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[Page IX English]

The History of the Jews of Korelitz

by Hassia Turtel - Oberzhansky (Jerusalem)

Like so many other localities near the Polish-Russian border, Korelitz (Korelicze) was alternately in the Polish County of Novohorodok and, in the days of the Czars, in Minsk County of White Russia.

Located on the Ruta River, on the main highway to Lithuania and the other crown lands of the old Polish dynasties, Korelitz was a strategic point in the structure of the kingdom. In 1505 it was looted by the Tartars, and in 1655 it was overrun by the invading Swedish army. In 1733, following the death of King August II, the Polish ruling circles gathered in Korelitz to choose his successor. In 1812 Napoleon's defeated forces straggled through Korelitz on their way back to France; this was after Korelitz had been annexed (in 1772) by Catherine II of Russia. For the next 142 years the town was in the northwestern Jewish pale of settlement allowed by the Czarist regime.

Jewish settlement in Korelitz dates back to the 17th century, but official community documents (mainly contracts between individual Jews and members of the Polish nobility, regarding commercial and trade concessions and leases) are from the 18th century. Under Polish rule, the community was subject to the authority of the Committee of the Four Lands, to which it paid a per capita tax; the record shows 336 such tax-payers. In its internal affairs Korelitz was guided by heads of the community, assisted by nine dignitaries who were rotated each month.

Like most of its sister communities, Korelitz maintained a pious Jewish life, both public and private, and it exercised measures of boycott and ostracism against “wrongdoers” (like the woman Batya, the daughter of R' Yitzhok Eizel, who was found guilty of having traveled in a cart with a peasant from Novohorodok to Korelitz - without a chaperone). The community also regulated the economic life of the individuals, forcing artisans to lower their prices when these were deemed to be too high.

Korelitz's Jews eked out their livelihoods from small business, peddling and crafts, for local consumption and the peasants in the area. Occupations were handed down from father to son, and no manual work was regarded as being below the dignity of the worker.

A major feature of Korelitz's community life were its communal institutions. Aside from its two synagogues and the Hassidic kloiz, where its Jews prayed, recited Psalms and studied the Talmud and religious writings, Korelitz also had a Bridal Society for marrying off girls without financial means, a Free Lodgings Society (for men and women), a Free Loan Fund (charity without embarrassment), a Hevra Kadisha, and a Ladies Aid Society (110 members) to help ailing women.

Much has been said, deservedly, about the rabbis and scholars who served the community, for such was the fame of Korelitz as a pious, law-abiding and Torah-loving town that many famous rabbis, down the generations, were proud to be its spiritual leaders.

The Jewish community of Korelitz was pious but not fanatic; the winds of enlightenment which swept European Jewry in the second half of the 19th century did not neglect Korelitz. In the summer of 1881, leaders of the “Disseminators of Enlightenment” opened a branch in Korelitz, along with a library. But the most vigorous stirring in the community came in the wake of the Zionist Movement. A branch of “The Lovers of Zion” was established in 1897, the year that saw the first Zionist Congress meet in Basel, and a year late the branch outstripped its counterparts in many of the larger communities.

The new era made its imprint on the education of the young. Talented boys were still sent to the famous yeshivot of Mir, Wolozhin and Slabodka, but the young people were also reading Hebrew and Russian literature. Girls were not left out of the picture; in 1902 public-spirited young people founded and operated a school for girls without means.

Close to the turn of the century (1897), according to the Czarist census, Korelitz had 2,559 inhabitants, of these 1,840 Jews. The growth of the Jewish population was dealt a severe setback in the fire that swept the town (1911) and burned 150 houses and public buildings down to the ground. Many Jews had to sleep in barns, until help came in response to an appeal sent out by Rabbi Avrohom Yitzhok Hakohen to the surrounding communities.

Among the famous personalities that Korelitz produced are the martyred poet Yitzhok Katzenelson (died in the Warsaw Ghetto); the poet David Einhorn; the bacteriologist Prof. Saul Aaron Adler (1895-1965, of the Hebrew University), and Architect Baruch Horowitz, who worked in St. Petersburg at the turn of the century and did a great deal to divert Jews into agriculture and the crafts.

 

The Community in the First World War

Korelitz and its vicinity were at the front lines when the Kaiser's army broke through, and the populace was evacuated (the Jews found temporary shelter in Novohodorok). After the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the Jews returned, to find their former homes in ruins; by a miracle the two synagogues were still left standing. The efforts of the Jews to rehabilitate themselves economically were hampered by the advent of a variety of commissars, who expropriated everything in order to avoid “speculation and the exploitation of the working class”. The town was included in Poland by virtue of the agreement signed in Riga; its Jews numbered 535 souls.

For the next 18 years - until the Soviet invasion of the area in September of 1939 - the Jewish community looked to its spiritual continuity. Its children went to Hebrew schools and to the “Tarbut” Teachers School in Wilna. In the ‘20’s, all of the youth groups in the Jewish world were represented in Korelitz: “Hechalutz”, “Hechalutz Hatzair”, “Hashomer Hatzair”, “Betar”, “Zukunft-Bund”. The young folks arranged literary evenings, social get-togethers, even a dramatic group for presentations in Hebrew and Yiddish. A constant stream of members of the Zionistic youth groups headed for the Land of Israel; once they reached its shores, they joined kibbutzim, worked on the roads and reforested the hills. They were the fortunate ones.

 

The Second World War and the Destruction of the Community

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Jewish community of Korelitz numbered some 1,300 souls. Its sorry economic state was alleviated to some extent buy the help it received from relatives abroad. But its status in the country was threatened, first by veterans of Pilsudski's forces, who sought to oust the Jews from commerce and trade, and later by the announced policy of the Nazis to destroy the Jewish people. For a while the situation, though tense, was not alarming, but the beginning of the end came when the Nazi blitzkrieg hit White Russia, on June 21, 1941. The White Russian peasants inaugurated the assault by raiding and pillaging Jewish homes. Then they were given supervision of the town by the Germans, and they used their authority to make life unbearable for their former neighbors.

In July the Nazis ordered the heads of the community to set up a Judenrat to “govern” its affairs. Its first duty was to institute the yellow Magen David; later it was ordered to collect all the valuables that the Jews still had and hand them over to the Nazis. Later that month, the Nazis rounded up 105 of the town's foremost Jews, locked them in the synagogue and, on the next day, loaded them into trucks and carted them away - to be shot. Next the Judenrat was ordered to have the Rabbi and ten others burn the Sifrei Torah, tallitot and other religious articles. Jews who sought to put out the flames were shot. The aged Rabbi Viernik was taken to prison in Novohorodok, tortured and murdered.

Surreptitiously, young Jews began to organize. They obtained weapons and made contact with the partisans in the forests. For the time being they remained in town; the Nazis had announced that if a single Jew was not accounted for, the entire community would be slaughtered.

Then came the ghetto - 50 souls crowded into a single house, under horrible sanitary conditions, and hardly a chance to stay alive. On May 2, the expulsion of the Jews began, as peasants came to cart away the Jews - and take their belongings as booty. The sick were murdered in their beds. All this time the Polish populace looked on and jeered. The carts moved on slowly in the summer heat, and after a days journey (14 miles) arrived at the Novohodorok ghetto. They waited in a downpour four hours until they were allowed to go into the barns.

The young and the able-bodied were taken to work camps in the morning, and many took the first opportunity to escape into the forests, to join the partisans.

(*??The following paragraph should come at the end of the second to last paragraph. A.B.)

Unfortunately, among the tunnel diggers was a demented young man who told the Nazi captain when the tunnel would be finished. At that moment, as the people in the tunnel began to emerge, they were greeted with a hail of bullets. Half of them were killed; the others scattered and managed to reach the forest, where they joined the partisans.

On August 8, on orders from the Judenrat, all the Jews in the Novohorodok ghetto gathered in the market place, ostensibly to be sent to camps in Russia. Trucks came and took them away - to freshly dug pits, where they were machine-gunned and buried.

In September, the only Jews remaining in the ghetto were the craftsmen, who were kept at work in the heavily-guarded town courthouse. The prisoners dug a tunnel under the courthouse, and several hundred escaped into the forests. (One of them, the cabinet maker Zvi Hirsh Shkolnik, eventually reached Eretz-Israel and lived there with his daughters).

On May 7, 1943 the third and final massacre of the Jews in the ghetto was carried out and the last of Korelitz's Jews died with them. Thus, in blood and barbarism without precedent in human history, this marvelous White Russian “shtetl” came to an end.


[Page XIV English]

Korelitz – The Idyllic Town of Pre–World War One Days

by Alter Boyarsky

Several hundred years ago the (the exact date is unknown), a wealthy landowner name Korelitz decided to develop his estates in the area. He liked Jews and understood their economic importance. For the key figure of his project he selected a Jew from Minsk, who in turn brought his relatives to the spot, opened an inn and welcomed new settlers. Jews and non Jews came, and soon a town named for its patron, grew up there, located about 70 miles from Minsk, the country seat, on the road from Novohorodok to Turetz and Mir.

The Jewish presence in Korelitz developed, in time, to truly magnificent heights. The old “Cold” synagogue was a work of art; built of wood, it was adorned with fine wood carving, particularly on the Ark. Opposite this synagogue was a the popular Bet–Hamidrash, the place of worship of the shopkeepers and craftsmen. Another Bet–Midrash was situated up toward the market place, opposite the Rabbi's quarters; here the congregants were members of the town's upper class – such as the grain and fabrics dealers. The Koidanover Hassidic shtibl, on the road to the cemetery, was frequented by Hassidim only. The public bath was between the shtibl and the cemetery fence.

The stalls in the paved market place belonged exclusively to Jews. Wednesday was market day; peasants from the surrounding areas came to buy commodities (salt, herring, soap, kerosene) and sell (grain, fowl, eggs, butter and cheese). This one day provided the livelihood for the entire week.

The town had several sources of water: the town well in the market place, which was always in need of repair and which never gave pure water; the well in the synagogue courtyard, which supplied clean, cold and fresh water, and a spring with good water located between the town's two inns. The inns also served as police quarters.

The Christian presence was marked by the single church in town, situated near the mansion of the Korelitz estate on Zalemanka Street.

All the traditional institutions of Jewish learning, from the beginners' heder to the twixt–Mincha–and–Maariv Talmud study groups, held full sway. In Korelitz until the decades before the Russian Revolution, when new ideologies penetrated the community – Socialism, Zionism, freedom, equality, brotherhood. A library was established and lectures were given on a variety of current themes. Former yeshiva students held forth on revival and revolution. The neighboring Raviner and Rutchiser Forest became the center of anti–Czarist meetings; other gatherings were held late Friday night – in the Bet–Hamidrash, unbeknown to the town fathers, but on Sabbath afternoons the same place and the same forest were thronged with Jews on the after–cholent stroll.


[Page XV English]

How they made a living

by Yaacov Abramowich

Korelitz's economy combined farming, trade and industry, and was thus an ideal example of regional economic development.

Farm work consisted mainly of picking fruit on the Korelitz estates which was later exported to the large cities. Many small enterprises manufactured Holland–style cheeses. Most of them operated on concessions granted by the estate.

Trade and commerce were constructed in the town market, except for grain. The Jewish grain dealers had their stalls just outside the town and the farmers disposed of their product before going on to the market to buy their commodities.

Cattle formed an important item in the commercial establishment. Many of the dealers also operated in the meat markets.

Carpentry and cabinetmaking also formed an important economic feature. Some carpenters moved about the region, visiting farmhouses to do repair jobs on furniture or sell furniture, and returning home for the Sabbath, aden with a variety of farm produce.

The blacksmiths were particularly busy around harvest time, sharpening scythes and sickles for the farms in the area. For the tailors, shoemakers and capmakers, the high season was before the holidays, especially Passover and Rosh Hashana, when the entire home dressed up in honor of the festivals and“for the neighbors”.

The fragrant scent of pine board in the center of town came from Michael Shuster's lumber yard (Eliyahu Seilovitzky had one outside the town, but it didn't do so well, and he eventually went into the grain business).

There were several mills in the town, one run by Isaac Stoller and his partners, and the other, on the opposite end of town, by Alter Shebrenik and Yossel Bernstein; both were powered by steam. The water mill, operated by Yisroel–Michael Slutzky and his partner Ezra Pomerchik, didn't do as well, but all the mills gave good service to the peasants and their wagon–loads of grain.


[Page XVI English]

Education in Korelitz

by Yehezkel Zaks

Such was my little town of Korelitz – a small community in White Russia, with its little houses, narrow alleys, quaint people, as though depicted by an artist: the small–time grocer eagerly waiting for customers; the blacksmith at his anvil, barely eking out a living; the craftsman busy in his tiny workshop…everything on a small scale.

But from the confines of the Bet–Hamidrash the voices of the students rise and float out to the streets and alleys, and their message is that help comes not only from mundane sources; it must be sought in the upper spheres, as well.

Unlike the thorough schooling that the lads received, the girls fared less well. They merely learned how to read Yiddish at Moishe Shreiber's home (he was so named because he was the town's official writer of letters, and his calligraphy was indeed beautiful to behold). For “advanced studies” the girls went to Reuben Rotshetzer's; there they learned “Ivreh teitch” (reading the translations of the prayers into Yiddish). Both teachers had regular summer and winter semesters, and so did the years go by.

Then a sudden change came about. Moshe, the son of the Rabbi, came to town for a visit, from the big city where he was studying. In Korelitz this popular young man was known as a fine speaker and ardent Zionist. He persuaded his friend Alter–Herzl to take on the task of educating the girls. All at once we found ourselves learning the stories of the Torah and finding delight in them. The spirit of Zionism became part of our being. We looked forward to becoming members of the “Daughters of Zion” and listened eagerly to every word of news about the movement. Moshe helped our teacher in every way until it was time for him to return to the big city. We had a farewell party in his honor in a hall which we decorated with a picture of Dr. Theodor Herzl and Zionist banners.

I remember particularly an occasion when Moshe came back from a Zionist Congress which he had attended. He spoke to us, and we felt as though the immortal Theodor Herzl himself was standing before us.

I left the town and did not return until 1930, after a 23–year absence, for a day's visit. How things had changed! The young people were now receiving a complete Jewish education, and many of them were preparing to go to Eretz–Israel. I was sure that my town was on the threshold of a new, wonderful era. Little did I know that in another decade disaster would strike at European Jewry and destroy everything, almost everything.


[Page XVIII English]

This is how we Studied

by Esther Shkolnik–Hurwitz

PHOTO: Esther Shkolnik–Hurwitz

This was in the period between the two World Wars. Unlike other localities at the end of the First World War, Korelitz had no formal system of education. A child of three or four had to trust to luck for his education; his parents were too preoccupied with the problem of tomorrow's bread. He was left to his own playtime devices.

At the age of 6 –7 he was sent to “heder”. I well remember mine, in the home of R' Aharon Yaakov Dovidovitz – a large room, long table, benches on either side. R' Aharon Yaakov had what was called an “advanced heder”; he taught “reading, writing, as well as arithmetic” (the primary steps of addition and subtraction). We studied from morning till evening, reading and transcribing entire pages of the Chumash, after having learned their contents, word by word, in Yiddish translation. And woe was to the pupil who failed to remember! A male miscreant was placed in a corner with a dirty shtreimel dunce cap on his head. For girls, the usual punishment was to put their name on the blackboard and write a large zero filled with smaller zeros next to the name. On the other hand, a good student was rewarded with 5's next to her name.

The next “heder” was R' Yitzhok's. He was well–versed in the Bible, Talmud and grammar, a martinet when to came to the boys but a fatherly sage with the girls. But one fine day a new school came into being, with expert teachers for every subject: Accountant Yitzhok Klatzki taught arithmetic, Poet Zvi Kivelevitz was invited to teach Hebrew, R' Itzke taught Talmud and grammar , and Mr Shuster taught nature studies.

We were enthralled – a school like “the others” had: recess, bells, a bit of recreation between the classes, holiday hikes, classroom dramatics.

We loved this school, but our parents were worried: how would their children fare, without a knowledge of Polish? And so we were transferred to a Polish school. Here we learned new subjects: singing, art, gymnastics. Soon the Jewish students outdistanced the others; the result: seeds of envy and hatred.

The principal of the school, named Dolemba, was a good–natured but also a pleasure–hunting drunkard. The Jewish students didn't let this bad example deter them. They studied hard, so as to complete the courses and go on to higher education elsewhere. Their Jewish studies were provided by a noble person who taught us to love Hebrew – Benjamin Offseiewitz. Those of us who managed to continue with our studies in the large cities always recalled him with love and affection. Other Korelitz teachers who held classes in their homes were Hershel Dobkes, Berl Feivel from Eishishok, Zelig der Schorser (who also did watch repairing) and Zvi Hirsh Chessler.


[Page XIX English]

R' Zvi–Hershel HaCohen Boyarsky

by Zippora Katzenelson–Nachumov

Ignorance had no place in the “Old Shul”. There the folks studied Torah and Talmud day and night. Around it were the public institutions of the community: the Rabbi's home (the “Cold Shul”, so named because the temperature inside was always cooler that outside – summer and winter). Beyond was an even cooler spot – the cemetery, with its headstones sunken into the ground among the weeds – except the modest mausoleum of the deceased Rabbi, R' Yitzhok Yechiel, for whom Yitzhok Katzenelson was named. On the other end of the courtyard was the warmest spot in town – the schvitzbod, the Turkish bath, so–called.

Opposite the Old Shul and the cemetery was the Hassidic shtibel [a place for prayer and also a place for community gathering] of the Koidanover Rebbe. The First Gabbai of the shtibel was R' Zvi–Hershel Hacohen Boyarsky, a teacher by occupation and understandably a man of modest means. He was a jolly person, rotund and built close to the ground, and he sported a short black beard. He had unbounded faith and was ever in good spirits. His fine singing voice resounded through the alleys and lifted the hearts of his listeners. No simcha [joyful occasion] in the shtibel was worth the name without his presence, and his preparations to visit the Rebbe in his town was an event in Korelitz.

PHOTO Page XX:
Right to left: Mordechai Trotzky, Kalman Morduchowitz, Israel Tzelkowitz, Moshe–Eliyahu Shuster, Nachum Krulevitzky

He was beloved for his gaiety by all his students. He was also a born teacher and knew how to handle the children; the pupils who lagged behind were taken into the smaller room for “private instruction” as in the main room the older pupils taught the younger ones. Yitzhok Katzenelson often spoke of the influence that these surroundings had upon him in his childhood days. This was the background of his future folk poem, “The Sun in Flames is Setting”. He often returned to it is later years, visiting the Rabbis house where his cradle was still standing. And on each occasion he would remark, sadly, that R' Zvi–Hershel was no longer among the living.

 

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