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Memoirs: Moshe's Adventures, Part One

By: Moshe Atlasowicz (Morris Josephson "M.J." Atlas)
Covers the Period Around 1910 in Radzilow

Table of Contents

[Click on arrows to go to any section or on links to go to any chapter]

Part One
Part Three
Preface:     Preface Chapter 11: The Yeshiva
Chapter 1:  A Small Town in Poland Chapter 12: My First Dilemma
Chapter 2:  Cheder Chapter 13: Bialystok
Chapter 3:  Deaths in the Family Chapter 14: Bialystok Yeshiva
Chapter 4:  Father's Remarriage Chapter 15: My New Dilemma
Chapter 5:  My New Cheder Chapter 16: Return to Bialystok
Part Two
Part Four
Chapter 6:  A Momentous Visit Chapter 17: A Girl From My Hometown
Chapter 7:  Getting an Instructor Chapter 26: Make a Decision
Chapter 8:  Fire Chapter 33: Home
Chapter 9:  Effects of the Fire Chapter 34: I Choose America
Chapter10: Malka -- My First Love Chapter 35: Parting
Preface, Written by Paul Atlas:

My grandfather emigrated when he was fourteen years old, and while he was a precocious child, the point of view of his memoir is extremely self-centered, reflecting his young age at the time of the experiences he is recounting. Most children see the world as revolving around themselves, and M.J. was no exception in this regard. Larger social, political, and cultural issues are ignored as one would expect, except where they impact immediately on his condition and prospects as a child. The major drama of my grandfather's early life, other than the untimely deaths of his oldest sister and then mother, is his quest to obtain a secular education. This intense desire of his put him in conflict with his family and with larger Radzilowo Jewish culture (he was evidently the first Jewish child to attend the local public school full-time as well as attend cheder). It eventually led him to runaway at age twelve from a Yeshiva in Bialystok to attend Gymnasium in Gomel, where he supported himself by tutoring less educated children and adults. His decision to emigrate to the U.S. was motivated by the realization that his desire for higher education would be frustrated by the prejudice and restrictions against Jews within the Russian Empire of his time.

Chapter 1: A Small Town In Poland

My name is Moshe. I was born on December 15, 1897, the second day of Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, in the town of Radzilowo, in Szczuczyn County, in the province of Lomza. The population of the town was 1,500, four-fifths of whom were Catholic Poles and the remainder, about 350 in number, were Jews.

Moshe Atlasowicz
(Morris Josephson "M.J." Atlas)
and his wife Fanny Koplov
New York City, 1919
Moshe went to America, 1914


The non-Jewish population was mostly of peasant stock. There were a few families that didn't belong to that class and these were known as szlachcice [noblemen]. They were the intermediary class in the then Polish society, between the peasantry, known as chlopi, and the landed gentry. The latter belonged to the nobility; they were squires, just below the rank of baron. They lived in the small villages surrounding the town, on large estates in fine mansions, and frequently visited the large cities of Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, Vienna and Rome. There were few completely landless peasants in the region, and these were employed either on the nobles' estates, by some of the szlachcice, or by the very few more fortunate peasants.

The Jewish population of the town was divided into two distinct socio-economic groups. Most of them were artisans and craftsmen. They were the tailors, the shoemakers, dressmakers (there were no ready-made clothes available), carpenters, blacksmiths, bakers, teamsters, butchers and others. A small number of them employed other Jews, either as apprentices or as regular craftsmen. All employees were pitifully underpaid, but their employers likewise "enjoyed" a low standard of living, even according to the then prevailing level. All worked long hours, six days per week. They were very pious folk, but most of them had received only an elementary Jewish education, and next to nothing of secular instruction. They "knew their place" in the Jewish community, and always left the communal affairs to the discretion of the upper, but much smaller, group. Except for one non-Jewish blacksmith, all the craftsmen were Jewish.

The much smaller group was referred to as the baalei h'batim [landlords; referring to a town's wealthier citizens]. The members of this group were the town's shopkeepers, the grain and flour merchants, the lumbermen, the hardware merchants, etc. Most were former students and even graduates of the various rabbinical seminaries, known as yeshivas, which were maintained throughout East and Central Europe. They continued their interest in the Talmud and possessed well-cultivated intellects. They belonged to an "Association for the Study of the Talmud," and beginning on the first of each Jewish year, they would select a volume for study. Usually, they studied in pairs, either at the synagogue, at long tables during the long winter evenings and frequently, as on Saturdays and holidays, in their private homes. At the end of each year, the outgoing president of the association would give a banquet for the members, at which a new president would be elected for the ensuing year.

Such banquets were always gala affairs, with the food good and plentiful, and the guests jolly. Vodka and wine were served, but everybody drank in moderation; excessive drinking was unknown among the town's Jews. There was little social contact between the two groups of Jewish society, even among their children. The parents of the "higher" class simply forbade their children to fraternize with the children of the artisans. In fact, they would even punish them whenever they were seen associating with children "not their equal."

Most of the baalei h'batim were fairly well-to-do, but wealth alone could not secure one's admittance to their social stratum. However, the son of a butcher, a shoemaker or blacksmith who studied in the seminary and became learned, would, after his marriage, automatically become a member of the more exclusive group. He would be particularly acceptable if he became a businessman, but the qualifications for admittance consisted primarily of scholarly achievement. Thus, the son of a prominent family who neglected his Talmudic studies and failed in intellectual achievement, even though he might be a merchant, would not belong to the more exclusive set, and few families would consent to welcome him into the family as a son-in-law.

Except for a few tutors, who were well-learned but had limited income, the Talmudists were successful businessmen and owned fine homes. Their homes were well furnished, and most of them were the proud owners of complete sets of the Talmud, both the Babylonian and Jerusalem versions. Some also had books dealing with Jewish history and philosophy. They subscribed to newspapers and frequently engaged in discussions on world affairs, in which many took a keen interest.

Atlasowicz Family, ca 1920
Yosef Atlasowicz and
2nd wife Chana Peltynowicz
"the moome"
Daughters from 1st wife
Miriam Libby Niedzwiadowicz
[L-R]: Esther, Frieidka
Yosef died in Radzilow, 1924; Chana's fate unknown;
Esther went to America, 1920; Freidka killed in Radzilow, 1941


My father's name was Joseph; my mother's, Libby. Father came from a town called Jedwabne, about ten miles southwest of Radzilowo while Mother was born in the town of Stawiski, ten miles south of our town, According to father's explanation, his great-grandfather had immigrated into Poland from Germany. My mother, on her maternal side, came from the Barbanell family. Father once expressed his opinion that the Barbanell family very likely originated from Spain from the famous Spanish Jew, Don Abarbanell. He pointed out that many members of the Barbanell family were of distinctly darker complexion than was normal for European Jews.

Father was one of the leading businessmen. We operated the largest bakery in town and, in addition, Father was a wholesale grain merchant, a flour merchant, and, when the opportunity presented itself, he would buy a farm, subdivide it and sell the parcels of land to peasants in the neighborhood. He had considerable dealings with some of the squires from the nearby villages. He also dealt in timber and, in later years, in lumber.

The relationship between Father and the peasants, as well as the nobility, was very cordial. They trusted Father implicitly and knew that "his word was as good as gold." It was based on mutual respect and, in some cases, close friendship.

Most of the town of Radzilowo was situated on a hill which sloped gently westward toward the river, which bad no name and, because of its size, didn't deserve one. The center of the town consisted of a marketplace. Most of the buildings that faced the marketplace were combination homes and business, with a shop or store in front and living quarters in the rear. Streets extended from the marketplace in all directions, some of which curved and merged further on, forming a Y-shape. In the center, there stood a building referred to as "the Buda," used to house the firefighting equipment, which proved one hundred percent effective during rehearsal exercises. Such "fires" were frequently arranged by the heads of the Voluntary Fire Fighting Brigade in "strict secrecy," the date, time and place supposedly known only to the members of the "Committee." Somehow, the information always leaked out; the "secret" was whispered from mouth to ear, and the young boys awaited the "alarm" with great impatience.

During such "fires," the members of the brigade worked as a team. Young and middle-aged Jews worked alongside young and middle-aged Poles, and the cooperation of all was remarkable. In no time at all, the "fire," usually consisting of a few old wooden barrels sprinkled with kerosene oil, would be put out. Then the entire "force" would victoriously, in quasi-military order, take the equipment back into the Buda.

The job done, they would form into rows, like an army platoon, for a review by their chief and his lieutenants. The ranks would be congratulated on their work and the fine spirit of cooperation. Then they would march around the market square, singing "March on, Fire Fighters, March On." The march over, they would break ranks in front of the Buda, where a keg, or kegs, of beer was made available, free to all members of the force. It was a spectacle that the entire population cherished and enjoyed. Unfortunately, the Fire Brigade's devotion to and performance of its duties contrasted sharply with the performance during real fires.

The Jewish community of Radzilowo maintained a synagogue, a "Talmud Torah" building and a bath house. Half of the Talmud Torah building was occupied by a "Talmud Torah," wherein religious instruction was given to boys whose parents were too poor to send them to private tutors. It was a spacious auditorium and on the Sabbath day and Jewish holidays, it was also used for religious services by a large group of artisans and craftsmen. The other half, as an Ha'khnees Haorkhim [guest place], was for the accommodation of wayfarers; all transient Jews and professional beggars who passed through the town would sleep there, without any cost or charge. It contained several beds and bedding, and was kept reasonably clean.

The Bath House was open every Friday afternoon. It was of the Russian type, with long benches along the walls, extending upwards, like steps, almost to the very ceiling. There was always a thick steam cloud hovering above, the outside daylight struggling to penetrate the darkness caused by the cloud inside. It was not lighted otherwise, and it was difficult to recognize anyone else. A bather would choose the bench according to the degree of heat desired, and proceed to steam or massage himself. This was done by lifting a short, round broom made of twigs, about twelve inches in diameter, up high. The broom would pick up the hot steam and the rubbing, or massaging, would then proceed. The massaging was quite tortuous to us young boys, as our fathers usually were eager to do a good job and they would place us on the higher benches where the heat was, for us, almost unbearable.

There were two pools in the bathhouse, one with cold water and one with hot. These pools were used by the males to "soak" themselves, and by the Jewish women to "cleanse" themselves after menstruation, as required by the Jewish religion. In later years, the Jewish community added a brick annex to the old bathhouse. There were a number of individual tubs, made of galvanized sheet iron, in the Annex, as well as a modern, hot water pool, the walls and floor of which consisted of white tile, A door led from the old bathhouse into the Annex. The spacious place was well-lighted through its large windows, there being no steam cloud overcast.

The baths were visited quite regularly by the Jewish population, the males on Friday and the womenfolk on Wednesday. It was one of the institutions maintained by the Jewish Community, the patrons being required to pay a nominal admission fee. I don't recall ever seeing a non-Jew avail himself of its facilities.

The non-Jewish inhabitants had a Catholic church, which was used for services on Sunday morning and Roman Catholic holidays. It was surrounded by a fairly large courtyard. The priest lived in a nice, white brick home outside the churchyard. On the west side of his residence, a pretty, gently sloping lawn extended to the river-bank. To the east and south of the priest's home, there was a large, well-tended fruit orchard, which contained cherry trees, a considerable variety of apple trees and pear trees. The orchard was part of the premises of the priest's residence and was usually leased by him to a Jewish family, who would gather the fruit at maturity, the older members of the family spending the nights during the season in a tent placed in the orchard, guarding the fruit.

Occasionally, there were cynical references made to the priest and his woman housekeeper who, husbandless, nevertheless had borne several children while serving the priest. Such remarks were always made by otherwise devout Catholics, never by Jews. Except for the church, there was no other non-Jewish institution in Radzilowo.

Because Radzilowo was a township, it had a town office, with a "secretar" and an assistant secretar. It also boasted a Police Department, consisting in later years, of three men, a one-room Jail (seldom used), rented from one of the town's peasants, and an elementary school.

The population, overwhelmingly Polish, had a violent dislike for the Russians, and they regarded them as their foes. But in school, the teaching of the Russian language and history was obligatory. The school attendance was about one hundred fifty boys and girls. In view of the fact that the town was surrounded by a large number of villages that didn't have schools of their own, the per capita attendance was very low.

The Jewish boys between the ages of five and thirteen attended a cheder, a private school for the instruction of the Jewish religion. These boys were required to attend school twice a week for one hour sessions, on Monday and Wednesday between five and six P.M. The teacher usually took his own time to come into the classroom, and the children looked upon school attendance as an obligation imposed upon them by the government. Once every year, the government's regional "School Inspector," in a brilliant military uniform, would pay the town a visit. His duties were to inspect the school facilities, including those of the town's chedorim (plural for "cheder"), and examine the pupils as to their progress.

The Inspector never failed to find the classrooms exceptionally clean; the teacher was unusually attentive and very polite. The Inspector would spend most of the day in conference with the principal-teacher, while the pupils would concentrate on cramming as much as they could on reading and spelling Russian and on arithmetic. It was well known that the Inspector never bothered to examine anybody on any other subject.

In the afternoon, the Inspector accompanied by the teacher, would enter the classroom. All the children would rise and then he would graciously say in Russian, "You may sit down dear children." He would then call forward two pupils from a given grade. The inspector would dictate two or three sentences which the pupils were required to write on the blackboard. When finished the inspector would enter some notation in his memorandum book. Sometimes he examined the same pupil in arithmetic. The number of pupils he would examine seldom exceeded ten.

In the evening, the same procedure would be repeated with the Jewish boys. Between seven and eight P.M., the inspector, accompanied by the teacher, would make his inspection of the Jewish chedorim. The Hebrew tutors were afraid of these inspectors as some of them were clearly anti-Semitic and found fault where there was none. What the inspectors were supposed to concern themselves with, in regard to the chedorim, was cleanliness and suitable eating facilities. It was within his power to close up any "cheder" until the fault he found to exist, or said he found, was remedied. During such inspections the "cheder" pupils actually enjoyed seeing their tutors standing humbly in the presence of the inspector, and almost trembling from fear. It pleased them to see the tutor, whom they regarded as a dictator, in the presence of one even more powerful.

Radzilowo also boasted an apothecary and two feldshers. The latter were men who had worked with physicians in hospitals for several years and were allowed to practice medicine, even to issue prescriptions. But they knew, as well as the population throughout Russia, Poland and Lithuania, their limitations. In later years, however, feldshers were required to have an education equivalent to high school in the United States, and to attend medical courses for two years, after which they would intern in a hospital for one year before they were given a license to practice.

Our house was situated on the west side of the marketplace, almost in the center of the block. It occupied two lots, and was divided in two by a hall or corridor that ran from east to west. The rear had a considerable number of stone steps, as all the houses on the west side of the marketplace were on the hill's gentle slope. The driveway that led to the backyard was on the south side of the house, and usually closed by a high wall-built gate. The deep, spacious yard had several stables in the rear to accommodate a couple of horses and cows. On the north side, was a well-constructed warehouse for the housing of grain and flour. Adjoining it on the east, there was a permanent succah, which consisted of a spacious, one-room house. During the Jewish festival of Succoth, which usually falls during the month of September, orthodox Jews are required to eat in a succah, a sort of temporary shelter in commemoration of the time when the ancient Jews, while gathering their crops, lived in the fields.

Most Jewish families, indeed perhaps ninety eight per cent, would combine their manpower and resources and, within the four days separating Yom Kippur and Succoth, would "knock together" a succah, to be used Jointly by them. They used old lumber of all sizes and shapes, old doors, discarded boards, etc. The less permanent the construction, the closer it came to being a real "succah." Such a "structure" usually accommodated two to four families, as the womenfolk didn't eat there. The structure was without a roof. Usually, a few small posts or thin boards were laid across the top widely spaced and nailed down to the side-walls. On top of them, they laid twigs or straw in such a way as to permit daylight to penetrate inside, and thus underscore the building's temporary nature.

Our own succah was as well constructed as any house in town, except that the walls were not stuccoed inside, as our house was, and its interior was whitewashed instead of painted. It had a gabled roof, but half of it would open up by a pulley-cable arrangement with a crank below. This half would open fully so that it would remain standing upright, as if on edge. When closed, the two halves formed a triangle. It also had regular windows. Our yard was fenced in well by high boards. Father was a great believer in privacy.

Chapter 2: Cheder

Remains of the
Cheder Building


There were two Aleph Bet (Alphabet) Chedorim for beginners. When I reached to ripe age of four, I was taken by two of my older brothers to a cheder. It was the beginning of the fall semester, less than a week after the Succoth festivities, early in October. My brothers and the tutor took me to a long table in a spacious room, which, besides serving as a classroom, in a rear corner, also served as the dwelling's kitchen. My brothers and the tutor went into a brief huddle, then my eldest brother said to me, "If you will promise to be a good boy and try to learn well, the angels in heaven will like you and reward you. Do you promise?" As I made my promise, a three-kopek copper piece fell on the table in front of me, dropped from above. "See," said my brother, "the angels appreciate your attitude and have already dropped something for you from heaven."

During the cold winter months, I suddenly discovered to my great dismay that I was to take my noon meals with the tutor and his wife. They were an elderly couple whose children had already left their nest, partly, I am sure, because the nest was rather poorly feathered. The tutor was not too learned; he taught only beginners and was very poorly paid. I was the only pupil to take meals in his house, and I wasn't very happy about it. He had a full hour for lunch, which gave the children some time to play at home before returning to cheder, while I stayed behind, alone. None of the tutors, regardless of the grades they taught, allowed any play among the children, except during the Chanukah festival.

I spent one year in that cheder and then was sent to that of Reb Abraham Isaac. At the beginning of my second semester there, I began to study the Scriptures, and I shall never forget the answer I received from this tutor to an innocent question of mine. It happened when we began to study Genesis. We studied it in Hebrew, with the tutor translating it into Yiddish. As he finished translating to us ". . . and God created the heavens and the earth," I interrupted him and asked, "Rabbi, who created Him?" Reb Abraham Isaac, as if shocked, locked at me for a moment, then slapped me. "Remember," he said, "this is one question you must never ask, understand?" Of course, I understood! And, indeed, I remember . . . in fact so well that I have never ceased asking that question.

After one year in Reb Abraham Isaac's cheder, I was sent to Reb Haskel's, who taught three grades. Because of Father's social-economic standing in the community, every tutor deemed it advisable to pay special attention to my brothers and me. (Girls never attended cheder, but many, like my sisters, received private instruction.) Reb Haskel noted, as he told me several years later, that I showed surprising perception in every thing he taught me, and he decided to experiment with me. He assigned me to a seat at the table where boys of the grade above mine were seated, handed me a volume of the Talmud (Boba Metzlah), opened it up, placed it on the table before me and, pointing to a page said to me, "Moshe'le, you are not in this grade, and I shall not hold you responsible for learning this. All I want you to do is follow attentively as I teach this to the other boys. If you learn anything, I shall be very pleased."

Soon Reb Haskel noted that during the weekly reviews of the portion studied, I frequently come to the rescue of most of the boys of that grade. Whenever, on review, a boy could not answer the tutor's question, I ventured forth with the answer. And so, on one Thursday, during the weekly review (Thursday afternoon and evening was devoted to reviews), Reb Haskel said to me, "Listen my little knave, if you are learning sufficiently to help out the other boys, you are certainly qualified to join the class as a regular member." He devoted the rest of the review time of my group to me, examining me and, apparently pleased, he made me recite parts of several portions back. When we finished, he said to the other boys, "I wish all of you had learned as well as he has, and he is barely six." (The youngest of the other boys was seven.)

For many years, it had been the habits of some of Father's friends to drop in at our house on Saturday morning, before going to the synagogue for the Sabbath services, for a glass of tea with condensed milk. (In Russia and Poland, people drank tea from glasses instead of cups.) These Saturday morning tea-drinking sessions usually lasted about one and a half hours, and the conversation at the table was varied. Sometimes the subject of discussion was an episode in Jewish history; at other times, the relative greatness of ancient Jewish sages, Dr. Herzl, Zionism, the destiny of the Jewish people, etc.

One Saturday morning, I was startled at seeing Reb Haskel coming into our house, as I had not seen him there on a Saturday morning before. Soon, after he seated himself at the table, a few words passed between him and father, the other guests listening with interest. Father then invited me over to the table and asked me softly which was not characteristic of him when speaking to his children, whether I should like to drink hot condensed milk or tea with milk, "like us grown-ups." I was puzzled and bewildered at the consideration he was showing me, and why in the presence of several middle-aged men. I literally lost my speech and began to cry, but Reb Haskel busied himself in an effort to pacify me.

He seated me at the table, and further ordered "tea with milk." I didn't dare drink it, despite the constant urging of Father and the guests, and I kept my eyes focused downward in front of me. Finally, Father removed a volume of the "Talmud" set from our large bookcase, and asked me whether I would do his and the guests a courtesy of giving a recitation. I was almost shaking from fright, but Reb Haskel spoke up and, in a very reassuring tone said, "Moshe'le just do it as you have been doing it in cheder. There is no reason for you to be scared."

As I began the recitation, I felt everybody's eyes, including my mother's who was standing in a corner just a few feet away, intently focused on me. As I continued, I progressively shed my stage fright. I stopped, not knowing how much they wished for me to recite, but this time, the guests smilingly asked me for "a little more, just a little." Then I finished, almost all of them pinched my cheek, a sign of affection equivalent to a kiss. I was then allowed to leave the table and, as I did, Mother pulled me over to her, embraced me and pressed me close to her.

Chapter 3: Deaths in the Family

Our family was living through a tragic period. Our eldest sister, Rebecca, became seriously ill. She took a turn for the worse and was brought from her own dwelling to our house and put to bed in our master bedroom. About two weeks later, she was taken to the hospital in Lomza, the provincial capital, and Mother accompanied her.

The Sabbath Day begins at sunset on Friday. The following Friday evening, at the first Sabbath meal, Father began to make "kiddush" over a small glass of wine. The meal had been prepared by our sister Sarah, who, together with her husband, Moshe, and their two children, lived in the other half of our house. Because of the serious condition of our eldest sister, everybody at the table felt sad. Suddenly in the middle of the "kiddush," Father's hand began to shake, his voice began to choke, tears came down his cheeks, and the glass of wine fell out of his hand. He tried to control his emotions, and my sister and her husband followed him into the drawing room. As we children were served our food, we could hear their barely audible weeping.

Early Sunday morning, Father left for Lomza, and several days later returned with Mother in a horse-drawn cab, both weeping incessantly. Sister Rebecca was buried in Lomza, leaving three children and her husband, Zalman Barbanell.

I continued my study of the Talmud, now as an equal member of the class. Reb Haskel had paired me with another boy; the two of us used one Talmud book, and the recitation was done by both of us together. But he continued to pay closer attention to me and, despite my being the youngest in the group, he soon began to expect me to surpass the others.

Mother grieved unceasingly at sister Rebecca's passing. She continued to perform her daily chores, which now included the care of the three orphans, and the poor. Quite frequently, during father's absence from the house, I would see her going into the drawing room, sit down and weep quietly. Sister Sarah knew about this, and she made it a habit to come as often a her own house duties permitted. She would rush into the drawing room and the two world embrace each other, each pleading with the other that nothing could possibly bring Rebecca back.

On one such occasion I came home for lunch. Not finding Mother in either the kitchen or the dining room, I ventured to open the door to the drawing room. There I found both Mother and Sarah, each wiping the other's tears. I walked over to Mother, looked at her and at Sarah and began to cry. Mother drew me into her arms and kissed me, her tears falling on my cheeks. Then she said, "Moshe'le, you must be hungry." She shook her head vigorously, wiped her eyes, and said to Sarah, "Enough, Sarah. You have work to do in your own house." But her grief over Rebecca was plainly noticeable in her looks and behavior. There was a constant sad expression on her face, and her bewitching smile had vanished.

About fifteen months after Rebecca's passing, at the dinner table one Saturday in December, Mother suddenly threw back her head and stretched her arm. Father looked at her and said gravely, "Libby, I'm afraid you are not well. Do you feel ill?"

"Oh it's nothing," Mother answered.

Father looked at her intently. "With God's will, I hope you are right."

Immediately after dinner, she retired to bed, and felt too ill to rise even the following morning. The following afternoon, she did get up to supervise a few chores, but she returned to bed early that Sunday evening. Both feldshers visited her, examined her and prescribed some medicine. The next day, they advised bringing in a doctor from one of the nearby towns; there was none in our own town.

Father, sister Sarah, my elder brothers, and even I, realized the extent of Mother's illness, and everyone became worried. My friend, Shabsai, caught me in a despondent mood and weeping when we met while returning to cheder from lunch. We were very much attached to each other, and he asked my why I was crying. I didn't hesitate to tell him about Mother's sickness, and how everybody in the family was worried over it. He was touched by the bad news, and, after a few minutes of questions regarding Mother's condition, said: "You know what you ought to do? Early, tomorrow afternoon, when there is no one at the synagogue, go in there, go up to the 'holy ark' open its door, and pray before the holy scrolls to God to save your Mother. Promise Him you will be a good, pious boy. He will listen to your prayers, and I am sure she will soon be well again."

I waited impatiently for the following afternoon and, at long last, it arrived. It was Wednesday afternoon when I slipped into the synagogue, looked around and, not seeing anyone there, walked up the few steps leading to the small landing before the "holy ark" and opened it. I was not quite seven years old at the time. I begged the Almighty, Creator of the Universe, to spare my mother, who was full of kindness and goodness for everyone in need. I prayed from the depths of my heart and soul, crying bitterly and promising that if He spared Mother's life, I would dedicate my own to Him.

I returned to cheder and Reb Haskel, noticing my red eyes and realizing that I had been crying, instead of asking me why I was late, asked me whether I had received some punishment. I broke down and told him what I had done. He and his wife knew that Mother was ill, but didn't realize that her condition was serious. I was unable to restrict my emotional outburst, and Reb Haskel soon sent me home.

At home, I found that the doctor from the neighboring town of Jedwabne, about ten miles due south, had arrived and examined Mother. From nearby, I watched Father as he was discussing Mother's condition with the doctor. His face looked grim; everyone in the house looked worried; the doctor's face was drawn and stern. But I alone felt that there was no cause for all that anxiety. I was convinced that my mother, the "feeder of the needy" as she was referred to, would soon recover and be well again. Surely, I thought, He had listened to my prayers.

From the discussions among the adults in the house, I learned that the doctor's diagnosis was that Mother was suffering from pneumonia and that it was risky to move her to any hospital. He prescribed some medicine, but declined to say anything that might be interpreted as encouragement. He returned on Friday, examined her again, prescribed more medicine, and left certain instructions with the feldshers. To Father's question as to whether Mother was showing any improvement, he shook his head. Everybody realized that her condition was grave. Nevertheless, in the face of the grim situation, I was still hopeful that God would spare her.

Saturday morning, Father's friends, on the way to the synagogue for the Sabbath morning service, came by as usual, but this time they did not come to drink "tea with milk" and participate in interesting discussions. Instead, they came by to inquire about Mother's condition and to express their hopes and wishes for her speedy recovery.

Father and I were the only members of our household that didn't go to the synagogue that Saturday morning. Father prayed at home and spent most of the time with Mother in the drawing room, where she had been moved during the week. He saw to it that she took her medicine on schedule, and he tried to comfort her in other ways, while I stayed in the dining room. Once, coming out of the drawing room, he asked me to go in and see her. As I entered, she motioned feebly with her hand for me to come nearer. As I complied, she began to say something. Her voice was weak, and she spoke faster than usual. It was incomprehensible to me. I looked at her and a meek smile appeared on her face, which looked almost like a skeleton with a thin layer of flesh drawn over it. I was frightened by her looks, burst into tears, and ran back into the dining room, where Father was sitting absorbed in deep thought.

Father went back into the drawing room, and sister Sarah, who had been with Mother all night, came in. She asked me why I was crying. I said, "Mother is so sick. When will she be well?" She took me around and kissed me. She didn't say anything, but I felt her tears falling into my hair and touching my scalp.

Father came out to get a bottle of something for Mother and said, "Mother was trying to tell you that tomorrow, the second day of Chanukah is your birthday; you will be seven years old. She wanted to wish you a happy birthday in advance."

All day Saturday, Father, sister Sarah and her husband were in continual consultation among themselves and with the feldshers. Otherwise, no one in the house had anything to say to anyone else. Many friends of the family called to express their concern and good wishes for her recovery. A messenger was sent to the doctor in Jedwabne for him to come at once.

He arrived after dark. After examining Mother, he, Father, sister Sarah and her husband secluded themselves in one of the bedrooms and conferred for about half an hour. When they emerged, Sarah was wiping her eyes, and Father's face looked even more grim than before.

It was later than usual when we were put to bed. But early Sunday morning, I was awakened by a tumultuous commotion; everyone in the house was crying aloud. I, too, began to cry and, presently, my elder brother, who was my bedmate, and my two younger sisters, who were asleep in another bed in the same room, woke up and joined in the crying. Presently, Father came into the room. He picked me up in his arms, carried me into the drawing room to the bed where Mother still lay, now motionless. In a voice choked with emotion, he said, "You no longer have a mother."

My two younger sisters and I were taken into our sister Sarah's apartment and put to bed. Despite our housemaid's efforts to quiet me, I realized what had happened and continued to cry; so did my two younger sisters, Freida and Esther, and so did the housemaid. But I mixed my wailing with a feeling of anger. I had been let down; He hadn't listened to my prayer. He is not merciful at all; He is cruel. I was seven years old on that very day, and I rebelled against God. Despite the maid's supplications, I got up, dressed, and went into our house.

It was filled with people notwithstanding the early morning hour, about four o'clock. Mother's body now lay on some blankets on the floor in the drawing room, completely covered and surrounded by burning candles. There were many people in that room, some of whom rare reading from the psalms. Father was in a bedroom, surrounded by friends. He gave full vent to his feelings and cried aloud.

The funeral took place on that same morning, just before noon, in accordance with Jewish custom. As Mother was being carried out of our house, Father, who was of a reserved disposition, cried aloud, "Take me, too. Please take me with her." My two younger sisters and I were not allowed to attend the funeral for the reason, they said, that it was too cold. We were taken into the next house, occupied by the Konopka family, along with sister Sarah's young children, where we remained most of that day.

Chapter 4: Father's Remarriage

After one week of formal mourning, as required by Jewish tradition, I returned to cheder. Mother's passing had a tremendous impact on my mind. I continued to study the Bible as well as the Talmud, but I was definitely in rebellion against God. I didn't dare disclose this to anybody, but I reasoned within me that if He could be so cruel as to take my mother from her young children, he just doesn't deserve to be praised. My religious faith was undergoing a profound change. I didn't doubt His existence; I continued to believe in His being the Creator of the Universe, although the question of "who created Him" had not, as it hasn't to this day, left me. But in my immature, imaginative mind, He began to loom as a wicked being, to whom humans are but toys to be teased and tortured, upon whom suffering may be inflicted without any reason.

Being absorbed in the passing of my mother and the reactions it had created in my mind, my learning at cheder became mechanical. For months, I could not bring myself to accept the fact of her death. The concept of death itself was unclear to me. What is death? I kept asking myself. How can a human being, who was alive yesterday, really be dead today? How can one, who was alive just awhile ago, be incapable of hearing, of moving, of talking? Where is the connection between the body and the soul?

I had terrifying nights, as I often dreamed about Mother coming from the direction of the Jewish cemetery, entering our house, greeting us, and when everyone showed great happiness at seeing her would suddenly announce that she mast take leave of us and "return to the other place." All my pleading and hanging on to her was in vain. She would cry along with us and say, "sorry, my dear children, but I must leave you." I would then begin to cry aloud and wake up. My continued crying would frequently wake Father, and he would come into the room and sit on the edge of the bed until I went back to sleep. These, almost nightly, dreams would shake me up so deeply that I found it difficult to dismiss them from my mind and concentrate on my studies.

The dreams seemed so real that I attached great importance to them. Did they mean that Mother, despite her death, would come back to life and return to us? Day after day, I was absorbed in my efforts to interpret them. Finally, one morning, I gathered the necessary courage and related the contents of my latest dream to Reb Haskel. He observed, he told me, that of late my attention to my studies was lacking. My thoughts seemed distracted. I began to cry and told him about my nightly dreams, imploring him to interpret the latest one. He listened to me intently and, in a sympathetic tone, said, "Sorry, I am not a good interpreter of dreams."

Our sister-in-law Feigel, our eldest brother's wife, came from Grajewo to help us out. Her husband had left for America nearly two years before. She arrived on the Sunday night following Mother's passing. She greeted us, then began to cry loudly. She and Mother had been first cousins, their mothers being sisters. She took over the household and managed it with love and devotion.

I gradually lost all interest in cheder studies. Every Thursday afternoon and evening, we reviewed the week's studies, a sort of test of what we had learned for the week. I was paired with a teamster's son, about two years my senior, whose interest always lay elsewhere. It was quite customary for the tutors to so pair the pupils, in the hope that the better pupil would influence the other one. Since my mother's passing, I was giving no reason to Reb Haskel to compliment me on my learning, as he had so frequently done in the past, when he would show his pleasure by pinching my cheek and saying, "Not bad, Moshe'le." He usually ignored the other boy, my "partner."

Now he often showed his displeasure and impatience at our poor learning, On one such Thursday afternoon, I showed little knowledge of the portion of the Talmud we were reviewing, and Reb Haskel was irritated. He shouted at my companion for being "so ignorant," for having "a head of horse" on him. His anger grew steadily and, finally, he slapped him. I sympathized with the boy as I realized that he actually knew no less this time than he had at any other time. Reb Haskel continued to punish him, and I protested. "Rabbi," I said, "why don't you punish me too? I am just as guilty as he is."

Reb Haskel looked at me, paused for a moment, then said, "You? You've already been punished, more severely than any human can ever punish you." The sudden reminder of my motherlessness caused me to burst into tears.

Our sister-in-law, Feigel, together with our sister Sarah, managed our household. She had received her tickets from her husband in New York for the trip to America, but had postponed her departure in order to help us in the emergency. But her presence was only temporary. We were happy with her, but our problem remained unsolved. There were four young children to care for. There was a well established household in need of a manager. Certainly our Feigel could not be expected to delay her departure indefinitely.

One night, rather late, Father returned from a day's journey to Szczuczyn. His business activities frequently required his visiting that city and no one, except perhaps Feigel and Sarah, attached any importance to this visit. Immediately after Father returned home, even before removing his overcoat, he came into the bedroom in which Feigel was sleeping. In the same room, in another bed, my older brother and I lay asleep. I heard Father ask, "Feigel, are you asleep?" When she answered him, he announced, "Well, I married her."

After a few moments of silence, Feigel spoke up. In a choking voice, she said, "Pray God it works out, for the children's sake and your own, too. If it turns out well, I am sure it will be due to Libby's intercession in heaven. When will she be here?" Father answered that she hoped to arrange to come within month. "Then," Feigel said, "I shall stay here 3 weeks longer. I should like to leave a couple of days before her arrival."

"Don't you wish to meet her?" Father asked.

"Your question is rending my heart. I am sure she's a fine person, but how can I bear to meet the person who will take Libby's place?" Father nodded his head! "As you wish. I understand."

Julius Atlasowicz and his wife Fenora/Fanny Schneider, with children [L-R]: Sam, Leon, Rose, 1923
Julius went to America,
ca 1913


I lay awake the rest of the night as I realized the full significance of what I had overheard. So we shall have a strange woman who will take Mother's place in our house. We shall soon have a stepmother. I had heard many stories of stepmothers mistreating children, and my mind began to work fast. She must have children of her own. In my imagination, I could see how my older brother Julius, and I would have to defend our two younger sisters from the wicked stepmother and her despicable children. Who ever heard of a good stepmother?

Everybody in Radzilowo continued to express sorrow and concern for Libby' s children. It was generally assumed that Father would remarry. The women never failed to express the hope that we would get a good stepmother. "Your mother in heaven will see to it," they would say.

The following morning, I confided to Feigel that I "knew all about it" and also told her about my fears. Her eyes moistened as she listened. She led me into a bedroom and spoke to me reassuringly. "Your fears are baseless," she said, "and you are too imaginative. I understand she is a very fine person, and has no children of her own. Your real mother is gone, may she rest in peace, never to return. May this woman prove worthy to take your mother's place."

About two weeks before the Passover holidays, Feigel packed her belongings and made the rounds, bidding farewell to all the friends in Radzilowo. The next morning she took us, the four young children, together, looked into the eyes of each one, and spoke to us in nervous, rapid succession. "I must leave you, dear children. I am leaving for Grajewo and, immediately after Passover, for America. Remember, my dears, I love you all. Promise me to be good, not to worry. A new aunt is coming here; in just a few days she'll be here. She'll be nice to you, like your own mother was. Do not fear her; she will treat you well." We began to cry aloud and Feigel, visibly moved, also gave vent to her feelings. Sister Sarah, standing nearby, joined in, while Father stood by glumly.

The teamster came into the house and announced that he was ready to start out at once. Feigel kissed each one of us, wiping her eyes continually. She then shook hands with Father, embraced Sarah, the two kissing each other affectionately. She shook hands with Sarah's husband kissed our older brother Shlomo, and boarded the wagon. Sister Sarah walked along the wagon to the end of the market place, all the while talking to Feigel, the teamster deliberately holding his team to a slow pace. The wagon finally disappeared from view on the curving Kostiol Street, and Sarah returned to the house, again taking over the duties of the household.

It was not easy for her to take over the task. She had her own household to care for. It was quite burdensome and did not entirely meet with the approbation of her husband. The affection she showered upon us on that day will remain with me forever. Of course, she could not be expected to supervise both households too long. Fortunately, this was not necessary.

Two mornings after Feigel left us, while we, the four youngsters, were still in bed, a lanky lady walked into the room. She was accompanied by another lady, slightly shorter but equally good looking. The taller lady turned to the bed in which our two young sisters lay, and said, "Children, I am your new 'moome,' and this is my sister, Raitze." She turned to us boys, and said, "I shall take good care of all of you. Just be good children, and I'll be good to you. You shall be like my very own." She asked us boys whether we could dress ourselves and, receiving our affirmative answer, proceeded to dress the girls.

Our young sisters, the younger one of whom was only two years old, immediately responded to the kind and reassuring words from the strange but charming lady. But my brother Julius and I assumed a "you are not our mother" attitude.

Soon afterward Sarah came in. Without any formality, she walked over to our new "moome" and introduced herself. "I am Sarah, and I welcome you into my father's home. May it please God to grant all of us understanding and kindness to, toward one another." The new moome answered, "I share your sentiments, and I shall do my best to be like a mother to your sisters and brothers." They embraced and kissed, then the moome introduced her sister, Raitze, to Sarah.

Just then Father returned from the morning services at the synagogue. He turned to the moome and said, "I see, Chaya [other relatives say her name was definitely Chana], that you two have met. I hope you become fast friends." Sarah and the moome answered in unison, "God willing, we shall."

Our moome gradually but determinedly took over the duties and responsibilities of our household. Two traits were immediately evident about her, She had an even temperament and possessed natural dignity. She was also democratic and friendly.

Such was the beginning of a permanent link between the past and the future.

Chapter 5: My New Cheder

During the Passover week, Father consulted Reb Haskel regarding my learning at cheder, and I was called in. Father began by saying that, Reb Haskel's report showed that during the last semester I made little progress. Sternly, he asked, "Why?"

Reb Haskel broke in. "Moshe'le, you are still as good as anyone in the group, but you were ahead of everyone. For some time now, for some reason, you have not been showing the interest you used to show in your studies. With your sharp head, you could have learned more and much better." The discussion was concluded by Father with a warning that I mast resume my interest in the cheder studies, making it very plain that he would not spare me from punishment if I didn't.

Reb Haskel promoted me to the higher group, but I still remained indifferent to the subjects taught, and learned very little. The tutor changed my study-hour mate. This time, I was paired with a boy who was regarded as an attentive pupil and a "better learner," though considered inferior to me in perception. Nevertheless, at review, I always trailed him. Reb Haskel realized this and he frequently took me into the bedroom and pleaded with me. "What has happened to you? Your father and I were so proud of your learning, and now we shall both be shamed by your indifference. I know your capabilities. You can be my best pupil, if you would only apply yourself." He evidently discussed this problem with Father, for he, in turn, discussed it with me. He threatened me with severe punishment If I didn't change. Nothing seemed to impress me. I continued to study mechanically, without any desire or feeling.

At the end of the summer semester, Reb Haskel had seemingly given up any hope that I might reform. On the last day, as the pupils were about to be released for the semester vacation, about ten days before Rosh Ha'Shanah, Reb Haskel called me aside and told me that he would decline to enroll me for the following semester, unless "Hmmm, well, yes, unless you promise on your word of honor that you will change. Think this over, Moshe'le, and let me know before Yom Kippur Day. May the ten days of atonement have the proper effect on you. If I don't hear from you by then, I shall know your answer."

His soft-spoken, well-meaning words penetrated deep into my heart. I had a warm feeling toward him, and I was wishing I could give him the answer he wanted to hear. But I was doubtful that I could make such a promise and execute it, so I remained silent.

The following semester, I was sent to the cheder of Reb Michel. He was also known as "Reb Michel, the Dyer." This nickname was derived from the fact that he and his wife were also engaged in the business of dyeing yarns for peasants. These yarns were made by the peasant women from hemp and flax. They would bring their spinnings to town, order them dyed in their preferred colors, then weave the yarns into the desired pattern, all the work being done by hand.

It was hoped by Reb Haskel and Father that a change of cheder and tutor, perhaps also a change in the teaching methods, pupils and atmosphere would have a beneficial effect on my attitude. Reb Michel was considerably older than Reb Haskel, and he had the reputation of a stern disciplinarian. His method of enforcing discipline and compelling attention to the studies was very simple: anyone who, when called on to recite at the weekly review on Thursday, showed lack of learning, would be punished severely. He paid little attention to circumstances; there were almost no valid excuses for not learning; he even made no allowance for the ability, or lack of ability, of any pupil. It was either you learn satisfactorily or you are punished.

The punishment he meted out to the "errant" boys consisted of beatings on their backs with a hooked walking cane, and they were often merciless. Most fathers either expressly approved of this "method" or just acquiesced, leaving the task of teaching and training their boys tip to Reb Michel. Some of the boys' mothers, occasionally observing the bluish-purple marks on their boys' backs, would plead with their husbands to ask the tutor to show more leniency. But what did a woman know about the responsibility of teaching the Torah to those young recalcitrants? "He knows what it takes to teach such young rebels," was the usual answer.

The change had no effect on my learning. I continued to learn very little and, along with most of Reb Michel's pupils dreaded the weekly reviews on Thursday. Reb Michel, realizing that my achievements under his tutorship were rather poor, and having been apprised of my earlier reputation in Reb Haskel's cheder, determined to change my attitude. He never spoke to me privately, as Reb Haskel often did; he never reasoned with me or appealed to me to improve. That, apparently, was not part of his method. Instead, he concentrated on singling me out at every review of my group. He would require me to recite from the Talmud more than anyone else in the group, and at every review.

It was customary that, after reciting a paragraph the pupil would define the meaning of what he had read. This usually was followed by a discussion between the tutor and the pupil, the former asking related questions and the latter answering. There were six pupils in my group, but he spent more than half the time on me alone. I seemed unable to concentrate on the studies, and usually learned just enough to define and explain it simply, which was not considered sufficient; Thus I was punished.

When he would finish beating me, he was usually too tired to exercise the same on any of the other boys. I was a godsend to them. I became adamant and rebellious, and the more beatings I received, the more my attitude hardened.

I continued to take his punishment for nearly three semesters, but one Thursday morning, after much hesitation, I took on enough courage and spoke about it to our moome. A good relationship had been established between us. She treated us with reasonable kindness and had developed a genuine affection for us, although we did at times irritate her, as children often do even to their mothers. Townsfolk, who couldn't fail to observe her good behavior toward us, often said that it was due to Mother's intervention in heaven in our behalf.

She listened sympathetically and said to me, "Moshe, everybody thinks you have a good head. Why don't you apply it like you did in Reb Haskel's cheder?" I answered that I just could not concentrate on what we were studying. After thinking for a moment she said, "I shall speak to Father. I doubt whether it will do much good. Be sure you don't stay away from cheder. You know how much Father would resent that."

At home for lunch, I asked the moome whether she had spoken to Father. "Yes," she answered, "but be a good boy. Eat your lunch and go back to cheder." She was looking aside while talking to me, and did not say what Father's reaction was. I, therefore, did not feel relieved of my fears.

I returned to cheder, fearful of the beating I was due to receive, but, mixed with the dim hope that Father might nevertheless have responded to the moome's plea in my behalf.

The review began. Reb Michel stood at the head of the table, with the hooked cane hanging on the back of his chair. He was in the habit of standing up during the reviews, being an elderly man, in his late sixties, he always kept his chair conveniently at its appointed place. I observed him carefully as he approached the table. There, I thought, comes my "Malach Ha'moves" (angel of death).

Reb Michel was of medium height and slender. His hair, including that of his beard, was all white, and he looked like an old Jewish Patriarch. My seat was next to him, on his right. As he neared the table, his eyes began to wander from one pupil to another. In the past, he would ordinarily settle on one and say, "Now, let's see how much you have learned this week." The boy selected would be shocked and frightened. The rest of the boys, though definitely in sympathy with the selected victim, nevertheless would feel relieved. At most reviews, I was either the victim or one of them. This time, he selected another boy to be the first one.

Like all the rest of the boys of my group, I felt relieved, for the time being anyhow, hoping that he would bypass me that evening altogether. But the beating the boy received was the worst in our memory. We squirmed in our seats because of our helplessness. Perhaps the boy, in Reb Michel's honest opinion, "earned" the punishment, as he really knew next to nothing on the subject. But the beating was the worst of all, and it aroused our deepest anger. As for myself, I also had a guilty conscience. I felt that the beating the boy had received had really been reserved for me, and that I escaped it. Had Father really intervened?

Then I came home, the moome asked me what happened at the review. She had a barely noticeable smile on her face, and when I told her about the beating given the other boy and how much all of us sympathized with him, she commented, "of course it's not good, but you boys are going there in order to learn. You are being punished for not learning." She paused for a moment, then continued. "As for you, don't expect me to plead with Father again; I know he won't listen. The best solution for all of us would be for you to learn well."

The next morning, the boy came to cheder accompanied by his angry mother. He was an only son, and the mother angrily accused Reb Michel of trying to murder her only "kaddish." [A son is sometimes called, affectionately, "Kaddishel" or "My Kaddish."] She removed the boy's undershirt and, pointing to the numerous marks on his body, shouted that God Himself would not condone such teaching, even of His own Torah.

Reb Michel did not appear disturbed by the mother's outpouring. Calmly, he answered her: "If I don't teach him right, he'll remain an ignoramus." The mother took her boy home; however he did return to cheder on Sunday.

After that incident, Reb Michel alternated the pupils our group, picking different boys at random for the reviews.

My interest in the studies failed to increase. On the contrary, I was well aware that it vas declining. The only subject that continued to hold my interest and really fascinated me, was the part of Old Testament referred to as Prophets. The lofty language used by the prophets, their criticism of the then Jewish aristocracy, the wealthy classes, the royal family, even the kings themselves for the wrongs they committed against the people, their courage in defending the rights of the poor, often at the risk of their own lives, captivated me. Their sincerity constituted, to me, a heroic effort to put the ten commandments into practice.

I had good reason to fear the forthcoming review, for I was to be the soloist. My performance proved a bad disappointment to Reb Michel. For a few moments, he stared at me, as if not knowing what to make of it or what to do with me. Then, without uttering a word, he picked up the hooked cane and began to hit me with all the force at his command. I made an attempt to grab the end of the cane, but he jerked it from my hand and hit me again. This time, the cane broke in half. This infuriated him, and his wife rushed over and attempted to stop him from hitting me with his fists. He kept muttering that it was an unheard of "chutzpah" (audacity) on my part.

She got me off the chair and led me away into the bedroom. She spoke to me soothingly for a while and offered to take me home. It was about eight P.M., and Father, I thought, would likely be home. If she should accompany me into the house, Father would undoubtedly question her. More likely than not, he would probably go immediately to Reb Michel's and question him as to what had happened and why, The possible consequences, I did not wish to risk. I thanked her and went home by myself.

As I entered the house, the moome looked at me and at once realized what had happened. She undressed me and saw the countless bruises on my back, neck and sides. She applied oil to nearly the whole upper half of body and put me to bed. I was in pain and lay awake most of the night, wondering how Father would react. In the morning, I told the moons that I would not go to cheder.

She became irritated and, for once, lost her composure. She said "This is Friday; you'll be out at 2 P.M. You had better hurry before Father finds out."

I took her advice. Everybody in cheder looked at me, except Reb Michel. The subjects taught on Friday were light, no Talmud. On my way home from cheder that afternoon, I saw Father talking to a friend in front of the house. He soon came inside and, without saying anything, took me firmly by my left arm and led me into the drawing room, latched the door, took off his belt and began to beat me. I screamed for help, but no help came. I ran all over the room but the belt seemed to reach me anyway.

There was a steady stream of indiscriminate strikes until, having no further strength to run while the belt was striking me all over, including my face, I ran to the corner at right angles to the door, got down on my knees and turned my face to the wall. I learned against it, my back exposed to absorb whatever punishment was to be meted out. I cried helplessly and, for awhile, the belting continued. But my taking up the corner position and, saving Father the "burden" of pursuing me was lucky; he finally realized that, after all, he was beating a defenseless child.

He stopped and left the room. I remained in the same position in that corner and later in the evening, after Father and my two older brothers had left for the synagogue, the moome and sister Sarah came into the room. Both began to talk to me, asking me to eat something and go to bed, where I would be comfortable. Somebody else in the room, besides myself was weeping. I had been hurt badly, spiritually, as well as physically, and I didn't answer their pleadings. The injustice of it, I thought, to be so severely beaten by both. I realized that neither moome nor Sarah could have prevented the punishment, even had they wished, the door was securely latched from the inside and, besides, Father would not have tolerated any interference.

Sarah came close to me and turned my face. I then saw that sister Freida, two and a half years younger than me, was also in the room and that she was weeping. Sarah, too, upon seeing my face, began to weep softly. She and the moome then began to plead with me to let them help me. But I was defiant. I wished to show everybody my contempt for Reb Michel as well as for Father, and remained silent.

Soon Father and my two brothers returned from the services and Sarah left to attend to her own household. It was customary that, almost immediately upon returning from the service, the rather elaborate first Sabbath meal would be served. This time, Father was still more irritated by the fact that I didn't accompany him to the synagogue.

He came into the drawing room, greeted the moome with a "Good Shabbat," to which she responded in a monotonous tone. After she and sister Freida left the room, he ordered me to "wash and come to the dinner table." I remained silent, and it made him even angrier. He warned me that If I didn't comply at once he would give me the kind of beating I would remember for the rest of my life. Again, I ignored his threat.

At that moment, the moome came into the doorway. "Joseph," she said, "Please come to the table." The tone of her voice was firm and determined, and Father complied.

The moome left, presently returned with food and put it on a chair near me, but I didn't eat. Later she appealed to me again to go to sleep in my bed, but I still kept silent. She then brought three large pillows, arranged them neatly on the floor near me, and asked me to please her and lie down on them. During the night, I vomited and began to feel chills.

It had been Father's long-established habits to rise early on Saturday, about five A.M., and catch up on whatever portion of the study of the Talmud he might have missed during the week. Ordinarily, he did this in the drawing room, which was somewhat removed from the rest of the house, so as not to disturb the rest of the family. I heard him come into the room very quietly, and he looked me over. For several minutes he stood about two feet away from me. He then left the room and soon the moome came in. She felt my forehead and said to Father, who was standing in the doorway: "Joseph, let's get the feldsher."

"Feivel der Rofe" (Rofe in Hebrew means "healer," a doctor), who lived only two houses away from ours, came over in what seemed only a minute. I was still lying on the pillows which the moome had arranged for me for a bed, for which I felt grateful. "Reb Feivel" looked at me, turned in the direction of the door, where Father was standing and shook his head. The two men then walked into the dining room and a few minutes later, Reb Feivel returned alone. He closed the door and began to examine me. He touched various parts of my body gently with his fingers, asking me each time whether it was hurting me at the given spot and the extent of the pain.

For a long while, I maintained my silence. Finally, he said to me, "Moshe'le, I didn't do this to you; I've come here to help you. Don't you want to get well? I can't help you unless you cooperate with me. Now, be a good boy and answer my questions."

I was so indifferent to life that I was actually wishing to die. That, I felt, would be my sweetest revenge against Father and Reb Michel, and I didn't answer Reb Feivel's pleading. He left the room, obviously to confer with Father. A few minutes later, Sarah and the moome cam in. Sarah was wiping her eyes as she appealed to me to go to bed. This time, I turned my head and looked at both women. Their concern for me filled my heart.

"I can't; I can't move," I said. They immediately got busy with me, each cautioning other to be careful lest she touch a sore spot. They carried me through the dining room and I perceived that Father and Reb Feivel were there, but I deliberately closed my eyes until I was in bed.

Both women implored me to answer all questions which Reb Feivel might put to me. Sarah was still wiping away her tears, and I too, began to weep quietly, overwhelmed by her and the moome's solicitude. Reb Feivel soon came in, and both women kissed me and left the room.

He asked me again and again how I was feeling inside. "The outside," he explained to me, "I can see, but the inside is a different matter." When he completed the examination, he said, "Moshe'le, I shall go down to the apothecary and get you the necessary medicine. Be sure to take it regularly. I shall come to see you immediately after the morning services. Be a good boy; eat only the food I shall instruct them to serve you."

The prescriptions consisted of a salve for external use and some pills and powders for internal. Reb Feivel visited me officially once every day, but unofficially, and actually, two or three times daily. He liked to visit our house, and my condition served him as a good excuse for doing it.

Reb Feivel was a tall, slightly-stooped man. He had a fairly large family, and he was very poor. It was said of him that whenever he visited a poor patient, his usual question upon completion of the examination, would be, "And money to buy the medicine, you have?" He never asked whether they had enough money to pay his fee.

He liked to "take a drink," but only a drink, and only once a day. He could not afford it himself. He was a mild, good-natured man, with a fine sense of humor, and Father was fond of him. Father seldom drank; he usually had a little vodka on the Sabbath Day or the holidays, when making "kiddush." On other occasions, he would take a drink whenever we had company at the dinner table. Reb Feivel's visits to our house were quite frequent, though ostensibly casual. His procedure followed a certain pattern.

Usually, he would come in soon after the morning's services and would greet Father with a broad grin, first asking how he and the rest of the family were feeling. Next, he would ask, "Joseph, how is business?" Father never discussed business with Reb Feivel, but at that point, the moome knew what was to follow. Receiving no answer from Father, Reb Feivel would "invite" Father to have a drink with him.

That was the signal for the moome to place the bottle of vodka on the table. But, that wasn't all. She usually served pumpernickel bread, sliced herring, with sliced onion, white cheese and tea. For Reb Feivel, it meant a satisfying breakfast and he also knew how to flatter the hostess. After the meal-prayers, he would turn to the moome and say, "You know, Chaya [Chana], herring is herring, everywhere the same, but your herring is different; it is delicious."

On one such occasion, when he asked, "Joseph, how is business?", Father responded with one of his own.

"And what, may I ask, do you know about business?"

Reb Feivel had a ready answer to Father's question. "I suppose," said he, "as much as you know about medicine."

They were careful not to offend each other, but this time Father snapped back. "Did you say as much as I know about medicine or as much as you know?"

Both men laughed heartily, and Reb Feivel concluded the discussion by saying, "Too bad we cannot examine each other on these subjects, so how about having a drink with me?"

I stayed in bed over two weeks, during which time Reb Feivel watched over me. He frequently changed the tablets and the powders, insisting that my diet be strictly observed. During my confinement I missed the Purim fun. Purim was a very gay holiday. It is supposed to commemorate the victory of the Jewish queen of ancient Persia, Esther, over the treacherous plot of Haman, one of the Persian king's ministers, to exterminate the Jews of that country. The "Book of Esther" would be read at the services and, at each mention of Haman, the young boys would make a lot of noise with specially made noise-makers called "groggers." These consisted of ratchets; when the vertical handle was held in closed fist and moved in circular motion, it made a loud noise. These were either made by the elders or purchased at the stores. The meals were elaborate and included special pastries called "hamantashen." They were triangular in shape and filled with poppyseed and raisins.

On Purim day friends and relatives would exchange gifts. The poor of the community looked toward to this festival, as they, too, would "exchange" gifts with the more fortunate. They would send a small slice of neatly wrapped cake and, upon delivery, the child would receive from fifteen kopeks up to a ruble.

Young boys would masquerade, much like the children do in this country on Halloween night, and visit the better houses. They would recite a short stanza, in free English translation, as follows: "Purim is today, tomorrow it shall be past; oh, let's all be gay and please, don't let us fast."

Memoirs donated and reprinted with the permission of Paul Atlas and Scott J. Atlas. Edited by Jose Gutstein. All rights reserved.