1. The General Development of Bobruisk Until the Second World War
Describing the life of the Jewish Community in the Soviet Union is one of the most difficult tasks because of the fundamental nature of the Soviet regime in regard to the Jews which consists of paralyzing the spiritual Jewish life; a paralysis which was continuing and became more and more strong, until the arrival of the Hitler catastrophe which then ended the spiritual existence, together with the physical existence of all who did not succeed in fleeing the city. In this chapter, we will endeavor to concentrate a bit on what can be found in the Soviet Yiddish press. As is known, everything written in that press is determined and placed according to a set understanding and was aimed to serve that understanding . In regard to this we will present what we know from memoirs, of which almost all reach to the mid 20th century and from testimony of what has happened to us.
Three censuses took place in Bobruisk; as in the Soviet Union in general, up to the 2nd World War - in 1923, 1926 and 1939. The firsts reflects the situation a short time after the end of the Civil War. The second took place during the short-lived period which is known as NEP (New Economic Politic). The third tells of the situation before the 2nd World War but, in that census, we were not given the count of Jewish persons living in the midst of the general urban population.
From this table we learn that as a result of the war years and the Communist military period, the count of the Jewish Bobruiskers declined by over 6,000 souls, which is approximately one fourth of the Jewis residents that were there before the war. A large number of them were refugees. A majority of the classes and a minority of them Zionist youth, who left Bobruisk and went to the nearest Polish towns, and number of them to settle there, and a number to go overseas to Israel.
It is worthwhile to mention that the exodus from Bobruisk was much greater than it appears from the given figures, because in the years of the Civil War, refugees concentrated in the city, who had come in from the surrounding small settlements and not all of them returned to their homes at the end of those difficult times. In the spring of 1920, about 300 refugee families were to be found in Bobrusk, among them all the settlers from the agricultural settlements of Sli, Itel and Koshitsi.
In 1926, the number of city dwellers increased and exceeded 50,000 but the number of Jews only increased by 2,000 approximately and did not even reach the number of 20 previously, (in 1905 there were 23,500 Jews) but more important was the great change that came about in the relative standing of the Jews in the city. Vis-a-vis the absolute majority of the Jewish populace in Bobruisk in the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, by 1926 was only 42% of the general population. We don't know of the count of the Jews in the town the succeeding years, but in 1939 there were 84,000 residents (an increase of 63% from 1926) and one can surmise that the number of Jews did not increase at such a rate and their relative weight steadily fell and by 1939, did not account for more than 30% and perhaps less. Bobruisk, in the 30's lost her Jewish outlook and became a Belorussian town with a prominent Jewish minority.
The change from a Jewish majority to a Belorussian majority did not come to pass without friction and forcefulness. The Soviet regime unmercifully pressed such forces. Only a few instances came to our knowledge about anti-Semitic outbreaks at the end of the 20's. Thus presents the Minster October", concerning drunken workers from the brick factory number 2, who fell upon Jewish passersby with sticks, cracking heads and shouting Kill the Jews, Save Russia." The leader of the group shouted after he was arrested, I will be in jail 4 years, and then I'II slaughter all the Jews." Six of the hooligans were soon locked out of their professional union and a special commission was set up to investigate the incident.
In the winter of 1929 the anti-Semitic adventures of the city were renewed, mostly among the workers who were constructing the building of the lumber union. These workers were mostly from the surrounding villages that were filled with Jew hatred. They refused to work in groups in which there were Jews, complaining that the Jews were getting out of doing their work. They then set up a Jewish group and it developed that the Jews did not work any less than the Belorussians.
On the I0th Of April 1929, two construction workers grabbed a Jewish worker - Neyman - threw lime in his eyes and blinded him. This incident raised the awareness of the authorities in Minsk and a special commission was sent to investigate the conditions in town. Amongst those who joined in the fight against anti-Semitism, they were able to have three anti-Semitic teachers dismissed from their posts.
Those in the central authority claimed that anti-Semitism had disappeared from the surface of societal life. We must assume that anti-Semitism continued to exert its effects in a city where the Belorussians grew in number from day to day, needing apartments and straining forcefully for their economic and societal standing in the city. But the Soviet regime showed in other actions, that anti-Semitic revelations were identified as any other revolutionary action that needed to be exterminated by the roots.
2. Jews in the Economic Transformation Process and the Development of the Industry in the City
Big business, as it was conducted in Bobruisk in the years before the revolution, became paralyzed in the years of the civil war, and never did recover. The new regime took the lead in liquidating the small stores and small businesses, which little by little went under, by the pressure of the special taxes, until they entirely disappeared by the end of the 1920's. In their place, the consumer cooperatives of the govenment came to be. Already in 1927 the consumer cooperatives, to whom all the members of the professional unions belonged, employed 222 persons in their stores, (including 2 communal kitchens).
For the families, who because of these events were left with no other means of livelihood, there was no other choice than to look for others to give out loans from 10 to 25 rubles on interest, to those who were in need of them. There was also distributed 964 rubles to support poor children and the sum of 700 rubles for clothing for them.
In 1927 there was organized in the town a Jewish medical-nursing society (known as BEMSA) that took over the activities of the Linat Hatsedek group of previous years. The society took on the burden of 300 persons, a large number of whom were not Jews. They established an ambulatory center with sections for dentistry, X-ray and laboratory. Medicines were dispensed without charge and doctors treated the patients on the account of the society whose activities were made possible thanks to donations from members and their voluntary work.
In short, in the 10th year of Soviet rule, the traditional Jewish charitable work continued, albeit in new surroundings.
It is hard to know what the participation of the Jews was in the industry that was developing in the city beginning in the 20's, and separately in the 30's. One guesses that these positions, in which Jews were taking an important place, were mentioned more frequently in Yiddish Soviet newspapers. In that regard it is worth noting that, for example, in the needle industries that developed, perhaps, had a more Jewish character than other branches of industry.
In 1924, we hear, there was organized a union of needle workers in Bobruisk that counted 345 members. In 1923 a collective Jewish workshop which consisted of only unemployed was opened. Later in 1925, it was converted into a workshop for tailoring activities in which 100 workers were employed in 1927. There was also set up a large workshop to sew clothing which in 1929 employed about 200 workers (mostly women, more than likely).
In 1930, all these workshops became a large factory, the Bobruisk Works New Factory," and the workers moved to a large new building. The poet Sarah Cahan dedicated a poem to this event, comparing the condition of the needle workers before and after the revolution. In 1938, that factory employed 650 workers of whom 470 were Stakhanovtses, mostly (about 2/3) Jews.
An even greater industrial undertaking that had a reputation in all union counsels, was the Bobruisk Wood Combine, which in 1930 united all the important wood factories, among which were several that existed even prior to the Revolution. The Combine occupied a large central building which was taken over in 1930. The building stood on the corner of Karl Marx Street (previously Stolipen Street) and the Socialist Street (previously Muraviov Street.). Those who return to Bobruisk will perhaps be able to identify the place and explain what was there before the Revolution. In 1930, the wood-combine employed 2,000 workers, and it can be shown that a large percent of these were Jews. The Combine opened a section to prepare white woods for western Europe. In this section it was planned to work 3 shifts and to employ 600 workers, mostly younger. For some of the factory workers they built a housing block called the Proletariat.
Of the other undertakings, mention should be made of the factories for food production, among them the Red Shpayzer" (Krasni Pishtshevik) whose manager was Chazan; the Red Marmalade" for processing the confiturn; the yeast plant , that existed before the Revolution and was later extended, and the bread plant.
We know also of two brick factories (they also were established before the Revolution) which produced 14 million bricks a year even in the 1920's. But it should be noted that in these factories practically all workers were non-Jews. Also in the glass factory (Comayntern), and in the factory for iron-pouring and in the factory for repair of river boats, most workers were probably Belarussians.
At the end of 1927, installation was begun of a large electric power station in Bobruisk, the manager of which was nominated the engineer A. A. Rivkin.
One of the outward signs of the new regime was the termination of the street names. Shortly after the city was occupied, the main streets received new names - Socialistitsheskaya (previously Muraviovskaya); Karla Marxa (previously Stolipinskaya), Parizshskay Komuni (previsoulsy Shosaynaya); Internatzionalnaya (previously Prisutzvenaya): Komsomolskaya (previously Adamovskaya) etc. Only Pushkinskaya remained in its old name under the Soviet regime.
3. The War with the Jewish Religion
The conflict between the Jewish Communist circles and the Jewish religion is characteristically not only for Bobruisk, but we must emphasize that, despite the anti-religious instructions which many of the Bobruisk residents received from the Bundist line, and despite the vulgar, demagogic propaganda of the Jewish Communists which was carried on with great impetus by muffling the mouths of opponents and aggravating them, the religious institution in Bobruisk held on longer than in other cities in Soviet Russia. The atheistic circles (Bezbozhniki) were active in every professional union. They gave lectures, organized undertakings, as for example: the undertaking to give away ritual objects (such as candlesticks, tallises, and torah crowns, etc.) to the government fund for industrialization, which was seen to by the cleaning of the kustar union in Spring 1930; gave out the Red Haggadah, which was published erev Pesakh 1924; or the newpaper "The Apikoyros" published in 1929 and so forth, which threw dirt at everything that was holy for the Jews.
The first days of the new regime were days of demonstrations and open courts. In the memories of the Bobruisk Jews is told the story concerning the Society's Judgement Against God" that was arranged in those days. On Yom Kippur night, one of those who recalls - Eliahu Kaplan - the Komsomol organized a demonstration with torches and posters saying, We don't need priests and rabbis. The demonstration, in which were counted only Jews, was held in the House of Study of Rabbi Shneerson on Adamovsky Street which was full of praying people. For a half hour speakers held forth, causing trembling amongst the praying people, and in that evening they posted notices in all the streets that a lot of restaurants would be open to serve the progressive youth, who had abandoned all [zabobones].
On June 24, 1922, they organized in the town a demonstration against kheder (Hebrew school) in which there was counted, if the truth be told, more than 2,000 children, who carried red flags with the inscription Down with kheder; Down with the rabbi and his whip; long live the Soviet school. At the head of the demonstration marched the group from the Committee to Close the Kheders. It is not necessary to say that very quickly the kheder was forced to go underground.
A longer struggle went on regarding the synagogues. In May 1927, one of the correspondents of the Minsk October complained that in the synagogue of the tailors, they brought in with great joy a new Torah scroll, with Klezmer band playing and the audience dancing. Another correspondent complained bitterly about the visits to the town of cantors and teachers.
In the Spring of 1928, a correspondent of a Moscow newspaper reported that in Bobruisk there were still 40 synagogues, and that worker collectives and prominent persons came together and proposed turning over some of them to the workers for residences and for clubs. In April 1928, the city rulers ordered the closing of 14 shuls, but, complained the Yevshekisher correspondent, that particular ruling was not carried out.
In 1930, we read about a resolution of the professional union to requisition a synagogue for a union club, but that particular resolution met strong opposition from the religious (those who pray) and the correspondent complains that the union has no help from the community authorities.
It is likely that many religious Jews, among them not a few supervisors, workers and members of professional unions, struggled vigorously for the sustaining of the synagogues but the hostile regime got their way. Synagogues were confiscated, and in their place, there came small minyans - partly legal and also illegal. In the 30's, the number of complaints of this type were decreasing in the Jewish Communist press.
In 1930, the Ravkor (The Worker's Correspondent) alerted that in the stores of the consumer cooperatives there were kosher corners", where they sell kosher salami, and he proposes to take stern measures against this breakdown in the structure of Bobruisk socialism. According to a witness report, at the end of the 30's there remained only one synagogue in the city - the Shul of the Building Workers (The Builder's Shul) in the Slaboda living quarters. In that shul prayed Rabbi Shmuel Bespalov who sneaked in and lived in a small room. Many Jews from all parts of the city came to the services on the holidays to pray. According to the same witness, there lived in Slaboda a shokhet and moyel, who performed his services in an underground way.
Shmuel Alexandrov continued his activities for many years, going to all the Rabbis in Russia to spread the awareness of Jewishness and faithfulness to it amongst the Jewish strata. He established in the 20's a group, The Lovers of Torah", which busied itself with organizing in Bobruisk and surrounding towns, circles which would devote times for learning Torah and hiring a rabbi-teacher who could give them a lesson in Gemorah, or Mishna or Aggadah every day. In one of his letters he wrote, The only thing left for me from all my toil and labors, is that I should be able to learn Torah with Jews, in this difficult time" and he roused the elders to hire teachers for their sons. It appears that Alexandrov did this work the whole time, although in circles which shrank in numbers from year to year, till he was killed by the Nazi rulers.
It appears that the religious tradiition was observed in many Jewish families also at the end of the 30's, despite the fact that the streets were ruled by the officially anti-religious.
The one-time leaflet, "The Apikoyres," which was distributed by the governing board of the Apikoyres-association, in honor of Passover 1929, give us an opportunity to peek into what was happening in Bobruisk at that time. The leaflet was full of heroics and success tales: The synagogues are empty, the synagogue of the butchers and Alkhovke Street is now a club for tailors and shoemakers, the Starosieler synagogue is already for more than a year a club for the wood workers, who invested 40,000 rubles to repair and ready it for its new assignment. 600 members of the handworkers union in Bobruisk presented a petition to have one of the synagogues handed over to them, in order to start up a club for their union.
On April 6, the handler employees called a meeting of the anti-religious (heretics) in their club; 300 Jews and Belarussians came and they dealt with, among other things, the actions against Pesach (the Anti-Pesach campaign)
Finally the leaflet brings a song of a Jewish girl, Sara Cohen, who in a short while, became a well-known Jewish poet. This song is actually not a great poem, but because of the truth which it portrays, it is worthwhile to tell it here. Through the happy success of an enthusiastic youth, the tragedy comes through, of the older generation whose children were torn from them by the stronger hand of the new order - and here is the poem in its full text:
Alone at the Seder
(Note: Not translated line by line)
Reb Zalman has forgotten today that the beautiful, large cabinet, that he made with nightly work, that he sold it last night for almost nothing. Not for shoes and not for bread, but for the love of Pesach - matzah, morror and haroseth he now has in his home - everything, matza, fish meat and shmaltz. Three flasks of wine, good quality and with a Kosher certification. And his Shprintze (his wife) is overheated, having used her strength fully, so that everything turned out well and tasty, the soup with fat and the Pesach fish is delicious - sugar sweet. All is finished. All is ready. The sun is setting afar, and soon the Seder will be held. But something is missing in the room. Reb Zalman starts to think - Is everything proper? What's missing? Oh, the children! That is really surprising. Just yesterday with their parents they ate supper together. And today? In this holiday time - not one of them is here. Reb Zalman sits, confused. The wine spills on the tablecloth. The fish has lost its flavor, the knedelakh bitter as gall. The Haggadah lies nearby, wrinkled up, as though from the rain. In the corner sits Shprintze, beclouded. The candlesticks burn without giving light and an emptiness comes over the room and destroys the ancient Seder.
4. The Publishing of Books of Religious Character
A separate chapter was that of the distribution in print of holy books in Bobruisk, practically to the end of the 20's. Thanks to the initiative and the stubbornness of the elder book seller, Jacob Hacohen Ginsburg, the printing of prayer books, Psalms, Haggadas, etc., continued, even after the edict to outlaw printed Hebrew books in every corner of the government's reach. Ginsburg analyzed the Soviet regulations, which did not even once forbid explicitly the printing of books of a religious character, and found how to overcome or surmount all the warnings that the administration directed to him. In as much as it was difficult to get a permit for a quantity of paper to print these particular publications, Ginsburg printed the books on old [matritzn], from before the revolution era, and not only in one place, but in several cities. According to information published in the Soviet Press in 1928-9, Ginsburg published his books in Bobruisk, Minsk, Slutsk, and in far off Poltava, where the publisher A.M. Rabinovitch, the son of Rabbi Akiva Rabinovitch, worked with him. According to the Komsomolskaya Pravda, Ginsburg printed in the 2 years, 1927 and 1928, approximately 100,000 copies of holy books. The paper writes To his servants come book-handlers, who deliver his books directly to the believers. No agent of our publishing house will be able to compete with them in their shipping and distributing of books. About a year later the Bobruisk apikoyres protested strongly, why does the power structure supply Ginsburg with paper and permit him to conduct his counter-revolutionary activities? You can find him", protested the anonymous informer, in all the higher institutions in Ukraine, where he seeks permission to print his prayer books in the government press of Poltava. You can find Jacob in Kherson, where he prints the Haggada for his Pesach; you can find him, Jacob, in Leningrad where his is buying paper supplies; and in the whole power organization you will find him, Jacob. And soon came practical suggestions: stop the concessions that Ginsburg receives from the postal service in sending his books; forbid him to sell books in Yiddish and Russian, and most important, place heavy taxation which will finally liquidate him. And certainly Ginsburg's publishing activities quickly ended. At the end of 1928, his last book The Calendar for 1929 was printed , which was, in fact, the last Hebrew book that was published in the Stalin era in the whole Union.
In Bobruisk in 1928, there was published two notebooks of collections, Yigdil Torah about New Torah Questions and Halacha, which Rabbi Yehezal Abromsky from Slutsk and Rabbi Sh. I. Zayvin from Novozibkov put out. Getting permission to distribute the book collections is a great wonder and leads one to think about the necessity of the central Soviet power to demonstrate to the Jews in other lands and especially in the United States, that there is in the Soviet Union, freedom for religion for the Jews - and after the two notebooks were printed and could be shown to the Jews of the other countries who visited the Soviet Union, they then stopped the publishing of the collection according to a special edict.
In summary, Bobruisk had the privilege of being the last of those places where the final sparks of the Hebrew word in the Soviet Union were extinguished after a ten-year death agony.
5. The Supression of the Zionist Movement
On the surface, the Zionist Movement received a severe blow after the occupation of the city by the Communist regime, which saw in it the embodiment of the counter-revolution in the Jewish streets, when many of the middle and well-to-do left the city and groups of the first "pioneers" made aliyah to the Land of Israel at the end of the Civil War. But quickly, people were found who continued the Zionist activities, particularly among the younger generation. A number of these, as did their brothers and relatives, made aliyah to Israel, and the rest found their way by means of protesting against the new regime, which attempted to destroy the Jewish life and impose on the Jews a foreign and distant culture. Many of these were former students of the "Kheder Metuken" which rooted in them a love of the Hebrew language and of everything that was connected to it.
The Zionist work was conducted in various manners and directions. Thus, for example, the activities of the Maccabe" were renewed, (which the powers had previously liquidated) under the guise of making it a sport club. That kosher club which had received from the authorities a professional instructor took first place among the sport clubs in the city. He arranged for special evenings on Hannuka or other Jewish Holidays. The Club was a drawing point for the Jewish youth, among which many of them who were competent and trustworthy were counted in on the Zionist-pioneer underground work.
The underground work was conducted in narrow circles which were mostly bound to the two types of Russian Hechalutz - the legal and the illegal. (The legal Hechalutz received permission to do its work only in the communities of the Soviet Russia. In Belarus and Ukraine all such activities were forbidden).
There also existed youth circles in Hechalutz and in the framework of the youth organization Kadimah (which joined the United Organization of Zionist Youth in Russia), and the Hashomer Hatzair (which was started in Russia in May 1922 as a Zionist Scout organization) and the Farband (the Joint Jewish Socialist Youth). All these organizations did not add up to more then several tens of members. They were divided into groups of 5 to 6 fellows.
These activities - reading Zionist literature, speeches, leadership work among children and youth were conducted in fields on the other side of the Berezina River, on boats which sailed on the Berezina and in private homes of sympathizers and Zionist of the older generation.
It did not take long before there began to be arrests, trials and exiles to northern Russia, Siberia and Turkestan. The first prisoners had the fortune to receive, after a certain time, exit permits to go to the Land of Israel. In 1924-25 there was permitted a legal aliyah and several families from Bobruisk and surroundings used the opportunity and made aliyah.
At the end of the 20's all organized Zionist work ceased in the town, and only individuals, whose number, it appears, were not small, carried in their hearts the remembrance of the Land of Israel, but dared not carry out activities in the atmosphere of terror, which became stronger with every manifestation of Jewish independence.
6. The Organizational and Cultural Doings of the Yevsektsia
Upon the destruction of Jewish culture, religious and material, the Jewish Communists tried to establish a Jewish-Soviet culture. In Bobruisk, with her Jewish residents, they found the ideal place for their work. The Communists had a large support from the Bund of whom a large number were bound up heart and soul with the Communist Party and with its associated organizations.
Intensive organizational and cultural activity was conducted between the managers of the workers (called kustars in the languageof the new regime) and the workers. This effort suffered not a little from the fact that specialists were lacking, because of many that left Bobruisk, some emigrating and some going to large centers such as Minsk and Moscow.
In the trade unions there developed Communist cells; cells of Communist youth; cells of apikorsim (heretics) and the like. There were appropriate clubs for every trade union.
In its propaganda, the Yevsektsia supported itself from the poorer strata. The workers who were not privileged to immediately have a paradise on earth, were obviously improved in their standing in society, and a better future was assured, if not for them, then for their children.
In a literary collection from a circle of young workers" which was published in Bobruisk in 1927, named Onset, a large part was dedicated to describing the difficult lives of the poor masses in the pre-Revolutionary period. A central place was taken in the collection, by the poem Sloboda" by Levin who describes the poverty of the well known poor quarter in Bobruisk." This was reminiscent of the Poverty Song" of H. N. Bialik.
It was clear to the youth that the only way that could ensure them a future in the life was to go in step with the new regime. The elders - the religious, the Zionists - were poor, beaten down and hopeless. The young poet Henech Shvedik expresses in one of his poems: My father draws me to the earth, He doesn't let me advance, or grow" and when the poet realizes that his father symbolized nothing other than death, he casts him off the precipice, and feels himself free from the past; And I feel so light, and free" and the poem ends with a line which bears witness to the fact that a heavy pain presses on the soul of the poet: My father circles silently in the abyss."
In the 1930's the ideological band draws tight. At first there was a cleansing action against the Zionist elements"; they were expelled from all key positions in all the general societal institutions, and the press called to pull out by the roots the Jewish Chauvinism. Later a propaganda was set up to condemn the Bund as an ati-revolutionary factor. This was very important but not lightly undertaking in such a previous center of Bundism as Bobruisk where a large number of active officials in the Communist party came from Bundist lists.
Characteristic of such actions is a correspondence written in Emes in early 1934, about a scandal that occurred in the city library in which a set of books about the counter-revolutionary Bundists by Medem and Michalovitch were loaned out to a reader. The librarian, guilty of handling Bundist contraband" was fired from his post and the Leninist purity was restored. A committee of teachers in the library took upon themselves to control the books in the library and threw out all the forbidden books.
Permission to express nationalistic feelings was granted to the Jews of Bobruisk in the early 1930's, in conformity with the action to set up a Jewish autonomous region in Birobidjan. We know that youth from Bobruisk (among them the poet Henekh Shvedik.) were among the Birobidjan pioneers. That portion of AZE'T", (those who gave help for Birobidjan in Bobruisk) were among the most active in Belarus. They conducted enlightenment and propaganda work, in the factories, among the youth and in the shuls. When AZE'T" was liquidated in 1938, the Jewish societal activities came to an end in Bobruisk.
7. The Jewish Schools
In the place of the kheders (classes) which were closed, there arose in the city a network of Jewish schools. Already in the school year 1924-5 there were in Bobruisk 12 Jewish Soviet schools with 1,775 students. Two years later the count rose to 2,400. It is a shame that we don't have the count for the next years. But it is clear that in Bobruisk and surroundings, the schools continued longer than in other towns because the Belarussian schools could not compete with them. Esther Feldman tells in her memoirs that she took upon herself in the "Institute for Scientific Study of the Non-Russian schools in the Soviet Union" (in Moscow) to write a dissertation on the theme The Situation of the Teacher in the Jewish Peoples' Schools." She went to Minsk, where the manager of the Jewish school (one of the few remaining in town) advised her to go into the circles and ready herself for the local schools, in those districts where Yiddish was still the ruling language. And with this advice, she went into the Bobruisk circles.
In the official Soviet press we find, truly, good notices about the situation of the Jewish-Soviet education, and in Emes of September 1936, there is told about a visit to a Jewish school named for Stalin which was built in that year, and the director was Comrade Khinitsh". According to the lists, about 3,000 children were studying in the Jewish schools out of a total of 12,000 students in the town. However, in less than a year we read in Emes that in Bobruisk, Jewish groups were closed out in the kindergartens, and the children were transferred to Russian and Belarussian child institutions. Even in the new factories, where hundreds of Jews worked, the Jewish kindergarten was closed, due to the initiative of the manger who convinced the parents that they should request transfers for their children to the Russian kindergarten.
Another witness tells that in 1939 all the Jewish schools in the town were closed, and the students were brought over to the Russian and Belarussian schools. Thus was ended in Bobruisk, as in other towns in the Soviet Union, the dream of a Communist school in Yiddish. Those who busied themselves with strong hatred, choked off the Kheder and the Hebrew school, hoping to build on their ruins a secular Yiddish school, received their reward. Because you drowned someone, you were drowned." (from Pirke Avot)
The only residual for Yiddish cultural activity was the dramatic circles of whose existence we know from various sources.
8. The Catastrophe
Until the outbreak of the 2nd World War, the Jewish Bobruisk was sunk in a lethargic sleep, from the nationalistic and societal viewpoint. The city which had grown and become an industrial center, received a fully Russian, Belarussian, character, while the Jews took an active part in the economic and social life, this was in the general Soviet framework. The arrival of a group of refugees, escapees from the part of Poland that the Nazis occupied, brought a special revival. From what the refugees tell, it is clear that they were received very warmly by the Bobruisk Jews, and received assistance in getting jobs and apartments. The older folks were happy to meet Jews who were rooted in the Yiddish language and culture and watched over them as an example and demonstration to their children, who were pulled away during the Soviet period and whose Jewish spiritual content was very weak.
On June 22, 1941, Hilter's murderous bands penetrated into the governing councils and in a few days they were in Bobruisk. The resistance of the Red Army was broken by the pressure of the German tanks and weapons and the city was destroyed by the slaughter. Blackened skeletons of bones, torn telephone wires, fallen fences. The nearer one comes to the center, the more frightful the picture of the destruction. Twisted doors and windows, furniture and other household objects thrown into the streets. The central streets blocked by automobiles and wagons. The Nazis were everywhere. The motors roared wildly. Screeching, shouting orders were heard. The air was filled with smoke and soot. This was Bobruisk as described by a Soviet officer who arrived in the town shortly after it fell.
Soon an order was promulgated that all Jews must wear a yellow band on their arms. According to the witness report of the partisan, Chashe Berkovitch, the Germans already by the 5th of August, 1941, had gathered 800 men, drove them out to an unknown place from which they never returned. Within several days the Jews were concentrated in a ghetto. The Germans had assistants amongst the Belarussians. These people wore white bands on their sleeves - a sign that they had been given their powers (by the Germans). In a short time they were organized into three police sections under the command of a German officer, and their duty was to keep order and security in the town.
Bobruisk was near the battle front for about 2 months, until August 19, when Gomel fell to the Nazis and the front switched to the Eastern side. In those days Bobruisk served as a base for the German army which fought in the Dneiper region. Front hospitals were opened in the town. Every day tens of solders and officers died of their wounds. The city gardens were transformed into cemeteries, where markers of birch wood were placed, and in them steel plates, The Germans sought carpenters to make caskets. The former factory, The Red Furniture Carpentry" became the center where the caskets were made. The carpenters were Jews.
With the front being father away, the powers were transferred to the Gestapo and to other groups of domestic police. In the entire occupied region the Nazis made preparations for a great slaughter of the Jewish people. On the anniversary of the October Revolution, the 7th of November, 1941, in the forests southeast of the city, long grave pits were dug. The communist underground in Bobruisk which had then taken the first steps of organizing itself, warned the Jews and advised them to leave the town, go into the forest and connect with the partisan groups who were already fighting there, but not many took that path.
In a notice appearing in Pravda about a year after the slaughter, the following was stated: "The Bobruisk residents will never forget the horrible days of the last of November when the Nazi man-eaters slaughtered all the Jews that remained in the town. Elderly and children were taken at night in vans and driven to the village of Yeloviki, near Bobruisk. There, deep graves were already prepared. The Jews were driven out of the vans and stood in 2 to 3 lines on the edge of the grave. Then they opened fire from machine guns. Many fell into the graves already dead and those that remained were thrown in by the Nazis, still alive. Children were taken from the arms of their mothers and were smashed against the walls of the grave. It is impossible to write of the savage actions of the Nazi wild beasts. When the graves were filled with bodies, the Nazis brought tanks and tractors which went over and leveled the earth. According to incomplete figures, in such a manner, 20,000 Jews from Bobruisk were destroyed. A general slaughter was also carried out in Hlusk, Paritch, Uzarich and Dragonavka. Amongst the murdered was also Reb Schmuel Alexandrov and the last Bobruisk Rabbi, Reb Shmuel Bespalov.
And thus reports a Russian eye witness: The occupiers made a ghetto from the quarters that were near the air field on the southeast side of Bobruisk. On the 5th of November, in the early morning, they began to bring them from all parts of the city. The women, children and elders, half-naked. Quickly, quickly," screamed the wild Gestapo personnel. The women lamented, the children cried, as they felt that every step brought them closer to a sure death. A heavy snow was falling, the wind hit into their faces. The long march lasted into the late night hours. In the houses that were emptied of their dwellers, there began a robbery. Through the broken windows and doors, household goods were taken. The Nazis robbed them of everything that came into their hands.
In the morning it became known in town that the people were taken to the forest where they were shot near the channels which were especially dug out. The information about the slaughter of the Jews was confirmed by the fact that several days later, stores were opened where the Germans sold the items that were taken from the victims, and now they were choosing presents for their families in Germany. Adding to this writing, it must be said that many of the Belarussian residents busied themselves not only in organizing the mass murder, but also in the robbery of the Jewish goods and merchandise and selling them.
On the same day, they carried out a slaughter of the Soviet war captives - about 20,000 - who were held in prisons in Bobruisk. The Nazis set fire to several barracks and fired upon those who tried to save themselves from the fire, with machine guns. The count of those killed by fire and guns was about 4,000.
The direct responsibility for all these actions, the destruction of the Jews and the murder of the Soviet prisoners - was that of the German commander of Bobruisk- Major General Homan.
Among the non-Jews there were a few who tried somehow to help their Jewish neighbors. We mentioned previously the warning of the underground people. There were instances where Belarussian families hid and even adopted Jewish children. There is a new member of the family," a Russian eye witness tells. This was a 5 year old girl, Gaila. Her parents were murdered by the Nazis. Sabatayeva decided to save the child from death. At the risk of her life she brought Galia, wrapped in a coat to her house . The child cried for a long time, called for her mother, and longed for her sister, who the Nazis had also shot. Sabatayeva cared for the child, fed her with the best delicacies....Galia was surrounded by love and sorrow. Slowly she became calmer and calls her rescuer, Sabatayeva - Aunt mother." Thus was destroyed most of the Bobruisk Jews. Those who survived were those who had the foresight to flee from the city, and those who found a hiding place with trusted Russian neighbors and those who were mobilized before the war into the Russian Army. Twenty years after the spiritual destruction, came the physical destruction and annihilation of the Bobruisk Jewish community.
9. The Underground and Partisan Movement in Bobruisk and Surroundings
For three years (July 1941-July 1944), the Nazis [geveltikt] in Bobruisk. The city was converted into an important military base. From this the Germans outlined their rule upon the entire region, making an effort to the rest to guard the crossroads and the railway lines of the local command and the refugee camps," relates a Russian eyewitness, there was a concentration camp and several prisons of the S. D. and the "Abver" (the espionage division)."
In the forests around Bobruisk there began to be organized a partisan movement. The first partisans were the remainder of the divisions of the Red Army which fortuitously remained in the region and could not connect with their comrades, who gave way eastward. With them stood the activists of the Communist Party and the people of the Soviet aparat who had drawn a death sentence on the part of the Nazis. The more the partisan movement grew, the more the Nazis revealed their bestiality, and more severe they made the life of the population. In many areas the partisans were stronger than the Germans, also in Bobruisk they had active underground organizations. They led a difficult battle with the elements which collaberated with the Germans, attacking Nazi positions and damaging railway lines. The movement grew - at the end of 1942 a special partisan regiment was organized in the Bobruisk region, and in the spring of 1943 - a second regiment. These two regiments established with themselves the first Bobruisk Partisan Brigade," which included itself in the general partisan movement in Belarus.
In the spring of 1943, Bobruisk was yet an important military staging point of the enemy. Here they established afresh and organized the armies which were sent to the front, and also units of the treacherous ones to the battle with the partisans. In various places they organized courses to prepare spies and saboteurs in order to introduce them into the Soviet hinterland. Here they organized the punishment expedition against the partisans."
In anticipation of the year 1943, with the approach of the Red Army to Belarus, the Nazis made great effrorts to stand up against the assault upon the Dnieper line, and Bobruisk was a link in the chain of military bases which made up the Belarus Bridgehead. At the time that the Red Army was conducting this outward point, the partisans sharpened their domestic assaults, organizing the attacks upon the railways," which paralyzed the German transport paths. In these attacks upon the railways, the Bobruisk Brigade had quite an important assignment, strongly damaging the vital railraods which went through Bobruisk. The history of the partisan movement in the Bobruisk region is related by the partisan leader in his book The Country of the Partisans.
At the end of 1943, the upset Nazis thought about hiding their crimes. The bodies of the murdered Jews, which were buried in ditches near the hamlets Kaminka, Yeloviki, and also near the Jewish cemetery in Bobruisk itself, were taken out of the graves, lain in a pile and burned. This work Soviet prisoners were forced to do, who were shot after they finished their work, and because there was little time to finish this job, the Nazis tried to efface the traces of the mass graves, they plowed the soil under and sowed wheat etc.
10. The Red Army Takes Bobruisk
In the spring of 1944, the line came for the freeing of Bobruisk from the Nazi yoke. 12 brigades of the German infantry were then encamped in the Bobruisk region, a tank brigade and many support divisions - they all comprised the defensive line which ran adjacent to the rivers Drut and Dnieper (from Rogatshov to Zhlobin) and thence deployed westward cutting through the Berezina on the south side of Paritsh and continuing up to Pripet. This defensive line was composed of 5-6 lines of trenches, joined by many canals which covered a pass 6-8 kilometers in length. Barbed-wire fences, mine fields, and anti-tank weapons defended the line, which went in front of the trenches. The city of Bobruisk itself was especially strongly fortified: Two defensive lines circled the city, all stone houses and cellars were converted into fire-points, barricades were placed in the streets.
On the 24th of June, 1944, Soviet forces began their attack with a severe bombardment, and on the same day they broke through the enemy lines southward of Paritsh. Two days later, they captured Hlusk, and the parallel highway of Bobruisk to Slutsk was cut. In the morning (6/27), the Miradina Station fell and the railway line from Bobruisk to Osipovitsh was interrupted. At the same time also the highway which led from Mohilev to Bobruisk was blockaded and the city was from all sides surrounded by the Russian Army.
In the time when the cheif forces of the Red Army marched to Minsk and Slutsk, there remained several brigades to finish the capture of Bobruisk. A strong infantry assault, accompanied by tanks and suppported by airplanes and river boats, cut through the German bridgehead at two o'clock, the attempt of the Germans to rip through the seige ring in the northwest direction failed. After a powerful assault by aircraft, after which came a rapid forward advance of the infantry, on the 28th of June the Nazi forces on the eastern side of the Berezina were completely liquidated. 10,000 of them were annihlated and 6,000 were led into captivity. In the city itself, 10,000 Germans were annihlated. On the morning of June 29th, a large part of the German military forces (eight thousand men, approximately) beat a path to Shtshedrin, but again there they were assaulted and annihlated (in the course of two days), and the city was liberated the same day. In the morning, Slutsk fell, and three days later, the victorious Red Army entered Minsk.
Among the prisoners was the ruler of the murderers, the Nazi military commandant of Bobruisk, the general with the symbolic name - Homan.
The Bobruisk Operation" takes an honorable place in the history of the Soviet War of Liberation. The divisions which distinguished themselves during the encirclement of the German Army, annhilating it and seizing the rail junction and the city of Bobruisk were - according to Stalin's order - awarded the honorary title Bobruisker."
11. The Part of Jews in the Underground and Partisan Movements
We have meager information about the part of Jews in the underground and partisan movements in the Bobruisk region. It's not hard to understand the reasons thereof. In the beginning of November, while the anti-Nazi underground movement was still in its infancy, already the greater part of the Jews of Bobruisk were killed. Several days days before the mass-murder," relates in his congregational talks the Bobruisk partisan B Feygin, a small group of Bobruisk Jews left the city and went away to the forests to join up with the partisan units, but no one knew where the patisans could be found , because until the spring of 1942 their numbers were insignificant. They were not active and it was impossible to know in which forests they hid themselves. The people walked around in the forests much of the time hungy and exhausted, only some reached their goal and united with the partisans."
In the time when tens of thousands of Jews lived in the Minsk ghetto until May 1942, and many thousands were still in the Minsk work camp until they were finally annihlated in October 1943 - there were multitudes of Jews in Bobruisk and vicinity already gone. It is no wonder, then, that in Minsk County hundreds and thousands of Jews took an active part in the underground and in the partisan movement. In Bobruisk, Jews took part in the partisan movement as individuals, and yet few in the city underground, and this was understandable: at this time, in relation to the Belarussians, the Nazis were satified with enslaving and humiliating them, and as long as they did not show any sign of open rebellion, they let them live, but obviously if it was revealed that someone was a Jew, it was enough to condemn him to death.
Also, in the forests, among the partisans it was healthier for a Jew not to stress his national extraction, because the antisemetic propaganda infiltrated also into the circles which were oppposed to the Nazi regime, and one can assume that some Jewish fighters who were in the forests endeavored to blend in with the Christian partisans and ban their Jewish names in Russian.
Among the Jewish partisans in Bobruisk County whose names come to us, one must mention Khashe Berkovitsh - a woman of more than sixty years, who fled Bobruisk after her husband and son were taken away from home in August 1942 and never came back. She joined a partisan group, cooked for them, did their washing, cared for the wounded and walked around the hamlets disguised as a Belarussian woman, brought important news about the movement of the Germans in the area and elicited drugs and bandages for her comrades. In the acknowledgement which she got from the 257th Division of the 8th Brigade of Rogatshov, it is noted that: the citizen Khashe Berkovitsh not once went into action in Tikhinitshi and Zlitshi, and brought their important information. When the Germans blockaded the forests, she would bring us food and weapons."
We also find among the partisans in Belarus Victor Izrailevitsh Mikorski, who participated in the partisan movement in the Bobruisk region from 1941. He was commander of the diversionary unit in the Bobruisk Partisan Brigade, he received the distingished honor of First Order of the War for the Fatherland" and four other medals. In his memoirs, a part of which we bring forth in this book, it is hard to know whether he was a Jew or not, and only the name of his father: Izrail - Israel - shows that he was a son of a Jewish family.
In one of his poems writes a Jewish fighter, a resident of Bobruisk, Finieh Plotkin:
This was in forty-two, an entire day
The enemy ripped into our side,
One of us said to the zampolis:
I want to be a Communist in the hard time.
A quarter of a paper was handed to him,
A piece of a pencil only he had,
The short annoncement is finished, and soon
We all went away to the battle.
All around was fire and flame,
Only afar resounded the comrade's voice,
He was the first to go, and then
No one wanted to fall behind him.
He fell upon the sunny ground,
Not far from a half-burned hamlet,
And those who live were destined,
Were given a push forward
The enemy went away from this place -
Soldiers left and so many weapons.
This happened in the year forty-two
When we were yet very hard.
12. Jews in Bobruisk After the Second World War
A half-jubilee has passed since the day when the Jews of Bobruisk were killed. Very few know about the situation and fate of the Bobruisk Jews to this day. It turns out that Jews began to return to their city as soon as it was liberated from the Nazis. In a news report which showed up in the press beginning in 1946, it was related that in Bobruisk, there were already 6,500 Jews. In a letter published in Unity at the same time, signed by Eyzik Kahan, is portrayed the restoration of Bobruisk after the war, the building up of factories, producer cooperatives, etc. According to the letter-writer, there were already then in the city 18,000 Jews. At the peak of so many producer cooperatives stood Jews, also the cheif engineer of the planning division were the Jews Shuster and his assistant.
According to the census of January 1959 there were in the whole of Belarus 150,000 Jews (as opposed to 407,000 in 1926). In the Mohilev Guberniye, which according to the new administrative partition Bobruisk belonged to, there were 28,438 Jews (only 7,634 of them gave Yiddish as their spoken language).
One can assume that not a few of the 150,000 Jews were here among the 98,000 Bobruisk residents (the population of the city is counted today at 100,000 souls). Others estimate the Jewish population of the city at 30,000 souls.
It turns out that in the city, there still remains a community of pious Jews, memorial plaques in Yiddish and Hebrew were placed upon the graves of those murdered in our great Holocaust. In a letter which came to us from Bobruisk, it is said that on the anniversary of the gruesome murder, candles burn on in the minyans and souls are remembered. In 1959, Bobruisk was among the cities where it was forbidden to bake matsos for Passover. It is also written in the letter concerning hearing the censoring of the Voice of Israel" etc. Until today Bobruisk was not yet included in the lists of the cities in which tourism was permitted and foreign guests were permitted to visit.
Short and coherent: thousands of Jews still live in Bobruisk in the fifth decade of the Soviet regime. But, as with all Jews in the Soviet Union, the right to maintain religious or national institutions was taken from them. Their future and the future of their children was with the general fate of the Jews in the Soviet Union.
Let us remember them, let us mention them, and let us hope that they will also live to see days of renewal and redemption.
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