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Living in David Horodok

Anne Komisar

  My name in Russia was Hanche (Annie) Pinsker; I had a family of seven people. My sisters were Laycheck (Lily), Miasha (Mary), Basheva (Bessie) and my brother was Shya (Sam). My mother’s name was Mazishka Bailen (Jenny) and my father’s name was Dovid (David). There were two more sons, but they died when they were young from diphtheria. One was seven and one was five. I wasn’t born yet, so it would have been before 1907. We were very poor; we had a hard time.

  My grandmother’s name was Minya Bailen. I didn’t know my grandfather. My grandmother was very charitable. If she had a loaf of bread, she never kept that loaf of bread. She’d eat half and then put the other half under her shawl and take it to sick people. (She wore a big shawl.) In early summer there would be strawberries and cherries, and she would make a lot of strawberry and cherry jam. I would say, “Bubbe, where are you going?” and she said about someone, “She got a bad cough. She needs a little of this jelly. It’ll help her.” And another thing--she was a fanatic about religion, just a fanatic. I see it myself. Most of her davens she remembered by heart because she went to shul every morning.

  It came Friday, we bentshed likht [lit candles], came Saturday, I visited my grandmother. I was about five, six houses from her house. I lived on Olshonergas [Olshon Street]. So did my grandmother. She was very close. All her kids and grandchildren would be there and I loved it. My sister Lily came because Shabbes you don’t do nothing, not even wash the dishes. You do it in the evening after Shabbes is over. On Shabbes my mother made cholent to eat. And even though we couldn’t get white flour, we rolled the dark flour a little different for Shabbes, to make like a little kickel, a little roll or coffeecake. And my grandmother gave me a little kickel and an apple on Shabbes, and for that she wanted I should say something from the Siddur, the Jewish prayer book. She wanted I should daven for her, because I was able to daven, and she couldn’t see very well any more.

  When she died, they cleaned her up and put the body on the floor. In Europe they didn’t have funeral parlors. I was five, six years old, and I came to her and sat down near her. That time my father was in the United States. And I said, “Bubbe, I don’t know my father.” And I cried and cried. Years ago you thought dead people went to heaven and could ask God for help for the living. I wanted God to let me see my father. That time we didn’t know even if he was alive; it was during World War I.

  My uncle did pretty well. He had like a big house--five rooms. He worked with my grandmother. They used to buy the bristles on a pig--chasser hor--and ship to the cities. They also bought flax that factories in the big cities made into material. They bought the flax from the peasants and stuffed it into big bundles. I remember as a kid, my uncle would put me in a sack and I would stamp down the flax. He picked me up and I thought it was so much fun. Then used to come the wagons, and he shipped the flax to Pinsk and to Warsaw.

  They also sold fish nets--the things that you fish with. They sold by the yard. On Sundays, my grandmother bargained with the fishermen who stopped by Bessie Eisenberg‘s house. Bessie Eisenberg’s parents sold fish to the big cities. You know what a lig’n is, a lie? I remember one time I was five, six years old. My grandmother was bargaining with a fisherman outside, and I heard a big hubbub. When everything got quiet, I went out and said, “Bubbe, what did you say to the peasants?” She said she was telling them that the nets were worth three rubles a yard and she was selling it to them for a ruble, for one and a half rubles. Elsewhere they would be charged three rubles. The peasant woman said it was a lie. My bubbe said the woman should be able to see that all her life she told the truth. That’s the way they did sales in Europe. I don’t know if other people really charged three rubles a yard, but that was what my grandmother said. That’s where I got my bargaining skills.

  My mother insisted I get to know how to write letters to my father and how to daven in Yiddish because my parents were very religious. So first they sent me to a rabbi, who had twenty or thirty kids in his living room. I didn’t learn much. Then she sent me to the woman Fromke. Fromke had two, three, five kids she taught and I learned more from her than I learned from the rabbi I went to before for a whole year or two years. She was very strict. You had to stand in front of her and spell the words right. You did it five times. Her daughter she kept all the time in the house, but she didn’t bother me. She just walked around strange because her mind was bad. Fromke the School Teacher wouldn’t take no money from us because you couldn’t buy nothing for money that time. So we had a cow and every Friday we brought her pressed cottage cheese from the cow’s milk, and a pound of butter and a half a gallon of milk. That was how we paid her.

  I was in charge of the water. In Europe there was no water in the house; you have to bring in from the town well. You could buy from the peasants but we didn’t have money for that; I brought the water myself. I tried always to carry two pails and I never could make it. I didn’t have anything to go over my shoulders like the gentiles; I just carried the pails in my hands. Well we had a cow, and one time she had a calf. My mother was gone peddling around and my sister Lily was busy sewing, so I had to take care of the cow and the calf and everything. The cow during the day went to the pasture; a gentile boy took her with the other town cows. But the calf was too small to go. So I took it with me when I went to get water. And the calf ran away. Oy, did I cry and scream! Did I holler! Everybody in the street was going after the calf. So they caught it and brought it back.


Anne Korman

  I left David-Horodok when I was fifteen-and-a-half years old. That was in 1927. And when I knew David-Horodok it was horrible. I was born 1910, 1911. I lived through eight years of war. I had some nice experiences, but David-Horodok wasn’t a place where you could settle. It was a lot of fun and a lot of misery. But thank God it’s over. What was, was.

  I had a mother and father, and brothers and sisters. My parents were named Sarah Deenie and Itzak Gelman. My maiden name was Gelman; my brothers changed it to Helman after they got to the United States. My first name in Yiddish was Osnay from the Bible; my parents ran out of names. My mother had fourteen children, but I don’t remember them all. Most came before I was born.[1]

  I remember my bubbe, my father’s mother, she was short, actually tiny, and she used to wear a lot of skirts with pockets, and all the grandchildren gathered around and she took out cherries and gave them to the kids.

  We had a saint in David-Horodok, a rabbi; he was tiny and he used to perform miracles. He saved my brother Peter’s life. He had two sisters and I visited there because I liked the house and everything. I took the broom and swept up outside for them.[2] For that, one of them gave me a present, a nightgown made from linen, fresh linen. I put it on and ran across the town to show my mother. She asked, “Who gave that to you.” She was surprised to see me in the street with a nightgown on; I didn’t know any better. I told her the sisters gave it to me.

  Later on my brother Peter got fire on the brain and was almost dead. He was young, two, three years old. My father cried, “God’s got to help him. He’s got to save him.” And my parents went to the cemetery to pull thread. That meant they asked their relatives to talk God into making him well. But I didn’t see Peter getting better, and I didn’t see how that was going to save him because the sky was too high; it’ll take too long. The rabbi was right there. So I ran to the rabbi where I swept up and said, “You’ve got to come and save my brother.” Well, I cried and he came. His sisters told him to come. Then he locked himself in the room with my brother and said, “I don’t want anybody in here. I’ll come out when I’m ready.” He was an hour and he came out and said, “You have your son.” So help me God! It was a miracle, because there was no doctor and no medication to help. He just said, “I did it.”

Click for fullsize image

The new cemetery in David-Horodok

  Once my father had to have an operation so they took him to Pinsk. While he was gone, Peter played in the sand and he got on his skin marks or welts. So I took Peter in my arms and I went on the boat to Pinsk. There was no train. And there I went with a guy on a horse to the hospital, so they examined him and said, “It’s nothing. It’s from playing on the sand.” And I came back on the boat with him. He was all right and my father was all right.

  My family owned a matzo machine. We had a big house and in the back was a big space, like a factory, for the matzo machine. A month before Passover, we hired many people to help us make the matzo. My oldest brothers went first to America, so I was the only one left. I had to run the machine and clean the motor that makes the matzo. During Passover, the demands were too high for only me to work. During the rest of the year, my mother baked bagels and I cut them in the morning and sold them door-to-door. We also had in the marketplace a stall. And nice gentiles used to come there to buy. So I told one, “You know I like you.”

  She said, “Yeah, but I’m looking for a fortune teller.”

  I said, “I’ll be your fortune teller.” I wasn’t no fortune teller, but I heard her story so I could repeat it and tell her things that would make her happy. Then I took out cards. I was younger than ten years at the time, and she came to me to have her fortune told. She brought me linen in exchange. I brought that linen to America with me.

  We had the matzo machine in a big room, bigger than this room (which was roughly 10 ft. by 10 ft). So my brother Peter took up a candle in the night, he was maybe two years, and he was wearing a nightgown and carried the candle. He was walking around the matzo factory. And I started to yell, “Mother!” and I grabbed the candle from him because I was frightened.

  One Passover when I was a kid I got typhus and couldn’t stay in my house because my parents and the hired people were making the matzo for the whole of David-Horodok and I was contagious. I had to stay outside all day. In David-Horodok that time was no gas or electricity. We cooked with wood so there was a big woodpile behind the house. I put a blanket on the wood and the sun was shining and I slept. For eating I went to my aunt’s. She gave me food and I ate outside. At night I went in but daytimes I was on my own. I was little, maybe eight years old. And I recovered.

  The streets weren’t paved. After the rain, the young boys and girls held hands and sang songs and trampled through the streets up to the ankles in mud. We liked it. One Pesach, I was about ten, twelve, my father and mother gave me clothes. I have a picture of me in those clothes in Florida. I worked hard for my dad; that’s why he agreed. A man tailor came to the house and measured me and made for me clothes. Then I wanted ready-made shoes. My father took me to the shoe store and we got shoes for the feet. They were longer than now; they covered my ankles. It had just rained and a kind-hearted person had put a board in the street so you wouldn’t have to walk in the mud. I went with my new shoes on the board and I fell down.

  We had two cows; one got lost. I milked the cows, so I had to find it. It was my responsibility. Our neighbor’s son went with me and we found the cow and went back to our house. Then I remembered it was Friday night and he came from a very poor family. So I took a bag and put it on my shoulder and went to houses for challeh, whatever they could give me. That time I didn’t know that rabbis don’t give. So I knocked on the door of the rabbi’s house and the rabbi’s wife opened it and said, “What can I do for you, mayn kind?”

  “I know this poor family and they have nothing to eat.”

  So she said, “Come to the rabbi. He wants to see you.” He said, “Who are you? Whose daughter?” I told him Osnay Gelman. So he said, “Why are you collecting food?”

  “Because a friend helped me find my cow and his family has nothing to eat.”

  So he said to his wife, “Give her a challeh.” But I never told my mother because she would have killed me. When I delivered the food, I found out you should never ask a rabbi to give for charity. A rabbi, I should know, not to go to.

  Friday afternoons during the summer we went to the river to take a bath. We swam on one side of the river; boys in one group and girls in another. My mother always took us. That way we were clean for Shabbes at sundown. We didn’t wear bathing suits; we went swimming naked. We didn’t know any better. Everybody just undressed at the river. It was open; there was no place to hide. When we learned better was when my uncle’s children came back. My uncle was a lawyer[3] and sent his children to Germany because they had the best teachers and schools.[4] He looked exactly like my bubbe. His kids brought back the latest ideas, and they said you don’t go swimming naked any more. It’s not done.

  I went to cheder to learn Hebrew, but not long, maybe a year. Six years old, my mother wanted me to learn how to sew, so I was apprenticed to a dressmaker. She wasn’t in David-Horodok; she was in a village way off. She was a little woman and old, hunched over. I was with the old lady until I got tired of walking so long to the village. I never wanted to be a seamstress. So later on I asked my mother, “Why did you do that, when I didn’t want to be a seamstress?” And my mother said, “We had to protect you in case in later years in David-Horodok you married a poor guy. Then you should know how to make pants and a shirt.” So that’s why I had to learn.

  Me? I wanted to be a sales person, not make clothes. So I made my father let me sell. I nudged him so much, he went and got me a little table. And I set up a stand outside my house in the street. I was eight years old. My father asked me, “What do you want to sell?” I said, “Candy.” I put on the table, like the kids sell the lemonade here, but very few bought so I had to eat it.

  Besides making matzo, my father was also a carpenter. He was making beautiful frames and shipping to Germany. A guy from Gdansk came to pick them up. Frames for pictures. During the First World War, when the Jews were expelled from the war front,[5] he came with his family through David-Horodok. And my father and he were hugging and he stayed with us until the next day, before he had to move on. It was very sad.

  I had a friend, a gentile, and I loved to go to the Greek Orthodox Church with her and her family on Sunday, because the church was beautiful, gold. It looked like gold to me, but I don’t know if it was gold. And then after the church I went to have lunch with them. My friend’s family was very high class. When the Balekovitz came, they tried to hide us.

  I also walked to a small shul on Saturdays. I just went to the church because it was so beautiful. I was still Jewish, not Hasidic. Our synagogue was little, one floor, not as impressive as the church.


[1] According to Bessie Eisenberg Davidson, the first wife died and left several children. The fourteen may consist of children from both marriages. The Gelmans lived on a side street off Olshonergas, a block away from the Eisenberg home.

[2] If you didn’t keep the area outside your house swept clean, the police could give you trouble.

[3] The uncle may have been a lawyer, but he was also a money lender. Razel Eisenberg often borrowed  money from him to finance her various business enterprises and repaid the money promptly. He seems to have been a very respectable person who functioned more like the local bank than a loan shark.

[4] He had more sons than daughters.

[5] Anne Korman could not remember when this happened, but the expulsion of the Jews during the first World War is the only point that the editor knows of when a mass exodus from east to west occurred in Russia before 1927.

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