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What My Grandmother Told Me

Berl Neuman

Long Teves[9] evenings. Outside the frost was burning cold. The windowpane sprouted various snow-capped mountains and thick deep birch forests through which you could barely see the street. In the house a small flickering kerosene lamp threw shadows on the walls that children were afraid to look at because grandmother had told them, “One must not play with shadows because demons can give you nightmares.”

On such an evening grandmother sat on a short foot-stool next to the stove, surrounded by her grandchildren, and looked into the fire which danced cheerfully, throwing tongues of flames into the black soot-filled chimney. From time to time grandmother threw a long thin piece of kindling into the fire, causing it to crackle and throw sparks onto the wooden floor, which was grooved with shadows. Occasionally we heard the scraping of feet on the white frozen snow, slowly receding into the stillness of the night.

In such a dark idyllic silence, Grandmother Bashe told her grandchildren that once ... a long time ago ... her grandmother had told her that the Horin River had been far ... very far away from the town ... and year in and year out, the river with its ice floes slowly cut the banks, until with the slow pace of generations, it neared the town.

And the grandchildren swallowed the enchanting tale word for word from grandmother’s mouth ... and little children’s heads could not understand how the river could move.

The rectangular clock with its ancient flowered dial and long brass chains with heavy weights which propelled the shiny pendulum back and forth in its never tardy tick-tock ... tick-tock, put the children to sleep in grandmother’s lap, dreaming of water-fairies, with the question “how could it be?” on their lips.

On spring days when the sun emerged from its wintry mantle of clouds and warmed up the winter-long cake of ice that had reached the open mouth of the street well; when yellow icicles hanging from straw roofs shaped by the winter into various artistic forms began dripping rapidly into the container which would also serve as a sitting stool on summer nights--on such spring days, children with happy smiling faces went out to the Horin River. There they watched the river outgrow its banks and, with immense force, pull and split up hunks of ice with frightening noise and draw them into a pile, one on top of another. Later the chunks slid off and disappeared into the steep abyss, only to be propelled to the surface again, where ice-cutters protected the bridge from destruction by slicing them up.

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Blasting the ice in the spring on the Horin River near the Greble Bridge

Also torn along by the powerful current were bones from the graves of the old cemetery and wooden beams which were ripped out from the foundations of houses along “Egypt Street,” leaving the houses precariously close to toppling into the water.

The river tears at the high bank, making deeper and deeper inroads, and then the children understand Grandmother Bashe’s story of the past ... that once ... a very long time ago ... the river was far away ... very far ...

The years fly and children grow up in naive content and quietly dignified simplicity. They grow up in streets where the puddles never dry out during the entire year, not having a chance to look, even through the smallest window, at the wide world, and not knowing what is going on out there. It is really no wonder that we grown children could not imagine a taller person than Itzik of Nirtcha, a richer Jew than Moche Rimar, or a feebler man than Maltchik.

Could there be any more pious, good-hearted Jewish woman in the world than Sarah Itka the Blind? Could there possibly be a better shmura-matzo baker than Beize’s son Shmerl? And where could you find such a hearty singer, psalm-reciter and hakafes distributor than Avraham Yossel? What town in the entire world possessed a better cantor and choirboys than Shmerl Lanski and his choir?

And who can compare to the piety of Malahel, who never complained but endured the torments of Job with a constant smile? What Jewish community was blessed with such a saint as Rabbi Dudl? Who else had the honor to taste the pleasure of a Hasidic melody on a Sabbath afternoon at the rebbe’s table when Yossl Kalouzshni would roll his eyes upward and, with a thin voice, fill the air of the Hasidic shtibl with Sabbath songs?

Who else could dance with such fervor at the rebbe’s table than Shia? Or does there exist anywhere a cleverer cobbler than Aizle “Tchuptchik” and a better tailor than Yossel “Pudrik?” And more ... many, many more Jews of blessed memory! ...

That is how far children looked and how much they understood ... happy, naive, hearty childhood years.

Were it not for the dark black Hitler clouds which covered the skies of the Jewish communities, wiping them off the surface of the earth without leaving even a memory, then grandchildren in David-Horodok would still be telling their children today that once ... a very long time ago ... there was ...

May G-d remember their sacred souls ... !

David-Horodok Up To the Second World War

      Itzhak Nahmanovitch

David-Horodok was a small town, a small island of culture in the black and remote sea of Polesye. Near to God and far from people, getting there was no easy matter. With a wagon from the train station at Lakhva, it was a 21-mile journey over muddy roads, or with the steamboat from Pinsk in the summer, it was a 14-18 hour voyage through the wild dream-like forests and swamps of Polesye.

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The Horin River's bank in David-Horodok

A new arrival would notice nothing special. Small houses clung to mother earth as if they wanted to unite with her. Incidentally there was a street popularly called “Egypt Street” where the houses were sunk halfway into the ground.

Outwardly the town had nothing to recommend it. But when one of its own people looked at it, an inhabitant who had experienced the local way of life, the sweet kernel under the external gray husk, the life of these small houses with their cares and joys appealed to him/her with a special zest.

In general David-Horodok was a unique and interesting town. There were about 18,000 inhabitants, of which about 7000-8000 were Jews and the remainder Belarusan, along with a small number of Poles.[10]

A hundred years would go by with many assaults and battles with various gangs who would pass, and the life of the town did not change. In general, the relationship between the inhabitants was not bad. During World War I when Balakovitch[11] and his band entered town, the Belarusans saved the Jews from death, hiding them in their own homes. The solidarity of the people was also demonstrated when the Red Army arrived and wanted to requisition the cattle of the Polish landowners. The Jews and Belarusans opposed this and set up an armed resistance. The town was then visited by a punitive expedition which shot to death the most distinguished people in town. This is how Baytzl Yudovitch, of blessed memory, was killed. Later when the first Poles came into town, also “fine young men,” the Polish inhabitants hid many Jews.[12]

Thus many years passed. Lands were wiped out; regimes changed, but in David-Horodok life flowed on without alteration. Calm reigned, a pleasant calm. Even the “gods” lived at ease--next to the church stood the Jewish synagogues and study-houses, and all was normal. If there were positive qualities in Jewish community life, these were found in David-Horodok.

Politically active but with ethical content, all parties and organizations were permeated with feelings of brotherhood. The Mizrahist and the Communist would meet in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. There were no great “leaders”--all were equal; young and old stuck to their jobs. Everyone knew his place. It is truly a shame that Shalom Aleichem never knew David-Horodok because he could have found as many original folk themes there as in Kasrilevke [Shalom Aleichem’s fictional shtetl.] Each and every individual was unique. Each one was a living Noah Pandre[13] with many similar examples such as Abraml the Bastard, Shia the Emperor, David the Brilliant, Yud the Scholar, etc., etc. Simple, unassuming--poor but always cheerful--each David-Horodoker had his/her own wit and mannerisms; one could write a book about them.

One cannot overemphasize the people’s uniqueness and modesty; the most pious wore no earlocks or kaftan; the most intelligent spoke the mother tongue. There were two valuable libraries with the newest books, which were read after a hard day’s work. Work and culture went hand in hand.

An exemplary youth was brought up in the excellently organized Tarbus school, all in the Hebrew language. After the eight classes of the school, many of the graduates went elsewhere for higher education. In Pinsk and Vilna, some 100 David-Horodoker youth went to intermediate and high schools. That is the way it was until the Second World War.

Picture of a Town’s Sabbath Evening

      Berl Neuman

The clock strikes twelve. The day is half gone. The sun is in mid-sky. The aroma of the plezlach [flat rolls] and fresh bulkas [baked rolls] has long since dissipated with the wind. A new odor now emanates from the chimneys. Like music from a stringed instrument, the aroma rises to the sky and the heavenly servants carry the “burnt offering” aloft on their wings to the Master of the World as a Sabbath gift. Thus the industrious housewives let the outside world taste the aroma of their cholent and noodle kugel.

Noah the Blacksmith (he was a righteous Jew) had long since closed up his shop and walked home at a rapid pace lest he be tardy in welcoming the Sabbath Queen. As it says in the verse: “Delay the end of the Sabbath and hasten its coming.”

In the marketplace can be heard the clanging of locks and bolts. At the half-closed doors the shopkeepers stand around, glancing up and down the empty marketplace, and one after another unhurriedly--perhaps another customer will come at the last moment--close up their shops. When Nishka the Proprietress begins to close her shop, Lipa the Driver rubs his back on the wagon post, shrugs his shoulders to conclude his back-scratching, gives a broad resounding yawn, and slowly climbs off the wagon. Lipa’s white skinny little horse, blind in one eye, barely drags his feet. “Neigh,” says he. He seems to understand that the day of rest is also arriving for him, and he joyfully plods along.

First Lipa and then Itzik the Goat on one side, then Itzik the Brilliant and his son Itzel (both in one wagon) on the other side, overworked Jews with hunched shoulders and formalized outfits, separate themselves, one from the other. This is the way teamsters part, separating at the brick wall of the church on the way home for Sabbath.

On the other side of the marketplace, near Koplinski’s apothecary, the esteemed drivers returning from their trip to Lakhva begin to gather. They represent an entirely different world. Their horses are healthy, well-fed and large. The wagons are tall with containers in the rear filled with fragrant hay. They are outfitted with comfortable padded and covered seats for the convenience of their passengers.

Arriving from the road they stop to grab a quick chat. Shaike the Kaiser begins to tell of the “wonders” of his trip as he pulls hard on the reigns of his horse, which at that moment begins to whinny as if it understands the conversation. “With my horse I don’t have to be ashamed,” says Benjamin, the driver with a quiet voice, giving his horse a tickle under the belly with his whip. It appears that the horse is pleased with his owner’s compliment. He rears up and industriously digs a hole in the ground with his hind legs.

Asherke the Deaf, with his playful black horse Pupike tied by a rope, jumps down while holding up his pants. He does not hear the conversation but pokes his way into the middle, staring with a pair of jovial sparkling bright eyes. He shrugs his shoulders, pulls his right ear to the side and asks quietly, wanting to participate in the conversation, “Well? What? Are you talking about something?”

“Nothing, nothing,” says Yosl the Blond with a muffled voice, “Leibke doesn’t mean you; he means the horse.” The resounding laughter of the drivers reverberates through the half-deserted marketplace. However Asherke is not dismayed. He twists around, cracks his whip in the air and laughs good-naturedly together with all the others.

Then old David Tchesnok, who is a little late, comes along the road. He stops his horse and wagon awhile, and without getting down from his wagon says with dignity, “Jews, it is already late. There is no time. It is already Sabbath eve. We must give our horses some oats and drive home.” Meanwhile his horse takes advantage of the opportunity, raises his tail and empties his bowels. He swishes his tail right and left, driving away the flies, and he is ready to go into his stall for the Sabbath.

The drivers decide that it is definitely time to drive home when they see from a distance Shlomo Pinhas hurrying to the bathhouse with a pack of white linen under his arm.

There was a certain charm about the David-Horodoker bath house. I can see before my eyes the long building with red bricks, the high narrow windows with the small square bracketed panes. In the first anteroom, a pile of branches lay prepared. The oven was heating up so as to warm the water in the steam-boiler, which would convey the hot water through pipes into the two large casks which stood on high iron railings near the ceiling.

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The bath-house in David-Horodok

A dark corridor led into the first wardrobe room where a closet stood on the left side, containing cubicles for clothing. On the opposite side were wooden benches for resting. From there a door led to the “thrashing bath.” The “thrashing bath” or, as others called it, the “sweat bath,” constituted another world. The door opened with great difficulty because of two heavy stones bound to it with rope, which held it back.

Not everyone could go in there because some could not tolerate the heat. Every once in a while someone would pass out, and the attendants would have to pour a cask of cold water on him, and lead him by the hand into the cold room where they would lay him on the cool concrete bench until he came to himself. It was really no wonder. The thick steam was intermingled with the stench of dirty underwear hanging from sticks inserted in the overlying rafters. Not every heart could endure it. Indeed this is the reason that such a frail Jew as Boroch the Planter never experienced the zest of being steamed-out in the Jewish David-Horodoker “sweat-bath.”

The only one who felt better there than at home was Zelig’s son Moishe Mordechai the Fat.[14]The heat was never enough for him. When he got together with Maier Hershl the Butcher, then things really were spirited. First Maier Hershl shouted in his husky voice, “Throw on another bucket!” To pour a bucket of water on the boiling hot stones in the oven required great skill and Moishe the Fat was an expert. The heat increased with one bucket after another. The steam could be cut with a knife, as it was thick enough simply to choke a person. At this point they both climbed up to the highest step and their work began.

They raised and lowered their branches to clear away the steam on all sides. One thrash and then another, and a third, a fifth, and a tenth. “Ah, ah, ah,” cried one of them with great pleasure, “a little higher ... there, there, there, ... harder ... even harder ... good ... good ... ah!”

Now the other one laid down and the first one gave him a double measure. Thus the two beaten Jews left the sweat bath red as beets, but healthy. “Oh that was a good bath! Since I’ve been alive ...!”

And where did Jews go after the sweat-bath? To the mikve [ritual bath]. In the mikve room it was a little quieter. Only the screaming of the small children who had polluted the water disturbed the silence. From the mikve room a door led to another room which contained a row of white tubs intended for the gentry.

And now we see entering the mikve room a tall broad-boned Jew. This is Mordechai Leib the General. He confidently descends step by step until he remains standing in the middle of the mikve with the water reaching his chest. He puts his hands on his head, bends down, turns right and left in order to make circlets of waves which draw off the leaves still stuck to his body after the sweat-bath. He immerses himself three times, then gets up and stretches his entire length and straightens his long yellow beard.

After him comes old Rabbi Wolf, Hillel’s son,[15] with careful steps, bent over almost to the ground. Before he descends the last step, he covers his ears, nose and eyes with the fingers of both hands. When he leaves the last step he stands in the water with his head barely visible. He is immersed as he stands. Nevertheless, he bends three times and, barely catching his breath, comes out cautiously wiping his face with one hand.

The day does not linger. Time flies and the bathhouse empties. The streets become filled with the Sabbath spirit. Through the windows can be seen the gleam of the brass candlesticks and the covered challehs on the clean white tablecloths. Washed and outfitted with shining shoes, the small children wander about the streets peeling kernels which their mothers have put in their pockets to honor the Sabbath. Girls with braided pigtails on their radiantly shampooed heads show off their pretty Sabbath clothes to each other.

With white pressed shawls on their heads, the grandmothers go out on the porch to wait for Raishke’s son Velvel,[16] who walks along the streets with a stick in his hand, knocking on the shutters, announcing it is time to bless the candles.

The sun begins to set. The day departs, giving way for the town’s heartfelt Friday evening. From the synagogues, one can hear the melody of “Come let us sing to the Lord; let us shout with joy to the Rock of our salvation ...”

Weekday Evenings in the Synagogue

Motl Slotzki

New York

Between Minha [afternoon prayer service] and Maariv [evening prayer service] in the Great Synagogue, the shadows would lengthen and darkness settle in. One hardly noticed the man standing at the podium. Only his voice was heard, with its own peculiar sad-sweet sounds filtering through the twilight. Yosl the Butcher was singing the Psalms.

Later after the Maariv service, Beryl the Sexton taught a portion of Talmud for the public.[17] Then the eastern wall lost its privileged status. The wealthy, the merchants and the laborers mixed together. Honor belonged to the one who could learn. Indeed they all sat together, hand-in-hand, the aristocratic-looking and affluent Yashke’s son Pesah, Gitl’s son Yenkl Shashe, Hiah Esther’s son Velvel, and Noah Leib’s son Moishe, along with the butchers Hertzl Pravik, Leibele’s son Itzik, Gerzl and the Jewish teamsters such as the two brothers, Artchik’s sons, Volf and Alter.

Eventually the town of Slutsk took away Beryl the Sexton who became their yeshiva headmaster, and Rabbi Dudl took over the job of giving the public Talmud lesson.

Noah Pinhas taught Ein Yakov [a collection of legends in the Talmud] at the Alter Rov’s[18] studyhouse. The school teacher studied Bible and Rashi [Biblical commentary] with the Jews at the culture school. Only in the Stoliner shtibel did they revel, sing and dance because they “did not believe in sadness.”

It is summer. The Pinsk teamsters drive their sleighs over the Winter Road to Pinsk only when the marshes and rivers are frozen, and the steamboats are idle. The brothers Volf and Alter earn their summer livelihood pulling lumber out of the river at the dock belonging to Feigele’s son Shloma, where the ships are built. The most they earn is 20 kopecks a day. In truth this suffices only for sandy black bread and perhaps for a little barley to make soup, or to buy a piece of kishka. It is really a difficult and poor livelihood, but all is forgotten in the evening at the Talmud lesson, for then one is learning Torah!

Soon the summer is over and the High Holy Days approach. The sexton knocks at dawn, summoning people to arise and say Selihos [penitential prayers]. I go with my father to the Nagid [rich man’s] Synagogue. At the podium stands Yeshia’s son Yenkl. His hoarse, tearful voice begs, demands and pleads. The congregants repeat after him with tears pouring from their eyes. I look at the Holy Ark and it seems to me that the cover flutters as the Holy Spirit in the Ark cries and bewails the bitter lot of the people of Israel.


Ann Helman

I was born in David-Horodok. I came to this country [the United States] in 1922 when I was thirteen years old. My name was Hashke Glassman. I never liked my name. My mother’s name was Hannah Leah and my father’s was Avraham Glassman. I had two sisters-- Rifke (Rebecca), and Ruchel (Rachel) and one brother--Bendit. In David-Horodok there was a Mitzriangas [“Egypt” Street] and there was a Shulgas [Synagogue Street], and an Olshonergas [Olshon Street]. My mother rented a room with some family when she had us. Then we moved to Mitzriangas and from Tvera Lutzke’s mother, Peschke the Blecherke [the Tinsmith], we rented a house and lived in the back. The Lutzkes made tin dishes and graters for grating things. Tvera Lutzke was a big worker in the Horodoker society in this country.

  Mitzriangas was on the water. It was also called Jerusalem Street. There was the old cemetery on the street. The Greble was the main street. That was where we liked to take a walk. It was not far from the Shulhav [Synagogue Courtyard] and it was small. The Granaders, Ann Spielberg’s family, lived on the Greble. They had like a hotel. It was not really a hotel but a large house and when the troops passed through they used to come there and sleep there. That’s what I heard.

And there was the market. You want to know something about that? The women who had the stalls, they didn’t have any heat, so in the winter they had like a round crock they put coals in, and then sat on it. The crock was little in the middle and wider on the bottom and they covered it with something. But some got hurt too, burned on the bottom. That was how they sold in the winter.

  My father was a plain worker; he didn’t make too much. He left for America right before the war started. My mother was a housekeeper in David-Horodok. Her family couldn’t afford even to send her to school, and she couldn’t afford to send us, special after the war was on and we couldn’t get anything from America. I went to cheder, but not long, because my mother couldn’t afford to pay. I can read, but to say I can understand everything, no. I went only a couple of years.

  You want to know how they made a wedding? (Hear her telling it. 1 MB) The groom was from a different town, so he came to Horodok for the wedding. The girl’s family had to give him a dowry and promise him things. And when he came for the wedding he used to stay by a friend on a different street. On the day of the wedding the musicians went from the bride’s house to where the groom was staying, to pick up the groom and bring him back to the bride and cover her. But he wouldn’t go to the wedding until they gave him what they promised him--money, whatever. The wedding was late in the evening and the crowd used to go with candles to the synagogue, but they didn’t go in. They stayed in the middle of the Shulhav . There was no fence around the synagogue. They were in the middle of the road. And when everybody came back from the chuppah, the groom’s father and mother and aunt went with a braided challeh to meet him and his bride. And when they came to the door going into the house, the best friends used to stand on the chairs and recite something. Then we went in and ate. Everyone was invited. And the music played and we danced a waltz, a sherele, a kaviak. You wouldn’t know them. The musicians, the klezmer, had a violin and other instruments. And that used to be the wedding.

  My husband told me that on his street there were two sisters living. One lived about three blocks away. Everybody in David-Horodok, if they could afford it, had a cow so they could get milk and so forth. So this one sister was a strichelmacher--she used to make ropes. And she would sit outside and talk and talk. When it came Friday she made noodles that she hung outside on the rope to dry. So the cow came from the other sister’s house and with her horns, the cow took the noodles off the rope and ate them.

  On the Shulhav was living my friend Ida Louise Lewis [Hiah Litvak in David-Horodok] and her aunt. We were raised together. Her aunt was one of two sister-in-laws living there. On the property was a smaller house in the back and a bigger house in the front. And every year they used to exchange houses, to be fair. And we had the best good time together. They had a little gate around the houses and inside was a cherry tree. The small house in back had a little window on top and we used to climb up and pull in the cherries. For this, we made a stick with a bent nail in it. Then we ate the cherries. Hiah had two sisters, Nishke and Faygel [Fannie]. Every year we had the best time when they moved.

  They lived on the Shulhav near my grandfather. And they had a porch and we used to sit on the front porch and Fannie [Faygel] her sister was afraid of cats. She still don’t like them. Her name now is Weiss, Fannie Weiss. We were children playing. Ida was one and Bloomke was one, her cousin. And we didn’t like Faygel because she was about seven months younger and she wanted everything. We hid from her; so she hit us. She would catch us and hit us because she wanted to play with us and we were hiding from her. We played even on Saturday. Children didn’t go to shul on Shabbes.

  Mud used to come before the high holidays and it was so terrible you couldn’t go through it. And when I’d go to Simcha Torah services, my uncle’s sister carried me to the shul. There was no where to go. It was all muddy. There was no wooden sidewalk, just mud.

  My husband Leo used to tell me that before Yom Kippur their family used to get some shoes and clothes made for them, and they used a tailor there called Boroch Dailiocher. Ann Komisar could tell you. And he used to go running with a stick all over the market and he made clothes. He’d hang around but a couple days before the holidays he would start working. And my husband said he would mark whether it was long or short. But then he would make one pant’s leg shorter than the other. Always. And the shoemaker always made one shoe shorter than the other.

My mother-in-law was something, but a mother is a mother, so I let her live with us. So my mother-in-law liked me in her own way. When I was remodeling a house, I wanted an arch there and a sink here, and then I wanted something else in the kitchen. And Leo said I couldn’t do that. And his mother went to the workers and told them, “Don’t listen to my son. Listen to his wife.” And that made my husband mad. She wasn’t easy to live with. My mother-in-law often thought I spent enough time on the telephone, and she would come by and put her fingers down on the buttons, and say “Genug [enough]. You don’t need to talk that long!”

  My mother-in-law didn’t have a happy story. She came from David-Horodok where her own mother was an aguna--her husband was lost and she could never marry again. So she was a woman with two daughters and no dowry. My mother-in-law was married at the age of sixteen to a man thirty-five with two children, one was a daughter only six years younger than herself. My mother-in-law didn’t want to, but her mother slapped her and she had to. Then her own children came, and there was constant arguing in the house.

Reminiscence of David-Horodok, Poland

Zelda Keren of Mishmar Hasharon, Israel

  Every person is entitled to a childhood and to having a Bar Mitzvah, only once. And the further away you get from it, from your youth, your feeling of its realness becomes more like the feeling of a paralyzed limb. At the time you accepted it as it was, because you thought of it as perfect. And that is how I absorbed its style and flavor.

  I was born in a town called David-Horodok, in Polesye in Russia, in the year 1915... I will think back and write a little about this town. The Jews no longer exist there. Everyone was destroyed, along with a culture and heritage of hundreds of years, of long habits and customs. This all happened in the 20th century under the eyes of the whole world...

  Now, as I write down my recollection and memories from the days of my childhood, I am amazed at the great changes that have taken place in everything, without me even realizing it, in terms of dress, houses, relationships between friends, in families, between husband and wife, parents and children, between nations, between the government and the citizen, in science, technology and medicine, in all realms of’s really incredible.

  There is no generation that reached such peaks as ours, in all our history. The tragic peak of the horrifying Holocaust and the great consolation: the establishment of the State of Israel. And thus Europe’s period of the Jewish people came to an end, a period that had lasted for some thousand years (nearly as long as both the periods of the First and Second Temples put together). The Jewish communities were wiped out in thousands of towns and tens of cities, and my town, David-Horodok, was among them. These towns were all quite similar in their background and way of life because they all had one primary common denominator: the Torah of Israel and its holidays and the great belief in the future, and particularly the longings for Zion. And so it is that I come to point out and give to my grandchildren at least some idea about the origins of the world of our fathers in the Diaspora, about the yesterday from which they sprouted, about the history of the family, so that it might pass on to them a feeling of continuity. And hopefully, this will give the young some idea of the suffering of their people, of the long period of wandering, of the yearning and languishing, and of the migration of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. And through this we can hope to save our culture and heritage from the abyss of being forgotten…

The national poet H.N. Bialik said, “Even if he knows seventy wisdoms but does not know the Bible, he is still an ignoramus…” My love of the Bible comes from my dear mother, who knew most of its chapters by heart. Her knowledge of the Bible was rare and unique for that time, when women were not even taught to read and write. My mother Sarah (my daughter Sarah-leh in named after her) used to tell me all sorts of legends, stories and commentaries from the Bible. She also used to tell stories about Jesus of Nazareth, for the Christian population was very devout. Across from our house, a huge crucifix on a pillar was displayed, crowned with various decorations.

  About the town itself: the town David-Horodok was located on the banks of the Horin River. It was surrounded by vast areas of swamps, and it was difficult to reach and far from the main road. It was really steeped in mud that often weighed heavily on both the body and the spirit. But in the strength of childhood, of youth, everything is taken for granted and one is totally at peace with everything. Entering the town you’d cross over a bridge, which joined the two sides of the river.

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The Greble Bridge in David-Horodok

  Life in the town was concentrated in two central squares--one of them being the market square in which there were various shops and stalls (salt-fish, one of the main food staples at the time was also sold there, cut into small pieces). [The second was the Shulhav, the Synagogue Courtyard.] There stood the synagogues and various schools of learning and the public bath-house. The life of the town passed through this square: the weddings with the klezmer music players, with us, the children, running around among them, and all the other kinds of celebrations. Funerals of the dead would pass through there too, and would stop by the synagogue where the deceased used to pray.

  The houses were built of wood, and the roofs were covered with sheaves of straw. (Fires would break out and consume them from time to time. And the times that the fire would break out at night, we would be terribly frightened but still, we would help put out the fire with whatever pails of water we had).

  The streets had no sidewalks and were unpaved. During spring months, at the time of the melting of the snows, the roads would turn into swamps and small rivers of water. And we would move from house to house in small boats. And we, the children, had plenty to play and occupy ourselves with. (I am reminded of Purim, when the children would deliver the Shalak mones [gifts of food and sweets] to friends and neighbors, and it was not seldom that they would fall into one of the swamps, and they’d lose the plates with the various types of sweets and foods.) Or sometimes it would happen that one of the gentiles would be returning home drunk and would fall into one of the swamps. In short it was a real mess!

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The Horin River at Flood Level

  Water-drawers would supply the drinking water, and in every home there were a few barrels that they would fill up every day. The gentiles did this work. They would do all kinds of work--they would chop the firewood for heating; they’d remove the garbage from the yards, would bring the hay for the cow, and would milk it. On the Sabbath, they would extinguish the Sabbath candles, and would remove the candlesticks from the table on Sabbath morning. Every Jewish family had a gentile man or woman of their own who would help with everything (i.e. making payments involving money, cutting the challeh bread or cutting up any food during the Sabbath). As I said before, the Jews were concentrated in the town center and the gentiles lived in the outskirts of the town. Their shacks were surrounded by beautiful gardens, with all kinds of flowers (I really envied them when I’d go for a walk outside of the town), lots of vegetables, and all kinds of fruit trees. But next to each house was a large pig-pen. The pigs would multiply rapidly and would roam all over the town. The yards of the Jews were surrounded by wooden fences with gates, and every yard had a cow to provide milk and dairy products, a small vegetable garden and a few cherry trees and apple or pear trees.

  Also every family would bake their own bread, challeh, and cakes. My Grandmother Shayna, may her name be blessed, was excellent at this. The main means of transportation was via the river by steamboat. It would take about 18 hours for us to travel to neighboring Pinsk via the river. We would go there because my parents moved to live there, and we children stayed behind with our grandmother and grandfather. We were very attached to them, and we loved them very, very much.

  Besides the water transportation there was transportation by horse. Jewish wagon drivers were an important source of information. They would travel to the fairs with merchandise. I remember those journeys too, through the forests, and different incidents that would happen along the way. A rich imagination would add not a little to these journeys, and the trip would really be a nightmare.

  The Jewish community was quite poor for the most part. They all had one aspiration in their hearts: to teach their children Torah, and they would pay their last pennies to their teachers. It is said that the Land of Israel was poured into the children’s hearts through the Torah, Rashi, the prayer book, the Selihoth prayer, Lamentations, and the carobs of the holiday of Tu Bishvat.

  In the town there was a very developed social aid network. There were many different funds: for preparing the bride for the wedding ceremony, for sick calls, for releasing prisoners, anonymous gifts, etc. There was not a single Jew in any community or small town who did not have challeh for the Sabbath or matzo for Passover.

  The center around which life revolved was the Sabbath and holidays. On the day after Sabbath, they were already preparing for the next Sabbath. It is said that "the Sabbath kept and preserved the children of Israel more than that they kept the Sabbath." (Ahad Ha’am wrote about that.)

  The poverty and the degradation were felt only on weekdays, and the Sabbath helped the Jews to forget the bitterness of Exile. On Friday in all the homes, people would be baking and cooking, washing the hair of the children, preparing and arranging for the Sabbath--with the white tablecloth spread on the table, the shining candlesticks and candles, and a lofty holiness about everything.

  The housewife would finally have respite after a week of worries and preparations. She would put on the dress from the time of her wedding, and she would say the blessing over the candles, and would send her children to the synagogue to pray.

  The men would rush with bundles under their arms to the bath-house, which served as a kind of health spa, washing off all the dirt, giving them strength. I should add, by the way, that the people lived long lives and had many children.

  In the streets of the town, on Friday evenings, there was a quietness and serenity, and a pervasive atmosphere of festivity and holiness everywhere. The Shabbat candles could be seen in all the windows. All of this passes now before my eyes like a dream...

  When the men would return home from the synagogue, they would immediately give the greeting, “Peace be upon you, Sabbath angels.” At that hour it seemed as if the good angels who came to celebrate the Sabbath with us were all hovering nearby. After the wine blessing and the festive meal, we would sing songs and melodies. The whole Sabbath was spent in tranquillity and study. And in my memory I recall Bialik’s and Ravnitzky’s Book of Legends being on the table, as well as various newspapers...the Moment, the Tzefirah and the Heint [Today]. The copies of them would be passed around from person to person in the community.

  Even just thinking about matters of work and livelihood was forbidden. Being sad was also forbidden on the Sabbath! The synagogue was like a small fountain of holiness, and was the cultural and spiritual center.

  On Sabbath afternoon, my Grandmother Shayna, may she rest in peace, would read to us as we sat around her by the big brick burning stove, which had heated up all four rooms well before the coming of the Sabbath. She would tell us stories from the Tsene Rene (a special book, the so-called Women’s Bible, in Yiddish), tales and legends that would revive the heart and spirit. And even now I can still remember the melody of the prayer she used to sing in Yiddish on Motzei Shabbat (Saturday evening, the departing of the Sabbath): “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob...” 

  In the house there would already be the first shadows of evening and she would go to the window and look out, to see if there was a star visible yet in the sky. You would feel the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of a week of work; it was as if the gates of hell, which had closed on Erev-Shabbat (Friday night), were again opening.

  I’ll never forget the warmth, the tenderness and the love, when she would take me into her arms on the long and cold winter nights, with storms raging outside, the wind howling through the chimney of the house and the windows. And grandmother would sing a warm and glowing lullaby, and I would fall asleep peacefully in her arms.

  Our street was always humming with children. All the cheders [schools], were concentrated on our street and the Cultural School (which was founded in 1923) was at the other end of the street. And again, it is as if in a dream that my memories from school pass through my mind now...

  I entered school to begin studying in the third grade, the highest class. And third grade then turned into fourth grade. We were the first graduating class from our school. We were the most important students in the town. When we completed our studies almost everyone in the whole town gathered and we all celebrated together. We put on a play by Y. L. Peretz, Tsvey Nigunim [Two Melodies], and made our parents feel proud of us. We gave them nachas.

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First graduation class of the Tarbus school, 1928-29.

  As time went on our school grew to have a great reputation throughout Poland; it taught a whole generation the blessings of the Hebrew culture and heritage, as well as notions of national revival. All the children, large and small, spoke only Hebrew all day long, as well as in their parents’ home. And once, when Yosef Bertz, may his memory be blessed, of Kibbutz Degania, chanced to come to David-Horodok, he said light-heartedly, “Even the goyish shigsas speak Hebrew here.” He was fascinated by the atmosphere in the town and by the zeal and enthusiasm for the Hebrew language which was becoming more and more firmly rooted.

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Building a new home for the Tarbus school, year 5687 (1926-7)

  The figure that really formed and shaped my world was my grandfather, Reb Shimon Laichtman, may his memory be blessed. He was a model for me, an ideal to emulate. It is thanks to him that I reached this country. My grandfather, Reb Shimon, (who my son Shimon, father of Leon, Ohadi and Merav, is named after) was the first teacher in the town who led a “reformed cheder.” He was the teacher of three generations of children, and practically all of the children of the town had been his students.

  He was a great adherent of the Hebrew language, and understood that it was necessary for the Jews to settle in Israel, and to speak in the language in which the Book of Books was written, in which the Prophets and Kings spoke. During the first year of study at the school he would teach about the Jewish holidays and festivals in addition to teaching reading and writing. My grandfather was a known and loved personality in the town. They used to call me “the granddaughter of Reb Shimon Laichtman”.

  Grandfather’s house was a gathering place for learned people, teachers and intellectuals. I remember when the University on Mt. Scopus was founded. It was celebrated by drinking wine, eating salt-fish and potatoes (the conventional and popular food then.) And afterwards, I remember were the Incidents of 1920 (attacks by the local Arab population on Jewish settlements in Palestine), a time when everyone sat and wept in earnest.

  In 1933 when Hitler rose to power my grandfather was completely shaken and he told me about a dream he had dreamt: that a pack of black dogs fell upon him and tore him to pieces.

  Grandfather was the one who really pushed me to leave everything behind and go to Eretz Israel. When I asked him “Where will the money come from?” he answered, “I will sell my house and the money from that will be for you.” And so it was. I went to “Hachsharah” (the program of training and preparation for aliyah) and to the city of Warsaw in Congress Poland in order to get a certificate for making aliyah. It was there that I met Moshe Korngold, who was a member of the “Pioneer Center.” Afterwards we met in Palestine and set up house together.

  I remember when I went up onto the steamboat, standing and looking at the faces of the people who had come to the dock to see us off to Palestine, and all the members of my family were among them. In my heart I had the heavy feeling that I would never see my loved ones again. I stood frozen, as if turned to stone; and slowly the boat moved away from the shore, and the people gradually disappeared from view... and that was the last time I ever saw any of them.

I immigrated to Israel together with nine other members of my Hachsharah group. We were the first bunch of the Hachsharah group to go. We wanted to build a new collective settlement, and in the meantime, awaiting the arrival of the rest of the members we went to “Hachsharah”, training and preparing for setting up a collective settlement. We went to Ramat David, and just beyond the rise at Kiryat Anavim, today known as Ma’aleh ha-Khamishah, and to Khulda, and from there, during the Incidents, we went to Givat Ada.

  Because of all the difficult circumstances in the country, the attacks on the Jewish settlements, the lack of employment, and the outbreak of World War II, we didn’t manage to hold our own as an independent collective settlement and we dispersed. Some of the group moved to Ma’aleh ha-Khamishah, and I came to Mishmar Hasharon, and married Moshe. We had our first daughter Ruthie (she is the mother of Hagai, Ofra, Nurit, and Netah), her name being taken from the Book of Ruth.

  As I pointed out earlier, anyone who studied the Bible as a child, holds many places in Israel dear and close to the heart. I participated in archaeological meetings and the one that left the greatest impression on me was the one in Eilat which was attended by many people. At the end there was a party held in the light of the moon at Umm-Rashrash... it was all so exciting, so thrilling...

  And I remember well how I sat perched atop one of the ridges of the hills and gazed out over the Gulf of Elat and beyond to the Red Sea. It seemed to me as if this was at “the ends of the earth,” and I felt a great wonderment and awe in my heart--how had I been so fortunate as to be able to come here, to have reached this place? All the way from the swamps of Polsye in Eastern Poland, somewhere at the other end of the earth. I was strongly and deeply moved. I had gone such a long way. I can only call it a “miracle.”

  I have conveyed so little and there is much more missing than what I’ve managed to write down. Like a mere drop of water in the sea of all the many different memories and feelings of great and small deeds, achievements, and successes, alongside the sense of guilt and regret about missed opportunities and wrong decisions made...

  It is thanks to the teachers and educators of my grandchildren and their requesting the pupils think about their origins, about the subject of “roots”-- that I came to reveal and write this, little as it may be. And for this I thank and bless them.


[9] Hebrew month usually falling in December-January.

[10] 7000-8000 was the population of David-Horodok in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The author also folds the Horodtchukas into the general Belarusan population, something I am sure neither group would have appreciated.

[11] General Bulak Balakovitch commanded a “white” Russian military group called the Balakovitzes. They fought alongside the Polish military against the Red Army in the Russo-Polish War that followed the 1917 revolution. In a retreat from Kiev, they become infamous for the terrible massacre of the Jewish population of Volhynia. They expressly espoused anti-Semitism.

[12] This is an unusual interpretation of events, which differs substantially from another interpretation in Section IV.

[13] Heroic fictional character penned by Zalman Schneour

[14] The name in Yiddish would have been Moishe Mordechai Zelig’s “the fat,” meaning Moishe Mordechai, son of Zelig, known as “the fat.”

[15] Actually “the old Rabbi Wolf Hillel’s.”

[16] Literally “Velvel Raishke’s.” Velvel Raishke’s is also mentioned in Section V “One is reminded of how a high [Soviet] officer who was at the head of a detachment noticed the elderly Velvel Raishke’s who stood with the others on the sidewalk. He called to the old gentleman, “Nada zhit staritchak, nada zhit!” (“We must live old man, we must live!”) What an enthusiastic response these few words brought.”

[17] Since the time between the services was short, the men usually remained in the synagogue for both sets of prayers.

[18] The Alter Rov was an Hasidic rabbi, Rabbi Israel Yosef, who came to David-Horodok from Korets in Volhynia.

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