My late Uncle Carl (who I wrote of earlier regarding his work with the blind) was born in a small town in Latvia in 1906. When I was younger, I asked him to write what he remembered of his early years, before his arrival to America in 1913. When I was a child, asking such questions, the overall mentality was that the old country was best forgotten; that it is better to focus on the present and strive to fulfill the American Dream. As I grew up, that attitude was in the process of transforming into one of nostalgia coupled with the fact that even the elders of our family were already fully American. There is nothing un-American about learning of one’s heritage and researching one’s genealogy. I do not claim that my uncle’s recollections contain any Earth-shattering historical revelations or even that there is anything unique in them – but they are the only such recollections preserved from anyone in my family. So here they are:
What gave rise to the revolution? The oppression by the czar and his officers. The injustice, the poverty and the lack of sympathetic understanding of the needs of the common people. When people could not get relief from the government, they got some relief by talking about their problems. This was forbidden by the government so the people met in little groups, in secret.
I remember when I was about 4 years old hearing such discussions among my elders in a group at our house, one night. I remember dusty streets and wooden, unpainted houses clustered together. I remember that a pail of water had to be bought with a coupon from a central pump in the city. I remember a park with a bandstand. There was a fence around the park and railroad tracks on the other side of the fence. We all gathered along the fence when that wonderful thing, the hissing, whistling train came by each day. I remember a man with several rings of bagels around his neck outside the park. We bought one for a penny when we could get a penny from mother.
This was a village or town called “Dvinsk” in Latvia. One of the first countries taken by the Soviets. Dvinsk was on the Dvina River. There was an army barracks nearby.
With mother in Dvinsk before we went to Libau to board the ship for Liverpool, England and then on to New York and then finally to Detroit were brother Yitzchak (5) and brother Yosele (4) and myself, Kasriel (7) KAGON – COHEN – KAHAN CARL.
Our Hebrew Heritage
I remember being taken to a small Synagogue when a youngster holding my grandfather by the hand, or nestling close to his large tallis as he sang (chanted) his prayers. Later, about five years of age I remember sitting in a classroom learning Hebrew – the Alphabet, the stories of the holidays and why they were chosen and what they represented. My teacher was my maternal grandfather. He was also the sexton (assistant rabbi) of the Synagogue.
In Winter with snow on the ground, I remember walking at night to the classroom in the Synagogue holding a candle lantern, glass, 4 sided lit the snow as I walked along.
A visit one Summer to a DACHE – a little resort out into the country outside of Dvinsk where there were cottages rented out during the Summer – was very important to my future (as I see it now).
The country was very interesting, with marshes, and canals, and many kinds of plants & trees and flowers.
It so enthralled me and satisfied me that many years later when I was faced, after high school graduation and one year in college, to make up my mind as to a career for the future, I turned to the profession of agriculture.
Anti Semites in the Shtetl
As a child there was little contact with the gentiles. In fact, we were protected from it for safety reasons.
The adults also had just a minimum of contact. Usually when buying the necessary food or services. Here they would not have feared contact so much except that there was a constant feeling of self consciousness and a feeling of a sense of oppression.
I wanted to point out that the Jews of Dvinsk would have been aware of the horrifying pogroms that were taking place elsewhere in the Pale of Jewish settlement in Eastern Europe. So, even though my uncle did not experience any persecution himself, it is certainly understandable that there would have been an atmosphere of foreboding; those were turbulent times. His recollections fit in very well with other accounts of that era:
In Dvinsk, there were no pogroms; but in 1904, in response to the brutal pogroms in Kishinev, Bialystok, and several other cities, (“these pogroms hung like a pall of doom above the heads of the people of Dvinsk and elsewhere”) a mass demonstration, its participants singing a funeral march for the victims of the pogroms, was attacked by police and soldiers as it reached the Old Park. Strikes were now forbidden; meetings were forbidden, initiating a period of raids, arrests, assassinations, spies and counterspies. Many Dvinsk Jews began to emigrate to the United States.
That account goes on to relate how the years 1906-1911 were even more tense. It makes me wonder how long the relative tranquility we currently enjoy in America will last. The forces of evil are doing everything in their power to bring civil unrest here too. It is anybody’s guess how this will unfold but, if the events of the early 20th century Russian Empire are any indication, it will not lead to a better world.