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Sefer Vladimirets

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A Little from a Lot

From: Sefer Vladimirets, 1963

Author: Yosef Brill

** Webmaster Note: The following is a translation from Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov as sponsored by George Zilbergeld. Additional clarifications are provided in parenthesis ( ).


Already during peace time, our family knew spilled blood that afterwards became a flood of blood.  This blood suddenly hung like a red cloud, predicting evil, in the heavens of our innocent childhood.  The event was in 1922.  It became clear that we were living among murderers also during peace time.  And from this it will be understood that the Nazi oppressor found faithful servants in the lands of his conquest – an abundance of men of violence. 

A Childhood That Became Darkened 

Then, I was a child.  It was springtime, days when everything was awakening to life and filling itself with pleasant hopes.  It was a Thursday.  Abba [father] had gone out a few days earlier to the Dombrowica area on his business as a cattle trader with my mother's uncle.  And here, that evening a strange message reached us – Abba became ill on the road and his condition was very serious.  The message was wrapped in mystery and secrecy.  The news was brought by Eliyahu from Ostrowiec, who was known as "Eliyahu der Ostrowiecer," and he received it from the manager of the post office.  Ima [mother] sensed that a tragedy had occurred.  But we did not know of anything confirming this.

We, the entire family, immediately went out on the road.  Even I, the little boy, went with them.  We travelled in the wagon all night, until we reached Dombrowica, where my mother's parents lived – my grandfather and grandmother – and here, we found out the terrible truth – Abba and my uncle had been murdered in the forest.

The funeral took place that same day.  I remember that they were covered with sacks and buried in their clothes, which were soaked with blood.  The funeral was large with many participants.  The entire city was darkened by the tragedy.  Here, we found out details of the murder:  it happened in the forest next to the village Slishetz.  Four goyim participated in the murder.  They attacked them with axes.  Abba was murdered on the spot, and my uncle was seriously injured.  He managed to escape and reach Slishetz, a distance of three kilometers.  Wounded, he ran until he reached the house of a Jew who lived in the village.  He lived for seven hours longer, until his soul left him.  He suffered greatly, and during his bitter struggle against death, he said:

"Berel was much more righteous than I am, and that is why he died immediately and it has been decreed that I will die with great suffering."

He managed to tell who the goyim – the murderers – were, but no legal steps were taken against them.

We returned home to Vladimirets – a bereaved family, and my grandfather, my father's father, said:

"Now, when I am old, I am fated to be not only a grandfather, but also a father."

And indeed, Saba [Grandfather] fulfilled this position with all his might and all his soul, and it was as if we were actually his children.  He greatly inspired our darkened childhood with his brightness and goodness.

There was a "Tehillim [Psalms] club" in Vladimirets, whose members would wake up early on the Sabbath and go to the synagogue to recite Psalms.  In the winter, Saba wrapped me in his fur, hugged me to his heart and carried me to the synagogue so that I would have the merit of saying Kaddish [the prayer for the dead recited by mourners] after the recital of the Psalms.

Saba was a short man, and his beard was very white.  At that time, he was already extremely old, certainly eighty.  He tried to fulfill the position he took upon himself as best as he could.  One of the wonderful things that remain in my memory is the stories he would tell us.

In spite of his extreme age, Saba also had some business.  He received clay pots from a manufacturer for sale.  But they were not sold for money to the goyim, rather they were exchanged for rye or wheat seeds.   I remember that the goy would fill two pots with wheat, and the third pot full of seeds he would receive free of charge – that was approximately his method of trade.  This method had its own rules, but I do not remember the details.  We children would help our grandfather.  He kept the pots in the attic, and we helped him bring them up there many times.  The entire space in the attic was filled with these pots, and this also had another advantage – when it rained, because the roof of his house leaked a bit, the water would fall into the pots and did not drip down into the house.

Saba prayed in the synagogue of the Stepan Chassidim, and later he switched to the large synagogue.  On the Sabbath, all of his grandchildren were obligated to present themselves to him, so that he would see proof that they all were in synagogue.  At first, we came to this "muster" willingly, but over time we became freer and the matter caused us a certain amount of bitterness – even so, we tried to recompense Saba with kindness for all of the good he had done for us. 

Saba's Stories

I mentioned that Saba told us wonderful stories, and even though it is clear to me that I will not know how to transmit them with the same charm that his whispering voice produced, I will nevertheless try to present them.

And here is one of the stories – this happened in those distant days when Saba was still young – so he told us in his quiet voice, with a special movement of his hands that would actualize and shape his words, so to speak.  

"It was a dark night, and I was travelling past the cemetery, a place that always awakened fears and stopped one's breath.  And here, no more and no less, I see that a very huge flock of white doves flew down from the trees in the cemetery, and the entire flock arranged itself and stood on the road, until one would not be able to turn either right or left.  What should I do?  My heart didn't allow me to continue travelling over the doves, but even if my heart did let me do so, I wouldn't succeed, because our horses also had apparently become confused and they suddenly stood still, as if they had turned to stone.  I sat in the wagon, looking at the doves and sensing that they were not ordinary doves.  So all that remained for me to do was to recite a holy verse, the strength of which is always good in an hour of fear and danger.  And see, what a miracle – after I recited the verse, the doves flew upward, the entire flock as one.  They left the road and returned up into the trees from which they had come down at first.  Now, I understood that I had not seen doves, but souls, that took the images of doves and came down at night in order to test us."

But not only of white doves, which nevertheless have something endearing about them – his stories of "nisht gut," in other words, "not good," called "clowns," also activated our imaginations.  Now, I remember one of those stories, which also took place during a journey on the road.  In general, the road was a place designed for trouble, and many dangers lurked there.  Indeed, he had something to depend upon for this attitude; it was as if the murder of Abba and my uncle confirmed the truth of this assumption.  I would therefore hear these things with fear and trembling, as if it were my life that they were taking.

Again, a long journey on the road, and again, a dark night.  And within this night, a lone Jew rides in his wagon.  This Jew is not someone strange and distant, but it is Saba.  Again, it is a story that happened to him.  And perhaps it didn't happen to Saba, but originated with somebody else, and it only seems to me that it happened to him?  Either way, it happened at night, near the forest – and as to what happened that night, we all were listening tensely – suddenly, a ram jumped out from between the trees, went up into the wagon and sat in his lap.  And again, as in all of these stories, the horse pulling the wagon, who always symbolized strength and bravery, was now as if he were no longer a horse, because his strength and bravery had been taken from him.  He tried to pull the wagon – but for nothing.  The wagon didn't move.  Saba's heart pounded within him and he was overtaken by a great fear.  But nevertheless, he somehow managed to whisper the wonderful verse, or it was sufficient to say the combination of words "Shema Yisrael" [Hear, O Israel] and again, the miracle happened – the ram left his seat, rubbed one foot against another, let out a laugh, and disappeared.  It is a short story, but it contains somewhat of a moral.  There is no need to explain it; it is apparent in itself.  Even I, the little lad, understood it; there is Someone Who directs what happens in the world.  Because if not, the "nisht gut" would rule over it.  Everything discovered in the world always contains a hint of the scepter and benevolence – everything goes according to the will and intention of the Director, and therefore pure white doves can also cause harm and not necessarily a ram with horns who emits laughter and claps his hooves – but there is a benevolent eye watching, and therefore everything finishes for the good.

Saba's thoughts were not only of things regarding Heaven – from the area of mystery and wonders, but also of matters in the area of daily reality.

With the establishment of the Zionist youth movements in the town, activities against them branched out, in other words, the activities of the anti-Zionists, such as the Communists.  Left-wing groups established a separate Yiddish library.  The library was located in the house of Uncle Ber Blizniok, a tall, thin Jew with a pointy beard.  Uncle Ber was a religious Jew.  His wife was Saba's daughter, in other words, my aunt.  They set aside a corner of their small house, which consisted of only one room, for the library – not only as a library for distributing books, but the tiny house also served as a "reading hall" – all for their oldest son, who was a dedicated Communist.

Saba was uncomfortable with the library and the "reading hall," and in general, with the "kichelach" and "mehaknishkes," as he called them ["little nothings" and "stuffed little nothings"].  Even more so, he had no satisfaction from his grandson, who was busy with Communist affairs.  So he complained, warning:

"I am telling you that you must throw this library out of the house – because whoever starts reading these books is destined to finish in the prison of his master."

In time, there were arrests in the town – and Uncle Ber's eldest son was also arrested and was sentenced to eight years in prison.  Saba, whose prediction had come true, found no rest – he cried and in the bitterness of his heart, he told himself:

"I told him that this would be the end.  What difference would it make if he were a Zionist like the rest of my grandchildren?  Woe to me, that my prediction came true."

The Ninth of Av – the fast and the mourning are well recognized in the town.  Until two o'clock in the afternoon, all work in the town is halted.  Trade is stopped; the stores are closed.  After the lamentations in the synagogue, everyone would go to the cemetery, to prostrate themselves on the graves of family members who had died.  The cemetery was ancient; everything we saw there was unusual.  The cemetery was surrounded by a wooden fence, and it threw fear over us children.  Saba always warned me that I should be very, very careful not to walk, G-d forbid, over any graves.  In everything there, we saw a transmigration of souls: in the bushes and their fruit, which we were forbidden to touch or to eat; and in the tall, lofty trees, which also were exceptions to ordinary trees and appeared in our eyes as souls that had transmigrated to become trees – everything here was out of the ordinary.  This frame of mind also had a source in Saba's stories, which were always spiced with wondrous and mysterious things.  But that day, the children found their own occupation.  These were children who were not sunken into dreams and visions and had a sense of reality.  And so, they found themselves a livelihood – they brought cigarettes to those who were fasting, to revive them – and they received payment afterwards.

Saba was a member of the Burial Society, and he bought himself a gravesite in the cemetery – a place where he would rest in peace after 120 years…

It was 1928.  One day, somebody came and told him that they had buried someone in his plot.  This happened on a Saturday night.  Saba was very upset by this news, and he got up and hurried to the cemetery in order to see with his own eyes whether the rumor was true.  One the way, a sled belonging to a goy that was passing down the street ran into him and he was injured.  The goy lifted him into the sled and brought him home.  Saba felt very bad, and he worried that his end had come.  He requested that Jews would come into his room, because he wanted to say the confession.  Of those who came in at that time, I mainly remember his neighbor, Meir Weiner.  He was the one who watched over him and sat next to his bed.  Suddenly, a flush of freshness came up on Saba's face, and he felt better.  He lived on until 1931.  Before he died, Savta [Grandmother] said to us, "Gather, children, and Saba will bless you."

All of us gathered together, and he put his hands on each child's head to bless him.  During his lifetime, he was careful not to be photographed, but before his death, a picture of him was taken without his knowledge.  The photographer was Akiva Roich.  All of us stood next to his bed.  Suddenly, Savta said:

"Kinderlach, der Baal-Davar ken nisht tsugaien tsu eit.  Dariber feinigt er zich azoy.  Geit avek fun eim, kinderlach."  ["Children, the Angel of Death cannot approach him, that is why he is suffering so much.  Go away from him, children."] 

When I stand at the chapter of my childhood, it is impossible for me not to bring up here the memory of my dear Aunt Rachel, Chayale's mother, who was like a second mother to us.  She worked hard and acted modestly, with a kind smile on her face.  Her kindness extended not only to us, but to whoever needed help.  Her love for others was a characteristic that influenced everyone who knew her, Jews and non-Jews alike.

Once, we, a group of youngsters, walked, singing, down the street.  Among the hikers was Chayale.  As we walked, we passed the police station.  The singing angered the police, and one of them came out and said:  "You are lucky that Rachel's daughter is with you, because if she wasn't, I would arrest all of you."

And I remember the time that Berel Frimer, who came to lecture, was arrested.  How Aunt Rachel made such an effort and ran to Yaakov Eisenberg to tell him what happened…and all with modesty, simplicity and in good faith…

In the Merit of Perceptions

Savta was also very elderly, and if Saba's strength was in his stories, Savta also had some magic of her own, but not in stories, rather in spells.  There were several charmers in our town, and Savta was one of them.  She knew how to mutter incantations over a wound, over toothache, and mainly against the Evil Eye.  At night, when all of us were sunken in sleep, we would suddenly hear knocks on the window.  These were not burglars or robbers, but the knocking of a woman, one of whose children was ill, and she was worried, because the cause was – the Evil Eye.  Savta would ask the name of the injured one, and because she had been awakened from her sleep, she would begin to yawn.  That is how I now explain the matter.  But Savta had her own explanation.  According to her explanation, the interrupted sleep was not the reason.  Because her yawn was an absolute sign that the Evil Eye was ruling over the child.  And now, after she determined the "reason," she would begin to mutter an incantation, and when she finished, she would tell the mother of the child to go home, and that she hoped that the One Above would send a complete recovery to the child, and just as the illness had come, so it would suddenly vanish.  In the early hours of the morning, it happened that the woman would come to our house, her mouth filled with a sea of thanks:

"Goldanyu, my dear, I will never forget.  You were a rescuing angel for my child.  May you be blessed, Goldanya, and may your name be blessed, because you saved my child."

And so, Savta extended her assistance, not with healing drugs, but with oral incantations and heartfelt feelings.  Why, then, doctors in their white gowns, and for what, treatments in bottles?

With wonderful handicraft, Nissel, the expert in dislocations, worked in our town – without plaster and without bandages.  And if Savta's strength was in the incantations she whispered, Nissel's strength was in the perceptions of his fingers… A child, whose leg had become dislocated and came out of its socket – it was enough for Nissel to feel the place, and the bone was already back in place.   I remember what happened to me. 

One day, I was playing soccer. I made an unusual movement and my leg became dislocated.  I limped toward home, and here was Nissel, the expert, coming toward me.  When he saw my measured steps, he understood what had happened.  He was not satisfied simply by understanding, but he took the trouble to ask me what had happened: 

"What happened to you, Mr. Jewel?"  That was what he was accustomed to call every young lad.

I answered him, and he immediately laid me down on the sidewalk.  He directed his fingers, gave a turn here and a turn there, and what a miracle – the dislocation was gone, and my legs were whole, as if nothing had happened.

Nissel's wages were not determined according to the seriousness of the injury, but according to the financial situation of the injured.  But most of the time, he was satisfied with a box of cigarettes.  For example, from me he took only 10 cigarettes.  It was told that once, a woman fell into the well and her head was turned and became crooked.  In that case also, Nissel succeeded in returning her head to its previous position.

In general, in those days the strength of one's frame of mind was great, and great was the merit of special perceptions.  I remember, for example, an incident that happened to me with the tailor, Reb Yeshayahu Smola.  In matters of tailoring,  we were connected to Reb Yeshayahu, and before every Passover holiday, my mother would bring fabric to him so that he could make me a suit for the holiday.  One day, some time after the fabric had already been given to the tailor, I came to him for measurements.  And how great was my amazement when Reb Yeshayahu preceded me with his good smile, saying:

"My son, there is no need to measure, your suit is already prepared."

"How can it be prepared," I asked in surprise – "You didn't take any measurements, and how did you know to make it so it will fit me?"

"Very simple, " Yeshayahu answered.  "Simple, absolutely simple.  Because I have a measurement from last year – and since I have a natural eye and I know how much you grew during the year, I added a bit here and a bit there, in precisely the amount that you grew.  And that is how I sewed the suit."

I was very worried about the fate of my suit – but this worry vanished after I tried it on – now, I knew that Reb Yeshayahu indeed had a natural eye, because the suit was an absolutely exact fit.

Before Yom Kippur, Savta and other women would prepare wax candles for the holiday.  She had the custom of preparing two large candles – one, she stood in the house, for the people who were alive, and one in the synagogue, in memory of those who had departed.  The wicks of the candles were twisted of many thin threads, and while they were being twisted, there was a complete, deep silence in the house.  This silence was accompanied by sighs that could not be conquered.  Each thread was dedicated to one of the souls of the family.  Many women would gather in Savta's house.  One of them would read a techina [special prayer] and weeping rose up from every direction.

A suit was only one item of the holiday preparations, and each holiday was different, each holiday with its own character.  I loved the character of the Passover holiday very much.  These preparations already began on the day after Purim [a month before Passover].  Special bakeries were opened in private homes, and in these homes they began to make the ovens kosher for baking matzot and to install all of the necessary equipment.  Reb Yehoshua Zhuk, who was known as "Miriam-Devorah's Yehoshua," had a special habit.  He owned a barley mill.  Toward Passover, he would make the mill kosher for grinding wheat for shmura matzo.  How much hard work he and his two sons, Sender and Zelig, invested, so that the mill would be strictly kosher and so that there would not be found, G-d forbid, any defect, when the Rabbi, together with the town elders, would come to inspect it before the grinding began.

The mill was located in the yard of Reb Yehoshua's house.  Two horses went back and forth, moving the large wheel.  During those days, this was the main motor for operating the grindstones.  The elders of the town would come, each one with his sack of wheat, to Reb Yehoshua's house, and here, each of them would wait patiently until it was his turn to grind his wheat.

And don't imagine that they just sat and waited.  When the grindstone began to grind the wheat of one of the Chassidim, the Chassid would hold on to the stones and begin a Chassidic tune.  Of course, all the rest of the Chassidim would join in after him.  Several of the elders of the city, whom I would meet at this mill when I came with Saba to help him grind his wheat, appear in my memory:  Reb Zelig Tscherniak, Reb Meir Weiner, Reb Chaim Pinchuk, and more.  When the grinding was done, they would pour the flour into a white sack, and the sack would be wrapped in a white sheet.  Now, the flour was ready to be baked.

Many families opened matzo bakeries in their homes.  Many of the residents of the town participated in these bakeries as workers.  The jobs were varied.

The bakery in the home of Reb Avraham Yaakov Oller, known as "der staresta," had a special character.  All year long, Avraham-Yaakov waited for this day.  He was very proud of his operation, and he told those who came to him to bake their matzot:

"An oven like Avraham-Yaakov's you will not find in the entire town, because you have to know how to prepare a matza oven…"

He would especially praise the one who put the matzot into the oven, who we called the "sheiber."  This was Dov-Ber Blizniok.  Dov-Ber was blessed with an important attribute:  he was very thin, and the heat of the oven did not affect him.

When one's turn to bake the matzo of the commandment [to eat matzo at the Seder] on Passover eve arrived – this was the job of the men only.  The baking was accompanied by the recital of the Hallel prayer, and the men now filled all of the jobs in the bakery, including kneading the dough and rolling it out into matzos.


We were still young lads, but we already were obligated to take care of ourselves and bear the yoke of earning a living.  Our occupation was buying and selling.  We would travel and bring merchandise to Dombrowica, and on the way back we brought tobacco, kerosene and oil.  The distance was 40 kilometers.  This trip took 10 hours.  The main part of the journey was at night, and it was planned ahead of time, so that we could conduct our purchases during the day.

One inn where we stayed on our return from Dombrowica was in the village Karchemka.  We would arrive here at 2 o'clock in the morning.  A light knock on the window, and Reb Hershel would get out of bed, calmly open the door of his house, and receive us with a loud and hearty "Welcome."   I made the trip every week, and each time I would rest here with other people who travelled with me.  Reb Hershel was always cheerful.  In the middle of the night, he would make the effort to prepare a hot drink for us, and he took care of all our needs. 

Another inn was in the village Nebczyk (Nova Ushytsya).  The owner of the inn was Reb Yudel of Nebczyk.  A stay in his house was free of charge.  Reb Yudel regarded the giving of these accommodations as a commandment, and his wages were not money, only the reward for doing a commandment.  One evening, I arrived in the village at 10 o'clock.  Outside, it was cold and rainy – the old woman in the house, when she saw me, expressed a great deal of concern, and she encouraged me to climb up on the large stove to warm myself.  It was customary to keep clay pots of milk on these stoves, so that they would sour from the heat.  Once, when I was lying on this stove, sunk in a deep sleep because of great weariness, I made some kind of a movement and bumped into several of these pots.  The pots overturned, and the milk was spilled on me.  I got down from the stove covered with white, as if I had been painted with whitewash.  But Reb Yudel, who was a Jew with a golden heart, began to comfort and encourage me.

"Don't worry, my dear.  My house is always open to guests and G-d will return double the amount of milk, in the merit of my hospitality."

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