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Itzhak Arieli [nee Alperovich]

From the notebook of a Teenager, p. 125-128

Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan

            In the spring of 1925, during the afternoon hours of a certain Tuesday, a weekly market day when all the farmers from the surrounding villages came to Kurenets to buy and sell their products.  The market was filled with people and livestock.  Fire started at the house of Aharon, son of Zvi Shumlan, or as he was known in the town, Artzik der Biager [the Tanner].  A big flame came from his house, and it took but a few hours and most of the town was burned.  Our home was immediately burned since it stood in the market right next to the house of the Shulman family where the fire started.  The library with thousands of books was burned.  The house of the Hasidim was burned with its clock on top, the clock that would fill us with awe and wonder, and obviously all of our studies from that point were suspended. 

The Aftermath of the Fire of 1925

            Our family, which had already experienced some tragedies at that point, now became homeless and we had nothing to support ourselves with.  We lay down in the field, on top of a few belongings we managed to get out: some pillows and blankets that we risked our lives to save from the burning house.  Some officials from the Polish authorities came by, and the help they gave us was only a nod of their heads.  And our heads didn't even have a place to lie down!  The family of Leib Yakov Torov was filled with pity for us so they let us all join them in their house, which was already filled with children.  During the summertime we slept on hay in their barn, and in the winter we slept on the furnace.

            The day of the fire became the last day of my official studies.  At first I studied in the cheder, and later on in the yeshiva, and at the point when the fire started I was in the Tarbut school.  But now I had to start a new chapter in my life, in the "school of the toil of living."  I remember how I lay down on the steps of the stores that stood across from the yard where the house of my grandfather used to be.  It was the property that belonged to all the grandsons of my grandfather [Binya Alperovich].  I looked at the yard where we started building a new home.  We cleaned the yard from the remnants of the bricks and the dust, and my brother and I helped the builders as much as we could.  I was shocked that on that Saturday, when a few so-called experts came by, and looked at the frame that was being built for the house, and decided that the frame was crooked and was leaning towards one side. Those experts said, "No wonder the frame was crooked, it is a widow who is the foreman for this enterprise."

            At the end of that summer in the year of 1925 I worked in the apple orchard picking apples, and later, my friend Shimon Zimmerman, took me for a month to guard with him a fruit garden near Kriviczi.  The days would pass for us beautifully in nature, and the nights were filled with fear when we had to guard from Christians and their dogs and also from thieves.  When winter came, our family moved to the house despite the fact that it was not yet finished.  There was no floor and there was only one room that was used both for living and for business since we needed somehow to make a living, so we opened a hervatziarnia [a business that sells tea, salted fish, and other such things].  Many times the farmers would come and eat while I was asleep on my corner and they would sit right on the place where I was sleeping to eat their food.  This was the most difficult winter for me.  I was lonely and far from all my friends and had no warm clothes to wear.  I couldn't even walk to the synagogue since I did not have any winter shoes.  The vista from my prospective looked very dark.  I was an orphan from my father.  I was small and weak and many times was on the verge of starvation.  Even now, after many years have passed, I still am not able to free myself from the terror and anxiety that I experienced that winter. 

            As the winter was coming to an end, I heard rumors that Yehiel the son of Yekutiel Meir Kramer was going to open a fadrad, which was a place to bake matozos.  He was going to open an enterprise operated in a modern fashion, and he would need young people to help.  So with the help of Avraham Dimmenstein, I planned on how to get accepted for work so I could earne a little money for Passover.  As a child I was always in awe of those guys, the radelu [?] who stood next to tables covered by some kind of thin metal sheets, and they would roll a special tool to make holes in the matzo. 

            In my eyes they seemed so capable and cool.  Who would not want to do something like this?  I was used to the old style of matzo making the way the parents of my friend Shimon  Zimmermn did.  I loved all the activity in the place where they baked matzos.  One would put the flour, another would add the water, and others would mix the dough and on wooden boards they would knead it, roll it out, and then they would make holes in it and put in a big, tall oven  that was taller than anyone, and this gave a special holy day atmosphere to life in town.  So on that first day, when they started baking the matzos for Passover that year, I got up very early and put on my broken shoes and with excitement I came to the building.  But inside I found many, many that needed the job and as the bosses arrived there was a big pandemonium.  Each one tried to enter and at that point, my elbows were very weak, and I wasn’t able to push my way in.  So after I walked around for about 15 minutes I realized there was no place for me here and I walked home disappointed.  My mother understood my frustration and tried to console me, saying, "Nevermind, my son, we will survive even without this job."

            But I couldn't console myself and the anguish of being orphaned became unbearable for me.  It must be that my miserable situation became known to certain people in town, so Chaim Kramer tried very hard to find something for me to do, and he was able to get me a job as a messenger in the bank.  This was a very appropriate job for me since I was very good at math and also because I was meticulous.  So in a short time I did well in my job and my financial situation improved tremendously. 

Small shopkeepers, merchants, craftsmen, and any other money earning Jew utilized the bank in Kurenets.  The number of members in the bank was more than 300, and it was almost equal to the number of money earners in town.  There was no limitation put on potential members as far as their sex, the amount of possessions or property you owned, to become a member of the bank.  The “joint” financed the operation by giving something around 24,000 zloty.  Together with the savings we were able to give loans of more than 100,000 zloty in a fair and democratic way. 

Yosef Shimon Kramnik, head of the bank of Kurenets, with his family.

            The bank was not for profit, and the interest was the usual at that time, taking into account the conditions after the war and the inflation.  I, as a sixteen-year-old, had some technical difficulties since I had such a responsible job, and sometimes when Yosef Shimon Kramnik [son of Hillel] who was the head of the bank would not be present and then I encountered a lot of difficulties.  Also, many times I would see the injustice of the wealthier customers getting larger amounts of money, which was against my beliefs I would protest.  Sometimes I would d get instructions that I must deliver notices to people who didn't come to get their money on time and that the loan was not authorized. When they would come and bitterly complain to the bank about what was done, other employees of the bank would use me and say I was inexperienced and it was I who had made the mistake.  So this situation became more and more difficult.  It seemed that as time passed more and more people couldn't pay their loans and they sent me to warn the people who didn't pay and force them to pay something.  I was also supposed to go with the person who would repossess belongings, which was extremely unpleasant for me, and clearly my life was not one of milk and honey.  Many would complain to me as if I was guilty, although I did what I was ordered to do by people who were above me.

The typical business of the bank was giving loans and taking collateral.  Amongst the people who used the bank there were some who were not Jews.  The people who signed on the loans were the residents of Kurenets and they signed the loans for other people who bought merchandize on credit from enterprises in Vilna.  Clearly the bank had a very important duty in giving them credit and it was particularly important since it was the only institution of such activities in town until they opened Gmilut Chesed [an interest-free loan place] which was managed by Itzhak Moshe Meltzer, but I cannot tell you much about it because I had very few dealings with them.

            First the fire of 1925, and afterwards there were financial difficulties that limited the activities of the bank, and Chaim Kramer worked very hard to keep it afloat.  Although it did improve in the years 1930 and 1931, some of the loaners couldn’t return their loans and they kept prolonging the length of the loan, so obviously the interest kept rising.  So many of the loans had to be declared as lost. Since the people were bankrupt, and also the taxes became larger as the Polish government asked for much more from the Jews, and the population, which contained mainly small merchants from the middle class, became poor and unable to earn sufficient money.  For the very poor, it seemed like the loans were the only means of survival. When they were not given anymore loans and they had no more means to survive, they stopped seeing the bank as a place for assistance and only saw it as a leech sucking their blood. 

            The twists of fate and the Nazi killers entered the lives of the Jews in town.  But the youth who had a healthy outlook at the future, realized years before that the financial base of the community was falling and that life was very unstable in the shtetl. We loved our hometown but in some way we were feeling like foreigners there, and knew that to add another mercantile business to the market would not solve that sense of foreignness.

From my position in the bank I was a daily witness to the poverty and the difficulties that life in the shtetl presented. This made me wish even more for a very different life, despite the fact that my personal situation (at least from the financial point of view) was fine in this institution.  So one evening, quietly, I left the town on the way to the land of Israel. And this came as a great surprise to many, and especially to the few who knew how I felt and kept trying to convince me that I should stay here and describe to me my rosy future in town.

The homes from the right; 1.Mota Lieb Kupershtoochs' (father of Zev and Yosef), 2. Aharons', son of Tzvi Shulman (father of Nyomka, Chana, Rivka, Rashka and Bela) 3. Pesya and Moshe Alperovitzs' (parents of Benyamin, Rachel and Yitzhak Arieli from Dan) 4.Reshke and Zalman śYechezkel Alperovitz (parents of Meir, Pia, Sara and Moshe) 5. Chaim Avraham Alperovitz, father of Daniel (Dania), Zertel and Chaya 6. Leib Charnas home. After "De Glaska "(the alley), 7. the home of Lea Etka (with the two floors) almost all of the home owners perished in 1942.