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Memoir of Alexander Siskind Kohanski

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The Shimshon and Hanna Feigl Kahanski Group of the Sholom Branch

By Alexander Siskind Kohanski

My father, Shimshon, was born in 1861 in Budvitch, a middle child of four sons and four daughters of Sholom and Esther Kahanski.[1] His upbringing and formal education, like those of his brothers, were in the traditions of a pious and observant Jewish home, trained in the precepts of Torah imparted to him by his parents as well as by his grandfather, Rabbi Judah Hakohen, who most likely taught him a blatt Gemora (some folios of the Talmud). Although he must have been a diligent student, for he kept up his Talmudic studies in later years, his personal inclination was toward farming, which he pursued in one form or another as the main source of his livelihood. In 1891 he married Hannah Feigl (Kollekandt) bat Avraham (born 1864) and Mindl Hodes Kollekandt of Vilkomir (now called Ukmerge), a fifth generation descendant of Rabbi Joseph Moshe Avraham, known as the Tsaddik of Lazday. The marriage ceremony took place in the village of Matzkebudie, not far from Budvitch. In the ketubah (the marriage certificate, which is in my possession, probably in my father's handwriting) there is the signature of one of the witnesses named Aryeh Leib Shafow[itz], whose relative, Abraham Shafowitz, married Hannah Risha Kahanski, and their descendants, the Shafer family, now live in Seattle, Washington.

Shimshon and Hannah Feigl had 9 children—7 daughters and 2 sons—all born in Lithuania. Two girls, Rachel and Rivka, died in infancy. The others grew up at home into their teens, when they started migrating to the United States and Canada.

Of the eldest four, Liebe Ethel and Moshe Yitzhak (Morris) went to Montreal, Canada, where they stayed with the family of their uncle Julius Cohen (Kahanski) until they grew older and were able to strike out for themselves. Tauba Basha Chaya (Beatrice) and Sarah went to New York City, where they were received by their aunt Dinah Cohen (mother's sister) and soon found employment in the ladies' garment industry. The younger three children, Tsippa (Sylvia), myself, and Reizl (Rose), stayed home until they were able to emigrate together with their parents to Montreal, Canada in 1921.

Liebe Ethel changed her name to Kahan, and lived in Montreal, Chicago, and New York, where she worked in the garment industry throughout her life. She never married.

Beatrice also worked in the garment industry for a few years, and then was married to Jack Scherer, a machinist broker for the clothing shops. They had a daughter and 2 sons, and lived in New York for the rest of their lives. Their children and grandchildren live in New York, Chicago, and Chattanooga, Tenn.

Morris changed his name to Cohen, in keeping with the rest of the Kahanski family in Montreal, but moved later to New York, attended the Baron de Hirsh Agricultural School in New Jersey, trying to become a farmer, and finally established himself in the clothing manufacturing business in Montreal. After several years he moved to Nashville, Tenn., where he married Eva Cohen (not a relative) and developed a scrap metal yard while his wife operated a dry goods store. Morris and Eva had a daughter and a son, the former living in Nashville and the latter in San Francisco, Calif. Morris has passed away and his wife lives in Nashville, surrounded by her children and grandchildren.

Sarah worked in New York for a few years, and then married Max Feigenbaum, a businessman in Montreal. Shortly after World War I she died of the Asian flu at the young age of 24 and left an infant daughter who was taken by her father to Nashville, Tenn., where he came from originally.

Sylvia, upon her arrival in Montreal met her late sister's widower, Max Feigenbaum, and married him shortly thereafter. They settled in Nashville where they established a prosperous retail and wholesale store of dry goods and shoes. They had, besides Sarah's daughter, their own 3 daughters and a son. Both parents have passed away and their offspring live in Nashville, Los Angeles, and Israel.

Rose had come to Montreal as a young girl and still had the opportunity of receiving a fine education in the Public Schools and also in a Jewish Folk Shule in Yiddish and Hebrew. She married Abe Mitchell, a lawyer, and they had one daughter. After a few attempts at business in Montreal, they moved to Nashville, where Rose obtained a position as Assistant Registrar at Vanderbilt University School of Divinity, and Abe took a job as salesman in a furniture store. They also developed a small business of costume jewelry, which they both operated in their spare time. Abe has passed away, and Rose now lives in retirement in Atlanta, Georgia, where her daughter also resides.

The families of my sisters and brother are listed in the "Kahanski Family List" which has been prepared for this Reunion. I will proceed with some reminiscences of my early years in Lithuania and of my subsequent career in the United States.

I am the eighth child in my family and born on July 4th, 1902, in Shelmi, the railroad station of Vilkavishk, where my parents had an inn and general store at the time, and where I spent the first 3½ years of my life. What stands out in my memory is one evening when I was sitting at the table reading the Reshis Daas, a Hebrew primer, that introduced every boy into the rudiments of the Alef-Bet and word formation. My grandfather, Abraham, who had come here from Vilkavishk to visit us, was standing behind me and, each time I pronounced a word correctly, he would drop a coin on my book to make believe that it came from an angel above.

From Shelmi we moved to the village of Novodolie where my father had rented a government estate farm and operated it for several years. From there I was enrolled at the age of 4½ in a Heder Metukan in nearby Kibarty, a small town on the border of Prussia, where I lodged with my uncle and aunt, Leyzer and Rivka Grayevski (my mother's sister). At the beginning of this century, the revival of modern Hebrew had already made an impact on some Jewish schools, which became known as the Heder Metukan, that is, a modernized school in which Hebrew was the language of instruction. My earliest experience in formal education was thus grounded in the Hebrew language and culture. On Fridays I would walk with my sisters or get a ride home to our farm for Sabbath weekends.

Family life on the estate was very joyful. All the children were still at home and our social interests were centered in the family, for we hardly had any contacts with the peasants' children in the village, who were of a totally different religious-cultural and social milieu. Within our family circle young and old played together on the wide lawn in front of the mansion. On winter evenings we would gather around mother in the living room and she would sing to us (she had a beautiful voice) or tell stories, while her hands were occupied with needle work, knitting, sewing, or mending clothes for her household. Father was, by nature or perhaps also by his farm upbringing, a taciturn person and never took part in these sessions. Besides, he had to retire early to bed, for his rising hour was four o'clock in the morning. When I was alone I would spend much time in the orchard, climb the trees, perch in the foliage, and eat the fruit plucked right off the branches; or would ride bareback on a horse, or go out into the fields and return rolling on a wagonload of hay.

To this day I don't know exactly the circumstances of my father's enterprises, but my family changed location several times, from village to town and back to village. One of the reasons, no doubt, was the fact that my mother, having been brought up in a city environment, could not well adjust to village life, although she was a wonderful helpmate to my father in all his undertakings. Nevertheless, in all these wanderings, my education was never interrupted. Of all the members of my family I displayed the keenest desire for learning, and it was mother, especially, who fostered and encouraged it in every possible way. My sisters, too, as I found out later, greatly wanted to acquire a formal education, but under the social and economic conditions of the time, girls were not given the opportunity to realize or cultivate their intellectual capacities. Whatever Jewish education they gained through reading and writing, they obtained at home.

At the age of 10, when I outgrew the level of schooling in my hometown, Vilkavishk, I was sent to Pinsk, a metropolitan center in White Russia, where my uncle and aunt, the Grayevskis, lived at the time, so that I might have the advantage of a big city educational system. The Grayevskis had a son, Berl, of about my age, and we were both enrolled in the Talmud Torah, a full fledged 9-grade school of Judaic and general studies (including the Russian language, geography, and other subjects), similar to the Jewish Day School we now have in the United States. While instruction in Bible and Talmud was given in Yiddish translation, modern Hebrew language and literature were part of the curriculum. Attendance was 5½ days a week, from 8 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon, all year round, except for holidays and a brief summer vacation. This regimen, however, did not thwart our childhood instincts: we had time for play in and out of school. During recess we played ball in the schoolyard (a sort of one-base stick-ball) and on weekends and late afternoons we rode bicycles, played croquet, went ice skating, and in the summer went swimming, fishing, and boating. And we still found a few hours a week for reading Hebrew story books issued by Hatsefirah, the most influential Hebrew daily published at the time in Warsaw.

I returned home to Vilkavishk during World War I (in 1915), after the German army captured Pinsk and the whole eastern region of the Russian Empire had come under German occupation. I then attended a Stadtschule that was conducted by the occupying forces, and at the end of the war, when Lithuania became an independent Republic, I enrolled in the Hebrew Realgymnasium (an 8-year High School patterned after the German Realgymnasium) that was founded and operated by the Jewish community. The spirit of the Jewish renaissance and of the Zionist ideal had permeated the youth, and the couple of years that I spent at the Hebrew Gymnasium were the most elevating and gratifying of all my days in Lithuania. We felt free and at home in our school as if we were in an enclave of our own homeland. In my youthful enthusiasm, when I was president of the Student Council, I imagined myself as the veritable head of a Jewish State.

In December 1920 I left Vilkavishk for Berlin to prepare the way for the rest of our family’s emigration to Montreal, where my brother Morris had been established in a thriving business and was the one who sponsored our visas to Canada. It took six months of grueling dealing and pleading with the emigration authorities in Germany and Belgium before my parents and my sisters, Sylvia and Rose, were able to join me in Antwerp, our port of embarkation. We arrived in Montreal in June 1921.

I have already described how my sisters fared in the new land. My father could not possibly at his advanced age resume his life occupation in farming, and he became a supervisor (mashgiach) of kosher meat markets under the auspices of the Jewish Community Council in the city. He retained his family name, Kahanski, and both he my mother found Jewish life in Montreal very much to their liking. My father passed away in 1944, at age 83, and my mother in 1947, at age 80.

I personally adjusted myself to the new environment without difficulty, for I had studied English in the Hebrew Gymnasium, and after a few months in Montreal I matriculated at McGill University. But I stayed in Canada only two years and proceeded to New York, where I anticipated a greater opportunity to further my goals.

My subsequent career in the United States has been varied and very interesting. I received my higher education at Southwestern (college) in Memphis, Tennessee, and my doctorate in philosophy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. At that time I obtained my American citizenship papers and made a slight variation in my name, changing the "a" in Kahanski to an "o"—Kohanski, in order to emphasize its Hebraic, Kohanite origin.

My professional activities spread over a wide field, including National Director of the League for Labor Palestine, Director of Research for the American Jewish Conference (and member of the Jewish delegation at the opening session of the United Nations Conference in San Francisco, in 1945), Executive Director of the Maine Jewish Council (a State-wide organization), Executive Director of the Jewish Education Society and Dean of the College of Jewish Studies in San Francisco, and last, adjunct professor of philosophy at Kean College in Union, N.J. My interests also extended into the area of writing, having published many magazine articles and six books on philosophy and social studies.

When I resided in San Francisco I met a young lady of my heart's desire, Dorothy Dellar of Spokane, Washington, who had come with her mother to town in order to advance her career in social work. After three weeks of courtship we were married and established our home there. Our first-born son, Ahron Shimshon, died as an infant of 2½ months. Our other two sons, who were also born in San Francisco, are Daniel (MS in computer science from Rutgers University) who is now a computer consultant in New York City, and Ronald (PhD in biochemistry from the University of Chicago) who is at present a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins. He is married to Cheryl [Spielman] (MBA from the University of Chicago), the daughter of Rabbi and Mrs. Irving Spielman, of Fort Lee, N.J., and they have blessed us with a grandson, Michael Aaron, who has just passed his first birthday. They are all with us here at the Reunion.

For the past 12 years we have lived in Passaic, N.J. Dorothy (MA in education from William Paterson College in New Jersey) is Director of Federal Projects for the local Board of Education, and I am retired but continuing my interests in writing.


  1. Rywka (Kaplan) Kahanski?


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