My Childhood in Trishik
I was the youngest of a family of five daughters and three sons. There was a tradition in my father’s family that it descends from the Cabalist of the 17th Century, Isaiah Horovitz1 , author of the "Sh’loh." This was supported by the fact that members of the family did not eat turkey; there was a similar custom amongst the "Sh’loh" and his descendants. Moreover, the surname of five of my father’s brothers was Horwitz – only my father’s father chose the name of Melamed2. (Changes of names were sometimes resorted to in order to avoid compulsory military service.)
My mother’s family were wont to claim connection with the well-known philanthropist and bibliophile, Joshua Zeitlin3. They had no definite proof of this except for the fact that it was the only family throughout Zamut whose daughters were called Ziete or Zeitel instead of the more common form, Seite.
Childhood Memories of our Home in Trishik
It is motzei shabat.
Father sits at the table and writes a letter to my sister, Simha, the eldest of the family, who is staying in Klikol (Klykoliai), a distance of some seven Russian miles from our town, Trishik, in the Falah governate, Shavel district. Correspondence between father and my sister took place via "Jewish Post," that is to say when opportunity offered because there was no postal service in either Trishik or in Klikol.
Mother sits opposite him at the table and reminds him what to write, most importantly that he shouldn’t forget the account for the cloth. There were always accounts outstanding between mother and my sister because my sister took care of the shop and her infants, while my mother took on herself the ordering from Lithuanian weavers cloth for sheets and table cloths. Of course, every summer at jam-making time, because my sister was minding the shop, to ward off accusations of idleness by her husband’s family, my mother used to cook the fruit and send it to her (my sister) when it was cooked. I run to arrange the room and run back. Mother watches and says to father: "Today Ittake is five years old."
I’m playing outside in front of our house. Suddenly I see Uncle Raphael, father’s uncle, the blind old man, walking to our house, his stick in hand. I run to him, take his hand and help him to safely cross the little bridge over the ditch in front of our house. This was the uncle who became blind in the middle of his life but who has lived more than 80 years without interrupting his study. He hired a tutor to help him carry on learning and has earned the title "rebbe." His son, Yossie-Hirsheh, who lives in Moscow, provides him with an income. I do not know on what terms he lives in our house: Does he pay for dwelling, food and care? I don’t know. Certainly the vegetable garden was part of his rent if not all of it.
And what kind of garden was it? The plot belonged to Yossi-Hirsheh in Trishik. Before the "first" fire there was a house on it with a vegetable garden at the back. Yossie-Hirsheh gave mother permission to work the whole plot as a vegetable garden. Mother made a deal with the plot, as follows: a partnership with Zeite, wife of Shlomo, to cultivate the plot. Zeite paid for the ploughing and sowing, provided the seeds and paid mother a rouble and a half in cash. Zeite (the same name as mother’s) was a relative on both mother’s and father’s side.
Long winter evenings:
The boys of the cheder finish their lessons and go home. They put out the candle (palm licht), bought with their money, and light a small lamp. Dad goes out. Mom sits next to the low stove (lizshanka) and repairs socks. The room is almost dark. My sister Miriam4, three years older than me, and I play by the stove. I turn to mother and say: "Mom, buy frozen apples from Rachel Tsireleh for me and Mirkeh." Mother asks Rachel how much the apples cost; but they are expensive: the big apples are a kopek and a half each. But mother is in a good mood and says: "Give the girls one each."
The house in which we lived belonged to Rachel Tsireleh and there were neighbours in every part of it. The best part of it she rented to father on condition that she would live in our kitchen. The sale of frozen apples in winter was one source of income for Rachel Tsireleh.
Entrance to our house from the front was through a passage, a small area without a floor. Beside the water barrel holding water, brought by the Lithuanian water pumper and her ox from the well at the beit hamidrash, stood another small barrel with water from the river Litah5. In the passage stood a cupboard which served as the pantry. The cupboard had three shelves. On the highest stood the pots with the jam, except in the month of Nisan when the matzos were kept there. On the other shelves were the milk, butter, cream and cheese. Because we had a milk cow we had milk, even enough to allow mother to sell some of it The cupboard also held the basin with the biscuits when mother baked the "shabat bracha" which was enough for the whole week, because, though father had an appetite, it was not for (ordinary) eating; mother gave him the biscuit and a glass of wine (to make the blessing). When I started saying the prayers daily, mother allowed me such a piece of bread at Shachrit [morning prayers] before praying.
From the passage there was an opening to a spacious room with three windows. This room we called "home" (shtoob). Apart from the "home," we had another room called "alkir," and the third room was the kitchen, in which Rachel also had a share. The entrance to the kitchen was from the back of the house, through the passage. In the passage, was the staircase to the upper flooras well as the cupboard for Rachel’s grocery and frozen apples.
In addition, there was an entrance to a second kitchen from the passage. This was a small room almost totally dark. Mother did not use this room for cooking. Three barrels of wine were kept there for Pesach with another barrel for the rest of the year. Mother sold wine for Pesach and for the sanctification of the kiddush every Shabat of the year, and to all who donated wine to the synagogue for havdalah and the kiddush. Mother bought the wine from wine merchants in Telz and Shavel. This room also held the jugs with the pickled cucumbers and milk for souring.
Part of the house contained a shop and behind that two rooms, only one of which had a floor. A large baking oven was placed between them with a wooden plank wall as separation. By day two or three planks were removed to provide an opening between the two rooms. In each room lived a family of four and occasionally five people. One of the neighbours kept the shop and sold groceries and, in summer, also blueberries (blaue yagdes). In the corner of the house there was another room, where a widow lived with her son and two daughters.
When Rachel Tsireleh died, the house passed to her step-son, Shmuel Cohen, who lived in Riga, and since his wife was a relative of father’s, father was allowed to stay in the house on a temporary basis, until the house was sold, on condition that father obtained the necessary permit to repair the house. Soon we had plastered rooms, and had a new stove and double windows for winter.
After a time, Shmuel Cohen sold the house to a relative Rachel Leah and her husband David Jacob and father had to pay rent as he had before. David Yankel [Jacob] was an assistant at the water mill6 which stood on the edge of town. In the early morning he went to work and he returned in the evening. At home Rachel Leah was in charge and though she had a big family, at first she lived in the two rooms at the back of the shop only. However she soon expanded her boundaries and took another room for herself. She also ran the grocery shop and added other lines to her stock-in-trade. She baked and sold bagels of black flour and there were large holes in her bagels.
Before Pesach Rachel Leah turned her house into a matzo factory. It was a lovely time for me! I came and went all the time to watch and there was so much for me to see! From the fanning to get the fire going until Rachel Leah herself put the matzot into the oven and took them out baked, it was all so interesting. The sight of the baked matzos gladdened the heart. Pesach was so close. Outside the weather was daily warmer, the days progressively longer, the sidewalks in the street gradually drying out after the thaw, the water in the ditch flowing strongly, the pieces of paper which I launched on it vanishing in the twinkling of an eye.
I Begin the Study of the Torah
One boy, my playmate, began to learn the "Alef Bet." The Alef Bet with large letters and vowels was placed before him and he repeated after my father: "alef, bet, gimmel, etc." I, interested, stood opposite and listened. From the letters, he went on to the vowels: "kamatz alef, kamatz bet" and so on, patah, segol until the end of the vowels. Thus I acquired the beginning of reading ability and the rest I learned on my own.
My friend Yisrael Motke began to study the first verses of "Chukat,"7 thus: Vayidaber -- on er hot geradet; Adonai -- Gott: el -- tsoo: Moshe -- tsoo Moshen, etcetra...
The next day he went over the same three verses. That evening I said to my sister Leah8: "I know the bible of Israel Motke." How can that be?" she asked. "Yes," I answered. "If you like, bring the book and I will read." Amazed she said to mother, "Daddy must teach her the Torah." "Yes," agreed mother, "but who knows if he will want to?" When father came home, my mother and sister together implored him to teach me. "Impossible, my pupils’ fathers will say that I’m more interested in her than my pupils. But she can sit at the desk and listen." And so I became a pupil and advanced from class to class.
I had no scripture books suitable for my age. I read the bible by myself onwards from the place where the boys in the class were slowly progressing. Once I saw a boy with a small old book without a cover in the Rashi9 script, a book for which he had no need. He didn’t know how to read it, so he gave it to me as I had asked. I was then nine years old. I read the book and found that I could understand what I read. "What are you reading?" asked father. "I don’t know," I answered. Father took the book, looked inside and asked me, "Is it your wish to become a talmudic sage (magid)?" He turned to my brother Ze’ev and said, "Do you know what she is reading? She’s reading the chapters on the Sayings of Elazar," and they both laughed. But mother who was not at all educated, was proud of her last-born daughter, precocious and studious, who read the book the Sages had used, and when Itze, the bookseller, came to our town, she bought me a new copy of the Sayings of Elazar, a volume with square characters with commentary, for twelve kopecks.
Helping the Poor
In regard to the office of Head of the Charity Fund, I am sure that the sage who said: "May the poor be members of your household" was never the head of a charity, for there was literally no peace from them. We could not even eat our meals in peace. There was always somebody coming or going. The poor of our village used to get relief once a week, on Fridays, both in cash and in kind. Every Thursday afternoon, two men, each carrying a sack on his shoulders, went from house to house and collected potatoes, peas, beans, candles, etc. Sometimes they received money or pieces of meat. My mother was responsible for the distribution and sent each poor man his share through Elye the teacher who received a portion for his trouble.
In addition we received every day itinerant paupers who travelled from one village to another. Each had his own tale of woe, one was sick, one had a wife and children, the third had a wife about to give birth to a child, and each applied for help from the charity fund. There were also the more respected poor, such as communal officials, Meshullachim and preachers, chazanim and generally persons of some learning, who had to be given a donation in order to hire a cart so as to travel to the next town. On occasions when the fund was almost exhausted, my father used to send me to Sheine-Hinde to ask if she could help a little. Sheine-Hinde was herself in charge of a charity fund on a small scale and often collected to help the poor.
The fund’s income came from the collection which my father made every weekday after morning prayers in the Synagogue. He went from worshipper to worshipper with a box in his hand and they used to throw in their contributions. There were also offerings made at the Synagogue, such as when prayers were recited on behalf of the critically sick and other donations by individuals.
The paupers who went from house to house collected tokens – square pieces of cardboard stamped "Head of the Charity Fund of Trishik." These tokens were made in our house and residents of the town bought them at the rate of eight for one kopek. The pauper on his rounds received one or two tokens from each house. When he had completed his round he would bring his takings to the cashier, namely my father, who would give him in money, one kopek for every eight tokens.
Before the baking of the Matzos in preparation for Passover, there was a gathering in the house of the Rabbi. Father, Joshua Greenstein (the highly-respected philanthropist whose donations to various institutions on Simchat Torah totaled fifty roubles), and several other worthies, compiled a list of the residents of the town and the amount which each was assessed for the Mo’es Chittim fund (this was the name given to the Passover relief for the poor). The rule was: everyone had a duty to donate to Mo’es Chittim, and if anyone complained that he could not afford to contribute, he was offered assistance from the fund. If he objected, saying that he did not require charity, he was told, "Either give or take." All the owners of the Matzo bakeries had been instructed not to permit anybody to take away his Matzos without a written authority, bearing the seal of the Gabbai, that he had fulfilled his duty to the Mo’es Chittim fund.
The list was kept in our house and interesting incidents of those days have remained in my memory. There were some who objected, complaining that the assessment was too high for them; father would then tell a parable or a witticism, the man forgot his anger, started to laugh and paid his due. A woman came in, asked how much she had to pay. Father enquired what was her name and perused the list from beginning to end, but could not find it. Offended, the woman asked: "Am I not on the Jewish list?’ Father then asked her name again and said: "Pardon me, I have made a mistake, you have to pay thirty kopeks." The woman was satisfied and paid the amount; and after she had left, father added her name to the list, together with the thirty kopeks.
Father also took the students of the Yeshivah under his care in order to provide them with "days," i.e., to find seven householders each of whom would provide the particular student with his meals for one day in the week.
Father was always borrowing money, but not for himself. There were always the needy and hard-pressed widows who required a loan in order to run their shops or their alehouses. They themselves did not enjoy sufficient confidence for anyone to lend them the money; so father who was never refused by anyone, used to borrow the money himself and lend it to them. But he never had to repay these loans to widows from his own pocket.
Fires in the small towns were so common in the summer months that they served as a calendar of the years and periods for the residents, so they used to talk, for instance, of some event in the past and would say "That happened before (or after) the first fire" or the second and so on. In the fire of my childhood the tavern of the two widows, mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law, was burnt down. The tavern was the only source of income for the two women and four children. They turned to father with a request that he obtain for them timbers for the walls of a new house. Father went to the town Kurshan (Kursenai) and spoke from the heart to Leib Lipschitz, asking him to give the material needed for the walls. "Will Reb Shmuel Leib stand guarantee for the debtor?" "Yes," said father, "I am the guarantor." "And how can Reb Shmuel Leib trust two women with no money?" "And how can Reb Leib Lipschitz trust me?" asked father. "He’s an honest man". "And they are honest women," said father. The negotiations were concluded. Leib Lipschitz gave the material and the tavern was built.
Father was also a peace-maker between man and wife. I recall that once a woman came to complain about her bitter fate. Her husband wrapped a brick up in a towel and hit her. Father invited the rabbi of our town to go with him to the woman’s house to reprove the husband: "Aren’t you utterly ashamed, Yossie, to beat your wife and so cruelly. Such a deed is a disgrace to a Jew." "The truth is," answered Yossie, "that I’m soft-hearted. If my heart was a little harder I would have killed her." Father had to go to another town to interview a [proposed] bridegroom for an orphan girl.
On long winter nights, father would get up at three in the morning and study Gemara until seven. Then he would go to the shul for the Shachrit prayers. Father loved his wife and children and cared for our health. During autumn when there was a lot of rain and the roads were covered with mud, he would check the shoes of each one of us before we got up for fear that the shoes were not in complete good order and that we had neglected to take them to the shoemaker for repair. Hence we would be liable to catch colds, G-d forbid.
Yet with all this he was an irritable man who cast fear over his household. This reverence which father demanded and got from all of us, was not accorded to the rich who wasted large sums on luxuries for their families. I was a little girl when my brother Ze’ev told me that I shouldn’t sit on father’s chair and from that day I did not sit on his chair until he died just ten days after he reached the age of 67, when I was in my twenties. Since I was the youngest it was my duty to give father a jug of water in the morning to wash his hands when he came from shul before breakfast, to bring him his sandals and take his shoes from him.
My father did not lavish respect on any man and was quick to take offence. He was inclined to pride himself on his sons and on me, his youngest daughter [ie. Ita herself] who was so well-versed in biblical knowledge. This was not likely to win him affection in our small town where everyone was jealous of his neighbour, and yet there were people who loved to come to our house. In no small way this caused mother to insist on cleanliness and order and despite our simple furniture, it was not at all unpleasant to visit our house. But the main thing was they loved to converse with my father and my brother Ze’ev whose wife died when he was thirty-three. He did not remarry and thereafter lived with us.
The Talmud pupils and other students came most Shabat evenings and also after the third Shabat meal (se’udah shelishith). Father led the conversation and the subject of our talk was on the great talmudists and famous rabbis whom he knew face to face in his time. Father was like a secret well that never ran dry. In all his days he never forgot an idea about a biblical passage or an article by the Talmudic Sages which he had read or heard. He also remembered the points of argument, almost all based on the words of the Torah or which fell from the lips of the Sages or their writings in which they were embodied. Like all of his generation, his conversation was spiced with a story or some such observation as an example.
As the emigration from our town to America and to South Africa grew, within a few years it was emptied of most of its inhabitants, and with the fires burning down most of the houses as well, some families moved to other towns and this way of life came to an end
What led to the Emigration
In my childhood I saw the great transformation that took place in the Jewish population of Lithuanuia -- the emigration movement to America and South Africa. Lithuania was a poor country, the Lithuanians being in the main an agricultural people. There was no industry worth mentioning until the end of the 19th Century. Many Jews born in Lithuania had left their birth-place at an earlier period - when there was a temporary cessation of persecution and restrictions in the time of Alexander II - and had settled in various cities in Russia. Others settled in the Baltic ports. There was quite a large number of Moscow or Riga "zitzers," that is, persons whose families lived in Lithuania, while they themselves engaged in trade in the large cities outside of Lithuania and came home once a year on a Festival to visit members of their families.
The Jews of Lithuania followed various occupations. They were shopkeepers, publicans (keepers of alehouses), tenants, that is people living in the villages who had leased dairies, inns, small-holdings and orchards from the landowners. They were also tradesmen an communal officials. The majority earned the barest livelihood. By order of the reactionary government of Alexander III, all the Jews living in Greater Russia (except a small number who enjoyed special privileges) were expelled from the places where they had been settled for a whole generation, and they were forced into the Pale of Settlement; and in the Pale itself the Jews were driven from the farm lands.
The public-houses were closed down because the Government took over the monopoly of the sale of strong drink. The trade in flax and fkaxseed, which had been in the hands of the Jews who bought the raw material from the farmers and exported it, now fell away. The reason was that the textile manufacturers in Germany began to send their agents directly to the peasants. The makers of tile roofs who had settled in Lifland were also forced back to the Pale and so were deprived of their means of livelinhood.
In this situation of unprecedented economic ruin, our brethren turned towards America and South Africa. Thousands and tens of thousands left the congested Pale of Settlement and crossed the seas in hopes of finding a livelihood and a refuge from persecution.
Relations between the Jews and the Lithuanians
The shopkeepers, bar-keepers, those owning workshops, knew the "goyim" well, namely the Lithuanian farmers. I didn’t even know spoken Lituanian. I knew the water-carrier who came every Shabat to milk the cow and to light the stove on winter Shabatot. I also knew the washerwoman who took our washing home and returned it laundered. I always listened when mother counted [the laundry items] and so I learnt to count in Lithuanian. In addition to these, I knew the "shabbes goy." Some women in our street brought their ’’cholent" every Friday before Shabat to the baking oven of Rachel-Leah. On Shabat after the morning prayer, the shabbes goy opened the oven and took each family’s cholent to its house. Although my knowledge of the goyim was very limited, all the same the impression remains in my memory that relations were good. The quip that was most often heard about the shabbes goyim was that they used to say (jokingly): "Now we bring you the cholent. When the Messiah comes, you will carry our cholent."
Once, before Pesach, a [Lithuanian] woman came to the rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Gordon of Telz, and said to him that her neighbour was a poor woman [a Jewess] with nothing to eat. She asked the rabbi if he would see to it that she should not, God forbid, remain with chometz since she had nothing for the holiday. The rabbi wrote down the name and address of the neighbour and assured the women that her neighbour would have what she needed for Pesach. The woman said: "Ich hob genug meine eigene tsorris. Darf ich noch leiden dem tsor fun mein schenah?" [I have enough trouble of my own. Must I also bear the troubles of my neighbour?] The rabbi answered that this last remark of hers indicated that she too needed support and asked: "What about yourself? Don’t you need help [with peisachdike food]?" "Nein rebbe. Ich bin a trayfene goyah [No rabbi I’m a non-Kosher gentile]"! [Note: It should be remembered that after living in close proximity to Jews for centuries many Lithuanian peasants had learnt to speak some Yiddish--- J.L.]
The Jews did not trust the Lithuanian farmers. Amongst themselves they said: "The goy is a thief and at the right time, he is also a murderer. There is no honest goy. The only straight thing about him is that he bears out the verse: "Rescue me and deliver me out of the hands of strangers, who speaketh lies and their right hand is the right hand of perjury." (Psalm 144). Our great tragedy is that the Jews were not wrong. There were many Lithuanians who aided the Nazi murderers.
I grew up, I turned twenty-four and married. My husband, Meyer Dovid Hersch, was a man of thirty-seven when I married him, a widower after his first marriage, and a father of six sons. In his youth my husband had studied Torah deeply and he knew much. He knew the Bible and wrote Hebrew with great style. He wrote articles for the Hebrew press and his articles were sought after and widely read. He was a chartered accountant.
1. HOROVITZ, Isaiah ben Avraham Halevi (1555 – 1628)
Cabalist, Rabbi, and author was born in Prague about 1555 and died in Safed, Palestine about 1628. He was a celebrated Talmudic authority and occupied rabbinical positions in some of the most important Jewish centres, such as Posen, Cracow, Frankfort (1606 – 1614), and Prague (1614 – 1621). He then went to Jerusalem and finally to Safed where he joined a group of LurianCabalists.
He is generally surnamed SH’LoH from the initials of his chief work Shenay Luhoth Habrith (The Two Tablets of the Covenant, an allusion to Deut. 9:15). It is an encyclopaedic work dealing with all phases of Jewish life from the Cabalistic point of view. The work became immensely popular by reason of its clear exposition, its agreeable manner of presentation and its mystic views. It was called "the holy Sh’loh" and was regarded in its time as the most important of books written for religious edification.
2. The name "Melamed"
Ita’s father Shmuel-Leib (1826-1893 approx.) and his father before him (Ita’s grandfather) were teachers and it was natural that when it became necessary to resort to a name change in order to escape the compulsory 25 years military service under the Tzar’s decree they should adopt the name "Melamed," which is the Hebrew for "teacher." The original family name was Horwitz (see the Introduction).
3. Zeitlin, Joshua
Russian scholar and philanthropist, born Kiev, 1823, died Dresden, 1888. As a youth he followed the Chasidim, later devoting himself to the study of secular sciences as well as the Hebrew language and literature. Settling in Moscow he became prominent as a benefactor of Talmudic students and Maskilim. He left Russia in 1883 to settle in Dresden where he collected a large library, which he placed at the disposal of Talmudic students.
4. "My sister Miriam" also called Mirkeh or Mary.
5. "The river Litah"
According to Nancy and Stuart Schoenburg in Lithuanian Jewish Communities, Garland, New York, 1991, p. 314, the river of Trishik was the Virvita.
6. "The water mill"
Two flour mills on the Virvita River were owned by Kagenton and Cohen (Schoenburg).
7. Chukat: Numbers, 19.1.
8. "My sister Leah"
She was the second oldest of Ita’s four sisters.
9. RASHI (1040 – 1105)
Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes was the author of the most popular commentaries on the Bible and the Talmud, which have become an indispensable aid to their study. Because of the extreme popularity of Rashi’s work, his commentary on the Pentateuch had the distinction of being the first Hebrew book to be printed (1475). Through his unequalled and gigantic work, Rashi became one of the most revered personalities in Jewish history. His work made the study of the Bible and Talmud accessible to the average student and contributed to the widespread study of the Torah.
The texts of Rashi’s commentaries are usually printed on the same page with the Bible or Talmud text in a special semi-italic lettering known as Rashi script.