Belarus SIG Newsletter

Issue No. 1 - November 1998

Our Small Town - Swir

Extracts from a book from the Yivo Institute in New York written in Yiddish. The extracts (ca. 8 pages on the description and history of the town Swir) were sent to Belarus SIG by Arnold H. Wolfe, who had them translated into English by a friend.

Charcoal drawing: Map of Swir ca. 1914

A charcoal drawing of Swir (ca. 1914)

The town of Swir, where we saw for the first time in our lives the rays of the sun: the town that first heard our childish delight; the town where our first tears dropped: the town in which we played and joked throughout our childhood; this was the town that became a part of ourselves like our own flesh and blood.

A long street with two squares and a few small alleys actually made up the whole of Swir, and despite the description it was, in our eyes, the children of Swir, nicer than any other town. Truthfully speaking there were no brick houses in Swir. It was only one side wall and all the other parts of the house were built of wood. The roofs were covered either with shingles, metal or plain straw. Throughout our lifetime many houses grew old. There were houses which were practically sunken in the earth up to the windows. Some homes did not even have wooden floors.

It was a rarity to have plumbing in the town of Swir. Most of the water was derived from a well quite far away, and yet it seemed a wonder that no one hated this place. On the contrary, everyone was tied to this town with their very lives.

Anywhere a person of Swir was to be found, be it in New York or Los Angeles, in Buenes Aires or in Cuba, in Paris or in Brazil, in London or Tel-Aviv, in that place the one same heart was beating. All of them are bound like brothers and sisters, their lives like one, and all this because of the forlorn little town in a section of Vilna.

The town was very friendly. Even the nature around us was a witness that our grandparents knew where to build their homes. From one side a stream, and from the other side a lake, and the stream actually flows out of the lake near the houses of the town. Around and around were forests, fields and small towns. The town was not dipped in milk and honey, rather in green fields and flowers and as far as the eye could see were various fruit trees. There were apple and pear trees, plum and cherry trees, and blueberries without end.

During the summer the town was surrounded by ears of corn and stalks of wheat. In the winter is was covered with a big white blanket of snow. The Jews of Swir , therefore, lived a very contented life. In the old huts there lived good people and devoted friends. Everyone felt secure in their homes, like a bird in its nest, that is, until the wild barber came and the nest together with is birds was broken and destroyed. Woe! Woe unto the faithful and devoted birds of Swir! Woe! Woe unto their burned and destroyed nest.

Highlights of the History of Swir

Unfortunately, a lot of historical material and documentation is missing, thus making it difficult to relate the exact history of Swir. Not only was our whole city destroyed, but also our cultural and social life was uprooted. We were physically uprooted from our very origin, as well as geographically lost. The sources for further basic knowledge are lost to us today. Unfortunately, the generation that could have enriched us with its knowledge has perished. Yet we made an effort to relate the history of this town in a concise form.

It is clear that the town carries the name of the great Duke Swerski. His dynasty ruled for hundreds of years over all the surrounding areas. It is also said that on the peak of the mountain there stood a beautiful castle. In his honor not only was the town named after him, but also tens of families named themselves after the great Duke. It was extremely difficult for us to confirm with certainty if the families today named Swirski spread throughout the world originated from Swir.

According to all estimations the Jewish community was is existence for hundreds of years. The old cemetery can be a witness to this as most graves are sunken in the earth. The few monuments whose engraving was still legible dated back one hundred and fifty years. The ledger that had all the deaths recorded on it, and their place of burial was passed from one generation to the next, and was an important historical document.

Most Jews of the town wandered in from surrounding towns or close cities. It is difficult to know today whether they came of ther own free will or because of the decree from the Czarist regime that Jews must leave the towns. Therefore, many families who were forced to leave carried the name of their town. The Fuzileher, Shpialer, Dubnikirer according to the origin of their town, for example, the Kurgatkes originated from the town of Kureniaz, Miadler and Shuentzianer. The big fire that broke out at the end of the century practically wiped out the city. Therefore there are no old historical buildings or antiques left. The synagogue was rebuilt after the fire in a modern style.

The town endured many wars. Napoleon and his army reached there. There is a legend that the Swirer hills thinned out through him. Through the First World War the town practically remained unharmed because the fighting front was further away by several kilometers. Later however, by the Polish-Bolshevik War in 1920 there was a battle before the town was captured.

The stronghold of the Polish Army was on the hill of Swir, while the yet stronger Bolshevik Red Army was located at the other side of the river. During the fierce battle between the two armies which heavily destroyed many homes, the Jews escaped to the cemetery. The cemetery was in close proximity to the city. The day after the surrender of the Polish Army the Jews returned to their homes.

They later found out that it was a coincidence that they were saved because they all hid behind the trees of the cemetery. The Russian Army saw that there were large groups of people hiding there and mistook them for the Polish. They were prepared to fire with their artillery when they heard the cry of a child and the sound of animals. They realized then that they were only civilians. In that war an eleven year old boy was wounded. He was Velvel, the son of the Chassid.

The people who remained alive claimed that after the Second World War the greatest majority of the town was destroyed. The synagogue became level with the earth. The whole area was virtually uprooted. The Christian neighbors made the area into gardens. No vestige of Jewish life, as it was, remained. Most tragic of all, was that from approximately 200 families who lived there, remained only 100 survivors. These people were scattered all over the world, but the majority of them are in Israel.

Geographical and Economic Situation

Even from a distance of 5 to 6 kilometers the contours of the town are visible in the blue sky and extend long and narrow. Especially visible is the hill, the Swir Everest in the middle of the market place, and the Swirer skyscraper the Yedes wall.

The German occupation of the First World War extended the railroad to Constantine.

Swir is geographically located in west White Russia. The neighboring towns and distances are as follows:

  • Kabilnik - 20 Kilometers
  • Michlisbak - 21 Kilometers
  • Sventzion - 37 Kilometers
  • Kurenetz - 49 Kilometers
  • Smargon - 42 Kilometers

Aside from the fact that the town was above sea level and the paths were cemented, it was still very muddy on rainy days.

In back of the town there were lots of mud puddles. The farmers used to go to town through the mud as a short cut. In a dry summer they picked up their pants to their knees and splashed through the mud. During the fall and Spring it was impossible to pass through the mud.

On the other side of town the ground was normal.

There were 1900 people in the town of Swir - 1100 Jews and 800 non Jews. Among the gentiles there were White Russians and Poles. It was difficult to differentiate who belonged to which nationality, because many rich people found it below their dignity to admit they belonged to the White Russian nationality. They broke their teeth in order to speak like Poles and claimed they belonged to the Polish nationality. They let these people have their way, in letting them think they were Polish.

The Jews lived in "The Street of the Third of May", which starts at the cloister and goes till the horse market, a length of about one kilometer. That marked the boundaries of the town. Many Jews also lived in smaller streets.

The people called Staravieren and tens of families built a village at the side of the river and called Sloboda.

Most of the Jewish people in Swir were merchants. In front of every house on the main street where goods were sold, there were many different types of stands. There were textile, dry goods, hardware, building materials, bakeries, butcher and other stands as well. For many people these stands were not their only means of sustenance. In many families it was the job of the wives and daughters to take care of these stands.

The men were the dealers, and dealt in many different trades. Some dealt with wheat in large scale production. They used to purchase the wheat at the market and exported large quantities to Vilna. Another dealt in the same manner with potatoes, with fruit, with poultry, with eggs, with leather skins, with pig hair and many others. There were many merchants who were occupied only during certain seasons of the year, like fruit gardeners. Besides this, there were many peddlers, and those who worked with their hands like shoemakers and tailors. The Jews of Swir received the main financial help from the bank and the town's Jewish Charity Organization. According to a report from Vilna, there were a total of 140 members who belonged to the Jewish Charity Organization.

The greatest majority of the Jewish congregation lived very modestly, and yet they were very satisfied and happy. Unfortunately, when the Second World War broke out this contented life was utterly destroyed.

General Appearance

Swir had a specific appearance, and was built different than the surrounding towns due to her topographical layout. It wasn't a very flat ground, rather there were valleys and hills which led to the wide flowing river. There was a mountain in the middle of the town which was the center of attraction for artists who portrayed this beautiful blessed nature upon their canvases.

Not far from the border of town where the river was flowing, there was the church and the priest's large fruit garden. All around there were the little houses that belonged to the gentiles. From the wheat market that was located nearby, there were little farmers' huts that were covered with straw and from there started the street that divided the whole town up to the horse market.

Here was the Jewish trade center - the heart of the town. Between these little wooden huts that were covered with shingles and seemed as if they born of one mother, there sprouted one red two story brick house that belonged to Zelig Yedes.

From both sides there grew a stretch of poplar trees and in the middle there was an asphalt road made of big stones. Not far from these was the Phanizer street and from this street there was a row sof other small roads which led to the synagogue. These streets were named after the important people, such as Yuda Velvel's street, Eli Netanya, Moshe the Muller etc. Here was the concentration of the synagogue's personnel, the ritual bath, and the Talmud Torah (Hebrew school for children), which was later used as a public school and as an organization for the Zionists.

From the horse market at the other end of town started the Duberlianer street with beautiful fruit gardens. That was where the people of town took their afternoon stroll.

The River

Our village was blessed with its specific rich nature. The big mountain gave the impression of a proud giant with its head looking down to the quiet river. The river was the third largest in the Vilna area and its surroundings. It was 14 kilometers long and 5 kilometers wide with its crystal clear waters. It also served as a means of transportation. On the other side of the river there were green pastures where cattle grazed. One and half kilometers from the village at the edge of the river surrounded by water was the Jewish cemetery.

The Bridge

The bridge marked the beginning and the end of the town. One side were green, lovely pastures which blended with the dense forest and together created a beautiful dark crown. On the opposite side were deep muds which brought many complaints and tears from hardworking horse and wagon owners. Their livelihood depended on passing this road to sell their wares, and were unable to avoid passing this mud.

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