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Letter from Mir - 1932
July 29, 1932
As I approached my destination perched on the rumble (or to be more correct, the tumble) seat of the chariot, I gave vent to an ejaculation of surprise. The scenes that were focused through my pupil during the hours that I traveled through Poland were of miniature towns and insignificant villages. Lo! There before me is a city! Behold! One, two, three steeples, tall buildings (two and a half stories high) and houses! Why there must be six, seven and even eight hundred. I was astounded. Having pictured a small town, a reproduction of what Poland had displayed, I rolled into a city that boasts of suburbs. To the left of the town, approximately three hundred feet from Mir, I noticed a group of eight houses. I imagine that that is one of the suburbs.Soon, physical action took the place of mental astonishment. For as the chariot went rumbling, I had to prevent myself from tumbling over the ancient bridge of Mir. To all appearances, some one hundred or more years back some boards were elevated over fifty feet of lake. The will of G-d and the merit of the yeshiva students who use this bridge daily keep it from drowning. In addition to the bridge, there are two mills connected with this body of water. One is used to grind grain. The other has a more important duty. It furnishes the town with electricity. Power is turned on at 8:30 p.m. and shut off at 1:00 a.m. You can not have any electricity after 1:00 a.m. or before it gets dark.
As I passed the flour mill, I found myself traveling on the main highway. In another moment I passed through the center of town. It is possible to walk from one extreme to the other in less than ten minutes.
Excluding those that will be discussed later, the buildings are no larger than bungalows. A cellar, a ground floor, and a bit of attic is the general rule. These are wooden structures of unformed logs that bring reminiscences of Lincoln's log cabin. These houses are whitewashed as are those that are made of bricks. One notices very few straw roofs.
A house means a kitchen, rarely a dining room, save those places used by the yeshiva students as eating stations, and a few bedrooms. There is also a storehouse and a cellar, which is used as an icebox. Needless to say that the food that was at one time down there carries a strong impression of plant life mixed with fresh soil and other undesirable perfumes.
In the kitchen there is a large, wide stone edifice. It is high, up to the ceiling, tiled from without from the waistline up and hollow from within. One has access to this cavity through an opening two feet square on the front of the structure. This edifice is used for cooking and baking. The process is to put wood on the outside and to put the food that is to be cooked or baked near the wood, which is put aflame. In addition to this facility there is a small grating on the outside of this stove. It is a form, possibly eight inches in height, under which wood is placed and over which the pot or pan is put to cook or fry the food. Milk products must be the bill of fare on this outside contraption.
Besides this, there are the essential table and chairs and a side pantry for dishes. Every residence is equipped with a samovar. Its mechanism is a mystery to me. If it is in working condition then, when you open the faucet, you can procure hot water. Otherwise, the water is either warm or cold. Except for a few pails of water, the housekeeper is the only remaining furniture in the kitchen.
There is another momentous contraption. Since no houses are furnished with running water, what does one use in lieu of the indispensable sink in the States? Especially in the morning when it is your duty to cleanse yourself. Picture the utensil used to retain the water when one desires to use a syringe. This utensil, with a cover, hangs on the wall in the manner of an ancient salt box. In the position of the rubber pipe, a nozzle is inserted. A foot and a half below this vessel is a pin. On the inside, the nozzle is wider so that the pressure of the water tends to keep the nozzle tight on the bottom of the vessel so that no water is permitted to escape. Quite an invention, n'est pas? Our room is equipped with that vital bit of furniture.
The bedroom. You will not emit an exclamation of surprise if I inform you that there are two beds in a bedroom, or if I write that a bedroom in Mir also has a cabinet for clothes, or in some cases a bureau, or as I noticed in Scheinberg's home, a chiffonier. However, it will certainly be news to you if I state that in each bedroom you see a reproduction of the edifice that I described above, that is, the edifice that is in the kitchen. In a bedroom it is smaller and its openings are dispersed. It is three feet square and reaches as high as the ceiling. White tiles cover all noticeable sides. Its purpose, you have surmised, is for heating the room during the cold winter months.
I have specified that a bedroom contains a few beds. That bit of furniture is a trifle less comfortable than the one you have at home. The difference results from the materials used to compose the spring and the mattress. At home, some beds are made soft by means of a coil spring while some have a plain one. Here, wood is stretched across the bottom. Although there are two kinds of wood, soft and hard, I doubt very much that soft wood would be very comfortable in a bed. There is only one kind of straw. Therefore, the mattresses in Mir can arouse no jealousy.
In the back yard, a wooden structure, four feet square and eight feet high, a deep pit in the ground, and a wooden seat above the pit compose the excretion center.
The yeshiva is equipped with a fine, modern, up to date bathroom, running water, and all other installations requisite to a 1932 structure.
Despite the fact that not one of the roads is paved, Mir does not suffer from muddy crossings as 133rd street did a few years back. I attribute this to the many hours during the twenty-four that the inhabitants can be idle. I conjecture that they spend their time traveling to the four corners of the earth, accumulating stones, rocks and more such. These are set down on the road as were the stones on Jamaica Avenue between the trolley tracks. The only difference is that Jamaica Avenue is much smoother. For members of our family, these rocks pose a danger to their feet. ,áøåê äùí I have so exercised my ankles that I have made them immune to all sprains. So, I can boast of having derived a physical benefit from Mir.
A room, as large as my former bedroom, is big enough to open any store in Mir in it. It only needs a counter and a few shelves upon which a few objects for sale can be placed. This description is adequate for a candy store or a barber shop. The drug store is a bit larger and noticeably nicer. It is tastefully painted, cleverly finished and dexterously kept. The barber shop suggests simplicity. It is a great deal nicer than many in the States. A haircut costs 5 1/2 cents.
"One little pig goes to market. The other little pig stays home". The number of pigs here on market day is a most effective refutation of these lines. I refer not only to the animals.
Monday is the day of the ."éøéã" From all the environs, Poles ride into town in the early hours of the morning, carrying their wares. These vary from the smallest part of a horse's harness to the horse itself, from a grain of flour to a sack of cucumbers. The main street is crowded. Everybody is at the market seeking bargains. The air is poisoned by the smell of the animals.
I will attempt to describe Main Street or Polish Fifth Avenue. It is a long street, one hundred or more feet wide. Both sides of the street are lined with stores. There are six parallel rows of stores along the length and one row along the width of the street as follows:
S T O R E S
T S T O R E S
O S T O R E S
R S T O R E S
E S T O R E S
S T O R E S
Thus, there are seven rows of stores on Main Street, with a total of around 150 stores.
I happened to visit the home of a Polish citizen, a wicker by profession. The word "home" in this instance means one large room. This is utilized by the father for wicking (the machine requires one sixth of the entire chamber), by the mother as a kitchen, (with a stove as described above), by one of the sons as a factory for the production of ukuleles, by all as a dining room and bedroom (it is a family of five) and also as a house of worship. The room is filthy and all the other adjectives depicting unhealthiness would apply, a replica of the inhabitants themselves. They are ill fed and poorly clad.
I will not be far from the truth if I state that all the stores have Jewish proprietors. Thus, except for the few cents that they receive for the cucumbers, potatoes, carrots and strawberries that they sell on the "mark", I do not know how the Poles keep their hearts from escaping through the holes in their shirts.
There should be about five or six hundred Jewish families in town. There is a slight means of alleviating the poverty from among our brethren. Four hundred yeshiva students find sleeping quarters and eating stations a dire necessity. These young men are distributed over the entire town. Though it amounts to only a few dollars a month, it goes a long way in Mir. However, the fact that prosperity has not yet "rounded the corner" in America, has a great effect on every inhabitant. With barely an exception, everyone has a blood relative in America. The inability of those relatives to grant a few dollars every now and then, or a set of clothes for Pesach, or even the old clothes that people were wont to dispatch to Europe (and are now forced to wear themselves), all this leaves a deep mark on the face of every family and a large rent in every suit of clothes.
There is a movie house in town, which in many cases is an important agent in relieving the general monotony. During the day it is always the same grind: Either housework, gardening or taking care of the stores. In the evening the entire town can be seen out on the highway indulging in the daily evening stroll. Those who can afford it dress pretty elegantly on various occasions. It is even possible to see a set of clothes that would pass on the most supercilious avenues of New York.
Mir boasts a "Graf" or Marquis, or whatever you desire to term him. His income is furnished by the poverty stricken inhabitants of the town who are unfortunate enough to reside on a portion of his land. He owns almost all of Mir. His residence is on the outskirts of town, a large, beautiful castle. Those buildings which Moish referred to as the ruins of Napoleon were the original castle. His present residence is a duplicate of that castle. I was also informed that his estate also boasts a beautiful lake and large orchards. It was in that lake that Moish was introduced to the mysteries of swimming. The big cheese was in America at one time and speaks English fairly well.
Besides the few important buildings that I have discussed, namely the yeshiva and the castle, there is a bank. The building that houses this important monetary transactor is a fine brick structure, the finest in town. The post office is a fairly decent structure. Besides mail facilities, it possesses a telephone and telegraph facilities. There are also the theater building and the school house. And, lest I omit it, the bath house. Price: 5 cents. You enter the anteroom where you discard all bodily coverings. From there you proceed into a large, well heated chamber. This room contains a mikveh and a shower. Besides that there are numerous pails. You must understand that the bath house has running water and both hot and cold faucets, four of them. One who is blessed gets to use the showers. All others, afterwards, use the pails. After emptying a few pails of water over your body, you soap your head. That completed, you discharge more water to dissolve the suds. The process is repeated for the rest of your body. Quite a job, taking a bath, if you are not fortunate enough to be first.
There is another point of interest. You are indubitably aware of the two agents utilized by man to arouse him in the morning, namely, an alarm clock, and one of the members of the bird family. Its name escapes me. Here I have discovered a new agent. Invariably, for the past eight weeks, I have been awakened between the hours of four and five. I presume that at that hour the flies commence their ranging.
I will conclude this part of my description with a bit of current events. A young man of twenty one lost his heart to a girl of sixteen. His parents were averse to the union. One of the yeshiva students was called and a wedding was secretly held at 1:00 at night.
One more picture.
At 10:20 each evening a slip of paper is pinned up on the bulletin board. This piece of paper brings with it either rejoicing or something to the contrary. The names of those who are fortunate enough to be remembered by those at home are written in the small letters of a man's handwriting. Four hundred students are conceited enough to be under the illusion that they are thought of. The result is a stampede to the bulletin board. All manners are forgotten. "Why not! Maybe I have a letter from home", is the only thought. They rush, they squeeze, they push. Then, they walk away, disappointed.
L. Gordon came to Mir in 1932, from Jamaica, NY to study at
the Mir Yeshive when he was 18 years old. Shortly after his arrival,
he wrote a letter describing the town of Mir, its inhabitants and
its outstanding craracteristics to his sisters Evelyn and Esther.
Updated May 2010
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