Russian Mature Poor Boy
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[Page 49]Old Kryvitsh Lights Up In My MemoryBy Yehoshua KatzovitchTranslated by Emma Zahler Edited by Dale Rosengarten, great-niece of the authorMemories of my beloved little home town are many-faceted mirrors: From afar a vision will appear, an incident may reverberate in my ears, an event once heard described – all suddenly become illuminated. A mysterious power carries me far away –Honored editor!Our very own well-known Menachem-Mendl would probably have expressed it differently and written it better. But since I am not Menachem-Mendl and you are not Sholem Aleichem, this fervent infatuation of mine for Kryvitsh will be worded in the manner of Shya Katzovitch – a simple man. How this much-loved little home town is remembered, how it looked and how it felt to live there – Kryvitsh – How tiny you were in the great wide world. And how great loomed the world outside. And yet, at the same time, the world is small as well.Thus I recall, and imagine – Kryvitsh, Novo-Sibirsk, Tashkent, Tsimkent and Sanok – Vilna, Warsaw – all of this from an ordinary man from Kryvitsh, all this to be packed into a little book. Perhaps it is presumptuous of me to assume the task of portraying my home town, as it looked in the last decades of the nineteenth century – from tales I heard as a boy, as I saw it with my own eyes while I went to school, and later as a young adult up to the time of the first World War.In the last half of the nineteenth century, Kryvitsh had a street which was a “vyorst” in length (about 2/3 of a mile) and ran from the Russian public school past the Polish Catholic church to the south, up to the Greek Orthodox church of the Byelorussians at the north end. Then there were a few houses beyond the Polish church on the right side. And, even in those days, there was a bridge from that road over the river Servetsch, leading to Dolhinev-Kraysk – a town in the vicinity of Minsk, which, after the first World War, remained a Russian Territory. A bit farther on, after a few scattered houses, you reached a square, which intersected the long street. On the right there was Bath Street, on the left, the Miadler Street. The aforementioned long street reached our little town all the way from Molodetshne, Vilayke, Kurenitz, and Gayke or “Givki” – a Jewish colony of agricultural workers. Then it went on past Kryvitsh Boyd, Dakshitz, Glubak, Polotsk.Railroads around Kryvitsh did not exist at that time. Until 1905, the nearest train line was the Molodetshne-Smargon run, a spur of the Vilna-Minsk line. In the year 1903, the rail line from Lide to Polotsk was begun. This line was to encompass the towns of Vilayke, Kurenitz, Boyd, Dakshitz, and Glubok – all the way to Polotsk.Up until the days of railroad construction, Kryvitsh was, like all the other little towns, in the grip of desolate poverty. The years, then, of railroad employment provided a measure of livelihood and led to expansion of business. In this way, my little home town benefitted and grew as well.At the end of the nineteenth century, our little town was only sparsely populated. Chaim-Mordkhe Toyger's great grandfather on his mother's side, Hoyshe (Yehoshua) Shulman, back at the end of the eighteenth century, had built an inn with stables, halfway along the road, where wayfarers could find a place to rest for themselves and their horses. There had already been built at a corner opposite, a tavern and a stable, belonging to the Kryvitsh manor itself. This tavern was managed as a lease-hold from the lord of the manor by a Jewish innkeeper. When I was a young boy (at the beginning of our century), one of Hoyshe's sons, Mendl Shulman, was the lease-holder of the manor tavern. Soon the third corner of the street was occupied by Joel-Shloyme Gindlin, a son of Gindlin, the dairy lease-holder of Berozovke. At the fourth corner, Leybe Bunimovitch built a house and settled there at about the same time. These four houses represented the pattern of the town and typified its appearance at the end of the last century.
The land area occupied by the town itself as well as significant plots surrounding it were all owned by the nobleman, the lord of the Kryvitsh manor. From time [to] time, such land areas would be surveyed by employees of the lord at requests of prospective clients who were considering settling in the region and possibly building houses with space allowed (according to financial means) for gardens or farms. Some of these home-owners had built their homes on inherited lands which reached all the way to our river, all the way to the Servetsh river. Of course, annual tolls had to be paid, in proportion to the area that was used. My grandfather, Arye-Leyb, may he rest in peace, as I heard tell – had actually been a factotum of the lord's, because he was a good builder of houses and other types of structures. It was from him that my father, Yitzkhok-Yakob, may he rest in peace, learned his skills. Because of his building talents and blessedly gifted hands, my grandfather received an entire acre of land from the lord. This land was adjacent to the large fruit orchard which belonged to the Polish Catholic church. His payments were only two rubles a year.Down, closer to the river stood a small, primitive bath house, where men and boys used to come to wash and bathe. Actually, this bath house was used chiefly by women for ritual immersion, since it received very little use during the summer. One bathed in the river. In the winter, because of a shortage of wood, the bath house was not heated by Yacob, the proprietor. But, for the women customers, it was necessary to warm up the “mikve.” As a result, the poor men had to wait to use the bath house until the spring, before Passover.The lord of the Kryvitsh manor, in those days, and the owner of the town, was a great card player, as well as a great “womanizer.” He would pursue “skirts” at any expense, and money would be no object. It is clear to see that a man with those two “virtues” could never have enough money. Even treasures and entire fortunes would not suffice. In short, what's the use of talking? This profligate life-style of his brought him into complete bankruptcy. He no longer possessed the financial means with which to conduct the manor with its expenses as well as the whiskey distillery, which used potatoes as its basis. He was forced to give up his entire fortune and land holdings, the manor as well. The entire property was taken over by a Jew, Liberman was his name. Whether that was his family name or his given name is not clear to me. And neither do I know from whence he came to us. It seems to me that a more authoritative account could be provided by Yehoshua Arye-Leybs – Haym Toygets son-in-law, who was a great grandson of Libermans.The new estate manager, Liberman, soon presented himself as a brilliant administrator who ruled the entire estate together with the distillery, knew every detail of the tax system, with a sharp eye and an iron hand. He saw to it that all his directives and orders were carried out promptly. In the course of a brief period of time, our Jew, Liberman, became the factual master of the town, of the manor, and of its fields and surrounding woods. He had arrived in town with a large family with far-flung branches, together with a tutor for the children and even with a ritual slaughterer (a shokhet).His blessed organizational ability, his efficiency, and expertise in commercial matters, his dexterity in financial dealings, as well as his clear-headed business sense, all helped swiftly to pull the estate business from out of the mire. His business dealings went brilliantly. All of the above mentioned talents of his were productive for our little town as well. He contributed greatly to its growth and prosperity – as my subsequent lines will make vividly clear.He expanded employment opportunities for Jews; recruited many of them to work on the estate, in the fields, and in the woods. He was concerned for the livelihood of the everyday Jew … Here I must mention an entirely extraneous factor – one concerning a military decree, which had the effect of attracting many Jews to our town and actually doubling our population. It was in matters like these that Liberman was instrumental both directly and indirectly.Worthy editor! When you read “Tevye” by Sholem Aleichem, and you reach the portion “Go!” and “And so they traveled,” then it is certainly no literary invention and no poetic trick designed to make you laugh. It is of a true, full-blooded life reality that the great Sholem Aleichem was able to tell us – with his good wise smile and the tear in his eye. The reality was that all the bitterness of life did not ever cease to be bitter, all the woes and calamities really were calamities, but we read and we laugh without collapsing and bursting. Sholem Aleichem speaks to us out of Tevye's mouth about events which shattered and destroyed Jewish lives, uprooted and driven from their dwellings and their livelihoods and“and they traveled.”… It is about these evil decrees, the resulting conditions and events that I, Shaye Katzovitch, will tell in the coming lines. Many years before I was born, a military decree was issued by the Russian Czar, driving out all the Jews from the rural villages in which they lived and earned their livelihood. They were forced to move to cities and towns. From my reading of history, I gathered that this decree went into effect at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was to have been implemented completely between 1804 and 1808. However, even the authorities became uneasy at times, seeing how difficult this task would be. Exceptions were permitted here and there. Some Jews were allowed to settle on farms in the “new Russian areas,” that is, those which were annexed after the Russo-Turkish war, like Kherson, around the Black Sea, and farther.This decree was never actually abolished, but from time to time, it was observed only in the manner of a “law without power.” Periodic reviews carried on perfunctorily resulted in continuation. And now I come to the weekly Torah portion “Go!” and “Travel,” this time into Kryvitsh. This took place, I was told in the eighties or the nineties, the last quarter of the nineteenth century. At that time, the great influx occurred, from the rural areas into Kryvitsh. “Each Jew together with his belongings.” I will attempt, in my own way, to recount who, what, and from whence, this “travel” took place into our little town. (I am not even certain that this was in my own earliest years.)Leybe Katzovitch and Todres Sud together with their families came out of the village Zadubiyeniye, five vyorsts from our town. Reuben and his son Eliahu and family out of the village Filipke, and this started bringing in an entire dynasty of Filipkers. Together with their goods, the family Mayer out of the village of Lahoyke. Leybe had come with his son Berl out of the village, Yazne. Tzvi-Hersh Katzovitch came out of the village Frudnike. And there you have Yehuda Nafta and Moshe-Abraham Koydonov. Dan Taytz, a shoe-maker from the village Motzky, Moshe Nofe, the blacksmith, also from Motzky. Dov-Ber from the village Zdrelevitsh had also heard the call to all Israel – Berl the Zdrelevitsher. Many others float up in one's memory: Abraham Mordecai, the shoemaker, out of the village Churtoy – Abraham Yitzkhok with an old father from Churtoy, and also Itzkhok Meltzer as well, from Horodzishtze and Shmuel out of Nievieri. Then there was a Katzovitch family – a mother with three sons and daughters from the village Sivtze. All of these above-mentioned arrived in our town with their large families – which in turn, spun out still more new families and suddenly we began to feel crowded – especially in the tiny little synagogue of ours which had been built even earlier than the sixties of the nineteenth century – as I had heard tell. Let's not forget that among these newcomers were genuine Judaic Torah scholars, not simple riff-raff. And how could such a populus [populace] live out their lives as Jews without a suitable synagogue and a study house? And here we are faced with such crowding. Then, children of Israel, what does one do? As one can understand, a group of the most responsible citizens convened and considered alternatives. And they noted: After all, there existed in this community, a Jewish prince, the lord Liberman. That certainly was nothing to sneeze at. And thus, they went directly to this source, to request his help in this serious matter. “Otherwise, whence cometh our help?” If not, these Jews would not be able, God forbid, to carry out their commandments … And actually, that is what took place. Liberman responded, received them graciously, and acceded to requests. It was a matter of “said, and done!” In the early winter days, trees were cut down in the forest, and brought into town. In the course of the summer months, the building of the lovely study house in a new location on Miadler Street was completed. It was bright and joyous. Now there was enough space for all those newly-arrived in the little town, as well as for travelers from courts, settlements, and villages nearby. Because there remained a few lucky ones, who, thanks to a series of fortunate circumstances, managed to avoid that bitter decree of “Go!” and “Travel!” The noblemen landowners in their areas, some felt that they could not manage without these Jews, and thus, they remained, for the time being. These fortunate ones did not need loans, did not have to resort to buying and selling. As a result, the noblemen appointed some of these Jews as economists (accountants), record keepers, factors, managers, etc. Among these, for example, were Gershon Martzinova and his son Aaron-Kopl in Pokutsch; Zalman Gutman (Berkes) and his father, Shmuel-Leybe in Motik; Meyer Beres – in Borovik, and still others. For the holidays and Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur (the days of awe), all of the latter would come into our town and contribute to the festivities – “the greater the crowd, the greater the joy.”Anyone who never saw these festivities and the joy at the completion of the new study house could never have seen a happier time in Kryvitsh. This is what has been related. Unfortunately, we cannot establish exactly when this took place. I may not yet have been brought into this sinful world at that time. Told as a sort of legend, by my parents, they related, that that Rosh Hashonah and the following holidays, our own lord Liberman and his family, including his sons and daughters, daughters-in-law, sons-in-law, and grandchildren, came down from their estate into our town. And every Sabbath and holiday of the year. In subsequent years, he continued to come down, but not as frequently, and with less festivity. As for the old synagogue, which had been too small to serve the enlarged town population, it was turned into a sanctified rest home to give shelter to any indigent traveler. The place was fenced in to keep out stray cows and goats. One particular Jew, Rafael-Yitzkhok, took on the supervision of the place, and saw to it that the needs inside as well as outside were cared for. The newly arrived inhabitants of the town soon became established, putting down roots. Marriages were arranged, engagement contracts were signed, and weddings performed. Here is a true story I heard tell: Berl Zdrelevitsher had a fine son – his name was Mendl – well built and mature. The ritual slaughterer of Kryvitsh, Zalmen-Sholem (I don't remember his family name) had an eye on young Mendl, and began inquiring about him, and making efforts to attract him to his home. Of course, this was all intended in the long run to “purchase” him for a son-in-law. Zalmen-Sholem, the shokhet, was also a fine cantorial singer. At the beginning, he would tutor Mendl by himself. He taught him midrash as well as cantorial technique. Later he sent him to study at seminaries in Vilna, Warsaw, and Koenigsberg with the greatest cantors of the day. Coming back to Kryvitsh, after he was crowned by his professors as qualified cantor, he married the shokhet's daughter (who was not quite fit) and became the town cantor of Polotzk. A few years later, the Jewish community of Dvinsk hired him as their town cantor.Many years later, I, the writer of these long-forgotten chapters, had occasion to meet Reb Mendl, the town cantor of Dvinsk. At that time, Reb Mendl was already quite an old man, while I was a young man. This was just after the first World War. I met him right in Dvinsk. I had remembered him from his two visits to our little town to act as prayer-leader in our study house, when I was quite a young child. At that time, he stayed as a guest at the home of relatives. At that time, he had already been married for the second time, as I heard tell. And so the town grew steadily, struggling with poverty and need; within the narrow confines of this place there was truly no room for the development of a broader economic base. Despite this, together with daily shortages and difficulties, there grew an urban settlement. Life welled up, sparks of hope lit up. A faith and confidence glowed. It was the “one in heaven” who would continue to help, and thus the constant spinning of Jewish tradition. Already at that time, people were aware of each individual's responsibility for his fellow-man. It had to be one for all and all for one … otherwise it would have been impossible. No one was permitted to fall – if help could possibly be forthcoming. This is how marriages were planned, new families were created. Organizations were set up to advance financial aid to needy brides, to help the poor, to adjudicate disputes. An institution was established with the purpose of aiding needy individuals for Sabbaths and holidays. Newly-arrived people helped with everything. Understandably, there were among them, individuals who were needy as well. Our wealthy philanthropist, Liberman, helped us. But things do not always happen as people would like. It is a matter of fate. Sometimes, God helps one to arrive at a high degree of economic success and suddenly everything slips away, and all goes with the “butter side down,” down hill … Liberman fell seriously ill, and traveled to distant regions to seek a cure. Without his supervision, his vigilant eye, his daily administrative orders, the business began to fall apart, to founder and to sink. After a while he turned dangerously ill and died. Sunk in debts and obligations, the far-branching family split up and fell apart. His son with married children remained in the town Dunilovitch with Liberman's wife. There in Dunilovitch, Liberman had owned another estate – Michalin. Why, actually did they decide to remain in Dunilovitch? I don't know. One of the Liberman daughters, Mariasha, and her husband Bunimovitch – a great scholar with a large family, remained in Prudnik near Kryvitsh next to a water-mill which Liberman himself had built. Many years later, this mill, after passing through several heirs, became my property. Everyone in town knew this rule: When God gives, he sometimes [gives] much, and sometimes not forever. One must always be alert to the possibility of ruin. 781b155fdc