Reminiscences; Rachel and Mendl Lewin and Family (Grad)
(Mendl was the son of Boroch Lewin who had 2 or more wives. Mendl had one full brother, Caim. From an earlier marriage, oruch had at least 4 daughters: Esther Faigel, Soshe and Elka. Mendl was born in 1871; Chaim in 1875.)
David Lewin, youngest son of Mendl and Rachel writes:
"Apparently the Lewin household was God fearing. The head of the family Boruch, spent a good portion of the time studying the law. As a matter of course, my father started his religious education at an early age. Up to the age of 16 or 17, his secular education was non-existent. Between age 17 and 19 he qualified as a "shochet" (butcher). He did not relish the job.
"Sometime between the age of 15-16 and the time he became a professional "klee-kodesh" (religious functionary), he started reading things profane. This was apparently done in hiding. Mendl and Chaim would beg or borrow books and go to the fields or forests and spend many days studying the forbidden. They both became rather proficient in Russian. For a second language, father picked English and Chaim picked French. Within the available limited tools (books) they got fairly proficient in arithmetic, physics and literature. My father became an Anglophile.
"At the same time, he established contact with some people in town who had the remnants of the library of Manasseh of Ilya. My guess is that father had access to quite a few works of Manasseh in spite of the fact that the Ilya establishment did not consider the philosophy of the rational Manasseh fit for a growing Jewish boy. The view of Manasseh made a powerful impression on both of the Lewin brothers. This influence was lasting, and I believe that it could be seen in practically every attitude in their later years. I believe that father's approach to secular education, rational thought and manual labor were based on the teachings Manasseh.
"This was the time when the proletariat took over. My father was made manager of construction, subject to the direction of a workers' committee. He could not tolerate the loss of his business and the new conditions and, after a short time, he abandoned everything and escaped to Alexandria (Ukraine) where the family was located after retreating from the advancing German army. We were soon under German occupation.
"Zina was away at the time, but the rest of the family was together. The social fabric of Russia was disintegrating quite rapidly. The civil was was in full swing. Theoretically, the fight was between the old Empire and the revolutionary forces (the people). Whenever one or the other side took over the town, many people were killed. The Cossacks were always given time to plunder and to kill in the way of payment for their services. On the side of the people, so to speak, were organized bands of peasants who were delighted to murder, rape and steal from any Jew. Alexandria was a rather small town and there was no place to hide.
"The family moved to Kremenczug http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kremenchuk on the Dnieper. It was a larger town with an organized Jewish community. We were less exposed there. For a year or two, life in Kremenczug was - to say the least - interesting. The slogan 'he who does not work does not eat' turned out to be more than a slogan. In the Lewin family, five people found jobs (father, Viva, Boria, Mania and Fania). Those who worked received pay consisting of food, cloth, fuel and the like. The allocations were then used to fee the entire family. Occasionally there was a surplus of an item; this was bartered for more useful things.
"The family was often hungry, cold and poorly clothed. Clothing and shoes were all home-made. In spite of it, I remember the period as one filled with songs and laughter. The family was united and I felt very secure. Viva and Mania had high-sounding titles in the government hierarchy. Fania was a messenger in their office. Father was in charge of a warehouse and carpentry shop. Boria was a low functionary in the department of 'culture'. After working hours they used to compare notes on the inefficiencies of their respective offices.
"Meanwhile, the civil war was continuing and the Red Army needed soldiers. Boria, as the son of a capitalists, was ordered to report to the army. He was given a rifle and a blanket and ordered to go to the Western front. He discarded the rifle, wrapped himself in the blanket and went the other way. He joined Chaim and his family in Zaslawl.
"Chaim was in charge of a saw-mill. The proletarians took it over and he was to be manager under the direction of the workers' committee. Production suffered and he was put in jail. After a while, he convinced the prison authorities that he was insane and they transferred him to a hospital. The security was fairly lax, so Chaim's sons Boria and Daniel, together with my brother Boria, staged an armed invasion of the hospital and released Chaim. They all fled to Poland, where our family eventually joined them.
"In 1920, Zina moved to Molodecano. Jojo set out to help her move. He vanished, never to be heard of again. By 1921, Viva and Boria were also in Molodeczno. After a long and arduous voyage, the rest of the family joined them. The family home in Molodeczno was occupied by something like 40 families of squatters. It took close to two years to evict them. The land owned by the family was occupied by neighbors. Little by little the family reclaimed it.
"For a few years things were indeed difficult. We came to Molodeczno without material resources. The little land available to us did not produce much food. We did not have the seeds to plant; after planting it takes time to grow food. Zina's husband, Max, was a physician's helper and was able to obtain some of the necessities in exchange for medical services for the peasants.
"Our peasant neighbors gave us some seeds in exchange for labor. By getting merchandise on credit, mother was able to set up, after a while, a small store and father started a small retail lumber business. Eventually we raised a few cows and horses and were able to grow most of our food.
Proceeds from the 'commercial establishments' paid for clothes and other manufactured needs. There was also the need for education: high school for Fania and elementary school for me. The economy improved slowly and we were surviving. The social and intellectual needs were much more difficult to deal with, especially for the older kids.
"Molodeczno was primarily a community of peasants. The Jewish community was not intellectually enlightened. More promising human material was ultimately found among the Jewish soldiers in the military establishment. Some of them became good friends of the older sisters and Boria. Contrary to the way it was in Kremenczug, there was not to be any involvement in the political life of the country or the general community in Molodeczno.
By 1925, Viva went to the United States. Fania enrolled in a Bielorussian high school in Wilno. I was for a time tutored by a 'melamed' and then went to a Tarbut Hebrew School.
"Mania and Boria followed the example set by father and were somewhat involved in Zionist work. Our family was still very much a functionhing unit. Mania spent a lot of time trying to keep me on the straight and narrow, while Boria was protecting me from the brutality of the peasant kids. A modicum of cultural activity developed in the village. There was occasionally a play produced by the local talent. There were lectures on Zionist topics, and a library was organized. It is my recollectionh that Boria took a much more active role in the local activities, while Mania would quite often (budget permitting) go to Wilno to see a play or listen to a concert. After hervisits to the big ciety, she was usually in much better spirits for a time and - as far as I am concerned - easier to get along with.
"Sometime in the year 1926 or 1927, I became involved with the people in the Gymnasium. This was after a few unsuccessful attempts to pass the entrance examinations. It was obvious to the Jesuit educators that no Jew could be proficient in either Latin or Polish. Finally after spending one semester in a private but accredited school in Wilno where my grades were good, the management of Gymnasium 'Imenia Tomasza Zana' had no excuse. My involvement with my own family became less intimate. I was, I believe, seduced by the establishment to a degree which is not quite clear to me to this day. I became a 'Pole of the faith of Moses', a rather curious concept!
In 1931 I was admitted to the University of Wilno (Universitet Stefana Batorego), department of Chemistry. It was an inhteresting institution, founded in the 13th century as a place to educate the sons of the nobility. It was independent of the State. It had extra-terrtorial status: police were not permitted on campus-thus, a lot of lawlessness and pretty rough on minorities, especially Jews.
The curriculum was not changed much since 1250. I found that chemistry was really a fascinating study of alchemy. It did not last long. The antisemitic riots and constant violence, together with backward teaching caused me to abandon the university. One semester was enough.
In 1927, during Mania's wedding, I got acquainted with some of Fajwel's family and became rather friendly with Betty Polaczek and her friends, so that socially the time spent in Wilno was rather pleasant. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vilnius
By the end of the school year, my friend Chaim Mlot finished his military service and the two of us went to Grenoble, France to study engineering. The economic conditions in Poland in the early 30's were not good, which meant that the Jews in Poland were twice as badly off.
Father was selling a little lumber and taking on small construction jobs. Mother baked bread and sold some of it, and she had a marginal grocery store. With all this, they barely made a living. They were in no position to support me in France. I managed by doing odd jobs and with some help from Viva. By that time only my parents, Zina and her family, and Boria with his family were left in Molodeczno. They did not literally starve - we had enough land to grow vegetables, fruit and some meat. The general climate, however, got to be more and more depressing.
I came home for summer vacations several times and found the conditions deteriorating from year to year. We were all suspect. As soon as I crossed the Polish border, a secret police agent followed me. Even in Molodeczno, where theoretically everybody knew me, the surveillance continued. The Church was preaching hatred; the Government was establishing commercial and industrial "cooperatives". This eliminated the economic base of the Jewish merchant and small industrialist.
In 1938 I returned to Poland in order to apply for an entry visa to the US. The conditions for survival in France as a foreigner were very slim. At home I found myself a stranger. My parents were old and depressed. They felt that it was too late for them to abandon everything and move. It was not so much their age and the feeling of futility (father was 67 and mother 64). We hoped that after I got to the US I would be able to facilitate Boria's move out of Europe.
Alas, the time table was too short. Before I had a chance to find out where I was, the war started. I had a few desperate communications from home during the Soviet occupation of the area. It was too late. When Germans moved in I lost all contact.
My life in the US followed a fairly typical course. After a few difficult years of adjustment I went to graduate school in engineering, and eventually I succeeded in leading a more or less normal and tranquil life. "At this time, I am still doing some work in my field. Divi is teaching part time. Roger is in Baltimore (in a Residence Program in Psychiatry) and appears to like it. Tamar is in New York, where she is the managing editor of the National Law Journal - she appears to get along OK. "With God's help we hope to survive until such time as He decides to recall us".