Chapter 5 : Kretinga & Neighbourhood
Amber Trade | Houses
| Dorbyan | Clothing
| Electricity | Doctors
and Illness | Law and Order
Amber Trade [back
I had a vague recollection, when I was very young, of amber being
manufactured in Krottingen, out of which beads and other articles were made.
The raw amber was drawn from the Baltic Sea nearby. I was told that this became
quite a flourishing industry while it lasted. It provided a gainful occupation
for a number of young men and women; and it only required little skill to make
the beads, which could be learned in the matter of a few weeks. Cigar and
cigarette holders and family trinkets, in the production of which greater skill
was required, were usually made by the men. I have no idea who the owners of
that business were, nor do I know whether this was a private or public concern.
I only remember occasionally seeing it being made in a private house. Almost
all the manufactured goods used to be exported to some remote part of Russia,
mainly to Nizhni-Novgorod. About twenty Jewish families resided there,
apparently illegally, as it was out of the Jewish pale. Some of them may have
been first or second class guild merchants and were allowed to live there,
permanently or for a certain period of the year, for wholesale selling or
buying at the trade fair there, which was one of the biggest fairs in Russia.
It was through the Jewish Merchants, who represented various manufacturers,
that the amber goods produced in Krottingen, were sold at this fair--the
greater part of these at least.
Tragically, there was an outbreak of a pogrom in that city in 1884
and a number of Jews were killed or wounded. According to the police
investigation and judicial inquiry, the Nizhni-Novgorod excesses were
declared to have been prompted by a desire for plunder. Although at the
direction of Governor Baranov, the murderers were tried and received
heavy punishment, nonetheless, the same governor ordered the expulsion of those
Jews who survived the murderous attack, whom the police found to live out of
the pale of Jewish settlement "without a legal basis".
As a result of the pogrom, the principal market for the amber
manufactured goods was cut off for lack of an agent to represent the owner or
owners of the concern, and so business in it rapidly decreased. There was very
little demand for the articles locally or in neighbouring cities, so this small
local industry gradually became extinct.
Recalling the small houses of the time I often wonder how they
accommodated large families. Practically all the houses or rather cottages,
since they were mainly single storied, were of the same pattern. They usually
consisted of one fairly large-sized living room, two bedrooms (The larger of
the two often being partitioned off) and a kitchen or kitchenette as most of
these were tiny. The great majority of the houses were wholly wooden
structures, excepting the chimney stack and chimney. There was a small number
of houses built of stone, including our house but even these had wooden roofs,
shingles nailed onto slanting joists. There were one or two makers of these
laths, tzindlemachers, as they were called. They were made by hand, the
tools consisting of a couple of saws and a plane to dress the laths with. I
used to enjoy watching them being deftly made out of doors during the warm
The interior decorations solely consisted of whitewashed walls and
ceilings, usually carried out annually, Erev Pesach. The whitewood
floors were devoid of any covering, though some had them stained and varnished.
Most were left in their natural state and were occasionally scrubbed. The more
fastidious housewife had them scrubbed every week for Shabbos.
The vast majority of Jews contrived to save up a few roubles to buy a
few cartloads of wood sufficient to provide them with fuel over the winter. Vey
poor Jews had to procure firewood piecemeal the best way they could. Most Jews
were able to maintain a certain degree of warmth in their small houses for the
duration of the very cold frosty weather that prevailed for about five months.
Fitting extra windows also helped to keep out the severe frosty weather from
the houses but restricted ventilation and fresh air circulation. Although the
outdoor weather in the winter was forbidding, it made it all the more cosy
indoors, especially sitting down to a hot supper after cheder or Shool.
That meal in the winter was usually a fleischike stew, not unlike the Sabbath
cholent, which used to be known as a "Zerukte-wetzere"
(Literally, shoved-in supper). It was put into the hot stove early in the day
and kept on simmering there till night time. This used to be an appetizing
meal, which included meat and often a pudding.
Although I have never been to Dorbyan, I can describe it from
information received from my brother Elye and others. It was one of the smaller
towns, usually described as shtetlech, which was in many respects
considered to be much inferior to Krottingen. There were a number of these
townlets in the province of Kovno, densely populated within a
comparatively small area. The standard of these were usually measured by the
condition of the roads in the main streets and the market place, which was the
focal point of the town.
None of these towns, including ours, had any pavements for pedestrian
traffic. But the somewhat superior towns had the main streets and market place
laid out with cobble-stones or covered with gravel, whilst the others had
nothing but earth. Although this was not so bad in the summer, dry weather or
in the winter, when the ground had a solid layer of frozen snow over it, in the
rainy autumn season and in early spring, when the ice began to melt, the ground
turned into a quagmire and the streets were almost impassable unless one wore stievel,
high legged boots. Dorbyan was noted for the depth of its mud
throughout the town. I often heard said that one could not wear goulashes in
the streets of Dorbyan, for they would sink into the mud.
My observations regarding Dorbyan referred to the general
aspect of this townlet but by no means to its Jewish community, for it
contained some eminent Talmudical scholars and learned, devout baalei-battim
This small unpretentious shtetl produced a man who succeeded Theodore
Herzl as President of the World Zionist Organisation, David Wolffsohn.
He was born and spent his early life in Dorbyan. He was the son of Reb Eisic
Hessels, a pious, scholarly man and foremost Hebrew teacher there. I
have known a number of his pupils, including Gershon Levy of Sunderland,
a pious and learned man and Herman Aronowitz, the late father-in-law of Harry
Samuels, O.B.E. and grandfather of Miriam Karlin, the actress. I
first met Mr Aronowitz at his home in Amsterdam in 1903. He at once impressed
me as being a cultured and very intelligent person. He was an ardent Zionist
and was then the President of the JNF for Holland, a position he held until
1914, I believe. I often used to meet him in London, where he resided during
the first world war. I last saw him at the mass meeting which was held in
London after the declaration of the establishment of the Jewish State. I always
held him in the highest esteem, and I always enjoyed his company when visiting
him at his home, which I often did. He passed away at the ripe old age of
Most Jews managed to provide a peltz, a fur lined coat, for
all the members of the family. this was mainly of the cheapest kind of fur,
such as sheep skin and covered with inexpensive cloth. This lasted for many
years and when a lad grew out of his peltz, it was generally taken over
by his younger brother. When there were several boys or girls these in turn
passed along from one the other while the cloth lasted out. Although these
garments were not usually elegant, they served the purpose of protecting
oneself against the severe frosty weather.
There were also some very smart looking fur coats to be seen, worn by
well-to-do Jews in town as well as by non-Jewish government officials and
professional men. They were made from good quality fur and covered with
expensive cloth and were usually adorned with a real beaver collar. These
superior coats were made by Leizer der schneider, who was
reputed to be the most skilled tailor of Krottingen and district.
Occasionally our town was visited by "professional" actors.
They hired a stable or barn for their performance and charged usually ten kopecks
for adults and half price for children. This "theatrical company"
usually consisted of a strong man, or a weightlifter and a comedian, whilst the
third man of the trio acted as the assistant. During the interval, the latter
went round with a plate amongst the audience for a kopeck or two. Sometimes the
town was honoured by the arrival of "celebrity" actors or singers,
who hired a large room in an inn, where they performed. But as the charge of
admission to these plays or concerts was rather prohibitive, twenty or twenty
five kopecks, without any reduction for minors, I have no personal
experience of these entertainments.
In the long summer days during the week, after cheder, my chaverim
and I often went on a ramble in the countryside, a short distance out of town.
I enjoyed going to the near pasture land, watching the cows and she-goats
grazing there. A fairly large number of goats pasturing there, belonged
exclusively the local Jews and afforded them a regular supply of milk, to those
who could afford to buy a goat. The small number of cows there were owned by
the well-to-do Jews of the town.
The pasture land belonged to a non Jew, the charges being very low
and payment for it was collected by an ingenious method. The owner of the land
would enter the market place periodically and by a few blasts on a bugle,
signalled the owners of the cattle to collect them that evening. The procedure
was known as "farnemen die beheimes". a variant of the German
word "aufnehmen", that is to receive or survey the cows and
goats. hey all bore individual and quite clear markings, so that the owners had
no difficulty in picking them out. They were permitted to pass the barrier on
payment of the toll.
Normally the animals found their way to the pasture in the mornings
and returned unattended in the evening each day, except for newcomers, who had
to be escorted to the field in the morning and collected in the evening for a
short time. It was rather a quaint sight to see occasionally an elderly man in
the early morning walking along with a Tallis bag under his left arm and
with a can in his right hand, urging the goat he was escorting onto the road
leading to the pasture. He would then stand waiting until she joined the other
goats going in the same direction. When he was sure that his goat was keeping
close to the flock, he would hurry to reach the Beth Hamedrash in time
for morning service.
In the winter months, most of the lads indulged in the regular
"winter sports" of snowballing, ice-skating on frozen ponds, sledging
etc. There were also the minor festivals of Chanukah and Purim.
They were eagerly awaited and immensely enjoyed. We had holiday from cheder and
were treated to specially prepared meals, as well as receiving Chanukah-gelt.
Besides the beautiful and extensive grounds of the graf's park,
another pleasant and health-giving boon that the town possessed was a very fine
river for bathing, advantage of which was taken by practically the entire
community of Krottingen. This was situated some 15 minutes walk from town, just
off the road leading to the park. It was amidst a profusion of flowering trees
and shrubs, besides an expansive lawn bordering the river and well sheltered
from the road. An extension of the river, some distance away and sheltered from
view, was used by the women bathers, so that this healthy and refreshing
recreation during the summer, excepting the nine days of Av, could be
enjoyed by everyone, old and young alike.
Whilst bathing in the middle of the week was mainly enjoyed by the
grown-ups, boys and teenagers also occasionally did so when accompanied by an
adult, who sometimes took a group of the cheder boys to bathe as a
special treat. On Fridays practically the whole town turned out for their erev
Shabbat bath and with most of the bathers, that was the only day in the
week when they brought soap with them!
Though it was usually warm enough to bathe in the open before the
bathing season started, from Shavuot, many adults had their first dip in
the river on Lag B'Omer, the only day that the time of mourning during Sephira,
the counting of the Omer, is suspended. The river apparently also
belonged to the Graf and seemed to have been set apart for the exclusive
use of the Jews of the town as I have never known of it being used by the
non-Jewish inhabitants of the town.
The Graf was keenly interested in all new inventions and
natural phenomena and he was in a position to give effect to his desire to
secure them. He had a number of dwarfs, with whom he often walked in the park.
He also possessed dogs of various breeds and other pet animals with whom he was
he was often seen walking about in the extensive grounds of his estate. The
flower beds in the park were laid out with most exquisite flowers and plants
and the conservatories (to which visitors at the park had access) contained
some of the finest exotic plants. I have never been inside his magnificent
mansion but my cousins, who were dressmakers to the Countess and her daughters,
told me about the sumptuous antique and modern furniture it contained, besides
most beautiful glass and china.
A great sensation was caused in town when the Graf had
electricity installed in his mansion. It aroused much excitement and curiosity
when a large boiler was seen passing through the town on a big lorry and we
learned that it was intended for the electricity generating plant. I doubt
whether any of the Stately Homes in England could boast at that time, about
1886, of having electricity. In the course of the erection of the generating
plant, those taking a walk in the park on Shabbat would stop to have a
look at the plant and machinery being installed and would chat to the uniformed
electrical engineer., who seemed to be very friendly disposed towards the Jews.
The greatest excitement occurred with the switching on of the electric lights
on a Saturday night.
Immediately after Shalosh Seudot, practically the whole
community set out for the park, except for some very pious Jews, who would not
miss Tefillah b'Tzibur, communal service, on that night. Though there
was a huge crowd assembled in front of the Graf`'s mansion, everyone had
a clear view into the large saloon through the uncovered windows. All one could
see whilst there was still a little daylight, were a number of small glass
bulbs suspended from the ceiling. The crowd stood with bated breath waiting for
the magic lights to appear. We had not long to wait before dusk set in and even
before the three statutory Sabbath night stars were visible in the sky, all the
suspended glass bulbs suddenly, as if by magic, lit up and the saloon became a
blaze of light, as if it were in mid-day bright sunshine! This was followed by
a tremendous gasp of surprise and exclamations of wonder from everyone present.
After gazing at these wonderful lights for a time, most of them hastened back
to town for the evening prayers and Havdolo. Others could not tear
themselves away from that marvellous sight and only departed when the window
curtains were drawn, after having the lights switched on and off several times.
The lighting exhibition was repeated nightly during the whole week to give
everyone an opportunity to witness it. The Graf also occasionally had
fire-work displays in the park to which the towns people used to flock.
Doctors and illness [back
I have some childhood memory of a non-Jewish medical practitioner in
Krottingen and when he either left the town or died, he was not replaced by
another doctor for a time. So when one required medical treatment, one had to
visit or summon a doctor from Memel. In case of serious illness and when
one could afford it, one could consult a physician at Koenigsberg, the
nearest large Prussian city from Krottingen. Sometime later a Jewish doctor
came to our town, named Schlessinger, who was a relation of my Uncle
Idel. He was appointed house doctor to the Graf's family but he was
permitted by the Graf to attend to the sick in town, free of charge.
I remember one day whilst In the park, I noticed a number of women
with their children outside the Graf's Villa. Approaching to ascertain
the reason for their presence, I saw that all the children were more or less
crippled. They were waiting to consult the physician whom the Graf had
summoned from Koenigsberg to treat a member of his family. Whenever the Graf
summoned a specialist to Krottingen, he usually arranged with him to treat
other ailing people in town who wished to consult him. I was quite startled to
see so many crippled children, likely due to rickets, which was prevalent
amongst children, especially of the poorer classes.
Since there were no hospitals, nursing homes or mental institutes,
the families of the sick had to look after them. This must have been an awful
strain, particularly when it involved a mentally affected person, who might be
violent and need restraining. I remember two Jewish men who suffered mental
illness. One was simply a harmless imbecile, who was seen walking about the
streets mumbling to himself or shouting at some of the boys who molested or
made fun of him, which got him into a temper. The other had once been a
respectable member of the community and rather a refined sort of person, being
well dressed and of attractive appearance. Though usually of a calm demeanour
at home, he occasionally broke into violence during the night. As there was
no-one in the house besides the wife (they were childless), she had to call in
neighbours to restrain him. His wife was a landsfrau of our stepmother
and whenever this occurred, she would come to our house, often in the middle of
the night, and stay with us for a couple of days, after which he usually calmed
down again. Upon her return home, he would welcome her back as if nothing had
Law and Order [back
Law and order in Krottingen was maintained by a solitary policeman, a
tall lanky fellow, who spoke Yiddish fluently, it was rumoured that he was a
Jewish apostate. As there was but little propensity for crime amongst the
Jewish community, all he had to do was perambulate through the streets of the
town and now and again accost people who were inclined to have a chat with him.
He often paid friendly visits at some houses, especially on Friday nights, when
he was sure of being treated to a little schnaps and cake or even to a
good slice of challah. Once, on a Seder night, he gave me an
awful fright. When opening the front door before the recital of "Shefoch
chamoscho el-hagoyim" (pour out your wrath upon the heathens), he
stood there filling the door-way with his long, dark shadow. It took me a few
minutes before I realised who it was. Without being invited, he followed me
into the room where the seder was held but he soon departed after a
glass of wine and a Matzo.
I once saw this guardian of the law in an exciting chase after a
young fellow, who lived in our street, the son of a cobler. He was trying to
catch and arrest him for the "heinous crime" of whistling a
revolutionary song. This "criminal" likely heard the tune and tried
to whistle it without being aware of its grave offence If caught and charged he
might have been punished by a term of imprisonment. The culprit, however,
managed to escape the long arm (literally) of the law and after hiding for a
few days, was smuggled across the German frontier. He worked his passage on a
cargo boat, which sailed from Memel to New York. He established
himself in business in the USA and became the sole support of his parents.
Though crime was entirely absent amongst the Jews of Krottingen, yet
as far as Russian Tzarist law was concerned, there were
"law-breakers" amongst a certain class of Jews. Owing to the cruel,
repressive laws enacted by the Tzarist government against the Jews, the latter
were forced to circumvent these enactments by certain stratagems. The laws were
designed to reduce the Jews under Russian rule to a more or less state of
pauperism against which they were obliged to defend themselves.
A shopkeeper, for instance, with an assorted class of merchandise,
could only carry on his business legally by obtaining a "Perva-Gilda",
first guild licence at the cost of 1000 roubles. This sum in most cases
exceeded by far the value of his entire stock in trade and which under no
circumstances could he pay. The holder of a Perva-Gilda was permitted to
engage in business outside the "Pale of Settlement", the districts in
which most Jews were restricted to reside. Though this concession might have
been of considerable value to big merchants, professional men or to highly
skilled artisans, the small town shopkeeper who managed to earn a modest living
out of his business had not the means to take advantage of such concession. I
believe that certain commodities were allowed to be sold in shops without a
licence, such as foodstuffs. But most of the shops were stocked with a large
variety of goods. They could be described as general stores, since they usually
contained a great assortment of merchandise, all of it a jumble, crowded in the
small space of the shop!
The articles for sale in these general stores consisted of groceries,
paraffin and candles, crockery and hardware, children's soft goods, a large jar
of boiled sweets and many other items. Each side of the entrance to the shop
was usually flanked by huge barrels of salt herring and pickled cucumbers.
Doors to the shops were, as a rule, only used in the winter but during the
summer they were unhinged and removed, using movable shutters for opening and
closing the shops. This allowed for more daylight to enter into them, since
there were neither windows nor skylights fitted to most of the shops.
Illumination of the shops at night time was usually provided by a solitary
paraffin lamp, whilst heat in the winter was afforded by an open charcoal
burner on an iron stand.
There were periodical visits made to the towns by a government
official , a sort of inspector, known as a Revisor, causing great
commotion amongst the tradespeople of the town. These visits were not
officially previously announced so that shopkeepers could be caught unawares.
But by some prearranged plan this was made known to the townspeople some days
before his arrival, so as to be prepared for the inspector's reception. This
took the form of removing the prohibited merchandise from the shops and hiding
them the best way they could, which was not easy. The Chedorim likewise
came under the ban of prohibition so that the cheder boys had an
In spite of the precautions taken by the trades people on these
occasions, there were usually charges against two or three traders, "gemacht
an act" taken action, as they were called. These charges were
often groundless and may have been merely to justify the trouble and expenses
incurred by the Revisor. Offences in this connection were punishable by
fine imposed at the headquarters of the district.
There were a few specialised shops in town, catering for only one or
two kinds of edible goods, such as flour and yeast, bread and pastries,
butchers and poultry dealers, fishmongers etc., all of which were permitted to
sell without a licence. Besides these there was also a chemist and a
watchmakers shop. Commodities such as hosiery, millinery, books, stationary and
toys were usually stocked in the general shops.
There was at least one outstanding shop in Krottingen, that of a
cloth merchant, whose place of business was situated in the most prominent part
of the Market square. This shop was very spacious and lofty with properly
fitted and highly polished counters and shelvings and was very well lighted by
day and night. The owner of that shop was one of the plutocrats of Krottingen,
named Elye Behr. I cannot recall his surname but he was a tall,
immaculately dressed man of imposing appearance. He enjoyed considerable
popularity amongst the gentile residents of Krottingen.
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