The Town from the End of the
Nineteenth Century to the Thirties
by Abraham Starovin
Translated by Shmuel Winograd
According to the notes of Avraham Starovin
z"l, in the pamphlet "Yekufu", published in
the Spring of 1928, and from the pamphlet
"Rakov", which was published in 1930 in
the United States by the organization of the
Rakov was known, before the First World War, for its special industry:
agricultural machinery and pottery. These products were the main contributors
to its economy. The factories employed tens of workers, and produced hundreds
of machines for threshing, harvesting, and sorting of seeds. They also provided
for iron-smiths, painters, salesmen, and more. The salesmen spread their net
afar, and marketed the products in the districts of Minsk, Vitbesk, Tcharnigov,
Smolensk, and Mohilov. They would spend most of the year away, and would come
home twice a year, for the Holidays [Rosh HaShanah and Passover], with pockets
bulging with "Asignatziot" (money bills). The town would wait
impatiently for their return: They would pay the manufacturers, and they in
their turn to the workers, and the workers to their debtors, and
thus the money would go around supporting a large circle of families. After the
Holidays, the salesmen would, again, be on their way to open new markets for
the products of the town, and would return home half a year later. And thus the
[yearly] cycle continued
The second industry in town was of pottery and
bricks. This industry also employed many of the town's people, who made their
living from its production. These products, too, found their market near and
far, and reached as far as Bobroisk and Smolensk.
As the number of factories increased, the town acquired its own proletariat
[working class], which was organized in many organizations according to the
fashion of the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth
such as "Hevrat Humash" [Bible Society], "Hevrat
Tehilim" [Psalms Society], 'Hevrat Ein Ya'akov" [Society of the
Spring of Jacob], and more. Others, more "modern", would organize
themselves in dancing clubs and
the "Hibat Tzi'yon" [Love of
Zion] movement. The common feature of all these organizations was that they did
not engage in the struggle for bettering the working conditions of their
members, whose working days lasted at least 15 hours. No sooner did the
revolutionary workers' movement make its appearance in the Jewish street, that
the Rakov workers were drawn to it. They organized and formed a Workers' Party,
declared strikes in some of the larger factories, and fought for their rights
forcefully and proudly, fully conscious of their status. And sure enough
their struggle was crowned with success; they gained a shorter workday and many
other fair working conditions.
This mighty stream in the Jewish street bore fruits in the general area of
social-cultural awakening as well. The same young Jews, who had not been aware
of what was happening outside their small town, had their horizons widened.
They started to think of larger matters, got interested in social issues,
searched for books that dealt with the problems facing them, and started
reading general literature. Consequently, a large library was established in
Rakov in those days, in 1912.
In spite of the changes which took place in the consciousness of the young
people during the revolution [of 1905], no change occurred in the area of
education: The heder [religious elementary school], followed by the yeshivah
to the extent that boys continued their education after the heder
was the lot of the boys in Rakov. In practice, most of the boys did not
continue their studies: some started working in their in their father's store
or shop, and some went idle. Not so with the girls. They were not sent to the
heder but to the local Russian school, and some of them, the daughters of the
well-to-do, were sent to Minsk to continue their general education.
The Years of Reaction and Migration
The years of reaction, which came after the 1905 Revolution and the Pogroms,
caused the migration of tens and hundreds of thousands Jews throughout Russia.
In Rakov, too, there were tens of families and young people who migrated in
those years, despairing of living their lives in it. Most of them migrated to
the United States, the land of liberty, and the minority to Eretz Israel and
The Social Conditions in Town
Many were uprooted from their place of birth, and went in search their lot in
the big world, but life in the town continued as it had been. The owners of the
factories and the stores were well established, sure of making a good living,
and felt comfortable in the synagogues and other institutions in town. Those
were calm days, as far as public life was concerned, and they felt on solid
ground. At the head of the "Ofrava" [town Council] was Starosta, a
drunken goy, and the 'ba'alei batim' [the well-to-do of the the Jewish
community] knew how to manipulate him, and also how to find the 'back door' to
the Lord Hauradnik [the higher official].
Rabbi Avraham Moshe z"l [of blessed memory] had sat on the throne of the
rabbinate for 53 years and supervised the life of the community honorably and
with a firm hand. He was respected by all for his honesty, and served as a role
model by the pleasantness of his ways and by his soft spoken manners, without
preaching or chastising. His manners were simple and modest, and he unified the
members of the community into one family, without controversy or divisiveness.
Suddenly everything changed. The old rabbi passed away and left three
granddaughters. In his will he asked that a husband would be found for the
eldest, who would be worthy to succeed him on the throne of the rabbinate. In
the beginning it looked like everything would go smoothly. A committee was
chosen from among the 'amcha' [town people], headed by several well-to-do,
which was determined to fulfill the request of the will. And they did so. They
brought, from the Slovodka Yeshivah, a young scholar who was an ordained rabbi,
worthy by all accounts to assume the local throne of the rabbinate, by the name
of Rabbi Kalmanovitz; an energetic man, full of initiative, and many great
deeds could have been expected of him. But this caused a controversy in the
town, the unity was broken, and the name of Rakov was defamed. In a short time
there arose an opposition to the young rabbi by a fraction of the community and
they brought in another rabbi Rabbi Polak. The town was divided into two
quarreling camps. The controversy got worse and worse until friends and
relations became enemies, a son rose against his father and a woman against her
husband literally speaking. There were many bans and excommunications,
which were disastrous and caused material damage, and even deprived many of
First World War
The year 1914 arrived, and in August of that year the First World War broke out.
Rakov sent her best sons to the front, a draft followed a draft, and the town
was emptied of its male population under the age of 50. The number of the needy
increased, and some were starving. In the Autumn of 1915, after the defeat of
the Czarist army in the front, and its retreat from the enemy, the high command
of the Russian army started to fan the hatred of the Jews, pointing to them as
the real enemy of the Russian people, and as spies for the Germans. The order
was issued to expel the Jews of the border areas, and hundreds of thousands of
Jews became refugees overnight. The front was approaching, Brazina, Smargon,
Kreva, and Yashniva were burning, and the wave of refugees was growing. Rakov,
which was situated on the road between Vilna and Minsk, was flooded with
refugees. Many of them continued on their way eastward, others lost all their
strength and found their grave here. But many of them remained in Rakov, unable
to go on, and the town, depleted of much of its material goods, welcomed them
with a warm heart like brothers. The front was approaching, and the roar of the
cannons could be heard. In the ensuing fear and panic, many left the town and
took the 'wandering staff'. Some of them never returned and found their death
while away. This was the fate of R. Shalom the Butcher, R. Yoseph Berman,
Shimon Halper, Tolya Goldberg, and others.
The End of the Traditional Industry of Rakov
The World War brought complete ruin and destruction to the industry of Rakov.
Because of the economic difficulties and the drafting of the farm workers, the
farmers and estate owners stopped buying the agricultural machinery which was
produced in Rakov. Many of the factory owners (or as they were called:
"Mechanikers") were drafted into the army; others left Rakov and were
spread all over the globe. As a result, factories were shut down, and the end
came to the industry of which Rakov was famous for generations. Only one
factory continued to exist until the coming of the Nazis.
The Establishment of YEKOPA
In this dark and bitter period of the Russian Jewry, the Petersburg community
provided a ray of light. Some public-minded members of the community
established a society to aid Jewish refugees and other Jews who suffered
because of the war (YEKOPA). The Russian Government, too, finally decided
under the pressure of public opinion to help, and established,
with the aid of the "Zembasto" and the Red Cross, a fund for helping
those who suffered as a result of the war, regardless of religion or
nationality. Rabbi Kalmanovitz took the initiative and organized the Refugee
Aid Council in Rakov, and did it successfully and with much skill; even though,
as always, he did it all by himself, without consulting others, as if it were
his personal property.
The Winter of 1916-17
Heavy clouds hovered over the Russian Jewry. The High Command, wishing to cover
up its defeats on the battle field, found a scapegoat and poured its wrath on
the Jews. A flood of decrees was poured down on them. All the males of Rakov,
up to the age of fifty, had already been drafted. And as it was close to the
front line, they also seized the elderly for forced labor. They were put to
work digging trenches, cutting down trees, and other forms of hard labor, in
exchange for dry bread and water. One cannot describe the great suffering of
the town people during that period.
And the month of February 1917 arrived, and the great Russian Revolution broke
out. New winds started blowing across Russia. Together with the other millions
of the population, the oppressed and distressed Jewry started breathing more
easily. New life and new hopes were awaken. All the restrictions, which had
fettered the lives of the Jews of this huge land for generations, were made
null and void by the stroke of the pen of, the then prime minister, Kerensky.
It is hard to describe the waves of joy which inundated the populace as a
whole, and the Jews in particular. Rakov, too, had its small local revolution:
First of all, the "Ofrava" [town Council], with its drunken Starosta,
was dismissed, and democratic elections were held, with the active
participation of Jews and Christians alike. A new Council was elected, headed
by the Jew Michael Pupin; a mixed popular Militia was organized, headed by L.
Cohen, and with Shalom Ferber as an officer. Later, after the Bolsheviks came
to power, Cohen was appointed as the Commissar of the whole Rakov County. But
he came to a bitter end. One market day, on Purim of 1919, he stood on the
balcony of the Police building in Rakov and addressed the thousands of
gentiles, who gathered in the market square of the town, on their obligation to
join the army and defend the Bolshevik Motherland. His words evoked a great
agitation and much anger. Hostile shouts were heard against the Jew, who was
demanding of them to give away their sons, who had just returned from the
front. Someone of those assembled threw a stone at the speaker. This was the
signal for the crowd to grow wild. The melee grew. And with wild shouts the
multitude of gentiles started marching towards the Police building. When Cohen
saw the danger which was awaiting him, he ran into the building and shut the
door. The crowd broke down the door, burst inside, charged at its victim, and
attacked him. Mortally wounded he was brought to Minsk, and died there a few
days later in a great agony.
All of that happened two years later, but during the 'honeymoon' period of the
great revolution everything was done with joy, when all the dams of the Czarist
regime were torn open, and the waves of the revolutionary activities were
rising. The Jewish and the Christian youth of Rakov organized lectures,
arranged joint parties, and founded a community center and a reading room for
the soldiers in the front and for passers by. The slogan "Equality and
Fraternity" was displayed everywhere. It truly seemed that anti-Semitism
and xenophobia sunk to the bottom of the sea, and disappeared from the face of
But the honeymoon period ended quickly, and the Bolsheviks took hold of the
government. A civil war was raging all over Russia, and in its wake chaos and
utter confusion. Bands of robbers were roaming the neighborhood, and the
government could nothing against them; even the militia was powerless against
the well armed bands of robbing soldiers. Terror fell over the town. In its
distress, it sent a delegation to the authorities in Minsk, who dispatched a
cavalry unit to protect the town. But even they could not stand up to the
bands, and in the battle against the robbers, which took place in the Woods of
Zadzhichovski, the cavalry was defeated, and the road to Rakov stood open to
every looter and seeker of booty. On the fourth of March, 1918, a gang entered
the town, and for three days they rioted, looted, and plundered, with no one to
stop them, and only after the stores and the houses had been emptied, did they
leave the town.
|Administration of the associations
Bikur Cholim [visiting the sick]
and Linat Hatzedek [hospice for the poor] in Rakow
After the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk [between the Bolsheviks and the German
Government], the Germans entered Rakov. The Jews were glad to see them, hoping
that they would reestablish order. And, indeed, they were not disappointed. The
Germans fought forcefully against the gangs, and rooted them out of the area.
Also, they treated the civilian population fairly. On the other hand, because
of the German occupation, the ties with Russia and the large Russian Jewry, and
consequently the ties with YAKUFU, were severed. Because of the lack of
financial support, the Aid Committee, headed by Rabbi Kalmanovitz, stopped
functioning. Yet, the poverty in town was great, and the need to help those who
had suffered by the war, as well as the many refugees and orphans, was very
pressing. A new Aid Committee was established, by the initiative of the author
of this report [Avraham Starovin], which organized the best of the youth, and
gave help to all who needed it. Parties were arranged [for fund raising],
contributions were collected, and pledges of fixed monthly payments were given
by all who had the means. When the German authorities saw this private
initiative, they, too, helped by supplying food and by giving the necessary
permits for its purchase.
In the Autumn of 1918 came the end of the World War, and the peace treaty
[really an armistice] was signed with Germany. The Germans left the town and
the Bolsheviks returned, and chaos reigned again. Every one focused on his own
affairs and on his own troubles and there was no shortage of troubles.
The Aid Committee was dismantled.
A new war broke out on the first of July, 1919, this time between Poland and
the Red Army. The Poles came nearer to Rakov, and we were caught in the fire
between the two sides. The Woods of Solominka became a battle ground between
the armies, and after a hard and cruel battle the Red Army retreated, and Rakov
passed into the hands of the Poles and to their control.
As soon as the calm was restored, the community started to reorganize its
affairs anew. A new Community Council was elected, comprising of nine
Kalmanovitz supporters and six of the supporters of Rabbi Polak. The National
Committee in Minsk and the Joint sent financial support. Also, while the war
was going on, and one army was advancing and another army retreating, a
messenger came from the "Rakovian Relief" in America, bringing 1000
dollars to be divided among the needy in town. Individuals, too, received
various amounts of money from their relatives in America.
In the winter of 1919 Rakov became a border town. Peace was finally set, and
the control of the town passed into the hands of Poland. The area of the
Barbina was declared a demilitarized zone, and Rakov became a border town with
all its implications: On the one hand, it was separated from the wealthier
villages, from whom it had received much of its income, and on the other hand,
being a border town opened up the great opportunities of smuggling. Russia was
impoverished, hungry, lacking everything, and in Poland one could get hold of
all the goods of the West. And the Jews of Rakov knew what was ahead of them.
During the period of smuggling, when the border guards were weak and poorly
organized, the Jews managed to smuggle into Russia everything which could be
carried in packages or bundles: clothing, haberdashery, saccharin, and leather
goods; and in return brought gold, diamonds, furs, and other expensive
goods. Each such "Yazda" (trip) was profitable. These easy profits
were enticing, and went to everybody's head. Old and young, men and women, all
were consumed by the business of smuggling. Artisans left their shops, the
store owners left their customers, heder teachers left their Talmud books,
butchers their stores, and teamsters their whips, and all of the were engaged
in the business of gold. At first with the help of the gentiles, and
later on their own. They forgot God and Man, Sabbath and Festivals
everything was pushed aside. Everybody was smuggling, without fear of
the danger involved. Respected and honored merchants partnered with the
ne'er-do-well; long bearded Jews with side curls roamed the border woods, on
winter nights, in the company of hefty and corpulent 'shikzes' [gentile women],
anything for the sake of the "avodat ha'kodesh" [literally, sacred
work; used here in irony for work which is anything but sacred]. Everybody went
wild: no family life, no life at all, just the madness of smuggling. And Rakov
filled with magnificent cloths and chains of gold, with expensive furs and
diamond studded gold bracelets. The same out-of-the-way Rakov, which had hardly
been known, became famous as a trading town, and its name was recognized
throughout the land. The doors of the most splendid stores in Vilna and Warsaw
were opened to the Jews of Rakov, and credit as much as your heart
desires, just buy our merchandise. Young lads, who had not known the shape of a
coin, left their studies, smuggled, and filled their purses with gold; and
afterward they filled the theater halls of Vilna, and also their bellies
with great delicacies and expensive drinks. They grabbed the
"Mizrach" [the seats at the eastern wall the most honored
seats] in the synagogue, bought the best "Aliyot" [being called to
the Torah reading] and paid handsomely for them, and the previously honored
"ba'alei batim" [well-to-do members of the congregation] were forced
to be satisfied with the less honorific "aliyot" such as
"acharon" [the last reading, which comes after the mandatory seven
readings]. And woe to the eyes that beheld this
All the community related activities were neglected in those days, and the
public institutions were paralyzed, for who was foolish enough to engage
oneself with the needs of the community when gold was pouring in the streets,
and wine and liqueur were flowing like water, and everybody was acting wantonly?
The Slump Period
The smuggling period, which opened for the Jews of Rakov the fabled world of
easy profits, lasted four years 1920 to 1924. Four years and in
the fifth the catastrophe suddenly struck. The border was stabilized, armed
guards were posted on both sides of the border, no one could enter and no one
could leave. Smugglers were being caught, fined heavily, and jailed. Many lost
all their money and ended up with nothing. And Rakov became, again, what it had
been before the smuggling impoverished, and crying for help from
relatives in America. The popular bank widened its activities, started to give
low-interest loans and extended credit in difficult times. The Tradesmen
Organization, too, started an extensive activity in this area.
To sum up:
The fact that Rakov was separated from the wealthier villages and estates,
after the border was stabilized, was the main reason and the primary cause of
the general impoverishment of the town.
Even the estates which remained on this [the Polish] side of the border, were
divided and given to new owners by the Polish authorities, and they were not a
substitute owners of the large estates who had been the source of much of
The peasant learned to be a trader.
The Jewish store owners had new competitors: A new class of Christian store
owners came into being, side by side with the Jewish store owners, and took
away some of their livelihood.
For some reason, the big traders of old before the First World War
vanished. These traders would buy grains and linseed when it was
inexpensive, fill their storehouses, and sell it when it was dear. With the
profits, they would bring in warehouses full sacks of flour from the Ukraine.
In their place there appeared the peddler, who would buy one sack of flour and
take it home on his shoulder or in his cart. The trader became a peddler.
The situation of the craftsmen and artisans got worse as well. He, the
craftsman and artisan, could not attract clients. In modern times, nobody buys
custom made shoes, people prefer shopping for ready-made ones in the
shoe-store; they are nicer and less expensive. The same thing with the tailor
people buy ready-made suits in the clothing-store. This 'secret' became
known not only to the Jew, but also to the gentile. Also, the agricultural
machinery and the Rakov pottery, which for generations upon generations gave
town people their livelihood, and whose fame was spread afar, got out of
fashion, and could not find many customers.
Both the store owner and the artisan would have been happy to earn enough to
pay the rent for their apartments and their shops, and pay the taxes
those taxes which destroyed and ruined the position of the Jews in Poland. The
writer of these notes is an eyewitness to the fact that out of the 300 Jewish
families at most fifty had solid ground under their feet, and their economic
situation was more or less firm.
So how did the majority of the Jews of Rakov live? To a large extent on the
regular support of relatives in America; some were using what remained from the
'four good years'; others were surviving on dry bread and potatoes; and for
some families even that was a luxury, and they were starving. And what about
the young people in those days? They were mostly unemployed and idle, and
therefore were looking for any way to migrate.
Against the background of the generally dismal situation in the town at that
period the early Thirties the financial and cultural institutions
stood out as beacons of light. They functioned on a high level thanks to the
energy and dedication of those who ran them, and most of all thanks to
the financial support which was received from America.
The Popular Bank which gave out loans, of 50 70 gold coins, with a relatively
low interest rate.
The "Gmilat Hessed", which gave out loans of up to 100 gold coins
without charging any interest. The credit which the shopkeepers and received
from these financial institutions saved them during the hard times, and enabled
them, somehow, to keep their businesses going.
The "Linat Tzedek" Society also functioned on a high level. Not only
did it give the poor sick people medical help and the use of medical equipment
free of charge, but it also gave, when needed, a glass of milk, an egg, a
quarter of a chicken, or some wine for Passover.
The "Tarbut" School. The "Tarbut" [Culture] school gained
the attention and the general appreciation of the town.In spite of the big
'disadvantage' that all classes were taught in Hebrew, a language which was not
generally spoken in town. It has to be noted that, as the only school, it was
an important factor in the life of the town. Most of the students who studied
there were from the lower class, and the "Tarbut" school enabled them
to avoid attending the general Polish school, which would have cut them off any
connection to "Yidishkeit" Jewishness]. The management of the school
was in trustworthy and industrious hands.
The Merchants and Craftsmen Organization. It served mainly as the go-between
the authorities and its members concerning licenses and similar matters.
Among the rest, we must not forget the place and importance of the synagogues,
and their role in the general life of the town.
The "Hevra Kadisha" [burial society], too, deserves a favorable
mention. It purchased additional land, fenced the cemetery, and put an end to
the neglect that had prevailed there.
And last, but not least the library. It served as a center for the well
educated and idealistic youth of the town. It grew from year to year, and its
management, which well understood the cultural value of that institution,
worked hard at improving and extending it. It has to be noted that the current
[i.e. of the early Thirties] management does not shame its predecessors.
A special place in the life of the town in those days was held by "Va'ad
HaYetomim" [society for caring for orphans]. Without its work and devotion
to the 'sacred mission' it undertook, many an orphan would have been,
literally, living in the streets. As to the financial aspects, it, like many
other institutions, depended on the support received from America.
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