[The following excerpt is a wonderfully written story about life in the 19th Century for Jews in the Russian Empire. It is NOT OUR FAMILY, but surely of interest and full of flavor or the times. One of the genealogies refers to a man whose middle name became "solder," meaning he had spent twenty-five years in the Czar's army! and returned. Years after I recorded the story of two of my cousins, from another side of the family, who were "eaten by wolves," I realized the "wolves" were the Russian Army. The sons lost contact with family and religion and were absorbed into Russian city life.]

While credit is given to the author, I have not obtained consent to reproduce or publish this excerpt, and only do so as "fair use," i.e. for our minimal academic purpose. Mass distribution is not intended.

Yesterday, A Memoir of a Russian Jewish Family

by Miriam Shomer Zunser

[Originally published in 1939, it is a lovely reminiscence by Miriam Shomer Zunser, the American daughter of Yiddish novelist Nochim-Mayer Shaikevitsch. A second edition edited by her granddaughter
Emily Wortis Leider. Harper & Row, New York, 1978]

"Your great-grandfather had twenty-four children, all by the same wife. The first child was a daughter, Rochel-Leah. The second was a son, Mayshe. Then came a series of eight girls, among them your grandmother Dinneh and Haiye and Faygle, who died when she was seventeen. The names of the others I do not know. Then came another son, Avrom; then more girls and boys of whom I remember only five in the order of their ages: Dvayreh, Fraydel, Menye, David and Joshua.

Your great-grandfather was fourteen years old when he married. Your great-grandmother was twelve. When she was fourteen she had her first child. There was a good reason why these young people were married at so early an age. They lived at the time when Nicholas I was Czar of all the Russias. This man, who has gone done in history as a despot, imposed a military service of twenty-five years upon his Jewish subjects, the service to begin when a youth was eighteen. To carry out a determined policy of Russification, however, and to break the Jew from his faith, the powers declared that "preparatory training" for military service would have to begin at a much earlier age; say at ten or twelve. Accordingly, little boys, often as young as seven or eight, were snatched from their homes, actually torn from their mother's arms, and placed under the "guardianship" of a diadka ("little uncle"). This endearing term was usually applied to a peasant who lived hundreds of miles from any Jewish settlement and who treated his ward as a criminal whose will was to be broken, by physical means if necessary. This meant that a boy would be taken away from his parents before he reached his teens, that he would be bullied, starved, beaten and broken, and that he would return, if he returned at all, when he was a middle-aged man.

Nicholas I's twenty-five year decree, issued in 1827, wrought havoc in Jewish life, causing suffering that cannot be easily described. Old and young, rich and poor were involved in a struggle of tragic terror.

Agony of a special kind was visited upon young married people. A young husband could be taken from his home and sent no one knew where. For endless years the wife would not know what had become of him. She would not know whether she was a wife or a widow, whether or not her children were orphans, or if she could allow another man to be a father to them. The distress caused by this uncertainty was so keen that many a young man divorced the wife of his bosom before entering into the service. For a people who built their lives upon the home and its sanctity, this was a calamitous fate.

When the terror of the decree was at its height, in 1834, a rumor was spread that to allay the hardships of these young people, married men would no longer be conscripted. The rumor was false, but it brought about the period known to Jews as the beholoh - a Hebrew word meaning fright or panic. Men feared they would be conscripted before it was too late. That caused the immediate marriage of thousands of young children.

Thus it happened that your great-grandmother Yentel at the age of twelve had her hair matted with syrup and sugar, then her head shaved and a wig placed upon it to signify that she was a married woman. (There are several folk explanations for the custom, the two favorite being that after marriage a women should not, by her charms, entice other men; that the hair is given to the "evil one" so that he may not demand all of the bride.)

Great-grandmother Yentel was a women of short stature. At the age of twelve she was so small that when she was brought to the synagogue for her own wedding, she could not see what was going on. After the marriage ceremony she had to be lifted up and placed upon the window sill to get a view of the festivities.

The first glimpse she had of great-grandfather Michel came when he dropped the veil over her face before she was led to the chuppe (wedding canopy). But she did not on the least mind all this, for she did not know what it was all about, and what is more, she was not especially bright or sagacious. She had just been brought in from the village of Yaneve, where she had spent her little life wandering in the fields, playing jacks and occasionally helping her mother about the house. When, for some reason, she was chosen to marry Michel, who was a very promising boy, she acquiesced quickly, as a good girl should, and looked forward with glee to a ride in the hay cart all the way to the town of Pinsk. Her marriage did not prevent her from playing jacks in her father-in-law's yard when nobody was looking or from secreting her rag doll in her bridal chamber where, some seventy years later, she died of a broken heart because Michel could no longer answer her impetuous call.

Michel and Yentel were married in the year of the beholoh, 1834. Two years later the first of a procession of there twenty-four children was born. I mean to tell you the stories of only those of the twenty-four who survived into manhood or womanhood. There were not many, ten in all. The rest were claimed by the many scourges of infantile life that were rampant in Europe until your own generation. The lives of the ten, born over a period of forty years, lead me from remote days in Russia, now only recorded in history, to your own day here in America.

Great-grandfather Michel was an extraordinary man. You may yourselves have noted the veneration, the awe, with which grandmother, Aunt Menye or Uncle Dave spoke of him; I will refer to him, in his maturity, as Reb Michel."

How I Wrote My Songs

by Eliakum Zunser (1840-1913)

Edited by his granddaughter Emily Wortis Leider. Harper & Row, New York

[Editor's notes: Both Maimon and Zunser earned a precarious living as tutors. Maimon, however reflects on his personal problems as an eligible bachelor and young groom, while Eliakum Zunser dwells on the difficult life a young Jew faced in Russia.

Zunser is remembered as one of the earliest popular troubadours of the Russian ghetto. His many ballads record a life this is very dimly remembered even by those who lived within its boundaries.

His fame brought him to America in 1889, where he continued to compose popular folk melodies and give concerts.

He recorded his experiences late in life, and his autobiography reveals that he is a gifted story teller via the written word as by music. The particular selection reprinted in this anthology gives some ideas of the insecure existence a Jew experienced, even as a child in the East European ghetto.]

On the first day of Elul in the year 5613 (1853), after long wanderings, I came to the city of Bobruysk, in the Province of Minsk. As might have been expected, I found no embroiderer there with whom I might work and thus earn my bread. For several days I wandered through the street of Bobruysk, seeking I know not what. And, to be sure, I found it, in the image of the hazzan, Reb Joel I. Humener (famous in those days), who used to come to Bobruysk annually to chant the services during the holy days. If I cannot work at an embroiderer's, why not earn something as a chorist? thought I, and off I went to Reb Joel Humener. He tested me and found that I had a good voice and a fine ear. He engaged me as a singer at a salary of two rubles (what a fortune!) for all the holy days. He provided me with board at the house of the president of the synagogue, including permission to sleep regularly on a bench in the synagogue.

At that time I composed my song "The Light", and immediately afterwards a second song, "Reb Tahanun". This latter song had immense popular success. It was sung everywhere.

We spent a holiday evening very enjoyably in the house of the president of the synagogue, and later in the synagogue. "Reb Tahanun" was sung by the choir, and all the hasidim were delighted with me - the young composer. The joy all around me affected me but little; nor could the honors shown me that evening comfort me much. Like a dark cloud, the question "What will become of me after the holidays?" was continually before me.

After the holidays the hazzan gave me two rubles, and told me to go. Whither? The world is large enough, and Jews, bless the Lord, are plentiful. What matters it, then, where a Jew goes?

It had become very cold, however, and I had nothing but my light summer clothes. Since I had plenty of money - two rubles - I went to the market and bought a fur coat. Readers with delicate nerves might be seriously shocked at the words "fur coat"; but let me hasten to reassure them a coat was called a "fur coat" solely because it has a fur collar. There were also in those days "fur coats" which did not have even a fur collar, but a "future-collar", that is, a collar which might some day, with the help of a kind Providence, hope to be covered with some cat or fox fur.

A few days later, as I was proudly parading the street of Bobruysk in my "fur", I met a farmer who lived four versts' distance from the city. He was seeking a Hebrew tutor for his children. I offered myself for the position, and we readily came to an understanding. My salary was to be twenty-five rubles for the term (six months), with the privilege of sleeping on the warm oven. (The Russian "oven" is a house fixture, built as an extension of one of the walls, allowing the top to be used as a bed.)

It is generally admitted the world over that a Jew eats that he may live; whereas, it is the opposite with the Christian - he lives that he may eat. My new employer devised a novel theory of his own, to wit: neither to eat nor live, but just to "pass away" the few years of our earthly existence. And for mere "passing away" purposes, a bit of bread, baked from oats and barley, with a little groipen, to which a few drops of oil were added, was quite ample. Throughout the week not a morsel of meat came into the house, and the week days were "passed away" with this bread-of-misery and with the "soup" in which even the Jewish impressors could not find one groip.

For the Sabbath, however, the farmer would bring from town a sheep's head, and I would often refresh myself with a bone. The same oil with which the hard foods were softened was also used for lighting the house. And before such light I would sit for six hours daily and talk myself hoarse in teaching my "scholars", who mentally were not a whit superior to the children of the village peasants. After this exhausting labor, even such foods tasted royal to me.

Meanwhile, my clothes were wearing down rapidly. Because zero weather was quite frequent, I almost fell ill of exposure. I asked my employer some part of my salary that I might clothe myself somewhat decently. At first he gave me empty excuses, but towards the Feast of Passover, he informed me that he would employ me for another term and then he would give me all the money I would want. As I had no choice, I remained with him. All this time I was clad in rags, and my shoes were torn. At the end of Passover, I wrote my song "The Eye", in which I sang of my own misery.

At Shabuoth he again put me off with some excuse, and, after the holiday, when I began to demand my money, he hit upon a "clever scheme". He went to Bobruysk, approached the leaders of the commune, and offered, if well-paid, to give them a "nefesh" (soul). He received twenty-five rubles, and took with him an impressor and two Cossacks, who were to bring me to the isborschik.

Not knowing my danger, I had sought my bunk and went to sleep. Suddenly I felt a heavy hand fall upon my young body and shake me violently. I awoke and opened my eyes. Three strange men stood before me. One of them held a lantern, which he placed close to my eyes.

"What do you want?" I asked. "Nothing, sonny - get up." the impressor answered. "Get up? Why?"

"You'll have to go with us to town."

"Why? What business have I in town?"

"Well, you'll see! Dress yourself, boy, and be quick."

"I don't want to. I won't go!"

A blow in the face dazed me. I was wrapped in my torn clothes, thrown into a wagon, and brought to Bobruysk.

There I was locked up in the barracks.

In order to get rid of the "hidden Jews" (that is, the Jews who were not regularly entered on the public records), Czar Nicholas I issued an ukase which permitted every "hidden Jew" to be sent off as a soldier; a "hidden man" was one who had no passport. This gave anyone the right to seize any young man or boy who had no passport and hand him over to the community as a soldier in lieu of some member of his own or some other family.

For the communal leaders of those dark days, who constantly sought to thrive on Jewish misery, this ukase opened a new traffic. Each Jewish commune sent out its impressors on all roads and highways; they hid in village inns and watches for prey. Into their hands fell all unfortunate Jewish youths who could not show passports. Nor could all who had passports escape them. Passports were often torn before the very eyes of the victims, who were seized as "hidden" ones.

Those who were seized were bound like sheep, brought to town and locked up in the barracks. There they would be kept for weeks until the recruiting (priom) would begin. The authorities were not over-scrupulous with these unfortunates. Were they weak, sick or defective? No matter - they were taken, dressed up in military clothes, and packed off to serve the Czar. These "bodies" were sent in place of men whose families could pay a satisfactory price; the deputies and the isborschik divided the money. Many private individuals took part in this traffic. They would seize young children and sell them to the community "bosses". Those times were known among the Russian Jews as the dreaded days of the "impressment" (Piomanes). Hundreds of "sales of Josephs" occurred daily. The lesser rabbis of the smaller towns gave supine assent to such outrages, with the argument that it was "more pius" to protect the children of their own towns. The more important wept in silence at these open outrages, but they dared not protest for three reasons. First, these proceedings were in accordance with the Czar's ukase; secondly, they feared the isborschik and the deputies at whose pleasure they held their positions; and thirdly, they feared denunciation to the government officials. The result of such denunciation would inevitably have been exile to Siberia. These were times when men devoured men openly and with the consent of the government.

And so at the age of fourteen, I was one of the victims.

I stayed in the barracks for five long weeks. The community was waiting for the recruiting; and as for chances of redemption, it seemed, I had none. How could I? Whence could help come to me? Through what miracle? Can poor sheep bound in the slaughter house hope to escape the slaughter? Legally or illegally, I would remain a soldier. I would have many years to serve among the cantonists. I would be sent to some peasant in a village many thousands of miles away, perhaps to faraway Siberia, there to tend swine, chop wood, make clumsy peasant shoes, and for every trifling offense suffer cruel beating. Should I emerge safe from this dreaded ordeal, the real Gehenna, with all its horrors, would only have just begun - the "elder" soldier, the Russian barracks, the drills, the marches under a load of three hundred pounds - the lash, the beatings, and other "diversions" of this sort. More than all else, the thought of my unhappy, widowed mother, helpless and miserable, tormented me. For twenty-one dark years she lived with her husband, and when an evil chance deprived her of her supporter, she was left with two orphans. With them she could share only her sorrow - for joys she never had. Her sole comfort were the two orphans, and now she is robber of both. "A cruel beast hath devoured them!" Nay, no wild beasts of the forest were these, but human beings with hearts of wolves!

Such thoughts occupied me the entire time I spent in the barracks together with other Jewish victims. Those thoughts stirred my emotions and then, in the barracks, I wrote my poem of 108 stanzas, "The Pionabes". The theme for the poem I took from the prophet Haggai.

Haggai came to the priests and inquired of them: "Does a man or a garment become holy when this man or this garment touches the holy meat of the sacrifice?"

"No, he does not become holy," the priest replied.

"And does a man or a garment become unclean when either of them comes into contact with the unclean?" the prophet further inquired.

"Yes, verily, they become unclean," answered the priests.

"Such is the entire people," Haggai sorrowfully exclaimed. "No good, clean or holy thing adheres to them; only unholy things cling to them. That is, while living among strange nations, they do not learn good deeds or fine customs; from them they learn only the bad, the impure."

The horrible ukase of the impressment was a severe test for the Jews of that generation, and many stood that test poorly. In thus seizing and bartering their own brothers into conversion and suffering, they revealed to the world a bad element among them. Alas, that this bad element should have gained so strong an ascendancy!

The above is, in brief, the burden of my song, "Tried at the Bar of Justice and Convicted". I wrote this not with my own blood alone, but with the blood of all my unhappy peoples. Not alone my sorrows resound through my verse, but the despairing wail of all Israel.

And how heartrending was the sight within the barracks! Eighty miserable, pale, emaciated, hungary, half-naked little beings, lying on the floor on a pile of dirty straw! The greater part were small children, who had been snatched from their mothers by tyrannical hands, and who could not realize the great misfortune awaiting them. Even here in the barracks, not comprehending the dark fate awaiting them, they laughed, frolicked and played with one another; the older ones, regarding them, forgot their own sorrows and shed bitter tears. Twice daily the iron doors opened, and the hideous lackey of the community bosses entered and brought some loaves of bread and a few pots of soup, too dirty even for dogs. If any one dared to complain or make a request, he was seized by the hair and thrust to the wall with such a violence that his young bones cracked.

"I want to go back to my mother," some child broke out with a sob.

"You'll see her, indeed, in the other world! Only be patient!" the Jewish Antiochus replied with a leer.

"Let me go home! I want to go home!" wailed another little one.

"Wait a few more days!" roars the human tiger. "You will than have a large home! It extends from Bobruysk to Archangel!"

Night is coming on. All lie on the floor and say their prayers; others, the older ones, recite the Psalms by heart, and thus lull themselves to sleep. A flock of sheep awaiting slaughter! They lie on each other in the dirty straw. Misfortune and misery have united these strangers into one body. Here and there a heavy sigh breaks forth from the breast of some older one. The very young ones sleep peacefully, a serene smile on their wan features. Of what are they dreaming? Very likely they are dreaming that they are slumbering on their mother's lap and she is stroking their pretty curls.

Among the eighty who were in the barracks with me, there were some who possessed good voices for singing. From among them I selected a choir of ten and drilled them in my song, "The Piomanes". Several times each day we used to sing it, and when the sad strain of the music would resound through the barracks, tears would steal into every eye and not a heart remained unmoved. Even our hideous jailers wept with us, those men with hearts of stone and nerves of iron, who watches us day and night.

The month of Ab passed, and finally came the night preceding the day on which we were to be led to slaughter - to the recruiting.

But help was nearer than any of us suspected. On Purim of 1885 (that is, about a half year before I was seized and locked up in the barracks at Bobruysk), Emperor Nicholas I suddenly died. Alexander II ascended the Russian throne, and the treaty of Paris was signed. The Crimean War was at an end. One of the very first edicts issued by Alexander II was for the release of the poimaniks.

At about one o'clock in the morning, while we were all asleep in the barracks, we were awakened by a great commotion in the street. The noise came nearer and nearer, and we heard vigorous knocks on the iron doors and shutters.

"Get up, children! A deliverance! You are free!" some one shouted.

"An ukase from the Czar to release you!" shouted another.

"Praise God, children! say 'Hallel'!" several voices called out together.

This news sounded to us like the blast of the Great Shofar which will awaken the dead on the day of Resurrection. With a cry of joy we sprang from our wretched straw heaps, washed and fell to saying Hallel. I was the hazzan, and my choir accompanied me. After Hallel, we all joined hands and danced a Jewish Karehod (folk dance). I wrote my song "The Deliverance" (Die Yeshuah), and arranged a beautiful melody for it.

It was decided to release us from the barracks at ten o'clock in the morning. The rich Reb Isaac Rabinovitz of Bobruysk donated forty rubles to the synagogue for the privilege of opening the door of the barracks. Long before the appointed hour a great crowd of men and women, young and old, had gathered about the doors of the barracks and waited impatiently for the moment when the doors would open and we would emerge - free. Each and every one praised and blessed the good Emperor Alexander II, who had issued this edict and who had also revoked many of the cruel edicts of his father.

The happy moment came. With the benediction "Blessed be He who releaseth them that are found," the rich Reb Isaac Rabinovitz unlocked the door and the crowd surged into the barracks. The town hazzan recited a prayer of blessing for the Emperor, and sang the 45th Psalm. ("I waited patiently for the Lord; He inclined unto me and heard my cry", etc.)

Then my choir and myself were placed upon a large table, and we sang my song "Placed Before the Bar of Justice and Convicted." Many of the people wept. The song also had another effect; the people became so enraged at the community bosses that they were ready to tear them to pieces. But they had already gone into hiding."

Books by author
Leider, Emily Wortis. Barnard College, New York, Class of ’59
Becoming Mae West, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997; DaCapo Press, 2000
California’s Daughter: Gertrude Atherton and Her Times, Stanford U Press, 1991, 1993
Rapid Eye Movement and other poems, Bay Books, 1976
Yesterday: A Memoir of a Russian Jewish Family, Harper & Row, 1939 and 1978 (editor)

Review in Canadian Jewish News April 21, 2005.

Tales from the Pale By ZE'EV GLICENSTEIN ccasionally I stumble onto a Jewish autobiography, memoir or immigrant-centred novel worthy of sharing with CJN readers. Yesterday, A Memoir of a Russian Jewish Family is just such a book. Originally published in 1939, it is a lovely reminiscence by Miriam Shomer Zunser, the American daughter of Yiddish novelist Nochim-Mayer Shaikevitsch. A second edition, edited by Zunser’s granddaughter Emily Wortis Leider, was printed by Harper & Row in 1978. Zunser’s unselfconscious narrative focuses on various members of her family in 19th-century Byelorussia, principally in Pinsk. Some are impoverished, others quite well-to-do. Through a succession of folksy and often remarkable anecdotes, it paints a rich picture of Jewish life in the eastern Pale of Settlement. Like Gluckl of Hamelyn and other female Jewish family chroniclers, Zunser penned her narrative for her own children and likely had little thought of publication. She reveals an amazing knowledge of family events that occurred decades before she was born. I liked her book from the moment I read its opening sentence: “Your great-grandfather had 24 children, all by the same wife.” Many tales concern Zunser’s illustrious great-grandfather, Reb Michel Bercinsky. He once rescued the Pinsk shul from an onerous tax burden by taking the government to court; he gained the respect even of local thieves who abided by a gentleman’s agreement never to break into his house. Yet more memorable episodes are centred around her father, the gifted and prolific Shaikevitsch (Shomer), whose Yiddish romances eventually fell from popular and critical favour. However, space allows me to convey only one of Zunser’s rich anecdotes, concerning her paternal grandfather, Reb Gavriel Goldberg of Nesvizh. A wealthy businessman who exported goods and raw materials around the Baltic, Reb Gavriel had reached the allotted biblical life span of 70 with still no offspring. He yearned for a a son to say Kaddish for him after his death. His plan to divorce his wife and seek a young bride stirred the rabbis of Nesvizh to debate. Jewish law permitted a man to divorce a barren wife after 10 years, but the rabbis forbade Reb Gavriel from divorcing because too much time had gone by. “Reb Gavriel had waited almost 50 years, and it was too late,” Zunser recounted. Undaunted, Reb Gavriel found a rabbi in another town who would grant the divorce; even though his wife refused to receive the get into her hands, he proceeded with a second marriage a few months later. Reb Nochim-Mayer, the rabbi who had decreed the divorce, now officiated at his wedding – and startled everyone present by raising his hands to heaven and proclaiming: “‘If this union has come about against the will and law of God, may it prove barren as the sands of the desert! If, however, I have acted according to the teachings of our lawgivers and the will of the Almighty, may it be blessed with many children and may even you, Reb Gavriel, together with your wife, live to marry off the youngest of your offspring!’ Then he commanded the wide-eyed wedding guests to say Amen. “‘Amen!’ they whispered in secret foreboding.” Watched by every Jewish eye in Nesvizh, Reb Gavriel’s petrified young bride soon became pregnant. Hearing the news, his first wife accepted the get and the money he provided, and went off to Palestine to die. “She could not give one child to her people; she would give her bones to mix with the dust of their land.” Reb Gavriel’s second wife ultimately produced nearly a dozen sons and daughters, and he indeed lived to see the youngest of his offspring married. He died soon after at the age of 110, with no shortage of sons to say Kaddish for his departed soul.