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[Page 19]

Chapter One

The Historic Development and Geographic Situation

 

Our Small Shtetele [Town]

by Chanoch Drutz

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross

Edited by Toby Bird

The little town of Svir where we saw for the first time in our lives the rays of the sun, the little town where we heard childish voices for the first time, the little town where our first footsteps fell, the little town where we, during our childhood years, frolicked and played, is that little town, and is for everyone who had been born there, a part of his flesh and blood.

A long street, two market-squares, one at each end, with a few small streets, was all that comprised Svir, but nevertheless, she is to us, the children of Svir, much more, and more appealing than other little towns. There were almost no brick houses in Svir, only one, and the second floor was constructed of wood.


A street in the little town

 

The roofs were either shingled, tin or even straw. Many houses were already old during our time. There were houses that virtually had sunk into the ground right up to the windows. There were houses that did not have wooden floors. Very seldom was there a house in Svir with inside plumbing. In the main, water had to be carried from a distant well, and it is a wonder that nobody in that tiny village hated it. On the contrary, everyone was tied to Svir with his very being and life. In everyone we met, in New York, in Los Angeles, in Buenos Aires and in Cuba, in Paris and in Israel, in London and Tel-aviv, there beat a single heart, there is one feeling everywhere. All are connected like brothers and sisters with their very lives and being, and all of this because of that tucked-away little corner in the vicinity of Vilna.

A stream flowed on one side and on the other side was a lake. This stream actually flowed from the lake close to the houses in town. All around there were forests, fields and villages. This town was not dipped in milk and honey, but in greenery and flowers, and as far as the eye could see, there were visible without end all kinds of fruit trees: apple, and pear, plum and cherry and blueberry bushes.

During the summer, the town was surrounded with ears of corn, oats, tall grass and wheat. During the winter, she was wrapped in a broad white sheet of snow.

And so the Jews of Svir lived a contented life. From the bridge to Dubeloner Street, lived good people in the old shacks, devoted friends, each of them. Everyone in his own house felt as a bird in the nest, until the wild barbarian arrived and destroyed the nest and its little birds.

Woe unto the destroyed, devoted birds of Svir, woe unto their shattered and burned nests.


[Page 21]

Highlights of the History of Svir

by Herzl Weiner

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross

Edited by Toby Bird

Unfortunately, we are missing much historical material and documentation which would have aided in describing the story of Svir. Not only was there not left any vestige of our little home-town which was torn out by its very roots, as well as the social and cultural life there, but we were also organically ripped from our origin and geographically isolated.

Today, the sources of information have dried up and we cannot find out any more about our faraway connection. The generation which would have enriched us with its knowledge has vanished, but yet, we are making the attempt to immortalize in short, modest sentences, her history.

It is clear that our little town carried the name of the famous Count Svirski whose dynasty, for hundreds of years, ruled over all of the surrounding area. It is told that at the very top of the mountain stood a very beautifully-built castle. Not only was the town named in his honor, but also many Jewish families of whom there were dozens in town bore the name of the great Count. Whether it was their choice or they were forced to do so is now difficult to determine with any degree of accuracy. Today's Svirsky families are spread throughout the world, descendants of our little town of Svir.

The Jewish community in Svir, according to all estimates, had existed for hundreds of years. The old cemetery bears witness to this, where there were sunk into the earth headstones which still had legible inscriptions and were 150 years old. The megila on which every death was recorded and the place of burial passed from one generation to the next and was a true historical document.

The majority of Jews in town had wandered in from the surrounding villages of nearby little towns. It is difficult to know today if this was due to their own free will or under pressure from the Tzarist government which had issued a law that Jews must leave the villages. Many-branched families carried the name of their village, as for example, the Pitsilekher, Shpiyaler, Duvnikirer, or of their town, such as the Kurnatkes, originated from the town of Kurenyetz, the Myadler, the Shwentzyaner, and so forth. The big fire which broke out at the end of the last century left almost no remnant of the town, and therefore, we do not have any old historical buildings and antiques.


The Road Up to the Mountain

 

The synagogue was rebuilt after the fire in the modern style. The town experienced numerous wars, and Napoleon and his army reached there. There is a legend that the Svir Mountain was created by him. The town emerged almost untouched from the First World War in 1914, because the front was several kilometers further away. Later, however, at the Polish-Bolshevik war in 1920, a battle was fought which involved the town. The invading Red Army found itself on the opposite side of the lake and among the retreating Polish army which established its stronghold on the mountain. The town was heavily bombed. A number of houses burned, and the entire Jewish population of the town moved to the cemetery. The next day, right after the Red Army marched in, they returned to their old homes. As it later became known, thanks to a coincidence, the entire Jewish population was saved, they who had hidden behind the trees in the cemetery. Suspicion by the Red Army fell upon the hateful Polish army. After all preparations had been completed to open fire with heavy artillery, the cry of a child was heard and the lowing of a cow. The distance was small and they were then convinced that there was only the civilian population there.

As those rescued later related, it was after the Second World War that the greatest portion of the town was. The synagogue was leveled to the ground. The entire area was covered over, and the neighboring Christians planted gardens there. Not a single reminder of a former Jewish life remained. But even more tragic, out of a total Jewish population of about 200 families, about 1,000 souls, only about 100 were left alive, spread throughout the entire world, the majority of whom are to be found in Eretz Yisroel.


[Page 24]

The Geographic and Economic Situation

by Berl Alperovitz

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross

Edited by Toby Bird

Even at a distance of 5-6 km, we can see against the blue sky the contours of the town which stretch long and narrow. Most especially, we see the mountain – the Svir “Everest” and also the Svir skyscraper – the Judas tower.

Up until WWI, the train station closest to Svir was Lintufi, 24 km away. The German occupiers extended the train line to Constantinove.


Svir mountain and a partial street view

 

Svir is located in western White Russia. Svir's neighboring towns are: Kabilnik 20 km, Mikhalishak 21 km, Sventzyen 37 km, Smargan 42 km, Kurenitz 49 km.

Despite the fact that the town was located above sea level and was paved, it was very muddy on rainy days.

There were large swamps behind the town. The farmers from the other side of the lake would go through the mud, using it as a short-cut to town during the dry summer season, rolling up their pants high above the knees, splashing through. In the fall and spring, it was not possible to cross through the swamps. On the other sides of town, the ground was normal, tilled fields, meadows and a little pine forest, the so-called “Tushtser” forest.

Svir totaled approximately 1900 souls. Of these, 1100 were Jews and approximately 800 were non-Jews. A distinction must be made among the non-Jews – White Russian, Poles, Starovyern [old believers who had broken from the Russian Orthodox Church] and… one Tartar. Differentiating among the Christians - who was a White Russian, who was a Pole - was very difficult. The rich felt it beneath their honor to admit to being White Russian nationals. They struggle to speak Polish and say that they are Poles. Let us forgive them for this and regard those who spoke Polish as Poles.

The Jews occupied the “The Third of May Street” which stretched from the church to the horse- market, a distance of 1 km, that marked the boundaries of the town. A small number of Jews also lived on the side streets.

The Starovyern, a total of about several tens of families, lived in a little enclave on the side of town, along the edge of the lake. This village was called Slaboda.

Most of the Jewish population of Svir was merchants. At every house on the main street, there was a shop, shops of various kinds: fancy goods, groceries, hardware, bakeries, butchers and others. In many instances, these shops were not the only source of income. They were an additional source with which the women occupied themselves, as did their daughters. The men participated in trade. They dealt with everything – some in grain on a large scale. They would buy it up at the market and transport entire wagons to Vilna. Others traded in the same manner with potatoes, fruit, poultry, eggs, pelts, pig hair, and so forth. Naturally, not all of these merchants had many full wagons and not all of these merchants were simultaneously shopkeepers. There were also seasonal merchants, e.g., orchards.

There were also many Jews who were peddlers and craftsmen. The only help in their difficult battle for life that the Jews of Svir received was from the folk-bank and from the loan institution. According to a report from the Vilna Yekopa, there were more than 140 Svir residents enrolled as members.

The greatest portion of the Svir Jewish population lived modestly, not on a particularly wealthy level, but they were all satisfied and pleased, until WWII erupted and destroyed their impoverished life.


[Page 27]

General Appearance

by Herzl Weiner

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross

Edited by Toby Bird

Svir had her own specific appearance and was built differently from neighboring towns which was influenced by her special topographic situation. There were no flat plains, but downward slopes and valleys which led down to the broad flowing river. The mountain in the middle of the town was a pretty artistic corner in the so-called Vilna landscape. This attracted many artists from afar who immortalized the beauty of nature and the surroundings with their brushes.

Just past the bridge at the beginning of the town was the church, the priest's orchard and the surrounding little Christian houses, peasant huts. From the grain-market, the opposite side was also built up with peasant huts covered in straw. There began the street which sliced through the entire town up to the horse- market.

Here was the Jewish center of trade, the heart of the town. Among the low wooden houses with shingled roofs, close one to another as if one mother had given birth to them, stood Zelig Yudes' two-story red brick house (actually the only one in town).

On both sides there stretched a row of poplar trees between which was a broad, paved path of pointy stones. The mountain grew out of the middle of the town and was famous in the area. Around it curved the little Panizer Street where the houses were built into the mountainside. From this street smaller streets stretched in the direction of the river and each carried the name of an important resident, such as Yude Velvl's Street, Eli Nosn's, Moshe the Painter's and others. In the center was the synagogue courtyard where were concentrated all the members of the clergy and poverty of the town, as well as all the community buildings such as the ritual bath, the poorhouse, the Talmud Torah which later served as the elementary school and for many years as the location for all Zionist organizations. From Moshe the Painter's Street, the Russian Street stretched past the river on the way to the cemetery. From the horse- market on the other end of town began the large Rubelyaner Street with its orchards which served as a place for the town residents to stroll.


[Page 28]

The River

by Herzl Weiner

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross

Edited by Toby Bird

Our town was blessed with its own unique riches of nature. The mountain looked huge and majestic with its head cut off. It was reflected in the quiet water of the river. The river's history began hundreds of years earlier after many large changes of nature on the earth. Many rivers were created in the Vilna area, as well as the Svir River. In town it was called the lake, but it was actually a river of which we had nothing to be ashamed. It was considered to be the third largest in the Vilna area. From the south, it joined via a narrow canal to the Vishnever River, and from the east it incorporated the waters from flowing canals. It was 14 km long and its broadest point was opposite the town where it was 5 km. It then became narrower behind town and ended up in a small shallow river which was named the Reke, where the water seldom froze and was crystal-clear. This served as the place to bathe for a portion of the town. The Reke emptied into the Vile and together flowed into the Nyeman and then eventually reached the Baltic Sea.

On the opposite side, peasant villages were immersed in green meadows where cows grazed. Young forests stretched along the shore.

1 ½ km from town, surrounded on three sides, by water, was the cemetery.


[Page 29]

The Bridge

by Herzl Weiner

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross

Edited by Toby Bird

The bridge was the beginming and the end of the town. On the other side – green meadows were spread out in all their glory, continuing far on the golden waves of thick, deep forests which rimmed the horizon in a dark frame. Across from this spread out a huge swamp where nobody could come on foot. Frogs croaked there all winter long. During autumn, poor peasants cried bitter tears about this stretch because it could not be avoided and because of this, the town was cut off from the world and no railroad line could reach there.

From here, a narrow sandy path led out to the broader world.

New beliefs fired up young minds. The shine of a dream of a future tomorrow mesmerized them – caught them in the net of the rising red dawn.

From here the first tentative step was taken, and with eyes open wide at the world's huge arms, they fell in, blinded by the surrounding spreading light.

Tens of Jewish boys and girls were thus led away.

Here on the bridge, each who left the town was escorted with hands clasped warmly and hot tears pouring. Here marriages were celebrated and jealousy accompanied those who left.

From here, one had the last view of those sad and remaining-behind fathers and mothers, and also the dearly loved little town.

Here, for the last time, I bade goodbye to my dear ones. To this very day I can still see on that summer day, my mother's sad face and tear-filled eyes. They follow me like shadows. Her last words to me slice through my heart like knives. My brother's shout – don't forget us… Oh, my dear ones, I never imagined that the knife was already lying upon your necks. I will never meet you again and the other dear Jews who came to escort me.

The bridge was also the most loved romantic corner for the town's young people. After walking across the long bridge, one would get hit in the face with a delicious freshness, a strong aroma of the green growth all about. There were many more pleasures all around, like leaning on the balustrade of the bridge and listening to the quiet murmur of the slapping waves beneath it. Sometimes, the stillness would be interrupted by the music of guitars and mandolins joined in joyful song and the echoing laughter of young folk who had wandered here late at night on a little boat.

The bridge was burned during WWI and immediately rebuilt. It emerged intact from the war. All of the Jews were marched across it on their final way.

In the little town
My mother bore me.
On the mountain
My childhood years played out
And I left them today forever
Black sorrow enveloped them.


[Page 31]

Svirer Life According to the
Vilner Pinkes, YEKOPO

Translated by Mindle Crystel Gross

Edited by Toby Bird

The Vilna Yekopo [an acronym for Jewish Relief Committee for War Victims] in 1931, published a separate pinkas [register] under the title “Upon the Destruction of War and Turmoil.” On pg. 387 was printed the following correspondence about Svir:

“The main occupation of the Jews of Svir is shopkeeping and small business. Their situation is not good. There is an overflow of shops. The income is low. Market day is once a week – every Thursday. At that time, many shopkeepers arrive from the entire province and due to their cheap competition prices, they undermine the livelihood of the Jewish shopkeepers.

Because of this, our grain trade went under. The peasant does not have what to sell, so their Jewish village tradesmen must suffer greatly, who are here in Svir in substantial numbers.

Also the Jewish craftsmen are out of work and poor.

75% of the Jewish population receives aid from relatives and friends in America. This virtually helps the town to sustain its life in any way possible.


R' Moshe Miller's little boat
(Jewish fisherman)

 

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