When at the age of four weeks, in the summer of 1903, 1 was being carried by my mother through the market place for the first time (of course I was carried-- who ever heard of baby carriages?), she was accosted by Feivl Zelde's, the town buffoon.
"Mazel Tov, ESTHER LIEBE, Mazel Tov to you! Nu, let's see
what Shleime produced? !"
Though taken aback by the coarse expression, mother unfolded the blanket in which I was wrapped and, with a bashful smile, presented her first-born. Feivl took one look, spat three times, and yelled out at the top of his lungs:
“Oy, what an ugly creature!
Everybody come and look! Tfu, tfu, tfu!"
Mother, in telling this, never failed to add:
"Of course, YANKELE always was a beautiful child, but what could one expect from that paskudniak, good-for-nothing FEIVL?!"
I have heard this story repeated so many times that I can visualize it in every detail. Here is the buxom young woman, herself only nineteen years old, in a print cotton dress buttoned up to the neck and reaching down to her ankles, picking her way gingerly over the cobblestones of the wide square, full of concern for the precious little bundle cuddled in her arms, returning after an absence of several weeks to the store which her husband had been tending by himself all this time, and inwardly relishing his expression of pleasure at seeing her and the baby. And here is this rowdy with his mean jokes, trying to embarrass her in front of all these people who joined in the merriment. No wonder the incident figured so often in her reminiscences about my childhood.
I imagine that my mother must have been accompanied on that occasion by her mother-in-law, my grandmother FREIDE LEIE--I cannot conceive that this dainty little woman, always impeccably dressed in black satin, with her mania of over protectiveness for her offspring, would have permitted her first grandchild to be carried through the streets without her supervision. I am also convinced that FEIVL must have received a good talking-to for his impudence.
This then was my public introduction to the little town which, tucked in between the dense pine forests on the edge of the vast Pripet marshes, seemed to me as I was growing up to have been cut off from the rest of the world. The life of its inhabitants seemed to flow in an unvarying pattern, established a long time ago and passed on from one generation to the next. The Russians called it Shereshevo, to the Poles it was Szereszow, and to the Jews Shershev. It was a typical small town in the so-called Pale of Settlement of Tsarist Russia, celebrated in literature and legend under the Yiddish name shtetl.
The region in which the town is
located has been fought over for centuries by the nations surrounding it. Up to
the end of the thirteenth century there was no established suzerainty over the
land. The Mongol KIPCHAK Empire which dominated
With the increased power of the
Each of the dominant powers left its mark on the native population. While the majority professed the Orthodox faith, there was a sizable segment of Catholics and a small number of Protestants, reflecting respectively the Russian, Polish and Lithuanian influence. Intermarriage between these races and miscegenation during the Mongol occupation was evident in the physical traits of the people--fair and dark complexions; blue, grey and brown eyes; Caucasian and Mongoloid facial features. The expression "Scratch a Russian and you will find a Tartar" is not just an empty phrase. There were even some small colonies of Germans and wandering bands of Gypsies in the area. All this had a marked effect on the language of the local population, especially the peasantry. Through a bizarre mixture of words and phrases from Russian, Polish, Ukrainian and other tongues they evolved a unique dialect of their own, dubbed "Goyish" by Jews for want of a better term. Even the Mongols, who disappeared from the area five hundred years earlier, left some vestiges of their speech, as in these counting-out rhymes still current at the time of my childhood:
baing'ee, goopee, daing'ee;
Akhchi, bakhchi, gammi, dakhchi;
Beyek, beyek, izbadan;
Sigany, sigany, kutbaian;
Kuty, pekuty, kutbalasty;
Yashi, bashi, bubikhan.
While the opening syllables of the first rhyme are obviously based on the first letters of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph, beth, gimel), there is no mistaking the Mongolian or Tartar flavour of the other sounds. The first rhyme, incidentally, was a curious mixture of seemingly meaningless words, superstition, and revolutionary content. The two given lines were continued in Yiddish rhymes, which translate as follows:
On the roof a red rooster stands,
Flaps his wings, in loud voice portends,
Not one, not two, not three, not four, Not five,
not six, not seven, not eight not nine,
No man in vassalage should bend his spine.
"Red rooster" was a well-known euphemism for the flames shooting up from the landowners' manors set afire by peasants during uprisings. As for the negative count out, it was a stratagem for warding off an evil eye and for confusing Satan, the Evil One., since he might become unduly interested on hearing of so many children. A similar remedy was in the word "Kinanoreh", a contraction meaning "Let no evil eye see it" used by rote whenever a favourable circumstance was mentioned : "They are, kinanoreh, in good health; they have three children, kinanoreh;" etcetera.
Educated persons spoke Russian or Polish, but even they interspersed their speech with catchwords and expressions from each other and from "Goyish". Words from all three idioms were also absorbed into and became part of the Yiddish language.
Rise and Decline
Jews have been living in Shershev and in neighbouring towns at least since the early 1400s, and were already of sufficient importance in 1433 to be mentioned by a local notable in a report to the Polish-Lithuanian king JAGIELLO. By the middle of the nineteenth century they constituted a majority of the town's 10,000 population. It was a thriving community then, containing some small textile factories, flour mills, a tannery, and a brewery. An outstanding industry was the production of wooden shingles for roofing, which were sold to other communities in the region where the forests did not have the straight-grained and knot-free pines, perfect for shingles, which grew in abundance in our vicinity. All these industries were operated by the wealthier Jews and provided employment for many workers, Jews and gentiles. A lively trade in grain and livestock was carried on by itinerant merchants with the peasants of the villages scattered in the area. The large number of storekeepers and independent artisans also shared in the well-being of the community.
This rather prosperous period
received a jolt in the 1880s which set off the decline in the town's good
fortune. Up to that time all roads in the area connecting the small towns and
villages were nothing but rutted wagon trails which turned to mud after a good
downpour. They were practically impassable during the fall rainy season and the
spring thaw. It was not uncommon for travellers, driver and passengers alike,
to have to dismount and even help by pushing the heavy wagon whenever the
usually scraggy horse, despite the generous use of the whip and shouted
imprecations of the driver, was unable to pull the wagon out of the mire. As
long as this condition prevailed in the entire area no town had an advantage
in this respect. About 1880 the government began building a crushed-stone
highway through the region, primarily for military purposes, using its
multitude of recruits as a workforce. This highway or chaussee,
was originally projected to go through Shershev, but
bypassed it in favour of another town twelve miles away, allegedly because the
army surveyors were bribed to change the original plans. The resulting
diversion of traffic from our town brought about a gradual transfer of most of
its industry and commerce to other localities, with the consequent
impoverishment of its residents, many of whom moved elsewhere in the province
or emigrated to seek their fortune in other countries, primarily in
From about 1725 to the late 1800s, for over a hundred and fifty years, Shershev was noted as the seat of several learned rabbis, whose renowned spread far and wide through the land. Some of them published commentaries on the Talmud and carried on a correspondence with rabbis in other communities who sought their opinion on abstruse points of Jewish law and its application. This succession of great rabbis coincided with the period of the town's prosperity, and must have contributed to its development. But men of fame and distinction are all too often lured away by prosperous communities and institutions from poorer ones, and so it was that with the decline of our town's fortune came also the loss of its preeminence as a seat of rabbinical learning.
The fame of its rabbis did not save Shershev from acquiring in earlier times the dubious reputation of harbouring a den of smugglers. The smuggling was not of merchandise, but of men. During certain periods of the last century conscripts were required to serve in the Russian army for as long as twenty-five years, which for a Jew meant the end of his identity. Even after the term was reduced, the known brutalization of barrack life, anti-Semitic discrimination and abuse, and the impossibility of following religious precepts in the army led to efforts to avoid conscription by all means. It became a common practice for young men to starve themselves for months before they were due for medical examination, in the hope of being rejected because of their emaciated condition. Many went so far as to maim themselves by cutting off the right index (trigger) finger, by inducing lameness, or by ruining the sight of an eye. There was of course also bribery of the examining military doctor and other members of the recruiting commission. However, the surest escape was to go abroad, but men of military age were not given passports for foreign travel. That is where the smugglers came in.
These men had a widespread network
throughout Russia's western provinces, their connections running from officials
who issued passports in false names or with incorrect ages, to border guards
who could be relied upon not to be too inquisitive, to guides who knew the
pathways and river fords along the border through which one could get across
undetected. They worked in league with confreres on the other side, in
One person involved in this underground traffic was a distant relative of ours from a neighboring town, Kamenets. I learned this from overheard whispered remarks about his being an "agent." Late one evening in 1910 he suddenly appeared at our house in a state of frenzy. He had been tipped off by no less than the Kamenets Pristav (Chief of Police) himself, with whom he had been doing "business," that he had been denounced by one of his own collaborators and that an order for his arrest was imminent. The fugitive asked to be hidden for a few days until his associates could get him across the border.
To let the man stay at our house was out of the question--a stranger was a novelty in the shtetl and word would soon get around. We had at that time a half-interest in a cow, the other half belonging to my grandmother's brother. Since neither partner had a barn, the cow was housed in a small shed rented from a gentile. So into the shed the terrified man want, and spent two days and two nights with the cow, until a "friend" took him away in the middle of the third night.
I met this relative in the