by Shmuel Milcenzon
Translated by Melissa Rubin McCurdie and David Rubin
Before my eyes there stands the dear little town of Stolpce with its smooth cobblestone streets and wooden single-storied houses. Many years have passed since I received the last letter from there from my nearest and dearest. I know, that of all of them, there remains only a large communal grave. I still cannot get used to the thought that I am talking about dead people who were murdered in a bestial way and who have left us orphaned and with memories of the past.
In Stolpce, a beautiful proud Jewish life developed. Stolpce possessed both a Jewish and a Hebrew school. There were Jewish organizations of all kinds. Stolpce young men knew how to stand up successfully against the attacks of the rampant peasants and against Endek's anti-Semitic hooligans. How did it happen that this proud and strong Jewish community went like sheep to the slaughter? Only a few people of the large, extended families remained. A few, who took with them last glimpses of our dear ones in their painful moments of life and passed it on to us.
I remember Stolpce in 1918 when our family returned from Minsk. The streets were full of empty places where houses had burned down. Half collapsed ovens with a piece of chimney were witness that houses once stood there. The market place was only cobbled on the sides and in the middle stood a few stalls that served as shops. After each rainfall, the middle of the market place became a huge mud pool in which the pigs used to wallow.
My first school, which I knew in Stolpce, was inside the women's section of the big synagogue. The teacher was then Avram Chait of blessed memory. However, the Cheder didn't last long. The World War ended then (WWI), but the Russian-Polish war dragged on until 1921. With the passing of the years, I still remember the modern Cheder in the Liss's house on Zagumener Street. From there it moved across to Bernstein's house to the corner of Potstove Street. The teachers then were: Meier Yossel Shwartz, Yosef Skolnik and Avraham Chait. When the Bolsheviks arrived in Stolpce for the last time, a Jewish school opened in the Prass's house on Minsker Street (later known as Pilsudkis Street). In the school we learned only Yiddish. I also remember the school in Freydel Chait's house, which was saturated with Yiddishness.
The picture of our Shtetl, when the first Poles retreated, flits past my eyes. They called them the first Poles to distinguish them from those who came to us the second time, at the end of the war. That was a summery (as in summer) Sabbath. Suddenly the Shtetl was flooded with hundreds of Polish soldiers who started to steal Jewish goods. They were soldiers from a passing train that stopped at the station. Ever since the day the Jews first populated the Shtetl, pogroms were inflicted on them by soldiers riding or walking through. The local Christian inhabitants followed the soldiers with sacks and baskets and robbed the Jewish people of their worldly goods. The theft continued for more than a week. The Jewish life and possessions became anarchic. The Gendarmes (Police) looked for my father in particular because of his popularity in the region. That meant he had to leave the house and hide himself in the barns of the surrounding Christians and in the bushes on the banks of the Niemen. A rumor spread in the Shtetl that the soldiers would burn the houses. The demoralized Jewish population, remembering the fires of 1915, went in their hundreds to the banks of the Niemen and spread themselves onto their hurriedly packed parcels, leaving their homes and possessions in disarray. We
|The Hotel of Shulkin and Milcenzon|
did the same with our mother. But, soon, we had to leave that place for fear that the Police (Gendarmes) would look for us if they didn't find my father. We then hid ourselves at the Kankolovitches on the way to Kruglitse until the Bolsheviks came.
The population returned to normal living and we children to our beloved war games. I remember that the youth in the town divided themselves into two groups: one was called Potstove Street and the second - Minsker Street. Every Saturday afternoon, the groups would have a war between themselves. The battleground was behind the yellow church between the barns. One group would throw stones at the second group, forcing them to retreat. There was no shortage of older boys in this game. It is understandable that each side had its heroes and when these heroes appeared on the battleground, the game took on the form of a real war with the wounded and captives.
In those days, Bolshevik agitators would ride around. A young 18-20 year old such character came to us as well and requisitioned a room in our house and he led the agitation in the town. Our war games on the Sabbath also interested him and in the heat of the battle he would come to the battlefield and would try to take over the leadership of the conflict. When he didn't succeed, he disappeared the next day. The Bolsheviks didn't stay with us long. The Polish soldiers
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came back and our Shtetl remained part of Poland until the outbreak of the last World War.
With the end of the Russian-Polish war, Jewish life again began to develop. Shuls and Cheders began to open. A merchants union was founded, a bank, a Gemilut Chesed organization etc. At that time, Zionist activity also began amongst the Jewish population, mainly amongst the youth. Hashomer was founded, with Zionist content. The organization (Hashomer) held an exhibition of gymnastic display and pyramids. The organization didn't last long and Poalei Zion and Hitachdut took its place. Later they also established Hechalutz and Hechalutz Hatzair, Freedom, Gordonia , Hashomer Hazairand Betar. Before the establishment of Poalei Zion and Hitachdut, they established the youth organization The Shining Star. In the organization, we developed a more or less planned activity. Ahrele Chait used to make presentations about Zionism for us.
We also presented a play Hannah and her Seven Sons at a Chanukah evening. Then there was also the beginning of the establishment of a Zionist Library. We bought the so-called Netzanim brochures. I remember that on the eve HaShanah Rabah I, together with Isser Rabinovitch, picked branches in Kurstanik near the railway line on the way to Swierzno. From the money they earned from selling the branches, we bought Netzanim Booklets.
At that time, the teacher Yosselevitch of blessed memory, also came from Russia to Stolpce with his family
and the Tarbut School was established. With the establishment of the school there was a struggle between the supporters of the school and the supporters of the Talmud Torah, each side wanted to occupy the building for themselves. The Rav Yehoshua Lieberman, may his memory be blessed and Guttel Borsuk, may his memory be blessed, stood in the struggle against Yosselevitch. Finally, the struggle went in favor of the Tarbut School.
Some of the people of Stolpce, surely still remember the Cheder of the teacher Michael Barishansky of blessed memory, in the Beit Midrash Street. Mr. Michael sat at a long table and taught us Torah. The long thin stick never left his hand. I still don't know to this day if he would have been able to manage us without the stick. Also, he seldom used it and when he did, the gesture was stronger than the blow. The Shul was in a small Christian street, and in the breaks, there was no shortage of gentile youths who used to fight with us with stones of course. These same gentile children used to wait for us on the way to Cheder. I cannot be certain if they were always the guilty ones in this.
A Maccabi organization was also established in Stolpce that occupied itself with sport, mainly football, and the sporting oval was on the other side of the Niemen River.
The youth of Stolpce were divided among various organizations. The Bund also became strongly represented on the Jewish street. The Zionist youth developed its own local way of having the dominant leadership in the town. Each organization conducted its own activities. The only neutral base where all these organization came together was the Keren Kayemet activities and to a lesser degree, the HeChalutz. The center of the Keren Kayemet activities was in Borsuk's house. Channah and also her brother Noach Borsuk, who died tragically, made the Keren Kayemet work their life's goal. Once a month, pairs would go out among the houses to empty the Keren Kayemet boxes. The day was usually on a Sunday because then the majority of scholars and adults were free from their occupations. They also organized balls and the entrance fee was exclusively set aside for the Keren Kayemet. Erev Rosh Hashanah, organized a Keren Kayemet postal system to distribute greeting cards for the New Year. The Jewish population used the postal system eagerly and that brought in a lot of money for the fund.
The postmen for this were the friends of the Zionist youth organizations.
I spent the years of my youth in Gordonia movement and from there I drew my Zionist ideals. The founders of Gordonia were active friends of Hitachdut like Channah Borsuk, Noach Borsuk, Aron Tunik (Zhave's son) and so on. The Gordonia organization did not manage to broaden itself and remained a narrow circle. Yet, they used to conduct development activities. We had different activities in the summer months.
Sitting from Right: Yosef Tzaretzes, Chaim Kumok, Yosef Aginsky, Sapodshnik;
Standing from right: Isaac Baskin, Berel Gorfinkel, Shmuel Milcenzon, Muliah Kumok, Baruch Motznik
Sitting from right, Row 1: Avraham Leit, Zosha Klatzok, Elchanan Raduntzky,
Sitting from right, Row 2: Leiba Rozovsky, Rochel Motznik, Issar Rabinovicz, unknown, Hirshl Kumok, Yaakov Vodones, Tzivia Bruchanski,
Standing from right: Gershon Rabinovicz, Klotsh, Lieba Klotsh, Bruchanski, Leibel Borsuk, Motznik
We used to travel to summer camps in the surrounding areas with people from Niesviz, Vilna and surrounding branches.
We also tried to establish a training farm kibbutz. A group of us went to the Nikolai brickworks and there we worked loading and unloading the ovens and other jobs. At that time there were also friends with us from Volkovisk, Vilna and Lodz. The kibbutz didn't last long.
What was interesting for us were the outings that occurred for us on the 20th of Tamuz. I am reminded of an outing to the Sinyaver Forest. In this excursion, Hashomer Hazair and the Swierzno chapter of Gordonia also took part. In the forest, each group made its own camp. The outing was immortalized by a photograph of all the participants. Late at night, the Gordonia youth returned to the town in organized formation and with song marched into the streets up to the market place. The marching in military order and with hearty singing made a strong impression on the Christian population and for a long time after this, one could hear the singing of the song Forward the Worker. The Stolpce youth generally enjoyed to go for a walk into the surrounding fields and forests. It was sufficient to only cross over the bridge at the watermill and you were already in the Okintzietzer Forest which stretched far for tens of kilometres. On the other side of the Niemen, about 2 km from town was the small Sinyaver Forest, a remnant of the former big Sinyaver Forest that stretched on both sides from the train line and far behind the lime pits. Behind the Konkolovitches (presumably the name of the people in a house), the massive ruggedness of the Krugnitzer Forest began.
In these summer months, the main strolling place of the population was the bridge over the Niemen and the hayfields. There, whole families used to go out on Shabbat evenings and nourish themselves on the aromatic air of the newly cut hay. These strolls were loved especially by us children where we let ourselves enjoy various tricks and games between the cut bales of hay. It is understandable that these games were often disturbed or interrupted by the owners of the hay who would chase us away from there.
The Niemen was known to each Stolpce resident from his earliest childhood years and we would run to its banks every free moment. Especially beloved were its banks in the summer time on Fridays. Big and small
used to dip themselves in its waters and gave themselves over to a fun playful atmosphere around. There was no shortage of tricks which they used to play on one another. The most loved trick was to make a knot by tying the sleeve of someone else's shirt and wetting the knot in the water. The children would burst out laughing when the victim would come out of the water shivering from cold asking them to untie the knot.
In the summer evenings, the Niemen was full of little boats with couples and groups.
On winter Sabbaths and Sundays, the frozen Niemen river was full of sled riders and onlookers. It was pleasant to spread out the corners of one's coat and allow oneself to be carried by the wind over the ice for kilometres at speed.
At Purim time, the Niemen would free itself of its ice covering. Its waters would spread wide over the banks and endanger the neighboring little streets that became flooded with water. Many times, the water rose so high that they needed to use little boats to reach the flooded houses. On such days, you would find sappers and firemen who with long boat hooks would break up the large floating ice chunks, so as not to endanger the bridge. This, in spite of the fact that there were concrete pillars that supported the bridge. The flow of ice over the Niemen was a spectacle that drew the populace. Often, the boat hooks were not enough to avoid the convergence of the ice, and then they had to break it up with explosive material. It once happened that one of the sappers fell off the bridge between the pieces of ice and drowned. They didn't find his body. One summer's day, a bather stepped on a hand that was sticking out of the sand under the water. In this way, the body of the drowned soldier was found.
The fire brigade occupied a large area in the Shtetl. Most of the firefighters and commanders were Jews headed by Shmuel Tunik, of blessed memory. They used to get together on a Sunday to practice and they used to march through the streets with their band leading them. It is understandable that such a march would always take place cheered on by hundreds of children standing around.
The central events and gatherings of the Stolpce Jewish community used to take place in the big Shul. There we used to gather together to hear a preacher, or speaker from Keren Kayemet or Keren Hayasod. Protest meetings against the Mandate-related politics in the land of Israel used to take place there. There too, gatherings of the merchant union, of the Jewish Bank, the Gemilut Chessed and others would take place.
Jewish Stolpce was a vibrant concentrated community. There was no shortage of arguments about Rabbi's chairs and party debates, etc. From early on, a proud Jewish youth existed in the Shtetl, who stood up and acquitted themselves well against every anti-Semitic aggression.
From all these people, there remained only a handful of memories with a painful awareness of that big communal grave that has remained abandoned among the ruins.
by Leibel Mirsky
Translated by Melissa Rubin McCurdie and David Rubin
I remember that in the year 1919 my mother took me by the hand to Wolf Tunik's house where a cheder had been organised.
The teacher was Meyer Yossef Schwartz. He covered the windows that faced the Niemen River so that the pupils would not be distracted by the ducks that swam on the Niemen River.
In this way we learned for a half time. Afterwards my mother took me to the local little Beit Midrash in Potshet Street where we learned in the communal cheders of the teachers, Avrom Chait and Michael Barishansky. I remember their shining faces how they wanted us to reach higher and higher goals in learning. Avrom Chait, may his memory be blessed, used to hit me with his lokshen for my translation of Vayitrotzetezu habanim bakirba - The children were struggling in the womb. At that time in the women's shul of this same Beit Midrash there lived an old Jewish man without a family who had served in the army of Czar Nikolai for 25 years. He used to tell us stories how they grabbed him when he was very small. We would listen to his tales intently. After the might of the Polish Army was strengthened, we were forbidden to learn in the Beit Midrash and as soon as we saw a policeman we used to run away from the Beit Midrash. Later we moved to Avrom Chait's house to learn. Avrom Chait's wife was very knowledgeable in Hebrew and I remember how she used to help me learn and prepare the lectures. Her name was Tzvia. They lived with Yitzchak Izgur. In the year 1922 we were already learning
in the Tarbut school under the direction of Yitzchak Yosselevitch who began a colossal Zionist activity together with the Tsiungs Arbeit. At the same time they began to organise a Zionist Youth under the direction of Bebe Charchurin (son of Yerachum) and Yossef Karp. The first song still rings in my ears:
We have a land and her name is PalestineLater the printer, Naftali Klebansky, organised the youth movement Hashomer Hatsair. The highest class of the Tarbut school went into Hashomer Hatsair. We were drawn in with the burning ideals of youth in the work for the land of Israel. The pillar of the organisation was Yitzchak Yosselevitch. Under his direction we started to organise the Keren Kayemet and Keren Hayesod. There will always stand before me the image of our teacher Yitzchak Yosselevitch who imbued us with a Zionist patriotism. The members of Hashomer Hatsair used to do all kinds of work in order to earn a groshen for the Keren Kayemet, chopping wood etc. And I used to even catch mice for Shaul Mekler in the dairy and I used to receive 50 groshen per mouse. This was all done aside from the monthly work of emptying the Keren Kayemet boxes.
There they eat honey and cheese
There was no shortage of disputes in the shtetl. On the one hand they began to organise the Revisionists in Betar and also the Bundists who tried a few times to open a Yiddish school. The Zionist Youth Movements; Hashomer Hatsair, Gordonia, Betar and Freedom used to organise outings to the Siniaver Forests to which the whole Jewish population used to come. It is necessary to mention our friend Yitzchak Charchurin who died in Russia and did not live to see the blossoming of the Land of Israel for which he gave up so much. Honour his memory!
On the 17th September 1939 our bubbling /active (turbulent) lives were stopped .
For 4 years I was in the Russian Army and posted in Moscow, liberated Prague and took Berlin.
My Last Visit to Shtiebtz
The appearance of our shtetl in 1956/1957 was shocking, truly unrecognisable. Our mass grave on Zeimener Road was a free for all, every shepherd who wanted to dig up the dead and look for gold teeth. When I went down to the Head Council of Shteibtz in 1957 and informed them, I received no answer. I gathered the bones and heads of my best shtetle friends and brought them back to the Jewish burial place, took leave of them and left my shtetele Shteibtz on 14 March 1958.
|Avraham Mirsky, his sister Yocheved (Yocha) with her children|
by Yitzchak Russak
Translated by Melissa Rubin McCurdie and David Rubin
Many years have passed and when I think of my childhood years, how naughty my friends and I were, I can hardly believe it. The tricks that we used to play on one another and also on the adults, are simply unbelievable. No one with a horse and cart could pass by the schoolyard, in wintertime we broke panes with snowballs and we used to startle the horses so they ran and we used to throw pinecones in beards and in the girl's hair etc.
Every wronged person (wronged by the children) used to come to the teacher Alter to complain. At first he used to speak to us and try to appeal to us gently: if it did not help then he would appeal to us with strong words and when that also did not work he threatened to throw us out of the Tarbut school. And even then we didn't take his word seriously and as usual, we again presented with our devilish pranks.
In the main, we plagued the female teacher, Leah Tilman, who was a refined, delicate, quiet lady who suffered a lot from our class and cried quite often.
On a particular day in the middle of an arithmetic lesson she called me out to the table to read a problem.
|The Tarbut School|
One of the friends voiced an observation that they could not hear my explanation because I was talking too softly. Then all the pupils burst into resounding laughter. Not being able to control the class, the teacher Tilman ran out distressed. A few minutes later she came back with the teacher Alter and he chased everyone out stressing in addition that he will not take those who caused the disturbance, back into the class and he kept his word.
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