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[Page 137]

Chapter 4

Education, Society, Economics

Maytchet General Survey

By Benzion H. Ayalon

Translated by Martin Small a/k/a Mordechai Leib Schmulewicz

II. Between Two World Wars

  1. General background
  2. In Retrospect
  3. Town Panorama
  4. Government and administration
  5. Public and national activity
  6. Educational organizations
  7. Trade and handicraft
  8. Agriculture
  9. Transportation
  10. Jews of Maytchet.

 

a. General Background

The traditional Polish Anti-Semitism that ran in the blood of the Polish leaders between the two world-wars (1919-1939) inflamed the darkest urges of the Polish people, who lost all humane and moral restraints in their relationships with the neighboring Jews, who had played an important part in the development of their land. The evil Polish behavior at this time of dire straits not only allowed the Nazis to perform their satanic scheme, but also assisted the criminals who willingly participated in the mass destructions of Jews on their land.

In spite of that, the short period between the two world wars was lively and encouraging for the Jews of Poland and Maytchet, for three reasons:

  1. In the initial recovery of the renewed Poland, which was revived after a long era of enslavement under the iron hand of the Russian Czar, was a different spirit, and the leaders of the time allowed the Jews to assist in the construction and rebuilding of their country.

  2. The border erected between Russia and Poland led Russian Jewry to degeneration and destruction, religiously and nationally, thus the fate of Polish Jews was the lesser of two evils.

  3. The Jews knew persecution and oppression for many generations under the Russian Lithuanian and Polish regimes, and they were, at this point, not selective, accepting every peace and cooperation effort with happiness and honest loyalty. They had no choice but to believe that a new era awaited them–A time of labor and positive actions as citizens of the country and Jews.

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Indeed, in spite of the difficult financial straits and the heavy taxation, which were not bereft of Anti-Semitism and discrimination, they endured this time with happiness in view of the possibility that they would live and strive for better days. The gloomy days of the Polish minister Graevsky expressed the situation in a nutshell. Responding to the radical Anti-Semites he said: “thrashing the Jews with the financial whip and squeezing taxes out of this till they go bankrupt, Why not, that is a good idea! But physically hurting them? No!”

This was the atmosphere in which Jewish life was led, and although the conditions were difficult and fluctuating, and perhaps for that reason, a wide network of public and national-Zionist activity had developed in order to fill the gap by adding toil and energy. The short sighted Jews accepted their decree, and their life force dictated their actions: do everything and live. Jews who were more far-sighted realized there was not room to live wholesome Jewish lives in any place but the Land of Israel, and gave all their lives and energy to work towards the ideal of a Jewish state. But neither realized that they were living on the tip of a smoking volcano, and whoever did not escape was doomed.

And still these years will remain engraved in our memories more than any other era. Specifically because it was close to us and in honor of our dear ones who lived during those years fighting for our existence and were killed for the sake of G-d and the People of Israel.

 

b. In Retrospect

After the many changes that took place on account of the shift in borders and the changes in government and regiment, one thing at least, which is the natural condition of the place, which no one had any control over, stayed unchanged, as engraved in our memories.

Near the confluence of the Svorta into the Molchadka river is this small place named Molchadz, or Maytchet by the Jews. Anyone who nears the place on the way from the village Mitskevitz, the train station of Maytchet and the train line of Vilna-Rovno, will see from a distance the Polish Catholic church buildings and the Belarusian Eastern-Orthodox church, and upon reaching the town, the “Shul-Hof” (street of the synagogues) with the big synagogue belonging to the Jewish community. The three holy places will attest to the fact that from the beginning of times, this place was intended for the three religions, but the Catholics and the Eastern-Orthodox, the eternal arch rivals, cooperated as did Midyan and Moab, assisting in the destruction of the Maytchet Jews.

For more than 400 years, over 400 Jewish families lived and worked in Maytchet and in adjacent villages. In the vast sea of hostile population they knew high and low tides of persecution and peace, of building and destruction. But with all the conditions and circumstances, they continued to share the burden

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of the difficult Jewish life, fulfilling the commandments, studying the Torah, placing efforts on education, culture, charity and benevolence, public and national activities, days of happiness and sorrow.

The only thing the Jews of Maytchet lacked in this fateful time was a prolonged peaceful period, in order to prepare themselves for what was yet to come. The Jewish youth especially regarded it as a desperate need to prepare cadres of pioneers and send them to Israel to build their new homeland. Also to raise consciousness with members of the Jewish nation who did not yet realize the danger they were in. But the peaceful times were not long; there was too much work and their life work was stopped in its prime.

 

c. Town Panorama

Physically, the town did not undergo many changes in the years before the Second World War. Its old streets remained unpaved and unlit just as they had always been, and the mud and puddles on rainy days were a common sight. Aside from the paved main road which led to the train station, all other paths leading to district towns were dirt roads in which transportation was mainly conducted by horses and carriages, except for one car, which was the only modern innovation of the time.

A few new public buildings like the slaughterhouse and the bath-house were built during this time at the demand of the authorities. Only few small stone houses and two story houses were built. The old wood houses stood erect, covered with wooden shingles, and some of straw. Only the stores were covered with tin roofs and clay shingles. Water supply to the houses was provided by water drawers (which was a device with two rectangular containers and a pole that was placed across the shoulders to carry water to the houses). The Jews of Maytchet remember Shalom the Water Carrier, who would charge less money when required to carry water to a more distant location, explaining that he got a chance to rest on the way. There were also some self-service wells and springs with fresh water from which to drink.

All these imparted Maytchet with a unique identity of a typical Jewish village, where the wealthy were scant, and the poor supported themselves off each other sparingly but with love and justice. It was distant from the din of civilization and all that goes with it, but “its poverty was becoming to the Jews.” There was so much Jewish grace to every small and poor home, especially on the Sabbath and on holidays, when the presence of peace and love prevailed over them. At these divine moments, every heart was filled with happiness, and every mouth cried in admiration “How goodly are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places, Israel…”

 

d. Government and Administration

As Maytchet was a small town, there were only minor changes in its administration. The Polish government gave it the status of Gemina (local council). The head of the Gemina was a Russian Voyat (head of council), who was

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usually easy on the Jews and fulfilled his obligations towards the residents without discrimination. Among the members of council were always 2-3 Jews who were in charge of protecting Jewish interests. The Gemina controlled the jail house, the police house, the post office and the magistrates' court.

According to the civil administration rule which was set by Polish authority, the city of Baranovichi was stated as the county town and Maytchet was subordinate to it in all issues pertaining to the duties and rights of the citizens as well as the communal issues within the Jewish community. The city of Novogrudok served as the District town,

The Jews of Maytchet were famous for their affinity to centers of Torah and merchandise in the area, but because of government rules in small towns, they were forced to wander to the district and regional towns in order to take care of their personal day-to-day matters, big and small, from an appeal at the district court to reporting to military service and issuing a birth or death certificate. This phenomenon was part of the Jewish folklore in the villages, that one person belonged to several places, to the point that he could not give one answer to the question “Where are you from, brother Jew?” A Jew was born in Maytchet, registered in Baranovichi, reported at Slonim, married in Zhetl and a resident of Dvorets.

After many generations in which Maytchet was subordinate to Slonim and Grodno, the hegemony was passed to Baranovichi as the county town and Novogrudok as district town, and the confusion grew.

 

e. Public and National Activities

Among the social-cultural values that the Russian government passed on to the area after its long regime was a total lack of public organizations. The Russian government viewed any organization as an underground nightmare aiming to defeat the regime. And since the Jews of the area had not experienced any organizations over the generations, they did not realize they were lacking and stuck to the conventional miserable community institutions of the time: Chevra Kadisha, visiting the sickly, night's lodging, management of synagogue affairs, charity etc. The Zionist movement did not fare better at the time since the Russian officials did not differentiate between a socialist and a Zionist (purposely or inadvertently) and they were all liable for severe penalty.

A new leaf was turned in the social and culture life of the Maytchet Jews when the Polish regime took over and more freedom of action was granted. It influenced specifically the younger members, a fertile ground for every blessed seed that blew in with the new spiritual winds which appeared in the free Jewish world. Local public institutions changed only a little. The Jews of Maytchet fulfilled the renowned rule: “hold on to this, but do not relieve your grip on that,” and did not neglect the old institutions in light of the new ones.

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The Fire Brigade – During this time a fire brigade and orchestra was established, constituted of volunteers. This was the only orchestra in town, and all members of it were Jews. Profits were used to maintain the brigade and renew its equipment as well as for support and help of its needy members. The orchestra played polkas and krakoviaks to the “usadinks” (Polish settlers) at New Years parties, etc. For weddings they would bring in special klezmer from Baranovichi. The head of the fire dept. was Yosel Schmulewicz who also played the clarinet in the band.

The Public Library – A public library was established, which held many books in Yiddish, Hebrew, and the native tongues. David Volinski was the librarian, and the library was at his home. This library did not have a name or affiliation, and it only had one aim – to provide spiritual food for the seekers of knowledge in the town, from all classes and schools. At some point, the library moved to reside in the “Tarbut” school, and the new librarian was Noach Kosterovitzki.

Tending To The Sick – at the initiation of Zelig Volinski, brother to Shifra and Miriam and with the participation of Yosef Skidelekovitz, Katriel Lichter and others, an “Ezrat Cholim” (tending to the sickly) organization was established to provide assistance with medicine and tools for the sickly and needy, as well as couples who made rounds sleeping besides the sickly.

A Charity Fund – In accordance with Jewish tradition in every town and village, Maytchet too established a charity fund headed by Katriel Lichter. This fund was used as support to needy families, offering short term loans without interest to petty merchants and craftsmen to buy merchandise they needed for their business, or just to Jews in distress.

In the national arena there were Zionist institutions and organizations divided by parties and schools: The Shomer Hatzair movement, Ha-Halutz, the general Zionists, The Mizrachi, the National Fund (Keren Kayemet), the Keren Halysod Foundation Fund, the Hachshara Kibbutz etc. The wealthier Jews of Maytchet did not display any opposition or envy, but responded with much affection to all the Zionist movements and contributed generously to every national aim.

Maytchet was not lacking in small organizational cells, Zionists and non-Zionists: Dror, Tiferet Bachurim, Bunds etc.

 

f. Educational Institutions

As the custom of the Jews was in all villages at the time, the traditional Cheder served for many generations as the utmost source of education for every Jewish child, a “workshop” where the soul of the nation was created, though lately, in light of the modern educational methods, the Cheder lost some of it glory, but if we discuss unforgettable knowledge acquired in childhood, everyone admits that this can only happen at the Jewish cheder.

Thus, the pain

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Zionist Library

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and fury at the cruel and harsh hand of the killers who violated this last fort of Judaism and destroyed it along with the innocent children who did not sin, and silenced the voice – the voice of Jacob and the hands of Esau.

These were the last cheders in Maytchet: (Cheder is a room or school where Jewish boys started learning Hebrew at the age of three and would study six to ten hours a day six days a week.)

Moshe “Der Toiver” (Moshe the Deaf One) – The cheder of Moshe 'Der Toiver” served the children who needed help from the big synagogue in the Shul-Hof (street of the synagogues” Moshe was also the cantor for the morning prayers in the Bet Midrash (House of Study). Students who once studied in that cheder are full of longing for those days, with the good and bad. They relate the story of one winter day when the students of this cheder got together and declared war on students of a different cheder, holding heated battles until a truce was declared and they all went back to study.

Shimon Shak – The cheder of Shimon Shak's was known as “Der Lechevitsher” (From Lechoviche, a shtetl about 30 miles from Maytchet) for advanced students of “chumash” and so on. This cheder was not located in the Shul-Hof but rather in the center of the village. He also had another innovation; he contacted with the “Tarbut” school, and his students received lessons in Polish.

Koppel Gorsky – The cheder of Koppel Gorsky' was considered an advanced one, for it was aimed for children who studied the “chumash.” These students viewed themselves as full fledged adults, and they did not deem the students of the children's cheder worth playing with.

Talmud Torah – In actuality, there was not such an institution in Maytchet, as in other villages and towns. Really, this was just a cheder, but the teacher who ran his cheder in the synagogue gave it the name “Talmud Torah” in order to make it seem more important.

The Polish School “Povshachna” – This was an elementary Polish school that provided free education to all nationalities in accordance with the compulsory education law. Only a few Jewish students attended, as most of the Jewish parents willingly waived free education and sent their children to a private and expensive Hebrew school. Rabbi Belski's son-in-law, Rabbi Elchanon Goldstein, taught religion to the Jewish students in that school.

At the time the Russian ruled, till 1914, there was a Russian high school in the place.

Hebrew Kindergarten – As part of the Hebrew educational system that included most of the Jewish students in Jewish and Zionistic Maytchet, kindergarten teacher Gonik ran a Hebrew kindergarten which also served as intermediate classroom and a gateway to the “Tarbut” elementary school.

Tarbut Hebrew School – This was the main school in Maytchet and greatly appreciated by the Jews; so much so that it replaced the traditional cheder. This school was established approximately in 1925, when the Hebrew educational chain “Tarbut” was only beginning to grow. The Zionistic activists in the area put much effort, affection and devotion into this place, till it grew and flourished in its efficient organization and comprehensive curriculum,

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Tarbut School building on Yorzika Street

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and with a talented cadre of teachers, the school won recognition of the government. Indeed, it was a lighthouse for the children of Israel in the darkness of exile, growing and being educated in the light of Torah and its values, to the love of Israel and the recovery of the nation of Israel to ritual Jewish law and action. The school went through various stages in development until it stabilized and ensured its honorable and glorious existence. To our terrible agony and sorrow, the enemy got to it and its fame was extinguished. The school was destroyed with its students, parents, teachers and activists in the catastrophe of the big Holocaust.

The school began under the directorship of Abraham David Zukovitski, who married into Maytchet and organized the school on Yorzika Street. Very soon it had seven full classes with 200 students, both male and female. With time, it moved to “Beit Olam” (Jewish Cemetery) Street in a building with a big yard and all the necessities required was rented from a Gentile (whose last name was Moshey). The great Chanuka and Purim bazaars were held there, as well as plays put on by the children and theatre clubs; theatrical productions which left an educational impression on the students and spectators. All revenues were directed, of course, towards the school maintenance.

In the drama club of the Tarbut School the actors and organizers were: Chezkel Rabets Yankel Gilerovitz, Leibel Gilerovitz, Gela Skolnikovitz or Skidelekovitz, Alta Boretcky, Feigle Boretcky, Esther Shmulewicz and others.

When the school expanded it moved to a third location in suburbian Pedlejan, in the house of Michael Shmulewicz. Among the teachers were: the principles' wife Malka Zukovitzki, Channa Boyarsky, Katz, Bossie Shepsenholtz, Keizer, Mrs. Bloch and others.

Religious School “Chorev” A religious school was established at the initiative of the orthodox parent committee, local teachers and several external teachers. The school principle was Mr. Teller. In the beginning, the school had four classrooms, but over time it grew and expanded and reached 120 students. In fact, this was a natural process of moving from the cheder method to that of the school and modern education in general.

The staff included: Reb Meir Teller, Reb Yossef-Shimon Gershovitz, Reb Shimon Harbrovitski, Reb Yakov Ginsburg, Reb Reuben Lamshevsky, the daughter of Yitzchak-Herschel Kaplan, Mr. Rabinovitz (from another place), a teacher of the Torah portion of the week on Friday night whose beautiful interpretations drew a large audience, Teacher Shimonovitz (from another place) for math and one student teaching the Polish language. In its last years, “Chorev” hosted six classes. chain “Tarbut” was only beginning to grow. The Zionistic activists in the area put much effort, affection and devotion into this place, till it grew and flourished in its efficient organization and comprehensive curriculum,

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To create income, the Parents Committee would initiate a play: “The Selling of Joseph.” The following participated in the play: Yechiel-Leib Rozansky, the synagogues' caretaker, Yehuda Leib Lamshevsky and Moshe Shmulewicz. The productions were held at the beit midrash in the beginning, and later, in the school's kindergarten.

Laying a corner stone for the Chorev School

In 1933, the “Chorev” youth established a drama club, members of which were: Shmuel Noah Belsky (chairman), Meir Lazovsky, Yossef, son of Rabbi Velvel and the female teachers.

There was a small yeshiva for graduates of the Chorev in the Shul-Hof held in the Bet Midrash.

Advanced Studies – Upon termination of elementary school, many of the Maytchet children went to work. Those who had capability and initiative went to high schools in Vilna, Bialystok, Brisk, etc. The ultra-orthodox continued at yeshivas in Kletzk, Baranovichi, Slonim, Lyakhavichi, and Mir. A few of the Maytchet youth went to colleges in other countries and overseas. A list of the students can be found in a separate chapter of this book.

An important note in conclusion: there were no Yiddish educational institutions in Maytchet.

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g. Commerce and Business

The fact that commerce and business were always in the hands of Jews, wherever they resided, is an undisputed reality. The reason for this was the unique social conditions the Jews had in the Diaspora. The question is only the extent of commerce and the types of business which were suitable for the needs of the Jewish community in Maytchet, and who took part in what business. Despite a small number of wholesale traders, most of the Jews in the town took part in petty commerce and craft. Aside from the daily proceeds, their trade depended on sales on market days and fairs. Also, there were a large number of straggler peddlers who went around the local villages offering haberdashery of sorts to the wives of the farmers in return for cash or agriculture. In Maytchet itself there was a market every Wednesday, and the tradesmen would wander to the various markets in the area and outskirts.

Besides trading in textile, leather, food necessities etc., for the daily consumption of the residents, the wholesalers of Maytchet traded in rags and linen which were exported overseas, while the retailers resided in “Red Kremen” (Shop Street), where there were a variety of shops that sold confectionaries, leather, grains, many food stores, clothing, butchers and others. The small shopkeepers bought their merchandise from local wholesalers, while the prominent merchants traveled to other towns; specifically Baranovichi but also to Slonim, Vilna, Warsaw, and others.

Construction – There was little building done in the town itself. Most of the structures were wooden homes with wooden or straw shingles, built by simple craftsmen or farmers. Fires in town were common, and from time to time the wooden houses would burn down. Naturally the citizens of Maytchet, as in other Jewish towns, would count their dates in relation to the big fire, until a bigger fire would come along and cause the previous to be forgotten. In 1924 a whole street caught on fire on a market day when most of the residents of the village were out of their homes. When the local fire brigade ran to get horses that would carry water to put out the fire, the farmers ran away from the market with their merchandise.

Only a few houses were made of stone, and even fewer were two-stories high. Construction was mostly done by Joshua Aharon Lozovsky and his sons. They built many public structures, i.e., the slaughterhouse, the fire brigade house etc, but mostly they built out of town in estates, etc. Another construction worker Mikal Shmulewicz, and among the wood merchants Moshe Shmulewicz was popular.

Other Professions – Tar factories, a profession relative to the wood trade, also belonged to the Lazovsky family in Maytchet and just outside the shtetl to Mikal and Zimel Shmulewicz. They built with their wood

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in the summer and burned tar in the winter. Tar and tar products like turpentine and such were exported to Slonim and then overseas, coal to factories, etc. There were two windmills in the village, powered by the local river water. The big one belonged to the Boretcky family while the small one belonged to David Belsky. There was also a grits mill and a straw chopper, both of which served local residents and the farmers in the vicinity. Boarding houses were among the occupations of the Jews of Maytchet. There was an inn which served as a boarding house to the agents and merchants from out of town, as well as some food houses. A list of all the commerce and business can be found henceforth.

 

h. Agriculture

This uncommon occupation should be mentioned as well. It was scarce among the Diaspora Jews, but naturally in this area there were a recognizable number of Jews in Maytchet who dealt in agriculture and other jobs in farming and gardening. Some of them lived in the many villages adjacent to Maytchet and cultivated farms and raised produce. Some of them worked in estates as lessees or hired workers. Within the town itself almost all of the Jewish residents had pieces of land flanking their homes where they grew vegetables and fruits for their personal consumption and sale.

In 1919, as part of the efforts of the Jewish help organization “HIAS” to help rehabilitate the Jews who became impoverished after W.W. I, loans were given to the Jewish residents in Maytchet to cultivate their farms, gardens, housekeeping, etc.

 

i. Transportation

Complex transportation routes and elaborate roads are one of the hallmarks of states which have an advanced western-European culture. Czarist Russia was way behind in this area. The legacy of the Russian government for over 120 years was a total lack of paths and roads, and therefore there were not as many motorized vehicles. The streets of the town itself were only partly paved with coarse and sharp rocks, except for the train station, to which a paved road led. During the German occupation in WWI roads were paved out of wooden logs.

The main form of transportation between the villages was horse and carriage. The Jewish carters were therefore a prominent professional cadre. They drove the merchants to nearby towns and local passengers to Slonim, Baranovichi, the train station, etc. for their personal arrangements. Until 1930 the only stop the train made was in the village of Mitskiewicze, four km. from Maytchet on the Vilna to Rovno train line. From that point on, the station for boarding and getting off for travelers (Palstanak) was next to the town.

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After the previous generation of carters rode horses, one of their sons breached the gate and brought in the first Maytchet bus. The craters still used the dirt path to Slonim, but took the train or bus to Baranovichi.

 

j. Jews Of Maytchet

So thus the dear Molchad Jews pass before our eyes, their families and peers, their business and Jewish lifestyle, weaved in golden thread for centuries. Some of them were people of Torah and good deeds, public activists and loyal Zionists, people of trade and industry who negotiated in faith, righteous craftsmen who enjoyed the fruits of their labor - a whole community of men and women, old people and youth, whose homes turned into graves on account of the sins of their generation. And when we long for them, we leaf through the memorial volume of the Maytchet book, saturated in the blood of our hearts, and the dear community arises from the dead. Our thoughts rush through the pages which are read of their own accord, years and eras fly by like a dream. The lively folklore of the town passes before our eyes like a play, happiness and agony, spectacular visions and horrifying ones chase each other, till we can hardly keep up with them and absorb their content.

Here is a beautiful picture of Friday nights, flooded with light and happiness, Sabbath tables full of holiness and soulfulness; of Passover Seders and holiday meals, filled with a yearning of the soul and endless longing. In every house in Maytchet a Jewish family sits around a glorious laid table. The father sits majestically at the head of the table, next to his wife, the mother, dressed up for the Sabbath and holiday and like olive trees around the table, are the happy and glowing children and grandchildren who receive with happiness and good manners the abundance of love pouring out of the hearts of their joyful parents. And those late afternoons on the Sabbath and holidays, who will ever comprehend them? When satisfaction and the blessings of God wear them out, and they fulfill the tradition of “sleeping on the Sabbath is pure pleasure,” while the youth fill the town's streets with youthful din and the gaiety of life. Some of them are out taking walks, others visiting, some go to their organizations or clubs or to social-cultural meetings. They fill the town with fresh and bubbly life like a mighty stream of water which flows way beyond its borders, in the gardens and bushes, in the fields, in the mountains and valleys.

The pages are turning fast and the visions appear and vanish alternately. Here they are, the tormented righteous people of Maytchet, grim death on their pale faces ... trees are bending in terror and fear, bowing with deep sighs to mother earth, their howl escorting a whole congregation of Jews, big and small, on their last path of torment and death. The souls of their forefathers descend to earth, floating above the heads of those condemned to death, lamenting in a silent unearthly cry the untimely end to the lives of their sons.

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Breathless from evil and agony, we stand before the great common grave on blood hill, “Chwoinik”, where fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters and young children who haven't yet lived or sinned are buried. How terrible it is to meet the deathly terrorized gaze of babies who are being held to the cold bosom of their dead mothers. The pure eyes of Moshe'lech and Shiomo'lech, Chaya'iech, and Sara'iech are penetrating us with question, fear, and supplication!

The memorial volume for the righteous people of Maytchet, who have blood, fire and pillars of smoke inscribed on their bodies and souls, is not a conventional book but an alter on which we will sacrifice our afflicted hearts in memory of the righteous people of Maytchet. It is not a book but a memorial tombstone, in which we will lay to rest our holy community, and where we will come, and our children and grandchildren after us, to be alone with their holy memory, and our cry of despair will merge with the sound of our brothers' blood as it cries to us from the earth!

Alte Boretcky and her two sons Herzyl and Meyerim

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