« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Page 52]

The Bund in Novogrudok

by H. Kaplan and Y. Maslow

Translated from Yiddish by O. Delatycki

Novogrudok, as is well known, is located in a deserted corner of Byelorussia, a long way from a railway line. It had no industry. For this reason, the workers movement developed later than in larger towns. Due to the influence of the intelligentsia of the town, Novogrudok not only joined the movement, but it became the centre of its activities in the district. The organizations of the Bund, SS and RSR were outstanding.

It all started by accident in the year 1902. In the autumn, when young men were called up for army service, H. Kalpanicki from Vilno was among those who had to appear for the call up, because he was registered in Novogrudok. The young man was a student. Previously he was brought up in a traditional manner and studied in a cheder and the Yeshiva. Later he joined the Haskola, when he prepared himself and was admitted to the University. At the same time he joined the workers movement. One day, as he was weary of the call up, he felt like visiting a synagogue. The time was between Minche and Miriv and all synagogues were immersed in darkness. Only the kloyz Mitaskim was lit. There Reb Yosef Yoysl preyed Musar. Kalpanski entered and was astonished to find a friend of his childhood inside. He was Avrom Kaplan, who was also known as the Grodno porush. After a long chat he discovered that his friend was not only a conscientious follower of the Musar movement but also a dedicated follower of the Bund. They decided on the spot to establish a branch of the Bund in Novogrudok. As it happened, Kalpanicki remained in Novogrudok since he had no money to return to Vilno. He stayed and became a teacher of Russian and, secretly, an instructor in the Bund. In a short time, a large proportion of the working population joined the movement. The first members came from Zalatucha, where many of the workers lived. They readily accepted the ideal of socialism. A short time after the birth of the organization, systematic work had begun. In Novogrudok were several sizeable clothing stores, each with an attached workshop. The working conditions were frightful. The women worked from 7 o'clock in the morning till late at night. And in season i.e. between Purim and Shavuot and between the high holidays and Sucot, they worked through the night, catching a nap at work for a couple of hours. A relative told me that the owner or a member of her family was watching the workers at all times. They were making sure that no one would fall asleep for even an instant. The workers tried by all means to avoid the evil eyes of the supervisors and catch a doze. One of the devices was to pretend to be looking for a lost needle under the workbench and having a brief nap in the process. I did not see my relative during the high holiday season, not even on a Sabbath, because on Sabbath she slept from the time of the blessing of the candles to the end of Sabbath. After Sabbath worked the whole night. After Passover I met her and could not recognise her. In the three months the sixteen year old healthy girl changed into an old woman. I.L. Peretz describes it in the song “The three maiden” “the eyes red, the lips blue, the blood has vanished to the last drop, the back is bent”. She described to me her work and her hurt.

In the year of 1903 the Bund organised a strike of the workers in the tailoring shops, among them in the largest enterprise, that of Hirsh Shimen Israelit. Two hundred workers went on strike for two months and finally prevailed. Since than the image of the town had changed. The Yiddish Street, which was deserted from one Sabbath to the next, was lively each night after Mincha. The population started to treat the Bund and its members with respect. The son of Kivelevich, who was a student, worked next to Chaim Japoniec (a nickname given to him because of his short stature, his surname was Lageza), Chaim Dovid the student as well as Yores and Pinchas Lintz. The owners at heart hated the Bund, but in the open they displayed a tolerant attitude.

On the 1 May 1904, the Bund and other socialist parties requested that all shops should be closed for the day. The following curious event occurred : that evening the verger of the Beth Din knocked on the doors of the leaders of the Bund. When asked who he was looking for he answered that the Rabbi sent him to find out if the religious schools and the Talmud Torah could remain open - he wanted to know how to behave. Kalpanicki allowed these institutions to continue functioning.

The second big and important strike was in the matzo factories, Novogrudok was the centre of matzo production. The matzos, nice, round, thin and brittle were sent to all the big towns and abroad to all corners of the world. The matzo factories would begin production after Hanukkah and would continue until the eve of Passover. The exploitation of the workers was frightful. The work would start at 2 in the morning and finish at midnight. The pay was 60 kopeks a day. The Bund organised the matzo makers and declared a strike. The workers won. The working day was reduced to 12 hours and the pay was substantially increased. With the arrival of 1905 the workers movement came out into the open, the movement in Novogrudok joined in. There were daily demonstrations. The local police, who in the past behaved towards the Bund in an indifferent manner, realised its mistake. A company of Cossacks was brought in creating a fear in the population. However, the movement had become more revolutionary. The members saw that notice was being taken of them and this brought them courage. The historical day of the 17 of October 1905 had arrived when the declaration of new liberties by Tsar Nicholas II was announced. On the next day the news reached Novogrudok and from the early morning masses of people started moving into the Market place. Young and old were anxious to know what changes the declaration would bring to the people. At the time all were happy. People were hugging and kissing each other. The police knew little about the changes to the constitution proposed by the Tsar and they did not know how to react. Should they disperse the demonstration? Suddenly Dovid Zamshnik appeared in the Market place and read the constitutional amendments to the people. The Bund called a mass meeting in the big synagogue and for the first time the general public heard the socialists speak. And for the first time they discovered that the quite, respectful Abram Broido was a socialist. The behaviour of the officials was remarkable. Before the meeting, the ispravnik (chief of the district police) asked to see the representatives of the workers organizations. He told them that the Cossacks, who were not familiar with the constitutional changes, may behave in the same manner as the bloodhound Krylov in Minsk. He asked the representatives of the workers parties to give an undertaking that they would ensure public order. If the promise to keep order would be given, he would prohibit the Cossacks from interfering. Such an undertaking was given and the meeting was allowed to proceed without interference. But the happy mood brought about by Nicholas's declaration did not last long. The press each day brought mournful news. Here were attacks on Jews, there assaults on worker's associations. Blood was spiled. The population of Novogrudok was in a mournful mood. There were rumours circulating that Novogrudok would not escape the fate of other towns and the Jewish population was afraid. The ispravnik was advising the workers to take on the defence in case of a pogrom. All parties have united. Bund, SS and RSS formed a defence force Hagana. At a meeting, the householders together with the Rabbi contributed 200 roubles for the purchase of arms. A mobilisation was proclaimed. Anyone who could hold a stick was called to duty. Secret meeting places were named for the units, and a headquarter for the leaders. Patrols were moving through the town and surroundings. Because of a pogrom was avoided. The Bund was also in contact with farmers in the villages. The members of the movement from Zalatucha were handing out proclamations to the villagers. On market days they placed literature in the farmer's carts. The work was conducted with great dedication. Thanks are also due to the members of the intelligentsia, who were enlightening the population and giving free lectures. They were Avrom Broido, Chaim Hershl Kalpanicki, Avrom Kaplan, Itzchok Maslovaty, the student Itzchok Mircelevski, Chaim Dovid Moskovski, Mojshe Kivelevich, Eliahu Moskovski, Mandl Wagier and Mojshe Broido. We are grateful to a number of people, including Mr Ostashinski (Soker), Mr. Shimonovich, his wife Batsheva and Mr Feigenberg's children for their financial help to the Bund.


[Page 54]

Memoirs from before the First World War

by Wm. Uris (New York)

Translated by O. Delatycki

Viewed overall, Novogrudok displayed a unique appearance. It was positioned majestically on a mound, the surrounding valley was covered by thick woods, which spread for miles, and its streets were wide, though in parts not paved. Each house had a small tidy garden or a small orchard, which yielded some support for its upkeep. Novogrudok had a significant non-Jewish population, which consisted of Poles and Byelorussians. And though the town was considered to be Byelorussian, it was dominated by puffed up Polish landowners.

Novogrudok did not have an industry. The Jewish population had gained its livelihood from commerce and craft workshops. They were all waiting for the market day on a Sunday, when the farmers came to town to sell their produce and buy the goods they required.

In those days there was no railway line to Novogrudok. One had to travel to Novoyelnia to catch a train or to collect goods that were delivered by train. The conveying was done by a large number of coach drivers, who were taking passengers and goods to Novoyelnia and other localities. Some of them travelled as far as Slonim and Grodno.

In the late hours of the night one could hear in the surrounding streets the crying and yammering of the scholars of the Musar yeshiva who were studying Gomorrah. Some must have yammered to bemoan their fate. As Avrom Reisen used to sing: 'to eat “days” and swallow tears'.

Novogrudok had a well developed cultural life. The religious Jews were proud of their rabbis: such outstanding leaders as Reb Itzchok Elchanon and Reb Yechiel Michl Epshtin, the author of the book ÒAruch HashulchanÓ. But the town produced also many maskilim [from Haskola - knowledge] such as Alexander Harkavy, Shmuel Lidski, Nachman Getzov etc. The famed Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz was born in Novogrudok.

My father Yoisef, or as he was known, Reb Jashe, was a bookish Jew and an honest man. He was an intensely devoted Zionist and a good public speaker. He was imbued with the spirit of Haskala. He defied bitterly Reb Yoysl, the father [spiritual leader] of the Musar movement in Novogrudok.

When I read Mendele Meicher Sforim's book 'The Taxi', I imagined that 'the grandfather' was describing the Novogrudok 'karobke'. [the reference is unfamiliar to me, which makes the following sentence inexplicable OD] The income from the meagre slaughter-house had to support 3 butchers and their equipment, but the town's rich were not concerned with the paucity of earnings of the butchers.

Well, father had to look for additional income from other sources, such as selling of skins (they had to be dried on our oven at home), inscribing lettering on grave stones and helping with the studies of sons of rich parents. He was known as a student of the Tanach, which he knew by heart. In this atmosphere of clerics, Haskola and poverty, I studied in Novogrudok until I was 16 years of age.

Education among Jews was always a high priority. The poorest Jew would save on food and clothing to give his child an education. Apart from studying 10 hours a day in the cheder [Jewish religious primary school], I studied at home Hebrew, dictation, Jewish history and Russian, because my father was of the opinion that his 5 children would not be content to be butchers. There was a need, therefore, to prepare them for different occupations. I was not a great performer at school. I did not like the narrow four walls of the not too clean class rooms and the fierce discipline of the teacher. On the other hand, I liked studying Hebrew and Russian.

Since I was a young boy, I have been imbued with nice memories of Novogrudok. The legendary Castle hill, which brought to mind the colourful historical past, was the place where we boys played in the spare time. Standing on the mount one could see for miles the splendid panorama of the fields of wheat and dense forests. Behind the Castle hill on the way to Brichinke [Brecianka] was the small forest where we would go to pick berries. I also remember well the city park, or orchard, as they used to call it. In the summer a troupe of artists used to act in Russian. I remember how we, the young boys, used to indulge in all manner of tricks to get into the park. We would break a board from the fence or creep over it. The Market place in the centre of the town was very pretty. Father and I used to stroll there on Saturday evenings.

The Matzo contracts (podryad)

I wrote above that Novogrudok did not have an industry, did not have factories. But one product made in Novogrudok was known all over the Jewish world and that was Novogrudok matzo, which were famous in the whole world. They were thin, well baked and brittle. From Chanukah the town would change in a matzo bakery. The owners of the bakeries were known as podryadchiks. Young girls, elderly wemen and young boys from surrounding townships would come to Novogrudok to work in the matzo podryads. The men were 'redler' [presumably, those who inserted small cuts with a serrated redl (small wheel) in the raw matzos] and 'setzer', who would insert the raw matzos in the oven and remove them when they were baked. The women would knead the dough and roll it out into matzos. The matzos were packed into boxes and sent all over the world where Jews lived, all over Europe, to America and even to Australia and South Africa. The export of matzos continued until the beginning of the second world war. The workers toiled in the podryads 16 to 18 hours a day with short breaks for meals. There was no work on Sabbath, but immediately after the havdole the work would recommence. When one passed a podryad one could hear the workers singing folk tunes. The air carried a smell of freshly backed matzo. The boys would venture into the bakeries to snatch a piece of matzo. [It is sad to think that the tiny shipment of matzos which is now delivered for Passover to the few surviving Jews of Novogrudok probably comes from the United States].

The big fires

Summer was the season for fires in Novogrudok. The population always lived in a state of fear, not knowing where and when a fire would break out. The equipment of the firemen consisted of a few hand pumps and half a dozen barrels to convey water from the wells. When a fire would start, people would pray that the wind would not cause the fire to spread. On a nice summer night in the year of 1911 a fire started in a barn in Waliker street. A strong wind blew the flames and in a blink of an eye the sparks started fires in houses and burns, one after another. Obviously, the firemen were helpless facing such a large conflagration. Balls of smoke and fire covered up the sky. After a night of dreadful hell more than half the town was wiped out by the fire. Our house was also burned down. For several days we were encamped in the orchard of Grasbowski next to the hospital, till we received permission from our relative Branicki, who was at the time abroad, to occupy a few rooms in his large house in Waliker street. Another fire, which I remember well, occurred on Yom Kipur [Day of Atonement]. The fire also started in Waliker street in the house of the glazier. A mentally ill woman lit the fire with a candle. In few minutes the sky was red. Tongues of flame were stretching upwards and the timber homes caught fire, one after the other. Men and women were speechless: how can such a calamity happen on Yom Kiper? This is a punishment of God. Jews were commenting that they never heard of such a calamity on Yom Kipur. Next morning, after the fire was extinguished, the streets which did not suffer from the conflagration were filled with chattels and furniture saved from the burned houses. People were resting on their belongings exhausted, drained. In the evening parents left the children to look after their possessions in the street and went for prayers in the synagogue. I will never forget the heart wrenching wailing of the supplicants as they prayed.

As the summer passed the townsmen gave a sigh of relief. In time Novogrudok began looking prettier and more prosperous, as it was being rebuilt in brick.

Call up in Novogrudok

Soon after the autumn holidays young men from villages and townships began arriving in Novogrudok in large numbers for the call up. This continued for several weeks. The town was lively; the streets were full of passers by. The taverns were packed with villagers who brought their children for the call up. The shops in the centre of the town were filled with customers. The stalls in the market place were selling lots of bread. Those that were drafted to serve were allowed to return home for a few weeks. Later, they returned to town, from whence they were sent out to all parts of the empire. The army barracks were filled with soldiers, who came to pick up the recruits. The recruits were quartered in private homes. The new soldiers who were distressed for having been torn from their families for four years, decided to live it up. They were drinking, singing and dancing in the streets. They were turning their scorn on the Jews. They were upturning the tables of the poor street vendors, they were breaking windows in shops, breaking into Jewish homes, robbing and leaving behind them Jewish victims. This continued until people – butchers, coach drivers, shoe makers, tailors and other craftsmen - fetched from the farmer's carts: poles, steel crow-bars, axes and chased the recruits away from the market place.

Jewish recruits had specific reasons for dreading the call up to serve the Tsar. Jews were subject to restrictions and persecutions. When the time came for a Jewish boy to face the call up there was sadness in the house. Parents looked for ways for their sons to avoid the 4 years of service. Those that had no means were resigned, but deeply saddened. Tragic was the moment of parting with the parents, friends and loved ones. The recruits were taken to Novojelnia on foot. Hundreds were following the recruits who they were accompanying on their way. As they walked, there was heart rendering crying by the accompanying women, till the police would let the families go no further.

The tsarist authorities would expose the Jewish community to punishments. The parents or brothers were liable to pay a penalty of 300 rubbles if a son was abroad when he was called up. If the fine was not paid, domestic chattels, including bedding, were seized. I remember when a policeman was leading the Russian officials to our house to sequester household goods, because my father had brothers in America, who left before they were called up. We would take the bedding and the better clothing to friends to hide. The few pieces of furniture were valued on the spot by an official and my father payed up, that is he bought back his own possessions. Some managed to negotiate in advance with the officials and pay them off with a bribe. For months, while the go-between was negotiating with the officials, paid him the bribe and arranged for a time when the official would come, we would sleep on bare boards and sit on broken benches. This was the order of things we lived under until we left for Volkovysk.

The burial of the rabbi Reb Yechiel Michl Epshtin

The news of the death of the rabbi spread quickly in town. The people of the town were immersed in sorrow. Couriers were sent with the news to neighbouring towns and villages to invite the rabbis to the funeral and grieving.

On the day of the funeral all shops in town were closed and the workshops were idle. All religious schools were closed. It was a wintry, frosty day, but large crowds filled the synagogue square where the body of the rabbi was brought. Men and women, young and old were standing for hours listening to the many orations. The main oration was given by the Minsk preacher (magid) who gave a fiery eulogy, like a real people's orator, with a strong voice which reverberated throughout the whole synagogue square. But the greatest impression was made by the speech of the rabbi's grandson, who was at the time 18 years old. He became later the well known rabbi Berlin. After several hours of speeches, the cortege moved to the cemetery. It was led by selected youngsters, who were formed in two rows. I was among them: 'the righteous will walk before you and he will put on the way truth'. The body was carried by rabbis and personalities of the town. The cortege moved very slowly. It took some time for us to reach the cemetery. It was quite dark when the funeral came to an end and the people started to disperse. I did not eat that day. When I came home I went to sleep. Next day I had a cold and a temperature. My mother fetched a doctor, who, after having examined me, declared that I suffered from having consumed an excess of food.

I became a musarnik for a while

For a time I studied in Lithuania in the yeshiva of Reines. After a while I had to return home because father could not afford the fees. There was a rule in the yeshiva that the students were not allowed to eat “days”. Accommodation and food had to be paid for and that caused a difficulty for my father. Therefore, I returned to Novogrudok and enrolled in the yeshiva of Iche Leib. There I studied exclusively Gomorrah. A boy had to know a page [meaning presumably any page] of the Gomorrah with the addendums. The pupils in Iche Leibs yeshiva were 13 to 15 years old. I was 14 years old. Reb Iche Leib was an interesting type of man among the holy men of Novogrudok. He was considered a great scholar of the small print [of finer points]. He was a small man with a short black beard, rotund and very pious. The yeshiva was located in a small house, which was built onto the great synagogue. The boys were seated around two long tables. Reb Itche Leibe was standing at a pulpit in the middle of the room and supervising. If a boy tried to have a chat with his neighbour – woe and behold. Reb Itche would spank him mercilessly. Musar was not taught in the yeshiva. But Reb Iche Leib would encourage us to slip into the synagogue when the musarniks were talking with each other about Musar and listen to their high level discussions. Once I went to the Musar yeshiva. A muscarnik approached me. He was a youth of about 20 with nice burning eyes and a black mane. He was clad in modern dress. I was told that he came from the Ukraine and was a son of rich parents, who were supporters of Reb Yoysel's yeshiva. We would meet daily and speak about Musar. He frightened me because of all the sins that I had committed in my life and instructed me in what I had to do to placate the wrath of the Almighty.

This did not last long. I had become disappointed in the preachings of the Musar and gave up our meetings. My father favoured this outcome because he did not support the teachings of Reb Yoysl. After I left Reb Iche Leib's yeshiva, my father studied Gomorrah with me. Each morning I studied Hebrew and Russian, for which I paid from my earnings at the bank, where I worked half days.

Jewish characters in Novogrudok

Dr Epshtin

There was one Jewish doctor in Novogrudok. His name was Epshtin. He was also the only doctor in the Jewish hospital. I don't know where he came from. His behaviour was stiff and unbending. He spoke Russian, but if it was necessary he also spoke a good Yiddish. He also sang Yiddish tunes very nicely. His father was a chasen [cantor]. He was quite a likable person and treated the poor patients with care. Dr Epshtin was a friend of our family, and my father was a frequent visitor in his house. My father arranged the match between the doctor and a girl from Hancewicz and they soon married. The name of Epshtin remains in the list of our martyrs, because the doctor's son died a heroic death fighting the Nazis in the forests near Novogrudok.

Tritl the soifer

I don't know if Tritl is a Jewish name, but Tritl the soifer was known in Novogrudok. He was an elderly man of medium hight, stately in appearance with a thick grey beard. He was a man of the book, a great singer. His praying at the pulpit of Musar on the New Year and Yom Kippur was a pleasure to listen to. His 'bearing of his heart' before G-d in his prayers caused me to tremble. He knew the prayer books for all the festivities by heart. He conducted the prayers at the small or Todres synagogue. He was prized for his praying. As he got older he became blind. He lived in the old people's home and though he was old and his voice was not as strong, he was still praying at the pulpit in the synagogue at the old people's home. The sweetness of his voice could be heard every Sabbath and holy day. We lived close to the old people's home. I used to pop in for a chat with Reb Tritl. He sat on a bench and recited prayers or studied mishnot. When he heard my voice he would stop his praying and tell me some pleasant stories of the past. Reb Tritl the soifer died of old age surrounded by many friends.

Nachman Getzov

Nachman Getzov was a great man of letters and a maskil, fluent in a number of languages and the author of the book 'By the waters of Babylon', a historic investigation of the Babylon Talmud. He was a very modest man. I would often visit him when my mother would send me to buy sugar and tea at his shop. He would begin by asking me about me studies and whether I was applying myself to the study of Hebrew. If there were no other customers in the shop, he would ask me searching questions on Talmud and history. I was very encouraged by his interest in my studies. His house was the centre for Jewish intelligentsia in Novogrudok. Obviously, Getzov deserves a more thorough account of his achievements. Let this brief note serve as a remainder that there were many learned Jews in Novogrudok. Getzov was one of them.

Sholim the pincher

A melamed (teacher) of beginners, he worked fairly for his scant piece of bread. He tried to show the fathers how well he taught their sons. But, alas, he had one failing – he liked to pinch the cheeks of his pupils. He not just pinched them, but hurt them when he did so. It was accepted by the parents that the malamdim were beating their pupils. But if a child would return home bloodied by the teacher's strikes, even the lenient parents would not tolerate it. Sholim the melamed had his troubles. A parent would often remove his son in the middle of the term and transfer him to another melamed. Sholim lived in the synagogue square in a squat house with a few rooms. There was the kitchen, the dining room, bedroom and the school room. The sanitary conditions of such schools were not brilliant. If there are anywhere heirs of Sholim the melamed, who will read this note, I must ask them to forgive me for my critic of the melameds of Novogrudok. It was not their fault that they were not great educators. But they were honest and they worked hard for their scant income.

Yachke the teacher

There were lots of rumours in town about Yachke. She did not stem from Novogrudok and some said that she was sent to Novogrudok to direct a worker's party. Other said that she left her native town Zeludok, because she was suspected by the Tsarist government of revolutionary activities. Her father was initially the rabbi of Zeludok and later of Moscow. Her brother was known to be a fiery revolutionary. He belonged to a terrorist group. Yachke was a teacher of Russian. Though she kept her head slightly inclined to one side, she was a rear beauty. She had black eyes and a curvaceous figure. Her voice was soft and tender. Her age -20 odd years. She taught Russian to beginners. She taught me three times a week. In the short time she lived in Novogrudok, from memory 2-3 years, she had become a favourite of the educated Jewish youth. But the older people treated her with suspicion. Her father the rabbi had a number of daughters and it would seem that they were all involved in the revolutionary movements. Frequently Yachke was dispatched with a parcel to one of the sons of Moshkovich and I would bring back a parcel. What was in the parcel I never knew. Yachke was a vary intelligent and sympathetic woman and if she was connected with a worker's party, she certainly was useful to the worker's movement in Novogrudok.

Some time later there appeared in Novogrudok a young man who was also a teacher of Russian. He lived with the family Stocker, who were candle makers. The young man wore a black cape and he walked everywhere without a head cover, which was a rarity at that time. He spoke Yiddish with a peculiar accent. He was also my teacher. His name was Simonov. In his youth he was a rabbi in a Jewish colony in Crimea. Later he sat for an examination, obtained his matriculation and became a non believer and a revolutionary. After a raid by the police on the activists of the workers' parties a number of people were arrested. At that stage the young man disappeared from Novogrudok and I never saw him again.

Yike the reife (medical attendant)

Yike the reife was an institution in Novogrudok. Who did not know him? He was, one could say, the only reife in town, who everyone trusted. Yike was a short person , an elderly man with red cheeks, he did not grow a beard. He was a very likable man. Day and night he would go around visiting and curing the sick. His charge for a visit was 5 kopecks. He was not greedy and he would spend a long time at the sick bed until he felt and knocked about the patient thoroughly. He was keen on a bitter drop [i.e. vodka], but he never exceeded his measure. He liked telling stories about the times when snatchers would catch children and pass them on to the army, where the children would serve for 25 years. They were called Nikoley's soldiers. He was one of the children who was taken away by a snatcher from his father arms. But his father, with the help of a friend managed to save him. He lived with his wife in the Yiddishe (Jewish) street. They had no children. He was very honest in his profession. When the patient was seriously ill he would suggest that a doctor be called. He did not want to take on himself the responsibility. Both doctors in town respected Yike. One day the news was passed on all over town that his wife hung herself. Nobody knew the reason. This had a strong effect on Yike. He felt dejected. Later at the age of 80 he married a young woman. In my memory, Yike the reife remained as rare type of the old school.

Benjomin Kotlower

A considerable number of Jewish settlements were spread in the surrounds of Novogrudok, where Jews were leasing the land from Polish landlords. In the Tsarist days Jews were not permitted to own land [nor in the Polish days after the First World War]. One of the leasers of land was Benjomin Movshovich in the village of Kotlowo, 14 verst from Novogrudok. Benjomin Kotlower was an interesting man with a unique character. He was strongly traditional and deeply religious, but at the same time he was a follower of the Haskola movement. All his children, including his girls, received a traditional but worldly education. He was ready to help others and was a great entertainer of guests. No one who stopped at his house was allowed to leave without a meal. Benjomin and his wife Simka made certain that every person who passed by left satisfied. Benjomin was a man with a big Jewish heart. He was very saddened by the troubles the Jews were exposed to under the tsar's anti-Semitic rule and was hoping to live to see a Jewish state in Israel. Benjomin was a close associate of my father and a devoted friend of our family. I had a particularly close bond with him. Often he would take me to the country. And though he was a strict disciplinarian, I was allowed complete freedom in the country and I could do whatever I pleased, even to go horse riding. The good hearted Simka saw to it that I should eat well and drink a lot of milk. The two Jewish families who lived in Kotlowo, Benjomin Movshovich and his partner Brine, were the only Jews in the place. Though their financial position was quite good, they suffered much due to anti-Semitic incidents. Brine and her children left for America and Benjomin moved with his family to Novogrudok.

Benjomin died when he was getting ready to join his children in America. Only one daughter Maryashe remained in Novogrudok. Among those killed by the German fascists is Maryashe with her husband and four children.

The above are only a few stories of Novogrudok, which I remembered from my youth before the First World War. This was the town in which I obtained my initial traditional Jewish education. This was the place where several generations of my forebears have made a contribution to the cultural life of the town. Let these few notes be my small contribution to the monument for the slaughtered Jews of Novogrudok, and for those who died a heroic death fighting the murderers of Jews. We will never forget our fallen and their murder will never be forgiven.


[Page 61]

Old Novogrudok

by Shimen Yosifun

Translated by O. Delatycki

I stem from a Chasidic family and therefore I can tell the story of the lives of the Chasids in Novogrudok. A prominent member of the movement was my grandfather Reb Izek Zalmon OBM. My father's name was Yankl Izek Zalmon's and I am called Shimen Yankl Zalmon's. There were no surnames at the time. They were not necessary. Another Jew who was at the head of the Chasidim of the town was called Shloime the Malach (Angel), not because he stemmed from angels, but because he had a soul of an angel. The mutual bond between the Chasidim was beyond description. They were part of one family. If there was a celebration in one household, a wedding or a circumcision, all turned up to the last man. And if there was a misfortune in a family all participated in the sorrow. In the “shtibl” (small synagogue) of the Chasidim only a small congregation prayed during the week. But on Saturdays the shtibl was full to the brim. On Saturday a Chasid was unrecognisable, for instance Shloime the Angel, who made his living by manufacturing axle grease for carts, was dressed the whole week in a capote smeared with grease, but on Sabbath he shone like the sun, which emerged from the clouds. The other Chasidim were equally impressive. Friday, after washing in the city bath, followed by the mikva, adorned in their Sabbath attire, the divine presence rested upon them. Following the Friday night prayers (kabolot Shabbat) the people would sing together and the passers by listened in awe. After Mairiv the congregation went to Leah's winery that was next door to the Chasids' shtibl, where they took wine for the Sabbath blessings. It was a very tasty grape wine. By the way, Leah the wine maker had a son named Mordche, who subscribed to Shachar a newspaper from Smolensk (a paper would cost 20 kopeks). I contributed 2 kopeks and he allowed me to read the paper. That reading had a great influence on my future life.

On the Sabbath, at the prayers, which was filled with Chasidic enthusiasm and fire, one could sense the holiness of the day.

On the Sabbath afternoon, following the Sabbath repast, at Minche each one of us brought a small chala for the Sholosh-sudes. It was a pleasure to hear the Chasidic tunes which inspired one. For the Havdola one would buy from Yashe Michl in the Synagogue Square, next to the water well, a drink called under-beer. Selling of the beer provided Yashe Michl with an income. As Succoth approached one esrog and one lulav were purchased for all those attending the shtibl. On the first day of Succoth, before blessing the esrogs, one had to go to immerse oneself in the ritual bath. One slept in the Succoth for all the 8 days of the festival. During Succoth, each night one would visit a different house of a Chasid to sing Simchat beit Hashoeiva. On the eve of the sixth day of Succoth, which is called the Shana Raba, the people went to the shtibl to pray and say Tehilim, so as to secure a good outcome (which was called quitl). Anton (antonovka) apples were purchased for the night and kept in the attic of the shitibl. They were distributed at the reading of the T'chila to keep the congregation awake. On Sabbath Chilemoid the Chasids would visit each other and assist in removing the kugels (baked potato cake) from the ovens. On the eve of Simchat Torah all would sing on entering the shtibl. All the worries of the year were forgotten. Having sang the piut (a Simchat Toyre song) they would turn to Ato'hoteiso and to the hakofes. Who is capable to describe the joy of the Chasidim at the hakofes? After each hakofe they would indulge in a jig. The singing shook the walls. Among the Chasids was an impecunious man by the name of Moshke Yankl son of Eliahu the tobacconist. He had a shop in the market square (rad kromen). His stock consisted of half a bag of salt, a dozen boxes of matches, a bundle of candles and a few cords. That was his source of income from which he paid the school fees for his children. He was usually the sixth to be called up for the reading of the Torah (Oizer Dalim – help the one who helps paupers). But sometimes they would forget. On such occasions they would start reading the Torah from the beginning to avoid a quarrel. On the morning of Simchat Torah the shul would be overflowing with singing. After an alia (call up to the Torah) everyone was given a glass of vodka and a slice of honey cake. The congregation would contribute generously to the community chest. Money was also collected for the purchase of kerosene for lighting of the Chasidim's shul. The Yomim Naroim (the holy days of Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kipur) were spent by many Chasidim together with the Slonim Rabbi. Not everyone could afford the cost for the trip, so some walked. It was a matter of a Mitzvah, they all wanted to visit their Rabbi. On the Sabbath night after the first slicha everyone brought his bundle to my grandfather's house. The bundles contained a rye bread, a hard cheese and a special outfit for the celebration of the holiday. They walked cheerfully, singing and chatting along the 21 wiorst (22 km) to the nearest railway station. Many continued on foot all the way to Slonim. In the Yomim Naroim (in the holy days there was hardly a minyan left (it was hard to gather a minyan) in Novogrudok. Having returned home after the Yomim Naroim, the people looked as if they were dreaming. When they came to, everyone started to tell of the wonders of Him (meaning the SlonimRabbi) may he live long: how he prayed, how he read the Torah, how he immersed himself in the mikva before blowing the Shofar, in one word - nisim ve nefloyes (wonders and miracles). The headmaster of the Talmud Torah was Reb Zelik ZC''L (zeicher cadik lebrocho - the name of the tzadic be blessed). I was one of his pupils. The Rabbi gave each day four lectures. The first one from 6 to 9am including the prayers, the second from 9 to12 midday, the third from 12 to 3pm and the last from 3 to 6pm. After the lessons he studied by himself. He taught until he was very old and lived till he was 90 years old. He died in 1900 on Sabbath eve on Shovuot. Every Thursday he examined the older pupils, who studied Gomorrah with the commentaries, to assess their knowledge of the matter that was studied during the week. He was very strict and a pupil who did not know his work was punished physically… The pupils knew the Rabbi's weakness and those who felt that they did not know the work were certain to bring with them a cigar. And with the cigar the matter finished better than anticipated… If a pupil was not quite up to scratch, yet did not bring a cigar, the Rabbi would pinch his cheek and say: 'you deserve a punishment but I forgive you this time'.

The exams took place in the big Bat-Medresh. The young were on the look out to create mischief. The stands of the leading citizens of the town were moved from the eastern wall and exchanged for the stands of the poor. In the morning there was disquiet: who dared swap over the stands in the big Synagogue? It was decided that it was done by the riff-raff overnight.

On Thursday night we would make mischief with Bine the water carrier. He slept in the women's Synagogue. The boys would roll up a long piece of paper and would push it into the nose of the sleeping Bine. He would wake up in a panic. We would disappear. He thought that it was the work of the devil.

On Friday evenings Reb Zelik would walk with his stick along the street lined with shops and would shout: 'Jews, it is the Sabbath, close the shops'. As soon as the shopkeepers saw Zelik there was banging of the doors and shutters and the shops would be closed. Sometimes somebody was not quick enough and Reb Zelik would give him a remainder with a stick over his back.

Moshav Zekeinim (Old peoples home)

There was in Novogrudok a small Moshav Zekeinim that was maintained by the great benefactor Reb Hendel Chisin from Moscow, who was born in Novogrudok. He supported also the poorhouse supplying money, medication and equipment. The Harkavys, who lived in St Petersburg, supported the Jewish hospital and the poor. There was in Novogrudok an organisation called Shogdey Melocho. They placed the children of poor families with craftsmen to learn a trade. They were placed with tailors, bookbinders, carpenters etc. depending on the inclination of the youth. The apprentices were given some decent clothes and medication. The parents of the apprentices were also assisted with small loans. To support this project the Jews of Novogrudok were giving a weekly donation of 1 to 10 kopeks. Money was collected from the Harkavies, the Kabaks the Rabinoviches etc. There was also a society that collected clothing for the poor. There was another society that provided for the poor interest free loans. There was a society that provided anonymously food for the Sabbath. Another society existed which supplied bread for the needy. The societies were supported by the families of Chisin, Harkavy and Kabak.

Rabbi Echiel Michl Epshtein

There were two butchers in town Ele and Itche, who slaughtered an animal with a defect. They turned to the Rabbi and told him that they borrowed money at a high interest and would be bankrupt if they would not be able to sell the meat. The Rabbi inspected the meat and asked 'Reb Ele and Reb Itche do you pray every day?' 'Yes, we do' they answered, only occasionally do we miss a prayer when we are in a village among the gentiles.' 'The meat is kosher' the Rabi declared. 'You can sell the meat and repay the loan. Your wives and children need food. God is merciful'. That was how the Rabi Echiel Michl ZL” made his verdict.

The story about Gamliel the coachman illustrates the piety of the ordinary people of Novogrudok. It was during the days of the First World War. The trains did not circulate as frequently as in the pre-war days. I came to Novogrudok for the Sabbath to see my parents. On Saturday night I had to travel back. I went with my brother in law Jankef Dobrin to Zalatuche at the end of Waliker st, to see Gamliel the coachman to order a coach for the evening. When we went in to the house of Gamliel he was seated at the table studying Sefer Mnoira Hamaor. On the table stood a clay jug wrapped in a scarf to keep the water warm. The family was drinking tea and enjoyed the Sabbath. We wanted to book the wagon for Sabbath night to take me to the train. He answered that on a Sabbath he does not discuss such things. I had to find another coachman and Gmalilyel travelled to the train with an empty coach. Such were the simple Jewish folk in Novogrudok. I lived in Novogrudok until the year 1900. After that I went to Warsaw and later I lived in Central Russia and other places. I used to return to Novogrudok for the holidays to see my family. My dear birthplace – Novogrudok, I could not forget you. I am interpolating the words of the prophet Ermiyahu Hanovi: 'My dear birthplace Novogrudok. How can I forget you? Me itan royshi mayim, we eyni dima, we eveke yomam we laylam at chleley ir Novaredok (who will give me the water for my head and tears for my eyes to make me cry day and night for the fall of Novgrudok).

The good deeds of Itzchak Horovich

Let these words be a monument on the grave of my best friend Itzchak Horovich, the son of Osher and Asna, who left this world in his best years.

Our friendship developed in Tel Aviv. I did not know him well in Novogrudok, though we lived close by. It could be that this was because I stemmed from a Chasidic family and I wore Chasidic garb and he was from the Mesnagdim and was dressed differently. We were both educated in the Mir Yeshiva, when Reb Chaim Laib ZLB was the head of the Yeshiva. We sat often at the same table and I noticed often that he hid under the Ghemorah another book. In the Yeshiva this was considered treif posl (not kosher). It could have been the reason why we were not friends. I must confess that I was jealous of him, because he was an all round person. He knew the Tanach, he knew and comprehended a blat Ghemoreh with comentries, and he spoke and had written well Hebrew. He knew European languages, which he learned by himself without teachers.

When he left the Yeshiva he started looking for Tachles (something of purpose). He began learning butchering – killing poultry and he quickly became an expert. At the same time I learned to be a watchmaker and I went to Warsaw and later to central Russia, where I worked in my trade. Years later we met in Tel Aviv and thus started our friendship. We used to meet each other and share the memories of our childhood, of Mir yeshiva etc. We studied together Ram Bum's 'Me ore Livoichim' (the blind will see) and a chapter of Tanach. When the Alia (emigration) from Poland increased, his house had become a place where advice was sought by the people from Novogrudok. He helped the newcomers as much as he could.

When the Second World War started and Jews went to Russia, to Kazachstan, Uzbekistan, Ural and Siberia to save themselves , letters would come from Jews of Novogrudok asking for help: food, clothing etc. I, together with Izik Horovich and Shloimo Israelit, from Novogrudok collected money for that purpose. The people were glad to contribute money, clothing and food, which was packed and sent to the people from Novogrudok in Russia. As a parcel had to weigh no more than 3 kg we looked for a solution to increase the value of a parcel. We would buy towels, sew them into sacks and pack the goods inside. For those who received the parcel the towels were valuable. We would send soap, salt, needles, razor blades and even buttons. Those were all things which were needed by the people in Russia. We sent to some people as many as two or three parcels a week. Three of us were sending the parcels, but the initiator of that activity was Izchak Horvitz. He was also the one who went to the post office to send the parcels. We received many letters thanking us for the parcels. Those letters gave us a lot of pleasure. We made certain that the hungry were fed, those wearing rags had clothes to wear. The help sustained those who would not have survived.

When the war ended, Itzchak Horvitz died suddenly. It seems as if after he had fulfilled his duty on the sinful earth he was called to the family up above to be rewarded for his good deeds. He had in him a spark of a holy man. May his memory be blessed.

The 'thirty sixers' (referring to 36 holy men)

In Novogrudok was a Jew, who was called by all 'Isroel the crazy'. He was a quiet man, he spoke with no one. In summer and winter he always sat in the big synagogue next to the oven, which was clad in tiles. He slept in the home for old people, for his pillow he used his fist and old rags. How he descended to this level and how he came to Novogrudok nobody knew. On Sabbath he ate in various households. On Friday he would come and say to my mother: 'Eske, if you give me 5 kopeks, I will eat at your place tomorrow'. He liked our food. He ate in our household one Sabbath a month. My father asked him once: 'Isroel, do you think that our food is good?' Isroel answered: 'Jankl, I wish that if you will have to eat at a stranger's home, they will feed you food not worse than the food you feed me'. The answer was not what one would expect to hear from a crazy man. After he would finish, he would take a bag and go to households where he collected bread and chala for the rest of the week. Women used to maintain that he must be a “thirty sixer”.

Chasens, learned men, clever pupils and learned people

Of the chasens of Novogrudok I remember Reb Berche. Following his death, he was replaced by his son Avrom. There were also two other chasens, Gershonovich and Skobelev. They were learned, G-d fearing men. Of the learned people and the Rabbis, the foremost was Reb Zelik ZLB (see more about him above). I was privileged to have been one of his pupils.

The other teacher in Talmid Torah was Reb Ber, a man with a ginger beard. He was pious and clever and could explain cleverly a difficult chapter of Gemorah. Reb Ber was a son-in-law of Reb Jashe Miches, who was the producer of a drink, which was known as under-beer. This beer was drunk for the Havdole. The sale of the beer provided his income. He lived in the Synagogue square, opposite the water well. It was rumoured that Reb Ber went to Israel. I met in Israel a son of his, Shimon. As well as the Rabbis, there were in Novogrudok men of substantial learning. One was called Reb Berl Jashe and the other Reb Mojshe Vishniover. I was one of their pupils. There was also a great man of learning Jankel Katz. His house stood opposite the big synagogue. The house was old and sunken into the ground, so that his windows were at the level of the footpath. He was my first teacher. Another teacher was called Michl the verger. He taught me Chumash and Rashi and instilled in me the love of Torah.

There were also two young teachers who were sons in law. After they married they endeavoured to make a living. They were hired by Jews who lived on estates, which was called 'condition'.

There were also modern teachers who taught writing and arithmetic. One of them was Mendel Mojshe Eliash, who had a nice handwriting of a calligrapher. Another was called Jankl. He wrote nice letters for brides and bridegrooms, who were not capable of writing letters themselves. There was also a teacher called Arie, a tall, thin man with a ginger, pointy beard. He had always a cigarette in his mouth. He taught six pupils including myself. The schoolroom was in a rented house. This teacher would beat pupils with a stick. We were no longer children, we were twelve-year-old boys. One day we decided amongst ourselves that when the teacher would start beating a pupil with his stick, we would attack him, remove the stick and beat him. Should we not succeed in removing the stick, we would hit him on his head with a Gemorah, so that he would not forget us. We would also empty his tobacco pouch onto the floor, which would hurt him more than the beating. In other words we planned a revolution. And it happened as we planned when we were taught Baba-karma. The teacher said thus: you may know that there is a baba mecia, which starts with the following words: shanim orsim betalit (we have held on for many years to the tales). Having said that he caught a pupil by his ear and shouted: shanim orsim be oznaim (to hold on for years by the ears). He started to pull viscously the pupil's ears. The boy was wriggling and shouting from great pain. We, the boys, did not wait long, we got up, took the Gemorah books and started to hit the Rabbi. We emptied his tobacco pouch on the floor. The disoriented Rabbi endeavoured to hit us. We all escaped from the cheder, each to his own house. At home we told the whole story. We decided not to return to the Rabbi's school and the parents supported us in this decision. All this happened in July, in the middle of the term. What were we to do now. We had no Rabbi. Should we roam around aimlessly? We, all six of us, went to Rabbi Zelig and we told him the whole story. We brought him also a packet of cigars. He gave us a friendly reception and examined the state our knowledge. He promised to teach us for one hour per day under the condition that we should behave and not punish a Rabbi. We accepted gladly his suggestion. In Reb Zelik's class we got on well and learned a lot. Quite soon we learned to study by ourselves Gemorah, Rashi and the additions, without a Rabbi.

Having completed Reb Zelik's cheder we dispersed each on his own way. Some went to school and some went to learn a trade. I went on to study watchmaking. My nearest friend Shleime Izraelit went to study in a Russian school. He was a son of a wealthy textile merchant. After I learned my trade I went to work in Warsaw. My friend, after finishing his school had gone to Lodz, where he became an agent in the textile trade. We were in constant contact by letters. Later Shleime married a girl from Bialystok. They were very hospitable. Their door was always open to all in need. Years later, when I went and settled in Israel, I persuaded him to join me. In Israel he commissioned the writing of a Holy Scroll. He built a house in the Maze St. in Tel Aviv. We met frequently. Eight years ago he died suddenly in his home. I will remember him for as long as I live.

In Novogrudok there was a Rabbi named Reb Leizer Leizerovski. He conducted a school in his small apartment in the Bazilian lane. He had four children, three daughters and one son. They were nice and peaceful people. They never complained, yet they must have been quite poor. His children studied Russian and Hebrew. The three girls went to live with an aunt in the United States, where they learned trades. They worked during the day and at night they wrote. They were able writers and had their work published in Jewish American journals.

The son of Lizerowski, Natkie met my sister Chaia and they married. The wedding took place in the village of Solomianka at our uncle Reb Hersh Zuchovicki's home. After the wedding the young couple went to live in Warsaw. It was the time of 'Brothers and Sisters', which was the anthem of the Bund. Both husband and wife joined the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), where they were active members. The Warsaw police kept an eye on them. During the years 1903-1905 they were arrested several times and kept in the Pawiak. After the collapse of the revolution the couple went to England, where my sister give berth to three sons, and named them after the names of the prophets Yermeahu and Ishaiahu and after a member of the first apprising, Matitiahu. The first son, Yermeahu is now a professor of medicine at the London University. Matitiahu is a professor of history and Ishaiahu was a military physician, where he was highly decorated. The English newspapers wrote that the mother and the town that produced such an important person should be blessed. Ishaiahu left the English military service at the time of the Israeli war of independence. Our government invited him to come to Israel to arrange the medical services of the country. After the first armistice, the enemy planes bombarded Sedera. Ishaiahu was tending the injured under the fire of the enemy. He died in the bombardment. Having been told the sad news, I with my whole family went to the funeral. It took place on the 11 June 1948 in Afula. The husband of my sister Natke is now known as Dr Natan Morris. He is one of the most important scientists in England in the field of Judicia. He is the author of the book 'The History of Education of the Israel Nation' published by Emanut, Tel Aviv. The book was also published in English.

Of the people who stem from Novogrudok, it is worth mentioning a professor of medicine. In Seieniezyc Street lived a Jew with the surname Harbuna. He was very poor, yet he found money to educate his children.

I remember the excitement in town when on Passover eve there arrived in town the son of Harbuna from St Petersburg. He was a professor of medicine. People gathered and looked at him as at an apparition. But the professor behaved in a modest and simple way. He was asked to visit some of the sick and he did not refuse anyone. He would come with a local doctor, he spoke a nice Litvak Yiddish. He did not accept any money. He even gave some money to the poor to buy medicine.

The town did not know how to thank this wonderful man. Harbuna the father had acquired great popularity in town, because of the excellent upbringing of his children.

Butchers and craftsmen of Novogrudok

I remember three of the Novogrudok butchers. Reb Leibe the butcher, who was knowledgeable in the Torah and Shas. The butcher Broine was also a pious Jew. The third butcher was called Reb Hertzl. His grandson, who has his grandfather's name, lives in Israel.

The cows were butchered in the yard of the house of the well-known man of substance, Reb Shapiro, the timber merchant. His house stood in a small lane at the end of the Yiddish street.

The ritual killing of poultry was done in a house behind the Butchers synagogue. The house was let for a year at a time. At the time that I remember the house was let to Reb Lejzer Larenski.

In the winter Larenski also sold timber for heating in partnership with my father OBM.

Bakers

My father, RebYankl Izek Zalmon's, was one of the bakers in Novogrudok. The others were Leizer Chertok, his son-in-law Nate Pinchuk, Bejle Wenze, Shleime Dovid, Shimke and Manie Fus.

There was also a bakery that specialised in bread made of wheat (that means that the others baked rye bread). This baker was called Benche. He lived opposite the row of shops (rad kromen) next to the house of Leibe Dworches' on the right hand side. On the left side was the house of Reb Hirshl Winer, who sold kiddish wine made of raisins (blessing of the wine). He also sold, for a kopek, tea served in glasses. This was the source of his income. His son lived in Israel, where he died.

There was also a bakery that produced sweet products, biscuits, cakes and honey cakes. The baker was called Shaftiel, the honey cake maker. He had a nose like an elephant. He displayed his products in the passage of the row of shops. His daughter and her husband lived in Israel and they both died ten years ago.

There were other bakers in Novogrudok. They baked bagels, kuchns and pleclach (the last two were fancy flat breads). They sold them from tables opposite to the row of shops at the entrance to the market place. I don't remember the names of these bakers.

There were physicians and assistant physicians (feltchers) in Novogrudok. Their names were: Pinchas, Welvl and Ruve. There was also a doctor (about Jeke the physician see I. Jaffe).

Tailors

I can remember only three tailors: Shmaie, a tall, deaf man. His home was situated between the synagogue Chai Adam and the synagogue of the carriers. Shmaie was dressed mainly in long coats (like dressing gowns). The Thilim were always on his bench. He would make a stitch with the needle and would read a portion of Thilim. This is how he worked.

There was another tailor called Welvl. He lived in the Yiddish street next to Pinchas the physician. He worked mainly for pious clients.

Another tailor was called Dovid Bashes (son of Bashe).

Isroel from Vilno

Isroel from Vilno was a modern tailor. He lived in Valiker street, where he shared the house with the Chasn Rabinovich. He had a salon. On his door was a picture of an elegant man. He made garments for men and women, the richer people of the town. I studied with his son at the pious teacher, Sholim Merke Pesies. His son told me that his father was a revolutionary. He was a member of the Bund and was arrested in 1905. In my days Isroel from Vilno was an even tempered, solid citizen, who prayed every Sabbath and, at times also on weekdays in the Tailors synagogue.

The above is not a complete list, but this is all I remember.

Shoemakers

I will mention two of them. I would like to show the modern reader that there were some refined characters among the working people of Novogrudok.

One of them was called Shie the small one. He lived in the Hegdish (home of derelicts) lane. Next to his working bench he attached a special shelf where he kept a book of the Laws of Israel, from which he read each week the portion for that week, parts of the Havtorah (portions of the Torah), also the Zohar and a chapter from Thilim. I saw Shie working on a shoe and at the same time reading the Havtora and Thilim. At the same time he would call with a sigh; 'Oh G-d Almighty'. What that sigh signified I don't know. He was not a poor man. He may have been unhappy because his work was not considered a skilled occupation.

He had two sons. The older was, like his father, a shoemaker. The younger, named Chackl, studied with me in the cheder, until I left to learn a trade. We both studied Talmud. Chackl applied himself to his studies. He sat days and nights in the Shoemaker's synagogue and studied. Sometimes he did not go home to eat. His mother would bring him food to the synagogue. My dear friend of my youth, may your memory be blessed.

There was another shoemaker. He was the son-in-law of Chaje the shoemaker. His wife was called Mirke. He was a tall man with a ginger beard. I don't remember his name, but I remember well his good deeds. He was a pious man and he respected the Torah. He was very hospitable. Two pupils of the Yeshiva ate at his table every day. He would also bring home after the Sabbath prayers travellers who found themselves in our town on Sabbath. He had on his table chalas (pleated white bread), fish, meat and a strong drink too. The Sabras (Israeli born Jews) should know that, before the Holocaust, we were very hospitable to strangers. People were feeding the students of the Yeshiva. When I recollect the life in our town, I shed a tear.

The shoemaker and his wife went to the States. I hope that he is alive and will read the Yizkor book. If he will read it, he should know that this was written by Shimon Yankl Izik Zalmons, the baker. We lived in a house three doors from his mother-in-law.

Synagogues and prayer houses of Novogrudok

The Synagogue Place in Novogrudok was round. In the centre of the place stood the Big Synagogue. Around the Big Synagogue were smaller houses of prayer, which carried the names of the trades of those praying there. The main entry to the Synagogue Place was from the Yiddisher Street at the back fence of the Catholic Church. There were other narrow entries to the Synagogue Place. Not far from the Synagogue Place lived Reb Meyer the dien (a religious arbitrator). There was also another dien in Novogrudok named Reb Mordchai Hirsh, who lived in Waliker Street. In case of a religious dispute, both diens were called in. My sister Chana married Reb Mayer the daien's grandson. He was called Michl. The third house in that lane belonged to my father, where our bakery was. Nearby was the synagogue of the shoemakers. The building was narrow and long. One entered the synagogue through a long, dark corridor. The members of the synagogue were all shoemakers. Between Mincha and Miriv the Rabbi studied with the congregation a short version of the Shulchan Oruch. Before a holy day they studied the laws of that holiday.

Across to the right was a synagogue, which was called Metaskim, which meant the Burial Society. The gaby (chairman of the lay committee) of the synagogue was a member of the Kivelevich family. Their son lives in Israel.

The verger of the synagogue, named Michl drew three incomes: as a verger, a teacher and he baked also buckwheat pancakes. The income from all three was quite meagre.

Between Mincha and Miriv a Rabbi recited Ain Yaakov with those praying in the synagogue.

A little further along was the synagogue Chai Adam. The synagogue was in a small timber building. Here, between Mincha and Miriv a Rabbi recited Chai Adam.

A little to the right was the synagogue of the carriers. Those praying there were the carriers of the death- beds of the Chevre Kadishe (Burial Society). Here, between Mincha and Miriv a Rabbi recited Mnorat Hamaor (the candelabra of light), on a Sabbath Chovat Halivavot from Rabeinu Bechai.

A little to the left of the synagogue of the carriers was the Koidanover shtibl (small house of prayer). In that shtibl prayed a Chasid named Hirsh Dobrin, who baked, under supervision, matzo for Passover. This was his income for the year. One can imagine how wealthy (ironically) he was. Dobrin was a tall, thin man with a long, pointed beard. He was a G-d fearing man of the book.

The Big Synagogue was built of bricks and had windows in all four walls. Inside the thick walls stood bookcases filled with books. Two tiled ovens warmed the synagogue in the winter. After the prayers a 'blat Geromorah' was read. The people who prayed in the Big Synagogue were the prominent citizens of the town. Among them were Reb Yoine and Reb Moshe Frumkes OBM. Other members of the congregation of the Big Synagogue were Rabinovich, Kabak, and Harkavy.

The Big Synagogue also housed a cheder, where young men were studying. Their teacher was Reb Moishe, a great scholar and a clever man. I had the privilege to be one of his pupils.

On a Sabbath I had the pleasure of seeing how our Rabbi, the brilliant Reb Yechiel Michoel Epstein, the author of Oruch Hashulchan, walked from the big synagogue in his Sabbath dress, a nice round hat and a long satin coat. And eminent members of the community, Jewish patriarchs, watched the Rabbi go all the way to his home in Yiddishe Street, across the road from the Catholic Church. All walked slowly with measured steps, whilst conducting a discussion about a difficult paragraph in the Gemorah. The Rabbi had the look of a Jewish king and my heart was full of joy as I looked at him.

At right angles to the big synagogue was the cold synagogue. One entered that synagogue by going down four steps. This gave credence to the expression 'I am calling to you from the depth, G-d'. In that synagogue on a big table stood a copper menorah. In a corner an opening was formed in which a perpetual oil light burnt.

There were legends about the cold synagogue. One story had it that in the depth of the night the dead prayed there. Children were frightened to walk past that synagogue at night. Nata, the verger, when he had to go into the synagogue early in the morning, would knock three times on the door with a stick and would shout: 'Bar minan minuchot' (the dead go to rest).

In the cold synagogue was a cheder 'Sheva korim', which means that on Sabbath only seven people are called up to read the Torah.

On both sides of the synagogue were 'Esrot nashim” (a sanctuary for women), where women prayed on the Sabbath.

A small, narrow building was built onto the synagogue. This was the Tailor's synagogue.

On winter nights, when Reb Avrom Edida OBM, a small thin man, would go around the town, knock on the shutters and shout: 'Get up to do the work of the Creator'. The Jews that were woken up in the middle of the night would get up and say Thilim in the Tailor's synagogue. That gave them a special satisfaction. Outside it was bitterly cold, but inside it was warm and bright and they prayed with fervour a chapter of Thilim.

Next to the tailor's synagogue was a small house. That was the synagogue of the butchers. My wife's father, Reb Avrom OBM, a good and G-d fearing Jew, would pray mishnot with the butchers between Minche and Miriv.

On the left of the tailor's synagogue was the Todres synagogue. A man by the name of Todres built this synagogue at his own expense. This synagogue was frequented by learned people that were fluent in the Torah. Reb Abele, a fur merchant, delivered a lesson each day in the Todres synagogue. The most learned people of the town would come to listen to his lessons. Reb Abele had a shop in the row of shops. His merchandise consisted of thin leather straps, which the farmers would buy to make laptes (home made open sandals). In his shop lay a copy of Ein Yaakov. He spoke with the customer and looked into Ein Yaakov, so as not to interrupt his study of the Torah.

Outside of the synagogue square were other synagogues in Novogrudok: in Shloss Street, Siniezits Street, in Zalatuche, at the end of Valiker Street and other synagogues where people prayed, studied and spoke about the Torah.

There were also groups of ten or more, who prayed in private homes. The family Harkavy, who had a house in the Market Place, had a separate building for prayers. In that building they prayed only on Sabbath.

As can be seen, there was in Novogrudok a considerable activity in praying and religious learning. The income of the people of Novogrudok was scant, but there was great involvement in religion. This gave them a lot of pleasure and made their lives more satisfying.

On Fridays after the bath, people would change into festive clothes and would meet the Sabbath. On the tables lay festive chales and stood bottles of wine. Those who could not afford a chala prayed using two whole matzot. The worries and the tasks of the whole week were forgotten. Every Jew felt like a king, the wives in their best clothes were like queens and the children were princes.

This is how Novogrudok looked on the eve of the greatest catastrophe, which wiped out thousands of Jewish communities, and among them the community of our beloved town of Novogrudok.

The invaluable assistance of Mr David Grynberg, Jack Delatycki and Jeanette Delatycki is acknowledged.


[Page 70]

Reminisces of Yischok Gurwitz:

Reb Nachman Getzov

Translated from Yiddish by O. Delatycki

In my memory are imprinted those Sabbath eves when I held high the pleated, thick Havdola candles and my father ZLB started to sing the tune 'I am certain of my salvation and I have no fear' and he emphasised especially 'I am certain' and 'I have no fear'. Following the singing I drank with particular pleasure dear Dvoira's wine. Mother's blue tiled oven was hot. I liked to bake potatoes in it. Father would put hot charcoal into the samovar He used his boot to get the charcoal burning. Shortly after two friends of father's would arrive. One of them later taught me Tanach and the other told me about Zionism. They were Reb Yosef Goldfine and Reb Nachman Getzov. We all sat down at the table. Mother served tea. In the mean time my potatoes were ready. Half of them were burnt and the other half was raw, but to me they had a delicious taste.

At the table a long discussion was conducted about a certain Shlomo ben Aderet and Osher ben Yechiel. Both Reb Nachman Getzov and Reb Yosef Goldfine were in a state of high animation, they spoke rapidly and angrily. It was obvious that both of them were excited and were indignant in regard to Shlomo ben Aderet, and Asher ben Yechiel. On the other hand, my father was remarkably controlled in that matter and smiled into his long beard. 'Drink your tea' urged mother. To no avail! The conversation continued for hours, till father took from a shelf the chess set and suggested that they should play chess. Reb Yosef Goldfine started to play the game, which continued, as I remember, for the rest of the evening. Reb Nachman Getzov left soon after.

'Mother, who is that Shlomo ben Aderet?' “I don't know my child, he is probably a famed Rabbi or a tana (teacher of the Mishna). 'No, he must be a bad man, because our visitors were very cross with him' said I.

Years like an eternity have gone by. I spent those years in cheders [religious primary schools], with my Rabbis, I studied by a small lamp, which was always smoking. Later I studied in the large Talmid Torah of Reb Zelik ZLB. I passed through all grades in the building which, many years' later, savage people destroyed and with it destroyed every sign of the past, they flattened every mark of the old tradition, where many generations lived and thousands of children were educated. Later, I lived in foreign lands, in Yeshivot and I ate 'days' in many homes. Only than did I find out that Reb Shlomo ben Aderet was actually no other than RASBA (Rash'ba) (the head of a Yeshiva) and Reb Asher ben Yechiel was also RASH (Ra'sh). They were two Goens (men of great learning):, one of whom came from Germany and the other from Spain. They played an important part in the moral, political and economic life of the Jewish people. Now I began to understand why Reb Nachman Getzov was so excited on that Sabbath eve in my father's house when I was very young.

Now we come to the essence of the story – who was Nachman Getzov? He was one of the many shopkeepers in Novogrudok. He sold tea and sugar in a small shop. But those who knew him better realised that, firstly, Nachman Getzov was a pious, G-d fearing Jew, who kept exactly to all the mitzvoth of the Torah, secondly, Reb Nachman was enlightened in Gomorrah and its judgments. He was also enlightened in all the Jewish literature. He knew foreign languages and specifically German literature. Apart of the book 'On the rivers of Babylon', which Nochem Sokolov printed as a gift for the readers of “Hazfirah” – he was also knowledgeable in the history of the ancient world, specifically in the period of the Tnaim Amoraim (teachers of Mishna and teachers of Talmud). He knew very well and was absorbed in the life of every single Goen (teacher of Mishna), starting with Shmaye Vaftalion to Rabbi Rav Ashi.

He knew and described the life of everyone, and the influence of each one on the community, and he explained it in great detail in his book 'Hatana'im Ve'ha'am' ('Teachers of Mishna and the People'), a manuscript which regrettably, was never published. Should the Jerusalem University obtain at present such a book as 'Teachers of Mishna and the People', they would receive it gladly and would print it for all to read. I, in particular, know how to value the pearls, which Reb Nachman used to embellish the works of every single man of learning and he had drawn it from the right sources, from the real one – from Talmud of Babylon and Jerusalem.

In the era of political Zionism, when Dr Hertzl's book 'The State of the Jews' had appeared, our unforgettable Nachman Getzov had turned with his whole heart to Zionism. Reb Nachman was not a talented speaker, yet for years he never ceased to speak up for Zionism. Initially, his friends, the pious Jews of the Todres synagogue, did not take him seriously. Never the less he became their main orator. He spoke in all the synagogues and his speeches were replete with Jewish history, with Jewish blood and tears from every epoch. He raised a large circle of followers, particularly among the pious. The youth were also among his admirers. Reb Nachman had become a symbol of Zionism – he became a keen supporter of the people and their citadel, the place where the people were gathering every Sabbath to listen to Reb Nachman's sermons. The Talmid Torah had become a place which brought to the people of Novogrudok, and particularly the youth, worthwhile ideals and clear perspectives. Reb Nachman opened their eyes and gave them pride and courage. People acquired a different outlook of themselves. He was not only preaching, he was the first to sell shares of the Colonial Bank, the so called Treasury of the Jewish settlers in Israel, which changed in time to an ordinary, wealthy bank named the Anglo-Palestinian Bank (more about it elsewhere).

And remarkably, Reb Nachman found enough time to study. He was a great matmid (a person who constantly studies the Torah) with a good head on his shoulders. He read the latest literature in foreign languages - Russian, German. He liked philosophy and adored RAMBAM. He studied conscientiously the 'Strong hand'. In his spare time he dwelled deeply into 'Moreh nevuchim' (A guide to the perplexed) by Moses Maimonides (RAMBAM). He liked greatly the Tibbonim; Yehuda Ibn-Tivon, Shmuel Ibn-Tivon and Moshe Ibn-Tivon.

I remember a summer's day when Reb Nachman came into our shop, bought ink for a penny and said to me: “if you are available come with me to Slonim St., we can have a chat”. We went some way out of town. Reb Nachman spoke of Yeduda Ibn-Tivon with ecstasy: 'What would we be without copiers, without translators? Who would translate for us from the Arabic the great book 'The duties of the heart' by our Rabbi Bechii? Who would translate for us 'The book of morals' and 'Selected pearls' by Rabbi Shlomo Ibn-Gvirol, 'Sefer Hakuzari' by Yehuda Halevi? And who would translate 'Seifer HaRikma' (Grammatical world) by Yonah Ibn-Ganach? Who would translate the book 'Beliefs and opinions' by Rabbi Sa'adya Gaon? Only they, the translators. The Tibbonim led us into a nice world. In the world of the spirit we have the pleasure of looking in and thinking of the magnificent books translated into Hebrew. It is true that the Hebrew is a bit fractured, but none-the-less it can be well understood'.

This conversation allowed me to understand better this unique man and I looked for opportunities to converse with Reb Nachman. I benefited from that contact greatly. I learned a lot from him. As well as everything else he had good habits. He liked to tell the truth. I remember a small episode. When the citizens of Novogrudok appointed a new Rabbi from Tavrig, Reb Nachman was opposed to the choice. But after the Tavrig Rabbi gave the first sermon, which was well remembered by all his followers – this was the story of two Kohanim – Reb Nachman told me 'I have to confess that his sermon was sweeter than honey'. He used to say 'Why am I a small shopkeeper? I am tied forever to a bit of sugar. Is that what I have been created for?'

I, as a man born in Novogrudok, cannot point to anyone I could compare him with. Within him were combined the Torah and the fear of G-d in philosophy and they acted together. One did not exclude the other. Now sitting in my house in Tel Aviv and writing this article, I can see him walking with his talles and tfilim to the Todres synagogue.

The invaluable assistance of Jack Delatycki and Aviva Kamil in translating the above article is acknowledged

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »


This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.


JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Novogrudok, Belarus     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page


Yizkor Book Project Manager, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Max Heffler

Copyright ©1999-2014 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 7 July 2006 by LA