In Prison

Dr. Aharon Pick


The front page of “HaOlam” from September 1935.

This recollection by Keidan native Dr. Aharon Pick, of his time as a poor yeshiva student in Kovno, was published in 1935 in HaOlam, the official Hebrew weekly organ of the World Zionist Organization. Edited by Nahum Sokolow, the journal was published from 1907 to 1950. Pick’s memoir was serialized in three parts, running in the editions of Sept. 26, Oct. 3 and Oct. 10, 1935. (Vol. XXIII, Nos. 35-38). When this was published, Pick was a department head in the municipal hospital of Šiauliai and a respected leader of that city’s Jewish community. He also led the city’s mainstream Zionist organization. Most of his extensive writing, including medical research papers, newspaper articles on public health and fiction, has been lost. However, his diary from the war years, written in the Šiauliai ghetto during the German occupation, was preserved and is in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. An English translation is forthcoming.

Translated by Gabriel Laufer, Charlottesville, Va., 2021


Dr. Aharon Pick (right), his wife Devorah and son Tedik.

Almost 40 years have passed, yet the memories are as fresh as yesterday. There were many changes in my life over this period: Leaving the beit midrash 1 for the “forbidden” world of secular study; the exams in the Russian gymnasium that sucked the life out of a youth who aspired to formal education; moving from a rural Lithuanian town to one of the largest urban centers of Western Europe; being a poor student in a city that tempts and entices with its vigor, luring and seducing at every turn; evolving from a medic in the beit midrash — after adventures too many to recount — to a doctor in the south of France, and so on. All this, along with complex and colorful memories of wars and revolutions and other important events in the lives of the nations, and our nation in particular, which took place in our lifetimes and are almost without precedent. Yet they did not blur or overshadow the modest memories of my youth, which remain deeply engraved in my mind.

Yes, this too happened some 40 years ago. I moved from “Reb Hirshel’s yeshiva”2 in the new kloyz 3 to the “independent study” yeshiva in the old Slobodka beit midrash. At Reb Hirschel’s yeshiva my position was secure, and I was in the “upper class.” I did very well on the initial reading test, administered by the rabbi. He was so pleased when I understood his hint regarding a religious question, that a few days after I arrived, the rabbi brought two pupils from the lower class and asked me to prepare them daily for study. Coincidentally, these pupils happened to be from two towns whose names both end in “gola,”4 Vandžiogala and Girtgola. That is how I entered the teaching profession, which later brought me a lot of grief. Each of those pupils paid me tuition of 30 kopeks a month, and in addition the one from Vandžiogala brought a large block of cheese from his parents’ home. The income was timely, because 60 kopeks was exactly the rent for the room I shared with another yeshiva student from my town. This room had one significant deficiency, however: Its door faced a large woodshed that, during Sukkot, served as a sukkah 5 after its roof was removed. The wall on the other side abutted a large furnace. The heat coming through that wall served as a barrier against the cold that penetrated through the woodshed, so that cold and heat were mixed together, an excellent way to develop a runny nose. The room also had one significant advantage, in that its window faced the yard. This helped the “waker,” a retired artisan who received two kopeks and a free Torah lesson each month in exchange for waking up the yeshiva students Wednesdays and Fridays at 4 or 5 am. He did not need to bother the other inhabitants of the house; he would simply knock on our window. During the spring and summer he would open the shutter, which we did not lock from the inside, and wait until we put on our pants. Poor man! We often cheated him by taking off our pants and going back to sleep after he left.

My friendship with “Sisuly” helped a lot to reinforce my secure position in the yeshiva. He was a permanent yeshiva student. A strong guy, he came and went often from the rabbi’s house, occasionally chopping wood for the rebetzin’s 6 stove, caring for her children and running various errands. This Sisuly knew all the back alleys of Slobodka, and the addresses of the good women who supported poor yeshiva students. He knew which of the women would prepare lunches of kasha soup with potatoes and goose fat and whole-wheat bread for a few needy students. This was top-secret information, revealed only to students with special privileges, because the need usually exceeded the availability. Thanks to my friendship with Sisuly, I was among the fortunate few who enjoyed the generosity of some gravely ill person’s relatives, or benefitted on the occasion of a great celebration.7 With his unique talent, Sisuly would “smell” when something like this had happened, and would notify his loyal friends. He was particularly careful about who he told, for good reason. On one occasion, a good woman was distributing bread and herring to a large number of students. We learned about it as usual from Sisuly. Needy students lined up to receive their portion, first come, first served. Suddenly, one of the women distributing the food angrily attacked a student whom she recognized by his clothing as one who had already received his portion and was returning for seconds. Because of this great sin, students were denied this benefit for a very long time.

Sisuly had another important job: collecting fees when psalms were chanted for the benefit of a gravely ill person or a woman in childbirth, or when someone was willing to pay five or even ten kopeks for a mitzvah such as filling out a minyan.8 The yeshiva students used to call this “yankho” because the psalms often started with the verse “ya’anekha hashem b’yom tsarah.”9 The “yankho’s” were not rare in the life of the yeshiva and played a significant role in the budgets of Sisuly’s friends, myself among them. He generally liked me for my nice voice, among other things. Now and then he would let me — after much pleading, of course — take a puff or two on his cigarette. Only when he owed me a kopek or two would he not let me smoke, worrying that I might consider it interest on the loan. I warned him several times that I would stop lending him money if he didn’t let me smoke his cigarette, but that was merely posturing. I continued to lend him money, and he continued denying me puffs as interest payments, and it all ended well because I needed his friendship.

But these arrangements still left me needing sustenance on two additional weekdays plus Shabbat.

My main support came from packages my mother sent with the horse-drawn carriages that traveled from my hometown to Kaunas three or four times a week. Sending packages became significantly easier when the carriage driver, Reb Dovid, who lived next to my sister’s store, began to compete with other drivers who for years had monopolized the deliveries between Kovno 10 and my birth city. At first Reb Dovid transported passengers to and from the railroad station and back. But when competition on that route became unbearable, he gave it up. In particular he was unable to compete against the drivers of the “Zavirukha” family, whose numerous members were so aggressive that one of them became almost internationally famous. This is how it happened. The famous Stolypin,11 who was the leading aristocrat of the Kovno area, rose to prominence and was appointed the prime minister by Nikolai II, came at the start of the summer vacation at his estate, which was three kilometers outside my home town of Keidan.12 Officials and leading citizens came to greet the great minister at the station, since they considered him a fellow townsman. And he, in turn, treated the citizens with humble consideration and familiarity. Among the welcoming party he saw members of this driver’s family, whom he knew quite well. As if to justify his fame in Keidan, where Zavirukha was actually thought a fool, this national sage turned to him, saying “Hello Zavirukha, how are you doing? Are you still smuggling goods across the border?” Caught by surprise, Zavirukha the driver replied immediately, in a military style, “Yes, Your Majesty, indeed, yes.” The driver was later convicted for his confession, and transferred from Keidan to another town. But his short dialogue with the prime minister spawned jokes and cartoons in European and even American newspapers.

But let us return to our discussion. The driver Reb Dovid, after abandoning the station route, got himself a large cart and covered it with a fabric that served as a roof for the passengers, protecting them from rain and other weather calamities, and started traveling to Kovno. At first it did not go well. On his first trip to Kovno, when he stopped at the Keidan inn, several other drivers attacked him, aiming to teach him a lesson. But Reb Dovid was not timid or weak, and when the older drivers saw that they would not succeed by force, they decided to behave like Jewish gentlemen, and brought their case to the famous Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan.13 Trying to mediate between the sides, Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan came up with a compromise: He suggested that the older drivers should travel three times per week, and the new one twice each week. To that, Reb Dovid replied, “Rabbi, if I travel only twice a week, what will I do with my horse the other three days? Will I put him in a rabbinic chair?” Everyone present burst out laughing, including the rabbi, and Reb Dovid was embarrassed.

Reb Dovid’s answer, which became famous in Kovno and Keidan, amused his opponents and helped lead to a compromise. And so our neighbor Reb Dovid became a regular wagon driver from Keidan to Kovno and back. And I received a weekly package from my mother filled with goodies: Buckwheat cakes, sugar, perfectly laundered shirts and wool socks, and often some money. I was very happy returning from the inn to Slobodka with a little bag on my back. In short, while a student in Reb Hirschel’s yeshiva my existence was comfortable, and even on days when I did not have my side income I enjoyed a plentiful bounty. I could usually afford a bowl of soup, and on occasion a cooked goose wing. These were roasted in the little pub near the new kloyz, where workers came after the morning prayer service, with their tallit14  and tefillin15 bags under their arms, to bless a shot of brandy and dine on an omelet or a goose wing. At times when my fortune was limited, I would satisfy myself with a bowl of porridge at Reb Avraham’s soup kitchen, where sometimes one could find among the pearls of his porridge a red strand of meat, probably as a reminder that eating dairy was forbidden for the next six hours.16 These dishes, combined with my mother’s bread, tasted like heaven.

But on one occasion my joy was diminished, because my mama’s cakes were forbidden to me. Initially, before I could rent a place for myself, I slept on a bench in the kloyz. I kept my [food] supply inside the storage area of the bench. One morning, after my prayers, I took a cake out of my bag, which was under the bench on which I slept. One of the orthodox guys who also slept there commented that food stored under a sleeping bench was impure. For a short moment I was confused and helpless. But after taking a second look at my mother’s beautiful cakes, I decided these golden cakes, covered with flour, made by the hands of my beloved mother, could not possibly be impure. I decided not to pay attention to this guy. I was not wrong!

I mention this sin of mine today to show that I had already been bitten by the bug of criticism and inquiry into matters of faith. Indeed, I was already then a completely devoted “maskil.”17 In my hometown I had already studied, with the help of my first teachers, my brother and brother-in-law, Russian grammar and arithmetic, including problem solving. I had already read “external” books in Hebrew and easy Russian. My “enlightenment” reached such a high level that one of my friends and I dared to purchase a copy of Malinin’s Algebra and studied it secretly in the beit midrash, keeping the book under the stand, without an instructor. That was well before I entered the yeshiva. My desire for learning was however suppressed by a poor Litvak melamed.18 He decided that my enlightenment had gone far enough, and that I had better concentrate on studying Talmud — in his opinion the only subject with a real purpose. And so I became a student in the Slobodka yeshiva, one who was inwardly very different from his external appearance, forced at times to conceal his real interests. For example, when I had to read the book “Messilat Yesharim19 daily between afternoon and evening prayers, I studied it outwardly like the other students, but in fact I was paying more attention to various aspects of its style, and pondering the phrase, “A man is free in his imagination but bound by his intellect.” I also skipped my studies, as I will explain below. I would wrap my face as if I had a toothache, certain that the naïve Rabbi Hirschel would not suspect his good student of deception, and would not make me read out a lesson that I had not had time to prepare. The yeshiva director at that time (the father of the late author Y. L. Leizerovich), was very accommodating to students and would not suspect them. I felt uneasy about deceiving the rabbi, whom I greatly respected. But I had no choice: I could not resist temptation, as readers will see below.

At that time, near what is now the military museum, there was a small strip of stores, known as the “Green Market.” Among them was one with a particularly strong attraction. It sold used items, and its owner was a relative of my mother. An officeholder or ordinary person who died, or moved, or went bankrupt, could sell their possessions there. Thus the merchandise included various strange items, furniture, clothes, arms, work tools whose purpose was often mysterious, and books! They displayed whatever they had purchased inside the store or on the sidewalk, with one exception. Occasionally they would stumble upon a bound set of magazines, which they considered a great find, and would bring them home to read. I went there often, usually on Wednesdays to pick up my package, and if the weather was good, I would dig into the old books, maybe even borrow a Russian book that I liked, and sometimes received a sheaf of damaged blank paper on which I could “pour the emotions of my heart.” Then my relatives would announce, ceremoniously and joyfully, that I should come over on Saturday to see new “Niva” (the name of an illustrated Russian magazine). The name “Niva” became a catchall term for all illustrated magazines: “The Illustrated Perspective,” “The Homeland,” “Around the World,” etc. We called them all “Niva,” which was indeed the leading illustrated magazine in the Russian language. My relative the shop owner was my source for all news and knowledge about the wide world. His wife and their three sons were also blessed with exceptional wisdom. On Saturday, after their afternoon nap, they would put the “Niva” on the table. I would be in the center with family members around me, and, sipping tea, we would page through the volume, fascinated by the illustrations. I would read a caption and they would add their interpretations, taking advantage of my knowledge while listening joyfully and attentively. For example, one cover illustration showed an old man bent on his walking stick, his face expressing helplessness, heading towards the infinite, followed by a day-old baby, its face fat and round like the new moon. The man of the house would dismiss this with a wave of his hand: “We know, we know, the old year is going out and the new one is coming. Next!” So on to the second illustration, showing a peasant riding his winter cart and below it a verse of Pushkin’s: “Winter! The countryman, enchanted, breaks a new passage with his sleigh,” etc.20 “Oh, that’s nothing,” my relative exclaims, and we continue. In the third illustration, the explorer “Miklukho-Maklay”21 is building himself a tent in the Tahitian islands.” “Oh, that’s interesting,” my little group of listeners declares. Then would come a series of questions: “Who is he? Who is Miklukho-Maklay in this panel? How old is he? Is he married or single? Where are the Tahitian islands? What is he doing there?” And all the members of the household would need to know all that is to be known about Miklukho-Maklay the explorer. We would then analyze these illustrations until it was time for afternoon prayers. We would walk to the nearby Hausman kloyz,22 and from there I would continue to Slobodka.

But one sin would lead to another! Avoiding my studies, even on Shabbat, and getting interested in meaningless things, like pretty illustrations of Miklukho-Maklay’s tent or the “White General’s” beloved horse brought trouble that injured me over time. One day we finished the “Niva” early, probably because there were only few pages left from the previous Saturday. It was a clear and bright winter day, so we decided to take a short walk on the main street, the one called “Freedom Boulevard” today.23 We did not feel comfortable. A family of used-goods merchants and a yeshiva student, none of them dressed properly, among a vast crowd of celebrating people! So we detoured towards the Neman. After we strolled a bit, the sound of music drew my attention. My relative said this was an army band playing for ice skaters on the frozen river, and there was no point in watching these gentiles or Shabbat-desecrating Jews. But I pleaded with my relatives to go and see the ice rink. When we got there I was stunned. The ice rink captured my heart! I had never in my life seen such beauty: A large circle of ice, shining like a mirror, surrounded by a wall and fir trees. The sinners were demonstrating their skills by sliding over the ice in special shoes. What a difference between their skaters and “ours.” In cheder,24 between afternoon and evening prayers, we also used to skate, clandestinely, secretly, fearing punishment from the rabbi and from our parents. We would skate in a remote corner of some yard or beside the street.

But here, what beauty! How vast! And with the army band playing so well, all these cheerful and lively songs. And all ours to watch from behind the fence, for free, not even a penny! As a musician and son of a musician (my father was a well-known “prayer leader” in my home city) I never missed any event where there was music. If there was a wedding I would accompany the bride and the groom to their canopy in the synagogue yard. When a cantor sang in the synagogue, I would listen, mesmerized, absorbing his tunes, uninterested in playing with my friends outside. Clearly, with all the attractions here, I could not resist temptation, and began to neglect my holy studies at least twice a week — on Wednesdays when I received my mother’s package, and on Saturdays, when I would go down to the ice rink to enjoy the music, wrapping my face as if my teeth ached.

And the temptations kept coming! At some point I heard an important piece of news: Zionists were meeting on Friday nights at the home of a Slobodka maskil, holding discussions and lectures about Zion and Jerusalem. Not long after my Bar Mitzvah in my home town, Yisrael Isser Einhorn25 (the author of “The Theory of Agriculture” and other works) who was then a young “Lover of Zion”26 asked me to come on Yom Kippur eve to the “Over-the-Water” prayer house27 and stand in the lobby holding a bowl labeled “For the settlement of Eretz Israel.” I did that two years in a row, until I moved to Slobodka. So I had the right to consider myself a Zionist, and felt obliged to join the group there. They received me well, because they were eager to spread the ideas of Zionism into the yeshivas.

In short, the Almighty has many messengers: All may lead to thoughts of sin and away from Torah study, and many grabbed me by the throat. Haskalah, Zionism, secular and foreign books, the desire to write, the enjoyment of secular music. Still, none of that harmed me while I was at Reb Hirschel’s yeshiva. I was always in the yeshiva until lunchtime, and in the evenings I tutored my students, and I only skipped studies occasionally for the reasons mentioned. And nobody cared what I did when I was not in the yeshiva; that’s how it was at Reb Hirschel’s. But the independent-study yeshiva was a different matter. Here Reb Neta Hirsch, the supervisor, was in charge. He was particularly skilled at identifying students who were not fully committed and who were infected by the Haskalah. It is quite possible that in the last years of his life, he, too had to accept the new norms of that time, but 40 years ago he kept a close on those students he suspected, despised them and punished them severely. And he had the power to do so. In this yeshiva there was no open “schnoring” such as with Sisuly’s tricks. The guys who merited it lived in a mansion, the generous gift of a devout old German bachelor — the famous Lachman. The house had a kitchen in which some dined a few days of the week and some every day. All was determined by Neta Hirsch, who, along with his own natural instincts, kept tabs on all the students with the help of his many assistants. In short, after I came under Neta Hirsch’s wing, my fortunes turned completely. Sisuly disappeared from view; the ”yankhos” became a distant memory, and to top it off, my cousin left his wife and moved to America, ending our Saturday meetings. So I turned to Reb Neta Hirsch, asking him to let me eat in the above-mentioned house. I asked meekly, and with trembling heart, feeling it was all in vain, particularly since among the older boys, who were clearly geniuses, I, the young one, could not really stand out in my knowledge or my dedication, which was compromised for the reasons I mentioned. I also feared that the supervisor had already divined my true nature, and knew I was stuffed like a pomegranate with sins. And indeed, my fear was justified. Reb Neta did not answer with a yes or no: He just shrugged, and so the matter was settled permanently.

Students who, for whatever reason, could not enjoy the meals in the Lachman house, and could not find a table in Slobodka, went to services every Friday night in the old synagogue in Kovno. There the resourceful usher would find people among the congregants willing to invite a yeshiva student for Shabbat. If any students were left, he would go over to the religious judges’ kloyz nearby, where he usually found places for the rest.

Walking alone after Shabbat supper across the frozen Viliya River28 and then along the deserted left bank toward Slobodka was scary and dull. So students who finished their dinner early used to wait near the old synagogue until four or five of us had gathered, and then walk as a group to Slobodka. An incident occurred one Friday night: A student from Riga, whom we called “Riga man” and about whom I still have no other information, met me at our regular place by the old synagogue. We sat down behind the furnace to warm up, began to talk and after a while were fully immersed in sinful gossip. We spoke about how Reb Neta Hirsch took generous care of his favorites, many of them hypocrites and flatterers. We talked about the yeshiva’s various characters, such as the rich guy from Moscow who had left his family and now studied Torah literally day and night; the young former gang leader who repented and now studied here; the cobbler who gave up his shop and now worked as the yeshiva’s “waker”; Nissan the “master of mussar,29 who lost his mind and now sits by the door and, chants, with a mournful tune, the opening words of the “Messilat Yesharim,30 and so on. We were so engrossed in conversation that we did not notice when the door suddenly opened and, as if from nowhere, a police officer, as big as an oak, appeared before us, accompanied by two other policemen! “Who are you?” He asked in a booming voice, observing how we shrank with fear. “We are yeshiva students,” we answered. “Show me your identity papers,” he demanded. “We have identification papers,” I replied, answering for both of us, “but we left them in our apartment in Slobodka, because we are forbidden to carry them on Shabbat.” “We’ll see if you are telling the truth,” he said and we all started walking from the synagogue towards the fishermen’s church nearby. Meanwhile, a visibly trembling Riga Man whispered to me that he had no documents at all. There was a little alley between the synagogue and the church. The police, who did not consider us dangerous criminals, entered the church and left us outside. I don’t know where I gathered the courage, but I immediately told him, “Run, friend!” and the Riga Man ran like a deer down the alley and disappeared, while I entered the church as if nothing had happened.

When the officer noticed that I was alone, and that my friend had disappeared he started to question and threaten me. I answered only that I had no idea who the guy was: I had met him by chance only once. As I learned later, the police were looking for a Jewish soldier who had deserted, and were searching all places of worship. Of course they did not find him in the synagogue, so they were returning to the First District station with a young prisoner, about 16 years old. At the station they left me in the corridor with a policeman who started to tease me, offering a piece of soap, saying it was pork; telling me he had a dog named “Rabin” who had died recently; and making similarly tasteless jokes. I knew enough Russian to keep my cool and not get embarrassed, particularly since my identification card was indeed in my room. So when they finally brought me before the captain to be interrogated, I replied calmly. I remember that one of my answers made him laugh. When he asked what I was doing, I replied with an air of self-importance: “I am a Talmudist.” When he was finally convinced that I indeed had identification and that I lived in Slobodka, he ordered a cop to accompany me to the Third District station, in Slobodka. That station was on Vilkomir Road, while the First District was near “Honor Square,” so it was a long walk, and when we reached the station it was getting late. There we found only the night chief, a tall and fearsome officer whose long black beard made him look like “Ilya Murometz” or “Solovey the Robber.”31 The chief glanced at me, looked at the paper that my escort had given him and summoned one of his underlings, telling him, since it was already late, to put me in a cell. In the morning, he said, we would see how things settled out. I had thought they would send me to Slobodka with another policeman to show my identity papers. When I heard I would have to spend the night in jail, I became depressed and confused. Fortunately, the young policeman was kind and talkative. Apparently he had scored a great victory in some “intimate matters,” as he confided to me. As we left the station he consoled me, saying I would only be in jail until they found my papers, and that nothing bad would happen there. He quickly returned to his favorite topic, saying he was quite fond of Jewish girls, especially one particular grocery clerk, adding that these young ladies liked him too because he was kind, honest, etc. We walked and chatted like two old friends until we reached a street that today is called “Lukšio,” where the jail was. And we had barely gone a few steps on that street when I saw an incredible sight. Coming toward us was the yeshiva’s shtadlan,32 Feive, and with him, a scared little boy holding a slip of paper in his trembling hands. To my delight I saw immediately that this was my identification card, appearing miraculously on the sidewalk by the jail just in time to set me free. But no miracle occurred here. As he fled on the ice, Riga Man had screamed “Help! Gevald!” thinking he was being pursued, and was too scared to look back. When he reached the yeshiva he raised a ruckus about the “disaster” that had befallen me. He rushed to the Yeshiva’s shtadlan, who spoke Russian, and who went to my room and found the identification card under my pillow. The problem was, how to carry it to Kovno on the holy Shabbat. So the great sages decided they would find a young boy, not yet a Bar Mitzvah — and therefore not punishable — to carry this cargo on Shabbat. This was particularly justified since it represented the “redemption of the captive.”33 And so they did, and as was mentioned, met me with the policeman.

Of course there was no end to my joy, I immediately asked the policeman to escort me back to the station to show my paper to the chief, and thus end my tribulations. But my joy lasted only a moment. The policeman insisted he had to follow orders and take me to the jail. The threat of imprisonment and the chance at immediate freedom led me to argue especially forcefully. Feive helped as well: We both said that since we had the identity paper there was no need, and no logical reason to take me to jail. I used the officer’s own words, reminding him that he had said he was honest. I even offered to give him a nice gift after Shabbat. He finally gave in and returned with us to the station. There we received a wonderful reception! We had barely entered when the chief jumped as if struck by a snake, stunned that an underling had dared to defy him. With angry yells he threw us out of the office. The officer quickly dropped the identity card on the desk, grabbed me by my neck and pulled me out, yelling, “Because of you, stinking Jew, I will be punished.” Nevertheless, after I promised not to run away, he let go of my neck. And so we kept going, quietly, to the jail near the back of the power station.

My notion of prison in those days came from the Bible. Joseph and the chief cupbearer and chief baker were thrown into the dungeon.34 Jeremiah was thrown into the dungeon.35 So I imagined the jail as terrible dungeon, with people locked up in irons. To my astonishment, after the guard had very noisily removed the large lock and the bar from the black prison door, we entered an ordinary room illuminated by a kerosene lamp. There was a woman in the room, whose face showed no sadness: Just the opposite. She was embroidering, and kidding the policemen about their walking styles. They opened another door and took me to the men’s section. That room did in fact remind me of a dungeon, because its two windows were just below the ceiling and were barred. This room was illuminated by the same kerosene lamp that lit the women’s section, from a shared space above the partition between the two. There was no furniture in the room besides a long wooden shelf. In a recess under the window was the famous “night pot” that Dostoyevsky described in detail in “House of the Dead.”36 There were three prisoners in the room, two young and one old. The latter was probably intoxicated, and was lying quietly at the end of the wooden shelf — the police had likely picked him up off the street. One of the young guys, who was kind and very hospitable after learning the reason for my imprisonment, showed me how to set up my “bed” with my coat and other clothing; then we all lay down. The other young man asked me to tell him a pleasant story, because the previous day there had been another Jew here who told them wonderful tales. While I realized that this was not so terrible, and even though my new friends promised I would go free tomorrow, still I was very disturbed, and could not concentrate enough to calmly tell a story. Seeing my hesitation, the young man said, “All right. If you cannot, I will tell one.” And he started telling a tale about an orphaned beauty whom a prince wanted for himself, and how a witch turned her into a sparrow by a road where the prince was supposed to pass. And the girl wanted him, and started chirping…” And then suddenly I felt an unkind shove in my side, and woke up! Oh youth! What would I give for it again? Now, as I am turning old, the slightest worry, the slightest embarrassment would keep sleep from my eyes. But then, despite the great excitement, I feel asleep in the middle of the story, and slept until morning!

When I rose from my bed, I was given the honor of being asked to carry out the night pot, together with the young prisoner, holding two sticks that passed through the pot’s ears. After a short while, another policeman came and escorted me back to the Third District station. There I was seated on a bench behind a large cabinet and asked to wait until the officer arrived. But this official was not quick to arrive, and every minute felt like an hour. After eons the officer arrived — a young man dressed in a new uniform that indicated its owner’s desire to impress. First he told his secretary about his adventures the previous day at the ice rink. Then he inspected my identity card and me. But all remained as before, the card on the desk and me on the bench. When I heard about the ice rink my heart beat hard, partly because I too used to go there, although I stayed outside the fence, and also because I was getting hungry. I started showing my impatience by telling the officer sitting next to me how hungry I was. But he replied that I would have “plenty of time to eat the Jewish kugel.” That’s how I sat, hungry and thirsty, until 2 or 3 pm — I don’t remember precisely — when I was finally given my freedom.

There was one additional unpleasant incident, which I will always remember. When the chief had returned and summoned me to approach him, and then sent me back to my place by waving his hand, as I turned around a clerk opened another door. Being already nearsighted and confused, I assumed the door had been opened for me to go out. When I tried to walk through the door, suddenly a fist struck my head. “Where are you going, Jew?” someone yelled. I raised my head and realized I was walking into their record room. The officer probably felt guilty for being so harsh with a docile, weak man who had made a laughable error, and that is probably that what gained my freedom. “Blessed is he who has released me from the Russian authorities.”37 And how pleasant was the air of freedom.

I wondered often afterward why I had been held for an entire day without food or water. I could not find a reason until a friend explained to me that lower-ranking policemen were rewarded with a per-diem for prisoners kept at least 24 hours. It might be true.

And in this way I had the opportunity to experience a Russian prison.


Footnotes

  1. Literally “study house,” a building or space used for religious teaching and worship.
  2. The Ohr Chayim yeshiva in Slobodka was popularly known as “R. Hirschel’s yeshiva” after its leader, Rabbi Zvi-Hirsch Levitan.
  3. Alternative term for a synagogue or shul.
  4. A play on the Hebrew word “golah” meaning “exile.”
  5. A temporary structure with a partially open roof, erected annually during the autumn festival of Sukkot.
  6. The rabbi’s wife.
  7. Charitable donations marking major life events, including illnesses, are common in traditional Orthodox communities.
  8. A group of ten adult males, the required minimum for holding a prayer service.
  9. “May the Lord answer you in times of trouble,” the beginning of Psalm 20. “Yankho” reflects the Ashkenazic pronounciation of the first Hebrew word.
  10. Kaunas, in those years the provincial capital of the imperial Russian guberniya of the same name.
  11. Pyotr A. Stolypin, prime minister of Russia 1906-1911. His estate was near Keidan.
  12. For unknown reasons, Pick chose not to completely show the name of his hometown, Keidan (today known as Kėdainiai). The HaOlam text renders it as K____n.
  13. Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor, 1817-1896, leading rabbi of Kovno.
  14. Prayer shawls
  15. Phylacteries, strapped on to the head and right arm during prayer.
  16. Kosher laws forbid eating dairy and meat together.
  17. A follower of the “Haskalah” or Jewish Enlightenment, which encouraged rational criticism of religion as well as the study of secular subjects.
  18. A teacher of elementary Jewish texts to young boys. Here it likely refers to Pick’s father, who made a meager living in that profession.
  19. “The Path of the Just,” a book of ethical instruction, written by the 18th-century rabbi Moshe Hayyim ‎Luzzatto, and published in Amsterdam in 1738.
  20. From “Eugene Onegin” Ch. 5, Section 2: (“Зима!.. Крестьянин, торжествуя, На дровнях обновляет путь…”)
  21. Nikolay Miklukho-Maklay (1846-1888), Russian ethnographer who studied populations of South-East Asia, Australia and Oceania
  22. A synagogue built in 1865 by the merchant Moshe Hausman, located on what is today Mairono St. in Kaunas. It was destroyed after World War II. (“Synagogues in Lithuania” p. 204)
  23. Laisvės Alėja, a main pedestrian thoroughfare in today’s Kaunas.
  24. A traditional Jewish boys’ elementary school.
  25. Joseph Isser Einhorn, 1866-1925. Educated in a Vilna yeshiva, studied agriculture in France and helped found a French Zionist newspaper. In Warsaw from 1912. Works include “HaAdam” on anatomy and physiology; “Baalei HaChaim” on zoology; “Torat Avodat HaAdama.” Translated Thomas Carlyle’s “On Heroes” to Hebrew. (From Yahadut Lita, reprinted in the Keidan Memorial Book, 1977.)
  26. The “Love of Zion” (“Hibbat Tsion”) movement, founded in the 1880s, was a forerunner of the modern Zionist movement. One of its leaders was Moshe Leib Lilienblum, whose family were neighbors of Aharon Pick’s family in Keidan.
  27. One of seven synagogues in Keidan, it stood across the Nevėžis (Neviazhe) River from the main part of town.
  28. Today called the Neris, one of two rivers at whose confluence the city of Kaunas (Kovno) sits.
  29. The study and discipline of ethics and morality within Jewish tradition. The mussar movement dominated many yeshivas, particularly in late-19th century Lithuania.
  30. The book begins: “The foundation of piety and the root of perfect service to God is for a man to clarify and realize as truth his obligation in his world…”(Sefaria.org translation)
  31. Figures in a legendary Slavonic folk poem that was collected and published in Russia in the 1840s. An animated film version, “Ilya and the Robber,” was released in 2007.
  32. Someone who lobbies on behalf of traditional Jewish communities or institutions with outside, non-Jewish authorities.
  33. A religious duty, outlined in the Talmud, to help free fellow Jews from captivity.
  34. Genesis 39 and 40
  35. Jeremiah 38:6
  36. Dostoevsky’s semi-autobiographical novel of life in a Siberian prison, published in the early 1860s, sometimes translated as “Notes from a Dead House.”
  37. A play on a traditional blessing, said when one has been released from a burden or from confinement.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.