Memoirs of Jewish Lyakhovichi and its surrounding communities
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A Walk through My Devastated Shtetl
by Avrom Lev, 1952
translated from Yiddish by Dr.
Neville Lamdan, copyright 2007
To Go to Other Pages of this Reminisce click:
My Devastated Shtetl, Part One
My Devastated Shtetl, Part Two
My Devastated Shtetl, Part Three
My Devastated Shtetl, Part Four You are Here
My Devastated Shtetl, Part Five
Surname, Nickname, and Residents by Locale Index
My Devastated Shtetl, Part Four
After the two rows, we take a right to the shops of the (so-called) Yener Zait Mark [“Market on the other Side”]. There too, there was no lack of Torah scholars who were in business through their wives.
Here, for instance, is the shop of Reb Aron-Leib Kantorovich, a very ardent Koidanover chossid who for almost his entire life has been either in the Koidanover shtib'l [in Lechovich] or with his Rebbe [in Koidanov], while his tiny little wife, Dine-Rive, a mother of twelve children, trades and travels to the fairs - and consoles herself (with the thought that) thereby her husband will have a guaranteed place in the next world and that she will also have a portion in it!
There is the flour store of Reb Berl Mich'l Binyominka's. He is also a Koidanover chossid – a Jew of imposing stature and an exquisite prayer-leader in the High Holydays. When he prays, the walls actually tremble and with them, you understand, also the hearts of even the greatest apikorsim [religious renegrades].
Now we'll cross the large empty market (area) which, other than market days and fairs, when it is crammed with thousands of peasants, is so vacant and vast that it could be converted into a soccer field.
To its side, not far from the pump, is the old boarded-up shed of the Fire Brigade. It stands alone like an orphan, exactly as if it were somehow waiting for a “rehearsal” of a real fire. Inside there are vehicles for pumping water from a few small barrels located nearby, while on the walls hooks and ladders are hung around. But, for all the extinguishers, the situation would not be at all good if a fire were to break out, God forbid, because it then would turn out that the little barrels are generally empty, drained on summer days, while on winter days the water in them is frozen. In winter, the danger is understandably less because all the roofs are then covered in snow and fire has less potential. But summer is not good – fire burns at God's command.
* * *
Now let's go in the direction of Pesach Ditkovsky's corner house. The Vall [rampart] starts up before us, where to the right Asher der Zeigermachter's [the Watchmaker's] home stands, nestled in a wonderful apple orchard, while to
the left is Avrom'l Rasl's home.
Rasl is an exceptional Jewess. As unsophisticated as she is, she possesses her own grand philosophy of life. She counsels and warns everyone, for example, that one must seek health in small portions. When a daughter goes away from home to (live with) her mother-in-law, Rasl tells her that she should heave a sigh at meal-time there – then people will believe that she is ill and they will give her more! Moreover, when she is sitting at table on Friday evening with her children and her husband makes Kiddush [the Sabbath benediction] and cuts the challe [Sabbath loaves] for the Moitze [blessing over the bread], she should take for herself and her husband the white challe and serve the children black bread, explaining: “In any event, we are (already) orphans, sad as it is. We don't have fathers and mothers. Hence we eat challe. But you (children) have parents – they should only be healthy for many years. You can eat (plain) bread!” And if her husband becomes very ill and is on the point of dying, she should turn to him with a stern word: “No, my husband, it's not on! I will not let you die so quickly – you have a wife and children. You are not too ill to live”. And so she straightens him out – and he remains alive!
Here we move on. To the left, is Gedalyo der Melamed's house and, to the right, Shloime Rivkin's fine house – and over there is Miller's chemist shop which is surrounded by a green orchard with all kinds of prized fruits.
Even the greatest ”specialists” among orchard thieves did not dare slip in because of the huge, vicious dogs which were really ready to rip a man apart. Hence, cheder kids made do with pulling a little stick along the upright stakes of the long fence and then go racing off, making a frightful racket that drove the chemist's dogs crazy!
A little further to the left stands the town's hospice [“hekdesh”] that was built by the well-intentioned, compassionate Reb Idel Monye's – only that it is always empty, without sick people, without a doctor and a medical assistant, without life and soul. It serves only one purpose - on the porch of the hospice, the members of the Zionist youth party “Ha-techiyyah” [Renaissance] can sit there for free, discuss things at the top of their voices and sometimes even sing. But they have no one to disturb in the hospice because there is not one patient there in need of treatment.
Now, taking a couple of paces from the hospice, there rises before us our famous “mountain” which, in our childhood years, appeared so high and full of secrets. As related from generation to generation, that mountain was supposed to be the remnant of a large fortress of some Polish king. If one would be allowed to dig deep under the mountain, one would surely find “Korach's treasures” [Biblical allusion, Numbers 16:32]! Unfortunately, however, whatever the evil kingdom [of Poland?] left behind is not there (now) and hence awfully great riches have gone to waste. That “mountain” felt so terribly high to all of us youngsters. When we had successfully scrambled to the very top, the view took in the whole shtetl - far and away to the distant meadows and forests. Then, the whole world opened up before us.
Now let's go down from the mountain and come to our lovely little river, the “Medvieditze”, which is truly much smaller than the Dnieper and even the Pripet – but for us is so dear and precious! In summer, the mountain and the river banks are covered in green grass and completely crowded with playful cheder kids. On Erev Shabbes (Friday afternoon) they come here together with their fathers and older brothers. They bathe and swim. They often stay sitting a long time and marvel at the athletic feats of the strong swimmers – Mendl Saban, Motte-Shaiye Kashe (a soldier from the Russian-Japanese War [1904-05]) and Yosef'l Yisroel “der Yayetshnikes”. The first (Mendl) lies for a long time in the curren, placing his hands under his head and clenching a cigarette between his teeth; the second (Motte-Shaiye) swims with the current, holding a chair in his hand; and (the third) Yosef'l really swims like a duck in water. True, there are other good swimmers who make it to the other side of the river, as far as the “stumps” and bring back from there all kinds of river junk but they do not equal the first trio, especially not Motte-Shaiye Kashe who can even reach, under water, to Avrom'l der Klaymacher [the Gluemaker's] place, where women bathe …
Oh, what blissful pleasure we, cheder kids, used to have beside the river! Dear little Jewish children, how little you needed to derive joy from God's world!!
Now let us take our leave of this enchanted corner of our childhood years and go back to the “Vall” (the Rampart).
* * *
Going through the back alley, we come out to where the “Sanitarians' Street” begins. It is actually difficult to know how the street came by such a name. Does it come from the word “sanitas”, meaning “health”; or does it come from the time of that [ancient] king who was allegedly crowned here and designated this place of sojourn for his most important offices and sanatoria? Whatever was or was not the root of its name, for us the road became (the shtetl's) “Main Street”. It was the street where our Lechovicher Jews went to stroll on Shabbes and Yomim Toivim [Festivals], although the local Christian inhabitants in that street were not at all so very welcoming to the Jews as they walked along in the evening hours. At the most ideal time for strolling, they would take to sweeping or cleaning the street in honour of their holy Sunday and thus send a heavy (cloud of) dust up to heaven, to the point of suffocation. Our Shabbes-Yomtefdike Jews [dressed in their Sabbath and Festival best] would make a whole little detour and once again stroll to and fro the whole length of the street – from Reb Moshe-Mordechai Tokatshinsky's house to our Lechovicher “university”, the village “Shkolke” [primary school] with two grades.
On summer evenings, our young people aren't prepared to be satisfied with that [strolling down “Main Street”] and (so) they let themselves go further, reaching as far as the “Postovniker” forest, where they sit around for a very long time, resting from the long walk. Here, in the forest, far from the town, they let themselves go a little and swing on a rope tied to the trees. Here they drop in, on occasion, on the forest agent and grab a bite of something – a plate of milk curds with black peasant bread or just a cold drink of water. In the depths of the forest, young boys and girls sometimes have a modest flirtation. Later, with nightfall, they return home – dog-tired but very happy!
It seems that even in mid-week this street [Sanitarians' Street or “Main Street”] is cleaner and more lit up than all our (Jewish) streets, except for Pinsker Street. The shtetl's intellectuals come here for a stroll even on mid-week evenings. Brides and grooms also stroll here to “look over” one another. In addition, the very few well-to-do balle-batim reside here – such as Reb Moshe-Mordechai Tokatshinsky, Reb Mich'l Binyominke, Zundel Barnak, Berl Bekovich [= Berkovich], Gershon Lis, and the families of Maizel, Litovsky and Leibke Rozovsky with his wife Hanya (good people who are prepared to sacrifice themselves for someone else).
A little further on are the residences of the local Polish doctor, of the Christian medical assistant and of the town's
state officials together with their institutions, such as the “Volost” Office [a “volost” was an administrative sub-district] and the “Volost Court”, the “Zemske Oprave“ (local administration), the “Kholadne” (house of detention) where a thief or a drunk goy spends time. Almost every Friday they bring criminals here in batches. They draw the attention of all the storekeepers of
the “Between the Shops” area and all the others who stare at the new arrivals with curiosity.
The Commissioner also lives here with his twelve agents who were specially sent (to Lechovich) from the high authorities of the Empire. They have to guard against any shop being broken into again, God forbid, after the “Monopol” [state liquor store] was once burglarized on a Sunday market day with the unexpected arrival of peasants who were incited by the shtetl's Jewish revolutionaries, with Feivele Rivkin and the red-headed barber, Avromele, at their head.
And here, at the far end of the street, resides Shmuler der Advocat (the lawyer). He goes around on weekdays dressed up as for Shabbes, in a black frock-coat, a white collar and a hard hat. (He has) a broad golden ring on his finger and smokes Viennese cigars. An educated Jew, with lots of children. His wife goes the whole week with a little hat on her head, as would better befit the wife of a big town lawyer. People even whisper under their breath that she does not say no to having a flirtation with an outsider and that the reason for that is her husband, “the advocate”, who is often given to the bottle!
Dear “legal expert” Shmuler, you know the law concerning every criminal but not about your own wife!
* * *
If we go back a bit, we come out to the start of “Death Road”, which stretches far and away to the “New Cemetery”, while having to its side, on the left, the “Old Cemetery”, which is filled up with the graves of great Rabbis and Rebbayim [chassidic Rabbis] who draw their yiches [high family status] from the Baal Shem Tov [the founder of Chassidism] himself.
It seems that no prominent Jew lives on Death Road, except for Reb Shachne Buchbinder who deals, as it happens, in dry bones and old rags. Why is the street devoid of well-to-do folk? Who knows! Perhaps prominent people shun this kind of a street so that their money will retain more value in their eyes and perhaps nature has discovered that here is the most appropriate place for the poor and the oppressed, so as to emphasize more sharply the meaning of the verse (where it is written) ”the poor and the indigent are of the same import as the dead”. Yet how excited all the beggars become when a fire breaks out in the shtetl or the peasants get drunk and rough up the Jews a bit hard. Then, people in Death Road let themselves go wild with axes, mattocks, pokers – and show that they are (very much alive and) very far from death! . . .
Nu, dear Jews from Death Road, did you put up a resistance to the Hitlerite murderers who turned our whole shtetl into a ghost town?
Now let's go up the other side of Death Road to (a section called) the “Weinger”, which actually stands before of the continuation of Death Road, with the small difference that the dirt and distress are greater (here). Crossing a small bridge, we come out where the “Shul Hoyf” [the “Synagogue Courtyard”] is located, with its two chassidic shtiblech [prayer-houses], the big community's Bes Medresh [synagogue; literally “House of Study”] and the Cobblers' and the Tailors' shuls [smaller synagogues]. From here, Jewish prayers, chassidic melodies, Shofar-blowing and ecstatic dancing and hand-clapping have been heard on Shabbes and Yomtef over long generations.
Especially when the Koidanover Rebbe used to come to the shtetl once a year - then, vey, vey, what a rumpus was kicked up here, in this corner (of town). The whole Shul Hoyf was thrown into complete turmoil. The Koidanover shul was too confined to accommodate the huge crowds of Jews who gathered to catch either a little word of Torah or a few shraiyim [crumbs from the Rebbe's table] or just to have a part in the holy celebration.
I remember how once at such a celebration I almost caught a slap from my father, Dovid-Shloime, a passionate Koidanover chossid, when out of the blue I asked him how a saintly Jew was permitted to countenance such Jews, who would become frenzied, leaping before him with such fervour, and singing and dancing and clapping their hands like crazy people and why did he not shun that kind of “honour”!
“You 'Shaygetz'!” [ignoramus], he shouted at me very angrily. “You're deficient! … don't you understand yet that the Rebbe has to live in great style, because the honour done him is not (actually) for him but for the Holy Torah and for the Almighty whose faithful envoy he only is!”
How much life has welled up in that corner (of town)?! Here klezmer [Jewish musicians] have played so often, accompanying young couples to the chuppe [marriage canopy], which was set up near a famous (wedding) stone. Here heart-rending wailing has often been heard, as has the bitter lament of relatives accompanying their dear ones on their last journey. Now no singing and playing is to be heard – nor lamentation. Now, it's (utterly) still and silent, exactly as though the cemetery had been transported here and engulfed the whole place.
* * *
Only let's be strong, brothers, and go on. We take ourselves off through a little side-alley and come to where Kletsk Street begins, at the far end of which stands the well-kept house of N'yome Zayetz, a hefty Jew who, thanks to his ability, had become a respected contractor for major state entrepreneurs.
A couple of paces more and we arrive at the house where the cradle of the “pride of our shtetl” stood. Here, our famous Dr. A. Mokdoni (or, by his real name – Sander Koppel) was born and raised. A son of parents who were not at all well off – his father was a melamed in the poorest district and his mother a respectable Jewish woman, always toiling in her bakery. Thanks to his great abilities and extraordinary energy, he (Mokdoni) completed his studies in Russia and abroad, obtaining the title of Doctor of Philosophy and thereafter, “like a storm” immersed himself into the most important period of Yiddish literature from its blossoming and development - and straightaway assumed a place among the greatest writers and journalists. He was especially appreciated as one of the best and most gifted critics of dramatic art. It is not an exaggeration to say that his word in this field became law and, at that time, on his word depended the fate of more than one show and its actors into the bargain.
Our great fellow citizen and brother gained no little honour for us. How happy we are that he is alive and with us, nowadays continuing his great and fruitful work in America. Let us then wish him, in the name of all the survivors, that he should enjoy a long old age together with us and be as a consolation in our despondent mood.
Now let's go on. We proceed by the stone house where Reb Shimshil Mintz lives with his family. He is a Jew who is always (spotlessly) clean, a pleasure to behold. It does not need to be mentioned that he has been a widower already for a good few years. His daughters care for him so that, God forbid, he shouldn't lack anything – even though it is not easy for them, because by nature he is quite a strong-willed Jew. And he is felt in the house even in his absence, (for example) when he is in the forest for business reasons [dealing in lumber?]. Altogether, that family was one of the most progressive in the shtetl.
Further down stand the houses of Reb Hirshele Mass, Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Ratzkevich and Rabbi Meir Paymer, about whom our (colleague) Dr. Avigdor Grinspan has so much to tell [elsewhere in the Yizkor Book].
And here is the stone house of Reb Noah Lios, a very big pelt merchant and equally a fervent Koidanover chossid.
A little further along is the long yard of Reb Shaiyel Zmudziak, also a big merchant who does business as far as Lemberg.
Opposite is the wood merchant, Reb Pinye Berkovich with his fine children - not far from Reb Chayim Shifris, the Melamed, or “Chayim der Nesvizher” [from the nearby town of Nesvizh], a dear, calm Jew. He had the privilege of having his son in the famous Kevutza in Eretz Yisroel – Deganya Aleph [a Kibbutz founded in 1909].
We go a little further on and come to the Lechovich “museum” – I mean to the house of Reb Shloime Potshtalion. I call it a “museum” because, just as it is impossible to be in Moscow and not see the Kremlin, or to be in Paris and not see the Louvre, so it seems to me that it is impossible to be in Lechovich and not visit Reb Shloime Potshtalion's goyyish-looking, tumbledown abode. He is called “Potshtalion” [= postilion, in English] because he has a special concession from the local postal service to distribute the mail which arrives in the shtetl. For this concession, he puts at the disposal of the post a harnessed horse with a fine bridle and with a coachman, who drives twice a day to the railway station, transporting the (incoming) mail here (to town) and taking the (outgoing) mail back (to the station). Reb Shloime Potshtalion's horse with its bridle and bells runs through the shtetl, with the non-Jewish “whip-cracker” in front and a Russian official behind with a revolver at his side – and everyone knows exactly what time it is: here – at nine; and back - at ten.
In the morning, the incoming mail was handed out by Reb Shloime near the post office very quickly. Only leading merchants, who are awaiting their business correspondence, come to collect their mail. But the evening mail distribution is completely different. Then, it is not the merchants who come to collect mail but their adolescent sons and daughters whose parents' business matters do not interest them in the least. Only the business of meeting one another interests them. Here, the encounters take place not by the post office and not in the morning – only in the late evening hours and inside Reb Shloime's house. No harsh words [from their parents] had the power to put an end to the young people's (daily) trip to the post. Day in, day out, Reb Shloime's house is crammed – a pin could not be inserted.
One talks, chats and wise-cracks. Having nuts in one's pocket is altogether great – one peels and cracks them at full blast, especially when the weather is fine (and) the heaven is studded with stars! Then, the house is completely full. The porch and even the yard is packed with young people who hang on the windows as if glued to them and ostensibly listen carefully to Reb Shloime as he calls out the addresses from the letters.
It is not easy for Reb Shloime to do this. He devotes himself to his work just like a Priest to his Holy Office [in the Temple]. Having spent the whole day (working) across the shtetl distributing the mail to the houses of the addressees, he is fatigued in the evening and so takes a nap until the non-Jewish fellow turns up with the mail from the station and lays the big bag on the table. First, Reb Shloime comes out of his narrow cubicle, sits himself down in front, pumps up the flame from the kerosene lamp (except, you understand, on the Friday nights when the non-Jew and one of his sisters call out the addresses), wipes clean his glasses before he places them on his nose, begins to take the letters out of the bag and takes to reading aloud the names from the addresses. He calls them out not exactly as they are written on the envelopes but according to his own peculiar system – not “Gospodin Yudeliev Litshitzkomu” [in Russian] but “Reb Yidel Litshitzky”; not “Gospodin Duchovnomo Ravino Israil-Davidu Ratzkevichu”, but Rabbi Reb Yisroel-Dovid Ratzkevich”, and so on. It doesn't make a difference – the “congregation” understands what he means well and every time a voice is heard from another direction, saying “Give (it over here), Reb Shloime”, Reb Shloime sends the bespoken letter straight over the heads of those standing near him until it reaches the addressee.
And when no letter is received, it does not matter because not for the letters alone does one go to Reb Shloime. Over there, for example, a young couple sits on a little bench a bit removed from Reb Shloime's house: they are not even listening as the addresses are called out - they sit together, cozy and quiet. Suddenly, they look up as Chayim-Ezrielke goes by with a turned-up collar – and the young couple knows very well that now he is going to his gypsy girl who lives at the very end of the street. That interests them more than the mail!
Oh, who doesn't know Chayim-Ezrielke? And who doesn't know his gypsy beauty, whom he picked up from a band of gypsies who were traveling by. The gypsy girl has fallen deeply in love with his burning eyes and black moustaches and his whole body which is bursting with strength and energy …. It is of Chayim-Ezrielke and about similar things that the young couples chat with gusto while they are waiting for the post.
Dear and decent Reb Shloime, whether or not you knew the real reason why the young people used to come to your announcing of the mail, you pretended not to know and you became, unwittingly, the shatch'n [marriage broker] for many couples, a thousand times better than all the local shatchonim! You should only have a radiant “Garden of Eden” [after-life] in return for the holy mission (you performed).
* * *
Click here to go to My Devastated Shtetl, part 5
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Lyakhovichi Residential Neighborhood called the Rampart (or the Wall) a neighborhood for established merchants' "fine residences" - we find the Ditkovskys who had a leather business, Shlomo Rivkin described as "the wealthy manufacturer", Asher the watchmaker and Miller "the Polish chemist," on this block and their homes are surrounded by orchards.
We come out to the start of “Death Road”, which stretches far and away to the “New Cemetery”, while having to its side, on the left, the “Old Cemetery”, which is filled up with the graves of great Rabbis and Rebbayim [chassidic Rabbis] who draw their yiches [high family status] from the Baal Shem Tov [the founder of Chassidism] himself.
...There is Miller's chemist shop which is surrounded by a green orchard with all kinds of prized fruits. Even the greatest ”specialists” among orchard thieves did not dare slip in because of the huge, vicious dogs which were really ready to rip a man apart. Hence, cheder kids made do with pulling a little stick along the upright stakes of the long fence and then go racing off, making a frightful racket that drove the chemist's dogs crazy!