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{Pages 437-439}

Vizna

Translated by Hershl Hartman

Edited by Paul Pascal

The region of Vizna belonged to Countess Pfaffenlola. It spread over some 5,000 desyatina [13,500 acres, using Russia's pre-Revolution system of measurement], and had 958 residents, two synagogues, a hospital, and five retail stores.
(Excerpt from Brockhaus-Efron's Encyclopedia)
[A turn-of-the-20th century Russian equivalent of Encyclopaedia Brittanica]

 

Vizna, a small shtetl of 150 Jewish families, two synagogues, one rabbi and one ritual slaughterer. Pious Jews, well-versed in the holy books, where even the “free-thinkers” followed the holy commandments and Jewish tradition.

The synagogue included study groups devoted to Talmud and Mishna, as well as an interest-free benevolent society that provided loans to those in need.

The shtetl residents earned their living as storekeepers, peddlers, employees of lumber merchants, and so on. Children [i.e., boys] were sent to study at yeshivas in Slutsk, Mir, Volozhin, and a few to government-run high schools. Vizna natives became rabbis in other towns; for example, Menakhem Mendl and Moyshe Yankif Mendelevitsh.

The first rabbi in Vizna was Shabsi Oyzer [Sabbatai Ozer] from Vilna [Vilnius]. The second rabbi, Yekhiel Mikhl Yazgur, was famous and popular throughout the whole region. The last rabbi was Moyshe-Meyshl Vayner.

Vizna Jews are to be found in Israel and in America, among them the writer Dr. Ruvn [Reuben] Wallenrod.[1]

Vizna Jews suffered greatly at the hands of the hooligan gangs commanded by General Bulak-Balakhovitsh (Bułak-Bałachowicz) in 1921.[2] The shtetl was almost totally destroyed in 1940, and its Jewish population slaughtered, by the Nazi beasts.

(Preface by D. M.)


My Shtetele Vizna

by Yisroyl Kantor (New York)

Translated by Hershl Hartman

Edited by Paul Pascal

The sun has still not arisen in the sky, but there's already a gentle warmth in the air. The Jewish cattle crawl out of their stalls and arrange themselves at the marketplace in a herd. The sound of their mooing mixes with the crack of the cowherd's whip. A young gentile lad with a blond, wind-tossed forelock gazes into the distance with small, keen eyes. My mother drives our cow along with a stick. It joins the others heading toward the pasture.

I look through the window at the booths in the marketplace. You can hear the sound of hammering on iron. Our neighbor, Kopl, hacks off a chunk from a large piece of iron. A peasant with unkempt hair and shoes of woven birchbark, in white linen pants and a loose, white, unbuttoned shirt, regards the chunk of iron, pays, shakes his head at the high price, and disappears.

Jews dash to the synagogue, their long kapotes [caftans] spattered with mud.

Meyshke the butcher, a Jew with a cheerful face, a long beard and lively dark eyes, carries his folded talis un tfiln [prayer shawl and phylacteries] under his arm as he returns from shul. In his other hand he holds the lungs and liver of a calf he had just slaughtered. A dog chases after him as he strides hastily toward home.

Mina Kasriel's stands in the market from morning to evening with a basket of white rolls which she calls “pierogis.” Peasants from the surrounding villages who have come to buy white bread break open the “pierogis” with dirty hands, stuff their mouths and chew with great pleasure. Mina continues shouting “Pierogi!”[3] in a thick voice that grates on your ears. Some wagons appear in the marketplace. They have things to sell: a pair of fowl, five dozen eggs, a live calf lying in the wagon with its little hooves bound, and mooing pitifully as if mourning its bitter fate. Soon more wagons arrive. The horses are unhitched and their heads outfitted with feedsacks filled with oats. With their heads buried in the sacks, the horses chew away with great enjoyment. Dealers appear, as well as livestock workers, and butchers with red faces and high boots, striding slowly. They stop at a wagon, feel the calf, and ask the peasant in Russian, “How much?” The peasant scratches the back of his neck and stammers a few words, because he is certain that he will be cheated. Here come the hostlers–“the Leyzerkes and Yashinkes” [these are nicknames]–to test out a horse. The horse is tethered by a rope. A stableman runs ahead, followed by the horse, running at such speed that may God protect you if you were to get in the way.

Slowly the marketplace fills up. It becomes one big swirl of horses, people, and wagons with their hitching shafts pointed skyward. The sun rises higher in the sky. It is hot but the traders are preoccupied. Windows are open. The heads of young girls with dark hair poke out and they chat among themselves.

I have a clear memory of a fire in the shtetl. The bell in the crooked steeple of the church rings out scarily. I remember my mother's frightened eyes, her wringing of hands, her trembling cry: “What is on fire?” A huge wall of fire and smoke hovers over the roofs of the shtetl and throws fear into everyone. The fire brigade runs out, neighing horses draw barrels of water, and the fire- hose pumps as hard as it can. When the fire is put out and night approaches, we hear the cries of the victims, women and children, mixed with quiet breezes and night-time dreams.

So pass the weekdays of my shtetele Vizna, until the arrival of Sabbath eve.

My mother rushes to heat the oven and, instead of black bread we eat rolls that appear to be made of white flour, and a serving of fish-potato without the fish. When there is a festivity [like the Sabbath], we go to kheyder [elementary religious school] only half the day. Aaron the melamed [teacher], with a ragged beard and deep black eyes, drills us in chanting the week's Torah portion, and sings the concluding prophetic reading with an especially uplifting melody that carries through the window off into the distance.

The kheyder consists of a wide room with two long tables pushed up against each other. We sit on benches with our open Bibles and sing along with the teacher. At a corner near the stove sits his wife, Reyzele Zavil's, focused on the pot of potatoes on her lap. She eats, and tosses a cheerful glance of her blue eyes at the teacher and at us. On the wall above her hang photos of sons, daughters, grandchildren in America, all resembling her.

We go home at noon. There's a bustle in the house. My mother and a neighbor woman are busy at the oven. I run off to the river and undress on the bank. The earth is damp; my clothes get wet. I jump into the river. The water is dirty. I cannot swim, so I must bathe alongside the horse that Artshik the wagon-driver brought there, to make it happy. The horse stamps its hooves, splashes me and neighs. A group of boys take off swimming to “Sobitseve” [possibly an island or different section of the riverbank], lie down on the grass and stare at the girls who are also bathing.

I return home before the time [at sundown] when my mother should bless the candles to usher in the Sabbath. She is busy cleaning the house and keeps worrying that she will miss the designated moment for the blessing. The sun sets on the western horizon in blood-red flames. Dark shadows invade the house and bring with them the feeling that the holy Sabbath has indeed arrived, together with its serenity.

My mother is angry with me. “Do something and get out from under my feet.” I clean off the ash from the lantern-glass, and get myself as filthy as a devil. I wash myself in cold water and go along with my brothers to shul. The old shul building is packed with Jewish men neatly dressed in their Sabbath kapotes, swaying sweetly at their prayer-lecterns. The large lamps are lit, making the shul bright. From my seat, I study the people. The first to draw my attention is the rabbi. A long, black beard, innocent eyes. He is dressed in a long satin kapote with a handsome sash.

Words flow from his mouth, pearls. Velvl the shames [rabbi's aide], an old Jew with a curved back and small eyes below a furrowed brow, enveloped in a talis, sings out from the Torah platform, “Come, let us sing [the opening words of the opening psalm]!” The entire congregation brings each section of prayer to a crescendo with rapt fervor. The moment strikes me as if the walls, the windows, the ceiling, the roof – everything and everybody–are melding together into a single worshipping whole.

We return home from shul and find a transformed house, clean and bright. The candles are lit and their light floods together with the light of the house-lamp and of my mother's shining and pious eyes. She sits over a tkhine[4], her face reflecting the calm of the Sabbath. In response to our wish of “Gut shabes [Have a good Sabbath],” she adds, “Have a good year,” and then intones clearly and with piety, “I thank you, God, for the Sabbath.” Late in the evening, following the heavy dinner that includes soup and compote, I lie down in bed. My younger brother shares my bed. He is already dreaming. My poor brother, may he at least have good dreams. The moon and twinkling stars peer in through the window. The words of the krishme[5] are heard from my mother's room. To me, it feels as if heaven is gathering the words up into its bosom.

Sabbath morning when I enter the shul the heat hits me in the face. Bearded Jews look at me indignantly for arriving so late. I sit down in “our spot” and add my voice to the prayers of the congregation. After lunch we stroll past the ritual bath, to the woods. We talk, swing on the trees and I hear words in the swaying of the branches. I touch a leaf and feel a pulse in my body. I lie down in the grass. My gaze wanders toward the tops of the tall trees. On the way home, fields with stalks of corn spread before us, swaying, bowing, falling to their knees; they are speaking to us.

At late-afternoon prayers I arrive at shul as the congregation is reciting “You are One and Your Name is One” [i.e., well on in the prayer service]. [Rather than leaving when the service is over and returning later for evening prayers,] I don't go home but remain seated in “our spot,” awaiting dusk. A half hour later Jews return to the shul. Elye-Leyb the butcher stands at the Ark and from his mouth flow the words of Psalm 119 [the longest psalm in the Bible], which he sings by heart. The shul grows dim [as the sun sets and the lamps stay unlit]. Jews stroll about the shul, singing their prayers with utter sweetness. It is a holy atmosphere. People are transformed into shadows. The prayer-leader is also a shadow, and all are bound up into one prayerful choir. I feel as if the roof is opening, the words floating up, up, becoming luminous, and turning into fiery arrows, shimmering and flashing like lightning-bolts. In turn, the heavens open, angels with fiery wings are singing praises to the Throne of Glory. Elye-Leyb is standing, humbly, next to Him.

[Photo captons: (1) Shmuel Mendelevitsh (the [accomplished] author) and his wife, Dina; (2) Vizna ritual slaughterer, Moyshe Kantor; and on p. 439: Moyshe Naymark]


Footnotes

  1. Reuben Wallenrod became a highly regarded professor of Hebrew language and literature at Brooklyn College. A novel he first published in 1946 was translated from Hebrew into English as Dusk in the Catskills (1957). Other books include a survey of Israeli literature, and textbooks on modern Hebrew grammar. Return
  2. During the civil war which followed the Russian Revolution, the White Guard (armies opposed to the Bolsheviks) barbarously attacked Jewish communities throughout the region. Return
  3. Pierogis: Normally, a pierogi is a stuffed dumpling made of unleavened dough. Return
  4. Prayerbook specifically for women, written in Yiddish. Return
  5. Krishme, or Kries Shema – prayer said before sleep (and at other times), beginning with the words Shema yisroyl, Hear O Israel… Return

 

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