Translated by Frank Bloom
in collaboration with
Esther Bloom Hirschmann and Oscar Hirschman
Edited by Michael Rothschild, 2004
In 1941, Frank Bloom undertook to translate an autobiography written by his father Moses, a project also involving his sister Esther and her husband Oscar Hirschmann. The manuscript covers the years from Moses' birth (as Moses Tresczcansky) in the shtetl of Gonoidz, Poland in 1860, through his discharge from the Russian army around 1885.
The early part of the text paints a vivid picture of the intense poverty of the Jewish communities in the Russian "Pale of Settlement"- territory acquired from the partition of Poland, where Jews were forced to settle after the late 18th century. Also evident is the extent to which religious tradition and law permeated the culture of these communities, and the extended network of family that helped to sustain those in dire circumstances.
The later parts of the autobiography centers on Moses' education, occupations, engagement, and medical training. He was, by his own account, a voracious student, speaking five languages- Russian, Polish, German, Jewish (Yiddish) and Hebrew. He was frequently sought after as a "baal korah" (a bible reader), as well as a "botchon" (an entertainer employing comedy and song) and as a lay cantor in the temple. He studied medicine while in the army. He was trained as a feldcher- something akin to a medic or modern physician's assistant- and was able to treat many conditions independently (even performing minor operations such as skin grafting).
Moses emigrated to the United States in 1891, taking with him his wife Dora, and his young children Anna, Rose, Frank, and Sarah. Esther was born around the time of his emigration, and Dave (my grandfather) was born in 1893, in New York. Altogether, Moses and Dora had 12 children, with 9 surviving past childhood.
In his own words, he "decided not to continue with the practice of medicine, since business appealed to me more". In America, he ran a series of delicatessens on the lower east side of Manhattan.
Moses died in 1934 at age 73, spending much of his later years on Dave Bloom's farm in Norwood, New Jersey. Dora died in 1949 at age 90.
LETTER ATTACHED TO ORIGINAL TRANSLATION
In regard to the missing papers, which do not appear among the English translated ones which I hold, and copy of which Oscar is bringing you this evening, don't rush in translating them. If you finish them by February 1st, at the latest, it will give me ample time to work them in. Make as literal a translation as you possibly can (never mind the grammar). I'll do all the correcting, as I have the feel of it, and understood papa's underlying meaning. Use the simplest words possible, so that we adhere to the true meaning and keep the biography in story style.
I'll appreciate to the fullest, your co-operation.
OF MOSES BLOOM
It was on the night of the Holiday of Hoshanoh Raboh, in the year 1860, in the City of Goniadz, on October the seventh, that they told my father, seated in the Beth Ha Midrash and reciting (praying) from the book called "Tikun", that his wife (blessed be her soul), gave birth to a son. This was I. That's the way my father told the story, and added that he was about sixty years of age at that time. My beloved mother was his second wife.
After his first wife's death, my father was left with two daughters of marriageable age. My mother was in a similar situation. After her first husband's death, she was left with two unmarried daughters and a boy of ten; and, besides, she had a somewhat larger than ordinary house to live in, in which she also conducted a business with the help of her girls. This business consisted of baking bread, grinding different kinds of gritz, and selling at retail, and was conducted from her house. My beloved mother was well versed in Hebrew prayers; she was the best in our town, and in the synagogue, she led the congregation in praying. She possessed all the books that were needed for these particular sets of prayers and, therefore, many intelligent men borrowed different kinds of books from her which they themselves did not possess; there were no libraries in our town. This ends the beginning of my existence.
ABOUT MY FATHER
My father's main occupation was teaching, and in addition, he raised a few chickens, ducks, geese and, sometimes, sheep. He always owned a cow, and often could afford a goat. After he married my mother, he moved into her house with his pupils (Talmidim), however continuing to support his daughters whom he had left in his own home, but I recall that he couldn't get along with my mother's daughters. Besides, my mother demanded of him more household money than he could afford; and this compelled him to leave her to return to his daughters' home, where he remained until he married them off. My father and his first wife were descendants of an aristocratic family; and my father himself was also a very intelligent man. In the absence of the Rabbi of the town, he was consulted and his counsel sought.
Before he married my mother, my father's children protested against the courtship, on the grounds that it would lower their prestige by his marrying my mother, since her first husband had been an ordinary shoemaker, a very low profession at that time among Jews. Two married sons of my father's first wife summoned him to the Rabbi of the town, and they warned him that, if he persisted in marrying my mother, they would not say "kaddish" at his death. My father, narrating the story, said that he replied: "How do you know that I will die first and that it will be necessary for you to say "kaddish" after me? Maybe it will be vice versa, and I will have to say "kaddish" for you?" And as fate would have it, it happened that the elder son named Abraham died earlier, and my father said "kaddish" after him.
My birth occurred at the time my parents lived in separate establishments, and my mother, most unwillingly, had to keep me with her until a much later date. I often recall the manner in which they used to carry me in my cradle (usually suspended by four ropes attached to a hook on the ceiling), on a visit to my father. At the age of three, I remember that he started to teach me Hebrew. When I was four, my father had become reconciled with my mother and rejoined her in her own home. At that tender age, he started to teach me the "Torah", commonly known as "Hummishch". For that occasion, we prepared a feast. Not long after, my mother gave birth to my youngest brother, Boruch Aryeh, after which my parents parted again. During that period, they were successful in marrying off their daughters, my father leaving to live in the homes of their husbands out of town, while, ironically enough, my mother took her sons-in-law into her own home. One of them she provided with living rooms in her house, at no cost; and the younger one she provided with everything including food. The latter demanded food luxuries, which my mother was unable to supply, as a result of which there were quite often little quarrels between them; and it is possible that these altercations may have led to her illness, which necessitated a visit to the greater City of Bialystok, where she sought a cure. She died there at the age of about fifty.
When the sad news of her death arrived, I was eight years of age, and my young brother, Boruch Aryeh, was only three and a half. Naturally, without a mother, the necessity of taking care of all of us fell upon our old father, who watched over us and supported us the best he knew how, according to his strength and income. Definitely not accustomed to luxuries, frequently even the necessities of life were lacking, and the absence of a mother's hand was sorely missed by us. For example, on arising in the morning, we went to the synagogue to attend the morning prayers, returning at 10 a.m., at which time the question arose as to what should be eaten for breakfast, since we had accompanied our father in praying. At first, when my father still owned a cow and a few chickens, there was a little milk, some cheese, butter and eggs. However, it became too much of a hardship for him to take care of the cow. I recall once as my father was milking the cow, by the light of a lantern which I held for him, she kicked him in the cheek with her hoof, as a result of which he was seen with a swollen cheek for a long time. As he was ashamed to admit that it was due to the cow, he gave an excuse that while he was chopping wood, a chip fell right into his face. Subsequently, he gave the cow to a woman with the understanding that she was to give him half of the milk and keep half for herself. In this way, we had something to subsist on, but soon after (I don't remember just why), he sold the cow, and then only was brought home to us the full sense of the meaning of hunger.
For breakfast, we ate dry, black bread; later in the day when we became hungry again, we ate some more dry, black bread. Once a day we attempted to cook something. The principal foodstuff to cook was potatoes, but it was too difficult for us men to peel them. My older brothers (the married sons of my father's first wife) had several of their own girls in the house; and they lived nearby, yet they wouldn't send their children to their grandfather to help a little in the housework. Hence, we were handicapped, and had to go to much trouble to cook, no matter what it was. I used to ask my father how long a thing must boil, as I had occasionally been left alone to do some cooking , to which he replied that if the food boiled over three times, it was a good sign that it was finished. From this, it is easy to understand how tasteless our cooking was; and yet, to us it was better than nothing.
Very often, my father would buy pieces of bread from the poor who had begged for them at the back doors of houses; these pieces of bread they used to carry in dirty bags. Naturally, he purchased some of it very cheaply, giving the impression that he was buying it for the chickens. This was the bread which we ate day in and day out. When I would ask my father for something to eat, he always replied: "Pick out a good piece of bread and eat it." This was the general answer for breakfast, dinner and supper. Invariably, my father always cooked something palatable, not in plain water or with fat alone, as other poor people were wont to do. Most of the time, he used a piece of poultry, such as chicken, goose or duck; and especially on Saturdays, he tried his best to see to it that there should be chicken, a good "kugel" (pudding), and other things.
Our china was not of the very best order; especially do I remember the salt container which we used at that time. It was an open sardine box. How it came into our house, I cannot say, as we never knew the luxury of a sardine. Perhaps my father found it somewhere on the street. We poured salt into it and used it at the table at meal time. It was usually placed on the table or on the window-sill, uncovered, rusty and full of dust and insects. In dry weather we were able to use it, but during the damp days the salt became moist and the box became rustier; it was then placed on the fireplace. When it became dry, rust and all, we added a little more fresh salt to it, and used it again.
As a companion piece to the salt container, we possessed a hanging tin kerosene lamp, which I had found in the City of Bialystok, on a dumping ground and brought home. My father bought the necessary missing upper part thru which the wick was inserted. He used to let it burn all night and enjoyed the light of it immensely. His last living quarters as I remember them were composed of one room, about ten by twelve feet, with one window in the centre. In one corner of the room was a brick stove, about four by six feet. The furniture of the house consisted of one bed, on the right side of the entrance, with a long narrow bench along side of it. A long table stood near the window, and a sleeping bunk was directly at the left side of the room, with one long bench for sitting purposes near the table. a flat, short and low trunk was at the side of the stove. Above the sleeping bunk, there hung, on parallel lines, a pole suspended at each end by cords; this was used for hanging clothes.
My father used to throw across this pole, his Sabbath overcoat, known as "dem vatnick", so called because it was interlined with absorbent cotton, commonly known in Jewish as "vatte". In summer, my father's fur coat, made of goat skins, hung upon this pole and this coat had been made to order from the skins of his own goats. At the right of the entrance, on two blocks, there rested a pail of clean water, for home use; and nearby on the floor, a lower pail served as a basin. The few feet of adjoining space was a store-room for my father's canes and other trifles which he seldom used. Right under the brick stove, was a large space which was utilized as a chicken coop in the winter, because the barn which he got in addition to his living room for the same rental, was open and broken in several places, making it impossible to keep the chickens there during cold weather. (The landlord felt he was justified in making no repairs, since we were paying the ridiculously low figure of eight dollars a year, payable in ten installments or more.)
The floor of the room was of clay. When it was new, it must have been perfectly smooth, but as I remember it, it was full of indents, and in one of these indentations my father used to place a dish of drinking water for the chickens during the winter. The few ducks sought shelter under his bed, and their droppings were cleared away only once a year before the holiday of Passover. At such times the thickness of the accumulated mess was between three and four inches, making it necessary to resort to a shovel to scoop it out. In the summer it was bearable, even though the lone and solitary window always remained closed, but, of course, the door was open and the air purified the room.
But in the winter, picture for yourself a room of but a few square feet, with the window hermetically sealed with strips of paper to make it air-tight, and a hot stove radiating enough heat to choke one' breath. Under the stove, picture ten or fifteen chickens, five or six ducks under the bed, and this animal army strutting about in the mornings, and disposing of their gorgings. Cooked potatoes were crushed on the floor as food for the chickens and ducks, and in the corner where both the clean and unclean water pails were, one was always aware of that moisture and dampness of the excess water, in which frogs and different insects were bred. Picture the unpainted furniture which was never washed, the walls covered with spider-webs and dust, the window darkened by many fantastic shapes due to the long grime that had accumulated on the panes.
In such a room we sat and slept, spend days and nights, and wonder of wonders, we lived thru it, and emerged perhaps stronger and in good health, for, as I still recall, I often felt the pangs of hunger, but never knew the meaning of any sickness. The reason for our immunity to the unhygienic conditions was, as I can see, due to our natural-born strength, as my oldest brother was well-known as an athlete, who could easily have vied with any of the well-known prizefighters of today.
THE USE OF THE FURNITURE
The bed was used by my beloved father for his own personal use. In place of a mattress, plain straight straw which was never turned was used. There were three feather pillows and a feather bolster as a cover on it. How often I recall him saying that the only one enjoyment of his old age was the bed in which he could rest. The counterpane ("killem"), was a woolen colored spread; and this also served the purpose, on Saturdays, of covering the long unpainted table. The sleeping bench in the room should have been solely my bed, but inasmuch as the room contained neither shelves or a bookcase, it was necessary to keep the books right on top of that bench during the day, so naturally, since I was only a child, it was with much difficulty that each night I removed and, on the following morning, replaced, all the books. There were many of them, a great portion of them being our own. The rest of the books were those which the children brought for their studies in "cheder".
Aside from this difficulty, it was almost impossible to sleep on that sleeping bench due to its uncleanliness. Once, upon arising in the morning from that hard bench, I found that I was covered from head to foot with bedbugs, and I had to make an entire change of underwear. Thereafter, I shifted my sleeping quarters to the short flat trunk which stood hard by the stove. For want of a mattress, I used to spread several dirty empty sacks upon it. At my head, I had the luxury of a feather pillow, tho which my father kindly spared from his own bed; and, as a covering, I used my coat which I usually wore thruout the day. At night, unconsciously, my elbow often touched the hot stove; in the morning, sometimes, I would find, to my surprise, a big blister there.
Even though it was uncomfortable in the winter to wash oneself with the ice-cold water, we had little of it, since one had to carry it several blocks in a pail. Little wonder than that all week we were filthy from tip to toe, until Friday arrived, on which day the City Public Bath was thrown open.
THE CITY PUBLIC BATH
As with all the other little towns at that time, our City of Goniadz boasted a public bath, which was given over to a man known as the "Bather", in contract. He received an admission fee of not less than three "groschen" from each patron, in return for which sum he heated up the baths each Friday preceding the Sabbath or before other important holidays. When the baths were open, a cooper kettle containing fifty gallons of water, was heated over a wooden fire, to the boiling point. Each person would scoop his water from this kettle with specially constructed pails provided for the purpose. As the water diminished, the "Bather" would draw cold water from a nearby well and replenish the big copper kettle, so as to keep it continually hot and full. It was also his duty to see that enough pails were there, and to furnish so-called hand brooms, similar to whisk brooms, but considerably larger, to each patron. These carried most of the steam vapor toward the body, which was then rubbed down. He also had to keep the dipping-pool, more familiarly known as the "mikveh", warm. This, too, had to be heated every evening, all through the winter, for the women of the town who required a dipping ("tvilloh"). The "Bather" was obliged to give to the Rabbi of the town a small weekly stipend from his net income.
DESCRIPTION OF THE BATHS
The bath consisted of five rooms, one large hot-air room, in the corner of which stood a stove, consisting of stones, under which continually burned a wooden fire which heated the stones. Upon pouring hot water over them, a hot vapor rose. Near the stove, suspended from the ceiling, were poles drawn parallel with the ceiling, and over these were flung the visitors' clothes, where the heat and vapors tended to disinfect them. One massaged and rubbed oneself on the stairway (also situated in this room), whose upper steps were hotter and more vaporous. Only the unusually strong climbed to the very top. This stairway was situated on one entire side of the room. There were four exits to the adjoining room; one led to the Hot-air Room, one to the "Mikveh", another to the dressing room, and the last to the main entrance, where the hot water was usually procured. The adjoining room was known as the dressing room. In undressing, each person made a bundle of his clothes, and this he wrapped in his overcoat, and strapped together, preventing a mix-up of clothes. This bundle was then placed upon the bench or upon the table. due to negligence or carelessness, much misplaced clothing was unaccounted for, and often as not, the wrong clothes were carried away. Another room served as a living-room for the "Bather" and his family, while the fifth room was the main hall, where the entrance fees were paid.
From that point one had to pass thru the room of the "Bather", in which his wife was usually preparing the food for the Saturday meal; and from this room one entered directly to the dressing-room. Often, after being undressed and ready at last for the bath, there was the difficulty of procuring a pail and a broom, since these two important items were never given to the three-groschen patrons. Those who paid five and ten groschen, the "Bather" cheerfully handed both articles, which were usually hidden. The poor people, however, had to wait until the former were finished with their ablutions, after which they would beg for the coveted pail and broom. Those who were unfortunate enough not to procure any of these used brooms or pails, would gather together the discarded brooms, which still contained a semblance of switching leaves. From these, they took the best reeds, and tied tightly together, according to their own desires, used them as best they could. Armed, at last with the two vital "weapons" and exhausted from exposure to the hot air, it was now necessary to take the trip to the main hall, stark naked, to procure the hot water. Inasmuch as the door of this room was usually left ajar, one who was entirely naked, and standing close to the hot kettle, trying to procure the warm water, usually exposed himself to two dangers; first, to the fear of catching deathly cold and, secondly, to the chance of making a misstep, and thereby falling into a hot and fiery watery death. However, with all the necessities procured and carried into the Hot-Air Room, there was no pleasure or comfort which equaled this.
A barber was usually stationed in this Hot-air Room, ready to shave anyone or cut hair, or even to cup those who could afford to pay. The excess hair of the shavings and haircuts, together with the dripping blood of the leeches, usually formed a most unattractive pool. After one was thru with the sumptuous baptismal bath, he passed to the Dressing Room, and discussed with those around him, politics and all topics pertaining to the community. On his homeward journey, the bather carried aloft and exposed his soiled laundry. a feast of a light lunch awaited him, and this consisted of a piece of fish, fresh boiled, a piece of "kishke" (the intestine after it is cleaned thoroughly and filled with some pudding), and a sip of brandy; then, one donned Sabbath apparel and walked to the Synagogue to receive the sanctity of the Sabbath. This was usually the procedure where one was fortunate enough to be blessed with a mother, who was an efficient housewife, and where the male was not expected to give a hand in the domestic duties.
But not so was the case in our household where the holy presence of a mother ceased to exist. For example, the noodles for the Sabbath soup (the Jewish national dish) was made for us by our oldest sister, whose name was Bayleh. On Thursdays, my father (may he rest in peace), or I would bring her flour and eggs for the noodles and the twist. She lived at the outskirts of the town, about half a mile from our house, and no matter how the winds blew or how the rain poured, we always had to see to it that this mission was fulfilled. Instead of her sending them back in time, on Friday mornings, she usually returned the twist and noodles invariably quite late, as we hallowed the Sabbath candles. When we returned late from the baths my blessed father and brother had to wait for the prepared noodles which require boiling for a short time. There were times, I can still recall, when my blessed father wept scalding tears because of the necessity of cooking at so late an hour, an impiety among Jews on the Sabbath. In such a depressed state of mind and with a gnawing hunger, we had to go to Schule. This was usually the case very Friday.
On returning from Schule, impatiently we awaited two small pieces of fish, which served as an entree, from our married brother Udeh, who used to send them with one of his children. After the Sabbath meal, especially in the winter, we were forced to retire early, because the candles usually burned out, and we were left in utter darkness. At three or four A.M. in the morning, my father would awaken me, and we'd dress as best as we were able to in the dark. We would then go off to the synagogue in those wee hours of the morning in order to learn and pray. No matter how biting the wind nor how tremendous the snowstorm, it was necessary for me to wend my way thru piles and piles of snow as high as my waist-line; and since I never wore pants, you can well imagine how much I feared the cold.
My clothing consisted of a long undershirt with a few strings at the collar, over which I wore an "arbah Kanfos", from the four corners of which hung the "tzitzis". I wore a cap and my feet were bare. This was my summer apparel and in the colder weather I used to wear a light coat over the "Arbah kanfos", and boots; and in place of stockings I used to drape my legs with rags. Since they couldn't be wrapped around the feet as evenly as stockings held, the boots would rub against the cloth, causing abrasions which failed to heal for months at a time. In the extremely cold weather, I used to wear a cap and coat, both lined with cotton. The former, I wore constantly, day in and day out, even while asleep in bed at night. due to religious principles. Therefore, according to my own conception, in my later years, I was left without a hair on my head, due, no doubt, to continual perspiration, which deadened the roots.
THE CITY OF GONIONTZ
The City of Goniontz was in no way superior to any other little towns in Litteh or Poland, as far as their culture, appearance or general improvements were concerned. The sidewalks were once made of ordinary little stones, and now, in many portions, were broken. Passing over them, one could very easily hurt himself; and besides, they were never cleaned. The gutters were unpaved and the same condition existed at the crossings, as a result of which, during the damp weather, all became clogged; and often, the mud was a foot or more deep. The sweepings from all the houses were emptied into the gutter, together with garbage and rubbish of all kinds. Since the streets at night were unlighted, on the dark nights, one was obliged to carry a lantern in order to avoid falling over the broken street-stones, or, perhaps, to avoid falling into one of the swamps, the result of heavy rains.
THE WATER SYSTEM
Each house owner possessed a large barrel, which stood in the vestibule of his home, and which was filled, as necessity required, by water conveyors who brought the water from the lake or from a well. A trough served as a sink, which, at night, was also used for other purposes. A sewage system did not exist, and little wooden out-houses adjacent were very few. Courtyards areaways and the rear of houses were used instead. Can you imagine the inconvenience on occasions such as these, and the great embarrassment, especially when one met, accidentally, one of the opposite sex?
One public toilet could be depended upon, and that one was near the synagogue, for the convenience of the many who attended prayer at the Schule, three times daily. It was situated in a valley, the synagogue overlooking it from the hill; and it was placed there so that the rain might serve as a flush. One side of the toilet was left open at the bottom, to further dispose of the excrement; and it was on this side that the pigs, the property of the Gentile residents of the town, had free access. Quite often, the pigs were covered from top to toe after wallowing in the mess. They would be seen strutting about the town, a very disgusting picture for the eyes of those of us who beheld them. Not having to feed the pigs, the owners saved money. As far as the town itself, this arrangement was approved by all, since the expense for sanitary purposes was lightened.
Our menu being continually the same, day-in and day-out (all day, black bread, old, stale and dry, and once only during the twenty-four hours something cooked and that not always), naturally one would constantly yearn for just a little variety. But, since our circumstances did not permit, we had to content ourselves as best we could with the sameness of our daily fare. Quite often, I was overcome with the feeling to pay a visit to my married sisters and brothers, in the hope that they might treat me with some delicacy, but very seldom did they urge me to indulge, usually inquiring in the same strain: "Moses, how are you?" That was all they asked; nothing more was said; and since I noticed that they continued with their household duties in the same way, undisturbed and uninterested in me, naturally every moment became boresome to me. I took the hint, bid them a very good morning and departed.
On one occasion, I remember paying a like visit to my sister, Ziqueh Tobeh; and after her general salutation, she went off into the back rooms. I took advantage of her departure by pulling open the drawer of a table near me, and found to my great delight, two kopekas. With very little ado, and no ceremony whatever, I pocketed my small treasure, and left without any goodbyes. As I walked away, I decided to buy for half a "kopek" (a groschen), a piece of herring, and for the other one and a half "Kopekas" (three "groschen"), some rye bread (refined). After making this "enormous" purchase, I found to my great chagrin, that I had no privacy in which to devour the precious morsels, without being discovered. I could not return to my own home, as naturally my father would ask me where I had procured the eatables. So, after much concentrated thought, I softly stole into the women's division of the synagogue. Luckily, it was unoccupied, as I well knew; so I seated myself comfortably on a back seat, where I could hardly be noticed, and did justice to the frugal meal, pouncing upon it with a wolfish appetite. As a result of this petty thievery, I paid no visit for a long time to my sister, Zwikeh Tobeh, being ashamed to meet her face to face.
In direct contrast to the spirit of my brothers and sisters, I fortunately had an aunt, a sister of my mother's (blessed by her soul), by the name of Deborah. She took it upon herself as a solemn and sacred duty, after my mother's death, to cheer up our lonesomeness, when baking and preparing her twists on Fridays, to include two rolls (familiarly known in Jewish as "bundes"), one made purposely for me, and one for my younger brother, Baruch Aryeh ("Lion, Blessed"). when Friday arrived, or during the day preceding the holiday, we waited with great impatience for the afternoon when we went to procure our "bundes". Neither hail nor storm, thunder nor lightning, nor the most inclement weather could prevent us from fetching our precious coveted package. This was no small daily occurrence for us; think of it if you can, a real fresh, white roll. On our return home, we usually devoured it, nay, actually swallowed it as a ravenous dog bites and gnarls at his bone, for we were always hungry; think of it, such a delicacy.
On one occasion, I recall, preceding the sabbath holiday, a fire took place near our home, and since the conflagration excited us to such an extent that we overlooked going for the "bundes", my aunt came to our own home in the evening, carrying them with her. Can you imagine the importance of this little token, so important that nothing in the world could prevent her from having us receive them? This same aunt, realizing the hardship of our existence, lessened our burdens considerably by taking under her wing my younger brother, Baruch Aryeh (Barnett), and supported him with the necessities of life until I left my father's house, after which he returned to our home again.
Experiencing the crying need for a "groschen", on one occasion, I found my long-sought opportunity to escape unnoticed, into the town. I made a collection of bones and old rags in the city, which I sold to the wholesaler and for which I received in return several kopekas. Naturally, I undertook this bit of business with great caution so that my blessed father should not become aware of it, since I knew he would resent any such action. He was fearfully strict. For any slight misdemeanor, he whipped us mercilessly, totally disregarding our tender years. I remember an occasion when he handed me a mortar which contained coarse salt, which he told me to pulverize. In front of the long table in our house, was stationed a bench, which, when it was brand new, was built on four legs, two at each end, but at the time of this occurrence, this bench only possessed two legs at one end only, and the other end lacking support, rested at right angles on a shorter bench. In addition, the floor was very uneven and bumpy, and this caused the bench to shake at the least disturbance.
On this unsteady stool, I started to pulverize the course salt, ant not being sufficiently careful, both bench and salt overturned. Can you for a moment imagine my intense fright when I saw the great damage I had caused? I very well knew what fate held in store for me. As I view the situation now, it seems to me that my blessed father should have realized that my fright alone should have served as severe punishment for the "crime", but my father thought differently, or, perhaps, he didn't stop to think at all. The moment he saw the "great catastrophe", he said absolutely nothing, but locked the door on the inside (in order not to be hampered in what he contemplated doing), took off the strap-belt which he always wore, grabbed me roughly, and placed me on the same bench that had fallen, face downward. He raised my undershirt as high as my neck, and on my bare flesh he inflected unmercifully a dozen lashes. All of this, because of the loss of a handful of salt, which had a value, perhaps, at the very most, of a Russian "kopek". Poverty was the underlying cause of such inhumane treatment. It was far from easy to earn a "kopek", so, naturally, the slightest loss appeared greatly exaggerated.
Similar to this incident, another occurrence took place when my father missed his penknife from the top corner shelf, its accustomed place. It was used exclusively for paring his nails every Friday, when, once, the knife was not to be found. Suspicion fell upon me, and my father took me to strong account. I, being innocent, swore by everything that was holy that I had not touched it. He held to his own view of the matter that no stranger could ever have known of the whereabouts of that penknife; that only I knew of it, and he was positive I took it. I cried very bitterly and asked him to have pity on me and not whip me for no reason whatever, but nothing availed. He latched the door, as usual, placed me on the bench, and holding my head between his feet, with strap in hand, he flogged me and lashed into my body at least a dozen times. It took about two weeks' time before I was able to sit again; I can remember it to this day! The whippings in themselves were unbearable enough. A thousand times more unendurable to bear was what happened the following day. He invited the same neighbors and asked me to show all the scars and lashes that he had inflicted. I had to obey his orders by picking up my shirt and standing exposed with my whipped back, in view of the visitors.
On another occasion, something happened to me which concerned his tobacco container. My father never smoked cigarettes, but he snuffed tobacco, and this tobacco he kept in an oval box which was made from birchbark. The bottom of the box was made of wood which was unremovable, and in the center of the top cover was fastened a piece of leather folded in two. To open the box, a finger had to be inserted in the folded portion of the leather, and the top cover pulled out. Alone in the house on one occasion, and trying to while away the time, I took an ordinary piece of string and pulled it though this folded part of the upper cover of the box; and then started swinging it vigorously over my head in one continuous circle. As the momentum grew stronger, pouch and tobacco separated, leaving but the upper cover attached to the string. Nervously, I started hunting for the lost snuff-box, but searched in vain. Knowing what awaited me, at the return of my father, at his not finding his snuff-box, I became very restless and started to cry broken-heartedly; but I tried my luck again. However, it was futile.
Alternately, I wept and hunted, but no snuff-box was to be found. I must have cried so violently as to cause a suffusion of blood through my tears. This sight frightened me, so I stopped weeping and started to hunt again with renewed enthusiasm amont the places that I hadn't investigated yet. At last, the idea struck me to raise the pillows on the bed, and to my great astonishment and joy, I found both the box and snuff under them. The measure of my happiness was inconceivable, for instead of the punishment that was to be meted out to me, I simply suffered the loss of a few bloody tears. On his return, my blessed father noticed my tear-stained eyes, and asked the cause. I responded that I had just awakened from a very bad dream and must have cried in it. He believed me and the incident passed unnoticed.
Something else occurred concerning my father's "megillah", which is still in my possession. The Novel of Esther, or to be exact, "Megillas Esther", was written by a scribe, who used special ink for the purpose, on parchment made specifically for the task. The entire sheet of parchment was dived into columns, several eaves of the writing material being employed. The parchment, the ink and the writing, together with the binding of the sheaves (they were all sewed together), had to be made according to a special technique, as prescribed by Jewish law. When the process was complete, it had to be inspected by an expert and, after it was passed upon favorably, the parchment was known as the "Megillah".
Our bible contains five "Megillas", one of them being the Novelette of Esther, which every respectable orthodox Jew usually possesses. My father belonged in this class and, naturally, he, too, possessed a "Megillah of Esther". the "megillah" in question was somewhat individual; first, because of the fact that it was nicer and more distinctly written than any other in the town and, secondly, because of its age, as my father told me it had been handed down from generation to generation. It was still a matter of doubt to him as to which grandparent possessed it when it was new. But what he did know was that the "Megillah" had been written in the Jewish year 5436 [1675 AD]. To impress upon the mind more clearly the date of its writing, the word "Shatnes" served as a reminder, the letters of the word being equivalent to the total 436, which signifies so many years in the 6000th year since the world was created. The "megillah" was original, because the writer was adept at commencing each individual column with the word "Amelech". Such an arrangement is a rarity in "Megillans" generally. Another creative mark of the writer was the dots which capped the seven letters "Shatnes". They were technically so well drawn, that they appeared like small crowns interwoven one within the other. The maker of the "megillah" enclosed the valuable parchment within a metallic cylindrical tube. Both ends of the "megillah" were attached to metal sticks, the ends of which were longer than the sheets of parchment. The left stick, which had the parchment attached to it, was enclosed in this metal cylinder, though which a groove ran the entire length. The "megillah" began rolling when the left stick was manipulated from left to right with one's hand. If one wanted to take the "megillah" out, one simply had to pull the right stick, and the print came into view. But it seems to me this rare antique did not receive the care it should have, judging by the manifold rusty stains that appeared on the "megillah" parchment. Besides, on the outer, lusterless covering, there is evidence of a broken left handle, which prevented one from enfolding the "megillah" properly. To think that with such a priceless toy, I must needs at that time try to play!
On one occasion, all alone in our large one-room house, and having been cautioned to keep an eye on the house in my father's absence, time hung heavily on my hands. Suddenly, my eye caught a glimpse of the "Megillah" lying harmlessly on top of the brick stove. I climbed up and brought it down, and gently started pulling our the parchment which yielded, to my great delight. I peered over it with a vast sense of satisfaction for the exquisite work wrought there, read fragments here and there, and finally started enfolding the parchment to its natural resting place. However, since the left handle lacked the knob, leaving me with very little support for manipulating the parchment properly, it became quite a difficult task to replace the scroll as I had originally found it. Try as I might, it was absolutely impossible for me to conceal the very last column of the parchment; and thoroughly perplexed and bewildered, I considered ways and means of remedying the difficulty. To leave it in this state and replace it where it belonged, did not seem good judgment to me, since my father might accidentally notice the damage done. I knew then what might lay in store for me. Finally, I came to the conclusion that, if, for the last time, it wouldn't work without resistance, I would force the parchment right into its metal "jacket", FROM THE OPENING. I, therefore, began hunting for the proper tool.
Since we did not posses a pantry, my father used a large closet, high and narrow, containing a single door. This closet was stationed in the vestibule, close to the entrance of our house. All food which required a cool temperature was usually stored there. To close the door of this "refrigerator", a riggle was properly adjusted on the inside. There were two oval perforations on the outer side of the door, through the upper opening of which a bent hook was inserted in order to open it, while through the lower perforation one could close the door. With this hook, or as we more commonly knew it to be, the "closet key", I started to force the last column of the "megillah" within the covering; and after much hard work, I finally succeeded. I noticed that the parchment was becoming cracked and creased by resorting to this method, but what, I pray you, could be done under the circumstances? Since the "Megillah" is only used on "Purim", on the following "Purim" holiday, at the "schul", my father, on opening it up, found to his astonishment the first column all cracked and mutilated. He figured that the creases must have been due to the heat which arose from the stove, a very natural conclusion. So the incident was overlooked, and I escaped punishment. This very "megillah" I inherited from my father. I have adjusted it as best as it is possible, and use it regularly every "Purim", always recalling on that holiday the little incident referred to. Let this serve as a lesson to parents not to be too strict with their children for every little infringement, for, if I hadn't feared my father as strongly as I did, I should never have ruined his much-prized and valuable "megillah".
As previously mentioned, my blessed father's main occupation was teaching. When he was younger, he used to teach older boys, but at the age that I can recall him, he taught smaller children, boys under thirteen. At first, I used to sit with the whole group of students at the table, but since I was endowed with an active brain, much brighter than all the boys, I learnt the "Torah" by heart, long before they did, making it unnecessary for me later to sit at the table among them. I was at liberty to stay outside or to do some household work. My father's curriculum for the students consisted of the Five Books of Moses, known as "Chumash", with the commentary known as "Rashi", and also portions of the Prophets. Since my father knew all of this work by rote, it was unnecessary for him to resort to the use of a book at any time. As a result, he occupied himself with some other work, while he was rehearsing the children. sometimes he stood at the stove and cooked; occasionally, he would wash the Saturday dishes, and oft times, he fed the chickens. Simultaneously, he listened to the exercises of the children, correcting all their errors.
Each day at twilight, between the prayers "mincha" and "myriv" (about three quarters of an hour in duration), he used to teach me "mishna" (code of Talmudic laws) in the synagogue. Being a member of the Verein Mishnayis, it was necessary for him to continue in this teaching, and he inscribed my name also as a member upon their books. When the Verein gave their final party, I was at one with the regular members. The "Seeum" (final party) was usually given when the members had finished their studies of all six volumes, which took about a year. Before the party was held, five or ten "kopekas" were collected from each member and all of them congregated at one of the houses, where large "kichlach" (cookies) together with chopped herring, brandy, etc., were served. Speeches were interspersed, members drinking to the health of one another, expressing, as they sipped their brandy, the wish that they might see each other again at a like festival the following year. Very often, my father would receive invitations from relatives or good friends to attend parties, a wedding, a "bris", a "Ben Zocher" (celebrated on the first Friday after a boy child is born), etc., and as I recall, he never failed to attend. At all of these gay events, he took me with him; first, because he did not like to leave me alone at home, and secondly, (perhaps primarily) because he wanted me to have something tasty to eat, since in our own home we seldom could afford a good morsel. Economy was our watchword.
The progress of my education was not a smooth affair. I used to listen to my father as he taught the weekly chapter of the "Chumash" and a little of the First Prophets. Hearing these readings constantly over a period of two or three years, I gradually began to know them by heart, so that I no longer found it necessary to sit near the table on the bench. Not wishing to waste any precious time, I asked my father for instruction in the art of writing. He, immediately, visited the only writer in the city at that time, who was known by the name of Elioh Nechemyah. It was agreed that, in return for teaching my Jewish writing, my father was to teach Hebrew to Nechemyah's little son. This exchange lasted for a season only, and during this brief period, during which I devoted five hours weekly, I learned how to write a little. I learned more, however, and improved my writing in my later years. In our city, there was also a Gentile Public School where the Russian language was taught. I asked my father's permission to register at the school, and much to my great astonishment, he gave his sanction. However, the difficulty of paying fifteen kipekas (fifteen cents), the weekly cost of tutelage, was too much of a financial burden on our household, and I had to forego that great privilege.
During this period I cultivated a strong love for poetry, composing and singing, and soon became known as a "botchon" or comedian. I was in the habit of composing Jingles with the greatest ease, employing the little rhymes continually; and often impersonated the comedians exactly. My younger brother, Baruch, acted as my oral accompanist, whenever I gave my rhyming couplets for exhibition at my sisters' or relatives' homes. At the end of each refrain of rhyming lines, Baruch would intone with a "deedle, deedle, dee", or a "dum, dum, dum", manipulating an imaginary bow across a make-believe violin, which rested, ghost-like, on his left shoulder. It wasn't the need for money that prompted so much rehearsal in this direction; no, it was simply a craving, or rather an outlet for some inner expression. Of course, I felt quite proud while we were giving our little performances. No doubt, my father must have enjoyed them, too, since he sanctioned them, and never reproved me for yielding to this desire. Soon the children began calling me "botchon"; I then realized it was no elevating term, as "botchons" in those days were not much higher intellectually, perhaps, than the ordinary vaudevillian today, so I abandoned all future performances entirely, until long after, when occasion, perhaps, demanded.
Had I been fortunate enough to receive the proper training and education at that time, I might have reached great heights, with certainty, since I realized later, I was definitely bestowed with a very sharp brain; the most intricate mathematical problems I solved easily. My memory was far above average; hearing anything once, it became fixed in my mind and was never forgotten. To spell any word in the Hebrew language, I was without peer. I recall that no matter what word was put to me, I never failed in its proper spelling. As proof of my ability along these lines, I was able to spell words I had never come across before.
At that time my father suggested to me that I aim to become a "baal korah" (bible reader), believing that I was gifted for that profession. He felt that I would become very popular, in due time, and, besides, it would add a little honor to his own name. The first lesson he gave me was taken from the Bible, Chapter "Vayakhale" (Exodus, Chapter 35), and he rendered it very well, According to Jewish custom, since I was less than thirteen years of age, my appearance before a large audience, in order to read the Bible, was prohibited. However, through the interception of my father, I was permitted by the Rabbi of the town to read the Bible in his house Saturday afternoons, at which time a small gathering congregated for the afternoon prayer. This beginning at the Rabbi's "minyon" (ten adults) prepared the way for a continuation of my reading through the later years of my life. Finally, I became the first and best Bible reader in Russia, and, as I believe, of the world. Thus passed into oblivion my childhood days. Literally speaking, I had accomplished nothing, until I reached the age of ten and a half, when circumstances forced me to strike out in an entirely different direction.
A NEW PERIOD
As pointed out previously, my mother had a son from her first husband (at the time she married my father) called Yoel Velvil, who was about ten years of age. Later in life, having become ill, she went to Bialystoke seeking a cure, since our little town claimed no doctor. She knew of no one with whom to leave her son, Yoel, so she took him along on the journey. She managed to procure "teg" (days or sustenance) for him; that is, seven good Samaritans were willing to provide him with three meals a day, weekly. This is what is commonly known among the Jews as "essen teg". With an eye towards his future, she enrolled him in the City Talmud Torah, where poor children were taught without cost and where he was also given three extra meals occasionally when it was impossible to find a place to dine for the day. When my blessed mother passed away, he naturally remained in Bialystok, where he lived as before, with his Samaritans.
During a holiday-vacation period, on one occasion, he came to Goniontz to visit his relatives, at which time he asked my father's permission to take me back with him to Bialystok, where he would have me enrolled in the "Talmud Torah". As a natural sequence, his "days" would be meted out to me. My father acquiesced and shortly after Passover I was permitted to take the trip. I bundled up a few shirts and also wrapped up some cheese for the journey. Waved away with a hearty sendoff, but with nary a kopek in my pocket, off we went. On arriving in Bialystok, my brother Yoel introduced me to the families who were so kind in tendering him meals, at the same time proposing to them that I take his place, since he was leaving for another little town in which to study instead. The donors agreed and so I became "a tag esser" or "day eater". Eating Days! Eating Days! The two words sound like such a simple affair. True. But how can I explain the feelings that welled up in me as I broke bread at each stranger's table. Naturally, one could not feel as free there as in one's own home. One could not renounce foods that might be unpalatable or disagreeable, especially since nothing else was to be substituted instead. I had to be constantly on my guard, unable to relax or romp about as a young boy would be apt to do in his own environment. Eating Days! What visions the term recalls to my mind even now! I was enrolled at the Talmud Torah, while my brother proceeded on foot, several miles to the little town known as choroschtsh. Yoel assured me of the fact that he could both procure his "days" and continue with his talmudical studies by himself.
Left all alone in Bialystok, without friends or acquaintances, I became very sad at heart, and terribly homesick for my father, for the rest of the family and for my native town. To dispel this feeling, I would walk over to the Inn where all the drivers of the hamlet usually congregated, with the hope of encountering some single soul of my own village, with whom I could while away a few hours. Not experiencing the good fortune to meet anyone I knew, and not being able to stand it any longer, I forthwith burst into hot tears. Walking through the streets with a tear-stained face, and still weeping bitterly, many passing strangers asked me: "Young fellow, what are you crying for?", but instead of answering them, I bawled still louder. Not knowing, of course, what troubled me, they could hardly console me. I was filled with this feeling of homesickness for several days, but as I gradually became acquainted with the young boys with whom I studied, this depression was gradually lifted until every sign of it has dissipated. I was cheerful and happy again as usual, except at those intervals when it was necessary to procure food.
At such times, that humiliating feeling of dependence came over me, as a result of which I could not enjoy my meals. It was akin to a feeling of degradation, and for many years which followed, I was still forced to "eat days". Night lodgings I procured in the Talmud Torah (Hebrew School), in the same room where we were taught during the day. The "Gemmorahs" (Talmudical books) were placed upon long tables in that room, and the latter served the double purpose of being converted into beds at night, where we children would sleep. Each student was given a bag full of straw, which he used as a mattress, and for a coverlet, I made use of the coat which I usually wore during the day. These coats were of three-quarter length, and afforded us a little warmth; and in order to make the headrest comfortable, I usually placed my trousers where a pillow belonged.
In this manner, I lived as I planned my life, depending on no one, and asking for nothing from those around me. Weekly, I visited the Inn for information from the "Bal ha gollehs' from our town. I inquired from passengers they brought from where I had formerly resided, as to the health of my father, asking also whether he had inquired about me. More than that, I did not expect, since my father was in too poor circumstances to send me any money, such as other boys usually received from their parents. On one occasion, however, on making inquiry about my father, I was presented with a home-made cheese, which he had sent me. It was as hard as a rock, and much as I attempted to break it into pieces, I failed. Aside from the necessities, the comforts I required were few, yet it was important to have a few kopekas weekly for incidentals, such as admission to the baths, laundry and, perhaps, for a little oil to soften my shoes on Fridays. There were other things, too, which I found indispensable to my happiness. But how could money be obtained for them? Necessity, however, became my prudent teacher in various ways.
For instance, when Friday usually arrived, it was absolutely important to procure the weekly bath, since contact with camouflage linen, such as straw and sacks, made this of vital importance, but the necessary fee I did not possess. Hence, the question arose: What am I to do? I stationed myself at the entrance to the Baths and watched diligently the man who collected the money. On noticing that his back was turned for a single moment, quick as lightning, I made my way in. Since I made no payment, it became rather difficult to procure what I needed most, the bucket and the brush used for steaming the body. But these were of secondary importance to me, since one of the bathers usually offered to let me have the necessary articles, provided, of course, he had not already promised them to someone before me. Thus it happened that I usually procured the much coveted bath at no cost whatever.
Now, as to the item of laundry. I possessed a single undershirt, and I did not own any drawers. When my trousers were worn out, my bare skin was often noticeable. When the shirt became soiled, I usually washed it under one of the outlets running off from the bath. Softening my boots was a problem, but an original idea came to my mind. Whenever a customer purchased some oil to use on his shoes, it was usually placed in a saucer, and a brush was handed to him with which to apply it. This was all done outside of the door at the entrance of the store. when a customer was finished, I quickly ran over and used the brush which had some of the oil on it. I made a practice of going to different places, so that I could obtain all the oil I needed. However, the small amount of it I was able to procure for my purposes, never was sufficient, even though it added a little luster to the greyish-white color of the hardened shoes. The resulting creases often caused many wounds on my feet.
Through such methods, I was able to make ends meet, lacking as I did, the money I so much needed. Deprived of the loving watchfulness of a parent, and realizing that I was more or less free from control, my associates influenced me, and I began to follow in their footsteps. I now began to smoke. At first, it was very distasteful and nauseating to me, but the desire to prove to my comrades that I was a sport, won over the other aspect, and by degrees it became an established habit. There was no one to instruct me in the harm so much smoking would do to my young body, since I was not in the best of health and never too sturdy. I had no money with which to procure tobacco, so I decided upon a very ingenious method. Each dawn, before the street-cleaners had made their morning rounds, I walked the main thoroughfare looking for any cigarette which still bore the semblance of a stub.
On my return home with the coveted treasure, I usually poured the contents onto a bit of paper, placed the tobacco in the sun, and then rolled my own cigarettes, which I enjoyed for the rest of the day. When the supply exceeded the demand, more than I could consume in a day, I always sold the surplus, and made some money that way. My first little income from the sale of cigarettes, stimulated me to continue my financial endeavors. As a result, an entirely new idea occurred to me. It resulted in my making enough money to see me through the necessities and a few little comforts, in which I so longed to indulge. This was the new idea. Daily I visited the yards of the soda-water factory. I assembled all the cast-off wires which were used around the necks of the bottles, which were thrown away after they had become empty. In place of these worn wires, the factory placed new ones around the bottles in order to keep the corks tightly fastened, as the strong gases in the bottles often exploded.
I assorted these old wires, selected the best among them and straightened them as well as I could with a tool which I purchased for that purpose. I shaped them into S links several yards in length and after intertwining, they looked like watch-chains. Straightway I went on a tour selling them to boys of my own age in the surrounding neighborhood. I sold them for so much an inch, as, for instance, six inches for one kopeka. At one end of the watch-chain, I attached a hook, and at the other end a ring. The former connected with the buttonhole in the vest and the other was used in suspending the watch into the pocket. The hooks and rings both were constructed of the same cast-off wires which I had found lying around in the yards of the factory. No matter what the day's sales netted me, small as they might be, I always found that I had money wherewith to purchase my admittance to the baths, take care of my laundry needs, etc. and ofttimes, though seldom, I had the great joy of being able to buy some fruit, which cost a kopeka or a groschen. I never received the luxury of fruit from those with whom I was "eating days". And so my life sped on, day in and day out, always lived out on the monotone and seldom rising to an emphasis. The "Talmud Torah" and the "Rabbi", "Eating Days" and in my spare time, busily engaged on my watchchains, and collecting cigarette stubs. Through such means I procured the money I needed for necessities, but the greater spiritual enjoyment which is so vital, particularly during the impressionistic years of one's growing life, was not forthcoming. the great and deep companionship of parents was not to be mine, the society of companionable friends I knew nothing about, the love of brothers and sisters I also lacked; no variety for me, but the same, everlasting monotony, day in and day out. Continually, some urge within me was seeking expression, but I strengthened my forces in subduing these inner spiritual voices, since I knew it was utterly futile, much as I needed and yearned for the spiritual life. Finally, I became reconciled to my fate, as life had been meted out to me. I was able to endure everything, week after week, but when the great Jewish holidays rolled around, as "Passover" and "Succoth" (at which time all my schoolmates left the school to spend their short vacations at home with those who loved them most), something surged up within me and took strong possession of my being.
At such periods, the boys usually received letters several weeks earlier from their parents suggesting that they obtain permission to return home a little sooner in order to prepare for their new clothes which were to be fitted for the holidays. How happily they anticipated the trip home to their parents and friends, as they made an early start for the journey. For me, the matter of returning home took on an entirely different light, for several reasons. First, I had no mother who could arrange and prepare for the coming holidays and secondly, my old blessed father was too poor to afford to have new clothes made for me. Besides, he could not even pay my traveling expenses of thirty kopekas. And above all, he had never written that he wished me to return home for the holidays. But somehow, the urge was always there to return home. I would debate with myself: "Shall I or shall I not go?" Finally, a small inner voice did the deciding - I was to take the trip.
THE JOURNEY TO MY HOMETOWN
During the early part of my stay in Bialystok, the railroad was not completed to Goniondz, and was still in the course of construction; and the trip had to be taken by horse and wagon. Had the wagon served the purpose of conveying passengers only, it would have been bad enough, but to add to the misery, the "bolegolah" (driver), or more commonly known there as "bologolah", loaded up the car with freight of all description in accommodating the storekeepers and tradesmen of the town. This proved very discomforting to the passengers. Picture for yourselves a long, deep wagon, filled with boxes of merchandise, tins, jugs and glass jars, containing various liquids, together with different-sized barrels. All of these were covered with a thick layer of straw, upon which were seated the passengers in several rows, across the width of the wagon, men and women together. At the outset, when all the passengers had entered, it wasn't very comfortable, seated as they were, pressed together like herring in a barrel.
But the worst tidings awaited them. In the particular section where we were traveling there were no macadamized roads; ours were plain dirt. Many of them had deep ditches and uneven stones, and on both sides of the road were deep-rutted drain ditches, all along the way to carry off the water. When the wagon started on the journey and began jogging, dislodging all the jars and jugs, the passengers unwillingly were thrown in among the freight, some on top of each other. Thence would follow tumult and pandemonium. One would yell: "My foot is caught"; the other, "My side is bruised", but none could be of assistance to the other, since all were trying to alleviate their own distress. The stronger of them preferred to alight and walk alongside or behind the wagon. When a hill was approached, the "bologolah" ordered all the passengers to get out; the horses were unable to pull the heavy wagon uphill. Oftentimes, the passengers themselves had to assist the animals in drawing the load uphill.
The situation became materially worse during rainy weather; the earth was then soggy and muddy, the ruts filled with water. It was worse at night when all was pitch dark, the roads being unlighted. Often, the wagon was stuck in the mud, and the horses were unable to pull it out. the passengers then came to the rescue. Many of them tugged at the bit; others pushed the wagon, and the "bologolah" himself mercilessly whipped the horses, all yelling at the top of their voices: "Whoa, whoa, noah view!" (Go) until after the greatest exertion and brute force, the wagon was extricated without any assurance of how soon again it would be stuck in still another rut. It was not unusual for the "bologolah" to fall asleep at his post, relying upon the instinct of the animals to follow their regular path. As ill luck would have it, though, the horses were not wise enough to avoid the large stones that obstructed the road, and the wagon, almost spitefully, would mount a boulder and, in so doing, could overturn with all the freight and passengers, right into the ditch on the side of the road. Only the pen of a talented writer could portray such a pitiful scene adequately.
However, I shall try to describe a few meager sidelights as best as I can. It is midnight, complete darkness prevails; in the open field heavy rain is falling, and one person cannot distinguish the other. At least en or fifteen of the passengers are lying in a water-filled ditch; upon them is an overturned wagon, from which fall boxes containing merchandise, jars and jugs (all of them heavily laden) spilling upon the unfortunates in the ditch; whose cries fill the air with lamentations. One yells: "Oh, my hand"; a second, "My foot"; a third, "My head". Someone else calls "Pull me out, I'm choking; and yet another, "I'm drowning". Pitiable cries fill the air. But of what avail? "Schrei heint, schrei morgen" (cry today, cry tomorrow); not one can help the other. All the sufferers are lying packed like sardines in the ditch. On some, the wagon lies; on still others, the freight has found its way, and there is no one to release them; added to all this, one cannot see his own form in the dark. Should one attempt to extricate himself from beneath the mountain of freight, such movement would cause a further tumbling upon him and all the others. Nevertheless, after great exertion, several of them do succeed in pulling out of the debris, and with much struggle do relieve the others from the catastrophe. After they are all release, they endeavor to right the wagon, and now the problem arises as to how to lift out the freight from the ditch. Naturally much of the merchandise is damaged or broken. therefore, the "balegola" begins anew to bewail his loss because of the damage to the freight which he must make good, and is unable to. All sympathize with and console him, and help him restore all the unharmed and damaged freight both, and after a few hours of good hard work, all succeed in restoring the wagon and its content to its original state.
They now get into the wagon again, and are all off once more on their journey. En route, there follow in succession a series of narratives, vituperations, experiences, slandering, admonitions, threats, bewailings, thanksgivings, and what not. One recalls how it all came about, a second describes his fall, and a third takes the "balegolah" to task for falling asleep at his post when he is conveying travelers. One of the passengers warns the driver that if he should suffer any ill effects from this experience, he will sue him for damages. Still another threatens to make public in the town the occurrence, and thus ruin the driver's business. Another keeps moaning: "Oi veh, something must have burst inside me, perhaps my "lung-Leber". One of the passengers says that he will "bench gomel" (pray thanksgiving to God) for having survived such a catastrophe. the "balegola" meanwhile, defended himself by asserting that he was not responsible for the accident, since it was dark, the roads poor and full of stones, and that it was neither his nor his horses' fault; it was, in his eyes, fated to happen. In short, the passengers yelled, moaned, gesticulated and narrated, not singly but together, so that nobody could hear any one else's story and thus profit from the other's experience. It is self-understood that after such a trip, one felt all broken up for a long time, as though he had come through a serious illness.
Such a trip was mine to undertake in order to pay the price for having the pleasure of being with my father in Goniondz during the holidays. As luck would have it, the "balegolah" used to give me the worst seat on the wagon. He did this because he knew I wouldn't complain, and he had learned from experience that it would take a long time before he could collect the thirty "kopekas" which he usually charged for the trip. However, at the time I visited my father, the railroad in our town was completed, and I traveled on it, riding, comparatively, like a prince. The rules of the company specified that any child under ten was permitted to ride at one-quarter rate, provided such child was accompanied by a guardian. Therefore, when I arrived at the depot, I asked of any fellow traveler bound for my town, to be kind enough to act as my guardian and purchase the reduced rate fare for me. At such a time, I rode in high state. This was all good and well as long as I still had a little change to pay for the cheaper ticket. But at one time it so happened that I had no money, whatever, but yearning to be home for the holidays, I decided to "beat" my way.
I stepped up into the car, and noticing a few kinsfolk seated together, I explained my sad plight, suggesting that they allow me to hid under the seat, hidden by their legs, until the conductor had collected his fares. Obtaining their consent, I crawled under and lay very quietly. shortly after, they called: "Youngster, come out, the coast is clear". Out I crawled and seated myself among the regular passengers, as though nothing had happened. I arrived safely at the station of Goniondz. As the town of Goniondz was quite a distance from the station, all the passengers hired a cab, while I, poor fellow, had to walk. Great was my joy at the first meeting with my father, and I was happy to see that he was hearty and hale in spite of his years. And no less a joy did my father experience at seeing me, now a sturdy youth, physically and spiritually, since my semi-annual absence. But when he gazed at the sad figure my appearance presented, my clothes being torn in various places and patched in others, and realizing that he was helpless to improve the situation in any way, he would burst out into copious tears. This scene affected me very deeply. I regretted the whole situation. I reflected that by my returning home wearing such tattered clothes, I caused anxiety and shame to my old father, especially on the holidays when it was necessary to accompany him to the synagogue. Of what use were regrets when there were no remedies? I had long learned how to adjust myself to the adversities of hunger and of cold and to humiliation. I especially felt the situation more keenly than another lad of my years, because my blessed father never allowed me to give vent to those natural desires a young boy has. He would not allow me to play, dance, frolic or sing, as was customary with other children of my age; he led me to believe that it was not becoming to me to indulge in such childish pastimes and that instead I should devote my time to more earnest and elevating thoughts, with an eye to a career. He impressed upon me the thought to continually seek knowledge and to view life more seriously. Continually talking to me in this serious manner, he carried his point. I soon lost my childish joyous moods, and naturally became absorbed in both the present and the future. For example, I was already worried about how I could procure money to purchase an overcoat, a shirt, a pair of shoes, an undershirt or a pair of pants. And often I used to muse: "Well, and what after having procured all these garments, what then, after I have become older, what will be my future?" And the weight of al this worry deprived me of the necessary concentration for my studies, for while I was engrossed with my books the material necessities were always annoying and perplexing me. In short, I became old before my years and childhood's joys were unknown to me. The happy abandonment of youth was something I was entirely unacquainted with. On one occasion, on a visit to my father, prior to the "Passover" holidays, I found no one at home. "Passover" is a holiday among the Jews before which period the home must undergo a thorough cleaning. All old dishes must be replaced by new ones, and some of them scoured, if possible. Generally, in a house supervised by a mother, such cleaning is undertaken at least ten days in advance of the holiday. About three-quarters of the work falls to the lot of the housewife, and the remaining one-quarter is taken care of by the husband and children. During the entire period, the family are all inconvenienced in eating, sleeping and otherwise, since those rooms which have been thoroughly cleaned, are shut off, and not entered into at all until the holiday. Since my blessed father was in no position to put this system into effect himself, he decided to pay a visit to my married sister, a daughter by his first wife. She lived in Stuszyn (Poland). He spent the holidays there and thus escaped the domestic hardship of preparing for this festival. On my arrival, I expected to find him in his own home, but was disappointed. I felt miserable, in spite of the fact that there lived in the town, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts related on both sides. Instinctively, I knew that I would receive no warm welcome from any of these relatives. The key of the house, my father left at a neighbors, so that I had, at least, in the meantime, a place to sleep.
But where was food to be procured? In reality, I could have obtained some meals had I visited a brother of mine, a sister or an aunt, who lived in town. They surely would not have refused my request for food. But I was of a shy nature, and proud. I would rather endure the pangs of hunger than ask any of them for a morsel. However, when hunger took a ravenous hold of me, I would visit one of these relations with the expectation of being asked if I wished something to eat. The family, however, pretended not to notice my plight, and would simply remark: "Well, how are you, etc." a stock phrase, but nary a work was mentioned about food, although they knew all too well that I was very hungry. Not receiving an invitation to break bread with them, I would wait a little and then try the next relative, until someone finally did ask me to have a bite. And what, perchance, do you think the whole meal consisted of? Sticks and stones. Nothing and nothing. (Toothpicks and water.) A few spoons of "kasha" with "bulbis" (potatoes) or cold borscht (beet soup) with piece of old bread, or some cold potatoes without anything else. At least, my hunger was satiated for that day.
Each day, I followed the same course and used the same procedure for all the weekdays that followed. On Saturday, however, the keen desire possessed me to sit with a group at table and enjoy a regular Sabbath meal. First, because of the savoriness of such a "feast", and secondly, because one is not permitted to fast on Saturday among the Jews. Any poor wanderer or even a beggar is given a place at table to partake of three meals on this special day, without payment whatever. With this in mind, I used to pay a visit to my relatives a few days ahead of time, with the hope of being invited for the Saturday coming. Once, I remember paying a visit to a half-sister of mine on a Wednesday. She was called "Baylyeh". After the usual "How do you do?", she remarked: "Where do you expect to eat on Saturday?" I responded that I had, not yet, a definite place. She, therefore, invited me to eat with her. I accepted the invitation, telling her to surely expect me. On the Friday afternoon preceding the appointment, I decided to visit her again, in order to make sure that she did not change her mind. Instinctively, I felt that her invitation was insincere, and my intuition proved correct. For, after I had only been with her a little while that day, she repeated again: "Say, where do you expect to eat on Saturday?". After hearing this remark (having definitely been invited the Wednesday previous), and realizing that she wished to withdraw from her promise, I answered: "Oh I am going to dine with my brother Yoel." I left her, downhearted and saddened.
On Friday eve, I left for "shul", since it was necessary to attend, hungry or not. After prayers, all had left, myself included. I reached my father's house. Pitch dark it was, and chilly, too. My heart felt bleak and, to add to my misery, I was hungry. Realizing it was the first time in my life that I did not have a meal on a Friday night, my heart sank and I began to weep. After a good sound cry, I fell asleep on a hungry stomach. On the day following (Saturday), very early, I went to the synagogue again to pray. there, my brother Yoel spied me. The very first thing he asked me was: "Where are you eating today?". I, not wishing to tell him the truth, began to hem and haw. All too quickly, he perceived that I was eating nowhere at all. He, therefore, warmly insisted that immediately after prayers, I join him at his home and have the two remaining meals with him. Really, this brother Yoel was the most devoted and trusted member of the entire family and it was he who was always willing to share his pittance with me. The same good heart also possessed his wife "Gelleh". However, since I knew that he was poor, I did not wish to put him to any added expense, and, furthermore, I did not like to eat there, as it was not very clean or sanitary. I remember, on one occasion, staying overnight with them. Lying in bed, I found that I was being bitten by fleas, bedbugs, lice, etc. So uncomfortable did I feel that I had to get up again and redress; I walked around the room all night. Although I benefited little from his hospitality, I've always remembered his goodness and generosity. Now, that I am in fortunate circumstances, I send him, often, little sums of money to relieve his trying circumstances.
Once I came home before "Rosh Hashonah", the Jewish New Year, and found that my father was not in; the chances were that he had been visiting some married daughter of his. Not having any money of my own to take care of myself, I began visiting my relations, with the expectation of procuring some food to eat. I was unable, however, to procure a morsel. I, therefore, decided to walk to the outskirts of the town, where, on the open road, were many wild pear trees. These pears, thought I, would surely satiate my hunger. Hunting carefully, I finally found on a tree many of these little pears which had already become ripe; and being terribly hungry, I began devouring them with a wolfish appetite. I actually swallowed as many as I possibly could, the though running around in my mind at the time that this orchard was the place to pay a visit to regularly. What meals these delicious pears would make and they could be obtained simply for the taking. They were as unto manna from the heavens, and I would not have to be humiliated in the future in asking my relatives for food. There is a familiar Jewish saying; "Man thinks, but God laughs". This parable held true in the case of these wild pears. I returned home satiated and contented, slept peacefully thru the night and dreamt sweet dreams of these tasty pears. all seemed well.
On the contrary, however, next morning, I found that my stomach was in very bad condition. In swallowing the pears, I had swallowed pits and all and as a result clogged up the passage completely. Since the pears were not digested properly, they formed a ball, a very hard one, in the large intestine, preventing proper functioning. After great hardship and much suffering internally, not having an enema bag, I finally decided upon natural means, to my great relief. For several days I felt the effects, but since there was no one to pet me and give into my whims, I was bound to suffer in silence.
And thus my life was lived most of the time. Instead of being afforded some happiness and good will, living so close to my nearest and dearest, I suffered more inconvenience than had my lot been cast among utter strangers. On one occasion, in the Bialostock "Talmud Torah", there occurred a little unpleasant incident. Seated together with all the other boys at the usual lecture, I demanded of the Rabbi, to be excused. Being given his permission, I left for the outskirts of the town. The forest was not deeply covered with trees; it was about a ten minute walk, all told, from the "Talmud Torah." This forest was used as a public lavoratory by the people of the neighborhood, since there were not many toilets adjacent to the houses. At night, the rear of the homes were used for this purpose, but during the day the forest was utilized. Arriving there, I found many boys playing ball. Naturally, the same desire possessed me, and so I joined them. My rabbi, however, noticing that I had stayed beyond the stated time limit, sent a boy after me in pursuit to see what was keeping me. Having found me playing with the others, he told this to the Rabbi who, in turn, reported it to the superintendent. As a result, the latter decided to expel me. However, since it was so close to the end of the season, he allowed me to wind up the course, but no further.
At the close of school, I returned to my father for the holidays, but never breathed a word of what had occurred until after they were over. However, in due time, when my father told me to prepare for the following season (since all the boys were commencing to return), i was forced, against my will, to tell him about the incident of the ball playing, and how the superintendent definitely mentioned that he would not allow me to enter the "talmud torah". my father felt sorely grieved, and straightway proceeded to lecture me, saying that, since he was old and in poor circumstances, I couldn't depend on him to support me. To stay at home near him, unoccupied, would never do at all, he said. He therefore decided to accompany me to Bialostock, in order to ask the superintendent to forgive me on this occasion by reinstating me. Throughout the trip he kept inquiring why I had put him to such great annoyance and trouble, and I, on the other hand, was suffering in my own heart at hearing him chide me constantly.
Arriving in Bialostock, my father introduced himself to the superintendent, and made his helpless and old condition known to him, pleading for my reinstatement. His plea was accepted with the proviso that I should never break the school's rules again. I was, therefore, re-enlisted on the rolls as a regular student of the "Talmud Torah". My father's happiness was so great that tears of joy welled up in his eyes. He implored of me then, never to do any further wrong; and he told the superintendent that he hadn't sufficient words of gratitude to thank him for his forgiving heart. On one occasion, before the holiday of "Shebuoth" (Feast of Weeks), a majority of the students were planning to spend the holidays with their relations, and there arose in me also the like desire to seek the same joy among people at my own table. My little heart yearned for motherly love, and being deprived of that great blessing, I sought for something akin in its stead, among friendly relations. Therefore, I rode away to one of my sisters (on my father's side), "Gootka" by name, who resided in a Polish town called "Sokola". "sokola" was situated about five miles from Bialostock, and I decided to pass the holiday there.
Two days was all I spent in that Polish town. There was none too much friendship extended by "Gootke". This is an example: "Well, to send for you, I wouldn't, but since you came, you are a guest, so I'll make the best of it." Yet, withal, at her table, I felt more at home than I did among strangers. On the second day of the holiday, I fell ill, and although I had an older sister in the same town by the name of Miriam, whom I could have gone to, I did not want to be a burden to her while I was sick; so, on the very following morning, I left for Bialostock. Reaching there, I felt much worse. Walking from the railroad station to the "Beth Ha Midrash", I became completely exhausted and collapsed. I flung myself down, clothes and all, onto a hard bench, without even arranging a pillow or headrest as a support, and in this position, I lay for an entire day and a night, in high delirious fever, no one being concerned about me. Next day, when people entered to pray, one of them did ask me what was the matter, and I simply answered that I wished a little water. It was brought and that was all. I was still not myself for another day and night. After that, on feeling better, I rose and walked about, and slowly regained my strength.
Prior to the last "Passover" of my stay in Bialostock, I decided not to visit "Goniondz" for the holidays, knowing that my father was not at home, and besides, I had no desire to eat at the homes of my brothers or sister. I felt that they, too, preferred not to, be burdened with me. I therefore remained in Bialostock during this time. The first two days of "Passover" I felt very lonesome, as all my schoolmates had left for their homes over the holidays. Being left to my own resources, I managed to chase away all signs of lonesomeness by leaving Bialostock for another city. My choice fell on the little town of "Schislovitz", which was situated seven Russian miles (37 1/2 american miles) from Bialostock. No sooner thought of than done. "Chol Ha Moed" (four middle days of "Passover"), I packed my few belongings in a square wooden box, adjusted it with straps which were placed across my shoulders, and started out on foot to "Schislovitz", since I had no money to pay for fare. When I reached the city limits, I flung the box across my back, took off my boots and carried them in my hands. I then marched onward, barefooted, both for pleasure and economy. Having walked a short distance, I sighted a large wood (three Russian miles in length), known as the "Kroler woods" ("Lasy Korolski"). Being barefooted, I often bruised my feet against the upturned roots and stubble on the roads, until they bled.
There was no way of avoiding the bad conditions and I continued onward. Towards evening, I reached the end of the woods where a Jewish inn was situated. Entering it, I seated myself near a table, but ordered nothing, since I had no money. As soon as my guests arrived and the table was needed from them, the hostess asked me to give up my place. Attempting to arise, I found I was unable to stand, but supporting myself with my arms on the table with great strain, I succeeded in moving away. It became necessary for me to remain seated for a long time after. When all the patrons made their way to their bedrooms, I stretched myself upon the bare floor and slept there overnight, for I hadn't the wherewithal to pay for lodging. Next morning, very early, I proceeded again, barefooted, with my wooden box slung across my shoulders. It rattled with every step, inflicting wounds over my back.
Several hours later, unfortunately, I finally reached "Senislovitz". I immediately entered the "Beth Ha Medrash". I then reported to the "shames" that I had nothing to eat, and sat down alone to study Talmud. The "shames" procured a place for me to eat for the last two days of the holidays at the home of a respected citizen (Eleazor Yachnes) of the town. Here I found a well-supplied table. turkey was served because of the holidays. It was the first time in my life that I ever tasted the luxury of fowl. While I was there for the two days, I realized that this was not the proper place for a "yeshiva bocher" like myself, who was to advance himself; I, therefore, decided to return to Bialostock. On the day following the close of the holidays, I returned to Bialostock, walking all the way. Towards evening, I reached the Inn near the "Kroller Woods", and decided to pass the nigh there, but the hostess of the Inn advanced towards me and said: "Youngster, about ten minutes ago three "Yiddishe Bal Ha Gollahs (drivers and owners) left for Bialostock, laden with three wagons of freight. You can quickly catch up with them, and they will take you up, free of charge, on their wagons.
I was glad that this lucky incident occurred and, thanking her hastily, I started walking quickly that I might catch up with the three "Bal Ha Gollahs". I was overtaken by a fast fading light, and while running, the branches bruised my feet again, and the box on my back hit constantly against my shoulders. However, I had long been aware of the rumor which passed that, in this wood, wild animals were known to prowl. Due to great fear, I paid no attention to the aches and pains of my feet and shoulders, and ran on farther in the hope that I could reach the "Bal Ha Gollahs'. The result was that, after three or four hours of running, I finally reached the end of the woods and came upon the "Bal Ha Gollahs' with the heavily loaded freight. They invited me to be seated on one for the wagons, and brought me all the way to Bialostock. In addition, they apprised me of the fact that they had left the Inn at least two hours previous to the time I left that spot, and not "ten minutes" prior, as the hostess had informed me. I continued to remain in Bialostock. While there, I continued in my set way of life, up to the age of thirteen, or until I was confirmed and was "laying fefillin". My "bar mitzva" over, and realizing that I was now reaching the estate of man, with the desire for travel stirring within me, I began to seriously think about a change for the future. I, therefore, decided to leave for "vilna" which was the metropolis of "Litteh", and known as the cultural centre of Hebrew knowledge. With such a reputation, "Vilna" attracted those who were seeking higher education, both religous and secular. It came to pass between the Day of Atonement ("Yom Kippur") and "Succoth", in the beginning of the Seventies, that I collected my belongings, which comprised the following: One extra undershirt, one pair "tefillin", a piece of bread to eat en route and a few other incidentals, such as a comb and brush, etc. These necessities, I placed in a small salt bag, and went off to the railway station, purchasing a ticket for "Vilna" at reduced fare, because, even then, I was undersized.
I reached "Vilna" a day before the "succoth" holiday, and chose for my lodgings, the "Vilna Jo-Ohns Klose", or as it was known there, the "Chasid's Minyon". Asking no questions whatever, I walked in with all my worldly possessions on my arm, and told the "shames" that I had selected the "Chasids Minyon", as I wanted to study. I had heard that boys were needed to carry "esrogim" the whole week of "Succoth". The work of "esrog" carrying consisted of delivering the "Lullov" with the "esrog" to various people situated nearby. This was started early and ended not later than ten A.M. since, according to Jewish law, one should not eat before praying. Therefore, when I arrived at home, I used to ask the people to hasten, because I had others to attend to before they breakfasted. The first two days of the holiday, the "shames" of the "Klose" sent me for my meals to "baal ha batim" who served me temporarily, that is, for that day only and no others. However, to obtain "days" STEADILY (for example, to eat at one place regularly every Sunday, and at another, every Monday, etc.), was not an easy task, since it was difficult to find such people who would give a boy some of his meals one day during the week regularly. Now, how could this be procured?
Naturally, a boy was forced to go from house to house in the poorer sections of the city, since in the rich homes, boys who were poorly dressed would not be given admittance. His question to the lady of a household was always the same, whether she would be kind enough to give him his meals for one day during the week. Too often the response to this query was no. Not because people were mean and unwilling, but simply because there were poor. Inevitably, each family had on their list one or two boys to whom they were already tendering meals; therefore, it often happened that a boy trudged day after day, and week after week and still could not procure a single place where he could count on his meals. But there is a well-known Jewish saying: "God provides relief before the plague arrives", and such was the case in procuring "days" for the poor boys.
In Vilna, at that time, there lived a man by the name of "Hennach, the Tailor." In reality, he was not entitled to the appellation of "The Tailor", since he did not understand very thoroughly the art it implied. He did not understand the first step in making a suit to order, because he had never applied himself to tailoring. It was very plain to see that he was a "latutnich" or repairer", as men with his little knowledge were commonly called then. In point of fact, he repaired and patched old clothes. Naturally, he did not earn enough to make his own bread. But since God usually keeps a loving eye over all mankind and provides for the world, the Lord gave this man great conversational powers. With this holy gift or talent, our poor "Hennach" worked out a plan to make a poor but honest living. When a needy boy arrived in Vilna, having no relations or acquaintances, he was usually recommended to "Hennach", the Tailor, and "Hennach" never refused to help such a one. He would start on one of the poor streets of Vilna, and forthwith proceed on his mission.
In europe, at that time, it was not yet the custom to make one's presence known by knocking at the door; so, without ceremony, "Hennach" would enter the household accompanied by the poor little urchin who remained standing in the doorway. Without any prologue or instruction, whatever, he would begin: "Pitiful, cruelty toward animals; do you see this little boy? He is an orphan, without parents. Not long since he arrived in Vilna, entered the "Klose" immediately, and started studying. food and drink he doesn't even think about, simply of studying and studying. When he becomes very hungry, he asks the other poor boys for a piece of dry bread to keep his body and soul together. they, however, could not bear to see the pity of his condition, so they came to me and asked seriously that I should save his life, especially such a worthy boy, a genius, who will become a great pious Jew. He, alone, is ashamed to ask for food; I must, therefore, take it upon myself, as a worthy deed, to devote my time, and to accompany him to find a place to eat at, even tho, as you see me standing here, I am a very poor man, and cannot even afford to lose a day's time. But what can be done in such circumstances, since people come to me and say I must do it, and, if I refuse, the poor little fellow will die of hunger. So I had to obey, and in behalf of everyone who sent me, and in the name of our Holy Torah which this orphan, this genius, this scholar, is studying, day and night, in this name, I beg of you and your great Jewish heart, to give him food for just one day in the week. Therefore, this Torah, which he will pursue studying, will protect you and your family, the children, your entire family, and entire Israel. And as far as food itself is concerned, let me assure you that he is not at all particular, whatever you give him will satisfy him, anything to satiate his hunger."
After such a monologue, these women's hearts usually opened up and they promised to faithfully give a "day" to a poor little fellow. In such manner, our Hennach usually procured all seven days for the lad, and in return, his payment for this arduous task was the large sum of one "ruble". This very Hennach, I had to wend my way, in order that he might procure "days" for me, and in just about twenty-four hours, he managed the entire week for me. Being troubled no further about my material wants, I began to plan my studies. The first thing, of course, was Jewish literature, especially, the Talmud.
Each evening, I spent three hours with a master of the Talmud. He was called "Reb Ruben Wilcomirir". This man, although very poor, had a very good heart. He loved everyone. The school boys often used to bother him to lend them several "kopekas", to which he always responded: "When do you expect to return it?" In the event that they would say that they would return it two days later, and kept their promise, bringing it in time, he would take the money without requiring the customary thanks or gratitude. But if it ever happened that it was returned a day later than promised, he would not accept it, believing that he already had no claims on it; it did not belong to him, and according to the Jewish law, he was not allowed to accept it, since it was no longer his. The same lecture (for which he accepted no fee) which was imparted to us on an evening by "Reb" Wilcomirir, we studied the following day. He engaged in his profession as a holy deed.
At that time there arose in me the desire to master the Russian language, but in "Jo-Ohns Klose", which were my headquarters; we were not permitted to study anything but that which embraced our own Jewish literature and ideals; it was considered sinful to study beyond the pale of our own history and faith. Especially fanatic was "Reb Leb', the "shames' from the "Shul". If he ever noticed any one surreptitiously reading a book that was not Jewish, he commanded that it be thrown on the floor; he would then take it up on a shovel and throw it into the fire. He would not "soil" his fingers with it. Had any suspicion ever fallen on me that I was studying the Russian language, I would immediately have been expelled from the "Klose". Those in authority would have slapped me soundly and they would have notified those who were my benefactors so that I would no longer have any place at which to eat. I would surely have been left in a very precarious condition. My desire for learning Russian exceeded the fear of the future. I therefore registered at a public school far away from the "Klose" and spent four or five hours studying there the first day. I made good progress, but I encountered much difficulty because I was unable to take my books home from which to study. I had to depend on my memory, which served me in good stead, and I tried to recall, as I left the class, all the teacher had taught us.
At school, poems were often assigned to be memorized by heart, and on such occasions books were not alone necessary, but imperative; so an idea struck me as to how to meet the situation, since I couldn't take the needed book home. while I was at school, I used to transcribe the Russian poem into Jewish characters, on paper, and while walking in the street, scanning the paper, I would memorize the poem. Sometimes, when I was at the "Klose", I did likewise, and when anyone passed near me, I used to fold the manuscript unconcernedly in such a fashion that the one who saw the contents would notice only the Jewish letters without being able to recognize the deeper meaning. In this manner, I memorized the Russian poems very easily, without being detected.
Having my quarters at the "Klose", afforded me the opportunity of meeting all my expenses, because it was the custom that there should always be found there ten older, learned people, day and night, continually studying. Therefore, if anyone ever became seriously ill in the city, and a doctor could be of no further help, the family of the sick person would come running to the "Klose" and order the Ten elders ("Asorah Betlonim") to pray for the sick, or to change his name. Since all ten were seldom found together, the vacant ranks were filled in from the young students of the "Klose". In this way we students received a portion of the money which the sick person's family donated. This happened frequently; thus, such income defrayed my expenses.
At this time, a little incident occurred which I have never forgotten. It was winter and the weather was very inclement outdoors; in fact, it was almost next to impossible to venture out. One of these "Asorah Batlonim", a very honorable old man, asked a number of the students to go down and procure a blessing by getting something for him for breakfast, because it was impossible for him to do so himself in such bad weather. None of the boys, however, were willing to oblige him with this small favor, until he came to me with the same petition. I, giving the matter little thought, told him I would be glade to go. I ran down, irrespective of my scanty clothing, and bought his breakfast. As a result, I was almost half frozen. When he saw me coming back with his breakfast, he placed both his hands on my head, and with his eyes turned heavenward, he blessed me with these words: "In your future life, I pray to God that you should be in a position to eat cake and coffee at breakfast". This old man's blessing actually came to pass. I can now afford to have those cakes and coffee for breakfast, and a little more, perhaps, besides.
In the circle of the synagogue, where the "Jo-Ohns Klose" was located, there was one "schul" called "Gavronisher". A woman was there, in the women's section, who used to go from house to house collecting piece of bread. She used to give this bread to any hungry person who asked for it. With this free gift, I, too, was endowed, whenever I had no "day" to eat anywhere, or when I came for my "day" to dine and the "baal ha bosteh" had no time to cook. In such event, I was given a few "kopekas" so that I could buy something for myself. Often, I would wend my way to the "Gavronishe Schul" where this lady was, and there I would procure enough bread for the day. In this way, I saved the few "kopekas" which were given me and which I used for more important things that I required.
Several weeks before Passover, I would hunt for work in a "Matzoth" bakery. There were all sorts of jobs. In one particular bakery there were, first, the flour filler; second, a water poured; third, the kneader; fourth, the rollers (about fifteen or twenty of them in two rows); fifth, the perforator; sixth, the oven setter. When anyone wished to have "matzoths" baked, it was necessary for him to place his order at the baker's a day or two in advance, and he had to bring with him his own flour. The strict orthodox Jews would bring their own water, too, the night before. Before the baking was started, everyone had to wash his hands thoroughly. No crumbs of bread or other foodstuffs were permitted to be lying about. First, the flour filler began. The earthen pot, which had a capacity of about three quarts, he would fill very lightly with flour; then he would pour it into a big vessel, usually copper one. the kneader would then, with her hands, make a groove in the centre to hold the water; and the water pourer would subsequently fill this space with a small pot of water. The kneader would now mix the two together, trying not to have the mixture too compact or too loose. water was permitted to be added, while kneading, if it was necessary, but no more flour was allowed to be added if the dough was too loose. The big piece of dough which the kneader rolled was called the "mayrah", and it was cut into pieces according to the sizes desired.
These pieces of dough were distributed among the women rollers, who continued rolling them into thin or thick layers, thin enough to carry the weight of "matzoth", according to the wishes of the "baal ha bostah". After this process, the folled pieces were handed to the perforator, who, with his iron-pointed wheel, ran over the "matzoth", back and forth, from right to left. This perforating process prevented the dough, on being set in the oven, from rising to a height which would cause bubbles. The oven setter would then scoop the "matzoth" with a thin wooden spade, and quickly set it in the hot oven; and in a few moments it was well-baked. With the same spade, he would withdraw the "matzoth" from the oven and put it into a specially made basket. Between the making of one "mayrah" and another, quite a bit of dough accumulated on the boards and rolling pins; in between the process of making each "mayrah", the boards and rolling pins had to be scraped with a sharp piece of glass used especially for this purpose. The workers in the factor did not receive any wages, but the one who ordered the "matzoths', paid everyone according to his labor. The baker, however, was paid by the "pud" (forty Russian pounds). My work at that time rotated between flour filler or water pourer; and during the three weeks in which "matzoths" were baked, I was able to collect from about five to six rubles, of which I made excellent use, since I had neither parents nor friends to support me.
At that time, there again rekindled within me the fire and spirit of my youthful Muse. I began to compose lyrics. I always congregated among strict orthodox Jews; and being, in reality, religious myself, never infringing any of the Jewish laws, naturally, my poems were all composed in the vein that all people were born to praise God and study and believe in the "Torah"; and that, if by any chance one did not live as was ordained, such a one would receive his penalty after death, in the other world. an example of a few verses of one of my lyrics, I will set forth in the following three stanzas; they were the beginning of a poem which contained about fifty stanzas:
Menschen, betracht nur eintege velt,
Vie mann ist zulozen und verscheit,
Mann zucht nur zu verdienen gelt,
Und lernen hut mann nicht kein zeit.
Betracht ober menschen nur die tsorre
Zu vos hut beschaffen der heiliger Bayre,
Azay fil menschen un-ein-oreh,
Kedye mann zoll lernen zein heilige Torah.
Und der soff lozt sich ohs verkehrt,
Die Torahligt gornit in zinin;
Kein Rebbin, kein Magid nisht gehert,
Mann zucht nur gelt zu verdienen.
Composing a poem to combine with music, I would anticipate the occasion in which to sing it for the public. Therefore, when at the matzoth bakery, I would frequently sing my songs there, to the delight and enjoyment of all the workers. On one occasion, while I sang a song I had composed, carrying the theme that the bad man receives his penalty after death, I observed that the owner of the bakery was in tears. At the conclusion of my song, he said to me: "I feel that everything you have just said is right; therefore you will receive breakfast every day from me as long as you will be here, at no cost..."
Thus a part of my life continued, running very smoothly, I should say, while I was in Vilna. Most of the time, I spent in the study of Jewish literature, and part of it I devoted to Russian literature, too. I was neither hungry nor naked, so I almost forgot that I was a member of a big family comprising an old father, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, etc. Why did I forget? Because we did not correspond with each other during this period, with the exception of my father, to who I wrote occasionally, inquiring about his health. However, he did not always answer my letters because it was a difficult task for him to write often. I therefore contented myself with the lack of his mail and, further, reconciled myself to my solitude. Who can say how long I might have remained in Vilna or progressed with the times, had not come, out of a clear sky, an unexpected change.
One winter day, I received a letter from my oldest brother, Yudeh, informing me that our old father was lying sick abed, and that since none of his children wished to or could take care of him properly, it was urgent that I leave at once to see him, without any delay. The letter had a very melancholy effect on me, since I realized that my father was an old man of about seventy-five years, and that he had brought up an entire family of sons and daughters, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Most of them lived but a stone's throw from him, and yet, here, in his old age, lying on a sick bed, he was utterly unattended, weak, not even having anyone near him to hand him as little as a glass of water. I did not linger long, collected all my belongings in a bag (not being the owner of a satchel), and hurriedly left for home.
As I reached the entrance of his door (my old father still ill in bed), in a piercing moment, I realized the stark poverty, the loneliness and the uncleanliness all about him. I burst into an uncontrollable flood of tears. My father, however, apprised me that my sobbing made the situation worse; that I should try to brace up and be cheerful. He told me it might have a good effect on him. I took his advice, stopped crying, and wondered how I could ease his pain. I tried to tidy his surroundings as much as possible and to the best of my ability, under the circumstances. I cooked a few times for him during the day. I saw that his medicine was administered as directed, promptly on the hour, one of the prescriptions being to rub his feet with warm vinegar, etc. Thus I served in the double capacity of nurse and servant, although I realized that both roles were not carried out par excellence. However, I felt that I did fairly well, because, as the weeks sped by, my father recuperated, the only difficulty being that his few hard-earned rubles were being quickly dissipated. Soon we had to pawn our copper ware, one piece after the other. How saddened and burdened our hearts were during this period, will not be hard for one to conjecture.
A little incident that occurred at that time left such a keen and vivid impression with me, that I still remember it to this day. Being occupied with the arduous duties of taking care of my father, besides attending to the household, I still managed to find a little time left in which to study. So I arranged with a poor Russian boy to give me lessons in advanced Russian, for which he charged me the price of five "kopekas" a lesson. It finally came to that point where we had no money whatever to buy anything to eat, but I still managed to find a few potatoes in the house. I prepared them, and then got ready to eat them. Suddenly and unexpectedly, my Russian teacher arrived, ready to give me my lesson. I could have let him wait and, in the meantime, partake of my scanty meal. But I was heartily ashamed to eat this frugal meal in front of him. I was ravenously hungry, but I finally decided not to let him know how poverty sticken we were, and rather suffer the pangs of hunger for another hour. I took my lesson first and, after that, I prepared for my potato meal. It was stone-cold and the potatoes were hard; any my heart was stricken that I began to cry; but my blessed father consoled me, saying that, for all the troubles and sorrows I was passing through in my youth, God would bestow upon me a very fortunate old age.
Luckily, however, God provides the remedy before the catastrophe occurs. An in our dire poverty, God also sent us a remedy for our poverty in the following manner:
En route from Vilna to Goniondz, I rode in the train only as far as Bialostock and, from that point, I rode on an old-fashioned wagon, with a "bal ha gollah" from our home town. On the same wagon with me were seated two "baal ha batim" (property owners) from our town. During the night, as we were riding, the "bal ha gollah" asked me: "Maysheleh (little loses), once upon a time you knew songs and lyrics; do you still know them and can you tell us a few?" To which I responded: "Now, I can do them very well." And quietly, I added: "But I am a little bashful because there are two passengers in the back of me." He then spoke up very loudly, loud enough for them to hear: "The passengers are sleeping very soundly; you can sing and recite to your heart's content." I then told him to test them by calling out a few names very loudly, in order to see if this would awaken them from their slumbers. The driver called very loudly: "Ah-no-vich" (giddap), but the passengers remained peacefully sleeping.
Believing they were sound asleep, I began to sing my own composed lyrics and ballads, for quite a long while. When I finally ended, the two passengers commenced applauding, crying, "Bravo, Bravo". Think of it; they hadn't been sleeping at all, but heard every word I sang and recited! I felt somewhat abashed,, but of what avail? Arriving in the town, they broadcast the news as to what had happened on the carriage, and added their criticism that I sang very well; that I could take the place of the best bard. A few months passed after this incident. My father was still bedridden, and the little sum of money which he owned was by this time entirely exhausted. All of the copper utensils were pawned and the finances used up. I, therefore, consulted my father in connection with giving lessons in Hebrew, so that we might be able at least to eke out an existence for the two of us. He proved to me, however, that it would be a difficult undertaking, since he needed me to attend to him solely, in his sick condition.
During this consultation, a very intimate and good friend of my father's entered, by the name of Reb elioh, a very fine merchant and property owner of our town. We thought that he came primarily to pay his respects to my sick father, as was not unusual in the town, since many personally inquired about his health. However, Reb Elioh came with a strong plea to my father. He asked that I be allowed to act as bard at his daughter's wedding, which was taking place that very evening. (The bard and the musicians of the adjoining town had already advised him that they could not be depended upon for the wedding.) He made the point clear that my father would receive thereby a great blessing for having allowed me to entertain the bride and groom, and that I would be paid well, besides. My father forestalled a definite answer, stating that he would have to talk the matter over with me first, and then send him a reply.
After Reb Elioh left, my father said that even though we were in very dire circumstances, still he did not wish the name of "bottchon" to cling to me. He, therefore, decided that I should not attend. Within an hour, both mother and bride paid us a visit, hoping for an affirmative answer, but my father's reply was not in keeping with their wishes. The bride started to cry, asking my father to have pity on her and, as a real devoted friend to them, not to deprive them of their great happiness and enjoyment. It was bad enough to be without musicians, she said, but without a "bottchon", she further added, the guests would sit around like mourners. The saddened and disappointed bride, together with her mother, clamored so incessantly, that my father finally gave his consent; and turning to me, he asked me if I wished to accept. Firmly, I answered "yes".
After they left, I began to memorize the necessary songs that would be needed at the wedding; but, in order to have perfect quiet for the necessary concentration, I walked to a lonely spot behind the city synagogue (where people seldom loitered at that time), and started composing epigrams solely for the groom; other couplets specially for the bride, and after-dinner speeches, which I rendered while the guests were enjoying their meals. By simply running several lines thru my mind several times over, I found it unnecessary to write them down; I remembered them all. At the wedding, I had to get up on a stool, since I was short in stature for my age. I recited and sang everything very well.
The proof of the pudding lay in the fact that every one applauded vociferously and insisted on an encore. What spoke volumes was the full bowl of jingling coins which was handed to me, having been contributed by everyone present. The money, uncounted, I thrust into my pocket and, happy as a lark, I wended my way homewards. I was surpirsed to find that I made almost thirteen rubles!
a few weeks, although my father was still tied down to a sick bed, I
another invitation to be present at a wedding. At this affair, my
amounted to about eleven rubles, and with this meager
"Fortune", my father and I were able to drive the wolf from the door. The money netted from these two weddings was the early fruit of my intellectual endeavors, and the last, for shortly after this period (about fourteen weeks of confinement), my father rose from his sick bed and was able to earn a little for the household. When he got well again, I planned once more to leave home and wend my way among strangers; I felt there was no future for me staying at home with my poor old father. I decided to go to Sokola, a small town in Poland. Two married sisters of mine, from my father's side, resided there. I really did not know them. the oldest, called Miriam, married before I was born, and I had never seen her; and the second sister (the youngest), Gutke Verah by name, married when I was only four years old. However, something drew me to them, even though, in a sense, we were all strangers.
Right after the holiday of Passover, I arrived at Sokola. The oldest brother-in-law, who was called Schlšmeh Tayveh, managed to arrange "eat DAYS" for me. One day during the week, I ate at my younger sister's. My oldest sister could not afford to give me a "Day to eat" as she was too poor, but a place to sleep at, she arranged for me at her house, since she lived in her own pretty large home. Although it was located at the outskirts of town, I preferred taking the long walk to get there in preference to spending the nights at the "beth ha medrash", where I was most uncomfortable sleeping on their tables, which were also used for beds. As far as improving my education, I experienced little difficulty. I had a teacher who gave me lessons at his own house, in portions of the Talmud, without charge. With the Bible, however, I required no guidance, as I progressed very well by myself.
In the "beth ha medrash" there was a "bal korah" (Bible reader), a young man past twenty, who possessed a diploma as rabbi. He was considered the best Bible reader among Russian Jews. His reading appealed so greatly to me that I aspired to his heights. It was my one devouring ambition at the time, so I devoted myself eagerly to biblical study; in fact, for the entire three years that I spent in Sokola. At the expiration of that period, I felt inwardly (and everyone concurred), that I read expressly as well as the "bal korah". In addition, it seemed to me that my voice sounded sweeter than his. After feeling more at peace with myself in Sokola, I began to seek quarries of income.
The first position I undertook was that of "shames" by a "chevre shaas" (group of Talmud learners). This group consisted of about twenty-five young married men who, after the prayers were over, got together and studied Talmud for several hours. They owned their own Talmud books, called Gemorrahs; they were locked in a separate bookcase. My services consisted in placing a book on each of their individual seats and, after their study period was over, I laid them safely in a locked closet. I used to receive small reimbursement from each of the students for this service (five to ten kopekas), on the first of the month. With this petty income, I was able to take care of my necessary wants.
Later, however, I became a tobacco and cigarette dealer. At the tobacco store, I would purchase a whole package of tobacco for ten or fifteen kopekas, and from its contents I made cigarettes which I used to sell sometimes to the boys. They bought loose tobacco from me by the ounce. In this manner, I made "a nice few pennies", weekly. My "store of goods" I kept locked up in a seat box at the "beth ha medrash". During prayers, with the men seated on this box, I could not gain access to the merchandise, which necessarily prohibited my trading then. As time went on, I undertook to teach two boys, the sons of the City "feldcher" (assistant physician), for the salary of several rubles a month. At that time, I brought my younger brother, Boruch Aryeh, to live with me. I managed to get "days to eat" for him, and he slept with me in the "beth ha medrash". As far as studying was concerned, I had him join the other two boys, teaching all three simultaneously. When, on occasion, my brother would not obey me, he received a good resounding slap. However, I felt that keeping him under my surveillance would be of no benefit to him at all, since, for his years, he knew too little to be of any help in the continuation of those studies. I therefore decided that it was best to put him at a trade; so I sent him back to Goniondz. Our father sent him to a boss carpenter for a term of years to learn the trade of carpentry. He was enslaved and suffered greatly.
From the Monthly "Yariden", I also received a little income each month. At these gatherings, the peasants usually brought to town the products they wished to sell. Among the various buyers who were present, there were also those who purchased linens solely. I acquainted myself with the price and quality of the various linens and, often as not, I bought a length of the material of about what I perhaps thought might be thirty yards. I would immediately sell it to the wholesaler at a small profit. In the event that I did not have enough money to pay the peasant the amount the amount he asked for the linen, I would introduce him to the wholesaler, who paid him the price mutually agreed upon beforehand by him and myself. I usually received from the wholesaler a small commission, one-half of a kopek or a kopek, for each yard sold, as the case might be.
Having spent much of my time in learning to become a Bible reader, I succeeded in "attaching" a good reputation to myself. I accepted a position in a "schul" with a small congregation; I was to read the Bible every Saturday for a stipend of fifteen Kopekas. Later on, a similar position was mine, at the same salary, at first services (which took place much earlier), in another congregation. It wasn't an easy matter for me to read in two congregations, twice daily, especially when double portions of the Bible had to be read on certain Saturdays. It was very difficult, in fact, but the great desire to earn money surmounted the hardship I was experiencing.
During that period, I was approached about a prospective wife, not thru a "shatchon", but through the parents of girls who were asking me whether I would consider their daughters. I did not accept any of them. First of all, I felt too young to marry, as I hadn't even reached eighteen; secondly, I still wished to continue my studies, and thirdly, I would have been unable to support a wife. For three whole years, in Sokola, I learnt much in Jewish literature, especially in the Bible and in bible reading. Thence, I decided to change my abode, and left for Shushin, also a town in Lomza State (Poland). A married sister of mine, by the name of Malke, resided there.
When I arrived in town, my brother-in-law provided "days" for me at some strange homes. I continued studying in the "beth ha medrash", and my income consisted solely of what I derived from reading the Bible in two places on Saturday; that small amount was not very much for me. Since I did not wish to sleep at the "beth ha medrash", and my sister not having room in her own home for me, she accommodated me in her woodshed. These accommodations were very poor; I slept on a straw bag on the ground and, as a result, I was stricken with malaria, which attached me every other day, alternately, for about two months. During this period, I was accustoming my body to whiskey, and strong whiskey, at that. There was a reason for this.
Since the city was located near the border line of Germany, there were many people to be found who had smuggled brandies and whiskeys from Germany without paying the regular customs charges. As a result of this, they could sell the liquors much cheaper than our own home product; and, besides, they were of better quality than the Russian brands. Because of this, almost every citizen was supplied with German whiskey. My benefactors put the whiskey on the table with every meal. At first, I used to take it unwillingly, but after awhile I really enjoyed it. I only spent six months in this town. From Shushin, I left for Grodno. I arrived there before "Rosh Hashonah", the Jewish New Year, and I made my headquarters in the Drivers 'Association Beth ha medrash". One of the boys there was going home, and not expecting to return anymore, sold his "eating" days to me. He actually went with me to all of the families who were giving him his "days" and told them the situation exactly, - that he was leaving, and he asked that I be permitted to step into his place and "eat" that day. He further mentioned that I had come to study at Grodno, and that I was a relative of his. We were not rebuffed in any way whatever. In this wise, were all my days provided for.
My pocket, however, was unfilled. The little money I had was depleted completely, so I devised a plan to add to my resources. Since it so happened that it was the week of "Yom Kippur", and since on the day preceding, "Yom Kippur" eve, it is a holy custom among the Jews, the world over, to dispense charity, I left on this particular day for "Fehrshtudt", Borough of Grodno. Not wishing to be recognized, on the other side of the River "Nyemen", I stationed myself in among a big group of poor people. Each Jew who was on his way for the afternoon prayers, "davening mincha" contributed a few kopekas to each person in want. Remaining on the line for some hours, I was able to collect a few rubles, of which I was in great need.
On my return to my "beth ha medrash", I noticed that people were already attending the "Yom Kippur" prayers, signifying that food was almost too late to be partaken of, for the "fast" time was already commencing. To buy something to eat was out of the question entirely, since very store by this time as closed. What was to be done now? If I did not have some sustenance, I would be unable to fast the whole day following. I walked, therefore, to the very first house in sight and opened the door without any ceremony. I noticed that the lady of the house was all dressed in her holiday clothes, ready to attend "schul". I said to her that before she left for "schul" to pray to God for a good year, she must derive a great blessing by giving me something to eat, since I was very hungry, and that I would have to fast from now on till sundown the following night. "Quick seat yourself at the table", she said, and handed me soup, meat and bread. Although swallowing the food rather rapidly, I ate enough to strengthen myself to carry me thru the following day. Having finished my meal, I thanked her very gratefully, and wished her and her entire family a good "recognition" from Heaven. I left for "schul" in a happy mood, with the full confidence of a happy year ahead of me.
While I was in grodno, aside from studying Jewish literature, I also applied myself to both the Russian language and Russian literature. In order to enjoy a steady income, I received a position at a newspaper dealer's, to carry the Jewish newspaper (edited weekly), under a special system, to citizens of the town. I would deliver five different newspapers to five different subscribers; they had to be thru with the contents on the day of delivery. the next morning, I carried those same five editions to five other customers, and in this way I kept interchanging their reading matter. Instead of subscribing for one particular paper throughout the year, at a certain fixed rate, they procured five different issues for the same fee. The remuneration received from delivering these newspapers, however, was not sufficient to cover my expenses and, often, I had to look about for additional means of subsistence. As an example, on the "Purim" holiday I used to carry "shaloch munos"- the neighborly custom of exchanging food baskets containing fruits, nuts, "tayglach" (honey balls), "haam taschen" (three-cornered cakes), and other delicacies. The story goes that the three cornered cakes represent the three-cornered hat worn by the wicked Haman. From one good friend to another, and thereby made a few "rubles" from the tips I earned. I still remember, one "Purim" in particular, in carrying the "shaloch munos", the soles and heels of the shoes I was wearing completely tore off, making it necessary to walk barefooted in the snow, until I completed the entire day's work. These tips, however, which netted me a few "rubles", made it possible for me to procure a pair of new shoes.
A few weeks preceding "Pesach" (Passover), I undertook a job at baking matzoths; at first, as perforator, and later on, as oven setter; during this three-week period of baking "matzoths", I made a goodly sum. In one of the matzoth bakeries, where I worked in the capacity of oven-setter, there were two girls about my own age. They were the baker's daughters, and I found my heart going out to one of them, but realizing that she was a poor girl and could afford me no dowry, I decided to repress my feelings, and visited her no further. I felt that not having any business (and since to start one, money was very important) I could not contemplate marriage, lacking money.
Having spent the entire year in Grodno, I figured that I had devoted sufficient time to my education and that it was high time that I give more thought to the more important matter of earning a little money. I therefore undertook a position as teacher in a country place. At first, I received forty rubles semi-annually, including board and lodging. Later on, I procured something better at sixty dollars semi-annually; and after that, in my third position I received seventy-five rubles. Naturally, I would have striven for still higher advancement, because, as was amply proven, I was very apt at pedagogy. But something occurred which made me pursue an entirely different course.
Without any thought whatever in regard to the matter, on my part, people began to awaken my interest in proposals of marriage, and since I was more than twenty years of age at the time, I though the matter not at all untimely. I felt I had lived among strangers long enough, and I looked forward to marrying and establishing a little home of my own.
At that time, in Russia, every lad upon attaining the age of twenty-one, was served with a summons to appear before the Russian Military Commission, with the exception of those who were entitled to special exemptions according to the law. Exemptions were divided into various classes, ranking first, second or third. I was entitled to an exemption of the first class, since my father, at that time, being over eighty years old, was unable to support himself, and, besides, my oldest brother, Yudeh, (who was the offspring of my father's first wife), was then past fifty-six years. My youngest brother, Boruch Aryeh, was less than eighteen years. I was definitely the sole support of the family, as a result of which I should have been freed from military service. I therefore felt perfectly free to entertain thoughts of marriage.
At the very outset, when the marriageable parties were proposed, my first thought embraced the sum of the dowry offered. If the amount proffered was not satisfactory to me, I immediately rejected the party in question, without wishing to know qualities, character, etc., but if the dowry mentioned was within reason, I was interested in arranging for a meeting. the following incident will clearly prove how strong was my need for money. While I was teacher at my last place of employment, in a village near Grodno, people who knew me proposed a well-know girl, well-educated for those times. She was very beautiful. Her father had died, and had left her a legacy of five-hundred rubles, as dowry. The first thing I asked the "shotchon" was how much dowry she was bringing, and when I heard the reply that there were only five-hundred rubles to her name (which was only half of what I had expected), I immediately rejected her. Her relatives were very anxious to have me in their family and believed that, after I personally made her acquaintance, I would be content with less money, because of her beauty and cleverness both. They laid plans to have her brought to the place where I resided, without my knowledge, and they had also figured on a way to introduce her to me. The lady with whom I was staying (being a good friend of mine), and whose children I was tutoring, having heard of her designs, advised me of it beforehand. I knew that both a beautiful and clever girl would surely entice me, in spite of a small dowry. However, knowing also that with such a small sum as she possessed, I would not be able to conduct business, I decided not to see her. By remaining on the grounds it would have been impossible to avoid meeting her. I, therefore, dressed, and by foot, set out for the town. En route, I met the carriage with her relations, bound for their visit to me. I tipped my hat, waked on, and this concluded the incident.
There were many "Schiduchim" proposed to me because of the popularity which I had gained in Forshtadt, a suburb of Grodno. The reason for this popularity was that rumor had it that I knew fifteen languages, or, perhaps more. (In reality, I only knew five languages: Russian, Polish, German, Jewish and Hebrew.) The reason for the impression that I possessed the knowledge of so many languages had its origin in the fact that I was able to express in fifteen different ways the five languages only which I really knew. I inserted, in between the syllables of each word, a consonant, at random, as a "p", a "c", a "k", etc. For instance, in the words "Ich ess" (I eat), by inserting a "p", within the syllable, it is pronounced "Ip-ich ep-ess", etc.
another reason for my popularity was my Bible reading. It was the day before Purim, when I read before the public, the Megillah of Esther. There were present, at that time, a few merchants who traded in wheat, who came to grind that wheat into flour in the mill of Will Bushevitch. Upon listening to my reading, they spread the rumor in Forshtadt that I was the best reader in the world.
And now to return to matters of a marital nature again. Of all the girls who were proposed to me, I could not select a suitable mate. Many of them were short of money and many of the girls did not appeal to me for other reasons, until I was introduced to the girl who was to become my wife. The conditions offered were as follows: I was to receive one-thousand rubles in cash, permanent living room and board in her Parents' home as long as they lived. These conditions seemed favorable to me, and I accepted the invitation to visit the girl at her home.
MY VISIT TO THE GIRL
The Talmud advises that an educated man in visiting a girl for the first time, be accompanied by an uneducated male friend, in order that the latter may be in a better position to ascertain the lady's merits or demerits. However, not being fortunate enough to be acquainted with such a person, I had to content myself with a friend of mine who was an unmarried, intelligent and educated man. Pretty enough was the maid at first sight, and to every ten words of mine, she responded with barely one, casting her eyes downward, shyly, as she made her monosyllabic replies. Realizing that perhaps she was a little diffident in speaking to me, I continued the conversations with her parents instead. Her father was a carpenter by trade, and her mother a dressmaker, both of ordinary ability. they had no sewing machines at that time, making it necessary that everything be done by hand; and since for her mother (who was then about sixty), it was no easy matter to do any sewing at all, her eyes being weak, she used to do the cutting and bring and deliver orders. The actual sewing was left for her daughter and a few girls who assisted her. The daughter looked very pale and wan, since she was continually confined all day. She never took a moment off to get a whiff of fresh air! Their home contained five rooms and the house had some ground surrounding it.
Upon inquiry, as to whether I was free from military service, I answered yes, since I was entitled to exemption. the girl in question and all the circumstances seemed suitable. The only shortcoming, that of her being uneducated, I dismissed with a wave of the hand, because I figured that, after marriage, I could take a little matter like that in hand myself. Upon my questioning her parents as to whether they expected to continue to engage her services at sewing after marriage, also, they said, no. In very short order, I drew up the agreement of the terms of the engagement, and after that was settled, I rode back to my birthplace, Goniondz, where I decided to remain until after the period of the military registration. That over, I would marry. My old father was not in a position to support me; I therefore undertook teaching in both Jewish and Russian, from which I managed to eke out a living.
From all appearances the world seemed rosy, but it is an old axiom that no one knows what lies behind closed doors, and thus it was in my case. In every
Jewish community it was a custom to give all young men who were drafted into the Military Commission, a small bonus of a hundred to two hundred rubles, which was collected from those men of age who were exempt, and remained at home. Since it was then nearing the time of registration, 1882, the community proceeded to collect the funds for the bonuses. Being one of the number who was exempt, I was forthwith called to the Community Committee, to make my payment of two-hundred rubles toward the bonus. The Committee stated that since I was engaged to a girl of means, I could very well afford to pay the maximum amount of two-hundred rubles. I made it clear to them that I had no control, whatever, over the money my intended father-in-law might turn over to me in the future; and that, furthermore, he was not willing to give me part of it before marriage. I suggested that since I had no ready cash of my own, the only thing I could offer was a promissory note, payable after marriage, at which time I would have control over the funds. They definitely refused my proposition. Feeling I was protected thru the first-class exemption privilege which I was entitled to, the Committee's non-acceptance of my proposal did not disturb me. However, the leaders of the community, upon hearing that I could not furnish the money, played a trick on me. In handing my list over to the Military Commission, they entered all the family ages correctly with the exception of that of my brother, Yudeh, whose age they changed from fifty-six to forty-six. This they maneuvered very cleverly by dropping a large ink blot over his correct age of fifty-six. They then penned directly above it the figure 46, thereby reducing my brother's age by ten years, leaving me absolutely without any just grounds for exemption. Now that my brother's age was registered (falsely) as under fifty-six, the support for our father fell upon his shoulders.
The registration call and examination occurred during November 1881. Naturally, I was among those young men of age who appeared before the Military Commission in Bialystock. Numbers were drawn by everybody, and as ill luck would have it, I drew a small number. While my name and the number drawn were called and recorded, the Chairman of the Committee, in sizing me up, sarcastically remarked: "It seems you will be a good soldier for the Russian Army." I responded: "According to the first-class exemption to which I am entitled, I am free from military duty."
The Chairman, however, in scanning the family list, made evident the fact that it proved the years of my brother's age were forty-six, and that therefore, I was not entitled to any exemption. I protested, however, and insisted that my older brother was fifty-six and not forty-six, as the records mistakenly showed. He answered that even if the facts were as stated by me, I would still not be entitled to exemption, as I had already drawn my number. He further mentioned that the law distinctly stated that protest had to be made before the number was drawn, not after. Upon hearing the "verdict", I felt miserable, especially so, after the physical examination, since the Committee found me "in good shape" for military service, and would not grant me a leave of absence until the end of the year, as was likewise done with the Russian Gentile Newly drafted soldiers. Finally, the truth of the situation dawned upon me.
Upon consultation with my relatives, it was decided that I enter an appeal to the Higher Court (known as Su Debony Palatta), to definitely prove that my brother's correct age was fifty-six and not forty-six, as indicated in the family list. Since a decision from the Su Debnoy Palatta usually drags out for quite a long time, besides which it is compulsory to serve in the Army until such decision is rendered, I asked my relations to get in touch with the Military Commission to see if they could manage to get me stationed at Grodno instead, and for the sum of ten rubles it was easily accomplished, in the 101st Regiment (Permsky Infantry) of the 26th Division.
Immediately, I was sent to my designated post in the armory in Grodno. When I arrived there, the Under Officer (known as the Feld Feber), issued an order that I was not to leave the Armory on any account, without the proper permission. There were quartered here only the old soldiers as the new ones were not expected until the end of December. No occupation was accorded me, and in order to while away the time, I proceeded to read the Rules and Regulations for soldiers. After perusing the book once or twice, I knew it by heart.
Several times during the week, an officer in the Armory used to teach the soldiers how to read and write Russian. On one occasion, I stepped up to the blackboard and worked out with chalk an example in fractions. Right after that, the officer-teacher arrived and, noticing the figures on the board, asked who had worked it out. After I was pointed out as the one who was responsible for it, the officer addressed me, not as an officer usually would address an ordinary solider, but as equal to equal. From that time forward, I observed that any officers of lower rank approached me with much courtesy; and those of higher rank did likewise, with great respect. The reason for this marked deference was, no doubt, because the teacher who had noticed the little example on the board, had spoken to the others of me in a laudatory manner. After a while, the new soldiers arrived and I was placed among them, while the teacher-officer proceeded to give them their first lessons from the Manual of Rules and Regulations for Soldiers.
Quite often, when a soldier was in the dark as to the proper answer, the teacher, calling my name, would turn to me for the answer, as he knew that I was sure to know it. Simultaneously, he would scold the others for their poor memories and their lack of concentration, since they had heard the same things repeated more than a hundred times. But since the teacher was not only anti-semitic, but also jealous in temperament, he tried, on more than one occasion, to find some means as an excuse to actually slap me. However, since I was aware of this hidden hatred, and realizing that he was waiting for an unguarded moment to pounce upon me, I tried my utmost not to give him an occasion to do so. His blood boiled furiously within him at the thought that all this intelligence was incorporated in the person of a Jew instead of in a Gentile; he finally hit upon a very brutal way in which to retaliate.
One afternoon, while he was teaching the entire group, he put a question to us, saying that anyone who knew the answer should simply get up. I, alone, arose; the rest remained seated. He then proceeded to scold the entire class, mentioning that they ought to be ashamed of themselves that one single Jew knew more than all of them put together. Thereupon he ordered the entire class to rest on their knees, with the exception of myself. He ordered me to give a resounding slap on the face of each kneeling soldier. Naturally, I had to carry out his orders to the letter, but picture for yourselves, if you can, the position I was placed in, having to slap people who were on an equal footing with myself. Besides, I was in hourly contact with them all, continually associating together. But his orders were final and had to be obeyed.
I forthwith proceeded with the first soldier. No sooner said than done, when the teacher stayed my hand in an instant, saying : "I warn you, if you do not make the next slap more resounding and forceful, I, myself, will teach you how I want it done". He kept his word. I, therefore, added more energy to the second slap. However, it still did not seem to satisfy him. He commanded me to stand up, with hands "nailed" to my side, and chin out; and after administering a slap (which felt more like a blow, due to his physical strength), knocked me senseless to the floor. He then ordered me to arise, instructing the group to be seated in their places, while he continued teaching. that same evening, I conferred with the "Feld Feber", and asked his permission to institute a complaint against the teacher to the higher officer, but he advised me wisely against it. Had I not accepted this sane counsel, the despot, in retaliation, could easily have found ways and means to embitter life for me, since I was in daily contact with him. I, therefore, sought an apology from the teacher instead. This was obtained, and he promised at the same time never to again humiliate me; and so the incident ended.
The rations of the soldiers comprised three pounds of black rye bread daily. Breakfast was not served at all, but lunch, at 12 o'clock, consisted of cabbage soup, a half pound of meat per person, and the puree of one wooden spoonful of buckwheat grits as a desert. Twice during the week, we had both cabbage and pea soup. all the food, with the exception of the bread, was not "kosher", and for a religious Jew, it was against his law to eat it. Besides, it was of very poor quality, and not handled in a very clean manner; and although I blinded myself to the fact that it wasn't "kosher", I still found it hard to partake of it. The only thing that I accepted was the bread, which I did not relish because of the poor ingredients. I found it tasteless and sold it for a small amount, buying my own food. Much of the time, my meals consisted of Jewish bread, herring, butter and tea. When Friday arrived, I usually longed for an appetizing Sabbath meal; so I asked the permission of the "Feld Feber" Officer for a couple of hours leave of absence, handing him as a present a package of tobacco or cigarettes. Having been granted this permission, I started off on a ten blocks' walk to meet my intended, at whose home a much better meal was relished, and where a few hours of amusement were passed, besides.
Such an evening was the only recreation I could look forward to during the week. On one Friday night, however, it happened that in seeking permission, I found the "Feld Feber" away; so took things in my own hand, and strolled off as usual. On my return, I was met by the "Feld Feber" who was quite perturbed at my having left without his permission, and in punishment therefore, he placed me under the knapsack; that is, the knapsack had to be completely filled and placed across my shoulder, fixed stationary on one foot for two hours. I had to carry out this order without flinching, even tho it placed the greatest strain upon me. I thought the penalty was greater than the offense called for; so I decided to take revenge on the "Feld Feber" by making things unpleasant for him.
I took a few fragments of Spanish fly paste, inserted it under my upper eyelids, and left it there for a few hours. On arising in the morning, I washed my face, but since there was no mirror in the armory, I could neither see nor know what harm this paste had really done. I simply felt a pain in my eyes. According to the rules of the Army, each morning the "Feld Feber" inquired as to who was sick, and, accordingly, one had to report any illness then. I called out that I was ill, and when he inquired as to the nature of my ailment, I showed him my swollen eyes, offering as my reason for the condition, the great strain I had been placed under the previous night while I was laboring under the knapsack. The "Feld Feber" was not pleased with the way matters stood, because he realized that he might be called to task for having meted out too strict a penalty, perhaps, beyond his jurisdiction. However, since it was unavoidable, he was forced to send me to the doctor for examination. Arriving at the Armory dispensary, where the doctor called and attended to sick ones, on spying a mirror, I looked therein and was frightened beyond words when I saw my two bulging eyes.
The sight brought me to my senses; not alone those in the profession, but anyone with the least bit of intelligence, would have surmised that I had perpetrated a ruse and a crafty trick. For having resorted to Spanish paste, a soldier could easily be thrown into prison for a few months. I was between the devil and the deep blue sea, and began seriously to ponder how I could extricate myself from a mess of my own making. Without a report of the doctor's examination, I was unable to return, but, again the truth that God provides the remedy before the catastrophe, worked out in my particular case. Waiting for the doctor in this troublous mood, a soldier approached me with an order from the "Feld Feber", stating that I should return with him, and not wait for the doctor's examination.
This change of heart was due to the fact that the "Feld Feber" was greatly worried at getting into trouble for having caused this aggravating condition of my eyes. I accepted the order with much relief and returned with the soldier. Arriving at the Armory, the "Feld Feber" met me with great joy, asking me for my pardon, and advising me to be patient until the morrow, when the condition would be apt to pass of its own accord. He further granted me, during my spare time, the permission to go where and when I liked. I thanked him for the privilege. The next day, my eyes improved greatly and, on the third day, they were normal. Thus the matter ended.
The general condition of the Jewish soldier in service at that time was a miserable one; he fared much worse than the Gentile soldier. First, as far as food was concerned, he had to contend with non-Jewish victuals, poor in quality, and prepared in an "unclean" manner, according to the Mosaic Laws. Secondly, the treatment of the Jewish soldier was not to be envied, for, from the lowest rank up to the highest, the common, ordinary soldier, at every opportunity, showed his hate and jeered at the Jew in uniform. Besides, in friendly discussions, the Gentile very often did not as much as call the Jew by his name, but alluded to him by the low appellation "jid", equivalent to our American "sheeney".
Naturally, such conditions could not engender in the heart of the Jewish soldier love or loyalty towards the military service. This harrowing condition threw many young Jewish men into great perplexity; many of them actually went so far as to mutilate themselves, in order to become unfit for military service, although by so doing they ruined their future existence! Even those who were already in active service were trying by all manner of means to make themselves unfit. For instance, one would pretend that he was short-sighted, when far-sightedness was necessary for marksmanship; one, that the was deaf; another, that he was idiotic, with the hope that the officers would free them entirely from service, or, at least, that they be transferred to the Department of Manual Trades. Quite often they were successful. the greater percentage of Jewish soldiers resorted to these methods. I, personally, did not follow an illicit course. I firmly decided to give the best that was in me, endeavoring to become the best soldier and not the worst. All the duties that were assigned to me while in service I tried to execute beyond my capacity; I attempted to perfect my work at all times.
During leisure hours, when all the soldiers were occupied with various games, I, too, participated, although against my will. For instance the favorite and most often-played game among the soldiers was called "Ijzgootah". A soldier would be seated on the sleeping bench, dressed in his overcoat, the lower flap of which was spread across his knees; ten or fifteen soldiers facing him would surround him in a semi-circle. One of the group, at random, would bury his head in this open flap, simultaneously placing both his hands behind his back, palms upward and open. One of the remaining group standing about, would slap the open palms of the one under cover. He would then arise, look about as he scrutinized the faces, attempting to guess who was the offender. If he guessed correctly, the offender exchanged places with him, expecting to receive a slap or more, in turn, as the case might be, from some other player in the group. However, in the event that he was unlucky enough not to guess the new perpetrator, he had to lower his head again and again until he finally was correct in his surmise. I, likewise, became one of the participants, playing both an active and passive role, as the rest did.
On one occasion, as my head was buried in the flap, a big, burly soldier in the group, instead of slapping my palms, as was customary, administered a heavy blow over my left kidney, with all his power. The pain was so intense, that I writhed from the effect. I cannot positively say whether it was intentional or nor (presumably it was done purposely), but irrespectively, I remember the occurrence to the present day, as my left kidney has ailed me ever since! This incident agitated me greatly; I did not know what course to pursue. Were I to refuse to join the play group by ostracizing myself from them, undoubtedly they would consider the action a slur of some sort. Besides, I was in constant association with them day and night; therefore, matters would become very unpleasant and uncomfortable for me. On the other hand, I considered that were I to continue playing this game with them, I might some day be unfortunate enough to receive, perhaps, what would be a death blow.
After giving the matter much serious thought, I hit upon an excellent idea. There were three Jewish soldiers in the Armory, including myself. I explained the situation to them and unfolded the following plan. I taught them a sign language which consisted of Hebrew names for the different organs of the body. For example, the Hebrew name for "ear" begins with the letter "A". "Belly" begins with the letter "B", etc., etc. I coached them thoroughly in the Hebrew A B C of the parts of the human body. With almost an imperceptible movement of the hands or feet, they were able to silently indicate to me the offender (the player who administered the slaps). After being fully coached, we participated in the games with a safe and confident feeling.
When it became the turn of one of the three of us to assume the lying position, thereby receiving the first slap (or blow!), that player immediately upon arising, found it necessary to only look at one of the two remaining Jewish soldiers, who indicated by way of the sign language, the offender. For example, if the player's name who was up, was Stephen, one of the two remaining soldiers of my group rubbed his shoe over so cautiously upon the floor, indicating by that movement the Hebrew name for "shoe" or "sandal", which commenced with an "S". The Jewish soldier who was "down" therefore "guessed" at once that the offender's name began with an "S". His "guess", under the circumstances, was always correct, which resulted in his forfeiting the penalty of lying down again. Without any assisting clues, such as we surreptitiously established, it would have become necessary for us to lay our heads down twenty or thirty times, perhaps, before any of us could determine the culprit. Thru this scheme, we protected ourselves very well. However, on several occasions when we played this game, the Gentile soldiers seemed to catch on that we never erred; the point of fact that only the Jewish soldiers always guessed right, mystified them beyond words. They therefore determined that henceforth they would no longer admit into the game any Jewish soldiers. The scheme I had originated helped to save me and the other two Jewish soldiers from what might have been a fatal blow.
No matter what hardships arose for the soldier during his service, time cured all ills. He eventually accepted his fate, well aware that at the close of three or four years he would become a "free" man again. However, the unpleasant excitement and furor which occurred both before and during the examinations, wrought havoc upon him, since these examinations were varied and frequent. As a general idea, take, for example, the matter of examination of the guns, the canals of which were examined for rust, scratches, etc., since such neglect might retard the flight of the bullets. To keep such a canal free from soot was not an easy matter, especially after shooting practice. Often it required hours to clean the canal and get it into good shape again. Dress parades were held frequently. The soldiers were lined up and surveyed from head to foot, by a high officer; he examined their apparel and bootery, to detect whether they met with regulations.
The Inspecting Officer often observed that many of the soldiers buttons were not glittering, that a ravel showed in the uniform. Sometimes, he found a neckpiece askew, or, perhaps, an improperly polished boot. Penalties were inflicted for such trifling misdemeanors. Because of the general condition of life in Russia affecting the Jews, and particularly because of the severe ordeal of military reviews and other regulations, the though occurred to me that it would be worth the attempt to desert the army; in fact, even Russia itself, in spite of the fact that there was only one more month left to serve in the Military. In this way, I could escape reenlisting and serving under the Czar as a Jew.
THE OPPORTUNITY THAT ENABLED BY TRANSFER FROM THE COMBATANT SERVICE TO THE MEDIAL CORPS.
I always gave my utmost in fulfilling my duties as a soldier, and succeeded, but in marksmanship I fell below the standard because of my nearsightedness. I was well-versed in the theory of marksmanship, but when it came to long-distance shooting, for example, eight-hundred feet, I was unable to see the circle on the target, with one eye closed, as required. I had to resort to the use of both eyes instead of using the right one only. In spite of that, I still fell short of the required percentage. My senior officer rebuked me for my inaccurate target shooting, stating that the most valuable requisite of a soldier was accurate marksmanship. A soldier lacking this ability was not worthy of the name, he said. When I explained to him that the cause of my poor marksmanship was my nearsightedness, he ordered that my eyes be examined. Upon this being done, it was discovered that my sight was only forty per cent normal, ruling me unfit for combatant service. The senior officer then intimated that he would try to have me transferred to the Medical Corps. This he was able to effect. In April 1882, I was entered in the Preparatory Branch of the Medical Corps, located in the Military Hospital in Grodno. I stripped myself of the arms and accouterments of the Infantry soldier, and escaped thereafter all the concomitant misery attached to that branch of the service.
THE MEDICAL SCHOOL
The "Feldcher" School was divided into two classes, each of which required a year's study. The pupils of both classes comprised eight in number, three Jewish pupils among them, of which I was one. One commissioned officer in charge supervised us; there were no non-commissioned officers in our section. This officer, however, left everything to us on our honor, trusting to our intelligence and loyalty that we would cause no disturbance. For several hours daily, a military doctor arrived who delivered a lecture on medicine to us. The lecture of the preceding day was reviewed on the day following, and to it was added new data. The lecturer at the time in question was a Jewish surgeon named Burkman. He interspersed his talks with sarcastic remarks and stories giving us little medical information of true value. Fortunately, for us, the Russian Government, during this period, issued an edict that all Jewish surgeons who wished to remain in the service should be transferred to Siberia. Forthwith, the greater percentage of Jewish surgeons resigned from service. As I look back, it seems to me that it was a mean trick of the Russian Government to exclude from service the remaining Jewish surgeons in the Military.
Among the number who resigned was our lecturer, Dr. Burkman, and a Polish doctor was appointed to lecture in place of him. This doctor, named Milefsky, worked very earnestly. He tried to transmit to us all the medical knowledge he possessed. He gave so unremittingly of himself at these lectures, that often he actually reached a point of exhaustion, crying: "I'm tired!" Unfortunately, the pupil or student soldiers weren't wise enough to take advantage of the great opportunity offered them thru this free medical course, and they turned a deaf ear to these lectures. However, another Jewish pupil and myself were really earnest pupils. We, too, concentrated to the last degree in an effort to absorb the most minute details of the lectures. First, because of the scientific and enlightening material in itself, which alone interested us hugely, opening our minds and vision. We caught a glimpse of a vast medical perspective; our view of life broadened, filling us with greater compassion for the frailties of man. On the other hand, many of the pupils sought every conceivable method as a means of escape from the lectures. The third Jewish soldier, who was also registered in the study of medicine, was most indifferent to it, identical in his mental desires and leanings as the Gentile pupil, mediocre, to say the least.
Even on so holy an occasion as the Day of Atonement, when one is prohibited by religious law from holding any intercourse with the outside world, even on that day, I repeat, I managed to steal away to the lecture. I managed, however, to find a way of returning to the Synagogue during the day. The second reason for our diligence, which ranked in importance with the first, was the fear of the anti-Semitic feeling that existed in the Medical Corps, especially was plainly evidenced in the person of the highest officer, the Surgeon-General of the Military Hospital. It was he who had the power to demote or transfer any of the pupils to the Combatant Division, for no reason whatever. Just how deeply grounded was such race hatred in him toward Jews, I discovered shortly after my admittance to the Hospital.
The pupils were assigned, according to routine, the medical care of the ailing soldiers in the hospital. We worked at our posts in six-hour shifts. The very first week, after my entrance to the medical school, I was appointed to take care of the sick, and while moving among the bedsides of the ailing, on one occasion, the Surgeon-General passed me. As I paid him my respects, I accorded him the proper salute by standing at attention with hands fixed to my side. Following his gaze with my eyes, I detected, as he looked down upon me, that he was aware that I was a Jew, having particularly taken notice of my beard. He addressed me as follows: "You strike me as a Jew?" I answered him in the affirmative, affording him his proper title, to which he questioned again: "What are you doing here?" I replied: "I am carrying out my duties", to which he made the sarcastic response: "Yes, yes, I know how you Jews carry out your allegiance to the country." This hurried meeting between us plainly served as a foreboding, it seemed to me, in pointing out the fact that at the termination of two years, when an examination before the Board would be obligatory, I would have a very slim chance of passing it, in spite of high marks. It was plain to see why: The Surgeon-General was the chairman or presiding officer of the Board. I, therefore, decided to tackle my studies with even greater zest than usual, in order to obtain the highest marks at the end of the two-year period.
I studied continually, without a let-up, day and night, on holidays, Saturdays, Sundays, never allowing myself for a moment, the slightest amusement or recreation. Both the lectures and the homework which were assigned consumed but a very small fraction of my time, the rest of which I devoted to advanced medicinal studies, which were not embraced in our regular program. A good part of each day, I devoted to the practical application of medicine; for example, the dressing of wounds and the diagnosis of internal ailments, closely observing the medical prescriptions which the doctors prescribed. The effects of such prescriptions on the patients, I observed with keen interest. Likewise, the Branch of Anatomy, I sought for greater opportunities to improve my knowledge than the program called for. For instance, the curriculum prescribed that every pupil should be afforded the opportunity of dissecting the various parts of the body of a corpse during the two-year period.
At every dissection, various parts were assigned us for examination. As for me, the intervals were too few and far between, insofar as the dissection periods were concerned. I, therefore, evolved a scheme whereby I could gain more practice. The pupils, it seemed, cared very little, if at all, about dissecting corpses, due to the decomposing odor; I asked permission of them to act as their substitutes, they giving some excuse for not being able to attend, such as a cut finger, a scratch on the hand, etc. They were all eager and willing to cut their period in the dissection room; therefore, I received much experience at dissection, taking so active a part in that branch. At these dissections, the doctors used to supervise us in the laying open of any part of the dead body, as, for instance, the skull, the breast or the abdomen. They showed us how to proceed, how to take out the brain, the lungs, the liver or the intestines, and how to examine them. They would tell us to note carefully the diseased portions of the organ, explaining to us the cause of the illness which resulted in death. After that, we were given orders to replace the organs into the body and to sew up the incisions. As soon as the doctor in charge left, I managed to be left alone, at which time, I made other incisions in different parts of the body. In this manner, I proceeded for two years.
Naturally, I became quite skilled and thoroughly acquainted with the human body; I might add, as skilled as a religious Jew in the Prayer of "Ashray". Likewise, in Pharmacy, I also became well-grounded, practicing quite a time in the Pharmaceutical Division; at the end of two years, I knew almost as much about medicine as a recent graduate from a medical college, with the exception that I lacked all knowledge of Women's Diseases. Especially successful was I in healing external wounds. At the time I entered the Preparatory Branch of the Medical Corps, many interested friends proposed different parties to me who had much more money than my financee's parents had promised me. I gave the matter serious consideration since, during the long period that I was engaged to my fiancee, I became aware of certain shortcomings in her household. However, after reconsideration, I decided not to change my original plans, as it might "Break the heart" of my fiancee and her parents also. Furthermore, since I had registered as a married man on entering the Military Service, I decided to take the vow as soon as possible.
I AM ARRESTED
After my marriage, I was at the hospital during the day, always sleeping at home at night, with my wife. And everything was in the best order. However, at one time, in the middle of the night, the money-safe which was in the office of the hospital, was broken into and the watchman was chloroformed. A little later, when the watchman came to and noticed the theft, he naturally gave an alarm. The officers got into action at once and made an investigation of all the sleeping rooms of the attendants at the hospital. While examining the sleeping rooms of our ("feldcher") students, they were found to be asleep in their beds; my bed, however, was vacant. Inquiring of the others where I was so late at night, they replied that they did not know, since they did not wish to give the information that, since my marriage, I had not slept at the hospital. Naturally, suspicion pointed to me, but they didn't know where to find me. But when the officials visited the sleeping rooms of the clerical workers, they also found an empty bed there. Since there were now two suspects, they sent out a patrol over the city to look for both of us. Towards daybreak, they succeeded in finding one of the office clerks in a drunken condition, and arrested him at once. However, since he was drunk, no information could be obtained from him; and he remained under arrest until he sobered up. At about eight o'clock in the morning, when I came to the hospital, not knowing about anything, I was immediately placed under arrest. When asked where I had spent the night, I replied that I was married and had slept at home. Thereupon, two officers were appointed to escort me to my home and find out, first, if I really spent the whole night there and, at the same time, to search the home, where they might possibly find some clue to the theft. At the same time, the second suspect, the clerk, had sobered up after a good sleep, and he was questioned as to his absence from the hospital the previous night. After a few moments, he confessed that the watchman had been asleep at his post, that he had chloroformed him, and had broken open the money safe, from which he had taken a considerable sum and had gone on a drunken spree. He spent a portion of the money on drink and had the remainder with him. Naturally, I was tendered an apology and discharged with "honor". The offender was faced with a penalty of four years, and was sent to the "Arrestonsky Rote" (a section of the Military Confinement for Offenders). I, on the other hand, however, suffered much embarrassment and some inconvenience.
THE FELDCHER'S EXAMINATION
After two years of study at the "Feldcher's" School, at the Military Hospital, the examinations for the forty students of the second higher class began. Not one of the Christian students felt certain of passing the examination, simply because they had learned little during the two years. Only we two Jews were confident, notwithstanding the fact that the head examining doctor had resorted to diverse methods that we might fail. If at the time of the examination, each student was to be asked questions covering the entire course of study, it would, first, take up too much time, and, secondly, be unnecessary. Therefore, the entire course of study was divided in to forty parts, equal to the number of students to be examined. And every part was written out on a card, which included one part of Anatomy, one of Internal Disease, one External, one kind of Medicine and how to compound it, etc.
Presenting himself for examination, the student would withdraw a card from a box, being unable to discern the notations thereon. The withdrawn card would be handed over to the head doctor, who was also at the head of the Examination Commission, which consisted of all the doctors of the hospital, the chief of pharmacy and several military officers, about twenty persons in all. The head doctor, scanning the withdrawn card, questioned the student concerning the different subjects which appeared thereon, and according to the answers which the student gave, he received his rating. There were three grades, fair, good and very good. When my turn came (for the examination) and I walked over to the box of cards to withdraw one, the head doctor, seeing that I was a bearded Jew, remarked, "Wait awhile, I alone, will select a card for you." Can you conceive such brazenness?
In the high medical profession, that such gross injustice should be meted out to a Jew, that he should be robbed of his rights and discriminated against, was a great shock. The entire Commission was upset at this procedure, but had to keep quiet. The head doctor pored over all the cards in the box, selected one with the hardest questions, in his opinion, and began his query. But I was not afraid of him; I answered his questions confidently, courageously and punctually. Seeing that he could not trap me at anything, he began to put medical questions to me which were not applicable to our course and in which we were not versed. This procedure grieved Doctor Milefsky, our lecturer, who, addressing the General, remarked, "These questions are not applicable to the "Feldcher's" Program and he need not be able to answer them." Thereupon, I replied, "It is really not in our program, but I know the answers", and I gave them.
And, once again, the examiner asked me about something we had not learned, and I gave the answer. These devious tactics continued for an hour's time, and at each of my correct answers, the members of the Commission chuckled at the spectacle which took place. At the very end, after the examiner had excused me, and I had begun to walk away, he called me back and asked, "What would you do in a case where you find yourself with the soldier in a country place, and you ran short of castor oil, and must have it at once?" I answered with a smile, "I would add a small portion of Ôoleum crotalis' to ordinary oil, and this would produce the same effect as castor oil." He, thereupon separated his clasped hands and with a grimace said, "He cannot be caught", and yelled, "Passed". Nevertheless, notwithstanding my excellent replies at the examination, he also displayed, in my diploma, his anti-Semitism. In all diplomas, one of the three words, "Ohduvletvuritelnu", Chorushu", "Utchen Chorushu", (the English equivalents which are fair, good and very good was inserted. In my case, as a penalty for being a Jew, he gave me the lowest mark.
THE TITLE "FELDCHER"
When I received the title "Feldcher", I felt like one who had passed from slavery into freedom. My uniform contained two white narrow braids on each of my epaulets, which indicated my rank as Corporal (non-commissioned officer) and, as such, an ordinary soldier was required to salute me; that is, in passing me, he was obliged to raise his right hand to the peak of his cap ("nittel"), as a sign of respect to me. Naturally, I felt good because of this, and felt that I was already above an ordinary soldier; this was something worthwhile and supported my morale. I was now independent of the ordinary food rations, and received instead wages of eighteen rubles per month, as against ninety "kopeks" which the ordinary soldier received every three months. Beyond and above all this, I had no superior over me and, in my spare time, I was free to do as I pleased. The contrast was a marked one to my days of ordinary soldiering.
MARRIED WHILE IN SERVICE
While at the "Feldchers" School, there was no control over us students. We were free to go wherever we desired, at any time, and I took advantage each day, by going across the River "Niemen" (for one single kopeka) to "Fershtodt", where my bride resided. Naturally, I was eager to be with her as much as possible; and I enjoyed home-cooking, too. I was married in January 1884.
BACK TO MY DIVISION
Having received my diploma as "feldcher", I was sent back to my division to serve as "Division Feldcher". My duties were to accompany the division of soldiers and to be present at their maneuvers; at marching, shooting or gymnastics, to administer to any accidental casualties. For this purpose, I carried with me a satchel containing different medicaments, and also a large bottle of water. After the maneuvers, when the soldiers were returned to their barracks, I would usually go home, but I would return later to the barracks to sleep. I was held responsible if an accident occurring to any of the soldiers during the night was not taken care of, and I did not want to take such a risk.
Once, when the signal was given for evening mess, one of the soldiers wanted to cut a piece from his loaf of brad and, in his hurry, not being careful enough, he made a deep, long incision in his hand, with the knife. Fortunately for him, as well as for me, I happened to be present and immediately checked the flow of blood; I sent him to the Military Hospital for further treatment. If I had not been present at the time, the soldier might have bled to death within ten minutes; and I, alone, would have been held responsible for his death, by not having been on duty at the barracks that time. This incident made me conscious of the great responsibility which I carried, with little remuneration and, in addition, to the unfriendly treatment I received from my Gentile "comrades".
Another incident, very similar in nature to the foregoing, occurred a little later, when the soldiers were stationed at the camp during the summer, where no hospital for the sick was maintained. There was, however, an "okollodeck", which is similar to a dispensary. Here, sick soldiers, who were able to take care of themselves, were accommodated; however, they were not able to partake in military activities, being only in need of slight medical treatment, such as dressing a wound several times a day, or the like. Every twenty-four hours a different "feldcher" was appointed to attend to the somewhat sickly soldiers, as well as to the "calls" which came frequently from the soldiers' tents to the dispensary for a "feldcher" to call quickly for first aid to those who suddenly became ill in their barracks. At ten o'clock in the morning, the military doctor visited the dispensary and examined the newly arrived sick (soldiers), some of whom received a single treatment, only, and were sent back to their regiments; some were ordered to remain at the dispensary for a few days; only those seriously ill were ordered by the doctor to be sent to the military hospital in the military ambulance at two o'clock in the afternoon.
Once, at midnight, while I was on duty at the dispensary and sound asleep, a soldier entered hurriedly with an urgent call that I hasten to administer aid to a soldier who had become ill suddenly. I quickly grasped my satchel containing the medicine. Upon reaching the sick soldier he told me that, immediately after his supper, he did not feel well, but he did not worry about it very much; but now, in the middle of the night, he felt severe pains in the abdomen, and began to vomit and to retch for some time. I gave him medicine immediately to relieve the pain, took his temperature, and remained sitting hear him, waiting to see the result of the medicine. After an hour or so, he told me that his pains had left him, but that he felt very tired and wanted to sleep. Accordingly, I ordered that he be brought to the dispensary at nine o'clock in the morning for an examination by a doctor, after which I left. The next morning, at nine o'clock, when the newly appointed "feldcher" reported to take my place, I turned over the report to him of the previous night's occurrences, and went away. The subsequent treatment for the same sick soldier was as follows: He was taken to the dispensary the following morning for examination, and the doctor ordered him sent to the hospital. In the meantime, he remained at the dispensary until the ambulance arrived at two o'clock, but at twelve o'clock, the sick soldier began to experience extraordinary pains, and the "feldcher" on duty saw the necessity of sending him to the hospital immediately, without waiting until the usual two o'clock. The sick man was taken to the hospital reaching there at one o'clock, and at exactly two o'clock, one hour later, he died.
All of this I read in the next day's bulletin ("pricahz") which was issued daily by military headquarters; and in the same bulletin an order appeared for the "feldcher" who had given the first medical aid to the sick soldier to report to the military office for a hearing, bringing with him at the same time, the medicine which he had originally administered to the soldier. I came to the hearing punctually and brought the satchel with the medicaments along with me. The examiner in charge of the hearing was the high military officer ("pulkuvnick") himself. After I had told him about the whole matter, and explained how I had attended to the soldier, giving all the details, he issued an order that the satchel with the medicaments therein be taken away from me, and that it be sealed and sent to the laboratory for an examination, to ascertain if the medicine contained any poison; and he allowed me my freedom until I would receive further orders.
In the bulletin of the following day, an order appeared that I be turned over to a military court for the offense which charged that I did not summon a doctor to attend to the sick man after I had found him in so critical and dangerous a condition. After reading the order in the bulletin, my heart turned sad. To think that I, who always attended assiduously to my duties with the greatest exactness, for almost no remuneration, should be dragged innocently into such a dangerous situation! However, the Jewish proverb, "God creates the remedy before the plague", turned out to be correct in this instance in the full sense of the word; for, eventually, I was released from this unpleasant occurrence.
THE SITUATION IN THE MILITARY MEDICAL STAFF
In the active military areas, a very strict discipline prevailed. Every command given by a higher officer had to be followed and carried out by the soldier with the greatest exactitude; no logic or argumentation was permitted as far as the soldier was concerned. In the medical areas, however, a friendlier atmosphere prevailed; the character of a conversation between doctor and "feldcher" was a discussion between equals. The "Feldcher's" opinion was recongized and given consideration by the doctor, if it was at all logical. At times, the friendship reached the point of such intimacy that the doctor addressed the "feldcher" by his first name.
When the incident of the sudden death of the soldier occurred, and the military authorities sought to place the blame on the medical men, it incited the entire medical staff of the divison. The Surgeon-General having read in the bulletin that I was to be legally prosecuted for my negligence in not having summoned a doctor for the sick soldier during the night, immediately summoned me to come to him and asked me to relate to him, in all details, concerning my visit to the sick soldier. When I finished, he asked me why I didn't summon a doctor? I replied that since I had sat at the bedside of the sick person for about an hour, and had been told by him that his pains had subsided and that he wanted to sleep, I was of the opinion that the crisis was over and that it was not necessary to summon a doctor during the night. The examining physician told me that I had handled this case most properly and that I had nothing to fear. In the event that a trial was begun against me, I was simply to make the same statement I had just made to him, no more and no less; and this would be enough.
Nevertheless, he was reluctant to have this case come up in court, and he thought he knew a way of preventing it. He told me to pay very close attention to what he had to say. He related that, in the winter months of the previous year, when the soldiers were quartered at the barracks, one of their ranks became ill during the night, and instead of summoning a "feldcher", a military doctor was sent for; in this case, a Jew. The doctor responded and found that the soldier was normal, but that he had over-indulged at the evening meal and had vomited the excess. On the following day, the doctor complained to the commanding officer that he had been unnecessarily disturbed in the middle of the night, and that it would have sufficed to have called a "felcher" instead of him. Thereupon, the commanding officer issued an order in the daily bulletin to the effect that, if a soldier became ill during the night, a "feldcher" was to be summoned and not a doctor. However, if the "feldcher" found it necessary to summon doctor, he alone, was to do so.
After the Surgeon-General related this case to me, he gave me an order to the "Military Archives" and told me to ferret out that bulletin and to bring it to him. I was to take as long as necessary and was to leave everything else to him. I went to the Archive and looked through the bulletins from September to November; and after a few hours, I found the bulletin which I brought to the Surgeon-General. The latter showed the Bulletin to the commanding officer, apprising him that his own order had appeared therein "that no doctor was to be disturbed at night, unless the "feldcher" finds it necessary to do so". Logically, then, since the "feldcher" , in this instance did not deem it necessary to summon a doctor, the "feldcher" was not to be held accountable for anything; he was not a doctor. And even a doctor, under such circumstances, might, possibly, not have handled the matter any differently.
The commanding officer probably saw that the Surgeon-General was right, for, in the bulletin of the following day, there was printed, in large type, "The Ôfeldcher' Moyshe (Moses) Efroiemovitch Trostianski, is freed from all court procedure in the case of the sudden death of the soldier, etc.
Thus, it would appear, that the case has been closed; however, had just begun. Someone was guilty in the death of the soldier; even the "feldcher" was exonerated; he may have been a poor diagnostician. But the doctor, who had examined the patient on the following morning, must have known the true condition of the patient. Why had he not ordered the patient to the hospital at once instead of allowing him to wait until one o'clock on the following afternoon? To this query, the doctor replied that he had given a special order to the "feldcher" to have the patient sent to the hospital immediately, but that the "feldcher" had neglected to do so. However, the "feldcher" said that he did not have a special order, but only a regular order. The military officers understood that the truth of the matter lay with the "feldcher" and not with the doctor, but since it would not have been good politics to have discredited the doctor's testimony, and a "sacrificial lamb" ("ah kahpurreh hindle") was certainly necessary, the "feldcher" had to be adjudged guilty. Since, however, it was known that the "feldcher" was innocent, he was given a light penalty, a matter of seven days "arrest"; and with this, the matter was closed. In the bulletin of the following day, it was reported that, at the autopsy of the dead soldier, it was found that the cause of his death had been "a perforated intestine."
THE REASON FOR MY EARNESTNESS IN STUDIES
The reasons for my earnestness in the field of medicine were two. First, my curiosity and unceasing interest for the knowledge itself, and, secondly, because of the broad field the subject embraced. It afforded me an insight into the wonders of the complicated mechanism of the human body.
MY SUCCESSFUL OPERATION
While still at the "Feldcher" School, during the second year of my study, I had occasion to perform minor operations on the sick soldiers at the hospital there, and sometimes treated venereal cases. Mostly, However, I preferred to incise wounds and treat infections; and I did this willingly, making good observations. In this way, I gleaned considerable knowledge in the matter of healing wounds. However, when I was stationed at the camp, I was given permission to operate on healthy tissue; and this was a new experience to me.
Let me describe in detail one of these operations. At the camp, where I was assigned as "feldcher", I came across a soldier in the dispensary who had a very large wound on the upper part of his left arm. This patient had been there for some time, and none of the remedies which had been employed to cure his wound had been successful. On inquiring into the case history of his old wound, I was very much interested and asked the doctor's permission to take the patient under my supervision for a short time; however, with the understanding that no other "feldcher" was to interfere. I was given this permission and began to employ my own methods. Twice daily, I rebandaged the wound and observed the result of my treatment. This procedure continued for a period of two weeks, at the end of which time, I noticed that the results were not at all satisfactory. This aggravated me very much, and I could not understand that an external open wound could not be healed; however, I was firm in the belief that I was especially skilled in the healing of wounds of all kinds.
After much careful and earnest consideration, I came to the conclusion that healthy strips (small pieces) of flesh should be grafted upon the wounded part to serve as a basis, a beginning for a subsequent cure. Upon the following morning, when the doctor arrived at the dispensary, and in the presence of the other "feldchers", I expressed my opinion and asked the doctor for his permission to perform the small operation. He concurred in my opinion and granted me the permission to take the revolutionary step. Without asking permission of the soldier, who was placed in a sitting posture, I proceeded with the case. Two "feldchers" held the patient's hands, and his feet were tied together. I cut a patch of skin from his leg, at the knee-cap the size of a "bub" (a large brown lima bean), and grafted this small piece of healthy tissue to the lower part of the wound, bandaging it well, and allowed it to remain undisturbed for three days.
On the fourth day, I removed the bandage, and was agreeably surprised. An entire inch in the area where the small healthy piece of skin had been grafted, had healed during the previous three days. I showed this to the doctor and he was astonished. I called to his attention the fact the wound was very large, and that it might take a long time for it to heal. It was, therefore, my belief that I should cut another small piece of healthy skin from the soldier's other leg, and graft it to the upper part of the wound. The doctor agreed with me, and I performed the second operation, as efficiently and quickly as the first. I grafted the healthy small piece of skin to the upper part of the wound and used the same treatment as at the first operation. In the course of one month, the wound had completely healed. Some time later, the doctor, commenting upon my work, addressed me in the presence of all the "feldchers", and said that I was deserving of a gold medal in recognition of the imagination I had used and the results I had achieved.
HUMOROUS AND DRAMATIC INCIDENTS
During my two years' term at the hospital, there occurred many humorous and dramatic incidents, a few of which I remember. Once, on a summer's night, I was standing watch at the bedside of a typhus patient, in a tent, situated in the yard of the hospital. He was restless and I watched him diligently. As he quieted down, I began reading a book, seated at his bedside. Suddenly, he sprang from the bed and grabbed a chair, attempting to hit me on the head with it. Momentarily, I caught him by both wrists, and with much force, finally landed him back into bed. I took no chances, however, and tied him to the bedposts with strong cord.
Comic scenes also took place in the venereal disease ward. At some stages of the sickness, the soldiers had to be circumcised. Such a situation, of course, could not happen among the Jewish soldiers. After such an operation, it was my custom to congratulate the sick soldier, telling him that he was half a Jew; and if he wanted to become a complete Jew, it would now come very easy to him. We had a great deal of fun also at the medical examination of those women known as prostitutes. In Russia, at that time, it was permitted by the Government to keep houses of ill repute open, provided that the women would appear every Sunday at the Military Hospital for continued examination. At these examinations, microscopic instruments were used, and those pronounced healthy were given certificates of health. The comical scenes which took place on such occasions can well be left to the imagination.
A YEAR'S LEAVE OF ABSENCE
During the first summer, while entrained in camp as a "Feldcher", I contracted rheumatism in my right foot, and I had no difficulty in securing the military doctor's permission to be admitted to the Military Hospital, where I was confined for a short time, with the result that I was relieved from military service for a year. This was called "na puhprahvkoo", or health improvement (convalescence). But there was price to be paid for the year's leave of absence, which amounted to only thirty rubles. This amount, sent through my wife to a physician who sat on the Doctor's Commission, which had jurisdiction over the absence leaves for sick soldiers. This physician expressed his opinion that I should let off for one year to the others; and they, with who I had been in intimate contact during the two years I had spent at the "Feldcher's School", and who knew me well, were not against this recommendation; thus I was given leave of absence for a year.
This leave was very important for me. In the first place, my financial circumstances were poor. While in the military service, I received a salary of eighteen rubles a month, which was absolutely insufficient to cover my needs, and certainly not those of a married man. Secondly, the greater significance for me lay in the certainty of my being entirely and permanently excused from service, perhaps, even in time of war.
Immediately after my release, I made a visit to the city of my birth, Goniondz, where I was received with honor by my relatives and friends, and especially since I wore the military uniform of a "feldcher". As soon as practicable, I requested information from my older brother, Yudeh, concerning the effects which remained after the death of my father, who had passed away shortly, during the winter, following my induction into military service. I also inquired after my own personal effects. I discovered that the things which were considered mine, had been left intact for me, but the valuable effects which had belonged to our late father, had been divided among the heirs my share of the heritage consisted only of two feather pillows. Later, however, I found out that the family needed money for my father's burial and other funeral expenses; hence, they had pawned the two pillows and all of my personal belongings. I was told that I could redeem them at the pawnbroker's. To this broker, I paid the sum of the principal of eighteen rubles and interest for two and a half years, which came to seven rubles, making a total of twenty-five rubles. I was glad to pay this relatively small amount since my personal belongings alone had a value of about two hundred rubles. I, also, received back the two large pillows which I inherited.
MY FREE YEAR
I did not waste time, but entered into business at once, and even though a beginner, I did very well. However, since I did not wish to lose my medical skill, I made it known to the people of "Forstadt" that I was prepared to give my medical services free to the poor, but would not treat those who were able to pay, since I did not wish to compete with the two professional "feldchers" in practice. Immediately after this announcement, my home became a veritable dispensary, any my patients were mostly poor children who were brought by their mothers. As I recall, after so long a lapse of time, all the patients whom I treated, were completely cured by me. I was very often called in for consultation by the other "feldchers" when they were confronted by difficult cases and, particularly, in the event of venereal disease in men; in this field, I had a great deal of experience during my two years' stay at the military hospital. I was well-remunerated by the "feldchers" for this service to them, since their patients were generally well able to pay them liberally. In the small city of "Choroschtsh", nearby, there was need for a "feldcher", and I received an invitation to fill this position. However, I decided not to continue with the practice of medicine, since business appealed to me more; and I therefore refused the offer.
I OBTAIN MY COMPLETE RELEASE
the year's leave of absence from the Army was over, I was obliged to
a medical commission for an examination, in order to ascertain whether
or not I
had fully recovered in health. Were I found to be in good health, upon
examination, I would have had to serve about three months more as
in order to complete my four-year term in the military service;
view of so short a period, it would hardly have paid me to cast about
to obtain an earlier release. However, if upon examination, I were
found to be
in good health, and returned to complete my four-year term in the
service, I would have been placed under the classification of
which meant that, in case of war, I was subject to call for military
until the age of fifty-five; and also, that during the whole of this
period, I would have had to be in readiness to report for military
the first call; this was not at all to my liking. Hence, I found a way
bribing the head doctor, who was in charge of the civil medical
was pronounced to be permanently unfit for military service and
received an "Utstovkeh" (complete release), which document I still have
in my possession. This precious document cost me only a few hundred