It all started in the distant past, before the first world war. The small village of Slobodka, not far from Novogrudok, consisted of a single street with small timber houses with thatched roofs. On the top of a hillock, just visible through the leafy trees, stood a small church with a cross on top. The church overlooked a small cemetery where the deceased hard working peasants were buried. In the valley flowed a stream which drove the flourmill. The mill belonged to a Polish noblewoman, who let it year in, year out to a Jewish miller. The house of the miller was perpetually shaken by the mill, to which it was connected. That day was a day of celebration at the millers. The oldest daughter, married to a learned man, gave birth to a boy and it was his bris.
Guests arrived from town, among them the rabbi and the mohel. Millers from near and far joined them for the big festivity. Next day, when the mother of the child was already up and about, a party for the farmers was arranged. All farmers from the surrounding villages, who were customers at the mill, were invited. The old pop [orthodox prist] joined them. He was broad backed with a smooth face, a broad nose, watery eyes, the long strands of hair coming down in ribbons. The pop, having drunk a considerable amount of vodka and eaten well too, demanded to see the newly born, so that all could see him. 'What, don't we have a right to see the child, didn't his mother grow up with our sons and daughters? Why can't we see her first child?' There was no avoiding it. The old miller came in with his daughter and the newly born on a large cushion. The old pop, with the heavy silver cross resting on his protruding stomach, stood and looked with his watery eyes at the newly born boy and suddenly he fell to the ground, he crossed himself and started to shout 'Boze moyi (my G-d), he looks like our Jesus'. When the farmers heard this, they fell to their knees, were genuflecting and murmuring 'Boze moyi, Jesus Christ'. And this is how a rumour started in the surrounding district that at their miller's a small Jesus was born. As the boy was growing up he was surrounded by love of the farmers. The miller was urging his son in law to obtain his rabbinical appointment and take the boy away. The boy was pleased that the farmers likened him to Jesus.
The time came and the boy together with his father the rabbi, and mother went far away to a small town in Russia. The boy, who was growing fast, was longing to go back to his birthplace and to the farmers. Even after he started studying in a yeshiva, he used to go for the holidays to his grandfather. He would meet the farmers, who were happy to see him, and the farmers' daughters met him with ardour and would kiss him and press him to their ample bosoms. He was growing up. He finished his studies in the yeshiva and obtained his rabbinical qualifications. At that stage he joined the revolutionary movement. He managed to avoid imprisonment and, when his grandfather died, he took over the running of the flourmill. The old Polish landlady was fond of him. But most of all he was liked by the ordinary farmers, and he reciprocated their feelings. On Pesach he distributed among the poor farmers white flour and visited their poor homes, where he partook of their hospitality.
After the First World War started the Germans occupied the village. All mills were taken over by the army, except for the mill of our young friend. A couple of old Landsturm soldiers sat in the mill, and though they did not believe that the Jew was Jesus they did appreciate the gifts such as white floor, good quality butter, kept cool in the stream, bread rolls made with eggs, and, with all this, a good piece of pork. Those gifts were sent each week to Germany and the old Landsturm soldiers made certain that the mill came to no harm.
After the Russian Revolution and the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, the Germans left the village and the Bolsheviks arrived. One day an agitator with a sharp tongue came to the village. He assembled the farmers in the centre of the village and gave an 'enlightening' speech: 'Please tell me, comrade farmers, the land which is owned by the landlady, to whom should that land belong?' And they all answered 'It should belong to the State'. 'And the factories in towns who should they belong to?' 'To the State' the farmers shouted. The young Jewish agitator continued with growing vigour 'And to whom should the watermill in your village belong?'. And the farmers threw their hats in the air and replyed in one voice: 'The mill did belong and should continue to belong to our Jesus'. 'What Jesus, who is he where could he be?' the agitator stammered. And the farmers answered 'Jesus is our Jew'.
The mill was requisitioned by the government, but Jesus remained as the miller.
When the Poles came with their blown up manners and their hatred of Jews, the Jews began migrating to Erez Israel. The miller was considering migration, but he was strongly attached to his farmers. The farmers used to jest: 'If they will take us all to Palestine, our Jew will come with us'. The older sons of the miller went to Israel, but the miller with his wife and younger children remained in the village. The farmers maintained their friendship to the miller.
After the Second World War had begun, the Nazi beasts were ravishing the towns and villages of Poland. The mass murders started. The Germans encouraged the farmers to kill the Jews among them, but the farmers protected their miller. They all believed that somehow they would all survive the fearful times.
One day the village was surrounded by German soldiers. They went into the mill and brought out the Jewish miller, his wife and two children. The third child hid among the bags of flour and they could not find him.
All villagers were watching. Among them stood their young priest. When the miller appeared, his features white, covered in flour, his delicate face with the gold beard indeed reminded them of the pained face of Jesus. All farmers kneeled, genuflected and the young priest murmured: 'the cursed anti-Christs are tormenting our miller, may the Almighty's wrath be cast upon them'.
The German soldiers took the miller and his family to the Jewish mass grave. The farmers hoped that the youngest son of the miller, hidden among the sacks of flour, would be saved. But the Germans left a guard around the mill. The farmers thought that after night fall they may be able to smuggle out the boy and hide him.
Alas, when it started to get darker, the boy, thinking that the Germans had left, left the mill. The German soldiers caught him. The farmers begged the soldiers to release the youngster, but the Germans led the boy away and took him to the mass grave.
In the quiet of the night the farmers bemoaned the loss of the miller and his family. The young priest was crossing himself and murmuring: 'may G-d's wrath spread on all Germans and their children for all generations'.
Translated from Yiddish by O. Delatycki My dear son,
When I read how the Germans had destroyed our nation, smothered the young and the old, men and women and the Jewish towns among them our Novogrudok, where my sister lived with her four children, her husband and our extended family, how they tossed young children, in front of their parents, into ovens, whilst the music played on, and how they treated young girls, perhaps among them my sister's Mariashke's three girls, how the Jews were forced to dig graves for themselves, I felt numb and faint. I thought that I could hear my sister calling to me: revenge, take revenge for me, for my children and my husband. And this is why your letter announcing your resolve to join the army had filled me with elation. I suddenly knew that I and my children will not live in a world which others have fought for. Therefore I say to you – go. Be not afraid. I know, my son, what you think of the war. I know what your feelings were when you saw a gun or a sword. But go and take revenge for all the innocent children, for all the Jews who died for one reason only – that they were Jews. Take the gun or sword in your hand and destroy the wild beasts which threaten to destroy you and your nearest. Be filled with vengeance and hatred. Do not rest till the enemy of the world is defeated. You have a dual duty – to your nation and to the world. All viciousness that was committed against all nations of the world is of concern to the world, but not the viciousness against one nation, our nation. It is because of this that I am certain that you are going to fulfil a holy mission with certainty in your heart. What else, my son, can I tell you, when the entire world is unsteady under our feet, when the animal replaces the man? I am crying, I shed tears, not for you, who are going to fight for a better world, but for those unhappy, innocent children who were removed from this world. What else can I tell you, my son? Go and luck be with you, go with the will for revenge in your heart, and may your weapon be light in your hand. Greet Zita, tell her that your mother blesses you. Tell her to look after herself.
My sister-in-law asked me why I was so depressed. We finished the meal. Uncle helped his wife to clear the table. Boruch said: 'Uncle, I imagined that things would be quite different. I did not expect that I would come to you. But, in a few weeks I will be rid of my impairment' and he illustrated his words by lifting his foot in the plaster cast 'so I came to you because I have to think of my future. I have a wife and a child. So I came to hear what you have to offer'.
Uncle was rearranging the table. He stopped and asked: 'what do you intend to do, Boruch?' 'It is difficult to tell, uncle. I am young, but I have experienced a lot. My head is in a whirl. I have seen ruined towns, homeless, rootless people. Our people had been slaughtered. The enemy is still proud of their deeds. I hear that everything is very different. The people are different, the streets are different. This life looks alien to me. The change has been too sudden. There it was hunger, heartbreak, and here there is laughter and merriment. People are so free with their money. We gave our best lives for no reason. We were perpetually in danger. Here all was peaceful. It seems as if I am in an alien world'.
'You should realise that it will take time for you to adjust.' 'I need help'. 'For the time being, Boruch, you are a soldier' his uncle said 'when you will be demobilised we will look at the situation again. I may try to find a job for you in the Zionist organization. I know a lot of influential people in the movement, because I am a substantial contributor to the cause.' 'Uncle, I believe that I would not be able now to do communal work. I am not able to make speeches, encourage people, stir up people's interest. The job would involve tensions, meetings, agitation. And' lowering his head, 'I am not the same Boruch that I was 4 years ago. Now I need a steady job under supervision. Could you use me in one of your businesses and give me a chance to recover.' For a while the conversation came to a halt and then the boys said 'mother, let's go'. Uncle took his nephews and sister to the elevator. He waited till they got in and before the door closed he said 'I will see you later'.
Translated from Yiddish by O. Delatycki I remember it well the Shloss-barg, and which Novogrudker does not, the old, peaceful and so familiar and dear Shloss-barg. We all grew up on its wide space and spent many a day on its surrounding hillocks. I can see it in front of my eyes the two hills divided by a valley and connected later by a road which went past the house of Szimanowicz. The round amphitheatre on the big hill with its two towers the bigger one on the east side provided a nice view of the surrounding country side. One could see the road to Korelicze. The fields, neatly divided into squares, stretched to the horizon. Close by was a small grove where we would go in the summer to gather nuts. Through the fields winds a footpath to Brecianka, where people would go to the water mill to drink at the miller's warm milk straight from the cow, or try a plate of cold yogurt with black bread and hard, cold butter. It was a great pleasure on a warm summer evening. A little further on was the road to Peresika and Litowka. Aha! Here comes Chaim the water carrier, with the good water from Peresika for making tea. Further, on the horizon we could see the forests past Grodno Street. Under the hill was a deeper valley where in the spring and autumn was a stretch of water, which would evaporate in the summer. A hillock divided the area under the hill from the Sapotnicki's garden, where cucumbers, cabbages and other vegetables grew. The second, smaller tower stood on the south-west corner. Below was a narrow stream and past it the old fara [parish church] with a red roof, Niankovski's farm house, Kowalski, Korelicze and Sieniezyc Streets buried in greenery.
As children we loved the Shloss-barg. On the hill all was interesting and attractive. The brag never disappointed us. We had much joy on the barg on a Friday in summer, when we had classes only in the morning. For the rest of the day one could do whatever one pleased. If you so desired you could play 'chaverlach' ['friends'] on the big hill. You could conduct battles, take bets on who was going to run up and down the big hill fastest, toss stones and bricks from the bases of the towers or go for a stroll to the grove. Some of us would attempt scaling the towers, though this was not an easy task. Yet there were always those who were willing. Some of them scaled the walls high up to the embrasures. Later we discovered an underground tunnel. Stories were told that the tunnel was a passage to the fara church. Others were more imaginative and spoke of the tunnel extending to the town of Korelicze [22 km away!]. We would lie on our stomachs and crawl inside. The inside was narrow and low and very damp. It was not possible to move forward a meter, let alone to Korelicze. But what was missing in reality was provided by our imagination.
In winter the hill was covered by a white, glistening layer of snow. It was a big achievement to crawl up the hill and to be immersed to the midriff in snow. Everyone wanted to mark the smooth layer of snow with his steps. The best was to ride down the hill on ones backside. The tiny lake at the bottom of the hill when frozen made an excellent surface for sliding on. In the late autumn, when the lake was covered by a thin layer of ice, an attempt to slide on it would finish up in a dunking in the cold water and a speedy retreat home.
The Shloss-barg was an attraction not only for the young. On Friday evenings and on Saturdays the hill was visited by many. After consuming an ice cream at Rudnicki's it was time for a stroll on the hill, sometimes with the whole family and at times as a couple. The benches provided an airy and romantic place for couples. The revolutionary youth in 1905 and the Zionists, the Shomer youths on the Hachshara, everyone would come to the Shloss-barg. Sometimes quite late, the old Efron, immersed in his thoughts, would rush by in a heated discussion with the meek teacher Mirski.
Basically unaltered, the hill was subjected to some changes. On the lower hill, close to the Shloss street, stood an old windmill and a decrepit house. During the First World War the Germans filled in a narrow section of the valley and formed a passage from the lower hill to the big hill. Later the Poles conducted an archaeological investigation and dug parts of the wall surrounding the top of the big hill. The soil from the walls was used to form a small mound on the lower hill. This mound was put up as a memorial to the native son, the famous Polish poet Mickiewicz. The memorial hill was small and reminded one of a knob on a forehead. Later flowers were grown on the lower Shloss. The fire brigade would march onto the Shloss on major holidays with a band and torches.
At the entrance to the Shloss-barg was the house of Szimanowicz, the photographer. Everyone knew the tall man. He was a philosopher. Wearing dark glasses he would walk immersed in thoughts. He was having deep thoughts about the formation of the earth and liked to tell his marvellous stories. His two sons, particularly Senia, were the real keepers of the Shloss. The boys used to say that Senia is not afraid of anyone. At the entrance to the Shloss lived also Kaminiecki and Benzianowski, two wise Jews with large families and many boys, who together with Senia shared the domination of the Shloss. Further along lived Benjomen Chaim Gordon, in the street where the old windmill stood. Next to the windmill lived the pork butcher, who had business contacts with Jews and a bad son, who was connected to Polish extremists who were hostile to Jews. [During the war the pork butcher Jarmolowicz hid eight Jews and saved their lives].
The last time I visited the Shloss-barg was during the summer of 1946,on my way from Russia. The hill was still the same dear Shloss-barg, which had seen so much and experienced the destruction of the town and its population. The hill was empty and sad. It seemed that it was in mourning for the soul of the town, which had gone.
Translated from Yiddish by Aviva Kamil
The great synagogue was like an upright giant in the centre of the Shulhoif, opposite it stood the great Beit-Midrash. The small klaizlach crowded around them, like pullets around a brooding hen, as if they wanted to draw warmth and find cover under the wings of the synagogue and the great Beit-Midrash. As I was writing about the synagogue, the image of Rabinovich appeared before me. He was our last town cantor, who enlightened us with his pure and sad prayers.
I remember the images of the leaders of our community. With their tidy beards and their high brows, in their Saturday best, wearing suits that were sometimes old but always clean and tidy. In the centre of this group stands the dear image of Avraham Shlomo Efron: all his life he was dedicated to the social needs of the community, to the poor, orphans and widows, but above all he was fired by the love for Zion and its great poets who heralded its redemption.
On the hot days of Tamuz and Av he would leave his family and his businesses and travel around the district's towns and villages to preach of Zion and collect donations for Keren-Hakayemet and Keren Hayesod. He did all that voluntarily and he bore the cost of all this activity.
I can hear still the singing of your cantors who imparted in me a love of music.
The brides bought colourful scarves, which reminded me of orchards of apples, pears, plums and cherries in their spring blossom. I wandered around the market. I saw the poor women villagers who sat on the footpath in front of the row of shops and sold red forest berries. They displayed big ceramic bowls full of berries and measuring glasses, 5 groshy (a coin of Polish currency, 100 groshy = 1 zloty) for a small glass and 10 groshy for a big one. The buyers were many, old and young. A few poor children glared from a distance with hungry, jealous eyes, salivating and waiting for someone to buy them this unaffordable treat. My mother would notice these children, she would buy a glassful or two of berries and gave it to them with her blessing: 'to your good health children'.
How can I forget the red - cheeked apples and pears, and, as autumn was approaching, slightly overripe and tasty apples, which were sold by farmers who shouted in praise of their produce. The cooked legumes and broad beans, displayed in the peddlers' baskets, were ladled out for the children, who ate them while still hot. Special food was also prepared in private homes for Shabbat, Brith-Mila or weddings, in which all the community took part. The food's delicious taste is still in my mouth. Never in my life did I eat such tasty and satisfying food.
I liked to walk around the Shlosbarg, climb up the ruin of the old castle from the days of the Lithuanian prince Mindaug, who chose Novogrudok as his capital, and to look at the soft and beautiful landscape. There was green scenery all around, blessed with sunshine and water. From a distance I could see the Brichenke wood and the little lake, the water was shallow, but we liked to bathe in its cold and refreshing water. On the right side of the castle, down the hill, was the old Catholic church, wrapped in golden dust of a sunset and in old legends. Boys and girls, Jews and Christians played at the foot of the whitewashed walls. We all picked spring flowers-the blue cornflowers and the white daisies with their yellow centres.
I saw them hurrying to their cheder, with their soft faces and sad eyes, their skin white and transparent; one could see the blue veins through their skin. Their faces were pale from lack of food and sleep, from the stuffy air in their small dwellings with the low ceilings.
Fearful but excited they hurried to cheder. There they would search unknowingly for the sun in the land of Kenaan. When perusing the holy book they would hear the rustle of the sheaves in the fields of Kenaan and smell the Mediterranean sea, the river Jordan and the Kineret, the Carmel, Judea and Galilee mountains.
I pitied the elderly Jews, when watching them in the kloizim and in the big Beit-Midrash, sitting in pairs or foursomes, discussing a special problem that they encountered in Rashi or one of the Midrashim. Some of them would get hungry and would go home for a poor lunch of boiled potatoes with pickled herring or cucumber sauce, and probably a thin soup made of bones and barley. Meat and fish would be eaten only on Shabbat and holidays.
Among them was my dear grandfather Reb Avigdor Efron ZL. He was a Talmid Chacham (a person knowledgeable in Jewish studies) who was a wealthy man (gevir) before WW1, a leather merchant. After closing his shop he would go to the Todres kloiz and study a page of Gemarah and a chapter of Mishnayot.
During WW1 the soldiers of the Teutonic race robbed him of every thing he owned. They took his goods and gave him a cheque for a thousand marks, which did not have any value at all. For many years the old man believed in his naivety, that he would get his money back. Only on his deathbed did he realise the evil of the deception. My grandfather lost his wealth. To survive he was forced to accept help from my father, who supported him generously. My father supported also my sister Yehudit, who became a widow a few years after her marriage. She had a little boy, Avremaleh, a gentle child who had a good brain and was studying the bible and the Talmud. The Germans murdered her and her son. Her second husband was taken to a labour camp and never returned. We don't know where he was buried.
I can see in front of my eyes the image of my uncle. He was one of the learned people in town, Reb Berl Rabinovich, the dayan (arbiter-rabbinical judge). He knew by heart all the sacred literature; he could name the page on which a certain problem was discussed. Like the Gaon of Vilna, he studied the Talmud all his life. He was unassuming and would not accept kavod (honour) and fame. He lived in sadness and poverty all his life. A few years after his marriage his wife died and during WW1, his son Meir, the eelui(excellent student), also died. My father ZL supported him and his family generously. The words of Ch.N.Bialik in his poem The Meek of the World-let me share what's mine with you- would apply to my uncle.
I can still smell the tang of the branches, when I helped my father to cover the Succah. He watched me to make sure that everything was done properly. Who would not remember the taste of the Kiddush in the Succah or the flavour of the food eaten there? Even in pouring rain we continued eating our meal. My father ZL had his afternoon nap there.
Vivid are the memories of the night of the Ninth of Av in the synagogue, when all the praying people, young and old, with their shoes off, sat weeping and lamenting the destruction of the temple and the nation. The eve and day of Simchat-Torah were light and bright. A Jew forgot all his worries and was given to pure joy. We all remember the Chasidic dance in the shtibl. Chasidim in our town were few but on Simchat Torah they were the most important participants. Their frivolity was the talk of the town.
I grew up and drew my learning and understanding of life from the stories of grandfather Mendele, stories and plays of Shalom-Aleichem, there was nothing like those to illustrate the love to the Jew as a human being and the love to a Jewish child; the poems and stories of Ch.N.Bialik, Tchernichovski and Zalman Shneor, the knights of our national poetry.
The volumes of Hatkufah commenced their publication after WW1; the best and most beautiful of the world's literature was translated for us. We read the books, which appeared in the Shtibl publication, in suspense and with interest. Every new book in the library was a cause for celebration. We touched the cover lovingly as if it was a pair of new shoes that we were given for Pesach. Where are all the many volumes of Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland? With great expectation we waited for every new volume to be translated. Does the Jewish youth of today have that anticipation?
That day was declared a national holiday in town. The shopkeepers and the tradesmen shut their businesses till noon, among them were members of the Bund and a few Communists. All assembled in the Shulhoif, both old and young: schools, youth-movements, Maccabi, Hashomer-Hatsair (at that time there were no other organisations in town). The band of the Fire Brigade played. It was the only wind instrument band in the town. All musicians were Jews, they were the pride of the Jewish community.
It is hard to describe that event. The atmosphere all around us seemed different. The restless, sad eyes of the sons of the Diaspora sparkled with new merriment, as if they were open anew, as if confidence filled their hearts and gave hope for a better future. From now on ancient Israel would be one of the nations and would exist again, like in the days of old
After the speeches of the Rabbis and the Zionist leaders we went in a procession, with the band in the lead, marching to the market square, and we all sang. When we reached the building of the Polish government offices the starosta, the head of the sub-district, and the wojewoda, the head of the district, came out to welcome us. At the time the wojewoda of the Novogrudok district was Raczkiewicz, who was later president of Poland in exile during the WW2. He was an honest, altruistic and wise governor, a real liberal and liked by all the Jews of the town. During his days in office, no one, be it a Pole or Russian, dared to hurt Jews. Only a few people in Poland were like him. I remember the blessing he gave to the Jewish residents of the town and to Jews everywhere: I wish you to obtain complete independence, like we have, and to be a free people in your old motherland. It was the first time in the history of Novogrudok that a governor blessed Jews sincerely and warmly. The Polish and Russian residents watched amazed, but applauded and congratulated their Jewish acquaintances.
A decision was taken by the committee of the Hebrew congregation and Tarbut school, to pick plums and apples in the neighbouring orchards and distribute them among the soldiers, who were hungry. I volunteered to be among the fruit pickers. With the fruit collected we walked from cart to cart and gave it to the soldiers. They looked at us with good and sad eyes and thanked us spasibo dorogiye (thank you, my dears), I will never forget those words.
To my sorrow my prophecy did not come true.
The history sentenced you, my town, to be eliminated with the rest of the Jewish communities of Europe. But I promise you, my dear town, as you were a good mother to me, that I will never forget you.
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