Excerpt from The Goose Girl, the Rabbi, and the New York Teachers: A Family Memoir by Deborah Heller


Of the generations that intervened between the death of my illustrious ancestor in 1654 and the birth of my paternal grandfather, Baruch Heller, in 1870 (a date I have from the Ellis Island records), I know almost nothing. Baruch and his wife, Feige Leah (née Bernstein), lived in the Russian town of Koidanov, near Minsk in Belarus, within the Pale of Settlement. My father, Isaiah, their only son and the youngest of four children, was born there in 1902.

Over the course of centuries, as national boundaries shifted, Koidanov had belonged, variously, to Poland, to Lithuania, and finally to Russia. In 1897, nine years before my grandfather Baruch's emigration, the Jews numbered 3,156, or 67 percent of the total population.1

My family's— and Koidanov's— ties to Lithuania were reflected in my father's repeated tongue-in-cheek boasts throughout my childhood that we belonged to the praiseworthy "Litvaks" and not the lowly "Galitzianers." Naturally, these terms meant nothing to me as a little girl growing up in New York, nor, I am sure, did he really expect them to. But it became a kind of jokey drill:

"Tell me, Debbie, who is better, the Litvaks or the Galitzianers?"

Sometimes, to alter the rhythm of the joke, I would say, "The Galizianers."

"What? Oh, Debbie! How can you say that?" he would reply with feigned horror.

I have learned since that Litvak is the noun for Lithuanian Jew, and the never-to-me-explained rivalry evoked by my father so many years ago is concisely summarized on one of Ira Steingroot's All-Purpose Yiddish Knowledge Cards ("Litvak and Galitzianer"). After pointing to the geographical distinction— the Litvak world being located in Lithuania to the north and the Galitzianer one in Galicia, or Austrian Poland— the card summarizes the popular view: "The Litvaks saw the Galitzianers as irrational and uneducated, while the Galitzianers thought of the Litvaks as cold fish." This distinction was connected with the Hasidic-misnaggedim (mitnagged) opposition, which I shall touch on shortly.

Isaiah began studying Hebrew in a full-day cheder (elementary school) at the age of five. In the winter, he carried a lantern to light his way after dark. Far less typical was the fact that his older sisters attended "what was then an unusual educational institution, a school for girls, taught by one CHAYIM YEHUDA MERLIS, where the girls learned Modern Hebrew, language and grammar" (Isaiah Heller, letter of April 1976). Merlis opened the school in 1900, when he came to Koidanov from Germany, where he had received an excellent education in Modern Hebrew. My father's sister Deborah later related of the school: "Everything was conducted in Hebrew … it was mostly vocabulary, reading and writing …. We learned Bible."2

In the same letter of 1976, my father also wrote that he had learned from reading a book that "Koidanov had been a real cultural center and that one Shaya Heller (not me but my grandfather) was the owner of an extensive library of lay [secular] as well as religious books." Shaya was the familiar nickname for Isaiah; thus my father was obviously named for his learned grandfather.

Isaiah Heller, father of Baruch Heller, great-grandfather of author.
Russia, circa last quarter of nineteenth century.

In the mid-1970s, my father's grandnephew Bruce Gribetz, the grandson of his sister Ida, interviewed my father and his other sister, Deborah, as primary sources for an undergraduate essay on Koidanov at McGill University. In this chapter, I have drawn freely on the oral history Bruce Gribetz recorded as well as on the stories my father told me.

During Isaiah's childhood in Koidanov, there was a railway station just outside the town limits, situated midway between Warsaw and Moscow. "A popular pastime of a Saturday afternoon was for the folks to get together and take a stroll to the station and there the trains used to come in from Minsk," he recalled. There was a steady stream of outgoers and newcomers from and to Koidanov. Many Poles left from there to go to central Russia, while the closeness of Minsk was tempting to the Jews. Koidanov was thus a jumping-off point for Jews and Gentiles.

The Jewish population lived in the center of town, near the mark, or marketplace. This was a large plaza surrounded by stores, with stalls in the center. Each store owner had to pay a tax to the local landowner. From the mark, the shtetl's six major streets proceeded in four directions, each named after the place to which it pointed. (For example, the Menskaya, Vilenskaya in Russian, and in Yiddish, the Alter Minska Gas, Nier Minska Gas, Vilnagas, and so forth). With the exception of one predominantly Gentile street near the center of Koidanov (called Sadova), most Gentiles lived farther from the mark. "As one proceeded away from the center, each street slowly changed from almost exclusively Jewish to goyish" (Bruce Gribetz).

Nonetheless, on Nier Minska Gas near where the street led into the mark, stood a Catholic church, dating from the time when Koidanov was in the Polish domain. My father's sister Deborah reported, "To us it looked like a very fancy edifice, because our house was wooden, and it was at least partially stone." On the southeastern side of the mark was a small street leading into the shulhof (synagogue court). In this small square were all four orthodox synagogues of Koidanov. The main synagogue was the Moyer Bes Medresh (the Brick Synagogue), and a smaller one within this building was the Kleiner Bes Medresh (the Small Synagogue). These two separate entities had different ravs and congregations. Also in the square were the Nier Bes Medresh (the New Synagogue), and the Shneider Bes Medresh (the Tailors' Synagogue), which was not limited to tailors but was also frequented by shoemakers and manual laborers. I don't know which synagogue my father's family attended, but he told me it was very dirty and for years afterward he associated orthodoxy and filth.

In addition, and separate from the rest, there was the Hasidic synagogue— simply called the shtiebel. "It was by the end of the shulhof," recalls a former resident of Koidanov. "It was like a whole palace where the Hasidic rabbi lived, and where his married children lived in different houses." Beside the shtiebel was the outer shtiebel, where the Hasidim gathered on the more ceremonious occasions, such as Passover seders and during Succos (Succot). The outer shtiebel also accommodated the overflow of Hasidim from outside Koidanov, who came to spend the holidays near the Tzaddik (their leader).

Koidanov had become a Hasidic center in 1833.3 Yet the majority of the Jewish population, including my father's family, remained misnagdim (mithnagdim), as European Jews who rejected the Hasidism dubbed themselves— literally, opponents. (In Koidanov, however, the two groups actually got along together quite well— to the point of an occasional intermarriage.) Despite their four different synagogues, the misnagdic community adhered to the word of one main rabbi. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, this rabbi was a Heller, thus providing something of a family link to our eminent seventeenth-century ancestor. The first of the nineteenth-century rabbis was Rav Yisrael Heller, who wrote explanations of the Gemara (the part of the Talmud that contains rabbinical commentaries and analysis of the Midrash). He was succeeded by his son Rav Avraham Chaim Heller, who was followed by his son Rav Yechiel Heller. But the misnagdim became dissatisfied with him and a "rebellion" ensued. Another rabbi was "brought down" (presumably from Minsk). The new rabbi (Hirsch) had only daughters, so his rabbinical position was passed to one of his sons-in-law.

This story of rabbinical succession in Koidanov is illustrative of the situation in every shtetl in Europe. Although each rabbi generally passed on the leadership to his son or son-in-law, a minimum degree of erudition was required. If a rabbi's son did not measure up to the community's standards, he could be "substituted" by another man of more acceptable qualifications. I have this account from Bruce Gribetz, who almost certainly was transcribing the story and moral told him by my father. While it shows the last Heller rabbi in Koidanov in an unfavorable light, it speaks highly of the power and intellectual expectations of east European Jewish communities. More personally, I am pleased to reflect that my father's commitment to historical truth (rather than narrow family pride) led him to pass on this information and analysis to his grandnephew.

Of relations between Jews and the Gentiles in Koidanov, my father explained: "Jews lived their lives and the non-Jews lived theirs … In business, the Jews were small merchants and the non-Jews did business with us all the time." Moreover, since the peasants' church was located in the center of the shtetl, in the middle of the Jewish neighborhood, some intermingling was inevitable. Every Sunday, "they would come in for services …. They would come down the street walking barefoot with boots slung over their shoulders. The theory is that you normally walk barefoot, but when you enter the church, you have to be on your best— that's when you slip your boots on."

Despite this neutral account, my father often commented to me when I dressed up and went trick-or-treating for Halloween that he didn't like the holiday because in Russia it had been an occasion when Gentile boys went out to beat up Jewish ones.

Still, Jews and Gentiles got along without a major incident until WWI. Yet "there always lurked a sense of fear." My aunt Deborah recalled how Jews on the outlying streets did their best not to attract attention on holidays. "On Passovers when we had the sedarim (ceremonial Passover meals), they used to have shutters on the windows and they used to really enclose themselves … from the outside … hide more or less … and not carry on. It was very quiet. We didn't want to attract the goyim." She further related: "We always had a shikse [non-Jewish woman] working for us … She must have stolen something, and one day the police appeared to notify my mother and grandmother that she had killed herself by throwing herself on the [railroad] tracks.… My family and all the Jewish families were terrified. They thought, this is a good opportunity for a pogrom."

In Koidanov, as in most east European shtetls, my father related, "there had always been a plethora of what we would call lower-middle-income Jews," as well as "quite a number of poor people, who were taken care of by the various Jewish-funded institutions for the indigent." There were also a few wealthy Jews, "on a par with middle-class Americans," who "dealt with loans, and the professionals, such as the dentist." It seems likely that my grandfather belonged to the lower-middle-income group.

My father's comment that "in business, the Jews were small merchants and the non-Jews did business with us all the time" suggests that my grandfather Baruch fell into this category, and even that my grandmother Feige Leah may have continued the business after Baruch left for America in 1906, accompanied by their oldest daughter, Ida. Three years later, my grandmother followed them with her two younger children, Deborah and Isaiah. (A third daughter, Guta, had died in Koidanov at the age of eight, after Baruch and Ida's departure.) But my father never actually said what his father did for a living in Russia. Nor do his surviving nephews know. My father did once tell me, however, that his father had spent some time in jail— as I remember, serving time for someone else (possibly an employer). But this was not a story he repeated.

Nevertheless, the accustomed presence of a non-Jewish servant mentioned by my aunt Deborah and the fact that she and her sister Ida (and probably also the prematurely deceased third sister, Guta) were sent to a modern Hebrew school, along with my inference from my father's interview that his father was a "small merchant," all suggest at least a minimal degree of affluence. My father was later to describe their status on the Lower East Side as middle class. Striking to me as a child was the fact that my father had used an outdoor privy in Russia since their home had no indoor plumbing. This would have been the norm for houses in a shtetl at that time, where the streets were not paved. Nor did they have electricity. My father recalled visiting a cousin in Minsk and standing mesmerized by the light switch, repeatedly turning it on and off.

My grandparents' progressive approach to their daughters' education was echoed in other aspects of their life. In a family photo taken in Russia before Baruch's departure for the United States, Baruch and Feige Leah are wearing middle-class dress. Baruch is without a kippa (skullcap) and Feige Leah without a sheitel (wig), as my older cousin, Ida's son Judah, who knew her, assured me. And my father is dressed in— of all things!— a sailor suit. To be sure, a photograph was a formal matter and the family would naturally dress up for it. Still, their choice of attire for this important occasion points unmistakably to their commitment to modernity.

I have often felt grateful to my grandfather for moving the family to America when he did, though only recently have I realized just how grateful I should feel. The town suffered severely during World War I. After the war, on July 10-12, 1920, it was set on fire during the retreat of the Polish army and there was general looting of Jewish property. 1n 1926, the Jewish population was down to 1,788 (32.5 percent of the total), and in 1939 it was down to only 1,314 (15 percent of the total). During World War II, the Germans occupied the town on June 26, 1941 and murdered 1,000 Jews on October 20 or 21, 1941. In March 1942, 1,300 Jews— probably from Minsk— were killed at the local railway station. Jewish partisan units that had joined the general partisan movement were active in forests in the vicinity.4

In 1932, the town was renamed Dzerzhinsk (Dzyarzhynsk) in honor of Felix Dzerzhinsky (1877– 1926), creator and chief of the Soviet secret police, born not far from the city.5 Despite the collapse of the Soviet system in 1989, the city still bears the name Dzerzhinsk (Dzyarzhynsk).

Representations of an earlier Koidanov are preserved in the poetry and stories of the famous Yiddish writer Abraham Reisen. Born into a literary family in Koidanov in 1876, he was a rough contemporary of my grandfather's. He left the town in his teenage years and later, at the beginning of World War I, moved to America, where he remained until his death in 1955. In his stories and poems, however, Reisen continued to re-create the Koidanov he had known. In his stories he presented shtetl life as deprived and impoverished. Only a few characters, who stand out sharply from all the others, are wealthy and content. Nonetheless, he evoked a more idyllic child's eye view in his poem "Koidanov," which my father translated from Yiddish for his grandnephew's essay:

I imagine I am a little boy …
I have just begun to live.
My whole world is just the shtetl
And nothing more beautiful than that can be.

I imagine I am a little boy…
I have not yet traveled anywhere.
And what I have seen in my life
Has, as if by magic, vanished.

There remains only the shtetl …
A complete world with its seven streets.
They stretch out in my memory
Like sun-rayed, golden ribbons.

The shulhof is the most beautiful square!
The synagogues— all four— I see them yet.
Two doves over the Holy Arc,
Two lions crouching by the praying lectern.

The stream, clear, cheerfully gurgles—
You can see yourself mirrored in its waters.
The windmill is the greatest of wonders.
Its wings turn round and round.

The farthest road— to the green forest—
There we must go all together.
And beyond the forest, world's end
Whence distant seas roll on.6

As with all lost paradises, this is a retrospective view. Those distant seas ultimately exerted an appeal that neither the shtetl nor the surrounding countryside could match— for both the poet and my far-sighted grandfather. In 1906, accompanied by his oldest daughter, ten-year-old Ida, Baruch Heller traveled across Europe to Bremen; there he boarded the SS Rhein, which brought them to Ellis Island in New York Harbor. Three years later they were joined by my grandmother, Feige Leah, and their two remaining children, Deborah and Isaiah. My father was seven and Deborah was eight and a quarter.

1 Yehuda Slutsky and Shmuel Spector, “Koidanovo” in Encyclopaedia Judaica. Eds. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 12. 2nd ed. 267– 268 (Detroit: MacMillan Reference USA, 2007).
2 Deborah (née Heller) Fuerchtgott, cited in unpublished essay by Bruce Gribetz (1976). Further citations of Deborah Fuerchtgott in this chapter are also from this essay.
3 Slutsky, “Koidanovo,” 267
4 Ibid., 267– 268.
5 John Everett-Heath, “Dzerzhinsk.” Concise Dictionary of World Place-Names (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
6 In another poem, “The Last House,” Reisen presents the world beyond the shtetl as offering delights not found in the town itself. The last two of three verses run:

The neighbors are so hushed,
Each house is so small-
Which makes the fields seem broad,
The sky especially full.

And everywhere you look
Your eyes with pleasure shine.
Here where the city ends,
The world begins.

The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, ed. Irving Howe et al, trans. Leonard Wolf, 94. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Heller, Deborah. The Goose Girl, the Rabbi, and the New York Teachers: A Family Memoir, 23-33. Bloomington: iUniverse, Inc., 2013.

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