[Pages 144 - 145]
I first saw the light of day in Shumsk. I breathed in deeply the scented woods surrounding it, and enjoyed the fragrance of its orchards.
The town was like a greenhouse for my tender childhood and the happy adolescence I spent there.
Despite the forty years that separate us, I can still see her in my mind's eye, standing there proud, including her friendly and honest people, full of warmth toward each other. Personal and communal responsibility prevailed, and the social life and national awareness were intertwined and alive.
Shumsk! Theoretically there were hundreds and thousands of small, lively Jewish towns scattered in the fertile land of the Ukraine that was at once both blessed and cursed. Yet Shumsk was something special, exemplifiying the Volhynian Jewish community with familial warmth abundant in every corner.
A stranger that happened into town felt accepted immediately as if he were born there, and this feeling of brotherhood led in a straight line to the philosophy and teachings of Zionism--which espouses the unity of the nation and the brotherhood of its children.
Perhaps the feeling emanated from the unique geographic location. Unlike other small towns that were in proximity to a big town, and were under its influence socially, culturally, and spritually, Shumsk was on the crossroads between Kremenets and Ostrog, but not close enough to either to be influenced by them. This is the reason that a unique synthesis developed there, not to be found anywhere else.
Additionally, it is known that in the beginning the Jewish settlement in Shumsk was due to one family that branched out over the generations (There is a divergence of opinions regarding the name of this family--some say the name was Batt, and some say the name was Shumsky). This perhaps explains the feelings of warmth that prevailed for numerous generations.
[Pages 164 - 166]
It was on the night of the 26th of June 1941, the night Elkena Weitzman and I stood watch on the bridge of the flour mill belonging to the Reich family. The commotion that night upset us, because we saw an army retreating eastward and members of the Communist Party hastily evacuating their families on wagons. Everybody was milling around that night, sensing that something was about to happen. We had a short consultation and decided to leave the bridge, go home, and then head east before it was too late.
I remember that when I reached the clearing near the Ackermans' house, a group of people were assembled, including my teachers I. Ackerman and Mundra (of blessed memory), and discussed what to do and where to go. Nobody had a clear answer.
Early in the morning, I, my sister Leah and her husband, and the family of Alter Reisman (of blessed memory) left town in the direction of the village Surge. The border guard would not let us pass, but we detoured and moved eastward. My mind was made up that under no circumstances would I stay among the Germans. Vivid in my mind were the pictures from the press of burning synagogues in Berlin in 1933, and my father Leisel's stories about the cruel Germans and their actions against the Jews. We did not imagine anything yet about the Holocaust, but we decided to escape the systematic and planned cruelty.
The parting from Shumsk was hard. I remember well when we reached the hill before Surge, and we looked back with tears in our eyes and asked ourselves when we would see our dear hometown again.
That day when we crossed the border, we felt we had to draw a line separating from our past life in the town. We marched with a heavy heart toward an uncertain future.
We had a hard childhood. We were sensitive to the hardships of eking our a livelihood that rested on our parents' shoulders, and we were grateful for everything. We respected our parents and counted our blessings. We made do with a ragball and a circle around the kitchen stove. Modest were our needs, and even more modest were our demands from life. But the happiness and the familial closeness and the intimate ties to our town exacted a loyalty to Shumsk. Especially pleasant were the intimate family gatherings for the Sabbath and the Seder evenings that foretold an end to the mud, etc. The town was like one big family--we all knew each other, and everybody knew about a happy or sad occasion in a family. We lived in the present and did net give a thought to the future. Nevertheless, we gathered in the Young Halutz, Betar or Hashomer Hatzair clubs in the evenings and embroidered dreams about a distant land for which we yearned.
Responsible in large measure for our yearnings for Palestine was our beloved teacher Israel Ackerman, who devoted a large part of his lessons to Eretz Yisrael and Zionism.
The war years were hard, and in 1944 Shumsk was liberated without her inhabitants. My company commander in the Red Army read aloud the announcement about the destruction of my family and called for revenge. In 1951 I first returned to Shumsk. It is hard to describe the feeling, when you return after ten years to your hometown where you were born, grew up, learned, and had a family and friends. You want to see them again, feel their closeness, exchange a few words and impressions, be again a Shumsker among Shumskers, and all is gone...You walk the narrow streets, look at the few remaining houses, and it seems the people you knew are still living there, but it is all a mirage. The awful truth is revealed when you stand in front of the large mass grave where the townspeople were buried, the awful silence all around, and you try to comprehend, try to believe that all this happened. This is the bitter truth.
NOTE: Aharon Lokaczer was born in Shumsk in 1903. He emigrated to Palestine in the early 1920s, working in road construction and agriculture and later in the immigration department of the Jewish Agency. He passed away in 1979. His parents, Alexander Sender Lokaczer and Rachel (Kanfer) Lokaczer, and his sister Raisel were killed in Shumsk in August 1942. His sister Yehudis Szomsztejn was killed along with her husband and little daughter in Kremenets.
It was the years 1918-1919, a period without government in southern Ukraine in general, and in our little town of Shumsk in particular. The rulers changed almost on a daily basis. Sometimes you went to sleep under the reign of Petlura1, and woke up under the reign of Bolsheviks, Makhno2 or somebody else.
One day it happened that the town was left with no governing body. The guards of the town -- three policemen and a commanding police officer -- disappeared. No one knows what happened to them. Were they killed by one of the armies or did they decide to run away while the going was good? Whatever the reason, Shumsk was left with no one in power and under no government authority.
Here the story starts. During one of the summer days at noon on Friday, the Jews were busy with preparations for the Shabbat. The marketplace was almost empty although it was only noontime. Even the gentile farmers, who used to walk around the shops hoping to obtain a little salt (which was very expensive in those days) had returned to their villages, and the quiet atmosphere of Shabbat Eve descended on all the streets. The children played in front of their homes, exempt now from the burden of their cheder studies, the women were busy putting chulent3 into the ovens, and the men hurried to the bath house. Everywhere it was quiet and unworried. In spite of the turmoil that was all around Shumsk, here it was quiet.
Suddenly four horsemen appeared riding on their horses, wearing, as was the custom in these days, Russian army uniforms so that you couldn't know which warring faction they belonged to. Armed with rifles and submachine guns, they appeared from out of nowhere and ordered everyone to disperse and get into to their homes.
People panicked and hurried to closet themselves in their homes and close the shutters tightly. In a few moments all the streets had emptied and the horsemen rode their horses through the town and did as they pleased: robbing, stealing and raping. The first victim was the Akerman family (from the New Town4). Aharon, the father, was killed and his wife Rachel was wounded while holding a baby in her arms. Her arm had to be amputated. (Two of Rachel Akerman's children later immigrated to Israel: a daughter residing in Kiryat Motzkin and a son who is a senior worker in the Haifa branch of the Hamashbir Hamerkazi.)
Their next victim was an elderly man, Prilucki.5
The nameless horsemen seemed to enjoy themselves, and so they returned once in a while, and every Friday became a disaster-prone day with nobody to prevent the attacks. The whole town, including the men and the youth (some of whom were soldiers), were afraid to show any sign of resistance.
Who knows how serious the situation would have become if the horsemen hadn't wanted one day to tamper with one of the villages in the area. Here they did not wreak havoc in the way they did to the Jewish community of Shumsk. They only wanted free food for their horses since they had become used to surviving by theft. Here, however, they raised the wrath of the farmers of the village, who proceeded to surround and catch them and then put them on public trial.
Somehow, in the middle of the trial there was a change in their favor and they were going to be released. However, the head of the community, who was one of the leaders of the group who had caught the horsemen, was afraid that once freed, they would get even with him. He opened his shirt, bared his chest and said: If you release these robbers, shoot me.
His words embarrassed the local community, and so the verdict was the death sentence.
Before the execution, the elders of the village asked the horsemen what their final wish was and they asked for a large plate of verenikes.6 The women of the village volunteered to prepare this dish and immediately afterward they were executed.
Finally our town of Shumsk breathed freely.
Later on it was discovered that the four horsemen didn't belong to any of the warring factions fighting in our area. One was a Christian from our town, born and raised among Jews, and the rest were also from the surrounding area.
When I reached Israel I joined the Haganah.7 During nights while I was sometimes alone on guard duty in dangerous places, I remembered this incident in Shumsk and compared the differences in the situations and in our reactions. Then I fully understood what the Jewish homeland has given us. Here we stand tall. Here it would not be possible for even the smallest village to live in fear of such a small number of thieves.
[Pages 171 - 172]
Nearly everybody in town was like one big family. They shared joys and troubles in spite of class differences; they formed a cohesive unit.
Until the First World War there was no school in Shumsk. The children were educated in cheder and only a few parents dared send their children to the Russian government school in town. There were some that left to study in the world beyond their town, but they were very few.
An important turning point, I think, was the experiment of the teacher Dickstein from Lutsk who founded the private school. I do not remember who his supporters in Shumsk were.
The special thing about this school was that it gave parents an opportunity to advance and enrich their children's lives and futures. From that point on there was regular secular education, with considerable influence on the whole town. The parents had a different perspective on the education of the coming generation, and it later helped greatly toward the establishment of a Hebrew school by the name Tarbut in which we were privileged to get an education.
This school was the catalyst for the genesis of Zionist youth groups, and brought new life to the town.
The majority of the townspeople were dedicated Zionists, in words as well as in deeds. Workers for the public good had emerged. They volunteered and were very dedicated.
There were social, economic, cultural and Zionist institutions in town, as in other small, outlying towns in Poland that had a generally low standard of living. There were some heads of family that were fully self-supporting, and there were those who barely made a living and were in need of community support from time to time. Some support was organized, like money for heating wood in winter, Passover money, and bridal dowries. These were small steps, but they established the direction towards more organized mutual aid institutions like Linat Tzedek and home visits to the sick, that were organized by the young people of the town. The latter institution was organized when typhus broke out. The epidemic affected whole families and, without the help of this institution, many more people would have succumbed. I remember Dr. Jacobson making the rounds everyday, and there was not a house that escaped. Abraham Shochet and his son Mendel accompanied the doctor, and were given instructions. They worked twenty-four hours a day to take care of everybody that needed help, and all of this without any pay.
This institution remained, and grew later under the direction of Leibzi Woskavonik, who was very dedicated. It extended medical help to the needy and raised funds. A plot of land was bought with the plan to build a hospital.
Later, a bank was founded through the initiative and dedication of Rabbi Israel Sudman. He devoted many years of effort to overcoming the townspeople's fear and suspicions. It was not an easy task, but once the bank opened, it was a blessing, and many availed themselves of its services.
Parallel to the bank was a charitable agency founded with money sent from the United States, under the leadership of Mordechal Chazen, who acted as the cashier, and a small committee for public scrutiny. This agency fulfilled its mission with extraordinary honesty and dedication. I remember when I was elected the director of the library. I took advantage of these agencies with small loans for the acquisition of books. It was hard to convince Mr. Chazen to give us a loan for that purpose, but Hershel Milman and I succeeded after long discussions in convincing him that the purchase of books was worthy and for the public good. At last he agreed, and I was in charge of repaying the loan, and renewing it.
[Pages 180 - 183]
My grandfather's house was in the center of town. A lamp had been installed there, and he was responsible for it. It happened that he forgot to light it one night. A policeman passed by and called my grandfather outside and yelled at him about why had he not lit the lamp. Grandfather explained that he had simply forgotten, and that he would go and get a chair and light it. The policeman followed him with curses and obscenities. Then my grandfather got angry at this rude treatment by the policeman, raised his hand, and slapped him. The policeman took him to court. Of course, he was sentenced to three months In jail, but the sentence was not carried out.
About a year after the beginning of World War I, when I was approximately seven years old, an incident occurred that I remember distinctly. I was at that time a student at the cheder of Simcha Melamed. He lived on the hill. In the wintertime we stayed late into the evening and then all the children went home together singing and carrying their lanterns. My father had given me a small, beautiful lantern as a present. One evening when we went home singing and swinging the lanterns, we were near my house and a soldier grabbed me and yelled at me to extinguish the lantern. I did not understand his order and was frightened, screaming and crying, but he did not let go of me. This was not far from Pasya Lerner-Gertzfeld's store. She was still in the store with her mother. She apparently recognized my voice. She came out, saw me crying, and took my hand. She talked and argued with the soldier about why he was mishandling a small child like this, and said she would report him to his superior. He got mad and broke my lantern. I continued screaming but Pasya took me home. This was the first antisemitic incident that happened to me as a child.
In the later part of World War I our town was right on the border. On one side stood the Russians and Ukrainians, and on the other side the Germans. Many essentials were scarce under these conditions. My father used to go and buy kerosene, and he had to cross the border. To his misfortune, some German soldiers apprehended him and brought him, wagon barrel and all, to their officer. The officer was busy and let him wait. After several hours he came out. My father got up and approached him, but apparently forgot to remove his hat. The German officer yelled at him and was very abusive. For about an hour he screamed at him, Hatoff, Hat on, etc. and my father, who had not eaten the entire day, fainted. This enraged the officer even more and he struck my father's head with his whip, hitting his left eye, which swelled and turned blue. He ordered his soldiers to put Father back on his wagon and see to it that he crossed the border. Father returned home late at night. I opened the door and saw his condition and cried out, but he told me that everything was going to be all right and not to wake up Mother.
When Hitler gained power in 1933, Father told this story to everybody and foresaw the bad times in store for us all. At the end of the War there was no stable government in our area. Sometimes the Bolsheviks ruled for a while, sometimes other rulers, and sometimes criminals and murderers descended on the town. There were many deaths during this period. Nearly every Friday several armed riders appeared in the square and commanded everybody to disperse. When the square was empty they went to the Rabbi's house and gave him a list of items to be collected for them within a few hours, with threats of dire consequences if the list was not complete. The Rabbi and some of his followers made the rounds of all the houses, and, with tears of fear and humiliation, begged the householders to contribute. Everybody gave to the best of their ability, but the list was never completed, and the Rabbi had a hard time negotiating with these murderers.
One Friday the same thugs gave an order to disperse and they went to Prelutski's house. They knocked on the door, and when it was not opened, they broke the door down, beat Prelutski, and demanded his money. He gave it to them and they still killed him. On the same day they also killed Millman. My friend Zanvel Ginsburg and I went to the center of town to find out what was going on in order to tell our parents. We climbed on the gate of my grandfather's house that faced the square, and we saw the riders riding away fast. We heard crying, and we arrived at Millman's house and saw the tragedy.
One day two armed soldiers caught Leizel Mordosh and demanded tobacco. They led him to the square and told him that if he could not supply them tobacco, it would be bad for him. Suddenly my father passed by and saw his friend Mordosh, who pleaded with him to help. The soldiers grabbed my father, and he took them to our house and gave them the tobacco my mother was saving in a drawer from butts. They also demanded some linen, but when my mother found only dirty linen waiting to be washed, they turned on my father and wanted to beat him. We ran to the house of our neighbor, Joseph the butcher, and he gave us some clean linen. They were satisfied and left.
There was a small police station in Shumsk, as in the other small towns, with one officer and a few policemen who considered it their duty to oppress the Jews. One Sunday evening we heard voices outside and did not know what had happened. I ran outside, opened the door, and found Herlich wounded and bleeding. I took him into the house, set him at the table, and he told us:
I met two people with clubs passing near the house. I recognized them and they said hello to me and told me to get in the house. They continued to the pharmacy of Motel Chazen and sat on the fence. They were the policemen in civilian clothing. When I turned to go back in the house, I heard some noise. Several brave Shumskers grabbed the pair and beat them up, in spite of the fact that they recognized them as policemen. Then they marched them like hoodlums to the police station. On the way one gentile came out and also recognized the policemen, and, since he had suffered at their hands too, he grabbed a pot and smashed it into the face of one of the policemen. The officer saw immediately who the hoodlums were that had been brought before him, so he started to negotiate with the young Shumskers to leave the pair and let him handle it. First the young men did not agree, but later went along.Later we heard that the pair underwent medical treatment and were dismissed from the Police. This incident stuck in our memories when we think of the Poles that suffered and were oppressed for many years and the antisemitic feelings that caused them to act irrationally.
One summer the Polish army held maneuvers in our area. The officers wanted to celebrate the conclusion with a special meal for all the officers. They asked the Polish Mayor and he recommended our restaurant. They came with the mayor's representative. My father was not too eager because there were more than fifty officers and it was short notice to prepare so much food. By chance my uncle Sholom Wechsler was visiting and he promised my father he would help. it was harvest time and business was slow, so we agreed and started the preparations. We planned to hold the affair in our new house not our old one where the restaurant was. We arranged tables and chairs in the large room. The walls in this room were hung with pictures of Herzl, Weitzman, Sokolov, Balfour, etc. that my sister and I had cut out from magazines and newspapers.
The day of the affair, two high ranking officers came to see if everything was okay. They went to our house and were satisfied. The officers came and were seated, and my sisters and I and Uncle Sholom started serving them. When we went for the second course, we heard noise and laughter and did not know what had happened. When we came back, we were stunned. All the pictures were ripped off the walls and strewn on the floor. I already knew how to speak Polish and I wanted to make a fuss, but my parents did not let me. When everybody left and the two officers settled the bill, they told my father to forget the whole thing. But I did not forget. It was one more proof of the attitude of the newly freed Poles to the nationalistic stirrings of another nation. I knew that antisemitism would not let up and I drew conclusions.
In Shumsk there was no courthouse, and it was necessary to go to Kremenets to stand trial. Later it was arranged that once a month the judge would come for a few days to take care of judicial business. With him also came some attorneys, and all were patrons in our restaurant. The judge loved gefilte fish. Once a young Polish attorney came with his clients in the morning. They ate, drank, paid, and left for court. At lunch time they came back, and he ordered for everybody. He showed me that he had plenty of money, assured that it would be all right, and also reserved a place to stay overnight for himself. I added up the bill and was assured that the client would pay. I went to sleep and left the bill for my father. In the morning the attorney got up, drank tea, and paid, and when my father presented him with the big bill from the previous day, he refused to pay and left. At that time the stop for the bus going to Kremenets was near the Polish church. My father awakened me. I ran to the bus and saw the attorney boarding. I went up to him and asked why he had not paid in spite of the fact that he had shown me plenty of money and promised to. He started screaming Dirty Jew at me and boarded the bus.
I did not give up, and went around the bus. He sat down near Yehoshua Duchovna. I jumped on the wheel, spat in his face, and called him a dirty Pole. Duchovna, who was my godfather,bawled me out and said he would tell my father. The bus left and I went home and told my father what had happened. A few weeks later the attorney passed our house, told my mother she had a fresh son, and paid his bill. The whole thing left a bitter taste in my mouth.
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