Translated by Jerrold Landau
One summer day in 1914, the children were busy covering up pieces of glass with soot so that they could properly watch the solar eclipse that had been predicted in the newspapers. People said that this was a bad omen. A solar eclipse does not affect world events, but it is a fact that the First World War broke out a few days later.
A draft was proclaimed, and sons of Ruzhany also went out to the Russian Army. Difficult days came. Wives and mothers who were waiting for news of their dear ones from the front walked around gloomily. Many of those who went out never returned. Instead, news arrived that led to heartrending screams from bereaved mothers.
Commerce ceased. Help from the relatives who had immigrated to America stopped coming. The Russian Cossack regime tightened its yoke, and the Jews suffered terribly. The Cossacks increased their acts of pillage as they retreated. Stores were broken into and ransacked. Locked doors of houses were broken, and the Cossacks took whatever came to their hand.
The Germans arrived in the town, in the month of Elul, during the time of the blowing of the shofar and the recitation of selichot, the time that the Jewish soul trembles from the fear of the approaching Day of Judgment in general, and from the war and tragedies in particular. When they arrived, quiet was still pervading and the chaos had ceased, but another sevenfold frightful enemy arrived -- hunger. The Germans indeed introduced positive innovations to the life of the town. Residents of Ruzhany saw electric light for the first time, replacing the kerosene lamps. Moving pictures, accompanied by the wonderful sounds of the violin of Tzadok the Ruzhany band, arrived which brought the wonders of technology to the bored scouts of Ruzhany. A wooden sidewalk sprouted up on Schlosse Gasse. These innovations brought joy, but the hunger afflicted. The farmers of the region, White Russians, destroyed their crops, and only a portion thereof was hidden in the ground when they fled to Russia. Some of these underground treasures were revealed, but the quantity was insufficient to satiate the lion. Since there was no sowing and harvest, there was no bread.
Commerce ceased. Even the stores that were not broken into and not pillaged with the retreat of the Cossacks were emptied of food, and there was no source to replenish them. The merchants walked around with nothing at all to do. The factories also stopped their work and were locked up. Goods that were left after the pillage of the Cossacks were confiscated by the conquerors. The workers lost their places of employment and sources of livelihood. The workshops barely had any activity.
A large fire broke out in the town. Even though there had always been a well-organized group of volunteer firefighters, they were not able to stop the fire, for it was caused by the cannon shells that were exploding and flying around all sides of the arms warehouse which had been set on fire. This caused a large fire.
Despite the fact that the physical situation was in a state of decline and degeneration, the spiritual activity increased at that time. Light shone from darkness -- the light of mutual assistance at a time of distress, as was
demonsrated by the activity for the Kinderheim school, which gave both Torah and food to the children of the town. A dramatic group called Hazamir arose. A good quality choir made the difficult moments more pleasant for the residents of the town. At least for the few hours when the people sat and listened to the sounds of singing and melodies, they forgot the tribulation of hunger. Similarly, the attempt of Pepirmacher to set up the first cooperative agricultural organization in Ruzhany, called Konsus-Farein became known.
|The time of the First World War. A roll call during the German occupation|
A. The First Days of Occupation
The Germans entered the town a day or two before Rosh Hashanah. The Germans immediately started to clean the streets. They enlisted almost all of the local Jews for this task. The city was bustling with people. The Russians, who were nearby and could look out at the city from their ambush points, thought that these people were Germans, so they fired at them. There was a theory that the Germans did this deliberately so that the Russians would think that the Jews were German soldiers. The Russian firing caused victims from amongst the cleaners. Moshe Zinskind's son and Shlomo Kozak of the Ever Hanahar (Other side of the River) lane were killed at that time.
B. The Roll Calls and the Deportation of the Youths to the Camp
When the Germans entered, they introduced their own order. Every Russian Jew was considered to be a war captive, and therefore each one of them, over 12,000 people, received a passport of that nature. Twice a day, morning and afternoon, the men of army age had to present themselves. The German Felpewel would enumerate those present and send them to fetch anyone who was missing. This event lasted for some time, then the roll call leader sent everyone back home. One bright morning when the youths assembled themselves, they were not given permission to return. They were transported to the Landsdorf Work Camp in Germany. There they worked hard, and ate the leftover food of the German. Many later returned with tuberculosis.
There was hunger in the city. The Jews turned to the tanning factory in the city, opened the barrels that contained syrup for tanning hides, and divided it up among the townsfolk to spread on the bread, if such was obtainable.
A. Forced Labor
There was no employment, but there was forced labor. The Germans took all Jews from age 14 to approximately 60 for forced labor for two days a week. The work was in the large vegetable gardens that were tended to by the Germans. Within a brief period, forsaken areas began to flourish. The Jews did not look kindly upon this work, which lasted from 7:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. They grumbled even more when they were forced to gather up the nettles, the fibers of which the Germans used to make clothing in their factories. The nettles were piled up on the hill of the burnt palace. Since this work was done unwillingly, they acted with cunning and set it up as contract work. Every person had to bring in a specified weight of nettles cut with his own hand throughout the course of the day. Some people hired others to fill the quota.
B. The Dangerous Business
Commerce ceased. The Jews searched out food and livelihood, and occupied themselves with smuggling across the administrative borders that were set up between the various districts created in their occupied areas. Ruzhany was one district, Volkovysk was another, and Kosova was a third. Each district had its own German army camp and command. The commander of one district was not permitted to encroach upon the borders of his fellow and to transfer goods from one district to another. Since not every district suffered from a shortage of goods, a strange situation was formed where there was plenty in one district and relative famine in another. The Jews smuggled goods from one district to another -- an underground business that was fraught with grave danger.
C. A Unique Kind of Manufacturing
The factories were silent. Several Jews of Ruzhany had the idea that, since the spirits that the Russians poured out from the various liquor stills in the region had penetrated to the depths of the earth, it was possible to raise it from the belly of the earth by digging wells. The mixed water
would be drawn, and distilled into alcohol on the one hand, and pure water on the other hand. They planned this and did this. They requested that the Jewish mayor Zeev (Velvel) Szeresewski obtain the required permit from the German commandant to draw the mixed water. The Jews dug a well, drew the mixed water, and brought it to Mogilenski the pharmacist. The latter distilled it, and there was alcohol.
A group was immediately set up to take advantage of the permit, and the livelihood of the group was already firmly founded. The Jews of Ruzhany urged on others, who formed additional groups to salvage such blessed waters in the areas of other liquor distilleries in the region. This eased the financial situation of a portion of the residents of the city.
Similarly, the Jews learned to salvage the flax seeds that remained in the burnt factories and extract their oil by using various iron presses.
There was famine in the town. The Germans divided up the plots of land on the kanal in the town and additional plots around the vicinity to work and produce food from the land. Potatoes were divided up and planted.
However, man cannot only live off of potatoes. An additional source of food was found -- the forest. We went out to the forest two or three times a week during the summer. We would stroll among the tall trees with baskets in our hands. The forest was beautiful and full of splendor. As the first man, who dwelled among the trees and blended with them into nature -- so too were we. In the new, green world,
we walked proud, lofty and full of thoughts. The trees whispered to us words of love, as if they were greeting us pleasantly and asking us to enjoy the dainties that they had prepared for us. Indeed, we gathered the bounty of sweet fruit in the baskets and boxes that were in our hands. We gathered blackberries and strawberries. The blackberries gestured to us with black eyes from among the many low, green trees, and the strawberries peered at us with smiling eyes in their many freckles. We emptied these bushes from their bounty, and went deeper into the forest to find sources of additional bushes hidden there. The sun peered out at us from between the branches of the tall trees, showing us the return path.
However, this good sun did not always stand prepared to shine upon us and guide us. Sometimes it hid its face from us. More accurately, the clouds covered it and hid it, and we lost our way in the noisy, frightening forest. The winds strengthened, we suspected that rain would shortly fall, and where would we find refuge from the rainstorm if it comes? It was necessary to quickly find the dirt path that led to town. I, the seven- or eight-year-old child, served as a guide in such cases. I already knew the paths of the forest. I quickly felt my way and found the path upon which we must go to get out of the thicket. I was able to recognize the place of the hidden sun, even through the white appearance of a few clouds that were brighter than others, and I knew the winds of the heavens and the way that would lead us from darkness to light. At that time, there was no small number of forest people like me in the town, who were bound to the trees and foliage of the forest.
We rested from the toil of the day at home. We ate mushroom soup. We swallowed blackberries with or without a piece of bread. The pleasant forest air encouraged us and we were strengthened from the food of the forest. We waited for the end of the lean war years, with the coming of peace, to completely regain our health. In the meantime, we satisfied ourselves with the bit of food that was in the house, which we had brought from the forest with the addition of the food that I received from the kinderheim.
The battle over the town lasted for several days. People lived in their cellars, and the Russian cannonballs exploded one after another in the streets of the town. Several citizens fell victim. The cannon bombardment eventually stopped, and the Russians were beaten and retreated to Slonim. Calm pervaded in the town -- the calm after the storm. People began to leave their hiding places and appear in the streets.
One bright day there was a sudden thundering. The sound of a strong explosion was heard in the vicinity of Pruzhany Street, followed by endless sounds of explosions. At first people thought that the battle over Ruzhany had started again, and they wanted to hide in cellars. Then they saw flames rising up rapidly, with heavy pillars of smoke and flashes of light. The Germans began to flee from the town, carrying with them only light objects. All of the residents fled in their wake. The tumult was great. Fathers lost their children and children lost their fathers. The flight was in the direction of the mountains of Liskowa and in the direction of the cemetery, far from the flames.
The thundering sound increased and strengthened, and within a brief time, most of the Schlosse Gasse street was in flames. The thunder stopped toward evening. The fire slowly quieted down, and the residents began to return. Many discovered that they were left without a roof over their heads.
The areas of Schlosse Gasse from Pruzhany Road until the bridge over the Kanal Teichel especially suffered. Not one house was left standing there.
As was later clear, the fire was caused by the negligence of several German soldiers, who lit a bonfire to brew some coffee in one of the fields next to their arms warehouse. This warehouse then caught on fire and went up in flames.
The Jewish energy and diligence had their effect over several years. The town was rebuilt and the Jewish community continued to weave the threads of its existence.
First row, standing from right to left: Peshka Wilensky, Sonia Leviatan, Fruma Turn, Peshka Lerman, Ahuva Leviatan, Sonia Bashin, Sonia Rizkin, Dvora Itzkowich, Chasia Ett, Hinda Ditkovsky.
Second row, seated: the son of the Brisker melamed (the teacher), Chaim Eliahu Rizkin, Moshe Berman, Tzvi Inker, Yekutiel Moskovsky, Bulia Chwojnik, Yisrael Aharon Bulgatz.
Third row, seated: Hadassah Rozen, Rothstyn, Brouda, Itka Selman, Chaya-Rasha Shipitzski, Simcha Rozenstyn, , Chana Levin, Fruma Ditkovsky
The Germans arrived, and in their wake, there was also a shortage of work, and hunger. Farmer fled from their villages, taking along the food and sustenance of the town. There was great sadness at home. The pantry was empty. There was no piece of clothing and no shoes. There was darkness in the rooms of the house.
A group of teachers: Y. Moskowski, B. A. Rizkin, Tz. Inker D. Rizkin, B. Chwojnik, P. Szapira, Y. A. Bulgacz, H. Szeresewski, M. Berman, L. Krabczyk, and groups of activists: Misses Epshteyn, Goldin, Mogilenski, Jozelewski, Karelicki, Nechama Szeresewski,
Chana Krabczyk, Dova Chwojnik, Rachel Chwojnik, and others organized and opened the Kinderheim (Children's Home) school. It was true to its name. This school became a home for the needy and hungry children of Ruzhany. Despite the darkness of the times, the children found light, Torah, happiness and joy in this school in the midst of the heart-piercing sadness, song and dance in place of running about aimlessly, and some food for those who were hungry for bread.
For the most part, the children came to the school wearing tattered clothing. Several of them received a shirt made out of clean cloth from the school, received as a gift from a German. However, the handful does not satiate the lion, and most of them went about wrapped up in many rags in order to protect the body from the cold of the winter. Even though it was possible to forego a complete set of clothing, it is impossible to go about in the snow and ice barefoot or with worn out shoes with the toes sticking out. Those responsible for the Kinderheim asked Sender the shoemaker what to do. After deliberating, it was decided to take care of the issue of shoes.
There were many hides in Chwojnak's factory, but they were confiscated by the conquering authorities and were only under his supervision. Nevertheless, they took out the hides in the darkness of night. Three shoemakers were summoned. The leather cutters cut the skins and the shoemakers made shoes for each of the 200 children in the Kinderheim. The work was performed in full measure and with great dedication.
Yiddish and German were studied in the school. Sections of the writings of Shalom Aleichem, Y. L. Peretz and others were read in those languages. There was also a choir that sang in the classes and celebrations. From time to time, the students of the institution arranged performances, celebrations and the like. At holidays, they would receive sweets, the like of which had not been seen for some time and which the parents could not find during those times. The Germans were invited to the celebrations, and they often brought gifts of a sack of sugar or groats to the school as a present, which eased the situation of supply for some time.
The hands of the parents were unable to give the children even normal food. The school gave them their primary meal, which consisted of only soup and bread. At times, there was also jam to spread on the bread. This meal was prepared in the school's kitchen, where pleasant warmth was felt in both senses of the word. Young women who volunteered for this holy task, for free, like the teachers of the institution, cooked, prepared, set out and served the meal to the children along with the teachers. The teachers, cooks, leather cutters, shoemakers, and others who assisted carried out their work with goodwill, without thinking at all that they were making some sort of sacrifice. The good spirit of dedication and assistance beat through everyone's hearts.
Despite the great hardship that pervaded under the Germans, song did not stop, and was heard in public. The large choir was organized by Leibel Kessler, who dedicated all of his time to this endeavor. The choir's performances were at a high level. The members included such fine musicians as Shlomo Szipiacki, Moshke Sokolowski, Beilka Egolnik, Yentel Fajnman, and others. Just like the organizer, all of the members
dedicated much of their time to the choir. For example, Chaim Bass, who was called that name because of his bass, dedicated himself to the choir even though he was a tailor who was burdened with concerns of livelihood in order to sustain his large family.
Bread was lacking during the time of the Germans, but despite this, societal life flourished. At that time, a dramatic group of male and female youths was arranged, called Hazamir, and conducted many activities. The group performed Der Vilner Baal Habaisel (The Little Householder from Vilna) and other plays in Yiddish. In particular, there were many performances of Shalom Aleichem, such as Shver Tzu Zein a Yid (It is difficult to be a Jew) and others. The first actors were Yehoshua Szybyc the chief spokesman of the group, Berele-Leibe the doctor's, Leibel Szybyc, the sister and wife of Yaakov Kaplan, Tovia Liwerant, Moshke Szklirowicz, Yentel Pepirmacher, Avraham Limon, Jozelewski, Bilka Egolnik, the wife of Motke Szklirowicz, and others.
The members of Hazamir also organized a library that was set up by collecting books in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and Germans -- books that were donated by the townsfolk.
After the war, some of the members of Hazamir immigrated to America, and the group disbanded. In its place, the youths of the town established Zelbst Bildungs Farein in the place of the Hazamir Organization for Arts and Culture. Its head was Baruch, the son of the teacher Moshe Solec. The new group continued with the activities of the former Hazamir and set up the dramatic group that was conducted by Yaakov Kaplan. The young, excellent actors included Yekutiel Sherman, his wife Peshka Lerman, Hershel Gavoha and others. When Noach Pines, the husband of Roza, returned from Russia, he donated a great deal of his talents toward the success of the group. They performed the plays of Goldfaden, Peretz, Hirshbein, and others. The dramatic group continued its performances even after it changed its name to The Circle Affiliated with the Yiddish School.
The Zionist Youth - Herzlia Group
The hall of The Organization for Arts and Culture - Hazamir did not continue long, due to the political ferment that had started. Its organizer, Baruch Selec, had a Communist outlook, and he, together with Moshke Dobrowicki, attempted to turn the movement toward an anti-Zionist leaning. The influence of those two was very noticeable. However, the majority of the youth who belonged to this organization had a Zionist outlook. Therefore, a schism in the organization was unavoidable, and the latter group founded the Zionist Youth - Herzlia organization. The organizers of this new organization were the brothers Velvel (he and and his family perished in the Bialystock Ghetto) and Leibel Ziskind (the latter died in the Land), Fishel Chwojnik (died in the Land), and Shmuel Gerber-Burski (died in the Land), and, may they live long: Sonia Leviatan-Moszkowicz, Yosef Abramowicz (both of them in the Land), and Meir Epshteyn (in the United States).
First row, right to left, standing: Rachel Kesler, the daughter of Mordechai Shershever, Chana Levinov, Leibel Sheivitz, , Moshka Wishnivsky, David-Noach Egolnik, Moshka Shipitzski, .
Second row: Chaya Egolnik, Ethel Kesler, , , Rashka Limon, , Moshka Skliravitz.
Third row: , Avraham Limon, Yekutiel Chwojnik, Schmidt, Leitcha Guldis, Tzirel Chwojnik, Zeidel, Berl Epshteyn.
Fourth row: Aber Liverant, Beer-Leib Pitkovsky, Moshka Pripstein, Shaya Sheivitz, Yentl Pepirmacher, Leib Kesler, Bulia Chwojnik, Shipitzski, Tovia Liverant.
Fifth row: Chava Kesler, Chana-Sarah Berman, Juzhlovsky, Marishka Stein, Bilka Egolnik, Chana Goldyn, Sarah-Dvora Shipitzski
First row, standing right to left: Liba Leviatan, Bilka Egolnik, Yankel Kaplan, Milia Kaplan, Feigel Shapira, Henia Shereshevsky (Brott).
Second row: Yitzchak Skolnik, David-Noach Egolnik, Moshka Skloiravitz, daughter of Mordechai Shershever, a member from Polonsk, Moshka Wishnivsky, Leibel Rotner, .
Third row: Leibel Sheivitz, Moshka Kaplan, Tzirel Skloiravitz, Bulia Chwojnik, Bashka Kamintsky, Moshka Shipitzski
First row, standing right to left: Mulia Gerber (Bursky), Leibel Ziskind, Yosef Abramovich, Zeev Ziskind.
Second row: Fishel Chwojnik, Sonia Leviatan, Efraim Epshteyn
First row, standing right to left: Joselwicz, daughter of Reuven the owner of the hardware store, Heshel Gebzah, Todzha Epshteyn (son of Leibitshke the feldscher), Zeidel Epshteyn.
Second row: David Guldis, Sonia Bashin, the teacher Jeruzolimsky, Milia Kaplan, Yaakov Kaplan.
Lying down: Simcha Rozenstyn, Yekutiel Sherman
The library also split into two at that time. One part was the foundation of the Y. L. Peretz Library in Ruzhany, and the other part was the foundation of the Hebrew library affiliated with Tarbut.
The new organization tried to rescue the youth from the claws of Communism, and succeeded at this in no small way. Members of Hashomer Hatzair, Hechalutz, Beitar, and other such organizations later stemmed from it.
The Consum Farein, the agricultural provision organization, was a unique enterprise. Pepirmacher the dentist gathered around him several youths of the town, such as: David Noach Egolnik, Leibel Chwojnik and others, and set up with them this organization, whose purpose was to till the abandoned plots of land in the abandoned village of Brzenica, so that they can provide all of the agricultural provisions for themselves and the residents of the town. This was an actualization of Pepirmacher's idea, about which he planned and preached. The members of the group, which was established based on the principles of cooperativism, were enthusiastically put into practice. They obtained the required inventory and succeeded in their work. This organization existed for three years, and then disbanded when the food shortage disappeared, and the farmers began to return to their lands.
Thus did the years of the German regime pass with physical straits and spiritual development, until the breakup of the German occupying army. Even in Germany, this breakup came in the wake of and following the Russian Revolution. When the echoes of the Russian Revolution reached Ruzhany, a great deal of activity began amongst the supporters of Soviet Russia in the town and the surrounding gentile villages. The Communist city dwellers along with their comrades in the villages created the Rawkum (Revolutionary Committee). A large mass gathering took place in the market square, at which Mordechai Karpelowicz and the son of Shmuel Chaim Epltreger the teacher, as well as gentile speakers, spoke. The local Communists declared their participation in Soviet Russia. A similar ferment took place in nearby cities such as Slonim, which the Red Army had already reached.
The new regime did not introduce any change in the life of the town. This was an era of between the times, where one regime disbanded and the next had not yet succeeded in becoming entrenched and asserting its rule. The local regime functioned for the most part on its own accord, without receiving clear directives from the central government. The local militia was also provisional, and the volunteer firefighters of the town supported them. To their credit, it should be said that their influence on the residents of the town, both Jews and gentiles, was great, and the order was not disturbed.
A sad episode for the Jews of the town at that time was the disturbances by the Polish legionnaires under the command of Zambrowsky. This Polish army division passed through Ruzhany on its way from the Ukraine to Poland to join the Polish Army. One winter night, shots were suddenly heard from the side of the Slonim Road. The small guard of the Red Army that camped in our town and numbered several tens of soldiers attempted to stop the Polish hooligans, but they could not stand up to the power of the greater numbers. The Poles quickly took control of the town, remained there for a few hours, and perpetrated a harsh pogrom against the Jews.
The Soviet regime was felt to a greater degree during the time of the Russo-Polish war. The Red Army that was advancing toward Warsaw filled up the town with its masses, moving through the town in an endless fashion. This was a difficult time for the town, for this army, which was lacking in equipment and supplies, sustained itself from anything that it could find. To this end, it stole the meager portion from the residents, which was small enough even without this.
With the retreat of the Red Army, whose advance had been stopped and reversed by the Polish Army, and with the signing of the peace treaty in Riga in 1921, Ruzhany was included in the State of Poland that had been renewed three years earlier. The years of changing regimes then concluded.
A. Pogroms in the Town
It was the year 1919. The Russians and Bolsheviks advanced. The Poles organized divisions of fighters under the command of Zambrowsky to fight against the Russians. One of the divisions reached Ruzhany on its route through our town from Dereczyn to Pruzhany and Pinsk. They broke into the town at evening, and in the morning they captured Jews on their way to the synagogue with their tallises under their shoulders. Twelve of them were captured, lined up against her wall, and shot as Jewish Communists. There was a pogrom
in the morning! There was murder of innocent people! Six of them fell dead: Asher Pitkowski, Chaim Bass, Kamintzky, Szracyk, the son of Chaim the weaver, and Aharon Yosef Sokolowski. Six others were wounded, falling below the victims, and acting dead. The hooligans left the city at noon. The bodies were left lying at the place of murder, with nobody to bury them on account of the fear of the enemy.
Then several youths gathered together and were brazen enough to go outside to see if the hooligans were no longer in the city, and if it was possible to give the final honor to the martyrs. We loaded the bodies onto a wagon and set out in mourning and feeling downtrodden in order to accompany them on their final journey to the cemetery. Suddenly we saw from afar horsemen rushing toward us. Were the murderous Polish gangs returning? Several of us hid. I and my friends remained next to the wagon. The horsemen approached. We realized that they were Russian Cossacks. They asked us the way by which the Poles had left. We showed them the direction, and they quickly disappeared from the horizon in that direction. We brought our martyrs to burial in a common grave. We returned home broken and shaken.
No small number of miracles took place that day. The hooligans asked me to serve as their guide. However, first of all, they asked for straw for the horses, and my wife went with them to show them where the straw was. In the meantime, I got away and left via the back door. When they returned, they searched for me, but in vain. In this manner I was saved, seemingly from certain death.
C. Pogroms in Ruzhany
HaIvri 1919 (14) writes the following about the pogroms in Ruzhany.
In Lithuania as well, the Polish legionnaires perpetrated pogroms in many towns, such as: Zelva, Ozernitsa, Dereczyn, Pruzhany, and Ruzhany. The worst pogroms took place in Ruzhany. The Polish legionnaires, 1,500 in number, entered the town toward morning to fight with the Bolsheviks. When they asked the town priest, Who are the Bolsheviks?, he answered them in brief, All of the young Jews. Twelve Jews who were on their way to services with their tallis bags under their shoulders were captures and cruelly beaten. Later the legionnaires took them to the Polish house of worship, stood them in four rows with 3 people per row, and shot them. Six of them died, three were severely injured, and three remained intact. One of those murdered had enwrapped himself in his tallis prior to being shot by the legionnaires, and thus did he fall. After the legionnaires had taken out their wrath upon the captured Jews, they began to pillage the homes of the Jews. The pogrom lasted all day. Christian citizens of the town participated along with the legionnaires.
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