Bear Family Excerpts from Krakes

An extract from the late Ruth Potash's History of the Bear's
Written in 1991, Benoni, South Africa (Unpublished)

The Jews of Krok lived together not only for protection, but also because of the social life that evolved in the shtetl. The houses were made of wood and were situated in a square. The square in Krok was cobbled and every Wednesday a market was held there. The farmers of the outlying districts brought their produce -- flour, fish, eggs, live poultry, feed for horses and cows, and Wednesday was a busy bustling day in Krok. Amidst the houses surrounding the square were small shops, run mainly by the women, because whenever possible, the men spent long hours in prayer and study. Here were sold the basic necessities needed by the community. My grandmother, Taube Chaya Kelmovitz, had one such shop in which she used to eke out sufficient means to help her support her growing family, while Yankel Bear, her husband, was in South Africa.

Zodek Kelmovitz lived in what, to a child, seemed to be a large house. It stood in a prominent part of the village and at the back was a large area that housed the stables, and also had a vegetable garden. The vegetables grown there were stored in a cool cellar under the house, to be used during the long Russian winters. To enhance his prominence in the community (he was the Gabba) he had his own water-pump, a real status symbol, which he allowed others to use. The water supply of the community came from a well (situated on the side of the square) which the people stored in barrels at their homes. Every Friday, as Gabba of the Community, Zodek gave out bread to those in need. Alongside his house lived members of his family and houses abounded on all sides of the square. This mode of life accounts for the closeness that existed, not only between members of the family but also landsleit - people who stem from the same community. The accompanying map is my effort to depict the village, as described to me by Aunt Eva, who at the age of 92 (she will be 100 years old in 1998), gives evidence not only of a remarkable memory, but also of a very high intellect. The hours we spent together, while she described her early childhood and the area from which she came, were exciting and memorable.

Aunt Eva remembers very little of Zeide's forebears, because he left for South Africa and arrived in Cape Town in 1899, when she was still a babe, but for all that she has an amazing memory. Zeide used to deal in hides.

The house in Krok, like all the others, was small and made of wood, perhaps because they never knew how permanent their residence would be. There was a stove that warmed the house in the severe winters. The floor was probably made of dung mixed with clay, and polished to give a shine. In the winter months, my dad told me they had to accommodate the chickens in the warmth of the house.

Taube Chaya had borne many children. I think my father said there were nine. But there were little or no medical services. Aunt Eva remembers Dr. Gobrofski, a non-Jewish resident of Krok, who also attended the Jews of the town. For the most part they had only the services of a male nurse, Felser, and a midwife, Bobba Sora. The health conditions that prevailed in the shtetl necessitated the survival of the fittest. In one outbreak of scarlet fever, Taube Chaya lost two sons, Louis (9) and Zelig (5), and a daughter, in one week. Isaac, the only surviving son, was then 7 and a very strong bond existed between him and his mother. Probably like all other children,

he went to Cheder. The best description of what the early education in the shtetl entailed, was given in the first book of the trilogy by Shmarya Levin, Childhood in Exile. The boys at the early age of 4 or 5 attended Cheder from the early morning till the evening, under the eagle eye of the local melamed, who was not averse to using his cane. In Krok, the Melamed Shmuel conducted his school on the Lange Gasse.

After his Bar Mitzvah, Isaac was sent to a yeshiva in Kovno to study at Slobodka, a suburb of Kovno, which was joined to the city by a large bridge.

Life in the little villages, and Krok was one of them, was hard, but seen through the eyes of a child, Isaac remembered the various characters of the town. People weren't known by their family names, as they are now, but were either ben (son of) or referred to by nicknames. Of these he often spoke of Itzik the Parech, because of his matted and unclean hair, and Nossen the Fartzer. He used to burst into peals of laughter when recounting the story of Nossen's prowess. One day a rich man challenged Nossen to make 10. Nossen, lifting up a leg, duly performed. When the man tendered payment and wanted change, Nossen let fly a few more in lieu of change. Zelik the Geller, a horse thief, who got his name from his red hair, was another such character. Aunt Eva also remembered the excitement occasioned by the approach of Pesach, "All the Jews collected at Zodek's house to kasher the ovens. The ovens were heated to a very high temperature, and then water was thrown in. All the young people and the men then made and baked the matzohs." This gives credence to the fact that Zodek was an innkeeper, since he would have had need of large ovens.

Aunt Eva has a remarkable memory, and I am indebted to her for filling in so many of the gaps in my knowledge. One story she told me that when she was a very young child, about 5 years old, fears of a pogrom spread through Krok. The Jews living in the villages were subject to sudden attacks by their Christian neighbours or even by the dreaded Cossacks, the cavalry of the Czar. They killed, raped and burnt the houses. Aunt Eva remembers with the fears of a pogrom, all the children were collected and taken by wagon to a village about 50 miles away. She remembers standing on the roof of the barn jumping with excitement, to see if any fires had been started. In similar vein, my mother told me of being hidden under the bed or in a cupboard, as the Cossacks rampaged through the town.


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Ada Green Last updated: 08 May 2018

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