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History and Destruction of the
Jewish Community of Bryansk, Russia

Essay by Gennady Levitsky

The district of Bryansk lies inside Russian territory at the former eastern frontiers of the Pale of Settlement, but the Jews who lived there spoke the Byelorussian dialect of Yiddish and belonged to the Jewish community of Ukraine. The reason for this unusual situation is the district's location. Bryansk lies at a crossroads, where three republics—Russia, Byelorussia, and Ukraine—come together; representatives of all three ethnic groups lived in one place, interweaving and intermingling with each other. Perhaps because of this relative diversity, so uncommon among the people of Russia in the past, the indigenous population was much more tolerant toward their Jewish neighbors than it was t in other parts of the Russian Empire. And although Gentiles never called local Jews anything other than “Kikes,” and although they looked upon them with a mixture of scorn and disgust, instances of physical abuse and unprovoked violence against Jewish residents were quite rare and unpopular.

The historical development of Jewish settlement in the region occurred as follows:

By the end of the eighteenth century, the Russian government had established the Pale of Settlement, the territory of the expanded Russian Empire where Jews were allowed to live. The idea behind this law was to prevent Jews from moving into genuine Russian territory and to force them instead to stay outside, on the periphery, in places like Ukraine, Lithuania, and Byelorussia. But the eastern border of the Pale was constantly changing, depending on which czar considered which land to be genuine Russian territory. This forced Jews living near the border to move from one place to another. No doubt this was the reason, although not explicitly stated in the play, that Jews were expelled from the fictional village of Anatevka in the musical Fiddler on the Roof.

The Bryansk district, populated by Jews, had a fate similar to that of Anatevka. It was part of Ukraine's Chernigov governorate or district from the eighteenth century until 1919. In that year the Russian government detached the four northernmost uyezds or counties (Surazh, Novozybkov, Starodub, and Mglin, each known by the name of its main town) from Chernigov and attached these to the oblast or district of Homel, which lies to the west, in Byelorussia. But in 1926, the Soviet government (the new “czar”) nullified the decision of the previous government and put these four towns and the surrounding areas into the Bryansk district, thus making them part of Russia. That is where they remain to this day.

Even before these perturbations took place, Jews had started to leave their decrepit and impoverished shtetls. In February, 1917, the Russian revolution took place; the czar was deposed and a newly established provisional government issued a law that finally abolished the Pale of Settlement and allowed Jews to settle freely everywhere in Russia, including big cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Different sources give different statistical data for the population of the four northernmost counties of the Chernigov district prior to the Russian revolution of 1917. For example, the Brokhaus and Efron Encyclopedia, published at the end of the nineteenth century, states that the largest town in the area, Starodub, had a population of almost 26,000 residents, but that only several hundred were Jews; the Jewish Encyclopedia (JE) claims that there were 4,500 Jews living among 17,000 inhabitants. Similar discrepancies could be found regarding other towns. (For all four counties, JE gives the following number of Jews: 10,014 in the county of Mglin; 8,852 in the county of Novozybkov; 9,975 in the county of Starodub; and 10,078 in the county of Surazh.) Both sources agree, however, that the “most Jewish town of all” was Mglin. According to Efron and Brokhaus, 6,000 of Mglin's 11,700 residents were Jewish, while JE gives the numbers as 4,200 and 7,631 respectively. Despite such discrepancies, both agree that Jews represented more than half of the town's population. In the whole northern part of the Chernigov district, taking small villages and individual farms into account, Jews barely exceeded 5% of the entire population or, in absolute numbers, 40,000 people.

In towns and villages Jews lived apart from Gentiles, in self-imposed ghettos. There they could expect better cooperation and mutual understanding among neighbors and they could have a safer environment and everyday conveniences: synagogue, mikve, school, butcher shop, and so forth; everything had to be in a short, walking distance from home. Being, as a rule, in-town dwellers, they monopolized the professions of peddler, musician, shoemaker, tailor, bookkeeper, watchmaker, and so forth, serving the needs of local Gentiles who, for the most part, were peasants and did not possess the necessary skills. Some Jews, however, served only the Jewish community. These were shoikhets, melameds, cantors, and others. A few others, the richest Jews, owned small businesses such as grocery stores, inns, bakeries, taverns, and small factories.

After the revolution, towns in the Bryansk district began to lose their Jewish identity. Lured by numerous opportunities and more refined entertainment, Jewish youth started to move to big cities like Kiev, Moscow, and Leningrad. Some were able to escape into the west and emigrate to the United States, western Europe and even Palestine. When the Bolsheviks came to power they nationalized private enterprises, convicting former owners of small businesses of such “crimes” as being “socially dangerous elements” and sentencing them and those they found sympathetic to their cause to hard labor in Siberian camps. Simultaneously they closed Hebrew schools, converted synagogues into clubs and theatres, and applied moral and physical pressure on Jews who resisted assimilation and atheism. Incidentally, a number of local Jews who considered themselves “progressive” joined the communist party and, together with others, actively participated in the prosecution and oppression of their kinsmen. “Not with Jewish nationalists against Gentiles but with Gentile workers against Jewish capitalists” was their motto. All these developments negatively affected the Jewish population in the region and by the time Nazi Germany invaded the USSR in June, 1941, only 10,000 to 12,000 Jews still remained in place.

The German Army entered the Bryansk district in August, 1941. A week or two earlier, crowds of emaciated, ragged, and tired refugees from western parts of the USSR appeared in the streets and at the railroad stations of towns in the district. They told local residents horrifying stories of Nazi mistreatment of Jews. Some people believed them but many did not, so inconceivable and unreal did their tales sound. And when the time came for local Jews to join this ill-assorted army of starving and homeless people, many decided to stay home, preferring familiar surroundings to the hardships and deprivations of a difficult journey to an unknown destination.

Those who left had to travel on their own, since the government usually did not provide any means of transportation. Some did it in horse-drawn carts, others on buses, some on foot, but the majority traveled in railroad carriages designed to transport freight and animals. Because most men had been conscripted into the Red Army by that time, these passengers were mostly women with babies in their arms, elderly parents at their side, and small baggage on their backs. In one decisive moment of their lives they had left everything behind: houses, furniture, bicycles, books, cats, dogs—everything they had acquired through many years of hard work or from their elders, unsure if they would ever be able to come back and reclaim anything. Only years later did they find out that they had made the right choice.

German airplanes often bombed trains moving to the east. During each such raid the train would stop in the middle of nowhere and refugees would run away, trying to find shelter behind hillocks and in ditches near the railroad tracks. As soon as the attack was over, the locomotive would whistle and would start to move forward, not waiting for late-arriving passengers. People would rush back to the train amid desperate cries for help, screaming for relatives and friends missing or killed in the attack. Food was scarce; medicine was absent. So were basic utilities and warm water. For many travelers, this journey took many months before they finally settled in the vast emptiness of Siberia or in dinky, dirty towns of Central Asia. Life continued to be harsh for them even there: they were always hungry and tired, and they lived in overcrowded apartments where an entire family usually occupied just one room, sharing the kitchen and bathroom with strangers. They worked on farms and in factories for 12 to14 hours each day, with neither weekends nor holidays. “Everything for the victory, everything for the front” was the demand of the day.

One person, who at that time was about five to seven years old, has described his feelings this way: “For three years I had one dream. It seemed to me overly fantastic, totally unattainable. The dream was that one day I would get up from the dinner table and there would still be some food left on it. And I would say to myself: 'I don't want any more.'” Despite the hardships and difficulties, Jewish refugees were the lucky ones, for their fate cannot be compared to the fate of those who decided to stay.

Few people (mostly Gentiles) are still alive who witnessed the destruction of the Jewish community in the area. I have a more-or-less detailed account of what happened to the Jews in the town of Mglin, but a similar fate was experienced by Jewish populations in every other small or large village or town in the Bryansk district. Only the date and the place were different.

Germans occupied the town of Mglin on August 16, 1941 and immediately ordered all Jewish residents to wear yellow stars with the word Yude (Jew) on them. By the end of 1941 most of the Jews were arrested and put in the local prison. A Christian woman, Lubov Prokhorenko, who lives now in the village of Velika Dubrova in the Bryansk district, describes conditions in the jail this way:

“In 1942, I was 19 years old and became a member of the local Resistance group. Soon thereafter I was arrested by the Gestapo and thrown into the jail. There were a lot of Jews in the cell: children, women, and elderly men. Everybody slept directly on the concrete floor, without pillows or blankets. It was very cold. Starving children were constantly weeping. Every day Germans were sending Jews to work and they beat everybody who could not get up with metal twigs and sticks, often to death. While I was in the prison more than 60 persons died from such beatings and from malnutrition. Dead bodies lay on the floor among live people, slowly decomposing. There was an awful smell inside the cell. Eventually, though, the Germans ordered local peasants to take dead bodies away and bury them in their backyards.”

Not all Jews were arrested at the beginning; some retained a certain degree of freedom. Former butcher Shimon (nobody remembers his last name), for example, was assigned to deliver water to the prison from the town well. He could move freely, without guards. “Why don't you run away?” locals asked him. “Why should I?” Shimon answered, “I have enough money to buy my freedom whenever I want.” He was executed together with the others on March 2, 1942.

On that day Germans, with help from local collaborators, began to transport Jews from the prison and from their homes to a large pit, which had been dug the previous night in the yard of the local hospital. The men were brought there first. These were mostly elderly persons, for young ones either were conscripted into the Red Army at the beginning of the war or left home for the woods, where they joined resistance groups (Partisans). At the entrance to the hospital yard the men were ordered to undress and from there they were led in small groups to the edge of the pit in front of a machine gun, while others stood naked outside the gates, waiting for their turn to be executed. Local residents gathered in the surrounding streets to watch in horror this unimaginable procedure.

When Germans brought women and children to the execution site, order disappeared. Naked children cried loudly because it was too cold; mothers tried to comfort them, thus slowing down the already established procedure. Germans ordered women to stand at the edge of the pit and hold small children and babies in their arms so that they could be executed together, simultaneously, but all too often the bullets from the machine gun would hit the mother while missing her child. Babies were falling into the pit alive, screaming and crying at the bottom while bodies of the new victims were falling on top of them. The situation went completely out of control toward the end of the execution. Here is how one of the witnesses, Helena Pavelich, described it:

“I was working in the hospital as a nurse. The execution happened during the day, when I was on duty. It took place in the hospital's garden and all medical personnel watched it through the windows, from the beginning to the end. Germans surrounded the site with guards and vicious dogs; dogs barked, people screamed, children cried, a machine gun fired in short bursts. It looked like something unreal. At one point, when young ladies were led to the execution site, one of them, Sonia Agranovich, separated from the group and rushed toward the German officer who was in charge of the execution. I knew that girl; she was a classmate of my sister Genia. She was the most beautiful girl in our high school; all the boys were after her. She fell on her knees in front of the officer and then crawled forward, trying to grab his boots, begging him to have mercy and spare her life. But a guard who stood nearby misinterpreted Sonia's intention; he probably thought that the girl wanted to harm the officer. The guard fired at her but missed and instead killed the officer. After that the real turmoil began. Germans began shooting at women and children everywhere, without any order, bayoneting them and throwing them into the pit alive. I can still remember the voice of a young boy, screaming from the inside the pit, begging 'merciful men' not to cover his head with soil. Two days after the execution the earth was still moving at the site of the mass grave.”

There is now a small gravestone in the hospital yard, marking that infamous place. It is so small that a casual visitor probably would not notice it unless he or she were looking specifically for that stone. A short note is written in Russian. It states that at this spot on March 2, 1942, Nazi criminals executed over 500 innocent people. That is all: no names, no places, nothing. Once there was a Jewish community in the town of Mglin and now there is just this little gravestone. Only a few elderly persons, local residents, still remember the names of Jews who perished in Holocaust: Yesipovich, Yeroshenko, Kruglikov, Kagan, Freadman, Aronov, Agranovich, Klyamkin, Pischik, Turansky, Chavkin, Shur, Katz, Persov, and others.

Most of the perpetrators of that and similar crimes in the Bryansk district avoided righteous justice. Unless they were killed in action they ended their lives in cozy beds in hospitals or in their own homes, surrounded by family members, somewhere in the western part of Germany or on the American continent, protected by an iron curtain of ignorance and mistrust between governments of two different parts of the world.

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