Finding Fetter Yeremy
As a young child growing up in a Yiddish-speaking home, I often heard my father, while having coffee or a drink of schnapps with his brother and sisters, talking about their childhood memories in Czarist Russia.
Most of the memories were not pleasant. They remembered the anti-Semitism of the villagers and my father vividly recalled the 1906 pogrom in Bialystok.
He had accompanied his mother to consult with a famous eye specialist, Dr. Leon Pines, to treat her for glaucoma. They were there when the infamous Cossack-led pogrom began. My grandmother hid my five-year-old father in a wardrobe closet covered with heavy blankets and a cloth towel in his mouth to prevent him from making any sounds.
When the Cossacks broke into the room they saw only an old lady but not the hidden child. They beat my grandmother and later the arm that had been badly beaten became paralyzed for the rest of her life.
My father talked to his brother and sisters about the cheder he attended in their village and how the rebbe would walk up and down among the benches with a long stick in hand to awaken any sleeping child not paying attention to the religious lesson.
Among the collective memories which they all shared were the joyful ones of visits to fetter Yeremy in the next village. They traveled the journey by horse and wagon, the children sleeping in the hay.
Fetter is the Yiddish word for uncle and they used it very often in describing their father’s brother, Yeremy, and their cousins Mordechai, Gutka (Tovah) and Zelda.
They remembered the warm home-baked bread on the coal stove which, when dipped in a little schmaltz (chicken-fat) and accompanied by gribbenes (small bits of fried chicken skin), one would think that they were talking about a culinary feast. Perhaps it was, for poor Jewish families in small Russian villages.
They all spoke lovingly about their fetter Yeremy. If he had a wife (I suppose he did) I don’t recall hearing a mention of her.
In the czarist Russia of the time (early 20th century), one son from every family was required to serve in the czar’s army. It was, however, for Jews a very serious problem. At the age of 10 they could be taken away from their parents and conscripted for twenty years of army service as far away as Siberia.
At that young age, Jewish children would never see their families again and would be baptized in the Russian Orthodox church, never to be Jewish again.
There was one way to avoid such service. And my zaideh (grandfather) was clever enough to discover it.
He went one day into the nearby Jewish cemetery in the forest and took the name of a man who was buried there. Thus, when the czarist soldiers came looking to take “Smith” for conscription, he would claim that he was “Jones”, not “Smith” and therefore not finding that name on their search list, the soldiers walked away.
Thus, the family name of Kravetzky, disappeared from that village. Some few years later, possibly 1911 or 1913, fetter Yeremy left Russia with his family and arrived in the port of Jaffa in Ottoman Palestine.
Between 1915-1917 the Ottoman Turkish regime exiled them out of Palestine to Alexandria in Egypt and there they remained until Britain declared its Mandate in Palestine with the arrival of General Allenby in 1918. The Kravetzky family then returned to the new Jewish city of Tel-Aviv.
There were no telephones at that time and letters could get lost or take years before being delivered.
So it was at that point, fetter Yeremy and his children remained only a memory. A very loving memory.
For almost fifty years there were no contacts. In the meantime, my zaideh had died in 1941 and much of fetter Yeremy’s story came to an end.
One day, in July 1959, I heard a program on the radio on which letters were read aloud from people seeking information or contacts with relatives lost in the wars. It gave an address on how to contact the radio station giving information of who was seeking who.
And so I wrote, “I am seeking my fetter Yeremy. Well… not really my fetter but my father’s fetter, brother of his father.”
My letter was read aloud within two days and the next afternoon, when I was not at home in Rishon Lezion, a man and his son came looking for me. They claimed to be the son and grandson of Yeremy Kravetzky.
When I came home and heard the information, without eating or drinking, I ran to the nearest bus to Tel-Aviv and found my way to Yad Eliyahu and to an apartment on Lochamai Ha Gettot.
Climbing up the stairs of a darkly lit building I knocked on a door. Instantly as it opened a man looked at me, said nothing, grabbed me with hugs and kisses and tears falling from his eyes and pulled me into his apartment.
Still hugging and kissing me, a love that I can never forget, he led me into a small bedroom and from a closet he took down an old album of photos. He said that his name was Mordechai Kravetzky, that he was the son of Yeremy (now called Yirmiyahu) who was long dead, and that he and his two sisters Tovah (formerly Gutka) and Zelda had been living in Tel-Aviv for many years.
Before the photo album was on the table, he introduced me to his wife Sara who insisted that I must have something to eat and a cup of tea.
Who could swallow food under such an emotional moment? With the album opened I saw photos of my father as a young child more than fifty years before and photos of Mordechai’s father Yeremy , brother of my beloved zaideh Moshe Tzvi.
Over the years both families had changed names and I had changed my name twice and took a Hebrew name.
About half hour later, Mordechai’s son, Binyamin, same age as me, came home. He saw me, guessed who I must have been, and threw his arms around me.
The Kravetzky family love must have been passed from one generation to another. The long-lost families were re-united and six months later Mordechai and Sara escorted me and my bride Rahel to the chuppah.
Binyamin and his wife and children and grandchildren have been great loves in my life. The warmth and burning love (ahava bo-eret) between us is something magical. I am only sad for the many missing years between us.
But the hugs and kisses from the former Kravetzky family are more precious to me than gold, silver, or diamonds. I look forward to them each time that we meet.
I never found the long-dead fetter Yeremy but I found the love which he passed on to his children. A love which I pass along to mine.