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[Page 363]

1. The Town and its Development

 

Dieveniskes [Divenishok] - The History of a Town

[Page 378]

The Shtetele Divenishok

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.

1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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!

4.

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.

5.

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…

6.

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!

7.

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.

8.

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.

9.

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.

10.

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.

11.

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.


[Page 394]

A Jewish Life that is No More…

by Motke (Moshe Leyzer's)[1] Kartshmer

Translation by Yael Chaver

Introduction

I must thank my landslayt[2] in Israel who convinced me to recount my memories of the shtetl, its people, my home and my family, for the Divenishok Yizkor-Bukh. I confess, this is no easy task for me, because I left Divenishok 45 years ago, as an 18-year-old young man, and not many events remain in my memory. What I want to recount, although it consists of individual experiences, constitutes a significant reflection on the social and community Jewish life there, to the degree that I belonged to several communal organizations. I also believe that my biography is, after all, very similar to and characteristic of most young people in the pre-Holocaust period.

Now I live in Florida, in America. Thanks to a visit to Israel, I was able to meet with many comrades and friends from my old homeland in Divenishok. I learned from them about the preparations to publish a memorial book to preserve for all time the murdered shtetl and its Jews. As I sit in a Tel-Aviv hotel and carry on a pleasant conversation with the editor of the Divenishok book, I make efforts to present as many details as possible about a Jewish life that existed - and is no more.

 

Home and family

I would like to start with my home and family. I was born in 1912 in Divenishok to my parents Moshe-Leyzer and Itta, both also natives of Divenishok. My father died when I was 6 years old. I don't remember my father, but people from the town would always say that Moshe-Leyzer Kartshmer had a good heart; as Jews say, he was a “good soul.” When he drove his wagon to the train station he would give a free ride to people along the way.

My mother was a quiet, gentle woman as well as very religious. She prayed three times a day, and observed all the commandments. After her husband died, the burden of making a living fell upon her.

We were three sisters and three brothers. The oldest brother, Meirke, left for America the year I was born. My brother Shmuel died of tuberculosis during the First World War. He got this sickness after he spent several weeks digging trenches for the Germans, who were occupying the town. The dampness and forced labor made him sick and he left this world at a young age. My sisters Kilke, Braynke and Khayke were murdered, along with their husbands and children, by the Germans and their helpers during the Second World War. I managed to get a postcard from them as late as 1941, letting me know that our mother had died in the month of Kislev.[3] She simply died of hardship, as well as because there were no remedies in the ghetto to heal her.

My sisters were seamstresses by profession and helped our mother to make a living until they got married. My brother in America would often send a few dollars. We lived on Oshmene Street.

I began studying in kheyder with Kalmen Shepsl, when I was five years old. My second teacher was Leyb Bareh, and later I studied with Isaac Horvits and Rogulski, from Vilne.

 

In the organization and trade union

In 1926 I joined HeKhaluts.[4] I was only 14 years old, but I was attracted to the company of comrades, the bright space, the singing [of Zionist songs], and the Eretz-Yisro'el atmosphere[5] that dominated all our meetings and gatherings. I forget now why I suddenly exchanged HeKhaluts for HaShomer HaTsair and became active in the latter youth organization, with which I was not familiar.[6] They were located on Vilne Street. About 30-40 children and young people would gather there. HaShomer HaTsair was headed by Shraga Blyakher, who now lives in Israel. Our goal was to go to Eretz-Yisro'el and help build the country. The lectures and group meetings educated us about Jewish history and Zionism, as well as scouting.[7]

I was a member of HeKhaluts for one year, and a HaShomer HaTsair member for two years. That was long enough to foster a Zionist awareness in me, as well as a love for Eretz-Yisro'el, and the desire to become a settler there.[8] Unfortunately, the number of “certificates”[9] that the British government issued to Jews was so small that thousands of people could not realize their dream. Yet we all lived with the hope of settling in Eretz-Yisro'el.

As I was drawn to performing in the theater, I joined the drama club and appeared onstage in several roles. I remember that there was an ongoing argument and fight between the A.G. Yiddishists, who were influenced by the Left, and the Hebraists, the supporters and members of the various Zionist groups.[10]

I also want to emphasize that daily relations with the Christian population were tolerable, with no particular conflicts or clashes. After the Holocaust, I soon found out that these non-Jewish neighbors had expressed their hatred of Jews while the town was under German rule by actively assisting them murder the Jewish population of Divenishok.

However, it is no secret that the young Jews in Divenishok felt the ground burning under their feet even before the Second World broke out. Those who didn't get the desired “certificate” sought to emigrate overseas by any means, or leave for the big city. This was also my case.

The last year I was in the shtetl I joined the volunteer firefighters of Divenishok. I was too young to put out fires, but I was accepted because I was very tall. I remember how, one Friday night, a fire broke out in the neighboring town of Olshan. The Divenishok firefighters were also called in. We labored there for several hours and didn't return home until Saturday at daybreak, when our Jews were going to the synagogue. My mother was awake all night and waited in the street for the firefighters to come back safely. You can imagine her joy when she saw me return unharmed and very happy too, as I was very proud of myself. This was no small matter: a 15-year old boy and already a firefighter!

The moment a sports club was organized in the town, I too wanted to kick the ball. I was a member of the children's group and was very glad that we, too, did sports. My mother, though, understood that putting out fires or playing football was not a good future for her son. She sent me to Gronem Melamed, where I was supposed to learn a trade: tailoring. As was then customary, I was mainly busy with babysitting the tailor's child, cleaning the house, bringing water, and doing other chores - on top of which my mother had to pay the tailor for teaching me how to use a needle.

After that my mother had the notion that it would be only fair to send me to a yeshiva, but I declared firmly and clearly that I was not prepared to eat at other people's tables, so nothing came of this plan.[11] I decided to emigrate, even more so because my time to be drafted into the Polish army was nearing.

 

I leave Divenishok

In 1930 I managed to emigrate to Cuba, thanks to my cousin Finke Munis. My first occupation in Havana was working for 5 dollars a week. When I managed to save my first 70 dollars, I bought a wagon for … peddling. After two years of peddling, I opened a small “department store,” improved my finances a bit, and sent [emigration] papers to Sarah Katz in Divenishok. We got married in Havana in 1935.

In 1941, my brother sent us the documents we needed in order to move to the United States. I did not know this brother, because he had left Divenishok when I was … six months old. You can imagine our meeting in Trenton, New Jersey. We later left for New York, where I opened a children's clothing store.

In 1943-45 I served in the U.S. army, in General Patton's Third Army, and took part in the battles against the Hitlerian enemy in Europe. When I was at the front in Germany, my feet got frostbitten, and I was hospitalized in England and America for four months. Now I am a member of the Jewish War Veterans of

America.

In 1956 my only brother Meirke died, and a year later - my wife. Among Divenishokans she was known as “the mother,” because after the terrible Holocaust she cared for the town survivors and sent them packages, help, and letters.

For about 30 years (1942-1973) I was active in the Divenishok Society of New York and served as President. Throughout this long period I helped the town's Jews, before the destruction and later - helped the few survivors to get back on their feet in the Displaced Persons camps of Germany and Poland, and in Israel.

Now I live in Miami Beach, and am still busy with community work, as I used to be in the Divenishok that was…

 

Translator's Footnotes
  1. The name in parenthesis is that of his father Moshe-Leyzer, along with a possessive suffix. People were often familiarly known by their mother's or father's names. Return
  2. A loose translation would be - “my fellow Divenishokans.” Return
  3. This Jewish month roughly corresponds to December. Return
  4. “The Pioneer,” a center-Left Zionist youth organization that was geared towards training young people to settle in Palestine. Return
  5. Kartshmer uses Eretz-Yisro'el (Land of Israel) to describe the atmosphere of the Zionist settlements, rather than in the traditional Jewish sense of a God-given land. Return
  6. Hashomer HaTsair (“The Young Guard”) was a more left-leaning youth movement with the same Zionist goals as HeKhaluts. Return
  7. These and other Zionist youth movements were modeled on the British Scout movement at the turn of the 20th century. Return
  8. He uses the term oleh, literally “one who ascends,” following the Jewish traditional view that settling in the Land of Israel means reaching a higher plane of existence. Return
  9. Refers to immigration permits. At this time, the British Mandate authorities severely limited the number of permits allowing Jews to settle in Palestine. Return
  10. I have not been able to find the meaning of “A.G.” “Yiddishists” most likely refers to members of the non-Zionist, Socialist Jewish Labor Bund, which considered Yiddish the major language of the Jewish people. Zionism espoused the adoption of Hebrew as a linchpin of its ideology. Return
  11. This custom, often termed “eating days” (Yiddish “esen teg”) was a community system whereby students from out of town ate their meals in a different home each day. Return


[Page 401]

Social and Political Life

by Shraga Blyakher

Translation by Leybl Botwinik

Divenishok was a small, quiet shtetl [Tr. note: village]. I left it in 1934 and made aliya[1] 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.

A

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][2]. 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, Z”L [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[3] Yosef Rudnik, ZTs”L [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, Sha”S, 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.

B

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 Z”L 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 ZTs”L, 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 Z”L.

C

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…

D

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.

E

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.

F

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]!”

G

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.

 

Translator's Footnotes
  1. Aliya” - Literally, “to go up”. In this context, to go up (i.e. immigrate) to the Land of Israel. Also means to go up to and bless the Torah and be blessed in return (during the reading of the Torah). Return
  2. Linos Hatsedek&#!48; - Charitable aid was handled differently in each community, ranging from financial assistance, to physical care, to providing sleeping accommodation for the family of a patient or even for strangers in town. Return
  3. “reb” - Used as a sign of respect, similar to “Mr./Dr.”, but used only for the first name. For example, “Dr. Moyshe Vays”, might be referred to as: “reb Moyshe Vays”, “reb Moyshe”, or “Dr. Vays” - but never as “reb Vays”. Return


[Page 410]

Zionist and Cultural Activity

by Avraham Aloni

Translation by Yael Chaver

As principal of the Hebrew school of Divenishok, I had the chance to look at the town pinkes, [Tr. note: Town record book] then kept by Mordkhe Kaplan. He came up to me one day and said, “Look at my puchork [Tr. note: probably 'manuscript', possibly a variant of puchok from Russian, which translates as 'bundle, packet']. Kaplan used to note, in his ornate script, all the events that took place in the town. On the same occasion he gave me the name of the person who managed the pinkes before him, but I don't remember that name.

Unfortunately, the pinkes was lost, and Mordechai Kaplan, too, passed away. In addition, a previous pinkes was lost, which contained notes on all the events in the town since its establishment. Thus, many things have been forgotten and there is no one to fish them out of the abyss of forgetfulness.

More than forty years have passed since then, but I will nevertheless try to write down some memories.

 

Testimony from the Pinkes

The pinkes contained information such as the following:

“The unmarried woman Feyge L. fell from the attic and lost her virginity. We, the leaders of the community, examined the matter and we testify that she lost her virginity. Signed….”
Another item written in the same style followed a great fire that broke out in the town in 1912: “A great fire broke out this year and consumed the entire town. All the residents were left naked and with no possessions. There were no fatalities, but there was great loss of property.”

Another incident was noted in the pinkes: “A family with many children collected mushrooms in the forest, cooked and ate them. The entire family suffered severe stomach pains, and they all died after terrible suffering.”

After I emigrated to Palestine, a representative of YIVO[1]

came to our town to write down the town's history. He was given access to the town's pinkesim [Tr. Note: Plural of pinkes] and other important historical material, but his work seems to have stopped part way through, because no monograph about Divenishok was ever published.

I deeply regret that these authentic sources about the town's history were lost, as they contained much material that would have illuminated important events of the town's founding and development—material that is now lost forever.

 

The Hebrew School

The Hebrew school was the center of the town's cultural life: all the Zionist offices, the library (which included Hebrew and Yiddish books), the free loan society, the art-lovers' club, etc. Theater rehearsals also took place in the school.

The school was comprised of seven grades, and almost all the town's children attended. A few studied at the Pawszechna [Tr. note: Polish public school], especially those who opposed Hebrew, such as Krizovski's daughters.

The Hebrew school had a high educational and pedagogical level, even higher than in the Polish school. I specialized in natural sciences, and learned how to catch snakes, lizards, and butterflies. I organized a wonderful natural-science room. One day I caught a snake on the school grounds; all the students and myself were extremely anxious until I caught it…

 

Planting

As the town was bare of all greenery or trees, I initiated a letter to the gmina [Tr. note: Municipality] and asked for tree saplings. After my request was answered, I went out with the children to plant the trees in the town's streets, especially on the Vilne Street, where the school was located. We planted a decorative garden around the school and at the rabbi's house. The garden was amazing— really beautiful— and this school garden encouraged people to plant similar gardens near their homes. Malkaleh, Yakov Bloch's sister, wrote me later, when I was in Palestine, “We kiss the fence you built around the schoolyard.”

Another initiative I began was medical examinations. I contacted Dr. Wiesenfeld, the town doctor, who would come to the school every week to examine the children. Those who needed medications would get a discount at the only pharmacy, that of Arye Leyb Rogol. The childrens' standard of health thus improved.

As we were all relatively poor, we set up a kitchen, funded by our theatrical performances, help from America, from the bank, and from donations. The poor children received breakfast and lunch every day. The kitchen committee consisted of Sholem Yakov Rogol, Ben-Zion Schneider, S. Y. Shkolnik, and others.

 

Plays and Trips

We used to organize plays for every holiday and special day, and the teachers invested much effort in preparations. As I could play the violin, I set up music and singing, along with Yosele Levine (the builder's son) and his brother Leybkeh. The plays were performed in the school auditorium. Khaneleh Lipkunski, Tsvi Novoplanski and his sister, and Khane Ingel's son were particularly good actors.

After Passover we went on trips to the towns in the area [Tr. note: Trips earlier in the year were not feasible because of the harsh winters]. We visited Oszmiana, Traby, Voronova, Olshan, and even the village of Kalvitze, where Tsvi Ahuvi had a tar factory. We visited all the historical and public places, which the children were very curious about.

So that all the townspeople would appreciate the school— there were some Yiddish-lovers in the town who fought us— we held public examinations. We prepared questions about the curriculum, and an examination was held in each class, with parents present. The parents were allowed to ask questions and test the children. We were extremely successful; it was a cultural activity that parents and children looked forward to impatiently.

The star graduates went to Vilne to study, or to the yeshivas of Baranovich or Radin. Those who couldn't continue academic studies learned a trade.

I was the principal of the Hebrew school in Divenishok. Those were glorious days that provided great spiritual satisfaction. I enjoyed the polite, pleasant attitude of the townspeople toward the teachers, and the warm atmosphere and the longing for culture and science that permeated the town, as well as the children's love for the teachers and the school. These experiences have stayed with me all my life.

 

Cultural Activity

We mounted cultural activities, such as public “trials”[2] about Zionist and literary topics. The “trials” were held before an audience, and all the townspeople were invited by means of advertisements in the synagogue and on the street. The standard of these “trials” was high, and they attracted many people, who asked questions and received answers.

Teachers would give talks to young people about current events. One of the speakers was Rueben Kretschmer, leader of the town's Yiddishists[3]. Kretschmer was very intelligent and knowledgeable, extremely talented, and had an amazing memory. Though he spoke slowly, his talks were serious and very interesting.

HaShomer HaTsair would organize plays and cultural events.

I directed the plays, together with other teachers. Before each performance, the son of Attorney Dilinski would come from Olshan and “polish” the play. The performances were successful and attracted the young people of the town to the Zionist camp—and the influence of the Yiddishists declined. They started to hamper our activities.

Krizovski was a good person, but strongly opposed to Zionism. He was in charge of the Fire Brigade building. We often quarreled with him before performances because he wouldn't give us the keys. We had to talk to other people so that we would get the key.

Krizovzski once threatened to expel me from town. In order to make an impression, the Yiddishists brought members of the Vilna Yiddish Association for Yiddish Culture (“Vilbig”) to town, in order to show us that they had their own youth group. It was useless. Zionist awareness was deeply embedded in the young people of Divenishok.

HaShomer HaTsair would hold meetings every Friday. Every meeting included a cultural or political talk by a teacher. The work of our teachers Dubkin and Eliohu Mazeh was especially outstanding.

The talk would be followed by a question-and-answer session, and the meeting ended with Zionist songs and an enthusiastic hora dance. Afterwards we would spend time in the forest.

 

The Shulhoyf

The shulhoyf [Tr. note: synagogue courtyard] was the nerve center of the town. It was the location of both houses of study[4] (the old and the new), the school, the Rabbi's home, and the Hekdesh [Tr. note: Community guest house] where poor out-of-towners would stay. The community guest house was run by Avreml the Shoemaker. At its back was an ice-house, which supplied ice to the sick.

The shulhoyf was always humming with Jews hurrying to pray and children going to school. There were also people who were on their way to the Rabbi to take care of their affairs, and that was where the youth organizations held their night-time meetings.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Institute for Jewish Research, founded in Vilnius in 1925 and relocated to New York in 1940. Return
  2. Such public debates concerning controversial historical figures and events were popular among Zionist youth groups at the time. They were couched in the form of a "trial," presenting pros and cons, culminating in a vote by the audience. Return
  3. Yiddishism was a major European Jewish cultural and linguistic movement in the late 19th century, which considered that the status of Yiddish reflected the status of the Jewish people. Its proponents believed that only Yiddish could save Europe's Jews as a people from the onslaught of assimilation, and did not consider Zionism a viable option. Return
  4. "House of Study" is the English translation of "Bes-Medresh," where young men would spend hours studying, mainly the Talmud. Return

 

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