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Darkness and Desolation (cont'd)

Preface

This book contains the testimonies, memoirs and experiences of many Jews of Braslaw, Opsa, Okmienic, Dubene, Zamosz, Zaracz, Jajsi, Plusy, Slobodka, Rimszan, Kislowszczyzna and Jod, the survivors of the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis during World War Two. Their survival is as varied as it was miraculous: some hid in the ghettoes in all manner of hiding places, some were deported to labor camps, better known as death camps, some escaped, joined the partisans and fought the Nazis and their collaborators, some enlisted in the Allied forces (the Polish, the Red and the British armies).

This book is only being published now, forty Yiddis years – almost a generation – after the grim epoch. Yet time has not wiped out the memories as they, the thousands – nay millions – of men, women and children, had been wiped out. The book too unveils acts of untold heroism and dedication, man's indomitable will to survive, the relentless struggle and resistance of both individuals and groups – of the few against the many, the unarmed against the mighty Nazi war machine. It is their courage that helped hasten the victory over the dark forces of evil. The book is enriched and enlivened by stories of Jewish life in the shtetlach prior to the Holocaust. Jews are shown through the eyes of the storyteller: Jews from every walk of life, rich and poor, Jews in their relations with the Goyim, with one another, their diversified community life with its political parties, groups and circles.

An entire generation has come and gone since the Holocaust. Yet time ahs not healed the wounds nor silenced the cries. And therefore, let the humble pages of this book be a lasting memorial to them and their suffering. It is a debt that we who survived owe them who perished, and our children – to remember! The idea of publishing a book in memory of the Holocaust victims from Braslaw and its surrounding shtetlach originated already in the transit camps to which the survivors flocked after the German surrender. The first memorial service, organized by Zusman Lubowicz, was held in 1947 in the Eshwega camp. The next Yizkor took place in July 1948 in the Hertzog camp and was organized by Zalman Charmatz, Tuvia Fisher and Eliahu Smidt, the late Ben-Zion Charmatz and David Sztrimling.

In 1949, after the survivors had settled in Israel, a Yizkor service was held in David Sztrimling's home in Haifa. A year later a committee of Braslaw survivors was elected and memorial gatherings were held annually. The idea of publishing a book was mentioned on a number of occasions, but the task seemed forbidding, and it was shelved. However, a nucleus, a committee under the chairmanship of Yehuda Cepelewicz, and consisting of the following members: Moshe Goldin, Moshe Wishkin, Arie Munitz, was formed. The committee kept the memory of the martyrs alive by organizing annual gatherings and were subsequently responsible for two vital tasks, namely: (a) Thanks to the strenuous efforts of Itschak Rajchel, a jar of blood-soaked earth taken from the Braslaw pits – the mass grave – was brought by Szlomo Rajchel to the cemetery at Holon, Israel, where an impressive tombstone was erected. (b) It was through their initiative and untiring efforts that the longstanding wish to publish the Memorial Book as a lasting tribute to the memory of the victims came to fruition.

More people were needed, however, both to raise funds and to collect and compile the material for the book. The survivors in America came to the rescue. Mendel Maron, Charles Witkin, and Tuvia Fisher set about to raise funds. Our sincere thanks and appreciation to them for their valiant efforts. An editorial board was elected consisting of Yaakov Levin, Yaakov Aviet, Moshe Bogomolski, and Aron Shmutser. The Latter, though not a Braslavian himself, is married to one – Monka. He has done a tremendous job collecting and translating the testimonies. The written material was mainly in Yiddish, but also in Polish and Russian. The editorial staff translated and formulated the Hebrew text of this book.

Our sincere thanks and appreciation to the survivors of Braslaw and environs who literally had to draw their breath in pain to tell their stories. Each tale is an echo of the cry of the condemned to the pits, of children strangled in shelters. We also remember the last cry and command of the first victim – Chayim – “Avenge our blood!” We owe a debt of gratitude to the late Zvi Shner, director of Beit Lochamei hagetaot (Ghetto Fighers' House) for his encouragement, advice, sharing his knowledge and experience with us and for offering the patronage of the Ghetto Fighters' House.

Our thanks go to Sarah Shner, Zvika Dror and Itzhak Sternberg of Kibbutz Lochamei Hagetaot for their interest, involvement and encouragement. Benjamin Anolik, the administrative director, helped us to obtain bibliographic material on the historical background of Braslaw, and a microfilm on the Jasinski trial. Our appreciated to Ariel Machnes who acted as editor of this book. Yaakov Levin has done a fine job on abridging the Yiddish version Zvi Eisenman edited it. Rachelle Mann, a Braslavian presently living in Johannesburg, translated it into English. To all – our thanks and sincere gratitude. The “Amos Foundation” of the office of the President of the State of Israel extended financial assistance. So did the Fund for the Perpetuation of the Memory of Polish Jewry. Help was also extended by the Breslover Aid Society, Inc.

We have availed ourselves of the following:

  1. The Archives of the Ministry of Defense
  2. The Congress Library, Washington
  3. The library of Beit Lochamei Hagetaot
  4. The National Library of the Jerusalem University
  5. The Yad Vashem Archives
  6. The Yivo Archive, New York

To the martyrs who perished in the Holocaust and to the fighters and heroes of Braslaw, its vicinity, and elsewhere - this book is dedicated.

Once There Were Shtetlach….


Translators' Note

Though not a survivor in the strict sense of the term, I might have been one had we not left Braslaw, Poland two years prior to the outbreak of World War II. A lonely and mute adolescent, a stranger in a foreign land. I kept looking back with longing to all I had left behind – the place of my birth, the friends of my childhood. Then came the war – the ominous silence – and when the clouds lifted, the horrible vision of death and destruction. I felt bereft, desolate, the ground cut from under my feet. Slowly I rallied, tried to live in the present, to strike roots in my new home, and to forget

Years passed. Then in Israel, I met up with some of my childhood friends – survivors. They told me of this book and I felt stirrings of memories long past, the tug of a common bond, and promptly offered to translate it. It was only later that I was to fully grasp what I had but vaguely sensed then. The manuscript arrived and I began with the poem “Deep deep pits, and red red loam,” its leitmotif. When I came to the words “they who leave no one to speak”, I stopped. So this is what the enemy sought: to leave no trace. To sink all into silence! So that evil may live and people die. And then I knew that to keep silent is to betray the dead martyrs, the living victims, and to rob those yet unborn of their rightful legacy – REMEMBRANCE.

Rachelle Mann-Rachman


Samuel Halkin

Deep Deep Pits, and Red Red Loam

Deep deep pits, and red red loam –
Once I too had a home –
Where the orchards bloomed in spring
and in autumn birds took wing
and in winter soft snow fell.
Now – the wind his moan howls there.

A disaster struck my home!
Open wide flung doors and gates
the vile murderers, the butchers,
they who slaughter little children,
they who hang the old, the weak
they who leave no one to speak…

Deep deep pits, and red red loam –
Once I too had a home.

The years come, the years go,
brimful are the pits
and redder still the loam.
That loam is now my home
There my brothers, sisters lie –
torn limb from limb
cut down on the spot
shot down beside the pit.

Deep deep pits, and red red loam –
Once I too had a home.

Brighter days will dawn again
Fortune will yet smile again
And the pain will slowly wane.
Once again will children sprout
Once again will play and shout
near the graves of the holy dead
graves so deep, so full, so red –

And with the wind will sigh your moan.
Deep deep pits, and red red loam –
Once I too had a home.

Deep deep pits, and red red loam –
Once I too had a home…

Yes, once I too had a home …

Translated by the author.

My home, Braslaw, a precious jewel in the heart of thick green forests, deep-blue lakes, which mirror a heaven studded with stars that twinkle and beckon on white moonlit nights, and awaken painful memories and dreams . . .
They well up, bestir, the memories of my old home; ravaged and desolate, it now haunts the minds of a handful – the She'erit Hapleita (survivors of the Holocaust) scattered to the four corners of the earth. Not large was our shelter, a mere 4000 Jewish souls, but their forebears had struck root there over many centuries. Their cottages, build mostly of wood, huddled as though for comfort and safety around the mountain, “der Schloss Barg” (“Castle mountain”) as it was called. True, not large was our shtetl, but it hummed and pulsated with burgeoning life – varied and rich. Synagogues, schools, political parties, cultural and social circles, clubs and societies, lent dignity and meaning to a ceaseless struggle for a meager existence. Four decades have passed since Jewish Braslaw and its nearby shtetlach and yishuvim have been wiped off the map, their inhabitants put to death – four decades since the gruesome destruction.

And so the time has come. It is therefore with awe and trepidation that we, the few, have taken upon us the sacred duty to gather what little testimony is left of the tragic events which befell the Jews of Braslaw and environs, to set it down for all who will come after us – in eternal memory of our beloved, martyred dead.

Braslaw – Brief Historical Background

The history of Braslaw, its ethnic, geographic and communal development, lies hidden in the mists of the distant past. From the few documents in our possession we learn that Braslaw is already mentioned as far back as the eleventh century – almost 300 years prior to the founding of Vilna. It belonged to the Potocki duchy which was situated on the Russo-Polish-Lithuanian border and was called Braczislaw, after the reigning duke. If one examines the geographic-topographic location of the town and its vicinity one cannot but conclude that Braslaw was originally built as a border town. Its checkered topography comprised of mud pans, swamps, forests and hills, lakes and streams, was ideally suited to defense, rendering it a veritable bulwark against attacks from hostile, semi-organized military bands. The river Dwina, a major waterway which skirts Braslaw, indirectly helped to boost the economic growth of the town.

With the unification of Poland and Lithuania at the beginning of the fifteenth century – the so-called Jagella period – Braslaw became part of the Vilna province, and was considered one of its five administrative districts. Incidentally, all official documents of that time refer to Braslaw as “Braslaw of Lithuania” as opposed to “Braclaw near Uman,” a city in the Ukraine. Due to the incessant feuds between the Russian and Polish sovereigns, the town was frequently ravaged by wars, raids and fire. Particularly harsh, though fortunately short-lived, was the Tartar invasion; their rulers, who hoisted their flag with its crescent moon on top of the mountain in the very heart of town, exacted heavy tributes from the local inhabitants.

In the seventeenth century Braslaw was almost totally destroyed by floods. So vast was the damage that Warsaw central government by special ordinance exempted the town from taxes for a period of four years. The town shared the vicissitudes of its rulers, the noble Sapieha family, through whose feuds with rival nobles over several centuries it kept changing hands. The mountain which as mentioned earlier was situated in the center of town served not only as a military fortress and prison but also as a Christian religious stronghold, complete with nunnery and church. It was protected by a regular military garrison stationed there. Legends proliferated about the secrets which it jealously guarded in its bowels, about treasures and precious articles buried in it, though in places unknown. A special order issued by King Stanislaw-August affirms the strategic importance of Braslaw and its contribution to the royal crown. This monarch chose as his emblem a triangular sundial inset with an eye – the “watchful eye” – as a sign of God's vigilance over the town. There are no documents on the later development of Braslaw as most of them, according to one historian, were burnt or destroyed during the Russo-Napoleonic war.

The Jews of Braslaw

From historic evidence in our possession we note that Jews are reputed to have lived in Braslaw and environs as far back as the sixteenth century. Thus a report on a population census held in 1559 cites the names of several Jewish families – among them Byk, Krawiec and Nemirowicz. The Jews engaged mostly in commerce but were also tradesmen and artisans such as tailors, cobblers, innkeepers and so on. They were organized into communities, some of the larger independent ones like Braslaw, Druja and Vidz, managing the smaller semi-independent ones like Opsa, Slobodka, Drujsk and others. We shall now briefly trace the history and development of some of the shtetlach and yishuvim of the Braslaw district.

Opsa

A shtetl, boasting approximately 300 Jews, who were linked with Braslaw by commercial and familial ties. Opsa is first mentioned in the fifteenth century in a royal decree of the Polish king Alexander in which he ordered a special tax imposed on its pasture lands and on fishing rights in its nearby lakes. In certain respects its history and development strongly parallel those of Braslaw and other vishuvim. It too kept changing hands as a result of the continual feuding of its rulers. Records show that in 1790 Opsa's population totaled 130 souls, made up of seventeen Christian and two Jewish families. The year 1794 is a red-letter date in the history of Opsa. It is the year of the famous Kosciuszko revolt against Czarist might when a great battle in which close to 40,000 Polish rebels took part, was fought on its outskirts. Another fateful date was April 28, 1928 that fine spring Sabbath morning when a fire broke out, almost razing the entire shtetl to the ground. Yaakov Aviel describes it as follows:

I remember it as if it were only yesterday. The fire started in Baruch-Itse's house. The tongues of flame fanned by the spring breeze spread like wildfire, enfolding roof after roof, house after house. The church bells pealed ominously, then suddenly fell silent as the fire began to engulf the sacred building and the burning crosses and massive bells came crashing to the ground.

Opsa was again rebuilt but the fire was not forgotten. Interwoven into the fabric of the lives of its inhabitants it frequently served as a landmark. Thus they would say: “This still happened before the fire.” Or “Do you remember the house before the fire?” Despite its small Jewish population of barely a few hundred souls, the communal and spiritual life of Opsa was multifaceted and replete with cultural activities, clubs, social circles, and political parties. It had two synagogues – a Chassidic and a Mitnaggid synagogue-cum house of study. The children attended “Cheder,” a religious afternoon school, or studied in the Braslaw yeshiva (Torah academy)_ or in the Hebrew school Yavneh. The Betar was the predominant Zionist movement and attracted a large following among the youth. As in most Jewish shtetlach in the interwar period, the period engaged in business or plied trades. They were tailors, cobblers, tinkers, bankers, and so on. The Jews of Opsa, like those of Braslaw and environs, perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Jod

The name of the shtetl, originally Jod-Jody, after Judia or Jehudit, the wife of the then provincial administrator of Brisk (Brzesc) was abbreviated to Jod. An existing report states the yishuv ( community) together with the adjoining land was purchased by this administrator in 1754 and his wife Jehudit (Judita) had a church erected there. Historians can merely hazard a guess at the date of origin of the yishuv or its development and communal life. The only chronicles available are of the interwar period of the subsequent German occupation, and of the tragic events which overtook Jod and prefigured the liquidation of its Jews.

From the narratives of the survivors Zalke Fiszer, Luba Jarowski-Wilkick and Slawa Pincow of Jod one can reconstruct the economic, cultural and communal life of the shtetl, so typical of contemporary Jewish life in general in the interwar period. The Jews of Jod were mostly shopkeepers, innkeepers, tradesmen and artisans. They too had close familial ties with many Jews in Braslaw. Their children and youth studied in its school and yeshiva, often graduating to institutions of higher learning in Vilna.

Slobodka

A small yishuv about ten kilometers northeast of Braslaw. There is little documented evidence on Slobodka except for a brief mention of the fact that in 1783 its Jewish population consisted of six families and that it belonged to a Polish landowner. Historians record that the Slotodka inhabitants adopted a negative stance towards the Polish uprising against Russia. With the establishment of the Polish Independent Republic in 1918 a regular military border garrison came to be stationed in Slobodka. In the interwar period Jewish Slobodka grew and prospered.

General: Social and Economic Position of the Jews

From the report of a certain inspector and envoy-extraordinary of King Stanislaw-August we learn that the Jews of Braslaw and its district enjoyed equal civil rights in Poland, on a par with the Jews of Breag Britain and Holland. This report appears to be one-sided, however, as borne out by similar reports and documents which present the situation in a totally different light, if not to the contrary. According to the latter, the position of the Jews under Russian and Polish rule was anything if not invidious and they were frequently denounced as spies and enemies of Christianity. One historian goes as far as to state that he cannot bring himself to put on paper or even attempt to t describe the precariousness of their social position and justify the accusations against them by the fact that in the endless wars and feuds between the king and the nobles, and the resultant upheavals and changes of power, the Jews found themselves between the hammer and the anvil, each new ruler in turn accusing them of treason or lack of loyalty.

A popular source of income at the time was the inn, so familiar to us from Yiddish folklore and literature. These inns, dotted along the roads and dirt tracks, were usually owned by a lord who leased them to a Jew for a fixed sum. We have no exact data about the Jewish inhabitants or their economic position. In existing official papers we read about Jewish colonization in yishuvim established specifically for this purpose, and about land apportioned to them for cultivation. Some of these yishuvim and village still exist to this day, but needless to say, they are empty of Jews.

In 1847, the Russian government distributed land for Jewish settlement, thus establishing the villages of Dubene, Jajsi, Drujsk, Plusy, Kislowszczyzna and Ukazne. Some of these later grew into small shtetlach. To encourage the Jewish colonists, the Czarist government by a law promulgated in 1835, exempted them from military service for a period of fifty or twenty-five years respectively, depending on their numerical strength, and absolved them from head tax for a period of twenty-five to ten years. However, by the mid-nineteenth century the Czarist regime did an about face and began to obstruct Jewish settlements on the land until in 1864, when it totally prohibited the acquisition of arable land by Jews, or their settlement in villages. In 1866, all existing decrees permitting Jews to work the land were revoked.

While on the subject of Jewish villages, we wish to dwell briefly on an item which appeared in the Hebrew periodical Hamelitz, No. 91 of January 1885. In it the correspondent Szerman in a specific reference to the agricultural “colony Drujsk” sharply berates the Jews for neglecting agriculture, and for subleasing the land to strangers so that they could engage in trade and commerce. He thus underscores the fact that these Jews are skilled agricultural workers and it is a great pity that they should abandon this vital means of livelihood.

With regards to Braslaw, in the early years of this century, following the pogroms and the Russo-Japanese war, it grew and developed. After World War I, many Jewish families who at the onset of war had fled deep into Russia began to return. Not only did they help swell the numbers of the Local Jewish population, but they contributed substantially to the social, economic, and political ascendancy of Braslaw.

Braslaw

Scattered on yellowish-brown sand, on the bank of the large lake Drywiata to the west and the smaller lake Nowiata to the north-east, lies, ranged round the mountain the house of the shtetl Braslaw. The main street, once know as “die groisse gass” (“the big street”), after World War I as Pisudski Street, and with the Soviet entry in 1939 as Lenin Street, spans the entire length of the shtetl. The street is straight and long. To the east of it, on a hillock, stands dumb, petrified, an old windmill, whose giant wooden wings creak in the autumn nights and cold winds nestle in the crevices of its barred windows. From here the street runs on until it reaches a small wooden bridge beneath which the two lakes meet. It is a fairly wide street, cobblestone and flaked by wooden sidewalks which shake at every step. The houses are built mostly of heavy weather-beaten logs. Some, old and decrepit, are half-sunk into the ground, while others stand erect on stone foundations arrogantly flaunting their brightly painted doors and windows.

Squeezed in between the houses is a medley of shops of all shapes and sizes, with an odd assortment of wares: foodstuffs, saddles, whips, and other paraphernalia which cater to the needs of the peasants in the outlying villages. On one side where the street intersects “Third of May” street, built on a Hill, is a red brick building – the Roman Catholic Church – its crosses like pointing fingers pierce the sky. Opposite, on the edge of the Drywiata, stands demurely the white-blue Greek Orthodox Church with its five-onion –shaped domes. Each day the bells of the two churches ring out, their sounds commingling, as they summon the faithful to prayer. A short distance away, sloping as though into a valley, is the synagogue courtyard where stand as if abashed, three synagogues known as Minyanim or houses of prayer; the Old Minyan, the New Minyan, and the Mithnaggid synagogue-cum house of study. In the synagogue courtyard is also situated the fire brigade building. Spacious, built of wood, it housed the fire-fighting equipment: enormous bright red, wooden barrels on wheels, handpumps, brass pipes, hatchets, firemen's poles, and all sorts of implements. The firemen, all volunteers, are almost all Jews, some middle-aged broad shouldered, sturdy, most of them sporting beards.

When a fire breaks out, to the sound of bell and bugle, the firemen come pouring forth, and in their wake, from every street and alley, the townsfolk, old and young, armed with buckets, hatchets, picks, or whatever they can lay their hands on, and with much din and excitement help to span the horses hurriedly commissioned for this purpose, to the wagons on which the pumps and barrels full of water are loaded. Often when the fire is fierce and the pumps cannot pump fast enough, the people form a live chain, filling buckets from the lake and passing them from hand to hand up to the burning house, and so helping to quench the flames. The firemen add color and excitement to the shtetl of a happier note too, for they constitute the practically all-Jewish brass band. On public holidays or on festive occasions the musicians, dressed in their uniforms, bedecked with silver decorations, march along the main street proudly displaying their shiny brass instruments. Here goes Yerachmiel Milutin with his huge booming tuba. Next to him, marching in step to the music, struts the bearded Ezer Eidelson, the teacher with his trombone. Then come Yankel Maron and Ishike Lewin with the horns, followed by a host of others, all led by the bandleader Telrraszewski. Over the entire show presides Beinesz Milutin, serious, dedicated, as though bent on the most grave rather than joyous event.

The theatre hall occupies part of the fire-brigade building. Here the shtetl is entertained by its local dramatic society which stages plays and a variety of performances. The hall also serves as a venue for meetings and gatherings. The synagogue courtyard, of modest proportions, humped sandy, comes to life on warm evenings in the month of Av. The youth of the shtetl flock to it to enjoy the balmy air. Girls stroll past in pairs or clusters, to provoke the boys no doubt, who are quick to take up the challenge. They pelt the girls with burrs and revel in their piercing shrieks of feigned fear. On Purim, the synagogue courtyard is agog. Scores of boys of all ages band away with keys stuffed with gunpowder against the synagogue walls. The deafening noise from their homemade ammunition aimed at the historical villain Haman – the Hitler of ancient Persia resounds all around.

However, the gaiety and excitement reach fever pitch on the day of a wedding. The Chuppah (wedding canopy) is set up on a flat, clean-swept spot. The shtetl turns out to a man and all gather round the excited families of the young pair. All along the way where the bridge and groom are to pass, the windows are lit up with candles which, as though rejoicing in the general festivity, flicker and dance through the misty panes. The street is strewn with fresh yellow and. The groom, escorted by his close relatives is led to the canopy, accompanied by musicians playing the traditional “dobrydzien” (a joyous melody of welcome). Then the bridge is brought and she, her mother or female relatives, walk round the groom seven times. The ceremony over, the groom breaks the class underfoot – a reminder of the destruction of Jerusalem – and joyful cries of Mazel Tov erupt from all mouths. The bridge and groom walk hand in hand through the excited crowd, past the poor lined up on either side with buckets of water, into which the groom and guests drop coins. With lit candles in their hands, all escort the newly-weds to the wedding feast.

There is yet another synagogue, the so-called Sandy Minyan, but this is situated further along on the way to the mountain, and like the first two Minyanim, belongs to the Chassidic community. The Jewish community, not unlike their former overlords, was not without its disputes and bickering. D.S. Szerman, the correspondent mentioned earlier, describes in Hamelitz of 1994-1885 the sharp differences between the Chassidim and Mitnagdim the denunciations to the authorities which he regarded as tantamount to blasphemy in the eyes of God. At one time things went so far that the synagogue was closed down, many were arrested, and the town Rabbi and his family suffered want because some of the congregants sided against him. Mr. Szerman makes an impassioned appeal to the Chassidim to stop persecuting the Mitnagdim and to rebuild their synagogue with had burnt down the year before.

Further along, the street continues until it reaches the mill owned by the Jewish miller Byk. Here too is the power station which supplies the shtetl with electricity. The street winds like a narrow ribbon between the mountain and the lake, whose waters lap at the sandy banks, often reaching up to the houses. The lake Drywiata, is vast and deep and sports a variety of fish which are caught in it all the year round. With the onset of frost in early December, when the lake is covered with a thin sheet of transparent blue ice, before the snow has had time to blanket it, one can glimpse far down into its dark depths breathtaking sights o magic worlds. On such nights fisherman by the score set out, followed by lovers and idlers whom boredom drives out of doors, to witness a most spectacular extraordinary mode of fishing.

Armed with long heavy mallets, iron picks and hooks, the fishermen, with lanterns in their hands, scatter along the tinkling ice and light it up, keeping the lanterns close to the ice. The fish, lured by the light, swim up towards it. The fishermen raise their mallets and bring them down with a heavy blow on the ice. A deafening roar reverberates all along its surface. The fish stand still, stunned as though hypnotized, and the fishermen then chop out apertures in the thin ice and with their hooks haul out the fish.

The two lakes which surround and converge on the shtetl have always been a wellspring of fun and pleasure for the youth. On moonlit summer nights, the merry laughter and song of young boys and girls who frolicked on its enchanting waters, would ring out until dawn. And in the days, especially weekends, they'd bathe and splash in these magnificent natural swimming pools. Each year, the lakes would claim a victim. Then the entire shtetl would be plunged into deep mourning until the body was recovered and brought to burial.

To the west, the main street joins the dirt road which leads to Vilna. The road runs along noblemen's estates and villages scattered between pine forests and fields. To the north of the main street, several streets and lanes terminate in the narrow-gauge railway station which adjoins the Chridtian suburb, the “gumnes.” The train cuts through a sand road on its way to Dubene, a small Jewish yishuv about eighteen kilometers from Braslaw. Its population, numbering less then one hundred families, engaged mainly in agriculture. Each family owned its own plot where it kept horses, cows, sheep, geese and chickens. A vegetable garden, fruit trees and flowers complete the picture. There was the usual sprinkling of shops, the ubiquitous artisans, here especially itinerant tailors who eked out a living from the nearby peasants. In 1927, a cooperative dairy was established in Dubene for the manufacture of butter and Dutch cheese. Dubene, like most adjacent Jewish yishuvim, was closely linked with Braslaw through commerce, administrative affairs and ties of blood.

Not far from Dubene is Okmienic, a village with only one Jewish family. Villages of this kind were not uncommon in the Braslaw district. Another such village was Zaracz, but there were many more. The narrow-gauge railway branches off to Druja on the one side, and to Dukszt on the other. There it links up with the wide-gauge railway which runs from Warsaw to Latvia. Several side streets intersect the shtetl in its length and breadth until they reach the marketplace, the post office, and the printing works owned by the brothers Magat. This press, founded in the thirties, employs local Jewish youth, and publishes a weekly featuring local and regional news.

One street proceeds beyond the Jewish cemetery to the new lush and plush suburb where the Polish intelligentsia – government officials and others – live. Here too are situated the government institutions, the civil court and the like. This suburb borders on the Karpowicz forest, a recreational spot renowned for its scenic walks. In view of its proximity to the Polish suburb, however, it was shunned by the Jews. Their favorite haunt was the Dubkes forest at the opposite end of the shtetl. There Jews from all walks of life would flock, stroll, and enjoy its beauty and bracing air. This forest, being dense and vast, was an excellent hideout. Little wonder that it served as a central partisan camp during the Nazi occupation. Another road leads from Braslaw to Jajsi, a Jewish village. Its inhabitants, a few score families in all, engaged in agriculture and particularly in the processing of goat's milk cheese.

The Marketplace

The marketplace, situated on a large empty plain, was surrounded by stalls and houses though, strangely enough and unlike so many other shtetlach, not by shops, most of these, as already mentioned, being interspersed between the houses throughout the shtetl. The marketplace merely served a center for the disposal of agricultural produce brought in by the neighboring peasants who would descend on the shtetl twice weekly, on Wednesdays and Fridays. They would arrive in their heavily laden wagons, outspan their horses, hitch to em to the wagons, and begin to display their produce: potatoes, fruit, vegetables, hay and oats, chicken, hides, and hog's hair, and firewood. Jewish small dealers, middlemen, or simply loiterers would mill among the wagons, often seen chewing on a straw. The marketplace was especially lively in autumn when men and women in their hundreds would mingle with the merchants, buying up provisions for the long winter ahead.

The star attraction was the so-called “zadarmenikes” (“givers-away”). Their cries of “It's a give-away, give-away” earned them this nickname. Amid the hubbub, the creaking of wheels, the shouts and curses of drunks, the hoarse cracked voice of the crier, usually an emaciated young man, would rise. Poised high on his wagon, he'd proclaim and extol his cheap almost worthless merchandise: combs, scarves, penknives, and other knickknacks. Crowds, mostly peasants, would flock, jostle and push – all eager for bargains. Some peasants who lived on the Latvian border- redrawn after the rise of Poland – went in for smuggling, particularly of sugar, since the Polish government exported it at a far more competitive price than sold locally. The peasants used to hide a few sacks of sugar in a wagon loaded with hay and sell it to the local shopkeepers.

Trade and Commerce

A number of Braslaw Jews earned their livelihood by transporting goods. The nearest city, Vilna, was situated approximately 180 kms away, and the two gauge railway system rendered transportation by train prohibitive. Hence it was more economical and convenient to dispatch the goods direct from seller to manufacturer by other means. Winter was particularly conducive to the transportation of goods. Once the snow had set and the roads frozen hard, loaded sleights would carry fish and meat, poultry, eggs, flax, hides, and other produce to the big city. On their return trip, they would bring back manufactured goods such as textiles, footwear, sugar, salt, soap, various kinds of oils and hardware. In summer, the horse-drawn sleigh was replaced with trucks, owned by the Milutin and Bielak families.

An important means of livelihood was the fresh fruit trade. Many families would spend all summer and part of autumn watching over the fruit, guarding it, and picking the fruits of their labors – a rich harvest of apples, pears and many others – and see to their dispatch and sale, both in the shtetl and outside business centers. Many Jews were also tradesmen, some working as independent artisans and some as journeymen. All occupations were well-represented; there were tailors, cobblers, tanners, milliners, watchmakers, carpenters, locksmiths, tinsmiths, ropemakers, bakers and so on. But the mainstay of the town was the fishing industry, headed by the chief lessee, Szne'er Aron. Braslaw's lakes and rivers were a source of income to many. Entire families engaged in buying and reselling, transporting and packing the fish, which the fishermen caught in their nets. The main fishing season was winter when the lakes were coated with a thick layer of ice. The fishermen would then lower their news into the apertures, the so –called “windows” which they would chop out on the ice, and a few days later haul out the nets full of sparkling silvery fish.

On the whole, the economic position of the Jewish population was precarious. No Jew could hold a government post, the small dealers and shopkeepers, with few exceptions, barely eked out a living. The artisans and unskilled workers were no better off. To supplement their income, some kept a cow, a goat, a few chickens, or geese. Many cultivated small vegetable gardens next to their homes.

Z. Szmuszkowicz vividly depicts the abject poverty and privation of many Jewish families, who often had to seek aid from the community or appeal to the mercy of kindhearted charitable Jews. Here we wish to mention the inestimable help and support to the poor of the Gmilut Hesed, a communal fund which granted interest-free loans to the needy, thereby virtually saving entire families from starvation and want. Here too we should mention the honorary communal workers and leaders like Baruch Fiszer, for instance, who did much more for the community as a whole and was among the first to help people in need. Szne'er Aron, the fishing lessee, was another philanthropist. Every Friday he would freely distribute fish to the poor for the Sabbath, as well as other material aid. One of the founders of the “Yavneh” Hebrew school, he was its pillar. He personally supported the teachers, in addition to caring for the innumerable needs of the community. Charity and mutual help seemed to be a way of life. Minor philanthropic institutions, often consisting of one or two people, would spring up in a time of crisis and rush to the aid of someone in distress, be it a poor bride who needed a trousseau or refreshments for the wedding feast; or at Passover Maot Hitim – a fund for supplying the poor with Passover needs. And throughout they would do all in their power to observe the traditional and laudable injunction of Matan BaSether (secret almsgiving).

Earlier we mentioned fishing as one of the main occupations of the Jewish population. We now wish to add something about the fishermen themselves. The majority of these fishermen belonged to the old offshoot of the Greek-Orthodox church, the “Starowiery” (i.e. members of the old faith) as they were called. They were tall, well-built, powerful men with bushy beards who would come once a year from and wide, and flock to Braslaw to celebrate the festival “Grorrnica” (Candlemas. Celebrated on February 2nd, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, and the presentation of Christ in the Temple: the day on which the church candles are blessed). This festival, with its pageantry and carnival air, almost invariably coincided with Purim. These men would come sporting magnificent horses, beautifully decorated sleighs, with jingling bells and festooned with colored ribbons. They would spill out and stroll about the streets, the women dressed in all their finery, bedecked with Jewels. While strolling thus, suddenly without warning, a young man would drive up furiously, grab a maiden and drive off with her to an unknown destination. A few days later he'd send matchmakers to her parents. Naturally this was merely a stunt, all agreed upon beforehand, and not a crime. This folk custom may well derive from the biblical story of the young Benjaminites who too used to snatch maidens in the vineyards after their entire tribe had been practically wiped out.

In the afternoons they would hold horse races on the snow-blanketed lakes, to the delight of the entire shtetl. On the whole, relations between the Braslaw Jews and the peasants were normal, even friendly. More than once the peasants withstood the barrage of anti-Semitic propaganda of hostile groups which emerged especially after the rise of the “Endek” chauvinist party (N.D. = Narodowa Bemokracya – National Democracy) which raised its head soon after Hitler came to power. When the Germans subsequently entered Braslaw, it became clear that many members of the party were indeed Nazi agents.

During World War II as well, there were outbreaks of Jew hatred and dangerous moods presageful of pogroms among the peasants. The Jews – proud and firm – warded off pogroms, looting, and pillaging with great courage, which is still spoken of to this day.

During the final days of the war when Braslaw was without an official government for a while, peasants and marauders from the neighborhood assembled near Gmina (local administration building), ready to attack the Jews, rob and kill them. The Jews got wind of this and immediately organized a self-defense. Szmuel Josef Milutin, on horseback, charged among the incited peasants, and brandishing a revolver in one hand and a sword in the other, dispersed and routed the rabble. Young Yerachmiel-Mendel Meirson fell in this skirmish and Abraham Lubowicz received a leg wound.

Upon the entry of the Nazis into Braslaw during World War II, their first victim was Chayim Milutin, son of Szmuel Josef. However, there were also episodes which spoke of the deep friendship and loyalty of many peasants to their local Jews. One such episode concerns the Kagan family from the village Zahorie – incidentally, the only Jewish family in the village – who leased the lake Ukla from the local noblemen. During World War I Polish marauders and virulent Jew-baiters attacked them and sought to burn down their homes and pillage their belongings. The village peasants quickly rallied and armed with axes and pitchforks, drove off the attackers.

Religious and Cultural Life

Of the four synagogues in the shtetl, one housed a Yeshiva numbering 60 students, some from the adjacent yishuvim. Since there were no Jewish schools in these yishuvim, the children attended Polish government schools in the morning and Cheder and Talmud Torah in the afternoon. The more affluent sent their children to Braslaw, to its Folkshul, Hebrew school Yavneh, or Yeshiva. The Yeshiva students were fed from a communal kitchen specially erected for this purpose. Some of them were so-called “day boarders.” Each day of the week one family would take one student for a day's board. Naturally this was a makeshift measure, in view of the dire straits in which the teaching institution found themselves, since they received no government subsidy. Many graduates of the Braslaw Yeshiva continued their studies in the Yeshivot of Volozyn, Myr, Vilna, and Nowogrudek, some even graduating as Rabbis.

Despite constant financial problems, the Yeshiva made a notable contribution to the cultural life of the shtetl. The shtetl employed two Rabbis who served the people with selfless devotion. The Mitnaggid Rabbi, Reb Hirszl Valin – tall, broad-shouldered, still in his prime, with a sparse black beard streaked with grey. An outstanding preacher, he also officiated as cantor during the Holy Days. In the thirties he and his family emigrated to Latvia where he took up the position of Rabbi in one of its towns. The second Rabbi, Reb Abba Zahorie, old, frail, retiring, was the religious leader of the Chassidic community. His mild blue eyes expressed a childlike innocence, as though in wonder at God's words. It is told that when the Jews were led to the pits, he went before them, wrapped in his prayer shawl and comforted them, saying that man must accept God's will with love, all the while murmuring the verse: “from the depths I have called thee.”

Apart from the Yeshiva, the homeless Yiddish Folkshul too conducted classes in the synagogue – albeit in the women's section. This naturally often evoked quarrels between the Folkshul and Yeshiva students on account of the permissive dress of the former. In the thirties a beautiful commodious Folkshul building, with an adjoining nursery school, was erected in the courtyard of the Jewish Bank. Funds were provided by the CYSO (Central Yiddish School Organization) and the Bank Director, Levi Yitschak Wainsztein. Apart from his financial share in the venture, he also sponsored children poor homes to enable them to further their studies in Vilna. The Folkshul was the matrix of the local intelligentsia. Its graduates who took up studies at higher institutions of learning in Vilna, would return as teachers, professional, technicians, assholes, thus enriching the cultural values and quality of life of the youth. Around the Folkshul cultural circles sprang up, among them a dramatic society, which staged plays and vaudevilles. The moving spirits and gifted artists in this society were Widrewicz, chief bookkeeper of the Jewish Bank, and the tailor Szaie Dejcz. The latter, in addition to being a fine artist, introduced much life and creativity into a number of circles.

In her memoirs, the late Perl Fiszer-Charmac traces the important role played by the Yiddish Folkshul and the cultural circles. She speaks with love tinged with awe and admiration for the Folkshul, its dedicated teachers and of all who spared no effort to maintain this worth institution. Likewise, Marasza Rothenberg-Rajchel recalls with love and reverence the multi-faceted activities of the school and its circles. Thanks to the initiative of a number of townspeople and communal workers, a Hebrew school “Yavneh” was established in the last few years before World War Ii. Among its renowned teachers was Rafael Jakov Munic, a fine scholar and “Lover of Zion.” In the twenties he already organized the youth to study Hebrew, the Bible, and mobilized young boys to prepare them for Aliyah to Eretz Israel. Young boys went to work on the land, engaged in fishing and pother pursuits. Some of them later emigrated to Eretz Israel among them Mosze Valin, the Rabbi's son who joined the Kibbutz Rarnat Hakovesh and later founded the Li-La-Lo theatre. He also served as impresario to several famous singers and dancers.

In the shtetl, political parties and groupings began to mushroom. There was the Zionist movement made up of the Chalutz group, General Zionists, left and rightwing Poale Zion. Some of the youth, the Chalutzim, emigrated to Eretz Israel. There was also the Revisionist organization, the Betar and Brit Hachayal, headed by Advocate Geliszkowski and Zusman Lubowicz. The adherents of the Yiddish Folkshul were called “folkwisten” and their views were close to those of the “Burd,” a strong and influential force among local youth and Jewish worker circles. A staunch supporter of the Folkshul was Lieber Cepelewicz, a colorful personality. His home was a regular venue for discussions and a meeting place of the loyal youth.

Braslaw, though lacking in industrial enterprise and a concomitant proletariat, nevertheless featured a Communist party, but its influence on the youth appears to have been negligible. Despite political differences, there were no signs of any animosity in these youth circles. All that has been told so far is but a fragment of the history, way of life, and vicissitudes of Braslaw over hundreds of years up to the grim period, the Satanic German0-Nazi rule, which ended in the total destruction of many Jewish communities, towns, and shtetlach, villages, and yishuvim, by Hitler's henchmen.

In 1939, Poland was cut in half. The Red Army advancing from the east and the Nazi hordes from the west split Poland and divided it amongst themselves, thus partitioning it for the fourth time. The two armies stood facing each other across the river Bug. The Jewish population of Poland numbering over three million was likewise split and cut off from one another. However, with the Soviet decision to free the western parts of White Russia and the Ukraine, the dread of falling under the iron heel of the Nazis was dispelled for a time. The Jews welcomed the Red Army with great joy, with flowers, bread and salt. Chayim Band of Braslaw tells how the draper Aharon Zeif brought out and distributed rolls of red cloth among all who wanted to make flags.

The Jews under Soviet rule knew nothing about the condition of their fellow Jews under German occupation. Only here and there faint echoes of the deplorable situation of the Jews under Nazi rule would reach them from the other side of the Bug. Trickles of refugees would bring sad tidings of the happenings on the western side of the river. The life of the Jews under Soviet rule was, from a material angel, fairly tolerable, but their cultural, communal, and religious life had altered dramatically. One by one the various Yiddish institutions were closed down: schools – both religious and secular – and the study of Yiddish was forbidden. Not to speak of the Yeshiva and the Talmud Torah. Some families were exiled deep into Siberia and the Urals. Ironically, even former avowed communists were not spared, since the Soviets did not trust them. And so, for close to two years, Polish Jewry lived in the shadow of suspense and barely contained fear, until the advent of that fateful, bloody era, which plunged the world into blood and tears, suffering and death.

The fearful tragedy that struck the Jewish people – and Polish Jewry in particular – the total obliteration of hundreds of Jewish communities, large and small, the physical extermination of millions – something unprecedented not only in the annals of Jewish but also world history – the systematic genocide perpetrated by the Nazi beast, will never be blotted out nor forgotten. The holocaust which engulfed the Jewish people must be set down and attested by those who miraculously escaped it, today's living witnesses of all that took place. Sholem Asch, the great Yiddish writer, introduces as motto to his book Kiddush Hashem an extract from an older book:

We are ashamed to tell what the Cossacks have done with us so as not to dishonor the name Man who was created in God's image.
How can we keep silent, fail to speak, to describe what the Nazis did with and to us? The torture, the suffering, the murders, the humiliations, the gas ovens, the valleys of death where our dear ones were butchered – fathers, mothers, children, brothers and sisters? In the ghettoes the story went around about the famous Jewish historian Simon Dubnov, who when led to his death turned to the Jews next to him and commanded them, “Write down! Record!” It is therefore with sacred awe that we carry out this last will and testament – to write down, to record the suffering of our holy martyrs – as an eternal memorial for generations to come.

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