Skip to main content

Meyer S Cohen’s story


Meyer S Cohen’s story

(translated from Hebrew by Eliav Bar-Hai)




 My father… was born in 1866 in Kupel, a small town in the district of Volyn of Russia… The shtetl was known for its mud and for its poverty. Rav Eliezer Harif, who was the rabbi of Kupel at one time, describes the beginnings of Kupel with the following legend:

 “Once the daughter of a wealthy landowner was to be married and as the news of the impending wedding spread, the poor from far and wide began streaming with their wives and children to the place of the festivities. …As a mass of humanity was on the move, a sudden storm caught them exposed on the open road. Driving rain pounded down on them and the poor people sank into the mud with no hope of extricating themselves. Since the opportunity to partake on the festive meal vanished, they decided to settle right where they were. The name they chose for their new abode was “Kupel”, because the Holy One Blessed Be He had folded all the mud of the world and placed it under their feet (Hebrew word for mud is kipel).”

After my family moved to Proskurov when I was three, we visited my grandfather in Kupel a few times. Last time I visited Kupel I was 10 years old. And these are the impressions that I remember:

The crowded marketplace in the center of the village, full of wagons and stalls loaded with different types of goods; argumentative women bargaining with the goyot of the village – selling fruits and vegetables; the whinnying of the horses mixing with the calls of the merchants hawking their wares and the cries of the little ones dragged behind their mothers; the filth, the grime, and the stench that attacked the senses, and the commotion that overwhelmed the square. 

The church with its green dome cast down fear upon the Jewish children as they hurried their steps past its front, and with beating hearts  they quickly whispered the well-known admonition from the Bible: “Its is abhorrent and an abomination and totally forbidden!” The pealing of the bells in the church belfry instilled fear in the Jews as if they warned: “Beware foreigner, of the Abbey!” * 

In contrast, the shul that stands in a hidden side street, …; the herd of goats milling about in the square in front of synagogue from evening to the break of dawn; to the children the goats looked like horned devils and they were afraid to approach the shul in the evenings; the Bet Midrash in the basement of the synagogue where voices of youth and the aged mixed as they learned and debated gemara together.   

And above everything I remember the mud spread over the face of the shtetl with no paved streets or sidewalks. More than once I sank in the mud up to my knees and only wit great effort I dragged my legs, one after the other, until I managed to free myself… A common sight, and one especially amusing to the children, was when a wagon together with its horses became mired in the mud. The wagon master rained whips, accompanied with hearty curses. Passersby would also try and help by pushing the wagon from the rear or by encouraging the horses at the top of their lungs.


The people of Kupel


Regarding the human material of the town, impressed upon my memory are the Jews, wrinkled faces crowned with beards and wild payot. Their worn and patched coats that barely covered their thin bodies; the red kerchiefs that waved from their back pockets; the hats on their heads shone from age; and their boots were covered with mud, black and moist halfway up – and from there up the mud was dried and gray. 

The women were mainly heavy, dressed in wide and patched dresses; their heads were wrapped in colored scarves or they were draped in sweaters that hung sloppily down to their thighs.

The children of the heder were dressed like their elders but in miniature; the edges of their undergarments peeked out from their pants; their red and white suspenders; and their boots mouths were open wide to swallow mud with their appetite. With special clarity I remember their curly payot and their sparkling and piercing eyes. 

The girls were splendid with their long braids or with their hair tied in a ball at the nape of their neck with colorful ribbons. Their faces were radiant with charm and beauty despite the rags and patched sweaters that covered their lithe bodies.

According to my father, who often talked about the Jews of Kupel. There were so few men of means in Kupel that a young child could count them. The rest of the population had hunger in their eyes. Most of the Jewish inhabitants, who numbered about 1000, barely earned a living one from the other as craftsmen, small merchants, and many were those who lived from an outstretched hand in Kupel or nearby villages.

Father described the Jews of Kupel as simple and frank, observant of mitzvoth, who were often at prayer and the saying of tehilim (psalms). There were Torah scholars among them; in the Bet Midrash a half dozen Jews could always be found their mouths filled with Torah. In summation, poverty was the lot of the Jews of Kupel.



Grandfather attitude toward Hasidim


Most of the Jews of Kupel were Zinkover Hasidim. Once when our family was visiting Kupel, the rabbi rav Pinhasel, the son of Rav Haimel from Zinkov, was present in the village. I was about six at the time and I remember his departure from the shtetl. I climbed onto a large boulder next to the main road, along with other kids of “the white society” (weisse chevreniks) and from there we could watch as the rabbi left the village. His honor the rabbi, the gabbai, and the rest of the entourage traveled in a carriage pulled by four horses, and progressed slowly and behind them on foot walked all the people of the shtetl to accompany the rebbe. Unforgettable was the sound of the crowd signing and dancing as they walked. The Zinkover tune I learned that day and I still remember it to this day.