by Meir Yoshke Itskovitsh (son of Nosn)
Translation by Tina Lunson
With the help of this pen and my memory, I will bring to paper partly in verse and partly in prose my recollections of Divenishok: her streets and lanes, homes and people. This is my last stroll through the town where I was born, grew up, studied in kheyder and shul, played, dreamed and struggled until the German murderers wiped everything away. Therefore I want to revive on paper various figures and events from Divenishok.
There was a shtetl by the name of Divenishok, near the Gavya River, where Jews lived, various kinds, poor and rich, all were equal: Aba the shoemaker, Leybl the smith, Bentshe the wealthy. One person lived in want, hoped for a better future, and strove towards that. Meanwhile the fish that were plentiful in the Gavya River sufficed and a second person was pleased that he lacked for nothing and ate to his fill.
But on shabes [Tr. note: Jewish sabbath] in the besmedresh [Tr. note: study house] little Frume from the poor house and Khiene, wife of Nosn, prayed from the same book and benefited from the prayers. And not only on shabes when all the Jews ate khale [Tr. note: braided white-bread loaf], even Yankl the aeroplane [Ed. note: a nickname] sought out a bit of chicken and forgot that he was the ultimate pauper.
As I said, there was a shtetl Divenishok and we will not see it again. My little shtetl, similar in some ways to others, to me you are unique. I will not forget you in joy and in good times, or in sorrow, in German captivity without food, when I sat full of memories about food, dreaming, hoping and never forgetting. In the long, sleepless nights of cold to break my bones, my heart terribly bitter, I always had this prayer: God, I beg you, could I just see my shtetl again?
The black berries in the big clay jugs, the moss-covered straw roofs, and on them stalks of rye and white goats. Red berries, sour but juicy, sweet raspberries full of worms but tender. And red strawberries with little cheeks of white literally pleading 'take me and eat'! And where are the bilberries at Mikhal the blind's that grew on shrubs in the mud, but had an unexpected taste . And the fish, pike and tench Got mayns [Ed. note: My God!], how could I ever get that taste back?
And the yellow lisetskes [Ed. note: possibly a type of mushroom] and other mushrooms (I have already forgotten their names!). The spring water from the pump, sparkling in the copper wash basin. The awful soot and Hukshe the chimney sweep with his broom and flue.
Our wagon drivers, butchers with their fat arms, the inept tailors with their needles and waistcoats, and the water carrier Elka the mute.
Now the eve of Passover is coming and people are preparing for the seyder [Tr. note: ritual before the festive Passover meal], but not before they try to get rid of the bedbugs that danced freely around in the beds. Each person did it according to his patent: one found them with a candle and burned them; a second used kerosene smeared here and there with a ladle. Then later in the night someone got the idea to play a prank on a friend and carried a mattress over to another's house.
Thursday was market day, and Jews, rich, poor or stingy, made partnerships for buying fruit. And who, do you think, were the partners? Shaye Kaplan (nicknamed the cat) and Koheles the shames [Tr. note: beadle](who never had a groshen to his name) made a partnership. One of them paid and the other carried-- and they did not buy only fruit.
As winter approached with its biting cold, Jews turned the world on its ear in search of a partner for a sheep or a calf. The rich one paid and the poor one got half.
Now let's jump from the market to the women's section of the shul, which on shabes un yontiv [Ed. note: Sabbaths and holidays] was always full with women and girls, clad in dresses from American packages (because not everyone could afford to buy new clothes). The clothes were sent by whomever had an uncle, an aunt, or a cousin who was concerned about them. The praying and the prayers were not familiar to everyone, but their faces were always turned toward towards the eastern wall. When Munye the tailor began the prayer it was as quiet as on yonkiper [Tr. note: Yom Kippur] for neile [Tr. note: the evening's final pleading prayer]. It was no wonder that everyone loved his singing, since his voice was sweet and tender.
If a Jew from the shtetl had to travel overseas it was an unusual event. As soon as he would start packing his baggage someone would start baking sweets for him to take along-- but finding a suitcase? Who in town had such a thing? Or a handbag? I remember that Rive Leye's daughter Minke had such a thing. But packing was a specialty of Peysakh the shoemaker, he could put the proper squeeze to it. He got everything in, closed and bound, nice and fine.
Do you remember Leyble the Smith and his wife Manke, who always had that heavy hammer in her hand, standing in the forge and fanning the fire, even pounding on the anvil, and not letting in her husband: because Leyble, the moment he earned one zloty from a peasant, got the desire for a shot of brandy, and one-two he was through the garden, harnessed up, and off to Tsalke Hinde's restaurant, downing a whole liter of hooch until his head spun and trembled like a bell.
Where are you, my Jews, the simple and the wise, where is Yankl the artshom [Tr. note: meaning unknown] and the manufacturer Yatke from Seltz? Where is Leyzer the Guide, where are the wooden houses, Lolke Sutskever, the pendulum, and the shabes candlesticks of polished nickel? I remember Dobke Rivele's and Minke, their walls decorated with pictures. Eli the worm and Shaye the cat, Slove the little and Slove the big, their cries, tears and laughter and play who can make a reckoning of all that, dear God!
In summer we boys slept on the porch at Elke Meyshe's and when Vikte the gentile went at dawn to the river with laundry and our fathers went to pray with the first minyan, we, quite to the contrary, took an interest in Zoshke the plataver's [Ed. note: unknown word] daughter; and along the way bought bagels made with eggs from Itke-Sime. It did not matter who paid, Altlik, Arke, or Mayer. After that we went jumping around in the water, not far from the flax warehouse, in the enclosure. There, our little group watched the gentile Zoshke, and especially Mayer-Yoshke.
She was blonde and beautiful, and did not differentiate between Jews and Christians. She was not disturbed by my long nose or profile. She knew what I meant, and decided for herself the intent. Zoshke's father was not a friend of Jews, or a chum, but Jews from the shtetl brought their cows to him (excuse me, not to him but to his bull).
If we are going to talk about bathing, it is no wonder in a shtetl such as ours that women and men bathed separately. Reyshke the Rov's, as lovely as the world, bathed in the hot and in the cold weather. We boys, hidden, marveled at her body from a distance.
I will indulge in mentioning Alter Yashe Nashe's, who had recipes for every illness and fever. If a Jew encountered misfortune, or if someone delivered him a hard blow (may we not know about such things), if in the middle of the night an only daughter disappeared and the whole house went crazy people turned to Mr. Alter and he went to the patient, quietly and calmly, without a question and answer, and with something cooked up from pap that he smeared on here and there, after a few days only a memory remained of the irritation. But instead of incantations and spells Mr. Alter swung a black hen around over his head and soon the problem disappeared.
Itshe Levine was a dear man, but cursed, poor thing, with a humpback. Zeydke Lubetski said of him: and it was evening and it was morning on the front a hunch and on the back a hump.
Meyshe the tinsmith, even in the midst of his work hammering holes out of a grater, would push his glasses up higher, to his cap, and take an opportunity to recite a few psalms by heart. But when someone had a toothache he knew what to do: he dipped a wad of cotton into vitriol and placed it in the tooth hole like a patch. It burned in your mouth but the ache was calmed. Meyshe the tinsmith was a saint of a Jew, upholding the holy Torah, doing only good deeds, and shielding himself against wrong-doing. When Jews hurried from shul on Friday evening to go home for supper, Meyshe never forgot to invite a guest home for shabes.
Hirshel Krizovski, a relative of our family, the genius of the town and an accomplished romantic, was a photographer by trade and by retouching he could transform a Jewish pauper into a Polish nobleman. Hirshel was also a revolutionary, but an honest one, with idealism. Even more, he played in the theater, also directing and carrying out his activity of conspiracy. He was a quiet Jew, modest and proper, so that even on the eve of shabes as the Rov hurried through town calling out Yidn, bentsh likht! [Tr. note: Jews, (light and) bless the candles!], Hirshel turned and went straight to the besmedresh.
I recall how Hirshel used to search each face for the photogenic profile, turning the head to all sides as it was warm or cool, and then said Look into the camera. And everyone obeyed him. My heart is heavy, very heavy, as I think about Hershel: the young man with the curly forelock, clever eyes and serious mien, who died trying to better the world until that world was exterminated and destroyed.
Ah, I can certainly not forget how we used to fight a fire in our town. The fire fighters' brigade consisted of only Jews, so it is no wonder that more than one house burned down. As soon as a fire, a conflagration, broke out, or some other kind of plague, either the wagon shaft for the horse was missing, or she was out grazing in a field, and you could talk to a lamp or to the wall because the fire was burning, as everyone knew. The only one who appreciated and understood, as is said, a fat groshen, was the insurance agent, Anisim's son from Malinovke. I recall that many years ago the chief Velvke Lubetski attended a course, dressed up in a red uniform with shiny buttons, and the Jews in the shtetl danced with joy. He came back from the course full of enthusiasm and related what he had learned there, including some praise for himself: They set a ladder up against a five-story building and asked who was prepared to climb up. No one answered, everyone remained silent. The only one who would take up and answer the challenge with a loud Good was I, Velvke. I started up the ladder, while everyone else was in a cold sweat. But they looked at me with respect and no wonder, because heroes always arouse childhood fantasies.
Some time went by after that story when the alarm siren suddenly sounded. Women wrung their hands, Woe is me, where is the fire? Who is burning? No one saw any fire and indeed there was no fire (as they say there: no bears and no woods [nothing of the kind]). It was just an attempt to see how a Jewish fireman would manage. The regional chief inspector, visiting from another town, had arranged for a false alarm. [Velvke] looked in the book that the course had provided. Seeing that his firefighters were not as fast as he had thought, his blood began to boil, he started to shout and spit, curse and swear, move worlds with the Polish psiakrew and cholera [Ed. note: both of these are Polish expressions of strong annoyance, anger, and irritation, akin to 'damn' or 'heck' in English] and asked himself, what is the wonder that the barrel and the horse are so far apart? The hose is torn, water put into it does not come out the other end. The tools are not prepared, nothing is where it should be. As the leader, so goes the soldier. He couldn't climb the ladder to the first floor
In Divenishok where there was a house, there was some kind of hole under the cooking oven. Hens were kept in there, to lay eggs and for some meat. Now that so many years have gone by, the secret can be told:
A strange rooster once came to visit at my father Nosn and mother Khiene's house. There was tumult and screaming, the hens did not lay one egg. Cockadoodle-doo, craw, craw. Who is this stranger here? One clever hen, no fool, went to the rooster and gave him a peck. It landed a rip by his upper lip, and she went away satisfied, in peace. Another, a speckled hen, thought that she was a peacock, began turning her tail around to him. But the rooster gave a look, a sniff, and quickly got away from her. Another hen, ready for anything, but holding herself large, with a torn nose the rooster circled her a little, then gave a flap with his wings and to this day that hen eats grass. This really is the case with hens but there is a moral in it for people too!
In every town, one day of the week is a market day. Divenishok was no exception. On the appointed day tens (and sometimes hundreds) of peasants came into town with the produce of their fields, gardens, orchards and livestock. From the pre-dawn hours caravans of wagons drew in, harnessed to one or two horses. There was no lack of those coming by foot, with packs on their shoulders or baskets in their hands.
At the entrance to the town, officers of the council collected a special fee, according to the quantity of merchandise each was bringing to sell. The Tatars came up from Subotnik Street, where they lived not far from Ivia. Their specialty was pelts and leather goods, although they also brought vegetables to sell. After harnessing their horses, they had all covered the horses with adzerushkes [Tr. note: meaning unknown] to keep the flies from biting them; and afterwards they raised the wagon shaft where they hung a pelt or a piece of a sole so that people could see from a distance what they had to sell.
Wagons drove in from Oszmiana and Dubizishok Streets with cattle tied to them, and calves or horses to sell. The wagons also held baskets of eggs and bound chickens. Opposite from Vilne Street the action was weaker, because the payment in that section was smaller.
There could be no doubt that almost all the merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, peddlers, zardarmnikes [Tr. note: meaning unknown] and even the thieves had been waiting for market day for their guest appearances from Vilne, in order to take advantage of the small-town innocents and peasants. Jews pleaded to God that it would not rain, because the market would be bad, but rather on a fine day the profits would be very different. There were several Jews who had their signs for rain:
If on Wednesday, the day before market day, the cows came in from the pasture and Mayer Nozi's black cow was leading, it was certain that it would rain in the morning. But if a heifer was in the lead it was certain to be a nice day. In our house there was a flower pot that foretold rain a day earlier by showing on its leaves drops of water like tears. It is likely that there were still other signs.
As the anti-Semites in Poland raised their heads and were encouraged by the government, a Christian cooperative food store opened in Divenishok, the so-called Spul-Dzhelnie on Subotnik Street, besides a Polish satellite business on Vilne Street, and even a Polish restaurant, in order to weaken Jewish business, to compete with Jewish merchants and market dealers. The anti-Semites also demanded to move the market outside the town, with the argument that the gathering of the masses and the filth would be the cause of disease among the residents, let alone the disrupted quiet. In truth, however, they sought to distance the Market from the center of the town, where the majority of Jewish shops were located. Thanks, however, to the energetic intervention of Jewish representatives with the sheriff [Ed. note: Starosta, the chief administrator of the county], and then the mayor [Ed. note: Voyvode, an official entitled to sit in the Polish Senate], the market remained in its old place. However, the partitioning of the market was altered:
Near the houses and shops, only carts with chickens, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and the like were allowed to stand. In the middle of the market a large place for cattle, calves, and sheep was designated-- and another place for pigs. In the middle of the square, they set aside a special house with a large scale for the weighing of those four-footed creatures. The horse market was moved to behind the church, in a large area that stretched from Oszmiana Street, near the pig place, up to Dubizishok Street. All the horse dealers went around here, known as koniukhes, some of whom were Christians with their horses, but most importantly came the Gypsies, who were well-known specialists in horse trading.
The sale of a horse took place like this: First you looked him in the eyes, to see whether he was blind; then in the teeth, in order to ascertain the age; and finally you drove him to see how he ran and be sure that he did not limp. Interestingly, the Gypsies' horses literally galloped during the trial run. Even a konine (what we called a horse of just skin and bone) galloped. Experts explained that with the help of pepper or alcohol in an unmentionable place, the Gypsies could spur any horse to run.
A Divenishok Jew named Itshe Gitlits (nicknamed Zshagin) was an even greater specialist in selling horses than the Gypsies. Although he was walleyed people said that one eye looked at Oszmiana Street and the other looked at Dubizishok Street he could run very fast with his little horse in a straight line, never veering from the path. One simkhes toyre when a gang of drunken pranksters promised Itshe a bottle of brandy if he could translate eyn k'eloheynu [Tr. note: There is no God like ours, a part of the Jewish liturgy] into the Gypsy language. He agreed and did get the brandy because who knew enough to check if the translation was correct?
The old men were also among the accomplished horse dealers. Such were Pesakh the elder and his son Broyna, who wore boots the whole year round, even in summer, and was never without a whip in his hand except for shabes, of course. A very different type of horse dealer was Leybl from Warsaw, a tall, broad-shouldered Jew who possessed extraordinary strength. The Christians in town were afraid of him and not one of them dared to start up with Leybl. Yet his area of greatest knowledge was equine diseases and the healing of them. This Leybl Varshavski as the Poles respectfully called him, had once taken a bet with some ten Christians to see who was the strongest. They made a big hoop out of old reins and put ten Christians inside on their knees with their heads sticking up through the reins. Leybl did the same thing on the other side. From the huge crowd that gathered around, the Poles encouraged their brethren while the Jews prayed for a miracle that Leybl would not fail. We heard the order Pull! and our Leybl dragged on the reins and all ten Christians fell into the sand.
Leybl also broke iron chains. I recall how once, with a wagon shaft in his hand, he drove away a market-square full of peasants. For us children it seemed as though he stuck a pointed knife into the drawn muscles of his hand and then the knife was withdrawn as if by a spring.
For the horse dealer Hirshel the tall, the Poles also had a great deal of respect too and fear. He was blonde and tall, nothing like a Jew, with red, full-blooded cheeks. He spoke Polish like a born Pole and in town it was said that he once put a piece of that other thing [Tr. note: pork] in his mouth. Hirshel's boots were always polished and he always had a whip in his hand.
No Jews were seen in the part of the market that was designated for hog dealing. Instead, the hog dealers and the other peasants, and the traveling Christian buyers and sellers, filled the Jewish shops and stalls, purchasing clothing, fur coats, shoes, boots, hats, manufactured goods, tin and metal products, household tools and foodstuffs.
The biggest earners on a market day were the restaurants. Tsalke Hinde's ran sweating and harried from one table to the next, serving brandy with snacks and not being shy about asking someone to pay upfront because he knew that after all was said and done there was no one left to talk to. He was also not afraid to tell a drunken goy, enough, and not serve him another glass.
More proper Christians ate and drank at Itshe Levine's. People also drank and stuffed themselves there, but there were no scenes or fistfights.
At Yankele Olkenitski's public house, people drank beer from the Papirmaysters and Pupkos breweries in Lida.
As night fell the police began to shoo the remaining peasants towards home. While the peasants were laying in their village homes, snoring, the Jews in Divenishok counted their takings and wished that the next market day would be a better one.
People in the shtetl said about Hershel Krizovski that he had a brilliant mind. He certainly did have rare abilities, read many books, and also studied from them. Thanks to them he was able to assemble a radio apparatus, the first in town. The box was set up in the Vilbig [acronym for the Vilne Education Organization] meeting place. Two wires came out of the box and led to two poles on the roof. They brought a big battery with another storage battery and the box acquired a 'tongue': it spoke and played music, and people came running to look and hear as if at some evil wonder. Whoever was speaking, even if the radio was just saying what the weather would be tomorrow, it was a sensation. The Jews were smarter than the radio though and always predicted when the meteorological station announced rain, it would surely be a lovely day.
The Oszmiana Forest got its name from the road that went through it to the provincial capitol [Oszmiana], where the most important state offices were located, offices where Jews always had to take care of dozens of district matters.
The youth, worry free, used the dense pine forest to stroll around, amuse themselves, and spend time together. Especially on shabes after the tsholent [Tr. note: a stew left to cook overnight in the cooling oven, as no fires may be lit or extinguished on the sabbath] when our parents were indoors taking a nap, we boys and girls went off to the forest, in groups, in pairs, or individually. The groups were called companies and they were mostly girls: Ferke Alte Noyekh's company, Bilke Peysi the beggar's company, and others.
The forest was an ideal place to play hiding games, or to chase each other among the trees, or the lie back on the grass and read a book or simply rest. Those who were tired from running around and from the games picked and ate berries that grew on bushes in the part of the forest where it was damp and dark, because the sun did not reach there due to the thickness of the trees. One could never be satiated with the delicious berries, because part of the pleasure of them was that they did not cost any money. The pleasure was not completely without care, because picking and eating the berries left black stains on our hands that would not go away for a long time. The berries also left telltale signs on our lips. Since these pleasures of the forest were only on shabes, some were afraid that on going home they would be punished by observant parents for violating shabes by picking berries. So we first went to the Gavya River, took wet sand from the water and scrubbed our stained hands with it. More than one person rubbed off skin and made a wound.
In time though, progress began to permeate even to Divenishok. Yankel Namiot, the supplier's son from Rogols' pharmacy who studied in a gimnazie brought a new invention to town: a special washing medium of sour salt whose application made the stains from the berries disappear. But where could one get sour salt? Most of our mothers could not afford to buy lemons, and so for cooking sorrel soup or beets they would buy sour salts at Rueben Kartshmer's pharmacy store. We children sniffed out where our mothers kept that merchandise and when we went off to the forest and the berries, we took along a few pieces of sour salt in our pockets. We did not always succeed in getting the sour salt to the forest because our pockets were full of holes from the pants being washed so much.
I remember that once when my mother was cooking sorrel soup and needed to add a little sour salt, she could not find any. There was an uproar in the house. My father said angrily several times that he did not know what kind of housekeeper forgets where she has put things away.
My mother did not know what to answer, although she was very annoyed because she did remember where she had put the sour salt. I did not have the courage to confess to the theft. After that around the shtetl it was said that sour salt was very helpful in washing stains from the hands, but that more than once it had disrupted the peace of a home.
by Shraga Blyakher
Translation by Leybl Botwinik
Divenishok was a small, quiet shtetl [Tr. note: village]. I left it in 1934 and made aliya to the Land of Israel. I loved the shtetl and its streets, houses and institutions. Like all its inhabitants, I knew almost every Jew there.
The Jews in the shtetl drew their livelihood from commerce and various professions: there were cobblers, tailors, carpenters, tinsmiths, and blacksmiths. Some lived from the monetary support and packages they received from relatives in America. There were also those that did not want to teach their children a profession because they believed it was beneath their dignity to have a craftsman in the family. Some of the youth continued their studies in Vilne, or in the Yeshivas of Radin and Volozhin, or just wandered around shiftlessly.
There were several philanthropic institutions in the shtetl: The Gmiles-Khsodim [Tr. note: charity fund], Bikur-Khoylim [Tr. note: for visiting and assisting the ill], and Linos Hatsedek [Tr. note: charitable aid society]. I remember Rebitsin [Tr. note: Rabbi's wife] Rudnik and the lady Sore-Ditse sending out pairs of youngsters to collect money for the poor. This mutual help was on occasion very significant. For example, if a coachman's horse expired, they would buy him a new one the next day.
Every Thursday, Market day, the merchants, retailers, and craftsmen were busy buying and selling. That single day would provide the shtetl's livelihood for an entire week. On the other days, one could see the bearded shtetl Jews sitting near the doorways of Zalmen Ortshik, Zalmen Kushes, or Nasan the Tailor, carrying on conversations about various issues. Gossip was not lacking.
The old and new Beys-Medresh [Tr. note: a synagogue that was both a house of worship and of learning] were to be found at the Shulhoyf [Tr. note: synagogue courtyard], as was the Rabbi's hovel When my father, ZL [Tr. note: of blessed memory] prayed in the old Beys-Medresh, he did so in his usual spot in front of the Orn Koydesh [Tr. note: place where the Torah scrolls are kept]. In the new Beys-Medresh he would stand to the right of the Orn Koydesh near the Rabbi, reb Yosef Rudnik, ZTsL [Tr. note: of saintly and blessed memory]. The most esteemed residents of the shtetl sat in the first row and among them the Gabay [Tr. note: manager of synagogue affairs], Munye the tailor. Mishnayes, ShaS, and Kitser Shulkn Orekh [Tr. note: various holy books] were studied on tables near the stove in the old Beys-Medresh. Every early evening, between Minchah [Tr. note: afternoon prayer] and Maariv [Tr. note: evening prayer] the merchants left their stores and the craftsmen their workshops, gathering in the Beys-Medresh to study a Blat Gemore [Tr. note: passages from the Gemarah or Talmud], or Mishnayes [Tr. note: passages from the Mishnah].
It would also be appropriate to recall the bath that was located at the Shulhoyf. We used to visit every Friday and derive great pleasure from the hot, refreshing vapor that steamed out of the stove, as well as the beatings on the back with the little sauna brooms. Jews, naked as the day they were born, would lie on the benches and breathe in the steam of the red-hot stones on the stove. During the summer, we abandoned the bath and went for a swim in the river off Ozsmiana Street. There were separate areas for women and men (without bathing suits). If an inquisitive eye happened to take a peek, the girls would hide among the bushes.
The Shulhoyf also contained the Tarbus Hebrew school, where the entire curriculum was taught in Hebrew. The Hashomer [Tr. note: Zionist self-defense movement] and Hekhaluts [Tr. note: Zionist youth movement] carried out their activities in the school too. After a meeting, my brother Tevye ZL and I would go to the synagogue to recite a chapter of T'hilim [Tr. note: Psalms]. The shtetl also contained the Bund organization [Tr. note: a Social-Democratic movement] that opposed Zionism, but its influence on the youth was minimal. The majority of the youth were Zionist oriented.
The Zionist organizations joined forces to set up the Hekhaluts to prepare the youth for aliya to the Land of Israel. The Hashomer Hatsair [Tr. note: youth division of Hashomer] and Hekhaluts did much for the Keren Kayemes [Tr. note: Jewish National Fund] and the Keren Hayesod [Tr. note: United Israel Appeal]. I recall that we once invited Shimon Vishnitski of the Hashomer Hatsair to our shtetl. His talk at the school stirred listeners.
We should also mention the teachers Avraham Aloni and Dubkin that did much to help the two above mentioned youth organizations carry out a large number of activities. We should also highlight the name of reb Arye Leyb Rogol, the chairman of the Zionist organization in Divenishok, who was the person responsible for facing the authorities with respect to all Zionist activity in the shtetl. During our meetings with him we spoke only in Hebrew. He had always wanted to make aliya. May his memory be honored!
We should also remember, in particular, the Rav Hagoyen [Tr. note: Rabbinical scholar] reb Yosef Rudnik ZTsL, that did much to further the Zionist activities. This was a gentle figure, loved by everyone in the shtetl because he was known as an honest Dayen [Tr. note: rabbinical judge] who cared for the suffering. He was devoted to the settlement of the Land of Israel, and both religious and secular Jews valued him greatly. He excelled as a speaker and stirred hearts with his words. The night he passed away, I sat with my brother Tevye reciting T'hilim all night. His memory will always accompany us!
I must also mention the amateur drama group that played dramas such as: Mekhires Yosef [Tr. note: The Sale of Joseph], Di Makhasheyfe [Tr. note: The Witch], Di Puste Kretshme [Tr. note: The Empty Inn], Der Vilder Mentsh [Tr. note: The Wild Man], Der Batlen [Tr. note: The Idler] and others. The role of the old woman was played by Bilke, Nosn's daughter, and Ester Rokhke ZL.
Thanks to the blessed work of Hashomer Hatsair and Hekhaluts many made aliya to the Land of Israel and were thereby saved from death during the years of the Second World War. It is worthwhile to mention the case where Yakov Bloch, Shloymke, and I - committee members of Hekhaluts - plucked'a few young people from the Communist youth organization and sent them through Hakhshara [Tr. note: preparation for aliya]. Today, they are with us here in Israel.
I remember what happened to Shloymke, the son of Itshe and Pesakh from Geranion [Ed. note: this is possibly a reference to Geranion Street in Divenishok]. When we sent him for Hakhshara, his parents sat shive [Tr. note: seven day mourning period for the newly dead]. They then approached me and Yakov Bloch, and wailed and pleaded that we shouldn't send their child to shmad [Tr. note: to convert away from Judaism]… Shloymke rebelled, completed his Hakhshara, and finds himself today with us in Israel.
The anti-Semitism in Poland grew in strength from day to day, and also reached our shtetl. We became convinced that our place was not in that country and began to immerse ourselves in aliya issues. Yakov Bloch, Ester Rokhke, Nokhmke, Minke, and I left for the Hakhshara camps in Lomzhe and in Grodne, and then made aliya to the Land of Israel. Here, news reached us that the activities of the Hashomer Hatsair and Hekhaluts were continuing. Zelig Rogel also came to the Land of Israel and we were hoping that after him others would arrive. Unfortunately, they did not make it…
As a youngster, I was a devoted Zionist and, with the creation of Hashomer Hatsair, gave my all to the movement. The following were outstanding members of Hashomer Hatsair: Yakov Bloch, Shloyme Levine, Aharon Kaganovitsh, Liovke Namiot. They carried out the cultural and organizational activity of the movement together with us.
After a certain period of time there was a split in Hashomer Hatsair. Friend Pundak (now a brigadier in the Israeli army) came to Divenishok and took a group of Hashomer Hatsair members with him to his Hekhaluts Hatsair [Tr. note: Zionist Youth young pioneers]. The difference between the two movements wasn't great, but there were certain ideological dissimilarities. The Hashomer Hatsair emphasized educational and ideological activities, while the Hekhaluts Hatsair leaned towards more practical work.
We had not yet recuperated from this fragmentation when there appeared on the scene Moshe Lubetski (the son of Khayim-Dovid) - a student at the Faculty of Law at the Vilne University - and he founded a branch of Betar [Tr. note: Revisionist Zionist youth movement]. Shmuel Sharon, Meir Yosef Itskovitsh, the Solodukhe brothers, and the sons of Pinkhas and of Betsalel Mintz joined him.
With the coming of Betar, interactions among the youth in the shtetl became aggravated. The Betar'ists would sometimes charge into the school and a fistfight would break out between the parents who had children in Hashomer Hatsair and those who had children in Betar.
Once, there was a meeting of Hashomer Hatsair with the participation of Shimon Vishnitski from the central leadership in Vilne. It's possible that the Betar'ists denounced us - suddenly policemen appeared and ordered everyone to disperse. One policeman arrested me, Orke Kaganovitsh, Liovke Namiot and Yakov Bloch. Later, Arye Leyb Rogol came to the police, calmed everyone down, and on his responsibility, those arrested were freed.
All organizations and institutions required official certification from the authorities in order to carry out their activities. This was particularly true concerning Jewish organizations. The Hashomer Hatsair had a lot of trouble getting its authorization because the Poles did not like the word 'socialism' and were in no hurry to hand over the certification. As long as the gatherings took place inside the school building, they were still kosher. However, if there needed to be a gathering in an open space outside, that became suspect as far as the police were concerned.
When Yakov Bloch and I went away for Hakhshara, the following were elected to run the Hashomer Hatsair: Khaykl Katsev, Moshe Levin, Tevye Blyakher, Sorke Levine, and Sore Teybke Gershovitsh. The cultural work was led by the teachers: Avraham Aloni, Sh. Dobkin, Betsalel Petukhovski, and others.
We would very often carry out a Blossom Day on the streets of the shtetl. The money that was gathered was marked for the Keren Kayemes. Such a Blossom Day began with a folks-gathering where the Zionist leadership of Divenishok would speak.
I made aliya in 1934 with the assistance of the Hakhshara group, but my contact with friends in Divenishok did not stop. I continued to follow what was happening in the shtetl with great interest, particularly concerning Hashomer Hatsair.
Oh, my tiny shtetl, cradle of my life, and home. The few that remain of you are like forlorn leaves of a beautiful tree. I recall the large marketplace and the surrounding houses with their beauty and charm. In the center, the tall white post with its boot-tree that shone like a golden crown. From all sides, the streets and passageways stretched, where old Jews, youth and children buzzed like in a beehive and blossomed like flowers.
During Shabes [Tr. note: the Sabbath], the daily burdens and noise disappeared, and in their place drifted in the Ruakh Hakoydesh [Tr. note: the Holy Spirit]. The youth that left the Beys-Medresh (after services) took advantage of the day to go for a walk, meet in groups, romance, and wanted in one breath to understand all the problems of the world. This was a youth that strove to know and dreamt a dream of a better tomorrow.
If the Shulhoyf was a place for the children to frolic and wile away the time, for the youth it was a spiritual corner where discussions were held, and news of the shtetl, the Land of Israel, and other countries were talked about. Inside, in the Beys-Medresh, Hassidic youth argued over a Blat Gemore.
I remember the cold Autumn days in the still dark early mornings when over the shtetl there carried the call of the Shames [Tr. note: like the Gabay, the Shame dealt with synagogue affairs] accompanied by a banging on the shutters: Wake up, Yidelekh [Tr. note: Jews], to Slikhes [Tr. note: a series of atonement supplications recited during each early morning of the period just before and during the Jewish High Holidays]!
But all has vanished in great suffering, pain, oppression and shootings. No remains are left of the victims of the German massacres, other than the stones and silent walls that could not tell their tales. The trees in the woods, not far from the shtetl heard the final screams of agony of the unfortunate ones, but could not come to their aid. The leftover mass grave is the sole monument to the Kdoyshim [Tr. note: holy martyrs].
The helpless cries and wailing, as well as the pleading to God for mercy - were answered with contemptuous laughter and devilish sadism by the murderers.
We, the Sharis Hapleyte [Tr. note: survivors] will forever remember the martyrs of Divenishok. They will never disappear from our memory. The recollection of all of you will be carried by us deep down in our hearts and will always accompany us.
by Khanan Levkovitsh
Translation by Tina Lunson
It is possible that because I am not from Divenishok myself, I am more suited to write about this particular shtetl. It is not important whether I stem from Oshmene or Ivye. It is sufficient to mention that I visited Divenishok and spent a long time there, simply intoxicated by its beauty and the striking landscape.
I was also enchanted by the lovely Jewish young people with their various organizations, the Jewish school with the ebullient children. The beauty of the landscape was apparent: the pond, the meadows, the fields and beautiful forest where we used to meet to enjoy time together, singing, dancing and being happy.
One must not forget any of this, but speak of it, describe, and immortalize Jewish Divenishok.
How fine it would be if Zipe's grandchild could sometime read how her grandmother described the village, or how she went into the forest to gather black and red berries there, and then cook them on the wood-fired oven in a pot and how from that, there came the best preserves which today one could not produce from the best electric stove. Especially delicious were the strawberry preserves, which served not only as a tasty dish but were the best medicine for the flu, serving to sweat out the illness and make you well.
How I remember you, Divenishok . . .
by Lolik Sutskever
Translation by Tina Lunson
Divenishok belonged to the category of very small towns. The Jewish population was very poor; there were no rich people in Divenishok. Anyone with property was considered a person of great wealth.
The Jews made their livelihoods from the following sources:
The shops were all in the market square and served the shtetl population and the surrounding villages. Once a week, on Thursday, there was a market day when all the peasants from the surrounding villages gathered, and that provided the livelihood for the whole week.
Among the Divenishok Jews there were many tailors, shoemakers, tinsmiths and blacksmiths in poor workshops of which 90% consisted of the artisans alone, without any helpers. These artisans also drew their livings from the market day, because they prepared ready-made tools to sell. The village peddlers worked very hard. They were on the road the whole week, not acknowledging the difference between day and night, but always going from one village to another trying to earn a little bread. But on Shabes they came home to rest their bones. They were very poor. If his horse failed a peddler, he did not have any means to buy another. They had to collect money to buy a horse.
The whole area consisted of poor peasants engaged in a backwards agriculture, in sandy soil. Thus making a living was very hard for the town Jews. Nevertheless the town carried on a very intensive social life.
Der shulhoyf [Tr. note: The shul courtyard]
The shul and the study houses were located in the shul courtyard.
In Divenishok there was a Hebrew school in which 100% of the Jewish children studied even though there was a Polish school where one could study for free. One had to pay tuition to go to the Hebrew school, but all the Jews did so in order to send their children to the Hebrew school, which was located in the new building constructed with great difficulty on the place of the old shul and with special permission of the rabbis. American landslayt [tr. note: natives of the town] had a special part in building the school.
In the two shuls - a new one and an old one - prayers took place three times a day. People also studied there, a chapter of the Mishne, the book Ein Yaakov [ethical and inspirational teachings of the Talmud by Rov Yaacov ibn Chaviv, 15th century], and others like it. The rov's house was in the shul courtyard, alog with the rov's court chamber, a bathhouse and a mikve.
The following organizations, institutions and societies were active in the town:
The burial society, the Jewish folksbank, a poorhouse, societies for visiting the sick and to provide for poor brides, a library, private donation fund, fire fighters, a Keren Kayemes group, a department of the Vilne VILBIG [Tr. note: Vilner Yidishe Bildung Gezelshaft/Vilna Jewish Educational Society organized in Vilna in 1924], a fund to provision the poor for Passover, a free loan society, and Betar and HaShomer HaTsair groups.
The burial society was well organized. The distinguished Jews in town participated in it, because they considered it the biggest mitsve. Older Jews presented themselves voluntarily to dig a grave, even in the rain, snow, frost or blizzard. The burial society kept its own budget. When a rich person died the family was charged a high price for burial so that a poor person could be provided with burial shrouds for free.
Every year the 29th of Kislev was the day for the burial society. None of the members worked on that day, they fasted and recited psalms. At night there was a feast fit for a king, fried goose and duck and whisky and wine flowed like water.
The folksbank was a cooperative society, founded just before the First World War. The bank gave out loans, took deposits, administered promissory note collections, dealt with foreign currency and securities. It was the only institution that had a paid administrator.
When someone in the town was sick for a long time and the family members became weary of caring for the patient, a man or woman was sent to sit by the patient's bed all night in order to relieve the household family. As far as I recall, no one ever refused a call to come and sit with a patient overnight. The members of the hospital for the poor did everything voluntarily. The group was headed by Gad Levin (son of Gute Itshe).
No sick fund existed in the town. A private doctor used to charge 5 zlotys for a visit, for rich or for poor. The poor had no possibility of paying for a visit. The society for visiting the sick had an agreement with the doctor that he should treat the poor people and they paid him for the necessary things. The society also lent out a rubber bottle to apply ice to the head, and cupping glasses, and thermometers. In very severe cases the society contributed to send the patient to Vilne.
The visiting society was headed by Chaim Eliashkevits, along with several volunteer youths, like Binyamin Dubinski, Khaykl Katsev, Gad Shkolnik and others. The visiting society needed a lot of money. Part of the expenses were covered by relief from America, part by donations, and also from the so-called Friday Actions. Each Friday two youths went around from house to house with a charity box and collected money. The visiting society was the only institution in town that not only took, but also gave. Almost every Jew in town had to call on the society at some time.
The provision for poor brides was one of the quietest and most modest organizations, providing the means for poor girls to celebrate a wedding, or to buy a dress for the bride. It is hard to determine who was involved with this.
The Yiddish public library was located in a rented space (in later years, at Avrom Mayer Lubetski's in Subotnik Street). The library possessed more than 6,000 books in Yiddish and Hebrew--- the greatest classics. A special purchasing commission had assembled the lists and acquired new books on the recommendations of experts. One of the experts was the manager of Shimon Funk's bookstore in Vilne. That is also where we bought the majority of the books.
The library brought light into the grey life of the shtetl. Generations of youths were drawn to the library, youth who had no education but achieved a good deal of learning thanks to the library and the reading room. From time to time presentations were given there on various topics in culture, literature, medicine, politics and science. Periodical publications were also received there.
Every year we had to send a list of the books to the central authorities. In 1935 a letter arrived from the ministry of education, in which it was stated that they could not understand that such a serious and rich library contained no Polish books. So they sent us, at no charge, a beginning set of 200 of the best Polish classics -believing that we would then buy more Polish books. And that is what happened: we bought Polish books each year too and thanks to that we had a few dozen readers from among the Christian intelligentsia.
Up to the year 1930, the library was for everyone. But that year the Zionists demanded more Hebrew books. The dispute lasted until 1933. Every member of the library had voting rights. The Yiddishists had the majority in the general meeting that year, and the library went over to their hands. Fayvke Blyakher broke out in a hysterical wail in his great vexation.
In Divenishok there was a benevolent organization that quietly carried loans for impoverished householders who were ashamed to hold out their hands. There were such householders in town who had fallen on hard times and who would rather die from hunger than ask for support. The private donation society helped those people in secret.
The firefighter command consisted of volunteer Jews, although the chairman was the local priest. Members of the administration were Nathan Itskovitsh, Ben-Zion Schneider, Dovid-Khaim Lubetski, and others. The firefighter command was sustained by the chimney tax. Other than that their budget was overseen by the community board, in order to keep the management of the firefighter's out of Jewish hands.
The head of the firefighter command was Zev Lubetski (‘Velvke’, son of Dovid Khaim). I was also among the leaders of the firefighters, did exercises with the firefighters and went through the firefighting courses in order to raise the level of the command.
The firefighters also created a wind orchestra which was the pride of the youth. The Poles were not pleased that a Jewish band played for all the Polish national holidays and parades. They could not rest until they had wrested the firefighter command from Jewish hands.
At the beginning of the 1930s when the crisis in Erets Yisroel was coming to a head, and many of the youths who had gone there came back to Divenishok, the influence of communism became stronger in the town. The VILBIG was created then, and it also took over the library. VILBIG carried out two tiers of cultural activities. The Polish government kept an eye on them. And one morning we received an announcement from the sheriff rescinding our legitimization. Still the VILBIG remained active until the outbreak of the war in September 1939.
Every year, ‘Divenishok Relief in America’ sent money for all the institutions in the town. A certain amount of that was specified for the Passover Fund. But the main fund for that purpose was gathered right there in the town itself. Every Jew was taxed for the Passover Fund so that poor Jews would be able to observe the Passover holiday properly.
The free loan society was established with both American monies and membership dues. The loan society was very important for poor Jews. I cannot imagine how they could have existed without that institution. Any Jew could get a loan of 500 zlotys, which at that time was a lot of money. As soon as a Jew had repaid one loan, he could receive another.
One of the managing members of the free loan society fund, Avraham Krivitski, used to borrow money from his friends and every Friday afternoon distribute a free loan to the poor peddlers, as an addition to the loans that they received. Krivitski was also a regular Torah reader at the new study house, and a distinguished householder in the town.
HaShomer HaTsair and Betar
The HaShomer HaTsair in town was very strong; the majority of the Zionist youth belonged to it - idealists who did not only talk but took action. Many of them went to Zionist preparatory camps and emigrated to Erets Yisroel.
It must be mentioned that the town rabbi, Reb Yosef Rudnik, gave the HaShomer HaTsair his full support, which strengthened the position of the organization.
Moshe Lubetski (‘Moshele’, son of Dovid Khaim), a student in Vilne, created the Betar in Divenishok. Respected householders helped them. Their meetings were held in the school.
Although not all Zionist organizations co-existed in peace, at least the Keren-Kayemes l'Yisroel were all united. In almost every Jewish home hung a blue and white charity box for the KKL. Each week youths from the Zionist organizations emptied the boxes. The head of the KKL was Arye Leyb Rogol.
With this short, general overview of the social life in town, I want also to immortalize the social workers, the idealists, and activists who encouraged the cultural and political activity among the Jewish population.
Translation by Tina Lunson
From the book On the Ruins of Wars and Unrest, Vilne, April 1931.
Report of the Labor Committee YEKOPO [Tr. Note: Yekopo is an acronym for an organization dedicated to assisting the victims of World War I that was active in Eastern Europe.] For Vilne and the Provinces, in the years 1919 1931, under the editorship of Moyshe Shalit, published in 1931.
Divenishok (Oshmene region):
520 families, 140 of them Jewish. Chief occupation shop-keeping, village merchandising, craftsmen in workshops and second-hand goods. In the town 60 Jewish shops; two Polish cooperatives for groceries, haberdashery, leather, footwear. These had the support of the community. Goods from the Polish cooperative were often brought to the train station in Benakani (21 kilometers away) [Ed. note: The purpose of bringing goods to the Benakani train station is unclear; however, this may have been an efficient way to distribute goods more widely throughout the region.]The Jewish shop-keepers brought goods by wagon from Vilne (63 kilometers away). Shop-keeping was in a poor stead because of limited transport and also because of the surplus of shops. There was a market [open air] once a week.
Twenty to twenty-five families lived from village merchandising. In town, five Jewish workshops operated, producing inexpensive men's clothing and coats and fur coats for men and women. They employed 40 workers, men and women. They earned between 20 and 30 zlotys a week. The goods were sent to the surrounding villages of Vishneva, Trok, Olshan, Volozhin, Oshmene and so on.
In the town itself there were two Christian shoe specialists. Except for one carpenter there were no Jewish construction workers in the town.
Five Jewish families in town owned their own land, each two acres. They worked their lands for their own accounts, using for the most part hired labor. Besides the land work, the landowners also had other employment.
Among the Jews there were also some luft-mentshn [Tr. note: people without livelihood]. They lived from the fairs. [Tr. note: Fairs in Eastern Europe were large regional markets where goods were bought and sold wholesale. At the fairs (the big ones were usually held at fixed locations) there were lots of temporary jobs to be had. People with no real jobs could be employed peddling small wares, helping with customer services, working as porters, and so on.]. There were also Jews who dealt in boar bristles, earned a living as matchmakers, or who got money for pasturing animals, raising calves, and as farmers.
On Tish B'av people played berelakh. [Tr. note: This word literally means little bears, but is also the diminutive for the name Berl. To my knowledge it is a game that included the phrase Berele, Berele, kum aroys!] A fascination for soccer developed. There was a children's teacher, and also a teacher for even younger children, and the kheyder [Tr. note: elementary school] lasted from early in the morning until late in the evening.
Activities of the Yekopo in 1917 1918
In 1918 those who had fled into Russia returned. Vilne was occupied by the Polish military.
Divenishok is mentioned among the towns that undertook to help the suffering war victims. Divenishok sent a delegate, among 83 delegates from 74 villages, to a conference in the Vilne region.
The help was expressed in the creation of cooperatives, orphanages, schools, hospitals, aid committees on the community councils, help from ORT [Tr. note: The name ORT is an acronym for the Russian words Obshestvo Remeslenofo zemledelcheskofo Truda, meaning the Society for Trades and Agricultural Labour, founded in 1880 in Tsarist Russia], and from OZE [Tr. note: An organization devoted to the promotion of health, hygiene, and childcare among Jews. Founded on August 7, 1912 in Saint Petersburg as the Society for the Protection of the Health of the Jewish Population, (Obshchestvo okhraneniia Zdorov'ia Evreiskogo naseleniia; and later, Obschestvo Zdravookhraneniia Evreev]. The representative from the Joint [Tr. note: This refers to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Inc. (JDC), a non-political humanitarian aid organization headquartered in New York that is an overseas arm of the North American Jewish community. Committed to the rescue of Jews in danger, relief of those in distress, renewal of Jewish community life, and support of Israel] was Isadore Hirshfeld.
The delegate from Divenishok to the first regional conference of Yekopo in Vilne in 1919 was Ira-Leyb Rogal. The second regional conference was in Vilne, the 5th, 6th and 7th of December 1921. The delegate from Divenishok was the Rov Yisroel Movshovitsh. The Rov was also the delegate to the third regional conference, the 9th and 10th of March, 1924.
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