MEMOIRS OF SHERESHEV
By MOISHE KANTOROWITZ
The school year 1935-36 ended and my report card was better than the previous one. Again my favorite subjects like math, nature study, geography and history put me among the better students in class. With my school report card, I went to show off to my uncle Hershl, pointing out my excellent mark in physics. I expected a shower of praise, instead he asked me calmly; and how are you getting on with your private Hebrew teacher in Hebrew, or with Polish at school? He knew my weak points. I had nothing to say. He paused and then said, when you will get such marks in languages and literature, then I will be proud of you. Physics is secondary to literature. For me the end of the school year meant the end of grade five, but for my sister Sheva, it meant the end of attending the Polish school. She was getting ready to enroll in the Hebrew gymnasium in Pruzany. Fortunately, she was well prepared with Hebrew, thanks to the years with the private teacher. The other subjects were no problem.
Not many children used to
go to the gymnasium in Pruzany to continue their
studies. It was a matter of
affordability. Firstly, the tuition was
substantial, as it was a private school.
Then came the problem of board and room. In my days there were no more than a dozen
children from Shershev attending both gymnasiums in Pruzany, the Hebrew and the Polish one. That included Jewish and non-Jewish. The students in both gymnasiums were mostly
locals. The out of towns were children
of better to do families from the nearby shtetls like
Kobrin, Kamieniec-Litevsk, Shershev, Malch, Seltz, Bereza-Kartuska, Linovo and others.
The Jewish children attended mostly Hebrew gymnasium for a couple of
reasons. Firstly, the students were
supposed to take two foreign languages, one Latin, which was compulsory in both
gymnasiums and the second, which in Hebrew school was chosen to be English, to
facilitate the students who intended to go to the
There were Jewish
students in the universities that would not or could not take the abuse of
their Christian classmates and quit universities in disgust. Apparently, the antagonism and outright
physical attacks of the Christian students on their Jewish classmates did not
fully satisfy the ministry of education, who was trying to discourage Jewish
attendance in universities. Not wanting
to make it an official law and be embarrassed in front of the democratic world,
they decided to annul the validity of the Hebrew gymnasium’s status as a high
school and its matriculations, by depriving the graduates the right to be
accepted into a university. Thus they
deprived thousands of Jewish youths of continuing their education. Countless Hebrew gymnasiums were put in a
situation where their graduates could only apply for entry into the Hebrew
The Jewish political as
well as the economical horizon began to cloud over already in spring of
1936. The Nurenberg
Laws passed in
At the same time Arab
terror against the Jews in British controlled Palestine intensified, to which
the British reacted by limiting even more the number of Jews entering the land
of Israel. This was especially true of
the Jews of Germany and
in Shershev was then under the temporary leadership
of Avraham APRIK. I say temporary for he had just
come for a few months visit from
As a thirteen year old, I had no function to perform, so I stood on the porch of our house and watched the large crowd of people entering the synagogue. From my vantage point I could see almost the whole market square and everybody in it. As I stood there and watched, I noticed a group of about fifteen men from the age of twenty to thirty coming into the square from the Mostowa (main) street and walking nonchalant in the direction of the synagogue. This group of people was well known in shtetl. They were from the family of the PAPALACH and their cronies with whom nobody wished to have a disagreement. They were the town’s roughnecks, yet their walk seemed to be purposeful. They were followed by rows of four to six men of members of the HASHOMER and HACHALUTZ and former active members who had outgrown the youthful activities but remained committed to the idea. I am not sure really to which one; the left Zionistic or to its strictly and only socialistic underling. One could not see among them a younger youth then eighteen. They apparently did not want to have boys in their way. The few uniformed Betar members were swept aside at the outside door and the same happened at the second leading into the sanctuary. There were not enough of them nor did they dare oppose the hired hoodlums who would become their personal enemies capable of settling scores later on their own turf and time. Breaking into the synagogue, the demonstrators with their hired helpers pulled out from under their clothes, sticks, stones and bricks and threw themselves on the surprised, confused and out-numbered Betar youths. Their uniforms made them only more noticeable to the attackers, which out-numbered them threefold.
I recall seeing my
immediate superior in Betar Motshe
(Mordechai) SHOCHERMAN making his way through the
throngs of pushing and shoving people, his face covered with blood. The same with his friends, Shepsl and Itzel POMERANIEC,
Reuben SHNEIDER, Ghershon LEVKOVITZ, the two brothers
Shalom and Avi (Abraham) LONDON and others. The assembled crowd was pushing its way out
from the synagogue for two reasons.
Firstly, not to get themselves hurt in the
melee, secondly, in disgust that Jewish young men that were neighbors, went to
the same Heder or school even in the same class,
played together as children, could raise a hand with a stick or a stone in it
with the intention of hurting one another.
And for what reason - for trying to convince someone to sign a petition
to the British government to increase the number of permits for Jews trying to
go to Palestine, so they could get away from persecution in Germany or
Poland? Within ten minutes, the large
synagogue was empty. There was no great damage done to the inside. What damage
was done was to a few members of the Betar that got
beaten up and to the self-esteem of the Hashomer
organization in town. By breaking up the
meeting they inflicted upon themselves enough damage to become pariahs in the
eyes of many people in town. In a small shtetl where
everyone is either family, neighbor, or friend, such
an act is not forgiven easily. That act
might have contributed to the fact that the leftist organization ceased to
exist in Shershev within a year of that event. Life in Shershev
began slowly but noticeably to change for the worst. The persecution of Jews in
The Jewish press was full
of saddening and dispiriting news.
Fortunately, the non-Jewish population did little reading, but the
anti-Semitic propaganda found its way around the shtetl. One of the Jewish papers was a tabloid which
used to describe far away places and exotic lands which awakened in me a desire
for travel and to see those places and in general a desire to leave Shershev. The same
tabloid triggered also the imaginations of my friends who like me had dreams of
their own. So we spend many summer
evenings walking back and forth on the main street (Mostowa)
which included the market place at its extreme far side where Channania the tailor lived, corner
Over that meadow, we used
to walk or run in the daytime only letting the wind flow through short hair,
for at night it was easy to step into a puddle.
Our hair grew during the vacation time, as we were not permitted to grow
hair during the school year. With the
wind in our faces or back, we walked and talked about far away places, exciting
events, and the distant and wide world.
Above all, however, we dreamed about our own Jewish homeland
Enough has been written about it in its time. With all the problems, in retrospect, the summer of 1936 was for us, a pleasant one. We used to go to the nearby forest to pick mushrooms. It required a certain expertise if one was looking for the best, so called carpatian mushrooms, at which I was not so good. But I enjoyed the walk through the forest and I even tried my hand at picking blueberries, but found it boring. We used to spend a fair amount of time swimming, or shall I say supposedly swimming, the little river “Lesna” that cut through the main street was in a couple places up the river a bit wider to some ten meters (325 feet) and a meter (3´3´´) deep. That was considered deep and wide for our river. It was there that the local population used to go “swimming”. As the bathers were bathing stark naked, the women found another hole like this one, some distance away. I will say that not only men, but also youths and boys respected the women's privacy and nobody walked in that direction, as they too bathed in the nude. One of the questions that puzzled me for a long time was: Where does the non-Jewish population bathe? The Jews had a bathhouse owned and used by Jews only. In summer the bathing or swimming was attended by Jews, and only on rare occasions were there any non Jews, so where did they bath? The answer came to me later, they did not. All one needed was a nose to know it. A couple of years before the war, some young men and women began to wear swimming shorts and suits. Some women began to come over to the mans swimming hole, I will say that when women were there, men who had no swimming shorts did not get undressed and only entered the water after the women had left. Yet men never ventured to the women's side even in shorts. Before and after swimming, we used to lay and bask in the sun. For me it was no pleasure, knowing that my skin will soon turn red and by morning the exposed body will be covered with blisters. A day later, the blisters used to start breaking and the skin peeling painfully. A few days later, I used to do the same thing and go through the same process. I never got used to the sun. I finally learned to avoid it.
Without the protection of
the gypsy Wladek CHUBREWICZ, the sixth grade was the
hardest for me to bear. The school year
started at the beginning of September. Shortly after, our class was informed
that at the end of the month we will be taken on a trip to Bialoweza,
35 kilometers (21 miles) west of Shershev. It was an ancient forest, supposedly the
largest in central
The following morning
when I came back to school, I heard the boys in my class speaking with envy
about the fact that the others could deliver a few good punches while the Jews
and their teachers pretended not to see it.
Apparently, I was not the only one to notice it and neither was I the
only one to be persecuted. Some had it
worse. From that point of view, that is
anti-Semitic persecution, the school year 1936-37 was for me the worst. Scholastically, there was the eternal race
between me and the other Jewish boy, Laizer
EIZENSHTEIN, for first place in class in mathematics and physics. The other subjects were no problem except the
Polish language. But this was a common
problem that afflicted every one in the class.
My brother Liova (Leibl)
was already in the second grade in Hebrew school and I had a suspicion that my
father had the same plan for him as for my sister and I. That is, to transfer him after the fourth
grade into the Polish school. So on the
winter mornings, we used to leave the house at daybreak. I used to turn right through the main street Mostowa to the Polish school and my seven-year-old brother Liova left through
On the cold winter days, those ovens had to be lit twice a day. As soon as the wood in them was burned almost completely and all that was left in them were the (cinders) embers, the cast iron doors of the stoves were hermetically closed, so as to prevent the glowing embers from completely burning out to retain the heat in the stove longer. The most preferred place in the house during the long winter evenings, was to stand by the stove with ones back pressing against it and feel the warmth radiating from it and dispersing all over the body. The household members used to stay around the stove conversing as well as trying to solve problems, just as it is done nowadays, sitting around the table. In such an oven, my mother used to bake the potato kugel (pudding) in a fair amount of animal fat. When ready, it used to be moved to the upper part of the stove where it stood hot until we came home. It was then that my mother used to take it out from the oven in an earthen pot, narrow on the bottom and wide on top. My mother used to turn it over in the air, holding it over a flat wide plate. It used to land on the plate, a round pyramid like pudding with a flat top, a hot sweaty glistering delight that use to fill the house with the most appetizing aroma. After the snack, I used to do my homework, which as a rule used to take two to three hours. By then, it was time for dinner. Most of the time, my mother would feed me first. Then I could go to mind the store, while my father could go home to eat. I, a thirteen year old, used to remain by myself in a store with shelves full of vodka, wine and liquor, cigarettes and tobacco. It never happened that I had any problem with a customer even a drunken one. Things have changed a lot since then. Who would let a thirteen year old attend a liquor store today? As soon as my father used to come back from dinner, I used to try and sneak out, but was not always successful. He used to start asking about the lessons, homework, and other things pertaining to it. When he used to let go of me, I knew I did my work well, but he never let me feel this way, he just advised me to go home to read it again.
Facing our store was the house of my uncle Reuben, my father’s brother, whose hardware store took up part of his house. Not daring sometimes to leave the store and go straight to my friends, I used the excuse that I was going for a little while to my uncle’s house, which my father tolerated.
There I had my uncle’s daughter Michla, two years younger than I, who used to be my playmate when I was five and six years old, their son Shalom, a year older than my brother Liova and their second son Shevach, born in 1935. From there I had no problem going out, as their back door led into an alley. My uncle Reuben was a good businessman and a hard worker, I will add a successful one too. Quick to grasp modern concepts, he was the first and only merchant to buy by the truckload. The benefit was to have the needed merchandise on time, and buying in quantity meant a better price. He had three warehouses that always seemed to be full to the brim.
In the early thirties, a
few Shershev men got together and bought a
truck. One of them was Berl SHAMES, Chayim SHEMESH’s older brother.
Berl was a single man then and lived with his
father and sister Esther next door to my grandparents KANTOROWITZ. Berl and his father
Yosl (Josef) had a garden across the street and in it
a large shed. The truck used to be kept
in it, when in town. It was this truck
that my uncle Reuben used to hire to bring merchandise from as far away as
My uncle Reuben’s wife, Chashka, as I mentioned earlier, was from the PINSKY family, of medium height, sturdy built for a woman, blond hair and blue eyes. Their daughter, Michla inherited from her mother, the blond hair and blue eyes, from her father, his slender build but not his one meter and eighty-five centimeter (6 foot) height. She was not much taller than her mother, but a couple of years later she developed a figure that was the envy of every girl in shtetl. As a thirteen and fourteen year old boy, I began to take notice and an unexplainable wall began to form between us. Gone were the fights and hair pulling of the time gone by, and our friendship took on an incomprehensible respectability to such an extent that being alone we did not dare sit next to each other, but always across, not even on the same couch.
To me and my friends the
big city meant Brisk (Brest-Litowsk), which was via a
field road only eighty kilometers (48 miles) away along highway 110, but it
might have been a thousand. I doubt if more than ten percent of the entire Shershev population had ever been in Brisk. I have passed by Brisk
several times going with my mother and sister Sheva
The few students that attended out of town schools came home for their winter vacation, among them my sister Sheva and my close friend Laizer ROTENBERG. In his regulation uniform school cap, he walked befitting a big city student. We all tried it on, admiring its unique design. He kept on telling stories about the big city and we listened in awe. It was not his nature to pretend and in a couple of days, he was back, the good old Laizer we knew.