GEDALIA AND ESTHER SPEVACK
When Gedalia and Esther Spevack were married in their home town of Tetiev, life was unsettled and precarious for the Jews of Russia. It therefore seemed reasonable for Gedalia, together with his brother Louie, to emigrate to Cleveland where an older brother, Baruch, had settled. Little did the young couple dream that when Gedalia left his wife and year-old son, David, that they would be separated for ten years, that World War I would cut off communication, that Esther and David would have to flee from the pillaged, burning city of Tetiev and take refuge in Odessa. Following the war, through the efforts of the Tetiever Congregation, Esther and David were rescued, brought to America, and reunited with Gedalia. Both Esther and Gedalia joined the work of the congregation, becoming pioneer members in its new home on Linn Drive where other members of the Spevack family, brother Baruch Spevack, and uncles, Kalman and Max Soroky and their entire families were active members. Gedalia was active in synagogue affairs for the remainder of his life, while Esther became secretary and treasurer of the Tetiever Ladies Aid Society. The couple had three children who were born in the United States: Leo, Margie, and Jerry.
By their childrenDAVID LEO MARGIE JERRY
By DAVID SPEVACK
How can I describe the village of Tetiev, the little town where I was born on June 5, 1912? It was a town like Anatevka, if you remember Tevye the Dairyman from the stories of Sholom Aleichem. There were about 80 houses circled about the middle of the town square. Rows of houses with small, narrow unpaved dirt roads that became muddy when it rained. I recall the small shop keepers such as the shoemaker, tailor, grocer, butcher, baker. Most of the establishments were right in front of each home or in the home itself with the family living quarters in the back. Most of the houses had three or four rooms, but for some of the more well-to-do, the homes had five to seven rooms. The houses were made of wood and I think some of they were made of stucco. The shul was in the middle of the town.
Tetiev was located in the southern part of Russia, close to the Black Sea and about one hundred miles from the big city of Odessa. My parents, Gedalia Spevack and Esther Soroky were married in this town. Life in Russia at that time was unsettled, with pograms and injustice to the Jews. It was really no place for a young Jewish couple to make a life for themselves and to build a future. Therefore in 1913 just a year after I was born my father, together with his brother Louis, left to seek his fortune in the United States. He told my mother that as soon as he made enough money he would send for her and me and we would live happily ever after. But it took many years before that promise could be realized.
My father and his brother came to Cleveland where their older brother, Baruch, had settled and also where many other relatives and friends from Tetiev had immigrated. Little did my parents dream that they would be separated for ten years due to the outbreak of World War I and the loss of communication. Of course my dad did not know that when he first came to Cleveland. He worked very hard and saved virtually every dollar to send us the passage money to join him. In just one year, 1914, he already had enough money to send for his wife and little son. However, the war cut off all communication and it was not until 1922, after the war ended, that our little family was reunited through the efforts of an agent who was sent to Russia by the Tetiever Shul to find members of families. That’s a story in itself. The agent found my mother and me in Odessa. However, he also found a little girl from another family. So, without telling anyone, he used our passports for the other family and my mother, the little girl and I came to the United States illegally although we did not know it at the time. Even though my father was a citizen, it took many years for my mother and me to become citizens of the United States because of this situation.
But, I am ahead of the story. My memories carry me back to Tetiev in my early years when my father was in the United States and my mother and I lived with my grandmother and grandfather, my mother’s parents. My Soroky grandparents... his name was Arel Leb and her name was Laika. . .had eight children. I recall that grandpa was a fairly well-to-do shoemaker. He was a very good one. He made boots to order for many of the wealthy Gentiles, who were called "Poritz" by the Jews. This is the home where my young years were spent and I can remember them rather well. It was a happy, lively orthodox home with Jewish customs, traditions and superstitions that my mother carried on in her home after we came to the United States and Cleveland. I played with my Aunt Iris who is one year younger than I (we were both nursed by my grandmother) and my Uncle Harold who was just two years older than I. We played as if we were brothers and sisters and, to this day, Iris is more sister than aunt to me. We played barefoot on the streets because our shoes were saved to wear on Shabbos. I remember we played a game with a wagon wheel, tag and hide and seek. I recall the Passover and Chanukah holidays and the Shabbos every Friday eve, when the smells of the home were delicious. My grandmother was a fantastic cook and baker and, even after she came to the United States some years later, she cooked for many big social affairs and her strudel, honey cake and sponge cake were her specialties. On Shabbos Harold, Manny, Yankel and I would go to shul with grandpa. He would carry his tallis and tefillin in a little black velvet sack. The rabbi of the shul was very respected and many people came to him to solve their problems. Those were happy days for me even though my father was thousands of miles away in a big country called the United States.
Harold and I went to cheder, but it lasted only for a very short while because of the unrest in Tetiev. One other thing I remember. I used to go with my mother to the marketplace on Thursday to buy vegetables and fruit and other things. My mother used to haggle over prices, but that’s the way it was. In my travels in the past several years I have found out that bargaining and haggling is still around in markets in many countries. By the way, my father’s father, Grandpa Spevack was a peddler with a wagon and a horse. He sold dairy products, but his main business was with fruits and vegetables. When I saw the movie "Lies My Father Told Me," when the little boy went with his grandfather on his horse and wagon to pick up second hand goods, I thought of the little boy that was once me because I remember that I too went to the countryside with my grandfather Spevack. He was a kind, loving man.
World War I was over and the armistice was signed. But in Russia civil war was raging. Many groups were fighting for power and the Jews, who had always been scapegoats, were harassed more than ever. There were many pogroms in the little towns of Russia where the Jews lived and the Jewish homes were looted or destroyed. People were murdered, women were raped, children were kidnapped and synagogues and shuts were pillaged and prayer books were burned. There were the Bolsheviks fighting the Cossacks and the Cossacks fighting the Bolsheviks, and the Jews were always caught in-between.
I witnessed bloody pogroms as a child and the memory of them is still in my mind. I can still hear the screams and crying and remember the tears of women who became widows, children who were orphans because of the pogrom, and the wailing of brothers and sisters and children. I have had bad dreams and nightmares well into my adult life with recurring dreams of the pogroms in my town of Tetiev, and in my dreams I see the pogromists with knives, with guns, killing and looting. These were the conditions under which I, as a young child, learned to see the world and I couldn’t understand it. I was always with grownups and I learned how to keep my mouth shut. But then, even then, I asked my mother if there was a God. Everyone was always praying to God and I couldn’t understand why God was allowing this suffering and killing to take place. But my mother was so understanding. She gave me tenderness and affection and told me that soon things would be different. I must tell you that all my life I had a very special love for my mother. I know now that in Russia, when she was only in her mid-twenties and I was only between six and eight years old, we had a very special bond. I know now that she would have killed for me. As I remember her now in that period, she was strong and had a spirit to survive. I never could have lived without her. I was so little and she was my strength and, if you look at her picture, she was simply beautiful. A really beautiful woman.
I will tell you about one of the pogroms, not the big one that destroyed the town, but just a typical pogrom. Mother and I were running out of the town. We got separated from the rest of the family. We were walking on this country road when we saw in the distance a big brigade of Cossacks, with swords, on horseback riding into the town to kill Jews. Mother and I were in the middle of the road. On each side of the road there were steep hills that were too difficult for us to climb. Mother, with some kind of strength that she got from who knows where, threw me like a ball over the hill and she climbed up to where I was.
We hid behind a haystack. The peasant, who was working by the haystack, was ready to pick us up with the hay. Mother gave him some money to keep quiet until the Cossacks rode off.
The town of Tetiev had little protection from pogroms, but the Bolsheviks were a little kinder to the Jews than the Cossacks. A week before the big pogrom that finally drove us all away, one of the Russian captains brought all the Jewish men to the square and told them that the Cossacks and the peasants were planning a pogrom in a few weeks. He warned them that it would be a bad pogrom. He told them he would give them guns and ammunition to protect themselves. But the Jews in the town never killed and they refused the guns. They thought that God would help them. I remember the day very well when the big pogrom came to Tetiev. Everyone in the town knew that the Cossacks were coming and they knew they would have to run again. Our family started out for the shul to hide because they never did too much damage to the shul. We went to the shul, but my mother had an intuition that we should go further. The family listened to her. We went to the end of town to the home of Bobba, Laika’s mother, my great grandmother, who was killed later on that day.
The pogrom began in the morning. The shul was destroyed and burned, with many of our relatives and friends inside. Those that tried to escape were killed. Grandpa Arel Leb was murdered. That same day mother’s younger brother Yankel, after whom my brother Jerry has an amazing resemblance, and his young wife…they were married for only two months…were killed. Old man Spitalny, the talented musician, was killed in front of our eyes. Mother’s sister Sonya, who was bearing a child, was brutally jabbed in the stomach which killed the child before it was born. The house where we were hiding with about twenty other people started to bum. Somehow, we opened a door in the back and all of us ran down the hill. Not all of us made it. The whole town of Tetiev was on fire. You could hear screams everywhere. Mother did not leave go of me for one minute. I think I only had a pair of pants on. We ran over dead people. We ran for miles and miles into the fields and we hid in barns. There was grandma Sonya and her husband, Frima and her husband (both their husbands were Spitalnys and musicians), Iris, Manny, Harold, mother and me. We decided to run to Odessa. On the way a kind Gentile hid us for one night and gave us food and shelter. In a big city we thought we would have a better chance to survive. And we did!
It was a miracle that we got to Odessa. I did not have any shoes on during the miles of running and hiding. My feet were swollen and cut and they were operated on in Odessa because of infection. Odessa presented other challenges. Harold, Iris and I were placed in orphan homes. Harold and I were in a boys' home and Iris in another home. I remember there was a big gate around the orphan home. Mother went to work as a maid, cleaning and cooking. They gave us very little to eat in the Home. Most of the time I was starving and I was very small and under-nourished. Mother would hide a piece of chicken from the house where she worked and she gave it to me through the fence because she couldn’t visit me except for certain times
In 1922, the agent found us in Odessa, and at last mother and I were reunited with my father after ten years of being separated. Two years later, the rest of the family... Grandma, Manny, Harold, and Iris joined us in Cleveland for a real reunion and thus began our life in America.
Excerpted from "This I Remember", published by the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, 1985. Reprinted by permission of David Spevack.
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