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The Shtetl

Dov B. Warshavsky (Chicago)

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[Photo:] Rabbi Dov. B. Warshavsky

Drohitchin

Introduction

With a feeling of great awe and responsibility, l take my pen in hand to record for our generation and for future generations information about the holy community of Drohitchin, which was destroyed by the cruel German murderers, may their names be erased, together with the communities of hundreds of other Jewish towns and villages.

Unfortunately, I have no statistics or historical documentation available to refer to while writing these lines. Pinkas Drohitchin [Drohitchin Record Book] , the only historical document describing the events and customs of 150 years of Jewish life in Drohitchin, disappeared during the period of turmoil and extermination, and has never been found. Unfortunately, I will have to be satisfied with relying on what I remember about my beloved hometown since childhood, and what I heard from the adults and elders of Drohitchin. I have to rely on my imagination and common sense for the rest and, with God's help, hope I don't make any errors.

For this reason I am not writing a comprehensive history of the last five hundred years of Drohitchin. I will make every effort to describe the recent past, which will thereby indirectly shed light on the more distant past of Drohitchin.

I

Geographical Layout of Drohitchin

The entire shtetl of Drohitchin comprised (It's possible that it still exists today, however, I speak of the town in the past tense because as a Jewish town it no longer exists) one long street that winded along the highway running through Drohitichin from Pinsk-Yanov to Antopolia-Kobrin and beyond. Two residential areas fanned out from the center of the shtetl, or street, like propellers on a small steamship: the synagogue courtyard (on the south) and the row of stores (on the north). The synagogue courtyard (the spiritual center) and the market (the economic center) were the two propellers that drove and occupied the life of the Drohitchin Jewish community for hundreds of years.

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There were, of course, other smaller streets such as New Town, Krasna Ulitsa [Red Street], etc., but these were no more than small branches on a large tree. There were also two one-street villages, Zaritchke and Starasilia which bordered the shtetI and which were inhabited exclusively by White Russian peasants.

[Photo:] General Minkov, the noble landowner who owned the shtetl.

Drohitchin actually resembled a ship floating on water because it was surrounded by a body of water, a marsh called "Vion." There were times when, because of driving rain, the water of the Vion would rise; the result was that the entire town turned into a steamship floating on a lake. Therefore, the town of Drohitchin could only expand lengthwise. In later years, the main street extended to a length of over two miles.

Half of the street on the west end was called Kobriner Street, and the other half, Pinsker Street. These two half streets also had other names: Pinsker Street was called "Land of Israel Street," and Kobriner Street was called "Egypt Street." No one knows for sure how these nicknames originated, or who created them. Could it have originated from the fact that more well-bred and wealthy Jews lived on Pinsker Street than on Kobriner Street? If that was the reason, then it isn't a joke. I prefer to accept the hypothesis that Kobriner Street was called Egypt Street because it was on Kobriner Street that the wandering gypsies had their small taverns, where they would eat and get drunk; it was commonly believed that the gypsies were descendants of the ancient Egyptians. Some joker invented the nickname "Egypt Street," and the name remained ever since.

Parallel to the highway next to the shtetl was the Pinsk-Brisk railway line built by the Russians in 1883. However, the Russians removed the train station, and placed it in Nagoria, 7 verst [approx. 5.5 miles: 1 verst =3,500 feet] from Drohitchin. People said that this move was a whim of the chief engineer who built the railway line, and who had expected the town would give him "a little something." Since the Jews pretended not to know anything about it, and because the soil around town was swampy, the engineer had an excuse to build the station 7 verst from Drohitchin.

The Shtetl was built in a Valley

Why was Drohitchin built right in a valley, in marshlands, even though further out of town, and especially on the sand street, the ground was mountainous and dry? This was probably for two reasons.

First, because the first Jews who settled in Drohitchin wanted to live next to the dirt road near the main road. (It can also probably be assumed that the name "Drohitchin" was taken from the Russian "Doroga" or from the Polish "Droga." It is unclear whether the name Drohitchin has a Russian or Polish root. In Russian, the shtetl was called "Drogitchin" because there is no "h" sound in Russian. The White Russian peasants who live in and around Drohitchin pronounce the word "doroha" with an "h", and therefore the name remained Drohitchin with an “h.")

Secondly, the early local authorities apparently didn't allow the Jews to settle on mountainous, dry land (and perhaps the Jews didn't have enough money to buy better land.) The authorities were seemingly satisfied that Jews settle on marshland and develop and cultivate it.

The old cemetery located at the end of the Vion attests to the fact that years ago the whole town didn't reach the bridge, but only extended as far as the church, where the sand street started, and which for years was inhabited by Russian officials and peasants. Only in the latter period did a few Jewish families also tread onto the "sand."

(Years later, when the old cemetery was full, or according to other sources, when the authorities no longer allowed burials there, the community dedicated a new cemetery far from town, on the Bubin [presumably a river] and called it the New Cemetery. In jest people would say "he is off on the Bubin.")

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