1. Paternal Side
earliest progenitor on my father's side still in living memory was my
great-grandfather NOTE SHEPSEL GOLDFARB. I remember him as a spry little man,
with a bushy white beard, who constantly busied himself about his house and
vegetable garden. The house, which he owned, was across the street from his
daughter FREIDE LEIE, my father's mother. ZEIDE (grandpa) NOTE SHEPSEL, as
everybody called him, had been a tailor in his time--a ladies' tailor if you
please, which was a notch above the ordinary kind in the artisan hierarchy of
the town. He still had his Singer sewing machine, an asset of no mean value in
those days, and he cheerfully used it to do some patching for the family, being
no longer able to do honest-to-goodness tailoring. He used to take me into his
garden to treat me to some sweet peas picked off the vine or to a slender young
carrot freshly pulled from the ground, watching with pleasure as I was munching
it. He lived with his second wife RIVKA, who was apparently resented by his
daughter, and the two women never stepped into each other's house, to the old
man's chagrin. He also had a son, BEREL LEIB GOLDFARB, of whom he was very
proud. BEREL LEIB lived in another town with his own family, was apparently well
educated for those days, dressed stylishly and acquired big-city manners due to
his occupation as a travelling salesman for some large firm. This took him to many places in
Zeide NOTE SHEPSEL was a Cohen, a member of the priestly caste which presumably traces its ancestry in a direct male line to the first High Priest Aaron, brother of Moses. This bestowed certain prerogatives as well as obligations upon him in the synagogue, and his daughter was quite proud of her descent. However, the prestige did not carry with it any material benefits, and the poor old man suffered greatly from want of food, as we all did, during the First World War, before he died at the age of ninety-two in 1917. Up to that time my parents lived either with my maternal grandmother or in rented quarters. Upon NOTE SHEPSEL's death we moved into his house, RIVKA having died before him, and we thus acquired for the first time a dwelling all of our own.
Most people's memories of their earliest childhood are naturally associated with their parents, primarily their mother. Mine are intimately connected with my grandmothers, who were always affectionately referred to by everyone as Bobbe (Grandma) LEIE and Bobbe PESHE. FREIDE LEIE's house is the one in which I actually spent the first conscious years of my life, because she took charge of me from the time I was weaned until I was about four or five. I say took charge advisedly, for she was not to be swerved from any course once she had decided on it. She was a unique person, both in looks and bearing, and stood out among other women in the town like a swan in a flock of geese. Slight of build, with a delicate pretty face, she was always fastidiously dressed, not in the ordinary patterned prints but in black satin dresses with white lace ruffles around the neck and cuffs. She sported a small gold watch which, though hanging from a thin chain around her neck, was pinned to the side of her dress for safety or perhaps for style. Grandma walked with a slight limp due to an arthritic condition of one of her hips, and usually supported herself by a cane when taking long walks. Some years before I was born she had travelled to a spa, a rare event in our town, and had a supply of mineral salts which she used in her weekly bath.
Grandma FREIDE LEIE was known for her pride, and some people considered her snobbish. She did not talk much, and did not gossip with other women, but when she did speak she was listened to with respect and was seldom contradicted, perhaps in the knowledge that her mind was not easily changeable. Furthermore, she had a sharp tongue and could put antagonists in their place with a few choice words, when necessary. She was the undisputed mistress of her household, and her husband, my grandfather LEISER BER, an amiable and unassuming man, always kept to the background in her presence and carried out her bidding without a murmur.
Along with these traits grandma had a deep sense of devotion to the members of her family, her protectiveness at times verging on obsession. Her household duties were carried out with the same zeal, almost to a fault. The cleanliness of her house became proverbial, fitting the saying: "You can eat off her floor!"
other households crowded with children and in-laws, grandma lived only with her
daughter, ESTHER BEILE, and Grandpa LEISER BER when he was not away in the forest where he worked as a shingle maker. Their
oldest son, my father, upon marriage to my mother went to live with her at the
house of her mother, my other grandmother PESHE; and their two younger sons
were already in
Unlike other people, who used the public bathhouse, Bobbe LEIE took weekly baths at home in a large wooden tub, for which pails and pails of water were heated in a copper cauldron standing on a tripod over a wood fire. The rim of the tub was just about on a level with my eyes as I toddled up to it, naked, to be lifted inside for a scrubbing. At bedtime during the winter she would help me get undressed near the white-tiled stove while at the same time warming a featherbed against it, to quickly wrap me in it and carry me to bed. On summer evenings there was a different daily routine. At dusk, just as the herds were coming in from pasture, we would go to a nearby peasant's barn where the peasant woman would fill a glass with warm milk straight from the cow's udder, which I drank on the spot. The glass was brought along by grandma because the peasant's utensils were not kosher, and besides she did not trust their cleanliness. Grandma also made sure that the woman's hands and the cow's udder were clean before the milking began. My own mother could not possibly have lavished all that attention on me, busy as she was with keeping the store and ministering to her next infant, brother DAVID, and probably already pregnant with the third child, also a boy, who died within a few weeks after birth--the only one of her children not to survive.
Among other memories of Bobbe LEIE's house is a glass cupboard in the parlour which contained a number of treasures I was
occasionally allowed to handle. There were some coloured porcelain figurines
which did not interest me very much, but I was thrilled to play with a large
silver watch, no longer working, with engraved lids on both sides which opened
by pressing a button; and with a miniature Torah scroll, just like the big ones
in the synagogue, which reportedly was brought straight from
The concern of this remarkable woman for her offspring almost verged on the mania, as demonstrated by her behaviour during the winters of 1915 and 1916, when father travelled about the villages in search of a livelihood. During snowstorms or unusually bitter frosts she would go out into the garden and stand there motionless, probably praying, so she could feel the cold and the wind. It took a lot of persuasion to get her back into the house and to overcome her wish to share in her son's predicament. She kept on insisting: "When my son is out in a blizzard and is freezing, I want to freeze too."
LEIE was born in about 1860 and was married to grandfather when only thirteen
years old. Down to my time people were still chuckling about her behaviour
right after the wedding ceremony, when she disappeared from the festivities to
the consternation of parents and relatives. A searching party found her in a neighbour’s
back yard, sitting on the ground in her wedding gown and playing jacks with her
girl friends. But she learned her duties soon enough and became a respected
housewife, devoted to her husband and
children. She died in Shershev in 1935 with only her
daughter's family at her bedside, her sons having previously emigrated
Zeide LEISER BER followed his two younger sons to
Wars were known to us kids from the Scriptures as well as from overheard talk of adults, so games of war were often played by us: Jews versus Assyrians or Philistines, Russians versus Turks, or Poles versus Cossacks. But sometimes there were real battles, between boys from different cheders or streets. They started with taunts, progressed to pushing and punching, and often developed into throwing rocks. Most of the time the combatants were dispersed by grownups, but the fighting always stopped if one of the kids began bleeding or crouched in pain from a direct hit. In such event the victim's pals would raise a howl: "Look what you did, you killed him!" At this the victors, not the vanquished, took to flight in fear and with a feeling of guilt. There were, by the way, two standard remedies for a bleeding head: application to the wound of either some soft black bread from the inside of the large brown loaves available in every household; or of some thick cobwebs just as easily available from any barn or outhouse. These must have been effective--no mother ever lost a son in our wars.
We had no doctor in town, only a feldsher--a sort of medical assistant or male nurse—whose usual prescription for backache, fever, or any other malady the cause of which was not readily ascertainable, also was, like the remedy for a bleeding head, one out of two: either leeches or cupping. Leeches were plentiful in our swamps, and the disgusting creatures always stuck to our bare legs whenever we waded there. Cupping was done by holding the opening of a small thick glass cup over a lit candle, and then quickly applying the cup to the back or side of the patient so that the flesh was drawn into the semi-vacuum created as the warm air inside the cup cooled. If these remedies did not help a more drastic cure was sometimes resorted to: bleeding the swollen protuberances created by the cupping, the incision being made by the town barber with his razor. The basic idea in these cases was to draw out the "bad blood" which caused the illness. If the patient died, well . . . , one did whatever one could, so it must have been G-d's will.
The described remedies, though common, were not universal and sick people often were taken in a wagon bumping over the cobblestones and the ruts in the dirt roads to the nearest city, Pruzhany, which had a doctor. He was a Pole named Pacewicz, a pleasant elderly gentleman with a drooping white moustache who acquired considerable experience during his many years of practice and pursued his profession seriously and competently. The trouble was that he could not always be found at home after undergoing the bone-jarring trip of about four hours, since he was the only doctor serving the two towns and several nearby villages, and was often away for hours or even for days. It is anybody's guess how many lives would have been saved if we had a resident physician or at least a telephone in town, not to speak of an automobile. People who have never lived under such conditions and who make use of the wonderful machines and appliances of the last quarter of the twentieth century as a matter of course must find it difficult to visualize the life of those days, and fail to appreciate the ease and convenience of their lives compared to those of their grandparents.
To return to Zeide LEISER BER. He was a rather handsome man, with a neatly trimmed round beard, erect in his bearing and with the unassuming and straightforward manner of the woodsman. He was not given to many words and always kept in the background, especially in the presence of grandma who dominated him as she did everybody else. He worked hard by choice as well as necessity, and was ever ready to do whatever he could for the entire family. During the trying years of the First World War he laboured with us in the garden and field, ploughing, hoeing, and lugging the heavy sacks of potatoes. I am sure that he went hungry many times in order to spare some of the scarce food for his little grandchildren.
Both he and grandmother were broken down with inconsolable grief when
word was received of the death of their youngest son LIPPE (LOUIS), at the age
of thirty, in January