According to the Polish Geographic Dictionary, in the 16th century Svintsyan was occupied by the crusaders who had marched
into Eastern Europe from the west. The gastaltsn
Swedes coming from the north also didn't avoid the city. There were also
Tartars who had remained after their wanderings and expansionist activities in
The wanderings and wars of these various tribes comprise a tragic chapter in Jewish history, because with the coming of these occupiers and after their departure, it was always the Jews, no matter where they were, who suffered because they were always accused of having good relations with the enemy camp, and for this they were always well rewarded. We don't really know accurately the numbers of Jews from this city who were murdered and martyred.
Svintsyan is especially noted on the map of Jewish history because of Napoleon Bonapart's march to Moscow.
Napoleon was forced to go through the city with his army. They had great difficulty in crossing the River Kuna in Svintsyan, which was very muddy at the time. The retreating Russian army damaged and burned all of the bridges.
A description of the retreating Russian army can be found in L.B. Tolstoy's historical work War and Peace. In a certain chapter Tolstoy describes one of the heroes, Rostov, the lieutenant of the Russian Hussar regiment, saying about them that they left only after destroying the food warehouses and the bridges. The city remained in [Rostov's] memory because it was there that he degraded and changed his sergeant major, because he was not able to control the Hussars, who, after getting 5 barrels of brandy in town, got drunk and in this inebriated condition left the city. (The Jews surely had something to do with this.)
This occurred at the end of June 1812. Napoleon spent the night in Svintsyan. He stayed at the house of the Pole, Giruts, on Vilna Street opposite the Russian church. From the balcony of this house, he watched his French Army go by.
In 1912, when Russia celebrated the 100th anniversary of their victory over Napoleon and his army, a special museum was opened in Moscow for the specific purpose of memorializing this historic war.
High government officials and generals of the Russian Army were on the organizing committee. They decided to drive an automobile along the whole route that Napoleon took through Russia. They rode through Kovno, Vilna, Svintsyan, Gluboke, Ushats, Kamen, Vitebsk, Smolensk all the way to Moscow. They gathered information and documents about Napoleon's army everywhere they went.
A delegation consisting of Generals Renenkamf, Kalatsev, and Afanasyev visited the historic house, photographed it, and hung up a sign which proclaimed the extraordinary fact that Napoleon had slept there.
Svintsyan was always proud of that house. People from the whole surrounding area used to come and look at this historic edifice, which was called Napoleon's House.
Great scientific achievements
were attained and great changes in the life of all peoples and countries in
Western and Central Europe took place in the nineteenth century. Russia became
a powerful monarchy following the pattern of the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries. The despotic government ruled the land, and the general population
was oppressed and unhappy.
In order to divert the rightful anger of the peasants and the poor in the wrong direction, the ruling class incited them against the Jews, saying that they were the cause of the peasants' lowly condition. There were constant conflicts and even organized attacks and pogroms against the Jews.
The Polish uprisings against the Czarist regime had a great influence on these events. Many Jewish fighters also took part in these uprisings. To participate in the Koshtyushko uprising, a special Jewish Legion was formed under the leadership of the Jew, Berek Yoselevitch.
The area of Svintsyan was an important focal point in all of the Polish uprisings. The Polish population there was overtly nationally disposed.
In later years, the Poles would proudly say that one of the most important gatherings of the uprising of 1863 took place in Svintsyan on Bartushki's Hill near the Jewish cemetery on Blakishker Street in knowledge of the Jews who secretly supported the resistance fighters.
The Czar used all the means at his disposal to quell the uprisings. Many Poles from the area of Svintsyan were deported to hard labor camps. The property and estates of those who were sent away were divided among Russian immigrants to the area. Erstwhile military men took their places (Medyushkan, Batskenik, Yurgelishok, Zusine). This new element changed the relationship of the local population to the Jews even more.
The Polish national hero, Yuzef Pilsudski, was raised and received his earliest education in Svintsyan. It was there that his spirit of extremism crystallized. He was active in all the Polish underground freedom organizations. He also took part in various terrorist activities and became especially renowned for his ambush of the mail train near Podbrodz, not far from Bezdan, where he and his friends stopped the running train and stole a large sum of money in order to finance their revolutionary activities (P.P.S. --Polish Socialist Workers Party).
After the ambush, he was hidden for a certain time by a Jew in New Sventsyan. As he was coming out of his hiding place, he was caught and sent to Siberia. He was able to escape and move out of the country.
After the First World War, he returned to Poland and became famous as the liberator and creator of the new Poland.
In the will he made before he died in 1935, he requested that he be buried in different parts of the country, that is, his body in Crocow at Wawal Castle, where all of the Polish kings are interred; his brain to be donated to the research branch of the University of Warsaw and his heart to be buried in Vilna, the capital city of the area of Svintsyan and of his estate Zulave, where he was born.
The historical process of
national and social awakening, which was strengthened in the second half of the
19th century, brought with it the end of what was--for all intents and
purposes--slave ownership, gave rights to the peasants in the land, did away
with the Jewish ghettos in the city, and gave rise to legal cultural movements,
knowledge, and progress. The illegal revolutionary movements also had their
influence on the Jews of the city. But for the most part, the movements with
the most influence on the Jewish population were those pertaining to the Jews:
the Enlightenment, return to Zion, political Zionism, the Bund,
With the start of a new era, there developed in Svintsyan a large group of Jewish intellectuals. The city produced famous doctors, engineers, and social activists. These are the doctors: Yacobson, Kovarsky, Kheyfets. Lawyers: Tavroginsky, Hirsh and Yeshayahu Levin. Engineers: Julian Bak, Arkady Kramer--who was also one of the theorists and founders of the Bund.
The Svintsyaner students had a good reputation in all of the high schools, middle schools, and trade schools. We see this mentioned also by Leyb Spektor in his work My Universities, in which he mentions the superlative qualities of the students of Svintsyan in Moscow as well as the high level of their discourse in friendly student discussions.
We also find a notice in the Melits, published in Petersburg on June 30, 1888, number 142, about the Svintsyan graduates of the state high school: Y. Bitsunsky, Y. Kovarsky, and Herts Kovarsky, who received gold and silver medals for graduating with honors from the school in Riga.
Svintsyan distinguishes itself in a very original way in the history of the Enlightenment. The case that resounded throughout the Jewish world had to do with the head of the Jewish Judicial Court, Rabbi Yitskhok Yakov Reines, who held this position in the city from 1869 to 1885.
In the memoirs of Rabbi Y. L. Hacohen-Maymon, we find the following: While he was in Svintsyan, the young and talented rabbi became well known throughout the world. It was in Svintsyan that Rabbi Reines wrote his massive tomes Road by the Sea and The Stamp of the Plan in which he founds a new system, a modern method of studying the Talmud based on logic and pedagogical analysis. Here Rabbi Reines criticizes the old system which had been used for generations.
The opinions of Rabbi Maymon confirm a notice that was printed in the press of that time in 1879 ( Melits, no. 7, February 13, 1879):
The great rabbi who was a resident of the city of Svintsyan, Rabbi Yitskhok Yakov Reines, worked on a book with great diligence for many years, an encyclopedia of 36 volumes of Hebrew literature which was to be 12,000 pages long.In order to demonstrate his stated pedagogic suggestions, Rabbi Reines founded a yeshiva in Svintsyan--a modern one where secular subjects were also taught: Russian, German, mathematics, Jewish history and world history, and all other subjects taught in a regular school.
This encyclopedia of good taste and knowledge contains, in the proper proportions, the written Torah and the oral Torah, and according to good common sense and history, the rules of law and tradition. Everything that he speaks about is explained from different aspects. Because of this, everyone who seeks the words of G-d will find what he is looking for.
And because the respected author was unable to assume the publication costs of this very big work himself, he was advised to publish only a very small part of it. It contains five parts, which are as follows: The Basis of Faith, the first part, will be about the history of the people of Israel; part two, the connection between the written Torah and the tradition; part three, laws of everyday life based on good common sense and on the Talmud; the fourth partrules of legal matters; the fifth part deals with legend.
In the first days of the summer, a school was opened in our city by permission of the government. The school was named after the head of the Jewish court of our city, Rabbi Yitskhok Yakov Reines. This was a large yeshiva dedicated to the study of Talmud and the necessary elementary science subjects. This yeshiva did not omit anything which modern times demanded.
The honored name of the great scholar mentioned above, who established the yeshiva, who will always watch over it and be devoted to it, will assure its safe-keeping. Everything the yeshiva does will be based on common sense and knowledge. Everyone who knows his name and has read his invaluable books will not turn away from this obligation or from us, who recognize that during these last twelve years, from the time this great scholar settled in our city, everything that he did was fitting and appropriate in the eyes of G-d and man. From the beginning, we predict a good future for this yeshiva which is in such capable hands. And I am here to represent the goals which the above-mentioned great rabbi envisioned when he founded the yeshiva:
1. To educate community leaders according to the standards of our generation, leaders who will be outstanding rabbis in Israel, and with this:
2. Will be perfect in Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish, and they will be knowledgeable in mathematics, geography, world history in general and the history of our people and Russian history in specific, and basic sciences. They should be adept in general knowledge which elevates person who knows it, even if they are not specialists, but [they should know the subjects] to point that they will not be embarrassed to speak of them in public;
3. Not to overload its students with so much responsibility that they will be fatigued. The accomplished this by instilling correct order and good discipline in the running of the yeshiva, it was agreed to take it in steps, as the fable says;
4. To observe the laws of hygiene and diet by establishing the yeshiva in a large building open space and good air so that it will smell good. In general, the maintaining of healthful conditions should be the major consideration in running the yeshiva;
5. To enlighten them [the students] gradually in the ways of leading a Jewish community to educate them to give appropriate sermons that will be understood by everyone.
From our own knowledge, the value of this great benefit to our nation, roused us to put it into writing and to tell the general public about it by sending this to various people.
Our hope is strong that that this yeshiva will elevate the knowledge of Israel and its wisdom and become the crown of its glory. Everyone who desires to know the details of the program and exactly how it runs will be able to turn to the great scholar himself, the head of the judicial court of our city, at the address written below, and he will answer you himself point by point.
Signed by the Government Rabbi -- Khanon Rosenberg
I am also here to request on behalf of the people of our city and its leaders that the esteemededitor of the newspaper HaTzefira publish the whole story as well as the righteous letters that will be written.
Signed by a community representative -- Mordkhe Vilik
This winter the local rabbi, Rabbi Yitskhok Yakov Reines, with permission of the government, founded a yeshiva with seven grades.
Rabbi Reines' yeshiva was housed in a spacious building in order for the young people of Israel to study Torah, faith, and knowledge as taught by outstanding teachers and wonderful deans, and it became a kind of seminary for Jews.
At the present time, there are approximately 40 students enrolled in this yeshiva. There are some beginners, but most of the students have already mastered the Talmud, its commentaries, and the knowledge necessary for our time.
In the month of October, the Director came from Vilna to visit the middle school here. He visited the rabbi and asked him questions such as why he had found it necessary to establish the yeshiva. The rabbi answered, I realized that the weak point of Socialism was the fact that in its heart it lacked faith. Our Torah and Talmud teach us not to mix with different cultures and to be loyal to the government of the land of our birth and to pray for peace in the land. I, therefore, established this yeshiva to try to instill in the hearts of its students the knowledge of Torah, so that they will not be influenced by the negative aspects of the culture in which they grew up. The Director was pleased with this response and blessed him [the rabbi] hoping that he would be successful in his goal.
On the first of Kislev, the students were tested before the city officials on what they had studied during the month of Kislev, and they were pleased with the results.
At the behest of the wealthy donor, Mr. Yehoshua Tsaytlin of Moscow, we sent 50 rubles at this time to help support this special yeshiva.
The yeshiva which was founded by the great scholar of this place became more and more successful, until there were 80 young men, who came from near and far to listen to the classes on the Torah and its commentaries.
The yeshiva had plenty of room, large, clean classrooms and nice courtyards. Even outside, the founding rabbi was able to see his students in all of their activities. In order to inculcate in them good and sensible qualities, he appointed over them 6 yeshiva deans, brilliant Torah scholars, and 5 teachers to teach the students modern languages. Some of them had already completed their secular studies in the gymnasium  or the Institute of Vilna, which was well known for its good education.
Our strong hope is that the yeshiva will produce talented students in whom will be combined Torah and wisdom, fear of G-d, and respect for their country. [It is hoped that] the young men who will finish their course of study in this yeshiva will be fit to sit with the judges [of the land] and will be fair.
Yakov Bar Leyb Kovarsky
To Those Who Praise and Those Who Profane the Yeshiva of Svintsyan,The controversy did not end with this letter from the editors of HaMelits. It was difficult for the religious world to swallow such a hard thing, but even certain progressive circles of Svintsyan expressed negative reactions to the yeshiva, and they immediately sent a response with a general condemnation about the course of study and the general nature of the yeshiva according to their opinion.
When you have different opinions and argue with each other, some elevate to the skies the good qualities of this yeshiva and its founder, and others degrade him until he is dust. We will, therefore, not be able to participate in this dispute or judge if it is for the sake of G-d or not, if what the rabbi is doing is for altruistic reasons or as an employee of the government or as a powerful rabbi of the great Torah scholars of the Enlightenment. We are not able to collect references from those people we do not know.
Signed, the publisher (editors)
( HaMelits-- Petersburg, no. 41, pg, 653 dated May 29, 1883)
About the yeshiva in the city of Svintsyan --
In the editorial of HaMelits , no. 23, To Those Who Praise and Those Who Profane. . .
The words of both sides are correct. The first ones  are satisfied with very little. They are pleased with the Torah institution which opened for children, both big and small, to study Torah and also to begin to learn Russian. [They are pleased] also with their teachers of Torah and secular subjects, although they [the teachers] are inexperienced. It is enough for them that the place was changed and that the name was changed from kheder to seminary and that they are a class now rather than a grade.  The ringing of the bell in the yeshiva that signals the students that it is time to either come or go also pleases the parents.
The others  are not satisfied with this. They heard about the great publicity that was published in the journal HaLevonon , and read about the extensive program also in other Jewish publications announcing that the gates of knowledge, of Torah and Enlightenment, were open for anyone to come and study in the seminary or in the rabbinic program in the city of Svintsyan (even though this was not the appropriate place).
These good rumors brought joy to the people's hearts. Their desires and their willingness made them believe that the seminary or rabbinic program mentioned above would fulfill their desires, would benefit the community, but they were mistaken. Now their eyes are open and they see clearly that this yeshiva there will not produce for Israel Torah rabbis and enlightened scholars who will bring the necessary blessings and community leaders for our time. For this school has no advantage over the religious schools which already exist elsewhere, which the people of those other cities founded in their own towns with the necessary money. They didn't make announcements in publications to solicit funds from Jewish community leaders or philanthropists. They didn't make a big deal out of nothing. To open the eyes of the community leaders and philanthropists, we the undersigned feel obligated to announce publicly to anyone who will listen to words of truth describing conditions as they are.
In approval [of the above], we came to sign: Akiva Kovarsky, Mordkhe Getsl Gurvitz, Meyer Bitsunsky, Asher Kovarsky, Nakhum Tsvi Gurvitz.
The comments of the editors of HaMelits : We investigated and gathered information from trustworthy people, and they told us personally that these are indeed honorable people on whom we can depend.
In these days, the only public schools open wide to our young men are the elementary Hebrew day-schools. It is our obligation to pay special attention to their good points and their bad points.
The goal of this letter is to let the public know how valuable this school in our city is to the general public, so that our fellow Jews who live in other cities without a school like this can enroll their sons in our school, which will serve their purpose.
The reputation of this school will grow from year to year now that the famous writer and educator, Mr. Katznelson, was appointed as principal. The parents as well as the students will be very pleased with both the Torah and the secular curricula.
The students will get broad knowledge in Russian language and literature, mathematics, geography, history, science, good writing, drawing and sculpting, music, and calisthenics.
The Torah curriculum consists of the following: Tanakh ,  Hebrew language and grammar, foundations of religion, and the history of the Jewish people. Hebrew will be spoken in the teaching of the language, [an innovation] which the teacher, Shalom HaLevi Epstein is planning, with the approval of the principal, to bring to this school for the first time. Everyone who supports the Jewish people and its language will laud this event, which fulfills the dictum of our sages: The study of Torah and the way of the land. 
The following vocational departments were established in the school: carpentry, metal working, and welding. The students will be occupied with these subjects a few hours every day under the supervision of artists and craftsmen. The students who have completed their studies in the school will be able to find paying jobs. Those who plan to continue their religious education and enter the university and become teachers in Israel will also benefit from knowing these subjects.
The principal of the school, Mr. Katznelson, in his enthusiasm to benefit young men, opened the gates of the school wide at the start of this year, [not only to local boys but] also to boys of other cities. Their parents will be able to get room and board for them in the house of a respectable member of the community at reasonable rates. The teachers will monitor the students' progress in Torah and secular studies.
We must also mention, with esteem, Mr. Asher Kovarsky, who was once again elected as an honored member of our school board. We have high hopes that in the future he will continue to support the school generously so that the school can be kept in good condition.
The Jewish people of this city suffered an irreplaceable loss with the death of one of its best sons, the venerable and accomplished Dov-Yitzhak Bak at age 71.
The deceased was a religious man, a very talented scholar, and also a community leader who devoted himself faithfully to the public good. There wasn't a charitable institution that didn't have him in the forefront. And he was happy to do what he could. He was intimately involved in all matters concerning our city. And when he thought of something beneficial to the city, he didn't rest or relax until he had accomplished his goal.
Eight years ago when our city went up in flames and with it also our small synagogue, he rebuilt it, improved it, and decorated it luxuriously until the expense reached 10,000 rubles, which our citizens considered a great sum of money. He raised all of this money by himself, without anyone's help. He improved the school in our city, which was in such bad condition that it was almost closed several times.
He fought against all the obstacles which stood in his way and was able to overcome them, so that eventually he set the school to rights. Now the school is something to be proud of.
It's three months since he fell ill with kidney failure, from which he never recovered. He died on the 4th of May. He was taken to the cemetery with great honor. Many people followed the casket to pay their last respects. The great Torah scholar, Rabbi Pinkhas Rozovsky, gave a moving elegy and everyone cried a great deal. His soul will be remembered by the living.
Svintsyan, May 4th, 1895
One of his visits is immortalized in HaMelits (No. 88, April 23, 1898) in an article written by Yakov Shmuel Minkin:
On Sunday the 26th of Adar, the engineer, Mr. Julian Bak, came to our city from the capital city Petersburg to commemorate the anniversary of the death of his mother. He was treated with great honor in our old synagogue, which Dov Yitzhak, of blessed memory had rebuilt. Julian donated a large sum of money to benefit our city. The following is a list of his contributions and how the money was spent: for the holy ark 300 rubles; for an interest-free loan fund to be established in our city 2,000 rubles; for a religious school which he visited and in which the headmasters accorded him great honor and respect and the students sang songs in both Russian and Hebrew to honor him - 320 rubles; for the continued support of a fire station which had been established in our city by the mayor 2 years ago 100 rubles; and for the indigent sick - 25 rubles. He also gave money for the poor of the city, and to anyone who stretched out his hand to him to ask for help he gave generously. He also gave a large donation to the fund that assured that the poor have what they need for Passover. Here I give him thanks and blessings in the name of the people of our city and we remember his generous heart in this book.
Yakov Shmuel Minkin
Yakov Shmuel was the young son
of Leybe Minkin. At the beginning of the century, he left our city and
immigrated to North America. He studied for 4 years at various rabbinical
seminaries in Prague and in Berlin, where he received the degree of Doctor of
Rabbi Doctor Yakov Shmuel Minkin served as the Conservative rabbi of various places in Canada and the United States and contributed much to the Conservative Movement in these countries. He wrote books in English about the Khassidic Movement, Herod, Abarbanel and the Spanish Expulsion, the Rambam and his world. He also wrote various essays and he wrote for the daily newspaper.
Rabbi Doctor Minkin fulfilled his dream of visiting Israel. The first impression one got of him was of culture and wisdom as well as simplicity and friendliness, this son of Svintsyan.
After he had been in Israel for only two weeks, he fell ill. He died on the 7th of Adar II  (March 13, 1962). May his soul always be remembered by the living. He was 80 years old when he died.
Until the last minute, his loyal wife Feyge Minkin, esq. stayed with him.
2. The meaning of this word is unclear. Trans. Back
3. Gaon means great Torah scholar. Trans. Back
4. A European institution roughly equivalent to high school and two years of college. Trans. Back
5. Those who praise. Trans. Back
6. There is a slight difference in prestige between the Hebrew words for "class" and "grade." Trans. Back
7. Those who condemn. Trans. Back
8. Houses were built around courtyards. This means that Gabriella Skirmunt owned all the property and buildings in this area. Trans. Back
9. A pood is 40 Russian pounds. Trans. Back
10. This acronym stands for Torah (here in its limited sense of the five books of Moses), N'veim (Prophets), Ksuvim (Writings-Hagiographa). Trans. Back
11. This means that secular subjects should not be excluded from the education of religious people. Trans. Back
12. This means that this was a leap year and they had two Adars. Trans. Back
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