Reprinted by special permission from Janova by Frances Melamed, published by Janova Press, Inc. 2412 Ingleside Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio 45206.
I grew up in a little town in Lithuania. There were dozens like it around, but I would like you to meet Janova because it was different. It was different, because it was my town; it was where I was born and grew up. Every house, every tree, every street and alley is like a living thing, following me, even now, no matter where I go. It is always there. Its familiar faces, some smiling, some sad, keep looking at me through the many eyes of its crowded streets. Familiar voices call my name and coax me back to Janova, so bright and fresh, like the days of my childhood.
Suddenly I am a child again, in Janova. I can see the wide, cobblestoned streets where we ran around bare-footed, playing freely with no fear of traffic, except for an occasional horse. They were as friendly and harmless as the chickens, cats and dogs who walked on the streets.
Here we are in the center of town--the most important and prosperous-looking part. The buildings are mostly brick, two stories high, with large, well-stocked stores below and living quarters above. These buildings gave our little town the appearance of a big city. There is our house! It was the only frame house in the heart of town, and how we came to live there, I will tell you later.
There is the Viliya! Our beautiful Viliya, flowing through the town so long and narrow, like a silver ribbon, sparkling in the sunlight. Its waters were like a living creature to us, and you must get to know it as I did. But first let me take you through the business section of our town.
Here is the Kazarma, a large government building with barracks for housing soldiers. Next to it is the post-office, and across the street is the Monopoil (a government-owned liquor store). It was the busiest place in town, swarming with mouzhiks (farmers and peasants) who bought bottles of vodka and emptied them right there on the street. The Monopoil was very special to us, because our schoolhouse was in the big room above it, on the second floor, it was just one room with three rows of desks and hardly an appropriate place for a school, but we were grateful to have any school at all. In those days, education was a privilege, especially for us.
Most of the people in our town were Jewish. The only gentiles were farmers and peasants who lived on the outskirts of town or in little villages nearby. Most of them went to the Orthodox Church, Pravoslavnaya Tzerkov, which was on the Shasse. The Catholics, of course, went to the Cathedral.
The Catholic Cathedral towered high above all the other buildings in the center of town. It was surrounded by trees and a beautifully landscaped garden. The heavy peals of its huge, massive bell were heard daily, calling people to prayer. It was also rung in times of danger, or emergency.
On Sundays, the peasants walked for many versts, bare-footed, carrying their shoes in a bag over their shoulders. When they came to Janova, they sat on the bare ground waiting for the church bells to ring. Only then did they take out their shoes, put them on, and walk into the church. When the service was over, they took off their shoes again, and walked home in bare feet, just as they had come. I remember one woman who boasted of having the same pair of shoes for over twenty years.
The people of Janova were cheerful and hard-working. They demanded nothing, expected very little, and were grateful for anything special that came their way. They lived simply, like their fathers and grandfathers before them.
We alway thought of our little town as a fairly prosperous place. We sent wood from our thick forests to Germany, England and France, along with our poultry and farm produce. In exchange, they sent us manufactured items. As small as we were, we were well known for our cabinet-making. Our men were expert designers and craftsmen, and they produced fine furniture which was shipped all over Russia and even abroad. . . .
Let me take you for a walk through the streets of my town, and I will tell you all about them, their buildings, and their people. You will come to know Janova and how we lived there.
First we will go to the Shasse. It was a main thoroughfare, the busiest street in all of Janova. It started above the bank of our beautiful river, the Viliya, and continued on, all the way to the railroad station, which was many, many versts beyond the town. The most impressive building on the Shasse was the Pravoslavnaya Tzerkov, the Russian Orthodox Church. Its characteristic, onion-shaped top was a land mark, surrounded b beautiful grounds and flowers.
Our hotel was also on the Shasse. It was the only one in town, but it was never over-crowded. Our visitors usually stayed with their friends or relatives. The hotel was for government officials, or the traveling judge, or someone important on his way to a bigger city.
Just beyond the hotel, we come to a little clinic. Even with our four thousand people, we couldn't support a full time doctor in Janova. The clinic was run by a Feldsher, a self-trained doctor, like a midwife or an assistant. He could deliver babies, treat children's diseases, sew up cuts and cure sore throats. But if someone was really sick and the Feldsher couldn't cure him, a doctor was called in from Kovna. Our people were lucky. They were sturdy and very healthy. I often thought they refused to get sick because they knew how hard it was to get a doctor.
Next to the clinic is the little Bes Hamidrash, a Jewish House of worship. There are others on Shulgas Street. On Saturday afternoons, the day of rest and prayer, the Shasse was lively with people, promenading up and down the street in their holiday clothes, meeting with friends and exchanging greetings.
On a nice day, many would walk to the train depot just to watch the trains come in and to see the new faces of people arriving. That was our recreation, along with the festivities of religious holidays. Those festivities were planned for weeks in advance, and talked about long afterwards.
In the summer months, the holiday promenade was taken on Kadan Street, which I used to think was the most beautiful place in the world. I know now that my impression of beauty was limited by the boundaries of my little town, and my youth; but in those days I could imagine nothing more beautiful than Kadan Street in the summer.
It was a long, smoothly paved street with a sharp turn at the end. There the street divided into two paths, each one going off in a different direction and each one growing into a big hill, marking the end of our little town. There were inviting little benches here and there along the street; the houses were almost hidden among orchards of fruit trees lining both sides of the street. In the spring, the scent of apple and cherry blossoms mixed with the lilacs, which we called May flowers for the month in which they bloomed. The fragrance filled the air so heavily with its sweet perfume that we used to feel we could reach out and capture it Once I tried to preserve it in a pottle for the long cold winter months.
One of the hills at the end of the street was a grim reminder of the inevitable future--a cemetery. There right in the front, my grandfather is buried. You can see his marker from anywhere in town. The other hill was a little farther away; it was bigger and higher. We used to call it "dizzy hill" because of its steepness. In the summer it was covered thickly with grass, trees, and shrubbery, and almost as thickly with people. We children used to ho there on week days to pick berries and other fruit. The wild strawberries were our favorite, so small and sweet. We ate as many as we could and sometimes more. This was a pleasant, restful place to spend an afternoon, stretched out on the cool green grass, listening to the sound of birds and insects and little animals running in and out of the shrubs.
These were the choice parts of our town, but you must see some of the other parts, too. All of Janova was not so lovely. There were sections where unbelievable poverty prevailed.
Bryzer Street was the worst and there were others. People on Bryzer Street lived like herring stuffed in a barrel. Families with eight or ten children lived in one or two room shacks, with bare earth floors and leaking roofs. Children were half-clad, underfed, and they stood up to their knees in dirt and mud.
On Saturday afternoons, in the summer, the Bryzer Street women would sit out on their door steps with bowls of soup in their laps. Not chicken soup, not vegetable soup, or even borscht--that, they could not afford; they ate a soup "with nischt" (with nothing). It was made of plain water with a few potatoes or noodles thrown in. They sat eating the soup and watching the ladies and men of the upper classes go by. Everyone was of the upper class compared to the women of Bryzer Street.
People walked past them, on their way to the beautiful Kadan Street, without so much as a simple nod of recognition or a word of greeting. They felt it was hardly worthwhile wasting time on the poor Bryzer Street women. Poverty was written all over them, especially the women, whose dress and appearance reflected their financial status more clearly than the men. After ten or twelve years of marriage most of these women showed no trace of the shapely young girls they had once been. Instead, they were haggard-looking women with breasts sagging over their little round ball-of-a-belly, and they dramatized it even more by tying their apron strings tight around their waists. Long sleeved blouses hung sloppily over their skirts and a kerchief always covered their heads, in keeping with the old religious tradition. After a girl was married, she was not permitted to expose any part of her body, including the hair on her head, lest she tempt other men. As a result, she ended up so unattractive, that even her own husband wasn't tempted. Bryzer Street women walked slowly, usually with one baby in their arms and two or three tagging along behind, pulling on their skirts and crying for attention. They were tired old women at the age of thirty.
But that was not the way of all the women of Janova. The wealthier women took care of themselves and their appearances. They had maids and more leisure time for themselves. Most of them planned their families, and sent their children to Gymnasia in Kovna. Many went on to the University of Berlin which admitted Jewish students more freely than the Russian Universities. Those children came back as scientists, doctors, engineers, or lawyers. Some were even privileged enough to reside in the restricted city of St. Petersburg, capital of Russia, where a special permit (Pravo Zhiteilstvo) was required of Jewish citizens. When they came to visit their parents in Janova, they brought governesses to take care of their children. They were the attraction and envy of all the town. Those were the intelligentsia, well-dressed, well-bred, and cultured.
The older generation accepted them as they were, the born rich, entitled to all the privileges. But among the younger people, many resented them. . . .
It may be hard to believe that a little town such as Janova could be so divided into so many different social and financial classes, but divided it was, until after the great wars, which made many changes in many ways.
But here we are back in the center of town, now. From here you can see the courtyard which we called Shulgas (Synagogue Street), where our Synagogues were located. Right there, across from that little Bes Hamidresh, is the Shul, where we belonged. The small Hasidic Prayer House is there too.