Between virgin forests and untamed surroundings, there was an isolated village in a concealed corner by the name of Staryye Dorogi. When the railway tracks from Daraganovo were laid, a train station by the name of Staryye Dorogi was built and the intention was that a settlement be established at the crossroads between ancient, desolate and forsaken roads.
Jews from Minsk by the names of Poliak-Weisebaum founded a sawmill there for the milling of planks and plywood and a vibrant and busy lifestyle soon emerged in this place.
On both sides of the railway track a blooming settlement of 200 families sprang up. Houses were built, shops opened, inns, a small community of "Mitnagdim" 1 and "Chassidim" 2 was established, and two synagogues were built, one for each faction. Rabbi Herzl Mahorki prayed "Kol Nidre" 3 and "Ma'ariv" 4 with the"Mitnagdim"and "Musaf" 5 in the Chassidic synagogue.
In this town there was a rabbi and a "shochet" 240-6 . It is worthwhile noting, that the rabbi also traded in coal and timber. It was said of him that if he didn't live from his Torah, he lived well from his trading and the maxim "Tova Torah Veschora 7 ". (He was later known in Minsk and in Israel as the Red Rabbi Pesachovicz who for the Soviet regime). The "shochet", Rabbi Zadok, was known to be an intelligent and well-groomed man.
Wagon owners raced along the Staryye Dorogi road to Slutsk bringing various supplies from the train station, there and back with produce from the Slutsk district. The stagecoaches and the double-decker bus made their way along the road, there and back, from Staryye Dorogi to Slutsk, since a railway track to Slutsk had not yet been laid.
The town did well from travelers coming and going from everywhere in Russia: merchants, laborers, wholesale shopkeepers who sold their goods to the locals. The Jews of the area were scholarly, who knew Hebrew, for example Rabbi Yashiya Chaim Chinitz, Be'er, Fryd, the Weinstock family, Reznik and others were virtuous and dedicated Zionists, who worked for the love of Zion and the revival of the Hebrew language.
Fryd, Ravkin, Herzl Garatzikov were well known in the town as timber merchants. There were three hotels situated here belonging to Rabinowicz, the "Barazina" Hotel and one belonging to Ravkin. Notable amongst the workers of the "Poliak-Weisebaum" mill were Hanichov, Berger and Sheykevicz.
There were some large stores belonging to Sara Kazkovicz's husband, to Lipa Wasserbein and to Lankricz - a store for the retail and wholesale selling of fodder.
Sander Reznik, Kopel Simchovicz and Dobrovski were Jews who held important positions in the town.
The town's people subscribed to Yiddish and Russian newspapers. The teacher, M. Chaznovicz began as a Hebrew teacher for the children of the Staryye Dorogi businessmen, Leyb Berger, and later moved to Slutsk where he was amongst the founders of the "Cheder Hametukan" 8 . One of the first Hebrew teachers in the town was Chorgin and also served as a bookkeeper in the communal welfare office and was the driving spirit behind it.
The town was successful in opening a Hebrew school with the assistance one of the best teachers of the time by the name of Chaim Rabinowicz, who published quite a variety of stories in "Prachim" and other publications. Rabinowicz was dedicated to opening the school, which had two faculties. He was well liked by all of the town's people and thanks to him the sound of Hebrew speaking could be heard in the town. (He went to live in Israel in 1925 and passed away around 1931.) The teacher, Moran, continued on with this blessed work after his departure.
This town was different from all the neighboring towns, in its vibrant lifestyle, its residents' generosity, their level of education and their response and affinity with many of life's phenomenon. A casual visitor was amazed by and cherished this small blessed and isolated island.
There were also Jews who came from old ways and who found new content and a contemporary and blissful life in Staryye Dorogi. New times had arrived, and the roads remained deserted and the new-old vibrant life disappeared. Zionism was outlawed; the exemplary Hebrew "cheder" was closed. Jewish life was drained of its essence under the Soviet regime and the roads stood silent and abandoned in the absence of comings and goings.
The Nazi regime destroyed and annihilated all that remained.
The town of Staryye Dorogi was established between the years 1900 to 1903 in a forested region, and its character was determined in the main by the timber trade on which it was founded. It was due to this fact that the town was linked to the railway, which continued from Asipovicy to the town of Urechcha.
The town was built near the main Moscow-Warsaw road. This road linked the cities of Bubruysk and Slutsk. Staryye Dorogi was about 60 km from Bobruysk and 40 km distant from Slutsk.
This city did not have a railway connection yet. Travelers to Slutsk would stay in Staryye Dorogi and would reach Slutsk by carriages and in later years, by bus.
Representatives of the Poliak-Weisebaum company bought forests around the town of Staryye Dorogi and three kilometers from the village a town was established that was also called Staryye Dorogi.
The company built a large sawmill, and a plywood plant, that was burnt down in 1909, (many years after the fire, children were still collecting pieces of ply and converting them into rulers). A large flourmill was also built there.
The town's founders built themselves two grand villas and planted a fruit tree garden to be used in their families' summer holidays. A sports ground with all sorts of equipment stretched out in front of these villas and it was open for the town's children in the summer season and, in particular, on Saturdays.
Located near the mill, special houses were built for the factory's regular workers (mainly Russian) and special houses for the clerks, who were mainly Jewish.
It was said of the general manager, Katz that he did not like employing Jewish workers, and because of this the Jews were not involved in physical labor.
The branch of the railway line connected the company warehouse to the main line; large quantities of various shaped, processedtimber would lie on both sides of the railway line.
The company's main office was situated in the mill area and a synagogue, which was financed by the company, was built there.
This development led to an influx of people from surrounding towns and villages, and a town was built on the western side of the railway line with all its facilities, according to a modern design - wide streets with wooden pathways. Wooden houses were built, since this was the cheapest and most common building material in the region.
Trade expanded and developed. Timber merchants appeared who purchased forests in this region. Following them came all sorts of dispatch agents, tree commissioners, shopkeepers, butchers, various tradesmen: bookmakers, bakers, tailors, porters and blacksmiths.
In addition, there were liberal professions: Doctors, medics and so forth. A small hospital, which contained 15 beds, was also built there.
[Page 241. Photo: A committee meeting of the "Kadima" youth movement. From right to left: S. Bernstein and the speaker - S. Mahrshek.]
In Zelda Pavzner's inn, when two non-Jews would get drunk and would begin brawling, her two well-built brothers would appear, and in an instant the brawlers were silenced.
Amongst the wagon owners of the town, who would carry loads from Bobruysk to Slutsk there was a famous man named Yezze. In the main though, the wagon drivers excelled in bringing goods there and back from Slutsk to Bobruysk. The following was told about them: On the road, just before Bobruysk, there was a glass factory, "Galusha" and it's workers would set out at night to rob travelers. The travelers were frightened to go past this place, but the wagon drivers of Slutsk did not accept this situation. There were eight brothers called the "Dey Yaten". One night they organized an ambush and soundly beat up the robbers. From that time onward, they didn't dare coming near the wagon drivers.
In our town there was a volunteer fire-fighting unit, which had special uniforms, that was financed by donations from wealthy citizens, but woe to the miser who didn't give generously. After a fire drill was carried out on his roof, he quickly ran to give his donation.
A savings fund was opened in the town, and was run by the teacher, Chorgin.
A narrow railway line, seven kilometers in length, connected the sawmill with the town of Isibicz. It was intended for the transport of lumber to the sawmill and even for sightseeing trips, for which purpose a carriage with seating arrangements was prepared.
The youths of our town took frequent advantage of this line, particularly on Sundays and in the evenings.
There was "Skipider" factory for processing pine roots, located 9½ kilometers from the town and another one at the edge of the town. In this second factory there was a long series of fires.
It should be pointed out that in 1910, the writer, Shalom Asch, visited Klatzkin and it is here that he wrote his work "Motke the thief".
In the year 1908, our town had the honor of having Berl Katznelson, who had relatives in the town, as a teacher but this was for a short time only.
Two synagogues sprang up in our town: one for the "Mitnagdim" and one for the "Chassidim".
There were two drama groups: one in Russian and one in Yiddish. A few people took part in both these classes. A large public library was also established and work was undertaken there on a voluntary basis.
The firefighting hall (where the firefighting equipment stood), was used for exhibitions and balls, and in a building closer to the mill there was a "cheder" with the following teachers: Simchovicz, Chorgin, Yosef Maron and Rabinowicz (the later managed to reach Israel and was a teacher in Ramat Gan). Some of the studies were carried out in Hebrew.
A further suburb by the name of Slobodka was founded close to the town where there were tens of houses belonging to Russian workers.
The town was built at a hectic pace and all the amenities that I have mentioned were established within a few years. This town was truly unique, unlike the other towns that were described by Mendel Moss and Shalom Alecheim.
It should be noted that in our town there were no poor people though, of course, there were differences in income between the local people.
The relationship between the Jews and the non-Jews was fairly normal. Youths grew up without fearing the"Shajgets" 1 and strode the streets with pride.
The town's sawmill was the only one operating in the region and many residents to earned their living from it. Under the leadership of Ya'akov Lipshicz, a woman's group was organized, and they were responsible for loading timber on wagons. The men worked in the forests as lumberjacks.
The revolution came in February 1917. The Jewish population received this news with mixed feelings: joy of freedom, widening of horizons, new opportunities that were opened and this together with fear - will this be good for the Jews? There was great excitement amongst the youth. Assemblies and party conferences took place. Jews freely went out into the street waving Zionist and Bund flags. The following VIPs took part in the Zionist assemblies: Rytov from Usifovicz, Dubkin and Berger from Minsk.
In the beginning of 1918 the Germans conquered our region, though they didn't burden the Jewish population.
During the same period a corps of the Polish Legion, going by the name of Duber-Musnitski, was organized in Bobruysk. The Germans did not remain in our region for long. In the same year they left our town and were immediately followed by the Bobruysk legionnaires.
In the same year, despite the difficult economic situation, the Zmaskaya Gymnasia [high school] was founded with three faculties with the aim that each year a new faculty would be added. The educational standard was high. Shimon Merashek, who in 1923 was expelled from the Slutsk high school because of his Zionist activities, joined our school and completed his education with honors.
At the beginning of 1919 the Polish legionnaires withdrew and the Red Guard took their place. The Jewish population in all the towns of our district found itself between "hammer and anvil" and fell victim to every conqueror. As the Red Guard established themselves in the town, Jews began to be arrested and were accused of aiding the Poles.
There was also a case, that a farmer killed a Polish estate owner by the name of Bolhak and in the same year, the Poles again conquered the town after fierce battles. The Poles reacted immediately to Bolhak's murder, and hung the farmer who had killed him. They also caught two Jews and wanted to hang them. The nooses were already around their necks but at the last moment they were released.
The town suffered greatly, as did other villages in our region. Those people wearing light colored clothes were sent to unload coals and those wearing dark colored clothes were sent to unload flour. The Poles maltreated the people, cut off their beards and used all sorts of degrading tactics on them.
In the summer of 1920 the Red Army began an extensive onslaught on all fronts. As the Poles retreated they burnt bridges above the road and that of the railway track that connected to Slutsk.
Remnants of the retreating Polish army looted everything they could lay their hands on and there was a concern that they would burn the town down. With the arrival of the vanguard of the Red Army, the population breathed a sigh of relief.
I remember how hundreds of people tied together with ropes helped to move armored cars across temporary bridges; hundreds of farmers came of their own free will to put up the destroyed bridges. They worked day and night and the project was completed in a short time.
The Red Army wore torn and tattered uniforms, however they made steady progress and their slogan was "Onward to Warsaw".
However, as they progressed towards Warsaw, as they reached Warsaw's suburbs, they were fleeing with the Poles on their tails. Thus it occurred that they reached a distance of 15 kilometers from the town and the Poles had already conquered Slutsk.
We heard the thunder of the cannons day and night. Every day an armored train would stood in Staryye Dorogi and travel to Verkhutina where it's payload of shells would be unloaded on the enemy and then it would return. The settlers were starving. In spite of the unrelenting battles, they would go to the forest to collect berries, mushrooms and strawberries and this is how they sustained themselves.
The Red Army soldiers began emptying the villages of food commodities. The farmers tried resisting. The opposition continued to grow. Soldiers who were residents of the local villages began deserting the Red Army. Armed farmers grouped up in the forests. And who suffered the brunt from this situation? Naturally - the Jews. Despite this, when a peace treaty was signed with the Poles, our town had been under siege for months and those who had dared to leave, paid with their lives.
The same situation existed in all the towns of the region. In Gorki, tens of Jews were killed. There was also a rumor that the Day of Judgment was approaching for the Jews of Staryye Dorogi, and the population was anxious, tense and anticipating.
More than once my father's house, (Leyser Bernstein) had served as a refuge for our neighbors. We had a six-chambered, Smith & Weston pistol and a sufficient quantity of hatchets. In our house there was an atmosphere of battle. As the security situation worsened, we approached the local Soviet authorities to allow the organization of a self-defense organization and to supply us with weapons. After numerous efforts, we were given forty rifles and a defense force of experienced fighters was organized and which trained daily. The weapons improved the morale of the town's residents, since we also had a quantity of illegal weapons.
Guarding at night took the form of ambushes with four to five people in each position. I remember how one night an ambush squad managed to disarm half a platoon (15 men) of Red Army soldiers, since they didn't identify themselves. When they were led to the defense headquarters they became very angry and gnashed their teeth, on learning that a mere five Jews had managed to disarm them.
The authorities slowly began to eradicate dissidents' hideouts. Many of them were arrested and also shot. Hence, the essential calm was returned to this area.
The fate of the Russian Jews, in the main the fate of the youth, is vague and imprecise, since the Jews were mainly shopkeepers and traders and were counted amongst those in an "unproductive" status. A rebellion began amongst the finest of our youth, who organized themselves into underground Zionist youth movements, in order to productively prepare themselves and that when the time came, they would make "aliyah" 2to the Land of Israel.
The Zionist youth movement "Kadima" was founded in our town and in other nearby towns, in the year 1922. Its center was in Minsk, and it published a monthly underground newspaper "Kadima".
However, the authorities began to persecute us and in 1923 the first arrests began taking place in our region.
Seven of our comrades were arrested in our town and sent to Bobruysk and from there to Minsk. We were incarcerated for months in an attic belonging to the G.P.A. When we were released, we continued on with our activities with rekindled fervor.
In 1925 the arrests were renewed and several comrades and myself were imprisoned for five months in the Slutsk jail. After interrogation we were exiled to Siberia and the Urals, where we spent five years.
We were not alone there. Thousands of the finest Jewish youth were sent to the Siberian deserts. Many of them managed to reach Israel, many perished and others even reconciled with the authorities and made peace with them.
From their places of exile the people of Staryye Dorogi managed to reach Israel: Shaul Bernstein (writer of this piece), Sara Katz, Sara Rosmocho and Nechemia Leibovicz.
What was the fate of Staryye Dorogi after the German occupation in 1941? There were rumors, that the Germans killed most of the residents and a few escaped to Russia. Others claimed that the town was burnt town and with the return of the Soviets it was rebuilt.
[Page 244. Photo: The bus from Staryye Dorogi to Slutsk.]
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