A small town in Southern Lithuania
Where the Jewish Community is no more

Growing Up  Under Russian Rule 1815 - 1914 Part 5
The break in the daily drab existence were the weekly shabes, and holidays and the little celebrations such as a bris (circumcision), naming ceremony, wedding, burial society annual banquet, and military concerts in the field.
In the summers, a katerinshtshik [one who grinds music from a music box] traveled with acrobats around the country and came to town. People threw coins to the performers in praise of their art. Occasionally a circus arrived, with clowns, animals, and trick horse riders. Once an American black man came to town with the circus and intrigued the children. They had never seen a person with black skin and they believed the black color would wash off. An old phonograph that played music caused excitement in the town. The instrument was a boxlike contraption to which rubber tubes were attached. An enterprising young businessman opened a music store where people listened to the tunes. They paid a kopeke to the exhibitor to hear the reproduced melodies. During the summer, outdoor activities were prevalent. Some children bathed and swam in the lake. Boys made fishing lines from hairs that they tore from a horse‘s tail in order to try catching fish from the creek. Youngsters played croquet and hide and seek in the park. A sign of summer was a Russian ice cream peddler in the street wit
h a pot perched on his head yelling ―Sachar more Ozshone (Moreoezhenoe) [Sweet ice cream]
Winters were harsh with heavy snow and bitter cold. Streets filled with high snow drifts and in homes, ovens were heated to capacity in an attempt to warm a room. Residents often traveled by homemade box sleighs in sub-zero weather. An old horse, no longer fit for riding or carrying a carriage, was trained to pull the sleigh over frozen roads. People were envious of sleigh owners. Some children hitched rides on the back of a farmer‘s sleigh, and sleighing parties were arranged for entertainment. Happy youngsters nestled in mama‘s best kapishonen [woolen hoods] or wrapped a bashlik [warm head cover] tightly over their heads and ears for warmth and wore felt boots over their feet, as the driver cracked his whip and the merry party traveled through the crisp winter air.. Youngsters wearing skates made of a piece of wood tied solidly to their shoes skated onto the lake.
In the community, grievances among Jews were usually settled by a rabbinical court. The court in the late 1800s was composed of the dayen [judge of religious law], a rabbi, the synagogue caretaker, and at times some uninvolved people. The court determined a compromise between the disputing parties. Verdicts were considerate of the guilty party, such that the loser of a given case was not arbitrarily forced to meet outrageous demands, but was given fair and sound rulings. All decisions were based on the principles of Jewish law in the Torah and Talmud, which were interpreted thoroughly and explicitly by the rabbinical court. Before the trial started, the dayen spread out a large red handkerchief that both parties were asked to touch. This
ritual signified that they would abide by the rulings of the court. When a compromise was reached, it was customary to conclude with a handshake and say, ―Sholem biyisroel” [Peace among Jews‖]. An example of a grievance brought before the rabbinical court consisted of the following: A boy worked for the bookbinder, but his parents were displeased with the training. So they apprenticed him to a photographer, a profession more to their liking. The bookbinder called the boy‘s father to court, claiming the craftsman had lost money on training the boy. The judge ruled in favor of the bookbinder and ordered the father to pay him 25 rubles as compensation. This was a huge sum, yet the father complied with the ruling and paid as ordered.
There were two jails, one for serious criminals and the other, the city jail, for minor violators. Jewish recruits for the army were also jailed here before they were sworn in so that they would not run away. Most violators were imprisoned for bringing contraband merchandise across the German border. Some of these prisoners had relatives in town who brought them home-cooked meals. In all political systems, there are enforcers who are strict and those who are lenient. There was a well-known story about the zhandarm [policeman] named Fedorov, the likable Russian government official who had a flowing beard and patrolled the town wearing a uniform. Fedorov was a known entity and shared a house with a Jewish family. He spoke Yiddish fluently and was aware of the secrets of the Jews. He knew when a young man was damaging his body to make himself ineligible for the Russian priziv [army conscription]. He knew about these breaches but seldom interfered. Instead, he warned them when he sensed danger to the young man or his family. If a young man of 21, military age, tried to free himself from priziv and leave for the United States or another country, the Russian law fined his parents 300 rubles. Often it was necessary for the family to auction off many of their belongings to satisfy the claim. When someone such as Fedorov made allowances for individuals, he often saved the family this financial hardship. Vilkaviskis was a law-abiding and orderly town, yet on occasion, individuals as well as the community resorted to graft. Laws were enforced against Jews more vigorously and often more cruelly than against non-Jews. Specific laws applied only to Jews, which policemen enforced erratically, as they could be bribed to look the other way. For example, the government taxed cigarettes, but some Jews rolled their own cigarettes and sold them, which was against the law. The Russian strozhnik [Tsar‘s officer and royal guard] was the boss in old Vilkaviskis. He was the ruler of the town. His word was law and he was not averse to a little gi
ft. When a new official arrived in town, Jews attempted to discover his modus operandi. ―Tsi nemt er?” [―Is he taking (bribes)?]‖ After the officer accepted his first ―gift,‖ the people breathed more easily. Minor offenses were dismissed with the aid of a few rubles.