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[Page 46]

Chapters in the History of Kremenets Jewry

 

English Translation by Thia Persoff

Changing Eras

Manus Goldenberg (Givat HaShlosha)

In my mind's eye, my birthplace Kremenets stands alive: here is the long, main street—the shops throughout its length are shut and locked, since it is a summer Sabbath morning; Jews clothed in finery are flocking to the many synagogues; peace and tranquility are all around. On the evening of the departure of a Sabbath or holiday, this street is very crowded; celebrating people, old and young, men and women, flood the street, escorting Queen Sabbath. But the church bells announce the coming of workdays filled with worries ….

The Jewish holiday comes in privacy, and in privacy it exits.

The next day is the Christian holiday: noise and raucousness accompany it; there are thousands of wagons, myriad colors, and ringing bells; endless numbers of farmers flood the streets, stores, and workshops. Smells of tar and resin penetrate everywhere; Jews' and Christians' voices commingle with curses and blessings, laughter and anger—there are negotiations and deals in the shops, the streets, and the wagons. The crowding is intense. Great strength is stored in this flood of people, and if it flows peacefully, it brings much good, but when it becomes unruly and riotous, much destruction and ruination results.

You never can tell what path it will take, as any market day or fair may turn out to be a day of loss and misfortune for the Jews. And so, at the end of the weary day, the town takes a breath of relief: the wagons disappear; the farmers disappear like locusts that swoop in and suddenly disappear. Straw and trash are left in the streets and markets … the Jews are left alone with ample profits, peace and tranquility return to the town, and the main street is filled with strolling people conversing warmly in their mother tongue of juicy Vohlin Yiddish. The town's Jewish appearance has returned.

 

The Landscape

The town and its surroundings are beautiful. It was called “the Switzerland of Vohlin” for good reason. Its houses, most of which were ancient, were constructed from wood in the old Polish picturesque style. The houses stood crowded in the center, attached to each other, filled with busy Jews, craftsmen, and fair merchants whose entire lives were toil and weariness. Mountains and forests, at which each and every street and alley ends, surround the town. There are many gardens in town, and it seems to be embedded in greenery. On the eastern side, towering in its full glory, is the tall Mount Bona, on which the ruins of an old castle stand. Its steep slopes are green in summer and sparkling white with snow in winter. From its summit the whole town can be seen as if it is spread on the palm of a hand, and from every window, even a small one in an attic or a cellar, the summit can be seen and brings a sense of joy. Kremenets had a special charm on Sabbath eves when the candles were lit. It was good then in the homes of the Jews, with all those thousands of lights in the glory of the night's stillness.

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Figure 6. Mountain of the Virgins

Throughout the generations, the people wove many legends around the mountains. Each stone, each cross, and every surviving remnant had a wondrous story attached to it. The townspeople enjoyed frequent hikes in the mountains, resting in the shade of the groves and the gardens growing on them. There was a sort of tradition to those hikes. Each mountain had its own hiking season. Each holiday had the appropriate mountain. One of the groves, the prettiest of them, was called “the forest of the Hasidim.” The story was told that, years ago, the Hasidim used to stroll there on the Sabbath, and even hold a community afternoon prayer there. In the summer, many people would rent a summer cottage in the mountains from the farmers. The fresh mountain air and beautiful scenery even attracted vacationers from nearby towns. Those unique properties influenced the temperament of the townspeople and made them easygoing, happy, and imaginative. Jewish folklore was very rich here. The people favored funny stories and jokes that were retold from generation to generation.

 

RYB”L and His Era

In 1821, R' Yitschak Ber Levinzon returned to Kremenets and settled there permanently. His small, modest house at the edge of town had one room and a cellar that was flooded most of the year (the house stood there until recently). For 35 years, this “Russian Mendelssohn,” who favored enlightenment, worked and labored there. In those years it was difficult to get to his house, as a swamp lay between it and the town, and it was so deep that wagons got mired in it even during the hottest summer days.

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As soon as he settled in Kremenets, Levinzon got involved in the life of the community. After his book Testimony in Israel was published, the local Hasidim began to persecute him, and he was forced to seclude himself. Any Jew who kept in touch with him was bound to be treated roughly. To them his name was shame, and they nicknamed him “Teud'ke” …

[Translator's Note: In Hebrew, Testimony in Israel is Teuda BeYisrael. The nickname “Teud'ke” is based on this book.]

RYB”L's private letters from that time, written in bitterness, bear witness in great part to the socioeconomic conditions of Kremenets' Jews in his time. In one of them, he writes about the people of his town: “The intellectuals are not intellectual, and the learners are not learning. Most laymen are poor and destitute. What they all have in common is that they are enveloped in darkness under the Hasidic banner. Some spew nonsense, some are money grabbers, and some tyrannize the population. They scarcely make a living by dealing in locally grown tobacco or selling hard liquor. A large number of them are tailors and simple craftsmen, who are the only ones making a living through their own labors. Their poverty is great. A Jew who manages to earn 2,000 rubles considers himself a wealthy man and feels entitled to honor and an important position.”

At that time, apparently, the situation of Kremenets' Jews had taken a deep decline, as at the end of his letter Levinzon adds, “and all this has occurred only in the last 40 years.”

His bitterness toward the residents is expressed in a second letter, which reveals his hostility toward the Hasidim. He writes, “… every day I hear around me the groans of the wretched poor, exploited by those who tyrannize the people, our brothers, the policemen and their commanders. And I hear behind me loud noises rising against angels, drinkers of hard liquor, and herds of Hasidim who dance in the streets and make a loud noise. Many new rabbis driving in carriages make it a habit to visit my town; one arrives, and one leaves, and in contrast with them, the angels get drunk and say kadosh ….”

[Translator's Note:Kadosh” (“holy”) refers to the prayer that starts “Holy, Holy, Holy …”]

For his extensive and in-depth works, Levinzon needed books on science and the wisdom of Israel, which were not available to him in the libraries of the local laymen, and he complained bitterly about this. The Lyceum library and Tadeusz Chatski's private one were a big help to him. The teachers' libraries were also open to his use. A few of the principals and teachers at the Lyceum kept in personal touch with Levinzon and encouraged him in his efforts at productivization among the Jews. There is no doubt that in spite of his ostracism, Levinzon's years of activity in Kremenets left their stamp on the life of the Jewish community and many of its citizens.

In due course, to honor him, important visitors—enlightened Jews and Christians—gathered in Kremenets to meet with the RYB”L. Even representatives of the government came. All around him were the enlightened intellectuals of the town, also including Gotlover, who settled in Kremenets to be near him.

As a result of Levinzon's call for people to change to a life of farming and crafts, 52 families declared their desire to move to one of the farming settlements in the Cherson region. Levinzon corresponded at length with the Interior Minister and Governor of Vilna, and eventually those Jews received land in the Cherson region and settled there. The families mentioned in this correspondence include some of Kremenets' largest, for example, Basis, Fishman, Barshap, Raykis, etc.

The government's attitude toward Levinzon and the gifts he received from it increased his honor in the eyes of the common folk, and the legends embroidered against this background remained in their hearts for generations.

In 1856, while Levinzon lay sick, masked robbers attacked his house and stole, among other things, the letterbox in which he stored his important, valuable letters, including one from Czar Nikolas I about his newly published book, Testimony in Israel. The identities of the robbers were not known, but it was suspected that the Hasidim meant to destroy his writings.

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In 1860, Levinzon passed away. An atmosphere of heavy mourning descended on the town. All the stores were closed, and all the town's citizens attended his funeral. His works were carried in front of his casket.

Levinzon's students, the town's intellectuals, were the active segment of the town's population, and the local Lovers of Zion and Society of Lovers of the Hebrew Language movement grew out of them. The house of Nachman Prilutski, a close friend of Levinzon, was the meeting place for the Hebrew language group. His son Tsvi Prilutski, together with Dr. Tovye Hindes and Dr. Pines, established the Love of Zion movement in town. Many of the Talmud school's young people were attracted to the movement.

[Translator's Note: In Hebrew, the Society of Lovers of the Hebrew Language is Agudat Chovevey Sefat Ever; and Love of Zion is Chibat Tsion, a movement to rebuild the land of Israel.]

In the late 19th century, the Hamelits newspaper printed Tsvi Prilutski's correspondence, and later that of Moshe Eydelman, on Zionist goings-on around the town, the enlightened people of Kremenets, “who were numerous because of Levinzon's influence,” enlightened young women, their national pride in the company of Christians, etc.

When Dr. Hindes immigrated to Israel, Prilutski published Hindes's private letters in Hamelits; those letters are rich with information, and there is much to be learned from them about the first steps in establishing the settlements and in the fields of labor and education. Tsvi Prilutski moved from Kremenets to Warsaw, where he published the newspaper Dos Leybn and then Moment. For many years, from its establishment to its final day, Moment was one of the most popular newspapers among Polish Jews. His son, Noach, a writer and community affairs activist, was educated in Kremenets. His teacher was a student of Levinzon. Tsvi Prilutski never severed his connection to Kremenets. His large, extended family, all of them devoted Zionists, were there. In the early 20th century Dr. Pines also left Kremenets, moving to Bialystok, where he opened an eye clinic whose reputation gained renown throughout Russia and Poland.

[Translator's Note: Dos Leybn means The Life.]

The group came apart, but its place on the social stage was filled by the young and the energetic, who continued Zionist activities with enthusiasm and diligence. The most active were Moshe Eydelman, Dr. Meir Litvak, Dr. Landsberg, Munye Dobromil, Getsi Klorfayn, and others.

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Figure 7. Remains of the Castle on Mount Bona

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In the Early 20th Century

In the last half of the 19th century, the economic situation of the Kremenets Jews was not very good. Lumber merchants did not get rich; manufacturers hardly existed. Their main livelihood was business with the local farmers and production of some crafts and home products. Some Jews were suppliers to the Pravoslavic seminary for priests, which took the place of the Lyceum. The army's two regiments, which were stationed near town, added a bit to the residents' income.

By the early 20th century, echoes of the political happenings in Russia had reached Kremenets. A few of the townspeople were sent to the Far East but did not reach their destination, as the hostilities had ceased. Only Dr. Litvak spent a long time at the front, and he returned as a high-ranking officer. He published a very interesting pamphlet about his life and adventures at the front. Dr. Litvak, who came from a middle-class background, maintained allegiance to it all his life, which for many years was tied to the community life of Kremenets. The Christian population accepted him. He was an enlightened intellectual and a champion of the Russian language in town as well as a physician and lecturer on hygiene in the secondary schools. Along with this, he was an ardent Zionist, got together with people in the synagogue and ate funerals (he was very active in the Burial Society), and saw to people's education and health. He planned on erecting a monument as a memorial to RYB”L and devoted much time to it. In 1914 he was drafted into the army and returned in 1917 with the rank of general. After his return, he devoted himself to public works with extra energy.

On the eve of the 1905 revolution, a strong Bund organization was formed, functioning vigorously “underground.” Meetings were held in the mountains. More than once, the police ambushed them and beat up some of the activists. Young people from the best of the local Jewish intelligentsia joined the revolutionary movement. Some who immigrated to America had important roles in the labor movement there.

At that time, the Jewish Social Democratic Workers Party was established, attracting to its ranks some people from the revolutionary movement. As activists in the Bund, some of them joined the Communist Party after the October Revolution.

[Translation Editor's Note: In Hebrew, the Jewish Social Democratic Workers Party was called Poaley Tsion (literally, Workers of Zion).]

After the 1905 tribulations, life in town flowed peacefully; on the surface, the country seemed to be at peace. Hopeful springs gave way to long summers, with a sleepy town and empty streets. The army regiments went to their training, schools were out, and many of the town's residents left on vacation. The farmers were busy in their fields, and only the grocer stayed, guarding his store and yawning into the vacant street. On Tailors' Street, young and old sat by the sewing machines in small, sparse rooms, relieving their long and gloomy days with folk songs. The machines clicked in a rapid cadence, producing thousands of fall-season warm coats for farmers. In the fall, with its days of markets and fairs, the Jewish residents earned their livelihood for the year.

Before World War I, Kremenets had cheders and a Talmud Torah. A yeshiva was established in 1910; most of its students came from far away. Many children studied in the public Jewish-Russian primary school. In 1906, the High School of Commerce, financed mostly by the Jews, was established. According to the school charter, which was liberal for its time, studies could proceed as soon as enrollment consisted of 60% non-Jews and 40% Jews. To achieve this, the Jews had to beg non-Jewish citizens, who were mostly poor craftsmen, to send their children to the school. Each Jew who wanted his child to be accepted had to bring a non-Jewish child, give him a uniform and all needed school supplies, and make sure that he continued to attend. That chore had to be achieved by encouraging the child's father, with the help of an occasional serious drinking session.

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In 1907, two teachers, Mr. Burshteyn and Mr. Sirayski, opened a Hebrew school in Kremenets—a “progressive cheder” in which boys and girls could enroll. Later, most of these students were active members of the local Zionist movement.

In the years before the war, Zionist activity was quite slow—selling shekalim, distributing shares in the bank, passing a “bowl” on Yom Kippur eve, etc. A Zionist library contained a few dozen books and pamphlets, and sometimes a magid lectured in the study hall.

[Translation Editor's Note: Shekalim were tokens of membership in the Zionist Organization.]

The Bund and the Jewish Social Democratic Workers Party ran a large cultural program at that time. Jewish literature penetrated into all strata of the population. The writer Anski, who toured the towns and villages of the borders collecting material and Jewish folklore, stopped in Kremenets for an extended period. The best of the young students who had not alienated themselves from their people and their language gathered around him.

This was the calm before the storm …. In 1913, a regiment of the artillery corps came to town for maneuvers in the mountains, from which they later bombed Austrian positions. At that time, the first casualty of the coming war fell: one of the participants in the maneuvers and his horse rolled down the mountainside and were killed.

 

During World War I

At the height of the summer of 1914, on a stifling night when the town's streets were empty, the gallop of a horse suddenly was heard. As the horse and its rider passed through in a flash, someone said, “General conscription!” Immediately, people gathered in the streets, full of worry. The next morning, one could already see crying women and families accompanying departing fathers, some of whom would never return. A few days later, the inhabitants of the city saw the first injured soldiers; they were brought from Zbarazh on the Austrian border after the first battle on farmers' wagons, dusty and wrapped in bloody bandages. Seeing this blood was terrifying; all the townspeople ran to the wagons, and women cried bitterly. As time went by, they became used to seeing a great deal of blood.

From then on, the streets were noisy day and night from the long convoys and marching soldiers—the pride of the Russian army marching toward Brody after its successful attack on Galicia. But a year later the tide had turned, and endless convoys of from retreating army galloped in panic in the opposite direction. The large retreating forces stopped about two kilometers from our town. For ten months, this was the front. Cannons thundered above the heads of the inhabitants, and machine guns rumbled. Government institutions and schools abandoned the town, part of the population fled, and people from other towns that had been destroyed took their place. Economic and civic life was completely destroyed. Large amounts of money flowed into the pockets of those who knew how to serve the army. Corruption and licentiousness spread. The town was flooded with deserters from all of the Ukrainian towns, who had escaped from the hated Czar's army in the hope of rapid salvation by the Austrian army that fought to conquer the town. But being protected by mountains on all sides, the town was not conquered or damaged. On the second day of the Shavuot holiday in 1916, the Austro-Germans were repelled, the command headquarters of the famous Eleventh Army Corps moved into town, and the city start to live life on the home front.

 

During the Revolution and the Civil War

Many laborers—active members of the revolutionary movement—from Petersburg and Moscow were members of the engineering corps and drivers who accompanied command headquarters.

When the October Revolution began, they were the first to organize demonstrations, which in our town took the form of celebrations. The soldiers' council of the corps included notables from the Social Democrats and the Socialist Revolutionaries. The veteran member of the Communist Party, Lieutenant Krilenko, who organized the Bolshevist propaganda in our town, represented the Bolsheviks. In the fervor and excitement of the first days of the revolution, the pulse of civic life in town began to beat strongly again. The Bund, the Jewish Social Democratic Workers Party, and the Zionist Organization were reestablished—this time they were legal and free—and they all attracted a large membership. There were elections to the City Council, the Jewish Community Council (which won with a Labor majority and was called “the Red Community”), the all-Russia Founding Assembly, the Ukrainian Jewish Convention, etc.

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Zionist leaders, those who raised the national flag and stayed true to it even in the darkest days of the period, worked with devotion and much energy. Representing the Zionists with great success in stormy discussions were Dr. B. Landsberg, easygoing, logical lecturer and honest public worker; Meir Goldring, full of energy and a fearless fighter; Y. Shafir, who is now in Israel; Gorengut, the first head of the town's militia (now a resident of Pardes Chana, Israel), and others.

The intoxication of victory and freedom had not yet dissipated when the dark clouds of the civil war covered the sky. The army began to disintegrate, and wagons filled with weapons and ammunition appeared in the market for sale to anyone. In December 1917, gangs from the army stationed in town started riots, robbed stores, and burned homes. Two Jews were killed. The next day, soldiers returning from the front with their weapons formed a Jewish defense squadron. The defense did not last long, though. The Germans, who had begun to move into Ukraine, entered the town. The defense was dismantled, order was restored, and the Jews began to trade and speculate. At first, the town did not much feel the hand of the Germans, but with pressure from the Bolsheviks at the Ukraine border, a period of persecution and arrests began. Dr. Landsberg and others were arrested. They were released after a few months by Ukrainian rebels, who stormed and conquered the town after street fights with the Hetman officers' platoon. At the head of these rebels were two local young Jewish men.

[Translator's Note: Hetman is a historical military title used in Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine.]

It was the start of the period of independent Ukraine, which was soaked with Jewish blood. Kremenets suffered little from the slaughter, but the tension and dread of death did not leave for many months. Once, during the change in regime, the city faced a large slaughter; this was in 1920, when the Bolsheviks retreated after killing a few dozen locals who had previously been officers. Rebellious farmers, who burst into town like animals of prey, were ready to take out their anger on the Jews, but then they heard from one of the officers who had miraculously survived that the Jewish officer Chachkis was one of the officers who had been killed. The Cheka people wanted to release the officer, but he refused, choosing to share in his friends' fate. The rebel commander used this information to calm the farmers, who then limited themselves to looting and robbing. With Dr. Litvak's initiative, a yearly memorial day for Chachkis was established in Kremenets.

[Translator's Note: The Cheka (the “political police”), which later became the NKVD, initially fought counter-Soviet activity. The acronym stands for Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counterrevolution, Sabotage, and Speculation.]

 

Under Polish Rule

The conquering and retreating Poles also cost the city a great deal of robbery and rape, as well as arrests of Jewish community activists who were moved from one concentration camp to another. With the signing of the Peace of Riga, Kremenets was assigned to Poland. At the beginning of Polish rule, all political activity was forbidden. Later, as a result of strengthened links with Warsaw and other centers, an awakening of civic and economic life took place. In that period, in 1922, the first election to the Sejm was held, for which the Jewish-Ukrainian bloc began a wide-ranging battle. (See the memoirs of A. Levinson in this book.)

In the first decade of Polish governance, the city spread and enlarged, and commerce and industry flourished. New institutions were established, and old ones were enlarged and improved. The Zionist Organization, with all its branches, grew and was housed in a nice building, along with its library—the largest in the city. The revenue of the national foundations climbed. A Tarbut school was opened and flourished. In 1926, the ORT school was built, and the building of the orphanage, which was the favorite charity of L. Rozental and Mrs. Kremenitski, was completed. The Burial Society, which had much money, generously supported charitable institutions.

[Translation Editor's Note: ORT stands for Obshestvo Remeslenofo Zemledelcheskofo Truda (Society for Trades and Agricultural Labor), which provided education and employable skills.]

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The hospital and the home for the aged were enlarged and improved. TOZ expanded its public health activities. New banks were established to serve the people by supporting young merchants and craftsmen with loans. The Benevolent Fund was established. Professional guilds (left-wing) were established, for the main purpose of protecting workers' salaries and improving working conditions and cultural activities. The Lyceum, which reopened after the Polish conquest, abandoned the tradition of its founders; with very few exceptions, its doors were now locked to Jewish young people. Admission to the agricultural school, which was annexed to it, was based on notions of racial purity.

The days of revolution and freedom left deep memories within our people, and we would not accept the Polish tyrant who tried to break us with cruelty and maltreatment. We thwarted every effort of his “darling sons,” who came from far away to study in Kremenets, to abuse the Jews.

During the 1930s, the ruling party, Senacja, also began its corrupt politics in Kremenets, which were based on threats and oppression. The government authorities began to intervene in Jewish community life, supporting aggressive public workers of their choice and creating dissent among the Jewish population. All those who opposed this policy were doomed to persecution—loss of livelihood, etc. With political oppression came economic oppression. The Jews collapsed under the weight of taxes, and their sources of livelihood were closed to them. Young men, forced into idleness, were in decline. Under the influence of the authorities, an atmosphere of pshitik penetrated our area.

[Translation Editor's Note: The word pshitik refers to the township of Przytyk in the district of Radom, Poland. On March 9, 1936, there was a pogrom in the township, but it met Jewish resistance. There were casualties on both sides, but the Polish court found the Jews guilty of starting the so-called trouble. The one-sided system of Polish justice was highly supported by the Polish government and became its declared policy toward the Jewish minority. The atmosphere created by the trial spread throughout Poland and was referred to as the “przytyk atmosphere.” Thanks to Bill Leibner, and many others, for this explanation.]

A Jew walking alone at night in a street far from the center of town was not safe anymore, a worry that the Jews of Kremenets had not had for many generations. Nevertheless, the Jewish civic activists and Zionist leaders of Kremenets persevered. The attorney Dr. B. Landsberg, whose license to appear in court could have been revoked any moment, continued to fight in the community and City Council against the schemes of the authorities. Goldring, Zeydi Perlmuter, and others fought relentlessly against the powerful members in the community who put their trust in and reliance on the authorities.

At that time, a new Yiddish weekly paper was established in Kremenets, with the main participants being Zionist activists from all branches. The paper fought strongly against the forces of evil and encouraged community work with a consistently Zionist direction. The paper, put out by volunteers, was published for few years and had a great influence on the population.

 

During World War II

With the start of World War II, the Polish government and diplomatic corps moved to Kremenets. The gigantic Lyceum buildings accommodated all of them. The Germans discovered this, and the town was attacked heavily from the air. The Soviets protected the town for two years. The young people received them with much enthusiasm. They remembered well the whip of the Polish oppressor and the disgrace of idleness. Government institutions, where a Jewish foot had not stepped for so long, were opened wide to them. Although the national movement was ordered to fold its flag and cease all its functions, the Zionist leaders were not harmed this time. The Russians left town suddenly, and with them went the young people who were close to their regime.

The Nazi darkness descended. They established a ghetto, which existed for a year, and in 1942 the annihilation of the tortured community began. At the Nuremberg Trials, a German engineer testified that he had witnessed the great tragedy: 15,000 Kremenets Jews were slaughtered within two days and buried in a common grave across from the train station.

A small group under the leadership of Yonye Bernshteyn successfully escaped into the forests, where they conducted a partisan war along with others who joined them. The Germans offered a large sum of money for Yonye's head.


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