Rakishik  and  the  Hollyhock

by Rebecca Chodos (nee Cohen) and sent to us by SIG member, Hedva Scop

Lately there has been quite a spate of stories of small Lithuanian towns and I am therefore prompted to reminisce about Rakishik, the small town where I was born. Although it is 85 years since I lived there, I have so many 'mind pictures' of it.

It was a pretty little town with a lake and forests.  In winter the lake froze and made a lovely place to skate.  In the forest we went berry gathering, which was probably illegal because I remember being chased by the keepers or guards.

Every small town in Lithuania had a nickname.  Rakishik was known for its "Husmonim Musicians".  There were probably many Jewish musicians, but I only heard of a family Weinberg in later years.

As far as I can remember we lived a pleasant tranquil life. 

I remember there was a Graf or Baron who lived in a beautiful residence which we thought was a palace.  It was surrounded by lovely gardens which must have been open to the public because it was customary to go for walks there on Sabbath afternoons.  There was a charge for entrance for which Jewish people paid on Friday.

There were three Shuls.  The big one was the Beth Midrash, then a Haschidishe and a Shtiebel. Wedding Chuppas were held on Friday afternoons outside the big Shul - the next morning the bride was led to Shul by Machetonim. Another thing I remember about the Shul was the two big barrels in the yard where every Pesach we took the cutlery to Kosher.  We had to dig the spoons and forks which were attached by a string first in the barrel of hot water and then in the cold one! It was all done in the spirit of the coming Yomtov.  The same as we children were given a chance to mark the Matzos before they went into the ovens.  The marking was done by a little wheel attached to a long handle. I must mention that my family lived around a sort of courtyard with other relatives and Matzos were baked in one of the houses.

I have a recollection of going with my mother to the public bath, and sitting on a shelf with the steam whirling around and women beating themselves with straw "brooms"!

But mentioning the ordinary happenings.  I also remember the frightening times when news got around that the Cossacks were due to ride through the town.  We were barricaded in the house and the men were ready with any weapon at hand.  It was dangerous for any young woman to be outdoors especially a young Jewish woman. 

Another hazard was fires.  I doubt whether the town boasted a fire brigade.  I remember standing in the street with my mother with our bundles of belongings around us.  The men were busy helping to put out the fires.  As most houses were built of logs, fires spread very fast.

Our house was the usual pattern in the town.  It was built around a big oven which warmed the whole house.  There was a place on top for someone to sleep, and under the oven a place for chickens to shelter from the cold in winter. The Sabbath food was kept in the oven from Friday.  I can still savour the taste of breakfast coffee from an earthenware jug.  Sabbath breakfast was a very leisurely meal. 

All that I've written so far, are memories of my very young days.

My father, like many other Jewish men, decided to leave Rakishik to look for a better life.  At home he dealt in flax and seed.  I remember him coming home of a winter evening, his beard frozen to icicles.  The flax was woven into ropes and there were big bins of seed standing in the kitchen.

When the men left home, the families had to fend for themselves.  My mother became a businesswoman.  She ran a grocery store.  So with her earnings and later my father's regular monthly support of five pounds, we lived comfortably. By that time we girls - four of us - were at school.  We were taught in Russian.

After an absence of five years in South Africa, my father came for a visit.  He stayed for a year and a son was born.  He left again after the Bris, and about five years later, sent for the family to join him.  That happened in December 1912, which is another story.

Now comes the connection with Hollyhock.  We took bundles of washing to a woman who lived by a river - she had a little garden and I was attracted by a tall plant with bright flowers at the top.  It was only when we arrived in Johannesburg and saw the same plant that I learned the name of the flower which had attracted me so much.  I vowed that if I ever had a garden, I would plant Hollyhocks, and so I did.

So whenever I look at a Hollyhock, I am reminded of Rakishik, so many years ago.  I was 11 years old then, now I am 96!

A story by Rebecca Chodos (nee Cohen), written in her 96th year! 20 April, 1996

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