DESPAIR AND SALVATION
1. Little Potatoes
The fire set by the Cossacks just before they left town was quickly brought under control due to easy access to water from the river and also because there was no wind to fan the flames. We found our homes undisturbed when we returned from the meadow, but it was quite a job to bring back all the stuff that had been dumped from the wagon, much of it now wet and dirty. We were thankful to have suffered no personal harm, but were terribly worried about grandfather Leiser Ber who had gone off with the Russians, until he came back two days later. However, the stores in the market place presented a picture of utter devastation. Everything was smashed, ripped apart, trampled by the horses and partly burned. The owners, including us, began sifting through the rubbish in order to salvage anything usable. But the Cossacks did a thorough job, and we found ourselves completely ruined. The savings of a lifetime of arduous work vanished in the brief orgy of vandalism and we were left without any means of earning a livelihood. The empty stores however remained intact, except for the broken and charred wooden doors.
The devastation inflicted on our community had its counterpart in other towns throughout the province, so that even if we had the money it would have been impossible to restock the store; and besides communication and transportation were completely disrupted. Prices of all necessities-- food, cooking oil, kerosene, soap-- rose sky high, and soon many commodities became completely unavailable. The meager supply of salt was exhausted in no time, and whatever little food we managed to scrape together had to be consumed without it. The great value of this simple seasoning can be fully realized only after being compelled to eat bread or potatoes without even a sprinkling of it, and in absence of any other condiment. The grain in the fields, garden vegetables, and fruit on the trees had not ripened yet, so we resorted to digging up the tiny just developing potatoes to assuage our hunger. Even the peasants who normally had food in abundance had to go on short rations due to the pillaging and requisitioning by both the retreating and advancing armies, the trampling of crops, and loss of grain in the fires set by the Russians. Still, they were better provided than the townspeople, and would occasionally bring some food for barter, money having lost all value. It was during this trying period, as previously related, that some villagers came to our store where mother was tending to the miserable remnants of merchandise salvaged from the pogrom, and gave her some small amounts of food "for Shliomka's children."
Those wretched little potatoes! For days and days we had them for breakfast, lunch and supper, without salt, pepper or any other flavoring, and not to our fill either. We ate potato soup, boiled peeled potatoes, baked in the skin, and occasionally, as a great treat, fried when a little oil was obtained. To make matters worse, most of them were wormy, and mother spent hours on end in cleaning them and scraping out the infested parts, often with tears streaming down her face. The little kids could not be trusted to help because they wasted too much. Feeling sorry for her I often shared with her this distasteful chore, but did it only in the front room near the window facing the street, so that I could quickly stop and wash my hands if I spotted any of my friends coming our way-- I would have been disgraced if they found me engaged in this "woman's work."
2. Struggle for a Living
After a few weeks, as the front moved further to the East, a gradual normalization took place under the occupation and it again became possible to travel in the vicinity. Many townspeople betook themselves, often on foot, to the nearby villages in search of food for their hungry families. They carried with them whatever commodities they had for barter, since most peasants would not accept money unless it was gold or silver. Father somehow managed to procure a horse and wagon, in partnership with a relative, and during that fall and winter made the circuit of the villages, often being away for days at a time. After the harvest season food became more available, including vegetables from our own garden, and trade began developing. Travel was not without risk, and there were occasional robberies by Russian soldiers who remained behind the enemylines in the confusion of the retreat. These pitiful men led a precarious existence in the forests wtJere they were hiding out, starving most of the time, afraid to go into the villages openly for fear of being betrayed, and resorting to theft of food from the peasants and to pillage of travelers in order to stay alive. There were also German patrols on the roads who searched the wagons for "contraband" though nobody knew what was prohibited. It was therefore with trepidation that we awaited father's return every time he was away, and we often went out on the road outside of town in the hope of catching'sight of his approach. It was during this winter that Bobbe Leie used to stand outside in bad weather in order to freeze "like my son is freezing."
Father, like all other traders, would buy anything the peasants had for sale grain, potatoes, dried beans, peas and lentils, onions, and fresh fruit or vegetables in season. Sometimes he would even bring a few eggs or a scrawny live rooster. It was of course a great relief not to have to subsist only on potatoes, but we still had to eat sparingly because most of the products had to be sold to get money or goods for further trading. One item only that father bought once in a while made us rather unhappy a pelt of fox, otter, lynx, rabbit or some other animal trapped by a peasant. These were of course undressed and were hung in the cold pantry until sold, meantime permeating the whole house with a most offensive stench. But we could not afford to be choosy any thing conducive to eking out a living had to be accepted.
In the spring of 1916 we tried our hand at potato forming on a larger scale. Jews were never allowed to own any land outside of town, so we were limited to raising vegetables only in the backyard gardens of our grandmothers' and Zeide Note Shepsel's houses. The Germans encouraged the population to grow as much food as possible, and the restrictions against Jews were no longer in force. The fields of those peasants who left for Russia lay abandoned, except for the best parcels which were taken over by those who remained. We managed to find a large unused tract of clayey land, about three miles out of town, which we plowed up with our horse and planted with potato seedlings. After the horse was no longer needed in the field father resumed his trips to the villages, and the work on the potatoes fell to grandpa Leiser Ber, myself and brother David, who was already as tall as I, even though he was two years younger. The other kids were still too small to engage in this arduous work. Almost every day during that summer the three of us trudged to the field, carrying shovels and hoes, and weeded, hoed and mounded the plants the only thing we could not do is water them. Despite all this labor the results were disappointing, due to the combination of too little manure (we had only what our own horse provided); poor clayey soil (potatoes thrive best in sandy soil); and our inexperience. Still, by the fall we had about three hundred pounds of wormy potatoes, a part of which we stored in deep pits lined with straw, dug in the garden, for use during the lean spring months.
During that spring I also tried to satisfy my long-standing desire of having flowers and fruit trees of our own, like the gentiles had. With the help of David I managed to dig up with the roots two young plum trees and a lilac bush from an abandoned garden, and transplanted them in front of grandma Peshe's house. They all took, and the lilacs bloomed that very spring to my great delight. The plum trees began bearing fruit only after I left for the United States in 1921, and the family members were always grateful to me when they enjoyed the plums--at least that is what they later told me.
Life thus dragged on painfully for three and a half years, from the fall of 1915 to the spring of 1919, but we managed to survive and preserve the family intact. The number of children grew to seven by then, the youngest one Honeh (Harold), having been born in 1917. (Mother's last child, brother Eli, was born in December 1923.) Our store was gradually reestablished under mother's operation, and together with father's earnings from his village travels sufficed to provide our daily bread.
During 1919 the Germans, demoralized by their defeat by the allied forces and mutinies at home, their ranks now considerably diminished, moved completely out of our town. An uneasy period of "non-rule" ensued, the Russians being involved in a fratricidal civil war and the newly established Polish regime not yet strong enough to extend its control over our territory. Nobody knew where the ultimate border line would be and whether we would revert to Russia or become part of resurrected Poland.
To preserve the peace and prevent lawlessness, a volunteer militia was organized to patrol the town streets, especially at night, walking by twos or threes with white armbands as their badge of office and carrying cudgels, metal rods or ordinary walking sticks for weapons. It was rumored that some had firearms, obtained from the departing Germans. I also volunteered, and had a grand time and some amusing incidents resulting from challenging or being challenged by other patrols of "militiamen" who encountered each other in the darkness. Carrying an old cane which I found in the attic and in the company of two other boys from our street armed with equally formidable weapons, we slunk through the neighborhood with a vainglorious feeling of self importance, but my service lasted only three nights. In order to stay up during the night it was necessary to get a few hours sleep in the early evening, depending upon being roused by parents before they went to bed alarm clocks we did not have. Since my parents objected to my getting involved to start with, they simply "forgot" to wake me, causing me to sleep through the night and fail to show up for my appointed rounds. My incipient career as a warrior was thus brought to an untimely end and I missed my chance to be covered with military glory.
The period without an established government lasted for about a year, from the spring of 1919 to early 1920, and we managed pretty well without it, thank you. But there were some interruptions. The old feuds which made this miserable land a bone of contention between various peoples flared up anew, the contestants this time being the Poles and the Soviet Russians, so we were not left alone for too long. Several times during the summer small groups of mounted Polish irregulars made their appearance, but did not stay, apparently feeling insecure among the largely Russian Orthodox peasantry. In fact one such group was ambushed and suffered some casualties. A reprisal raid was staged several days later, and one of the victims was a young man from a prominent Jewish family, who was apparently denounced by the secret Polish sympathizers as an alleged accomplice. About half a dozen horsemen came in the middle of the night straight to his house, took him outside of town, presumably for "questioning," and then shot him. This incident aroused an atmosphere of consternation, but fortunately there were no other occurrences of that nature. Then the brief but nonetheless fierce Russian Polish war started, really only a skirmish compared to the Armageddon which had only recently been brought to an end with the signing of the Versailles Treaty, but it lasted long enough to give us a taste of Soviet rule for a brief period of only a few weeks.
4. The Bolsheviks
In late fall the Russians reappeared, Bolsheviks this time, but what a contrast they made to the Russians we used to know! A large contingent marched into town on foot in the middle of the day, tired, bedraggled, in tattered uniforms or civilian attire, some with rags wrapped around their feet stuck into peasant bast footware, and armed with an assortment of nondescript weapons. This was the Red Army, a truly citizen army, fresh from fighting the remnants of the Tsarist adherents, the so-called Whites. And what a remarkable spirit they exhibited! They did not pillage, did not requisition, but asked to be given food and lodgings, explaining at the same time that they were coming not as invaders, but as liberators. My father personally witnessed this scene: Several men dropped down to rest in front of a peasant's house in the shade of a pear tree laden with ripe fruit. One of them, apparently in command (the officers did not wear any trappings by which we could distinguish them from the soldiers), approached the owner with these words: "Comrade, may we have a few pears?" No wonder that all hearts were touched by sympathy for them and many people gave them whatever they could spare. These were the idealists, the shock troops of the revolution, who were prepared to give their all for a new and better world for mankind. Little did they know that in a few short years they would be among the first to be butchered by comrade Stalin or sent to the snowy wastes of Siberia to perish in his slave labor camps.
These fighting troops, having encountered no opposition in our area, soon moved on and were replaced by the leather-coated commissars and their henchmen, wno began to implement the new order. Posters were put up all over town extolling the virtues of the Soviet regime and exhorting the populace, especially the "working class", to throw off the yoke of capitalism and to help build a socialist society. Mass meetings were held in the market place with orators proclaiming the same slogans. At the same time practical measures were undertaken. The erstwhile German Kommandantur was retaken from the owners and became the commissariat; "collection" of food and other goods was begun; and since there were no factories and consequently no factory workers among us, shoemakers, tailors and similar craftsmen were urged to form artels or cooperative workshops. There were also appeals for joining the Red Army, and for being on guard against counterrevolutionaries, capitalist lackeys, and other "enemies of the people."
All this did not progress too far for the simple reason that the Poles, with the help of English and French "advisers" and arms, turned the tide and occupied our territory, to remain until 1939 when the country was divided once more between the newly minted friends and allies Hitler and Stalin.
The short period of Bolshevik control did not pass without a personal incident which almost ended in my being shot as an opponent of the Soviet government. It was harvest time and I was on my way to our potato field when I was stopped by a militiaman and taken to the commissariat. There I was directed to accompany one of their men and help him deliver some things to a nearby village. I explained that I was badly needed at the field to help in the potato harvest, but this reason was brushed aside and I was peremptorily ordered to do as I was told. In my youthful temerity and naivete I began arguing and even lecturing them, pointing to their own posted urgings for the speedy gathering of all crops before the fall rains set in, and also cited their slogans proclaiming liberty and independence, implying that they were acting contrary to their own principles. At this the man in charge began asking me about my pedigree, and learning that my parents ware storekeepers, or merchants as he put it, accused me of being a bourgeois counterrevolutionary, and threatened to have me shot. One of the local boys who had been recruited into the militia managed to send word to my family, and my mother and grandmother Freide Leie hastily arrived and pleaded with me to give in, but I stubbornly refused, insisting on my rights. They implored the official, grandma actually going down on her knees, explaining that I was touched in the head (not unreasonable under the circumstances), that they always had trouble with me because of my stubbornness (which was quite true), and stating that grandfather would gladly go in place of me. The offer by that time was superfluous because they had already gotten a replacement. They kept me under arrest overnight, and after admonition sent me home, apparently at the intercession of the same militiaman who assured them that I was harmless and no danger to the Soviet regime.
At the Bolshevik departure from town history repeated itself. They requisitioned our horse and wagon just as the Cossacks did in 1915, with the difference that they did not demand a driver. They stated however that if one is provided the horse and wagon would be returned with him after a few days. This offer was too tempting to be rejected, so brother David was chosen to go, first because he was only fifteen and therefore not likely to be drafted into the army, and secondly because I could not be trusted not to get into trouble again. David traveled with the retreating troops for about two weeks, together with a still younger cousin whose father was part owner of the horse. As previously stated, he was quite tall for his age even now he is the tallest of the six brothers and at one of the stopovers he happened to overhear a remark that two drivers were not needed for one wagon, and that "the big one" could shoulder a rifle. The boys hod been given passes to return home after the first week, but without the horse, and were again promised that it would be released within a few days if they stayed with it. After overhearing that remark they at once decided to give up, sneaked out at night and managed to find their way home, emaciated, filthy, and quite sick. They were not sure how far away they were, nor how many miles they covered, because they did not travel in a direct line. They were away for about five weeks, and we had almost given up hope of ever seeing them again. This was the final episode in our contact with the Soviets.
5. American Bounty
It took several months before the Polish regime settled in, but meanwhile an unexpected boon, like manna from heaven, was bestowed upon us. The United States of America arrived in the incarnation of the American Relief Administration, known to us as ARA. Truckloads of food started coming in and what food! Flour, sugar, rice, dried vegetables, milk in tins, oil, and herring barrels of the most delicious fat herring things we could only dream about for years, and all given away for nothing! We could hardly believe our eyes and ears, but there it was, right in front of us, to see and smell and taste. Was there any wonder that America was named the Goldene Medine?
At a town meeting a distribution committee was elected, with father as chairman, to compile lists of needy families and who was not in need? and make allotments on the basis of family size, age of children, state of health, and so on. This proved a very trying and thankless job for father, whose sense of fairness did not permit him to give in to the loudmouths at the expense of the meeker ones. Bitter squabbles ensued, accusations of favoritism were made, with father bearing the brunt of it despite the fact that in his fairmindedness he actually allotted to us less than to other families of equal size, to the great chagrin of my mother. But more or less, everybody received his share and people enjoyed food they had not tasted for five years.
There were two bonus items that the Americans surely never even gave a thought to. One was the muslinlike white sacks which contained the flour. After being dyed or bleached to remove the lettering imprinted on them, the fabric became eminently suitable for shirts, dresses, underwear, or what not-- remember the German horse blankets? The other bonus item was lyak, the brine in which the herring were packed. This was a rich oily liquid which added a tangy zest to boiled potatoes that would tickle the palate of any gourmet. The distribution of these officially unlisted goodies required the wisdom of Solomon, and my father, his namesake, rose to the occasion. Several employees, myself among them, were hired to weigh, measure and keep a record of the distribution, so father proposed that when the poorest families came for their allotment these should be handed to them wrapped in one of the sacks, instead of being put into the utensils that everyone brought along for this purpose. Once in a while, when there was a surplus, the employees would be awarded with a sack as a sort of fringe benefit. Mother was quite pleased to receive a couple of sacks, and accepted them as proper compensation for the short rations she felt she had been getting. As for the lyak,a little would be ladled into the receptacle whenever a herring was issued, and the employees likewise were allowed occasionally to take some of it home. Strangely enough, there were never any squabbles or complaints about these items, probably because they were extras that no one was entitled to as a matter of right.
Among the employees engaged in the food distribution was Yossel, a tall, emaciated man of about thirty, who always wore the same old black caftan, obviously for want of any other outer garment, a condition not unusual at that time and place. He always walked with a stoop, his scraggly little blond beard brushing against the front of his coat and his nearsighted eyes kept on the ground ahead of him. He was also quite absentminded, made constant mistakes and became the butt of gentle banter--no one would ever think of hurting him, the good-natured and inoffensive schlemiel. One afternoon as we were closing the distribution center I came out on the porch facing the market place together with another employee, a mature woman, each of us holding a small bottle of the precious lyak which all employees had been issued that day. Suddenly she let out a shriek and began doubling over as if in convulsions. I ran over to her in solicitude, asking what was wrong, but she was in hysterics, either laughing or crying, and all she could bring out was "eeeee! eeeee!" while pointing to the market. I looked down, and there was Yossel shambling along in his stoop-shouldered manner and leaving a trail of lyak which was dripping down from one side of his long black coat. He had apparently stuck the bottle in his pocket upside down, and either did not put the cork in tight enough or forgot to cork it altogether. The other employees of course ran outside upon hearing madam's shriek, and beholding the cause of it became infected with her hysteria and joined in the uproar, but Yossel did not even turn around and continued on his way in blissful oblivion until he was out of sight. The next day he came to work wearing a shabby undersized jacket from which his,skinny arms stuck out almost half way up to his elbows. To the straight-faced inquiry about the change in attire Yossel obligingly explained: "Ah, that lyak we got yesterday... not only did it all leak out, but dirtied my caftan too. I guess I just have no luck, that's all!"
This brings to mind Reb Azriel, a pious man who spent all his days, and a good part of the nights too, over the Good Books oblivious to the mundane goings-on about him. Every Friday when he went to the bathhouse to purify himself for the Sabbath, his wife gave him a clean shirt, folded inside out as was customary, with the admonition: "Azriel, don't forget to turn the shirt out before you put it on!", which he of course always forgot to do. At a loss for a remedy she consulted Feigel, who was held in high repute as a woman of sagacity. "I don't know what to do with my Azriel. No matter how many times I tell him, he always comes home from the bathhouse wearing the shirt the wrong side out." True to her reputation, Feigel came up with a solution: "Dvoire dear, why bother the holy man with such things. Better you should turn the shirt right side out before you give it to him, so you will have no more trouble." "Oy, Feigel dear, long life to you, how smart you are. Next Friday I'll do just as you say." Next week, when Asriel finished his ablutions and began putting on the clean shirt, a sudden light struck his mind. "Ah, my Dvoire, long should she live, forgot today to tell me about the shirt. Eh, eh, will she be surprised that I remembered myself!" With this he turned his shirt inside out and arrived home full of good cheer. Dvoire, who was joyfully anticipating the sight of her properly dressed husband, took one look at him and almost fainted. "Oy, God in Heaven, with my own hands I turned the shirt to the right side, how come you are wearing it on the wrong side again!?" The good man looked at her in puzzlement. "You see, Dvoire my life, this I cannot understand. You turned it over, I turned it over, and it is still on the wrong side!"
6. America Beckons
Upon the incorporation of our territory into Poland the administrative wheels gradually began turning and communication was reestablished with the rest of the world from which we had been completely cut off for five years. Correspondence was renewed with grandfather Meishe and uncle Philip in New York. After the long separation grandpa was anxious to be reunited with his wife and children, and a decision was reached that he would at first bring his only son, my uncle Yisroel, to America, to be followed later by grandma Peshe and the two remaining unmarried daughters. A shifskarte (steamship ticket) was actually sent for Yisroel's passage, but by the time it arrived there was a change of heart. Yisroel was always pampered because he was an only son on whom it would be incumbent to say the kaddish prayer upon the death of his parents, and also because he had been sickly in his youth. So on second thought the idea of his going to America "to work in a sweatshop" was rejected. Furthermore, the postwar devaluation of European currencies made the dollar worth over a thousand Polish zlotys, so it was figured that grandpa's savings could be put to better use at home by providing dowries for the two girls and probably leaving enough for restocking the store to expand the volume of trade. It was thus decided to reunite the family in the old homestead, close to the oldest married daughter (my mother) and in the hope that the second daughter, aunt Henye, would return to Shershev with her husband and children. This seemed much preferable to the prospect of setting out toward an uncertain future in an alien land, even such a wonderful land as America, where a new language would have to be learned, new trades acquired, and adjustment made to new customs and a new way of life.
Somewhere in the above discussions a proposal was made that Yisroel's steamship ticket be transferred to me and that I should be the one to venture out and seek my fortune in America. I was seventeen years old, had no trade or profession, the mere thought of ever becoming a storekeeper and haggling with the peasants was abhorrent, and the future looked bleak. Most of all I regretted the missed opportunity of furthering my education, and saw no possibility of resuming my studies under the unsettled conditions prevalent not only in Poland but all over Europe in the war's aftermath. My parents understood all this and agreed to my departure, thinking only of my welfare, and fully realizing that they might never see me again. As for me, the chance of breaking out of the confines of the shtetl and starting out on my own in the distant land of opportunity was just what I had been dreaming about, and I enthusiastically looked forward to its realization, even though it meant being torn away from the bosom of my family for many years, and possibly forever.
This fateful exchange of places between Yisroel and me separated our clan as if by lot into two groups one destined to live, the other one to die. My parents, brothers and sisters all followed me to the United States to life and freedom; the others, men, women and children, twenty-three close and twenty-seven more distant relatives, were murdered in the Auschwitz death camps in February 1943. Their ordeal was shared and witnessed by the only member of the group who miraculously remained alive my cousin Morris (Meishke), a son of my father's sister Esther Beile and her husband Yitzhak Kantorovich (Kantorowicz).
Meishke's eyewitness account of the extermination by the Germans of the Jewish communities in Shershev and some nearby towns is contained in the three chapters that follow, comprising Part Two of this work.