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[Page 285]

Szarkowszczyzna

The Destruction of Szarkowszczyzna

by Szarkowszczyzna natives in Argentina

Translation supplied by Eilat Gordin Levitan

The shtetl Szarkowszczyzna is located in Belarus. The area is also called Kressen. However, for us natives, it is actually part of Jewish Lithuania. Even Though the Jews of Szarkowszczyzna did not speak a word of Lithuanian, they were still in character and culture true Litvaks. It was considered a part of the province of Vilna before 1939 , Dissner/ Disna County (Oyezd). Later on it was added to Glubokie County. It is situated a distance of 30 kilometers from Glubokieie, 50 kilometers from Dissne, 60 kilometers from Breslau, and lies on the banks of the small river Disenke, which empties into the River Dvine.

People used to float logs down the river to Dvinsk and Riga during springtime. The exact spot at which the shtetl is located is at a flat surface, no hills can be seen anywhere around. The earth is made of a lime soil. During times of heavy rains, or when the snow melts from the roads, the flooding is so bad that one cannot travel by cart. The town during such times would find itself cut off from the outside world.

Products were mostly delivered from Dvinsk, Disne and Polotsk. Later a railway station was devised at Varpaive, a distance of 25 kilometers from the shtetl, from there one could travel to Vilna.

The Czarist Russian government which controlled the area for more then 100 years ( 1790s – 1915), began to build a railway line in 1910, which was supposed to cut through Varpaive. In the end, they only built 7 kilometers., which extended only to the estate of the landowner, Rudzshinski. It was the worst stretch of land prior to the construction and after it the road was freed of swamps and mud. During the construction the Jews had good income for a few years. Many used to carry sand from the riverbank to fill the site.

During the year 1910, they also bricked over the only long street in town. The street cut through the shtetl and the marketplace. At that time the Street ended at the river's edge. From there one crossed to the other side on a ferry. The ferry was made of wood and a rope towed it. When the river overflowed, you couldn't ride the ferry. During such times one side was cut off from the other for a few days. They had started to build a bridge from both sides of the river where the ferry crossed. They poured large mounds of lime earth. But the building of the bridge was not completed. At the onset point of the highway, where one entered the shtetl, they erected a bridge during the outbreak of WWI (1914). Surrounding the shtetl there were exquisite forests. One forest, which was called the Zverinietz, was where Jewish youth would go to spend the holidays.

The Jewish population of Szarkowszczyzna included 1000 souls. About 500 Christian inhabitants also resided in town.

The geographical scenery of the shtetl

The marketplace stood in the center of the shtetl. It resembled a long cardboard box. All of the stores were to be found there. Most of the buildings were made of wood, except for a few brick homes. The marketplace was not paved, after every rainy day one was unable to pass through it. Later on they made Special walks out of wooden planks in front of the homes and stores.

Five streets extended from the core of the marketplace. Disner Street was the longest of those Streets. It began with the house of Esther Itzes' Chidekel which served also as an inn. The pharmacy was also located there. It was the first street to be paved. It was a throughout street on which you could enter the shtetl from the main highway. About 20 Jewish families and 50 Christian families lived On this street. The youth would promenade Via Dissner Street during the summer and “frolic” on Sabbaths and holidays. They would go for strolls outside the shtetl through the verdant fields to the Christian cemetery. There is now a common brotherly grave near the place where the Jewish youth loved to walk during those bygone days. A large number of the Szarkowszczyzna Jews, our beloved who were so cruelly butchered by the bloody enemy, are buried at that grave.

Two synagogues were found in the shtetl; they were called the old synagogue and the new synagogue. The large empty space around them was known as the synagogue courtyard. All of the shtetl weddings were held there. A large crowd accompanied on foot the bride and the groom to the wedding canopy. Not only the couples' relatives, but also the entire shtetl would attend each and every wedding ceremony. Candles would be lit in each and every window of town houses. When a wedding took place during dry weather it was especially awe-inspiring site. But if ceremonies took place during the fall or after the snow melted it was misfortunate. In the dark you would find yourself struggling through mud. The men would wear boots, the women would lose their shoes, the musicians would play their marches and the shouts would echo through the shtetl. The bathhouse was located not far from the synagogue courtyard.

There were no other long streets in Szarkowszczyzna., only short ones. One such typical street was called “The Tailors Street”. It consisted of seven houses, which were the inheritance of the tailor, Leib Shulkin.

He left it to his children when he passed away. All of his children were tailors. When the river overflowed, it would always flood their homes.

The cemetery was located near the bank of the river, quite a distance away from the shtetl. The surrounding area was muddy much of the year, and one would approach the area with great difficulty. You would have to cross a small bridge, which was always broken. Quite often the floodwaters would carry it away and alternate Crossings would have to be found. You could assume that Szarkowszczyzna was an old shtetl considering the condition of the cemetery. An old mausoleum stood there. Unfortunately, no one ever thought of copying the inscriptions off the gravestones. A Jew, Jeremiah-Leib was his name, lived near the cemetery. He was the gravedigger, as well as the bath-keeper. He was a pious Jew.

The Shtetl up to the Onset of the First World War (1914)

The Sources of Livelihoods

The storekeepers subsisted on the market day, which occurred once a week. Every Thursday, peasants from the surrounding villages, would bring their products to sell in the market place. At the same time, with the money they earned, they would buy supply for themselves: Clothing, food products and work tools. They would bring to town all sorts of grains to sell; corn, barley, oats, and also flax, potatoes, fowl, eggs, butter, cows, calves and sheep. In the winter they would also bring wood and hay.

The trade in flax occupied a prominent place in the shtetls' economy. In order to procure the flax, Jews would travel to the estates of nobles, and through the villages. Since they needed large quantities of the raw substance, they did not wait for the market-day. Certain Jews, understandably the wealthy ones, had large silos where they would store the purchased flax. They would clean it-, sort it, pack it in large bales and send it off via the railroad. Only a few Jews owned such businesses but many Jewish people worked for them as common laborers, as sorters and packers of the flax. Jews were also the wagoneers, who drove the bales of flax to the railroad station. This sort of production went on almost the entire year. The flax business was the main enterprise in the shtetl. People also dealt in grains, livestock and hides. There were also some fruit merchants. At the start of the summer, Jews would lease orchard land from the nobles. During the entire summer they cared for the orchards. As soon as the fruit ripened, it would be picked, racked in crates and sent to the big cities, all around the Russian Empire. They mostly grew apples and pears orchards. Very few fruits were sold for local consumption.

Locally, people would buy fruits only at the very height of the season.

There were many tailors and seamstresses in the shtetl. There were entire families in which the craft would pass on from generation to generation. As we wrote before, the tailors inhabited a very delightful street. Children as well as adults worked at the- craft. They mostly sewed clothing to be used by the peasants of the villages. There were also those who traveled through the villages all week and sewed new clothes, or patched the turn clothing for the peasants. They would return home only for the Sabbath. There were also tailors who sewed mainly for Jews, especially holiday and wedding outfits. This was the main industry of Szarkowszczyzna.

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Young group of people of the Yiddish school

There were a few Cheders (elementary schools for Jewish religious studies). There were no Yeshivas in town. 1f someone wanted to provide further schooling for his children, he would send them to Mir, Vilna or other such cities. Most of those who went away to learn, would never return to the shtetl. Some Jews also sent their children to the Russian “gymnasia” (high school), in one of the surrounding towns. From there some would go on to attend the university. Several Szarkowszczyzna Jewish families had children who obtained a doctoral degree. However, not a single one of them, ever returned to live in the shtetl.

For many years the rabbinical position in the shtetl was occupied by the rabbi, R' Raphael. He was a very righteous Jew, possessing many refined traits. The immaculateness of his beard and the neatness of his appearance, automatically commanded everyone's respect. He would teach a pane of the Talmud to the community on a daily basis, between the afternoon and evening prayers. His brother-in-law, R' Israel (Israel Rabinowich), the Droyer Rabbi, who proceeded him, was entirely different in his out look. He was extremely observant and exceptionally pious and unassuming. He was very careful and didn't even trust himself with important decisions. He always considered his responses very carefully in order to avoid being disingenuous to someone in the community. He was more fearful of giving the wrong idea during disagreements, than he was of the greatest sin. He perished together with rest of the Szarkowszczyzna Jewish community. Wrapped in his tallit, he led his flock to the slaughter. His only son, Hirshl, a doctor, embraced him the entire time until they perished.

Israel Rabinowich was born in Poland. He was a rabbi and married to Rivka nee Gintzburg. They had a son Zvi Hirsh. Prior to WWII he lived in Sharkavshchyna, Poland. Israel died in the Shoah. This information is based on a Page of Testimony submitted on 23/12/1956 by his wife's nephew; Zvi Gintzburg of Tel Aviv.

The most violent disagreements in the shtetl would come about as result of appointing new ritual slaughterers. There was a slaughterer's son by the name of Kalman, who wanted to take his father's place when his father passed away. The rabbis did not find him suitable for the job and did not give the O.K. He would not keep quiet about it. During every Shabath, he would interrupt the Torah reading and remind everyone that he had no livelihood. He was partially successful in obtaining a job eventually.

The most common source of livelihood in the shtetl was Storekeeping. Practically everything was for sale by everyone., from the best and rarest products to a cylinder of thread. Salt, sugar, kerosene and herring were the leading products. There were other occupations from which Jews made a living wagoneers, butchers, shoemakers, etc. There was one hairdresser in the shtetl, Itze-Leib Chazan was his name, who was also the doubling as town' clown {his son and daughter live in Argentina.)


[Page 289]

The First World War (1914- 1918)

by natives of Szarkowszczyzna in Argentina

Translation supplied by Eilat Gordin Levitan

Life in the shtetl went on humbly until the year 1914. The effect of the First World War was immediately felt upon the shtetl. The Czar's army instantaneously called up the Jewish reservists for service. There was not a single family that did not have someone away at war. The sound of the wailing and crying echoed in the shtetl long after these reservists were sent away. Just as the families had begun to adjust to their new situation, the war began approaching the shtetl. The Russian-German front extended so deep into the Russian Empire that the images of Russian soldiers passing through the shtetl became increasingly frequent. Cavalry and infantry, as well as caravans of provisions, passed through. The caravans were so long they often proceeded for entire days and nights. No actions against Jews were carried out during that time. Eventually soldiers occupied the shtetl and they were quartered in every home.

Most of the time the soldiers slept on the floor; the most important thing for them was having a roof over their heads.

We gradually became accustomed to the soldiers, though we did not grow to accept the other difficulties of being at war. It was arduous; not all were able to bear the burden, which the new situation created. Slowly, people began to deal with the soldiers. They were very good customers. Some Jews provided them with food. The baking of bread for the military became a prosperous industry. Not only the bakers were involved, but also many housewives. The military paid well. Also other industries prospered. The tailors no longer had to travel for a livelihood. The soldiers and officers provided them with enough work.

Besides the material benefits, there was also a kind of cultural revival. Due to the war, people became acquainted with the new technical progress. For the first time in the shtetl history all kinds of automobiles and other new types of machines were seen. People became interested in what was going on in the world. The intellectual types, who read the newspapers, spread the news from around the world. Besides this local spread of information, the officers and soldiers also told of their own experiences at the front. Eventually this progress caused a break with tradition. Religious obligations loosened. Many no longer prayed with their former enthusiasm. The youth slowly began to throw off the yoke of religion. Very few continued to wear long curly side locks (payes). They would continue to go to synagogue, but mainly out of force of habit or regard for parents, but not of their own preference. In great anticipation the youth waited for earth-shattering events which were supposed to occur during wartime. Everything they did seemed exorbitant. The youth felt liberated from the traditional values - this was a personal revolution. In 1917 came The Russian Revolution. The rule of the Russian Revolutionary authority lasted but a short while in Szarkowszczyzna, since the Germans soon took over the area. Immediately during the first week, they conducted a census of everyone's possessions. Everything had to be listed according to exact detail, which included the number of horses, cows, calves, goats and fowl, as well as the number of eggs, amount of milk and other products that each one produced during a period of a week. This “innocent” census immediately became the guide used to determine from whom these products could be confiscated. “Fortunately,” this bothered the local Jews very little because hardly anyone owned more than one cow, one horse, or one calf.

For the peasants in the villages this was entirely different. The Germans exactly what they wanted from them. Convoys of products such as eggs, milk, cheese, fowl, calves, sheep, and the like were sent daily to the railroad station.

The German Monarchy didn't last long. However, peace did not come to the area after the Germans left (1918).

In 1919 war broke out between the Russians and the Poles for control of the area. Authority in the shtetl passed often from hand to hand until finally the Poles gained the upper hand. At first no one felt secure with his life under the Polish control. It was enough if someone informed that someone else was a “Bolshevik”. He would be taken away and never be heard from again. Besides this the Poles displayed a sadistic pleasure in beating Jews. Everything was considered contraband. If something like salt, sugar, and alike was found in the possession of Jews, it was immediately confiscated, and the owners were badly beaten.

The fire of 1920

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The firefighters of Szarkowszczyzna

The Shmuel-Leibks' kitchen caught fire one day during the summer of 1920.. The fire quickly spread to adjacent wooden homes. There was no fire extinguishing equipment in the shtetl. The Polish soldiers used this opportunity to throw firebombs at those Jewish homes that hadn't caught fire yet. In a short time they managed to torch both synagogues and the bathhouse. From there the fire spread to all of the surrounding buildings until almost all of Szarkowszczyzna was burned to the ground. When the fire on Disner Street reached the non-Jewish homes, the priest appeared and asked the Polish soldiers to put out the fire. They did protect the non- Jewish homes. We can well imagine what took place in the shtetl at that time. All of the Jewish possessions had gone up in smoke. Only piles of ashes remained. There was no place to rest the head, and no food to put into their mouths. The cries of the children split the heavens.

Slowly people began to rebuild. The task turned extremely difficult. Mostly people obtained wooden frames bought from the peasants. They were brought to the shtetl and placed on the scorched plots. As long as there was a roof over the childrens' heads and a place to lie down, people were content. Completion of the building was done much later, after they had already lived in their temporary shelters for a long time.

An illness of epidemic nature broke out which claimed many victims. The Polish government began to make order and came up with oppressive new demands and edicts. As long as a livelihood was somehow earned the Jews became accustomed to the new conditions also.

Cultural activities

A fresh cultural organization was set up. A library was established, which was novel for the shtetl. Most of the volumes consisted of the new Yiddish literature.

A drama circle was formed, which presented plays from the well-known Yiddish theatre repertoire. They were mostly inspired by what some members of the circle had seen in Vilna. Some of the members were: Itzik Berels' Mindel, Dodke Berels' Mindel, Feige Mindel, Feige Milner, Moishke Chazan, Zelda Yudkin, Leibke Mindlin, Zalman Yankel's daughter, Rivke Estrin, Burshtein, Hirshke Berchon, Shlomo Reuvens' Yudin. The director was Itzik Mindlin. Later, some broke away, and set up a second drama circle. The director was the teacher, Rozshanski.

There were two schools for children: A folkshule ( Yiddish school) and a Tarbut (Hebrew spoken in all subjects) school. There was also a religious school, which lasted for a short time. Their administrators were Yisroel Tzimmer and Leibke Mindel. In the folkshule there was an organization named “Bin”. The youth would gather there every night. They would arrange free discussions there. They also had presentations. There was a choir, which performed locally. All of the income would go to the folkshule. Besides that the students paid tuition. There were about 100 students. The same was true of the Tarbut school. They also had enthusiastic youth who gave their best for the children's education. Their income was also from the same source. The folkshule administrators were Itzke Berl Mindel, his brother, Asher Mindel, Leib-Itze Estrin, and others. The brothers Chidekel administered the Tarbut School.

Sudden prosperity was brought about in all areas by the new railway line, which was set down in 1935. The station was in Zverinietz, one kilometer away, on the other side of the river. Everything became easier. One no longer had to travel tens of kilometers by cart through mud, to the train station. Also, a new steel bridge was built at that time. The tie to Vilna became easier and shorter in time.

The volunteer fire department was established in 1922, a few years after the great fire. [Most of the Jewish youth joined up. There were also non-Jews members. The Jewish leaders were: Hirshke Berchon, Lipe Shub, Zadok Rozov, and others.

R' Yehoshua Estrin

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R' Yehoshua Estrin

R' Joshua Estrin was among the oldest and most respected Jews in Szarkowszczyzna Torah and good deeds were combined in him. 17e was a “dyed in the wool Litvak”. He passionately disliked everything that even smelled of affectation or ostentation. He made his life a holy crusade, lust as if he had a mission upon this sinful earth. Every excess word or unnecessary talk was distasteful to him. Even though he vas a Hassid of Rabbi Shneor-Zalman's type, excessive enthusiasm and religious ecstasy were foreign to him. It would suit him just as if he were making a fool of himself. He was “dry” (did not drink) when he prayed or learned. The same consideration and understanding were present in every favor that he did for anyone. To sit at his table, one didn't need an invitation. It was an insult to him if someone left his home during mealtime without partaking in the meal. For a strange guest, the invitation was: '' Nu, please go wash!” For an acquaintance, the “Nu” alone was enough. If someone didn't understand, he wouldn't repeat, even though he himself never attended anybody's affair unless he was asked three times. He died before the outbreak of World War II. His nephews are the brothers, Shlomo and Joshua Suskovitsh.

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