Third President of Israel, Landsman of Steibtz
Ever since I heard the bitter news that the home of my childhood and youth has been obliterated and no longer exists, it has been re-emerging with twofold vitality from within me. And although my memory had long ceased to abide there, it now returns thither and does not move away. Whenever Fate allows it or imposes an hour of repose on me, there appear before the eyes of my spirit the extinguished forms and figures of my bygone youth, glowing and radiant from within.
And since the great hopes for the regathering of our dispersed people in their liberated homeland on our ancient soil have been achieved in measure, and despite the savage blasts that threaten us with hatred and confusion, my eyes seem to rest on those townsfolk of mine whom I came to know in my childhood and youth. They warm and console me, and show me the way to go.
It was in some such fashion, it seems to me, that as a little boy I saw Father Abraham leaning over the parapet of the little bridge which led him and Sarai across the River of Egypt, shaken yet exalted and delighted at the visage of Sarah his wife. He had spent his whole life together with his Sarai and for her, yet only now did he see her radiant beauty in these sudden depths over which he was leading her to the perils of the royal palace.
And in that very way I as a child would steal at twilight to the deep and narrow well in the heart of the synagogue courtyard. I would gaze down and from its depths would raise aloft the glory of the stars floating so gently through the skies above.
Let us gaze long at those fading stars. For the well is there no more.
Steibtz, home of my childhood and youth, I was not with you when the reaper came. My ears did not hear the moans of those ever-lamented ones who were so dear to me from my early days. On the twelfth day of Tishri 5730, fifteen hundred of your sons and daughters, old and young, were buried alive, including those who had studied wirh me and had been my comrades in the Movement; they and their wives and children. Yet when they were all buried alive in that vast common grave which their own hands had dug, my heart did not break at their wailing and outcry. Only from afar did I experience the calamity of my people; and I could not then distinguish your wailing in that stupendous tempest of death- cries uttered by my people, whose dim echoes reached us so belatedly and afar, without sound and without any differentiation, through some fraternal awareness deep in the heart.
Steibtz, home of my childhood, pride of my youth, I cannot believe even now that you went as sheep to the slaughter. For I so well knew the heroes among your youth, who had been brought up on the banks of the Niemen and were so familiar with the trouble and distress of borders and frontiers. I knew your butchers and wagoners, your ship-caulkers and those who tied up the rafts at the riverside; the hawkers who used to stand up to drunken peasants and the Jews who lived in the Yurzydika, who were brought up to toil with their hands; to say nothing of the market-boys who fought so well. Where did you leave your bravery? Your handful of partisans who passed through the seven infernos of the Resistance on the way here, through the forests of Polesia and the borders of Rumania and Italy, serve as witnesses that even in the day of wrath and distress you had not entirely lost your own brave spirit. The enemy must indeed have been very powerful and cruel to have trapped you thus. I ached and grieved at your end from afar, and belatedly. And yet I witnessed the beginnings within you of the flaming spirit of self-defense at the time the term self-defense was first heard and reached your youth; when the organization of a self-defense body had barely begun, to continue thereafter as a living memory which I shall relate.
Self-defense was there long before any organization. Our little town was a centre of handicrafts and traded with the villages all around. Sunday was market day,
and the day when trouble might be expected. There was an inn in town, and there were the homes of Reb Yonah the Winemaker and Reb Mordechai Aizik the Winemaker; fit and proper scholars who on Sabbath Eve used to prepare raisin wine, for all the householders in town to hallow the Sabbath and end the Sabbath at kiddush and havdala. On Sundays they also provided vodka for the village peasants. And every market day there was a frightful crowd round about those three houses.
In due course vodka-selling was handled by a Government monopoly firm. The peasants used to line up at the premises in long files every Saturday night and would leave behind all the money they received for the crops and produce they brought to town. They were astounding virtuosos in setting corks popping out of the bottles into the air, and emptying one bottle after the other down their gullets. And that was where danger always lay in wait.
When Easter approached, or on Christmas Eve when the Pope in the church used to inflame their imaginations in fit and proper fashion, and after the long church procession wound its way round the town and the peasants afterwards used to make their way to the monopoly building in order to wash down their religious ardour and hatred in right royal liquor in return for their good earnings, - then dread would descend on the homes of Israel; and the lads would tell one another that Reubele the waggoner had stuck his axe into his knee boot, just on the off chance of course
This Reubele the waggoner was the oldest son of Moisheke the waggoner. who when a young man used to drive his horse and cart as far as the fairs at Smolensk and Nizhni-Novgorod with the local merchants; and whom I came to know only when he was an old man who year by year took my mother and us children to the Polish doctor Malkovitch in Malyova village, five hours journey from Steibtz. On the way he would carefully, in a very sweet voice and with exceedingly precise enunciation, chant the entire hundred and fifty Psalms by heart as he sat on his waggoner's seat. Between each of the five books of the Psalms he would give me a lesson in the writing of an exceptionally elegant and flowery Hebrew.
Reubele his oldest son was the first self-defense man in town. He never accepted the discipline or authority of any organization. He also despised the aid of comrades, and was certain that he himself could drive any enemy out of town. There was nothing whatever in his external appearance to indicate his bravery. He was leanand not tall, but was stout-hearted; and he was known through the neighbouring villages as a brave man.
Once, so they said, seven peasants had attacked him on the way when he was all by himself. He overcame the lot, killed the whole seven of them and came running back to town with a knife stuck in his belly. So without any organization and without any choice the town knew that Reubele was its shield and defender. That was why they forgave him all his whims and queer habits, regarding those as matters that lie between a man and his Maker, as well as the queer things that went on between him and his wife.
Then came Shmuel Tunik. He looked the absolute opposite of Reubele, standing head and shoulders taller than all the Jews and non-Jews of the town. An impressive, fleshy man he was, with a broad yellow moustache that was as sharp as a skewer. When he marched at the head of the Fire brigade which he commanded, with his copper helmet on his head and the gleaming trumpet in his mouth, the very earth trembled underfoot. I do not remember that he ever did actually hit a non-Jew, but every drunkard was dead afraid of his gaze, and his very walk across the market was as good as a security that no harm would befall the Jews of the town.
Now these two were enough as long as times were normal. But the days of the first revolution came round, the Black Hundred organized, the Kishinev pogrom occurred and was followed by the disturbances in Homel. Then dark clouds gathered over the Steibtz region too.
It was Passover time in 1905. The torrent of incitement and animosity had been continuing since the 9th January. The papers were filled with reports of pogroms. All of a sudden suspicious-looking strangers appeared in our town; people whom nobody knew and who bought nothing but went wandering round among the peasants in the market-place doing nothing but incite. The peasants used to come out of the church with their faces red as fire. Friendly peasants told us that the villages were being visited by rabble-rousing speakers, and that the day and hour had already been decided on.
In our town there were already the beginnings of a clandestine Jewish Labour Movement. The Bund had already been in existence for quite a while, and that year also saw the organization of a Poalei Zion group who were attached to the Party in Minsk. From hand to hand passed a thin and secret pamphlet printed on cigarette paper and entitled The Zvi Family, by David Pinsky. In the home of M. Maharshak, the leading Zionist who afterwards inclined towards Poalei Zion, we
excitedly read the copy of Hazman that contained Bialik's poem The Burden of Nemirov, which has since become better known as Beir Haharega - In the City of Slaughter. At a large Zionist meeting the Russian teacher of the town, Z. A. Rabinovitch, who afterwards became the theoretician of the Poalei Zion and signed himself ZAR, told the whole story of Troyanov; which was the story of the young Jews of Dubrovna who went out to help the Jews of Orsha who were in danger. They passed through Troyanov and the Jews of Troyanov were afraid to give them shelter, so seven of them were killed on the way. So a boycott and interdiction were proclaimed against the Jews of Troyanov. And we in the ardour of youth rose and declaimed and proclaimed the verse from the Song of Deborah : Curse ye Meroz, says the messenger of the Lord, curse ye. Cursed be the dwellers therein, for they did not come to the aid of the Lord, to the aid of the Lord amid the warriors.
The Poalei Zion group reached the conclusion that it was necessary to organize Self-defense in Steibtz as well. A resolution to that effect was adopted at a meeting of the Sichodka or branch committee, which numbered five members. But money was needed in order to acquire the tools, and so we had to obtain the aid of the householders. We decided that a meeting should be organized in the synagogue. The task of organization was imposed on our comrade Pinya Kushnir, son of Yoshke-Berka-Henyes the renowned bagel baker of the town and nephew of the Tzirkov Rabbi, who was one of the first Mizrahi rabbis and delivered Zionist sermons in our town.
This time I was entrusted with the address to be delivered. Iwas still a boy, and it was my first month in the Party. The fear which possessed me before I went up to deliver that address - my first political address at a public meeting - has not been driven out of heart or mind by all the many fears and dreads I always experience before my speeches, from then till now.
The meeting was held in the new synagogue at night, after the Evening Prayers. My comrade Pinya mounted the stand, banged on the table and announced that nobody was to leave the synagogue until the address was over. Our comrades placed a block of wood under the handle of the door so that it could not be opened; and to make a greater impression two comrades stood on guard at the exit.
Surrounded by these guards I mounted the preacher's rostrum to make my statement. I began with a quotation from our sages of blessed memory. I called on the younger generation to volunteer for the Defense group, and on the householders to supply us with money. And Pinya, who stood next to me, began to call for contributions as soon as I had finished.
A week later instructions were received from the District Committee of the Party in Minsk that our Branch was to organize Self-defense in the neighbouring small towns too, and that Pinya and I were to start out on this mission at once. We visited the neighbouring towns of Svirezhna, Gorodzei, Baranovitch, Mush and Lachevitz. This was our first propaganda tour. We first called on the local members of the Poalei Zion, but the meeting was invariably a general one and held in the synagogue. The organization of the Hagana, the Defense, was always non-party, and wherever possible we did our best to make sure that some of the local leaders of the various parties, Zionist or Bundist, should speak with us on the platform.
The police got to know of this, and the householders were afraid to come to the synagogue. Even Pinya's threats and the block of wood in the doorway did not always help. There were some shameless people who were so afraid of our questionable gatherings that they jumped out through the window and ran away. But I do remember that when we afterwards visited the house holders in their homes, many of them responded. I particularly remember the ample assistance of the Zionist Geller in Lachevitz. He was a Congress delegate, the son-in-law of the local Jewish magnate, and had a black Herzlian beard that went down to his waist. He was not prepared to talk from the platform, but together with me he visited the local well-to-do folk, spoke to them sternly and obtained quite considerable contributions.
We used to call the young people together separately in the Women's Section of the synagogue. There Pinya would divide the recruits by tens and appoint their leaders.
When we went back to Steibtz we found it in a state of wild alarm. Rumour was running rife on every side. We decided to summon a meeting in the old synagogue on the Sabbath before Passover ( Shabbat Hagadol), as soon as the rabbi finished his regular semi-annual sermon. The loca1 Bund leader, Herschel Neifeld (Her· schel Shimkes), who had learnt Hebrew with me and was now my rival on the party front, but was still a dear and precious person, promised to speak together with me. The chairman of the meeting was always the same Pinya.
Yet how astonished we were when, immediately the two of us had spoken, my uncle Reb Joel Ginsburg, one of the town's rich folk and the warden of the Hevra
Kadisha (Burial Society) came up into the platform. I felt sure that he would make us one with the dust of earth for daring to destroy all sanctity in the middle of Shabbat Hagadol, and would upset all our efforts. And then to our amazement we heard him say: I am not a preacher nor the son of a preacher and there are all kinds of things I certainly have nothing to do with, but this time the boys are right. It's a good and pious deed to help them with body and money, for the situation is very grave.
That Saturday night the wealthy householders brought money to the veranda of my uncle which was in the middle of the market, and next morning Pinya went off to Minsk to bring us the spitters, as we called the pistols. At a meeting we afterwards held at midnight in the Shtiebel of the Hassidim we found we had about a hundred armed and trained members.
We used our organized strength twice that season.
The first time we were summoned to the neighbouring town Svierzhna, on the other side of the River Niemen. This was a far smaller spot than our own town. It was known for its orchard keepers, who used to hire orchards from the local squires. All week long they tended the trees and guarded the fruit, and then they used to sell the apples and pears in the neighbouring markets. These were not people who spent their days and nights in the House of Study. They had grown up in the open air and used to meet the loca1 toughs and scamps, so they ought to have known how to look after themselves. But this time there was an overwhelming fear of pogroms, and even the stoutest-hearted Jews were suddenly terrified of the rioters.
Early in the morning we heard the rumour that a pogrom had started in Svierzhna. Friendly peasants from neighbouring villages came to tell the Steibtz Jews that their youngsters had gone off to pillage and murder.
We summoned our Hagana and off we went. The snows were melting and the River Niemen was in spate. At ordinary times, when the ford across the river was in order, it took twenty minutes to go from Steibtz to Svierzhna. But now the Niemen had overflowed its banks. We had to go a long way round and cross stretches of mud and standing water. The cart that came behind us with our equipment - iron bars with bolls of lead at the end, and iron bars we had taken out of the shops, - could not cross the swamps. So we had to load our weapons on our backs and cross the swamps on foot.
This march of the Steibtz defenders who went off to guard Svierzhna on the day of the riots took about six hours. When we arrived towards evening, weary and exhausted and all set for the fight, we found that the little town seemed to be dead. All the shops were closed and locked. The streets were empty and dumb, and there was not a living soul in the buildings. We learnt that the Jews had been alarmed and terrified at the approaching rioters, so they locked up their shops and homes and hid in the cellars. From cellar to cellar we went headed by Pinya our commander, to tell the people in hiding that danger had passed and the Defense had arrived. The townsfolk looked at us as though we were redeemers from on high after they had been sitting in the darkness of the cellars all day long, in dread and fear of what might happen. I remember how the youthful rabbi of the town, Reb Heifa Katzenelenbogen, older brother of my beloved teacher the poet J. S. Katzenelenbogen (known in Hebrew literature as Yeshak), kissed mycomrade Pinya on the brow in gratitude and esteem. And the womenfolk of Svierzhna fetched cream and sour butter and preserved fruits out of their cellars to restore our souls.
After that we learnt that the melting snows and perils of the road which had not frightened the Steibtz lads had upset all the plans of the village pogromchiks. They had faltered halfway and gone back as they had come.
A few days later we learnt that trouble was due in Steibtz the following Sunday.
This time we were prepared. We knew that rabblerousers had come from far away. Women had turned up driving empty carts, to loot and pillage and take the spoils back home. From morning on all our comrades were in the market, carrying sticks with leaden ends, and with lead-weighted belts in our pockets. The heads of tens, armed with their pistols, parceled out the market between them. At noon, when crowds came out of the white church at the end of the market-place, incited him inflamed and ready to begin, the signal was given.
One of the visitors went ahead, dragging behind him the peasants who had brought the carts, all prepared to start looting the shops. Then the pistols suddenly went off together from each corner of the market. The heads of the Hagana groups shot in the air and did not hit anybody, but they put the fear of God into the crowd. Panic and confusion began. The horses became alarmed, the women shrieked as though they were being slaughtered. The carts piled up, one over the other. The peasants started to run away while they
could for fear of the armed Jews dispersed all over the market-place; and the shooting continued. Within a few moments the entire market had emptied.
Indeed, the world improved a great deal between 1905 and 1942. This is not the same peasant nor the same rancour, these are not the same rabble-rousers nor the same aroused rabble. Our orphanhood amid the gentiles has marched on and on. But what of our powers of self-defense? Did they not improve at all?
My comrades of the Self-defense in 1905 had already grown old by 1942, it is true. Yet surely their was not yet over ! And after all, sons had been
born to them. Meanwhile they had passed through years of revolution, years of independent Poland, years of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; and years of a World War, once and again. And I have heard say that your sons, Steibtz, distinguished themselves on many different battle fronts.
How was it you fell in that day of wrath and bereavement? I cannot believe, Steibtz, delight of my boyhood and pride of my youth, that you were led away like sheep to the slaughter !
Steibtz mine, at the grave of your tortured and tormented, permit me to bring back the memory of those who once protected you.
According to various historic sources Steibtz was a town as long ago as five hundred years. It lies on the BriskMinsk railway line on the bank of the River Niemen, in a broad valley of green fields and meadows with vast forests on three sides of it. There it has been now for hundreds of years, this little town of Steibtz with its rich Jewish life, its deeply rooted Jewish community which lived its specific traditional life.
Steibtz was proverbial, with its outstanding rabbinical personalities. Later, with the emergence of the Labour movement, many Steibtz young men dreamt of a better and juster world and joined the various Labour parties.
Seated from left: Faiwe Bruck, Baruch Kushnir, Boris Muchnik, Azriel Ginzburg, Willi Mirsky, husband of Faie
Standing from left: Dow Baskin, Chana-Jacow and Dose Henkin, Ice and Roza Dworetzky, Irving S. Comac, Josif Maron, Shoshana Gershenowitz, Josif Kitaewitz, Faie Tunlk, Seine Okun, Mariashe Kumok, Mashe and Nochim Bernshtein
with the Committee of Shteibtzer Benevolent Organization
Seated from left: Geo. Harcawy, Willi Mirsky, Zalman Shazar, Sam. Ginzburg, Mrs. Ginzburg
Standing from left: Mrs. Harcawy, Mrs. Mirsky, Irving Comac, Mrs. Comac, Sam Neifeld, Boris Margolin, Ice Dworetzky
But the Zionist halutz movement was particularly attractive for them. Many of the young people became dreamers of and active fighters for Zionist ideas. Part of that Zionist youth fulfilled their dreams and many of them made their homes in Eretz Israel.
One of them is Reb Shneour Zalman Shazar, the third President of the State of Israel.
In the course of generations many institutions were established where everybody lived his life after his own fashion. There were Batei Midrash, Talmud Torahs, Synagogues, libraries and party meeting-places. A cooperative folk bank was established. There was a Gemilat Hasadim free loan society, a Bikur Holim society for visiting the sick, a Linat Hatsedek Society, a Hachnasat Orhim hospitality society and many other social and philanthropic institutions which lit up the warmth of our former home. Steibtz was a singular Jewish town with its joys and sorrows. It is true that there was not always too good a living to be made, but we always did our best to make a decent living in trade, crafts or the free professions. That was how things went on for long generations. Fathers and mothers married off their children and grand-children and were happy. Until Until the diabolical German murderers put all Jews out of the law in 1942, put yellow badges of shame on them, took away their property and belongings, trod the sanctities of generations underfoot, tortured and pillaged. They drove them all together in a narrow alley and walled the ghetto olf with barbed wire. Afterwards they were all dragged to the graves that had already been dug and were all shot, some of them being buried alive.
The flourishing little town was transformed into a great cemetery.
Ages upon ages of Jewish culture, scholarly acuity, love
of life, demands, emotions of a youth who lived and dreamed of making life more beautiful and better all now lie buried in the grave. The golden chain has been snapped in the cruelest possible fashion
The town is done. You hear nobody and nothing. The houses are burnt down. Everything has been destroyed. Jewish blood, our blood, has been shed everywhere. Once there was a community here, a lovable, cordial Jewish community. It no longer exists.
May this volume be an everlasting memorial for our town. Let us say the memorial prayer, Yizkor, after the most precious and holy souls of ours : Fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters whose lives were cut off halfway.
Yizkor ! Let us remember the holy and lovely little children who were stabbed in their cradles, and those who were tortured on the scaffold and whose bones are spread over the fields and swamps, May rhe sufferings of our tormented martyrs rob their murderers of rest by day and by night. May the shadows of our martyrs forever pursue those who tortured them. We who have remained alive cry out : Remember what Amalek did unto you! Remember and never forget what the modern Amalek and Haman did to your brethren.
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