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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