Reunion of Trochenbrod Descendants
By Rose Blitzstein Elbaum
Related to: Sofievka (Town)
The small town of Trochenbrod, about 30 km northeast of Lutsk in Volhynia gubernia, northwestern Ukraine, has become familiar to many people thanks to Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2002 novel, Everything is Illuminated. Families from surrounding villages settled the marshy area in the early 1800’s as a farming colony. It was officially recognized by the Soviet regime in 1835 and given the name Sofiyevka (now known as Zofyuvka), after a Russian princess Sofia who gave land for the settlement. However, since the town’s inhabitants were all Jews who took advantage of the Czar’s edict of 1827, which exempted Jewish farmers from obligatory enlistment in the army for a period of fifty years, they persisted in referring to the town by the Yiddish name Trochenbrod and reserved the Russian name for official use only.
By 1889, 235 families (about 1200 people) lived in Trochenbrod. The town steadily grew until it had a population of 3,000 Jews by 1938. Trochenbrod was unique in that the population was all Jewish save the postmaster, Rizhard Labinsky, who according to Russian and Polish custom, was required to be a non-Jew. The inhabitants consisted mainly of farmers and tanners, but there was also a glass factory as well as service-related enterprises such as cafes, inns, grocers and other retail establishments.
All the residents were observant Jews who attended seven different synagogues in their small town – three big ones: Homilner, Mikever and Barshafsky, and four Hasidic "batei midrash" (study houses) named after the Hasidic leaders from Trisk, Olyka, Berezna and Stepan. The style of davening (praying) was Nusach Sfard, one of the three main styles of prayer, and to this day Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, which was started by immigrants from Trochenbrod and the surrounding villages, still davens Nusach Sfard.
The area of Trochenbrod was small, only about 17,000 acres. It consisted of one main road, which was always muddy in wet weather, with houses one after another on both sides of the road. Each property extended quite a distance behind the house. The town could not be expanded because forests surrounded it and many of the young people were compelled to emigrate to North and South America, especially to Argentina.
During World War I Trochenbrod suffered a great deal because the front was only about four miles from the town and its inhabitants were forced to do unfamiliar jobs for the Austrian and German armies for a period of nine months. The army would distribute small portions of bread, salt and the hindquarters of beef from cattle slaughtered by Jewish "shochtim" (ritual slaughterers) to the residents who worked for the army.
At the start of the Russian Revolution, the young people of Trochenbrod organized many Hebrew and Zionist institutions. After the Poles captured Trochenbrod in 1920, the residents raised money and taught Hebrew in a Hebrew school headed by Rabbi Eliyahu David Yisroel Schuster, who also gave private Hebrew lessons.
Thanks to Arthur BLITSTEIN, a Chicago relative of mine who had the foresight in the 1950’s to interview elderly members of my BLITZSTEIN family, we have a family tree that dates back to David BLITSTEIN, born about 1790, and his siblings. David’s son Hershel, my gggrandfather, was forced to flee Trochenbrod because of a dispute with the authorities and emigrated to America about 1890 when he was eighty years old. He worked as a laborer on the World’s Fair from 1893 until he died in 1896. He is buried in Chicago. However, his wife and eleven children all remained in Trochenbrod. My grandfather, Shoel BLITZSTEIN, had a farm where he raised his own vegetables, had a milk cow, and traded in horses. His nine children were all expected to help on the farm as soon as they were old enough. He had a reputation in the surrounding towns as an honest man, and many non-Jews would only buy from him.
The children in Trochenbrod all attended "heder" (Hebrew school), and when they were old enough, the boys were sent out of town to yeshiva. My father, Nathan BLITZSTEIN, was no exception and told me many stories of his days at yeshiva in Rovno.
In August and September 1942 the Nazis and their collaborators murdered the entire population of the town, save about 35 including my grandfather Shoel, my father Nathan and one brother Avraham, who all managed to flee into the nearby Radziwiller forest. Another brother, Hershel, had left Trochenbrod in 1938 and made his way illegally to Palestine. Those who escaped joined the partisans and fought against the Nazi machinery. Trochenbrod caught fire and was burned down completely. The town was never rebuilt.
After the War, most Trochenbrod survivors immigrated to Israel, where they formed a landsmanshaft, an organization to keep the memories of Trochenbrod alive, which they named Beit-Tal. In 1988, they published a yizkor book titled Ha’Ilan V’Shoreshav (The Tree and its Roots) in Hebrew and Yiddish. After the former Soviet Union broke apart, the Israeli survivors arranged to erect matzevas (memorial stones) in the town of Trochenbrod as well as in the forest of Yaromel, a few kilometers distant, where Trochenbrod’s Jews were led to their mass grave. In August 1992 I accompanied my father and ten Israelis to Trochenbrod for the dedication of the monuments. At that time, I was the only second-generation member who expressed interest in seeing the town where my father had spent his youth. However, I am pleased to say that I am now part of a group who is reaching out to form a network of second, third and fourth generation "Trochenbroders." During the first quarter of the twentieth century many people from Trochenbrod immigrated to the United States. In the 1920’s organizations of Trochenbrod immigrants sprang up in Washington, DC, Baltimore, New York, Toledo, Cleveland, Chicago and other cities. By the late 1970’s all of these had dissolved because of the passing of most of the original immigrants.
Now almost 150 of these descendants and their children from across the US came together this past April at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC to rediscover each other; to remember their ancestors and their Trochenbrod through public storytelling, video and photographs; and to talk about ways to keep alive the memory of Trochenbrod. People joined us from Washington State, Florida, Chicago, New York, Boston and Philadelphia, as well as Trochenbrod survivor Betty Potash Gold of Cleveland. We were treated to phone calls with Trochenbrod survivors living in Toronto, Chicago and San Diego who were too frail to travel.
If you know of someone who has roots in Trochenbrod, please have them contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can go to the new Beit-Tal website at www.bet-tal.com.