But what kind of name is this Alter?

Subcarpathian village. Photo by Margaret Bourke-White, 1938

Although Ivan Olbracht (1882-1952) was born in Northern Bohemia, he was the most significant writer of Subcarpathia between the two world wars. Between 1931 and 1936 he lived in these mountains, in the partly Rusyn, partly Jewish village of Volové Polje, from where he regularly informed his journal Literární noviny about this little-known and romantically imagined easternmost corner of the newly created Czechoslovakia. He wrote with great love about the Rusyn, Jewish, Hungarian, German people of this poor, multinational region, and he criticized the Czech state for treating this province almost as a colony. He wrote both of his main works about this region: Nikola Šuhaj loupežník (Nikola Shuhai, Highwayman, 1933) about the Rusyns and their Robin Hood-like legendary highwaymen, and Golet v údoli (“Galuth” [“this-worldly exile”] in the valley, 1937) about the local Hassidic Jewish peasant villages. The following short text is from the latter book.

Técsői (Tečiv) Band: Rusyn dance from Volové Polje. From the CD I was beaten… (2004).
One of the last traditional Gypsy bands in the Subcarpathian Hutsul Rusyn region, who still play the Rusyn, Hungarian, Romanian and Jewish repertoire of the surrounding villages. Dumneazu often plays with them.

Subcarpathian Jewish school. Photos by Margaret Bourke-White, 1938

“My landlord is called Alter Abraham Hershkovitsh, but anyone looking for him inquires after Alter, because everyone knows him by this name. And Alter is a very nice name.

In the life of religious Hassidic Jews there occur… not so rarely… yes, there occur some tragic moments when they consider permissible to cheat the Eternal One. For example, the wife of Hershkovitsh in Kelecsény loses some newborn children in a row. Then the Lord consoles her with a boy, and the parents give the boy the name Samuel. But the little Sami soon falls ill, and no herb tea helps, no prayers help, and the heart of the mother gets filled with desperate fear that Sami would follow his little brothers. The mother thus goes to visit the rabbi, and puts her hands together, taking care not to knit her fingers because then they would give out the sign of the cross.

– Rabbi, do a miracle!

Subcarpathian Jewish boys studiyng. Czech postcard, pre-1938

The rabbi begins to stroke his beard from bottom upwards. He is thinking.

– You have already lost three children? And this is now a boy?… Yes, then it is permitted.

And the rabbi does a miracle. He performs a ceremony on the child in the synagogue. He takes away his name, which is the same as if he took away his soul. And he gives him a different name, and this is as if he gave him a new soul. The boy is not called Samuel any more, but Abraham. Soon afterwards time is filled, and the Lord calls the angel of death:

– The time of the child Samuel, the son of Chaim Hershkovitsh has filled. Go and bring him to me!

“Future rabbis”. Subcarpathian Czech postcard, pre-1938

The angel of death thus flies on his light wings to Kelecsény, directly to the Hershkovitsh’s… Samuel Hershkovitsh?… Where is a Samuel Hershkovitsh?… There is no Samuel Hershkovitsh here at all!… He flies all over the village. He does not find any Samuel Hershkovitsh. He returns to the Lord:

– My Lord, in Kelecsény there is no child called Samuel Hershkovitsh. Maybe an error fell in your books.

Adonai smiles affably. He is cheered up by the wisdom of the mother’s heart and of His people. And down there the mother is sitting with the little Abraham and singing a lullaby to him:

– Sleep, my child, sleep, my little son, dulinka… dulu-lu.

And she is shaking with a silent laughter, or maybe weeping. And the child who was saved in this miraculous way is then called throughout all his life Alter. “Alt sol er verdn… Let him live long!” Such an Alter is also my landlord, Abraham Hershkovitsh, earlier Samuel.”

Jewish boys. Czech postcard from Munkács/Munkačevo, pre-1938

Once we are talking about Olbracht, let us quote another text from his book. The passage where he writes about the village micve, the ritual bath on Friday evening, with the same irony and love as the other great authors of the larger region, Singer, Roth or Sholem Alechem would have written about it, but also in that wry and absurd tone which is a characteristic feature of Czech humor.

Subcarpathian Jewish greengrocer and knife-grinder on the same market (the signboard is the same in the background). Czech postcards, pre-1938

“The holy lawmakers who ordered washing to the children of Israel, well knew the Jews. And well knew them also Baal Shem Tov (let him rest in peace), the famous woodcutter of these mountains, the defender of the ignorant against the learned, the great prophet of the Lord, who made physical purity a condition of the Lord’s grace. These lawmakers knew that if they told, for example: “Subcarpathian peasants, woodcutters, shoemakers, tailors, merchants, carters, beggars, commit it to your memory that cleanliness is half health”, then the Jews would have thought a lot about the wisdom of the order, they would have professed it in the prayer houses, would have explained it in the kheders and yeshivas and rabbi schools, they would have seen in the seven above mentioned professions the symbols of the seven angelic orders, they would have held bloody debates on whether “health” in this context means eternity or divine wisdom, they certainly would have found in that phrase a group of three or five letters which is not just a group of letters, but some infinitely deep secret, which can never be figured out, but one has to devote all his life to attempting to figure it out – but, however, they would have not have a wash.

Subcarpathian Jewish tinker. Czech postcard, pre-1938

These old wise men – and above all Baal Shem Tov, father of all the Hassids (let him rest in peace) – also knew that if they briefly and clearly ordered it: Wash yourself on every Friday! then their Jews would have made a touching ceremony out of the order, they would have wailed or rejoiced with their tallit on their heads by accompanying their prayer with beautiful and majestic gestures, they would have remembered about the waters above which the soul of God hovered in the beginning, about the water springing from the rock at the beat of Moses’ rod, about the water of the Red Sea that the Lord divided with the eastern wind so it would stand as two walls to the left and right of the sons of Israel, they would have remembered about the water of the rivers of Babylon and about the zithers hung on the branches of the willow trees – but from the washing there would have not been left more than a ceremonial dipping of the tip of their three fingers in the water.

No! To the people of Polana you have to speak in a different way. In a much more resolute and severe tone.

But to know how you have to speak to the people of Polana, read it yourself in the Valley of the Galuth.

Jewish sewing-machine shop in Ungvár/Užhorod with Czech and Hungarian signboards. As
Giacomo Ponzetto has pointed it out, the advertised company, MINERVA, Erste
Österr.-Ungar. Nähmaschinen-Fabrik AG
is still operating today in the
Czech Republic. Photo by Margaret Bourke-White, 1938

Dissolving: Old gentlemen

József Rippl-Rónai: My father and Uncle Piacsek drinking red wine, 1907

“Byale (Biała Podlaska, Lublin province), 1926. Father and son. To protect himself from the
Evil One, Leyzer Bawół, the blacksmith, will not say how old he is, but he must be
over one hundred. Now his son continues the job, and the old man has become
a doctor. He sets broken arms and legs.” Photo by Alter Kacyzne

Hurdy gurdy

“Exploiting the talents of Josele Rozenblat. Josele Rozenblat’s singing is flowing from
the beggar’s gramophone. People throw money for the music to the beggar from
the windows. By «carrying» Josele in a push-chair from one courtyard
to another, the Jew manages to earn a living in Warsaw.”
Photo by Menachem Kipnis.

This beggar seems to appear here on the stage of Río Wang more often than Josele Rozenblat himself did in his times. He has already featured in Menachem Kipnis’ photo exhibition on the pre-war Jewry of Poland, and then again in the report by Két Sheng on the illustrious cantors photographed by Kipnis. Now he comes again for the third time because one-way has published a fantastic series on old hurdy gurdy men in her fantastic blog. As we have invited them for a guest appearance in Río Wang, we thought to let all the company play together.

Donovan: Hurdy Gurdy Man. (3'17"). From the album Hurdy Gurdy Man (1968).
This song was one of our childhood favorites with Két Sheng, long before we saw any real hurdy gurdy man. Since then I know well that the hurdy gurdy man in this song was not a real one either. Nevertheless, until you watch the pictures, listen to it with nostalgia. After the series there will be some real hurdy gurdy music as well, to lead through to the second part

очень мало, молодой господин, очень мало, подайте еще чуть-чуть” – “very few,
young master, very few, give a little bit more” – Hurdy gurdy from Odessa.

Karachoheli song, accompanied with hurdy gurdy. The karachohelis – “blackcoats” – were
traditional craftsmen and traders in Tbilisi, who after work also visited
together the wine cellars in the old town.

However, the starting picture was re-cited not only because of its theme but also because of its photographer. In fact, the previous series of one-way has even much more to do with Menachem Kipnis.

A carpenter with her granddaughter. Czortków (today Чортків), 1925

Alter Kacyzne (1885-1941) was born in the Kresy – the eastern region of Poland which after WWII was annected by the Soviet Union – just like Kipnis. He was also a writer, poet, journalist, and passionate photographer. In Warsaw he had his own studio, but he also traveled throughout Poland in search of the images of life.

“Otwock (Warsaw province), 1927. Otwock’s next generation learns how to pour water”

“Varshe (Warsaw). The woman who sells nuts at the entrance to the wagon yard.”

“Zambrove (Zambrów, Białystok province). The locksmith Eliyohu. He has been blind in one eye for twelve years but agreed to have surgery only after he went blind in the other eye too.”

“Kozhenits (Kozienice, Kielce province), 1927. Embroidery is a popular trade in this town.”

Khana, Sulamita and Alter Kacyzne, Warsaw, ca. 1930

Kacyzne also met his death during the German occupation of Warsaw. He, however, was not as fortunate  as Kipnis who died in his bed. He was beaten to death together with five hundred other Jews in the cemetery of Tarnopol by the local Ukrainian collaborators while escaping from the occupied Warsaw. His wife perished in the Belżec death camp. Her ashes now lie in the cemetery of Lesko together with those of the other victims. Their daughter was sheltered by a Polish family, so she survived the occupation. After the war she went to Italy where she died in 1999.

Woman labourer, Wyszków, 1927

“Wilejka (Vilno province). Sara, the baker’s wife.”

“Karczew. Meyer Garfunkel’s wife and granddaughter. Her father lives in Washington, and her mother died.”

“Warsaw. Khana Kolsky is a hundred and six years old. Every evening she confesses her sins and eats cookies. Her eighty years old son in America cannot believe she is still alive. 1925”

The fate of Kacyzne’s photos was also similar to those of Kipnis. His studio and huge archive in Warsaw was completely destroyed. Only those pictures survived, together with the captions given by him, which were sent for publication to the American Yiddish journal Forwerts – the same magazine which also preserved the only surviving photographs by Kipnis.

“Lublin. The little boy makes it clear which side of the drain is his territory”

“Varshe (Warsaw). Poverty on Gęsia Street”

“Rike (Ryki, Lublin province). The little boy wants to know why his sister is smiling (she has noticed the camera and he has not)”

“Nowy Dwór (Warsaw province), 1927. «Three girls are sitting and sewing» – I. L. Peretz”

“Lomzhe (Łomża, Białystok province), 1927. Khone Shlayfer, eighty-five years old. Besides being a shlayfer, a grinder, he is also a mechanic, an umbrella maker, and a medicine man (he really does deserve a full page).”

“Kutne (Kutno, Warsaw province), 1927. Aron Nokhem at his sewing machine”

“Purisov (Parysów, Lublin province), 1927. Esther at work. Her husband left her seven years ago with five children, whom she supports working as a seamstress.”

“Białystok, 1926. The unemployed seamstress”

“Warsaw, 1928. For what did he fight? Feyvl Tabakmen, a former political prisoner cannot find himself a mechanic’s job. This is why he sharpens knives on the street.”

“Varshe (Warsaw). Krochmalna Street”

“Laskarev (Laskarzew, Lublin province). A girls’ kheyder

“Lublin, 1924. Giving a hint”

“Purisov (Parysów, Lublin province), 1926. At ninety-three, this village tailor can thread the needle without wearing glasses.”

“Ostre (Ostróg, Równe province), 1925. The old castle and the synagogue (right), connected by an underground passage”

“Byale (Biała Podlaska, Lublin province), 1926. Azrielke, the Shabes-klaper. On Friday evenings he knocks on the shutters, announcing the beginning of the Sabbath.”

“Byale (Biała Podlaska, Lublin province), 1926. Wolf Nachowicz, the gravedigger, teaches his grandson to read while the boy’s grandmother looks on with pleasure. (The father is in America.)”

“The name of the game is hopscotch.”

Otwock, 1927

“Ostróg (today Острог), 1925. A woman with a pot of peas.”

“Words are flying.”

“Ger (Góra Kalwaria, Warsaw province). The poor man’s Sabbath meal is ready. Eydl Karbman at her table.”

“Varshe (Warsaw), 1927. Eretz Israel on the outskirts of Warsaw. Halutzim farming in the fields at Grochów.”

“Varshe (Warsaw), 1927. The fields at Grochów”

“1927. You can learn the latest gossip here”

“Varshe (Warsaw). The Jewish home for foundlings”

“Równe, 1925. In the old-age home”

“Vishkeve (Wyszków, Warsaw province), 1927. Itke the glazier’s wife, eighty years old.”

“Likeve (Łuków, Lublin province), 1926. A dispute.”

“Brisk (Brześć nad Bugiem, Pińsk province). In the barracks. Five families live in this room.”

“Mezritsh (Międzyrzec, Lublin province), 1924. A laborer’s meal.”

“Byale (Biała Podlaska, Lublin province), 1926. Father and son. To protect himself from the Evil One, Leyzer Bawół, the blacksmith, will not say how old he is, but he must be over one hundred. Now his son does the smithing and the old man has become a doctor. He sets broken arms and legs.”

“Tshortkev (Czortków, Tarnopol province), 1925. Tshortkever Jews taking a holiday on Sunday, when stores are closed by law.” On the wall is a poster announcing a lecture by the photographer, A. Kacyzne on the subject “Literature – A National Treasure”

“Wołomin. The saddler’s wife”