Chapter 1
Early Childhood, Family & Education

Chapter 2
Religious Life

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5
Kretinga & Neighborhood

Chapter 6

Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Emigration & Journey


Chapter 7 : Fire

Subsections : 


Fire   [back to top]

A cause for alarm was an outbreak of fire, even of the slightest, which could easily be put out with a bucket or two of water. In such an event the occupant of the house in which the fire started, especially when being by oneself, would suddenly rush out of the house and loudly raise an alarm and, before many minutes had passed, the alarm would spread right through the town. Almost everyone would run out of their houses into the street, in order to ascertain where the fire had broken out, so that they could offer some help to extinguish it. But when this happened to be in the vicinity of one's house, its owner would hastily return home and start removing his furniture and effects into the street, in readiness to cart them away if necessary.

The effect of a fire alarm on the town's people is indescribable. I remember one evening whilst waiting in the Beth Hamedrash for the Maariv service, a man rushed in shouting at the top of his voice "Yidden brent in stot" (there is a fire in town). I felt an awful sinking of my heart. It had a momentary paralytic effect on me so that I could hardly move a step. After a few minutes I ran out into the street, with the intention of reaching our house. However no sooner did I get to the top of the Shool-gass, when I saw the people returning Shoolwards and joyfully announcing that the fire is ausgeloschen.

Jews were terrified at the slightest outbreak of fire since the vast majority of houses were built of timber and were not insured against fire as the premium would have been prohibitive. There were practically no means of extinguishing a sizable fire, the only available apparatus in town for that purpose, which every householder by order of the police was obliged to provide, was a large tub full of water and a strong iron hook fixed to a long handle. These were kept near the outside of the house. The iron hook was for the purpose of dismantling the roof, which was covered with thin wooden laths and were highly flammable from the strong rays of the sun.

There occurred several small outbreaks of fire in my time, but which were confined to single houses and were extinguished. Risks of fire were reduced to a minimum. There was only the risk of upsetting a burning paraffin lamp or a lighted candle as there were no open fires in grates for heating the house. The large built-in stoves, fuelled by logs of wood, was used for that purpose, as well as for cooking the main meals. The strong iron door of the stove was always kept closed when the fire was on, except when the oven had to be replenished with logs or when the cooking utensils were put inside and taken out. During the summer, the large stove was only used on Fridays, when doing the baking and cooking for Shabbat. But on week days the cooking was usually done on a tripod in the kitchen, which was fuelled by small pieces of firewood. As there was nothing of an inflammable nature in the small kitchen, there was no risk of anything catching fire.

Despite the precautions taken against an outbreak of fire, yet two fires occurred in town within a period of a couple of years, both of them having been in our street. One was of a trifling nature, confined to a single room on the first day Shavout in 1889, the day previous to the devastating fire which destroyed the whole of Krottingen. The fire started opposite our house but was extinguished in about half an hour. The previous fire was of a rather more serious nature. It broke out at the post office in our street, a few minutes walk from our house. Though the post office was almost destroyed, only minor damage was done to neighbouring houses, one of which was a debtors jail. Extraordinary efforts were made by a large number of Jews in town, as well as by the residents of the street to keep the fire from spreading. Luckily there was no wind at the time and there was a well of drinking water nearby. A plentiful and continuous supply of water was brought to the scene by a relay of men, which included the post office officials and the fire was extinguished.

Practically all the occupants of the houses in the street had their furniture and effects removed into the street, in readiness to have them carted away in the event of the fire spreading. The hasty removal of our things into the street was facilitated by the assistance of two government clerks who were working in our house at the time, as father held the position of Tzlen in Krottingen and that office was conducted form our house. There was certain office furniture, books and documents which the clerks first had to save, including a portrait of the Tzar that was hanging on the wall. After removing these, they helped to get our belongings out of the house.

The debtors jail, which was an ordinary dwelling house, could be described as a prison without bars. The inmates of that institution were not even debarred from social intercourse with their relatives and friends or with any member of the community. These "prisoners" could be seen sitting at the open windows of the jail and conversing with their visitors standing outside in the street.

On the second day of Shavuot in 1889, a destructive fire razed the whole town to the ground. Only two or three houses, which were on the outskirts of the town luckily escaped complete destruction, having suffered only minor damage, which was soon repaired. These houses served the purpose of providing shelter for the night to a number of people who were left homeless. Naturally, the more necessitous cases were given priority of accommodation, such as women and children or the very aged people. Only those who have actually witnessed a fire of that magnitude in a comparatively small town like Krottingen can have any conception of what this meant to the entire Jewish community there but one can easily imagine the panic that seized every man, woman and child that day of the sudden outbreak and very rapid spreading of the conflagration.

Since the vast majority of the houses in Krottingen were built of timber, those that were set on fire were soon reduced to ashes. For besides the heat of the wooden houses from the scorching rays of the sun, there was also considerable wind that day, which caused the fire to spread quickly. Only the skeletons of a few of the stone or brick built houses in town remained standing and these, I believe, were beyond repair. Some of these may have been covered by fire insurance since they belonged mainly to the better off class of people and the insurance premiums on these structures were much lower than those of wooden houses.

Strangely enough I was the very first person who saw the outbreak of the fire, apart from the occupants of the cottage where it actually started. I just happened to be walking with a young man, a cartman, who had brought my cousin Chaim and his wife, together with their young child, from Laukeve to Krottingen for Shavuot. I took the young man "unten in shtetl" where most of the poorer Jews lived, in order to show him the sights of Krottingen, a town rated of rather a high standard as compared with Laukeve. I particularly wanted to show him two notable institutions, which every Lithuanian town could boast of, nammely, the public steam-baths and the "Hekdesh", commonly known as the work-house. Both of these institutions were usually situated in the poorest district of the Lithuanian towns.

As we were about to pass one of the straw thatched cottages, a door flung open and a man rushed out of the cottage, frantically shouting "Gevalt es brent"! At the same moment I saw flames shooting through the straw roof. Then I noticed another man and woman running through the door into the street, crying out aloud "oi, vei is mir, es brent"! They must have just saved their lives by a hair's breath, for only a minute or two later the whole cottage was a mass of flames. I was momentarily benumbed by panic, so that I could hardly move. Whilst standing there a couple of minutes, almost rooted to the spot, I saw the fire spreading to some of the nearby cottages, all of them fiercely blazing away.

When I partly recovered from my state of panic, I began running up the bank towards the upper part of the town, in an effort to reach our house and I then noticed that the whole town was almost entirely surrounded by the flames of burning houses. Finding myself near the Rav`s house, I suddenly remembered that my father had left a great part of his Sephorim in the care of the Rav when he left for England. All father's sephorim were apparently too great a load to have taken with him on his journey and he therefore arranged that we should bring them with us when leaving for England to join him and Shmere in Sunderland, shortly after Shavuot. So I dashed into the Rav's house, in the hope of rescuing at least some of the Sephorim from the fire. There was no one in the house but as I entered one of the rooms, I saw a huge bundle on the floor, wrapped in sacking and securely tied with rope. I, of course, readily guessed that this contained my father's sephorim but it seemed impossible to untie the package quickly as I did not have a knife to cut the rope. Besides, I was afraid to remain in the house more than a few minutes in case it caught fire. Consequently all those sephorim perished in the fire. Father naturally grieved very much over the loss since they included many sephorim which were impossible to replace.

I ran from the Rav's house as fast as I could to our house, but when I reached it, I only found my sister there. She was struggling to remove some bedding outside the house. By our joint efforts we managed to remove a good bit of bedding and carried it to the end of the town, dumping it in a large-sized pit. Luckily this was subsequently recovered but our other belongings left in the house were unfortunately totally destroyed by the fire. After getting rid of the burden of the bedding, my sister and I started walking back to the centre of town to try to find the rest of our family but a group of boys and girls, who were coming away from the town, warned us against returning, saying that we might be trapped by the fire. They persuaded us to join them. It really looked as if the flames of the burning houses were encircling the whole town. So we all (about a dozen of us) hastily left the town and made our way to the countryside. My sister Rivka and I were somewhat uneasy about the other members of our family. Being in fear lest the fire overtook us we ran a good part of the way, and frequently turned round to see if the distance was increasing between us and the fiercely blazing houses in the town.

Having reached a small Jewish farm about a couple of miles away, we asked the owner if we could rest there for a while, for we were all exhausted from running. The latter and his family made us very welcome and served us with glasses of milk, which quenched our thirst from which most of us suffered. They also offered to prepare us a meal but as we could still see the fire and thick smoke from the burning houses, we were anxious to get further away in the country. We declined to stay for a meal and hastened on the road again, though at a slower pace than before. The farmer had told us that there was a large Jewish estate, named Kossits, about an hour's walk away, where we would be perfectly safe. He further told us that we would be able to stay there for a few days since there was ample room to accommodate us all in that large estate.

On arriving at that homestead, we saw that besides the farm, there was also an orchard and flour mill. As soon as the owners noticed our tired looking and distressed group of youngsters standing outside, they at once invited us to come into their house and accorded us a friendly welcome. They had evidently already been informed of the fire by some horse rider or cartman coming from the town. They were all very sympathetic on seeing the plight we were in and we were straightaway served a nice meal, for which we were quite ready. Having had nothing to eat or drink since our midday meal, excepting the milk at the small farm, we were naturally rather hungry by the time we arrived at this homestead, some six or seven hours later.

Although we had a good rest and felt very refreshed, Rivka and I could not help worrying about my brothers and stepmother, wondering whether they were safe. Many of the other boys and girls were likewise worried about their families. We were reassured by the owner of this estate that inquiries would be made in town immediately after Yomtov to ascertain if they were all quite safe and well and a full report would be brought back to us about them.

This reassurance considerably relieved our anxiety except for one of our group, who appeared to be inconsolable. He was a youth called Abram, whom I had known well, having been a pupil at Reb Isser's Cheder. His father had been exiled to Siberia for some offence. The reason he gave for his distressed condition was that of fearing lest his mother was burnt to death. As it happened no-one suffered any personal injury from this devastating fire.

That night, immediately after Ma'ariv, a son of our host took our names, saddled a horse and rode into the town. After making enquiries he managed to contact the parents or other relatives of our group of evacuees. They were immensely relieved at our safety and that we were all being taken care of by our hospitable host at Kossits, which was about five miles from Krottingen. The youngsters were, of course, very happy with the report brought by the messenger concerning the safety of our people.

Our host and hostess invited us all to stay with them as long as we wished to do so, subject to the approval of our parents. We thus remained there about two weeks and they did their best to make us comfortable. Although we felt rather sad at first being separated from our families, the novelty of staying at such a nice farm in the heart of the country helped to make us cheerful. As we were about a dozen boys and girls together and spent a good deal of our time rambling in the nearby countryside, we were more or less oblivious of our tragic situation, at being left homeless as a result of the tragic fire. The immensity of our misfortune, the total destruction of our town, including the Shool, the Beth Hamedrash and all other public buildings in town, I only realised when we returned to Krottingen and saw its devastation.

Rivka and I were brought back to town with a few more evacuees by a son of our host in a comfortable wagonette. As it was a sunny, warm day, I very much enjoyed the drive, inhaling the smell of the fragrant May flowering trees and wild flowers growing amidst the green fields most of the way. This pleasant drive caused me to altogether forget the fat that we were driving towards the town which was lying in ruins and desolation, far beyond my imagination. Although my sister, who was two years older than I, might have been fully conscious of the fact, she refrained from making any allusion to our great misfortune. It was only when we reached the Plungyaner gass, the first street leading into the town (which was usually called "die lange gass") and when we smelt the acrimonious vapour from the smouldering heaps of our erstwhile homes, that I began to realise our appalling condition. We drove a little further into the town and saw nothing but a mass of chimney stacks standing above the piles of rubble surrounding them. They were enveloped in thick, black smoke which was hovering in the air like low-lying dark clouds and which seemed to have turned the place into almost complete darkness. When I saw this my heart sank within me and I became quite overwhelmed by the sight of desolation. As the foul smoke from the smouldering heaps entered my eyes and throat, I could no longer restrain my tears.

Whilst I was sitting in the trap close to my sister, who was holding my hand and trying to comfort me, we saw our brother Elye walking along the street in the direction we were driving. He was carrying an unwrapped salt herring, which he had apparently bought in the only shop which escaped the fire. The shop, together with an adjoining house, was situated at the extreme end of the Plungyaner gass, the longest street of Krottingen. As it stood some distance from the burning houses, the fire did not reach it or the wind might have been in the other direction and so it escaped destruction by the fire.

So asking the driver, our host's son to stop, we dismounted from the conveyance and joined Elye, who seemed delighted when he saw us. We made our way to our temporary "home", which apparently was one of the flimsy shelters, which seemed to have been hastily knocked together during the time we were away in the country, after the fire had burnt itself out. Our stepmother prepared a meal for us, boiled potatoes with the salt herring that Elye bought. Although Rivka and I were not expected to arrive that morning, by stretching the herring a little, it somehow managed to be shared amongst our whole family!

I have no recollection as to how we fared during the two or three weeks from the time Rivka and I returned from the country until our departure for Sunderland. I cannot even remember where I slept. After I had recovered from my disturbed state of mind and could think more clearly, the thought of our early departure for Sunderland helped me to maintain a fairly buoyant spirit. As I had never seen a train nor a ship in my life, I kept wondering what they were like and I was eagerly looking forward to travelling in them.

   [back to top]