MEMOIRS OF SHERESHEV
By MOISHE KANTOROWITZ
The first vegetable to appear was Shallot. The local farmers used to pinch off the green long stems and sell it by the bunch. The stems had to be open to make sure there are no little green worms in them, washed, cut into one centimetre long pieces, mixed thick with water, vinegar and sugar and were served as the first salad of the season to go with meat. Next in vegetables came lettuce, a week or two later small round radishes and one after another cucumbers, cauliflowers, still later the first carrots, tomatoes, beets and others.
The first fruit of the season were the early cherries, a yellow cherry with no particular taste. A couple weeks later the real cherries appeared, dark red and sweet. There were no real coolers or freezers in Shereshev in those days, yet people had to keep those perishables for as long as possible. As soon as the fruits appeared on the market brought in by farmers from the surrounding villages my mother started to provide and to store for the winter, beginning with cherries. We had at home a little wooden barrel of some 30-35 centimetres in diameter and 60-65 centimeters in length lying on its side. It was given to us by my grandmother AUERBACH when she sold her house after the death of her husband. To my recollection it was always full with fermenting cherries in sugar and vodka. It had a faucet on one side to let some of the delicious cherry-brandy out with which my grandmother Freida-Leah used to treat some of her special visitors. Through the large opening on the side, which was always plugged up with a large cork, my grandmother used to fish out with a spoon a few cherries and give it to my sister Sheva and me. This barrel of cherries and brandy was never empty. As soon as the new cherries appeared, my father used to buy a pail full. My mother with the help of the maid used to wash and pit the cherries and pour them through the opening of the barrel, which was partly full with last year’s cherries. On top of it my mother used to pour in a couple kilograms of sugar, adding to it a bottle of vodka. This brew used to ferment for a couple of weeks and turn into a real cherry brandy which privileged guests used to relish more then the well known in Poland "Baczewski” liquor that my father used to sell in our store. This little almost full barrel was left behind with everything else when we were expelled from Shereshev.
After the cherries, the strawberries came, which farmers used to bring by the wagon full and sell by the quart or kilo, if the farmer owned a scale. During the strawberry season we ate it in different ways, as plain strawberries with sour cream and buttered bread as a snack or as a dessert I used to add sugar having a sweet tooth. Once in season, my father used to buy 10-15 kilo at once, my mother and the maid used to pick it over, wash it, put it into a large copper basin, cover it with a thick layer of sugar, and let it stay for 48 hours. By then the sugar was absorbed by the strawberry juice and vice-versa. The entire copper container was then placed on the stove covering all burners and cooked for a couple of hours. While cooking the foam that used to form was taken off with a spoon and was the most delicious thing I have ever tasted.
And so we used to start the season of preparing preserves and jams for the year. Next came the raspberries that used to be prepared in 2 ways. One, the same as the strawberries, the other used to be strained after cooking through a piece of linen and only the syrup or rather the liquid was saved. After staying in the cool cellar for a day or two, it used to jell and turn into a raspberry jelly of the purest quality. The same was done with cherries and plums. Blueberry preserving had an additional purpose. It was preserved as we used to say in Shereshev, “It should not be needed”, that is just in case, for it was believed, that blueberries were a great medicine for stomach ailments, particularly for dysentery. Last in fall to be preserved were the cranberries, which are as a rule very sour. In order to make them palatable, they had to be boiled kilo for kilo with sugar. For me, with a sweet tooth, it was never too sweet, but I ate it as my mother served it with meat for dinner. For the winter, my mother used to fill up a shelf full of large earthen jars with cranberry jam, it was also used on bread as a snack. We would also dry apples and pears particularly pears as they required less work. They had to be washed, cut in half and strung on a fine cord with a large needle and put in the heated bake oven for 24 hours. Apples on the other hand had to be peeled and sliced into thin slices, which required more time and were not much in demand for us youngsters as they were not as sweet as pears.
Although there was no shortage of cucumbers in Shereshev proper, produced by the local farmers, most of the cucumbers came from the nearby village of “Waszki”, 2 kilometers away. This village was unique for it represented a classical as well as a characteristic village of my province Polesie that one can only read about or dream about now, but they were plentiful in Polesie and the entire Prypec basin.
The last few weeks of school year 1933-34, went by fast, but with a touch of apprehension, for my father decided to do with me as he did with my sister Sheva, namely to transfer me to the Polish school. Because of my poor knowledge of the Polish language, I, too, like my sister, had to lose an entire school year. Having just finished the 4th grade Hebrew school, I was accepted in the 4th grade of the public Polish school. Never the less I considered myself lucky, for the boys that had at the same time graduated from grade 7 Hebrew school were accepted to grade 5 Polish school, thus losing 3 years while I lost only one. All due to the lack of the Polish language, for it is my opinion that the level of education in the Hebrew school of the other subjects was somewhat higher than in the Polish. A phenomenon that is applicable even today between public schools and private ones.
The summer vacation was as pleasant as always, yet one could feel uneasiness among the Jews of Shereshev. People began reading the newspapers more thoroughly, but nobody shared the reason with us 10 year olds. I recall one day as the newspapers arrived carrying the headlines announcing the death of the most popular Hebrew poet. It read, “Chaim NACHMEN BIALIK is Dead”. I believe that it made a greater impact on us youngsters than on the grown-ups, for we had just begun to study and memorize his beautiful and moving poetry.
Predominantly 2 Jewish
papers were read in Shereshev, the rightist “Der moment” and the leftist “Der Haint”. Both of those papers were printed in
To subscribe to a newspaper for one person was too expensive, so people used to pair up in 2 or 4 thus creating a partnership to one paper. My father and grandfather were partners to one paper. When one was finished with it, the other got it. If there were 4 partners to a paper, the paper was in use all day. Some partners used to get it the following morning.
Three kilometers (1.8 miles) from Pruzany, in the direction of Shereshev and a kilometer (.6 miles) off the main road, was a village called “Shubitch,” whose inhabitants were farmers. Next to their fields, was an estate belonging to a Jewish man by the name of BRZYZYNSKI, a decent respectable humane and committed Jew. The estate consisted of the main building, a big house with many rooms, and a couple smaller buildings for the help, a couple long buildings with individual rooms and kitchens, a few separate cabins and some stables and barns for the few dozen cows and horses, as well as some sheds for farm machinery. All this was surrounded by many hectares of land and pastures. But the main attraction of this estate was its forest, which was divided in half by a road leading from the estate to the main road of Pruzany to Bialowieza via Shereshev. One half of the forest close to the village was on low ground and consisted of leafy trees. The other half was on higher sandy ground overgrown with pine trees. It was this part of the forest that attracted many wives and their children from Pruzany and a few from Shereshev for the summer. With the increase in our family my mother had to give up our yearly summer vacations in Domaczewo which was over 100 kilometers (60 miles) away and a strain on my mother and my little brother Liova as well as my two little sisters Sonia and Liba, still an infant and she had to settle for the much closer “Shubitch”. There at BRZYZYNSKIs my mother could rent a large room and a kitchen where she could cook meals for the family. My father used to stay at home to keep the store open and come out on Friday afternoons with the bus that was commuting between Shereshev and Pruzany returning the same way on Saturday night.
It was stylish in those
days to put on weight and this was the purpose of going to the country. So my mother used to spend entire days making
us delicacies so we should eat more. The
requisite was two eggs and a glass of milk 3 times a day. In order to drink the milk, my mother used to
bribe me with a piece of chocolate.
After this we were suppose to eat a regular meal. Not surprising that we
did not want to eat and even my mother’s bribes did not help. My mother’s entire effort of those hot days
remained untouched on the table. Is it
then surprising that those laden tables with all sorts of good foods, that I
refused to eat, haunted me throughout the dark and hungry days of
As far as I remember, the owner of the estate had 4 sons and 1
daughter. The oldest Label some dozen
years older than I, built like a wrestler, left for the
It seems that for my mother, one month of such a “rest” in the country was enough, and she and the children used to return home. I continued to stay on for a week or two with my Aunt Chashkah, my father’s brother, Rubin’s wife and children. I returned with him on a Saturday night by bus for I did not enjoy a return trip home by horse and buggy, a buggy full of bags, baggage, bedding, dishes, and other things that women used to take along for the summer. In order for my uncle and me to catch the bus going from Pruzany to Shereshev, we had to leave Shubitch and walk along a field road for a kilometer (.6 miles) to the main road. We gave ourselves enough time and got to the road early. Having nothing to do, I stretched myself out on the grass and looked up to the dark blue sky, strewn with countless stars. It was a dark night and it seems that one could count them all. I think that it was the first time and maybe the only time I ever saw such a starry sky. It was good to come back home to mom and dad, and my older sister, Sheva who always acted towards me like a devoted big sister and guardian. She followed my mother’s actions, pampering me and giving in to my every whim, also to my little brother Liova (Label), almost 7 years younger than I, who used to look up to his older brother with love and admiration, as well as to my little 2 sisters, Sonia, then 3 years old, and the little one, Liba, just 1 and half years old. Our family, like many others in Shereshev those days, was very tightly knit and raised closely, dependent and devoted to each other. I can recall that already in 1934, my parents used to go out once in a while to visit family or friends for the evening, leaving me and my sister to look after the little ones. My sister Sheva was not 13 years old and I only 11. If it happened that one of the little ones woke up, my sister and I used to take turns holding them in our arms and walking with them back and forth until they used to fall asleep, never running to our parents for help.
With the end of the summer vacation 1934, I went back to school. Unlike other years however, instead of finding myself amongst my last year’s classmates, I found myself in an entirely new and strange environment. Gone were the familiar friendly faces of my playmates and peers, the common interests, the familiar layout of the school. Instead, I found myself amongst school children who spoke a hardly familiar language and who knew each other but ignored me. They seemed to be rougher in conduct and language. Their dress was somewhat different and so was even their smell. The school was situated in the court lane which was over half a kilometer farther from our house, than the Hebrew school. It had many more rooms, 2 of each from grade 1 to grade 4, grades 5, 6, and 7 had single rooms, due to the attrition and grade failure. Grade 5 was usually the largest class, but by the time it reached grade 7, it had shrunk to the customary 40 pupils in class.
Being a much larger school than the Hebrew one, it had a much larger yard, partly surrounded by a fence, a large space between the school and the road, was planted with osier(?) that was used by the students for art and craft lessons. A sturdy fence was separating the schoolyard from the street, along and behind the fence in the yard, was a long ditch of a hundred meters (325 feet) which used to be full of stagnate water all year long. In an exceptional hot summer the water used to dry out for a few weeks and the dead tadpoles and frogs could smelt for quite a distance. The ditch was overgrown with trees on either side. The most noticeable were a couple of huge oak trees whose branches covered not only the ditch, but reached over the fence and the other side of the road. In the end of August an unusual amount of acorns used to fall off those oak trees and cover the road almost ankle deep as nobody bothered to pick them up.
There were around 450 students in that school as compared to 125 in the
The school office took up a large room having to accommodate a dozen teachers, two of them local men. One of them, was a single middle aged man who lived with his middle aged single sister and their mother in a huge wooden house that served once as a rich landowner’s mansion. In fact, his ancestral home, for unknown to me reasons, in the last one or two generations, had lost its glitter. The financial situation turned bad and the house that once served as the seat of a rich and powerful Polish landowner took on the form of a shabby thread bare, almost haunted relic of former glory. Even the large yard the fallen fences and neglected orchard added to its ghostly presence. The whole place seemed to be haunted and people avoided it. Even youngsters from the neighboring houses did not dare run in and grab some ripe appetizing apples or other fruit. So they lay there rotting in the weed overgrown orchard.
I recall as an eight or ten year old boy, I was taken along by my Uncle Hershel, on a Saturday afternoon, when he and his group of young men and girls went to visit their former teacher, the sister of my teacher WUJTKOWSKY. I vaguely remember the inside of that house, the large rooms full with furniture for which I could not see a purpose, the carpets on the floor and more on the walls depicting all kinds of exotic places and fantasies. It had countless couches and heavily padded chairs and a large black grand piano in the middle of one room. The windows were heavily draped and did not let in much daylight. One detail all those things had in common that did not escape even the notice of a 10 year old boy was the old and worn out look of everything.
This teacher, WUJTKOWSKY, whose family lived under Russian rule for almost 2 centuries, retained their Polish identity and language. He did not feel bitter or hurt and remained a decent man who fulfilled his job exemplarily as a teacher.
The second local teacher was a man of about fifty by the name of
LEONCZUK, who graduated from a Teacher’s Seminary during the Czar’s reign. When the Poles took over the territories of
western Bialorussia and
The language of instruction in school was, of course, Polish but, among ourselves, we, the Jewish children spoke Yiddish. The Christians spoke a white Russian dialect
as in their home. Conversation among
Jews and non-Jews was conducted in the local white Russian dialect. There might have been in the school of 450
students, a dozen or fewer students that spoke Polish. They were the children of the government
employees that came from
The first year in the Polish school was a very difficult one for me. I had trouble communicating with my teachers as well as with the non-Jewish students. Fortunately some of the Jewish students had the same problem, and as the saying goes, “Troubles shared in common are endurable”. However, my father used to make sure that after school I came to the store and he used to go over with me all I learned in school and made sure that the homework was in order.
I still cannot understand where and when my father learned Polish, for his background was Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian. Yet he spoke and wrote a perfect Polish to such an extent that when a Jewish man had a problem or was in trouble with the government and had to explain himself in writing, be it a petition or an application and forward it to the higher authorities in the nearby district town of Pruzany, they used to come to my father to write it for them and not to the local barrister. One of the reasons being that my father did it as, we say in Hebrew, “L’shem Mitzvah”, (for the sake of a good deed and not for pay).
For a non-explainable reason I developed a taste for Polish history and my father made sure that I memorized each lesson, to such an extent that in every term I used to get the highest mark in it despite the language problem. My other highest mark in class was for mathematics, which I continued to receive up to graduation. The only challenger in math used to be the other Jewish boy in class Leizer EISENSHTEIN. This EISENSHTEIN’s father Yaakol-Berl who was considered a progressive Melamed (private teacher-instructor), started giving private Hebrew lessons to my sister Sheva as soon as she transferred to the Polish school, and the same happened to me. So every day he used to come to us at for an hour to give us private lessons.
The order of school days changed for me, too. In the Hebrew school we attended six days a
week, excluding Saturday (the Sabbath), while Sunday was an ordinary school
day. In the Polish school we had to
attend Saturday under the threat of expulsion in case of absence. However, Jewish children were not obliged to
write on Saturday, which they would not do in any case, even under the penalty
of expulsion. So we Jewish children sat on Saturdays in school, without having
touched a pen, pencil or chalk. In that
school I came for the first time face to face with outright Anti-Semitism. Of course, I had heard about it, but really
did not understand it. There were two
teachers, a married couple by the name of GULAWSKY. They lived on a short little street called Kapielica at the end of
Shortly after the Sukkoth
holidays (Tabernacle holidays), my grandmother Freida-Leah
AUERBACH began to feel weaker and started to spend more and more time in
bed. My mother had to make every meal
for her, if and when my grandmother felt like eating. My sister Sheva and
I used to go see our grandmother as soon as we got back from school. Despite the fact that our grandmother was
only one house away from us, my mother preferred to have her with us. Right before Chanukah (the Eight-Day holiday
commemorating the purification of the