MEMOIRS OF SHERESHEV
By MORRIS KANTOROWITZ
From the days of living with our paternal grandparents, I recall my father’s two youngest brother’s living there with their parents, my grandparents, the older one, Hershel, and the younger one, Eliyouh, or Eli as he was called. Eli was then a student attending the Hebrew gymnasium (high school) in Pruzany. He used to come home every Friday afternoon and returned Saturday night to attend classes on Sunday. He used to come home also on all other Jewish holidays and vacation time.
I see them with pliers in hands splitting old auto tires. There were no autos or any motorized vehicle in Shereshev then and I don’t know where my grandfather used to buy them. The tires were so thick that they had to be split in half and then given to specialized artisans who used to make them into a sort of shoes held together with rivets and worn on cloth wrapped feet with long leather straps. Those were sturdy footwear that could last for years and affordable to the local farmers. My grandfather used to sell them in his store. The bulk of the business in my grandfather’s hardware store consisted of selling the metal parts needed in making wagons, like axles, metal sleeves forming the center of the wheel, the steering mechanism rails to go around the wheels and a full line of hardware articles.
While speaking about hardware stores, I will mention that my father’s brother Reuben, “Ruva”, as he was called, had a hardware store too, one of three hardware stores in our Shtetl. The third belonging to Joshua (Youshuah Pinsky). All the three stores were within 30 metres of each other.
The winter of 1927-28 was a difficult one, enough for me to remember as I got up and looked across the street where Hertzke Fishelles house was supposed to be and all I could see was a smoking chimney sticking out of a mountain of snow. Some time later a few neighbours shoveled away the snow from that door so that the residents could get out.
In early spring 1928 we moved into a rented house owned by Yudel (Yehuda) and Reizl Zubatzky, a big and fairly new house. She kept two rooms for herself and for her son Shlomo two years older than I and her twins, two three year old girls. Her husband was away, being employed as a forest watchman in Volynia, coming home rarely.
With that early spring I turned five years old, time for a Jewish boy to start “Heder” (Traditional Jewish religious school.) There were a few “Melamedim” (teachers of children in Heder) in Shereshev.
My mother with the help of her father, my grandfather Laizer-Bear, decided on a Melamed by the name of “Kepele Potchinker”. He lived with his wife in one of the alleys that run off the main street “Mostowa” towards the swamps that surrounded a good part of the Shtetl. The little street or alley in which he lived was a swamp too and as far as I can remember it was never dry even in the hot summer days. The Melamed(teacher) was a tall man with a long beard and his attitude towards his little charges was grandfatherly. The night before my first day in Heder my mother took me to her parents to sleep over. I could never understand why that particular night, before starting Heder, one of the most important days in a Jewish boy’s life, my mother wanted me to spend with her parents. The next morning my mother was there bright and early. After breakfast my mother took me by my left hand letting her father hold my right hand. Holding hands the three of us walked out the kitchen into the hallway and to the outside door, they both stopped at the door telling me to step over the threshold with my right foot first, according to Jewish custom a remedy and omen of good luck and success. And so we stepped across the threshold as they kept on blessing me with every blessing they could think of. I remember wondering what it is like going to Heder, but I felt safe holding on to the hands of the two people I loved and trusted most in the world who were now walking on either side of me like two guardian angels.
Thus I started the first day of my Jewish education. The system in attending a Heder was that one signed up the child for a “zmann” (a six month period) with the rebbe (teacher.) There were rebbes that took on only beginners. Others kept their students for a couple of years, accepting new ones yearly, thus creating classes, or grades. Mine took on beginners, letting them go after six months and starting a new group.
My grandfather Laizer-Bear made me a little wooden lantern with little glass panes on all sides; one side served as a door through which the rabbe used to light for me the candle before going home, so I could find my way in the dark muddy alley.
I started by learning to recognize the Hebrew letters and from there I graduated to reading slowly from a Sidder (prayer book). The six months went by and my mother and grandfather came to take me home, just as they did the first day they brought me there. I guess the rebbe(teacher) wanted to show them that he earned his pay, his tuition, so he put me down at the head of the table, opening the sidder (prayer book) at random and told me to read. My mother and grandfather sat on either side of me but a little to the back, and like the first day six months ago my mother on my left side and my grandfather on the right. I kept on reading to the bottom of the page, of course not understanding a word. As soon as I finished a handful of change began to fall down on the table, some remaining on it, others rolling in all directions and off the table. I turned around asking my grandfather what it meant, his answer was that angels from heaven threw it down, a reward for my being a good student. I could have sworn that I noticed my grandfather’s hand disappear behind my back as I looked up while the coins were falling. Having so much trust in and love for my grandfather it took some of my early years before submitting fully to my original impression.
That summer of 1928 I slept many nights at my grandparents Auerbuch. There wasn’t much to do in the evenings with them. From somewhere my grandfather got some exercise books that were lined and written all over with a silvery ink in beautiful calligraphy. The writing was in Latin letters but I don’t know in what language. My grandfather gave me a pencil and told me to follow with it the silvery writing. Being left-handed I took the pencil with my left hand, which was unacceptable in those days. It took me a long, long time to get used to holding a pencil in my right hand. The result is that despite the fact that I am today fully left-handed I write with my right hand.
Ah, those long gone evenings with my grandparents Auerbuch, the little house, the low lying ceiling, the room poorly lit by the kerosene lamp that stood on the table to make reading and writing easier, the attention they gave me and above all their love.
Besides her parents, my
mother had in Shereshev her oldest brother Shloime (Solomon) some dozen years older than her. He was
married to Esther Liba (nee Winograd).
They, that is my uncle and his wife, had their two oldest sons, Jakob (Jack) and David, living in the
It was the wish of almost
every Jew and non-Jew in eastern and central
My mother was very close
to her brother who was the oldest child of my grandparents, by the same token
her oldest brother, who assumed his function as such by being her adviser,
counsel and confidant. My mother had two
more brothers in
Whenever I think of those events and go back to those years I can’t help but wonder what it was like for the departing person. To leave dear ones and loved ones behind, a place of birth where one grew up, all the friends and acquaintances, in fact for most of them, their entire world, for their world did not extend much beyond the perimeters of the Shtetl. It was there where they were born and could trace their ancestry generations back, lo, centuries back, and because of the immense at that time world that looked so forbidding, the small town or village denizen was also frightened to set out across oceans to a distant land, strangers among strangers, without a penny in the pocket and without a language. What about the family members one left behind? Parents, brothers, sisters. Others left behind wives and children. True, family heads left with the hope and intention to send papers for wives and children as soon as it is legally and financially possible. I’m not referring to my uncle, for he was going to establish sons there, so to speak, and did not have to worry about passage expenses having left with his wife, a house which would, and did, cover traveling expenses for the rest of the family two years later, as well as a running store which was as good as any on a Shereshevian scale.
But what about my grandparents, my uncles parents who were then already in the early seventies? What chance did they have to see their son again? They had seen their other two sons leave more than three decades earlier, to see the last and only son left in Shereshev go, had to be traumatic.