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[Page 15]

HISTORY OF ROKITNO

On the history of the Jews in Rokitno

Eliezer Leoni

Translated by Ala Gamulka

When one traces the sources for the founding of the village and the town of Rokitno, an interesting phenomenon occurs. A phenomenon that historians of Jewish communities in Poland sweep aside intentionally or unintentionally.

The accepted version is that the life of the Jews in the Diaspora was based on one dimension - the spiritual one. Therefore, the scholars and the thinkers were the ones usually featured. The workers, simple country folk who did not follow the blessing which Isaac gave to Jacob - “Other nations will serve you”- earned their daily bread by working hard. These simple and honest people were almost forgotten by us.

We feel a fresh country wind when we learn the history of the first Jews in Rokitno. We hear about a Jewish tribe that does hard physical labor, suffers from loneliness, has few connections to the outside world and is detached from cultural centers.

The most important source we have about the early days of the village of Rokitno is an excellent essay by Jadwiga Bergerowna titled “Rokitno Life”. The author taught at the Teachers' College in Lvov and was commissioned to research the early days of the village. For that purpose she traveled to Rokitno in 1932 and she read all the documents. The first authentic historical document that she discovered was from 3/2/1862 which attests that there were 118 houses in the village (there are no population statistics). From this we learn that the village was founded in an earlier period, but we do not know exactly when.

A legend made the rounds among the Jews of Rokitno, one handed down from generation to generation, that the village is a remnant of a big city that spread to the villages of Sohov and Osnitzek and that it was destroyed by earlier government decrees. As proof of this there are ancient graves in the cemetery in Osnitzek where the dead of Rokitno were buried. We learn from the inscriptions that this cemetery is very old. This story has not been verified historically, but we should not discard it completely.

The lands of the village originally belonged to the Princess Anila Rzyszczewska. We do not know if there were any Jews there, but it can be surmised that the Jews settled in the village in the 1880's. The basis for this belief is that the decree, published by the tsarist government in the second half of the 19th century, ordered the expulsion of the Jews from the area and their resettlement in rural areas. As a result, the migration of Russian Jews from urban to rural areas began. In the 1880's there were 58,427 Jews in the Province of Volyn. They represented 3.9% of the total rural population. Even the Hasidic movement was involved in this migration. It is known that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneierson, The Lubavicher Rebbe, was instrumental in spreading the idea of working the land among the Jews and he inspired the Jews of Volyn to change their way of life.

The following population statistics of Rokitno date from early in the twentieth century:

Russians 3858
Jews 105
Poles 74
Others 18
Total 4055

The Jews mainly earned their living from producing pottery and bartering it in surrounding villages for wheat and potatoes. The Jews also made shoes out of reeds and out of felt and sold them. Other Jews were able to lease facilities. The most famous among them was Yehudah Leib Gendelman, a resident of the village who leased, from Polish aristocrats, factories that produced tar and windmills. The Russians governed Volyn from 1795, the year Poland was divided into three parts. Their policy was to exile the Polish aristocracy from their land holdings and to divide these possessions among the Russian residents. Accordingly, the Russians exiled many aristocrats at the end of the nineteenth century from the Rokitno area and divided the land among the villages. Thus, Yehudah Leib Gendelman's livelihood was cut down.

At the beginning of the twentieth century two important events took place, which changed the lives of the Jews in the village. These changes were both demographic and economic and caused a social migration. As a result, a modern town was built on the other side of the village. These events were: the erection of the glass factory and the building of the railroad from Kiev to Kovel.

Rokitno and its vicinity have an abundance of red and white sand and various silicates needed for the manufacturing of glass. These geological occurrences laid the foundation for the manufacturing of glass in Volyn. At the end of the nineteenth century there were 20 glass factories in Volyn - 16 of them owned by Jews. 143 Jews worked there. One of these plants was built in Rokitno at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The reason for the founding of these factories is not only because of the availability of raw materials. There was also a political reason. In January 1897, the tsarist government issued an edict that forbade the sale of brandy in glasses or barrels. It had to be placed in glass bottles. This edict increased the demand for bottles throughout Russia.

The glass industry owners reacted to the edict by scouting for locations where the raw materials were available. This is how, at the beginning of the twentieth century, representatives of a well-known Belgian glass manufacturer arrived in Rokitno and decided to build a plant. Heading the plant was a Jew from Petersburg called Eliahu Michaelovitch Rosenberg.

Rosenberg had an important part in the economic history of Rokitno. Therefore, he deserves a few lines of discussion. He was an assimilated Jew from Uman, but he still kept in close touch with his fellow Jews. His second wife was a niece of the Russian Minister of the Treasury. This connection opened many doors for him. Rosenberg had his own office in the Trade Ministry in Petersburg where many Russian industry giants would visit. Rosenberg made many physical improvements in Rokitno. He built a magnificent park filled with blooming oaks and fruit trees and colorful lawns. The park covered several square kilometers. The winter palace of Mr. Rosenberg was built inside the park. It was a fancy three-storied palace, where he resided with his wife during the winter months. In the summer he went to Kiev and Petersburg.

The construction of the Huta (glass factory) took two years. Residences for the laborers were built nearby. Each laborer was given his own apartment. This was co-operative housing and it served as a basis for an urban settlement. Most of the houses were built by Germans. From a historical point of view, the basis for the town of Rokitno is the construction of the glass factory and the housing for the hundreds of laborers. Most of the laborers were Polish.

The factory operated around the clock and its products were sent to various parts of Russia. The office clerks were Jews- among them Isaac Eidelman who worked in the factory as a manger in charge of quality control. After his death, Yakov Grinshpan took his place. The accountant and confidant of Rosenberg was a Jew called Hochfeld from Homel.

The Chief Engineer was Rosenberg's son-in-law, a German, and an expert in the manufacturing of glass. When World War I broke out in 1914, he was deported by the Russians to Siberia because he was still a German citizen.

The great distance from the railroad was a deterrent to the development of the factory. The bottles were shipped by ox cart to Sarny- a distance of 40 kilometers. This primitive method of transport was too expensive and the factory was almost shut down. The owners of the factory asked Rosenberg to intercede on their behalf with the powers that be (since he had the connections). Rosenberg was successful and the Petersburg government ordered the construction of the railroad from Kiev to Kovel, through Rokitno. Prior to that it was necessary to go from Rokitno to Brezno, from there to Rovno and then to Kiev. This trip took two days. The construction of the railroad was begun in 1900 and completed in 1902.

The construction of the railroad broadened the scope of the glass production and the factory was highly successful. When World War I broke out the factory was closed. Rosenberg left Rokitno and died in poverty in Petersburg during the war. After the war, his son Vladimir sold the factory to the Zunder brothers- Aharon and David. The younger Rosenberg felt the Revolution coming and managed to sell his possessions.

Aharon Zunder was the owner of several bakeries in Rovno. In 1915, as the Germans were approaching Volyn, he moved to Kiev. There he became wealthy in the lumber industry. In Kiev he met Rosenberg's son and purchased the Huta. The civil war was raging in Russia. Zunder was beaten by Danikin followers and he almost died. His friends begged him to stay in Kiev to recuperate, but he missed his wife and children who had remained in Rokitno and he started for home. The Kiev-Kovel railroad was not functioning properly at the time because of the war and it took him a long time to return to Rokitno. He fell ill with the flu and died soon afterward.

After his death, his brother David tried to revive the Huta. He was not successful because of the civil war. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, many Russian leaders escaped to Ukraine where they formed a treaty with the Germans and invited them to attack the Bolsheviks and take over Ukraine. The Germans formed a Ukrainian government led by Skoropedsky. Rokitno was taken over by the German army. After the Ukrainians, led by Petlura, conquered Kiev and evicted the Germans, they arrived in Rokitno and they executed David Zunder.

After David Zunder's tragic death, his father Israel Hirsch Zunder and his younger brother Moshe came to Rokitno. They operated the flour mill attached to the Huta. According to the treaty signed in Riga between the Bolsheviks and the Poles, Rokitno now belonged to Poland. After some dealings, the Huta was sold to a group from Warsaw called Lazaro (Lashinsky, Zabedsky, Rosenzweig). They operated the Huta for a short time and sold it to Vitrom - a company from Warsaw which owned glass factories, headed by Flanzreich Vranglavsky. Under their management the factory was quite successful.

The building of the railroad helped in the development of the lumber industry - completely run by Jews.

Between the glass factory and the railway station sprawled the estate of a Polish princess who owned the large forest in Rokitno. This forest was bought out by the brothers David and Yechezkel Lerner from Kliban.

Researching the history of Rokitno forces us to answer the question: why did the lumber industry flourish at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth? The reason is that there was a revolution in transportation methods. The extension of the railroad brought a great demand for telegraph poles and extensive construction. The villages near the railroad began to develop and grow and building materials were required. The tree roots were used as raw material for the production of tar and turpentine. In the village of Toupik a factory producing tar was built before the one in Rokitno. Later, the factories were owned by David Shachnovski, Aharon Lifshitz, Avraham Asher Gitelman (from Stariky) and others.

The forests of Rokitno and the villages near it did not only serve as a source of lumber. They were also the hunting grounds of the Tsar's companions. Among them was Senator Ochotnikov, the Tsar's confidant. On one of his visits, Ochotnikov met the Rokitno princess and he bought the forest from her. It included open areas that the Lerner brothers had not bought because they were not interested in developing farming.

Ochotnikov called the railway station Ochotnikov Station. The name remained until the Poles took over the town and renamed it Rokitno Station.

The quick capitalization of Rokitno, thanks to its topographic and geological assets, brought many changes in the economic lives of the Jews of Rokitno and the surrounding villages. The Jewish population shifted from the villages to Rokitno and became a part of its economy. In a short time Rokitno became a town and the surrounding villages were part of its greater area, as far as the economy and organized Jewish communal life were concerned.


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Rokitno Train Station


The names of the villages that belonged to Rokitno are:


  1. Ostoki
  2. Osnitzek
  3. Okopi
  4. Boid
  5. Budki Borovski
  6. Budki Snovidovich
  7. Borovey
  1. Bilovizh
  2. Brazov
  3. Glinana
  4. Dert
  5. Vitkovich
  6. Voltche-Gorko
  7. Zolovey
  1. Toupik
  2. Masevich
  3. Natrava
  4. Stariky
  5. Snovidovich
  6. Kisorich
  7. Krapilovka


At the beginning of the twentieth century there were 400 Jews in Rokitno. There was no synagogue yet and services were held at the home of the father of Herzel Lerner who had received a Torah scroll as a gift from the Stolin Hasidim. There were also services at the home of Yeshayahu Gendelman. On Shabbat and High Holidays, services were held in the synagogue in the village of Rokitno. Soon, a beautiful synagogue was built in the town of Rokitno. This is the story of its construction: A man called Gelfand, from Odessa, bought large estates in Kisorich and Voltche-Gorko. The Jews of Rokitno asked him to build them a synagogue. Gelfand, a warm hearted Jew, agreed and built a well-appointed synagogue.

The dedication of the synagogue was a magnificent ceremony. Gelfand came with his wife, his daughter and son-in-law. He invited two bands from neighboring towns and the celebration was grand. During the festivities an interesting event occurred. Mrs. Gelfand announced on stage that she wished that half of the Mitzvah (merit) should be hers. However, Mr. Gelfand replied in Russian: ”I will not allow it! The mitzvah is all mine. We are wealthy enough and you can commemorate your own name”. It was then suggested that Mrs. Gelfand would commission the inscribing of a Torah scroll in her name. And so it happened - a year later a Torah scroll was brought to the synagogue and again a wonderful celebration was held.

The Jews of Rokitno came from many parts of Russia and Ukraine. These were progressive Jews who came into contact with western culture. It was a monolithic population. In those early days they were not involved in the battles between the Hasidic movement and the Mitnagdim or the Enlightenment. They were outside these arguments.

The founders were Zionists and educated their children accordingly. In 1913 Sheftel Levin, the son of Feivish the shohet (ritual slaughterer) was chosen to go to Eretz Israel to buy land on behalf of the Jews of Rokitno who planned to move there. The money was collected and Sheftel was on his way. When he reached Odessa, he discovered that it was impossible to continue since it was the eve of World War I and the roads were not safe. He reluctantly returned to Rokitno and the plan was shelved.

In the beginning, there was no cemetery in Rokitno because the inhabitants were mostly young people who did not think of death. When necessary, the dead were buried in Osnitzek. The first Jew to die in Rokitno was Shmerl the shohet who died more than 60 years ago (at the turn of the twentieth century).

Sources:
Jadwiga Bergerowna: Rokitno 1925
Jewish Industrial Activities In Poland- Eliezer Heller 1923
Personal Recollections by: Herzl Lerner, Ita Eidelman, Israel Greenberg, Aharon Lifshitz




[Page 21]

The beginnings of Rokitno

Pinchas Kliger

Translated by Ala & Larry Gamulka

The first settlers of Rokitno were the Jews from the village of Rokitno. Their names were: my father Avraham Shmuel Kliger (the Shohet), Moshe Lifshitz, Sheftel Levin, Alter Vorona, Moshe Leib Zaks, Meir Weiner, Haim David Weiner, Avraham Golod, Moshe Freierman, Yakov Polishuk, Aharon Rotman, Moshe Haim Shapira, Benyamin Meirson, Yeshayahu Gendelman, Betzalel Kokel, Shimon Zaltzbuch, Ben Zion Geipman, Isaac Griever, Shimon Shapira, Gimpel Greenberg, Moshe Gurman and Moshe Hirsch Linn.

Alter Vaisblat, also one of the early settlers, owned a store near the glass factory (Huta) and lived in a house which belonged to the Huta. In the houses owned by the Huta there was a pharmacy run by a Jew called Barzam. He later sold the pharmacy to Noah Soltzman and moved to Sarny where he opened another pharmacy.

The village began to grow with vigor and many Jews and non-Jews from the vicinity came to settle there. A “practical doctor” (feldsher) called Zarin came as well as a government-appointed doctor.

The first thing the Jews did was to build a synagogue with a ritual bath and nearby a house for the sexton - Nahum Eisenman. Gelfand, a rich man from Odessa, had bought a large tract of wooded land in Kisorich. He brought down his son-in-law, Polaver, who built himself a large house in the new town. The lumber business went well and with the help of Gelfand's trusted employee, Moshe Wolf Horman, a new large synagogue was built in the yard. The original small synagogue was moved to a different location.

Rabbi Aharon Yosef Shames came from Brezne, opened a dry goods store and also became the Rabbi of the village.

The pharmacy building also contained the post office. The first mailman, Anthony, and his assistant traveled to the station by horse and buggy to pick up the mail. Those people who wanted to receive their mail faster went on their own to the station.

A tragedy occurred in those early years. A murderer came to the village brandishing a revolver. At night he came to the house of Benyamin Meirson and he shot through the window. The Meirson family began shouting and they sent for help. Their neighbor, Ben Zion Geipman, ran towards their house. The murderer encountered him and killed him on the spot. Benyamin Meirson and his wife, Golde, were injured. The murderer was caught and brought to the station. He was sentenced and the residents calmed down.

This is how Rokitno was in those years.




[Page 23]

THE OLD CEMETERY

Yosef Segal

Translated by Ala Gamulka

Since Rokitno was only founded at the beginning of the twentieth century, there were no historical sites as there would have been in other Jewish settlements in Volyn. The only historical site in our area to be described is the Old Cemetery.

The Old Cemetery was located about six kilometers from Rokitno, northwest of the Klesov-Sarny road on a hill near Osnitzek on the river Lvo. It was surrounded by large oak trees and the graves were so old that they were almost indistinguishable. The land was quite rocky and it was fairly common to need a horse to remove a rock.


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Gravestone
in the Osnitzek Cemetery


A popular legend is told about the earlier existence of a large Jewish community, which sprawled over the area between Sohov and Rokitno - a distance of 10 kilometers. All the Jews had been slaughtered in 1648 by the Cossack of Chmelnitzky and the community was totally destroyed. Even the cemetery was obliterated. Many years later when the Jews returned, the cemetery was discovered by a Tzadik, a follower of the Baal Shem Tov, who came there by accident. Just before Mincha prayers he ordered the caravan to stop, he washed his hands in the river, prayed in the cemetery and informed his followers that these were graves of martyrs, virtuous people and great Torah scholars.

Accordingly, this site was intended as a resting place for area Jews. However, the farmer who owned the land refused to sell it to the Jews. Once he was plowing his field, the earth opened up and swallowed the farmer and his oxen. Actually, at the entrance to the cemetery there was a depression, almost a hole. The elders would point to it and would tell, with trepidation, about the event.

The farmer's heirs eventually sold the land to the Jews and the cemetery served them until the 1920's. There were buried the martyrs slaughtered by Petlura and other murderers. From the 1920's the cemetery was no longer in use since the town grew and a cemetery was opened in Rokitno. The Jews still came every Elul to visit family graves in the Old Cemetery in Osnitzek.

When the Jews were eliminated during the Holocaust, so was eliminated the Old Cemetery.




[Page 25]

THE VILLAGE OF ROKITNO

(Memories and Experiences)

Dov Ben Yehoshua (Vorona)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

In memory of my mother Tzirel, buried in Osnitzek and my father Yehoshua, buried in Israel.



Its Charm

The village of Rokitno was large and its streets and lanes were numerous. Uvel, a narrow river, divides the village in two. It begins southeast of Rokitno and it becomes a small lake as it reaches the village. From there it flows northwest to the village of Osnitzek. On the edge of the lake stood a flour mill where the residents would grind their wheat. The flour was used in the baking of a wonderful, tasty and aromatic bread.

On one side of the river lived mainly non-Jews. There were very few Jews - only 3 families. This was the center of the Christian community. The church stood out with its colorful steeple. Nearby were the Christian cemetery and the priest's house. Across from it, there was a public school with 6 classes. During the times of the tsar, Russian was the language of instruction. However after the Revolution, when various governments ruled, the teaching was done in Polish and/or Ukrainian. There were Jewish children in the school. Their parents wanted them to be taught secular subjects, in addition to their Jewish studies in the cheder. They felt that these secular studies would prove useful to them in later life.

On the other side of the river, the population was mixed. The Jews were devout and loyal. They educated their children in the Jewish spirit and celebrated all the holidays. The Jewish homes were more attractive than those of the others. A synagogue and a mikveh were built. After WWI, the Joint financed the construction of a magnificent bathhouse and mikveh. They were also used by Jews from the surrounding areas.

The majority of the Jews made their living by working as tradesmen, as storekeepers, or by using a horse and cart. Several families owned small stores in the surrounding villages. They were not wealthy, but they made a decent living.


Our Teachers

Education was most important for all parents. Torah teachers were brought in from great distances. The first one was Berl Gluzman from Sloveshnia, near Kiev. He would become easily enraged and did not spare the rod. Our parents permitted this corporal punishment as if beatings were a necessary part of our education.

Eventually, he was replaced by a new teacher, also from Sloveshnia, but completely different from the first one. His name was Leibl Shleifman. He was modern, nice, easy-going and good to the children. He never lifted a finger towards us and treated us with respect. He was a slender young man with the spirituality of a poet. He was a wonderful violinist and when he poured out his heart while playing it was as if the Holy Spirit rested on his shoulders. Before lunch he would stop our class and would play a “concert” to please his students. He was also a nature lover. At around 4:00 P.M., he would take his students for a walk along the river bank. He knew the names of all the flowers. The Jews thought this was a waste of time, but we, the children, enjoyed these walks tremendously.

World War I Threatens

The skies of the world and of Rokitno darkened. In the summer of 1914, WWI broke out. The teacher, Leibl Shleifman, announced: ”Conscription, children! The war has broken out. I am going home”. He left the village immediately. The violin was silenced and we had no school. We were happy, relieved of our studies. Little did we know that this day, the day our teacher left, was not a day of rejoicing but a day of deep sorrow. We would be subject to hunger, pogroms and other misfortunes resulting from war.

Youths were conscripted into the army and their parents ran around trying to get them out of it. One became deformed, another was bought out and a third ran away from the front and went into hiding. The police were paid off.

We, the children, roamed in the village. We were full of mischief even though these were difficult times. We were starving and our existence was in danger. We expected to be attacked by our neighbors and only by a miracle were we spared.

The November Revolution In Rokitno

One afternoon in 1917, when I was a young boy, as I stood near the railway station the train from Olevsk arrived. The locomotive was decorated with red flags and fir trees. When the train stopped, young revolutionaries jumped off dressed in leather jackets and began to remove any signs of the tsar's regime. There was not much to remove since there were only a few policemen, some clerks and the manager of the post office. These people were dressed in uniforms and were decorated with various insignia. The revolutionaries tore the insignia from the uniforms of the tsar's representatives and yelled out loud: “Long live freedom!”

I also recall from my childhood the first day of the November Revolution in Rokitno. I remember the beginning of that period which we hoped would bring us great freedom and equality. However, after the “honeymoon” of the Revolution our eyes were opened and we saw that we were only daydreaming.

In the streets of Rokitno there was an atmosphere of fear and helplessness. The civil war broke out and Petlura's rioters appeared. They were battling the Bolsheviks, but they always began by slaughtering the Jews. David Zunder, the owner of the glass factory, was the first victim. He was killed because it was rumored, incorrectly, that as an employer he exploited the workers. He paid for this lie with his life.

The Synagogue And Its Leaders

A magnificent synagogue stood in a corner of the village. It was one of the tallest and most elegant buildings in the village. There was space for 100-120 worshippers. There were many Torah scrolls in the Ark. Among the worshippers stood out Rabbi Shraga Feivish Levin, the Shohet. He was a learned Jew who was also well versed in the every day world. He was involved with the lives of many people. He would visit our home often and would spend time talking to my father about world events. On the High Holidays he led the services. When his booming voice was heard, the worshippers were moved. The rural Jews who were honest and simple and worked hard with the sweat of their palms during the rest of the year would be lifted from their simple existence. They were thrilled to listen to such expert chanting.

Next to Rabbi Feivish the Shohet, always stood Hershel (the yellow one) ready to announce the order of the shofar blowing. He too was a scholar. He led the morning services on a regular basis and read the weekly portion. He was a kind-hearted Jew who dealt in honey and wax. However, during the war years, when business was slow, he would gather the children who were out of school and he taught them Bible and Rashi. The older children were also taught Gmara. He did not even charge a fee, for it was important to him that Jewish children should not forget their Bible studies.

On Yom Kippur, these two men were joined by David Grinshpan who led the Kol Nidrei service. He was a tall man with a long beard. He was handsome and possessed a beautiful melodious voice. Before Kol Nidrei, he would stand clad in his Kittel, the synagogue packed with young and old. The candles were lit and shone like a forest on fire. Then David would lift his head and look out the window on the western wall, towards Osnitzek. When he saw that the sun was in on the tops of the trees- that was his signal to begin the Kol Nidrei prayer. His soft and melodious voice would be heard: ”Happy are the just...”

The Opening Of The Cemetery

The village of Rokitno did not have its own cemetery. For many years the Jews of the village were used to the idea that Rokitno was meant for live Jews only and that the dead ones had no place in it. Those who died were buried in Osnitzek or in Olevsk, in spite of the difficulties entailed.

Towards the end of World War I, the Jews of Rokitno were dying of hunger or of disease or they were being slaughtered. Only then did the Jews understand that the dead had to be cared for and that a cemetery was needed in Rokitno.

One day we, the children, found out that a plot of land was being designated as a cemetery. The children did not know what a cemetery looked like because they had never seen one. Unfortunately, I knew about it since my mother was buried in Osnitzek and on the eve of the High Holidays, I used to go to her grave with my older brothers, Noah and Ephraim, to say Kaddish.

All the village children gathered and waited impatiently for the big event. An area on the way to Snovidovich was fenced off, not far from the Christian cemetery. The day of dedication was declared a fast day. All the Jews of the village and the town met in the field and circled it many times while reciting the appropriate Psalms. A long time was spent there and at the end they all wished each other not to need the place too soon.

When the first grave in the cemetery was dug, a major problem arose. It is unlawful to leave a lone grave without a guard and it is necessary to watch it until a second grave is dug. However, time quickly resolved the problem.

As I previously recounted, we lived through bad times and Jewish blood was spilled. A Jew was killed in Olevsk. The community helped us by burying him in the Rokitno cemetery. This death saved the situation.

The settlement was destroyed and not all its Jews were even buried according to Jewish law. For this reason our hearts are heavy.




[Page 29]

Rokitno during World War I

Yosef Segal
Aryeh Geipman
(Neve Oz)
(Ramat Gan)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The declaration of war in August 1914 came as a shock to the Jews of Russia, among them the Jews of Rokitno. Since many of the farmers and other residents of the town and its surroundings were conscripted, the economic situation of the Jews worsened. The work in the forests stopped almost completely and it was limited to chopping wood for heating purposes or for the war effort.

The recession was already felt at the beginning of the war and became worse as the war continued. The movement of the passenger and freight trains stopped since the trains were needed to transport soldiers and military equipment to the fronts. The Rokitno train station stood on the important Kiev-Kovel-Warsaw line. This was an essential route that led to the battlegrounds. Packed trains went through the station to the front while the wounded and the prisoners (mainly Austrians) were transported in the opposite direction.

The lack of supplies caused a rise in their price and the area farmers often accused the Jews of speculating and of hiding the supplies.

When the war broke out, the authorities began to persecute the Jews. As a result, several families of commercial representatives were hurt because the representatives were accused of being in contact with the Germans. The representatives had to be in correspondence with the Germans regarding the export of lumber products. Avraham Golod was exiled to Siberia. The families of Aharon Litvak, Avraham Shapira and Zeev Zelikovsky, who were to be exiled, quietly left Rokitno and settled in Tzaritzin (Stalingrad, now Volgograd).

After the conquest of Poland by the German army in 1915, a flow of Jewish refugees began to arrive. These were refugees who had been expelled by the retreating Russian army. Many of these refugees settled in Rokitno. The local Jews gave a helping hand to their poor brethren.

At the beginning of 1916 the front moved closer to the Stir River and the Stohod River - about 100 kilometers from Rokitno. Again, refugees arrived in Rokitno from the villages closest to the front. As the front came closer, several military plants were transferred to Rokitno. These plants were used to repair weapons and for garage space. As well, a military hospital was installed in the Rosenberg Palace (opposite the railway station). These plants slightly improved the economic situation of the Jews of Rokitno.

In March 1917 the Tsar was defeated and Russia became a republic. This happy news reached Rokitno and caused much excitement. It warmed the relationship between Jews and Christians. Local government institutions were established headed by the “Committee of Workers, Farmers and Soldiers”. A local militia was also founded and it replaced the tsarist police. It was headed by David Shachnovski, a resident of Rokitno. A special department for the supply and apportionment of food was managed by Moshe Freierman and Betzalel Kokel. The main clerks were Yakov Wolfin and a farmer by the name of Prohor from the village of Rokitno. When the revolution broke out, many young people from Rokitno went to study in the high schools in Kiev, Katerinsolav and Odessa.

In the summer of 1917, elections to the All Russia meeting were held and the local Jews participated. At that time, branches of all of the Jewish organizations, headquartered in Kiev, were founded: Zeirei Zion, Poalei Zion, Bund, Ahdut, Mizrahi, General Zionists. In November 1917 we were happy to hear about the Balfour Declaration. It encouraged the Zionist movement and raised our spirits. When the Bolsheviks took control of the central government, a civil war broke out. By the end of 1917, Rokitno had changed hands several times. At the end of 1917, the Ukrainians announced the formation of an independent republic. It was led by Vinichenko (Prime Minister) and Petlura (Minister of Defense). In the beginning, the authorities were friendly to the Jews. As proof of this Moshe Zilberfarb, the representative of the Territorial Zionists, served as Minister for Jewish Affairs.

This government lasted only until April 1918. After the signing of a separate peace treaty between Soviet Russia and Germany in March 1918 in Brest-Litovsk, the Red Army attacked the independent Ukraine. The Ukrainian government asked the German army for help. The German army conquered the whole Ukraine (up to the Black Sea) in April 1918 and a new government was formed, headed by Pavel Skoropedsky. The Minister of Industry and Commerce was Mr. Gutnik, the son-in-law of Mr. Gelfand.

The Germans also occupied Rokitno. Although their headquarters were in the Rosenberg Palace, they did not interfere in local government. All was calm, but not for long. In November 1918, a revolution broke out in Germany and two days later the war ended. The German army in Ukraine prepared to return home. At the same time, the Ukrainian army organized itself under the leadership of Petlura. He quickly took over the whole of the Ukraine and deposed Skoropedsky. Petlura soldiers reached Rokitno - the descendants of the Haidamaks. When they arrived they shot to death David Zunder, the owner of the glass factory. His workers had libeled him. There were other Jewish victims whose names we do not remember. The Petlurists ransacked Jewish homes and punished the Jewish population with harsh taxes. The Jews met in the synagogue and collected the necessary funds, which were given to the rioters.

Fear and depression fell on the Jewish population. There was no traveling to and from the city and there was a great shortage of food. In January 1919, the German army left the Ukraine and the Red Army quickly moved in. Petlura's army was soon defeated and the Bolsheviks came in April 1919. The Red Army advanced to the Bog River. During that time, the Polish army was reorganizing in a rejuvenated Poland. While they were advancing east they defeated the Russian army and reached Olevsk.

That year, a Polish unit from General Haler also arrived. These soldiers immediately began to ruthlessly attack the Jews - to cut the beards of the elderly and to force Jews to do hard labor. They were told to dismantle military equipment that arrived by train and to repair railroad tracks and bridges that had been destroyed by the retreating Red Army. The railroad to the village of Kisorich was built by the Jews at that time.

In the summer of 1919 Yosef Lerner was killed by the Poles. He was the oldest son of Herzel Lerner, who was then on his way to Rokitno.

The Polish - Red Army front moved near the Oobort River (in Olevsk). In spring 1920, the Poles attacked the Red Army all along the front and they quickly conquered Kiev. The Red Army recovered and attacked. Led by Budionov, it defeated the Polish army and quickly reached Warsaw.

Rokitno again became part of the Soviet Regime, but this lasted only three months since in September 1920 the Poles returned to Rokitno and again reached Olevsk. During the transition of governments the Jews of Rokitno organized themselves in civil defense, especially night watch. The Jews and the local Poles cooperated in this endeavor.

In October 1920 a cease-fire was announced by both sides and peace talks were begun in Riga. According to the agreement the Polish army retreated to Tomshgarod. The area between Tomshgarod and Ostoki was declared no man's land. A small Soviet occupation force arrived in Rokitno since the area was divided among the different armies.

The Soviet occupation lasted until the end of March 1921. On 21.3.1921 a peace treaty was signed in Riga. As a result, the border between Poland and Russia was placed near Ostoki and Rokitno became part of Poland.

During the changes of government there was a great lack of food. The Jews of the town - at great personal danger - went to surrounding areas to look for food. Not once were they robbed on the road, but nothing stopped them.

When the Polish rule was established in the town and its vicinity, life slowly returned to normal and the economic situation improved. Again, the lumber industry was thriving and the glass factory was reopened after a long stoppage. The old sawmill was again in operation.

The Zionist and cultural activities were revived. The Tarbut School was founded and the pioneers began to go to Eretz Israel.


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The fallen tree…



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