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Selected excerpts from "Adventures of Life", the memoirs of Pauline Podlashuk

Pauline Podlashuk
Adventures of Life (2010)

Pauline Podlashuk was born in Shavli in 1881 to Zalman and Liebe Podlashuk. When she was 21, she emigrated to South Africa to join her brothers. There she helped found the Woman's Enfranchisement League of the Transvaal, acting as its first secretary. She also met figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Pixley Seme, founder of the ANC. Later she studied medicine in Glasgow, and then returned to South Africa to work as a general practitioner. She told her life story in Adventures of Life (2010) edited by her great-nieces Effie Seftel and Judy Nasatyr. Below are excerpts from her memoirs, selected to give some idea of various aspects of Jewish life in Shavli from 1881 to 1923.

A few copies of Adventures of Life are still available for sale. If you would like to purchase a copy, please contact the webmaster, who can put you in contact with the editors.

Early days in Shavli

I was born in a town called Shavli in the province of Kovno in Russia. [...]

We were not well off and lived in a small house in Garden Street. In front of the house were two old chestnut trees. There was also a whole row of chestnut trees behind a tall stone wall, which ran along a high pavement where children used to collect chestnuts in late summer. Behind the wall and the trees were stables belonging to the estate of Count Zoubov. Our house, together with others in a yard at the back of our house, had at one time been part of the Zoubov Estate.

The first Count Zoubov was a favourite of the Empress Katherine the Great of Russia and was given land in this part of the Empire. The Zoubovs built up the estate. There was a large park that was open to everyone, and big grounds with a palace, flower gardens and orchards where the towns-people could buy the choicest fruit. Further down in Garden Street, beyond the big gate that was the entrance to the estate and the palace, were some nice houses with gardens, and a girls' school. At the very furthest end, and it seemed very far away, were soldiers' barracks.

Shavli was a largish garrison town. A regiment of Russian soldiers was stationed there. The soldiers would come marching past our house. They always sang Russian folk or marching songs that we children loved. We learnt to sing many of them. They were most melodious and so different from the mournful wailings of the Lithuanians that we heard every time a Lithuanian funeral procession passed the same way. There were no Lithuanian soldiers in Shavli. The Lithuanians served their three years' military conscription far away from their homes somewhere in central Russia or in the Caucasus.

Having a garrison of soldiers with a colonel and a number of officers with their wives and children who all spoke Russian, the town was Russian. There was a Noblemen's Club, an Officers' Club, a Russian Gymnasium (high school) for boys, a private Russian Gymnasium for girls called The Pension, and a Russian Gymnasium for Jewish boys. There were no Lithuanian schools and I do not know how they maintained their language. In all government offices only Russian was spoken but in the streets one heard many languages, including Polish. The peasants all spoke Lithuanian, which I could not understand.

The main street in town was called Nevsky Prospect after the famous street in St Petersburg. There were many shops on the street. In the late afternoon and evening people would promenade up and down, officers and students mixing with the crowd. In summer the popular promenade was Count Zoubov's park. Once or twice a week a military band played in the wide long avenue of chestnut trees that had stood in the park for the last two centuries.


When Pauline was 9 years old, her eldest brother left for South Africa to avoid conscription, and she moved with her parents to the Ukraine. After her mother's death, she returned to Shavli to join her older sisters Golda and Deborah. Golda was married to Hirsch Schitz (mentioned later in these excerpts).

Back to Shavli

Pauline Podlashuk

[...] My fate seemed uncertain as there was no full gymnasium for girls in Shavli. One was being established starting with the first four classes and adding another every year. I joined the fourth year class which was the highest then.

The curriculum in all government schools was uniform throughout Russia. The teachers in Shavli were well-trained university graduates who lectured or taught in their own speciality. From the fifth year onwards, the teachers were all men. All were Russian, except for the teachers of languages who were French and German. This was similar to what I had known in Nezhin so I felt at home in my new school. The composition of the pupils was however different. The majority of the girls were Polish or Lithuanian. There were many Jews and perhaps a dozen Russians, daughters of civil servants or army officers.


The headmistress of the school Mme Hildebrandt was a strict woman of German origin. She paid frequent visits to the different classes to see that the girls took no liberties and that they were tidily dressed. We all wore uniforms and she would not allow anyone to use a different style or colour of dress. The hair of the girls had to be tightly combed back. I was sent to the cloakroom several times for a maid to tidy up my unruly wavy locks.

[...] At about the same time [...] I joined a small circle of girls and boys from the gymnasium. We read books by famous Russian literary critics with a revolutionary bias, like Bellinsky and Tchernishevsky. Occasionally someone would bring to a meeting an illegal or prohibited book like Tolstoy's What is my Belief? or a copy of the revolutionary journal Iskra (The Spark) which was published in Switzerland. There must have been a guiding hand behind this circle. Who it was, I never knew. Our minds were being trained, despite the vigilance of the school authorities, to become liberal and ready to fight for a free Russia.


After finishing school, Pauline emigrated to South Africa in late 1902 to join her brothers there. She helped form the Woman's Enfranchisement League of the Transvaal, becoming its first secretary. She translated the last letter from Tolstoy to Mahatma Gandhi, and met Gandhi and Pixley Seme, founder of the ANC, on the Tolstoy farm. She returned to visit Europe in 1912.

Shavli 1912-1913

Count Zoubov's Palace

Entering the town, I eagerly looked for old landmarks. The streetlights were on but they were dim and everything looked strange. Buildings seemed to have shrunk, or was it the bad light? [...] A day or two after my arrival, I went with Zillah [Golda's daughter] to see what the town looked like. The old buildings that I once thought big now appeared small and shabby. The whole Zoubov estate had been taken over by the town. The large old residence, the palace, was now the city library. [...]

Last days in Russian Shavli

The winter was rather late that year. On New Year's Eve there was still not much snow. That evening I went with Zillah to a party given by some of her friends. Most of the visitors were young people. Some were home from their universities for the winter vacation. One young man had already taken his degree as an advocate. When he heard that I came from South Africa, he wanted to know all about that country. He was impressed by my account of the freedom enjoyed by white people and the opportunities every white had of making a living and rising from humble beginnings to wealth. “Here in Russia,” he said, “there is no air to breathe. One only knows how to bend one's head and be thankful for not having one's life or living taken away – particularly as Jews”. [...]

As Zillah and I walked home from the party where we celebrated the arrival of 1913, we found that winter had also arrived. Snow was falling heavily. The following morning it was still snowing and everything looked white. After a few days the sky cleared and frost set in, displaying the beautiful panorama of winter. The forest in the distance, the houses and the gardens were all covered with a white velvet carpet. The sun was shining and the temperature was below zero. On the roads we saw and heard the sledges drawn by horses with small bells on their necks. Zillah and I went for a walk in Zoubov's park where a great transformation had taken place since summer. On the wide lawn that had been green in September, there was now a covering of ice. Young and old people, school boys and girls, and many officers and their ladies were skating on the ice, gliding up and down. Several times a week the military band played there. It was all so lovely and gay and one could certainly not imagine that in less than two years the place would be occupied by the Germans and the inhabitants would be forced to leave Shavli.


Pauline returned to South Africa, where she worked at various government offices, when the First World War broke out, followed by the Russian Revolution - both mentioned in the following excerpt.

News from Russia

[...] At the beginning of the war we were naturally worried about Golda and her family because Shavli was a garrison town almost on the German border. The Russians were not at all happy to have a large and potentially hostile Jewish population so near the German border, and gave orders for the Jews to evacuate the Lithuanian towns and villages. As there were not enough trains to transport them all to the interior of Russia, many people in the border towns acquired horses and wagons. They packed what they could into the wagons and drove off. Golda and Hirsch also left Shavli in this way with all their children. They travelled east and south, mostly through forests. When it rained, the whole family sheltered under the cart. Eventually they were put into a goods train which took them to a town called Yeletz in the province of Orel in east-central Russia.

When they had settled down there, they were at last able to write to us. It was not for long, however. All communications ceased again when the revolution broke out. I only learned of their experience during and after the revolution in 1923 when I visited them in Shavli.


Eventually, Pauline convinced her family to support her studying medicine in Glasgow, where she began her studies in 1919. She returned to Shavli again for a last visit in 1923, between her third and fourth years of medical studies, and before returning to South Africa to practice as a general practitioner.

Shavli [1923]

Golda and Hirsch now lived on the outskirts of town in a small house attached to the small tannery that they owned before the war. They occupied the smaller part of a house that had been the office and their partner's home before the war. He still lived in the other part of the house.

[...] They [Golda's daughters] took me to town to see what Shavli looked like. It was a walk of three miles and the picture that met my eyes was a sad one. The houses that were not destroyed by the war were very dilapidated. The once prosperous town looked poor and drab and so did the people. My late uncle's tobacco factory was now the Lithuanian Army Barracks. The big walls surrounding the old factory were still there but Uncle's pretty double storey house looked shabby. I wondered if the garden at the back still existed. The only place that still had its old grandeur was the chestnut avenue in Zoubov Park. There were no military band concerts now, I was informed, but the townspeople still came there to walk up and down. There were few people that I knew from my visit in 1913. I had to be introduced to everyone we met.

In my childhood and youth, Shavli had been so Russian – a border town garrisoned to fight back a German invasion. Now it seemed entirely Lithuanian. At the beginning of World War I, the Germans occupied the whole western part of Russia, including its Polish and Baltic provinces. The Russians later took the territories back. At the Versailles peace conference, the American President Woodrow Wilson urged self-determination for the small east European nations. Lenin agreed to the formation of an independent Poland with Warsaw as its capital, the Lithuanian Republic with Kaunas as its capital and Latvia and Estonia with their respective capitals, Riga and Reval. These republics, which had been part of the Russian Empire for over a hundred years, now tried to efface every trace of their previous rulers. They re-established the languages and traditions of their forefathers. Most of the Russian officials left at the beginning of the war and did not return but some Russian civilians who sympathised with the revolutionary ideals of the local population were still there.

The Lithuanians were a peasant people living in villages and on small poor farms. They sold milk, butter, and cream as well as grains and vegetables in the towns. In the summer they also sold fruit, berries, and mushrooms but did not earn enough to live on. The middle classes in the town were mostly of Polish origin and occupied positions in government departments. There were, of course, many Lithuanians who became town people and worked well with the Poles. Many of the Jews who were expelled at the beginning of the war returned to their old homes. Most came without young people – they had either left Russia like my nephews or had remained in Russia as supporters of the Bolshevik regime.

Bureaucracy and Nationalism

Before leaving Shavli, circumstances forced me to get in touch with an old schoolmate Manya Sholkovskaya. I intended to visit my relatives in Riga before returning to Germany. I had a visa for Latvia and was getting ready to go. Unluckily, just when my visa for Lithuania was about to expire and I had to leave, I was bitten by an insect. My face became very swollen and I ran a high temperature. The local doctor said that travelling was out of the question until the swelling was down and I no longer had a fever. Hirsch went to see the police to find out what was to be done about my Lithuanian visa. He was told that I had to come to them myself despite the doctor's certificate.

When I was brought by cab to the police station the following morning, the Inspravnik (chief) would not speak Russian to me. I did not understand Lithuanian and he could not speak English. I did not know what to do and, feeling desperate, went home. Golda, on hearing my story, asked if I remembered Manya Sholkovsky. One of her brothers was a member of the Lithuanian Parliament and could probably help me. I phoned Manya who was surprised that I had been in Shavli for a fortnight without getting in touch with her. I explained that I had been ill in the last week and could not stay on because my visa had expired. I told her that I was still ill and could not leave either unless my visa was extended. I might even be arrested. I had applied to their local Inspravnik but he would not speak Russian to me and I did not know what to do. Could she help me? She said she would speak to her brother that evening when he came back from Kovno. The following morning she telephoned me to tell me that I should go to the Inspravnik again and that he would now speak Russian. When I saw that gentleman again and he had arranged for my visa to be endorsed in Kovno, I told him that I was surprised that he had forgotten how to speak Russian in three years whereas I remembered the language after ten.


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