By B. Cassel
From 1935 until his death in 1941, Boruch Chaim Cassel served as editor of The Keidaner, the monthly bulletin of the Keidaner Association of New York. Besides announcing meetings and recording the happy and sad events in the lives of the association’s members, the small publication often carried stories about the immigrants’ old home town in Lithuania. In his last years, B. Cassel used this space to publish short pieces about his memories of growing up in Keidan. This one was published in three parts, in the bulletins of August, September and October, 1940. It was translated from the Yiddish by A. Cassel.
Under any circumstances, youth is the happiest time of life. Even in poverty and hardship, in an oppressed country without freedom, under a government of persecution, where civil rights are subject to the whims of the lowest government official – even under such conditions, youth is the brightest period, beaming out from the past and illuminating the present.
The time of my youth was not, relatively speaking, among Tsarist Russia’s darkest days. On the contrary, Jews in Keidan, as in all of Russia, then lived more or less calmly, routinely – one day so like the next that it was a major event when a new governor was chosen in Kovno, and he would come to visit Keidan. The town would go into a tizzy, preparing for his visit several weeks in advance, and for weeks thereafter people would talk about how he received the town’s leaders and what he said to them.
Or when the commander of the Fifth Battery, Colonel Lentz, shot himself, and the town was filled with speculation about why he did it. Each one was quite certain he knew the cause, even how much money, to the kopeck, was missing from the battery’s strong box.
Or else they found somebody drowned in the Neviazhe, and they’d have to perform an autopsy with a whole crowd, mainly us young people, standing on the opposite riverbank making sure everything was done properly.
These kinds of things were the big events that would from time to time – although very seldom – shake up the calm pace of life for the population of Keidan.
And as I compare the awful conditions that the Jews live under now in Keidan with the period of my childhood, as my mind drifts back to those times and I try to mentally relive those years, my past becomes so bright for me, and my recollection so sweet, that I am happy while again reliving my dear childhood years.
A Saturday night in Tamuz [June-July]. After a hot day, the evening has cooled things off a little, and with the new moon in a clear sky, the whole city is outdoors. The bridge is packed with strollers, mostly young people. Girls go with girls, and boys with boys. They walk in pairs, in groups of three, four or more in a row, usually of the same age. The line of boys follows after a line of girls, making jokes at their expense, but the girls give as good as they get, laughing and throwing wisecracks of their own back in the boys’ direction.
Here and there, by the bridge railings, young people stand, tossing jokes at the lines of passers-by, and drawing laughs from the girls and boys. It is happy on the bridge. Now and again an earnest group of men goes by, absorbed in a profound discussion of politics or current affairs. But the dominant element is the young people, who seem carefree, engrossed in the enjoyment of strolling on the bridge and bantering with each other in the contemporary street-language of Keidaner youth.
That summer we boys devoted ourselves to a new kind of sport – “shooting fuses,” and launching rockets with fireworks. Fuses were little L-shaped tubes, filled with gunpowder, which were used by the artillery cannoneers to ignite the powder-chambers in their cannons during shooting practice. Into the longer end of the L was stuck a twisted wire, looped out into a little ear. The short end of the fuse stuck in the cannon. As the ear was pulled, the wire inside the tube would strike and ignite the powder. The powder exploded and the cannon shot off.
You could stick a fuse into any kind of a hole, pull the wire, explode the powder and make a bang like a cannon shot. We had a lot of fun shooting off fuses: with a string tied around the ear of the wire, we would stick the fuse into a crack in a door or the wheel of a wagon, and, standing off to the side several feet away, pull the string, and the fuse would shoot off, frightening whoever was by the door or in the wagon.
We would use our “shooters” on all sorts of occasions. Even on Purim, when they read the megillah, we would “shoot” Haman. But the best trick was to “mine” the bridge and frighten the girls on their strolls. We did this by sticking a fuse into a crack in the bridge railing on the side facing the water, with a string tied to the little ear. The end of the string was held by a “shooter,” standing some 20 feet from the fuse. By the fuse stood a boy, who would signal the shooter when the strolling girls, whom we wanted to scare, came near the place where the fuse was stuck in. At the signal, the shooter would tug on the string and the fuse would shoot off. The girls would scream in fright, giving us a lot of pleasure.
“Fireworks and rockets” was a more expensive game than “fuses.” People used to buy them from Moishe Merkel, the court contractor for Count Totleben. But mainly the material was procured by Yosse Brauer’s son Menashke. Soldiers used to come to Yosse Brauer’s tavern, among them some cannoneers, who could easily obtain fuses, and who would sell them to Menashke for a bottle of beer or a glass of schnapps. The only son of his mother Tsesne – a widow, who ran the tavern by herself – Menashke always got his way. She would often plead with him, “Why don’t you give me any respect?” But he’d get what he wanted. And so he would constantly have a whole arsenal of fuses, and enough money to buy fireworks.
On that Saturday night, Menashke brought a lot of rockets and fireworks. After we had shot off a whole batch of fuses we got down to the fireworks. Nobody knew from police permits in those days in Keidan. On such a beautiful evening, not only was the bridge full of strollers; the streets, the marketplace, all outdoors was crowded. Everyone marveled at the spangled fireworks, and especially the rockets that we would shoot into the air, where they would split apart in a shower of colorful sparks.
The handle of a rocket had to be fastened very firmly to the railing of the bridge, so that when the flint of the rocket was fired, the rocket would burst while flying straight up high, not off to the side. The tighter the handle was tied, the higher the rocket would fly. After a number of smaller rockets, we began to fire off the bigger ones, which drew excited shouts from the crowd. Everything was going fine, and our young hearts were filled with joy at our success.
But the biggest rocket, which we had expected to produce the prettiest fountain of colored sparks, was either not properly tied down, or else it exploded off-center. Right after it tore off from the railing, instead of shooting straight up, it veered off and headed toward the market square.
In the market, coach wagons were standing harnessed and ready to be driven to Kovno. A big crowd of passengers and their companions were around the wagons, all busy saying goodbye and loading their packages. Suddenly a burning, fire-sparking, booming rocket tore over the crowd and flew into Yosse Bere Pachter’s grocery, exploding with a bang near a barrel of kerosene.
Startled by the flashing shower of sparks, the horses took off running, with the wagons, across the market. The frightened wagon drivers could scarcely restrain them. The people in the stores, who typically came together Saturday nights to talk politics and worldly affairs, and the crowd in the market, all ran frantically to Yosse Bere Pachter’s store to see what sort of disaster the rocket had caused. From Nachman Heikel’s store, where the elite and the intelligentsia customarily gathered, everyone ran out, frightened and upset.
The market was in an uproar, and people began to mutter angry words about the young brats, who wanted “to send the town up in flames.” Only moments before, it seemed, they had been marveling with delight at our fireworks, and we were swelling with pride; now, in the blink of an eye, they wanted to tear us to pieces. So it is with all the world’s great; only a small step from glory to scorn.
Within a few minutes, our friends had brought us word of our situation; people had gone to the police station and ordered the local officer to arrest us. Menashke and I – the evening’s big heroes – wasted no time: We quickly disappeared from the bridge. After a short conference near Frantskevitch’s tavern in Shole Mule’s alley, where it was always dark, we decided that the best place to hide was in the cellar at my house.
A few minutes later we were there, but before we entered the cellar, which had a little wooden trap door padlocked beneath the entrance to the house, we arranged for one of our friends to lock us in, so it would look like no one was there. He would bring us reports from time to time about what was happening in the town.
The cellar was where we stored provisions like potatoes, turnips, beets and carrots, but it was always empty in the summer months. There was only a little pile of old potatoes in the corner, which filled the cellar with a stuffy, stale dirt smell. We sat in the dark – because we were afraid if we lit a candle it would be seen through the little cellar window – quiet as mice on the dusty earthen floor, and, whispering, shared our guesses about what would become of us.
Every minute was an eternity, and we imagined the most horrible things happening if we were found. Very often one of our friends would come to the small window and report what was doing in the street: The whole world was out looking for us. Motke the Constable was running around like a poisoned man, a few of our friends had already been taken away to the guard house, but none of the group had said where we were, although they knew.
Later reports contradicted the earlier ones. Tzesne, Menashke’s mother, was going around like a mad person, wondering what had befallen her only child – but the fellows had told her nothing.
So the night dragged on, full of upsetting and contradictory news – truly like in a world war. Eventually, however, the reports calmed down, and around 12 o’clock we crept out of the cellar and went home to sleep.
The next day we discovered it was all a big nothing. No one had been arrested at all. The crowd had calmed down right away, since the rocket hadn’t caused a fire, and they’d forgotten all about us.
However, we shot no more fireworks from the bridge that summer.