Vishtinetz, Lithuania:

From the Autobiography of
Jacob Hyam Rubenstein 1890-1963

Jacob Hyam Rubinstein

Jacob Hyam Rubenstein, at his retirement party in 1960.

The small town (population 3,000 according to the 1897 census) in which I was born in midyear of 1890, and in which I spent the first 15 years of my life, bore and probably still bears, three names. It was "Wishtinetz" to the Russians who ruled it then, and after the interlude of 21 years, from 1919 to 1940, rule it again. That name was also used by Jewish inhabitants, the largest segment, albeit not the majority of the population. The name was "Wistiten" to the Germans (Prussians) living in town and to those living across the border in Prussia. It bears that name by the Prussians during the period they occupied it as part of their share of the third partition of Poland from 1795 to about 1815, when Russia got it back. The name was "Wishtiti" to the Lithuanian inhabitants of the town and surrounding country and was its official name during the 21 years of Lithuanian independence.

Jews immigrated into Lithuania in the 13th and 14th centuries from Germany and Poland. The ancestors of those who came from Poland had also come from Germany at an earlier age to escape the persecution and massacres during the Crusades. The greater immigration into Lithuania was an aftermath of the Black Death in the middle of the 14th century which decimated half of the population of Europe and for which the Jews were blamed. Because Jews suffered less than the general population due to their hygienic laws in the matter of food preparation, they were accused of poisoning the wells. Into Poland and Lithuania, the Jews brought with them a German dialect (Yiddish) which remained their language to this day.

The Lithuanian Jews in general were close to nature, to the fields, meadows, forests, and rivers. A sizable portion of the Jews living in the small towns and villages were engaged in farming, gardening, dairying and fishing. There were many Jewish artisans, bakers, butchers, fishers, tailors, shoemakers, capmakers, tanners, etc. Thousands of them were engaged in processing pigs' bristles for brushes, cigar making and common labor.

Culturally, the Lithuanian Jews stood on a higher level; illiteracy among men was practically non-existent. They have contributed a great deal to Jewish learning, both religious and secular and have carried Jewish culture to other lands in the later part of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. These lands included Russia, North America, Great Britain, South America and Palestine.

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Click to view map of Vishtinetz (Vistytis)

Vishtinetz, my native town, was one of scores of small towns stretched along the Russo-German border. As a result of considerable trade with Germans from across the border, and the existence of small industries, these towns were economically better off than similar towns located farther east. Frequent visits in Germany in the line of trade or in the pursuit of medical treatment and contact with Germans generally, had an impact on their mode of living, manners and even speech. The last applied to Yiddish, the German dialect with an admixture of Hebrew and Slavic words which was the speech of all Eastern European Jews. Both in accent and in vocabulary, there was a noticeable difference in the Yiddish spoken by the Jews elsewhere. An important contributing factor in that respect was the occupancy of many of these towns, including Vishtinetz, by Russia for more than a generation. This occupation left physical marks in the form of substantial buildings of stone or brick of which, those in Vishtinetz were still standing when I was a boy, a hundred years later.

The town, Vishtinetz, was laid out symmetrically with the market square as the hub. The square was actually a rectangle; the side running from north to south was about twice as long as that running from east to west. The streets radiated from each of its four corners at right angles to each other. A beautiful lake, one of the largest in the region, formed a semicircle about the town to the south and partly to the west. It formed part of the international boundary. The land boundary extended to the rest of the limits of the town. To the north, the town was bounded by hills which the inhabitants dubbed "The Red Mountains". At the foot of the hills meandered a creek which used to go dry in the summertime, but was quite a respectable stream in the rainy seasons of spring and fall. Only one rickety, wooden bridge crossed the creek, even pedestrians used it at their peril. Vehicles had to ford the creek. This was easy when it was dry or nearly so and also in the wintertime when it was frozen over solid, but the fording was rather difficult when the water was high and the current strong.

Across the creek up the hill ran the road to Virbalen, about 15 miles north, the nearest railroad station on the Russian side of the border, and to the world beyond. The Virbalen railroad station was an important one; it was on the St. Petersburg-Berlin line. The road to Virbalen ran north along the international boundary. It was not paved and during the rainy season, it would turn into a sea of mud and it would take a whole day to negotiate the 15 miles. For a short distance from town along the road was a section called "The Hill", where in small cottages lived some of the poorer people. Socially, that small section occupied the same portion as sections "on the other side of the tracks" occupied in American cities.

It was only towards the east that the town could expand, that being flat country. That expansion, however, never took place, because the town's population was steadily decreasing due to emigration. Four or five miles east of town there was a dense forest of oak, pine, birch, and fir trees. It was a dense forest so that the sun rarely penetrated it. It used to be told that robbers lurked in the woods, who would attack and rob people who would pass through, but during my time nothing like it ever happened.

Poland map
Click to view a 1902 map of Poland
including "Wysztynice" (Vishtinetz)

The square and three of the important streets were paved with cobble stones. Riding in a springless wagon, as all of the wagons were, on the square or paved streets, was definitely no joy ride. Just the same, the pavements, rough as they were was an improvement over the unpaved streets, dusty in dry weather and over the ankles in mud when wet. Wintertime, when the streets, paved or otherwise, were covered with a foot or more of snow from early November till the end of March, was a jolly time. It was sleigh ride time. Wrapped in blankets or covered with straw, young people would ride at full speed, the horses prancing and the bells jingling. The snow would hardly ever melt completely during the wintertime. After it settled or melted as a result of the thaw, a fresh snow would fall, so that the ground was snow covered practically all winter.

There were no sidewalks in Vishtinetz, so that pedestrians had to walk in the middle of the street and share it with horse-drawn wagons or carriages or with an occasional horseback rider. The few cyclists had a rough time; the streets were too rough both on the velocipedes and their riders. The pavements were slightly rounded to allow the rainwater to run off in the ditches at the side of the streets. After a heavy rain, the water in the ditches ran so high and wide that planks had to be laid to allow people to cross from the houses to the middle of the streets. There was never any danger of being run over by a modern monster, the automobile. Although by 1905, when I left for America, the motor age had already arrived, it hadn't reached Vishtinetz yet. And there were no street lights. As a rule, there were few people on the streets after dark, but those who had to be out, lit their way with lanterns. The lanterns also served as a warning to drivers and riders to be careful. Except in the case of a runaway horse or team, I never heard of anybody being injured by a vehicle.

Most of the houses in Vishtinetz were built of wood, but there were quite a few brick buildings. The old houses had thatched, shingled or tiled roofs. After the great fire of 1901, which destroyed about half of the town, no more thatched or shingled roofs were allowed to be built, so all of the new houses were covered with tiles made of either slate, which was water-repellent, or clay that was baked like bricks in a kilm. The latter were slightly curved and had a red coloring. The clay tiles predominated and their red tops were a pretty sight when viewed from the surrounding hills. The score of old buildings that dated from the Prussian occupation period, had thick walls, high ceilings and small windows. Their interiors were gloomy because little sunshine could penetrate through the small windows. They were, however, so solidly built that they withstood not only the ravages of time, but also those of fire. The great conflagration of 1901 destroyed their shingled roofs and their interiors, but the thick walls remained intact.

The quality and appearance of the new houses, even of those built of wood, were a great improvement over those that were destroyed. The shingle or thatched roofs were replaced with fireproof tiles. The old-fashioned windows with their small panes of glass were replaced by larger windows which had only three large panes, a top one opened horizontally and two beneath of the same size that opened vertically. A few houses had ventilators installed in the windows; in the absence of screens to keep out flies, the ventilator admitted fresh air while the windows were closed. The typical ventilator was nothing more than a small circular fan having metal blades, the motive force for which was the wind. The amount of air taken in depended, of course, on the speed with the blades rotated, which in turn, depended on the velocity of the wind. When the weather was bad, the ventilator was covered by a hood. This little "invention" stands out in my memory because such a ventilator was enjoyed by our "heder" (Hebrew School) of which our teacher, Holme Lippmanowitch, was very proud and never failed to point out to the government school inspector during the latter's occasional visits to the school.

Some of the houses had paneling on the outside to cover the rough timbers. There was also a good deal of fancy work in contrasting colors over the windows and in the shutters, the latter being standard features of the better houses. The inside of the walls was plastered and whitewashed each spring. The whitewash, which was a composition of lime and water, had to be prepared on the premises and was stored in special lime wells located in the back of the house. These lime wells were generally covered to prevent hazards.

On the other hand, some of the objectionable features of the old houses were retained in the new ones. Probably the worst of these was the unnecessary massiveness of the walls and roofs, as compared with the light-weight construction of American homes of comparable size. The frame houses, which constituted the majority, were built of heavy timber and the beams were oversize. The roofs were high-pitched, and the rafters, being unduly heavy, had to be supported by trusses. The rafters, in turn, were covered by boards to which battens were fastened on which the tiles were hung by means of small nibs on their undersides. In the course of the time, the extra heavy beams and roofs caused the walls to sag, in some cases so much that they had to be propped up by means of timber, a condition which in this country (America) would have caused the house to be condemned. As it happened, however, most of the frame houses rarely reached that condition because prior to that, they would be destroyed by one of the periodic conflagrations which were a common scourge of small towns in that region.

Another objectionable feature was the use of layers of moss between the timbers as a means of insulation. The moss was a great breeding place for all sorts of vermin, especially of bedbugs. Still another was the placing of dirt between the ceiling and the floor of the upper room or garret. This, too, was used as a means of insulation. In addition to serving as an incubator of all sorts of insects, the dirt would filter through the cracks between the ceiling boards whenever somebody walked heavily on the upper floor, and would drop to the floor below unto a table, a bed or the head of a person sitting or standing underneath. It probably would also have caused the ceiling to sag were it not for the support the ceiling boards received from the heavy beams to which they were fastened.

There was, of course, no plumbing. The "conveniences" were outdoors, but these were used mainly by fastidious people, predominately women. Others relieved themselves in the back yard, behind the barn, or any other location. The cleaning up was left to the pigs, which roamed the streets and back yards at will. The only outdoor place from which pigs were excluded were the vegetable gardens, which were generally fenced in. Water was drawn from wells which were located in strategic places about town. There was no inspection of the water nor any testing of its purity. Since, however, there were no epidemics, nor any diseases that could be traced to it, the water must have reasonably pure. It was very cold even in the summer and tasted well, so what more could be asked? The job of delivering water from the wells to the houses, was handled by "professional" water carriers who delivered a specified number of buckets each day at a prearranged rate. The storing of the water in the houses defied all rules of sanitation. It was stored in open barrels located in dark corners or in the hallways. A handy dipper was used by one and all, and the unused excess was spilled into a slop bucket located conveniently nearby.

The house, even the most pretentious, also lacked that important standard equipment of the most humble (American) home, the bath tub. I have no knowledge of the bathing facilities enjoyed by non-Jews except in the summertime, when the proximity of the lake offered such a convenience. The Jewish community, however, owned and operated a public bath house which was provided with running water, both hot and cold. The water was heated in a large boiler from which ran pipes carrying the hot water to many outlets. The principal function of the bath house was religious rather than cleanliness. The latter was merely a by-product of the main feature which was the "mikvah" or ritual bath which Jewish religious law provides for the immersion and ablution of married women at the expiration of the menstrual period. The Vishtinetz "mikvah" was in the shape of a large well, about 30 feet below the ground surface, reached by stairs. The water was slightly heated. As a boy, I once or twice (on a day reserved for males, of course,) looked over the guard rail into the dark well and shuddered at the thought of anybody descending into the dark abyss, let alone submerging under the water down there.

Friday (the eve of the Sabbath) and the day before a holiday, the bath house was reserved for males only. There were no bath tubs or showers, but water, hot or cold, was poured on the body by means of a bucket. You either poured the water yourself, which was not very convenient for washing the back, or had somebody else do the pouring. All of the bathing was done in one large room which, of course, did not provide privacy, while the dressing and undressing was performed in another room. The most mysterious place in the establishment was the steam room. In one corner of the room, which to me represented what Gehena (Hades) must be like, there was an oven in which stones were heated till they were red hot. To produce steam, somebody would open the oven door and pour a bucket of water on the stones. This produced a minor explosion followed by clouds of steam. Opposite the oven, there was a row of wide berths, one on top of the other. Those who loved that sort of thing, would climb unto the berths and lie face down. The most venturesome, or those who liked to show off, would climb unto the top berth which, of course, was the hottest place in the room. Lying outstretched, he would have somebody swat his body with a special little broom made of soft twigs. This was supposed to make the blood circulate more freely, which it probably did. The price of admission to the bath house was 10 kopecks for adults and 5 kopecks for boys. Three kopecks extra was charged for the whipping broom, if one asked for it. You were supplied with a bucket, but had to bring your own soap.

Heating of the houses was by means of brick ovens lined on the outside with white or brown tile. These ovens which reached almost to the ceiling, made quite an attractive appearance, but were deficient as heating media. Too much of the heat went out the chimney. The fuel most commonly used was peat, which is a highly organic soil of partially decomposed matter. It was "mined" in the numerous peatbogs in the area. The water was drained off and the solid matter was put in molds of a uniform size and allowed to dry in the sun. The dried rectangular shaped "bricks" were sold at thre-and-a-half to five rubles a thousand. Generally twenty of those bricks were used at a time. since only about half of the peat was combustible, fresh fires had to be built often after removal of ashes and other non-combustible matter. It was not a very dependable source of heat, but it had the advantage of being cheap. Cooking was done on fire places, which generally formed an extension of the front part of the oven. The pot was put on a tripod underneath which was built a wood fire.

Each house was provided with a chicken coop. In our house, it was located in the base of the oven. In the morning, except in the wintertime, when the ground was covered with snow, the hens would be let outside where they roamed the streets, back yards and even managed to get into the gardens where they scratched for food. In the morning, they would return to the roosts in the coop. My maternal grandmother would pick up each hen in the morning, insert a finger into an appropriate place to feel whether an egg was about to be born, and if so, the hen remained in the coop until the egg was laid. As a result, we always had fresh eggs to supply the needs of the family.

Kerosene lamps and candles furnished the source of light. Since kerosene was very expensive, lights were used sparingly. Some of the better homes had special large lamps hung from the ceiling of the dining room which furnished sufficient light for a large room and were also quite ornamental. Because of their superior lighting qualities, they were dubbed "blitz" (lighting) lamps and were used only special occasions such as holidays, wedding parties etc. In connection with the subject of lighting, I wish to mention the following peculiar custom. Since Jewish boys had to stay in their Hebrew schools till 8 o'clock in the evening, they had to furnish the kerosene for the school lamps in the fall and winter when the sun set early. Each day, some boy had to bring a pint of kerosene to school. Many a time I walked to school in the wintertime, carrying my books and "vesper" (evening lunch) in one hand and a bottle of kerosene in the other.

Screens were unknown, so flies by the million invaded the house in the summertime when the windows and doors were kept open. All food had to be covered; since this was practically impossible, we shared food with the flies and were none the worst for it. Shooing off flies was part of the mealtime routine. With the approach of cold weather, windows were shut tight, not to be opened till spring. As additional protection against the cold, double windows were installed and their edges taped to make them airtight. Unlike their counterparts in northern New England, which provide for inlets of fresh air, these in our town had none. The window sills between the two sets of windows, were decorated with cotton betting on which multicolored little strips of wool yarn were scattered, which made an appearance similar to Christmas tree decorations. A beaker or two, half filled with sulfuric acid were put on the sills. The acid absorbed the moisture and thus kept the frost off the inside of the windows. This, however, did not prevent the frost from forming beautiful designs on the inside of the windows when the temperature dropped to zero and below, as it often does during the long winters.

It is not difficult to realize how foul the air got in the airtight rooms, especially at night. We were, however, conditioned to this situation and did not seem to mind it. There was at least one occasion during which the air became so foul that I was hardly able to bear it, but was unable to do anything about it. This happened when a troop of soldiers that passed through town in mid-winter was quartered for the night in private homes. After half a dozen of them were quartered in our main living room, in which I slept on a "sleeping bench." The soldiers slept on the floor on which straw was spread and covered themselves with their overcoats. They hung their sweaty foot-wrappings on top of the oven. As the night wore on, the stench of the unwashed bodies and garments and of the steaming foot wrappings, added to the loud snoring of the travel-weary soldiers, gave me a headache and kept me from falling asleep. The condition became so intolerable that I was tempted to find shelter in an unheated room in the rear of the house, but was kept from committing this rash act, lest in the darkness I step on one of the sleepers. Years later, when I was in America and read the constitution of the United States for the first time, I appreciated the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, who included in it a prohibition against quartering soldiers in private homes in peace time.

In the back of the houses was the usual aggregation of structures, consisting of barns, an occasional stable, and, in some back yards such as ours, grainary for the storing of flour, bran and other grain products. Close by was the inevitable outhouse and the manure pile. In the rear of some Jewish homes, and in close proximity to their back door, there was a small, one room building called a "succo." In it, the male member of the family ate their meals during the eight-day feast of Tabernacles [Sukkot] in the early fall, the observance of which is commanded in the Mosaic Law. It commemorated the way in which the Israelites dwelt in booths during their wanderings in the wilderness. In order that the character of the original booths was to be retained, the succo was not covered with fixed boards, or even with canvas, but with detached branches of evergreen in such a manner that the covering was not quite impenetrable to rain or starlight. In order to protect the interior against rain, some succoth had solid roofs, which, swinging on hinges, could be raised or lowered by means of an attached bar. The roofs were raised during mealtime, weather permitting, and were lowered during the rest of the time. Since the Festival occurred during the rainy season, the use of the succo was generally restricted to but a few meals, and some years could not be used at all.

The pride of every household was its fenced in vegetable garden, These in the southern, western and northern parts of town were limited in size by the proximity of the lake, international boundary and steep hills. But even these were comparatively sizable. Those in the eastern part of the town were in some cases the size of small farms. The potato was the principal crop; it was even more than bread the staple food which, variously prepared, was consumed every day by rich and poor alike. There was enough of it grown within the town limits to supply its entire population. Other vegetables grown were cabbage, onions, beets, carrots, cucumbers, turnips, beans and peas. Unknown were the tomato, lettuce, celery, cauliflower, broccoli, sweet potatoes and other vegetables displayed in American supermarkets. I never tasted tomatoes until I came to America. The gardens not only enhanced the appearance of the town and tended to cover up some of its ugly features, but also proved a substantial economic asset.

In the immediate vicinity of the town were numerous orchards of apples, pears, cherry and plum trees. There were also all sorts of berries grown. Among the latter was the gooseberry, an acidy berry that is rarely shown in American fruit stands. In summer and early fall, orchardists would bring wagon loads of fruit to town and sell at a very low price. Provident wives used to take advantage of the low price and convert the fruit into jam and preserves for future use. They preserved some fruit, especially apples and pears, by peeling off the skin, removing the core, cutting it up into segments, then stringing up the segments to form wreaths which were hung up to dry.

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