I was born after the first world war, in 1923. At that time a
large part of the Deckelbaum family was already overseas in Canada.
Our home town was subject constantly to soldiers of different
armies, going back and forth, and ruining the houses. The houses
were made of wood with straw covering. They were very susceptible
to fire and they were constantly being destroyed and being rebuilt.
I grew up in my grandfather's house, which was the standard situation
in small towns. When children were married, for many years they
lived in the same house. Houses were built to be able to contain
some of the children and this is how I remember the house of my
grandfather which was my home.
In the back of this house we had large areas of gardens which
during the years I worked with my grandfather mainly, and with
my mother. We planted vegetables, which were sufficient to last
us a whole year. We grew cucumbers and onions, and all the vegetables
that were growing in our district, especially pumpkins. Tremendous
large pumpkins. They would last the whole winter - we put them
on top of the house. The good ones were cooked and eaten by us,
and the ones that were not ripe, that were not so good, were food
for the cow that supplied our milk, and very little butter for
us. The garden contained places that were not cultivated. Four
of those places were a remainder of ruins of prior developments.
And I was told that these were the houses of the Deckelbaums
from the other branch of the family that used to live there.
We used to live in a cluster, all the Deckelbaums. Beside the
house that we lived in, there was a shed, a stable which had our
cow. The cow supplied us milk, and once a year with a calf.
The balance of our sustenance was by the children of my grandfather,
which was my uncles that sent money from Canada
The house that I grew up in consisted of two halves. One, I and
my sister and my mother occupied, and the second one my grandfather
and my grandmother occupied. It seems like one of the rooms that
we had, the entrance went out on the main street and sometime,
which I don't remember, was kind of a little store, but it wasn't
during my time and it was kept as storage for sacks of flour for
the winter and things of this nature. The floor was an earthen
floor, which means the house was built on ground, and clay was
molded on top of the floor, and there was no flooring on it.
Which means that you had always to walk with shoes, including
the winter. When you got out from the bed in winter you couldn't
step on the floor but you had at once to get into stockings and
shoes and then step down. The house was heated by a brick fireplace
with a chimney that went outside and wood was burning, and it
we used to buy from farmers a supply of wood for the winter which
was kept in the shed. During the hours when it was open and working
it was nice and warm in the kitchen. There was an oven built
in a very ingenious manner from bricks. I know because once it
was demolished and we built a new one and there were layers of
bricks, and then layers of bottles of glass, and then again layers
of bricks. It was enclosed with a chimney. There was a wooden
cover. On Friday the food was prepared, cooked, put in the oven,
a cover was put on it, and a clay was dissolved in water and it
was enclosed all around with clay, there was no opening at all,
and the next day was Shabbes it was opened up. Everything was
very nice and brown. The clay was taken off with a knife.
There was no water in the house. You had to go and get water
from a neighbor who was more prosperous and they had their own
well. The well was an opening which went down- you lowered a
pail and you pulled it up. You pulled it up with a rope. In the
winter water used to get spilled, and after a while it was all
encased with this ice and it was very hard to manage to get up.
Of course, sanitary things didn't exist. There was an outhouse
out far from the house which you used. And the problem always
was in the winter. So, life was hard. Just preparing the food
and everything else was hard work. There was a mikvah in the
town. Beside the mikvah was a Finnish style of sauna which supplied
the main hygienic way of keeping clean. But in the house there
was a basin, and you had to warm up large pots with water and
you had to use it as you can see in the movies of the wild west.
There are some things that I know only from stories because during
my time they didn't exist. But living with my grandfather, I
knew the continuation of this family here. We lived on the shores
of the River Styr, which was one of the many tributaries to a
large river - the Bug. On all these rivers there were built dams
which dammed the water and supplied the power for mills that used
to mill the grain of the farmers for a percentage. Most of the
mills were owned by Jews.
My grandfather owned a mill of this nature and therefore he had
a large amount of peasants who used to know him during the time
when he was the owner of the mill and looked after it. Now at
some time, which I don't remember, this river was started to be
navigated. Therefore, they had to demolish all the dams and take
off all the mills. That was the reason my grandfather didn't
have a mill anymore. During my youth, the river had regular boats
for transportation. They had boats that transported goods from
the two ends of the river -- from Lutsk to Pinsk. There were
also passenger boats that transported a hundred to two hundred
Rafalovka was on the River Styr. The houses in Rafalovka didn't
have any central supply of water. During the summer, in the morning,
I used to run down the bank of the river in order to take a bath,
to wash myself. The town was located between the banks of the
river and a hill -- that was a strategic location of the town.
The army that had the hill could control all the district. As
I said before, during my time the mill was not there anymore.
A few times during the year, there used to be an annual fair
in our town. The farmers would bring their produce to sale and
buy the goods that they needed, like farm implements and everything
else. The farmers from the places where the mill was located,
which wasn't immediately in the home town, used to come in throngs
to my grandfather to greet him, to discuss things with him, to
discuss their problems. There is at least one case that I remember
that I would like to mention. I was a little boy. My grandfather
used to receive them in his room in the same house. But I was
outside, sometimes listening in, and there was this peasant woman
who came in, and she told him some story and she cried. And somehow
I was curious about it, and my grandfather told me that she was
telling him that he husband doesn't love her no more. How does
she know? Its already two weeks and he didn't beat her up yet.
For a religious town, there are some aspects of the peoples' lives
that might sound strange. But it wasn't in the religious terms
that we understand, where there is purer Judaism. It was mixed
with a lot of surrounding cultures and with some superstitions
of things that they wanted to cultivate. I am mentioning this
only because my grandfather was supposed to know of these superstitions.
All the town people, Jews and non-Jews, had a cow to support
them with their needs for milk. These cows used to be taken out
to pasture by a pasture boy in the morning and they used to be
brought in the evening back to the home town. Sometimes a cow
used to wander away and wasn't brought home to town. Being surrounded
by woods there were wolves, wild and vicious ones that preyed
on cows and even on people. In my memory there were at least
half a dozen people that were mauled and killed by wolves. In
a case of this nature, people used to come to my grandfather.
My grandfather was supposed to know an intonation. He used to
draw a circle, and that used to prevent the cow from being approached
by the wolves. And my grandfather promised me that before he
was going to pass away, he's going to pass along to me the intonation.
Life and Living
I remember when I was a young boy, some of the Shabbes afternoons,
and that was when I was very very young, because at that time
my grandmother still lived - Zlota Rosia. There were some Saturday
afternoons after synagogue, and after people ate, but before
that there used to come into our house a Jewish woman. She used
to sit down across the table from my grandfather, and they used
to sit and talk for periods of time. Now, I always noticed that
my grandmother used to make herself scarce. She was never sitting
at the table at that particular time. I can't recall exactly
how often this happened. But it must have been often enough to
be imprinted in the mind of a child as something which isn't ordinary,
something which is different. This lady was married first to
a man named Zalman - who died, as most of the old people in our
town, at the very nice ripe old age of 103.
There were no hospitals in Rafalovka. There were no doctors.
There were no dentists. If you got sick, you just would die.
And this is why my grandmother suffered all her ages. She died
young, comparatively speaking. She was in her sixties.. But
this was young by the standards of Rafalovka. The great mortality
was children. So early on the weakest ones were eliminated.
Then the next ones were the youngsters, the teenagers. The moment
you made it there, you were good for the 80s. 90s, 100s, and over.
There was a family, I couldn't tell you how she was related,
but I'm positive she was related.. She used to come to our weddings,
when there was a wedding of close people or something, and dance
the "Chelah" dance - where they hold the handkerchief
- and she died when she was 113 years old. In the Deckelbaums,
all of them lived into their nineties and over. And a lot of
other townspeople as well.
The strong specimens lived. Maybe it was the combination of
tension and of country air and maybe healthy food - I don't know
if this had any influence, or if it had only to do with heredity.
But, except for my grandmother, that I remember, old people didn't
die of sickness, old people just died. They used to go until
the very last day. In one particular case I remember, the old
man's legs gave out. This didn't prevent him from going to visit
the farmers in the town located five kilometers away - the only
problem is that it took him the whole day to get there. He had
to sleep over and only the next day to come back. But nobody
was bed-ridden or anything of that nature. You just worked, you
just were active until the very last day.
When I was talking about Rafalovka I tried to give a better definition
of the physical perimeter of the place and how it fits in with
the surrounding territory. Being a part of Russia, there were
restrictions on the Jews, which you are familiar with, called
the Pale -- plus restrictions on the occupation of Jews. Also
there was serfdom, and during the Czar Alexander II (if I am not
mistaken), in the 1860s, the serfdom was abolished. Some restrictions
on Jews at the same time were also lightened. So where Jews were
not allowed to own land before that, when serfdom was abolished
and land was given to peasants, land was also assigned to Jews,
but it was assigned as a community. This means that a piece of
land was given and Jews could own this land in a communal nature
and build their houses and everything else in this piece of land.
Subsequently, this piece of land was divided into individual
ownership, and into parts with which communities deal, like the
cemetery, the places of worship. But it was one piece of land.
In most cases, it was given to where Jews used to live and this
was mainly central. So in Rafalovka, the piece of land that was
Jewish was located in the center of the town, and except for the
80 - 90 Jewish families that lived in there, there were also 300
or 400 gentile - in this case Ukrainian families -- that lived
all around the Jewish center. It was an open ghetto. And only
in the middle of the 1930s, the Polish government got around to
delineating on a map exactly, the exact borders. I remember that
I went with all the other for weeks on end following after the
surveyors that were looking at old maps and were trying to delineate
the perimeter of the Jewish settlement -- which was the border
between the Jewish house and the Ukrainian house next to it, and
including the few pieces of land that were outside - which were
the two Jewish cemeteries, the old one and the new one. Within
this piece of land inside were located two Jewish synagogues and
private houses. The town was larger than just the Jewish population
- it wasn't just the Jewish population.
The form of the Jewish communal life was the form prevalent in
all of Europe and in some countries it still exists up now. The
Jewish community was a kehilla. The head of the kehilla
was elected by all the members. During my time it didn't exist.
But prior to that, at the beginning of the century and prior
to that, there was a taxation form that was paid to the kehilla
and that was used for the expenses of the Jewish community. The
Jewish kehilla was considered for legal purposes as a legal entity
that governed Jewish life. This included all family life -- marriages,
deaths -- the kehilla was the registrar of the Jewish community
- not the individual rabbis - it used to keep the family records
which used to be transmitted to the central recording office of
the state. The congregations were run on the basis as they are
run here - voluntary self-taxation.
There were poor people and there were rich people, comparatively
speaking to what is poor and what is rich. Unfortunately, our
grandfather wasn't the best business man as is demonstrated by
the following story. During the Czars when my grandfather had
the mill , he was a prosperous person. The money that was circulated
at that time took two forms, the paper form, which was rubles
in paper, and the second form was a gold form, there was rubles
in gold, just like we have paper and coin form right now. During
the upheaval of the revolution and subsequent period, money depreciated
greatly. People that had some experience or foresight had all
their funds in gold coins which were called "chervontzes"
Our grandfather unfortunately found it too cumbersome or otherwise
and he had it in paper money. Until the last day that I went
from home town my grandfather used to open up a large trunk with
steel railings - the trunks that you send things overseas. And
it was all packed with hundreds and thousands of paper rubles
that could have just as well as been "chervontzes",
which would have been a million of money by the standards of the
time. And unfortunately, or fortunately, he believed that maybe
someday its still going to be worth something. Like lots of people
in this country right now have bonds, issued by the Czars, and
they believe that its going to be redeemed and they are even being
traded on the exchange - 10 cents on the dollar, 8 cents on the
dollar, when the relationship with the Russians were good I think
it went up to even 20 cents on the dollar.
I was deprived but I didn't know about it. Comparatively speaking,
I was poorer off than some, but I was better off than others.
Lets say, in our scheme of things, we were the lower middle class.
But all it was, thanks not to anything of our doing, but it was
because of the support mostly that we got from the family in Canada.
In our town, like I mentioned, were two synagogues which held
two rabbis, and the names of the followers come from the towns
where they lived. So there was no Rabbi that lived in Rafalovka
but the Rabbis used to come and visit all the followers. Instead
of going to them like in the big houses, the Rabbinical houses,
the Rabbi used to come and visit followers. I remember visits
of both Rabbis, the Liubisheier
and the Stepanier
in the 1930s the Stepanier Rabbi moved out to the United States
and left his Chassidim stranded. During their visits the whole
part of the town that followed the Rabbi used to go out in mass.
People used to come, there was lots of singing and dancing,.
The Rabbi used to spend about a week in town. During that time,
the Chassidim used to bring their donations to him, they used
to celebrate the melaveh malka
(the fourth meal of the Sabbath, a
festive meal on Saturday night with songs, drink, and dancing), which is a very very
great occasion. There was a nosh table at which everybody feasted.
The Rabbi used to throw shiraim
(leftovers). As a matter of
fact, I even went to greet the Rabbi one Shabbes and I shook his
little finger. And then one year we escorted the Rabbi back out
of town and he never came back after that. And I believe that
is when the Chassidim of the United States brought him over.
The Stepanier shul was located not far from the church, which
by the way was right outside the Jewish place. And there was
at some stage a part of Jewish population that lived behind the
church. Surprisingly, there were two pieces of land that belonged
to the Deckelbaums that were located in that area and we never
could acclaim to it. We never cultivated it. I believe it was
just public property. There was an old synagogue that was destroyed
before my time. Weddings were performed at the place where the
old synagogue stood -- not in the two synagogues -- weddings
in general were performed under the open sky, and this is the
style of the Ashkenazi. The procession used to go past the church
and it used to go towards that place. But it seems that sometime
later the Liubisheier shul was built right across our house.
And after that I remember attending the Liubisheier synagogue
with my grandfather. So I don't know if it changed Rabbis, or
if it was just a question of convenience that it was right across.
I remember mostly the connection with the Liubisheier synagogue.