SELETS YIZKOR BOOK
IN THE NEIGHBORING VILLAGES
By: YAAKOV MEIR APELBOYM (MONTEVIDEO)
The “Yeshuvnik”, the village Jew, takes up a prominent place in Jewish jokes and anecdotes. There are stories of numerous jests, witticisms and mockery regarding this subject. The village Jew is being ridiculed as to how he observes the Sabbath, how he conducts the Passover Seder, how he moves to the city for the high holidays, how he confounds one thing with another during the prayers and so forth.
This attitude, perhaps, stemmed from the fact that the Jewish people were, after all, urban people. The villagers were considered as exceptions. It is true that there were quite a few Jews in the gentile villages. There were even Jewish villages with Jewish farmers who established their own colonies. Still, they were the exceptions and they waited for an improved life style.
With the inception of the Jewish literature (in Yiddish and in Hebrew), the Jew found his appropriate place in the village and in the landowners’ court. It is appropriate to mention about the classic picture of the Jewish innkeeper and the tenant farmer. The latter was depicted by Peretz (Isaac Leib Peretz, the famous Yiddish and Hebrew poet and author) as a rude person who needed help from the prophet Elijah in order to achieve his emendation (In Jewish lore, Elijah is a miraculous savior of Jews in distress). Later on, Jewish “Waldmentshen” (forest people), peasants, fishermen and others arrived there. In a more profound analysis, the subject of “Jews in the Villages” is far-reaching, literally inexhaustible. It belongs to the psychoanalytic research that explains how different people live together in groups. With regard to that region which is in the realm of our memorial book, that is the area between the town of Malch and Selets, I will consider those settlements that were near my familiar village, Yasevitch.
What was the occupation of the Jewish Villager? They were shopkeepers, innkeepers, lessees of property, merchants of wood and blacksmiths. There were people who had lived there for a very long time. Some of them settled there during the time of the first occupation in 1915-1916. In the villages Yasevitch, Lutshitze (or Zamd), Ratshitz, Chwalievitch and Stasiuki, there were Jewish inhabitants who had lived there for a long time. In the courts of Yasevitch (about 1 kilometer from the village by the same name), Pisantshine and Koti, there were Jewish tenant farmers and lessees of property. There were two Jewish families in the village Yasevitch proper, my father Zundel Apelboym, may he rest in peace, and our neighbor, the blacksmith Shmuel-Yitzhak Langbard.
My father was a merchant of wood during the German occupation in the 1st World War. He used to buy some parts of the forest from the government, mostly in the “Riznoier Datshe”, and he would utilize the timber in different ways. He would ship a part of the best material by water to Danzig. The split lumber was shipped by train. The other wood was used for building homes for the farmers. The rest, that is the offal material, was used for heating. Just before the outbreak of World War I in 1914, my father and his partner, Pakter Yekutiel, bought a part of a forest from private owners near our village.
As for our neighbor, Shmuel-Yitzhak, as I mentioned before, he was a blacksmith and worked with his sons in the smithy. We, as neighbors, together with Symcha Yagokovski, had the same teacher. Symcha was a tenant farmer. He lived about 1 kilometer from our village. His son Hersh and daughter Henie now live in Buenos Aires. Symcha was a hard worker who, with life and soul, gave himself up to the upkeep of two farmyards as a constant lessee. His life was devoted entirely to the care of cows, horses, fields and meadows. This was literally a part if his eternal existence. The two farmyards really blossomed under his supervision. Day and night he was occupied with work. In the beginning, he and his son were able to milk 40 cows and also take care of the field, orchard, barn and stable. They worked in the farm the entire summer, literally day and night. In autumn, the potatoes were loaded into carts and shipped to the brewery. In wintertime, the grain was threshed and in the spring the seed was planted. This work rhythm was very regular without any interruption, resulting in abundance and prosperity before the start of the First World War.
This tempo was exhibited not only externally, but it also became an internal component of the entire existence of the villager. I remember an episode, whose similarity I found in the narratives in “The Farmer”, written by Reymont, the most knowledgeable and best describer of the farmer’s life in general. In one of his stories he told about an old peasant, Barina, who was in mortal agony. He carried a basket with seed and walked to the field in order to “sow”. He scattered the seed until he dropped dead at the first rays of sunrise. A similar story, though not quite exactly, reminds me of Symcha’s life. One day, he got very sick and it so happened that I had to stay overnight at his place. He got up in the middle of the night, grabbed a basket and was ready to go to the field to “sow” … His entire life was attached to the field and meadow. (He was buried alive by the Nazis near a barn in a nearby yard in Koti during the 2nd World War).
There was another farmyard, “Pinsantshine”, 2 kilometers farther toward the south side that was leased by Yekutiel. He and Symcha differed from each other, both physically and temperamentally. Yikutiel was short, lively, temperamental and bustling. Since our childhood, we were connected with both yards. We learned together, played together and picked apples together. Later on, we strolled, we read and at the same time we were looking for ways to solve the world’s problems. We liked to read the writings of the philosophers, Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Hegel, also those of the novelist Leo Tolstoy. I know that some children of the ridiculed “Yishuvniks” (settlers) who lived between the fields and forests knew about all of the same matters.
One kilometer from Yasevitch, in the western direction, there was a small hamlet, Lutshitze, or as we called it, “The Sand”. It had a Jewish store and an inn. People used to pray there very often, especially on Sabbath. The “Yishuvnikes” (the settlers) would assemble there and would discuss their home problems, such as sharing the same teachers for the children, settling disputes, clinching business deals and also, not to overlook, world politics.
On Sabbath evenings, the young people would assemble in the “Sand”. They flirted and they read, then divided themselves up in couples and went for a stroll. We, the very young ones, dragged along with them and tried to attract their attention by showing off our “accomplishments”…
One kilometer from the “Sand”, two Jewish families lived in the village, Chvalevitch. Since one of the families had already immigrated to North America at the outset of the 1st World War, I will write only about the second family, the old Zelik and his wife. Their children had already left for other parts of the world, either they married or immigrated to America. Zelik’s house was located in the middle of the village. It was distinguishable from other houses by its size and scope. It also differed from others with another feature – it attracted lightning more often than other houses. Seldom was a summer that Zelik’s house was not struck by lightning, but it never caused any damage or, God forbid, any fires.
About 7 kilometers from Yasevitch, two Jewish families lived in the village, Stasiuki. By the way, they were my distant relatives on my father’s side. Both of them lived on a small hill, but I do not know the exact dates.
The relationship between the Jewish villagers was very friendly. People knew each other. They gossiped about one another. However, in the event of a misfortune, they considered themselves as members of the family. The closest neighbor used to have the same teacher for their children. The young people were falling in love with each other and have a good time together.
The inhabitants of the neighboring villages had always been yearning for people who came from the city and from unfamiliar places. They looked forward to seeing these guests and to spend time with them, to listen to the news or converse with them about politics, etc.
The relationship between the Christians and the Jewish villagers was a different matter. In general, the relationship was not bad. The White Russian peasant is by nature not a bad person. As long as one did not irritate him, one could live with him in peace. Occasionally there occurred disputes with regard to hiring of workers or paying their proper wages, however they were mostly local matters. Only later on, with the outbreak of the war in 1914, there began to spread wild rumors and incitement that brought about a specter of hate. Weird legends about the Jew were propagated, blaming him for all the miseries in the world.
OCCUPATION DURING THE WAR
The years 1914-1915 found the population of the adjacent villages in the same situation that existed for many generations. As regards to my father, he was very poor that year. It was a personal reason: two years before the start of the war, he had been very sick and had gone through a difficult operation that impoverished him. This was the cause for his neglect of the forest business, however in 1914 he still had a good part of the forest in the Riznoier Datshe (country place). In addition, he and his partner Yekutiel bought a small forest in the nearby neighborhood. When I was a boy, my father oftentimes used to send me, as a messenger, to both forests. However, I was attached more to the larger forest than to the small and familiar one.
Whoever had the privilege to know about forests will understand the there were many reasons for being attracted to them. These forests were very interesting especially for a young man who read many stories by the novelists, James Fenimore Cooper and Main Reed.
“Who knows if, among the tall trees, there will not emerge one
of the “red skins”, one of the “last of the Mohigans”…
In those years in general, the world was a wonderful story for us children, a story with which one could not be satiated.
In those summer months Yekutiel’s older son, Elie-Moishe and I, spent time in the homey forest that was located next to the village. We were busy with selling the dry twigs, the remnants of the pinewoods. Our small forest did not have the same splendor as the forests that belonged to the government or to the landowners, but it had an abundance of mushrooms and blueberries.
In 1914, we used to receive a Russian newspaper, “Birzevie Wiadomosci”. In previous years, my father used to get the newspaper, “Hazman” (The Time – in Hebrew). These papers had one thing in common – both of them arrived late. Therefore, my father liked to read them in a retrospective way. Anyway, the same news arrived simultaneously – about the murder in Sarajevo and about the general mobilization. (Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, is the site of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand in 1914. This event started World War I). It is true that a short time previously, during our prayer services, we talked about a murder of two high ranking Austrian officials in a Bosnian town, but it did not occur to us that there was any connection between that murder and the subsequent mobilization.
As for me, personally, I was waiting impatiently for the continuation of a story about a journey to Africa that I kept on reading. I was thinking more about Fenimore Cooper’s heroes than all of the crown princes in the world. I found out about mobilization from Elie-Moishe, Yekutiel’s older son, who used to arrive in the forest out of breath, always in a hurry. This time, I met him at the border of the woods, striding, with his long steps, and biting on a piece of dry cheese. “You know what, Yaakov Meir”, he, as usual, with a stammer exclaimed, “War! I too will be drafted because of my age”. These were the last words that I heard from him. I never saw him again and I do not know what happened to him.
Among the Jewish young men who were drafted was the son-in-law of Avraham, the innkeeper from Zamd. He was born in Malch where he was ordained as a rabbi. The last Sabbath before his departure, he became furious – not because he had to go to war, only because it is against the Jewish law. He came back to our area in the autumn of 1918. He returned from Hungary where he was a prisoner of war.
These were my first impressions of the World War in a small village between Malch and Selets – a village with quiet side streets, with overgrown moss and heather. Nearby were pinewoods full of blueberries and mushrooms. The air was permeated with the smell of tar and hay that was spread in the moist and deep forest. Swarms of wild geese were flying and thereby announcing that the summer was coming to an end.
Shortly afterwards, people started having quite different impressions. The villagers began to interpret every event and predicted an impending misfortune.
The last days of summer were saturated with sunshine; the sky was blue and on its edges stood large copper-colored clouds – a sign that it was going to be a good winter. In the evenings, the melancholic melodies sung by the harvesters could be heard over the pathways of the fields. It seemed as though there was no other place in the world where people sang so heartily and melancholy as in the fields of White Russia.
In that summer, during the White Russian melancholic song we could also hear the cries of the women and children, who escorted their fathers and other men to begin their long journey to the front line, to a dangerous place and to their death. On the way to the train station, over the sandy roads, we saw packed carts with baskets of laundry and peasants with their legs hanging down from the coach box. Some of them were drunk, others chanted sad songs or were bundled up in hay. Some of them walked behind the carts, casting their sad glimpses at the woods, unwilling to separate themselves from the freshly cut fields. The women of the peasants walked at both sides of the carts and wept. They were exhausted from weeping and kept on repeating: “with whom will you leave me, my bread giver?”
In those late summer days, the draftees consumed a lot of whiskey in order to lessen the gnawing feeling of longing and nostalgia, in order not to feel the sharp pain of being separated from the mother land, the wife, the child, the field and the meadow.
The huge country was in an uproar from one end to the other. Military echelons, without interruption, proceeded toward the western direction. The villagers were anxiously waiting to get any news whether from a newspaper or from a commentator. People also became superstitious and began to wait for something extraordinary.
In one of the summer days, at the end of the oat harvest, Symcha started talking with me and at the same time he was looking around. The female peasants were straightening up their stooped backs; they kept on drinking water and looked around in amazement. The shadows started to diffuse and the colors were changing from the usual dark green to violet, similar to the colors that can be seen in the early summer days before the sunrise. It became totally dark as though it was after sunset. All of a sudden the cows started running over the field and the crows of the chickens could be heard from the nearby hamlet. All of these phenomena occurred on that day, a day of the solar eclipse of 1914. The female peasants lifted up their heads with a jerk, crossed themselves and did not know what to do.
At the end of autumn 1914, the war was already very intense. People got the latest news from the newspapers and letters from peasant soldiers that invariably started with the famous peasant’s phrase, “I am bowing my head to you with my white face to the black earth”. The letters ended with fewer poetic phrases, with plain and simple news from the hospital where, “He”, the soldier, together with other injured soldiers, stayed. The echoes of the artillery guns also accompanied the news. The sound of the cannons could mostly be heard in the quiet evenings when the Germans shelled the fortress, Osowietz. The sound of the cannons was more intensive in the depth of Kazioner forest where my father used to send me to help our partner. In those autumn evenings, I heard some rumors coming from Ostrowietz for the first time. In the quiet evenings, after the last carts with wood would leave through the summer road that crosses through Michalin, My partner and I would come to the forest watchman where we ate supper. One evening at suppertime, we heard some stories about an airplane that crashed with a Jewish passenger who wanted to transport a cow to Germany and that the cow was stuffed with gold… At that time I, of course, could not evaluate the scope of such stories. Only now, when I retrospectively gather the pieces of those impressions, it is obvious to me that in such stories lay the beginning of the killings in 1941-1942. Then, many Jews could have survived Nazism if not for the hatred found in the White Russian forests. Whoever knows about the White Russian forest, with their islands, hidden places and forest tribes all known only to trustworthy people, can assume that a large part of the population could have been hidden in there.
Meanwhile, the frontline was approaching our village. We could definitely feel the war as the bursts of the faraway and sharp artillery shells were more intensive. Instead of the northwestern direction, the shots came from the southwestern side. The western part of the sky was illuminated by the glare of the far away fires.
In the summer months of 1915, entire military units began to arrive and then surround the unpaved roads. Caravans of homeless people moved along slowly over the dirt roads.
That summer was extraordinarily dry. The grass dried up on the fields and meadows. Huge clouds of dust settled over the roads and fields. The dry and dusty air was filled with the roars of the cows that were chased over the dirt roads and fields. Their roars were frightful mostly at sunset when the red sun descended and resembled a huge eye of an animal in agony. The pitiful roars of the thirsty animals brought about an uneasy feeling to all of us. The elderly peasants would watch the herd and would cross themselves at the same time. A lot of cows, oxen and calves fell in the field or in the mud. They lay there with stuffed nostrils full of dust and could not stand up.
The storm was approaching along with Christian homeless people; Jewish homeless also began to appear. Those were the Jews who during that time were expelled from the front line. Many of them stopped in our village in order to rest up and then proceeded further. Some of them remained in the neighboring villages to wait until after the end of the foreseen battles at the front line. In general, the Jews were not expelled from the villages. The retreating military only gave us advice – some advised us to stay put, others threatened us with “Germanietz” (with the German occupation). The largest number of the village Jews remained in the villages. The only person from our villages who kept on pleading with us to leave our homes was the old Zelik from Chwalevitch. Zelik and his wife (their children had already immigrated to America a long time before) lived in a comparatively nice house that stood in the middle of the village. I had already mentioned that his house had a “susceptibility” to attract lightning. Later on when the entire village burned down, only two chimneys remained from Zelik’s house. As in normal times, they still attracted lightning during rainstorms. The same Zelik, who had taken part in the Turkish war, was convinced that one should not remain under the occupation of the enemy. He and his wife left shortly afterwards. However, they did not go far. They were met by the enemy in Jewish homeless Volkovysk. I have no information what happened to them.
There was a lot of tumult at the tenants’ courtyards the next two weeks before the arrival of the Germans. All of the products, whatever they were, were being sold out at the Symcha’s in Yasevitch, at Yekutiel in Pisantchine and in Koti. Day and night the retreated military kept on loading hay, oats and clover. Our neighbor, Symcha, sold his cows, calves and horses. He and his son, Hershke, were very busy keeping watch by day and night over everything since at that time not all people were customers…
At the beginning of August 1915, that is a few days before we left our village, we moved to Selets in order to wait until the end of the front line. The yard had an appearance of a real war – the fruit was torn off of the trees, most of the tree branches were broken up, the piles of hay were unbound, the fields were trampled upon and tracks cut in the ground by wheels and the pond that had water the entire year dried up.
When the military retreated, they left stacks of ember and cinder with pieces of wood still glowing in the ashes of fire. In the last two days, the courtyard was vacated. The barns and stables were empty and the wind shook the abandoned orchards nearby the houses.
All over a premonition hovered that, in a few days, whatever was left would go up in smoke. This did really happen – about the 14th of August, the landowner’s big house, along with the barns and storehouses burned down. Only Slymcha’s house that was protected by thick trees remained intact.
It was much quieter in our village. The soldiers who retreated left without hesitation. They would bypass the side roads and would always proceed to the wide and unpaved roads. However, the homeless people who did not have a definite route delayed their departure for a longer time.
A few days before we left our home, very little water was left in the well. Only muddy water could be fetched out and then we sifted it through a rag in order to get some liquid.
The peasants from the village harnessed their horses and carts, took whatever they could and proceeded on their way. The only person who did not hurry to leave was Mikolai Primak, the owner of a rich hamlet about 1½ kilometers from the village. However, in the first days of August something occurred which prompted him to leave his established home and proceed with the stream as soon as possible.
Mikolai Primak, a half farmer and a half landowner, with whom we were well befriended, was a very interesting person with a peculiarly worldly-minded outlook. He believed in pantheism – that the world is a living organism with veins and nerves (that God and the universe are the same). It was difficult for him to prove that the world is a living organism. However, there was no doubt in my mind that his hamlet was very beautiful and a world in itself. The hamlet had a large orchard surrounded with a forest. The orchard yielded the very rare sorts of apples and pears. In the middle of the orchard there was a pond that had enough water even in that extremely dry summer. Under the huge lindens (shade trees with heart shaped leaves) whose shadow could cover an entire settlement, there were about 50 beehives. The next day, when Mikolai saw what became of the beehives, he harnessed his horses, put his wife and children on the cart and, with the stream of homeless people, left along the road, which carried them up to Samare.
One of the many war incidents had occurred in Mikolai’s hamlet just before he and his family departed, it was a sunny day, a late summer day. Mikolai’s daughter was in the hamlet. She was busy with drying the clover. Her father also asked her to watch over the orchard. He was busy selling his oats. The whole day passed by comparatively quietly. From time to time several soldiers would barge in to drink fresh water, pickup some fruit and shortly thereafter they ran away to join their detachment. In the same evening a group of homeless arrived there and began to grab whatever they wanted. They removed all the fruit from the trees, picked all the plums, searched all over to find a cucumber and started to destroy the beehives. They ignited small bundles of straw, smoked out the bees and pulled out the honey. It did not take long before the beehives burned down like wax candles. As for the bees, they buzzed around the pile of straw and fell into the fire. During the quiet evening we heard the cries of the homeless and the screams of the children who were stung by the escaped bees.
Mikolai’s daughter kept on going around begging the invaders to leave the beehives intact. However, neither her weeping nor my begging helped to prevent their destruction. It was too late to do anything. She kept asking: “Why?” A short time later, Mikolai walked in, looked at the vandalism and began to weep. He kept on repeating himself: “Ludzie!, Ludzie!” (People!, People!). Shortly afterward, he harnessed his horses and carts and left, in order not to see the destruction of his world.
Shortly thereafter, we, the several Jewish families, left and went to the nearest Jewish community in Selets. We did not go together, but we knew that Symcha, the tenant farmer, as well as our neighbor, Shmuel-Yitzhak, the blacksmith, would also arrive in Selets. On the 13th of August, in the evening, we departed via side roads; my mother and the children sat in the fully loaded wagon. Only one day before she gave birth to a child and two days later she, with the infant in her arms, in a downpour, went from Selets to Pruzhany, a distance of about 30 kilometers. It was a weird trip that was very close to the front line that we could literally touch it with our hands. Over the forests and fields, the air was permeated with smoke mixed with a scorching smell. The sky was red from the fires. The stars protruded through the fog and smoke; they appeared lifeless without luster.
The road to the forest was comparatively unobstructed and was not crowded. The stream of the homeless people proceeded on two main roads that were leading to Selets. In Selets we stopped at one of our familiar shopkeeper’s, Moishe from Zamb. We met several settlers there, among them was our distant relative who was paralyzed in both legs and who the following night walked a long distance as we moved to the field.
The whole night my father was busy preparing a special cellar wherein we put everything that we could place inside. It is a long story to describe the means that were utilized to hide and camouflage our valuables and later on to be able to retrieve the concealed treasures. To make it short, I want to state the fact that many precious possessions were lost thanks to such kinds of “hideaways”. The next day was filled with tension and apprehension. All kinds of military units that continued to retreat proceeded through the not-yet-destroyed town. People were saying that the Germans would arrive that same night. The children were put to sleep on top of the clothing
About one o’clock in the morning my father woke me up. In haste, we proceeded in an easterly direction. The town was completely engulfed in fire. As the remaining Cossacks retreated, they set the town on fire starting at the entrance to Browar and ending with the Jewish stores in the market. Clusters of smoke, sparks and pieces of cinder were flying in the air that reminded us of the noise of the rainstorms in the forest.
Until sunrise we lay in a field near the Eastern part of the town. In the morning somebody suggested hat we should move to the Northwestern side of the town. We left with our bundles and bedding in our hands through the half burned down streets. Most of the houses were already transformed into burning cinder. The only building that was still standing “on its feet’ was the synagogue whose front wall was red hot from the fire. On that wall these words were clearly inscribed: “Bet Yaakov Lehu Venelha” (The house of Jacob – walk in the path of God)
We stopped at the other side of the town, in a much larger field, where we already met the entire Jewish population of the town, along with the other settlers of the neighboring villages. On one side Selets was engulfed in smoke and ash. The red sun rose above the cinder and the protruding chimneys and it hung in the air like a glowing balloon. On the Western side, there were meadows and, on the other Northern side, there were huge forests that were spread all the way up to Rozhanoy (Pol. Rozana) and Slonim.
About 8 o’clock in the morning we heard the first shot of a cannon from the German side with a few pauses. A barrage of artillery fire continued until the evening. Shrapnel was flying above us and was dispersed over the river like peas in a huge barrel.
In the first few hours, people began reciting the psalms in a loud voice. Even the teacher of the town, an adherent of the Haskalah (Enlightenment Movement), a free thinker, started reading the psalms. He interrupted it from time to time when he interjected a few words to his bride, “Luba dierzhish!” (Luba, hold out!). Later on, when we wee convinced that the artillery shells were not directed against us, the shootings became a “normal” occurrence. Instead of the psalms, we opened up the bundles of food and, out of boredom, people even started quarreling to get better places in the field.
About 5 o’clock in the evening, just before sunset, the first Germans arrived there. It is needless to emphasize that there is a big difference between the “Germans” that was uttered on the summer evening of August 15th, when the Germans had occupied Selets, compared with the feeling we have toward them nowadays.
In that evening, my sister and I were sitting curled up in the field. At the same time, a song that I heard many times began humming in my head. It was, “The tall Germans with the long whips”. When the German soldiers invaded the town, their appearance was a contradiction to the gist of this song. They were not tall and they did not carry long whips. Most of them were short, skinny, near-sighted infantry soldiers who were begging for food and were running farther.
The normal life was not restored right away. After long wanderings between Selets and Pruzany, the inhabitants began returning to the “friendly villages”. Also, some of the city dwellers arrived in these villages, since there was a better life there. Among the new arrivals were my grandmother and the two grandchildren. Thus, in “Zamd” (sand) where previously there was only one store, two new families arrived – one from Malch and the other from Selets.
Little by little, a new chapter began in the life of the Jews in the villages – a chapter that was connected with many changes that occurred both in peoples lives and in nature, socially as well as economically.
Most of the villages were deserted by the former inhabitants. The harvest had been collected before the start of the front line battles. (This, of course, pertains only to the area between Selets and Pruzany). However, the largest part of the potato crop was still in the ground. The gardens had all kinds of non-harvested vegetables, such as: cabbages, beets, carrots, onions and so forth. The winter of 1915-1916 was, in general, mild. The potatoes were dug out before Passover. Also the other vegetables were harvested. The following year piles of new growth of corn, barley oats and potatoes whose seeds were scattered in the fields sown by the wind or by animals.
Some of the villagers settled in their own houses and others stayed in the empty peasants’ huts. My father settled in Mikolai Primak’s house. My grandmother moved into one of the rooms of our large, half-destroyed house where she passed away later on.
Now that my memories of those years are being awakened, it is appropriate to mention about the mood that was prevalent at that time. Unwillingly, I recall one of Leo Tolstoy’s heroes, Firsht Nechludov. He expresses himself that, at times, he wandered barefoot and hungry along with others during the reign of the Frenchmen in Moscow and yet, good memories emerged from this happening. Looking at it now, in perspective, especially after the Second World War that wiped out everything that our neighboring villages possessed, I remind myself about the comparison to Nechludov’s travail.
A strange primitive life prevailed in the neighboring villages. It could be compared to the life that existed in the very early era of the human civilization. There were times when we did not have enough fire in our villages. We had to make fire in a primitive way by hitting a stone against another or by rubbing dry wood. One time a Hungarian gendarme left a box of matches – this was a big find. It was a very bizarre life there.
The villages were deserted, without their inhabitants. The houses stood there with open doors and open windows. Half wild and hungry cats roamed over the attics and roofs. The nights were filled with their sad meows. Abandoned dogs wandered in the backyards and barked sadly, looking for their owners. A weird, uncanny feeling permeated the nights in the villages in unreal surroundings. A quiet squeak of a half-opened door or window; a silhouette of a cat projected on a cornice or on a dull windowpane; an emaciated figure of a dog who did not know whether to bark at somebody or look for protection; a sudden clapping of the wings and/or a wheezing cry of an owl as though it suddenly flew out from somewhere and filled the air with a cry of protest.
Very seldom, a small fire could be seen in one of the huts where an old homeless beggar rested or in another place of one of the few remaining villagers. Therefore, it was heartwarming to see a familiar peasant or to see an entire colony (as it was in “Zamd” where an entire colony was established). The Jewish families clung together, notwithstanding the quarrels about little things, even though life in general was not good. The several newly arrived families from Malch and Selets stayed in “zamd”. They lived in the former Shlachetzki’s hamlet. Previously, during peacetime, there was only one Jewish store with a tavern.
The first question that the new arrivals and the earlier settlers asked was, “What will we eat?” There was no question about returning to the former livelihood. In this respect, the war made everyone equal! The villages near Yasevitch - Panasevitch, Zubatchi and Soshytze were empty. In my home village, Yasevitch, 2 peasants and 3 Jewish families remained. The only village where almost all inhabitants remained was the neighboring village, Ratshytz.
The only possible source of livelihood that the former settlers, as well as the new arrivals, had was from fieldwork. For us, the former villagers, fieldwork was not totally strange. As for the previous lessees of farms, they had even more know-how about farming than the peasants. Even my father knew about farming, even though he was a forest merchant in the bygone “good times”. There was plenty of soil and gardening tools. As for livestock however, this was a complicated matter. There were very few horses and, anyway, the Germans would not have left the good ones. Thus, we had to use a “war horse”. We did have such a horse that served for plowing, for hauling potatoes and for other use for the Germans. Our neighbors, the Ratshitzer Shliachte, had from time immemorial plowed the soil with a cow. As time progressed , the Jewish villagers became accustomed to all kinds of fieldwork. They plowed, sowed and harrowed the fields. They harvested the crop, mowed the hay and planted potatoes that were afterwards concealed in special pits in order to hide them from an “evil eye”. Those who did not have a harness had to till the soil manually and then they plant4d potatoes, onions, radishes and other vegetables.
The first summer of the German occupation we could get by without sowing. The fields were full of stalks with corn and piles of grain that were planted naturally. In the summer of 1916 we walked in the fields, plucked the stalks of corn and packed them into sacks and afterwards we threshed them with sticks.
After a short time, the Jewish young men learned how to thresh with threshing pegs. It was rhythmical work that gave the people more spirit to keep up with the tact that was emitted by the pegs. The threshed grain was cleaned up by the wind and it was ground up later on. At first, the grain had been mostly ground on a hand mill (zsharnes) that was stored in every peasant’s hut. Later on, windmills were built in several places or the grain was carried to Pruzhany were there was a steam mill.
After some time, the Jews in the neighboring villages performed all kinds of work. If it were not for the many “days” that had to be given up to the new occupiers, the Germans, one could establish a very nice household, since there was plenty of good and fertile soil only to be tilled and cultivated.
We had to give up a lot to the Germans. It is true that we were not afraid of being forced to do domestic labor; this was a natural task for us. The young people did everything possible to work there in order to avoid the threat of being sent to do other types of forced labor in far away places.
There were all kinds of forced labor. In winter, we had to haul wood from the forests to Kartuz Bereza, mainly to the military hospitals. The hay had to be pressed and afterwards it was delivered to Bluden. Every day, wintertime and summertime, our villages had to supply a certain quantity of milk to the military command in Selets.
A certain time, I was the deliveryman of the milk. There were some comical cases that quite often had a grievous ending for the owners of the cows and calves. The incidents that occurred with the milk were the same as with Sholem Aleichem’s kvass (sour Russian beer) – the more water the more milk. Thus, it did happen that, by the time I delivered the milk to Selets, it was already watered down. There were some cases that occurred in the command post. The local commander, a Lieutenant, a big German Jew with a mustache a la Wilhelm would walk out from his post and, if his tester showed a high percentage of water, he would have a long talk with me. I only understood such words as “Russian pigs” or “Jewish nogoodniks”. Usually, after such a sermon, several cows and calves were taken away from the villagers by the German command. However, when the milk was not diluted, the milkman would be rewarded with coffee, sweet cream and a piece of butter cake.
The fieldwork would start during springtime. Afterwards, the hay was prepared and, later on the crop was harvested.
We were driven to Selets to work as plowmen. We met hundreds of plowmen there who were assembled from the vacated area. In springtime we had to prepare the soil for sowing the seeds for potatoes, oats, barley and beets. The hay cutting started later on, after Shavuoth (Pentacost). With regard to hay, our fields and meadows of the abandoned land yielded perhaps the largest quantity that had ever been produced.
Men, women and children from the entire area were gathered to cut the grass. The men scythed the tall grass that covered the entire land. The women and children raked and dried the cut up grass. Later on, the dry grass was picked up and was packed in bales of hay.
Regarding the hay cutting, there occurred quite a few comical episodes from which the peasants derived pleasure. The people who had worked in the field had not always had the proper practical experience and preparation. Many of them were more able to act as Jewish “nogoodniks” with their jokes than to know about the necessary fieldwork. For example, on a certain day the local supervisor of the “economy” of Kartuz Bereza had assembled a group of boys and girls. Then he harnessed them to a harrow and made them plow the field twice. In Selets’ region we had another “expert” who gave plenty of stuff for the peasants’ witticisms and laughter. He used to come to the meadow, would pick up some dry grass that smelled better than the half wet grass and ordered the people to place it in a stack. In a short time the stacks started to give off smoke and rot.
In the middle of the summer, when the crop was ripe, we were ordered to scythe it. The removal of the crop, however, was already done in a more practical way than the peasants’ method. The crop was no longer cut with sickles; it was cut with specially made scythes with slightly curved blades on long handles.
At all the collective work, under the supervision of the Germans or Austrians (The latter were more tolerant toward the civilian population), there appeared a phenomenon which is, in general, very characteristic among the enslaved people – there was no singing at work. However, in general, at that time the attitude of the4 German occupiers toward the civilians was correct, unlike the time during the barbarous enslavement in the Nazi concentration camps.
Besides the hardest work, such as plowing, harvesting the fields, hauling wood, etc., there were other kinds of work that the inhabitants of the neighboring villages were required to do: to pick mushrooms, blueberries and to pluck nettle plants (a kind of plant with sharp bristles on the leaves and stems). The Germans used to make ropes out of these plants.
Time was passing by, one cannot say that life in the neighboring villages was full of roses, but it was not intolerable. The best indication of that lifestyle was that the young people, despite the backbreaking labor, the bad nourishment and the uncertainty, were falling in love with each other. In this respect, the young men had to withstand the competition with the well-dressed and educated Austrian officers who had a desire to fall in love with Jewish girls. There were weddings in the neighboring villages. The newly married couples would stay in the same place because there was nowhere to go nor was there a good reason for leaving the abode.
At that time, when the young people would gather in their leisure time in “Zamd” where they flirted, read and strolled, their fathers were concerned about Jewishness. Despite the war, forced labor and not knowing what would happen the next day, the parents worried about their children that they should not forget to read and write (in Hebrew or Yiddish).
After a certain time, a teacher was brought from Malch. He was, naturally, paid with produce, such as a couple of barrels of potatoes, a sack of flour, cheese or butter. This kind of produce was not available in the nearby towns. The young man from Malch taught reading and writing. He cherished the development of knowledge and on every occasion he repeated the, “If one is in such a hick town ….!”
In the long wintry evenings, the students would come to our house, where the teacher had room and board, and would listen to his sermons about what it would be when “The messiah would come …”.
People in the villages lived a primitive life, always in fear, quarreled and envied their neighbors for every bite of food. In general, however, people yearned for news, waiting the minute of the end of the war. The villagers received all the news with apprehension: about forced labor, paying taxes and the products that they were required to give to the occupiers.
On a certain day, in the beginning of December 1917, my father came from Pruzany with brand new information – that on December 17th, not before and not after, the world would turn upside down. On that evening, the villagers stayed in our house much longer than usual. At the same time, when my father brought this news, a North American professor also informed us that exactly on December 17, 1917, the earth would break up into pieces. The Malcher teacher, however, was not impressed with the views of this North American professor, Plamarion. The teacher kept on talking about Plamarion’s popular discourse of Astronomy, in Russian, but he could not find anything predicting such an upheaval on December 17th. The only things that he showed us were pictures with people shivering in the cold when the world was about to be extinguished, followed by a “cooling off period”, and then depicting how people made fire out of the work’s of the great artists in order to stay alive.
Professor Plamarion was somewhere far away in hostile territory during the reign of the Senior Lieutenant with the so-called Wilhelm’s mustache. Even if Plamarion could have been with us, he would not be upset about the story of the world’s upheaval. After all, there are other worlds in the infinity and why should he worry about our miserable planet…
During the time when Plamarion did not make any comments, each of us had something to say. Different assumptions were brought up and each one was, more fantastic than the other. The Malcher teacher claimed that according to Plamarion, our earth would still exist a few million years and afterwards it would fall apart either from cold or old age. He stated that at that time the future people would make fire out of Rembrandt’s paintings. To our villagers, both Jews and Gentiles, that story did not make any sense – what does it mean, a fire would be made from Rembrandt’s paintings when there are so many forests full of trees? Who knows if Rembrandt’s paintings would burn better than birch or alder wood?
After lengthy controversies that lasted until the middle of the night, it was concluded that it was possible that the world would turn over. However, it would not happen, God forbid, in our village, Yasevitch, nor in the village Koti (this was the opinion of Yekutiel’s sons who lived in Koti). Since the American professor would not have made such a big mistake (in his assumption that the entire world would turn over), therefore it was agreed that the world would turn over only in Africa. After such a resolution, we had a restful sleep that night.
A few peasants in our area, mainly in Ratshetzer Shliachte, considered that matter more seriously. They had even prepared coffins, lit up candles and prepared water to chase away the evil spirit if they would fall straight in Hell when the world would turn upside down.
In the meantime, December 17th did arrive. It fell on Friday that year. At night snow was falling and covered the whole area with a white blanket. Even the nearby forests looked like aged people walking to the wedding canopy. On that entire morning I was threshing the barley. It was such a quiet morning that not even a straw budged. We could hear the rhythmical threshing strokes that came out from the sole two peasants’ barns. Every few minutes I would walk out of the barn to see what was happening to our small world. However, in spite of the American astronomer’s prediction, the world stood still in its place and it did not think about turning itself over. One could see the “Zamd” from the Western side. A smoke, straight as a string, could be seen coming out from the several chimneys – a sign that the weather was nice. The smoke came out from the ovens that were used by the several Jewish inhabitants to prepare “tsholent” (a baked dish of meat, potatoes and legumes served on the Sabbath, kept warm from the day before). When we saw the smoke coming out of the “zamd’s” chimneys, our souls were full of joy – tomorrow is Saturday. We will have enough time to talk about the miracles and wonders about how the world was supposed to turn upside down, however it did not after all. In the meantime every one of us would say, “Aha, I told you so”.
On the Northern side was Panasevitch, a dead village without any people. Many homes were dismantled and taken apart. The wood was used for burning and heating purposes. The remaining houses were covered with snow. Only the chimneys protruded without any smoke or spark of fire.
Notwithstanding the peasant’s life style, the inhabitants of the surrounding villages observed Jewishness as much as possible, under the conditions of the war and occupation. We did not work on Saturday unless were forced to by the Germans. We baked matzos for Passover. People used to gather in our house and the work would proceed, as it was done in the past years – everything was koshered, scrubbed and cleaned. The young people would sing during the joint effort. The older people made sure that the matzos should be properly baked. As for horseradish (the bitter herbs that we must eat during the first seders of Passover), we had plenty of it.
In that year, spring was bizarre – spring in a land that was almost totally without any people. Young trees began to grow all over. A huge mass of grass covered all high and low places. Only a few narrow islands in the field were tilled and cultivated. One could hear the cries of birds and storks, honking of geese, quacking of ducks and a joyful call of larks (song birds) that flew up and down from the spring sky with their steady message of a joyful life. The vast spaciousness of that area extended in length and width for a distance of tens and hundreds of kilometers.
It was a land virtually without people! If a lonely plowman would appear between the grass and woods, he would disappear right away. From time to time, however, a Hungarian gendarme would drive out from the grass. An old beggar used to make his appearance and sat down somewhere in a sunny place to warm up his old bones.
In late evenings or early mornings, a Russian prisoner would show up, walking in an Eastern direction in order to reach his home. Such an escapee was petrified by every rustle and was afraid that someone might inform the authorities about his escape, although such an incident had never happened before. The old beggar, however, was not afraid of anybody. He would stop in an abandoned place (there was no shortage of empty houses) and would stay there until his death, either from natural causes or from smoke inhalation in his heated den.
Those were difficult times and yet, more than in normal times, we waited for something; we looked forward to something unknown. The foolish human heart yearned for something, although the sober understanding said that nobody would emerge from the large expanse of grass, with the exception of the Hungarian gendarme with a new demand or the old beggar who did not know where or why he was wandering.
It was a wild life! And yet, in the midst of the vast forest, grass, meadows and abandoned settlements, there would flash a hope, “No! It cannot be that this is no more than an affliction, that a big heart is not beating here!”
There is nothing permanent in the world. The time had arrived when the strangle hold of the occupation began to loosen. At first, we felt instinctively, even before the actual confirmation, that the Germans became more affable and approachable. Later on, we saw that such an attitude became a reality – they started to liquidate their abodes, sell their horses, wagons and tools. Then, in the neighboring villages, there appeared better horses, ploughs on wheels and even small threshing machines.
In the meantime we began to talk about peace, about borders that started to open up and a number of “points” that would bring a permanent peace and freedom for all nations. The former peasants began to return. With persistence and patience, they again started to work on their “mother earth”; they tilled, sowed and made dugouts. In the meantime, people died from hunger. Masses of prisoners of war began to come back to their homes. They traveled by train, in wagons, went on foot, dragged along and some of them died during the long way. All of them had the same thing in mind – to go home.
The Germans did retreat, however there was plenty of trouble. We got rid of the occupation, but another enemy confronted us, an enemy that was neither visible nor human, that could not be touched with our hands. However, we could feel the enemy at every step, wherever we turned. It was an outbreak of influenza that we had to overcome many times. Suddenly it got a new name, “shpanke”, that brought about fear, death and panic among the living.
The influenza (“shpanke”) was a dreadful name that renewed the shudder when people compared it with the plague in the surrounding villages during the middle ages. The “shpanke” brought about a mystic fear that took away a large part of the population. People died everywhere, in the dugouts, on the roads, on the way to the hospital and in the hospital. In the faraway villages or in the remote hamlets, the dead people would, for a long time, lie together with those still alive, because there was nobody to bury them. When some of the sick felt better, they would get a few boards to make a coffin and thus bury the dead. If there were not enough coffins, there would soon be more people to be buried.
In that summer, my father established a large tobacco plantation in the best terrain of the village. He spent every night guarding the tobacco. In the daytime he sorted the tobacco and then disguised it from an “evil eye”. However, before he succeeded in finishing his job, something happened to us: on a beautiful morning, our entire family became ill. All of us were afflicted by the influenza. Each of us reacted to the disease differently, but all of us suffered in the same manner: nausea, vomiting and a strange feeling in the limbs. The only person who was uninfected by the influenza was my mother. She cooked large pots of fruit and gave some of it to everyone to eat.
The autumn of that year was, spitefully, full of splendor. The trees were covered with golden leaves. The forests were full of blueberries. Each day was more beautiful than the other. In the western part of the village, one could see large wads of cobweb – a sign of a good weather. The nights were studded with stars and a fresh coolness was accompanied by a quiet rustling of poplar leaves. Every morning the large, red sun would appear on the horizon between the three pine trees. It was its routine itinerary in the sky.
In that autumn, the influenza (“shpanke”) along with its numerous victims, also took one of us. Already on the fifth day, one of my sisters, the 11-year-old Debora, felt so bad that she began asking for help, since she sensed that she would die soon. The nearest hospital was located in Kartuz-Bereza, a distance of 18 kilometers from our village. On Wednesday, in that beautiful autumn, my older sister drove with Debora to the hospital. Two days later, my older sister returned to us. As she came in carrying a bundle in one hand and a blanket in the other, we understood what had happened …
It was the first time in our family that death took away a young life. At that time, in general, death was not an infrequent guest. With a slow agony of death that lasted more than two years, my grandmother passed away. She, along with her two grandchildren, had moved to our village. She had been half paralyzed and bedridden in our old house. Every day, one of her grandchildren stayed at her place to take care of her. Our neighbor from “Zamd” had also died from the influenza. My mother’s laments to the almighty were in vain on that long autumn night. There was no rational justification for so many deaths. As I searched in my several books, I could not find any explanation for such a terrible calamity.
As I mentioned before, we were not the only ones from whom the influenza had taken away somebody. In one week alone, a father and daughter from Selets, who moved to Zamd, had passed away. There were people who had just returned from Russia, and those who survived the German occupation; they too, had passed away.
In the meantime, the urban guests began to leave the neighboring villages. Life in the villages became unsafe. The possessions were left unguarded. Bands of hooligans began to organize. They started with robberies that oftentimes would end with murder. The gang, in the name of “Freedom and Nation”, paid their first visit at Symcha’s place. Symcha, alone, ran away half naked and hid himself under the big linden tree in his orchard.
It did not take long when a band of hooligans came to “pay a visit” to our village. On that evening I was at my nephew’s home. After my grandmother passed away, both boys remained in the village. We stayed up until the middle of the night. When we left the hut, we saw, as usual, the same scenery: a “dead village”, half-opened doors and surrounded by a lot of snow on the roofs, on the trees, on the roads and on the fields.
On our way to our house, we met Moishe, the Blacksmith’s son. He told us that it was “all over”. When we arrived at our place, all of us were ordered to stand facing a wall. My father was told to give the gang all of his belongings. The same order was given to Shmuel-Ytzhak and to two Gentile farmers. The only resistance, although passive, was in Zamd. Shmuel Ytzhak’s son-in-law, the Rabbi, had just returned from Hungary where he was a prisoner of war. He already succeeded in making a deal with the gang. He received them in a very cool manner and instead of meekly giving over whatever they demanded, he told them that if they wanted to rob his possessions he had no other choice but to join them … The end was that they took away from him two packages of tobacco.
All of these happenings prompted the urban Jews, who arrived in the villages during the war, to start moving back to their hometowns. The majority of the old inhabitants remained in the village.
Shortly thereafter, when Mikolai Primak returned from Russia, my father began to repair the old house that was totally neglected during the war. In the meantime, we stayed in a neighboring hut. Also, our neighbor, Shmuel-Ytzhak started to build feverishly. The tenant farmers did the same thing. However, the general situation that existed at that time could not be compared with the pre-war years. Who could have thought of a yard with 60 cows and 20 horses!! Our thoughts of the bygone well-being days still lingered on. We reminisced of the past trips to Pruzany by horse-and-buggy, loaded up with plenty of good things. Our hearts yearned for the bygone comfort.
The important role that was played in the villager’s life was “his” attachment to “his” piece of the field, to the familiar roads and footpaths of his childhood. It’s like our stork – Did not our stork return every year to the same nest on our roof from some faraway place? Was the stork then concerned with the front lines, with the boundaries, blockade and submarines? Did not the neighboring farmers, who returned to their homes, travel a greater distance than the stork?
The “paysage” (landscape) of our village and surroundings has something that attracts us so much that it makes one oftentimes ill with a longing for home.
Before long, the villagers started with their construction work –sawing, pounding and planning wood. In a short time, there again appeared herds of cows, sheep and horses. Even though the country was full of cripples from the war, beggars and homeless children, there was a burning will to rebuild and to establish a renewed life.
In the meantime, there came new turbulent times for the neighboring villages. If, in the year 1915, people had foreseen the front line in a certain direction, from West and Southwest, the front line, in 1919, was in all directions. If in 1915, because of the front, people had run away from the villages to Selets, during the Polish Russian war in the Summer of 1919, no one ran to that town (Selets). People escaped to the forest, they sensed, instinctively, that the danger was lurking in the town, as it was described in the chronicles about the killings in the cities and towns at that time.
The young people, along with the cows, horses, sheep and wagons, went to the forests. The parents remained in the villages. At that time, in the depth of the woods, we were all together – Jews and Gentiles.
We led a strange life – a very primitive life. From time to time we got bread, but mostly we were on a special diet: milk and potatoes or potatoes and milk, almost without salt. The teeth became sticky and were covered with a white liquid from such kind of food. We craved for something salty and a piece of onion but we very seldom had them.
At night, we lay under the shine of the autumn stars and listened to the cows ruminating (chewing their cud) and the quiet moaning of the sheep. During the day, we clearly heard the sounds of machine guns. Thus, the days and weeks dragged along slowly.
When we returned home, people began talking about peace, though with not much joy and trust – and yet, with a certain hope. How pleasant it was to come back home after spending weeks in the woods. It was such a great pleasure to travel to Pruzany to get a book or a journal.
Later on, when we moved to a faraway country (probably Argentina), the splendor of the neighboring villages followed us. We reminisced about the scenery, the mysterious forests, the road leading to Kartuz-Bereza over which we walked, traveled and strolled so many times. We also remember the boys and girls from the villages when they walked to Koti for the religious services during the high holidays. We recall the neighbors of the surrounding villages – friends, acquaintances from Kartuz Bereza, Selets and Pruzany.
Before the catastrophe, the surrounding town’s population became sparse. The young people left for different places all over the world – some to America, some to study in Vilno and others to Israel. If someone returned from a faraway country to the village, to the “familiar mud”, he was looked upon as a crazy man.
Yet, the town enthusiastically strove for something, such as: Yiddish and Hebrew culture, the Tarbut School, the Talmud Torah (a tuition-free elementary school), the Yeshivah and the streets full of young people who discussed, talked and searched for a solution to the world’s problems.
On reflection about the years gone by in the neighboring villages, I begin to think that maybe all of the above mentioned happenings occurred on another planet. So far and yet so near – it seems as though it is the same world and yet a different world …
Even before the destruction, the villagers’ lives had been in the twilight of agony. I do not analyze the causes for the downfall of the town, the shake-up in the economy and the idealism that prevailed in certain times; I am talking about the soul of the neighboring villages and their “paysage”, not only the external but also, mainly, the internal. Such an internal “paysage” was not only in the villages, but also in the towns. I take into consideration the power of a melody, our internal “paysage”. Was not the Jewish melody, with which one studied the Torah, transmitted as an inheritance from generation to generation, an internal “paysage” which cannot be forgotten? Did not the totality, which was formed out of the unique things, bring about consolation to the heart and equilibrium to the soul?
As I end my “stroll” through the neighboring village, I want to transmit two pictures – the first is regarding the internal “paysage” and the second is concerning the external one. The following occurrences happened on a wintry morning at the end of December, 1928: I went outside in order to catch up with the man who was driving the horse and wagon (the “balagoleh”) who headed his horse towards the train station. At night, a soft and thick snow was falling and covered the roofs, the streets and yards. As I was strolling along a street, I noticed a shine from an uncovered window in a yard. From there, a familiar melody of the “Gemara” (Talmud) reading could be heard. There, a Jew sat and studied by an uncovered window – I do not remember his name. For a moment a feeling of the internal Jewish “paysage” went through my mind. Such a feeling accompanied us all over the world. Could such a “paysage” be expressed without the melody that was connected with the letters, words and sounds? I did not have enough time to stay a little longer to absorb a part of that “paysage” that was transmitted from generation to generation. My mind was occupied with two feelings on that snowy morning. It became clear to me that, just as it is impossible for the snow to disappear during winter months, so it is impossible that the internal “paysage”, which was formed during the past generations could disappear from us.
The second fragment has a more direct connection to the “paysage” of the neighboring villages. It was a few months after my first meeting on a summery day in August 1929, before I was going to go back to Argentina. The buckwheat was not yet harvested in the fields, and in some places the oats were about to be harvested belatedly. Going from Pruzany, I stopped at Yekutiel the Lessee’s place when he almost finished harvesting his oats. The sun was setting behind the alderwood. The harvest women were already tired from working a long day, but the perspective the approaching rest lifted up their spirit and even some of them began to sing. Yekutiel was very busy and he hastened to finish harvesting the crop from his field before sunset. I sat down under a poplar tree that stood at the end of the field casting a long shadow. Yekutiel ran toward me and began to talk with me about politics, taxes and who knows what else … In a short time, with his small steps, he hastily left in order to put his dry oats in the wagons. As I was sitting, I started reading Peretz Hirshbein’s book, “From the Far Away Countries”, which I got in Pruzany.
Accidentally, l read the author’s description about meeting a Polish Jew in New Zealand who very much longed for his old home. I had a bizarre feeling at that time. I said to myself that like the Jew from New Zealand, as long as I live I too would never again see the field with oats, nor would I ever see Yekutiel, the tenant farmer, who had an orchard with different kinds of apples. I kept on thinking that the field would remain in the same area and, in the future years, the sheaves of grain would again be dried in the sun, but my family and I would no longer look at the “paysage”.
I got up and slowly walked in the direction to Yasevitch. At home it was, as usual, the same as in old times – poverty and expectation for “something”. The peasants who were near our house asked about the latest news and our neighbor, Vasil Kot, kept on complaining – “you are leaving us for the second time, but this time we probably will never see each other”.
It is needless to say what became of the neighboring villages during the Second World War. May their “paysage” remain embedded in our memory forever? Undoubtedly, the villages remained. If some of them were burned down during the war, they were rebuilt. Maybe the “paysage” has partly changed because of the economic structure - the industry, the factory including the automobile running on gasoline, the tractor (instead of the plough) and the airplane that has a lot to say about the “paysage”.
But what has remained of our Jewish “paysage”? What is going on in the neighboring villages? What happened to the Jewish tenant farmers and the village Jew who used to drag his cart that was loaded with salt and a barrel of herring? What happened to the village where people kept on cursing and, at the same time, never ceased to love each other? What happened to Yekutiel and Symcha?
Regarding Symcha, there was some information about him. After he, along with his second wife, Beila, and his children had finished harvesting the crop, the Germans buried them alive in Koti, not far from his yard.
My father died a few months before the war. My mother and sisters were expelled to Kartuz-Bereza. They were shot to death in the market place. My brother escaped to the forests where he became a partisan.
Undoubtedly, the external “paysage” of the neighboring villages has not changed very much. The Yasolde River flows as it flowed in my childhood, when my father’s rafts of lumber floated to Selets and from there all the way to Danzig
Like in the past years, the meadows are extended from one side of the Yasolde River up to the hills of the other side. It snows in the wintertime and water overflows in the springtime.
A long time ago “Koheleth” (King Solomon’s Book of Ecclesiastes) mentions the following, “The sun also arises and the sun goes down and hastens to his place where he arises and all the rivers run into the sea. Yet the sea is not full. (Translator’s Note: The sun has apparently no desire to remain, but is eager to reach its appointed goal).
The same Book of Ecclesiastes which talks so much about the timeliness of the nature’s landscape, also says: “One generation passes away and another generation comes and the earth abides for ever”.
Maybe the ecclesiastic words only apply to those generations who are passing away from natural causes but not to those who were annihilated.
Indeed, our neighboring villages were totally annihilated.