In Shereshev


I was born in Shereshev, in the district of Pruzhany, in the province of Grodno, in upper White Russia, in 1895. My young parents had been left poor.  When my grandfather died creditors popped up like mushrooms overnight.  His supposed affluence disappeared with him.  Father was seventeen when he became a tree-feller and sawyer at the edge of the Forest of Bielovezh.

( see it in a picture)


At that time the aromatic dark greens of the forest belt wound its patterns in all directions, southward across Central Europe, and by various names over many countries.  Not observing national borders, it climbed over mountains and spilled down the valleys in varnished forms as it encroached into the plains.


I was brought to Chadree, a hamlet ten miles from Shereshov in the middle of the forest, as soon as my mother was able to travel.  My mother used to say that I was but a year and a half old at a wedding in Chadree, which, years later, I described.


I recall that when I was two years old, sitting on our cottage doorstep, the peasant women would come wandering out of the woods with their scythes, carrying large bundles of new-cut grass or firewood.  Some were driving their cattle home from the meadows in the interior of the forest.  Their songs combined with the lowing of the cattle, echoing through the evening like a far-off chorale inside a dark, receding wood.


Often I can still smell the zubrova (sweet hay) that the zubers (European bison) (see picture)

loved so much.  They were the only herd left in Europe, kept in park-like captivity in the forest.  We would sometimes see them coming out of the depths of the forest to browse around its fringes.  It was strictly forbidden to kill them.  But every few years, the czar and his retinue would come to the summer palace near the town of Bielovezh, and stage a shooting party, at times giving audience to a few grieving peasants.


I remember vividly my first impressions of the inky forest at night, and of music, in the form of half-chant, in connection with our prayers in honor of the full (?) moon.  Father would put on his prayer-shawl and from our hut cross the lonely dirt road to where the forest began.  And I always followed.  We would stand blinking at the moon.  I held the serviette-covered tray, on which lay a candle, the goblet, and the decanter of wine.  Father would light the candle and pour the goblet full.  His prayer echoed through the forest.  He would drink first.  Then I would sip, the powerful aroma striking my face.  Father always made it apparent that a child’s participation made the occasion even more holy, as Mother’s and Sister’s beaming eyes confirmed when we returned to the hut.


The Czar’s forests are clean as a hound’s tooth, and the moon is the symbol of periodic renewal, cleanliness, and rebirth.  For me, I recall, the moon seemed to emerge from far behind the dark treetops, and proceed to admire itself in the pond by the edge of the forest.  The breeze would die to a whisper.  The odor of pine was overpowering, even to one born in it.  "The moon won’t look at me, Father.  It’s winking at the stars down in the water," I’d complain.  He would laugh till the forest seemed to join in to scare me.


The forest was a half-good, half-bad monster which swallowed stray children, but over which the moon kept a watchful eye.] (See forest flowers)


We had our misnagid chants - these use a special kind of note, which it is forbidden to print in the Torah.  They have to be learned and remembered by the person who leads them.  My father, having been tutored privately in the country, could remember every note in the long services he was often called into town to sing for holidays.  Going to town for these was a memorable event for us.  That’s where, at the age of three, I also first heard the regular cantors.


When I was five and had to go to cheder we moved reluctantly back to Shershov - ten miles of green, solemn, perpendicular trunks from Chadree -.  My older brother had already been boarded there with the family of a “Rebbe” who conducted a cheder in his own home.  Now a town dweller, I was allowed to accompany my mother and the others back to my forest on berry-picking expeditions.  With Mother as scout, no one ever got lost in the woods.  It was as a returning visitor that I really got to know them.


The rest of my knowledge of the forest I gleaned from my father.  He had worked for a family that leased the local lumbering rights from the government.  By the time we moved to town, however, that section was cut.  For a short period after there were still smaller sections nearby on which he continued.  He and the peasants would live in the woods in makeshift huts of logs and bark and sticks.  But soon he found himself following the forest belt almost to the borders of Galicia.  I used to listen to his tales for hours.  Later, in Canada, introduced to the mysteries of geography, there was my magic fairyland, my forest, smacked over the map in various colors.


In my village, only the few rich had ever heard of vacation.  We had the Sabbath, and religious holidays.  This could be why we were so religious.  In fact we lived from Sabbath to Sabbath, otherwise life for us youngsters would have been awful, since on weekdays we were quite hungry.  In the summertime, we could trudge to the forest to pick berries, or mushrooms, but not without a license - it was the Czar’s.  Few folks had fruit trees or more than a tiny garden.  If it wasn’t for the sauerkraut barrel we would have suffered from pellagra more than we did.


White Russia, or the Northern Ukraine, is a beautiful but flat country broken by rolling land, peat marshes, meadows, and (by far most memorable to me), great, clean, forest-belts.  Our little town drew its so-called industry from the forest - particularly hand-made roof shingles, but also

tinsmiths, tailors, trunk-makers and shoe-makers.  Other towns had their pottery, brick-firing sheds, and yards, or they were market centers for produce and products.  Often the type and condition of the soil determined the prosperity of an entire town, both Jews and Gentiles.


In Shershov the Jewish people were the town, except for the few Russian officials - post-office,

Cut down trees

 (and deer’s in the forest)

assessor, and a policeman or two.  The rest of the Christian population was peasants.  With a few  exceptions, they had their own plots of land which began at the outskirts.  They played no part in the inside flow of events nor in the social life, except on Sundays and holidays when they would flock in by horse and cart to go to church.  They also came to use the public bath, to trade their wares, and to buy their salt,Swedish herring, strips of iron nails, and shingles, or to order a pair of shoes.  If they were prosperous, they might buy an overcoat or dry goods from the Jewish tradesmen.  And last but not least, they came to get drunk.  A wife would patiently tuck  her husband away in the straw of their cart, and herself drive the horse back home.  Sometimes the wife would even join her husband and sleepy kids for a much-needed half-sitting snooze.  The horse would find his own way, breaking into a trot for the last few miles.  He fed on a mixture of meager oats and hay, in a rickety barn which was a lean-to to the peasant's thatched-roof hut.  This retention of animal heat was essential, because the peasant was poor and lived without money.  Heavy clothing and shoe-soles were still made from animal skins, and a horse, ox, or wife drew the plow.  Even taxes were usually paid in farm goods.  These were raised on poor, rain-soaked, undrained land.  Much of it was sandy, only good for potatoes, or the better kind, for rye.


Most of us in town had a little garden-plot of potatoes and beans and a few carrots.  I never knew or saw a tomato or melon.  No grapes, either tame or wild.  Berries, yes - the forest was literally carpeted with blueberries.  One could pick them if one bought a permit.  Those kids, who were old enough to walk for miles to the forest and back, and help lug the stuff, would follow our mothers to do so.  For this we were allowed to play hooky from school.


The local officials did not interfere in our lives.  As a matter of fact Jew and Gentile got along famously there, for each household was a veritable manufacturer.  Some had apprentices, and each brought his stuff to sell on the huge market square from which the main road and the other smaller ones radiated.  Market days and holidays brought jugglers, gypsies, and even one-tent circuses to the square.  In the middle of the square were town pumps for fire-fighting, and stalls where shopkeepers set themselves up during the daytime.  In winter they sat over charcoal fire-pots to warm up.


It's amazing how little we kids demanded of life.  We would go visit the square to listen in to a discussion of one of the weekly newspapers.  It came to but a few citizens who could afford it, and from whom the rest got all the news of the outside.  Masticated, digested, and rehashed, we would bring it into the houses sometimes before our elders heard it.


I was brought up in the Orthodox Jewish religion, but none of us were fanatical, least of all my parents.  My grandfather had even maintained a private tutor, in the country.  I am far from being an Orthodox person now, having my own ideas about deity, creation, and science.


In our district the Jews were of a strain typical of the forest belt that ran into Central Europe.  My father, and grandfather, and great-grandparents on his side were forestmen - honest, intelligent, tall, wiry, and erect even into old age. 


Not many Jews lived easy, even in Poland and Ukraine, certainly not in Russia. Our charities were an all-year-round function, even to providing dowries for the poor girls.


Our sector, for the most part, was Misnagdim (liberals), in contrast to the Hassidic (ultra-orthodox) sect.  The few Hassidim and their families had their prayer meetings in their little synagogue.  Not knowing their religious philosophy, we considered them a bit on the fanatical side - gooky.  [In Galicia though the Hassidim ruled the roost. My father had worked and lived among them, as I said, after our part of the forest had been exhausted.]  But in our town there was little fanaticism.  Its life did not center on the Rabbi, who often in other sectors held his position and influence by inheriting his father's house and followers.  On the other hand, our people, including the laymen, were great Talmudists, often secretly well-versed in the classics of the Gentiles.  To the Hassidim, we looked and acted almost too much like any Gentile European.


The most impressive thing I remember was the Sabbath.  We lived for its coming, since the meals were better and our clothing newer and cleaner.  Everyone who could went to the services in the various synagogues and meeting-places.  The "Shul," the main one, which stood off the square, had a special history.  It was of classic architecture, and inside, the east wall had the great altarpiece where the holy scrolls were kept.  They were decorated with the lions of Judah upholding the carved tablets with their ten commandments, all of this connected by a delicate tracery of ornamental floral wood-carving.  This artwork was the only kind I knew, except the hand embroidery of roosters and flowers at home and the similar handiwork on the peasants' garments.


I knew the various Slavic people with their different dialects.  I used to hang around at the market places, and listen when they came to the house to visit my father.  Yet I knew very little of the language.  At home we spoke Yiddish - there was little need of the other languages.  On one end of the street lived a Polish family, and next door to us, past our garden, there was a White Russian family.  They, and their boy, and the Polish girls, could speak Yiddish better than I.  They all had their own short school terms in connection with their own churches.  I knew their honest lives, their religious holidays, their art, their ikons, and their holy lithographs in full gorgeous colors, at which I could only allow myself the luxury of stolen glances.  Their literature I garbled in English, later.


I remember the pleasant surprise I felt when I first discovered from a Gentile friend that he had a Christmas.  I had been feeling sorry for him.


I remember and know more about these people than some foreign-affairs experts who see everything from the standpoint of what's-in-it-for-us.  Their concepts of borderlines are phony.  Their impossible demarcations will never stand put, not in the Baltics, in Poland, in the Balkans, or in the Himalayas.


My father married my mother for several reasons: because she was beautiful, a cousin, and an orphan.  The latter two reasons were chiefly my grandfather’s.  My father had just turned sixteen and was, he used to claim, already a reliable grown man.  My mother was twenty; it was a sin for a girl to pass twenty unmarried.  My father didn’t fight my grandfather.  If it was a mitzvah to marry an orphan, a related orphan, fine, a cousin, fine.  She was poor.  No dowry.  Fine with him.  Grandpa would provide until Father could.


She was from the nearest little town, where we/they later moved.  Father had seen her once, when he was about fourteen, and she a very fair and copper-haired girl who had long before lost her mother.  He had barely seen a Jewish girl other than the one or two pimply ones, older than himself, at the manager’s (?) house, with whom he had practically grown up.  Mother to him, despite having no formal education, was citified and sophisticated, angelic, and had a rich Yiddish vocabulary.  She had the proper word for everything.  Yet she could barely sign her name - though she could read Yiddish quite slowly.


My mother was an orphan.  My brothers and I each married either motherless or fatherless girls, or both.  That was the humanisitic quality of our people showing through.  This proves that the "strong" do not conquer the weak.


My mother, to this day, thinks that all men are honest and all women are good.  Even though my father was often gruff and angry - especially to me, who often got the beatings.  One doesn’t beat a daughter, nor my brothers, the older one a delicate child and another scrofulous youngest who took our last pennies for cod-liver oil.  That left me.  But I wasn’t robust.  I was wiry like a rake, and sallow to the point where I suffered from pellagra in winter.  Our neighbors would refer to me as the one who looks like a dead crow in the snow.


When Father came home to town from the woods for the Sabbath, he would give me my weekly reading and translation assignment.  He’d yell at me, as a good strict father was supposed to, till the window panes rattled.


A Jewish father in the old country simply had to test out his children’s education.  Religious education, that is; there was no other worth considering. The first two years of cheder were spent just in learning the Yiddish alphabet and learning to read. Worldly education, the luxury of addition and subtraction, was obtained in the very early morning in a class conducted at someone's home for an hour.  There I learned to write the few words I knew of Russian and Polish, and do sums in simple arithmetic.  We kids would congregate there at seven in the morning and be back in cheder by nine, meanwhile having run into the synagogue to say our morning services.  The religious teachers would look down their noses a bit at these "worldly-knowledge" teachers.  Not essential, they said.


We had to stay at regular cheder until five with a break to go home for lunch, unless we brought lunch and used the extra time to play.  In the winter, we’d come back after supper for evening sessions until 9:30; then we had nothing to do but go home and go to sleep.  Six days a week, no vacations except on holidays, which is why we liked holidays so much.  I suppose that our only good things came in the form of religious life.



In the old government of Grodno, the forest of Bielovezh had kept secrets, taken sides, and sustained forest-lovers in their fights against oppressors.  It sheltered overtaxed peasants, and those persecuted for their religion, during the uprisings of the Middle Ages, the Polish revolution of 1831, and the other one, in 1862.  But Bielovezh, my relatives say, was flattened during the 1914-1918 holocaust.  The little herd of European bison was slaughtered, not as oxen at the altars of old, but wholesale.  Trees, people, and creatures alike were mowed down in the name of bigger and better war.


Once or twice I was lost in the forest, because of the trees, I'd suppose.  I had seen the road, and run to it, but couldn't see our lone hut though it was only five hundred feet away.  I took off in the wrong direction.  The road took an L-turn to the north, and, if I had kept on, I would have probably reached Shershov, had I lasted that long.  But a peasant saw me and carried me piggy-back to my mother.  I was simply one of "our children," to him.  The peasants were like brothers and sisters to my parents.  They didn't know the meaning of hatred or anti-Semitism.


Why not?  The only reason I know is that the Gentile church leaders there were not bigoted.  Had they been, during the time rioting spread through the rest of the Russian Pale, you can rest assured we would have known.  But when we moved to town, the priests assured us that there would be no trouble.  If, on market days, a drunken peasant got troublesome, he would be put away where he could sleep it off.


I know about the Polish revolutionaries because my great-grandfathers hid them in their attics, and in their forest hideouts, and brought them food at the risk of their own lives.  Simply because the Poles had treated them as human beings, as equals, more or less.  Up to that time, that is.


The still forest is never still.  The modernist cannot cope with it. Only the traveler knows that the forest is up long before dawn, and is everchanging in form and color and texture.  Only he who comes as a child, poet, musician, in awe, wonderment, and humility, can know its sounds.


The trees rub and scrape and gently creak at one another, giving off a sweet resinous sound.  In warm breezes the sounds are like music; in arctic weather they are eerie with the weight of ice.


Even in its greatest silences, at night, ....a tiny mite will come whispering and mocking into your eardrums.  'Bizzz-z-z; bizz-st dah? Are you there?  Are you ther-r-r-r?'


Patterns, images, incidents, and haunting scenes begin to reenter my mind as if tumbling and somersaulting over each other.  Things to tax, elate, and overcome me.  I wanted to stay on and receive these crazy-quilt mental notes for storage purposes.  But these moving kaleidoscopic things were torturing my now feverish condition. It was a thousand times more trying, than trying to take in, remember, compare, and do justice to a large picture gallery of many galleries, and departments in one session.  Of water-colors, etching, drawings, oil paintings and sculpture all together, is actually, physically tiring.


My way to Canada


When I was eight and a half, in 1903, my father wangled a steamship ticket out of my mother’s brother in eastern Canada.  The next year, my older sister and brother followed there.  All three now worked in my uncle’s clothing factory in St. John, New Brunswick.  And the following year they felt rich enough to send for my mother and the rest of us kids: a baby boy of one, my brother Tevye, and I, the oldest, ten and a half, Herschel.  Wish I’d kept that name.


We went by horse and cart to the rail line at Linowo, then through Wilna to the Baltic herring port of Libau [now Liepaja in Latvia - IW], where we boarded the first steamer I ever saw.  We sailed through the Kiel Canal and cut down the North Sea to Hull.  We had our steamer tickets from Liverpool and just enough rubles to get there from Hull.  But we were detained, for a month, to be cured of trachoma, of which Tevye and I had a "touch."  How we managed to raise the money to subsist and send a telegram to Canada would be better answered by some kind English Jews.


I remember, in the Kiel Canal, two days out from Libau: Just before our steamer pulled off from the dock, the woman next to me sat her baby on the flat wooden rail as we watched the workers.  The ship blew its whistle.  The baby’s shoe fell off and onto the guard-log floating below.  The mother cried out; a dockhand, noticing the poor foreign woman’s poverty-stricken look, wound a rope around himself.  Putting it over a capstan, another laborer lowered him down and a moment later pulled him up again.  He threw the little shoe over our deck as we slowly moved away.  There I had added to my education the agility and training of the Northern Europeans; the regard of one poor working person for another poor passenger; the utter disregard for her nationality, or his; and last but not least, the utter disregard for the chance that the ship might grind him against the shiny side of the the weed-grown dock as we headed forward and the ship swung inward again.


We landed at Quebec, took the train to Montreal, then changed to cross the St. Lawrence and head southeast to St. John, where I stayed five years and made six grades of school.


Our family of seven then moved to Toronto.  I already had to go to work.  Soon I discovered that I could go to night school at Toronto Tech, where I was interested in a course in free-hand drawing.  I won a prize and the third winter found me attending the regular art school's evening classes.


When I came to Canada I could, if I wished, have meat three times a day, or drink cocoa till my head ached.  That was vacation - what more!  In the summer the fog would roll away from the wharves in St. John.  On and off the sailing ships I could fish for smelts and tommy-cods and laugh at the little sissy kids.  For a vacation, I thought one had to be sick.  Until I was eighteen I could not afford a so-called, real vacation, but soon I was succeeding in the toy business in Toronto by day and attending art school by night, and there was now the sketching camp on summer weekends.