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Section 1

Sketches of David-Horodok

What was this place like, this place our ancestors came from, this shtetl some 50 miles east of Pinsk? Here are the memories of the miatchonas, or town citizens, who once lived there.

From Childhood Years: David-Horodok 50 Years Ago

Motl Slotzki

New York 

It is difficult to say how much David-Horodok differed from other small towns stuck in the deep marshes of Polesye.[1] They all had the same-style houses, streets, schools, shops, and marketplaces, and they all had the same livelihoods, troubles, cares and sorrows.

David-Horodok produced no famous men by whose merit a permanent light could be kindled in the history of Belarusan Jewry. Kaidanov was renowned for the Kaidanover Rebbe, Avraham Reizin. Stolin had acquired a reputation because of the Stoliner Rebbe. However David-Horodok had no such luck. But for those born and raised in David-Horodok, the town had a permanent charm. The miatchonas [town citizens] would say “Horodok solodok,” a sweet town.

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View of David-Horodok

Even having departed as a youth, as did most David-Horodokers who now live in America, I still carry a longing in my heart for the old home. No matter what different memories or impressions each David-Horodoker brought with him from his childhood years, we all carried an exceptional love and memory of the Horin River, which flowed through the middle of town. Not Yudovitch’s wall, not the marketplace, Olshoner Street, the marshes, Olpener Street nor Viallamitcher Street, not the school yard nor the various streets and byways round about, not the hill with the church on it, but only the river will be the subject of the first encounter and greeting--“from which side of the river did you come?” Wherever destiny takes you, whether to hot desert sands or the shores of the Pacific or Atlantic, if you were born and raised in David-Horodok, the river will follow you wherever you go for the rest of your life, and take a prominent place in your memories.

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A View of the Horin River in David-Horodok

The Horin River was the true “woman of valor.”[2] She was the nourisher and supplier of almost the entire town. She made many rich and others poor. For one she tore up his yard and cattle stall, while for another on the opposite shore, she deposited soil for an orchard and garden. The Horin carried ships, barges, rafts and steamers. She filled fishermen’s nets with the finest fish. She bred flocks of geese whose meat and fat fed the town’s inhabitants and whose down softened their bed covers.

How beautiful the river was in summertime. On its shores there was ceaseless activity, both day and night. Here they built the magnificent ships that carried piles of lumber to distant Prussia. The two small steamers Viun and Strakaza chugged over the water, one to Nirtcha and the other to Vidivar-Stolin. The steamers were the pleasant intermediaries between David-Horodok and the outside world.

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David-Horodok's Wharf

In the summertime we swam and played in and around the river. We walked along the large wooden bridge. We ran to greet the incoming steamer even if there was no one we were waiting for. At night the town’s youngsters strolled along the riverbank behind Mordechai Selig’s orchard in Tchipovski Street; from there around the church hill, along the dirt path to the Kvuarsker windmill and on to the marshes.

We remember the town in its prosperous times. Famous for their wealth were such affluent men as Yudovitch, the Bragmans, Lipman Lodatzki, Aharon-Leib of Orly, Leibke Grushkin, Yashke’s son Pesah and many more. They were the “eastern wall” Jews of the “Great” and “Nagid [rich man’s]” Synagogues.

The greatest imprint on David-Horodok was left by Yudovitch. He had done much traveling in the outside world and brought back European fashion to the town. However, he was less concerned with Europeanizing David-Horodok, as for example Peter the Great with Moscow, than he was with improving the town.

I see before my eyes the two grand things he built. First, Yudovitch’s two-story brick building with the spread eagle wings on both sides contained walled shops on half the street, which gave the building the appearance of a medieval baron’s castle. A small bridge behind the orchard led to Zladayavka.

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The commercial center of David-Horodok

Second, Yudovitch built the Great Synagogue in the Synagogue Courtyard with great style and taste. It would have suited a German city rather than a town in the Polesye marshes.

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The Great Synagogue or the Cold Synagogue (there was no heating)

Yudovitch’s masonry on the Olpener road produced bricks impressed with the letters “YU” [Yudovitch’s wall]. The beautiful idyllic water mill, called the Olpener mill, was an ideal model for a landscape painter. Lastly there was Yudovitch himself, with his tall frame, well-fed belly, and stern lordly face with cold, sharp gray eyes. He had pointed, thinly-twisted whiskers which reminded people of the Baron Hirsch Ginsberg with his top hat and thick cane with a staghorn handle.

Yudovitch’s time faded away and the Bragmans emerged on the scene with the berlini [barge] business. The berlinis transported products from Polesye and Belarus to the Ukraine and Great Russia, and from the banks of the Dnieper River back to Polesye. The Bragmans built their warehouses from David-Horodok to Kremenchug and Yekaterinoslav.[3] The berlinis transported wheat flour from Kiev, Poltava and Kharkov, and sugar, salt, barley grain, oil, coal and many other products over the waters of the Pripyat and Dnieper to their very ends.

The tugboat steamer Montefiore would visit the town once a year. In the fall, before winter froze the river, the steamboat would tow a long line of high-bellied berlinis and leave them for the winter on the banks of the Horin River opposite Moche Rimar’s dock where they were built.

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The sawmill of Moche Rimar in David-Horodok. In the picture is Moche Rimar with some of his family members and supervisers.

With the berlinis came the owners Yosel, Yankel and Motle Bragman. Their expensive skunk furs lined with cat skin gave a special dignity to the eastern wall of the Great Synagogue. Even the Slonimer rabbi with his long red beard in his nook next to the ark, acquired a certain distinction with the arrival of the Bragmans.

Their time also passed and quickly faded. All that remained of them was the glory of Yosel Bragman’s beautiful daughters: Golde Rayne, Shifra Sarke and the prettiest of them all, Rivkele Bragman.

The subsequent tycoons who followed the Yudovitchs and the Bragmans, such as Leibke Grushkin, Yashke’s son Pesah, Lipman Lodatzki and a few lesser people, were already Jews whose possessions were no longer as lavish as their predecessors.

New winds began blowing over Russia and they were also felt in our out-of-the-way town.

David-Horodok had many laborers, butchers, teamsters and naturally peddlers, shopkeepers, fishmongers, brokers and religious-article dealers. In those days the butcher carts stood in the middle of the [new] marketplace where the [Catholic] church now stands. The sticks fastened to the edges of the stands on which the carts hung, made the marketplace similar to a garden of babbling. Even now I can hear the clamor, cursing, screaming, the dull clang of the cleavers in the butcher stalls and the wild skirmishing of the dogs for a bone, a piece of meat or for first claim on a butcher stall.

The butchers came to our house for the evening prayers. Instead of a towel or handkerchief, they used the window curtains to wipe their hands. After they had finished praying and left the house, the curtains would remain hanging like pressed-together horses’ tails. However we couldn’t complain too much because, had they wished to wipe themselves on the lapels of their kaftans or on the sleeves of their jackets, they would on no account have succeeded. Their hands, covered with fat and blood, would have slid off their clothing and remained as wet as ever.

Saturday night they came to our house to settle up the jointly owned merchandise they had purchased and slaughtered during the week. The large black table in the dining room was covered with chalk marks of lines and circles. The corner of a half circle was erased with a finger, and a cat’s ear placed above it. Such was the arithmetic which only the butchers understood. Often there would be sudden shouting and dispute which would end up in a fist fight. When they fought they were not joking. They would try to hit each other on the full body, and more than one butcher came away from such a fight with a bruised chest and a nasty cough.

My father bought the hides and unkosher meat from the butchers and sent the meat to the regiment for the soldiers, so the teamsters were frequent visitors in our house. They transported the hides and meat to the ships, steamboats and the train at Lakhva.

The teamsters were divided into groups. Each group had a monopoly on a certain route. Thus there were “Lakhvar” teamsters, “Stoliner,” “Turover,” and “Pinsker” teamsters. One group would not trespass on another’s territory. Besides these there were “market teamsters.” They would make deliveries, such as a sack of flour or a cask of gasoline, from the wholesalers to the shops, or they would transport a Jew to a neighboring village.

The town’s butchers and teamsters were not what you would call “eastern wall sitters.” For that reason they were the only Jews who were respected by the town and village gentiles. If a gentile became drunk and unruly toward a Jew, whether in a tavern or in the marketplace, it was enough for Ezra the butcher to come over and lay his huge butcher hand on the nape of the gentile’s neck and all became quiet and peaceful.

At the time when they anticipated pogroms in town, the butchers and teamsters comprised the greatest part of the self-defense organization. The teamsters prepared themselves with cleavers, revolvers and lead pipes. They had resolved that in case of a pogrom the gentiles would pay dearly, and they would no longer start up with the Jews. The end result was that despite the incitement of the priests, the gentiles did not venture to start a fight.

David-Horodok was rich in smiths who were divided into various categories. There were smiths who worked in shipbuilding at Moche Rimar’s dock. They made skobkes, zhobkes, yarshes with heads like loaves of bread and shvaranes for the rudders. There were those who made bells for the horses, knives for the gentiles, knives for the house, cleavers, door handles, hinges and iron doors for walled stores and cellars. There were smiths who only worked with copper. I remember one of them, Eizel the Smith. Besides his work at the forge, he was an outstanding bal tefilla [prayer leader]. There were other smiths who would also belong to the burial society, and catch a drink of whiskey at a burial, which was almost a daily event in town. Even in normal times, the town had more funerals than marriages. Fortunately David-Horodoker women understood the situation and tried to compensate for the losses. A David-Horodoker woman who had no more than a half-dozen children was considered barren.

The town carpenters would work with copperware. They would travel on the roads and sell the copperwork chests to the peasants. However most of the carpenters produced furniture, doors, windows and other household items.

In normal times drillers and sawers worked at Moche Rimar’s dock, building barges. Other than this they usually worked for the town only after a fire. Fires were frequent occurrences in our town, and if occasionally a fire was a little delayed, there were those would “invite” this “guest.”

Cobblers worked both for high style and for second-rate. There were those fancy shoemakers who worked with very expensive leathers and others who worked with cowhide.

The tailors were also divided into categories. There were tailors for the wealthy and for the poor. There were even those who hardly earned the grain to put in water for barley soup. The poor tailors earned their livelihood by remaking the clothing of older people for youngsters, from women’s garments to men’s, etc.

There were hat makers who sewed caps, one of whom I cannot forget to this day. Besides being a hat maker, he served as the “town clock.” When one heard Moishe the Hatmaker’s coughing as he came from the marketplace even before the cock had crowed, one knew that it was time for Jews to get up for the first minyan.

The only Jewish packer in town was Elyeh, son of Aharon Moishe the Doctor. The old father Aharon also helped work in the yard. Together they would make various containers, including long barrels in which they packed red raspberries that the peasants gathered by the thousands of pounds in the forests of Polesye each autumn.

The masons and some cobblers had extra jobs to supplement their incomes. Thus several cobblers were at the same time the town musicians. The “musician of musicians” had to supplement his income by working as a barber and photographer. The clarinetist of the band was a mason. The small trumpet, the large trumpet and the drummer would make shoes for the bride and groom before playing at their wedding. The drummer also helped to carry shalak mones [Purim gifts], acted as caller, etc.

The watchmaker was also occupied with the production of galoshes. Once he almost burned to death when the gasoline suddenly ignited.

David-Horodok was rich in rabbis and ritual slaughterers, almost as many as Mozyr or even Pinsk. No town was more renowned than David-Horodok for starving so many rabbis. Why the rabbis picked just this town to conduct their fasts, God only knows.

Two of the ritual slaughterers were also cantors. The synagogue cantor Reb Shmarel prayed in the large Choir Synagogue with a choir that he trained, and Reb Leib was the cantor at the Great Synagogue.

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The cantor of the town with his singers

It was difficult to leave the town where one was born and raised. It was especially difficult to leave the beautiful river. This was where we played, bathed, floated in boats, slid on the ice, played pranks with friends for which we were spanked and poked by our fathers and teachers, and this was where we were beaten by the gentiles in the daily wars we waged with them. It is still deeply engraved in our hearts, and will be for an entire lifetime.


Berl Neuman

Would you like to become acquainted with our town? Would you like to get some of its flavor? In the books of Sholom Aleichem and Mendele Mocher Sforim, you will find a large part of what our town possessed. After all, what didn’t our town possess? Poor people, sextons, synagogue trustees and ordinary community workers; money-lenders, providers of orphans and ordinary benefactors; a poorhouse, a bathhouse, a ritual bath and above all ... mud! A sea of mud! It seemed as if there was no spot in the entire world that was free of mud. Mud in the street, in the yard, on the sidewalk and mud right up to the house.

What wasn’t done to try and get rid of the mud? In my time I recall that the town fixed the streets three times. And who doesn’t remember how the gentiles laid a thick cover of gravel along the length of the streets and then overlaid it with dirt? Do you think it helped? Forget it! [literally: A yesterday day!] After all the gravel- and dirt-laying, when one had to cross the street, for example near Moishe Yude Lipshitz or Yudl Shatzki or Shimon Laichtman, it was truly deadly dangerous!

And if one of the residents was good-hearted enough to lay a couple of boards across the street, do you think it was already an easy matter [literally: Torah noodles?] Now you would cross the street with dry feet? That was not the way it began and that was not the way it ended. As soon as you put a foot on a board it slid forward and sank into the mud as the other end of the board rose up into the air, and you remained stuck in the mud with your shoes. You lost your composure, no longer caring about the presence or absence of a board, and you waded into the mud to get to the other side as quickly as possible. When you finally got to the other side you looked around to be sure that no one was looking, and you anguished over your shoes and long trousers which were now covered with mud up to the knees.

Around Gittel Yonah’s house it was truly chaos! If you recall her house was next to the marketplace. There at the marketplace, all David-Horodoker Jews ran in the morning, and there was really reason to run. There were plenty of good things in the marketplace to see: pokers, water troughs, kneading troughs, shovels, tubs, pails, soaking dishes, shoes and boots--ask what was not there!!

Today who talks about such food? There, there was whatever the mouth could desire! For example, Eizl “Luibitch” loved big fish, and Mendl the Brotzker would indulge himself only with small, flat cakes--you could see him run to grab a pile.

Very early at dawn the two brothers Itzak Beroshes and Shmuel Michl were already walking on the street. They came from the first minyan with their prayer shawls under their arms. Where do you suppose they were going? To the marketplace! One bought a bundle of hay for his cow and the other purchased a ball of plain thread to sew the clothing of the peasants.

Many Jews often loved to go to the marketplace and observe what was being bought and sold, and perhaps they too would grab a bit of a bargain!

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A corner of the new market in David-Horodok

Just as an example, Moishe'le Twitch-lip simply loved to go out with his cane and derived pleasure from everything; he always had plenty of time, blessed be the Name. Berl the Pistol also didn’t mind such pleasures. In fact when they met each other at the marketplace with empty stomachs, they would pick out a convenient strategic spot and trade witticisms, laughing at the world.

In such a manner the entire town was there, some running and some walking. Shmaiha’s daughter Hiah Leah[4] ran to sell fried goose skin and fat; Shashke Korman ran to sell fresh bagels; Sarinka’s daughter Nahe ran with a wagon of apples and Naha Katz went with quick steps, perhaps to buy some boar bristles.

Just as in my father’s vineyard, there flourished Simha the Japanese, a broad-shouldered and big-footed man with a pair of fisherman boots pulled up to the armpits, a rope tied around his coat from which hung two ends on either side like a Hasid’s gertl [belt worn during prayer]. He would whirl around the marketplace looking for a livelihood. It seems that he had large lips while his nose was always a bit swollen and his speech a little slurred. However, this didn’t prevent him from carrying a sack of potatoes on his shoulders for someone, or the basket of Baytzl’s daughter Fagel into her house. In truth he was cut out to be a teamster, but he had never acquired a horse.

God forbid, I am not consumed with jealousy, but the women had it better than everyone. First of all, a Horodoker Jew loved his wife, and secondly she did not work hard.[5]

A sack of potatoes, a cask of cabbage and berries, a keg of sour pickles with dill were stored in the cellar; millet, beans, barley, buckwheat groats--everyone kept a supply. A kneading trough of bread was good for an entire week ... Milk? What David-Horodoker Jew did not have his own cow in a stall? Well, besides bringing in an armload of wood, heating up the oven, warming up the food and sweeping the house, there was nothing to do. There was plenty of time to stand at the window and look at who was passing by in the street.

Mother stands at one window; daughter stands at another window, and they gossip about the street. If the cantor passes by with a few people, the daughter says: "You see mother, someone is probably having a bris.” Yossel the Smith with his patched eye passes by--"Mother, who died?" If they see a policeman approaching from a distance, they both disappear, mother and daughter, quickly away from the windows, rush out the back door with brooms in hand, and begin--whether it is needed or not--to sweep the street, because they are sure he is coming to give them a citation.

There passes Elia Yafa with a charity box, shivering from the cold. Israel the Lazy, a hat-maker by trade, carries a pair of hides to cut out warm jackets for the gentiles for winter. He drags himself along, bent over like a barrel. Moishele Lazer springs along continually shrugging his shoulders. He snorts and spits and talks to himself. Velvel Kushner strides along on his long legs, his raised head high. He hardly says good morning to anyone. He carries his fiddle along, and goes to entertain Rivele Yudovitch with a concert.

Then Sarah Leah the Bride passes by with a large pack under her shawl. She walks carefully, step by step, as if she were counting her footsteps. Her son Zelig follows her. He walks straight as a string on a violin, as if he had swallowed a stick. He doesn't bend at all. You could put a glass of water on his head.

And so they pass, young and old, men and women, idlers and workmen: Moishele Menahem with a tool box and saw in his hands, Shlomke Ben-Zion with a suit to take measurements on someone. David Bellke hurries to the steamboat; the old "boy" has already put on his black winter overcoat with the yellow worn-out skunk skin collar that dates back to Chmielnitzki's times [the 1640s]. He sidles along with his hands pushed into his sleeves, shaking his head.

Understandably, there is something to say about each one: Haim-Yankl the Honey Strainer is too short; Issur Gurvitch is too tall; Abraham Levine too fat; Shmuel the Patchmaker too thin.

It was a unique and beloved occupation to stand at the window, and it wasn't bad even standing there for hours.

Occasionally the window-watchers would be saddened by the sight of Dr. Shalkaver running past with hurried strides. Probably someone was good and sick. In all we had only one doctor in town. What do you think? One was enough! First of all, God had bestowed on him strong legs--so he could always run to satisfy everyone; and second, everyone knew what to do for their own sick.

If one of us became sick the first thing to do was withhold food. If the patient became weaker and feverish, the second step was to place an ice bag on his head. As the patient became even weaker from hunger and properly chilled from the ice cap, then the neighbors would mix in with their advice. “You must apply leeches!”--that was step number three.

After the leeches had sucked up the last drop of blood and the Angel of Death was already standing at the head of the bed, we then ran to the synagogue, knocked on the Holy Ark and begged for mercy. Afterwards we would run to the doctor and ask him to save the moribund patient.

Nevertheless Horodoker Jews were generally healthy and satisfied. Most of the illness was caused by the “evil eye.” We had a special "doctor" for this--Feigl the Blacksmith. She would continually talk and spit, snort and spit, and her incantations really helped. Not only that, if someone had a swelling on the eye, a sty or some other such a sore, Feigl the Blacksmith would lick it with her tongue and her lick would really help. Nowadays who talks about exorcising a rose? For that, there was no one like her. Whether it helped or not, the important thing was that the patients believed it would help.

Horodoker Jews were believers! Did not Horodoker mothers believe there was a kind-hearted Sarah sent down by Heaven to protect the Jewish woman in childbirth and her newborn infant? And really why should one not believe it? Is it not clearly written in the Yiddish Bible?

And one also believed in the devil's camp, Heaven protect us, that would try by various means and tricks to entrap a child in sin. Indeed there were Horodoker Jewish mothers who routinely distributed goodies to small schoolchildren to encourage them to say their nightly prayers without fail. In addition, they hung placards containing psalms on each window and door to prevent the entrance of imps and evil spirits.

Horodoker Jews believed in everything except for one thing. They did not believe that there could come a time when beasts in the form of people would rise up against them and ruthlessly murder them. Good-natured, naive, friendly Jewish mothers and fathers, children and old folks, merchants, artisans, laborers and toilers! With “I believe” on their lips they were led to the mass slaughter. How great is the calamity when we must write of them in the past tense.

The Women Answer the Claim that“they had it better than everyone”

Bessie Davidson and Anne Komisar

From Interviews with Bessie Davidson:

Bessie describes David-Horodok as very poor, where her family was lucky because they always had something to eat and clothes to wear. Luck, however, appears to have had less to do with her family's relative prosperity than her mother's energy and business skills. Her mother Razel was the motivating force behind the various family businesses, which she ran, as well as bearing thirteen children and cooking, cleaning and sewing for them. Although Bessie's father, David, helped in the fish business, he was largely a good-looking, unambitious man with a fierce temper and greatly concerned about “face.” “He helped my mother in a light way. Although he helped my mother a lot, he had a much easier life than my mother. Like for instance you got to take water from the well two blocks over for the geese. We had two pails, and you had to put the buckets on a pole to pull the water up from the well. The well was really deep. I was afraid to look down, it was so deep. I couldn’t see the water. And my mother would stand at the end of the pole where you have to pull harder, and my father would pull closer to the string. And then my mother would carry the buckets on a pole across her shoulders to the barn.

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Viallamitcher Street in David-Horodok, picturing the town well

“My father played games a lot, too, not like my mother. He loved to play dominos; we kids played at the dining room table with him. And we used to play “caseena” with the same kind of cards we have here. There had to be four of us. “Caseena” you have four cards and you have to match. If it matches you take another. But my mother never played. She was too busy.”

Bessie’s sister Gnesha made comments that were more direct. “My father hardly did a day's physical work in his life. Often he was the treasurer of their various projects.”[6]

Although Razel received help from her older children who cared for the younger ones, it was Razel's energy that kept the family fed and out of trouble. In the summer, she sold fish to the large cities; in winter she sold geese and goose liver in-town; in the fall, she sold cotton lining for winter coats to the tailors. For some years, Razel also sold dairy products from a herd of cows the family kept. Razel “always made money, although she wasn't a rich woman. She used to borrow money when she had to for business, and pay interest on it. My mother had a wonderful name. Everybody trusted her.” Razel was so respected by her fellow citizens, that when she left to come to America, “the whole town came to say good-bye to her. They walked with us half-way to the train station in Lakhva, behind the wagon. And my mother remembered along the way that she owed the butcher a couple of rubles, so she gave the money to Gnesha to pay him.”

Razel's acceptance of feeding and clothing the family as her responsibility was accorded such honor because the shtetl expected women to look after this life while men looked after the next. Bessie describes her father’s life and that of the other men in the town as follows: “My father was not a fanatic. In the morning he always put on his tefillin[7] to say his prayers. But all the men over thirteen did that. Then he went to synagogue, where he and the other men would study Torah. Afterwards, he would stop and have a little schnapps and talk about politics. That was his amusement. He got a Yiddish paper once a month from the big cities, sometimes from Warsaw, sometimes from Pinsk. We didn't have a paper in David-Horodok. He would read it, then get together with the neighbors and talk about politics. Especially during the war, when a lot of bad things happened to the Jewish people, especially in the big cities.

“At four o'clock he went to the synagogue for prayers and at six o'clock again for prayers. If he didn't have time, he prayed in the house; he knew the prayers by heart. But most days he went to the synagogue. Then in-between the Minha [afternoon] and Maariv [evening] services he studied. What else did he have to do? The men went to see each other, to talk to each other. I think they studied a little bit, gossiped a little bit, talked about business a little bit. My mother only went every Saturday, because she had to make the living.”

This division of labor created strong women considered “unfeminine” by Americans when they reached the shores of the United States. However, in the shtetl, Razel's achievements were lauded. Males were simply not encouraged to have the same business drive as women, even when the husband was not looking after the next life with particular zeal, as in David's case.

“The [male] Jew who wanted to rest from his labours, who indeed preferred to desist from labour all together, could find sufficient sanction for his attitude in the Bible. [“What profit hath a man for all his labour which he takes under the sun. One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever.” (Ecclesiastes 1:3-4)] The woman tended to be of sterner stuff, if only because she had to be. The very paucity of males, the widespread fear of fathers that unless daughters took what males there were, they might--Heaven forbid!--be left single, meant that Jewish women often married beneath them, not only in the social or economic sense, but in caliber. The woman may have been pulled back by social convention, but she was propelled forward by strength of character. Someone in the family had to face reality. She not only looked after the house, but she was often the bread-winner. She reared the young, and in spite of her indifferent health--arising from her many pregnancies--and her indifferent education, she somehow found the time to look after their Jewish education. The burdens she assumed would have crushed her had she not believed that she was thereby freeing her menfolk for the higher duties of life, and that something of their holy pursuits attached to her lowly ones and gave her equal standing in the sight of God.”[8]

Bessie thinks, however, that in spite of the honor accorded women who looked after their families, a woman's role in Europe was not an enviable one. “Women weren't treated so great. Some of them, yes. Most of the women, especially the peasant women, weren't treated so well. The men used to beat them up. And they were hard workers. In the small towns, wasn't so great. Some of them had it real good, like my Aunt Nechama. She was the boss and her husband was the hard worker. She never worked; she was never in the business. Of course she cooked a lot, because they had to hire people and she had to make meals for them. But to work like my mother, she never did. But she was the boss anyways. She was a very good-looking woman, beautiful woman as I remember. And her husband was the type that gave in to her. He must have loved her.

“But in David-Horodok among the poor, the husbands and wives didn't treat each other so well. I wouldn't be surprised if the Jewish men beat up their wives too. The poor people, they suffered terrible. In the families what had a little more, the husbands treated their wives much better. I can't tell you it was great for the women, but what I think is, maybe they didn't know any better; they were used to it and they didn't mind it. If you don't know any better, and you live a life like that, then you live a life like that.

“And another thing, the men would go away to the United States and forget to bring their wives and children over. That was a lot of them. And then the wives couldn't make a living, and there had to be a lot of help from charity. They all wanted to run away because there was no future.

“My mother told me about a man who worked for her who left his wife in David-Horodok. He helped my mother pack the rags she sent to the cities. I didn't remember him. And his poor wife, she couldn't afford with four, five children. She used to buy a chicken from the peasants and sell it to someone else, she should make a few kopkes. That's how she made a living. She had a hard life, with little kids. I don't know how they survived. In America my mother happened to see the man in the park. It was right after we came to this country, and we were having a picnic in Palmer Park, and that guy happened to be there too. He was already long time in America. And when my mother saw him, she exploded. She started shaking her finger at him and shouted, “Oy klugesmere !” She was cursing him a little bit in Yiddish. “Bushman, what did you do to your family? You should be ashamed of yourself. You left a wife with four, five of your children, and they're starving for a piece of bread. How can you leave your children?” The minute she said that, he ran away from her and she never saw him again. He didn't say a word to her. It was a big crowd that time around her. It was in 1923, when we lived on Hastings Street.

 “My mother was right. She felt sorry for the wife and children; they never had any good clothes on. They had to depend a lot on charity. In the United States, the Jewish men treated their wives better. My brothers were very loyal. Either the atmosphere makes it better, or the life makes it better. Must be some reason.”

From an interview with Anne Komisar:

“After my father went away to the United States the first time, we lived in two rented rooms. This is how we made a living. My sister Lily made the biggest living. She was a seamstress. There were no ready-mades in Europe. Even men’s shirts and pants and the underwear had to be sewn individually. So Lily used to do that. During the war when my father was in the United States and we didn’t hear from him, if a customer brought something for her to do, she’d say, ‘That’ll cost you a bushel of potatoes.’ Or even hay for the cow--we used to have a cow. Or wood to heat up the stove. We didn’t have stoves like in America. Ours were made of brick, like the bakers had here. Every house had one. My mother also worked. She was a peddler. She walked out of town to where the farmers were and she brought them buttons, needles, cotton thread, what have you. And she also wouldn’t take money for that. She’d take a little rice, potatoes, eggs, sometimes even a chicken for Saturday. And my poor mother, when she got farther out toward the villages, she took off the shoes, so they didn’t get used up. During the war we didn’t know whether my father made it to the United States or not. We didn’t hear until the end 1918. So she was afraid she might not get new shoes. And it would come to the end of the day, my older sister would say to me, ‘See if mother is coming. Maybe she carries a lot of stuff.’ And I walked down there and took away the things she was carrying. She was so tired.

“When my father left first for America I was only a baby, two weeks or six months or something like that. It was 1907. And he was supposed to start to bring us to the United States after four years. By 1911, he’d bought a real truck already; he was a real businessman.

“His father was a blacksmith; he put the shoes on horses and he knew how to fix the wagons. That man was so religious he always said, ‘United States is not a kosher land.’ A treyfe land, as they used to say in Jewish. A treyfe land. ‘It’s not religious enough.’ My grandfather didn’t want his oldest son to be in the United States, in a treyfe land. So one family was coming here. The husband was in America already just like my father was, and the wife and kids were going to join him, also in Detroit. So my grandfather went to the wife and begged her to tell his son that his family, his wife and kids, will never pass into the United States because his wife is a sickly woman and the kids have bad eyes. And he should come back. He took her hand, made her promise she would tell his son. All of a sudden my father sends in a couple hundred dollars, eight hundred rubles, and tells my mother to buy a house. He’s coming back. We didn’t know nothing about it. So she bought a one-room house for us. We had like a curtain that separated the room into two areas at night. And we didn’t have to rent any more.

“My father came back at the beginning of 1911, right after Pesach. After the first Shabbes he was back, my parents and grandparents came from shul because my mother called in a few of the neighbors and family, all the brothers, and made like a kiddish, a little party. She baked cake and all that. And people were drinking ‘L’chaim,’ with a little wine and whiskey and my father started to cry. Everybody said, ‘Dovid, why are you crying? You got a home, a beautiful wife. What do you want?’ And he said, ‘I didn’t want to come. I wanted to be in the United States and bring my family there. I had already a real truck; I could have been a rich man.’ So my grandfather admitted, in front of everybody, that he did not want his oldest son to be in a treyfe land. That’s how it happened the first time my father came back.

“In 1913 my grandfather died, and my father stayed in David-Horodok and said a whole year Kaddish, and then in 1914, right after the war broke out, he left again for the United States. Everyone was talking, ‘Where would you find a son like that? He waits to go until he says a whole year Kaddish.’ My father left because he didn’t like any more our town; really he hated it. He couldn’t get used to it; he was already Americanized. Whatever he did, wasn’t good enough, wasn’t good enough. So he didn’t do nothing. He was too upset. He wanted to go back to the United States. So my mother says, ‘He wants to go back, let him go back.’ So she borrowed 50 rubles to give him, he should go back. He left just as the war broke out. The next time we heard from him was the end of 1918. Until then we didn’t know if my father even made it to the United States or not. He said that my mother should try to make passports; he’s going to send money. And we should come to the United States. So that’s how it happened we came here in 1920.

“It was a week after Pesach in 1920 that we left David-Horodok for Pinsk to make our passports. That time was the Bolsheviks and the Poles in and out, one day the Poles, one day the Bolsheviks. At the time was the Poles. The difference was the Poles let you leave for America; the Bolsheviks didn’t.

“We came to Pinsk, which was a much bigger city than David-Horodok. We were there 5 or 6 weeks getting our passports. My younger sister Bessie and I were together with Mother on her passport because you had to be thirteen to have your own passport. My sister Mary had her own passport. Then the Bolsheviks were threatening to come, so we ran to Warsaw. We didn’t want to get stuck by the Bolsheviks, especially my older brother and sister. My brother they could put in the army and my sister was already a woman and needed protection. My mother was afraid for my sister, what the soldiers could do.

“In Warsaw, people were coming from all over to go to the United States. And in order to go you have to have a visa. People would go to stand in line early in the morning about four or five o’clock. And I had to stay with my sister Bessie; Bessie got double pneumonia, in both lungs. My mother used to come back about 2 o’clock in the afternoon hungry, so my mother always left me fifty kopkes (pennies) or something like that, I should buy a herring, I should buy a bread. We lived on Nahlefgas [Nahlef Street]; I still remember the name. When I went to buy groceries, I had to ask how to get to Nahlefgas. I asked in Jewish and people used to tell me. I was just an eleven-year-old kid. We had to stay in Warsaw four or five months, six people in one room, until we finally got visas to come to the United States. And Bessie was the whole time very sick. Can you imagine six people in one room? But that’s the only thing we could afford.

“Then we went to Danzig, and they put Bessie in the hospital and she stayed there for about ten days or something like that. She got a little better there, so we went to Antwerp. Then my mother got a slight heart attack. We didn’t know that time was a heart attack, but when we came to Antwerp to take the boat, my older brother took her to a doctor. He asked the people from the hotel how to find one. And the doctor says he would advise she stay a few more weeks in Europe before she goes and he’ll give her a medication.

“Then we got on the ship, the Laplander Schiff, and on the ship she didn’t feel too good either. Our suitcases weren’t like now; they were wicker karozina [square baskets that closed and were belted to hold them together] and in one we had a bottle of schnapps. When she didn’t feel good we used to give her a little glass of whiskey to stimulate her. And when she was lying down and didn’t feel good I would start to cry, ‘There’s schnapps in the karozina. There’s schnapps in the karozina,’ because I was afraid for her, that she might die. It took us eleven days to cross. We were in third class and slept in bunks, two, three on the walls. And two or three days was real bad on the boat and I was throwing up. My older sister and brother took care of us because my mother was so sick and my sister Bessie was just up from pneumonia. They had their hands full.

“After we got to New York, we had to stay on the boat about a week because some kid came down with measles or scarlet fever, I don’t know what. But anyway we were quarantined. My father couldn’t wait, and he came out on a small boat with about five, six people to see us. He was standing in that little boat, waving to us and we were on the big ship, on the deck by the railings. My mother pointed to him and said, ‘That’s your father.’ I didn’t recognize him. How can I know my father?

“My mother was very happy to see my father. Like she said, ‘Let him carry a little bit the burden.’ She carried so much burden all those years raising a family without a man. Second time, he left Bessie six weeks old. She was born a week before Pesach in 1914, and he left just about that time. So my mother raised us. Everything herself. I don’t know how she could even live to sixty-eight. She died of an enlarged heart. How can one person go through that much? And we looked at him and that time he had a little beard. And I didn’t know him. I was eleven, almost twelve when I came.”

  Then we came down to Ellis Island, and on Ellis Island we were about three, four days because there was a lot of boats came in. It was a very busy island. My mother was very impressed with the white bread. She used to say, “Oooy, vayse broyt.” On the ship she didn’t eat, but she liked the white bread on Ellis Island. “Nisht challeh, ober vayse broyt,” [Not challeh, but white bread] she would say. Doctors checked us out, and a lot of people they shaved their hair, I don’t know why. I was crying because I was afraid they were going to shave my hair and I had two long braids with little pieces of ribbon at the ends. And I didn’t want to lose my hair.

  Then we took the train and came to Detroit. We left David-Horodok right before Passover and we arrived in Detroit on Succoth, the last days of September, 1920. That’s how long it took, with my mother getting sick and Bessie getting pneumonia, and until we got our visas. It was a history; that’s what it was.

  I don’t know how my mother lived. How did my mother make it? Raising kids without a man. How did she do it? I think--my poor mother. Here they have two kids and there’s a husband and a wife and a mother-in-law and a father-in-law. There, there was just her.


[1] Polesye or the Pripyat Marshes were extensive marshlands on both sides of the Pripyat River, covering about 300 miles from east to west and 140 miles north to south. This was the largest tract of swamp in Europe, densely wooded and nearly uninhabited, mostly impassable except in winter when frozen. Soviet histories of the region claimed that the swamps were drained when Belarus was part of the Soviet Union.

[2] Refers to Proverbs 31:10-31

[3] Also spelled Ekaterinoslav; also known as Dniepropetrovsk

[4] The Yiddish way of saying Shmaiha’s daughter Hiah Leah was Hiah Leah Shmaiha’s. This would have been the actual name by which she was called, and would have distinguished her from other Hiah Leahs.

[5] This does not correspond to the memories of the women of the David-Horodok Organization who were raised in David-Horodok. Their memories are recorded later.

[6] Seligman, Annabelle, Doda (Aunt) Gnesha - Woman of Valour,p. 4

[7] According to Zborowski, Mark and Herzog, Elizabeth, Life is With People, p. 84:

Every morning men and boys over thirteen bind on phylacteries, tefillin, containing small pieces of parchment on which are written pertinent passages from the Torah. One of the small leather cases is bound on the forehead-“they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes”-and one on the left arm, which does less work than the right.-“thy shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand.” A left-handed man must bind the phylactery on his right arm. It must be done in standing position and no interruption by word or by act is permitted while the long narrow black strips are adjusted and the blessing is being said. The phylacteries must be handled with extreme care for anyone who allowed them to fall on the floor would have to fast the entire day.

[8] Bermant, Chaim, The Walled Garden: The Saga of Jewish Family Life and Tradition, p. 123

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