l.  Name Play

Until relatively recent times Jews generally had no surnames. Informally people were known by their Yiddish names followed by the father's, mother's or spouse's name with the possessive suffix "s", without apostrophe. Sometimes a nick­name or one's trade was added for more specific identification. On official or cere­monial occasions the Hebrew version of the name was used, followed by the father's Hebrew name with the interjection "ben" for "son of" or "bas" ("bat" in the Sephardic dialect ) for "daughter of". Thus Yudel Berels was rendered in Hebrew as Yehudo ben Dov, and Feigel Leisers became Tsiporo bas (bat ) Eliezer. In religious ceremonies this practice prevails to the present day.

During the eighteenth century East European rulers ordered the adoption of sur­names, for control and taxation purposes. Many Jews preserved the old tradition by adding "sohn" (German spelling of "son") to their father's name, originating such sur­names as Josephson, Davidson or Jacobson. Those who claimed descent from the first High Priest Aaron, known as Kohanim in Hebrew, or from the Levites, the Temple attendants, adopted variations of these titles, giving rise to Kohn, Cohen, Kahan, Kohan, Levi, Levin, Loewi, Lewis, Levitt, and so on.

But not all Jews were allowed to choose a surname -- the petty officials often just assigned one based on occupation ( Schuster, Schneider, Kremer, Lehrer, Farber ); on physical appearance ( Rotbart, Schwatzkopf, Kleinmann, Grossmann ), or on place of former residence or derivation (Hollander, Wiener, Frankfurter, Dorfmann, Waldmann). Often these officials wantonly assigned derisory surnames, which could be avoided by bribes--the higher the gratuity, the nicer the name (Rosenberg, Goldstein, Blumenthal, Birnbaum, Silbermann). Jews living under Tsarist rule acquired their surnames in a similar way, often "Russified" by appending "-ovich" or "-sky" to the name (Abramo­vich, Kaganovich, Levitsky, Portnoy, Polsky, Varshavsky). There are even Shere­shevskys, an indication that our little town had some prominence at one time, and that its citizens were adventurous enough to leave its confines and seek their fortune in the wide world beyond the surrounding forests and swamps.

An unusual historical personage whose ancestors must have come from our town was one SAMUEL ISAAC JOSEPH SCHERESCHEWSKY (the German spelling of Shereshevsky). This man was born of Jewish parents in 1831 and went to
America at the age of twenty-three in 1854. The following year he converted to Christianity and apparently showed great zeal in his new faith, because four years later, in 1859, he was sent to China as a missionary. During his long residence there he visited the ancient Jewish commu­nity of Kaifeng, but found no welcome--he was literally driven out of town by the population. He must have met with greater success in other places, and was rewarded in 1877 with the appointment as Episcopal Bishop of China. His most notable achieve­ment, though, was the translation of the Pentateuch into Mandarin Chinese. While engaged in this task he suffered a stroke which partially paralyzed his hands, but he persevered and completed the translation by using only two fingers. This work is known as the "Two Finger Bible."

Our original family name in
Russia was AVERBUKH, spelled AWERBUCH in Polish, and pronounced Ah-ver-bookh in both languages as well as in Yiddish. In my youth I surmised that it derived from some Dutch word or words, because one of the noted former Shershev rabbis had come from Holland, and I supposed that other Dutch Jews arrived in our area at the same time. I later learned that the name's origin was the town of Auerbach in Germany, and that Jews have been using that surname at least since 1497 when one MOSES AUERBACH was "court Jew" to the bishop of Regensburg. Since then a succession of rabbis, writers and other public figures bore that name, including BERTHOLD AUERBACH, a leader of the Jewish emancipation movement. This information led me to adopt this spelling as my surname upon arrival in the United States, and I was followed in this by my parents, brothers and sisters when they came to this country.

2. Destined in Heaven

My father, SHLEIME (SOLOMON) HAYIM, was already an "old bachelor" of twenty-four when he married eighteen-year-old ESTHER LIEBE VINOGRAD (WINOGRAD), eldest daughter of one of the "better" families in town. The betrothal and wedding came about under circumstances quite unusual for that time and place.

Father was born in Shershev in 1878, the oldest of the three sons of LEISER BAR and FREIDA LEIE. In his youth he was apprenticed to his father as a shingle maker, and spent some years in the forest plying this trade. He greatly resembled grandfather LEISER BAR both in looks and character: the same prominent forehead, deep-set hazel eyes, brown hair and upright bearing; and the same simplicity, guiltlessness and amiability.    These years of simple life and hard work in the fresh forest air had a salutary effect on his physical development, and he suffered no serious ailment until he was in his sixties when, already in the
United States, it was discovered that he had diabetes. He had a pleasant voice and used it to advantage when saying the blessings over bread and wine, and when singing the Zmirot on Friday evenings. He made friends easily and was trustful of people, who sometimes took advantage of him. No wonder then that he was much sought after as a prospective husband by the eligible young ladies and their parents. He seems to have followed the then new fangled custom of young people of both sexes meeting and getting to know each other. His brother, my uncle PHILIP, told me the following incidents relating to his marriage to my mother.

Father and a certain girl he associated with "liked" each other--a euphemism for being in love--and wanted to become betrothed, but proud Bobbe LEIE opposed the match because the girl's kin were not to her liking--there ware butchers and similar "low-class" relatives in her family. When a match was proposed with ESTHER LIEBE, the daughter of PESHE LEAH SOREH EIDEL's, it was just what FREIDE LEIE was looking for: a nice girl from a family with real Yihus (pedigree). It seems that grandma PESHE had in her background a Dayan (Rabbinical Judge) or two, and her brother was the illustrious Reb AVROMKE HANDELSALTZ, a scholar of great renown. Since Bobbe LEIE's frail little body contained a will of iron, she prevailed and the match was concluded, as was no doubt destined in heaven.

But destined or not, the path to the Huppa turned out to be rather thorny. The relatives of the other girl, incensed by the affront, rose up in retribution, not against the groom as one would expect, but against the bride. Slander and calumny were bruited about the town, she was publicly insulted and jeered at in the market place, the wooden shutters on her windows were pelted with stones or banged at with sticks in the middle of the night, and anonymous threatening notes were attached to her door, with allu­sions to dire consequences if the proposed betrothal is not cancelled. The groom and brother PEISAH (PHILIP) apparently had no stomach for such rough tactics, but the youngest brother LIPPE (LOUIS) was of a different mettle and rose to the defence. He was about eighteen or nineteen then and had many friends who were as spirited as he was. Armed with metal rods and stout cudgels, they ambushed several of the miscreants during one of the nights they came to attack the bride's house, and in a fierce free-for­all sent them running with bloodied heads and faces. The whole town was of course in an uproar, the police became involved, and an ugly rumour was being spread that the butcher boys were planning to use their knives on LIPPE to get revenge. The affair came to an end by his leaving town and emigrating to America together with PEISAH, who had been planning for some time to go there in order to avoid being drafted into the Tsarist army. They were the first of the family to set foot in the United States.

Notwithstanding all the unpleasantness, the wedding of my parents took place in the summer of 1901. What was my mother like in her youth and girlhood? On the basis of remembered fragmentary remarks made by my grandmothers, other relatives, and by mother herself the picture in my mind is that of a child, the oldest of four sisters and a brother, apprenticed early as a "helper" to grandma PESHE, who was also one of the kremerkes whose bitter life she bewailed in that interminable song she used to entertain us with. Mother was accordingly burdened at a tender age with the care of the younger children and various household chores. She nevertheless managed to learn to read and write Yiddish and some Russian, or at least the local dialect. She also knew enough Hebrew to read the prayer book, though not necessarily understanding all the "words"--there were many men who did not know the full meaning of the prayers they were chanting. As she matured she was considered comely -- a sheine--with her clear unblemished face, regular features, dark hair, brown eyes, and what we would designate as pleasingly plump, an attribute esteemed as a sign of good health. Slenderness was not considered a desirable quality, and it was not uncommon to say about a thin person that he or she looks like a suhotnik (consumptive). Anyway, the mere fact that the fastidious FREIDE we approved of her as a daughter-in-law is verdict enough on this point.

Upon the marriage of my parents father gave up his trade as shingle maker because it involved being away in the forest for months at a time, and the prospect of such separation did not appeal to the young couple. So what else could a Jew do for a living? They bought a store of general merchandise located among the other stores in the market place, of course. The money most likely came from a combi­nation of father's savings, a contribution by grandpa LEISER BER, and mother's dowry-­the latter could not have been munificent considering that there were three more girls to be married off. Be that as it may, they must have started off on an impressive scale, because father acquired the appellation "SHLEIME der kremer"--a singular distinction among so many other kremers in town.   This byname was soon appended to me, and became "YANKEL SHLEIME dem kremers" to no intimates, whereas I was just plain YANKEL to relatives and friends.

3. Kremer and Forester

Within a relatively short time after my parents bought their store its operation devolved upon mother, while father cast about for other enterprises, probably because the income from it was not enough to be worth the time of both of them. The main reason though was that father, despite the fancy title "Shleime der kremer" was not very successful at the trade. He was too straightforward and had an innate distaste for the petty wheeling and dealing, the haggling, and the abasement that it entailed. Instead of asking too high a price in the knowledge that the customer would bargain no matter what was asked, he would state a fair price to bring a reasonable profit, only to be immediately sneered at and offered an amount way below his own cost. And when the peasant was told that he cannot have it for any less, he would stalk out of the store in disgust. "How can I buy from you if you don't want to bargain?" was the general attitude. Many customers just stayed away because to them the absence of bargaining took all the fun out of shopping. Many others, however, began to appre­ciate father's honesty, after bargaining in other stores and finding that they could not get the merchandise for less than what father asked, and would thereafter buy only 'from "SHLIOMKA." These were so impressed by his fairness that they started coming to him for advice on other matters, and even to resolve personal disputes among them­selves. Their confidence in him was expressed in a characteristically simple phrase that became current in some of the villages: "Yak Shliomka kazhe, to pravda!" (If SHLIOMKA says so, it is the truth!) Their appreciation of father was manifested in a most practical and 'touching manner during the hunger years of World War I when some of the villagers, who had much more food than the townspeople, came to our store and gave mother a chunk of bread or some dried beans "for SHLIOMKA's children." This attitude of the peasants was the more remarkable in light of the generally prevalent resort to subterfuge by the Jewish traders and to plain thievery by the peas­ants. Each knew the other's propensity, as evidenced by the local adage: "Zhid mo­shennik a muzhik vor" (The Jew is a swindler and the peasant a thief). An anecdotal illustration of this saying is the account of a deal between a Jewish trader and a vil­lager for the purchase of grain at fifty kopeks per bushel. As they started filling the sacks the trader put a shiny silver grivennik (ten-kopek piece) into a dish for every bushel measured out, explaining that by counting the coins later they will know how many bushels he has to pay for. When the dish was almost full the Jew went outside, ostensibly to tend to his horse, whereupon the peasant promptly grabbed a handful of the coins and pocketed them, with the obvious result.

Father's first enterprise away from the store was to travel to the large cities: Brisk, Bialystok, or even Warsaw to buy merchandise direct from the wholesalers, not only for our own and both grandmothers' stores, but also for other storekeepers and itinerant peddlers. He received a small commission, but would not take anything from the grandmothers, so that he barely covered expenses. He then received a propo­sition from a wealthy town Jew to go into the lumber business with him as a partner. This involved contracting with one of the big landowners for the right to lumber a specified section of forest--cutting down the dead trees as well as a certain number of live ones of designated types and sizes. Those logs which were suitable for construc­tion or furniture were dragged to the nearest waterway, fastened together into large rafts and floated down to the nearest lumber mill or railway junction for transportation to large cities or even as far as Germany. The branches and otherwise unusable lumber was meant to be sold for firewood, the only heating material in the area villages and small towns. This was considered big business, and some contractors made a lot of money in it. But not father--again because of his trusting nature. Some of the floats, in charge of peasant foremen, never reached their destination, either through accident or deliberate malfeasance of the float men. A lot of the firewood was stolen by peasants from nearby villages who would come on their large sleds during the long winter nights and cart away full loads. But the main culprit was the partner, whom father had full confidence in--after all he was a Jew and from our own town--but who nevertheless turned out to be unscrupulous. Because of father's knowledge of the forest from the days of his shingle making, he took charge of the gang of hired lumbermen and of the de­livery of the trunks to the river bank; while his partner managed the business end, dealing with the mill owners, rail transport and the ultimate buyers of the lumber. He also kept the accounts of the transactions and of his business expenses. When the final reckoning was made his accounts showed a profit way below what father estimated, leaving him a mere pittance for all the hard work he put into the enterprise.

I must say though that I do not recall father ever being so happy as during the two or three years that he was engaged in this venture. He got along well with the loggers who liked his open and fair way of dealing with them, and they respected him for it. He enjoyed the invigorating air and simple life of the forest, the plain food prepared over an open fire, and the rough companionship of the men. He kept a horse at the time and came home every Friday afternoon to spend the Sabbath with the family, using a two-seat carriage in summer and a sleigh in winter. He probably took me for a ride more than once, but I actually remember only one ride which must have eclipsed all the others. We were coming along at a good trot when the horse suddenly let out a piercing neigh, reared on his hind legs, veered sharply off the road and took off in a mad gallop across a green meadow, the carriage bouncing precariously over the hummocks, with father straining at the reins and shouting tproo, tproo, stay, stay! --the local version of whoa! The horse finally stopped, shivering with his entire body, frothing at the mouth, a wild look in his eye. Father kept on making soothing sounds until the horse completely calmed down, whereupon we proceeded, slowly, back to the road and homeward. Father told me that the fright was caused by a snake which had slithered across the road just in front of the horse. I am still amazed that the carriage did not turn over or that I was not thrown out during the wild bumpy dash through the meadow.

During the period of father's business ventures mother operated the store by herself. Meanwhile the family was increasing, and by the time there were four or five youngsters neither the grandmothers nor the maid could cope with them by themselves, so father resumed storekeeping to allow mother to devote more time to the children. An additional factor was his disappointment with the results of the lumber business. He resumed his travels to the large cities to buy goods at wholesale, this time not on a commission basis but for resale. Another store was rented, in addition to the one we owned, for storage of the bulk merchandise to be sold to the itinerant peddlers. Mother continued working in the store whenever she could getaway from the household chores. These were rather prosperous years for our family, and enabled us to move from the congested quarters of grandma's house to a spacious rented apartment of our own.

4.                  Living Quarters

For some years after my parents' marriage we lived in grandma PESHE's four room house, crowded like herring in a barrel. Father and mother occupied one of the tiny bedrooms, the front one, in which a wicker cradle hung by ropes from the ceiling, within reach of the rocking hand in bed. Grandma shared an equally tiny bedroom with her youngest daughter SOREH and one or two of my siblings. Her two older daughters, HENYE and TSINE, slept in the parlour--one on the sofa and the other one on chairs pushed together to form a bunk. My uncle YISROEL and I slept on similarly improvised bunks in the living room / kitchen during the cold seasons, and in a contraption called shlofbank, actually a storage chest which could be converted into a double bed when the drawer was pulled out, which was located in the unheated pantry and was usable for sleeping only in the summer. I was still too small at the time to stay awake until the grownups were ready for bed, so in the winter I used to fall asleep in one of the bedrooms, and was carried to my place in the kitchen when everybody was ready to retire for the night.

The front bedroom had not always been occupied by my parents. When I was still about two or three years old and living with grandma FREIDE LEIE, that room was inhabited by a corpulent elderly gentleman whom everybody called "der alte FROIM MEIR"--the old FROIM MEIR, and who in my memory always wears a tight-fitting red velvet vest, on embroidered skullcap and soft house slippers. He apparently paid a good rental, because he had the use of the parlour too during the daytime. Although 1 was forbidden to disturb him, it did not prevent me from barging in on him quite regularly, especially when he was "chopping" sugar. I had the impression that his sole occupation was to drink tea all day long, filling glass after glass of hot water from the steaming samovar that grandma brought in to him into the parlour. His sugar came in enormous cone-shaped loaves which he used to break up into small bite-size pieces with the aid of a "sugar chopper," consisting of a heavy board to which one long blade was rigidly attached sharp side up while another blade, with its sharp side down, was hinged at one end and would swing down to meet the other blade and cut the sugar placed between them. This fascinating operation always drew me into the parlour, sometimes to be unceremoniously chased out, but more often to be greeted with "kum aher yungatch" ( come here little rascal ) and be rewarded with a piece of sugar which promptly went into my mouth.

Incidentally, I do not recall ever seeing granulated sugar in Shershev, and tea was never sweetened by melting sugar in the glass, except for very young chil­dren. The usual method was to drink tea v'prikusku, that is, by placing a small lump of sugar in the mouth and taking sips of tea which was sweetened by contact with it in passing from lips to throat. This was more economical, and only gluttons "wasted" sugar by melting the lumps inside the glass.

In his youth FROIM MEIR served in the Tsarist army, and remained loyal enough to cooperate with the Russians during the last Polish uprising in 1863, for which the in­surgents put a price on his head. He hid out in a disused well for several weeks, but one of his sons was killed by the Poles in revenge. After the bloody suppression of the rebellion he was rewarded by the government with the monopoly to brew beer, which made him a rich man. Despite the good rent he was paying he was requested to vacate the front bedroom, which was then occupied by my parents, thus relieving somewhat the congestion. But I was the greatest beneficiary of the change-over, having found a treasure underneath his bed: two boxes stuffed full with tinfoil from the countless pack­ages of tea he had consumed during the years, plus one real honest-to-goodness epaulet, complete with yellow fringes. The epaulet immediately elevated me to the rank of general among my playmates, and the shiny little wrappers were fashioned into silver buttons and medals to be worn as a complement to the epaulet, and to be awarded to my friends for loyal service and good conduct. No wonder I remember old FROIM MEIR so well! One thing, however, I never found out--where my parents slept while he still occupied the front bedroom.

There was a lot of excitement in connection with our moving from Bobbe PESHE's house to the new apartment about four houses away. Though we hardly had any furni­ture of our own, there was enough accumulated stuff to keep everybody busy for several days, since the moving was done by hand due to the proximity of the two houses. All relatives came to help, and I even enlisted some of my playmates to carry pots, pans, and similar unbreakable things we could be entrusted with. On one of his trips to some large city a few weeks previously father bought new furniture, and when it arrived from the nearest railroad station, piled up high on two peasant wagons, half of the town came to inspect and admire the "modern" style, the fine fabric covering the sofa, and especially the chandelier with its translucent glass baubles hanging from the ceiling. What impressed me most and intrigued me were the bentwood chairs, known as Wiener (Viennese)--I just could not get over the wonder of long sticks of hard wood having been twisted into circular shapes without being broken.

5. The Authorities

During this relatively prosperous period father's standing in the community, already quite high, was further enhanced by his appointment to the position--unpaid-­of Kazionny Ravvin : official registrar of births, deaths and marriages among the Jewish population. His Russian had considerably improved, and he developed a cordial rela­tionship with the "authorities." These comprised the Pristav, who was Chief of Police; his assistant;, the Uryadnik; and the two Strazhniki (policemen) whom they commanded. He was also friendly with the Russian Orthodox priest and other members of the local gentry, including the pisar, who was the official protocol writer. This was an important position, since any application, complaint or similar document had to be written in nice legible handwriting on specially stamped government paper which was taxed per sheet and was a good source of revenue. All such documents had to be in pre­scribed form of address, paragraph, margin and language. It was most important to know what title to give the official to whom the document was addressed: His Honor or High Honor; Excellency or High Excellency; and even His Grace to a very exalted personage. Any misstatement of title or the omission of the "High" was often cause for summary rejection of an application or petition. It also was not safe to resort to flattery by giving a "High" to someone not entitled to it because it might be resented by his superior if the case had to be reviewed by the latter. The pisar, therefore, though of very low rank, played a prominent part in the dealings of the people with the officialdom.

All these notables were customers in our store, and we carried certain products such as fancy bonbons and biscuits, chocolates, sardines and sprats in tins, special teas, and similar luxury items just for them, because no one else could afford them. Unlike ordinary mortals they often bought on credit and sometimes ran up considerable bills, presenting a problem if they did not pay within a reasonable time. Sending dunning notices was out of the question, so a propitious opportunity had to be found for a gentle reminder, which usually brought a settlement of the account. One of the favourable aspects of dealing with them was the absence of bargaining--to do so was below their dignity, and they also knew that they were not being overcharged,

I recall the feeling of awe that overcame me when father took me with him during Passover to present the Pristav with some matzoth, a flask of red wine, and Passover cake, all in a basket covered with a white cloth, Few Jews were granted the honour of being received by the Pristav at his home; and while the gift was a sign of respect and friendship, I strongly suspect that a twenty-five-ruble banknote somehow got mixed in among the matzoth, to make them even more palatable. To render "gifts" to official was not resented--on the contrary, the feeling was that "obi er nemt" (so long as he takes) things will not be too bad.

And speaking of matzoth, whenever Jewish boys ventured into the gentile neighbourhood during Passover they always carried some matzo in their pockets to give to the gentile boys who would sing out: "Zhid, Zhid, day matzu!" (Jew, Jew, give some matzal) The poor gentiles ate mostly the excellent, but coarse, black peasant bread, and savoured matzo as a rare delicacy. The term "Zhid" used by them was not offensive since it just means "Jew" in Goyish and Polish, but it is derogatory when used by literate Russians, the proper term for Jew being "Yevrey" in that language.