In search of Max Goodman’s Childhood.
Jews were in Smorgon at least as early as 1672. Another source
indicates that craftsmen came to Smorgon in 1503. All sources agree
that the two things Smorgon was known for are the Bear Academy and the
bagels (called baronaks in Belarussian) that orginated in Smorgon.
Also important is the leather industry that developed in the mid 19th
century. Smor means tarpits in Belarussian and that is one account for
the name. Another source said it comes from the Baltic word for
Count Radziwill was the major local nobleman, “so rich he could
entertain 1,000 people for dinner”. He started the bear academy in
Smorgon. The story is that he hired unemployed Gypsies and Jews to
capture the local bears and train them . Gypsies often
exhibited bears with collars at fairs around Europe. Our information
from the Jewish Smorgon Yiskor book had Jews involved with training
bears. Orphan bears from Estonia are still sent to Belarus for
retraining to go back to the forests. The bear academy existed until
1914 when the town was totally destroyed
There is a museum built by students in the local high school of
Smorgon It was started by a Jewish director who since has moved to
Israel. The museum was built in 1995 and shows Smorgon at the
of the 20th century. A model of Smorgon shows the synagogue, with a
dome, in one corner with two story brick houses owned by Jews
surrounding it. Some brick houses survive, but
they were probably rebuilt after WWI.
References report that 20- 75% of the population in all of Vilna
gurbernia were Jewish. 50% of the industry in the region was Jewish
and included crafts, leather work, tailors and also Jewish tenant
farmers. In Smorgon there was a street called Gorbarnaya (tanners)
with over 30 leather tanneries. The tanneries had hot and cold areas
because the working of the leather required that. The workers had to
handle acid, salt
and hammers and sewing machines. The
museum also has a recreation of a bakery where baronaks
were made. Baronak means boiled. Bagel in Yiddish means
twisted. Four women usually worked in each bakery. The
bakery ground its own grain. It had a place to mix and kneed
the dough, a place to sift the flour. Some bagels were pretzel
shaped or round. Some were boiled with sugar or honey. After
boiling they dried and turned yellow as they baked. Then they
were strung on a rope and put in a basket for sale in the markets.
They were exported to other Baltic countries and as far away as Poland
and Sweden. The workers were only women and every bakery had its own
We also got help from Nadezhda Markova who is chief curator of the
Smorgon museum. She is interested in the Jewish and labor history of
Smorgon and had organized some pictures and documents from the museums
archives for us. She had pictures of an 1905 demonstration of workers.
The workers were accused of spreading anti-government propaganda. She
had pictures of Ulitza Minska, a street where only Jews lived. Bagel
bakers and leather workers struck for a 12 hour day. Many workers were
women and girls who worked for 50 kopeks a day. Women were also
carriers of water, milk and wood for heating . Grandmother Mary
carried milk in a yoke across her shoulders. A family story is that
she carried milk the day after Max was born
Goodman appears as a common Jewish name in the area in the form
Gutman, Guttman, Gutterman, and Gutmanus(Lithuanian ending). But we
found no specific reference to any Goodmans in Smorgon. We believe
Max’s family lived outside smorgon in Karka, where Jews were tenant
farmers on Radziwill’s lands. It had a flour mill on a small lake.
was a synagogue and rabbi’s house next to it at the time of Max’s
childhood but it’s only known from oral history. Karka is now part of
the town. In Smorgon some Jews lived above their shops in two story
houses but in the typical shtetl the house was one story with two
doors. Because few houses in Lithuanian and Belarussian shtetls are
well maintained it’s hard to tell how old any given house is. Some
houses are constructed of notched hand hewn timbers and appear very
old. In the Nazi period, Karka was the small ghetto but that
only lasted a few months and Smorgon was the big ghetto. Then they
were joined in one ghetto including Jews from nearby shtetlach. 3,500
Jews were killed here or transported to Ponorai and killed there.
Ken is writing a children’s book loosely based on his father’s
childhood. Max Goodman was born Duvid Mendel Gutman in 1897 in
Smorgon. then in Lithuania about 50 miles east of Vilnius (Vilna). Now
it is in Belarus. His father was a rabbi & rebbe; his older sisters
were radicals. In 1904 sister Kate left for Chicago followed in 1905
by Anna just ahead of the Czar’s police. In 1906 they sent for the
others: father Yankle Leib, mother Mary, sisters Dora and Sarah (later
Selma) and Duvid Mendle. He became Max in school in Chicago.
First stop Vilnius: On June 19, 2002 we arrived in Vilnius.
Svetlana Satalova was our guide; she engaged Victor to be our
driver. We divided our time between Vilnius and Lithuania
and Smorgon and Belarus. Around Vilnius we traveled on a
divided highway built in Soviet times between Vilnius and
Kaunas (Kovna). It goes through a very large, old Jewish cemetery.
Almost all of it is lost. Removed tombstones are now steps of Soviet
era buildings in Vilnius. We would visit many Jewish cemeteries in
various stages of decay on this trip. They are the most tangible
evidence of the extensive Jewish population who spent their lives here
and of the abrupt end of their communities between 1941-44.
majority language. At the time of WWI only about 5% of the population
was Lithuanian. Forty percent were Poles, 30-35% were Jews and there
were Russians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Karaits , Tartars, Gypsies
and Turks. All sustained their own languages. Vilna became a cultural
center for Yiddish language, arts, drama, publishing, etc. Tne Saadya
Gaon was the most important Jewish religious authority in Europe.
In 1915, the Germans occupied Vilnius and treated the Jews much better
than they were treated by the Tsar. So when the Germans came back in
1941, Jews were not alarmed and saw the Germans as sane, civilized and
educated. The Tsar strongly encouraged (often forcibly) Jews to move
to Russia in the 1915 period which many did. Half the population of
Smorgon died in a forced march in WWI. Poorer Jews from German lands
and Poland came to live in Vilnius. At that time you could see Jewish
women sitting in front of their houses or at street corners on seats
warmed by hot coals selling their wares. Since WWII the majority of
Jews in Vilnius are Russian. In the modern cemetary the stones are
inscribed in Russian.
Jews of Lithuania, Latvia and Belarus, all were called Litvaks. They
were also known as the Misnagdim in contrast with the Hasidim. Quite
near our hotel is a triangle intersection of Butcher Street, Gaon
Street and German Street. A plaque is there showing the area that
became the small ghetto and a much larger area a few blocks away that
became the big ghetto. The Nazis and their collaborators separated
those they regarded as able bodied from those who were old, children
or useless. The small ghetto only lasted 1 1⁄2 months until Oct. ‘41.
OnYom Kippur that year, Jews concentrated in prayer houses were seized
and transported to Panorai to be murdered.
There were many synagogues, prayer houses and yeshivas in the area
near the Old Synagogue called the schulheis which bordered German
Street. The old Jewish shops have given way to trendy restaurants,
boutiques, coffee houses and other fancy stores. What is now the
park-like center of German street has under it the cellars of the
bombed out Jewish buildings. There are stories that gold and silver
were buried in cellars there during the ghetto times.
The leader of the Vilna Jewish community at the time the Nazis took
over was Jacob Gens. His plan was to save the younger generation and
the intellectuals by making the ghetto useful to the Germans. He
organized many workshops to produce supplies. Those Jews the Germans
considered useful were given yellow passes but each family was limited
to two adults and two children. Gens saved other members of families
by attaching children to families who had less than two. Hirsch Glick
who composed Zog Nit Keinmal was among the Jews in the big ghetto. He,
with others, was sent to Estonia when the ghetto was closed down in
1943 and he died in the camp there.
Smorgon and Belarus During Soviet times the trip from Vilnius to
Smorgon took an hour. We got to the Belarus border in 1⁄2 hour. We got
through the border in 30 minutes. We never had to get out of the car.
Victor must have convinced them we were old and feeble. On the way to
Smorgon , we saw other shtetls such as Ashmyany (Oshmany) dating from
1384. It’s now a town of 30,000 . The Jewish cemetery is surrounded by
Soviet style apartment buildings. Goats graze nearby. The mayor’s
office has a statue of Lenin in front of it. We were greeted by women
and children, eager to talk. Tiny wild strawberries grew in the woods
even among the gravestones in the cemetaries. There were
also black currents.
An elaborate sign welcomed us to Smorgon now a town of 40,000 .
Arrangements had been made for us to stay in the apartment of a local
librarian, Valentina. Her apartment has two small
bedrooms. It’s very neat with carpets
on the floor, chairs and a couch.
Everything was quite clean. The
entrance to the apartment building was dirty with broken tiles,
chipped concrete and paint. The whole scene reminded us of a similar
building in Kazakhstan. The apartment had a separate small room with a
toilet and another small room with a bath and sink. Hot water was
available. In Valentina’s one tush kitchen we had a discussion about
present life and work in Smorgon. Her salary is $45 a month. Her
husband is a government driver and gets $55 a month. Teachers make
about 50 dollars a month and doctors don’t get much more. The local
factories are closed or closing. People are leaving Belarus
to go to Russia for jobs and better benefits. We had a light supper –
Jewish tasting salami and rye, and cucumbers and tomatoes. The first
evening she asked us what kinds of things we liked to eat and we
mentioned borscht, blintzes, kasha, potato kugel and soup. All of
these showed up in the meals we were served. It was the first day of
summer and the day was over 20 hours of sunshine.
We traveled through areas of birch trees and evergreens, with fields
of grass and wild flowers. We visited our first shtetl, Vievies, just
off the highway. In a number of such shtetlach, the houses survived
but the Jews who lived in them perished. Jewish houses in Max’s time
usually surrounded the market square and had two doors, one for the
shop and one for the living quarters. Some houses seem to be virtually
unchanged for decades: mostly wooden structures.
Trakai was one of the first places to have Jewish settlers in the 14th
century. The grand duke built a castle there on a island in a lake. He
brought communities of Tartars and Karaites for protection from the
Poles. The Karaites broke off from main stream Judaism in biblical
times. They believe in the Torah but not the Talmud. The rabbis told
the Germans the Karaites were not Jews so they were largely spared.
We visited the killing ground of Ponarai. 100,000
humans were massacred there including 70,000 Jews,
many from Smorgon. There were a few survivors of the
massacres and a few gentile observers were forced to
cook and clean for the Nazis so the story has been well
documented. Of all the countries of Central and Eastern
Europe, Lithuania had the highest percentage of Jews
who died in the holocaust, 94%.. Lucy Topohansoe, a
Navajo poet, has a poem about camping as a child with
her family at the site of a massacre of her Navajo people.
Their ghosts seem to be haunting the site. So it seemed to us as we
viewed the huge indentations in the earth that marked the mass graves
the Nazis and their local collaborators had their victims dig
including some to whom we were
surely related in the several centuries our family lived in this area.
Surely their spirits are still lingering in this beautiful space
testifying as Lucy’s spirits did to the
A thought – It’s such irony that the Goodman family survived the
holocaust because of persecution and unrest that drove them out of
Smorgon and to America. But for that there would have been no modern
craftsmen from the west of
Europe to live in Vilnius. Many Jews came because of persecutions
going on in their home communities. A synagogue appeared around the
Our hotel is on Glassmakers (Stikliai) Street which intersects with
Butcher (Mesiniy) Street, Jewish (Zydu) Street and Gaon Street. Nearby
is a major blvd. called German street. It was named for early German
artisans who lived there. Napoleon is supposed to have first used the
phrase the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” to refer to Vilnius. Yiddish
flourished in Vilnius because there was no
capacity for inhumane acts human beings have perpetrated on each other
over the centuries.