Second letter from Ben Richman


Dear Josh,

I'm glad to have heard from your mother that the story was incomplete. I felt it was, but I thought maybe you were in a hurry to get at least part of it. I will continue with the Ostropol part-that town was really something special--I relied too much on your Grandma Rose to supply part of the story-- it was historically famous because of a character called Hershel Ostropolier--who clowned around for the Hasidic Rabbis about 150 years before I was born. legend bave him a site in the marketplace where he was buried. And the Jews were paying tribute to him during my time in Ostropol.

I will tell you only about the ones I participated in as an active spectator. In 1910 a first cousin by name Nechuma Echenberg was married to a third cousin in town. I only remember his last name Kitner, a lively young fellow, an excellent watchmaker and repairer. He had the most spectacular show in town tho not in the marketplace. It was situated at a strategic corner where several roads led to the marketplace. I was fascinated by his shop. It had a large glass window hung with various clocks he rigged up and they always kept perfect time. These clocks were never wound because the pendulums were mounted on springs that kept them bouncing swinging and every one had a different figure on it; one composed of a boy and girl on a swing going back and forth thereby moving the mechanism. Another had a little black figure negroid features, bouncing up and down on a little board. I used to go by there on my way to school about a mile and a half from where I lived and always started out an hour earlier to get to watch the various clock antics. The school I went to was a govt school and Jews had to pay tuition. My Grandmother wanted me to get a Russian education as well as Hebrew. I was in that school six days a week and enjoyed it very much--8 AM to 2:30 PM. After that school I went to Hebrew school where I was instructed only in Hebrew and had to memorize various writings of the prophets. This school stressed Isaiah and Jeremiah.

My cousin Eitner tried to interest me in clock-making, but I was so fascinated by his window that I used to spend all my time outside drawing all the movements in the window.

To get back to Nechuma's wedding and the tribute to Hershel. Weddings in Ostropol lasted a minimum of six days. The families each vied to have a day of celebrating in their houses- with food, drinks, and music and dancing. The last day of the wedding a parade thru town, music blaring and leading to the supposed grave of Hershel. The dancing there was particularly wild and all passersby joined in the festivities. I know of a book by Nathan Ausuber where he tells a lot of Jewish folklore stories with several devoted to Hershel. I'm sure you will be able to get it in the library. While I'm on books, there was a Hebrew poet who was a friend of my fathers. They both contributed to the newspaper I mentioned in my first letter. HATSFIR was the name of the paper. In my travels I met Chaim Nachman Bialik and I told him I sang several of his poems--he immediately said "you must be David Richman's boy." He was overjoyed that his poems were passed on and appreciated. It was in Paris I met him and I took him to a cafe where in the evenings several friends of of mine, students at the Sorbonne, used to gather and we sang all kinds of songs in various tongues--the night I brought Bialik we sang one of his poems. It was really something. A lot of American tourists gathered on the terrace and plied us with food and drinks if only we would continue to sing. To get back to Ostropol. The town was small, about 2000 population on market days-usually Mondays. We were a poor people but we lived what in America would be considered luxuriously- the majority of the townspeople had mercantile establishments--all these people had at least one or two servants in the house altho no baths. Once a week on Fridays we went to the public sauna and luxuriated in the steam room--then to plunge into the cold swimming pool called a "Mikvah"- menfolk only- women had special days arranged for them. In my house I enjoyed chores. We had two cows which I usually fed and after Maria milked them I drove them to a town square where a shepherd took charge and all the cows gathered were driven out to the fields and meadows where they grazed all day--in the evening they were brought back to the place and everyone took charge of his cows and brought them home That was a chore that had to be attended to daily at 5 AM.

The working people's families-such as shoemakers, tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, etc. was a different life completely--they were looked down upon because of an historic mistake. When the Jews were invited to Russia and Poland it usually was arranged thru Rabbinical Congregations. The Rabbi was leader and he signed an agreement with the various authorities--that the Jews will not engage in anything but commerce, so that whoever broke the agreement was a pariah in the community. They were really poor.

I could go on for pages and pages, but I prefer you to read some stories written by Sholem Aleichem, his well-known stories have been translated into English. Particularly TERIAH DER MILCHIKER Teriah was a milk peddler, and he had many stories, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF was based on his stories. My brother Joe was famous for his portrayal of various characters from Sholom-Rabinowitz Aleichem. His most famous portrayal was THE DIVORCE where he was the writer of the terms of the GET.

The trip to America was for me an adventure that I did enjoy and yet I didn't want to go--leaving friends behind and the fields woods and rivers where I was brought up. The one thing that was attractive, I will at last see the land of the last of the Mohicans. That was a book I read and reread many times and my friends and I reenacted the various favorite scenes countless times. We got into a horse-drawn conveyance, and started on our journey to Rowno, the nearest direct R.R. to the Port of Libava on the Baltic Sea. I was the oldest and so had responsibilities. They were so fatiguing that I was glad when we got on the steamer TSAR and sailed away. Bernard, my youngest brother, fell in love with the R.R. tracks. And whenever we were waiting for a train he chose to sit on tracks and look into the distance whence the train was coming. I had charge of the R.R. tickets and the getting of boiled water for tea. Every R.R. station in Russia had a tap where boiling water was dispensed free. Tea and sugar was bought at the nearby window. If the stop was a long one, everybody got all he wanted, but on fifteen minute stops, it was the nimblest that got into the line fast and was able to reach the faucet and turn it the right way. We had an 8 hour layover in Wilno and I wanted to see "The City" where the miracle-working Rabbis were a dime a dozen, The famous Gaon's synagogue and many other wonders. I told my mother and she understood how important it was for me to go see these sights. I believe I took Bernie with me. And I got lost in the big city and took longer than had been estimated. My poor mother had a bunch of wailing kids on her hands for an hour or more. When we got to Libava or Liepaja as the Latvians called it, we got on the steamer after three days stay. Now at least no R.R. tracks to watch and no one wanted to wander about. The smells in the galley you had to cross from steerage was a great deterrent. I didn't mind the Cabin Class I found had nice decks with chairs tied to the walls and hardly ever occupied. But that came later. My mother would not eat the food served up to steerage customers because she was sure it was not Kosher. So I went to see the Purser. He sent me to the Rabbi on board who was to guarantee Kashrut. I told him my mother wouldn't eat the food and also that she was the daughter of Chaim Dayan from Staro-Konstantinov and that worked. He came down to steerage and talked to her and invited us all to his table as long as we were on the ship. What a change! First class fare--white gleaming tablecloths, silverware, tea, milk, and coffee with all the sugar you wanted, instead of stinking old herrings from the galley and boiled water. We stopped at Southampton in England and next stop was Halifax Nova Scotia only two weeks later. We arrived in the morning and left at night. Two or three days later the Statue of Liberty and New York. But no libery for us. We were taken from the dock in a tender and brought to Ellis Island, where I remember vividly the uncouth attendants yelling and herding us to a tremendous hall. As you walked in single file a blanket and pillow was thrown at you by an attendant, and I didn't enjoy that. It meant a protracted stay. Three full days. Finally we were called out by name and brought to the Ferry dock where my father was standing on tip toes to look over the crowd in front of him. We landed at the Battery in New York and at last were on our way home to Brooklyn. I hung on to every word my father pronounced, "I want go Brooklyn Bridge" We got to Brooklyn Bridge and finally on the Myrtle Avenue Elevated RR. We got off at Sumner Avenue and walked over to Floyd Street, about a ten minute walk, and then the fun began. My father put us in a three-story wooden house. We occupied the street floor and looked after the cleanliness of the stairways and the front of the house as part of the rent. My father had a concession from the American News Company--distributing newspapers and magazines to stores and stands that sold them. Every morning at 4 AM we kids were out helping him make up the various bundles for his customers and deliver them to their destinations. He never got out of that business until I left home. He also had to put us in school, all that were of school age started at PS 55 on Floyd Street Brooklyn. It was not as nice as the school I attended in Ostropol, a big white one-story building in a beautiful garden, fruit trees and grass. PS 55 was a BRICK three-storied caserne with a small paved yard surrounded by a tall iron fence. My first and only teacher in that school was Miss Dunbar, a very good teacher who taught us English, speak, read and write. As soon as I was able to pass her examination I was graduated and we moved 6 months later to the Borough of the Drunks. There I attended High School.

Love to all of you,


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