Dovid Katz is professor of Yiddish language, literature and culture at Vilnius University in Lithuania. From 1997-1999 his column “Belarus Diary,” offering vignettes of Jewish life in a resurgent Eastern Europe, appeared regularly in the Forward. This week we are proud to welcome him back to our pages with the first installment of a series of new columns, “In the Old Country.”
VILNIUS, Lithuania — “You American Jews think we were all rabbis, Zionists and Bundists. Well have I got news for you!”
Shimke Gurvich, soon to be 89, is proud to hail from a long line of wagon drivers. “We had to be tough as iron rods to transport people and merchandise and make life work. The roads were full of bandits and thieves. If we didn’t have good underworld contacts, that would have been that. And there were not a few wild animals in the forests too! Got it?”
To tell the truth, this man is not the most popular person among today’s Jewish community here. He enjoys his air of defiant notoriety.
For one thing, he has a spontaneous vocabulary that has helped distinguish both Yiddish and Russian with vividness. For another, he is unabashedly bitter about the feeling of Western Jews toward the “Last of the Mohicans” here: “For four years I fought Hitler in the 16th Division of the Soviet Army, and was awarded three orders and six medals. Two brothers were killed, one on the front and one in Majdanek. But now, I have to suffer on the excuse for a pension from the government here, and the odd charity packages from the [expletive] American organizations.”
For the Yiddish folklorist, his vocabulary is an unending string of emanating pearls.
But there is one Yiddish word that makes even him cringe. It is, of course, the popular term for wagon driver, “balagóle,” a word that implies a certain uncouthness and is even used figuratively to brand someone a ruffian. Shimke explains that a wagoner who carried passengers as well as cargo was no balagóle, but a “furman,” or “coachman.” For centuries, his ancestors were coachmen in Svintsyán (now Svencionys), some 47 miles northeast of here.
Shimke says his father, Meishke the balagóle, was “lucky enough to avoid Hitler by dying before the war, in 1935, at the age of 55, when he ate one poisoned fish at a coachman’s inn in Podbrodz, between Svintsyán and Vilna.”
When his mother, Hoddel Blacher Gurvich, was about to be shipped from Svintsyán to the mass murder site in neighboring Svintsyánke (now Svencioneliai) — where 8,000 local Jews were butchered over a couple of days in 1941 — she hanged herself in the family home. She became a legend, albeit briefly, to the doomed thousands of the region.
“The Jews in the West,” Shimke persists, “don’t care a damn about us, and sink in their wealth while we cannot afford basic medicine on the state pension. Either they think we all went to the slaughterhouse like sheep, or if we are war veterans who fought with the Red Army, that we are some kind of communists who don’t deserve support. The worst is when people tell me to emigrate. Why the hell should I leave my home country? I don’t tell anyone else where to go and live. This is where I come from.”
But this tough fellow waxes soft, even nostalgic, when he stands by the drive-in archway of what was, before the war, Kuritzky’s Inn at No. 11-13 Kleyn Stefn gas (Little Stephan Street). One of the neighbors was “Orke der húnderter,” a well-known Jewish underworld figure, immortalized in the stories of master Yiddish author Abraham Karpinowitz (now of Tel Aviv). “I knew Orke well,” Shimke confirms with a loud, shrieking burst of laughter.
“Ah, Kuritzky’s aráynfor-hoyz!” he reminisces, using a Vilna expression literally meaning “ride-in house” — in other words, an inn with a private yard, where you just ride right in with your horse and wagon.
“I used to ride my wagon in through this arch almost every week. I brought mushrooms, meat and livestock to Vilna and returned to Svintsyán with a wagonload of shoes, paper, umbrellas and hardware. And here at Kuritzky’s there was always food, a good glass of 96-proof spirit, and some fine female company.”