(Introduction to the Devenishki book)
Translated by Alma Cahn
How did the Jewish town appear and in what way did it differ from a Jewish settled area in the big city in the Diaspora? The small town was different from the life of the Jews who congregated in the big city. They were shut off from the wide world. The town lay in a high, natural setting surrounded by woods, fields, and gardens in a pastoral atmosphere, open except for the blessings and curses from the world around them. There were no ghetto walls for these Jews to protect them from neighboring enemies, nor were there any doors to lock against pogroms and robbers. Their fort was their security and their faith in their religion. Their wealth lay in their courage and fortitude in times of pogroms and never ending trouble. In the center of the town, on a high place, was a market where trading and business transactions took place. Everyone recalls the get-together on the market days where the Jewish merchants gathered with the peasants of neighboring areas and sold their products. Jewish houses attached to each other surrounded the market. In the side streets and a bit further from the center lived the non-Jews. The town was divided between Jewish and non-Jewish quarters because, in that way, it was easier to protect their religion, to be careful with their customs and rituals, and give respect to the celebrations of the Sabbath and the holidays. Within this closed community the Jews felt as if they were in a fort, just believing that their world is strong, impenetrable, as if they were in their own country.
Among the Jewish townspeople were craftsmen who worked with great energy to earn their daily bread. They loved their work and worked from morning 'til night. Only Jews performed certain occupations: tailors, shoemakers, capmakers, and blacksmiths. It should be emphasized that in the town there were also lumber merchants and wheat dealers who were very diligent workers. Their work, however, did not exclude them from upholding their spiritual values and religion, maintaining their family ties, raising their children to do good deeds, and studying Torah.
The writer Sholem Asch gives a very vivid description of wealthy Jewish craftsmen in the various Jewish town who acted like the nobility. This caused a great deal of resentment amongst their Gentile neighbors who envied them because they lived in luxurious homes. The Gentiles wanted to destroy the Jews and their possessions. Unfortunately, they were successful.
Most of the Jews were poor craftsmen, peddlers and general storekeepers, selling dishes and other general goods. They were not always able to eke out a living or make ends meet. They had to contend with going by foot in all kinds of weather, on unpaved roads, and peddling with old clothes in order to make a living to support their families.
The majority of the downtrodden Jews, however, did not lose their hope for a better future and [were] known in Jewish literature for their piousness and devotion to their religion. One sees the picture of a Jewish merchant sitting on the threshold of his store, anxiously awaiting a customer, and holding a prayer book in his hand. In spite of the fact that the town underwent many economic crises such as poverty, unpaid debts, lack of money, and bankruptcy, they never lost their hopes and expectations for a better future. The inhabitants of the town were very devout Jews. They believed in doing good deeds [mitzvot]. Before the town was devastated, most of the people attended the synagogue daily to study Torah and relax after a hard days' work. To the very end they followed the Jewish traditions and all of it ramifications. Saturdays and Jewish holidays were very eventful days for the Jews in the town. They forgot all their worries and problems. The holidays were observed in the usual Jewish tradition, especially during the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashonah), Yom Kippur, Succot, and Simchat Torah. Passover was celebrated with the arrival of spring. The children celebrated the holiday of Lag B'Omer in the woods. Shevuot was the holiday where the homes were decorated by greenery.
It was a hard life in the town and a very sad existence. The town had its own lifestyle. The aspirations and ideals that prevailed in the Jewish homes gave them incentive and encouragement to go on with their lives. They looked forward to the Jewish holidays and the Sabbath. Special preparations were made months in advance for the Passover holiday so that the Jews should not be left without matzot and wine during the holiday. Weekdays, the people of the town were very depressed, with very little hope for the future or expectation for their liberation.
The Jewish children in the village looked forward eagerly with great expectation and anticipation to the various Jewish holidays such as Chanukah and the lighting of the Chanukah candles on the menorah. They looked forward to the holiday of Purim where noisemakers were distributed, Purim gifts were exchanged, and the traditional Purim pastry (Hamentashen) eaten. They also looked forward to the two Passover Seder evenings, Lag B'Omer, Shevuot, the holiday of Tisha B'ov, and the Jewish New Year. The shofar was blown in the synagogue during Rosh Hashonah. They also looked forward to the holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and Simchat Torah, when they danced in the street around the Torah. There were many customs in the village that gave much meaning to the people, even though their life was filled with despair and struggle for existence. The wonderful family life and devotion to their religion gave them the courage to carry on. On the other hand, they contended with poverty, denigration, unemployment and helplessness, the difference between reality and fantasy to improve conditions and escape from reality. Benjamin Hashlishe, the Yiddish writer, represented a special character of Mendele Mocher Sefarim's [?] stories of Jews in the small towns. Benjamin wants to go to Israel but cannot differentiate between dream and reality. He imagines he is Alexander the Great and is convinced of his own strength. He yearns for the Holy Land. There is no obstacle in his path that keeps him from getting there. He keeps on dreaming and fantasizing without having the practical means to travel. There were many such dreamers in the village who were preoccupied with the legends and miracles in the stories they read. These stories gave the townspeople courage and hope. Was the hero Benjamin Hashlishe in reality a dreamer? Many of the so-called dreamers had illusions and expectations to escape from the misery of their conditions in their town. These dreamers felt that they were in exile and that there was no future for them in the shtetl. They were trapped and looked for a way out. They had the strength and fortitude to work for a higher standard of living. They were devoted to their families and to their religion and Jewish heritage.
Such heroes as Benjamin Hashlishe represented the tower of strength of Jewish independence in their homeland. Amongst the group of heroes were prominent leaders, liberation fighters, revolutionaries, poets and writers, scientists, spiritual leaders and creative people on all fronts. They also represent the Jewish town.
The Holocaust annihilated our people and wiped out the Jewish shtetl in Europe. 'Our town is burning' was not merely a folksong, but a reminder of the traditional Jewish lifestyle. Also, the Jewish town of Divenishok was affected by the Holocaust. We the saving remnant or survivors of that town who found refuge in their new homes in Israel and the U.S.A. did not want to forget our town where we were born, raised and received our education and knowledge. Due to their pride in their Jewish heritage and concern and responsibility for future generations, they establish the memorial book for the town of Divenishok. The yizkor now is distributed to the former inhabitants of Divenishok and to those interested [in] reading about the history of the sociology and psychology of the Jewish town of Divenishok. Sefer Divenishok is the product of many years of research, [...?...] regarding a small Jewish community. The book consists of five parts depicting chronologically the existence, development, and annihilation of the Jewish town of Divenishok. We express our thanks and recognition to our (landsleit) former residents or inhabitants of Divenishok to the following: Milton KORTSHMER, Barnet FRANK, and the former inhabitants of Divenishok who are now living in Israel and to editorial co-workers, Maier Jacob ITZKOVITZ, Shragai BLACHER, Jacob BLOCH, Benjamin DUBINSKY, the editor of the book, David SHTOKFISH, and all others who assisted in providing the material for this book. When we planned our memorial book, we did not have the slightest idea that we would reach over five hundred pages in Yiddish, Hebrew and English. However, the desire to establish a memorial in honor of those Jews whose grave sites remain unknown, spurred us to our work of writing this book, Sefer Divenishok".
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