“My Shtetele Shkud”
56°16′ / 21°32’
By Leon Bernstein
Translated by Rachel Mines; Edited by Sonia Kovitz
Original Yiddish in Lite, Vol. 1. Ed. Mendel Sudarky et al. New York: Jewish-Cultural Society, 1951.
Once there was a shtetele, Shkud, which is no longer, which will never again rise from blood and ash and smoke. The laughter of Jewish children will never again echo in the marketplace. Respectable people, lost in thought, will never again walk down the Long Street into the synagogue, and summery young people will never again stride through the Vilke Birzhe [“forest of the wolf,” possibly the local name of a wooded area between Old and New Skuodas] and through the Old Town to the rivers. Fires have devoured the Long Street’s marketplace. Perhaps red roses will sprout from the Vilke Birzhe, dark with Jewish blood, and the last cries of mothers and fathers will echo in the playful murmur of the rivers. The conflagration has devoured the town together with those who built it. And the place where it stood will not, and should not, dare to refill itself with life. The laughter of Lithuanian peasants must not disturb the rest of our murdered generation; young Lithuanians in their Sunday drunkenness must not compete with one another: I murdered three, and I, five, and I … my friend.
Photograph: A Street in Shkud (sent by Charles Kahn, New York)
Shkud once was, and is no more. Only the heirs of its memory remain, a handful of Jews in America, in Israel, in South Africa. But in the hours of great longing, when my mother’s voice seems close, as in a dream, scalding words rise from my choked throat and carry themselves clearly to all my Shkuder brothers across the world. Not because they seek comfort – “do not comfort me in a time of misfortune” [variant of Tractate Avot 4:23] – but because they know that they will be heard, and taken up, and understood. And they refer not only to Shkud, these words, but also Yelok [Ylakiai], and Maisyad[Mosëdis] , and Salant [Salantai], and Dorbian [Darbenai], and Telz [Telšiai] , and Mazheik [Mažeikiai], and every one of the little Lithuanian shtetls of which only the names and a black page in Jewish history remain. But each one of them is also a kind of Shkud, a kind of Nemirov [Nemyriv, Ukraine]. And everywhere the same horrors, the same tortures, the same deaths. My shtetl Shkud is but a great eye before me, that sees the entire Holocaust and weeps for the people. And my shtetl Shkud has become a symbol transcending the boundaries of its seclusion in Samogitia [northwestern region of Lithuania] to lie like a shadow over the civilized world, to sit like a silent accuser at the table of the United Nations with the eternal question: “Why? Why?”
After the first world war, when Lithuania became an independent country, Shkud also awoke from Tsarist slavery. Jewish young people stayed true to their Jewish national cultural inheritance, taking it up in a modern form. As in the majority of Lithuanian shtetls, a Hebrew folk-school was established in Shkud, which later became a Hebrew pro-gymnasium. There, among others, the well-known Hebrew poet Yisroel Shaf affected a poetic-biblical style, similar to the style he used in his stories. From the pro-gymnasium, young people went on to the Hebrew gymnasiums in Keidan [Kėdainiai] and Kovne [Kaunas]. But few of those who ended the gymnasiums returned to the businesses and trades of their fathers. Most went away to university, to Kovne, to other countries, some with the help of rich fathers and some independently. Nor could the rabbi’s son, the beloved, refined Hirsh Terushkin, withstand the temptation, and he studied jurisprudence in Kovne.
In 1923, when the Lithuanians marched into Memel, Shkud attained its hour of influential prosperity. Situated by the railway line between Libau [Liepāja, Latvia] and Memel [Klaipėda], and now having a strong market in Memel and its environs, Shkud entered a phase of industrialization. An electrical station was built, which provided the shtetl with light and the factories with power. No fewer than six shoe-factories recently operated in Shkud, successfully competing in the Lithuanian marketplace with the greatest factories in the country. Among the six, the factory of Itze Cohen, for which he bought the most modern machinery, especially flourished. Leib Hochman opened his modern rope factory, and Shie Fogelman left university and opened a button factory in his father’s house in the marketplace. Shkud became younger, fresher. The two rows of sleepy, wooden shops in the middle of the marketplace, with their crooked wooden walls and tall pointed roofs were torn down and replaced with bright modern businesses. Segal no longer drove his long, old-fashioned wagon to the train station, but brand-new buses. In one corner of the marketplace a cinema was built. The little staircases with the railed porches in front of the houses, where respectable people used to sit after work on summer afternoons, gave way to poured sidewalks, which began to wind like thin strands through the town. Only the synagogues, a stone one in the New Town and a wooden one in the Old Town, and – lehavdil [interjection used when juxtaposing things that are not to be compared] – a Catholic church and the Russian Orthodox church, did not change. They stood as they had a hundred years previous, and gazed threateningly, as if to ask, “who will hold out longer, who will survive whom?”
Together with the industrialization of the shtetl, a particular overturn of the social classes took place. A Jewish working class developed in the factories. A gap grew between the old and young generations. Among the latter, a group of industrialists took shape. Between the two stood the middle class of the greater and smaller merchants. Along with this development, the opposition between the Old Town and the New Town disappeared. These neighbourhoods were separated from each other by a river. The Old Town, with its wooden buildings and unpaved paths, once comprised the poorer part of the Jewish population. Now ambitious young people from the Old Town were becoming industrialists and wholesalers and venturing into the New Town. Youth from both sides of town would meet in the partnership of political and community work. But given that the new industrialists had risen from the ranks of former stitchers, cutters and cobblers, class divisions were not sharply defined in our shtetl. There was a community of people, bound together through long generations in a common destiny. Shkuders, for the most part, would marry among each other, one reason perhaps being that Shkud was renowned for its beautiful young women.
Shkud was a happy, lively shtetl. People were continually coming and going from Memel, Kovne, and Libau. Like every town which has a large turnover of strangers, the character of Shkud’s Jewish population was influenced. Shkuders were tolerant and welcoming of strangers. There were many songs and much music to be heard. People learned to play piano from the two music teachers in the shtetl, my mother and the Russian pianist Pakrovsky.
Along with the Hebrew schools, Zionist ideas also won young people’s enthusiasm. Most of the more middle-class youth belonged to Betar [Hebrew acronym for B’rit Trumpeldor, Trumpeldor League], while Hashomer Hatzair [Young Guard] and Hekhalutz Hatzair [Young Pioneer]recruited their members among the young factory workers. Of course, there were exceptions on both sides. In a small shtetl, personal relationships play a large role in political life. At the head of Betar stood the energetic, original, and spirited man, Mirkes. He was not entirely “pure-blooded,” not a Shkuder, but had moved there in 1927 from the Lithuanian town Simne [Simnas]. Thanks to his strong personality, however, he quickly attained a leading place in the Shkud Jewish community. At the head of the Zionist workers’ wing stood the well-known Hebrew teacher Moshe Cohen, who was also a “stranger.” It turns out that Shkud, with its “international” flavour, quickly fell under foreign influences. Cohen, however, was much beloved among the youth. He was a great orator, and more than once people tried to break up meetings while Cohen was speaking. Even now I can see him before me on the stage of the folk-school: his long black hair dishevelled, a flame in his yearning eyes. In that way he would thunder in the name of workers’ rights and progress. He also could not withstand temptation and married the most beautiful Jewish woman in the shtetl.
The Zionist women’s organization also developed abundant activities. Young people in the gymnasium soaked up the Zionistic ideal. There was also an effort to enrich day-to-day life. How can one forget the Bialik and Peretz evenings, the performances of “Jephtha the Judge”? When I was 21 years old, I played with Saul Fisher (whose name means so much to a Shkuder) in a Yiddish play – can I ever forget that?
Imbued with its ideals, young people began to stream to Eretz Yisrael. Nothing could prevent them. Whole families went off to Israel: the Shers, the Grupels, the rabbi’s daughters, the pioneer Yankelovich, and ordinary respectable families and dozens more young people. I met several in Italy as soldiers of the Jewish Brigade in the British army. The pioneer Yankelovich and the Grupel brothers, and the handsome, tall Avreml Kaplanski, who became a major-sergeant. How bitter and how sweet was that meeting. Two worlds met there: one lost forever and one newborn, the regained world of Eretz Yisrael.
And many more thought about making aliyah. My mother used to contemplate: “Let’s sell the house, we’ll have enough for the trip.” The longing increased when a threatening cloud appeared and grew on the horizon: antisemitism. Lithuanian fascism, the lurking danger of Hitler.
But my mother remained, my father remained, hundreds of Jews remained in Shkud – they remained forever.
Photograph: A 250-year-old house in Maisyad (near Shkud), (sent by L. Grin, Toronto)