Plunge, Lithuania


Memories of Plunge

This article originally appeared in the March, 1996 issue of Jerusalem of Lithuania under the English headline: "There was once a small Jewish town in Zemaitija" and consists of reminiscences by Yakov Bunka as compiled by Hirsh-Zvi Smoliakov. Bunka, pictured below, is a wood sculptor who has created a moving Holocaust monument near Plunge (in Yiddish, Plungyan.) Photo by Laurence Salzmann.

I'm talking about Plunge, about the Jews of Plunge, and for as long as I live, I'll talk about them. For I am from Plunge, tried and true!" -- with pride speaks Yakov Bunka, a sculptor and wood carver, folk artist, known in Lithuania and abroad. "I was born here, spent my life here - went to school, got married, raised my children here, and here I am still. And what I'm about to tell you now, is just a minute part of what I could tell...

You can't say that Plunge was a puny little town. Between the two wars there lived about two and a half thousand Jews alone here. I say "lived." But you can't call everything living. Those who owned shops in the market square -- Goldvaser, Rolnik, Plungiansky -- probably lived. True, they were far from the Rothschilds, but they had accounts both in the Lithuanian bank in Telsiai, and in the Jewish People's Bank in Plunge. They were the top, the cream of the Plunge Jewish community.

To the town's "nobility" we could add three Jewish doctors, two lawyers and two pharmacists. And the list wouldn't be complete without Hasa Zaks. He owned the sawmill, the mill and the town's power station -- supplying Plunge with lumber for houses, flour for bread, and electricity -- in a word, everything a living being needs.

Not by chance did Plunge residents, Lithuanians as well as Jews, call 110v. light bulbs "Zaks", and thereby immortalized hi name. The honor I would say, is hardly something to sneeze at.

We also have the middle class of the Plunge Jewish community -- the little merchants, shopkeepers, craftsmen, synagogue attendants, and all manner of other half-slaves, half-beggars with great airs and not a little self-praise. Tell one of them that he's not much different from a real beggar, and watch he doesn't tear your eyes out...

I mentioned earlier that between the two wars, about two and half thousand Jews lived in Plunge. I knew almost half the town personally. But I won't talk about all of my relations and acquaintances, not, God knows because it would take a lot of paper, but simply because it wouldn't be interesting: most of the them were drab beings -- plain little Jews, on could say. Thought there were among them some interesting personalities -- exceptional, distinctive.

I'll begin with my own folk.

My grandfather on my mother's side, Mendele Ril, could, among other trades, cast spells. Do you know anything about this sort of craft amongst townfolk? No? I'll try to explain it to you. If out of fear someone's foot or hand, may he be spared, swells up like a mountain, if for no reason at all, a lump appears on the forehead, or the eye goes red and cloudy -- know that an evil eye is at work - "an ayin hore." Heaven forbid, don't go looking for a doctor, he won't be able to help you, he'll only make it worse. In that case seek the aid of a spell caster.

Jews and Christians not only from the whole of Plunge and surrounding districts, but from further towns, villages and farms as well used to call on my grandfather.

I remember one time, a farmer and his wife arrived from their village. In their cart, wrapped in a thick blanket lay their daughter. Her face was swollen and red as a beet. "You are our last hope," said the farmer to my grandfather. Grandfather performed his spells with the lemonade bottle, included a few additional circlings with his right hand about the patient's face mumbled something.. Within a week the same farmers again appeared at grandfather's house. The girl was unrecognizable - a beauty. They brought grandfather butter and eggs, a couple of hens, some cheese, vegetables, fruit -- a whole cart full.

Leibe Bunka, my father, a respected town citizen, one of two Plunge Jewish volunteers fighting for Lithuania's independence. For that he was awarded a "Freedom" medal, 8 hectares of land, lumber to build a house, a horse to work the land. My father did not turn to farming; he was an entertainer from birth. At Jewish weddings or other gatherings, he entertained people with impromptu couplets, funny stories and especially songs. He sang with great feeling, from the heart, with the help of an unusual "musical" instrument -- vibrating a match on an empty matchbox. Also, he was known as an advisor in legal matters; he wrote petitions for people, court appeals, other official papers, and all for free. Of course he didn't turn gifts away.

Having paid tribute to my family, I can with a clear conscience talk about other town residents who left an indelible impression on my.

Chaya Yose Noyakhs -- Chaya, the daughter of Yose-Noyekh --was a strapping, stout Jewish woman. On feast days she stood at the entrance of the women's side of the synagogue, and kept order; she didn't allow children without their mothers, chased away street urchins so that they wouldn't cause mischief. And she swore a blue streak. Curses followed every word. A kid pleads, "Chaya, let me into the synagogue to see my mom." Politely, nicely. But Chaya jumps on him, starts yelling, "Let you in you say? - May you let in a new soul, and throw your old one out to the dogs, Lord God of mercy!"

That's how she was, Chaya Yose-Noyekhs. Do you think she meant any harm? It's doubtful; that's just the way she spoke, nothing intentional in those curses she threw right and left...

Both Jews and Lithuanians called him Meisele Roizes. He was short and lean. His knees were as if knit together, so when he walked they clicked. Every now and then some strange sound would escape from his lips. He had a strange, amazing I'd say, ability to know the time without a watch -- he would be off by barely two or three minutes. In those days he was a real find for Plunge, because watches were not such an ordinary everyday thing. Not only kids, but bearded Jews and even serious Lithuanians would jokingly always ask him what time it was, and every time they'd get a fairly accurate answer.

There was one more extraordinary fellow -- Yankel der Bloyer, "blue" Yankel. A pitiable invalid with a shrunken hand and foot. It's hard to say whether it was because of some illness; probably a birth defect. His hands and face were blue, which is why they called him "blue" Yankel. He'd walk the streets with his little cane every Friday evening, tapping and calling, "Yidn-in-shul-arayn!" -- that is to say, "Jews, time for synagogue!"...

They were two sisters and one brother -- Flak. When God was handing out brains, He forgot to give them something, and they remained half-baked. Never mind, worse things happen no matter how hard one tries ... If only they'd have something in their pocket. But no -- the wind whistled through their pockets the same as through their heads. Still they managed -- the town wouldn't let them starve to death. They were quiet folk, didn't argue, or offend anybody. But let's face it -- a Jew cannot let many who don't offend him, pass calmly by. So a good time was had at their expense. A joke about the two Flak sisters flew from mouth to mouth ... One morning one of them wakes up and tells the other that she saw their mother in a dream. "Can't be," says the other. "I was awake and didn't see her. How could you see her asleep?..."

The eccentrics of Plunge ... one could write entire books about them. To not talk about them at all would be a sin, for it is they who color a Jewish town; without them life here would have been even more boring, drab and gloomy...

The Jewish town is gone. The Plunge of those days is gone. Ruined and demolished together with its resident Jews -- rich and poor, owners and servants, rabbis and cheder pupils, drivers and market women, along with the enlightened and the eccentrics.

There remains the notion of the "Shtetl" -- in cold scholarly discussion; there remain memories soaked in hot tears and blood, an unhealed wound.

"Jerusalem of Lithuania" is a monthly newspaper published by the Jewish Community in Vilnius -- modern-day Vilna. The newspaper is distributed in four editions: English, Yiddish, Lithuanian and Russian -- and is available by subscription for $50 a year.

The paper, part of the Jewish cultural revival that has taken place in Lithuania since its independence from the former Soviet Union, is a struggling enterprise, dependent on support from both the Lithuanian government and private contributors. I just heard last week, moreover, that the Lithuanian government may be withdrawing its support; Anyone with an interest in Jewish Lithuania, past and present, should consider subscribing or contributing in order to keep alive this voice, which reprensents a tiny living echo of a once-great Jewish community.

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