The Autobiography of Solomon Katzen
The Early Years: 1902-1923

Solomon Katzen

Part 3

© 1995 Solomon Katzen. Used with permission.

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School Outings

School outings were held infrequently. As upper classmen we would go with a teacher into the open fields. There would be rope pulling contests, broad jumping over ditches, or games with sticks or swings in the woods. However, once it was decided to go to the seashore. The nearest spot was a small fishing village by the name of Royen on the Gulf of Riga, a distance of about 15 miles. We went in four open farm wagons supplied by fathers of some of the students. Each wagon was pulled by two horses. We were 10-12 students per wagon. The experiences were great. It was the first time I saw the seashore. The smell, the fish nets, large four-masted sail ships in the distance. The water was shallow and you had to walk a distance to be in deeper water. Since there was no harbor, the larger ships were at anchor 3/4 of a mile to one mile from shore. One of the schooners was being loaded with bags of grain. Workmen were carrying these heavy 200 pound bags on their shoulders, waist deep in water, until they would reach a large row boat where they would unload and come back for more. Then the row boats would be rowed to the schooner and unloaded there. At that time, work was in progress building the jetty into the gulf. When completed the freight to be loaded or unloaded from the ships could be transported by horses on the jetty. He workmen (mostly Russians) were driving piles into the ground. They would pull in unison, about 10 men raising a heavy weight and letting it drop on the pile.

The students played roughly. Many of them would get into anchored rowboats and others would try to overturn the boats. They had succeeded once, and the occupants who were partially dressed were thrown in the water.

While we were at the seashore there was a haze and the sea was quiet. Early in the afternoon the weather changed suddenly and we started on our return trip. The heavens opened up with a deluge, thunder and lightning the likes of which I had not experienced before. There being no cover in the wagons, we were drenched to the bone. Many parents were at the school eagerly awaiting the return of our group from the day’s outing at the seashore.

Brother Harry Learns A Trade

It must have been midsummer of 1913, when Harry (Mendel) became a Bar-Mitzvah. Yet, I have absolutely no recollection of the event. I do remember that a friend of his, Isaac Eckstein, who was a little older, was teaching him the intricacies of making a tie. Boys who were about to become Bar-Mitzvah were wearing long trousers and, of course, for the ceremony they would have on a tie. Generally, besides being called for the Aliya and reading the Maftir (from the Prophets) on the given Saturday, there were no large celebrations or gift giving. After Bar Mitzvah it was obligatory to put on Tefilnfor the morning prayers, and they were counted like grown-ups in a Minyan — the required quorum of ten for public worship.

After his Bar Mitzvah, Father must have been considering various fields of endeavor for him. While I was in the elementary school, Harry was studying general subjects with private tutors and Jewish studies with father. There was no possibility for continuing his education in Sasmaken. Neither would he have been accepted in a Middle School in another city because of quotas and finances.

Apparently, Harry had no aptitude nor inclination to become an apprentice in one of the larger stores. Likewise, the prevailing trades in town were below the dignity of a Rabbi’s son. There were many shoemakers, tailors, tinsmiths, potters, butchers, bakers, cattle dealers, etc. There was one barber and one watchmaker. The latter trade was of somewhat higher caliber, but the local watchmaker did not need an apprentice.

When we started on our journey I do not remember. But I do remember being on a train approaching Mitau, the capital city of Kourland. Father was taking Harry to Mitau to have him apprenticed at a watchmaker, and I was taken along for the ride or the experience. Through mutual acquaintances, arrangements must have been made by mail. In this manner, things were concluded. Harry and his belongings were left at the watchmakers. While father was busy, I was out on the streets, and was very much impressed with the beauty of the city, the streets of which were lined with three- and four-story buildings.

Presumably, Father had to see someone else, the owner of a large yard goods store. Ready-to-wear clothing as a product was not available at that time, and yard goods stores were greatly in vogue. I went along, and was duly impressed by the size and variety of goods. To this day, I remember a stuffed wolf that was prominently displayed on the counter.

On the way back, father and I stopped in Riga. We visited mother’s cousin Beila Geronick, (Ethel Mushat’s mother). Father had some other errands in Riga, and to entertain me, Beila sent her oldest daughter, who was about 3 or 4 years younger than myself, to go walking with me, and show me the city park (Vermansher Park). The girl’s name was Sonya, the same as the name of my sister. Apparently we were in the park longer than expected, and Beila and my father came looking for us. In Beila’s apartment, there were electric lights, which was a novelty for me and I enjoyed turning the light on and off.

On the train back, a German musician sat next to us. He taught me the use of fingers for wind instruments. I couldn’t move my fingers to his satisfaction. A few weeks after our return home, Harry, too, came home. Apparently nothing came of the attempt to have Harry learn the watchmaker’s trade.

Everybody Is Looking For Me

I believe, that this episode happened a year earlier. When one walked down the Ozere St (Lake St.) past the synagogue, past the besmedrash, and past the windmill, and the Jewish Cemetery, and if you took the right side branch of the unpaved road, it would lead you straight to the lake.

From mid-June through mid-August, the lake was warm enough for swimming. Of course, no one wore any bathing suits. The men and boys used one area, and the women and girls were about 50 yards distant behind some reeds growing in the lake.

On the lake shore, there was one shed which was owned by Shaye Thal, the rich man. The others would undress in the open, hang their clothes on a fence or drop them on the grass. About 20 yards to the left from where the men bathed, there was a place to bathe the horses, where the depth of the lake increased abruptly. Those who owned horses would bring them there to swim.

The lake was about four miles in length and one mile in width. The incident, I’m about to relate happened on a Friday afternoon. A number of townsmen and boys were bathing including myself. While swimming, I encountered a schoolmate by the name of Mattison who was rowing a boat. He lived on a farm on the opposite side of the lake. He was one or two grades ahead of me at school, and thus, at least three years older than myself. He invited me into his rowboat and I didn’t waste a minute doing it. Well, he rowed the boat all over the lake, to places I hadn’t seen before, I was naked, and completely oblivious to time. When it started to darken a bit, I reminded myself that my clothes were left on the fence at the lakeshore. At my urging we returned to the bathing beach. Everybody was gone, not a soul around, and my clothes still on the fence.

I dressed quickly and started toward town on the double. About half way, a group of people were going to the lake to look for me. It was already semi-dark. The Shabbas services were over, and many had even finished dinner. When our family sat down for dinner, I was missed, and need not tell you what was going through the minds of my parents. It was miraculous, that they didn’t get to the bathing beach and find my clothing on the fence, and me nowhere in sight.

We Move Again

The year is probably 1912. This time we move to a flat on the 2nd floor on the Hoff St. closer to the center of town. The house was owned by Minnah Thal, a widow, who owned three adjacent two story buildings from the market place down onto the Hoff St. The access to the flat was via an outside wooden stairway. In the winter time, with accumulations of snow and ice it was rather treacherous. You have to bear in mind that besides provisions, wood for heating and cooking, as well as water from the pump in the yard, had to be hand carried upstairs. At this time there was still no indoor plumbing or electricity. Light was obtained from kerosene lamps. The outhouses were most inconvenient in the winter nights. In the hall preceding the entrance to the living quarters were kept a barrel of fresh water, a pail for slop, barrels of sauerkraut, pickles, flour, other provisions and chopped wood.

The Death of Grandfather Brachya Katzen in New Bedford, Mass.

When word reached us, by telegraph or mail that grandfather Katzen passed away it threw the entire household into mourning. The blow was especially hard on father. This event brought back hazy memories, when we received word that father’s young brother Shaye (Isaiah) passed away in Brooklyn, NY. He had lived at the home of father’s older sister Feige Gita Kramer.

Grandfather and Grandma Katzen had settled in New Bedford, Mass. because they had two married daughters with their families living there. One sister was Golda Baskin and the younger one was Rosa-Beile Brown. After the death of her husband, Grandma Katzen remained in her own flat and supported herself with selling kosher wines to the Jewish Community there. Before the year of mourning was over father corresponded with his sisters in New Bedford regarding the monument to be erected on grandfather’s grave. Father had composed a poem in Hebrew of about 10 lines, and sent this poem to be etched on the monument. It developed, that none of the New Bedford stone cutters were familiar with Hebrew lettering. A decision was reached that since I was fairly good at printing that I should draw this poem on a paper the size of the proposed monument. This was done and Pa mailed it to New Bedford, where the stone cutter pasted it on the stone and cut the letters as shown.

I Graduate From Elementary School — June 1914

Before graduation, thee students were requested to furnish the principal with official birth certificates. I obtained mine from the Government Rabbi Levenberg and brought it to the principal. He didn’t believe that I was born in 1902, again making some snide remark that the Jewish records can hardly be believed.

Since most graduates were in the 14-15 years range, how could I be not quite 12 years old? Being a tall boy, the difference in my age was not noticeable. The principal duty of the Government Rabbi was to keep meticulous records of births, marriages, and deaths among the Jewish population.

The graduation was preceded by two days of final examinations. To observe the process of both oral and written examinations, there appeared on the scene a regional school inspector, decked out in official regalia. The school principal, Schweitzer, was also present at the examinations. Two students were seated as usual at a double desk. For the oral portions both students would be called up to the font of the classroom and there questioned. However, the written portions were assigned to the entire class and each student would write and hand in his paper.

When it was time to examine the students in religion, in addition to the local pastor, there came pastor Yenich from the county seat Erwalen. Again two students were called up front and questioned orally. As they were going down the line, my desk was reached and since both of us were called, I too went up front. Pastor Yenich asked me some question about the catechism. This was done in the Latvian language and I proceeded to answer.

The principal then observed that I was Jewish and, therefore, excused from examination on this subject. The regional pastor Yenich was amazed since I answered the question correctly, and inquired of the principal, about my parents. He subsequently arranged to meet my father in a rather friendly manner. The Pastor could converse in Latvian or German. Father could only talk to him in broken German, and knew little of the Latvian language.

After my graduation from Elementary 4-Year School, where the subjects covered were equivalent to the American first year of high school. These included some algebra, geometry, history, geography, physics and some chemistry, besides the Russian language. There was no question where to continue my education. There was no high school in Sasmaken and sending me off to another city was out of the question. These few drawbacks would suffice. Finances were unavailable, because there was a substantial fee, and secondly, because of the existing "numerous clauses", as a poor Jewish boy, there was no chance of being accepted. There were no openings in the few larger stores to begin clerking and I didn’t care for any trade where I may have been given a chance. My older brother Harry was studying Talmud privately with father. Father knew that I had absolutely no inclination to study subjects that eventually may lead to the Rabbinate.

He cajoled me and entreated me at least to learn enough to become a Baal Koreh, i.e., a reader of the Torah and Magilot with the proper cantillation. Since I didn’t need any instructions, except to practice, I occasionally went to the besmedrash and practiced some of the reading. Being free from school, I helped mother a great deal with the household chores. Went to the woods to pick berries, to the lake for swimming.

I had no particular friend at the time. Most boys of my age were still in cheder or helping their parents in their various trades.

I forgot to mention that during the summer or 1914, mother was again pregnant, and in the fall delivered a third sister, "Bracha" named after Grandpa Katzen.

Sasmaken, the Town, Its People, and Occupations

It was a small town in the county of Talsen, in Kourland (or Courland). The town was built on a hillock of about 75 feet. In the center of the town was the market place and the Lutheran church. Four major streets emanated from the market place like spokes on a wheel. In area, the town covered less than two square kilometers.

The Baltic provinces: Kourland, Lifland (Livonia) and Ostland (Estonia) were areas surrounded on one side by the Baltic Sea and by thick forests and lakes. Prior to 12th century, the native populations had practically no contact with their neighbors. To the south of Kourland lies Lithuania. All three peoples, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians speak different languages which have no relation to each other or to most European tongues. Linguists find some commonality between Estonian, Finnish and Hungarian languages. Because of its proximity to Poland, Lithuania adopted Catholicism in the 11th century.

The Baltic provinces fell under the hegemony of the Teutonic knights who founded the fortress (city) of Riga in 1201. The knights claimed the ownership of the land and the native population became their serfs. For a time, Sweden controlled the Baltic provinces. With the Russian expansion westward, starting with Peter the Great, who defeated the Swedes, first Estonia, and then in the regime of Kathryn the Great, Kourland and Lifland were annexed to Russia. The ownership of the land was left in the hands of the knights, who were now called Barons. Thus, the lands, woods, lakes and the ground on which Sasmaken was built belonged to Baron Heiking. His castle was about one mile distant from Sasmaken. To establish trades and commerce, Jews from Germany were invited by the Baron and were simply tolerated. Jewish settlement in Sasmaken probably started around 1700. I remember seeing some crumpling tombstones in the Jewish cemetery, which were then over 100 years old.

Now returning to Sasmaken, as I remember it, there were approximately 80 Jewish families living there and about 60 Christian families. The Jews lived mostly in the center, and the Latvians and some Germans on the outskirts.

Among the descendants of the original Jewish settlers were the Thals, some of whom were the richest inhabitants. Besides the four Thal families previously mentioned, there was another, Shaye Thal, who owned the largest general store. Adjacent to his store was his palatial home and garden. Most middle class Jews lent him their savings at interest since there were no banks in Sasmaken.

Then there was a Weinberg family, who were very numerous. Most of them were butchers or cattle dealers. Then there were the Edelsteins who ranged from rich to middle class and down to shoemakers. Other names that come to mind: Lemchen, Himmelhoch, Levius, Kramer, Orkin, Werbelow, Beckman, Mandelshtam, Rosenberg, Davidovich, etc. Except for two small stores owned by Latvians and a farmer’s cooperative all stores were Jewish owned and operated. It was rather difficult for a Jew to be licensed as a pharmacist, so the local apothecary which dispensed only prescriptions was owned by a German by the name of Stolzer. In addition to the apothecary there were two drug stores, one owned by a Mr. Levius and the other by Minna Thal.

So the Jews were the storekeepers, shoemakers, tinsmiths, butchers, cattle dealers, tailors, cap makers, peddlers who would cover the countryside, freight transporters, etc. There were no doctors or dentists in town. Thee regional doctor by the name of Kakis had his office at the sub-county seat — Erwalen. Besides seeing patients in his office, he would visit patients in their homes in Sasmaken. This Dr. Kakis married the daughter of the apothecary - Marie Stolzer.

A number of Jewish families had relatives who had emigrated earlier to the USA and South Africa. There was a continuing slow trickle of emigration going on. In late afternoon, those who were expecting mail and remittances from their relatives would gather at the Post Office to claim their mail, if any. Usually young adults would emigrate first, or, in many instances, the father of the family would leave, and in time, send for their families. The remittances reaching the families, in many cases, were their sole income.

On Thursdays — the market days, the farmers, fish and cattle dealers would come to sell their wares, and in turn buy things they needed. Since Royen, the small port and fishing village was not far from town, there usually would be a supply of fresh, salted or smoked fish. In season, when flounders were running, some of the enterprising fishermen would bring freshly smoked flounders, which tasted not unlike American smoked white fish. Yet, there was another variety, smoked by a slow process where the end product was a dry fish. The native sons of Sasmaken, who emigrated to distant lands retained a hankering for these dry flounders called "Buten." The relatives would buy these dry fish and seal them in 5 or 10 lbs tins, and mail them to their kin, now living in distant lands. All males, aged 21, were required to present themselves at the regional drafting office for physical examination. These were then graded: 1) Fit to serve and would be sent off to distant cities to serve for 3 years; 2) Those of medium fitness were classified as reserve, and were subject to call in an emergency; 3) The third category, who were not fit for military duty, were released and sent home.

The lists of prospective draftees would be established based on the records furnished by the local Government Rabbi. Those born in a certain year, less those who have died, and those who have emigrated legally. Some young men of draft age (who couldn’t emigrate legally) would arrange to leave the country illegally, which wasn’t too difficult at that time. The lone policeman in Sasmaken would go looking for them, and, of course, not finding them, the family was to pay a fine of 100 rubles. In many instances the families had emigrated legally, so there was no one left to pay the fine. However, where they found a widowed mother or other poor parents who couldn’t pay, the policeman would confiscate the Shabbas candlesticks, blankets, or anything of value.

The Jews lived as second class citizens, but maintained a close community life. With the arrival of Friday night, the quiet time of Shabbas would descend on the town. The homes, no matter how poor, would take on a special glow, with lit candles seen through every window. All business was closed and the gentile population knew it. The synagogue in the warmer months (during the cold months, it was closed because it had no heating facilities) and the besmedrash all year long were the centers of the community. Everyone observed the Shabbas and attended public worship.

Even on week days, practically everyone attended the morning service, and a great number could be found for Mincha and Maariv. On Saturday afternoons, there was a group studying Mishna or Talmud. Others, not so well versed, would be reciting the Psalms. Especially during the summer, many Jews in family groups would go walking to the woods, to the fields, to get some sunshine and fresh air or go visiting friends or relatives.

On Sundays, too, the stores were closed until the afternoon. However, if a customer needed something in a store, somehow he was served. It goes without saying that the Jewish holidays were strictly observed.

There was no social relationship between the Jews and Gentiles. It was almost totally a business relationship. The Jews regarded themselves as being in Galut (diaspora), and the natives looked at the Jews as strangers, at best to be tolerated. There was always a latent anti-semitism. Gentile boys would frequently greet Jewish boys with derisive remarks. However, in the eyes of a 12 year old boy, everything was peaceful and bearable.

August — 1914 War

The idyllic peace of a beautiful summer was shattered. In Sarajevo, Bosnia, a Serb fired the shot that killed the visiting Archduke, heir to throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria threatened Serbia with dire results. The big brother of the Slavs, Russia, warned that if Serbia were to be attacked Russia would enter the war. Germany then warned it would help Austria. France, being a member of the Entente (with Russia and England), in turn, warned about its stand. In quick succession, everyone, that is, the Central Powers, Germany, Austria and subsequently Italy were mobilized. Their opposing powers, France, England and Russia did likewise. Austrian troops started attacking Serbia, Russian troops crossed the Austrian border. German troops, to get at France, attacked neutral Belgium, as well as France. Russian armies penetrated East Germany and Austria.

Let’s return to the mood of Sasmaken in the fateful days of August 1914. The local policemen posted printed announcements on the telegraph poles. These were printed on red paper about 8 by 12 in size. These stated that his Imperial Majesty, the Czar, in order to protect the homeland, and the faith, had declared war on Austria-Hungary, and Germany. It ordered all the reservists to report to the county seat, Talsen, within a day. What the transportation arrangements were I don’t know. However, I remember seeing about twenty reservists, from Sasmaken and surrounding farms, leave in two farm wagons. I believe that there were two Jewish reservists among them. Although there was a great deal of activity, Sasmaken being only about 100 km from the German border¸ there was the feeling that the war would be over soon. With victory on the side of the Allies.

It happened that early in the war, the Germans entered Kourland and occupied the city of Libau and its port. They met with no resistance as there was no Russian garrison there. The Germans didn’t try to advance further into Kourland. The main thrust of the war was in Western Europe. However, when the Russians penetrated about 75 kilometers into East Germany against weak opposition, the Germans hurriedly transferred several divisions to the Eastern Front. With the reinforcements, they dealt the Russian army a crucial blow. They took about 150,000 prisoners and routed the Russians out of Germany, and occupied large portions of Russian Poland.

In the meanwhile, the Russian army was advancing deep into Austria. The latter army was a conglomeration of various nationals. The leading officers and the elite, were Austrians and Hungarians. However, more than half the army were Czechs, Slovens, Poles, Rutherians, Ukrainians, Jews — people who were not interested in an Austrian victory. They fought poorly and many became prisoners of war voluntarily. To protect the possibility of the Russians entering Germany from Austria, the Germans then sent military help to the Austrians, and there too, the Russians started a retreat.

Even in peace times, the newspapers, as well as all publishing, was subject to censorship. The few newspapers reaching Sasmaken, were heavily censored, and people became used to reading between the lines. Rumors were plentiful. There were stories about two German cruisers, Goeben and Breslau, who escaped through the allied blockade into the open ocean and dealt havoc to Allied shipping. They escaped pursuit from the English and managed to reach the Black Sea where they were causing a lot of damage to Russian shipping. By that time, Rumania and Turkey joined the Central Powers. The majority of the Jews in Sasmaken were partial toward a German victory. After all, in Germany, the Jews were treated like citizens and had almost equal rights with the rest of the citizenry, whereas in Russia, the Jews were less than second class citizens; with so many areas of the country closed to them, as well as the professions, commerce, and education. Having suffered staggering losses, with the Russian Army in disarray, transport, communications and supply in a very bad way, the Czar decided to change the commander of the Army. He brought out of retirement an Uncle of his, Nikolai Nikolaievich, who took over the command. Under his leadership, things moved from bad to worse. The Germans had occupied more of Russian Poland, and were moving forward. As usual, under these conditions, the leadership was looking for the proverbial scape goat who could be blamed for their reverses. Who is responsible, if not the Jews! Of course, they are all spies for Germany and in order to stop the German advance, the Jews must go.

Shavuot - 1915

The average household in Sasmaken had no secular calendar. The life of the townspeople revolved around the Luach or Jewish calendar, which furnished the time for lighting the Shabbas candles: which portion of the Torah was to be read on a given Saturday, Rosh Hashanah and new moon days, the festival and holiday dates, etc. Well, I can’t tell you the secular date, but it was on the second day of Shavuot 1915, when the local policeman came into the synagogue during the morning worship. He ascended the Bimah (pulpit in the center of the synagogue) and read a proclamation from the Highest Army Commander, that the Jews of Sasmaken are to leave town within 24 hours and proceed by whatever transport they can get to the railroad station of Stenden. From there they will be evacuated further by train.

There was no room for appeal, there was nobody to talk to; the order was from the High Command of the Army. Non-compliance would have meant massacre by Cossacks. I don’t think that the services were continued. The people went to their homes and began immediately to prepare for evacuation. Only about 5-10 percent of the Jews owned horses and wagons. There could be no communal action and every family had to make their own arrangements. The news of the pending evacuation of the Jews was posted and spread quickly among the local Latvians and those living on nearby farms.

The need for transport, exceeded the supply. The Jewish butchers and peddlers who did their business with farmers in the countryside had access to them. There was a butcher by the name of Weinberg who suggested to my father, that his son and I go to a certain farmer, a distance of about 4 to 5 miles from town and hire a wagon with a driver for each of our families. The price was steep because of the sudden demand, and the farmers had to drop their work for a day. We walked home and reported the success of our mission.

In the town there was bedlam. People were packing, deciding what to take. Some people buried valuables in their yards. As explained earlier, since most people had their savings with the few wealthy storekeepers, they were able to collect only small amounts because of the unavailability of cash. Father received about 30 rubles of his savings. Very few people had anything resembling valises, so they utilized feather beds, blankets, sheets, in which was rolled in underwear, clothing, cutlery, and metal teapots. In our case, we included the nickel samovar, which father had received as a gift in Odessa. We had a big framed picture on the wall, which contained photos of relatives, which were cut out and included in our baggage.

On the morning after Shavuot, our hired farmer arrived with his large wagon, which normally carried hay, hitched to it were two black horses. He helped us carry the big wrapped bundles from the second floor. Mother took along some provisions and milk. We climbed into the wagon and made ourselves "comfortable" on top of the bundles and were off to the railroad station Stenden. Almost like the biblical patriarch Jacob, who went down with his family to Egypt, we too, that is, father Jacob-Leib, mother Chaya-Rivka, older brother Mendel (Harry), myself, Baruch-Mayer, David, Lozer, Sonya (Sheine), Sarah (Shirley) and Bracha, all told ten souls.

We left our flat with our belongings open. Other people locked their homes and entrusted the keys to Latvian friends. While the Latvian inhabitants didn’t show any outward joy at the scene of the expulsion of the Jews, there were some who showed some concern, yet, the majority didn’t seem displeased by the spectacle. You have to bear in mind, that this was a total expulsion. The sick, invalids, pregnant women, imbeciles. How some of these people managed, I don’t know, for each of us was preoccupied with our own problems.

For instance, I have no idea what arrangements were made for the synagogue and besmedrash, which contained at least 20 Torah scrolls, and innumerable sets of Mishnayas, Talmuds, and other holy books. Perhaps these houses of worship were locked up and the keys given to a trustworthy Latvian. The road to Stenden, a distance of 21 viorst, or about 30 kilometers, was a dirt road. First, we reached the larger town, county seat Talsen, where we noticed the same scene of Jews getting out. Since Talsen was so much closer to Stenden, by the time we arrived there, the small railroad station was overfilled and most of the expelled Jews were out in the open fields with their bundles along the railroad tracks.

Of course, rumors were spreading that there would be a train for our disposal, but there was no train. There was no place where one could purchase food and sanitary provisions were non-existent. One relieved himself in the open fields behind some bushes. The group camping outside the station swelled to about 400 families, as the Jews from Talsen were also there.

The whole group were obliged to remain in the open over night. Since the time was either the end of May or early June, the night was not too cold. The following morning a train arrived to pick up the refugees. We were to be called by the name Bezhentzi refugees, whereas, actually we were exiles. The train consisted entirely of freight cars, which means no amenities of any kind. Loaded into each car were 40 people with all their belongings. Since there were no steps or stepladder, it wasn’t easy to climb into one of those cars. Near the ceiling was a one foot square opening covered by an iron grate which served as a window. Every family carried with them a chamber pot. It so happened, that the freight car into which our family settled, previously carried flour which covered the walls and floor. After being in the car for 24 hours, we looked like white ghosts. The first station after Stenden was Tukum. We spent there several hours. The train was being switched to other tracks. Other cars were added. Presumably filled with Tukum Jews. After a long slow journey we finally reached the city of Riga. A slow train ride from Stenden to Riga normally took three hours. Well it took three days for the "refugees" to cover the same distance.


The Jewish community of Riga (30,000 souls) were aware of the edict of expulsion of the Jews from unoccupied Kourland¸ as well as from the northern part of the adjacent Kovno Gubernia. In all, there descended on Riga trainloads of penniless, 8,000 to 10,000 refugees.

Our train was met by groups of young Jewish volunteers, men and women, who brought bread, milk, boiled eggs to the arrivals, many of whom were suffering from hunger. The volunteers helped to unload the families with their belongings and transport them to various destinations for temporary lodging.

Our family, along with many others, were brought to the Petav St. Synagogue. For the first time I saw candelabras with electric candles. It was a beautiful synagogue with some marble inside.

There existed in Riga, a free soup kitchen to serve the local poor people. Now this was enlarged, the volunteers gave their free service, and a hot free meal was served daily to the new refugees in need. There were quite a few refugees who had close relatives in Riga and managed to move in with them.

Mother had some distant relatives in Riga, the Mushats, Peretzmans and Geroniks. Pa and I went to see some of them. They either had already taken in some closer relatives or simply there was no room to accommodate a family of ten. No matter how beautiful the synagogue was, sleeping on the floor and lack of amenities did not contribute to our well-being.

The Jewish community leaders, sent a delegation of prominent men to the Governor General of Riga to gain permission for the refugees to remain in Riga, since they will not be a burden to the city government as the Jewish Community will take care of them. The answer was that the Jews must be removed to the interior of Russia or else drown them all in the Dvina River. It didn’t take long, 10 days or 2 weeks in Riga, and we were on the move again.

Journey Into the Unknown

We were delivered to the freight station, in the evening. Courtesy of the Jewish community we were provided with some food and again loaded into freight cars. This time, we were together with strangers. While we were being loaded, Pa met a distant relative of his from Zagare, who was scheduled to be in the next car. During the night, the train made a few stops. Sometimes moved to a siding to permit other trains to go through.

We passed through Dvinsk, Polotzk, Vitebsk, Gomel, Orsha, Mogilev. In some of these cities, local Jews learned about the trainload of refugees. Just like in Riga, they met us at the stations with much needed food. In several cities, the leading Jews tried to get permission to unload some of the refugees but as usual, the answer was — No. Going through these cities, we knew that the train was southbound. At the station Bachmatch, at night, our train was moved from track to track. Only in the morning, we discovered that the front half of the train was uncoupled and dispatched in an easterly direction. It so happened, that some members of the family related to my father were in a different car, which was sent off to the east. The divided family never found each other again. Our train continued southward. We reached Romni. The local Jews were there to meet us with food. Again petitioned for disembarkation. You know the answer - Nyet.

Five days after having left Riga, we arrived in Kremenchug. Finally, this was the place, where our family found a "home" for two years. It was still summer of 1915.

Forward to Part 4

© 1995 Solomon Katzen. Used with permission.