WALK IN MY SHOES
Collected Memories of the Holocaust
To read Chaim
Basist's original story, written in Hebrew, click
At about the beginning of the 19th century (1800), in the city of Königsburg in East Prussia, on the coast of the Baltic Sea, lived a Jewish family with a small daughter; one or both of the parents were doctors.
Next door lived a Christian family named Mikadis, and the friendship between the two families was a close one. Mr. Mikadis was a famous physician. This friendship was of many years’ standing, and the Mikadis couple, who had no children of their own, was very close to their friends’ daughter. The couples made an oral agreement that, in the event of the death of the parents, the Mikadis couple would raise the girl as their own. There were two conditions to this agreement; first, that the girl would be raised according to the Jewish customs, and that when the time came for her to marry, she would marry a proper Jew.
Then the worst happened, and the parents both died in an epidemic that broke out. The girl was raised by the Mikadis couple, and one day the time came for her to marry. But amongst the tiny Jewish community of Königsburg, a groom could not be found for the maiden. The adoptive parents knew, however, that in the city of Vilna, in Lithuania, it would be possible to find a groom for their daughter.
Mr. Mikadis journeyed to Vilna, and after making inquiries, spoke to one of the heads of a yeshiva. He put forth his request to find a suitable husband for his daughter, and indeed, he succeeded in his mission.
The head of the yeshiva recommended a young man who, he said, was a prodigious Torah scholar and well-suited for becoming a rabbi after the wedding. A small problem arose which was quickly resolved, as the couple was wealthy and willing to finance any and all living expenses for the couple. It turned out that the groom was younger than the prospective bride by a number of years.
The name of the 16 year old groom was Yoel Moshe Plotnik, and the 24 year old bride was Sayah. And so they were wed.
After searching in the area of what was then known as Lithuania, it was known that in the Lida district, in a small town known as Lipnishuk (Lipnishki), a rabbi was urgently needed. The place appealed to the parents of the bride and to the young couple, who built their home and settled there. After some time, a large house was built along side the beautiful stream on the far side of the town, and in that place Rabbi Yoel Moshe founded his yeshiva. There the young rabbi taught the youth of the town and the surrounding area, and supervised the spiritual life of the town.
During my visit to this place in 1996, after much searching I discovered the spot, which I remembered from the days of my youth, where the members of my family were buried. There I found the tombstone of my great-grandfather, Rabbi Avraham Plotnik, the son of the hero of this tale, Rabbi Yoel Moshe.
In addition to Jewish customs, German culture put down roots in this family. After a time, in order to sustain the family, a business connection was established with Prussia. Since the connection continued with the Mikadis family and their acquaintances, the idea arose to go into business together.
Many children were born to the young family, and as they grew they helped to run the family businesses, which grew and expanded over the years. The children of the couple migrated to nearby towns and villages, beginning their own families and maintaining their close connection with their parents. Over time, as the railroad industry grew the family expanded their businesses, becoming involved in the preparation and building of the railroad lines of the Czar of Russia. By that time, the family was no longer in need of the income from the position of rabbi, and that role was carried out without payment for many years.
As written above, after the sons of the rabbi dispersed throughout the region and established their own families, in the village of Lipnishuk only Avraham remained.
And so the life of the family continued until the start of World War I in 1914. Although with the onset of the war, the family’s businesses weakened, they wanted for nothing thanks to the large amount of property they owned, including fruitful fields. The situation worsened with the occupation of some of this land by the German armies of Wilhelm. My mother told me that in the cities, especially the larger ones, people died of hunger and diseases. When the war started, the family tried to reach the capital city of Petersburg, where much of the family’s money was deposited in the banks. They were unsuccessful; while in transit, they were stopped by the German army and forced to return to Lipnishuk with nothing.
Avraham Plotnick, as the rabbi of the city, was chosen to represent the community before the German military government. Since the German language came easily to him, Rabbi Avraham had no trouble with that role; indeed, he became the translator for the local army headquarters.
The situation of the populace was extremely difficult; there was great hunger as mentioned before, and according to the stories I heard from my mother, people died in the street and were buried in mass graves. My mother Sima, then a child of thirteen, tried to find a way to help her family.
At that time, there was a serious shortage of medicines. All of the medicines were under the control of the government, and anyone who broke the law was sentenced to death. With no other choice, the brave young girl established a network between a few pharmacies and began transferring medicines from one pharmacy to another, in particular medicines which contained narcotics. According to her stories, in order to perform her task she had to walk dozens of kilometers between the various cities in the region, going out of her way to avoid the checkpoints of the German army.
With the disintegration of the Russian and German armies, a war broke out between the Red Army of Russia and the Polish Legion, which was established by Polish leader Józef Piłsudski, in 1919. The war took place in the surrounding area and region, and the plight of the citizens was terrible indeed. The situation of the Jewish population was even worse, ranging from large fines to pogroms and executions on grounds of communism and treason. I believe it was at this time that my great-grandfather changed the family name from Plotnik to Monco, a completely Polish name.
To Avraham Plotnik-Monco were born three children, two daughters and a son. The older daughter was called Chaya-Leah, the younger Sheina-Riva, and the son – my grandfather – was named Yoel-Moshe. Chaya-Leah married a young man named Alter of the Winkovski family of Lida. The couple, who settled in the town of Lida, had four daughters and three sons. The Winkovski family lived in comfort, wealth and happiness until the outbreak of the war in 1939.
The second daughter, Sheina-Riva, married a man of the Torah named Movshuvitz, and they also settled in Lida. The husband occupied himself with Torah study while Sheina-Riva, aside from giving birth to ten children, ran the family’s large grain trade business, including overseeing many employees.
The son Yoel-Moshe followed in the path of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, although whatever time he did not spend studying Torah was devoted to the business. Yoel-Moshe was introduced to a young woman named Mary from a town called Lyubcha (Lubtsh) not far from Lipnishuk, who was his future wife. Mary’s mother had died young, and her father remarried, to a woman who treated Mary and her younger sister Yetti quite harshly. Mary suffered greatly from the separation with her sister, knowing she had been left in the hands of the stepmother. One day, without saying a word, my grandfather went to the town of Lyubcha and returned with the girl. Yetti lived in my grandparents’ home until the age of sixteen, when her mother’s sister, who lived at that time in New York, expressed a desire to care for her and see to her future. Yetti left her home and made the journey to New York to live with her aunt.
Yoel-Moshe and his wife Mary had seven children. The oldest was a son, Natan, then a daughter named Golda, then a son Yitzhak, three girls named Sima, Tsirl and Sarah, and then a son named Pessah. Two other girls died at a young age. When Natan was close to the age when boys were drafted into the Czar’s Russian army before the start of the First World War, he left his father’s home to live with his Aunt Yetti in America. Not long after that, Yitzhak also left his father’s home for the same reason, and went to live in America with his older brother. Both of them married and raised families there, and like many other immigrants, they changed their family name. Since they were sons of a cohen (priest), they adopted the name Cohen as their family name.
After a while, when the Polish government was established, the situation of the Jews eased and life returned more or less to normal. There were, however, still many edicts that the new government imposed on the Jewish populace.
The Tribe of Basist
My mother, Sima traveled many times to the town of Lida to visit her aunts, and it was on one such visit that she happened to meet a young man who appealed to her. It was, of course, my future father, the young son of the widow Basist, a well-known family in the town. My father Kalman was a son of one of the oldest families in the town, and as it turned out my father was also a relative of the Movshuvitz family (the family of my mother’s aunt Sheina-Riva’s husband); thus a double family connection was made. Yoel-Moshe, my mother’s father, was against the match; in his opinion my mother deserved a husband who was, at least, either a rabbi or an established merchant. But my grandfather’s protests were in vain. My mother held her ground, withstanding tremendous family pressure, and in due time the wedding took place. My future parents settled into the home of my grandmother Leah Zigalnitchki. My father was the youngest son, and as such was very attached to his widowed mother, who lost her husband at an early age. My father was the son of her second husband, Moshe, my grandfather, who died when my father was but two years old. My father never knew his father.
For as long as I can remember, the connection between my father and the children of his mother’s first marriage was weak. Occasionally they would come to visit. I remember that in the town of Voranava my father had two sisters and a brother named Reuven. From his mother’s marriage to his father, my father had two brothers and two sisters, all older than he. The oldest brother was named Shmuel and the second Pessah. I cannot remember the names of my father’s sisters. My grandmother Leah had a difficult life as a widow, and tried to support the family by various means. She became famous throughout the town for the bread she baked. Later she operated an unlicensed tavern; she lacked the funds to purchase the proper license from the Czar’s government. One day my father of blessed memory told me this story: the tavern operated in the family’s home, and many Russians and gypsies came there. One winter night a Russian entered the tavern and asked for a bottle of vodka and some bread. The bread had just been baked, and the hungry man began eating it in large slices. He ended up choking to death on the bread. A difficult situation then arose: should the police be notified or not? If so, then the lack of a license for the business would surely be discovered by the authorities. On the other hand, the goyim might say that the Jews intentionally killed the man. In the end, it was decided to remove the body of the Russian in the dead of night and bury it in the deep snow far from the tavern. In 1960, my father’s brother Pessah came to visit me in Israel and I asked him about this story. He assured me that it happened exactly that way.
The oldest of the sisters was married to a man named Max Kalmanovitch. In the early 1900s the situation was so difficult that the family, like many others in those times, moved to the United States. Afterwards, two more brothers of my father went on their way. The second sister married Max’s brother, who was named Isser-Moshe. The couple had two daughters and two sons. The eldest, Miriam, married a man named Edelson and went to live in the city of Vilna, where her husband had a goldsmith’s shop. The second oldest child, a son named Nachum Yosef, got married in the 1930s and had a son. Later, the son named Zelig Asher married a woman named Leah and remained in Lida. They had a daughter. The youngest sister, Sarah, married shortly before the outbreak of the war in 1939.
My father studied metalwork and was very talented at drawing, and from these skills he was able to establish a metalworking business. During the days when the Polish government was in power, he successfully passed a test to become a master artist. According to the stories I heard as a child, his profession often helped my father during the days of the Polish government during the war, which was a murderous time for the Jews. At that time, there were many provocations against the Jews: military trials and death sentences, where Jews were accused of treason, of supporting the communists, and of giving aid to the Red Army, which was at that time fighting against the Poles.
My father established a workshop and employed a number of workers. He ran the business in a manner suited to the various seasons of the year. For example, during the summer – which was the building season – my father would produce the door and window fixtures that every house requires. During the winter months, he put his employees to work manufacturing ovens with ceramic casing and decorative brass pipes. He would also create equipment for those who inspected the quality of the cut trees in the area. I remember once seeing something very special; a small tool that was on one side of the head an axe, and on the other side a hammer, engraved with the initials of an inspector.
However, my father made most of his money supplying the factories of the city, many of which were owned by Jews. I remember one of many stories: one day my father was called upon to repair a steam machine that drove the manufacture of the felt shoes one needed for the winter. My father happened to be busy elsewhere, and asked the factory owner to wait. After doing so for a while, the factory owner decided to request the services of someone else. That person could not make the repairs, and the owner still needed my father’s services. After making the repair, my father asked for a payment of 5 zlotys, which was the equivalent of two days’ pay for a professional in the metalwork field. The factory owner told my father, “Reb Kalman, the fee you are asking for is too much.” My father, who could tell that someone else had tried to repair the machine before him replied, “The payment is high because you did not have the patience to wait for me as I asked.”
The Writer is Born
I was born after the death of my brother at age two and a half. I was younger than my sister by four years. She was spoiled by our parents, was an excellent student in school, and was much-loved by her teachers. I was her opposite, very mischievous. Of course I wanted someone else to study in my place, but in spite of that I did well in school. When I was quite young I fell ill with polio and was hospitalized in several hospitals, particularly one in Warsaw, the Polish capital. During my surgeries, my family stayed with the family of Dr. Miasnik, who was a childhood friend of my father’s and was part of the surgical team at the hospital. I remember well the members of that wonderful family, especially the grandmother Feyge (Tzipporah) who used to sing to me. Even now, I remember some of the words to the songs she sang (dana dana dana, oy dana dana).
I also remember that Feyge’s son Motel had his leg amputated, when I was a child of four or five. The connection between the families of Miasnik and Basist went back many years. Dr. Miasnik’s mother Chana-Liba was a widow just as my grandmother was, and the two were very close, as of course were the two families. Mrs. Miasnik had two sons; the elder, Mordechai studied medicine and lived in Warsaw, the city where he had done his studies. Also living in that city was his uncle, his mother’s brother, a well-known physician named Dr. Popko, who was a cardiologist. Many people knew the doctor by his nickname (dar promar doctor), the religious doctor.
My parents’ house was built together with two other families. The two-story wing on the left, which was on the corner of Sadoba Street and Reines Street, housed the Koshchinski family. The middle portion, on Reines Street, was home to our family, and the two-story wing on the right, at the corner of Reines Street and a nameless, narrow passageway, lived the Miasnik family. Even after the sons had completed their studies, married and made their own homes in the city of Warsaw, their mother Chana-Liba continued to live in that house.
The street level of Chana-Liba’s house was always rented out, and I can remember two families living there. Chana-Liba employed a Christian housekeeper named Helenka who over the long years learned the laws of kashrut. I remember one time Chana-Liba mistakenly put a dairy utensil in with the meat utensils. The housekeeper let out a shout, “You’ve made a mistake!” took the utensil and ran downstairs and into the street with it, where she shoved it into the ground. Helenka spoke Yiddish fluently.
When I was four or five, my father took me to the rabbi, Haikel, who had a cheder (school) for boys my age. For a while we learned the aleph bet by listening to a melody, and studied pages from the bible.
When I had been at the school for a few months, I remember a new student, a neighbor, arriving. Almost his entire family accompanied him into the school. According to my memory, my father alone brought me to Rabbi Haikel and asked him to teach me Torah. The new child, in comparison, was treated entirely differently. They stood him on a chair and wrapped him in a tallit. Rabbi Haikel said to him, “Tell me, ingele (child, cutie) the aleph bet.” The child repeated all he had been told in the proper melody. From behind the child, his father and uncle threw coins over the head of the new student. Some of the other boys and I thought this very funny, and often teased the lad later on; because at the time, he was naďve enough to believe that the coins were falling on him from the heavens.
Thus we studied and repeated the Torah of Israel, without knowing the meaning of the chapters we studied. Our lessons with Rabbi Haikel continued until we entered school at age seven. The school I attended was a government school, and while all of the students were Jewish, the type of education was set by Polish standards.
Although I was quite mischievous in school, the teachers liked me. For one of my teachers, Mrs. Sprinova, I was the favorite. Even the principal of the school, Mr. Haver, who was tough on the other students, spoiled me. My grades were satisfactory.
My sister Raya attended the same school, three or four grades above me, and when I was young she would walk me to and from school. Those were the happiest years of my life. Generally my parents didn’t impose any limits on me, they only expected me to try my best in my studies, do my homework, and study Torah after school with a yeshiva student who would come occasionally to tutor me at home. I remember that my father once built me a tricycle, and in the winter a sled from metal. The other children in the neighborhood were jealous of me, especially in the winter months. Near our house was a hill, and the children would help me bring the sled there, while I sat on the sled like a nobleman and they dragged me on the sled up the hill. On the way down the hill, they would hold on and enjoy every moment of the ride. The most difficult days for my family happened when my mother fell ill with tuberculosis and was hospitalized for two years in the city of Vilna. As I recall, or perhaps as I may have heard later on, my mother was hospitalized in a Jewish hospital called Shmirat Holim (caring for the sick).
As I remember, those were difficult days for us at home. My mother’s youngest sister, a teenager really, came to help: my Aunt Sarah. After two years, my mother returned home, though she continued to receive medicine and spent much of her time lying in bed. My father, meanwhile, worked very hard to pay off the hospital expenses. When there remained about four thousand dollars to be paid, my father traveled to Vilna to pay the bill. As it turned out, when he got there he learned that my grandfather (my mother’s father) had already settled the hospital bill.
Our situation at home became more difficult still when my father was called up for a three month service in the reserves of the Polish army, without compensation. My mother had to try and manage on the small amount of money my father was able to send. My father was a religious man who was chosen to be the chairman of the center for handcrafters, a part of the Mizrachi party, and was also the manager at the synagogue named for the shoemakers.
One day, my mother’s parents apparently decided to check on our situation, and her sister arrived in Lida without telling my mother she was coming. She waited until my mother and sister left the house to do some errands, then she entered the house and started asking me questions about our situation. I was just a child of five or so, and I told her how my mother and sister drank their tea without sugar, while I was the only one who could have tea with sugar. When my mother and sister returned, my aunt reproved my mother for hiding our difficulties from the family, and told her she must let her family know not only when there were happy tidings, but also when she was in need of help.
From that day we received many packages from my mother’s parents: all kinds of cheeses, and fish, in quantities so large that my mother had to sell some lest it spoil. When she asked her parents to send less, the response was, “Go ahead and sell what you don’t need, so you will have the money.”
Usually, every house had a cellar, and of course we did, as well. We used our cellar to store food, as well as coal for the stove (to warm the house we used wood which was kept outside). In one corner of the cellar were stacked wheels of yellow cheese that we called Dutch cheese. Sometimes my father would say, “Heimke, go down and bring up a wheel of cheese.” I once asked him, “Father, how will I know which to bring?” and he explained that mice would gnaw on the parts of the cheese that had already hardened. My father would cut away the portions where the mice had nibbled, and then take a long knife and cut the wheel of cheese in half. The fat would squirt out, and the cheese was very tasty.
As a result of good medical treatment, and proper nourishment, my mother made a complete recovery. Her family continued to worry over her, though, even though her situation was tolerable, and she throughout the year she received help from caregivers at home. Every year during the summer we would go off for two months to convalesce in the forest where there was a lake. Naturally, our Christian housekeeper also came with us. My father would come for the weekends and leave after Shabbat was over, to return to run his metalworking business.
According to the census, the city of Lida had in 1932 approximately 13,500 Jewish residents and 7,000 Christians. Another 7,000 lived in the surrounding areas. Most of the factories and the shops were owned by Jews, and the population in the center of town was almost completely Jewish. Around the central synagogue were built stone structures which were the study houses, which were clustered together in a sort of rectangle bordered by four streets. The main street was called Sovlaska Street, and on either side were two fancy stores supplied with an abundance of goods, full of shoppers and tourists. The busiest time for tourists of course was Saturday evening, after the Sabbath. The streets were crowded, and the coffee houses and cinemas full.
We lived on Reines street, which was named after Rabbi Reines, one of the founders of the World Mizrachi movement. My sister Raya was also named after the Rav. The head of the yeshiva of Lida decided to build a yeshiva on Sadoba Street. The yeshiva building was several stories high and was located a few meters away from the corner of Reines Street and Sadoba Street. My father belonged to the Mizrachi movement, and he was the chairman of the handcrafters group in the movement.
The center of town, as has been told, was mostly populated by Jews. Most people knew one another, and were often also related by marriage. We had relationships with most of the families in the area. Next to us, at the corner of Sadoba and Reines Streets, lived the Koshchinski and Sarbrovski families. Sarbrovski was married to the daughter of the widow Chaya Koshchinski, who was a small woman. Our home shared a wall with the family; we had the middle apartment, and on the left was the two-story home of the widow Chana-Liba Miasnik, an older woman who was a property owner with a heart of gold, who was generous to many. The morning prayers and the evening Shma we learned from her, and we loved her dearly.
On the parallel street, not far away, lived a cousin of my father’s whose name was Benyamin Basist, whose son Mordechai together with his wife got us out of the ghetto and to the partisans, and who after the war went to live in the United States. There were a few other Basist families in the city of Lida who were probably relatives, but I don’t remember how they might have been connected to our family. Two of Chana-Liba’s sons, after studying medicine, continued to live in Warsaw where their uncle, the well-known doctor Dr. Popko (their mother’s brother) lived and worked. He was known as the religious doctor, for he always wore a yarmulke. The two sons married and lived in Warsaw. The younger, called Chaim-Noah, became known as a surgeon, and during the war he saved many lives while serving with the partisans.
Opposite from us on the corner of Sadoba and Reines Streets lived a family named Gavneski. The head of the family was Zacharia-Shlomo, a tailor by trade and a very religious man. The oldest of his sons was Tzvi (Hershel), a butcher and mohel, a short, bespectacled man who lived with his family not far from his parents and the rest of his siblings. The married daughter lived with her husband on the floor above her parents, and the two unmarried sons and one daughter lived with the parents. I remember well the time my sister fell ill, and my mother said to me, “Heimke, go and ask from Reb Zacharia-Shlomo a blessing against the Evil Eye.” She gave me a half zloty and I went to Reb Zacharia-Shlomo and told him my mother’s request. He told me to put my money in the collection box on the wall, (this being the famous blue and white box of the Keren Kayemet). Even though the family was haredi, deep in their hearts they believed in the mitzvah of settling the land of Israel.
Across from the Koshchinski family on Sadoba Street lived the Berniker family, and Fisher who was married to the oldest daughter of Dvorah Berniker, by the name of Feygel (Tziporah) Fisher; they had three children. Also, the other two girls were married and lived in the same large, two-story house, and they had several children.
Opposite the Gavneski family on Sadoba Street lived the Bialogrodeski family: Avraham, Yehudit, and their two daughters Rivka and her younger sister Henya, who was my age. She and I studied in the same school and in the same classroom. Several times she saved me, when I had not done my homework. There existed between our two families a deep friendship over many years, up until the bitter end.
On the right side of Reines Street was a small street called Sandlarim Street (Schuster Gasse, or Shoemaker Street). At the corner of Sadoba Street was the synagogue where my father was the manager. Farther down the same side of Sadoba Street stood the building of the Reines Yeshiva, which later became the Cultural School of Lida.
To the left of Reines Street on the continuation of Sadoba Street was the location of the center of the Jewish religion of the city and the surrounding towns, towering above every school or house of prayer: the big, fancy synagogue, which was built entirely of smooth stone. In 1942 the Nazis blew it up with explosives. Further along Sadoba Street in the direction of the great synagogue, in a two story building my father had his metalworks workshop, where he made his metal products and provided machine repair service to the various factories of the city. Naturally, he employed a number of workers as needed. He manufactured many items, including door and window fixtures, and cook stoves made with a frame of copper pipes with ceramic tiles, and many other things.
In those days our life was good, and we were able to afford to pay Christian women to work for us as housekeepers, some of whom were the wives of my father’s employees. I remember one by the name of Katya who, years after she no longer worked for us, would come and visit and play songs for us on a harmonica and dance for us; it entertained and amused us children to no end. We were happy children with no worries. I remember that the most fun was when, during school holidays, I would travel to visit my grandparents in Lipnishuk. On the one hand, my mother got a break from my pranks and mischief, giving her a much-needed rest that enabled her to take care of me the rest of the year, and on the other hand I enjoyed being free as a bird and able to do anything I wished.
A very special relationship existed between the Basist family and the other families on the intersection of Reines and Sadoba Streets, especially with the Bialogrodeski family. I recall that on the Thursday market days, my mother would help the Bialogrodeskis in their shop in the center of the city’s marketplace, which was also a hat-making workshop, helping sell to the goyim who came to the market with their own merchandise to sell, and who would buy various products in the many stores of the Jews. All this, my mother did without compensation, purely for the sake of friendship.
Many times, neighbors helped one another with money in hard times. The power of this deep friendship was especially felt during the Soviet occupation, and later on during the Shoah. Many strong memories were made during the evenings following the end of the Sabbath, when the neighbors would come to our house to play bingo. During the game they would drink tea and eat broad beans in our spacious parlor. During the game, they would discuss the news and analyze what was going on in the world: the war the Italians were fighting in Africa and the war in Spain; what would happen as Nazism continued to spread, and the fate of the world. I remember that Avraham Bialogrodeski would often speak up and confuse the names of places; instead of Addis Ababa he would say Adim Ababa. Everyone would listen to him with a smile without saying a word. These were the days of the Italian war in Habash (Ethiopia).
Thus we lived our lives, unaware of the dark clouds drawing ever closer to us. All the stories meant nothing to me at the time; I was busy with my studies and my games with my friends in the neighborhood. We played games like dodge ball, first with a ball made of rags, then later with a real leather ball. We also played a game called picker; the children stood in a semi-circle, each holding a stick with a can on it. The object was to hit the can and then to capture the stick. The last in line got the punishment of guarding all the cans. We played these games during the summer; in the winter we went sledding and ice skating. On Schuster Street (Sandlarim) where the neighborhood well was located, the water was brought up by pumps, and where the water leaked, ice formed. Since the pump was in a spot higher than the rest of the area, it was a good place for skating. Of course, most who came to watch were neighborhood children. My father of blessed memory showed off his talent by building me a tricycle and a sled all from metal. All of the children were jealous of me, and pulled me up the incline on the sled so they could hang onto the sled and slide down.
Such was our childhood during the vacations; we were not spoiled and we enjoyed everything we did. As we grew up, each of us joined one of the Zionist movements which operated at that time. While a few joined the anti-Zionist Bund, most of us joined pro-Zionist groups; I joined Beitar. The leader of that group, by the name Shaul Forman, was close to my family. He later became famous as a fighter for Lehi, under the name Shaul Hagalili, who was killed in the forties by the British in Eritrea.
Farther down Sadoba Street at the corner of Tergova Street was a Jewish-owned brush making workshop. The owner was very patient with me and explained many of the secrets of his work. I was curious like all children, and most of the time, as my mother used to say, Heimke was ahead of everyone else. Most of the time, after school and after I had finished my homework and my work in Torah given to me by my tutor, a student at one of the yeshivas in the city, and about which my father was very strict, I was free; and my mother would be happy to get a break from her prankster, who would often give her headaches.
I loved to wander through the marketplace in the center of town. In the middle of the marketplace was the well; with the help of wheels made of metal with two handles, one on either side, water was raised up and flowed out through a spout and into various containers. Since most of the homes did not have running water, almost every resident of the town and visitors to the marketplace from surrounding towns, who came especially on Mondays and Thursdays to buy and to sell their wares, made use of the well.
Especially embedded in my memory is one Purim holiday when my father took me in the evening to the prayers at the big yeshiva which was next to the great synagogue. It was a cold winter night with snow deep on the ground. The street had been plowed and there were two tall walls of snow on either side of the road. The picture of the two of us walking between those high, white walls will remain forever in my memory.
I would wait impatiently all year for the summer holiday to arrive, when I could travel to Lipnishuk to see my grandfather and grandmother. There with them I was completely free. Of course I had many friends there, and it was quite an honor for the other children to be in my group of friends, because I was from a big city. I became friends with the sons of the local doctor (felsher?) Kaposta, who lived next to my grandfather. Thanks to the Kaposta family, who were Polish Christians, I learned Polish very well, unlike most of my Jewish friends who spoke only Yiddish, or spoke poor Polish with a Yiddish accent. Early in the morning with my friend Yanke, one of the young sons of Leibka the Beard (so called because of his red beard), we would go fishing. Yanke’s family was very poor; his parents lived in a small, one-room house with a thatched roof and a dirt floor at the end of a narrow, sandy lane. At the front of the house was stabled the family’s main asset, a pitiful horse that was barely alive. It all seemed very curious to me. Yanke’s father was a large man with a red beard who made his living by traveling from town to town in the surrounding countryside as a sort of preacher, one who would explain the Torah to his listeners. From this work, it was impossible to provide for a large family. Most of the time, Leibka wore tattered clothes; for Shabbat and holidays, and while working, he would wear his only suit.
Yanke, who had learned well the hard life, had many ways of surviving and I learned many things from him that I had not known before. For fishing, we used poles made from the branches of walnut trees, of which there were many in the area. Afterwards, I asked my father to buy me a fishing pole made of bamboo, and we would go fishing armed with pocket knives and matches. After a successful catch, we would prepare our feast, then rest by the stream in the large and lovely thicket where on the Sabbath afternoons most of the Jews of the town would walk, and in the evenings the youth would come to pass the time.
We would return to our homes in the afternoons, and the next morning we would meet again at a certain spot we knew near the stream and go fishing. That is how I spent most of my days in Lipnishuk. My mother’s parents had a large house with storehouses around it, with a large yard that had two exits. One was at the front, leading to the street called Ibia; the second was at the rear, near the storehouses, and lead to the lane. The storehouse for hay was my favorite; sometimes I would slip in and lie on the huge pile of hay or the clover and fall fast asleep. I would wake up with my head spinning from the smells of the hay and the clover. In 1932, my grandfather decided to travel to the United States to visit his sons, who lived in New York. He was a rabbi, and he began working as a kashrut supervisor in the stores which sold meat. He did very well, and was well-respected; in the family it was thought that once he had gotten settled the rest of the family would also go to the United States. It never came to be, for my grandfather did not care for the life in the United States. According to him, the life of a Jew in the United States did not follow the precepts of traditional Jewish life that he had always followed and which were acceptable in the place then known as Lithuania, where he had been born and married.
And so in 1936 my grandfather returned to Lipnishuk. On the way, he had to pass through our city of Lida, so he stopped to say hello. I remember it was a bright, clear day when my grandfather Yoel-Moshe entered our house wearing a grey suit and sporting an elegant Van Dyke beard. “I have returned” he said. He went on home to Lipnishuk and changed out of his fine suit, back into his work clothes, and returned to the lands he loved.
My school was named after a Jewish Polish hero named Berek Yoselevich who dwelled in a place called the Wilenski Court (so named for its owner), before the place became the melenki cinema (the small) - or the small cinema of the city. It was there I saw my first show. My school was in a three story building opposite the beer factory owned by the Popko family, one of two famous beer factories even today, known for its high quality product. Behind the school was an uncultivated field, with a variety of seasonal flowers. There throughout the warm months, we would play during the recess hours. If we failed to return to the school after the bell had been rung by hand by the Christian servant of the school, he would come out to the yard and signal to us with a curling motion of his hands. The principal of the school, by the name of Heber, loved to drink. He would awaken from his rest in his office on the second story of the school and would yell at us in Polish, “vrutz, vrutz ,” meaning “return, return” and we would return, laughing, to our classroom.
In our school, all of the teachers and pupils were Jews. The language of instruction was Polish, and we studied all the same subjects as those in all of the other Polish governmental schools. Once a week we would also have a lesson in Jewish tradition, taught by the teacher Ganizubitch, who was also our class’s teacher. The teacher Safrin (Safrinova), mother to a son older than I who studied in a different school, was a good hearted woman loved and respected by all. We also liked the teacher Orshovsky, who taught us mathematics and physics. The teacher Lichtman taught us music and geography, the teacher Prochtman, Malka. The principal of the school taught us German and drawing. We had great respect for the teachers of our school, and order and discipline prevailed. Every morning they would inspect the personal cleanliness and attire of each pupil: a uniform, a hat adorned with a blue ribbon, and a scrap of white fabric on the breast of the shirt was required for every pupil.
Our school was on the eastern edge of the city, rather far from our homes. There was no transportation to and from school, and every day we made the long walk on foot. The marketplace operated every day, but once a week on Thursdays there was a market (yermark) especially for the people of the surrounding villages who would bring their wares to sell. Most of the merchants were Jews, and people would buy all the items for their daily home and work needs from the Jews, with whom it was possible to bargain over the price and end up paying less. On my way to school I used to like passing by the marketplace. Sometimes I would see the butchers inspecting a cow or calf, measuring the thickness of the fat on them. Once I also tried checking the fat, and received a response from the hind legs of the beast. The incident taught me not to get involved in that profession.
The marketplace of Lida was in the center of town, surrounded by the roads and lanes that made up the neighborhoods of most of the city’s Jewish population. On the eastern side was Sobalska Street, the city’s main street and the location of most of the fanciest stores, cinemas, banks and municipal buildings. It was a long street, which began north of the city and led to the entrance to the city from the direction of Vilna. At the southern end of the street was the air field of the Polish army and the road to Nowogródek, the hometown of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. On Saturday nights and holidays, the streets would be full of Jewish people strolling along, peeking into the shop windows to look at the various wares that they were waiting to purchase, one day. Community life continued as always, in spite of the gathering winds of war and the increased hatred toward the Jews by the Polish populace, fomented by the propaganda of the Germans, especially after the speeches of the hateful Nazi Hitler, may his name be erased.
The Yiddish newspapers reported on the attacks against Jews that were taking place all over Poland. We were poised in suspense; our youth trained and ready. When there were attacks against Jews locally, they were answered by the actions of our young men; who would attack the Polish pilots in response to incidents. Eventually things calmed down. Afterwards, life went on satisfactorily, each adult busy with his own activities, and us with our studies. Life went on.
Everyone particularly loved the holidays, and the preparations that went into them, especially Passover. All of the preparations: the fish, fattening the geese, and particularly the baking of the matzah. For the purposes of baking the matzah, several families would organize (called “padrat”). Usually, the women would make the dough and place it into a machine with rollers with teeth, which would flatten the dough and punch out the holes in it. My father of blessed memory was an expert at baking the matzah, which he called zaytzer, which meant the one responsible for placing the matzah in the oven. The matzah was placed into the oven using a long stick, usually several pieces of matzah at one time. My father would watch over the matzah and make sure it was taken out of the oven on time. They would make two types of matzah, one of water and flour, and the other with eggs. We, the children, loved the second type the best.
My father had another responsibility during the preparations for Passover: fattening the geese. Behind our house was a large, rectangular shaped yard with a sturdy wooden gate. (Sometimes in the summer flowers grew there.) Before Passover my father would buy a number of geese, and they would wander freely in the yard. My father would come home from work several times a day to feed them. On the eve of the holiday, the geese were slaughtered, and their fat was fried with onion. In the winter we loved to eat the fat spread on bread, and to use it for cooking.
How well I remember certain things, especially the closeness of our family. Nearly every evening, Shimon Feyvel, the husband of my mother’s cousin Tzviya (oldest daughter of her great aunt) would come to visit us. Shimon was a grain agent. We lived in the center of town, and at the close of nearly every business day he would come and would sit and discuss things with my father, sitting next to the 12 cup samovar with containers of raspberry or some other type of jam. Mostly the conversations centered around the developing situation with the evil Hitler, and the situation of the Jews regarding the growing anti-Semitism amongst our Polish neighbors, and in all the world in general. Many times, Uncle Shimon (as we called him) would say to my mother Sima, “You have a few thousand dollars; you could buy grain cheaply and in a few months when the prices go up, sell it for a lot of money.” Without taking the time to consider, my mother would give him the money and a few months later would receive a good return on her investment; all this without a single signature on any papers. Such was the trust in our family. Usually in times of trouble, support would come immediately, without any accounting and with a generous heart. Thus dear Lida is engraved on my memory, the pathways, her people, the smells of Sabbath eve, the women running to the nearby bakery before Shabbat, and the singing that was heard in the lanes.
All of that vanished in the winds of war that buffeted us from all sides. I remember the call up for the Polish army, and the drafting of my mother’s brother, Pessah, whose unit was stationed on a farm near the town. We walked with my uncle together with his entire unit to the train which would take them to the front. Things happened with astronomical speed, and within a month Poland was partitioned and we found ourselves under the control of a foreign government. My uncle, after fighting in battles near Warsaw, survived and with greatest difficulty was able to return home with two of his friends, one a Jew from our town and the other a Polish lad from the area. According to my uncle’s stories, he was an outstanding swimmer and carried the two on his back a number of times across the rivers.
With the occupation by the Soviet Russian army, everything changed with incredible swiftness. Many new laws were passed that we knew nothing about, and we tried as best we could to adjust to a different and strange form of life. First of all, we went from a government of plenty to one of lack of things which we were used to having, for example everything was allocated, and things were sold under the table, and business owners were oppressed. For us children, after we had gotten accustomed to a certain style of learning in school, it was very difficult to adjust to a new schedule, to a new style of teaching, to new languages like Russian and Belarusian, and they also introduced studies in the Yiddish language in the ibeskiya method, that is, a method different from the one we knew. In this method, every word that had its root in Hebrew was debased, for example: Shabbat became shecas. All of the synagogues and Jewish institutions were closed, and there was no ritual or spiritual activity for the Jewish public. The destruction of the Jewish identity we had known for generations had begun.
With the start of the new government there came Jewish collaborators, who began to change everything in the Zionist party; a person could be arrested in the middle of the night and his fate would be unknown. Later, his family would be given fifteen minutes to pack, and were then forced from their home and onto a train which would take them deep into Russia.
Our lives had become fear and suspicion of everything; we were terrified to speak to strangers, and prohibited from listening to foreign radio stations. At midnight loudspeakers would spew propaganda. At school, the management was changed to a different kind of people, from eastern Russia, who were loyal to the government. There were many more tests, not just the tests at the end of the year; this was all strange to us. We didn’t like the new teachers; we had been fond of the teachers of the past who had been replaced. There were also things that were noticeable outside the school. They forced us to participate in many ceremonies and parades related to holidays that were foreign to us, but we had no choice: whoever refused was punished. It was difficult, but gradually we adjusted to the new situation. The suffering of our parents was more remarkable; property was nationalized, apartments over 120 meters in size were nationalized, and people were forced to pay rent even though the property had been in the family for dozens of years. Thus was life, limitations we had never experienced before. To travel from one city to another required permission from the government, for example. We had no choice, and so we became accustomed to that kind of life.
Thus we come to the year 1941, the end of
the month of June. We were on vacation from school. The times were
stressful, and we were constantly anxious about the future. As it turned
out, we were right to be. Soon enough, the very worst came to be.
English translation by Samin Translations, Netanya, Israel.
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