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[Page 52]

My Home Town (Memories)

By Khlavna Katzekovitz

Translated by Martin Jacobs

(1) Memories of my youth, 1907 to 1914

The city of my birth, Janow, which was in the region of Kobrin, district of Grodna, before the First World War, was a little town. It was 40 km from Pinsk; the railway station was 2 km from the town. It had a population of between four and five thousand, made up of Jews, Russians, and a small group of Poles. At first glance Janow looked like an all Jewish town. In the vicinity of the town were villages and large estates. The farmers and the owners of the estates (pritsim) were engaged in farming the land and raising cattle, horses, pigs, fowl, and fish. Around the town there were also large forests. Janow was a center of trade for all sorts of woods, fruits, mushrooms, skins of all sorts of animals, and pig's bristles. The Jews too made their living in this way.

A large number of the Jews engaged in commerce. The Jews owned small soda-water and aerated beverages businesses and tanneries (“garberayen” in Yiddish). Many Jews worked as craftsmen. They were also coachmen and peddlers who traveled from village to village trading all sorts of accessories for old clothes, as well as all sorts of produce from the farmers. And who does not remember the Jewish band and the chief musician Yeshaya the klezmer? Who does not remember how on Friday before Sabbath candle-lighting Velvl the “synagogue caller” [“caller to prayer”] (Yiddish: shul rufer) went out onto the streets of the town and called out in a loud voice: “”In shul arayn” (which is Yiddish for “to the synagogue”). All the farmers who were in the town then knew that the shops were now closing and they could make the trip back home. The bath houses were also owned by Jews.

Our town had just one physician and at times only the uncertified healer (“feltsher”, as he was called in Yiddish) was available. He dispensed medications. There was one pharmacy and two “sklady aptečne” (a kind of pharmacy in which the compounding of medications was prohibited). Khana Sore, Alter Yone's wife, was a kind of physician and first-aid nurse. If something happened she was called first. There was no dentist in the town and if one was needed we went to Pinsk. There was no need for a maternity hospital, and the town didn't even have a midwife. For this, “grandmother”[1] Khana Sore was called to the house. There was also another grandmother, who did her job to perfection. And so children were born.

The Jews owned flour mills also. In all the mills the wheel was turned by two horses, sometimes blind ones. There were also several small bakeries owned and operated by Jewish families.

In 1907, when I was beginning to study with Alter Nahman Feinstein, son of Joseph, the beginners' teacher, we still did not have kindergartens nor a public school. We had only private teachers. In addition there was a Talmud-Torah (religious school) for pupils who could not afford to pay. Several people collected money to pay the teachers in the Talmud-Torah. Anyone who wanted to study with a teacher had to pay the tuition fee.

The private teachers were organized according to grade:

  1. Alter Feinstein
  2. Zalmen Chertok
  3. Berl Eisenstein, son of Iser
  4. Mordechai Hersh Dubovsky
  5. Eliezer Kot (or Kut)
  6. Benjamin Warshawsky
  7. Here the study of Talmud was begun, with Tsvi Weinstein and Asher Fishman
  8. Isaac Kubrik, the principal of the yeshiva.

I seem to remember that in 1911-1912 there was also another teacher of Talmud and Hebrew, Dov Lev, from Kolonja near Drahićyn. He is now living in Tel Aviv. There were also some hadarim[2] run by the elementary teachers Chaim Roznik, Samuel Itshe, Eli's son Chaim, and Avromke.

We studied from morning until evening in the heder. We didn't have much vacation, summers off, or outings. Every day we had lessons enough to prepare, and especially in grade 5 with Eliezer Kot, a maskil[3], a good Hebrew teacher, and a devoted melamed[4]. He was able to emigrate to the United States some years before the Second War.

There were also teachers who taught their pupils Russian in the hadarim, such as Arke Hochman and Mikhal Vludovsky, as well as other teachers, male and female, whose pupils came to their homes to learn Russian. In other hadarim the teacher used to teach the students Hebrew language, grammar, and even arithmetic. One of these was Reuben Strubinsky.

There were also Jews living in the villages near Janow and they too earned their living either from leased property, from small shops, from business, or from peddling. Jews living among the town residents also used to receive by lease (“in arende” in Yiddish), from estate owners or from ordinary farmers who had gardens (fruit trees), the entire crop for a year or several years. Education of children in the village was different from the city. The parents of several children got together to engage a young man who had finished his studies, who then went to live in the village. Children who had graduated were sent to the town to study. Indeed the majority of the children of the villagers continued studying, either in the yeshivas or the gymnasia.

The inn owners and pub owners, both in the villages and in the town, were also Jews. A small group of Jews farmed. There were Jewish estate owners like Meir Nierenstein from the village of Zamošša between Janow and Motal. They were forced to sell their land to farmers and their children, of the Greiber family, then emigrated to Erets-Yisrael.

Most of the Jews adhered to strict traditional Orthodoxy, but not of the Agudat-Yisrael or Musar type. There were two rabbis; the dayan[5] and rabbi of the hasidim of Janow and environs was Rabbi Abbale. There were three ritual slaughters-circumcisers; prayer leaders[6] (when the High Holy Days came they prepared their sons and grandsons to be singers and help in the service).

There were six synagogues in Janow, three for the mitnagdim and three for the hasidim. For the mitnagdim: (1) the Great Synagogue, (2) the Taylors' Synagogue, (3) the Joshua-Eliezer Synagogue. For hasidim: (1) Rabbi Abbale's Synagogue, (2) Synagogue of the hasidim of Levašy, (3) Synagogue of the hasidim of Karlin-Stolin.

In addition to the synagogues there were also several minyanim[7] in private houses. In three of the synagogues there were one-room apartments for the shames[8] and his family. The shames used to keep in his apartment several bottles of brandy, dry cakes, and boiled peas, because some people liked to drink lehayim and to take a bite of something after morning prayer. I remember that Sabbath when the rabbi of the Levašy Synagogue came to the rabbi of the Stolin Synagogue. At that time not only the hasidim but also the mitnagdim came together to hear words of Torah from the Rabbi and to listen to the melodies sung by the hasidim, after which they ate, drank, and went out to dance.

In Janow we had all sorts of organizations: the Talmud society, the Mishna society, the Free Loan Society, the society for visiting the sick, the burial society. In every society there were men devoted to their task. Once a year every society held a banquet and people were there until midnight. I recall that there were Zionists in our town who collected contributions and pledges for Erets-Yisrael. There were also socialists, who were called “revolutionaries”, “sisters and brothers”, Bundists. From time to time there were quarrels among them, but in time of trouble differences were of no importance and they helped each other in matters of livelihood, dowries for poor brides, etc.

The town had two cemeteries, the old cemetery in which were buried brothers from Chmielnitski's time[9]. Jacob (the builder) Greenberg's house was also there, where he lived with his family. They later emigrated to America. In the new cemetery there was also a residence in which Osher and his family lived.

The standard of living was low. Generally no one was out for luxury, and only weddings were held in a fitting manner. There were at the time no wedding reception halls which could be rented for the preparations, but they hired one of the larger private houses, and prepared the wedding there. They would invite two female cooks, who baked, cooked, and prepared everything. There was also the band, made up of Moshe Yeshaya “der klezmer” (musician), a drummer (poyker in Yiddish), a fiddler, and also a badkhn[10]. Moshe Yeshaya the fiddler would call out: “a present from the bride's side, a present from the bridegroom's side!”. The wedding canopy was generally set up by the side of the study house (bet hamidrash). The groom would be led, to the accompaniment of the band, from his house to the study house. Word spread that there was a celebration in town. People ate and drank until the early hours of the morning.

At the age of 21 young men had to report for a military medical examination, after which those found to be fit went to serve in the army for four years. In the half year before reporting the young men used to play all sorts of night time practical jokes. They would wake someone up from sleep. They would tell someone that someone was calling him to go to some particular place. They did other things too and afterwards laughed at him. They would also break into houses and bring out all sorts of jams which the housewives were preparing for the whole year from all sorts of fruits. There was a lot of fun in the town.

We did not have an organized and elected community administration. For this the district office alone appointed Jews from among the town residents. Abraham Yalishevski was the administrator of the registry of birth certificates (metrikes). Two people, Benjamin Katsikovitsh and Moshe Zeev Kharsl signed every birth certificate, which were sent to the district office.

Amateur actors staged all sorts of plays, such as “The Binding of Isaac” or “The Selling of Joseph”, with music and dancing. They performed not only in the houses of Jews of means, but also for estate owners, the Polish or Russian landlords living near the town, and the important people of the town, since the Jewish residents got along with the other residents, whether Russian or Polish.

I remember that when I used to pray in the synagogue it would happen that the Christian residents would make charitable contributions on Mondays and Thursdays to the synagogue. Between the Jewish and non-Jewish residents there was a professional and commercial bond; there was no anti-Semitic sentiment. The volunteer fire brigade drew members from among all the town's residents. The leader of the firefighters was our post master.

We lived in small one-to-three room dwellings. In one room there often was a workshop as well as a dining room, and we slept there, because[11] families were large, as the birthrate was high. Sometimes there was another, windowless, room. Next to the house there was a courtyard, in which was a shed for a cow (everyone had one), a small separate structure used as an outhouse, and a storehouse for fire wood. The kitchen had a large oven for baking and cooking. Beneath the oven was a kind of cellar for storing potatoes, which they prepared for winter time. The household lacked luxuries, and the same could be said for clothing. Even here austerity was the order of the day. How happy the children were when new clothes were sewn or bought for them, because they waited for them a long time, until Passover or the High Holy Days. Among our town's residents there were parents who, giving no thought to their economic situation, sent their children to big towns and cities to continue their education, some to become secretaries, some to work in shops, some for a profession, and some for yeshivas, for they saw that in a small town it was not so easy for Jews to get their lives settled.

The professions and business did not provide work for everyone. Government jobs were not available for Jews. Thus began a migration to the world at large. Tailors went to Odessa, Yekaterinoslav, and so on. But the greatest migration was to the United States. There were Jews assisting those wishing to emigrate in crossing borders to reach the United States. There were those who had been in America for several years and, having saved several hundred dollars, returned to their families. The great majority, however, remained, and when they became American citizens they sent invitations to their family members and because of this their lives were saved.

In July of 1914 the First War broke out between Russia and Germany. In 1915 Janow was occupied by the Germans. Before the occupation almost all the Russians from all the surrounding area fled to Russia, leaving the Jews behind. The supreme command (German General Stab = general staff) of the German Army was in Janow. Immediately many changes were made in accordance with German directives. They immediately appointed a head of the municipality (Bürgermeister = mayor) from among the residents and organized a local police force. They organized young people's work teams for unpaid forced labor. Everyone was ordered to report to work twice a week. On the Sabbath they only called several youths for light work. Schools were inactive and closed; they were all turned into hospitals. In the synagogues[12] too hospitals were set up for the army. The military police permitted prayer in private homes. Children age 10-13 were called up for light jobs, such as picking all sorts of plants to be made into medicines. When the commander saw that all the farmers had fled to Russia, he appointed a German soldier to be owner of the land and ordered him to give every resident a parcel of land to till for his own family. The Jews became farmers and became accustomed to working the land. They even tried to get additional parcels.

The employment situation improved after the building of all sorts of structures, both in the town and on the land of the landlord, was begun. Projects that were set up included an aerated beverage factory, a crop storage and drying facility, a saw-mill, a plywood factory, a locomotive engine repair business, large warehouses for all sorts of produce and merchandise, a rope business, and narrow gauge railway track (German Kleinbahn) from Janow to Kamien Koszyrski. In every settlement through which the railroad was projected to pass stations were built. Within the town they arranged for electricity and a large cinema, slaughter houses, restaurants, coffee houses, etc.

The Germans called our town “Little Berlin” (“Klein Berlin”). A large group of residents was registered for these tasks; they received daily wages. Nothing was lacking, neither food, nor clothing, nor other needs. We still supplied the people of Pinsk with all sorts of foods by various routes, since the economic situation here was better than in other places. This led many families from Pinsk and Levašy and the surrounding area to apply to headquarters for permission to settle in Janow. They received entry permits and they settled down like everyone else both at the workplace and in a home. It would happen that the Germans themselves sent a family from a place where they had many relatives to the Russian border and settled them in Janow.

We had a warehouse and a canteen which supplied the army throughout the region, and all the hospitals, with all sorts of food, as well as drink and medicine. Many improvements were made in the town, like sidewalks of wood boards, temporary log roadways in the streets, and hygienic improvements. Prisoner-of-war camps were also built in the town. The prisoners were constantly working at all sorts of jobs. As for health matters, we had doctors and expert professors for all sorts of illnesses and for surgical operations.

Janow residents sent their children to the teachers' homes to study and this enabled them to get used to living as they did. They knew that when they got back from their daily labor they had to go into the fields to work with all those of their family, even children, who were capable of working, and then bring the crop in from the field, which was not easy without horses. Professional people worked constantly for the army. The shops burnt by the Russian army in 1915 before leaving the town were converted into private dwellings. This is how the time passed until the German army left the occupied area in November of 1918.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. The Yiddish word for “grandmother” can also mean a midwife, and here the Hebrew word for grandmother has been given the same meaning. Return
  2. Jewish religious elementary schools (sing. heder). Return
  3. Adherent of the principles of the Haskala, the Jewish enlightenment movement. Return
  4. Jewish elementary school teacher. Return
  5. Rabbinical judge Return
  6. It is unclear from the text whether or not the slaughterers-circumcisers were also the prayer leaders. Return
  7. Minyan = quorum necessary for public prayer service. Return
  8. Shames = an attendant (“beadle”) in a synagogue. Return
  9. In 1648 troops of the Cossack leader Chmielnitski massacred Jews in eastern Europe. Return
  10. Jester or entertainer at a wedding. Return
  11. So the Hebrew text, though I would have expected that they slept in one room “in spite of the fact that” rather than “because” families were large. Return
  12. Reading “bate knesiot” = synagogues for “knesiot” = assembly halls.] Return


[Page 60]

Memories of my Childhood

By Beila Feigin, the daughter of R. Mordechai Hersh Dobovsky

Translated by David Goldman

At that time Yanov was a small remote town through which trains never even passed. I remember that my father told us once, when I was 6 or 7 years old, “Children, tomorrow on Shabbat afternoon we will go see the train that passes through Yanov to Pinsk.” We were greatly surprised and waited breathlessly for the next day. Almost all the children and adults in town went to see this great wonder on that day. The train did come by a machine traveling on many wheels with no horses or driver with a whip in hand. We were standing there in amazement, especially the children, until we could see the train disappear in the distance on its way to Pinsk while we stood there in awe. Then we went home. I still remember that a short time after they started the train route they also opened a telegraph office, and we started getting letters and newspapers. The first postman was Jewish, and I specifically remember him because he was my mother's brother Avraham Meir Burstein, the grandfather of Shmuel Burstein, of blessed memory. He used to come to our house in the morning for tea and then sort the mail so he could distribute them easier. I don't remember what he did before becoming a mailman because there weren't many occupations in town then. In general Jews were storekeepers, tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, blacksmiths, teachers, rabbis and rabbinical judges. The Chassidim had their own rabbi. There were synagogues for prayer. Jews engaged in commerce and made a livelihood among themselves.

My father was one of the religious teachers, as was Zvi Dobovsky, of blessed memory. I am sure that many readers will remember him well. He taught children and in his class he had 10-12 children. I can recall that in those days their parents were requesting a more “modern” education for their children, and in order to meet this request five teachers joined together: Alter Feinstein, Zalman Chertok, Berl Eisenstein, Hershel Fisser and my father. They were considered to be the most modern of the teachers, and children sat in chairs in their class. The children did well and their parents were very pleased.

I would also like to mention that my father was active in a Zionist organization that was popular everywhere. My father would collect shekels, stamps and stock shares in the Zionist bank in order to sell them in town. It was very difficult to obtain 10 rubles from Jews in Yanov for such shares. In addition to this work my father was forced to write many letters and answer all types of people who contacted him. He even received a few letters from Herzl himself and from other important people.

I remember well the visit once of a young man from Motla named Chaim Weizman. He wanted the organization in Yanov to elect him its representative to the convention that was going to be held in Minsk. My father could not decide on his own, and asked all the members to come to our home because the organization was illegal and they had to act with the utmost caution so the authorities would not notice. My father had to be on his guard. From where I was standing it was possible to see the entire length of Livshei Street and our street as well. It was a lovely clear evening in the middle of the month. The moon was bright in the middle of the sky with the starts alongside. I had the good feeling that as a girl of twelve years of age I would have something to contribute. It wasn't hard for me. I don't know how long the meeting lasted, but the participants left slowly. One month later Chaim Weizman returned and informed us of the decisions made at the convention.

We the young people had nothing to do. There were still no real youth movements, but there was something called Brothers and Sisters, but I don't know what they did or what their goals were. They kept away from me because after all, my father was a Zionist, which made me unkosher in their eyes.

Our community of young people (most of us were girls) had no occupation. I remember visiting a neighbor who was sick and alone, with no one to help her, not even to serve her a glass of water. So I decided to take care of her and helped her a great deal. Thanks to this work I came up with the idea that we teenage girls should set up a fund to raise money to assist sick members of the community. I spoke with my group of friends and they agreed with my idea for two girls to go each week to collect money in town for this fund, and the money would be intended to assist the sick people and feed them. Each week two girls went house to house in town. Each family was happy to sign up and gave us ten grush per week. In addition to this work we occasionally served as night workers at the beds of the patients who needed someone to be with them at night. There were times when we were forced to call the doctor. The town had one doctor, one clinic, one country doctor and a pharmacist. However, the best doctor was the mother of Yona Kravetz, Chana-Saran Yona's. When she visited a bedridden patient and talked to him/her, or placed leeches on him/her, the patient felt better. Of course her treatment was not always sufficient, and we had to call the doctor. On one occasion, when we needed him, he asked us whether we knew anything about diseases. When I replied that unfortunately we do not know anything, he suggested that we visit him on occasion to learn how to treat patients. Obviously we were more than happy to follow his advice, and for an extended period we visited him. We acquired knowledge, though of course not enough to become a specialist. However, we did become something of specialists over time.

We enjoyed our new profession, and the patients were also happy that we were taking care of them for an extended period and with devotion. When we got older some of us got married and others emigrated to America. I also got married at that time, and we moved from Yanov to Warsaw, where we lived until the outbreak of World War One in 1914. When the war broke out the situation in Warsaw worsened significantly. Whoever could escape did so. All the stores closed and my husband was also fired from his

We had no money at home, and whatever we did have in the bank we lost because everyone ran away during the first days of the war. When we demanded our money back there was no one to talk to anymore about it. We were forced to vacate our apartment because we couldn't pay the rent. We packed up our belongings and stored it at my husband's workplace. Shmuel Burstein was also in Warsaw and was fired from his job. All of us returned together to Yanov to my sister, of blessed memory. It wasn't easy for her to have us in her home. After all, we were four additional people in her family. But there was no choice, and that's how we lived together all the time until the Germans arrived in Yanov. A small part of the population fled to various places, especially the wealthy and the farmers. Mainly the poor remained in town. After the German conquest the situation was very difficult. We lacked food, and there was nothing to buy or sell. However, the Germans at that time treated us very well despite the fact that they prohibited a large part of the food located in the stores and warehouses of the farmers. They also cut the produce of the fields and sent it to Germany because it was harvest season. One day they ordered all people in town to appear at the command headquarters and told us to go out to the fields to gather the potatoes. We tried to do it as much as possible in order to stockpile them for the winter.

The German commander in town ordered the townspeople to select a mayor. They voted for our pharmacist. Reches was his name, but he did not serve long in that position. So the people then elected my husband, Binyamin Feigin, mayor. He served in that position during the entire period of the German conquest three consecutive years. The situation in town worsened by the day. There were food and other shortages. The Germans forced the town in various ways. They conscripted the youth and sent them off to various jobs. But on the other hand they took care of the needs of the town. They repaired the roads, built bridges and a flour mill. There were three mills in town that were operated by horsepower two horses would circle around the mill wheel, and this way we milled our grain. The Germans built us a large flour mill that was operated by steam power, which could produce flour and grits. The townspeople also benefited from these new developments. In addition to these factories, the Germans built a large sawmill and planned to use it, but they didn't have a chance to do so because they were forced to leave our town.

Before leaving they sold the mill and sawmill to Shmayahu Burstein, Zalman Gorodetsky and Velvel Feldman. As soon as the Germans left, the new owners started operating on a large basis, and many people found jobs there. Theh town started resuscitating. The places that were destroyed during the war were rebuilt, but my husband didn't find a job in Yanov and was forced to look for work elsewhere. He immediately found a job as an accounts manager in Ostrov. So we left Yanov and never returned. We lived in Ostrov for ten years and then immigrated to the Land of Israel.

Yanov, my little town Yanov. How I still miss you with everything you lacked. We didn't know or ask for anything better and nicer.


[Page 63]

Memories

By Pinchas Katzikovitz

Translated by David Goldman

I would like to describe what Yanov was like 50-60 years ago as it has been engraved in my memory since childhood. At the beginning of the 20th century Yanov resembled most small out of the way towns in Byelarussia and Lithuania. Most houses in town were small wooden homes with slanted roofs covered with plywood except for a few homes that were built from bricks. The town had a few roads, and the road that led to the railway was called Libeshai Street because it ran in the direction of the town of Libeshai, which is Lubeyshov. Pinsk Street ran from eastward from the market and Mohilna Street, which ran westward from the market to the village of Mohilna were the main streets in town. There were also a few other side streets, each one with its own name.

The open market area was in the center of town with two rows of stores built from wood. Almost all the stores in town were located here. There were fabric factories, ironsmiths, household goods, shoes, food and many other types of merchandise. Sales took place mainly on market days when the market filled up with farmers from the surrounding villages who came from far and wide on their wagons harnessed to horses in order to sell their agricultural products and quality animals, as well as to purchase all types of merchandise that they required. There were no sidewalks, so people were used to walking in the middle of the street. On market days the roads were used to park their wagons and horses crowded together. In order to get to where they wanted, they had to steer their way in between. There was a special atmosphere on major market days. Various odors of city and village, field and store, wafted through the air. The late afternoon was when the farmers got ready to return home to their villages and it was impossible to walk through the street because of all the drunks around filling the street with shouting and wild singing. On regular weekdays the streets were empty and quiet , and the stores did not have much business.

The Yanov railway station was located approximately 2-3 kilometers from town. A dirt road ran to the station, and as usual people got their by wagons or carriages owned by Jewish drivers, whose livelihood depended on the links between the town and the station. They were simple but honest Jews who tried to make the trip as comfortable as possible with jokes, teachings or stories. Merchandise was transported to the station located in the village of Snitova, about 10 kilometers from Yanov.

In the autumn, when there was heavy rainfall, it was difficult to get to the station because of the deep mud along the way. A few years later the Russian government at the time paved the road with bricks that made it possible to link the town with the railroad even during the rainy periods.

I can still remember the event over 60 years ago when the first automobile was first seen on a street. A rumor circulated around town that a type of horseless carriage was coming to the street next to the railway and the post office. A group of us teenagers ran to the post office to see the wonder with our own eyes the vehicle that moved by hidden power. We were amazed without end.

Most Jews made their living in town in commerce. The Jews of Yanov were practical merchants. They made commercial contact with the large cities such as Pinsk, Warsaw, and Lodz. Yanov businessmen would usually buy their merchandise from Pinsk because in those days there were large wholesale stores in Pinsk selling merchandise.

The fabric stores, metal shops and building and furnishing materials stores were among the largest in town. There were also many banquet halls, several of which were large and spacious.

The population of Yanov was about 6,000 people, half of whom were Jews and the other half mostly White Russians and a few Poles. My parents' home was surrounded on three sides by Christian neighbors. Jews and Christians lived in peace and were good neighbors. I do not remember a single case of conflict between the Jews and the Christians.

The Christian community in Yanov and surroundings earned its living from primitive agriculture, raising cattle and forest work. The main agricultural products around our area were potatoes, rye, hay and flax. They grew a lot of flax which was intended for export. The Jews took care of purchasing the flax from the farmers and exporting it. Jews traded in forest products as well, not to mention leatherworks and sale of leather products, mushrooms, pig hair (used to make brushes) and oxen. These were all mostly exported to Warsaw, and from Warsaw usually abroad. Leather products were also intended for export.

Yanov's businesses were mostly retail businesses, and the primary clientele for industrial and artisan products were farmers from the region, who would then sell their agricultural products to the Jews. There were also peddlers who sold their wares in villages and purchased from them or bartered certain merchandise from the agricultural sector or the forest.

There were also many Jewish artisans in Yanov, such as tailors, shoemakers, furriers and hatmakers, carpenters, builders and bricklayers, tinsmiths, locksmiths, and blacksmiths, among all of whom were high quality and renowned professionals.

However, this was not sufficient to meet the needs of the Jewish residents. Starting at the end of the 19th century Jewish emigration to distant lands began, mainly to the United States. Funds received from relatives who had moved to the United States played a significant role in the livelihoods of many Jews in Yanov.

The Jewish community was divided between chassidim and non-chassidim almost exactly in half. As was the practice in the towns of Lithuania and White Russia, the traditional way of life and conduct both at home and in public was determined by halacha [Jewish law]. Obviously the vast majority of Yanov's Jews were Orthodox. In the morning following prayers or in the late afternoon between the afternoon prayers [mincha] and evening prayers [maariv] most Jewish men gathered around the tables in the synagogues or other study houses to study a page of Talmud or Mishna, or to hear a lecture from the book, Eyn Yaakov. Among those in attendance you could find both the very scholarly and the simple Jews. The working day of both the merchant and the artisan began and ended with the study of Torah. However, the Jews of Yanov excelled in their dedication to the commandments of their faith and the path of their laws.

Yanov had a few groups devoted to charity and study: the Chevra Kaddisha burial society, the Talmud study group, the Mishna study group, the psalm recitation group and the welcome committee. Each group held an annual dinner, and the Talmud and mishna study groups held dinners each time they completed their study cycle. The welcome committee held its dinner on the week of the Torah portion Vayerah in the book of Genesis. This group especially had a large membership and provided practical assistance to the sick which was felt very strongly in the homes in Yanov. The psalms group held a holiday Kiddush meal on the festival of Shavuot, which is the anniversary of the death of King David, who wrote the Book of Psalms.

I remember a particularly Yanov type of person. He was a Yanov resident who used to carry water buckets. His name was Zerach-Leib the Water Carrier. He would awaken early Sabbath mornings to recite psalms and would pass by windows and doors calling on people to get up to recite psalms. This is how he awakened people early enough to recite psalms, and considered this an extremely worthy endeavor. He would even do this in the winter in freezing temperatures.

Everyone in Yanov knew the man who would pass through the outskirts of town on late Friday afternoons reminding people to go to synagogue. In the last generation the individual who performed this task of “Shul-Rufer” was R. Velvel. The Jews of Yanov would rush to close their businesses and receive the Sabbath in the synagogues and study houses. Then the Divine Presence would prevail in town and its Jews. There was a special type of quiet that would prevail on Friday nights outside of town, and you could only hear the sounds of Sabbath melodies being sung from the homes. Poor townspeople would be invited home for the Sabbath meals to someone's house, and the synagogue custodian would assign them to householders after prayers.

The vast majority of Yanov's Jews were still very religious at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. However, slowly but surely, new winds began blowing through. The youth started to become active in revolutionary parties and Zionist organizations to disseminate the Enlightenment and modern education, and to establish public institutions and modern education which totally changed the image and face of the Jewish community.


[Page 66]

Various Items from 60-80 Years Ago

By Levi and Sheyne Levine

Translated by Martin Jacobs

An incident comes to mind which happened about 75 years ago (in 5645 = 1885). Once when Rabbi Itsikl (the father of Rabbi Leybele) came from Levašy to Janow his followers prepared a great melave malke[1] on the Sabbath, where there was much merrymaking. This angered the mitnagdim[2], who plotted to take their revenge in whatever way they could. They cut a big hole in the covering of the coach in which the Rabbi traveled.

The first rabbi was Rabbi “Tospha'a”, so called because he was an expounder of the Tosephta[3]. He was a hasid who lived in a small room in Mohilna Street close to Kupershtukh's house. In his time a great fire broke out and destroyed a fourth of the town. After Rabbi Tospha'a his son Moshe-Chaim inherited his position. The only hasidic synagogue at the time in Janow was that of the followers of Leybele of Levašy. Later the synagogue of the Stolin hasidim was built. After Abbale married and also became a rebe a dispute broke out between him and Leybele. The hasidic camp was divided into two quarreling factions, the elders and the youth, and in the end the two camps went each its own way.

After the old bath house burnt down the elder hasidim bought the land and built a synagogue there. This synagogue was called the Levašy synagogue. Before it was built a single minyan[4] prayed in Shmerl Lifshitz's house. The prayer leader was Yaakov-Ber, brother-in-law of Shmerl and husband of Pesha-Rokhel. This was about the year 1905. When Moshe-Chaim died the head of the Bobruisk yeshiva, Rabbi Yehuda Cohen, was brought in to take his place. He was from Drahičyn and was the son of Getzl Cohen. As is well known, after this there was peace among the hasidim. Reb David, the preacher of Janow, was the rabbi of the mitnagdim. His successor was Joseph Kosovsky. In those days the marketplace was near his row of shops in the center of the town. The houses were covered with straw. There was a great deal of mud which at times reached to one's knees. There were no paved roads. The sidewalk was made of planks and there was only sidewalk adjoining the houses. Only in 1910 did they begin to pave a road with stones, and that was up to the railway station, that is, up to Pristanuk. (The first station was in the village of Snitava). Opportunities in the town for making a living were very limited. Only the livelihoods of a few merchants were relatively good. Workers such as shoe makers, tailors, blacksmiths, lived in great poverty.

At that time there were several societies in Janow. At the head of the Psalms society were Mitiya the melamed[5] and Benjamin Katsekovitch. Heading the hostel for the poor were Merkl the tinsmith, Moshe-Velvl the builder, Shachna the builder, and the shoe maker Zelig son of Joel. The Talmud society was divided in two, one for the hasidim and the other for the mitnagdim. Every year the Talmud society held a banquet. The Mishna society was also divided in the same way.

I was a pupil in the heder of Yekl the melamed, who only taught small children. His grandson, Chaim Schuster, was his assistant and also, when there was so much mud that we could not walk, generally carried us to school on his shoulders. Our feet used to kick his shoulders because we did not want him to drag us. The melamed lived in a small room in which there was no room to sit or to learn properly. It had a bench and one table. We used to lie under the bed and jump around on the table. He had a daughter named Risl. She was learning how to bake bagels and sold them to us for a groshen a piece, but not every child had a groshen. After finishing my studies in the children's heder I studied with Hershl Itsik, who taught Bible. After that I studied with Asher Fishman, the Talmud teacher. Some time later Levi Getzl also became a Talmud teacher. Once he was involved in a lawsuit and the judge asked him the date. Rabbi Getzl answered: “I do not know it according to your calendar; according to ours it is the tenth of Tevet.”


Translator's Footnotes

  1. A dinner, with singing, marking the conclusion of the Sabbath. Return
  2. Opponents of the hasidim, Rabbi Itsikl and his followers being hasidim. Return
  3. A supplement to the Mishna, which is the compilation of laws and principles which form the basis of the Talmud. Return
  4. Quorum of ten men necessary for public prayer. Return
  5. Teacher in a Jewish elementary school. Return


[Page 73]

Janow before the First World War

By Isser Apelbaum

Translated by Martin Jacobs

Our town Janow was located in White Russia [Belarus], 40 kilometers from Pinsk in one direction, 180 kilometers from Brisk [= Brest-Litovsk] in the other. The Jews made their living from the villages around the town, for the most part from trade in wood, sponges, produce, etc.

It is said that when Chmielnitski's[1] gangs went through our town they killed every Jew. People would point out the graves of two brothers at the old cemetery; the Christian residents said that however much earth was thrown on them, the earth always lowered itself, so that to the present day the graves have not been level with the ground.

It is also said that Jews rebuilt the town thanks to a blacksmith named Joseph. When he showed up he invited Jews to come and settle there. In 1941 the Jewish population of Janow numbered 3800 persons, almost 50% of the total population. The Jewish population consisted of three social strata: the rich, the middle class, and the poor.

A large part of the Jewish population were workers: furriers, tailors, shoe makers, builders, and so forth. Many workers would leave their families when Shabbath was over to go to work in the surrounding villages. Thursday evening or Friday they used to return home.

When a stranger from another town would come to our town asking for a family by its family name we would look at him: “What do you mean, 'family name'?!” We used to call people by their nicknames: kashtanes[2], bulanes[3], yezlakh[4], meytshes[5], zhulikes[6], yid[7], ribtses[8], tsigelns[9], etc. In our town there were no paved roads, no sidewalks, and in autumn or springtime when the rains came and created great muddy areas, not just once did the residents, while crossing the street, leave shoes, boots, galoshes in the mud and have to wait for someone else to come help pull them out.

Children usually studied with melamdim[10]. On the intermediate days of Passover Hasidic rabbis used to come and test the children, negotiate a price and accept the children into heder.[11] These were: beginners class: Alter the melamed and Chaim the potsher[12]; next level: Zalmen the teacher, Berl the melamed, and Mordekhai Hersh the melamed. In the more advanced years there were teachers who explained Hebrew through Hebrew and the study of Russian was begun. Here were the teachers Eliezer Kat, Ruben Starabinski, Levi Feinstein, and I would also like to mention the teacher Avrumke, Niamke Warshawski, the head of the yeshiva Kobrik, and others who taught Talmud.

Our town was rich in organizations, not (Heaven forbid!) trade associations, but benevolent associations like the burial society, the Mishna society, the Talmud society, the Psalms society, the hostel for the poor, the society for anonymous giving. It was not so easy to join a society. First one had to register as a candidate for six months, and after that time it was decided if you were accepted or rejected. Each society had its celebration. This happened at a siem[13], when the study of Mishna or Psalms was concluded. Once a year the members gathered in the synagogues at tables set and laden with food, to celebrate with a banquet. If perchance a little more whiskey were drunk, then the party got bigger and bigger, the banqueters sang at random and started dancing and the merriment dragged out til late in the night.

We had six synagogues in the town, called the Great Synagogue, the Tailors' and the Shieleyzer Synagogue (for mitnagdim[14], the Stolin, the Levašy and Abele's Synagogue (for hasidim[15]). Several times a year the rebes[16] came to visit their followers. Arele from Stolin used to come to the Stolin hasidim, and then the synagogue took on a festive appearance. The gabay[17] of the synagogue, Markl Mednik, wouldn't know what to do and where to put everybody. For us children it was a happy time. We would come on Shabos to shalosh sudos[18] to hear the singing, get a bit of shirayim[19] from the rebe and have our cheeks pinched by him. This was one of the biggest things for us and we used to brag about it for a long time. We liked to go to Abele's synagogue for the first selikhos[20], because they used to hand out apples and say the selikhos with a melody which could not be heard in the other synagogues.

We especially liked hearing Abele's two sons, Sholem and Ahron Yitskhok, celebrating melave-malke[21], accompanied by instrumental music, on Saturday night after maariv[22]. Almost the whole town would stand under their windows to listen to their playing.

I'd like to say something about the goals and accomplishments of two societies: the Hostel for the Poor, and the Society for Anonymous Giving and Alms for Passover. The responsible officers of the hostel were, among others, Benjamin Katsikovitsh and Velvl the builder. Whenever anyone was ill they immediately sent people to help the sick man's family, spend the night at the patient's bed, see to it that he took his necessary medicines at the right time, and clean up around him. This society had almost 250 members, and they accomplished much good.

The officers of the Anonymous Giving Society were all rabbis, ritual slaughterers, and distinguished residents. They used to collect money and help the poor. To those who felt it beneath their dignity to ask for help publically they gave in private, in secret. The society was especially devoted to Passover. They sent matzos and wine to the needy and also helped them with a bit of money.

Before the First War the youth in our town were quite backward, uneducated, but something was beginning to stir. The Sisters' and Brothers' Association came into existence, but not many belonged, and if we may express ourselves freely, they themselves didn't know exactly what they wanted. They just wanted to break away from he confines of backwardness, but there was no leader to teach them and guide them.

At the same time something of an aspiration for the Land of Israel was emerging. They collected contributions for the Zionist Organization and they organized, though not officially, a “Lovers of Zion” group. They began to be interested in everything which had a connection with the Land of Israel. However in the middle of all this, in 1914, the First World War broke out. The Germans occupied our area and the front was fixed not far from our town, in the village of Parèčča. They apparently built forts, and for three yeas the Germans were stopped and could not advance. In those three years the Germans kept all the Jews of the town occupied in all sorts of tasks. They built a sawmill, a dried fruit factory, and a depot. The work in these undertakings and all other internal works was carried out by Jews together with Russian prisoners of war. Almost the entire Russian population of our town left and fled to Russia, and so the Jews also had to become field workers. The Germans forced them into it. They divided up the fields of the Russians among the Jewish population, and although the Jews had no knowledge of field labor they had to adjust to the unavoidable situation and do the work also. At that time people could see how Jews prayed at the plow or at the harrow. Up until 6 o'clock people could walk in the street. The Germans remained with us until 1917. At the end of that year they started a general offensive and abandoned our town.

After the evacuation of the Germans everyone came back to life. The youths began to do business with the surrounding cities and towns. They even began to travel deep into Russia and after many travels returned with reports that a revolt had broken out in the Russian army and the Bolsheviks were trying to seize power. Various rumors began to circulate: that Jews were being beaten, that the Germans were retreating, that Pilsudski was establishing the Polish legion to liberate Poland. Then came the well known treaty of Brest-Litovsk.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Ukrainian Cossack leader, notorious for his massacres of Jews in 1648. Return
  2. chestnut horses Return
  3. dun or light bay horses Return
  4. meaning uncertain, perhaps “carp”; cf. Russian язь Return
  5. meaning uncertain, perhaps “martyrs”; cf. Russian мученик Return
  6. thieves Return
  7. the Jew Return
  8. meaning uncertain, perhaps “little fish” Return
  9. meaning uncertain, perhaps “brick makers” or maybe “goats” Return
  10. Hebrew elementary school teachers Return
  11. Jewish elementary school, usually religious. Return
  12. A word of unknown meaning, perhaps a localism. Return
  13. Conclusion of a period of study or of a segment or a work being studied. Return
  14. opponents of the hasidim. Return
  15. members of a sect founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal-Shem Tov, in the 18th century. Return
  16. Hasidic rabbis. Return
  17. treasurer of a congregation Return
  18. third Sabbath meal. Return
  19. leftovers of a rabbi's food (it is an honor to partake of these) Return
  20. penitential prayer said around the High Holy Days Return
  21. the evening meal after the Sabbath Return
  22. the evening prayer Return

 

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