|Through Tears and Laughter|
|Personal memoirs by Luba Bat
(Part of Book One)
In my youth the month of May I considered the best of the whole year. It meant so many good things, such as springtime, awakening of life after the long and severe Polish winter; renovation of nature, adorned in a new attire, embellished with fresh verdure and a multitude of colorful and fragrant flowers; jasmin, reseda, lilac, narcissi,daffodils, violets, lillies of the valley, bird cherries, (creremcha) , growing abundantly in Poland, spreading a lovely aroma. May meant delightful trills of nightingales in the lilac bushes, the modest small birds heard nearly by everybody, but seldom seen by anybody. Spring was equivalent with relief from the winter confinement, either in the classroom or at home. Only seldom, when the frost would relax a bit, could we skate or do some sledding outdoors. May opened the door to long walks in the park or on the chausee, the promenade on the outskirts of our shtetl, Pruzana. And if the stroll was in the company of one's flame, ha, all the better. Spring always held a promise of romance, a dream of every young boy and girl.
In today's terms, the romance of two small-town teenagers in Poland in the thirties would appear rather austere, as compared with the "swinging" of the seventies. The romance consisted of stealthy glances at each other, of an occasional "accidental" touch of arms, followed by blushing and recoil with apologies. Even if this inhibited behavior seems ridiculous today, at that time it had a certain charm of innocence.
Brainwashed by our parents from the early age, conditioned to behave "decently" with the opposite sex, we learned to control our instincts until it was "legal" and then, provided the repressions did not reach a pathological stage, the union resembled an eruption of a volcano. When once in a while, the "brakes" would not function too well, and a boy and a girl were seen necking, it would arouse a sensation in our shtetl, with a great deal of indignation on the part of our parents. Mama's contemptuous remark was: "Let's not talk about it, she (the girl) is simply an outcast (auswurf), pfu; how shameless". A teenager from my class, Krysia Lepkowska, the daughter of the French teacher, a bigot, was caught in the park, behind a lilac bush, kissing her boyfriend, Wolodia. The consequences were harsh, because among the peeping boys in the park was Stach Nanowski, the son of the director of our Gymnasium. Krysia was expelled from school. The verdict was irrevocable and the girl's mother's appeal for clemency was ignored completely. The director would certainly not tolerate "lewdness" in his Gymnasium.
Mama was particularly delighted about Krysia's punishment. She ominously raised her index finger and exclaimed solemnly: "It was the hand of G-d. She (the French teacher) paid dearly but justly for the blood that she drained from me three years ago. Now we see whose daughter is immoral and an outcast."
When I was thirteen, Mrs. Lepkowska sent for my mother to complain about my immorality. Mama told us about the encounter. She had an unusual gift to recount vividly and graphically. When Mama stood face to face with the French teacher, after an exchange of greetings, the pedagogue stared sternly at her in silence for some time, as though gathering momentum to disclose the seriousness of the matter. Next she took a deep breath, like divers do before a dangerous plunge, and squinting her small eyes, she uttered: "I hope you realize the gravity of the situation, Mrs. Atin." She paused again with a sigh. Mama's heart sank. She wanted to know what it was all about, but the teacher, trying to dramatize the whole thing, kept Mama in suspense. "
But what happened, Mrs Lepkowska, please tell me." Again, as though searching for words to deliver the shocking news, she shook her head from left to right a few times and then courageously she hissed: "It is about your daughter Luba." Mama turned pale and shuddered, wondering fearfully, what kind of violation had I committed; and why was the woman prolonging the agony instead of being direct. Finally Mrs. Lepkowska "fired the shot". Casting down her eyes she gloomily announced: "Your girl ogled the priest, our school Chaplain, I saw how she did it. You better reprimand her, it is absolutely shameful". Mama was greatly relieved.
She felt like bursting out with laughter, but she controlled herself, reasoning to herself that the whole thing was utterly nonsensical. First of all, at the age of thirteen, I was still very naive and shy. Secondly, with all the good looking boys at school (our Gymnasium was co-educational), why would I want to ogle an elderly priest with a big paunch and a puffy reddish blue face from excessive intake of vodka. Mama composed herself and answered: "I know my child well, I don't believe she is capable of ogling anybody at her age, especially an old Catholic priest. Good bye." Mama believed in my innocence and knew that the accusation stemmed from sheer malice. I used to greet all my teachers, male and female, with a curtsy and a smile without any ambiguity, but Mrs. Lepkowska saw in it immoral behavior.
I imagine that to the teenagers of present day the mores of yesteryear seem preposterous and irrational. However the obsolete methods of child upbringing were quite harmless, for the young people grew up as wholesome individuals, certainly healthier, stronger, less mixed-up and less frustrated than the youth of the seventies, with all the sexual freedom, the pill, permissiveness, pot smoking and drug accessibility. There should be a golden medium between the two extremes though.
May is again on my mind. This time I recall with nostalgia the flowering chestnut tree. How queer, of all the blossoming trees that May brings forth, the rather plain, ordinary, and unpretentious chestnut tree evokes in me languishing memories. In the thirties there was a popular song we used to sing: Znow jest Maj ten sam, kasztany kwitna znow ogromne (same May's here again, the chestnut tree's in bloom again).
A chestnut tree in bloom resembles a giant Christmas tree, its standing up cluster flowers, white with a tinge of red inside, against a mass of lush foliage, appear from the distance like white candles. In Pruzana, candles were then still in use on Christmas trees for lack of electric bulbs. The burning candles, illuminating the colorful decorations, the garlands of sparkling tinsel and the gleaming glass ornaments, appealed to my childish imagination. I was always glad when my gentile playmates Jadzia, Ninka and Jasia would invite me to their houses for Christmas. They sang carols and treated me with "paczki and chrost" (jelly donuts and crunchy cookies) . When I would, with envy, ask Mama why didn't we have such gay holidays as my Christian friends had, Mama would reply, with a sigh, "Because our history is a sad one. Our holidays commemorate mostly tragic events: persecutions of Jews in Persia (Purim) , slavery in Egypt (Passover) , bloody battles with the Syrians (Hannukah) , the destruction of the Temple (Tisha-b'Av). And on Yom Kippur we atone for our sins and we weep and ask G-d for forgiveness". And when Mama noticed that I was growing irksome and quite unhappy about the sorrowful past of the Jews, she immediately tried to cheer me up: "Well, soon will be Hannukah, Papa will light the candles on the Menorah, and we will all sing Hannukah songs. I'll make "latkes" (potato pancakes) , and you will get "Hannukah gelt" (money) ." A broad smile would brighten up my face, like by the touch of magic. I instantly forgot about the sadness just moments ago. Children have the wonderful quality of changing moods incredibly fast; they are able to laugh lightheartedly while a tear is still lingering on their cheek.
My thoughts keep returning to the chestnut tree, for my early years were closely associated with it as a source of playing material. In September we would gather chestnuts. At times the reddish-brown shiny nuts with a beige spot on one side, fell free of the shell which broke by the impact of the fall, but most of the time the nuts were encapsulated in a thick, green, prickly shell which we removed by banging a stone against it. Of course, we always compared who gathered more. We played with chestnuts by digging a shallow hole in the ground and throwing chestnut from a distance, and the one whose nut was closer to the hole was the winner. It was a kind of homemade golf playing.
In my childhood, we had no toys from a store. Since the need to play is very strong in children, we would contrive playthings and invent games, enjoying ourselves no less than the rich youngsters of today with their electric trains; talking, walking, weeping and wetting dolls, or other expensive toys. Children really don't need costly toys; anything of interest to them will do, be it an empty can, bottle, a wheel, or a broken useless part of any apparatus. I recall observing a football game in Tananarive Madagascar. The agile players, young boys, in lieu of a real football, were vigorously kicking with enormous enthusiasm, an empty plastic Clorox container. Their total involvement in the game and tremendous enjoyment was visible on their honey colored faces.
I never had a real porcelain doll, instead, I owned a rag doll, Wanda. I would go to Neche the dressmaker and ask for pieces of fabric and make dresses for Wanda, hence very early in life I learned to sew. Every child likes to play with a ball, but when a rubber ball was not available, a rag ball served the same purpose. Bogacz, the tailor, supplied us with long narrow strips of material, the scraps cut off from the rim of the cloth. Out of it we wound balls and, believe it or not, they bounced, not very high, but enough to amuse us and keep us busy for hours. And when we wanted to play store, it was no problem; an empty box of shoe polish made a fine scale. All we had to do was to pierce three holes with a nail in each half at the edge, We put through each hole a piece of string, tied the ends together and attached the two halves to the opposite ends of a stick, which was in the middle suspended on a small piece of string. The scale balanced and we had much fun by weighing sand and pebbles. When we got tired of this game, we played hopscotch.
To play a bakery was the easiest, for there was always plenty of mud at our disposal. In Pruzana we had no sewer system, thus the dirty water was splashed about the backyard. All we needed was a few empty forms to fill with mud and the "baking" went on excitedly and happily.
Yes, those were the carefree, pure, innocent years that passed like a fleeting moment, leaving just sweet memories.
With the passage of time we change and with us change our needs, our tastes, our preferences, and our priorities. Now at the twilight of my life, which I consider late middle - age, my favorite season is autumn. I like the Indian summer with hazy lazy days and fresh, cool nights, I enjoy immensely the exquisitely beautiful hues of the foliage, ranging from gold, orange to crimson. I love harvest time with all the fruits of the earth being reaped. The earth after having fulfilled its duty, appears resting with satisfaction after delivering its produce like a woman after childbirth.
Harvest in Poland, as I remember, was always a very toilsome but happy time. The peasants in our eastern region, called Polesie, did all their work by hand. Scythes and sickles were used for haymaking and mowing rye, wheat, oats, barley and buckwheat. The women did the gleaning, binding it in sheaves and when it was dry, loading it with pitchforks on wagons, forming enormously high heaps. One wondered how could a horse pull such loaded wagons, but the beast ,just like its owner, was used to hard work. The peasant women did all the cutting of cabbage, gathering of corn, beans, peas, the digging out of potatoes, onions, garlic, beets, carrots, parsnip, turnips. The young, with baskets and bags hanging from their necks, climbed the fruit trees in the orchards and picked the fruit. All the hard work, mentioned, was done singing, for harvest time was singing time. The fields resounded with songs from morning to sunset, when it was time to return home fatigued but gratified. I recall a field song that reflects gladness derived from work: "Oh, how happily's jumping Johny-boy
'Cause work in the field is finished with joy
Oh, how happily's jumping John the Yokel
'Cause the field is weeded clear of cockle."
The farmers rejoiced because there was food for the family for the whole year; grain for the new sowing, feed for the animals and some surplus for sale to buy bare necessities, such as tools, kerosene, a wick for the lamp, matches, salt, tar to lubricate the wheels of the wagon, horse shoes and, of course, paying taxes. Our peasants were very poor.
After harvest one felt peace in nature. I prefer now autumn to Spring, perhaps because chronologically I identify myself rather with Fall. I, too, after a lifetime of toil, trials and tribulations, have given of myself whatever I was able to produce and now am experiencing a feeling of peace with the world. No more spring fever, no more storm and stress, no more fierce rebelling, in the belief of bringing a change to make a better world, no more Don Quixotism, fighting windmills, no more attempts to climb steep mountainsides of a power structure in search of the Truth and Justice. No, I am through with these futile trials. I have not lost though, faith in ideals nor in humanity, no, by any means. I simply have changed my tactics from dashing attempts on a global scale to practicing my principles in small prosaic ways in my tiny world of my own.
In my youth, like many young people, speaking metaphorically, I dreamed of reaching the summit of the Himalaya, instead, I have settled for the top of an ant - hill. Youth and reason don't go hand - in - hand. Life experience teaches us to "cool off" and compromise otherwise we would wind up like caged birds, flapping their wings against the iron bars to free themselves, with the result of broken wings and an intact cage.
The cage of the power structure will eventually "rust" and disintegrate, like all the great powers and "invincible " empires did throughout history, but it will come when the time is right and when society is ready for change. In the meantime, the young will continue to fight the status quo. There will be other "cages" in the future, and there will be new young rebels attempting to destroy them. And perhaps that is the way it should be, otherwise life would lose its idealism, its dynamism and strife, society would become complacent and dull.
As for myself, I feel fairly contented, peaceful and philosophical on my little hilltop. Although there are still some sparks left of the old rebel, I do not intend to kindle any spectacular fires, just miniscule, insignificant flames, hardly noticeable and certainly ineffective in dispelling the darkness of our times.
My contentment with the world, however, is not a stagnant state of mind. I am not resting. I still desire to grow, to reach higher levels of being. One should never stop aspiring, as the Talmud maintains, "You don't have to reach the peak, but you must not refrain from climbing higher and higher".
Now that I enjoy contentment in my abstract retreat, I am able undisturbed to reminisce, to reflect my life. With my mental horizons free of distractions, my visibility is exceedingly clear. I can "see" vividly as far back as fifty years, with small details as though it were only yesterday.
I remember clearly when I was four and Dombrovitzky, the photographer, took a picture of me and my sister Anya. I had short hair and wore a white eyelet dress. My sister had long loose hair, a bow on top of the head. She had a black velvet dress on trimmed with pink. Colors I remember forever.
At five I brought a blind kitten from Samson Katz where I played with his girl, Sheine. There was a large litter of kittens and Mr. Katz began to gather them in a sack while the mother cat mewed frightfully and helplessly. "Why do you put them in a sack?" I asked. "Because I am going to drown them." "Oh no, why do you want to kill them?", I insisted - "I need them like a hole in the head, if you want them, take them" - "But I cannot take them all, my Mama won't permit that, I'll take one." I chose a gray one with dark stripes.
When I had returned home, clinging the kitten to my bosom I began to cry by the door. "Why are you weeping, my child, and what is in your hand?" asked Mama. When she saw the kitten that resembled a rat, she exclaimed "But it is still blind and it needs its mother, take it right back" - "Mama" I sobbed, "Mr. Katz is going to kill them all, I took only one, please let me keep it," screaming louder and louder. Mama took pity on me and the little blind creature in my hands. She went to the attic, brought down Papa's old, felt hat, lined it with some wadding, placed the animal in it and put in a warm corner. She fed it warm milk from a saucer. We had the cat for seven years, it was called Candle (Licht) because its tail was always straight and up. One day it was stolen and we never saw Candle again. It was a sad day for all of us, for we loved the cat and missed it. I wept for days and days, even in the classroom, when I thought of Candle.
I recall every detail when I started to lose my baby teeth. A problem developed when my two permanent lower incisors cut out behind my baby teeth, which had no intention of coming out. I was eventually taken to a dentist, called Meshingisser, who pulled out the two teeth. It was then a traumatic experience.
Before I turned six, one morning, Mama scrubbed me, braided my fairly long, brown hair with new red ribbons, put on me a dress with a starched, white collar, and led me to the elementary school. By the entrance she kissed me, saying "Now, you too, like Anya, will go to school; be a good girl and behave". She left me in my classroom full of children. I was relieved when I saw my playmates Beba, Sara and Liza. Since Beba and I were the smallest ones, we were called "Kropki" (points) and were seated in the first row of benches. That was the beginning of my formal education.
The white-walled classroom was large. In front of the four rows of desk-benches stood the teacher's table and chair and behind it, on the wall, hung a blackboard, above which somewhat higher, a wooden crucifix in color was suspended. In the areas where Christ was nailed down, there was a lot of red paint depicting dramatically the oozing of blood.
The classroom was buzzing like a hundred beehives, until a plump, red-faced, double-chinned woman with blue eyes turned up nose and a big bosom, entered. She, at once, thundered: "Quiet", with a frightfully powerful voice that made us shrink. After that a perfect hush reigned in the classroom, so much so that I could hear my heart pounding. Next, the teacher, Mrs. Turczakowa, commanded with an equally loud shriek: "Stand up everybody at attention position." She then crossed her heart, rolling her eyes up toward the crucifix and began to recite "Our Father" followed by "Hail Mary". The gentile children joined her in unison. After the prayer she motioned to us to sit down and asked each of us the father's first name and his occupation. Mrs. Turczakowa was enormously amused by the Jewish names, such as Velvl, Chatzkl, Faivl, Chaim-Boruch, Moishe-Yosl. She would burst out in loud uncontrollable laughter, shaking, coughing, wiping her teary eyes and between the paroxysms, trying to catch her breath, she would remark: "You Jews sure have funny names, ha, ha, haaaa." The Christian children would accompany her with roars in the merriment. But we, the Jewish youngsters, felt puzzled, flabbergasted and hurt, not understanding why were our fathers' names so ridiculous.
Then after Mrs. Turczakowa blew her nose noisily and got herself together, the real instruction took place. She solemnly picked up the chalk and with concentration had drawn a big letter "A" on the blackboard. Satisfied with her work, she uttered to herself "there" and turning toward the class, she pronounced loudly and prolongingly with a wide open mouth, " Aaaaa. This is the letter Aaaa, now everybody repeat after me, Aaaa." Soon the room sounded like a disturbed flock of goats.
During the intermission, some of the aggressive Christian children had begun to harass the ones that didn't say the Lord's Prayer. "You Christ killers, why did you murder our God?" Until that morning I wasn't aware of any deicide committed by Jews. I was startled and confused.
Upon my return home, Mama smiling greeted me with an embrace and a kiss. "So what did you learn today "epele"? ( little apple) She used to endearingly call me all kinds of names; Leibele, Mendele, Dreibele, Epele. "I learned two things, Mama; how to draw a letter A and that the Jews tortured to death Jesus Christ. Is it true that we murdered their God?" Mama let out a short chuckle but presently became serious. "First of all, the Romans crucified Christ, secondly, tell them if they want to get even let them kill our G-d." Children take things literally, they don't understand sarcasm or allegory. Thus, the next day I repeated in class exactly what Mama said. The consequences were drastic, I was pushed, spat upon, and beaten up with fists. Well, I learned quite early in my life to avoid religious disputes.
Most of the Jewish children in our shtetl, until they started Polish schools, spoke Yiddish at home, thus in the beginning they could not easily pronounce some of the many voweled words like: chrzaszcz, przebrnac, trzeszczec, przedrzezniacz. The teacher, instead of correcting, would mock and mimic the youngsters and make a laughing stock of them.
It was a sheer miracle that such unwarranted method of teaching did not destroy in the bud the desire to learn. Thanks to the home-conditioning by our mothers endlessly and tirelessly emphasizing the sacredness of education, we accepted school as a challenge to overcome, to conquer it. Were it not for the deeply ingrained respect for learning in the Jewish culture, the discouraged students would have abandoned school quite early. However, to a Jew the Torah, a symbol of learning and of wisdom, became an inseparable part of being Jewish. It is a way of life, a tradition, an ethnic characteristic. Illiteracy among Jews is non-existing. The poorest and those of the lowest classes, educate their children. There is no greater and no more painful insult than being called "grober yung" (ignoramus).
I remember a lullaby Mama used to sing to me: "Lully, Lully little pet - Torah, torah, in your head". Of course, I didn't understand what Torah meant, but I imagined it must have been something very good, if Mama wished it on me.
Whenever I had returned from school distressed, hurt, and discouraged, crying that I couldn't go on, Mama would pacify me in her philosophical way: "Look, my child, you have to go through all the difficulties as you do with the baby diseases; chicken pox, measles M'darf iberpoken'. As the Bible says, 'He who sows with tears, will reap with joy'. When you acquire education, you will laugh at your mean teachers. Remember your strength is in knowledge". Mama was also a home grown psychologist. When already in high school, I once declared that I was quitting Gymnasium. I couldnt stand any longer the prejudice, discrimination and stupidity of some teachers, When my parents' reasoning and exhortations seemed to fall on my deaf ears, and I stubbornly kept repeating that I was through with school, Mama employed a new tactic, "All right, Luba, if you wish, you can quit school tomorrow. I'll take you to Neche, the dressmaker, to learn the trade. What else can a girl in our shtetl do without education? It takes, though, time to become a good seamstress. The first year you will have to prepare and to blow a charcoal iron, to pick up pins from the floor, to sweep the shop, and, on Fridays, you will have to deliver the finished garments to the customers, they will give you a grosz as a tip. The next year Neche will teach you how to make a hem and how to baste together pieces. The third year you will be taught to sew on buttons and to make button holes. The fourth year " I interrupted the gloomy and dismal picture that Mama was deliberately drawing: "Enough, Mama," I said biting my lips, "I don't want to be a dressmaker. I'd rather continue the damned, damned, school". Mama was very wise. She knew how much I disliked the humble occupation of a seamstress. There was a most unjust Polish proverb: "Shoemakers and tailors are not people", and so, in fear of becoming "dehumanized", I accepted the dread of schooling.
Mama was short, dark, and very energetic. An avid reader and a splendid story - teller, she had an extraordinary sense of humor and a talent to imitate voices and gestures. Mama had a lovely voice and liked to sing. The long, cold, winter evenings, after supper, were spent by the oven. There were a lot of fascinating tales, funny stories, accompanied by long spells of laughter. With Mama around, we could never be bored. Mama's favorite anecdote was about my birth. "Anya was born a beautiful baby, like a doll, but you Luba, were a 'mieskeit' (hideous) . When you emerged and the 'akushera' (midwife) cried out 'a girl' and showed you to me, I was shocked, for you had a deep hollowness at the base of the nose and long hair pasted to your face, like a monkey. I really was worried. If it were a boy at least it wouldn't be so terrible, in a man's world a male could get away with such a deformity, but a girl, woe is me, one would need a sizeable dowry to fill out the ditch over your nose. Fortunately, by the time you were one year old the depression above your nose diminished somewhat and you looked cute. However, you were troublesome from the very beginning. I remember when you were one week old I nursed you and swathed you and put you in the bedroom in the middle of the two beds together for a few minutes, because I had to do something in the kitchen. Suddenly I heard your loud yell, when I entered the bedroom you weren't where I placed you, instead, the two beds were apart and you lay on the floor. Imagine the strength of that infant, a real "taivel fun blote" (a devil from the mud)." To this I interjected in defense: "No wonder, Mama, that I rebelled to the archaic swaddling band that was probably choking me, poor little thing, all I could then do in protest was wiggle, writhe and scream." Mama just smiled lovingly. Interestingly enough, the three early infancy traits I had never shed, characterize me to this very day. I continue to display a slight concavity at the base of my nose; I am still quite energetic and rebellious; and I dread any kind of restraint.
Mama had her ups and downs; she worried about our future, she wanted the best for her two children: my sister Anya, five years my senior, and myself, but was frequently distressed by the inadequate income, in particular when we were sent home from school because tuition was not paid.
Papa was tall, blond, sporting a reddish moustache. Always in good spirits, he had a happy-go lucky disposition and never worried about anything. His motto was, "Morgen wird Gott sorgen" (Leave to G-d the worries of tomorrow). Although a poor provider and an incompetent business man, he was eternally satisfied.
My sister Anya, tall, beautiful, with hazel eyes and rich chestnut hair, was the quiet, lady-like type. I, on the other hand, short, dark, a spitting image of Mama, was an active, playful, chattery, inquisitive, mischievous child, frequently a nuisance and vexation to my parents.
With Papa's inferior earning capacity, it was left to Mama to manage the household, to keep us neat and clean, to educate us, to make a pleasant home and keep up appearances so that nobody would suspect with what effort it was achieved. Her maxim was, "One has to pinch the cheeks to keep up the color - G-d forbid to be pitied".
Mama had an unusual gift of making something out of nothing. Being artistic, dexterous with an exquisite taste, she beautified our home with lovely things which she embroidered and crocheted; curtains, tablecloths, wall hangings, rugs. In addition, lush green leafy plants, some flowering, decorated our home, giving it freshness, warmth, coziness and cheerfulness. Mama liked elegance, she always insisted that we ate on a white tablecloth, which was skillfully darned to hide the holes, for it was still part of Mama's trousseau.
Luckily, I had a happy childhood during the formative years. My parents generously showered us with love, thus making up amply for the scarcity of material things. For a long time I was not aware of how poor we were, perhaps because in Pruzana, the majority was in our economic bracket. It is only by comparison that differences are noticed, besides, children have a value system of their own; to them being poor means filth, rags, and begging for alms, which was quite contrasting with the way we lived. My parents were charitable. No beggar ever left our house hungry or empty-handed, if not a piece of bread or a plate of soup, then a "grosz" (penny). Above the kitchen stove there was a "cdaka pushke" a tin box with groszes for the poor.
We belonged to the middle class. After all, everything is relative; in a kingdom of blinds, an one-eyed man is King. In Pruzana, between not being well to do and being real poor, was a gamut of economic strata. Next to the small store keepers were barbers, masons, capmakers, then alteration tailors, shoe repairmen (not shoe makers), house painters. Lower were blacksmiths, wind millers, horse drivers, hucksters. Still lower were servants, and at the very bottom found themselves wire-potnicks (druciarz), and last, beggars. The housewives in our town were very thrifty. When an earthen pot cracked it was not disposed of, instead it was taken to the wire potnick who reinforced the utensil with a kind of wire cage, preventing the pot from falling apart. It was still useful for cooking kasha.
We were considered a fine middle-class family for reason of 'pedigree' (yiches), which was another criterion for class distinction, not necessarily affluence. It depended upon what grandpa did for a living, his degree of literacy and, of course, one's life style and educating of one's children. For instance, Reuben the butcher, who owned a big house and a prosperous butcher shop, who ate more meat in one day than we did in a whole week, was placed on a lower rung of the social ladder than our family. The same went in relation to all tradesmen and handicraftsmen. Papa was labeled businessman because he ran a store. What an irony; a businessman with no commercial ability whatsoever. G-d knows it was a sheer miracle that on his meager income we had survived and kept up a front, for the store was nearly empty of goods.
There were in our town some rich people, a small number though. These were the few professionals; two lawyers, three dentists, and two medical doctors, Goldfine and Finegold, who were not on speaking terms with one another; even their names sounded contrary. About the motor-mill owner Zeidl; the townspeople used to say: "Zeidl? Ha, he is a millionaire; he bathes in money. I bet he owns 10, 000 dollars". That was the way the Pruzanites perceived a tycoon. To the rich also belonged the Notary Public.
Unlike a notary public in the U.S.A., a rather humble position, in Poland it was a graduate of a law school or a holder of a high office. Our Notary Public called Reyent lived in a mansion with several servants at his disposal. His wife and beautiful daughter Grazyna were the most elegantly dressed ladies, they ordered their clothes in Warsaw and set the tone of fashion in Pruzana. Their outfits were always copied by the local dressmakers who discretely followed the two fashionable ladies, making mental notes.
It was in Gymnasium, as a teenager, that I began to feel the pangs and pinches of poverty. At that time I was already interested in boys. School dances and private parties were our major amusement and enjoyment. All my girlfriends had for these occasions a party dress and black patent leather shoes, all except me, for my parents could not afford two pairs of new shoes for both of us; Anya as the older daughter came first. Many a time I had not attended the parties that I so anxiously was looking forward to because of lack of shoes. I certainly wouldn't dance in high, worn, laced shoes, patched in the area of the little toes. Oh, how I loved to dance. I would spend the evening home crying and feeling sorry for myself; and poor Mama watching me, was heartbroken. If she could, she would have given me the sun and all the stars, but as the saying goes; "From an empty dish, even King Solomon couldn't pour".
Strange how some youth experiences leave a life-long stamp on our personality. The deep pain inflicted by the lack of shoes I still cannot forget; and today, as a compensation my closet is full of shoes. One can find at least forty pairs of shoes of every shape, color and height of heels, although I wear only a few pairs, mostly old ones for comfort. Every year I give away several pairs of shoes and then immediately replace them by new ones. Ironically today there are no dances for me to attend anymore. There is a Yiddish proverb "When I have a wife - I have no bed; and when I have a bed - I have no wife".
My hometown Pruzana, like all villages and towns in the middle -ages, developed from settlements around the estates of feudal lords. As they grew in size, they eventually acquired the status of town.
According to the annals, the Pinkes, Pruzana is over 500 years old. Already in 1433 there was an Hevra Kadisha" (burial society). It was still considered a village then. In 1588, based on the Brandenburg Law, the Polish Queen Anna Jagiellonka, bestowed upon Pruzana the autonomy of a town.
As for its name, there are many legends. One of them that seems more plausible than the others, claims that Pruzana is derived from the united first names of the feudal lord and his spouse, namely, Prus and Anna. The couple had an only child that was bitten by a snake and died in infancy. Hence the emblem on the official stamp of the town Pruzana displayed on all documents issued by the town hall, was a snake holding an infant in its mouth. On the spot where the child was bitten by the snake, the lord and lady had a chapel built. Around the church a village and later a town developed.
Pruzana was small but interesting and dynamic, as it appeared to me way back. Its population reached 8000 by 1935.To the dismay of the schoolchildren who already started geography lessons, Pruzana couldn't always be found on the map. This infuriated us, that our microcosm of such tremendous importance to us was ignored by the cartologist who wouldn't even bother to represent our town on the map in the form of a tiny dot, the size of a fly's marking. Whenever one of the students happened to find our town on a detailed atlas, the event was accompanied by a spontaneous yell "Hurrah for Pruzana, here it is". We would all run to see whether it was true.
It's area was small. The wooden houses were closely built. One could tour the whole town on foot in its length from the end of May 3rd street to the end of Kobrynska; and in its breadth from the end of Seltzer street with its windmills to Chevatka with its farms - all in less than one hour. Anybody that had ever visited Pruzana, found if very charming: friendly, clean, green in the summer and white in the winter.
In the very middle of the town, the river Muchawiec was flowing, dividing it into two distinct parts: the northern purely residential with all the important offices, the community hospital, the Catholic Church, the two jails and the miniature railroad station. The tiny train "Kolejka" consisted of four wagonettes, pulled by a samovar-like locomotive that seemed to moan, groan and puff with difficulty along a narrow gauge track, seven miles long that led to Linovo. I shall later describe Linovo, Mama's birthplace, because of its uniqueness.
The southern part of Pruzana was also residential, but it contained the business center, the market place, the industry, whatever there was to manufacture, farms on the outskirts, all schools: elementary, gymnasia and teachers seminary.
Across the river Muchawiec there was a fairly wide wooden bridge. Standing on the bridge facing north, one could see the park, crowned by a white tower rising above the palace. South of the bridge stretched the Dr. Pacewicz Street with two lines of linden trees. It was our main avenue, stretching from the park to the market place. The western view from the bridge offered a fascinating picture namely the formation of the river by two small rivulets coming from different directions; the Mucha with yellowish water and the Wiec with bluish water. The two streams united in the center of town creating the river Muchawiec. Both sides of the river -bank were adorned by two rows of old, divaricated weeping willows full of crow nests. Their branches touching the water were reflected in it. It appeared as though the old trees, like women with their hair loose, were glancing at their image in a looking glass. The park and the white imposing palace with its surmounting tower were the pride of our town. The owner of the palace and the surrounding estate was a Polish nobleman, a count, living abroad. He let his possession to our town which housed its highest office, the Starostwo, i.e. the sheriff's office. A sheriff in Poland was above the mayor, he governed the town. The large, exquisite park, with its grounds kept up well, was open to the public. In the midst of the park, just behind the palace, there was a lake with water lilies and with an arched Japanese bridge across it. A white, small summerhouse nearby, covered with ivy and climbing roses looked very romantic and quite mysterious. A great assortment of exotic trees, bushes, shrubs and lovely beds of flowers embellished the palace grounds. The park was outstanding for its many alleys named after the two rows of trees that formed them. There were the oak, linden, lilac, bird cherries, birch, larchtree, and chestnut alleys. Those were the ideal places for promenades.
In my childhood I had spent many springs and summers, either sitting by the river watching the slow flow of the Muchawiec, musing and daydreaming,( I was impressed by the river for I had not known a larger body of water then), or in the park picking violets, lilies - of - the valley, lilac or bird cherries (czeremca). I would sit on the grass by the lake and stare with awe at the big white palace, fantasizing how it must have been when the count and countess had lived there. I let loose the reins of my imagination and drew pictures based on fairy tales that I had read in books.
Numerous lakes, woods and groves surrounded Pruzana: birch, alder, pine groves, hazel tree groves. On the outskirts began the fields of wheat, rye, buckwheat, oats and barley. There as children we picked wild poppies, daisies, cockle and blue cornflowers, the last ones were excellent for wreath - making. Somewhat farther, about two miles away, woods provided us with a lot of fun. What a joy it was to pick mushrooms, wild strawberries or blackberries; blackberries made our hands, lips and teeth purple.
Also in the wintertime we had some enjoyment, not often though, such as skating, gliding on a small sleigh on our bellies down hill and dragging the sleigh up again. Occasionally with my friends, Beba, Sara, Osia Misha and Sioma, for one hour we hired Hananye the Balhagole (the horse driver) for a pleasure ride "Kulig". His sleigh was pulled by a skinny horse which he called grandiosely "the Eagle". Around the beast's neck little bells jingled cheerfully. Misha had a keen sense of humor, he liked to tease the driver: "Hananye, why do you call your horse Eagle? The way it looks it would be more appropriate to name it the "Starving Crow". Irritated by this remark and by our outbursts of laughter the man seemed to ignore Misha. He just angrily cracked his whip in the air addressing the horse; Vyo, Eagle, vyo, show the fresh kids what a fine horse you are. Vyoooo!"
But Hananye, too, could be mean at times. There was a young woman in town, Henia, with very skinny legs. Each time the driver saw her, he yelled after her: "Hey, Henia, when are you going to give me your two sticks (peitch shteklach) to make a whip; my Eagle needs a new whip". Henia would turn red and with her head down, would walk away as quickly as she could.
The Yiddish Theater of Pruzana was a source of grand entertainment. Essia Awol was the dancer and singer, she has a supple figure and a lovely contra-alto voice. Manya the Midwife always played the part of an angry servant, her specialty was uttering crude curses. Glezer, a fortyish bachelor, directed and played the title roles. He was a dramatic character actor who usually portrayed tragic figures and frequently he would die on the stage with much pathos. The emotional ones in the audience, watching Glezer's sad performance, shed bitter tears, sniveling loudly and rubbing their eyes with the back of the palm. The next day there were such comments: "Oi, I am telling you, to watch Glezer die is a real treat. Although he tears out a piece of my heart each time I see him die - I enjoy it on end. What a genius he is; a real Sarah Bernhardt."
There was also a Polish amateur theater under the direction of Mr. Dudek who as a character actor played all major roles from a young lover to an old grandfather. He had talent, the trouble with him was that he seldom was sober, hence unreliable. Because of Mr. Dudek's heavy drinking the announced performances did not take place on time, if at all.
Still another artist of a different kind was the photographer, Dombrowitzki, a man in his fifties. He was bald, except for a few graying shags at the back of his head; these he wore long with an artistic flair. Only three teeth were left in his mouth: one upper front tooth and two lower canines, all cavity -ridden. It reminded one of a Yiddish curse: "You should lose all your teeth except for one, so that you know what a toothache feels like."
There was something very funny about his appearance, in particular his many mannerisms and his peculiar posture: the shoulders lifted, the arms bent, the elbows sticking out like wings, as though he was trying to protect himself from an imminent blow.
The photographer had at his disposal an established set of various poses, which he applied to his clients using his own discretion, for he was the only arbiter in his studio and no one had anything to say. For a young couple, the pose was "glowka" i.e. the participants leaning toward each other touched their heads. A student had to wear his uniform with brass buttons. He stood at attention position with a book in his hand - this was an "intellectual" pose.
An infant was usually photographed naked lying on a piece of white fur, a goat -skin. With time the fur turned yellowish, giving off a strong odor of ammonia, for the babies never failed to urinate during the long procedure.
To a modest young lady, of the conservative type, Dombrowitzky suggested a standing position leaning her elbow against a stand called "tumba". In her other hand stretched along her body, she held a paper rose supplied by the maestro. She was told to stare in the far distance.
A sophisticated young female used the "bust" pose in an audacious fashion: bare shoulders dramatically wrapped up in fur (the same smelly goat skin), a paper rose stuck in the slit of her bosom; she was told to gaze dreamily, heavy lidded with slightly parted lips. In order to facilitate the desired effect, the photographer would show the postcard with Gloria Swanson. Such a successful picture of Tania Goldfine, Dombrowitzky's "piece de resistance" was displayed in a glass case outside his studio.
For a young peasant the photographer had an accordion, made of cardboard. The yokel would sit on a chair, chin up, eyes gaping, knees wide apart, holding in both hands the stretched instrument, "playing" it.
In one area the photographer was uncompromising, namely, his pictures had to be serious - faced. He absolutely would not permit even a trace of gaiety, not even a Mona Lisa suggestion of a smile. He made a habit of reminding his clients just before clicking the apparatus "Now serious, I am ready". If by accident one didn't manage to straighten his face in time, the film was considered ruined, Dombrowitzky was angry and charged an extra zloty for a new film.
I recall a humorous episode when Aunt Esther with her two girls, Rosa and Emma, all dressed up, set out to take a picture. I accompanied them out of curiosity, after all, it was an unusual event. When everything was arranged, that is, Aunt Esther seated on a chair cross - legged, with the girls standing on both sides of their mother, and Dombrowitzky said the famous last words, "now serious " As he pressed the camera the girls burst out with an uncontrollable laughter. The exasperated man uttered a string of exhortation, completing it with a terrible statement, "and besides, it will cost you an extra zloty". Well, Aunt Esther was furious at her daughters, after all a zloty doesn't welter in the wind, but the girls by then couldn't stop laughing. In order to render them serious, their mother resorted to a simple but very effective means; she angrily gave Rosa a "potch" i.e., slapped her in the face; then she turned to Emma and boxed her painfully on the ear. It worked like magic, the laughter ceased immediately. A new pose was arranged. There was no need to ask for a serious face. The camera clicked and we all went home. But when the photograph was ready it presented the funniest picture one could imagine. Aunt Esther had knitted eyebrows, narrow eyes, the lower lids closed up a bit in a squint, lines etched at the lips; Rosa bit her lips, and Emma had tears streaming on her cheeks. Years later, whenever I wanted to amuse myself, I would open the family album and look at their images.
Like in all small towns, we too, had our dupe. His name was Mendeleh Lokshn (Noodle). He was a singer, a rhymester, and a translator of songs from Russian to Yiddish and vice versa. He would sing and versify impromptu to every occasion for a few groszes or some food. Mendeleh was a frustrated poet. Orphaned in his childhood, short, of slight build, he never learned a trade or acquired any education. Unable to work hard, continuously hungry, he became a target of fun - poking. Nevertheless, Mendeleh was kind, friendly, always ready to help if he could.
Pruzana also possessed its practical jokers: Raphael the Ropetwister, Chaim the Redhead, and Leibl the Perch. These pranksters, when they wanted some perverse diversion, resorted to cruel practical jokes played on the peasants during the big market days on Mondays and Thursdays. On these days the villagers would bring their produce for sale. The three idlers would go to the market - place pretending to be potential customers. When they saw a peasant woman selling a rooster, its legs tied for safety, they would first bargain about the price. When they finally reached an agreement and one of them was about to pay, the other would interject, "Wait a minute, I bet the rooster is crippled, it looks sickly, I am afraid it cannot walk." The woman ardently protesting, swore on all saints that the fowl was healthy like a "fydz" (a mushroom), that she even had a hard time catching it and became breathless by the time she got a hold of it: "Look", Raphael would say, "let's try and see." Chaim would untie the rooster's legs. The freed bird would at first stand still because of numbness in its legs caused by hours of restraint. "You see, I was right," exclaimed Raphael, "he is a cripple." Then Leibl would let out a shooing sound, waving and clapping his long thin arms to scare the rooster. The frightened fowl who already got his bearings began to run at random, flapping its wings and cackling loud in panic.The poor peasant woman ran after the rooster, while the three "buyers" disappeared laughing shrilly, considering themselves very clever.
At another time the trio had tried to buy eggs from a peasant, eggs kept in a basket. When the price was agreed upon and one of the pranksters reached for his bill folder to pay, the other would express doubts; "Sure, the eggs on the top are nice and big, but who knows what is underneath, maybe the rest are small and cracked." To this the other joker suggested, "I have an idea, let's remove the upper eggs and take a look at those at the bottom." They told the villager to cup his big, worn hands and put in them as many eggs as he could hold, then they would unbutton his pants and walk away shaking with laughter. In Poland, in summertime the peasants never wore undergarments, thus the unfortunate man was in quite a predicament. He wouldn't drop the eggs on the cobble - stones for anything in the world. He was too poor and couldn't afford to eat the eggs because he needed the money for bare necessities. Holding the eggs he screamed in exasperation, "Help, help, good people, have mercy and pull up my pants."
The meanest joke, however, the three idlers had played on Mendeleh Lokshn. They seemed to be bothered by the fact that Mendeleh was still a bachelor, as though they worried that he might die without an heir to his great fortune. Whatever their motive was, the three pranksters got busy looking for a mate for Mendeleh. They heard from Motche the Pig that his relatives in Liskov had a Jewish servant, an old maid and somewhat on the dumb side. The frolicsome men did not waste their time and they encouraged Mendeleh to propose; they arranged with Yankl the Redhead, a cargo horse driver, to take Mendeleh along for a few pennies, whenever he had some goods to transport to Liskov. There really was no reason to hurry. Eventually the occasion arose. On a rainy, cold day, the prospective groom set out for the trip. After a day and night of journeying on a shaky, loaded wagon, on top of sacks full of grain and barrels with crude oil - wet, cold, hungry, sneezing, coughing, and with achy bones, Mendeleh had finally arrived at his destination. It wasn't hard to find the relative of Motche the Pig, called Shmuel the Cooper, for in Liskov everybody knew everybody. The people who showed them where Shmuel lived were not satisfied with just giving information, they were curious, almost intrigued by the visit. The short, thin man with a running nose, what did he come for? What business brought him to Liskov? They hung around the house of Shmuel the Cooper, peeping from time to time through the window. They didn't move until Sore Feige, the Cooper's wife, came out from the house with a basin of dishwater to splash it with a swing about the street. They motioned to her to stop. "Who is the little man that entered your house, heh?" Sore - Feige uttered a "Shhh", touching her lips with her index finger. "It is a marriage candidate for our shlemil, Rive - Zisl", she whispered. "He, too, looks to me a big nothing," then she added, philosophically, "It seems that every pot finds its cover".
Mendeleh's proposal was accepted by Rive - Zisl's employer. As for herself, it made no difference to her one way or another. Her pale, phlegmatic, expressionless face with half - closed eyes, showed not a trace of emotion. Why was this union arranged? One would be tempted to ask. The justification for it in those days lay in the belief among Jews, that marrying off an orphan and, in addition, an old maid, was a "mitzvah", a blessed deed, even if it was not for better but for worse.
Until the day of the matrimony, Mendeleh slept with his clothes on, on a wooden bench in the kitchen of Shmuel the Cooper. On the wedding day he and Rive - Zisl went to the "mikveh", a ritual bath. Since it didn't rain on that day the "chupah" (the canopy under which the ceremony takes place) was in the yard near the woodshed and the garbage bin. After a few minutes of blessings and prayer, the bride and groom were pronounced husband and wife with the traditional exclamation of "Mazal Tov". The wedding feast consisted of herring with white bread, boiled large lima beans, wine and sponge cake. The religious ceremony happened to be on the day when Yankl , the horse - driver was about to return to Pruzana. It must have been planned by Rive - Zisl's employer in order to get rid of the newly - weds as soon as possible for fear that the young couple would decide to remain in Liskov.
And so Mendeleh and his silent and indifferent mate mounted a loaded wagon, this time with dry goods; sacks of beans, peas, and dried mushrooms. Seated uncomfortably, Rive - Zisl clutched a bundle on her lap, the fruit of nearly 20 years of hard work, packed in an old kerchief "fachailah". Several idle onlookers watched as the wagon jolted slowly over the cobble stones, shaking mercilessly the passengers on top of the sacks.
Where was Mendeleh taking his bride? To his corner in the poorhouse, "the hegdesh", located behind the old synagogue, near the bathhouse with the "mikveh". All he had to do to secure some privacy from the lairs of the beggars was to hang a sheet for a curtain, and voila; the household was set up. The problem was he didn't own a sheet and until he acquired one, the marriage had to wait to become consummated. Fortunately, one of the three jokers donated a sheet.
The honeymoon was spent by going from house to house to introduce Rive - Zisl to the town -folks. In every place the couple was treated with tea and preserves "varenye", or tea with cake. The men with a wry smile would ask foolish questions "Well Mendeleh", how is married life? Are you enjoying it?" The newlywed, all smiles, would jostle his wife, "Nu, Rive - Zisl, what do you say?" With a blank facial expression she would answer, "Don't bother me, let me drink the tea".
The excessive tea-drinking all day long compelled them to empty their bladders occasionally, somewhere behind the houses, to the amusement of the idlers. When they were asked how was the new couple faring, their comment was "So far, they drink tea and they piss." The pranksters were too insensitive to see a tragedy in progress; for in less than one year a baby was born. One year later another offspring came along. Mendeleh stopped rhyming and singing. His meager but carefree existence came to an abrupt halt. When Rive-Zisl became pregnant with her third child, Mendeleh suddenly passed away. They said he died of aggravation and sorrow for having produced a family he couldn't support.
Mendeleh, being good natured, servile, always willing to please, had never developed a will of his own. He was told to go to Liskov to propose and so on; he obliged like a "good boy". But in the two years of married life when he matured and realized what happened, all he could do was to torment himself to death.
How sad it was to watch Rive-Zisl in rags, unkempt, leading a small child by the hand, another in her arms, and a third on its way, begging for alms. The children, pale, undernourished, neglected, in filthy garments, snivels bubbling from their red noses, lice infested, scratched themselves nervously.
This pathetic sight did not amuse the town jokers anymore, they ceased laughing when the poor wretch walked the streets with her little ones, dragging with difficulty her puffy legs covered with bulging varicose veins.
Obviously Rive-Zisl wasn't able to cope with motherhood when winter arrived. The poorhouse inadequately heated, sleeping on the floor on a straw sack with two toddlers, hungry most of the time, wasn't certainly health promoting. Small wonder that the three of them contracted pneumonia. The Jewish community decided to do something about it. We had in our town a Jewish orphanage, very well organized, run by a dedicated woman, called Sheinke. The orphans had excellent care; clean, well fed and well clad, educated according to their ability and sent to summer camp during July and August. Thus Mendeleh's orphans were placed in this institution and Rive-Zisl employed as a helper.
The oldest boy, Nochim, grew up a tall handsome and bright adolescent; he graduated from the Tarbuth Gymnasium; the other two children were retarded.
Considering its size and quantity of population, Pruzana had many institutions of learning. Three elementary schools: the Polish "Powszechna", the Hebrew Zionist "Yavneh" and the Yiddish anti-Zionist "Peretz" school run by the Bund. There also was a Trade School, a Teacher's Seminary, and two Gymnasia: the Adam Mickiewicz State Gymnasium, and the Hebrew Gymnasium "Tarbuth".
The Jewish community of our shtetl had a strong political orientation and was determined to bring up their children in the same vein.
There was much hustle and bustle in town during the election years, dividing temporarily, the Jewish people into three hostile political groups. The Zionist Shomer HaTsair (Youth Vigilantes), of leftists tendencies, voted for the Block; the Betar Zionist-Revisionists, of extreme right, voted for their leader, Jabotinsky; the third faction, called Yiddishists, anti-Zionists, voted for the Bund.
These political differences would rancorously flare up during the campaigns. It was quite amusing to observe these activities and the ideas employed by each party to emphasize their point. Although highly passionate, the feuding sides limited their flying tempers to name-calling but never to arm swinging.
For instance, the Yiddishists, for a few hours, hired from Chane-Malke the Banke-shtelern (the cupping-glass applier), her male goat and led it through the main streets with a sign attached to its horns "Every buck votes for the Block". In retaliation, the Shomer HaTsair marched with Chaim the Barber's mongrel on a leash with a slogan tied to its tail saying, "Every hund votes for the Bund". And the Anti-Revisionists carried a wooden ladder with a long placard, "Betar , climb the ladder to the top, and then dead drop." In Yiddish it sounded very funny: "Betar, kricharuf afn leiter, un fall arop a teiter." After each election the town would return to normal in no time and everything was forgotten, as though it never happened.
THE MARKET PLACE
The commerce in Pruzana was centered around the market place, the area between the two Greek-Orthodox churches, surrounded by big and small businesses. In the very middle of the market place, paved with cobble stones like the rest of the streets, dominated a white arcade, the "Radkromen", made up of two rows of various stores, united by the back and side walls with one another. Those were mostly windowless, small shops with just an entrance, open all day long regardless of the season or weather, in order to provide light from the outside and, at the same time, to display the wares for sale. The majority of shops had no electricity; their business was completed with the sunset, for they catered primarily to the peasant population who would leave before nightfall for their villages. The merchandise consisted of ironware, agricultural tools, kitchen utensils, liquor, trimming, pots, pans, tar, pitch, and urinals. The peasant women who never utilized urinals for what they were intended, used to buy them to boil milk in them. They claimed that the rounded rim prevented the milk from running over.
The arcade stores had no heating facilities. The storekeepers, in order to ward off the bitter cold during the long and severe winters, used firepots. Those were iron pots, filled with glowing charcoal, adding more coal when necessary, blowing energetically until it turned red. The men held their hands above the warm firepots, rubbing their palms vigorously from time to time. Their wives would frequently place firepots under their long skirts. Legs apart, they stood motionlessly, exhaling a languishing, prolonged Aaa: a sign of immense delight, derived from the warmth.
It happened at times that when the women indulged for too long in this warming up, their skirts would catch fire, thus evoking quite a commotion. Screaming "Pozar" (fire), the woman would run out of the shop and quickly sit down in the snow on the ground to extinguish the slowly burning garment. Luckily, wool doesn't blaze, it only smolders, thus the upheaval was soon over.
The marketing days on Mondays and Thursdays always brought vitality to the town and profit to the storekeepers. Still more excitement had occurred during the Greek-Orthodox holidays, then a real fair or as the Jews called it "yerid" would take place. To the contrary, on Roman-Catholic and official state holidays, stores had to be shut and the market place deserted. In times of a fair, the peasants came from the neighboring villages, dressed in their fineries. The men in white, home - spun trousers and long roubashkas, straw hats and self-made best shoes, called lapcie. In the winter - time they wore sheepskin caps and heavy coats called "kozhuch". The peasant women were adorned in colorful, wide, gathered skirts and blouses, flowery babushkas on their heads and glass beads on their necks. To protect themselves from cold, they wore warm fringed kerchiefs. Only the young and well to do peasants owned a pair of leather boots that they wore only in town in the summertime. They usually carried them tied together on one shoulder and they walked barefoot on foot from their village. Upon entering town, they would sit down on the ground, wrap their feet with foot clothes, called "portianki" and then pull on the boots.
The villagers would arrive for the fair very early in the morning in order to secure a good "parking" spot, preferably under a tree. There they unharnessed the horses, turned them to face the wagon and hung a sack with hay on their necks, so the horses too had a day off from their usual drudgery. Contentedly they chewed the feed, occasionally swinging their tails or shaking their heads with vigor to chase away the bothersome flies that for some queer reason chose to settle either in the inner corners of their eyes or in their nostrils.
Soon the market place was buzzing like a disturbed beehive. The peasant women sat on the steps around the arcade, displaying their goods: homemade farmer cheese still in the cheesecloth, fresh butter wrapped in horse-radish leaves, baskets full of eggs, mushrooms, wild strawberries, blackberries, onions and garlic braided in wreaths, strings of dried mushrooms, bunches of fish tied together with a piece of wire pierced through their heads, chickens with tied legs, panting with open beaks. In order to attract buyers, the villager would say about one of her chickens, " She lays big eggs every day, she is even now with an egg." The prospective buyer who wanted such chicken, not taking the peasant's word, would moisten her index finger with saliva and insert it into the chicken's anus, and when she felt the eggshell only then did she begin to bargain about the price.
The peasant men took care of the sale of pigs, calves, sheep, goats, cows and horses. Horse selling or trading took place on a side street, adjacent to the market place, because in order to buy a horse, one had to see it run, its agility. There men would gather, some interested to acquire a horse, others just curious onlookers. The potential buyer, to avoid being cheated, would bring along an expert. It was important to know the beast's age, for the seller usually subtracted a couple years, but the "expert" knew all the tricks in order to establish how old the animal was. With an air of importance he would solemnly open the horse's mouth, peering intensely and attentively into it, and carefully observing the teeth; Next he would lift the horse's tail and concentrate on the condition of its genitals, while the men around stared with awe and admiration for the connoisseur.
When things were sold, and necessities bought, and the horses were watered, it was time for a repast. Seated on their wagons, the villagers opened their linen bags, took out a big, round loaf of black bread, breaking it into large lumps, never cutting it; next came from the bag home-made pork sausage and chunks of smoked lard. Biting into the sausage was simple, but with lard, things were different. It was impossible to bite off a piece. It required a special technique: holding on with the teeth to the whole hunk of lard, with a sharp folding knife, kept close to the lips, a mouthful was cut off. I used to watch with fascination how skillfully they ate, never cutting themselves. The more extravagant peasants who craved for something special, for a kind of delicacy, would buy a herring and a still warm loaf of rye bread from the Golubowicz bakery.
The villager would first lick with his tongue the salty juice "lak" from the herring, holding it in his hands, and then begin slowly from the head and gradually consume the loaf of fresh bread with the whole herring including the inside and the bones. Thirsty, he then proceeded to the well on the market-place, pumped water, catching it with cupped hands and drinking it to his heart's desire. Satiated, his thirst quenched, he belched loudly, contentedly, patting his belly with satisfaction with both his hands. After the meal, the men would pull from their pants pockets small bags with home-grown tobacco, "machorka", roll cigarettes in thin paper, light them and deeply inhale the strong tobacco, coughing and spitting.
From the nearby wagons they would start chatting with each other, showing what they bought, exchanging news, such as: from Ivan from Yakovitche a pig was stolen, or that Vasil from Kabaki lost the money he got for his two sheep. Everything said and done, the peasants slowly harnessed their horses and got ready to return to their villages.
The next morning, the town farmers from Chvatka would bring their wagons and horses and with pitchforks would gather the manure mixed with straw left by the horses. They used it as fertilizer for their fields, and so everybody profited from the fair and the market place was clean again.
In the early evening, when the weather was good, many of our town-folk liked to go to the railroad station, not because they expected anybody's arrival, or to see someone off. No, nothing of the kind. It was a pastime they enjoyed very much. Perhaps, subconsciously, they associated the toy-like train with their contact with the great, wide world. The mere awareness that they were not cut off from the rest of the universe was comforting. All they had to do in order to "spread their wings", was to board the little, puffing vehicle and off they went to the "wild, blue, yonder, " to Linovo.
Pruzana, by comparison with Linovo, was a metropolis. However, in one respect it was inferior, for Linovo possessed a real, wide track railroad station with regular cars that went to Brest-on-Bug, and from Brest one could go to Warsaw, and from there almost to the end of the world.
Linovo, then with a population of two hundred, consisted of one unpaved street with two rows of wooden houses on both sides, starting by the railroad station and ending with swampy fields. The village had no electric light, no school, no health facility, no dentist, not even police protection. It seemed that the Linovites left everything to G-d, and He must have done a good job, for the children enjoyed good health and the mortality rate was very low; people reached longetivity.
There was one small store selling herring, kerosene, wicks for lamps, candles, matches, candies, tobacco, liquor, sugar, salt, oil, and flour. Dairy products were supplied by Moishe the Pakter (milkman), and meat by a part-time butcher, Gedaliah, i.e. he slaughtered cattle only when he had customers in advance. That was necessary because of lack of refrigeration. Poor Moishe the Milkman couldn't make a living from the sale of milk because many of the villagers owned cows. In order to survive, he let his house for rent and for himself and the family he converted the attic into some kind of a dwelling. The inhabitants of Linovo were not used to "two story" buildings and they found it funny that Moishe lived on the top of his house. The mischievous children even composed a malicious verse which they intoned from hiding places whenever the milk-man passed the street:
Moishe the Milkman
On the attic sits he
On the attic eats he
On the attic shits he
The villagers also poked fun at Gedaliah the Butcher's wife, Kreindl; they were amused by the way she talked. When a buyer would come to inquire about meat, and the butcher was not home, Kreindl would come out through the front door, and turn toward the railroad station, the only place he could possibly be. Shielding her squinting eyes with her hand, trying to spot him, she would let out a piercing shrill: "Kataliah, Kataliah! (that was how she pronounced Gedaliah), did you kill the meat already?" Kreindl didn't know the difference between meat and a live cow.
In Linovo lived my maternal grandparents Emanuel and Sara Abramowitz. They owned a small inn. Some businessmen who shipped goods by the railroad would stop for the night in Linovo. My grandparents had ten children from twenty years of age to one year, eight girls and two boys. For all the children they hired one tutor, Shmerl, a tall young, handsome man who fell in love with one of the older girls, Figitke, and married her. They settled in Lithuania.
Grandma was short, dark, very energetic and hardworking. For twenty years with short intervals, she was pregnant, breast-fed the babies, ran the inn, baked bread, cooked, made garments for the family, and for years took care of an old, sick, bedridden aunt Mume Freideh. In those days the old and the sick were taken care of at home.
Grandpa on the other hand, hardly did anything. Always neatly dressed, good-looking, his beard trimmed and combed frequently, he liked to entertain the guests and play cards with them. Card playing was his passion. I recall a certain episode, I was about four, visiting Linovo. Grandpa bought a new pack of cards, he looked at it with fondness and caressingly shuffled the new cards. The same eveninga neighbor, Mr. Tablitzky came to borrow cards. Grandpa gave him a pack of old cards. Being a child I wanted to boast about the new ones and I said; "Grandpa has a new pretty " At that moment Grandpa didn't let me finish the sentence, he angrily grabbed my hand and still with a smile on his lips, he squeezed and painfully twisted my little finger. It hurt terribly. My eyes filled with tears, but I didn't yell. I got the message and I learned then that grown-ups don't always like to hear the truth.
Grandma was too busy to pamper her offspring. Left to them-selves, as soon as they grew up they left home. The oldest three, Mariasha, Figitke, and Mama were married off. The first two lived in Lithuania and Mama and Papa settled in Pruzana. Uncle Abe left for Berlin. Three of the younger daughters, Pauline, Bessie, and Celia, emigrated to the U.S.A, later joined by the youngest one, Rose. Esther, with her family, chose Lithuania, where the oldest two sisters lived. The other son, Grisha, a bachelor, stayed with his parents in Linovo.
When Grandma suddenly died of overeating, after a Yom Kippur fasting, Grandpa and Uncle Grisha moved to Brest-on-Bug. They opened a bookstore there. Eventually Grandpa remarried, this time a big woman with a huge bosom and a deafening voice. She was from Kowel. Her name was Yoche. In her Yiddish she liked to mix in big Russian words, such as: bookvalno (literally), "neveroyatno" (incredible), and bezooslovno" unconditional. When she spoke she rested her hand on her enormous breasts and she enjoyed watching her own reflection in the mirror. Her thundering laughter could stifle the trumpets of Jericho. When it was time to feed the few chickens that walked about the backyard, and Yoche called them: "Tsip, tsip, tsip, tsipenyu", it sounded like a shrill of a three alarm fire siren. All the neighbors, startled, would run to the windows to see what happened, until they got accustomed to the "new lady's " voice. After one year of married bliss Grandpa had passed away and Yoche had returned to Kowel.
After two of my American aunts, Bessie and Celia, had visited us in Poland and got a first hand glance at our economic situation, they decided to do something to help out. They sent $500.00 to buy the rented store that Papa ran. At that time, my sister, Anya, was about to graduate from Gymnasium. My parents had a long conference about how to utilize the money. Papa, as usual, had no ideas to offer. Always contented with the status quo, he never planned for the future, he just enjoyed every day as it came. Mama, on the other hand, was always concerned about the future of her children, which she visualized only in the framework of education. She reasoned: "the store rent is low, we can manage, somehow, and in a few months, Anya is completing Gymnasium. Hence the wisest thing to do is to send Anya abroad to study medicine, her dream. "Why abroad? Because with the existing "numerus clausus" (limited number) applied to Jewish students, there was almost no chance to be admitted to a medical school in Poland.
Anya sent her application to the Karlovy University in Prague and was admitted. At that time Czechoslovakia was one of the most democratic and liberal countries and geographically the closest.
Excited and overjoyed, Anya left in September, 1932, for Prague. She was a very diligent, thorough, and serious student. At the end of each academic year she passed all her exams very well, and during the summers she worked at the local community hospital to acquire practice. The patients loved her dearly, she was a natural physician.
CPSA note: During the telling of what she went through in the Luba mentions the following memory from Pruzana.......
Paradoxically, the "have nots" are always more willing to share with others their meager resources than the rich who hate to part with their money.
I remember in my hometown, Pruzana, there was a blind beggar who always sat near the bridge, under a large willow tree, his place of "business". One day while he was eating with relish bread with a clove of garlic, a maidservant passed by leading a four year old boy by the hand. The smell of the garlic made the child's mouth water, he stopped and timidly asked the poor man for some of his food. Without hesitation, rather readily, he broke off a piece of bread, rubbed it with garlic, and handed it to the boy, who sat down on the ground beside the sightless man and smackingly enjoyed the "tid-bit". The beggar smiled, blinking his empty eye sockets with satisfaction..........
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