on a bench of the
womens gallery in the Beth Hamedrash. My brother Elye had actually
been faced with such a contingency when he launched out upon his scholastic
career. He went to Salant, about eight or ten English miles from
Krottingen. On his arrival there, he followed the regular procedure of going
straightaway to the Beth Hamedrash and introduced himself to the Shamash.
Elye supplied that official with all the information required , in particular
the town from which he came. He made a mental note of it and promised to help
Elye find the "teg" he required.
About a week later the Shamash told my brother that he was
unable to obtain for him "teg" for the whole week. Fortunately
Elye had sufficient cash to pay for a couple of weeks board and lodgings. This
was from money he received when paying farewell visits to relations before
leaving home, in addition to money from father. However, as Elye was not
resourceful enough to make good the deficiency, besides being reluctant to
spend his nights on a hard bench in the Beth Hamedrash, and as he had
sufficient money left to pay for the journey, he returned home by the first
Father wrote to his friend in Dorbyan, a shtetl of
about the same distance from Krottingen as Salant, and asked him whether
he could assist Elye to secure the full quota of days for him there. He
immediately replied that he would gladly do so and that father could rely upon
him that Elye would be provided with all he required.
After staying at home about a week, Elye once more packed his
luggage, a change of underwear and some sephorim (books), and left for Dorbyan.
On his arrival there he went straight to the home of fathers friend,
whose name I cannot remember. The latter received Elye very warmly and informed
him that he obtained six days board for him and also arranged for his lodgings.
The seventh day, Shabbat, he invited him to be his guest.
I have known of one case at least in connection with Elye's "Teg",
in which the dictum in Ecclesiastes XI.I. was exemplified: "Shalach lechem
choal-p'nai hamayim..." (Cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou
shalt find it after many days). For some fifteen years later, one of his
"hosts" who treated him to a "Teg" emigrated to Sunderland
and who happened to be in very straightened circumstances, was generously
rewarded by my brother for the hospitality he had received from him in Dorbyan.
With regard to the cost of preparing a lad for higher education,
firstly one required the necessary equipment for the journey such as a case for
the luggage. This was usually a wooden box, which was home made. It required
little skill of carpentry to construct it, being made of plain wooden boards,
roughly put together, unless one could afford to have it made by a cabinet
maker or joiner. Besides the cost of the wood, about two shillings, the
accessories, hinges and padlock also had to be bought, running to a further
cash outlay of a shilling or one and sixpence, whilst the other parts, a hasp,
staple etc were made out of odd pieces of leather picked up, free of cost.
The above was roughly the cost of my brother, Elye's equipment when
he set out to become a Yeshiva-bachur. I have but the vaguest idea of
the circumstances surrounding the setting up of my elder brother, Shmere in
higher education. All I remember is that he studied privately at the Beth
Hamedrash in Plungyan, some 15 miles from Krottingen. When he
first came home for Yomtov, he brought us some presents, namely baigels.
That town was noted for the excellent baigels baked there. But those he
brought home were rather stale by the time they came. These pastries, shaped
from white dough into rings, are boiled and then baked in the oven and are only
palatable if eaten on the same day, when fresh and crisp. Afterwards they turn
into a substance like rubber!
Besides the cost of the equipment, there was the cost of transport,
between six to nine pence, according to the distance of the journey from home.
One also had to be provided with cash for incidental expenses or for other
contingencies, either during the journey or after reaching one's destination.
A number of Yeshiva Bachurim from nearby towns studied in our
town, in Krottingen, in our Beth Hamedrash. I have no idea as to their
number nor can I recall any particulars concerning them, save for two bachurim,
who made a lasting impression on me. One thing that both these bochurim had
in common, was that their faces were very pale and emaciated; they thus
commanded all the more respect and appreciation by the members of the community
! For woe-betide the young man who was of the portly built type, or
robust-looking and of florid complexion. Such Yeshiva-bachur commanded
but little appreciation or sympathy; and many a good lady was even dubious
about the Mitzvah of giving him a "teg!"
Besides the different types of Yeshiva-bachurim, as described
above, there was another class of Talmudic students, who were called
"Prushim." These were young married men who, after
enjoying a few years of marital bliss, separated (as this name denotes) from
their wives and sojourned at another town for a certain time, in order to
devote themselves to intensive study. They did so either at a Yeshiva or
privately. The reason for this was that they were either urged by a strong
religious impulse to increase their knowledge of Torah, or else they
aimed at reaching a high standard of Talmudic rabbinic law, to enable
them to qualify for Semicha and, after ordination, to enter the Rabbinic
profession. The latter was generally taken by men who were either unfit for, or
felt disinclined to engage in business. Such a step was only taken when the
would be student's father-in-law was able and willing to support his wife (and
children, if they had any) during his absence from home. Or alternately, if the
wife could maintain herself by carrying on some business on her own while her
husband was away from home.
It was a common practice in those days for wives to maintain
themselves in order to afford their husbands ample time for studying Torah,
either at home, or else, to become a "Porush". But that
applied mainly to shopkeepers, the management of which business was usually
shared between the husband and wife. It was not even uncommon for girls, when
approaching marriageable age, to have a shop of some kind opened for them by
their parents, and upon their marriage, her husband came into the business,
carrying it on jointly.
There was evidently a large number of Prushim in Lithuania
during the latter part of the last century. A new Yeshiva, almost
exclusively for Prushim, was founded in Kovno in 1872, by Rabbi
Isaac Blazer, under the auspices of Rabbi Yitzchok Elchanon Spector.
A Berlin banker, Herr Lechman, donated seventy five thousand roubles
towards this yeshiva.
After the passing of my mother, my aunt Eta, mother's sister
suggested to my father that I should stay with her for a time. Her family,
besides herself and Uncle Idel, comprised of two sons and six daughters,
the eldest of whom, I believe, had then been married, whilst Simcha, the
younger brother was away from home studying at a Yeshiva. I was
surprised that aunt had chosen me instead of Tevke to be looked after, since he
was only four years old, whilst I was double his age. I gathered from my aunt
in later years that the reason was because I was the most delicate one in our
family and she thought it advisable for me to be in her charge for a time. She
undertook this task despite being a large family and father already engaging a
housekeeper to look after us.
The house in which Aunt Eta, Uncle Idel and their family lived was
very spacious and altogether superior to the houses occupied by the vast
majority of the local Jews. Two of the rooms were very large and lofty and what
was quite unusual in town, the walls of the rooms were papered, instead of
being whitewashed. I felt rather sad at first when my aunt called for me and
took me to their home, mainly because of being separated from the other members
of our family who were at home at the time, namely our father, Elye, Rivka and
Tevke. However the kindness and affection showered on me by everyone soon
cheered me up. My aunt treated me as if she were my mother and the fatherly
love manifested towards me by my uncle and the attention of my cousins quite
After a few days, I became interested in my cousins occupation of
dressmaking. I used to enjoy watching them working at the sewing machine. Later
on, seeing how keen I was to try my hand at it, my cousins actually taught me
to operate on it with small pieces of material. I was delighted when I learned
to sew a straight line. By the time I left aunty's house for home. I was quite
an expert machinist, being able to do some simple hemstitching. How happy and
proud this made me feel!
What impressed me more than anything else was the refined and
harmonious atmosphere which prevailed in that home. I cannot remember ever
hearing a harsh or disagreeable word uttered by any of them. My uncle Idel was
a man of learning and deep piety. He had a noble and engaging appearance and
bore a strong resemblance to Dr Herzl, whom I saw at a Zionist Congress.
Uncle Idel was one of the two shochtim (ritual
slaughterers) of Krottingen but at the time I lived with the family he had
retired because of a heart complaint. He passed away in 1895, six years after
our departure. I could not understand how a man of so benign and gentle
disposition as my uncle, could be a shochet but in those genuinely
orthodox communities of Lithuania, only men of learning and great devoutness
were considered fit enough to perform the necessary ritual of Shechita.
All my cousins adored their parents and because of their father being
an invalid, they all manifested the greatest solicitude for his physical
comfort and mental repose, Although he was subject to pain from time to time,
he gave no outward signs of it. He sometimes stayed in bed for a day or two but
just gave the impression of taking a couple of days rest. In order to maintain
his strength, Uncle was advised to suck about a dozen newly-laid eggs every
day, which he did regularly whilst I lived with them.
Uncle always spoke in a quiet, gentle tone of voice and he invariably
had a smile on his face when addressing anyone, be it a member of the family or
a stranger, even if it was a beggar at the door. I can still picture him
sitting in the lobby, in the warm weather, at the entrance to the house, with
an open tome on the table in front of him and a small box-full of copper coins
beside him, awaiting the regular round of beggars who came round on Fridays,
their usual pay day. He had a welcoming smile for each one of them and after
handing him a coin or two, wished him a hearty "gut Shabbos"
when showing him out.
My cousins, Chaim and Simcha, who were then grown-up
young men, were apparently well advanced in their Hebrew education. Chaim, the
elder one (the father of Lily Weitroub, formerly Kelly) was at home
during the time I lived with their family, probably because of his father being
an invalid, whilst Simcha continued with his studies at a Yeshiva and
only came home for Yomim Tovim (festivals. He qualified for Semicha
at a comparatively early age but did not adopt the rabbinical profession. On
his marriage to a sister of Chaim's wife, he became engaged in some business,
as a shopkeeper. Both brothers settled for the rest of their lives in the shtetl
of Laukeve, Lithuania and besides the local Rav and Dayan,
they were the most learned young men there.
Yeshiva bachurim who were engaged in intensive Talmudical
study for a number of years, had neither the time or opportunity to train for a
profession or commercial career. On reaching marriageable age, they had no
choice but marry one who had an income of her own. It wan not uncommon for
parents of daughters, who were approaching marriageable age, to set them up in
business, usually opening a shop of some kind and after they were married,
their husbands would join them in the business, out of which they managed to
make a living. There was a further alternative for young men to marry a girl
and to live with the bride's parents for a certain number of years, "sein
Although Chaim had not any technical knowledge of science, he was
highly mechanically minded. The only skill one could acquire in that direction
in a town like Krottingen was to become acquainted with the mechanism of the
sewing machine. This was the only mechanical domestic appliance in use by
Jewish housewives in town, of which there were quite a large number. Chaim
became quite an expert in this. As soon as this became known in town, Chaim was
appointed honorary consultant on matters in connection with that appliance. He
thus gave freely of his service in that capacity to all those requiring small
repairs or adjustments of their machines. There was a mechanician in town,
which every shtetl could boast of, namely, a watchmaker, who serviced
clocks and watches and naturally charged for it. hat gentleman was considered a
sort of scientist and enjoyed equal status (by the lower class Jews) with the
local doctor, advocate and apothecary.
Chaim being very skilful with his hands, often made me toys out of
wood or discarded cotton reels. He also used to carve out of the latter
complete, perfect sets of chess. He also provided me with a dreidle for
Chanukah and a rattle for Purim and on Hoshanah Rabba,
after being finished with the lulav, he used to make me variously shaped
models out of its leaves.
The sisters had quite a successful dressmaking business which they
carried on at home, being the only one of its kind in Krottingen. It was a
rather superior class of dressmaking. Their clients included the wife and
daughters of Graf Tishkewitz, officers wives and daughters and all the
elite of the district, besides members of the Jewish community. They were thus
in a position to reside in one of the few better class houses in the town.
Consequently the girls managed to keep their parents and themselves in
comparative comfort and thereby relieved their father of any financial worries
he may have had when he had to give up his position as shochet, because
of his illness.
Although none of the sisters received a secular education, they all
had a perfect command of the German language and having devoted much of their
leisure time to reading books, they acquired a good knowledge of German
literature as well as of general literature translated into German. They also
had a fair understanding of Hebrew, which they were taught by their father and
brothers. They were the only family in Krottingen who subscribed to a
circulating library, in Memel; and they had a parcel of books delivered
to their house regularly every Friday.
At about mid-day erev Shabbat, their work was laid aside and
they got busy with their preparations for Shabbat; Polishing the stained
, varnished floors and generally brightening up their house, whilst one or two
of the girls assisted their mother with the baking and cooking. Then they all
dressed in their Shabbat clothes; and after the candles and lamps were
lit, they joined their parents in the Friday evening prayers, whilst Chaim and
I went to shool for the service. Uncle Idel was unfortunately unable to walk to Shool,
though only a short distance from their home.
I would like to put on record the sublime, magnanimous qualities of
one of my cousins, whom I have known best and who later became my sister-in-law
through her marriage to my brother, Elye. I cannot pay adequate tribute to the
exceptional attributes on nobility, generosity, kindness and above all
selflessness of my late cousin and sister-in-law, Pesse. She was also
gifted with a high degree of intelligence, culture and the most lofty ideals.
Pesse was the youngest of the six sisters and in her early girlhood,
when we still lived in Krottingen, I remember her being known as the "Barmherzige
Schwester" (Sister of mercy and compassion). She had then, when
quite young, dedicated her life to the service of the poor an ailing people of
the town. This was not an easy task in a place where there was no hospital or
nursing home. There was an institute (a Catholic one, I believe) called a "Lazaret"
for the treatment of infectious diseases, but I have never known it to be used
by Jews. Pesse continued with these voluntary services after she came England.
She passed away at a comparatively early age, on 25 May 1935.
My mother had another sister, named Menucha, of whom I have a
small recollection since I was rather young when she left Krottingen after her
marriage. However her wedding is quite vivid in my mind. I was privileged to
join the party who met the Chosan (bridegroom) and Mechutonim (his
parents) half way at an inn (which was a regular practice when they lived in a
nearby town). The Chosan resided in Dorbyan. An even greater
thrill besides the sledge ride was when the huge conveyance passed my cheder,
whilst the boys were playing outside and saw me, with envious eyes, sitting in
it, or rather clinging to that crowded vehicle, containing the Mechutonim
from Krottingen. Those of the Chosan came in a sledge to meet our party
at the inn, where refreshments were served. Then both parties mounted the
respective sledges and set out for the wedding.
Aunt Menucha's Chosan, Bentze Daneman, was a smart and
handsome young man. After the newly-wedded couple lived in Dorbyan for
about six months, they emigrated to the United States of America. I never saw
Aunt Menucha or her husband again or any of the daughters born to them.
My mother had only one brother, Uncle Boruch Lazer, (the
father of George Lewis of Sunderland). He lived with his wife,
Aunt Rouse, in Zedick, a small town in Lithuania and a few years
prior to our departure from Krottingen, they came and settled there. Besides
George, they also had three daughters, Sifre Zevia, Sore Taube and Rhoda.
The first came to Sunderland and emigrated from there to Palestine and now
lives in Tel Aviv with her three sons. Sore Taube, who was exiled with
her family to Siberia , after the second world war has been permitted to
come to Riga, where they are living under straightened circumstances.
Aunt Rouse and her youngest daughter Rhoda tragically fell victims to the Nazis
during the great Churban. George only learnt of their fate when he went to
Russia to visit his sister and family in Riga. He came back broken hearted and
subsequently suffered two heart attacks to which he succumbed in his 74th year.
Mother also had an Uncle Zalman Shulman, who with his wife Sorre
Basse had a son and daughter living in Krottingen, That poor man, as a
result of illness, became completely crippled, being quite unable to stand on
his feet. He could only move about the house by propelling himself on the floor
by his hands and feet, which was a most pitiable sight. In spite of this he
appeared in a fairly cheerful mood. The room they lived in was always
scrupulously clean and very bright. I remember only once seeing their son at
home, dressed in a small military uniform. He apparently had just returned home
after his discharge from the army. His sister, Esther Temme was of a
quiet and shy disposition. We had little communication with them after we left
Lithuania, except for an occasional letter from Esther Temme, after her
marriage, asking for assistance from her Sunderland relations when she was in
On the paternal side of our family, two of my father's brothers,
Uncle Leib and Uncle Yitzchok Chaim, emigrated to England
two or three years before father and they both settled in Stockton.
Leibe emigrated from Krottingen but Yitzchok Chaim came from Gorzed,
Lithuania. I do not know why they went to Stockton.Uncle Yitzchok Chaim was
well versed in Talmud and was ever engrossed in its study during his
leisure time and he was often consulted on religious questions by the local
Jews. Uncle Leib was very devout though only possessed an ordinary knowledge of Gemara
common amongst Lithuanian baalei-battim (laymen). He later
removed to Sunderland, where he lived for the rest of his life. Uncle Yitzchok
Chaim unfortunately died at Stockton in his middle years after a painful
illness. He passed away in July 1904. Both of my uncle's earned their living
the first couple of years after their arrival in Stokton by glazing, walking
through the streets with a crate of glass on their backs and looking for broken
windows to replace. This was neither an easy or a very dignified occupation for
My father had two sisters, Aunt Golde Pesse and Roche Feige.
Golde Pesse was married to Leibe Brewer and they had four sons and one
daughter. Roche Feige was married to Shemuel Jacobson but was childless.
Uncle Brewer struggled throughout his life trying to make a living. He first
emigrated to America to try his luck but as good fortune evaded him there he
came to England to join his family in Sunderland.
Aunt Roche Feige's husband, Uncle Shemuel, owned a flour and yeast
business, which was quite successful. They lived in the same house that we did
in a two roomed flat. Their living room was very nicely furnished. I considered
them to be quite affluent not because of their superior furniture but more on
account of the delightful smell of coffee which wafted across the passage into
our house. The regular breakfast beverage served in the vast majority of homes
consisted of chicory. Coffee only appeared on the menu of wealthy Jews, whilst
this was mixed with chicory by the middle upper classes. Roche Feige was the
last member of that branch of our family to come to England, towards the end of
the last century, after she lost her husband, two or three years previously ,
having died in his early middle life. My Aunt continued carrying on the
business after she lost her husband, which she did quite efficiently. Although
this provided quite a comfortable living for her, yet she was anxious to join
the family in Sunderland. With the modest capital she realised from the sale of
the business, she more or less managed to maintain herself for the rest of her
In the morning following our arrival in Sunderland, we discovered
another relative, a cousin of my father, named Chatze Avreme, who was
the father of Jakie and Joe Cowen. He formerly lived in Libau, Latvia
and had emigrated with his family to England shortly before us. He had two boys
and two girls and they lived in very poor circumstances. He had a very hard
struggle to eke out the barest existence for his family, either by peddling on
his own account or working for someone on a near starvation wage.
Returning to my life in Krottingen, shortly after my return back home
from Aunt Eta, Uncle Idel and their family, our father married again. This gave
us all at home a great surprise, since we had not been given any hint about it
by father prior to his marriage. Father arrived with our stepmother during the
night or in the early hours of the morning, whilst it was still quite dark and
he introduced her to us. We all got up from our beds, being fully awake from
the excitement and surprise. After getting washed and dressed (it was too early
to daven) we all sat at the table and were served with some appetizing
refreshments, which were brought by our father and stepmother and which we very
much enjoyed, despite the fact that it must have been hours before our usual
The lady whom father married was a spinster and presumably past her
early youth, as judged by the prevailing standard at that time, about the
middle of the 1880s. She came from the town of Riteve in Lithuania. Her
father was a very learned and highly respected Baal Ha-bayit and her
grandfather was formerly Dayan of the town. It was therefore only
natural that our stepmother should have been reared in a strictly religious
manner. She was, in fact, more than a match for my father in the matter of frumkeit.
Besides father there were four of us at home at the time: my two brothers Elye
and Tevke (Theo) and myself and our sister Rivka. We took kindly to our
stepmother straightaway as she was most affable and kept calling us by
endearing names and right away attended to all our requirements.