A Memoir - Part 3 1913 - Father Returns from America Five years had passed since Leibe Skudowitz' father, Dovid Ber, left for America. The decision to return to Aniksht, instead of sending for his family, was made by his wife, Sora-Riva who was stubbornly unyielding in her desire that the family should remain together in Aniksht. The consequences of this fateful decision would play out in the ensuing years. It was a Monday morning in May when the postman crossed the road and approached our house. He asked where Riva Skudowitz lived. I pointed to our house, and he announced that he had brought a telegram. Since I could [now] read some Russian, I read it several times. It said that Berl Skudowitz would be arriving the next day. My father, it said, would be returning home from America! Mother and Zeide were standing nearby and when I had finished reading the telegram, the house came alive. All of us began to dance and jump for joy. It was such a surprise and so sudden. Actually, Mother knew he was coming and that he was already on the ship, but because of the "evil eye" she had told no one except Zeide on the strict condition that he keep the secret to himself. The telegram came from Wilkomir, so we knew at once that he would arrive the next morning with Hirshke the coachman. We couldn't sleep that night. We were up at the crack of dawn, dressed in our holiday best. Zeide, my brothers, sister and I went through the village Yursdike to meet Father.  Excited and happy at the news of his coming, we were impatient and wanted to see him as soon as we could. We passed through the village and at the end of it we stopped to rest and wait. Here the road was straight and reached the forest where visibility was good. Suddenly I spotted the "karat" coming out of the forest, accompanied by a trail of dust. We shouted excitedly, "Here comes the karat!" Everyone looked in the direction I was pointing. Despite being pulled by three horses, the coach traveled slowly. At last it arrived. Reb Hirshe stopped the horses and the karat came to a standstill. Father alighted quickly and began hugging and kissing us without saying a word. Tears of joy glistened in everyone's eyes. It is difficult to describe the experience, especially since it had been such a long time since we had seen him. The kissing and hugging, lifting me and throwing me into the air with a pair of strong hands and putting me down, seemed to me to also take quite a while. The other passengers in the karat couldn't take their eyes off the spectacle. At last Father calmed down and told us all to get into the coach and we began to edge towards the shtetl. We spoke to our [traveling companions] as we slowly approached the little buildings. All the passengers alighted, except us. We were told to stay in the coach and we would be taken to our house. I sat on Father's lap and he held me tight. Reb Hirshe, who sat majestically atop the coach, suddenly pulled on the reins, gave the horses a gentle lash and soon we were at Zeide's house. At the time [of Father's return], the house was home to Uncle Yankel, Auntie Malke and their five children. We lived in the small house that abutted it. It had its own entrance and we referred to it as the shtibele. I examined my father. Gray peeped through his blond hair. In those days he seemed like an old man to me, but in fact he was only 43. Today, as I write this, my eldest son is already that age. Mother stood at the entrance to the shtibele where we lived. Her face shone and she beamed with excitement and joy. She wore a long dress fitted at the waist, the sleeves in loose pleats. I wasn't sure, but I think it may have been her wedding dress. Father approached her and they embraced, kissed and held each other with tears in their eyes. Then Father, Mother and the rest of us went [inside]. A neighbor met us with bread and salt as we entered the house.  Inside, some of our neighbors awaited us, including Uncle Yankel. We entered, followed by Moshe Itze the beadle. He was always first, whether the occasion was a happy one or a funeral. He approached Father with a warm welcome, inquired after his health and shook his hand. Father reciprocated, then called me over, gave me a rouble and sent me to buy a bottle of brandy. I quickly sprinted across the road to the Monopol, bought the liquor and hurried home. Father took the bottle and poured it into little glasses. Moshe Itze, wishing Father luck in his homecoming, said, "l'chaim," as he lifted his glass and emptied it in one gulp. Father poured him a second glass and then another for Zeide who sidled up to him, and another for Yankel. They all drank together. Meanwhile, more people arrived and Father sent me off to buy more brandy. This went on until lunchtime, when the neighbors returned to their homes, and we alone remained - our family and Zeide.  We sat down to eat at the set table which was covered with a pure white tablecloth. Zeide and Father drank a toast. My brothers too were treated to a taste and I had half a glass. Everyone was in a good mood from the brandy. My head was spinning but I was in a wonderful mood and couldn't take my eyes off Father. While we ate, Father told us of his journey and how he had sailed on the boat "Imperator." It had taken just six days to reach Hamburg from New York, but when he had sailed to America, the journey had taken 17 days. He told us about New York - the bustling city that it was, the motorcars and even the aeroplanes, and how in general the world had progressed.  He told us of Amundsen's explorations and the journey to the South Pole in 1911… He told us especially of the great ship Titanic and how she crashed into an iceberg on April 14, 1912, sank the following morning, and how 1,600 people had lost their lives, and all this on her maiden voyage… We all listened raptly and were greatly saddened by his tragic story.  The melancholy mood was broken by my brother Yudke who began to sing the "Talisel." This was indeed the pinnacle of the celebration as he sang in his fine high-pitched voice as all of us remained silent. Father himself was a baal-tefillah and singer, but as I looked at him during the singing I saw how amazed he was, as though he was thinking and dreaming of something. Only when my brother finished the song and said that the Talesil is ours for eternity, that no one could ever take it away from the Jews - no, no, never - did Father emerge from his reverie. He called Yudke to come nearer, gave him a kiss and lauded him for his beautiful singing, adding what a celebrity he could become in America. It was then that Mother opened up and told Father that it was no wonder that a famous cantor who had visited Aniksht had wanted to take Yudke along after he heard him sing. He wanted to make Yudke into a great chazzan, but Mother had refused to agree. Although Yudke had only just turned 13, he did not want to study and had recently begun to work. Mother then mentioned me, whom she called the "musinik," the youngest. She told of my school attendance, how well my studies were going and that it was I who had read the telegram in Russian the day before. And so the day of Father's homecoming passed with joy and great cheer. Each one of us, among our own kind and friends, were so happy with Father's arrival, but none more so than Mother. It had been a strenuous day and we all went to bed. But even after my own hectic day, I could not sleep. I lay awake for a long time. My head was spinning with the many thoughts passing through it. I thought of the hard life Mother and the rest of us had experienced [during Father's absence]. I was happy that he was home with us again and that now there would be someone to look after us.  But, on the other hand, Father would have to start life anew. It would not be easy for him, being a virtual stranger to life here. And so I pondered how he would have to begin all over again. 1914 - War I woke up late to the noise of the peasants' wagons. It was a hot summer day. The hubbub in the street was greater than usual. Many men walked together with their wives, but it was not a normal walk. It seemed to be a very different kind of walk.  They walked together and then stopped. Joined by others, their numbers grew. Although not a market day, a substantial number of people were already gathered together. They talked to one another and waved their hands. The women stood nearby but did not speak. Many were crying. They didn't cry aloud but suppressed their tears. Soon the town square was filled with people. This was a day of mobilization. Russia had declared war on Germany. How sad it was for all those who had to report [for duty] and leave their homes to go to war. For the women and their young husbands and for the mothers of young sons, can you imagine it? War! Although we, the younger children, didn't understand or know what war really meant, we spoke about it among ourselves in frightened tones. We knew that our fathers would have to go and serve the Czar and defend the country and repulse the enemy. When a large group of people had gathered in one place and the noise and disarray had heightened, several strashnikes suddenly appeared on horseback led by uradnik, Ivan Tropimov. With his severe features, yellow mustache and whip in hand as he rode, fear overcame everyone, especially us, the small children. Suddenly Tropimov gave the order to disperse. The people were slow to respond and Tropimov did not wait. He rode into the crowd and there was pandemonium. People ran in all directions. One woman whose husband had been called up remained by his side. Tropimov noticed her as he rode by and gave her a lash with his whip. She fell to the ground shouting in pain. When the crowd saw this, the panic escalated. Everyone wanted to know what had happened and began to push to get closer to the woman who lay on the ground writhing in pain. Tropimov gave the strashnikes a loud order to disperse the crowd. They began to execute the order, whipping people and chasing everyone wildly. Suddenly, two strashnikes collided as they galloped and both riders fell to the cobbled street. A third strashnike was hit by a stone thrown by someone in the crowd. He swayed on his horse and lost his balance, but some of his colleagues managed to catch him. This was none other than the good strashnike Papulski. Of all people, how could he be the one to receive such a knock? It seemed as if the one who'd thrown the stone had not recognized him; otherwise, he would have not have done so because Papulski was considered the best strashnike in the shtetl. The other strashnikes rallied to tend to their colleagues, which gave all those who had been chased the opportunity to run to their homes. But many who had been badly whipped were bleeding and in pain. One could say that the mobilization in [Aniksht] had been a bloody affair. Afterwards, the shtetl was dead quiet, with people too afraid to venture outside, fearful of the strashnikes who were still seen riding [through] the streets. But now there was no one for them to whip. The next day all those eligible for service reported and enlisted to go to war. They all walked quietly and calmly, arriving in the "kanzelaria" and taking their places in the queue, which was a long one because of Lithuanians who had come reluctantly from surrounding villages to serve the Czar. A considerable number of Jewish enlistees were the cream of our shtetl youth, even though there were loafers and idlers among them. But mostly they were very poor, the sole breadwinners of their families who had to support mothers with small children because their fathers had died young. Among them were young fathers who had to leave their young wives and small children without any means of support. The mothers and young wives, some carrying small children, followed their menfolk with heavy hearts. Many wondered how long the war would last and how many of their men would be killed, or come back alive but crippled, limbless or blind. They thought how their nearest and dearest were being torn from their sides and that they would be alone. Who would look after them and the children? How would they bear the burden that now rested solely on their shoulders? Their eyes misted over. As they walked they could not rid themselves of these thoughts. But they also realized that there was nothing they could do. They could not avoid what was happening, and no one could help them. This is how it was and how it was meant to be. But the saddest moment was yet to come. It was when all the recruits had to leave their homes and proceed to the place where they were to be trained for battle. The entire shtetl turned out, old and young lamenting aloud. It was like a funeral wake. The brave young men walked with firm steps as they carried their heavy kit all the way to the station. They all remained grim as they stood waiting for the train. The gendarmes walked up and down keeping order, armed with revolvers and long swords. Suddenly, they heard the whistle of the train. It arrived with a terrible noise. Again, there were loud cries and groans as they said goodbye. The men had all boarded and families spoke urgently through open windows. The children played with their fathers' hands. Then suddenly, the gendarmes ordered everyone to stand back and the train began to move. In a few seconds, all those on the platform watched their husbands, sons and fathers waving frantically as the train slowly gathered speed and vanished from view, taking with it their nearest and dearest. 1914 - Refugees They brought us to the station and ordered us to enter the freight wagons which stood at a siding. We were instructed to take our parcels and settle down as best we could. We were packed like herrings in a barrel. I don't know exactly how many there were of us in [each] freight car, but it must have been [at least] 30 adults and children.  Everybody sat wherever they could, mainly on their parcels. I climbed up to the highest place and settled near a small window so that I could see what was [happening] outside. I liked to see how fast the trains hurtled past us, packed to capacity, apparently [heading] from one front to another. Coaches with red crosses sped by, no doubt carrying the wounded to hospitals in nearby towns. The line on which we were traveling was called the Petersburg-Warsaw line, the main line from Russia, the busiest in normal times and certainly so in wartime. Our family consisted of Mother, Father, Zeide, my sister and me. My two elder brothers were [already] in Vitebsk, working for a shavler manufacturer named Levin. He had enlisted them to work for him making felt boots for wounded soldiers, under contract to the [Russian] government. I was very excited and impatient for [our] train to depart and was very keen to ride it, even though it was only a goods train. I couldn't fall asleep even though it was late at night. I laid my head on a soft parcel and at long last fell asleep. Several times I awoke and felt the train moving, but soon fell asleep again.  When I again woke, it was dawn. Many of the passengers were standing at the open door and looking out. I looked through the small window and saw that we were stopped at a huge station and a sign which read, Dvinsk 244 viorst from Vitebsk. During the night we must have entered the region of Novosvintzian. The shunting and movement of trains here were on a large scale. Through here passed the Riga-Arial line and another from Kovno, but the latter had been cut off and ended only a few stations from Dvinsk. Father alighted holding a teapot. A short while later he brought back boiling water which was available in Russia at every station. He also bought a few fresh bulkes, so we refreshed ourselves and waited for the train to depart. In about an hour we were told to get back into our freight wagons and off we went. I sat right on top and looked through the window at the [passing] landscape. I didn't take my eyes off anything. I saw the peasants working in the fields. It was the end of summer and everything had to be harvested before the cruel winter arrived. Yes it is true, I thought, here I am riding on this big train. I felt delighted and full of joy. I read the name of every station we passed and gazed at the lakes and rivers which I could see from afar. Particularly prominent was the West Dvina, which ran alongside the railway line. I stared at the farms and villages that nestled by the river. I felt happy as long as I was on the train and could see the country, especially since I knew something of Russian geography. We passed Kreslovke, Druya, Drise and all the other towns I knew from the maps. We passed through a forest and I saw the river again and there was a boat sailing in the middle of it, black smoke billowing from its funnel. Then it disappeared and I was sorry because this was the first time I had seen one, other than in books. But I was growing impatient. I did not know our destination and this train was neither fast nor the best. One got tired of traveling all day, especially under the conditions that prevailed: the noise of the grown-ups, all wanting to speak at once, and especially the stench of the children who wanted to do something every few minutes. At the larger stations there were long delays, so that we only arrived the next morning at the town of Polotsk, about 33 viorst from Vitebsk. As the escort committee on the troop train explained to us, we were being sent to Penza, very far away, but there was nothing we could do about it. We were only refugees and of little worth in people's eyes. The possessions we brought were meager, but we were happy to have some clothing and especially bedding. So we had no choice but to accept what was happening to us. We left Polotsk in the morning and here we were lucky. The train did not stop again until we reached Vitebsk at about ten in the morning. Here there were many lines and platforms and [many] people and children milling about. I did not know if they were villagers or refugees like us. Military personnel were everywhere, some of them very agitated. I overheard them say that the Germans were very close to Vilna. This was just a few days before the town fell to them. On the platform, many gendarmes walked about, keeping order and casting looks at everyone. Then I saw my mother saying something to my father in a very serious tone. I knew there was something brewing. Then I heard her say that on no account would she move from here. She told Father that now that she and all the children were in Vitebsk, we would stay here so that we could be together.  But Father entreated her to continue on because Vitebsk was full of refugees like us from the western parts, and it would be nearly impossible to find accommodations of any kind. My older brothers, who were living in Vitebsk, were sent for to help us decide. The argument continued for quite a while, but because mother was so adamant, it was finally decided to go into town to look for a place to rent. My father and brother went and before long returned to report that they had finally managed to find lodgings, nothing very good but at least a roof over our heads. And this was how we came to stay in Vitebsk. We unloaded our luggage but as soon as the train left, Mother remembered that she had left behind the samovar. Losing the samovar was a tragic event for her and she mourned its loss. We hired a coachman, loaded our chattels into the wagon and set off through the streets of Vitebsk to our new dwelling. The town was packed with people milling about, some staring at us with expressions of pity. The wagon jolted and shook over the cobblestones as I looked at the buildings and shops. Crossing over the Dvina River and onto the main street, we were awed by the shops and their beautiful window displays. Young men and officers walked arm in arm with beautiful ladies, talking and laughing. Here there was no war. We turned off the main street onto smaller streets, then saw our new home with people waiting for us. The house was old and dreary, the foundations sunk into the ground and the roof low and rotted. It seemed to me that this house must have been the only remaining building to survive Napoleon's capture and burning of the town [in 1812]. The owner of the house, a man with a long beard, would not let us enter until we had paid the monthly rent of seven roubles in advance. Father tried to console us by saying that we would not stay here long; he would immediately begin looking elsewhere. The area was called Padla and straddled both sides of the River Vitba, which emptied into the Dvina. Hence, the town name Vitebsk. The house had no electricity, no plumbing and only one lamp. We had to get water from our neighbors, each time from a different one.  Some gave willingly, but others scowled. Imagine how we felt having to stand at someone's door, waiting until we got some water.  We had no furniture except a rickety bed and a few stools and wooden boxes to sit on. My sister and I slept on the floor, while my two brothers had to go to the felt boot factory and sleep on the wool.   1916        My friend Meishke Kagan and I are walking home from school here in Vitebsk. It is December 1916.  We walk slowly and are discussing the war and how the Russians are losing and the Germans winning on every front. But I feel I should defend the Russians, so I say, "this has happened before, but the Russians won. See how well they did on the Turkish front, conquering the city of Erzerum? And on the Katyn front capturing Lwow? True, they didn't keep it long, but they did capture it." "I still remember how the commandant of the Vitebsk garrison entered the Ishrier Shul  sporting his red collar and stripes and announced that the Russians had won a great victory at Lwow.  You too were present and heard how the Kazoner Rebbe received him and how the choir sang 'El Hanoten Tshua' for the Czar."  "Yes," Meishke replied, "but what became of those great victories?" And so speaking, we come to Smolensker Street where papers are being sold and the hawkers are shouting the news that Gregory Rasputin is dead. My friend explains who he is and what a miracle it is that they got rid of him. We both read the posters and my friend says, "This is the beginning of the end of the Czar's dynasty. We are close to revolution." He tells me that it will be good for the Jews.  We part company and I walk home. I am thinking how much my friend knows and how backward I am when it comes to world news. In those days, I never read the newspaper because in our house there was never one to read. It does not take long before the Great Revolution arrives. Epilogue After the October Revolution, with Lenin and the Bolsheviks firmly in power, Leibe Skudowitz was accused of reactionary political activities and sentenced to exile in Siberia.  After Leibe and his family returned to Aniksht, he married Yokhved Kopans in 1928. After the birth of their first child, they immigrated to Johannesburg, South Africa in 1930, where four more children followed. Leibe developed a successful general mercantile and haberdashery business. But Leibe's parents and siblings remained in Lithuania. His father Dovid Ber, mother Sora-Riva and sister Meriasha would die in the Holocaust. Oldest brother Moishe Binke would be killed in action at the battle of Stalingrad and brother Yudke would die in Vilnius in the 1950s. Leibe passed away in Johannesburg in 1994.                                                                    Jewish Life Editor’s Note: The Aniksht train station looms large in the lore of my family history. In 1913, my Zadye and Bobye, Zalman Leib and Breina Beila (Muliar) Plotnik, and their three children left Aniksht for Chelsea, Massachusetts. Bobye's father, Matus Muliar, was too old to accompany them and had to remain behind. Zadye Mutus bawled like a baby as he stood on the station platform and watched the train pull away, knowing he would never see his family again. A year or two later, after the onset of World War I, word got back to his family in Chelsea, Massachusetts that he had died during a forced evacuation to the Russian interior because the Czar didn't trust the loyalty of his Jews, believing they were sympathetic to the invading Germans and acting as their spies, which, of course, was never true.      .