Chava Shmerlovsky (Epshtein)
MEMORIES OF KARTUZ BEREZA
In 1938 I left my little town Kartuz Bereza and arrived in Eretz Israel with the illegal immigration. A long time passed since that moment. Many things happened, but I still see clearly my village, through my soul's eyes. I remember the main street, and the woods at its end. On both sides the river winded, and there were three bridges above it. Over there, green fields. On this side wooden houses, many of them built after WWI, for the preceding houses had been burned, and the other old wooden houses were built many generations ago.
There were few stone houses. I remember very well two of these. They were placed in the market, one beside the other, and they looked like two rich men facing to know which one was the richer. Only main street was paved; the other had sidewalks were made of wood.
The whole town wanted to live. Jewish inhabitants were traditionalist and Torah studious. Among them were artisans, traders and sellers. They fulfilled their sustenance with humility and their ambitions were modest. They were supportive. They helped their fellow men. They assisted ill people (for instance, two people used to join an ill all night long, so his family would be able to rest)
I remember my grandfather, NACHUM EPSHTEIN. He studied medicine from Russian books, and although he wasn't graduated, he used to cure ill people for free. He came to help them even if there was rain or cold.
There were four synagogues in town, and one belonged to the "Chasidim" (TN religious movement created in XVIII century). Youth was culture-thirsty. There wasn't a high school in town, and some youths traveled to other places to acquire knowledge. Most of them achieved it by themselves, through reading and conference listening. There was a primary school, and main language was Yiddish. Besides, there were Torah studies groups, and the Cheder.
A few years later Tarbut School was founded, and subjects were taught only in Hebrew. My uncle LEIBL EPSHTEIN was a Zionist, and one of the founders of this school. He also was active in other institutions.
There were youth political movements in town. Among them, "Ha'shomer Ha'tzair", "He'chalutz Ha'tzair" and "Bund". These different political parties used to provoke arguments among youths.
There was an Yiddish and Hebrew theatre. Classic pieces like "King Lear" by Shakespeare were performed there. There was an Yiddish theatre for children as well. We were visited by actors from other places, as the Vlinius Yiddish Theatre. I remember the famous actress ESTER ROCHEL KAMINSKY, the actress YDA KAMINSKY's mother, who performed in town. I remember the performance of the famous liturgical singer SIROTA. The poet PERETZ MARKISH visited us too, and he performed at the Yiddish school an excellent lesson. He said goodbye to Jews of town, before leaving Poland to visit Russia. The poet ALTER KATINKA was with him. The woman poet KADIA MOLODOVKY was born in our town, she was one of my teachers, but later she settled in Warsaw.
There were several adults and children chorus. A mandolin orchestra too, in which my younger sister took part. Of course there were "klezmorim" (popular musicians) who used to play in weddings.
Youth grew up in touch with nature, we liked to take a walk to the forest, the countryside, the near villages, and to take a swim in the river. We were physical and spirit healthy, but in time we began to understand we had no future in town. We had a feeling that the anti-Semitism was advancing, and we suspected the future was uncertain. As a result of this situation, a part of the youth left the town. Some chose training on collective farms, in order to emigrate to Eretz Israel. I was one of them. Other traveled to USA and Argentina. Most adults and many youths stayed in town until the bitter end. Only a few got to escape. It's hard to live knowing the bitter reality that most of Bereza Jews were annihilated so cruelly, among them my family and relatives.
In order to celebrate "Lag Baomer" we used to go to the conifer and pines trees, singing and dancing. These trees are silent witnesses of the terrible tragedy. No doubt, they pray "Kaddish" (prayer for dead people) in its language, for a holy community, full of life yearning, that was exterminated and disappeared.
May their memory be blessed!