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Preface

by Joshua Lior

Fifty two years have gone past since the Jewish Community of Melnitza was wiped out against their will by the local Ukrainians and their German Nazi Masters.

One thousand two hundred Jews of Melnitza and surrounding areas are buried in a mass grave near the Municipal slaughterhouse. They were murdered on (Kaf Aleph Ellul, Taf Shin Bet) 3.9.42. The burial place of over a thousand of the town Jews who were murdered in time of the Nazi occupation of the town from June 1941 is not known.

The murderers took away from the very few survivors from the town and from those that had already come to Israel before the Holocaust the possibility of visiting the graves and mourning their parents, brothers and sisters, a custom kept by humanity throughout the world.

Because it is impossible for us to visit the graves of our loved ones, we have decided to give ourselves this difficult task to honor the memory of the Melnitza Community by writing this book as a Memorial for the People of the Book.

There is no way to describe the pain and sorrow in detail in any book. It is njust not humanly possible to describe this terrible tragedy which took place during our generation in that sick Diaspora.

This book is not pretended as a historic book; it is simply a memorial and document about a dynamic Jewish town, alive, busy and full of life that does not exist anymore.

The target we set ourselves was to relive the past and to record those memories for future generations: certain periods of time and the events in the life of the Jews and the town, to immortalize those people who had lived and worked in Melnitze and take them out of anonymity. To throw light on the struggle to live, about the public life, social, spiritual, religious and financial, and to bring up from the abyss of being forgotten, material on all aspects of the Jewish life in the town.

Due to the passing of many years until the publication of this book, the sources of information have diminished. A large number of people from Melnitze, who were in Israel and could have supplied us with important information, have passed away during the last few years. With their passing a great deal of important historical information has also been lost.

We took a great deal of material about the life in Melnitze until the end of the First World War from the book “Pinkas Kovel” – The Kovel Notebook – edited by Bezalel Baller which was published in Argentina in 1951.

The Editor, born in Melnitze, the son of the writer Aaron Wolf Baller (Der Shreiber) dedicated a chapter of his book to the life of the Melnitze Jews. Artistically he described exact details about the people and the town. These editorials are of historical importance and I have translated them from Yiddish to Hebrew and they are the foundation of our book.

From memories and stories we took from the actual people themselves, who had left Melnitze before the Holocaust, we managed to write a simple outline about their lives. Everyone contributed according to their own memories about the life of the people and the town. Yisrael Wollk, after fifty years, managed by memory to draw a map of the town and all the Jewish homes. He added the names of all the Jewish families who had lived in the town. Of course, many names were forgotten, but this did not detract from the great effort he put into making the map and the list.

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The immortalization of the martyrs of our town – the list of those who died in the Holocaust, printed on the first pages of the book, was also written by memory by Yisrael Wollk. We did our very best to include all the names of the dead, men, women and children, but unfortunately we could not remember all of the names or receive information about them.

The editorials and sections of remembrances were not written by professional writers. Our aim was not to publish a professional book. Anyway the size of the book depended on how much material everyone gave, telling their stories as they saw them, and lived them as they themselves remembered.

A great part of the book was given to memories of the Holocaust, about the flames and the destruction as remembered by the very few survivors. Scrolls that were written by witnesses to the atrocities, who had been part of these bloody events themselves. Chapters that tell of those terrible days and the massacres carried out by those murdering Germans and Ukrainians on the Jews of the town.

I have included chapters by witnesses that I found in archives of “Yad VaShem” in Jerusalem, written by actual survivors straight after the Liberation from the Nazi occupation: attestation from Zelda Baller that she gave in Lodz in July 1945 to the “Institute of Jewish Hisotry” in Warsaw, Poland and the attestation of Yerachmiel Zweig, given in Haydenheim, Germany in July 1947 to the “Historical Committee for the Remaining Survivors” in Munich, Germany.

These attestations were an integral part with those I had gathered in August 1991 during my meeting in Kiev with Lily Rog (Toybah Rog's sister) who lives today in Lutzk in the Ukraine, and from Yehuda Litvar who lives in Argentina and recently visited Israel.

I was careful that the facts published in this book about the Holocaust of the Milnitze Jews would be exactly the same as the historical truth and no discrepancy or differences.

During my visit to the Ukraine the following things were brought to my attention:

  1. In 1944, after the liberation of Kovel district from the Germans, a committee was set up by the Russian Government to investigate the Nazi crimes.
  2. In May 1974 trials were held in the Law Courts in Holobi near Melnitze for four local Ukrainians who served in the German Police Force and took part in the murders of the Jews from Melitze and Kovel.
Due to receiving this information I wrote to the Government Archives for the district of Wolyn in Lutzk and requested that they send me a copy of the accounts they had on the murders of the Jews of Melnitze.

In the letter of reply I received from the Government archives of Wolyn in the town of Lutzk on 23.4. 93, they were oblivious to the murder of the Jews and they do not even mention that there ever were Jews in Melnitze who had been annihilated. This letter and its translation are printed in this book.

We have printed part of this book in Yiddish for the Melnitze survivors, who do not read Hebrew, who are scattered around the world, so that in principle what is written in Yiddis is printed in original language.

Yiddish was the mother tongue used daily by the Melnitze Jews, spoken at home, in the streets, in the “cheder”, in the synagogues and in the Youth Movements. The Melnitze Jews spoke Yiddish until they breathed their last breath when they were murdered in cold blood besides the trenches in the “Killing Valley”.

The attestations of Holocaust survivors were also written in Yiddish. I have translated the material and the attestations I received in Russian and in Ukrainian into Hebres.

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We have printed a few chapters translated into English so that the offsprings of the Melnitze survivors in America and other English speaking countries can read and learn about their “Roots” and about the origin and sufferings of their grandparents, how they were born and lived and about the fate of their relatives and members of their families who were lost during the Holocaust.

By writing this book we have created a memorial to the magnificent Melnitze Community. The book will be a Memorial candle for the people who were never given the chance to be buried in kever Israel.

The book needs to be found in the homes of everyone from Melnitze and in the homes of their children and grandchildren because it is the hidden scrolls for the history of the town and its Jewish souls.

Thank you very much, to all those who contributed their memories, immortalizing their families and dear ones and also contributing their photographs for the book.

With grateful thanks to one and all,
Joshua Lior


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Zog Nit Keinmol
(Song of the Partisans)

by Joshua Lior

 

Say not it is the final road we tread
Leaden skies will pass, and sun will shine instead.
Believe that freedom's hour will appear,
Our steps will tell the world that we are here.

From lands of palm and lands bedecked with snow
We came with all our people's pain and woe,
Where falls our martyr's blood into the earth,
Our courage and our hope shall have rebirth.

Tomorrow's dawn will robe our world in light,
Our yesterday will vanish with the night.
But if our freedom should arrive too late,
The world should know the meaning of our fate.

The use is not a poet's playful dream,
I write in blood and not in ink my theme
We sang it as our world went up in flame,
We sang it fighting to defend our name.

Say not, it is the final road we tread
Leaden skies will pass, and our sun will shine instead.
Believe that freedom's hour will appear,
Our steps will tell the world that we are here.

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mele011.jpg
The Memorial of the Jewish mass grave in Melnitza
With the Ukrainian inscription:
“In this place the Fascists murdered 1200 Soviet citizens in 1942”

 

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Izkor
(Remember)

May He remember in mercy the
pious and saintly communities of Israel
who gave their lives to the sanctification
of His name, the lovely and the pleasant, in
their lives, even in their death, they were
not divided.

Let us remember
our brothers and our sisters, men, women
and children, who were murdered and slaughtered and strangled and drowned
and burned alive by the German claws of
cruelty, in ghettos and in concentration
camps, in gas chambers and fiery
furnaces, in forests and fields, all over
Europe…
Earth, conceal not the blook shed on thee!

The list of the martyrs killed in Melnitza during the Holocaust is published in the Hebrew language (see p. 21).


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mele013.jpg

 

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In Perpetual Memory of the Melnitza Survivors and Their Families
Who Died in Israel and in the Diaspora

 

Baller Bezalel – Argentina   Katz Moshe – Russia
Baller Binyamin – Israel   Katzman Fargamen Sonya – Israel
Baller Eva – Israel   Kipher Haim Baruch – Israel
Baller Feivel – U.S.A.   Knobel Bella – Ukraine
Baller Judity – U.S.A.   Knobel Benny – Ben Zion – Brazil
Baller Manya – Argentina   Knobel Moshe – Israel
Baller Miriam – U.S.A.   Knobel Shalom – Brazil
Ben Ezra Aaron – Israel   Landau Meir – Argentina
Cohen Esther Baller – U.S.A.   Linover Katz Leah – Israel
Cohen Gerson – U.S.A.   Litover Barash - Israel
Cohen Molly-Mildred-Malka – U.S.A.   Milgelter Aaron – Israel
Cohen Moshe - Morris – U.S.A.   Milchiker Mordechai – Israel
Cohen Sarah Ricci Perlstein – U.S.A.   Milchiker Esther – Israel
Cohen Shlomo – Samuel – U.S.A.   Milchiker Pesach – Israel
Cohen Shmuel – Sidney – U.S.A.   Mos Yosef – Argentina
Eisenberg Yosef – Israel   Neuman Alkona – Israel
Fishbein Aaron- Sheeya – U.S.A.   Peltz Chaja – U.S.A.
Fishbein Bonnie Wollk – U.S.A.   Perchuk Pearl – Russia
Fishbein Chaya Bilha – U.S.A.   Reiter Leah (Nissan's wife) – Israel
Fishbein Freda – U.S.A.   Reiter Rachel (Menachem's wife) – Israel
Fishbein Israel – U.S.A.   Reiter Sarah (Shmuel's wife) – Israel
Fisbein Philshik Avram Moshe – U.S.A.   Reiter Chana – Israel
Fishbein, Rachel – U.S.A.   Reiter Zelig – Israel
Furman Yerachmiel – Israel   Sfard David – Israel
Friedkovsky Asher – Israel   Shai David (Zvia Milkiker's husband)-Israel
Friedkovsky German Miriam– Israel   Shelisman Meir – Israel
German Aaron – Israel   Shemesh Menachem – Mendel – Israel
German Tulah – Russia   Shemesh Miriam – Israel
Gibor Haim Zelig – Israel   Shemesh Yisrael – Israel
Hoffan Esther – Israel   Shemesh Meir – Israel
Hoffan Moshe – Israel   Shohat Hershel – Israel
Kahat-Kos Shalom – Israel   Singel Menachem-Mendel – Israel
Katz Bereleh-Borka – Poland   Singel Orah (Menachem's daughter –Israel

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Single Zipporah – Israel    
Skop David – Russia  
Skop Shaike – Russia  
Skop Shlomo – Russia  
Smorzik Baruch – Israel  
Sopher Hershel – Israel  
Stern Moshe-Monik – Israel  
Stern Sonya – Israel  
Stern Yoshua-Shaika – Israel  
Viner Asher – Israel  
Weinshl Pesach – U.S.A.  
Weinstein Asher – Canada  
Weinstein Michael – Canada  
Weinstein Rifka Reider – Canada  
Weinstein Yitzhak – Canada  
Wolk Chaya – Brazil  
Wolk David – Israel  
Wolk Elihau – Brazil  
Wolk Sarah – Israel  
Zakai Kalman Cossack – Israel  
Ziger David (Miriam Zweibel's husband) – Israel  
Zimuki Aryeh (Rozinka) – Israel  
Zveik Reuven – Israel  
Zveik Yerachmiel) Canada  

May their souls rest in peace!

 

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Map of Poland

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Blank page

 


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Melnitza[1]

by Bezalel Baller (son of Aron-Woff) – Argentina

 

The townlet Melnitza is located about 30 km. off the district town Kovel in Wolyn Province, Ukraine. Until the first world ward (1914 – 1918) it belongs to Russia. In 1919 it passed to Poland, and in 1939, upon the outbreak of the second world war, it was occupied by the U.S.S.R.

The name of Melnitza was given to the townlet, according to folk tale, hundreds of years ago. At the locality, prior to becoming populated, there existed in the middle of the fields a flour mill operated by the wind (flour mill in Russian is “Melnitz”). The peasants from the surrounding villages used to ride day by day, in carts full of wheat, barley and other cereals to the flour mill, which was isolated in the field, and beside it a little house – the abode of the miller and his family.

In the course of time, non-Jewish peasants and later on also Jewish families settled nearby the mill, then the formed townlet got the name “Melnitza”.

The number of villages around Melnitza continually increased and from tens they reached a hundred. The peasants came with their carts to the flour mill and to the townlet, loaded with agricultural products, cereals, flour and dairy products. The Jewish settlers used to buy the village products and to market them to Kovel and other cities.

Also Jewish artisans started settling in the townlet, so it turned into a typical Ukrainian townlet.

The Jewish houses concentrated around the market place – a square around which shops and stores of all kinds of goods: cereals, textiles, clothing, domestic and agricultural appliances, iron monger and foodstuffs, were built.

The marshy market place was diagonally bisected by an embankment (“greblle”) made of earth layers covered with tree branches. The embankment was designated to block the rain water and melted snow at the end of the winter and in the spring, lest they flood the road and turn it into an integral part of the marshy vicinity called “the black cream”. There were big marshes in the townlet, caused by the flood waters of the Stav river. Consequently, at the end of the winter season, the carts of the peasants and of the Jewish carters used to sink in the mud over their wheels, and it was only with big efforts that they managed to pull them out.

So it happened one day, that a road started to be paved, leading to Kovel via the village Holob, located about 10 km. off the townlet. There was a railway station in Holob and from there it was possible to arrive in Melnitza either by cart or on foot.

The paved road passed in the center of the townlet, while the other streets remained as marshy as before. In part of the streets, close to the houses, wooden sidewalks were constructed. The youngsters, and even the adults, who used hirtherto to take an outing close to their houses, could from now on, on Friday evenings after supper and on the following Shabbat afternoon, walk on the paved road leading to Kovel, to breathe fresh air in summer, and in winter, in the cold and frost, they could make there a “real walk”. There were many strollers in the townlet, as since 1900 there were already about 500-600 Jewish families there, against 200 Christian families. As a matter of course, such walks took place just on Shabbat days and on Jewish holidays, and no one dared to go for a walk on a weekday.

Besides strolling on the road, also the big garden alleys were used for walking. There were hundreds of ancient trees, among them fruit bearing trees. This garden was very impressive by its splendor and greatness that even outsiders used to say that such a garden could rarely be seen in the big cities of Russia. Some of the youngsters used to walk to Stvetchin forest – a few kilometers from the townlet, and passing near the spring, on their way to the forest, they were drinking the flowing crystal-clear spring water.

In the forest they were eating plenty of fresh red and black berries, small pears and nuts. It goes without saying that the adults, especially the religious people, were dissatisfied with such walks of the “licentious youngsters”. They were by far more satisfied with the boys of the Trisker Beit-Midrash, who learned Torah.

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There were many such Torah learners in our townlet. On Shabbath and holiday afternoons the Trisker Beit-Midrash looked like a Yeshiva. Youths and adults used to sit and move up and down over the Gemara books, and the specific Gemar tune was heard at a long distance.

The Jewish settlement in Melnitza was an ancient one, as testified by the three cemeteries of the townlet, distant about a hundred meters off the synagogues. The cemetery was on a hill, and in the course of years the tombstones sank and only their upper parts were visible, part of them rounded and part apex=formed, with moss thereon. The Hebrew letter “P.N.” and Shield of David parts could still be seen, but no names and dates were visible.

Nearby the ancient cemetery there was the “old” cemetery, very close to the Beit-Midrash. Many trees grew there and it looked from a distance like a small forest. The Cheder (religious elementary school) japers used to slip away to the cemetery, pick there small unripe pears, edible only after keeping them for some time in straw and getting a brown color. The children, however, could not afford waiting until the pears ripen, and they used to eat them while still green, and then their mothers faced the problems of their children's stomach aches. Also apples of similar kind grew there wild, uncultivated. There was a fruit tree at the head-rest of every tombstone, the trees and bushes grew densely so that one could hardly pass between the tombstones and one could hardly be visible even from a small distance.

In the years 1908-1909, also this cemetery was full of graves, so that a further cemetery had to be set up at a distance of about 3 km. off the townlet, on the way to Kovel. I recall to my mind that there was a discussion as to whether a fence should be erected around the new cemetery, since the funerals were about to pass near the Polish-Catholic cemetery. There was apparently no choice and they were compelled to buy the area, and even those who opposed it, ultimately calmed down, as the Trisker Rabbi himself came to consecrate the place.

All that proves that the Jewish settlement in Melnitza was very old, according to my estimate and rumors from others, it was about 500-600 years old. It existed in fact ever since the establishment of the Jewish communities in the nearby cities of Kovel, Lutzk, Rozhishtch and other localities in Wohlyn province, where Jews were living for many generations.

The Jews in our townlet, just as in other similar townlets, earned their living from trade and handicraft. Most of the trade was in cereals, flour, textiles, iron monger and other merchandise. The artisans were tailors and shoemakers. The villages were far off the bigger cities, and therefore the peasants had to arrive in Melnitza for fair and market days. The peasants used to sell their products and buy goods for their domestic and agricultural use, so that the shopkeepers, Jewish dealers and artisans earned their living.

The textile trade was in the hands of several families in Melnitza, among them Geier family (two brothers: Motel and Kalman). Moetel Geier was a very rich man and his wealth was estimated at hundred thousand rubbles. Melnitza Jews boasted that even in Kovel there was not such a rich man like Motel Geier.

Their wealth went on increasing a short period prior to the outbreak of the first world war, when they started trading in “coupons” (in fact, the business was managed by his four sons: Chaim-Moshe, Niomtchik, Yona and Zalman). What was the trading in “coupons”? It is a long story. What I knew was only that there was sent by post bags full of letters, prospectuses and “coupons” all over Russia. They had to be sold, and the proceeds together with the addresses of the buyers to be sent to Geier family. For the service he used to get a “gift” according to choice as offered in the prospectuses. Then the Geiers were sending “coupons” and prospectuses to the new addresses received. And so there was endless prosperity – an “enchanted cycle”. It goes without saying that such business was based on bribes paid to the authorities in the whole Wohlyn province (and even in other provinces as well). Needless to point out that nobody was affected, discriminated, deceived or misled. As a matter of fact, whoever sent the addresses and funds did get for his “trouble” the “gift” chosen by him. Special attention was paid to the huge number of letters sent from the remote townlet of Melnitza to the world at large. Thus, the

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Geiers, from the “coupon” business still increased their riches.

I recall to my mind an episode in connection with the above. On one summer morning there arrived in our townlet two tall, bearded “Katzaps” (militia men) with fur-turbans on their heads, dressed in black, long and wide overcoats, with cartridge belts filled with rifle bullets. They stopped near the shop of Chaim Guz; there was the beginning of the market place on arriving from the Kovel road.

Melnitza inhabitants seeing those two types with their uniforms, strange walking and frightening look, they entered into panic, children and adults assembled to see the “horrible wonder”.

Different stories and speculations began to go around the townlet concerning the origin of those types and the purpose of their coming. Mothers hurried to gather their children from the streets and hid them at home. They went to ascertain “what is cooking here”. It was ascertained that those two strange guys – “Katzaps” or Circassians, arrived from “beyond the Dark Mountains” not more and not less than to check the “magazines” and shops of Motel Geier, mentioned in the prospectuses mailed together with his “coupons”. The reason of such checking was kept in secret.

What is known is that for a whole day they searched and nibbled in the huge house of Motel Geier. The house residents were seen leaving and entering the house while whispering secretly.

The communal workers who had great influence on the townlet authorities, appeared in the house, but everything was still kept in the dark. But all's well that ends well – the end was a rich repast with the participation of several “kneplach” (policemen) and some of the Christian notables, together with those two guys. They gluttonized, drank like fish during the whole evening till midnight. Then the carter Hershele came and announced that it was time to ride to the railway, leaving at one o'clock. The tow mysterious guests, just as they arrived secretly, so they left the townlet in full secret. The Melnitzer kept on speaking and speculating a long time thereafter about the mysterious “visit”. What really happened is still unknown.

The textile business was concentrated in the hands of Bokser and Bob families – wealthy Jews, who were the fashion leaders of the townlet. Cereals was the business of the Reider family – also well-to-do people.

Feltz families – brothers: Shimon, Sender and Yocov with the brothers in-law Moshe Teilboim and Nachman-Leib Garber conducted a widespread business in cereals, iron monger, building materials and working tools, in wholesale. They were rich and decent people, big benefactors for communal and public purposes.

Around those merchants and their businesses scores of Jewish and Christian families earned their living. The townlet was located far off the railway station. All goods transported into the townlet or out of it had to be taken to the railway station or from it. Near the shops were stationed scores of carters with their carts, wherefrom the cargos were discharged to the shops or loaded there for transportation to the bigger cities. The commercial activity in our townlet was similar daily to market days in other townlets. There were many horse dealers in our townlet. The biggest of them was the Knobel family – several brothers, their sons, sons-in-law and other relatives – about a hundred families, all of them horse dealers. They were called “the Knoblikes”. They transported big herds of horses to fairs in Wohlyn province and in Poland at large. All of them were reliable and honest people.

Due to the widespread family of Knoblikes, who were well known in the whole neighborhood, all Melnitzer Jews used to be called “Knobulnikes”. Another version explaining this name is that there was a big crop of garlic (“Knobel” in Yiddish) in Melnitza and garlic dealers from far away used to come to buy the garlic of Melnitza.

Artisans in Melnitza were tailors and shoemakers. Most of them made clothing for the peasants and for sale in the townlet and at fairs. Besides there were also other artisans: blacksmiths – Avraham Sofer, a kind and gentle Jew, Eliahu Kirzner – a dignified Jew, paterfamilias, with decent and intelligent children. There were also carpenters, masons, molders and other artisans who worked for the local inhabitants as well as for the landowners and priests of the neighboring villages.

The Landowners used to come with their ladies in their cabs to do shopping in the townlet, to receive

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mail and take measure of their clothing and fur coats at the tailor Yehuda-Ber, a men's tailor, and at Teivel, the ladies tailor.

The merchants, artisans, shopkeepers, melamdin (cheder teachers) and “klei-kodesh” (religious ministrants) carters, fancy goods dealers, horse dealers, cattle dealers, constituted the Jewish population of the townlet which counted about three thousand against one thousand Christians.

As mentioned, Melnitza was practically always (about nine months of the year) sunk in marshy lakes which were sometimes a danger to life. The life, however, in the townlet was full of joy and vitality. There were youths who did not attend formal schools (they were not yet in existence in Melnitza), so they attended a “cheder” or learned at local teachers. The people were happy and unworried. They never saw better things in their life, nor had they aspirations for a better life.

The youngsters of Beier, Feltz, Reider and other families used to travel from time to time to Kovel, Warsaw, Kiev or Zhitomir, and coming back they were full of enthusiasm of what they saw and experienced in the bigger cities. But their stories had no influence on the inhabitants of the townlet, who have reconciled with their fate and were satisfied with their simple and hard life. All of them could duly set the Shabbat table, all of them had Matzot for Pesach and “kaparot” (fowls used ritually on the eve of Yom Kippur).

For Pesach or Rosh Hashanah the boy used to wear new clothing, overcoat, boots and hat, and the girl – a new dress. Even if the boy or girl had no new garment, but one made of an old garment of the father or mother, never mind – the main thing that it is “new”, so that they had no reason to envy the life in the bigger city.

There were numerous 'melamdin' and 'rebes' who taught the Jewish children in Melnitza, beginning from teachers for beginners and ending on teachers of Gemara: Yechiel 'the Pole' – a Gemara teacher. The real bread-winner was his wife who had a wool cleaning machine. The machine was placed at the entrance to the classroom. He was a great scholar, of Stolin Hassadim. He was not prepared to teach more than 5-6 boys, also that on condition that each of them would be capable of learning by himself a page of Gemara. At his 'cheder' the pupils were capable to learn Talmud with Tosafot (annotations to the Talmud) and a little of the “Maharsha Interpreations”. Reb Yechiel was a reticent man but on the other hand he was quick-tempered. One had to know the weekly lesson proficiently otherwise the pupil's life was in danger. He didn't use to slap like other 'rebes', but his anger and the slaps he gave to himself on his wide beard, his walking during the studies while his arms are stretched forwards and backwards terribly frightened all pupils, 13 and 14 ages, and they already warned others to take good care not to fail.

Reb Yechiel's pupils were automatically candidates to continue learning 'for themselves' at the Beit-Midrash of Trisker Hassidim or move to a renowned Yeshiva far away. There were pupils from Melnitza who studied at Zvahil and Mir Yeshivot, well-known and renowned Talmudical Colleges.

Reb Shiye of Lashivek (his family name was Pomerantz) was also a Gemara teacher. He also taught Humash and Rashin – the whole weekly portion and the Bible. Reb Shiye was short-sighted and while teaching he used to raise the glasses on his forehead, leaning on the Gemara or Humash, touching the letters with his fingers. If a pupil omitted some word or expressed it incorrectly, he used to lower his glasses to his nose and got up in full stature (he was tall, unlike his wife Bluma), starting with his punishing methods – numerous slaps and fists on the failing pupil, until the interference of his wife, then the pupil could feel safe.

Reb Shiye was strict that while learning “Shir-Hashirim”, Akdamut” or “Kohelet” the pupils had to sing and interpret every verse. The main thing was the singing in the right version and loudly, so that the whole townlet should hear. Before the feast of Shavuot, which generally fell in May, the windows were widely opened, Reb Shiye saying: “Shout, children! Let everybody hear that “Akdamut” is learned at Shiye of Kashivek”. Indeed, no other teacher taught “Akdamut” like him. Likewise, also “Shir Hashirim” and “Kohelet” were taught by him with a specific melody.

A proud man was Reb Shiye, and not in vain,

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because a pupil who finished his studies in his 'Cheder', after several years of study, was fully proficient, indeed. The Rebe used to smack, pinch, 'cut pieces' from the pupil, with a view to improving the pupil's motivation – that was his teaching method. Nevertheless, despite his strictness and bad temper, the pupils liked him and had a respectful and polite attitude to him. Almost all children of Melnitza were his pupils. At his old age he was blind, and all inhabitants of the townlet, young and old, venerated him.

There was also in Melnitza Rebele Motele “Nizok”. His family names was Kessler. He was a short person and “Nizok” in Russian means short. He used to wear boots with high heels, so that he should look taller. His wife, however, was a very tall woman and she spoke with a deep voice, just as a man. The Rebe was a bad tempered person and he used to smack his pupils quite fiercely. He was capable to tear off the pupil's ear or nose up to bleeding. He used to cause the pupil to lie on bench with his face down, forcing him to put off his underpants. Although the pupils were taller or even stronger than he was, but out of fear, or of habit, they obeyed him. The pupil laid down and got 10-15 lashes, as if nothing happened, and after weeping in the corner, the pupil used to return to the studies. In fact, lashing of the pupil was mostly not because of failure in interpreting the “Parshe” in “Humash” or the 'problem' in the Mishna, but because the pupils used to skate in winter on the water canal near Kelman's house, or bathe in summer in the 'Ekonomnie' brook, near the house of the economist of the 'landowner's (Poretz) orchard, namely acts “fit to be done by 'shkotzim' (Gentile youths and not by Jewish children)”.

The slander mostly reached the Rebe from another child, or from some mother of a pupil, and the 'offender' used to get from the Rebe slaps and lashes in full fury.

An episode which happened with one of the pupils who was twice as tall as Reb Motele. The Rebe ordered him to lie on the bench for getting lashes; then the pupil fetched a candlestick from the shelf and cast it unto the head of the Rebe. All of us (about fifty pupils) got frightened and started crying aloud as if we were attacked by devils. The 'violent” lad, Mendel son of Yerachmiel Shames, ran away at once from 'cheder' and we – all the pupils – ran away after him. The Rebe was compelled to be confined to bed with wet compresses on his head.

Despite our fear and panic, nothing special happened. After a few days Reb Motele rose from his bed, pale and with swelling over his right eyelash, and that's all. Mendel didn't attend the 'cheder' any more. His father Yerachmiel Shames, the secretary of the Head of the Jewish Community, Mordche-Yosel, didn't take to heart the whole story which Reb Motele told him on Shabbat at the Beit-Midrash of Trisker Hassidim, about his son's naughty behavior. Yerachmiel Shames, clever and pedant as he was (his walking style was like that of a goose) did already realize that his older sons, Avraham and Itzik 'Katz', also called Yankel, and now Mendel as well, would not become scholars, so an alternative to studies he set his son as a horse driver at the oil press of grandfather Hesin.

In consequence of the whole story with Reb Motele, we, the pupils who continued attending the 'cheder' derived benefit. None of us was ordered any more to lie on the bench, and even when ordered we didn't obey him – that was our definite decision. (Reb Motele was murdered by the 'Balachovtzes' gangs in a village near Kovel while being his daughter's guest.)

Those three: Reb Yechiel 'the Pole', Reb Shiye and Reb Motele 'Nizok' were the 'melamdim' (Talmudic teachers) in our townlet. Besides there were Reb Meir Melamed, Reb Avreml of Leshnivok, who were teachers of 'Humash' (Pentateuch), the brothers Shmulik and Peisi, who were teachers for beginners, and Bnzion – teacher for the girls. There were also some 'infantry' teachers like Reb Aron the 'Litvak' and Elinke from Harbat. They were going from house to house to give 'lessons'. In 1910 there 'settled' at the Beit-Midrash of Trisker Hassidim several 'Gemara boys: Wolf-Ber 'the curved', who was a Yeshiva graduate, a great scholar, fit for qualifications as Rabbi, Vevtzi David – son of David Herzl's and Aron-David – Shiyes' son, and some others. They had vast knowledge in scholastics. Some of them officiated later on as Rabbis and as 'Dayonim' (religious judges) in other townlets in the neighborhood.

The mentioned 'staff' of melamdim taught the

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Melnitzer children Torah and Gemara for scores of years. Indeed, the pupils didn't turn into geniuses and prominent scholars, but they learned and knew that they were Jews and that it was their obligations to attend the 'cheder' for a whole day and learn Torah. They were going home for dinner and then back to the 'cheder' in the heat of summer and in the cold of winter, in mud and in snow, wrapped in warm shawls and with fur hats. They realized that it ought to be so. In the evening, till the later hours, they were sitting and learning to the light of smoking petrol lamps, of broken glasses, gummed with paper. The lamp glass cracked when one of the prankster pupils spat on the glowing glass.

When the pupils went back home from the 'cheder' late in the evening, holding paper lanterns of their 'own production', they used to sing the melody of Yehuda-Leib of Povhost, sung on Simchat-Torah, when he used to throw apples through the small window of the Beit-Midrash attic. The jolly melody not always integrated with the neighborhood and landscape, while they were walking at night in strong frost and in marshes, with frozen noses, some of them in torn boots. They hurried home, rhythmically whistling. At home, mum was sitting near the hot furnace, plucking feathers or preparing cabbage for souring. So he was waiting for supper.

The Jewish children learned writing at the two “Sofrim” (scribes” ) of the townlet: Reb Aron-Wolf Baller, who was also the assistant and substitute of the “official” Rabbi of Kovel. Reb Aron-Wolf Baller studied as far back as in 1860 to become an 'official' Rabbi , at the Rabbinical College in Zhitomir. After the destruction of the college by fire, he moved to the Rabbinical School in Odessa and on finishing his studies he returned to Melnitza. Another scribe – teacher of writing – was Shie-David. These teachers and some others later on instructed in addition to Yiddish and Russian, also Hebrew, Polish, arithmetic and even German. Children of poorer classes used to go to those teachers' homes, while as regards children of richer classes, the teachers used to call at their homes and give 'private lessons'. Melnitza's children learned and were not analphabets; there were many families who had not enough to prepare properly for Shabbat or holidays, but the tuition fee they did pay the Rebe or teacher quite gladly out of their last money.

 

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Reb Aron-Wolf Baller and his family

 

The “Great” Synagogue in Melnitza was widely renowned. It was a 2 story structure with windows on the round ceiling and on the side walls. The windows were with colored panes in all rainbow colors. Through the broken windows, birds were penetrating into the synagogue and they twittered loudly. The murals painted on the walls and the engraving on the Arc of Law were made by a Jew from Kremenitz, who was an excellent artist/painter. According to rumors passed from generation to generation in the townlet, he performed the extraordinary engraving work on the Art of Law with a penknife.

When Reb Zeidel, the Rovner Chazn, came once to Melnitza to lead the prayers on Shabbat, he was amazed by the splendor of the synagogue, as even in a big city like Rowne there was not such a beautiful synagogue.

The synagogue congregation consisted of the landlords and also of artisans who were rich and notable persons. The cantor of the synagogue for many years, until 1905, was Reb Nochim Chazn, who mastered coloratura up to the highest tones, although he was not considered as a “great musician”.

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At the Beit-Midrash of the Trisker Hassidim the cantor was Reb Yosele – a feeble man who always was coughing due to smoking his handmade cigarettes. He was of a bent back, so he looked lower than he was in reality. Around his neck he wore a woolen shawl, both in summer and in winter. When Reb Yosele was holding the “Rosh Chodesh” prayer of leading the prayers on Rosh Hashanah or on Yom Kippur, with melodies of his own composition: “Unetane Tokef” or “Kevakarat Roeh Edro” with an accompaniment of about ten assistant singers, it was a real enjoyment! Everything depended on him, and willing he was able to chant very nicely. The trouble, however, was not always he was willing to do it. Nevertheless the Trisker Hassidim kept him like a 'jewel', because they knew to appreciate his capabilities. A new “nigun” of his composition caused great enjoyment to the audience. The same melody used thereafter to be sung in the whole townlet, both the landlords and the artisans while working.

The “Beit Midrash” was attached to the Beit Midrash of Trisker Hassidim, and both of them were located beyond the street opposite the 'great' synagogue. At the Beit Midrash the cantor was for many years the aged Reb Meir Shechter, and after his death he was substituted by Reb Benzion Dolgopaliuk (from Sikil). The congregation of the Beit Midrash consisted of the ordinary people – artisans, horse and cattle dealers and other dealers. Those were the three synagogues in the townlet. Besides there was a Minyan of Stolin Hassidim at the Soifer's house.

It happened in all townlets that fires broke out and so it happened also in Melnitza. The houses were made of timber, with straw roofs, so that the slightest spark caused the houses to be destroyed by fire. Generally there were small fires that just a few houses were affected. But in one of the summer days in the year 1906 there broke out a strong fire, whereby about half of the buildings in the townlet were devoured, among them the 'grand' synagogue, the Beit Midrash of Trisker Hassidim and the Beit Midrash. After a short period, the Beit Midrash of Trisker Hassidim and the civic Beit Midrash were rebuilt. The 'great' synagogue, however, was not reconstructed for a long time, due to lack of means. Several years later on there was erected between the destroyed walls of the synagogue, at its front, a small wooden building which was used as a synagogue.

Women, children and even men were afraid to pass the destroyed synagogue, believing in rumors spread in the townlet, that at night dead men used to come and pray in the debris, and that they are called up to read the Torah, and other horrible stories. That's why the wooden barrack was set up as a remedy that the “House of God” is not left in Destruction.

The Beit Midrash of Trisker Hassidim in Melnitza looked like a Yeshiva. During all weekdays, all the more on Shabbat, youths and adults were sitting there leaning on the Talmud and other holy scriptures and learned assiduously and enthusiastically. A “Darshan” (preacher) invited to the townlet, was not invited to the Beit Midrash of Trisker Hassidim because his knowledge was not on an adequate level satisfactory for the learners at the Beit Midrash, so that its congregation would not listen to his preaching. Where such preachers could find listeners, it was in the Beit Midrash, where the ordinary classes were ready to come and hear them, and even donate some rubbles to them. Artisans, carters and small dealers didn't spare their money and used to cast some kopecks into the plate placed near the door at the entrance to the Beit Midrash.

In twilight hours – between Mincha and Maariv or after Maariv, the worshipers used to sit down at long tables, behind the furnace in the Beit Midrash and attend a lesson in the weekly portion with Rashi interpretation, given by Reb Yosi Shochet (who was a Trisker Hassid). He was a great scholar and a pious man.

The Rabbi of the Townlet, Reb Abraham Finkelstein fully relied on Reb Yosi that he would substitute him in his absence from the townlet, that he would be fully capable to give answers to “shayles” (inquiries) in matters of Jewish law. At his old age, Yosi Shochet (ritual slaughterer) discontinued slaughtering, because his hands started trembling, so he feared that his slaughtering would not be kosher enough. He used to teach the worshiper of the Beit Midrash the Weekly Portion and explain to them every verse and word from the Holy Scriptures. The “sher und aizen”

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public (tailors and metal workers) and the peddlers who used to sell their merchandise in the villages, were sitting politely, part of them with books open before them and partly without books, while their heads were leaned on their arms, 'swallowing' every word uttered by Reb Yosi: the story about Joseph and his brothers, how they cast him into the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites, then he was taken to Egypt where he became a viceroy, and so on. Besides, he used to tell them stories and tales about the forefathers of the Jewish people, as far back as thousands of years ago. Although the same stories were narrated in the same way year by year, they were always accepted by the listeners with much enjoyment. After Yosi's death in 1910, he was substituted by Motel “Dibbuk”. (The nickname “Dibbuk” given to him by the townlet people, testifies to his profound learning.) Nobody could foretell that Motel Dibbuk, who indeed was a scholar, but was not among the learners of the Beit Midrash of Trisker Hassidim, would substitute Yeb Yosi in teaching the Weekly Portion. His instruction was not as hearty and war as Reb Yosi's, who made all efforts to make even harder words be construed by the listeners. Motel Dibbuk (his family name was Bas) didn't like to repeat twice the same word, he just read the verse and went on. The listeners at first were not satisfied with the 'change', feeling how different was the approach of the former and the present lecturer, but they could do nothing. “There is no discussion to initiate with Reb Motel.” In fact, nobody invited him to be the lecturer. He came at his own initiative and “will probably leave whenever he likes.” That was the general opinion about him. Indeed, so it happened shortly afterwards he discontinued lecturing at his own initiative.

Motel Dibbuk, without being asked for the 'clandestinely' (perhaps at night) stuck on the eve of Rosh Chodesh Adar a proclamation in big letters, on the walls over the windows of all synagogues, the saying of the Old Sages: “With the Beginning of Adar we must multiply our rejoicing.” It happened once that one of the worshipers vowed to contribute a donation and declined from paying it, then a proclamation appeared on the walls in the synagogues the verse, “Better not to vow, rather than to vow and not pay.”

Once he moved in winter two barrels of water which were placed outside the Beit Midrash of Trisker Hassidim into the entrance. Nobody witnessed and heard when and how he did it, but everybody knew that it was Motel Dibbuk's action. Nobody dared to inquire, knowing that no response will be given, running even the risk of being scorned and insulted by him. One day, before the High Holidays, Motele fell on the idea of painting the Beit Midrash and he did it professionally. His main vocation was painting, but he knew everything. He could repair wooden furniture and to solder copper vessels.

The members of his family kept a small shop in which they sold soda water and aerated water of 'own production'. Despite all his 'qualifications', he was wretchedly poor. “Were it not his Dibbuk (obsession) – the people were saying – Motel could be very rich.” When he happened to perform some 'novelty', he refused to speak about it, he used to chatter something into his thick beard, then step further on while his hat was on his wide forehead and the fringes of his “kapote” (overcoat) were swaying sideways. When he got remuneration for some work done for somebody, not the payment counted for him, but the fact in itself that he performed the repair that nobody, but he, could do it.

Before Shavuot feast, the Beit Midrash of Trisker Hassidim in Melnitza used to be decorated with green poplar tree leafs – the stage, table, reader's stand and windows. Colored pieces of paper were hung with slogans such as “Rejoice on Simchat Torah, since it gives us strength and light”. Over the table there were hung colored paper pieces, paper lanterns which were circulating when the candles were lit therein. Special decoration was rendered to the “Mizrach” (the east wall) and the “Omed” (stand) where the cantor was praying, a plaque was hung with the wording: “I have set the Lord always before me” in blaze of color, made by Feivel son of Aron-Wolf and other scholar boys.

For many years Rabbi Abraham Finkelstein officiated as the Rabbi of the townlet. He was a great scholar, erudite in Mishna and Poskim and a man of

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mild temper. The Melnitzer liked him very much and highly respected him. It was very hard for him to make a living from the salary paid to him by the local Jewish congregation, and therefore the Rebetzin (Rabbi's wife) was granted the 'monopoly' of selling baking yeast to the Jewish inhabitants – a custom practiced in most townlets in Wohlyn and Polesie.

Our Rabbi used occasionally to visit the adjacent townlets and apparently he did not come back from there 'with empty hands'. He was liked and respected everywhere as a scholar and wise man that could be consulted with all kinds of problems and deals. The Rabbi used to be accompanied on his trips by the “Shamash” (beadle) of the Beit Midrash of the Trisker Hassidim – Reb Itzik Wolf. He was a 'Shames son of a Shames' (his father Fishke was for many years a beadle in the 'Great' Melnitzer Shul). Reb Itzik Wolf, in himself, was completely ignorant.

A rumor spread that at one of the trips with the Rabbi in a certain townlet, he entered the synagogue on Shabbat in the afternoon, his wide beard nicely combed, a bonnet on his head, under it protruded a silk cap, so that according to his outer appearance he looked like a great scholar. Two boys who learned in the Shul discussed concerning a hard problem in Talmud and didn't find anybody to lighten their eyes with the right interpretation. At that moment Reb Itzik Wolf entered the Shul and they were convinced that Almighty delegated him to solve to them that hard problem. They turned to him, asking for the right interpretation and each of the boys raised before him his arguments and supposition as to the intention of the Talmudic Sage.

Reb Itzik Wolf listened to their arguments, while the Talmud Tractate is open before him, without understanding a single word of it. He was entirely confused, thinking how to disentangle himself out of the complicated situation. Then an idea flashed in his mind and he told the boys as follows: “Hear, my dear boys, I would gladly solve the problem which appears so hard to you, but I'll ask you a question, namely: How can you approach a stranger whom you don't know at all with a problem which seems to be hard for you? In my case, you have confronted a man who really knows to give you the right response, but after all you might have faced a man who is not a scholar and so you would have put him to shame, and the punishment for 'offending one in public' you perfectly know, therefore I'll not clarify to you the matter and will not solve the problem!” He turned around and left the place. That was the story told in our Shtetl about the Shames Reb Itzik Wolf.

Rabbi Abraham of blessed memory was the decisive authority in the townlet and nothing concerning religious affairs was done unless taking his advice. On the High Holidays – Rosh Hashanah, the blowing of the Shofar in all synagogues was effected in his presence. I still recall to my mind the reading of “Akdamut” (on Shavuot) by the Rabbi. I remember him wrapped in a 'tales' (prayer shawl) over his head, standing on the stage of the Beit Midrash reading “Akdamut” with his musical voice that could rarely be heard like that. The listeners had a feeling of fear and alarm. Everyone saw himself as if he was attending the revelation of Sinai and receiving the Torah.

It was also a spectacular scene when the Jews of the Shtetl were going to the river on Rosh Hashanah for “Tashlich”. They were headed by Rabbi Abraham, who was going solely, with his arms interlocked behind on the hips (that was his way of walking due to his bent back, so he was compelled to look downwards), and following him all inhabitants of the Shtetl – men, women and children. At the river they emptied their pockets of all crumbs, and in similar order they returned to the synagogues for saying Psalms between Mincha and Maariv. Also at the other ceremonies, such an insertion of a Sefer Torah, newly scribed, to the synagogues, completion of reading the Torah and so on, the Rabbi was going first and followed by the whole public with high respect and veneration. During World War I – in the year 1915 – all Jews of Melnitza, including the Rabbi moved to the town of Keltz in Poland, and there Rabbi Abraham passed away at the age of over eighty.

Great preparations took place in Melnitza when the Trisker Reb arrived for a visit. He used to come to Melnitza year by year for Shabbat of “Vayishlach” weekly portion of Torah. At first it was Reb Yankev Leibeniu of blessed memory, and after his death – his son Rebe Velvele, of blessed memory. The public

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'jumped out of their skin' – Hassidim and even non-Hassidim: Rabbis, Cheder teachers, and generally everybody, pupils from the 'cheders' were shouting: “The Rebe comes!!!” The cheder teacher, Reb Shiye was going on Friday early in the morning, accompanied by his pupils, outside the townlet on the way to Kovel, in order to welcome the Trisker Rebe and his retinue, arriving by train to Holob station. They were also accompanied by many Hassidim and other Jews to welcome the Rebe with songs and dances on entering the shtetl.

The Trisker Rebe used to be accommodated in the house of Reb Yehuda Heshl (Reider) – a scholar of the Trisker Hassidim, a rich man, possessing a house of ten rooms, and there was a special room for the Rebe. For that Shabbat many Hassidim used to arrive from the adjacent townlets: Neshizh, Stebechve, Lishnivke, Trianivke, Halifke, Azrian, Kalk and other townlets in neighborhood where the Rebe was not visiting.

On Friday, at the Shabbat Eve Prayer, the Rebe was the leader in prayer and the synagogue overcrowded. It happened that one of the Shabbat eves, while the Rebe was in the Beit-Midrah, the petrol lamps started 'smoking' due to lack of oxygen in the praying hall. Such overcrowding was also when the Rebe 'set a table' or was 'saying biblical laws' with his gentle voice, word by word. The Rebe was closing his eyes and upon stopping for a while and starting to blink with his eyebrows, the public was in real fear and panic, imagining that the Rebe was hovering in heavens, disconnected from this world. The crowds stood pressed tightly to one another, in complete silence. When time came to catch “shirayim” (remainders of Rebe's meal) of fish or chicken parts of which the Rebe just tasted, there was roaring and shouting, every one wanted to have the privilege of getting some remnant, being even the slightest one, of the Rebe's meal. People were pushing one another and struggling in order to be within reach of the “shirayim”. The same spectacle was repeated on Shabbat after prayer and on conclusion of Shabbat during the “Melave-Malke” (the fourth meal after “Havdalah”).

The Rebe stayed in the Shtetl during the whole week and in Reb Yehuda Hesel's house he was receiving all those men and women who came to the Rebe with “kvitlech” (entreaties on slips handed over to the Rebe before the entrance). The people came to ask the Rebe for advices and blessings in matters connected with livelihood, recovery to sick persons, marriages of children, benediction to a son who was about to be recruited to the army, etc. On Thursday evening the Rebe was leaving the Shtetl, accompanied by his Hassidim, to the railway station in Holob, and from there he travelled to another town.

The Rebe of Stolin used to arrive once in three years and not year by year as the Trisker Rebe used to do. The Stoliner Rebe was, as a rule, accommodated at the house of Reb Mendel Bob. He didn't lecture Torah subjects in Melnitza, but just met his Hassidim, who counted 30-40 persons only, talking with them on general matters, business and so on, that had nothing to do with his function as Rebe. Indeed, he also used to accept “kvitlech”, but his behavior was different than that of the Trisker Rebe, and the whole activity around his arrival in the Shtetl was by far quieter.

The Rebe Shmilikl Nischizh used to vist our townlet year by year and stay at Reb Pinchas Shoichet-Milshtein's house. He was visited by common folks, not necessarily Hassidim or Misnagdim, but devout and pious people who venerated him. He was privileged by 'ancestral merits': he was the stepson of the Old Rebe of Nischizh. They came on Shabbat to sit at the table set in his honor, to hear words from Torah, and on weekdays they handed over 'kvitlech' to him and donate some rubbles to him. Actually, why not?!

The enlightened class – the intelligentsia in the townlet – consisted of: Moshe Roife (Siegmund) and his two sons – one was a student in the capital town of Peterburg and got the title of Doctor, and the other – Yankel – was the 'feltcher' (paramedic) of the Shtetl. Besides the Governmental Doctor there was also a Jewish doctor, about in the year 1900, named Chodak, and a further physician named Lazar. Then there was the pharmacist Wolach and the proprietor of the medical depot – Chaim David Galst and the two teachers mentioned above: Reb Aron Wolf and Reb Shiye David and the others.

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The meeting place of the intelligentsia and the semi-intelligentsia was at Wallach's pharmacy or at the shop of iron materials and household implements of Chaim Guz.

The Russian papers arrived there for the 'Paritzim' (landowners) and priests in the villages. In leisure hours the Jewish 'intelligentsia' were sitting with the Police Chief of the townlet, who was fond of some rubbles and alcohol. Sometimes also the Postmaster was participating at the meetings. They talked on topical subjects about the Russian-Japanese war in Port Arthur, that the crown-princess gave birth to an 'heir to the throne', and other topics published in the newspapers. They always had something to talk about, to analyze the news and express their opinions.

There were two policemen in the townlet, one of them was always drunk, wearing a hat with its frontlet over the ear. Though he was fat and round, he was quick in walking and running. When he was drunk, he rolled down from the sidewalk into the marsh, there he lay in the mud until people took pity on him and managed with great efforts to take him out of the mud and take him home in Krivin street, the residence of the Gentiles.

The Jewish inhabitants of Melnitza managed to come to terms with the townlet commissioner and with the policemen. Before every Christian holiday they used to 'hush-money' and send them nice gifts to their homes “let them be chocked with that!”. In consideration of such gifts, they used to report on time about the arrival of inspectors and tax collectors. The inspectors were coming to check 'cleanliness', the regular condition of the sidewalks and stairs in the entrances to shops. Thanks to prior notice of the commissioner Bavadenish, the things were repaired in due course. Chaim-Yosel the Starost hurried to make order at his office as regards 'superfluous' papers, alleging that “the orders from the authorities have not arrived yet”. In many cases the Starost and his secretary closed the office and vanished from the townlet until the inspector's visit is over.

Several days prior to the arrival of the license inspector (concerning licenses of shopkeepers, artisans and even of the “cheder” teachers), in order to check whether the 'Yids' have the proper licenses, the people concerned had been aware of it beforehand. The Gentile shoemaker “Antashka” who spoke Yiddish fluently, was walking from shop to shop whispering: “Rrrreb Borah or Rrrreb Mordche, take care, the master is coming”. That hint was enough for the Jews, then they removed whatever was unnecessary (things that they were forbidden to sell or hold under the license), those who had no licenses shut up their shops and workshops and went to the synagogue to hear news or say some chapters of Psalms. The 'cheder' teachers set free their pupils, who derived benefit from the unexpected freedom. The preparations in the townlet was in connection with the arrival of 'goyishen knepl' (Gentile policemen) who had to be bribed with some tens of rubbles and several glasses of vodka, that he would not search too much and refrain from arousing special problems.

About in 1910 there grew up in the Shtetl youths who started thinking of 'higher' affairs, that is to say, that besides strolling on the road, in the gardens and forests and singing the songs which they heard from the boys who worked in Warsaw, they started thinking about setting up a youth club, and they did it. In that club they used to assemble in the evenings and especially on Shabbat and holidays and spend their leisure time. That was a revolutionary step of boys and girls spending time together, a step that was not acceptable to the older generation.

The fear was from the local Rabbi, he certainly would not pass in silence. It was still remembered the prohibition imposed by the Rabbi on the strollers of Friday evening who used pocket torches and the big scandal around that. The fear was that should the Rabbi and the orthodox people get aware of the existence of the club, heaven forbid, where Jewish boys and girls met like the 'goyim', they would be stuck in a very bad situation. So they decided to turn the club into a library, then the club would be sanctioned and nobody would object to it. The club was set up in a room rented in the house of 'aunt' Zelda, which she was called by everybody in the townlet. There came boys and girls to change books and by the way enter into talks and conversations on different subjects. The club and library didn't 'go far' – they didn't affect the principles of general ethics which

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prevailed in the Shtetl.

The library didn't contain many books. Newly published books did not arrive in Melnitza. The books of Jacob Dinesohn: 'Stumbling Block' and “Yosele” were read already by everyone, shedding tears while reading. Shomer's love stories, bought by Reb Yosel the Bookseller, were also books on demand. Naturally the humorous books of Shalom Aleichem and the novels of Mendele Mocher Sefarim: “The Mare” and “Fishke the Lame” changed hands of one reader to the other. The library in itself was not a factor that could satisfy the boys and girls to be ready to become members of the club. It was necessary that somebody would see to a higher cultural level at the club meetings: lectures, theatrical performances, etc. regrettabley, such a personality was not available in Melnitza. There were several educated boys and girls, who had not attended any universities or high schools and the whole of their education was autodidactic, they reach much and were oriented in the Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew literatures. Among them were Slave Reider, Pupe Peltz and Buzie son of Nissel Reiter who graduated Pharmaceutics by external studies, Bushe Wolach, Yankel son of Shmaryahy Zeltzer. The one who visited the club was Yankel Reznik. He sang songs and cantoral music (he was one of the assistant singers of the cantor Yosele Chazan), while the others didn't visit the club. There was an invisible partition between the working boys and girls and the mentioned 'intellectuals'.

The girls from the rich families, who were dressed elegantly with furs and rubber boots in winter, and with hats and umbrellas in summer, felt it strange to befriend youths not of their social status, with boys who worked as teachers in the neighboring townlets or as salesmen in shops in the bigger cities. Consequently, the “library” club was not a big success. That was, however, a start of social cultural life in the Shtetl. It is quite probable that were it not the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the townlet would have made more progress socially and culturally. The World War brought about irreparable damage to the whole economic life in Melnitza. The Jewish life fostered for many generations in the townlet was mostly ruined.

In the First World War, Melnitza was occupied by the Germans and Austrians, who advanced eastwards to the wide open spaces of Ukraine. The Melnitzer Jews began to adapt themselves to the new life conditions created in consequence of the occupation.

There was a shortage of essential products, because under the war conditions it was impossible to travel anywhere and bring goods uninterruptedly, so that goods were smuggled in black market conditions, or had to be legally brought by virtue of permits of the German military administration. At first there were difficulties in obtaining such permits, but after several months, connections were formed with the governors and the situation changed for the better. The rich merchants who dealt in the past in cereals, textiles, clothing and household utensils, were compelled 'to forgo their dignity' and be in line with the 'ordinary people'. At time of lack of salt and sugar, there stood in the queue for getting food ration coupons from the authorities, the daughter of the rich Eliezer Bokser, together with the daughter of Yekutiel the Glazer. The situation in the townlet changed for the better when the military governor was replaced by another one named Wilson. He was a liberal and tolerant man. He invited several Jewish dignitaries (Jews, only he didn't take into consideration Gentiles at all) and after a short conversation he appointed as head of the townlet Binyamin son of Motel Geyer. The Starost of the townlet, Mordche-Yosl Demb, Yerachmiel Shames and others, who were 'machers' (middlemen) during the Russian regime, tried to draw near to Wilson, but the Austrian governor drove them out with the single word, “Out!”

The appointed head of the local council, “Niontchik” (so he was called in the townlet) was a young, tall and handsome man. He knew how to be befriended with the Austrian governor and started functioning as head of council without having the slightest idea how to do it. One things was clear to him: from this job he will not lose. While prior to that he had to stand in the queue at the governor's office in order to get a license to import salt or flour, now – in his capacity as head of council, he started freely to import cognac, wine, rum and other products for which there was a big demand by the German and Austrian soldiers and they bought the articles from

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him against ready cash.

Almost every house in the townlet turned to be a 'tea house' or 'beer pub'. There the soldiers could get whatever they wanted. German Marks and Austrian Kronen were plenty in the pockets of the soldiers of the local garrison and of the soldier who passed on their way eastwards to the frontline. The Jews gained much profit, and they had just to supply the soldiers with liquors and pork. The head of the local council, who was a good natured man, knew how to avail of the situation in his favor and for the benefit of all inhabitants of the townlet.

The head of the council was also in charge of the administrative and organizational affairs of the townlet, that some day he would have to render a report thereunder to the authorities – the governor Wilson, concerning the operations of the local council of the townlet which counted about 700 Jewish and Christian families, all together about 4,000 persons. Order had to be introduced in the administration and operations had to be duly recorded, while “Niomtchik” had no idea how to handle all that. Luckily, there returned home just in those days, Tsale, son of Aron Wolf the Scribe, who took up the functions of the secretary. (I apologize for writing a little about myself.) Since he was one of the “broigez” men (those who deserted the Russian army, refusing to fight against the Germans and Austrians), he managed after wandering over roads and forests to come back to his native town Melnitza. As soon as Tsale arrived, he was invited by Niomtchik and said to him, “Hear, my friend, I know that you master the German language! (How did he know that? He simply took it for granted that a son of Aron Wolf must know German.) You must save me, as you know I am the head of the local council, and it is a must to keep books and records as required, so take up the job and you will get fair remuneration.”

Tsale accepted Niontchik's offer, that was a salvation for him, because as a deserter he was not acceptable by the authorities, but from the very moment of taking up the job of secretary of the local council he became lawful altogether. He started working in the following order: He wore on his sleeve a blue-white ribbon that meant that he belongs to the townlet management, and he adopted to his staff four young men: Kalman Kozak (also a deserter), Zalman Geier (the younger brother of the head of the council) and further two youngsters. They too wore blue-white ribbons and all five emerged to the streets of the townlet to make order.

The first thing done was to affix plaques with the names of the streets in each street corner, on all houses – house numbers were put and we issued an order to repair all entrances to the houses and the sidewalks, clear sand to be strewn in the front of each house, and so on.

Things were done by command of the governor Wilson: “cleanliness should be kept!” A census of the population was taken and a register of inhabitants was duly kept. Accordingly food ration coupons were granted: for meat, sugar, salt, etc. The climax of our activity was the distribution of certificates 'to the right and to the left' to the Jews of the Shtetl to deal and import at their discretion.

All certificates and approval were sealed by the 'royal' seal with the eagle – the Austrian emblem – in the center of it. Jews travelled wherever they wanted and brought into the townlet whatever they liked, without any limitation. The policemen who checked on the roads in order to prevent 'black market' dealings, as soon as they saw a certificate with 'eagle' seal presented by the Jews, paid no interest to the contents of the certificate, the main thing was that it bore the official seal. It is also quite probable that most of the soldiers were illiterate. In this way the trade and smuggling prospered and flourished and everything went smoothly, until one day governor Wilson called to the head of the council and the secretary and presented to them a certificate issued by them and caught far away, near the town of Chelm, to a Jew who transported a full cart of brandy, rum, and pork. In order to obtain such a permit a substantial bribe had to be paid to the District Commissioner in Kovel, and only one of a thousand could get it.

Seeing the certificates along with a long 'scroll' attached to it, I – the secretary – the head of the council was greatly embarrassed, since we had no reasonable excuse and we were afraid that we would be severely punished, although we were innocent.

When the bald governor looked at us standing

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frightened like 'chickens', being unable to utter a single word, he received us in the late evening hours while he was lying on his iron bed, without any pillow under his head, with a thick cigar in his mouth. He told us stammering, “Go home and bring the seal to me tomorrow”. Several days after handing over the seal to him, he called us again and handed over to us the seal, while the royal emblem – the eagle – was no more therein.

Subsequent to that case, we – the head of the council and secretary – were no 'onmipotents' any more. Indeed, we did issue certificates, but those were provided with the seal without the official emblem, and such certificates were not of big value. Generally we were afraid of issuing too many certificates, because the watching and control on the roads was stricter than before. There started movement of military troops, which were stationed in private houses of the local inhabitants, and bigger military troops who moved to the frontline. The Russian army started advancing westwards and pushing off the German-Austrian army, who were withdrawing from their strategic positions, among them – Melnitza.

The inhabitants of the townlet were compelled three times to escape from it, since the front line stopped for a long time in the vicinity of Melnitza. Hard battles and shelling took place between the two armies and in between almost all houses of the townlet were destroyed.

The Jewish inhabitants of Melnitza became refugees and they moved to towns and villages in Poland, to Lublin and Keltz districts. The wealthy Jews settled in Kovel and in other bigger cities. Motel Geier, the very wealthy man, arrived with his family in Lodz, where he acquired a textile factory. His son Niomtchik bought a house in Warsaw, where he conducted big business affairs.

In 1918, at the end of the war, the refugees returned to their ruined Shtetl which they could hardly recognize. Many houses, which were built of wood, were dismantled by the German military forces during the battles and brought to the forests, where the beams were used by them for fortifications.

The returning Jews started rebuilding their destroyed houses. That was already at the time of Polish rule. Life began to resume its normal course. The wars between the Poles and the Bolsheviks (Red Army revolutionaries) resulted in repeated regime changes, until the Polish rule was stabilized. Those changes were accompanied by cruel riots. Life in the townlet was not as before, lacking those merchants. Life was conducted typically just as in other Jewish townlets in those times, until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, in which Hitler, damn him!, pretended to conquer the whole world and to annihilate the Jewish people everywhere. (The writer of this article left Melnitza and emigrated to Argentina during World War I (1914-1918).

Alas, we have no exact information about the life of our beloved brethren in Melnitza in the period of the Second World War and during the Nazi-German occupation. What is painfully known is that the whole Jewish community was annihilated by the Nazis and their Ukrainian accomplices. Just very few of them who miraculously saved their life are actually living in Israel, U.S.A., and Argentina.

The memory of the martyrs of Melnitza will be preserved in our hearts forever and ever. May this modest article serve as a monument on the common grave of Melnitza Jews who were killed in Sanctification of the Holy Name and in Sanctification of the People.

 

mele032.jpg
Esther and Gershon Cohen
Edice and Philvel Baller

 


  1. “Pinkas Kovel”, Buenos Aires, 1951, (292 – 328) Return

 

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