|I have no information about any investigations of the everyday
business of Jewish traveling salesmen in the Baltic provinces of the 19th
century. Neither I can offer you texts of any Jewish fiction writer who
touched the life of Jews in the Baltic provinces of the Russia Empire. So
I have decided to approach the works of Latvian authors. They described
the life of Latvians, of course, and Jews did not usually appear in their
works. There are some exceptions - books that describe the childhood of
In this Page I wished to recount the childhood impressions of Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš from his book "Baltā grāmata", what means "The White book". The book belongs to the classics of Latvian children literature and is taught in schools. It relates a lot about life in Latvian farms, and, because the traveling salesmen participated in this life, they are also mentioned in the book. The time span is the middle of 1880s. The people described in the book seem to be real ones, and it is easy to decipher the real Jewish first names of the Jews described under the names they were called in the farms. J.Jaunsudrabiņš was also known as a painter, he himself draw pictures for this book, and 3 of them are published in this Page.
The book consists of 100 sketches written from the point of view of the main person Jancis. Jancis is the diminutive for Jānis and in fact is the author himself. Only 2 or 3 of the sketches are mainly devoted to traveling Jewish salesmen or craftsmen, but other information on them is scattered throughout the book. I would be happy to publish here the translations of relevant texts, but I am afraid it may look like a violation of the copyright, and, to tell the truth, I have not any translations in English and indeed do feel myself very far from being ready to translate Latvian classics in adequate English, especially this author, who possessed an excellent language embroidered with a lot of local words.
For better understanding of the point of view it ought to be added that Jancis was an orphan - when he was two years old, his father died. His mother was a farmhand and not the most desirable one in the labor market, because she had a small boy who could not be engaged in the farm work yet. Their small family had a cow, but it became sick and the mother sold it. Now they had serious food problems, and the author described how they both ate beggar's soup. The recipe for this meal is extremely simple. One should take a dish, pour there clear water and drop crumbs of bread into it. Of course, bread here means - black rye bread not of the best quality, may be Jancis even did not know at that moment that white wheat bread existed in the world. And now the meal is ready. One can take a spoon and eat the soup. Later the grandfather and grandmother helped them, but they could not do much. Hence Jancis was on the lowest step of the social ladder because of his poverty and age. No wonder he later described with much greater sympathy those who did not express their superiority or were not superior.
A glimpse in a farmhouse
|To begin with, I wished to quote a sentence from the sketch
which describes the oven in the great room of a farmhouse. It is said that
at one side of the oven "Jews slept for a night and, if they happened
to spend nights here during the winter festivity, stuck small candles on
the bricks while preying." In the original text it stands "ziemas
svētki" for the winter festivity. The spelling slightly
differs from Ziemassvētki that means Christmas
in Latvian. So it becomes clear that the festivity should be the Jewish
feast Hanukkah that frequently occurs in December and implies lighting of
candles. In any case, you may be absolutely sure that Jews never lit candles
to celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ.
Now an exercise for your imagination. It is a large room in a farmhouse. About 10-15 persons are present in this room doing some job, chattering or sitting on large beds. In a corner you see a very great oven for bread baking and near it a stove for cooking. Some women are preparing meals there for their families and for farm animals. The floor has no cover - it is just bare ground floor with rather large hills and valleys. The farm people in the day time poured water in some valleys and let their hens in the room, in order they could have a drink. Now the hens are in their place in the attic sleeping quietly. The room is dark, because the windows are small - it is lighted up only by the fire in the stove and by the splinter that the people have lighted. The water pools are blinking in this light.
A traveling Jew has found his place at the great oven on a sack filled with straw he has got from the farm people who kept it for the cases if somebody stayed for a night in the farm. He has arranged his parcel as a pillow but has no blanket to say nothing about a sheet. But it will not be cold at night, his overcoat will fit quite well for sleeping in the warmest place near the oven. The Jew is ready to prepare his meal on the surface of the stove using his own pan, but now he is fastening candles on the bricks of the oven to commemorate the miracles that occurred in the Temple 2000 years ago. No doubt, he is a bit late with his candles - he was to light them as soon as the first stars became visible, but winter days are rather cloudy and one could not be sure about the stars, and he could not lit them earlier, because he had just arrived at this farm.
|One of the sketches is devoted to Simkis - a
traveling Jewish merchant whose business was pottery trade.
A good skill is needed to make a pot or another pottery item, and, what is also important, not everywhere one can find clay good for pots. There were in Latgale several villages where almost each family was busy with pottery making. As for Simkis, he bought his pottery in Kaunas province (now Lithuania) and transported it to Kurzeme [Kurland] by horse.
|On the picture Simkis is seen while revising
his pottery load. He took out every item and checked whether it were cracked.
The checking was easy - he put the item on his palm and hit it slightly.
If it sounded like a bell, then no problems, but if the sound was hoarse,
he tried to sell the item to Jancis' granny. Do not think, please, she did
not know the secret how to check pottery items. She was interested in cracked
pots, because she had learned a not common skill to make cracked pottery
usable by skillful tying them up. So Simkis sold her the cracked items for
much smaller price, and both parts were happy. Unfortunately, some items
of the load were broken in separated parts. For this case nobody had any
cure, and Simkis became very upset and nearly crying threw the pieces out.
Jancis in his childhood was able to tell any folktale he had heard only once. And in the evenings he was frequently invited to recount them for the farm people. Simkis, if he stayed for a night in the farm, also listened with interest to the tales of Jancis and valued his talent very high. He even gave Jancis a small green dish, though Simkis was - as the author wrote - stingy like all Jews. Simkis himself knew only one nice fairy tale about a pussycat who overcame many obstacles and finally won. The author regretted he had forgotten later all the tales including the one of Simkis.
Once in springtime Simkis arrived at the farm with empty cart without any pottery. He was tearful and begged for some food like a Gypsy woman, because his wife had nothing to put in pan. What had happened to him? He had had a road accident. To understand the accident, you should know that carts had two relatively separate parts. The front part consisted both of shafts and of the pair of front wheels on an axis. The rear part consisted both of rear wheels and of the body of the cart where the pottery was loaded. The both parts were attached to each other by an iron bolt in a way that allowed to turn the front part relatively to the rear part if needed at a bend of the road. If even you have not understood the construction of the cart, it is not that important, the essential is that both parts of Simkis' cart went separated, the load of the pottery felt down and all items were broken except 5 pots. Simkis was rather optimistic, he thought that in the next autumn he would be able to go to Kaunas province to buy pots again and to sell them in Kurzeme as usual. It is not known how he planned to get the money for continuing of the business.
It did not happen anyway. He arrived at the farm next time in late autumn. It was windy raining day: rain mixed with snow. Simkis went along the road screwed against the wind. He went by foot. A bag was on his shoulder, but it was not a tradesman's parcel, it was a beggar's sack. Why you are going by foot, Simkis? - asked the farmpeople. Simkis cried, he could hardly say a word. Another misfortune occurred. His horse died. Just went along the road and felt down and that was the end. Simkis stripped its skin off and sold the meat to the forester for a rouble. He brought the skin home to Jacobstadt. The cart was left on the road - nobody wanted to buy it.
Let's think a bit about the life of Simkis' horse. Nothing definite is known about it. I can only tell you what my imagination proposes. To transport the cart full with pottery was a job not easy at all along the roads of that time. Pottery is very heavy. Of course, Simkis himself did not sit in the loaded cart. He stepped aside it all day along and frequently helped to push it uphill or over grooves. But there is no wonder that the horse worked out its resources faster than Simkis expected.
The farmpeople were touched by the story of Simkis. Everybody realized quite well what it meant to lose a horse. It was clear that now Simkis was finally ruined like it would be the case with many of the peasants. The farm-hostess offered lodging for the night without being asked, she also brought a piece of bread and poured a good amount of milk for him. After the meal the people sat near the oven, and Jancis' grandfather saying nothing handed his tobacco purse to Simkis. Simkis filled up his black worn out pipe and smoked.
Jancis told folktales with many miraculous conversions and thought it would be a good idea for Simkis to convert himself into another being, if a misfortune approached him. But he sat on a bench and looked small, quiet and bent. Then all the people asked Simkis to tell his only fairy tale. And he did. He told artistically, also expressing all the events by his jests and his face. Jancis thought it would be nice, if Simkis could overcome all his misfortunes like the pussycat from his only fairy tale.
No, Simkis did not overcome his obstacles. Next year another Jew began to sell pottery.
|Salted herring was the food that Jancis marveled
about for all his childhood. The farm people had not plenty of herrings
in their meals and, usually, when the adults ate herrings with boiled potatoes,
Jancis got only thin tales and never flesh or milt. And herrings caused
his first real temptation to crime.
By the way, it is easy to agree with him, because salted herrings are really tasty with boiled potatoes. My recommendation - be not afraid of cholesterol, add plenty of soar cream.
Herrings were supplied to the farm, where Jancis lived, by a Jewish salesman Abram Stiber. On the picture above you see his cart with a barrel full of herrings. Abram himself has just completed a barter deal with Jancis granny, and they have both entered the barn (you see the opened door), where Abram would have got either flour or groats as always.
Jancis approached the cart and climbed up to have a glance on the herrings. And then he felt he could steal one of them! Unfortunately, granny and Abram could come out, and then Jancis decided to ask Abram for one herring as a present. He thought that one herring could not ruin such a rich Jew like Abram, after all, he had almost half of barrel full with herrings! But when Abram and the granny both came out of the barn, Jancis somehow could not ask Abram for a herring. It happened that he just could not find a good moment to express his wish, you see.
But the herring dream once came to the reality. It happened when Jancis and his granny went to the village Sulainišķi in Kaunas province quite near to Kurzeme and paid an occasional visit also to Benceliene, who had her own shop there. Benceliene could be Latvian (or Lithuanian) variant for the family name Bencel or Benzel. She was Jewish like almost all of the inhabitants of this locality were. I think this place could be find in the modern maps on the Latvia/Lithuania border under the name of Suvainiškis.
As Benceliene and the granny were good friends (it was not explained how they got friends and when), both visitors were offered a seat and Benceliene produced two pieces of sugar, dropped a medicine on them and gave to the visitors. The granny said that this medicine would be too strong for the boy and asked Benceliene to give him a piece of herring, because he was very eager to herrings and should have been rather hungry after so long walk.
When Jancis heard this, at the same moment he recognized the smell of herrings in the cloud of smells in the shop. Benceliene threw the piece of sugar in her own mouth, went to a barrel and got out a great herring. A whole herring, imagine you! Never before Jancis had a whole herring in his hands. Benceliene also offered a piece of bread, but Jancis thought it was not needed.
The description of the eating of the herring is omitted here, in spite of the fact it could serve as an example for a description of an extreme happiness.
|It was a really great event for Jancis when Elijs,
a tailor, came to their farm. He arrived in the time, when the people began
to consume spring onions, and worked for two or three weeks. He had a small
parcel on his back with a small sewing machine there, a thick measuring
bar in one hand and a smoothing-iron in the second hand. His son Nostis
was about ten years old and traveled with him. Nostis also had a small parcel
on his back, and Jancis thought it was given to make him to look like a
real Jew should look.
Jancis would be glad to make friends with Nostis, but the latter had just started to travel with his father and could not speak Latvian yet. He just laughed, when asked about something, and his big lips went up and down.
No problems of this kind with Elijs. He always answered kindly all possible questions, and Jancis sometimes even forgot that Elijs was a Jew. Jancis understood much later that in reality he was bothering the working adult, but Elijs himself never showed any irritation, even when he was working with a heavy hot smoothing-iron or was busy with his prayers. His face, that was always kind, looked like lighted up by his white beard and by mustaches yellowed by snuff consuming.
Elijs had plenty of work. First he sewed all necessary for farmhosts, then for male farmworkers, then for women and children. He sewed also for Jancis the first pants in Jancis' life, that made him feel like an adult, because children ran around in long shirts without pants underneath.
The working day of Elijs began quite early. He had small break at breakfast time, when he woke up Notkis, which was not an easy task at all, because Notkis was a good sleeper. Then Notkis began to prepare the breakfast for both of them. Jews prepared their meals in the farms using their own utensils and food products for Kashrut reasons, you know. While Notkis was busy at the oven, Elijs continued working, but, when the breakfast was over, Notkis was forced to sit in front of his father all the day along and to observe how he worked. This was his apprenticeship. When the farmpeople said it would be better for the boy to run out and get a bit of fresh air, Elijs answered that Notkis' job would be sewing and he should already become accustomed to it now.
|On the picture you see Elijs and Notkis, who are
working, and Jancis, who have just got from Elijs an empty spool of thread
and now is rolling it over the table for fun. At the wall a provisory bed
is seen that was set up specially for the tailor, I think.
The life of Elijs in the farm was not cloudless at all. The problems were created by a son of the farmhost, Jānis by the name also. He was a teenager - much older than Jancis; the interests of both boys were quite different and therefore their relationships were not very close.
|And, of course, it was of some importance that one of them
was an orphaned son of a farmhand, and the other one was a son of the farmhost.
Jānis, the son of the farmhost, used to grab the beard of Elijs and to question him what the God Elijs believed to is or to insist that Elijs declared Jesus Christ as the Son of the God. Elijs could not, and they sometimes discussed these problems for rather long time. By the way, the author adds that this was the attitude to Jews that happened not so rare. Not specifically the grabbing of the beard, but in general. Unfortunately, the religious contradictions were not the only problem.
Once farmhost's Jānis made stilts and began to walk on them. For unknown reasons he approached from outside the window where Elijs worked at and lost his balance. As the result, the glass of the window was broken. Now Jānis had full chance for a really good flogging by his father. Elijs take the guilt on himself. He said that, while working with the measuring-bar, he quite occasionally broke the glass; and if the farmhost insisted, Elijs could have paid 20 kopecks for the glass. Jancis hoped that now, when Elijs saved Jānis from punishment, his attitude to Elijs would change, but it was not the case. By the way, 20 kopecks was comparable with a day earnings of Elijs, I think.
One of Elijs' tasks was to sew a fur-coat for Jānis from farmhost's sheepskins. For this project the sheepskins had to be clipped in some places. Farmhost's Jānis took scissors and tried to do the job without asking permission to anybody and spoiled the skins - he cut holes somewhere. The farmhostess (Jānis' mother) a bit later discovered the holes and, thinking that was Elijs' work, began to rail at him and accused of taking the job he is not able to do. Elijs said nothing, he just looked at Jānis, who felt that something should be said. And he pronounced "That old brute has already lost his skills completelyl". Elijs turned pale, took his smoothing-iron and went to get some coals for it. He did not argue, said nothing and all that day along could not speak to anybody.
Next year another tailor came to the farm, who "was not a pagan Jew but a Latvian". Jancis described him also, but with considerably less sympathy than Elijs.
I do not think you will ever visit Nereta once Nerft. But may be it will happen. May be you will come across Kišķu cemetery where the tomb of J.Jaunsudrabiņš is situated now. I am sure some flowers should be put on the tomb, but you may add yours. Just to honor all the people the author has made immortal. It is not important the flowers were expensive, but their number should be even, that is a tradition.
Text © Bruno Martuzāns. 1995-2002