An Excerpt from "As I Remember", the memoir of Leah Kreinik Jacobowitzhttp://davelindastourdefrance.blogspot.com/2013/03/as-i-remember-leah-kreinik-jacobowitz.html
My life started at the end of an era, the beginning of a new one: electricity, the telephone, gas replacing oil, coal and wood burning stoves, stationary tin bathtubs in tenements (America), water in sinks instead of one pump on each floor for the tenants, and of course toilets instead of the “backhouses” in the yard, one “locker” to each floor.
The first five years of my life were spent in Zglobnia, Galicia-Austria (now Poland). It was a quiet, pastoral sort of village; white-washed cottages with thatched roofs, flowers in little gardens in front, sending forth their fragrance into the air. Fences were really pretty, made of willow withes woven like basket work. Very few houses had wooden floors, just packed down earth, easy to sweep never got muddy.
Beyond the one long main road, were fields of grain, vegetables, orchards and meadows for grazing cows and horses. The peasants were friendly, helped each other harvest time, including the Jewish farmers. There were perhaps fifteen Jewish families, dealing in farm produce, dairy and poultry which were sold in the big city market some distance away. There was a church, Catholic, with here and there on the road sacred images in framed nooks, which the Jewish children passed with averted eyes. The one big industry was a distillery, which gave employment to many peasants, and of course the Inn, or “Kretchma,” which did good business with the peasants and the Jews too. Drunkenness was not too frequent or troublesome.
My grandparents’ home was on the main road, on a corner with a rough road leading down to a brook where wading was very pleasant. In the spring that brook would overflow until the water touched the main road. The entrance of the cottage was a hall about 15’ long, dirt-packed floor, on the right a “kommer” or pantry which was a cooling room for milk, butter, eggs, etc.; on the left the customary stable for the cow, (I’m not sure we had a horse, though we used horses for plowing), and a millstone grinder for the family flour. A door at the head of the hall opened into the combination kitchen-dining room-living room, dirt-packed floor; on the left an arch with a step leading down to the bedroom, with an alcove; the floor of broad white pine boards that gleamed from scrubbing; beautiful tapestry covers on the three or four beds, and one window. In the main room there was a long wooden table with backless benches on either side, a window looking out on the garden in back. Three was a large plaster covered oven near the entrance, set deep into the wall, with an iron grate under which wood was burned, where all the cooking and baking was done. On the right side of the entrance, inside this main room, there was another wood-burning plaster covered oven used for heating. There was a nook at the top where we used to vie with the cat, climbing up for warmth.
There always seemed to be a maid servant, who milked the cow and helped generally. The milk was strained and poured into large metal (sink?) tubs, (maybe wooden ones?) and when the cream became firm, it was skimmed off and put in wooden churns to make butter, delicious buttermilk. The rest of the milk was clabber, “sour milk,” which went deliciously with new potatoes covered with butter (mm). Most of it was poured into cheese cloth bags and hung up to drip-dry, to make cottage cheese. A portion was dried more, made into pats that were cone shaped in the hollow of the hand, and dried hard. With plenty of pepper and salt in them, they were fine tidbits. Even the whey was made into creamed soup. The garden in back yielded vegetables for the table, and flowers, always flowers.
Across the road was a large pond, bordered by willow trees, which served as a skating rink in the winter. With Tante Feige, two years my senior, we played at the edge of the pond, washing our dolls’ clothes (wooden dolls) on little boards, beating them with a small “kienka,” a smooth little board shaped like a bread board, with a handle, using then arrow edge. The same method was used by the peasants. Our folks had a large metal tub in which they boiled the clothes outdoors over a wood fire. Spinning wheels were in general use, and the beautiful sheets that were produced in hand looms were spread out, wet, on the grass to bleach. It was fascinating to watch them spin the flax, wetting their fingers constantly to thin the thread, the wheel turning by foot power on some contraption.
It was a happy childhood, in my memory; playing house, climbing trees for cherries and pears, with Feige. We liked best to accompany the men to the fields harvest time. We sat on the floor planks of a large horse drawn hay wagon, our legs hanging out from between the upright poles. We were given the easy job of digging up new potatoes, while the men cut the grain with a scythe, tying it up in bundles which were piled onto the wagon. On the way home we were hoisted up on top of the heap and held on for dear life. The bundles were taken into the barn across the little road alongside the house, laid on the floor and beaten with a flail; the straw removed and the grain sifted through a large strainer, like those I have seen used by gold miners, in pictures. Tools were primitive and hand powered, except the horse drawn plows.
At the end of the harvest there was a holiday; wild blueberries, such as we know not of in modern times, were picked and Grandma would bake a huge pie in a deep dish, with a cake topping, and all hands shared, family and peasant helpers alike.
Passover was a memorable time. We shared the big oven with a few families who brought their dough. Long tables were set up on “horses,” past of dough were rolled out and placed on a large wooden spatula and eased into the oven, about six at a time. It was a gay, chattering group, both men and women working. I had the delightful job of running the stippler over the finished cakes, criss-crossing to keep them from bulging.
Of course we were all orthodox, and holidays were joyous occasions. Every home had a succah. I remember ours was alongside the main room, a board affair with an open roof covered with branches, fruit, flowers. The entrance was from the outside, but there was an opening into the main room window, through which food was passed by the women who stayed indoors to serve. The New Year holy days ended with a gay Simchas Torah, the elders dancing in a ring with the little ones in the middle, singing, chanting, clapping hands, and of course feasting. We had meat only on the Sabbath and holidays. Chanukah was the usual holiday, with lights and special dishes. Purim had a background of giving to the poorer families without offense, the children carrying “shelachmonos” and usually bringing back a return gift.
The village had one “Zhandahr” (as near as I can spell the sound), who was all the law rolled into one person. He wore city clothes, was a kindly gentleman, and a frequent visitor at our house. Grandpa seemed to be the unofficial head of the Jewish community; people were always dropping in to seek advice, complain, gossip. There was very little anti-Semitism, only a vague rumor occasionally of some drunken peasant cursing the “shit” (Jew as the peasant expressed it). The Priest seemed to be liked and respected by all the population.
I particularly remember the peasant weddings, to which we were invariable invited. The prospective bride, as was the custom, would come in with her mother, k eel in front of grandma, putting her arms around her knees and say “prose pane,” which meant please madam, implying an invitation. Grandma always had a bolt of cotton material to give the bride. Once I was allowed to attend a wedding nearby, but was warned not to eat anything except a “shishka,” a round fancy edged sort of cookie without shortening and slightly sweetened, with egg polish on top. Fiddlers made the gayest music, the dancing was fast and furious, the groom chasing the bride up the ladder leading to the loft, his hands, I must admit, reaching up her skirts to tickle her. As of today, I see it as natural, clean sex, regarded as open fun, nothing dirty about it.
I do not remember much of my father in those early years. He was a restless, impatient, independent man, as I grew to learn, giving up the customary year’s “kest” which newlyweds were entitled to (free board) and took himself off to London, as Mother told us. He didn’t find his fortune there, came back to the village, and eventually emigrated to America. Meanwhile, a baby brother was born when I was about two, who did not survive. It must have been two years after that, when Mother was carrying Anna, that Papa went to America. A few months later, when Anna was about a month old, he sent us tickets for our passage by boat, steerage, taking not less than three weeks to cross over.
Our home was a tiny apartment back of Papa’s shop, where he manufactured clothing as a contractor for men'’ stores. Mother worked hard, even I pulled bastings out of garments, the thread often cutting my fingers. A year or so later Irving was born, and Mother’s health broke down. She not only helped in the shop, but always had boarders, “landsleit” who came to America and made our home their first stop until they found a place of their own. Papa decided to send us back home to our grandparents where Mother could get rest and fresh air. Irving was six months old then, and not very strong either. Before long Mother rented a cottage, with Marinka, or Marishka as we affectionately called her, acting as our housekeeper. She had been Mother’s wet nurse, Grandma having been unable to nurse her – no bottles those days; was a sweet, cheerful, motherly person who adored Mother and us. She was like another Grandmother to us.
Mother’s education consisted of Yiddish reading and writing Hebrew enough to enable her to dovven; but her greatest knowledge came from her heart, from the ethics as taught in the Bible and by the folks themselves. She was a beautiful woman, as you may see by photos still in existence. Never will I forget the lessons in behavior she taught us; if a person falls in an awkward position, don’t laugh; they may be hurt, she said. There was a hunchback in the village at whom the “shkotsim,” peasant kids, used to throw stones. When they saw Mother, they’d stop and run, and she taught me the meaning of compassion. Marinka had her own pot and dishes to prepare her special dish, “spirka” (pork). I stood and watched her eat one time, and made a shuddering motion. Mother slapped me, saying “Marinka can eat that, though we cannot, and you must never spoil her pleasure.” I’ve always been grateful for that slap, a rare one for Mother. She scolded us, “hollered” at us, but did not slap or spank.
I remember a fire in my grandfather’s barn, which I think affected the house too; the bucket brigade of fire fighters, working desperately to keep the fire from spreading to the thatched roof houses close by. The pond in front of the house certainly served a good purpose. It was also the scene of a humorous incident when Irving was a about was about a year old. It was a windy day, and we children spread the alarm when we saw his straw hat floating in the water, but no Irving around. Out came Mother, Grandma, the Polish maid, even the cobbler next door who was very fond of the baby, they jumped in, one after the other, grappling in the muddy bottom, screaming in fright. Suddenly a loud voice exclaimed: “You crazy people, here he is.” The baby had been with Grandpa in back all the time.
I liked getting off at times by myself, walking in the fields on the other side of the pond, up a slope. Footpaths divided the fields at intervals, and I’d spread my shawl in one of them and lie down. The ripening grain stalks, full eared and swaying gently in the soft wind, touching each other, making small silvery sounds as though whispering little secrets to each other. Poppies and cornflowers, so very red and blue, were sprinkled all through the stalks, birds were flying across the sky, so blue and clear, the good earth smell making me sleepy. I grew up a little then, I think, for I said to myself, out loud, “What a beautiful world it is.”
I had an insatiable drive for listening to grown folks talk, learning what was going on, shooed off by my mother and resenting it; mischievous, fun loving as all children are, but dreading scenes, then and always in later life, compromising if a principle wasn’t involved. If it was, I fought back without compromise. My earliest “compromise” was when I had to take little Anna along when I went out to play with children my own age. She insisted on coming along, stamped her feet in a tantrum if I refused, until she lost her breath and got blue in the face. Mother had to slap her back until she got her breath again, and little Anna tagged along. I mention this only because herself analyzed it as loss of her babyhood when Irving was born fourteen months after her. But it could not have been so; she was a golden haired, blue eyed, round faced little doll, adored just as much as the dark haired and brown eyed Irving.
There was a natural pool hollowed out in the brook not far from our house, and we would go there to bathe, as is. Once, returning from our private bathing resort, a big Dalmatian, foaming at the mouth, came running towards us. We ran for dear life, but I stumbled and fell prone. The dog ran right over me, and bit the last little girl in the running group – a fatal accident. Whether true or false, I heard in later years that a mad dog will not bite a fallen human being (?).
Another “once” when again angels were watching over me, I always believed, was when I was about three or four years old. Mother and I were visiting a neighbor, and three or four children and I were leaning over the open well in front of the house, making faces, throwing pebbles in, yelling to get an echo. I leaned over too far and fell in, but my dress, made of good strong percale, caught on a nail, and the yelling soon brought rescue. Incidents like that impress themselves indelibly.
School (shkolla) was compulsory – in the 1880’s, if you please, by order of the good Kaiser Franz Jozef, and we were taught in Polish and German, some domestic arts too, all of which was a delight and absorbing activity for me. In the afternoon I attended Cheder to learn Hebrew, and this leads me to another “once.” The Rebbe was a young married man with a wife and three or four “once a year” children, living in a tiny one room house, the room serving as the school. It must have been a nerve-racking job. I don’t remember the cause, whether mischief or backtalk, but I got a caning which left me black and blue, couldn’t sit down for days and slept on my stomach. Mother showed my condition to Grandpa, and he was furious, determined to do something about it. In Shule on the Sabbath, services conducted in a home, Grandpa announced a “Din Torah,” (court of law according to the Bible) and much to my embarrassment, displayed me to the congregation. There was indignation, recrimination, threat of discharge … Ah well, the Rebbe is a poor man, where will he go, how will he make a living? … and so he stayed . But he never punished me again.
Our stay must have lasted about two years, when Papa sent for us. We went back to America, steerage again. My English was about gone, but I soon caught up with the kids on the street, and they didn’t dare call me “greenhorn.” It was near the end of the school term, so I was put in the lowest grade, the 6th (grades were classified down, 6th to 1st) primary, and of course I was left back. After my high marks in Europe, this was the blackest day of my childhood: me, ME, left back, unthinkable: However, the foundation I got in my native village stood me in good stead later.