BELARUS Page 17OSHMENE, Belarus — Only once in the 12 years that I’ve conducted these little expeditions to Eastern Europe have I come across a three-generation Jewish family that lives under one roof in a shtetl. Not that they’re all talking to each other, mind you — as Ecclesiastes once remarked, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Except, perhaps, if you count the tale of the son-in-law who turned down a philanthropist’s offer of a new refrigerator and asked for a cow instead.
But I get ahead of myself.
The shtetl is Oshmene — pronounced OSH-meh-neh — now called Ashmiány or Ashmianá depending on whom you believe. The name is in dispute within Belorussian culture, but that is another story.
Before the war, there were almost 3,000 Jews here, about half the population. Now, in a population of some 13,000, there are 10, half of whom live in this poor wooden house.
The grandmother, Beilke (Bella) Lipkovich, 85, is a sprightly and pious woman who hails from a long line of rabbis in nearby Kreve. She survived the war in a string of ghettos, and was rescued by the Red Army at the very end, on one of the “death marches” to Germany. She is still trying to find a son who went missing then.
Beilke’s daughter is Raya, 56, a retired shop assistant. Raya is married to Tevke, 59, who works in a milk factory, and is known to the few Jews in the region as “Tevke der mílkhiker” — Tevke the Milkman, a true-blue Litvak counterpart to Sholom Aleichem’s Ukrainian-Jewish Tevye, popularized in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Their children are Marina, 27, a bookkeeper at the town’s Soviet-style “Plastic Masses Plant,” and Dina, 19, a nursing student who dreams of becoming a model before taking to nursing.
There are tensions, to be sure. When Marina was at the airport in Minsk several years ago, on her way to a year in Israel, her father came and snatched her back from the tarmac. He explains: “No organization is going to break up Tevke Shatzman’s family! Do you understand?”
The religious grandmother warns Dina against such professions as modeling, and is somewhat critical of her choice of outfits. Still, Dina feels very close to her grandmother, from whom she has learned Yiddish. “I love her more than anything in the world,” she says.
And, son-in-law Tevke and mother-in-law Beilke barely speak to each other. Beilke says: “All this guy ever did is make two kids, big deal, anyone could have done that.” Tevke’s retort is not reproducible in this newspaper.
Oshmene is on the main Vilnius-Minsk highway, and it has been possible to revisit the family with relative frequency.
Today, an American couple, Edward and Phyllis Chait of New York, have come to see Oshmene. They are determined to show this family some generosity.
Edward’s first offer is a gift of cash. Tevke the Milkman is proud. He says: “No way.”
Edward looks around the house and tries to figure out what is missing.
“A washing machine!” We all head out to the one establishment in town where you can buy such things. A deal is almost clinched. At the last minute, the salesperson asks for confirmation that the house has good indoor plumbing. It has none. That’s the end of that.
Finally, Tevke mutters that if the family only had a cow — they have a big yard — it would provide milk, butter and cheese, and he would not have to buy these staples in the government milk factory where he works. Edward loves the idea, and insists that the deal be done today.
Tevke gets on the phone to one and to another. A good cow costs $300. Edward, a retired American banker in his 70s who speaks fine Yiddish, is thrilled. “We’re going to get that cow here today!” Everyone seems to be talking about di behéyme (the cow).
As we’re about to go and look over the prospective purchase, however, Tevke has second thoughts. “I forgot how expensive it would be to feed and take care of it. Ten years ago, my charming mother-in-law would have looked after it, but now she just can’t.”
Finally, Tevke comes up with a proposal that serves his family’s needs while preserving his honor. “Look,” he says, “in a few years, I will retire from the milk factory. I’ll have plenty of time on my hands, and can look after the cow myself. Can you come back with the $300 in a few years’ time and buy us the cow?”
“It’s a deal,” Edward replies, a little exasperated that he cannot immediately help these people in Oshmene, where his wife’s family, the Soloveitchiks, had lived for generations right up to the war.
As we re-cross the heavily armed border from quaint, socialist Belarus into the Western milieu of today’s Lithuania — in effect the new East-West border in Europe — Edward muses, “It must be bashért [preordained] that we have to live and be well. Now we have to come back here to see these people again. Alright!”