First Volume: World War I Memories


The Shtetl is Burning

Not far from our shtetl, wild pigs lived in "Bombaler Vald" (a forest). Old timers were telling even about a bear which was found there, in a moss cave, hibernating in its long winter sleep. The forest contained ancient tall birch, spruce and oak trees. There were tasty fruits, especially blackberries, called "Yagdes" in our language. There were no flowers, but there were mushrooms, the Yellow "Lishitzes" which were tastier than meat. There were also small nuts, called "Terkisher Nis". Generally the forest was a place for "Sheigetz" (young gentile men) shepherds and their cows, and for hiding thieves. In front of "Bombaler Vald" there was an additional small forest called "Vertzimrer Veldl" which also contained birch and oak trees, mushrooms and blackberries. Gypsies who came twice a year from Hungary or Romania used to stay there. The gypsies would gather and sing because after all they were naturally musical. They were singing with so much emotion that it would touch your soul. Where did they get all these melodies?

I was a three year old little girl. You know how many years have passed? You do the calculation if I was born in 1912.
It was summer time. I can imagine that in synagogue they were talking with concen about the approaching war. The family of Avraham Bini the baker lived in our home. My mother took pity on them after a fire destroyed their home on Pigs Street (In Vishnive there were always fires) and allowed them in. They were an older couple in good health with an "old maid" daughter. Their son and his family lived nearby. My mother allowed Avraham Bini to use our oven for his baking because he needed to make a living. What can I tell you. Her goodness was way beyond her capability. Avraham Bini had a horse and wagon in which he delivered bread to the whole shtetl. When he baked, the whole house would get filled with baking smells and terrible heat. This was not always that good.

That summer (1915), Russian soldiers entered Vishnive. I remember three armed soldiers entering our house in the afternoon. They strongly requested us to leave the house because they were going to burn everything. There was a sudden terror in the house. Mother cried and begged to no avail. "When can we return?" she asked. "Shortly, Shortly" they answered. I remember my father and my brothers Leibl and Yaacov-Hirsh digging a pit in the yard to hide housewares, precious to us. Tension, anxiety and nervousness. The soldiers hurried us. I remember that I was not upset at all from all the terrible "Tuml" (tumult). We could hardly take anything with us because we did not have a wagon. Mother asked Avraham Bini to take me and my sister Gitke who was two years older than me. I remember the soldiers putting dry straw to the closets and pouring kerosene.

All the shtetl residents were fleeing in all directions. We fled to "Bombaler Vald". Gitke and I were sitting on the wagon with Avraham Bini, his wife, his daughter who was a weak woman, and their two grandsons. One of them was my age. For me the whole event looked like a "game". Here we are sitting on a wagon, everybody is in a hurry, angry and upset, and I am feeling great having a lot of fun. Some went by foot and some were riding wagons. Gentiles were fleeing too, not only Jews. Noise and yelling, dust and excitement were all over the place. Many fled to hide in the forest till things get calm again.

The road to the forest was a natural path made of dirt and stones, and the sounds of walking and running accompanied the fleeing people. Only a few had wagons. There were old men and women who could barely move, children, and adults carrying few belongings they managed to pack. My mother, father and my older brothers were walking, loaded with bundles. Among other things they carried a big "Tchahon" iron pot and the "Drei Fis" (3 iron legs), so they could boil water for the kids. On the way, Yaacov-Hirsh saw a crying child. "Mame, mame, I want my mother, where is mother?". It seems this kid lost his family in the great confusion. His family came from Volozhin to visit their relatives in Vishnive, and they too had to flee as fast as they could. Yaacov-Hirsh took the kid on his shoulders. That way we got an additional child.

In the forest there is a great tumult. The natural grass becomes natural beds. Some people are sitting, some are standing, all are discussing "what will be". Gitke and I are sitting tightly on the wagon with the grandsons. We do not dare moving away because we are afraid of getting lost. Then my mother and father, my two older brothers and my two older sisters are arriving. Father and mother are boiling water. Hungry babies are crying.

People are standing in groups, some are wearing Taliths, holding Sidurs and praying Arvit. They manage to save the Torah Scrolls from the synagogue. I am watching the tall trees with their tops touching the sky. It is so beautiful. It is getting cooler. Further away the shtetl is burning. The long tongues of fire reach up to the sky. People are weeping. In contrast, we, the kids, are very happy to hear the sound of a cannon. After each cannon shot we dance. It is cool. The grown ups are telling us, the kids, to sleep under the wagon, to be protected from the dew and humidity of the forest. I think that the horse is also cold, because Avraham Bini covers it with an old blanket. We fall asleep, tired of all the tumult. In the morning we are awakened by the stinging of the "Murashkes" (ants), by the people's voices, and by hunger. It is dawn, some light and some darkness. Vishnive is still burning, but the tongues of fire are lower now. A very strong smell of burning is in the air.

It is noisy again. I am watching the sun rising slowly till it covers the sky. Nature is beautiful. A group of men covered with Talit are praying Shacharit. Women are boiling water. Kids are fighting who will eat first. Mothers shout and quiet the kids. We eat the bread which Avraham Bini the baker brought ,with the jam and tea that mother prepared, and feel great. The smell of the small fires under the "Drei Fis" is spreading across the forest. The women are baking potatoes in the sand. First they burn wood. Then, the potatoes are covered with sand. The hot embers are put on top of the sand with additional wood. Some of the potatoes are baked just right, and some are partially burnt. Everybody is hungry and eating with appetite.

Normally this is the hiding place for thieves. Who can distinguish now between thieves and non-thieves? Aside from our shtetl, this forest is now home to Jews from other nearby shtetls, and there is a lot of tumult and confusion. Do you know what it is like when they burn your house? You should better not know! But as you can understand, in my chidishness, I am not worried at all. Yaacov-Hirsh returns from Volozhin after taking the kid back to his family. He is terribly tired, after all the by-passing roads he had to take to avoid the Russian army.

After three days in the forest, there is a cease fire between the Russians and Germans. We were told we have the option of moving to the Russian side (Volozhin side) or to the German side (Olshani side). My mother chooses the Olshani side because my brother Yaacov-Hirsh is a draft dodger from the Russian army. My father paid 100 rubles bribe so that he will be declared medically unfit to serve as a Russian soldier.

"Oisgemutchet" (tortured) we decide to return to Vishnive. Avraham Bini and his family decide to move on towards the Russian side. Two more days will pass and the forest will return to its previous condition as if no human hand touched it. The shtetl is burned. The ground is also charred. Our house is burned. The smell of burning lingered over the whole town. The houses at the edge of town remained undamaged. It is interesting to note that your father's house, at the end of Volozhiner Gas (street) was not damaged. The synagogues and the Mikveh are burned. The Hekdesh was not burned. Imagine, our family is living in the Hekdesh (a shelter for poor people).
Many families are there, with a lot of little and big children. No washing and no comfort facilities. People are relieving themselves under the open sky. Sleeping is on the floor or on stretcher type beds. Our family has plans to rebuild the house. My father already bought the lumber and talked with builders. But it was not meant to be.

On the eve of Rosh Hashana 1915 we found that the Germans are advancing and the Russians are withdrawing. I remember many Russian soldiers in the streets. As soon as the German cannons shooting sounds became clear, and the Russians began their withdrawal, all the residents, Jews and gentiles, began leaving town. Again, whoever has a horse and wagon is loading his belongings. My mother's uncle, Berl Elishkevich, is coming with a horse and wagon and suggests that we move with him to Olshani. I remember us loading the wagon and our ride to Olshani: The uncle, mother, father, me, my three sisters and my older brothers ,Yaacov-Hirsh and Leibl.

The Germans are located now in town. Vishnive became the battle front, and trenches are being dug across it. Shelters are being built, equipped with electricity, water, weapons, heating, refrigeration and medical equipment. German soldiers are fighting hand-to-hand battles against Russian soldiers.

We are wandering.

To the next chapter
First Stop - Olshani

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