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Episodes (Memoirs) From My Birthplace Shtetl (Townlet)[1]

by Faivel Baller (Hartford, U.S.A.)

 

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Faivel Baller and Gershon Cohen

 

My birthplace shtetl Melnitza, an old fashioned Jewish townlet, was renowned by its marshes and straw houses, which were overgrown with green moss. Melnitza was the “fortress” of Trisk Hassidism, and the Trisker Rabbi was its “boss and autocrat”. His word was a command; without his OK no Rabbi or Shochet could be accepted by the shtetl. The Haskalah (Enlightenment Movement), and even Hebrew grammar, was proclaimed as “treifa” (unacceptable). A gentile book and a Hebrew novel (Like “Hypocrite” by Avraham Mapou) was considered as offspring of demons.

And so did Melnitza Jews live out their bit of hard and struggled years, danced on Simchat Torah in the muddy streets, boys and girls and even adults ran after Yehuda Leib during Simchat Torah and sang along with him, “More aloft, and more aloft, more and more and more!” Yehuda Leib still arose their enthusiasm by climbing up into the synagogue attic, throwing down red apples to them. Alas, one who did not experience that scene, can never know the taste of catching Simchat Torah apples. Still today, after so many years, I feel how happy I was, if I managed to catch such an apple.

In Melnitza lived my teacher for beginners, Peisi Melamed. He chose as his son-in-law Shmuel Baramek from the neighboring townlet Tatchin. Shmuel was a great scholar, studious and proficient in Hebrew grammar (Heaven forbid!), a fact that became known to the fanatic Hassidim a lot later on.

That Shmuel Baramek became acquainted with a “pal” of mine, Wolf Ber (the “Crooked”, a son of a poor builder, but a great scholar erudite in Talmud and Poskim, just as “one is familiar with “Ashrei” prayer). Shmulik disclosed to his new pal the horrible secret: that he knew grammar. Wolf Ber, despite being an orthodox Jew, became enthusiastic and fully attracted the idea. He believed that a Jew must know his antique language – Hebrew, then must know Hebrew grammar. How else can it be?

The problem was, how can one study such “non-Kosher” thing? Should the orthodox people of Melnitza get aware of it, they would naturally be upset and even lead to excommunication. That was a real risk. Shmulik and Wolf Ber worked out a plan: the safest place to study Hebrew grammar was in the woods, far from the eyes of Melnitzer Jews.

On a bright summer day, after dinner, both pals took a walk behind the orchard to the highway, and from there into the forest, ear the water-mill, and there laid down under a big tree. Shmulik took out from his briefcase the forbidden Hebrew grammar book and gave Wolf a lecture on verbs. All went well, but not far away from the tree at which they rested, a Melnitzer gentile farmer was tending his field. He noted that two Jews lay under a tree, quietly “plotting”. The peasant concluded that these two buddies must be revolutionaries and planning to overthrow the Czar.

The Goy, both a Russian patriot and an anti-Semite, went at once to the Melnitzer official magistrate and reported the two Jews reading

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something from a book, discussing enthusiastically, so he is under the impression that they are plotting a revolution to overthrow the Czar. The official understood that he was dealing with two fierce revolutionaries and for catching them he might get a medal for rescuing the Czar and the whole of Russia. He did not wait, and escorted by some policemen, he went to the forest and caught both “revolutionaries” at the “criminality”. He arrested both of them and brought them back to town.

It was twilight. Melnitzer Jews were going to the Beit-Midrash to pray Mincha and Maariv. They were shocked seeing the two Jewish youngsters surrounded by policemen and goyim. The Jews began to run away, frightened to death. The official (Ouradnik) stood with the arrested in the middle of the town square and decided to turn them over to the district commissioner (Pristav) in Holob, threatening to send them to Siberia. Then Chaim Yosel the Starost interfered, explaining to the official that the book held by the youngsters was just a Hebrew grammar and not a Carl Marx book. He assured him that the two youngsters were honest and traditional Jews and not revolutionaries, and he offered his personal guarantee for them. Then they were set free, but with a warning not to lie under a tree in the forest.

The religious fanatics of the Shtetl caught Shmulik and slapped him on his face. Wolf Ber was slapped by Shimon Feltz, a rich and notable man in the townlet and a Trisker Hossid. “You are a troublemaker to the Jewish people, you Sheigetz, you dare to learn Dikduk (Hebrew grammar)? Get out from the synagogue!” Wolf Ber claimed submissively that he was a religious man, totally innocent and that only Shmulik was to blame. Some people forgave Wolf Ber, but others remembered his “harmful acts” for many years and used to rebuke him for that from time to time. Anyhow, it took some time before the event died down and was more or less forgotten.

Shmulik left for Lithuania, where he studied in the Yeshivot and was qualified as a Rabbi. Later on he left for America where he officiated as a Rabbi in some town.

Comes to mind a second episode that is worth telling. It happened in the year 1902. Like all small towns, Melnitza had no doctor to take care of its inhabitants. There was a paramedic (“feltcher”) – a Jew named Moshe Zigmund, a decent man. In medicine he was “experienced” but not from education. He wrote prescriptions, no one knew what! Melnitzer Jews kept quiet until all at once they woke up. What is? They were not happy with the practitioner that cured a cut or applied leeches and they decided it was time Melnitza should have a “studied” doctor.

It wasn't long before they got a doctor from Kiev, a nicely built young Jewish man. The Melnitzer Jews paid him 600 Rubles a year, which was a lot for that time and with free board and besides fees he got from his patients, perhaps 50 Kopecks.

Dr. Chodak, as he was called, had no companionship in Melnitza, to talk politics with Melnitzer Jews behind the oven of the Trisker synagogue where he used to come, so the doctor palled around with the pharmacist, so he felt quite bored in that remote townlet.

A small bit of time passed, when all at once there was a rumor that Dr. Chodak wanted to leave Melnitza. “Why, Doctor?”, they asked. “What fails you? You want more money? We will pay more, but stay with us.” But Dr. Chodak did not respond, until one time in a summer evening as it was, the Melnitzer found the doctor in the middle of the market-place (town square) making preparations to leave. All – little and big – surrounded him and all started to talk at once and begged him to “have mercy on us Jews whom you are leaving.” The shouting rose to the heavens and he, the doctor, stood in the center of the encircling crowd, silently smiling, then raised his hand and asked them to be still; he wants to tell them something. Then he said, “You Melnitzer have a good practitioner (meaning Moshe Zigmund); you don't need a qualified and learned doctor. I leave you and if you listen to me, I'll give you advice. Be as clean as before Passover and eat as on Erev Yom Kippur; then you'll be healthy and be in no need of a doctor at all. I wish you good health and goodbye.” He went into his abode, took his valises and rode off to the railway station.

Melnitzer Jews, though of a small townlet, were no fools at all. They realized something was not clear and the blame for the doctor's leaving was no more

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than caused by the pharmacist's and practitioner's loss of income. Prior to that their income was “fifty-fifty” (for prescriptions composed of water and sugar), so that they were dissatisfied with the doctor's presence – so the Melnitzer people believed, and it was probably not far from the truth. So now that the doctor left them, the crowd ran to the practitioner's house and broke all the glass from the windows. The practitioner and his family locked the doors and hid themselves, and when the wife showed herself through the broken windows, they shouted, “Her is Vashti! Where is Haman?” But Jewish “hooligans” never killed anyone. They all went to their homes, in great sorrow and perplexity, not to forget for a long time the going away of their doctor.

 

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Left to right: The Ballers – Bezalel, Feivel, Manya
June 1963


 

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Zvi Mersik[2]

by Melech Neistadt

Zvi was born in Melnitza near Kovel. In his childhood his father died. He was the youngest child in the family. He attended the “cheder” (religious elementary school) and the Polish state school, and in both of them he was the best pupil in the class. On every Shabbot he used to call at the local Rabbi's house in order to be examined on the material studied in “cheder”. He was the glory of his family and teachers. The adults liked him for his sharp wittedness and for his pleasant voice and the children liked his tales and stories.

As soon as the “Hechalutz Hatzair” organization was established in the townlet, and he was just 14 years of age, he joined as a full member. He had to resist the objection of his parents. His mother believed that he would be out of her influence and the other members of the family were inclined, just as the whole intelligentsia of Melnitza, to the Beitar organization. He overcame all obstacles. His capabilities and dedication to the idea of “Hechalutz” came to expression in his discussions and conversations with the Revisionists on the one part and with the Communists on the other.

He also had to overcome obstacles when he decided to go to Kibbutz Hachshara (pioneer training) in Kovel. There he wholeheartedly dedicated himself to the Kibbutz ideal and at the local branch he was enthusiastically explaining and propagating the exalted values of collective and working life. After working hours he used to call at the branch and entertain the children whom he love so much by singing. He worked in the Kibbutz Hachshara in the pumping of drinking water and distribution thereof in the private houses. He also took part in summer camps of “Hechalutz” trainees as youth instructor.

Zvi, in his capacity as member of the district leadership, visited frequently all branches of Wholyn province. Every visit of Zvi was imbuing a refreshing spirit in the branch. In 1938 he was elected as a member of the central committee of “Hechalutz Hatzair” in Poland and he was active there in full energy and devotion. He was modest and quiet, a man of deep ethical consciousness and moral principles. In his organization activities he was full of energy and initiative and his influence was recognizable everywhere.

At the outbreak of the Second World War and occupation of this region by the Red Army, he stayed for some time at his home in Melnitza. He attended most energetically to a group of youths from Germany and other countries who arrived there after lengthy travel tribulations (meaning the refuges from the Polish territories occupied by the Germans). He gathered a group of comrades – loyalists of the movement – and strengthened in them the dedication of the idealistic values against the dangers of deterioration in view of the moods of that time. He was among the activists of the movements underground in Wholyn, the main goal whereof was to transport members to Vilna which was surrendered by the Soviets to the Lithuanians. After some period of activity he arrived in Vilna, expecting to make Aliyah from there to Eretz-Israel.

In Vilna he was active in the movement in Lithuania and very soon everybody liked him very much.

At the end of 1940 it was decided that his Aliyah to Eretz-Israel be postponed and he was imposed with the tasks of activity within the movement's framework. He accepted the decision unwillingly and he suffered greatly on that account. Some time later on he made preparations for Aliyah and even got an exit visa, but in the meantime there started the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Germans.

During the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, he wholly dedicated himself to the clandestine activities of the movement. When Mordechai Tenenbaum left Vilna, Zvi Mersik was appointed to substitute for him. He was the live spirit of the underground activities. Then he moved with a group of comrades to Bialystok and carried on there in the movement's underground.

 

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Melnitza
Between the Two World Wars
1918 – 1939

by Israel Wolk (Isarelik, Aharon Marinis), Haifa

I was born in Melnitza in 1918 at the end of the First World War. I learned from my parents and acquaintances about what happened in Melnitza during the war years.

Shortly before the outbreak of the war, many young Jews were inducted into the Russian Czarist Army. The men left in town were called to build fortifications for the Russian Army against the German attack. Because of the quick progress of the German Army into Russian territory, the head column stopped for some time near the town in the woods by the village Velitzk. When the town was conquered by the Germans, the Jewish population was transferred to the center of conquered Poland to the towns of Keltz and Stahov. My mother, my brother and my sisters were transferred to Stashov. The refugees from Melnitza suffered greatly because most of the family heads stayed in Melnitza. The refugees lived off the help they received from Jewish organizations in America.

At the end of the war, on their return, the Melnitza refugees found their homes either in ruins or burnt, and all their possessions damaged or stolen. Shortly after the Bolshevik armies occupied the town as well as gangs of Nationalistic Ukrainians, members of the Petloora and the Belachovzes gangs, who murdered and raped the Jews and stole their possessions.

When Poland became a republic under the leadership of Marshal Pilsoodsky, the district of Vohlin, all the western part of the Ukraine and Belorussia was included. The appearance of the new conquerors, “The Polish Legion”, in the town was accompanied by negative feelings towards the Jews. The Poles blamed the Jews for being supporters of the Bolsheviks and so thought it right to riot against them. The Legionnaires beat the Jews and cut off the beards and side locks of the town's elders. The authorities and the Polish administration found ways of depriving and harassing the Jewish population. The local council, “The Gemina”, was supposed to have started in the town but because the town was populated mostly by Jews, a few Ukrainians and Poles, it was transferred to the village of Velitzk.

The Jewish communal life in town was returned quickly to the way it was before, thanks to the actions of the local Rabbi, rabbi Yehuda Sfard, and the leaders of the community. Because there was no communal organization in the nearby towns: Holobi, Povoorsk and the nearby villages, the community of Melnitza also took these places under its wing. Towards the holidays, and especially the “Yameem Hanoraeem”, the Jews and their families from the surrounding townships and villages arrived to stay with their relatives in Melnitza.

The visitors, who were called “Di Gainilkays”, enjoyed the holidays in town, went to the synagogues and took part in all the prayers and festivities.

In town, “Cheders” were opened for small children - “Dardakeem”, where they were taught to read and write. The older children were taught by the learned teacher Zalman Kos (father of Shalom Kos) and by the learned teacher Y.D. Perchook, and later with Landau. The High Schools, “Yeshivot” or other educational institutes, government or public Jewish schools didn't exist in town. There was only one government elementary school with only four classes. At the beginning of the thirties another wing was added to the school that contained another three classes. From then on the children from the town would finish seven grades at the public elementary school. Only very few families sent their children to continue their high school studies outside town. It was Rabbi Sfard's honor to send his son David (Dudi) to study in Warsaw and in Paris. The chemist shop owners Yitzhak Wollach and Menachem (Mendel) Shemesh, the learned teacher Y.D. Perchook and Tuvia Kalikah also sent their children to study out of town. Israel Reiter sent his children to study at the high school in nearby Kovel. The other boys and girls who had finished their studies at Chedereem and elementary school helped their parents afterwards to keep the family. Many boys went on to learn a profession. At that time very few wanted to learn how to be a cobbler or a tailor. It

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On the way from Melnitza to Holob in the 20's
Picture: Courtesy of Mrs. Roze Zarucki, New York
In memory of the families Pelc, Garber, Wolach, Milgalter

 

wasn't fashionable and instead they learned to be carpenters, builders and businessmen. Most of the girls had to learn to be seamstresses and work at mass production or work by helping their parents' business.

 

Professions of the Jewish Inhabitants of Melnitza

Shopkeepers, grocers, haberdashers, materials, shoes, leather, building and agriculture materials, machinery and agricultural tools and bicycles: about fifty to sixty families in the town worked in these trades.

Thirty five families worked in the horse and cattle market, fifteen families worked as agents and in commerce, there were twenty cobblers in the town. Twenty tailors and salespersons for readymade clothing (tandetniks), fifteen cart owners and drivers, twenty joiners and builders, seven blacksmiths, ten butchers, five wooden cart builders (stalmacher), two chemist shop owners, five grain dealers, two chicken and egg dealers, four bakery owners, two oven builders and metalworkers, two leather dealers, six kinds of peddlers, three hairdressers, two potters, a warehouse owner and a tree dealer.

The people who worked in the public service sector were the local Rabbi, the slaughterers, the old cantor Yossele, the “cheder” teachers, the clerks in the community office and charity offices, Soltys, the bathhouse workers, Hevra Kadisha and the cemetery guard. All in all, thirty employees.

All the different professions, traders and shopkeepers also dealt with the non-Jewish population in the towns and villages: in Boorchowitch, Zmitz, Krevin, Merin, Ridky, Bitny

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and Pisotchny. The Jewish Holy Vessels were also used by the Jews of the other towns and villages in the community.

Most of the business transactions were done on Market Day, every Wednesday, in the market place in the center of town. Hundreds of farmers arrived at the market with their carts full of homemade product and agricultural produce. The farmers sosld their products and bartered and bought from the Jewish dealers. The four mills ground the wheat grains and barley, millet and other groats and with money the farmers received for their produce they bought everything they needed for their families: medicines from the chemist, groceries, shoes, leather, clothing, materials, manufactured goods, iron and wooden building materials and agricultural implements. Apart from the market which took place in Melnitza, the traders and peddlers went to other markets in Holoby, Povorsk, Manevich and Rozhishche. These were the horse and cattle dealers, traders in shoes and clothing. The night before the journey to the market the dealers filled up their wagons with their products. At dawn they'd leave for the market and after a long jolting journey they'd eventually arrive, very tired at the market. In the evening at the end of the market they'd return home but on their way through forests and woods sometimes they'd be robbed of all the money they had received for the goods sold at the market. The people who worked in the building trade, joiners, molders, oven makers, burnt bricks for cooking and baking, heaters for heating the home with chimneys that went up through the roof, stayed all week at the farmer's home. They would work and

 

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On the way from Melnitza to Holob in the 1920's
Picture: Courtesy of Mrs. Roze Zarucki, New York
In memory of the families Pelc, Garber, Wolach, Migalte

 

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eat at the farmer's table until Friday. On finishing their work they would go home for the Shabbat. Amongst those were the door and window framers, floor layers who built the wooden floors and roofs from shingles and wood.

The relationship between the farmers and the Jewish craftsmen was friendly. When the job was finished they would pay the craftsmen with money and gifts from the local produce: milk, butter, chickens and eggs. I remember the joy in the farmer's home and their grateful thanks to my father and brother, who were casters and dug wells for concrete pipes, every time they got to a layer of water that was suitable for drinking. The well was dug deep down in the ground. They would pull up the earth in pails with a rope, and when they got to a layer of spring water they would climb up. The farmers would shout for joy and when they arrived at the town market they would greet us and give us gifts of agricultural produce as a token of their thanks.

The relationship at this time between the Jewish community and the Ukrainians was good. This was because of their shared hatred for the Polish conquerors, as was said, “not for the love of Mordechai but for the hatred of Haman”. The Jews hated the Polish clerks and police who treated them badly and degraded them. The Ukrainians hated the Osadneekey workers that were brought in by the government from afar to try and remove the Ukrainians from their lands and settle Polish farmers instead.

In spite of the benefits, the Ukrainian farmers got from their Jewish neighbors (the craftsmen, traders, doctors and chemists), they didn't feel obliged to help the Jews in the days of their hardships and tragedies during the German Nazi occupation. They joined the Nazis and took and active part in murdering the Jews together with the Nazis and looted their property.

The Jewish life in Melnitza, the professional workers and their source of livelihood, wasn't different to that of the Jews in the Wohlin district towns. In spite of that there was a lack in the field of culture, education and entertainment for the Jews of other towns. As stated, there were no high schools in Melnitza or technical schools or “Yeshivot” to study Torah. There were no places for entertainment or clubs for the youth to pass their free time. In the town there were two libraries that had books in Yiddish and many of the youth took the books to read and after would dispute amongst themselves about the content of the books. There were four permanent synagogues: Bet Hamidrash, the Stibel of the followers of Trisk, Bet Hamidrash for the followers of Stolin, and the Bet Midrash of the Admor from Olika. During the week, al the old people prayed at the synagogues but on Shabbat and festivals they synagogues were also filled with children and youth. In from of the Ark the messengers of the people prayed and not professional cantors. Sometimes professional cantors came to own from the large cities. Apart from the cantors there were also “Darshaneem”, emissaries from they yeshivot who came to preach Torah and morals in the synagogues. The congregation listened to the emissaries and donated to the Yeshivot. Shlomo Henach Baller (Zelda's father), a learned Jew, was the most impressive of the speakers who gathered news from the papers about what was happening in Poland and worldwide and would tell the Jews in the synagogue about the daily news.

There was a Drama Group in town and from time to time they produced plays by Shalom Ash and Shalom Aleichem. The plays of the Dramatic society were held in the barns of Yehiel and Chayka Bayner or Benny Roper, and many a time the cows were heard during a performance, a thing that the huge audience found amusing.

A group called the “General Zionists” was founded, the members being called “Di Inteligenz”. The head of the branch was Shamash Menachem and his deputy was Nacha Godomitcher. They would meet at Godomitcher's home to socialize, entertain and sing. Their main activity was to collect money from the KKL. One member of the same group, Leah Rayder, the eldest daughter of the David family, was the first of the girls in town who came to Israel and was one of the founding members of Moshav Menahmia.

A large number of the town's Jewish youth were supporters of the Communist Party, which at that time was forbidden in Poland. The Communists were hounded by the Polish authorities. The Communists

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Picnic in the 20's, Families Peltz and Garber
Picture: Courtesy of Mrs. Rose Zarucki, New York

 

Would meet in small groups together with their young supporters. They didn't take active part and concentrated only on reading books by the leaders of the Communist Revolution and the Russian authors M. Gorky, Tolstoy and others. They would dream that the Communist Revolution would bring freedom and happiness for everybody living an unhappy life in Poland. The Jewish Communist members in town were the daughters of the Rog. Scop and Shylisman families.

At the beginning of the thirties two more branches of the Zionist movement wre opened in town: Ken Betar, and a branch of the Halutzim and the Young Halutzim. The head of “Ken Betar” was Shalom Kleinbord and his deputy was Nissan Reiter (the brother of Shmuel Reiter) who lives with his family today in Tel Aviv. The Ken had many young members. Their Zionist and social activities were felt out of town until the outbreak of the Second World War.

The branches of the “Halutzim” and the “Young Halutzim” were established at the same time by Zvi Mersik, Shmuel Reiter and David Gibel. Many town youngsters were members of the “Halutz”. They would meet in the branch hall to socialize, sing and dance. Sometimes they would have talks on Zionism and Socialism. As a result of these Zionist activities many of those youngsters came to Israel.

Many of the youngsters were also inducted into the Russian Army at the outbreak of war between Germany and Russia so the families that immigrated to America between the two World Wards were the survivors from a once flourishing Jewish community in Melnitza while the rest of the population was

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murdered by the German Nazis and their Ukrainian helpers in September 1942.

As was already related, there were no establishments for the town youngsters to socialize for sports or culture. During the summer months on the Shabbat and during festival the youngsters went to the nearby woods and forests: Sosneks, Brezinkes and Stavetchinex. Outside in the open the youngsters had a good time during the Shabbat eating strawberries and picking berries. After Shavuot, st the end of the counting of the Omer, the youngsters would go down and wash in the river near the town called “Der Klein” or beside the place called “Di Konamyna”. Their daily outings followed the only dirt track which led to the town of Holoby or to the green hill called “Der Greener Berg”.

During the winter the forests and fields were covered in a heavy blanket of snow and the river froze over. The youngsters spent time skating with skates called “conkes” and skiing on the snow. They held skating competitions and skiing on the ice and snow, a great attraction. The best thing possible was to go far away in closed sleighs drawn by horses with bells round their necks. You could hear the bells for miles around and the youngsters really enjoyed themselves.

The town changed and looked lovely towards the Succoth holiday. A Succah was built beside every home from planks and boards tied together with string according to law and covered with greenery and fresh bulrush stalks giving off the smell of the fields. A special event during the holiday evening was the lighting of candles in the Succah and the singing that reverberated from every Succah like one big choir and of course the festive Succah meal.

There was a special feeling during “Simchat Torah”. On the evening of the festival there was a special festival service in the synagogues and the “Hakafot” done with the Sifrei Torah amongst the congregants singing and dancing. The next day there was a second Hakafot and all the worshipers from youngest to oldest got an “Aliyah LeTorah”. The children and babies were called up to the Torah together and a large Tallit was spread over their heads.

During the festival of Simchat Torah every year two old men got a lot of attention, Joshua Shechter (Sheeye Yankeles) and Hershel Trianofker. Joshua shechter would drink vodka until completely drunk. He would dance down the town streets in the puddles and mud. Many of the youngsters joined him and followed him pulling at his long coat, calling at him and cheering him on, “Sheeye! Sheeye! Chaim! Chaim!”. These dances went on until evening while his wife Sarah the baker was heard screaming and crying.

The other old man Hershel Trianofker would go up into the rafters of the Bet Hamidrash every Simchat Torah with a sack of apples. He would throw apples down amongst the congregants. Young and old alike would gather in the courtyard of the Bet Midrash to catch an apple thrown by Hershel, even though apples were plentiful and cheap to buy.

Purim was also a joyous festival. Towards the reading of “Megilat Esther” all the Jews gathered at the Synagogues and study centers, adults and children alike. The reading of the scroll was accompanied by a great din from the children waving their rattles and shooting caps f rom toy guns every time the name of Haman was read. In every Jewish home they had special Purim meals and in the town streets you saw the children with “Mishloach Manot” in their hands sent to friends and relatives. After delivering the “Manot” the children received gifts. Groups of town youngsters wore masks on their faces and dressed up as Bible characters. They visited houses and collected donations for charity and to help the poor. There were those “Purim Shpeelers” – Purim actors who read and sang Purim songs and plays based on the Bible.

Straight after the Purim festivities they started getting ready for the Passover, cleaning their homes and making the utensils kosher. A special problem was the baking of the matzot. Most of the families were large and did not have the financial means to buys all the provisions we take for granted today: meat and fish, fruit and vegetables, and large quantities of matzot which took the place of bread during Passover. A whole family generally needed about sixteen kilos of matzot and not every family could pay the price. The matzot were handbaked as there were no matzot bakeries in town, and it was very

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hard work. The matzot were baked in the home of Mottel Miller. A few families would arrange to bake together. The oven in the home where they baked the matzot was koshered beforehand. The women stood and kneaded the dough and rolled each matza with the rolling pin, and after they had been baked they were packed in large wooden crates and taken home to store until the Passover. The work in the bakery went on till late evening and as the festival drew nearer they worked all day and all night without resting until enough matzot had been baked for everyone. There was no matza flour for sale and every housewife had to make her own by grinding matzot with a rolling pin until it became flour.

The time between Purim and Passover was given to getting everything ready for the Seder night and Passover: the wine for the four cups, the bitter herbs and the horseradish. All these things can be bought today “ready made”, but in those days it all had to be made at home.

On the eve of Passover they would check there was no hametz in the house, in the storerooms or barns. During the inspection ceremony, which fascinated the children, they would scatter pieces of bread in every corner and afterwards would go and look for them. The inspection took place by candlelight, and the bread would be collected on a large spoon by chicken feathers. The next morning they would ceremoniously burn the hametz.

The Seder night was held in every Jewish home. There were no communal seders, something done today. The seder was held exactly as it was meant with the participation of the children who asked “The Four Questions” and stole the Afikomen (the piece of matzah hidden and eaten at the end of the Seder).

During the interim days of Passover and Succoth the people would travel to the other towns and cities to visit other family members. Many also came to visit our town. These visitors were called “Priazdazee”. The curiosity to get to know these visitors knew no boundaries. With great impatience they waited for their arrival because it was a chance to get to know new people and sometimes to make acquaintances between boys and girls that, in time, became serious and would lead to marriage. As was custom, most of the couples in town were introduced to one another by family, friends or by the marriage makers. Because there were no rail tracks in town the transport to and from Holoby was by cart.

On the eve of Shavuot the town was all decorated. The Jewish houses were covered in greenery, the synagogues were covered in white tree branches and other greenery which gave off a scent of the fields. A Jew by the name of Mottel Bass didn't spare any effort in painting and decorating all the synagogue walls. Just before the festival in all the homes and gardens they spread plants called Lapachey and a refreshing smell wafted all over the town. During the festival they ate milk products and blintzes that were fried spreading an aroma all around.

In the middle of the Thirties, five years before the beginning of the war, the first motor vehicle came to town. It was a passenger bus. The owner of the bus was a Jew called Avram Nachmans Waintroib. The route the bus took was from Melnitza to the provincial town of Kovel and back. Every day many of the town's youth gathered at the bus stop to see the arrival and departure of the bus with a feeling of pride, running after the bus until it disappeared from sight. The passengers arriving from Kovel during the evening hours got to see this spectacle.

The Jewish way of life in Melnitza, their leaders, their customs and their experiences went their routine way until the outbreak of the Second World War on 1st September 1939.

 

During the War Years

Terror and fear gripped the town population at the outbreak of the war. Even though no home had a radio, and newspapers didn't arrive, we learned immediately about the quick progress made by the German Nazi armies onto Polish soil, and the bombing of the Polish cities. A number of bombs fell on the nearby Holoby train station ten kilometers from Melnitza. The intense echo of the bombs was heard in town. The town filled up with refugees, who escaped the Nazi threat from the West and central Poland with the intention of getting to the Russian border. Many of the townspeople also thought of escaping eastward to Russia.

The tension eased after the news reached us that

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Radio Moscow broadcast that the Soviet army was ready to free West Ukraine and White Russia from the hands of the Polish conquerors. The Jewish population in town breathed a sigh of relief. At New Year, when the whole population was at the synagogue and the Beth Hamidrash, during the reading of the Torah and before the blowing of the Shofar in the “Shtibel” Synagogue, Toybah Rog, who was a member of the Communist Party in the Polish Underground, appeared. She asked to stop the prayers and spoke with great pride to the congregation of the freeing of the town by the Soviet Army and the changing of the Polish Government to the Soviet Government. An operations committee was quickly established and took upon itself the running of the town affairs. After a few days a convoy of Soviet soldiers arrived and were received warmly by the local population. The soldiers behaved to the population also with the bond of freed brothers.

Immediately after the Soviet soldiers arrived Avraham Mooze and Michel Zvik came to the homes of the local Jewish communists and asked for the keys to the branch of “The Young Halutz” and the keys to the library. They invited me to talk with the Communist Leizi German. On arrival for the talks Leizi explained to me, even though my Zionist activities in town during a number of years weren't thought of as anati-communist because of my belonging to the working class and considering my attempts in cultural events, I was asked to join them to direct the administration and cultural activities in the town and surrounding areas.

Many Jewish refugees arrived in Kovel, from a Poland overrun and conquered by the Germans, and amongst them was part of the executive staff from the Halutz Central committee in Warsaw, Yitzhak Zukerman and Zvia Lobotkin. Some of the members who came from the occupied area found temporary shelter in the training group of the “Halutz” in the town of Kovel. Because of a lack of shelter for everyone in Kovel, they brought members of the Central Committee to Melnitza to treat a group of youths from the German town of Zabonshin until it was quiet again. The person in charge of this group that came to Kovel was a young member of Kibbutz Keltz called Rifka Yellin. I lodge this group in the home of Benny Roper and saw to all their needs until after the holidays of that year.

It was to my surprised to find out at this meeting with the youngsters from Zabonshin that I knew the person in charge of the group – Rifka Yellin- and I fell in love with her. In 1941 we were married in the Lithuanian town of Shavil where we had arrived during our escape with the purpose of getting from there to Israel. Together with Rifka we fought during the war years for survival from the Nazi inferno and together we arrived in Israel in 1945 on an illegal ship.

After the talk I had with the Communist Leitzi German and after conferring with Antek – Yitzhak Zukerman and Zvia, we came to the conclusion that I would have to leave town. Although I was known by the Communists as being a Zionist, I was to move to the town of Vilna which had been given by the Soviets to Lithuania.

Thousands of youths from all of the Zionist parties congregated in Vilna, as they wanted to continue their Zionist activities and from there continue to Israel. I explained to my parents and family about the present situation, that it was dangerous for me to stay in Melnitza and my duty to move to Vilna. On one of the Shabbats at the beginning of October during the morning hours when all the population were at prayer, I stole away from the town by way of the fields and walked until I got to the town of Kovel (30 kilometers). From Kovel I went by train via Brest-Lit. to Vilna. (I got there in the middle of October the same year.)

In Vilna I got to the training Kibbutz of the Halutz Group “Shahariya”. At the agricultural farm of the kibbutz I met David Gibel from our home town who ran the farm. At the end of December Zvi Mersik and his girlfriend Batya Katz arrived at Kibbutz Shahariya in Vilna.

We fought hard to survive during the war years in the Ghettos, in the work camps and in the concentration camp beside Dachau in Germany. In 1945, at the end of the war with the arrival of the Jewish brigade at the Jewish refugee camp in Treviso on the Italian-Austrian border, I met a young person from my hometown called Yitzhak Zweibel (the son of Shaika Zweibel from Melnitza) and he told me

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about his escape from digging the trenches where the Jews of Melnitza were murdered, and he was taken for dead. Throughout the night Yitzhak told me about the murders and humiliation suffered by the Jews of Melnitza and amongst them were members of my family. During the time of the German occupation they met their untimely deaths, killed by the Germans and their Ukrainian helpers. During our meeting Yitzhak gave me to photographs he had found after the war in the attic of our house, one photo of my sister Chana and the other of my brother Moshe. The things Itzikl told me about the fate of our loved ones, from first hand information, are engraved deep in my heart and memory and I will never forget.

 

mele046.jpg
The Families: Peltz, Melgelter, Wolach, Flomenbaum in the 30's
Picture: Courtesy of Mrs. Roze Zarucki, New York


  1. “Pinkas Kovel”, Buenos Aires, 1951, (329 – 334) Return
  2. A Yiddish article out of Melech Neistadt's book “Destruction and Revolt of Jews in Warsaw” Return

 

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