1.  The Front Approaches

            Although the war began in August 1914, our shtetl remained in relative tranquility. A few young men were drafted into the army, certain goods became scarce and more expensive, and all sorts of rumors were being whispered. We even saw some small detachments of soldiers passing through, on foot. It was at this time that the first automobile ever was seen in our town. It stopped in the market place, and a crowd of people gathered at a respectable distance, staring at the contraption and at two Russian officers in shiny knee-high boots who arrived in it. I did not see it in motion, but heard that some horses bolted in panic at its noisy approach. The peasants promptly chris­tened the vehicle with the name "Chortopkhayka" -- devilpusher -- for what else could be propelling it with a roar and smoke belching from its rear if not the devil?


            By the summer of 1915 the front reached us. Retreating troops, on foot and in wagon trains, were moving toward the east, stopping only to requisition provisions paid for mostly with receipts. Before long the distant roar of cannon was heard, and the roads became clogged with peasant wagons piled high with the owners' belongings, all heading eastward to escape the approaching enemy. After agonizing counsel the Jewish community decided to remain. The vast majority had no horses and could not leave even if they wanted to. The prospect of abandoning their homes and possessions to wander away into the unknown depths of Russia, where residence was forbidden to them, among an unfamiliar and hostile populace, also seemed quite foolhardy. And finally it was reasoned that the Germans, a cultured and civilized people, whose language was similar to Yiddish and who did not oppress the Jews in their own country, could not be worse than the Russians. The Jews therefore stayed to await their fate, together with the vast majority of the gentile population, especially the Catholics and those of Polish descent who never had too much love for the Russians anyway.


            Then the cannon roar drew nearer, the retreating Russian troops, now disorganized, were moving ever faster and faster, and it became evident that the arrival of the Germans was not far off. Word got around that the Russians ware setting fire to everything before their final departure, and that it was not safe for Jews to be in their way at such a time. We began hiding whatever valuables we had, some in a concealed cellar underneath the large oven in grandma Leie's house, and others in a deep pit dug in the garden among the tall pole beans, where it was hoped not to be readily noticeable through the greenery. We were among the very few Jews who owned a team of horses and a large wagon, so we piled it high with the most essential portable belongings such as clothing, linen, utensils, and all the food we could gather, ready to move at the last minute should we be forced to do so. All stores had already been shut and locked for several days, and lookouts were posted around the market place to see and report on what was happening.

2.   The Cossacks

            The final act was played out soon enough on a hot summer day. A troop of mounted  Cossacks rode into town, broke open every store in the market place, looted what they could carry  with them, smashed and ruined everything else, then threw it all into the square and set fire to it. The stores themselves could not be burned due to their brick and stone construction, but some of the wooden doors were ripped off the hinges and thrown on the pyre. While this was going on we moved with our horses and wagon through back streets to a swampy meadow outside of town, where we found many other families who hoped to find refuge there from the dreaded Cossacks and the expected conflagration.


            The events of that day, the night we spent under the open sky, and of the fol­lowing morning are unforgettable. The shells at that time were flying over our heads with a piercing shriek followed by an ear-splitting explosion. The people were huddled in groups underneath the wagons, trees and bushes, cowering in terror, crying, praying and reciting Psalms. The shelling was not too heavy--about one every five minutes or so--and only one actually fell and exploded in the immediate vicinity. Luckily no one was hurt because the shell penetrated deep into the soft marshy ground and threw up a geyser of muddy earth as it exploded. The only damage was a broken spoke of a wagon wheel hit by a shell splinter. During that afternoon we saw an airplane for the first time. It was apparently a German reconnaissance plane which made a wide circle above us and disappeared toward the West.


            We were not worried so much about the shells as about the Cossacks, who were considered the greater danger. The fear became almost a panic when two of them rode into our encampment in late afternoon, looked about and galloped off. The horrible thought occurred to everybody that they would return later with others, perhaps during the night, and stage a pogrom. Frantic efforts were made to get the young women and girls out of sight. Some were placed inside the wagons and covered with the household things. Others dirtied their faces with mud and put on men's or old women's clothing. "Terror seized everyone, not knowing what will come next.


            Sure enough, just about sunset, the Cossacks returned, six or seven of them, but their quest was for horses, not women. They ordered the unloading of several wagons, in a hurry, using their sabers to cut the ropes that held the piled up goods in place. Ours was among those chosen for the honor, so everything was thrown down into the mud, and we were glad to get off only with that. But then the Cossacks demanded that a driver be provided as well, and the agonizing choice fell upon Zeide Leiser Ber, in the hope that because of his age he would not be forced into more arduous or dangerous activities. With tears and bitter hearts we watched him drive away across the bridge on the road leading to the nearest town, Pruzhany, not knowing what will happen to him or if we will ever see him again. But he was back two days later, tired and hungry but unharmed. The escaping military and civilian traffic got snarled up at a crossroad near the edge of town, and in the confusion grandpa managed to get away. He could not come back sooner because in the meantime the wooden bridge was burned down and he had to wait until a temporary span thrown across by the Germans was open to civilian traffic.

            Needless to say, no one slept a wink during that night, which however passed without any untoward incident, even the shelling having stopped. Early the next morning a scattering of shells flew over our heads, but exploded on the other side of town, and within a short time we saw the signal we were waiting for-- the wooden bridge over the river and some nearby houses burst into flame, and we knew that it was all over. The relief felt by all was epitomized in the shout of one of the Jews in the encampment:

"Gott tzu danken, mein huiz brent shoin!" (Thanks to the Lord, my house is burning already!) The Germans entered the town about two hours later and immediately joined several of the townspeople who ware already trying to stem the conflagration. It was quickly brought under control, with only the bridge and three adjoining houses com­pletely burned down. We returned to aur homes and found them undamaged and un­looted, but it took several trips to the meadow to bring back the soiled household things which were thrown into the mud when our wagon was taken away.

3.  Under German Rule

            Our life under the German occupation continued for about three and one half years, until the spring of 1919. Though the actual battles on the Eastern front during this period were being fought deep inside Russia, far away from our region, we were not spared the vicissitudes inherent in living under enemy occupation in time of war. Some of them, like the shortage of food and other commodities and the disruption of travel and communications, were a direct result of the movement of the opposing armies, the physical destruction of life and property, and the flight of large numbers of people from the towns and villages. Others were brought about by actions of the German administration in exercising its control over the population of the occupied territories. There is no reason to doubt that what took place in our town had its coun­terpart in countless other such towns throughout the province.


            On the first day the Germans arrived notices were posted demanding the sur­render of all weapons and the reporting of any Russian soldiers who either deserted or remained behind inadvertently; and establishing a dusk to dawn curfew. Violations carried severe penalties, including shooting upon failure to stop when challenged by a patrol during the curfew. These orders were accepted as necessary and reasonable wartime measures, and presented no problems. The Jews had no weapons and knew of no Russian soldiers who may have remained in town--if there were such they would have looked for shelter among their gentile coreligionists. The ban on staying out after dark was irksome, but was hoped to be only temporary. However, the next order, quite unexpected, caused considerable resentment. This required that every person, young or old, male and female, must go to the public bathhouse once a week to get washed with some stinking disinfectant; and while the people bathed their clothes were fumi­gated and thrown back to them all crumpled and reeking of an odor akin to naphtha. This measure was of course aimed at getting rid of the lice which admittedly were prevalent in the populace, and preventing the spread of disease, especially typhus, which as we later learned had broken out in a number of other towns. But no reason or explanation was given when the order was issued, so it seemed to be an arbitrary effrontery and many people did not comply with it.


            Since it would have required a lot of record keeping to determine who did or did not comply with the order, the Germans resorted to a typically highhanded method for getting the desired results. Without any prior warning a number of two-man patrols armed with shears appeared in the streets and began to stop women and bearded men, and compel them to submit to inspection of their hair and clothing. If in their judge­ment there was any indication of infestation, the women's long hair and the men's beards were forcibly snipped off on the spot. The shame and humiliation of the women was nothing compared to the shock suffered by the men, to whom the loss of the beard was a sacrilege. Universal consternation gripped the community when the Dayan's beard was cut off right in the market place, despite his pleas and struggle, and the horrified poor man ran home in tears, with both hands covering his naked chin. These brutal measures could have been avoided if proper warning had been given, but they achieved the desired result. They brought on an orgy of cleaning and washing the likes of which had not been heard of, with a consequent lessening of infection and disease. There was no typhus in our town during those years.


            Another edict, during the severe winter, required that one window in each house be opened for an hour at a specified time, patrols going through the town to enforce compliance. This order however was easily circumvented by the simple stratagem of having children posted at strategic locations to watch out for the patrols and warn the household of their approach-- after all, an open window could rapidly chill a warm house, and firewood was expensive and hard to come by in the middle of winter.


            Though unaccustomed to the above changes, people quickly realized that they were beneficial and began complying with them. Another innovqtion met with imme­diate holehearted approval and cooperation. Most of the town's streets were paved with cobblestones in the center, but not on the sides along the houses. During the rainy fall season and the spring thaw one had to wade ankle-deep in slush and mud to get to any house. Under the direction of the Germans the inhabitants built narrow sidewalks made of boards in front of, and on the approaches to their houses, to everyone's sat­isfaction.


            The German's did not always resort to force to secure cooperation--they also used the carrot, a very slim one to be sure, but preferable to the stick. Thus they enlisted hundreds of people in gathering mushrooms and berries by offering to buy any amount delivered to them. Picking of these gifts of nature in the forests surrounding the town was always carried on by the populace, but usually by children and only for personal consumption. There were several varieties of mushrooms to be found there, some of them poisonous, which we learned to recognize. Of the edible ones we picked only two kinds: the ones with a deep-brown head and creamy undersides, the boroviki, were the best--excellent for sauteing and also for drying, in which form they were used as an ingredient in soups and stews (when I came to New York I found these dried mushrooms on sale in stores in Jewish and Polish neighborhoods); the others were the yellow lisitchki, which were not suitable for drying and had to be consumed while still fresh. It was great fun to go in a group into the forest, carrying wicker baskets, and looking for the boroviki which were often concealed under the pine needles and re­quired a sharp eye to be detected. When one was found the cry "I've got one" would resound and everybody converged on that spot, because it was known that others would be found in the immediate vicinity. It was not considered good sport to keep quiet about a discovery, and anyone who did that was ostracized from the group. The lisitchki were more plentiful, grew in clusters, and their bright yellow color stood out vividly against the brown needles and green underbrush so that they could be seen at a distance.


            We always left on these excursions early in the morning to get at the young firm mushrooms which came up during the night, especially after a rain. One of the older and more knowledgeable kids acted as leader and had to be obeyed. It was about an hour's walk along a sandy road to the nearest forest, which began resounding with shouts, laughter and banter as soon as we arrived. At midday we gathered for a picnic lunch of bread, cheese, hard-boiled eggs and fruit, and usually started homeward, unless the morning's pickings were meager, in which event we tried for another hour or so to increase the take.


            Not all the time spent in the forest was devoted to the search for mushrooms--­ there were too many other fascinating objects to attract our attention. Though there were wild animals in the forest we never saw them-- our clamor probably drove them deep into the interior. But there were birds flitting among the trees or sitting on slender branches which rocked gently as the birds alighted on them. These birds were different from the ones we had in town, and we did not know their names. There were yellow­ spotted lizards darting about or sunning themselves on rocks. Occasionally a snake would slither by, making us cringe in fear and throw stones in its direction to drive it away. And there were wild little flowers and brightly speckled poisonous mushrooms, not to be touched but attractive to look at. And so the hours were spent until it was time to trudge home, tired but happy and full of new impressions and a sense of adventure.


            Berry picking was also pleasurable, but not so exciting as the hunt for individ­ual mushrooms concealed under pine needles. We had four species of berries: tiny but delicious wild strawberries; two kinds of blueberries; and a variety of small cranberries good only for preserves. Each grew in its own season and in different locations. Since they grew in patches, all that was needed was to find one and pick as much as you want. This was more like work, especially with the strawberries which grew close to the ground, making it necessary to crouch or crawl on one's knees to get at them. Addi­tionally, the baskets full of berries were quite heavy and made the homeward walk really tiring. Berries however had this advantage over mushrooms: they could be eaten during the picking, so except for the cranberries we used to gorge ourselves on them to the point of getting sick.


            With the offer of the Germans to buy these products all this changed. The forests began swarming with young and old in the hope of earning a few marks to supplement the family income which shrank abysmally under the occupation. This took all the fun out of our former adventures in the forest. It became work to earn some money instead of a leisurely picniclike outing with friends to gather the fruit for our personal consumption. Furthermore, with all the people now in the forest it was picked clean in no time, and we often came home with empty baskets.


            There was another item the Germans wanted: a certain fine yellow powder found inside the rotting trunks of dead trees and in some reedy plants. It was rumored that they used it for medicinal purposes and paid well for it because it was very scarce. One other innovation the Germans brought about was the growth of tobacco, which had never been cultivated in our parts. They promised to pay well for it, and so every household set aside a section of their vegetable garden for planting tobacco, our family included. It turned out to be a backbreaking and unrewarding task. We had to learn how to care for the plants, when to pick the leaves, how to thread them on strings and hang them up to dry, and at what stage they were acceptable to the purchaser. It required a lot of watering, which meant carrying pails and pails of water from a well some distance away. But despite all our efforts the plants wilted or became mildewed, the leaves did not cure properly, and in the end we had very little to show for our trouble. We gave it up after two summers, defeated by our inexperience and the unsuitable climate, and went back to beans, carrots, beets, cucumbers and potatoes, which provided some sustenance during those years of want and privation.


            The described changes and innovations instituted by the Germans can in general be charged to the credit side, despite the at times rough method of their implementation. Though they were made by the occupation authorities because it suited their own purposes, the population as a whole benefitted from them. But there was another side to the ledger.