by Mendl Machtey
Translated by Esther Libby Raichman
To this very day it is difficult to imagine an exact picture of the life in Stoibtz as it was 60 years ago. The reason is not because we left the shtetl decades ago and that it is difficult to remember events of the past. We have grown accustomed to a new, modern, mechanized life with a variety of technical conveniences, and we have forgotten the simple, primitive life of a provincial Polish-Russian shtetl on the right side of the Niemen River. One cannot compare life in the shtetl in the years 1930-1940, to the years at the end of the19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. As we are about to present our former lives, at least in part, then we will have a picture that resembles a story of ancient times.
We will try to remember what Stoibtz was like 60 years ago. Stoibtz's natural means of communication was through the Niemen. Wood and a variety of other merchandise as sent by water to East Prussia. With the development of the railroad, a new means of connecting the shtetl with the wider world was created.
Before the train came to Stoibtz, Jews built houses and settled along the Niemen. The nicer homes were built on Rumovve Street close to the Niemen where the richer Jews, i.e. respected Jews, beautiful Jews lived. The centre of Jewish life was in the vicinity of the river. The main area of trade was concentrated here. In contrast, in later years when the town developed and grew in size, homes were built to the north on the sandy river banks.
In autumn and winter, the Jews used to purchase their produce from the Gentiles of the surrounding areas. The purchased goods were stored in 2 large granaries that were built for that purpose. All the trade and the large granaries were mainly on Rumovve Street. Jews brought a large portion of the produce from the Slutsk area and the flax from the vicinity of Smolensk. The gathered supplies were sold to Germany. In the spring when the ice melted and the water in the Niemen overflowed its banks, the merchandise was transported in small boats to Prussia (Germany). It is understandable that all this took place when the railroad did not yet serve as a means of transport.
Water transport was a primitive, slow means of trade, but a cheap one. These little boats were called baydakn. The word baydaken is still to this day, certainly unknown, not only for Jews in the wider world but even the Jews in Stoibtz did not know what baydaken are.
The baydaken were driven through the water by human work-hands. On the way back from Germany,
Jewish merchants used to bring back various merchandise.
On the return journey, the baydaken had to be pulled upstream. The work was not so easy. It often happened that they did not manage to bring the baydaken back to its original place because winter arrived in the middle, the river was covered with ice and they were then forced to bring the merchandise back with horses and sleighs.
In those days the streets were not paved and sidewalks did not exist until 1922. On rainy days, the lower streets that were close to the river were full of mud. There were stagnant little pools of water in the streets until late in the summer and it was difficult to pass through them. In contrast the streets on higher ground like: half of Potztovve, half of Paramne, Yurzdik, Minsk, the Galachshe Street (later Mitzkevicz) and Shpitalne Street, were full of sand. In the lower streets the base was hardened, comfortable for pedestrians and also for transport to pass through.
The courtyards of the houses were open, not fenced in. The houses that were further and higher from the water were more modest. The houses were made of wood, and the roofs were covered with shingles that were grown over with a thick layer of moss and grass.
Most of the houses in which the poor people lived, did not have an ante room (which was called an entrance room). In other houses at the entrance to the house there was an added room - used as a kitchen. It was made on wooden boards knocked together, and it resembled a Succah.
The furniture in the houses was very modest. The main piece of furniture was called a commode (copper). A huge chest, one metre high or a little higher and nicely painted from the outside. The lid was a little rounded.
Clothes and other items were kept in the chest. A cupboard could be found in the home of a wealthy person. A table stood in the house, a long bench and a few stools.
In his day, Shlayme Chaim Bernshtein bought a writing table. In some homes there was already a gramophone with a large trumpet.
It was difficult to adjust to the winter climate, especially for the poor people who had to prepare warm clothing and shoes for the children who increased in number in almost every household. In addition they had to keep themselves safe and prepare: potatoes, carrots, a little beetroot, cabbage etc. as well as a few wagon loads of wood to warm the house in the cold winter days. In addition one had to hire a peasant to saw and chop the wood. All this had a considerable effect on their finances. Many people were forced to take partial loans from the Gemillut Chesed or from a second source to provide themselves with the necessary provisions and heating materials.
The homes of poor Jews were not suited to the conditions of the local winters. One could find small houses made out of thin wooden planks, or built with 2 layers of planks which were filled with sawdust in the middle (so called Shacks). Summertime
when the boards became dry and they shrunk the cracks between the boards widened and the sawdust filling slowly spilled outside. The shacks did not have a foundation but were strewn with a layer of hard sand so that the house would keep the heat in, during the winter. This layer of sand was called a prizbe. Such prizbes were well-known in the small towns. In the summer months one could see women, neighbours, acquaintances sitting on the prizbes in the long summer evenings, stretching out long stories, telling a little gossip or knitting a pair of woollen socks for the winter.
The small houses had small windows divided into squares. When a pane broke it was temporarily filled with an old shirt or a rag until there were a few groshen (cents) to replace the glass.
Not every house was fortunate to have double-glazed windows for the winter. At night, a thick layer of frost covered the window panes and in so doing portrayed various winter landscapes - snow in the forest, a horse and sleigh and other scenes. In the daytime, when the sun shone lightly on the frosted windows, water flowed down from the windows on to the walls and the floors and they would put down pieces of rags and strips of rags and hang bottles from them so that the water would run into the bottles.
A home-owner, who had a small oven in his house as well as a few wagonloads of fire wood to warm the house, was fortunate. In some houses there was a stove-couch next to the oven and others did not even have that. In the house there was a large Russian cooking oven. It was a custom in the cold winter nights, for the family to sleep on the oven to warm their bones. Bringing light into the houses was also not so simple. In very early times, the rooms were lit with bunches of wooden sticks. In the middle of the house they arranged a linen tube that was coated with clay on the outside, with an outlet through the roof for the smoke to escape. At the bottom of the tube they lit the bunch of thin wooden splinters which, when it burned, cast a certain light over the house. In the evening, sitting in the house, occupied with a specific task, or having a discussion, one had to get up each time and add thin pieces of wood to maintain the fire and also to preserve light in the house - which only served to keep some of the darkness away. Later this type of lighting remained with the Gentiles in the villages. The Jews began to use small oil lamps with a glass on top in order to use less oil. Therefore on Friday nights light burned in every Jewish home and pleasant warmth filled the house.
On Fridays they heated the large oven twice. Once in the morning when they baked bread and challah and the second time, it was heated for the tsholent. The life of toil and the heavy yoke of the whole week, made every Jew endeavour to unload and to gather strength on the Sabbath, the day of rest.
For the Sabbath they took the trouble to prepare some dry wood. On the Sabbath morning they waited for a gentile woman to come and heat (put in the wood in) the small oven. After that she ran to do the same good deed for the other Jewish neighbours. By the time she was ready to go back, it often happened that the fire went out. When the wood burnt out, the oven was swept and cleaned from the burnt out coals. Sometimes a piece of wood that was not quite burned out, remained and smoked us out..
Our region was rich in water-resources: the ever flowing Niemen river and in addition the underground water springs. The community itself had to see to finding ways to get water. For this purpose, the neighbouring home owners got together, collected money and dug a well. In this way, due to a collective initiative, Jews and Christians dug wells.
Not every area had the luck to have an underground source of tasty drinking water. In all the wells near the river, the water was not good. In contrast the wells on higher ground, closer to mountain, had water that was tasty and clean.
The average home owner had to bring and fill a small barrel with sufficient water for a whole day and carry it home himself. In the early hours of the morning or in the evening they used to run quickly with two buckets and a wooden stick on their shoulders. Which home owner in Stoibtz did not have a carrying stick outside or hanging on the wall in the entrance to his house?
The wealthier home owners did not carry the water home themselves. For this purpose they had water- carriers. Afterwards the task of carrying water slowly passed over into Gentile hands. Even after the First World War, a few Jewish water carriers remained: Nachman Idl, and above all, Moishel Kuznetsov from Shverzne, who was well-known to everyone and who always prided himself in the fact that he was a sergeant major in the Russian army. You did not have to ask him twice to stand at attention and salute, as if for a Russian officer.
Besides this oddity, he was a quiet and honest man. He served the Jewish home owners in Stoibtz well.
He always carried full buckets of water for a few cents and in addition he still received a piece of bread or a plate of soup from the lady of the house.
1907 a big fire broke out in Stoibtz. It started from a burning primus in the home of a forest merchant and spread throughout the entire shtetl. The following places burnt down: the market place, the schoolyard, and Rumovve, Potchtovve, Vilna and Yurezdik Streets.The barns of the Gentiles went up in smoke as well as the old slaughter- house. The firefighters from the neighbouring villages - Mir, Niesvizsh, Shverzne and also from Minsk were called to come and help. Despite all these great efforts, they did not manage to control the fire which raged and spread mercilessly. The fire wiped out most of the houses in the shtetl and left hundreds of Jewish families without a roof over their heads.
After the fire, the burned body of a Jewish boy was found in the cellar of the Tchernogubovsk family. This had a sad effect on the Jews of Stoibtz. With the insurance money the Jews had the opportunity to put a roof over their heads once again. Some even managed to build houses that were nicer than the ones they had before. With their own money and thanks to the financial support from America and other countries, they managed to erect new synagogues and study houses.
The shtetl became a centre of work. Various tradesmen from the nearby surrounding areas came to seek work like: carpenters, joiners and masons.
The shtetl was constructed at a rapid pace and during the same summer in Stoibtz the shtetl with its wooden houses was rebuilt.
A Fire in 1915
On the 25th May 1915, a horrific fire broke out in the shtetl that started in the workshop of Kitayevicz. The strong wind passed over 9 houses and threw the fire on to the barns belonging to the Gentiles on the bank of the Niemen. In a matter of a few hours, the fire consumed all the houses in the shtetl, so much so, that not one trace of an ember remained. When the fire fighters came from Minsk and the surrounding villages, it was already too late - all that remained of the shtetl was a heap of ashes.
Although the Jews received insurance money and Tsarist (government) money, which at that time was a valuable sum of money, yet, for a few reasons the shtetl was not destined to be rebuilt. Firstly, the government planned to increase the distance between the houses and to widen the streets. The second reason was the fact that the war front was drawing closer. Baranovicz, Karelitsh and Horodistsh were occupied by the Germans while Stoibtz was still in Russian hands. Fearing the proximity of the front and the Cossacks, a large number of the Jewish population left Stoibtz and settled in Minsk and other towns. As a result, only a small number of inhabitants remained in Stoibtz and the town never rebuilt itself. The insurance money lost its value because tsarist roubles were repealed as a currency.
It seems that the suffering of the population in the First World War cannot be compared to the cruel deeds and the loss of life that people experienced in the time of World War II, yet even in those times people suffered miserably without an end.
All those who were fit for military service between the ages of 18 and 45 became Russian soldiers. Families were left all alone. Children left home, men left wives and children at home without an income. Years later, a few survived to return home and see their dear ones.
In some parts of the world there was already peace and people began to lead a normal life. In our case the civil war flared up and from time to time there was a change of government.
In February 1918, the Germans occupied our region. At the beginning of 1919 the Germans were forced to retreat and the Soviets came in. At the same time the Poles organized their own army that was called Polish Legions and they succeeded in expelling the Red Army. In a very short time, under pressure from the Russian army, the Poles were once again forced to retreat. While retreating, they robbed Jewish shops and houses, (raped Jewish girls), carried out pogroms and murdered Jews. People had to leave their houses and hide in forests or in other hide-outs.
Later the Poles again forced the Soviets to retreat, and as a result of the peace agreement, Stoibtz remained on the Polish side, 10 kilometres from the Russian border.
From 1921, Stoibtz once again started to rebuild. After the peace agreement was sealed those who fled from here, returned to their homes (which in reality were not homes). Besides them a number
Sitting from right: Velvl Tunik, Avrom Tunik
Standing from right: Shachnowicz from Shverzne, Daniel Miltsenzon, Darevski from Shverzne, Mordechai Mirski, Yitzchak Bruchanski, Avrom Tsechanovicz, Fyve Lis
of strangers came from the Russian side with the aim of running away from the Bolsheviks. These strangers, who arrived, managed to earn a living and quickly adjusted to living with the local Jews. With time a new era began in the lives of the Jews of Stoibtz. A new cultural life also began to develop. The synagogues and schools were renewed and were filled with tens of minyanim of worshippers on the Sabbaths and festivals. Alter Yosselovicz, by his own initiative, established a Tarbut (culture) school that educated many children in the spirit of national-Zionism. A Talmud Torah (school for the study of Torah) was also built and a Beit Ya'akov school to provide Jewish girls with a religious education.
A Jewish Folk Bank was organized, a wealthy Gemillut Chesed institution, Chonen Dalim (a society to help the poor) and a Bikkur Cholim (a society for visiting the sick). Shmuel Aginski, the bath-house attendant, took care of rebuilding the Jewish communal baths.
The lives of the Jews of Stoibtz were in full swing. The Jews began to make a living. Trade began to develop.
by Mendl Machtey
Translated by Esther Libby Raichman
Each of us was left with warm memories of the old home - memories that remained with us for many years.
Those people who left Stoibtz at different times, as well as those who left after World War II in tragic circumstances, all took with them, warm feelings and memories of a once modest life in our shtetl. It is certain that many of them will write a few lines in this Remembrance Book and will have good memories of our Niemen River.
The Niemen granted us many different local pleasures and calmed our spirits in our free time. This ever- flowing, quiet, clean, grey water enriched our shtetl with a beautiful, natural landscape.
Throughout the entire summer, young and old bathed and delighted in the cool water. In contrast, on winter days, when a thick layer of ice covered the river, it served as an accepted sport arena, on which to ride and skate. The Niemen provided us with material needs. It provided the entire region with a variety of fish. It created mental freedom for the fishermen and decorated the
Jewish tables on the Sabbath and festivals with the celebratory, traditional fish dishes.
The river served as a means of transport for merchants to send ships with wooden logs by water to the distant region of Prussia. What is most important about the Niemen is that it provided a livelihood for many Jewish and also Christian families.
The wooden logs were eased into the water, tied together in a broad layer. Then they built a sort of bridge, tied one to the other lengthwise. In this way they created a long float of wood of about half a kilometre. Rafts like these in their tens and hundreds were driven down the flowing waters all the way to Prussia, using the physical strength of the local Gentiles. The transport workers had to be provided with food products, such as: bread, peas, cereal grains, salt, tobacco and supplied with the necessary materials such as: wire, nails, boxes for bread, water bottles, tin whistles, lights for the drivers of the rafts to light their way and to signal to each other. The Gentiles had to provide all these and other necessities, for their long journey lasting many weeks. In this way both the Jewish and the Christian population earned a living, some more and some less, from our Niemen. A ferry operated across the river.
Nowadays not many people know what a Parom (ferry) is, what it looked like and what purpose it served. There are others who have never even heard the word Parom but we, the Jews of Stoibtz, who remember life in Stoibtz from before WW1, remember well our ferry across the Niemen and what great significance it had in our daily lives. In those times there was not yet a bridge across the river. Therefore people devised and constructed a primitive means of communication with which to transport people, cattle, horses, wagons and all other movable objects, from one side of the Niemen to the other. In this way the ferry served as a link between Stoibtz and the villages and small towns on the other south-west side of the Niemen. The ferry enabled the Gentiles from the other side of the river to come to town in order to sell their agricultural products and for the Jewish wagon-owners to take, or bring merchandise from the surrounding areas.
Let us present the technical structure of the ferry. A boat was built from wood - 12 metres long and 4 metres wide. Below was a footpath made of wooden boards, with wooden railings on the sides that were one metre high, to prevent anything falling into the water. Three such ferry-boats were tied to one another across the width of the river. In this way a movable bridge was created to cross the river. A thick rope was stretched and tied to two wooden pillars that were buried on the bank, on both sides of the river, and also tied to the two side walls of the ferry. This was done with the purpose of preventing the ferry being dragged away with the current.
On normal summer days, the ferry, in its length, was big enough to reach from one side of the river to the other. In contrast, in autumn or in spring, when the water-level was higher than normal, one already had to cross with one ferry, from one side to the other with the help of the rope that was stretched across the river. Pesach time, after the snow melted when the river overflowed its banks for kilometres, it was not possible to use the ferry.
It happened that when the rafts were moving with the current of the water, they had to stop using the ferry. They untied one section of the ferry and pulled it to the river bank, in order to clear a thoroughfare for the rafts and enable the river traffic to flow. This was a strict life rule. No one dared to stop the rafts. The movement across from both sides of the river stopped. On market days when traffic was usually greater, long rows of wagons formed waiting to cross the river. The Gentiles became very impatient at having to wait. Everyone was in a hurry to get back home to his village, where many household tasks awaited them. The panic was great and the air was filled with great noise and shouting. The Gentiles shouted, cursed and swore, and often fiery punches flew.
There were also similar ferries in other
places where it was necessary to cross the river. We knew of ferries in the surrounding areas such as: Zukovborek, Lunin, and with the flow of the river to Mahilne. Stoibtz provided the tradesmen to build the ferries but nowhere was there a ferry as big as the one in Stoibtz. For example - there was a ferry in Lunin, a raft that only had room for 2 wagons. When it took more than that, the ferry sank below the level of the water. Everyone had to pay for using the ferry to cross the river. The prices were not uniform and every ferry had its own fee. In Lunin it cost 4 kopeks to cross the river, one way. In contrast, here in Stoibtz, it cost no more than 3 kopeks to cross there and back. A pedestrian paid 1 kopek. People from the municipality could use the ferry without payment.
On market days the traffic on the ferry was heavy. On such days, the family who were the proprietors of the ferry were busy taking money from the travellers.
The ferry was also used as a place of entertainment. For example on sunny, summer
days the river was full of boys bathing and splashing in the water. Some of them used to sneak on to the ferry and then jump into the water making a big racket. Others showed off by swimming in the water under the ferry.
The fishermen used to come to the river very early, roll their pants up above their knees, sit down respectably on the edge of the ferry, let their bare feet hang into the water and then cast their fishing rods made of plaited horse hair, into the water and wait with great patience until an unsuspecting fish came along and latched onto the fishing rod.
On summer evenings, people used to cross the river with the ferry to the green meadow on the other side which was filled with coloured flowers.
In summer before nightfall, a wagon owner used to go and bathe his horse in the river. He would put two bare feet on the ferry, and drag a long rein with him, to which the horse was tied. The horse went into the deep water, cooled off and bathed itself well. After the bath, the owner pulled the neighing horse out of the water, jumped on the wet horse and galloped back to the stable.
The ferry was owned by, or a concession, of a certain Jew who made a living from it. To service the ferry he had to have a Gentile for various tasks that required hard labour during the day, and to guard the ferry at night. For this Gentile, the ferryman, quite a small booth was built with a little straw spread on the raw earth, to serve as a bed. There he slept and also prepared the ferry for late travellers and pedestrians.
In the later, cold, autumn nights or in the springtime the level of the river water was much higher than normal. The river overflowed wider than its banks and the ferry's normal length no longer reached from one side to the other and only one section of the ferry was operating. A wagon-owner returning home
late at night comes to the river's edge and sees the ferry locked, on the other side. The Gentile is sleeping happily in his booth on the straw, covered with a large animal pelt. The wagon-owner yells with all his strength to wake up the Gentile from his deep sleep. A deep night silence rules the air and everything is dozing in the stillness, the air is clean and resonating and a deep long echoing voice is heard: Bring the ferry.
I, who lived a considerable walking distance from the river, across from the yellow church, would wake up from my sleep on hearing the loud yelling Bring the ferry. It took a considerable amount of time for the gentile to get up from his bed, stretch, scratch himself, crawl out of his booth and slowly unlock the ferry. In the meantime the night traveller had to stand on the opposite side of the river and wait until he finally got the ferry in order to reach home.
In later years when the ferry was long forgotten, the popular expression Bring the ferry remained. As if to say: he is shouting and waiting for immediate help.
In the First World War when the towns of Baranowicz, Karelicz, Horodicz were in German hands and Stoibtz was in Russian hands, the Russian army decided to erect a bridge over the river.
In 1915 the first bridge over the Niemen River was constructed.
The younger generation, was not privileged to see our ferry. In later years, our Stoibtz travellers such as: wagon-owners, butchers, gardeners(tree-pruners), peddlers, who spent their days travelling, used to come to places such as Berezhne, Krinitshne, Yeremitsh, Siniavke, Slobodke, where a river flowed and prevented them from crossing to the other side. They still had the opportunity to travel by ferry and to call out in the night: Bring the ferry!
by Mendl Machtey
Translated by Esther Libby Raichman
Stoibtz was locked into Polish territory and remained a border town. Gradually the Jews of Stoibtz began to free themselves from the long nightmare of war, death and annihilation.
Most of them returned to their former homes. Others on the other hand, started anew, building houses and seeking employment.
Suddenly the people of Stoibtz were shocked by the disaster that befell the children of Shmuel Weinstein (the mason) in 1924.
The mountain near the yellow church was from early on, a convenient place for Jewish children to play. One particular day when the two children were playing in the sand, they found an unexploded bomb, and not knowing what it was, played with it. The bomb exploded and the children were killed.
The roads were also not safe. Various bandits used to attack merchants and travellers, steal their goods and even take their horses and wagons, and in many cases also threatened the owners with death. The borders were also not properly guarded. Some smugglers took advantage of this and smuggled goods and also led people across the border. (They were known as guides).
In Russia, hunger and terror reigned. People crossed the border into Poland where hunger was not a problem and trade was free. For this reason there were few people who wanted to go to Russia.
In those times, at the beginning of 1924, there were attacks on the wealthy and on policemen who served on border patrols.
There was a forest at the Polish-Russian border that reached our shtetl. Once, on a Sunday at dawn, the sound of shooting was suddenly heard. The noise and turmoil became so great that it seemed as if soldiers at a military camp were firing at our shtetl. Strangers attacked the shoe store of Yitzchak Nyfeld (Yashe's son) and stole the shoes. A little later they also attacked the watchmaker, Yechezkiel (Chatshe) Yehuda Ruditzki, broke the display window and took the watches.
The bandits also took manufactured merchandise from Elyakum Miltsenzon. At the same time they took horses from the head of the town, and Kitayevicz, a Jewish employee who stood up to them, was shot dead.
Throughout that night the town lived through deadly terror as they heard gunfire and the explosion of grenades.
Some of the attackers riding stolen police horses, fled in the direction of the border. They were overtaken and some of them were found with the stolen goods that were returned to the merchants.
One of the attackers, a Christian from Stoibtz, named Garatshke, hid in a haystack near the village of Rusakovicz. A shepherd betrayed him and he was arrested.
I remember the large funeral for the victims of the bandit attack. There were ten killed: nine Poles and one Jew.
Shortly afterwards, there was a huge commotion in the Novogrodke local court about the case of Garatshke, the young Christian youngster from Stoibtz who was arrested. The merchants who were robbed appeared as witnesses: Yitzchak Nyfeld, Elyakum Miltsenzon and also Eli Yonah Kitayevicz. Garatshke was sentenced to death.
the children Peshe Chaike and Hendl
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