HISTORY OF ROKITNO
On the history of the Jews in Rokitno
Translated by Ala Gamulka
When one traces the sources for the founding of the village and the town of
Rokitno, an interesting phenomenon occurs. A phenomenon that historians of
Jewish communities in Poland sweep aside intentionally or unintentionally.
The accepted version is that the life of the Jews in the Diaspora was based on
one dimension - the spiritual one. Therefore, the scholars and the thinkers
were the ones usually featured. The workers, simple country folk who did not
follow the blessing which Isaac gave to Jacob - Other nations will serve
you- earned their daily bread by working hard. These simple and honest
people were almost forgotten by us.
We feel a fresh country wind when we learn the history of the first Jews in
Rokitno. We hear about a Jewish tribe that does hard physical labor, suffers
from loneliness, has few connections to the outside world and is detached from
The most important source we have about the early days of the village of
Rokitno is an excellent essay by Jadwiga Bergerowna titled Rokitno
Life. The author taught at the Teachers' College in Lvov and was
commissioned to research the early days of the village. For that purpose she
traveled to Rokitno in 1932 and she read all the documents. The first
authentic historical document that she discovered was from 3/2/1862 which
attests that there were 118 houses in the village (there are no population
statistics). From this we learn that the village was founded in an earlier
period, but we do not know exactly when.
A legend made the rounds among the Jews of Rokitno, one handed down from
generation to generation, that the village is a remnant of a big city that
spread to the villages of Sohov and Osnitzek and that it was destroyed by
earlier government decrees. As proof of this there are ancient graves in the
cemetery in Osnitzek where the dead of Rokitno were buried. We learn from the
inscriptions that this cemetery is very old. This story has not been verified
historically, but we should not discard it completely.
The lands of the village originally belonged to the Princess Anila
Rzyszczewska. We do not know if there were any Jews there, but it can be
surmised that the Jews settled in the village in the 1880's. The basis for
this belief is that the decree, published by the tsarist government in the
second half of the 19th century, ordered the expulsion of the Jews from the
area and their resettlement in rural areas. As a result, the migration of
Russian Jews from urban to rural areas began. In the 1880's there were 58,427
Jews in the Province of Volyn. They represented 3.9% of the total rural
population. Even the Hasidic movement was involved in this migration. It is
known that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneierson, The Lubavicher Rebbe, was
instrumental in spreading the idea of working the land among the Jews and he
inspired the Jews of Volyn to change their way of life.
The following population statistics of Rokitno date from early in the twentieth
The Jews mainly earned their living from producing pottery and bartering it in
surrounding villages for wheat and potatoes. The Jews also made shoes out of
reeds and out of felt and sold them. Other Jews were able to lease facilities.
The most famous among them was Yehudah Leib Gendelman, a resident of the
village who leased, from Polish aristocrats, factories that produced tar and
windmills. The Russians governed Volyn from 1795, the year Poland was divided
into three parts. Their policy was to exile the Polish aristocracy from their
land holdings and to divide these possessions among the Russian residents.
Accordingly, the Russians exiled many aristocrats at the end of the nineteenth
century from the Rokitno area and divided the land among the villages. Thus,
Yehudah Leib Gendelman's livelihood was cut down.
At the beginning of the twentieth century two important events took place,
which changed the lives of the Jews in the village. These changes were both
demographic and economic and caused a social migration. As a result, a modern
town was built on the other side of the village. These events were: the
erection of the glass factory and the building of the railroad from Kiev to
Rokitno and its vicinity have an abundance of red and white sand and various
silicates needed for the manufacturing of glass. These geological occurrences
laid the foundation for the manufacturing of glass in Volyn. At the end of the
nineteenth century there were 20 glass factories in Volyn - 16 of them owned by
Jews. 143 Jews worked there. One of these plants was built in Rokitno at the
beginning of the twentieth century.
The reason for the founding of these factories is not only because of the
availability of raw materials. There was also a political reason. In January
1897, the tsarist government issued an edict that forbade the sale of brandy in
glasses or barrels. It had to be placed in glass bottles. This edict
increased the demand for bottles throughout Russia.
The glass industry owners reacted to the edict by scouting for locations where
the raw materials were available. This is how, at the beginning of the
twentieth century, representatives of a well-known Belgian glass manufacturer
arrived in Rokitno and decided to build a plant. Heading the plant was a Jew
from Petersburg called Eliahu Michaelovitch Rosenberg.
Rosenberg had an important part in the economic history of Rokitno. Therefore,
he deserves a few lines of discussion. He was an assimilated Jew from Uman,
but he still kept in close touch with his fellow Jews. His second wife was a
niece of the Russian Minister of the Treasury. This connection opened many
doors for him. Rosenberg had his own office in the Trade Ministry in
Petersburg where many Russian industry giants would visit. Rosenberg made many
physical improvements in Rokitno. He built a magnificent park filled with
blooming oaks and fruit trees and colorful lawns. The park covered several
square kilometers. The winter palace of Mr. Rosenberg was built inside the
park. It was a fancy three-storied palace, where he resided with his wife
during the winter months. In the summer he went to Kiev and Petersburg.
The construction of the Huta (glass factory) took two years. Residences for
the laborers were built nearby. Each laborer was given his own apartment.
This was co-operative housing and it served as a basis for an urban settlement.
Most of the houses were built by Germans. From a historical point of view,
the basis for the town of Rokitno is the construction of the glass factory and
the housing for the hundreds of laborers. Most of the laborers were Polish.
The factory operated around the clock and its products were sent to various
parts of Russia. The office clerks were Jews- among them Isaac Eidelman who
worked in the factory as a manger in charge of quality control. After his
death, Yakov Grinshpan took his place. The accountant and confidant of
Rosenberg was a Jew called Hochfeld from Homel.
The Chief Engineer was Rosenberg's son-in-law, a German, and an expert in the
manufacturing of glass. When World War I broke out in 1914, he was deported by
the Russians to Siberia because he was still a German citizen.
The great distance from the railroad was a deterrent to the development of the
factory. The bottles were shipped by ox cart to Sarny- a distance of 40
kilometers. This primitive method of transport was too expensive and the
factory was almost shut down. The owners of the factory asked Rosenberg to
intercede on their behalf with the powers that be (since he had the
connections). Rosenberg was successful and the Petersburg government ordered
the construction of the railroad from Kiev to Kovel, through Rokitno. Prior to
that it was necessary to go from Rokitno to Brezno, from there to Rovno and
then to Kiev. This trip took two days. The construction of the railroad was
begun in 1900 and completed in 1902.
The construction of the railroad broadened the scope of the glass production
and the factory was highly successful. When World War I broke out the factory
was closed. Rosenberg left Rokitno and died in poverty in Petersburg during
the war. After the war, his son Vladimir sold the factory to the Zunder
brothers- Aharon and David. The younger Rosenberg felt the Revolution coming
and managed to sell his possessions.
Aharon Zunder was the owner of several bakeries in Rovno. In 1915, as the
Germans were approaching Volyn, he moved to Kiev. There he became wealthy in
the lumber industry. In Kiev he met Rosenberg's son and purchased the Huta.
The civil war was raging in Russia. Zunder was beaten by Danikin followers and
he almost died. His friends begged him to stay in Kiev to recuperate, but he
missed his wife and children who had remained in Rokitno and he started for
home. The Kiev-Kovel railroad was not functioning properly at the time because
of the war and it took him a long time to return to Rokitno. He fell ill with
the flu and died soon afterward.
After his death, his brother David tried to revive the Huta. He was not
successful because of the civil war. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917,
many Russian leaders escaped to Ukraine where they formed a treaty with the
Germans and invited them to attack the Bolsheviks and take over Ukraine. The
Germans formed a Ukrainian government led by Skoropedsky. Rokitno was taken
over by the German army. After the Ukrainians, led by Petlura, conquered Kiev
and evicted the Germans, they arrived in Rokitno and they executed David Zunder.
After David Zunder's tragic death, his father Israel Hirsch Zunder and his
younger brother Moshe came to Rokitno. They operated the flour mill attached
to the Huta. According to the treaty signed in Riga between the Bolsheviks and
the Poles, Rokitno now belonged to Poland. After some dealings, the Huta was
sold to a group from Warsaw called Lazaro (Lashinsky, Zabedsky, Rosenzweig).
They operated the Huta for a short time and sold it to Vitrom - a company from
Warsaw which owned glass factories, headed by Flanzreich Vranglavsky. Under
their management the factory was quite successful.
The building of the railroad helped in the development of the lumber industry -
completely run by Jews.
Between the glass factory and the railway station sprawled the estate of a
Polish princess who owned the large forest in Rokitno. This forest was bought
out by the brothers David and Yechezkel Lerner from Kliban.
Researching the history of Rokitno forces us to answer the question: why did
the lumber industry flourish at the end of the nineteenth century and the
beginning of the twentieth? The reason is that there was a revolution in
transportation methods. The extension of the railroad brought a great demand
for telegraph poles and extensive construction. The villages near the railroad
began to develop and grow and building materials were required. The tree roots
were used as raw material for the production of tar and turpentine. In the
village of Toupik a factory producing tar was built before the one in Rokitno.
Later, the factories were owned by David Shachnovski, Aharon Lifshitz, Avraham
Asher Gitelman (from Stariky) and others.
The forests of Rokitno and the villages near it did not only serve as a source
of lumber. They were also the hunting grounds of the Tsar's companions. Among
them was Senator Ochotnikov, the Tsar's confidant. On one of his visits,
Ochotnikov met the Rokitno princess and he bought the forest from her. It
included open areas that the Lerner brothers had not bought because they were
not interested in developing farming.
Ochotnikov called the railway station Ochotnikov Station. The name remained
until the Poles took over the town and renamed it Rokitno Station.
The quick capitalization of Rokitno, thanks to its topographic and geological
assets, brought many changes in the economic lives of the Jews of Rokitno and
the surrounding villages. The Jewish population shifted from the villages to
Rokitno and became a part of its economy. In a short time Rokitno became a
town and the surrounding villages were part of its greater area, as far as the
economy and organized Jewish communal life were concerned.
Rokitno Train Station
The names of the villages that belonged to Rokitno are:
- Budki Borovski
- Budki Snovidovich
At the beginning of the twentieth century there were 400 Jews in Rokitno.
There was no synagogue yet and services were held at the home of the father of
Herzel Lerner who had received a Torah scroll as a gift from the Stolin
Hasidim. There were also services at the home of Yeshayahu Gendelman. On
Shabbat and High Holidays, services were held in the synagogue in the village
of Rokitno. Soon, a beautiful synagogue was built in the town of Rokitno.
This is the story of its construction: A man called Gelfand, from Odessa,
bought large estates in Kisorich and Voltche-Gorko. The Jews of Rokitno asked
him to build them a synagogue. Gelfand, a warm hearted Jew, agreed and built a
The dedication of the synagogue was a magnificent ceremony. Gelfand came with
his wife, his daughter and son-in-law. He invited two bands from neighboring
towns and the celebration was grand. During the festivities an interesting
event occurred. Mrs. Gelfand announced on stage that she wished that half of
the Mitzvah (merit) should be hers. However, Mr. Gelfand replied in Russian:
I will not allow it! The mitzvah is all mine. We are wealthy enough and
you can commemorate your own name. It was then suggested that Mrs.
Gelfand would commission the inscribing of a Torah scroll in her name. And so
it happened - a year later a Torah scroll was brought to the synagogue and
again a wonderful celebration was held.
The Jews of Rokitno came from many parts of Russia and Ukraine. These were
progressive Jews who came into contact with western culture. It was a
monolithic population. In those early days they were not involved in the
battles between the Hasidic movement and the Mitnagdim or the Enlightenment.
They were outside these arguments.
The founders were Zionists and educated their children accordingly. In 1913
Sheftel Levin, the son of Feivish the shohet (ritual slaughterer) was chosen to
go to Eretz Israel to buy land on behalf of the Jews of Rokitno who planned to
move there. The money was collected and Sheftel was on his way. When he
reached Odessa, he discovered that it was impossible to continue since it was
the eve of World War I and the roads were not safe. He reluctantly returned to
Rokitno and the plan was shelved.
In the beginning, there was no cemetery in Rokitno because the inhabitants were
mostly young people who did not think of death. When necessary, the dead were
buried in Osnitzek. The first Jew to die in Rokitno was Shmerl the shohet who
died more than 60 years ago (at the turn of the twentieth century).
Jadwiga Bergerowna: Rokitno 1925
Jewish Industrial Activities In Poland- Eliezer Heller 1923
Personal Recollections by: Herzl Lerner, Ita Eidelman, Israel Greenberg,
The beginnings of Rokitno
Ala & Larry Gamulka
The first settlers of Rokitno were the Jews from the village of Rokitno. Their
names were: my father Avraham Shmuel Kliger (the Shohet), Moshe Lifshitz,
Sheftel Levin, Alter Vorona, Moshe Leib Zaks, Meir Weiner, Haim David Weiner,
Avraham Golod, Moshe Freierman, Yakov Polishuk, Aharon Rotman, Moshe Haim
Shapira, Benyamin Meirson, Yeshayahu Gendelman, Betzalel Kokel, Shimon
Zaltzbuch, Ben Zion Geipman, Isaac Griever, Shimon Shapira, Gimpel Greenberg,
Moshe Gurman and Moshe Hirsch Linn.
Alter Vaisblat, also one of the early settlers, owned a store near the glass
factory (Huta) and lived in a house which belonged to the Huta. In the houses
owned by the Huta there was a pharmacy run by a Jew called Barzam. He later
sold the pharmacy to Noah Soltzman and moved to Sarny where he opened another
The village began to grow with vigor and many Jews and non-Jews from the
vicinity came to settle there. A practical doctor (feldsher)
called Zarin came as well as a government-appointed doctor.
The first thing the Jews did was to build a synagogue with a ritual bath and
nearby a house for the sexton - Nahum Eisenman. Gelfand, a rich man from
Odessa, had bought a large tract of wooded land in Kisorich. He brought down
his son-in-law, Polaver, who built himself a large house in the new town. The
lumber business went well and with the help of Gelfand's trusted employee,
Moshe Wolf Horman, a new large synagogue was built in the yard. The original
small synagogue was moved to a different location.
Rabbi Aharon Yosef Shames came from Brezne, opened a dry goods store and also
became the Rabbi of the village.
The pharmacy building also contained the post office. The first mailman,
Anthony, and his assistant traveled to the station by horse and buggy to pick
up the mail. Those people who wanted to receive their mail faster went on
their own to the station.
A tragedy occurred in those early years. A murderer came to the village
brandishing a revolver. At night he came to the house of Benyamin Meirson and
he shot through the window. The Meirson family began shouting and they sent
for help. Their neighbor, Ben Zion Geipman, ran towards their house. The
murderer encountered him and killed him on the spot. Benyamin Meirson and his
wife, Golde, were injured. The murderer was caught and brought to the station.
He was sentenced and the residents calmed down.
This is how Rokitno was in those years.
THE OLD CEMETERY
Since Rokitno was only founded at the beginning of the twentieth century, there
were no historical sites as there would have been in other Jewish settlements
in Volyn. The only historical site in our area to be described is the Old
The Old Cemetery was located about six kilometers from Rokitno, northwest of
the Klesov-Sarny road on a hill near Osnitzek on the river Lvo. It was
surrounded by large oak trees and the graves were so old that they were almost
indistinguishable. The land was quite rocky and it was fairly common to need a
horse to remove a rock.
in the Osnitzek Cemetery
A popular legend is told about the earlier existence of a large Jewish
community, which sprawled over the area between Sohov and Rokitno - a distance
of 10 kilometers. All the Jews had been slaughtered in 1648 by the Cossack of
Chmelnitzky and the community was totally destroyed. Even the cemetery was
obliterated. Many years later when the Jews returned, the cemetery was
discovered by a Tzadik, a follower of the Baal Shem Tov, who came there by
accident. Just before Mincha prayers he ordered the caravan to stop, he washed
his hands in the river, prayed in the cemetery and informed his followers that
these were graves of martyrs, virtuous people and great Torah scholars.
Accordingly, this site was intended as a resting place for area Jews. However,
the farmer who owned the land refused to sell it to the Jews. Once he was
plowing his field, the earth opened up and swallowed the farmer and his oxen.
Actually, at the entrance to the cemetery there was a depression, almost a
hole. The elders would point to it and would tell, with trepidation, about the
The farmer's heirs eventually sold the land to the Jews and the cemetery served
them until the 1920's. There were buried the martyrs slaughtered by Petlura
and other murderers. From the 1920's the cemetery was no longer in use since
the town grew and a cemetery was opened in Rokitno. The Jews still came every
Elul to visit family graves in the Old Cemetery in Osnitzek.
When the Jews were eliminated during the Holocaust, so was eliminated the Old
THE VILLAGE OF ROKITNO
(Memories and Experiences)
Dov Ben Yehoshua (Vorona)
In memory of my mother Tzirel, buried in Osnitzek and my father Yehoshua,
buried in Israel.
The village of Rokitno was large and its streets and lanes were numerous.
Uvel, a narrow river, divides the village in two. It begins southeast of
Rokitno and it becomes a small lake as it reaches the village. From there it
flows northwest to the village of Osnitzek. On the edge of the lake stood a
flour mill where the residents would grind their wheat. The flour was used in
the baking of a wonderful, tasty and aromatic bread.
On one side of the river lived mainly non-Jews. There were very few Jews -
only 3 families. This was the center of the Christian community. The church
stood out with its colorful steeple. Nearby were the Christian cemetery and
the priest's house. Across from it, there was a public school with 6 classes.
During the times of the tsar, Russian was the language of instruction. However
after the Revolution, when various governments ruled, the teaching was done in
Polish and/or Ukrainian. There were Jewish children in the school. Their
parents wanted them to be taught secular subjects, in addition to their Jewish
studies in the cheder. They felt that these secular studies would prove useful
to them in later life.
On the other side of the river, the population was mixed. The Jews were devout
and loyal. They educated their children in the Jewish spirit and celebrated
all the holidays. The Jewish homes were more attractive than those of the
others. A synagogue and a mikveh were built. After WWI, the Joint financed
the construction of a magnificent bathhouse and mikveh. They were also used by
Jews from the surrounding areas.
The majority of the Jews made their living by working as tradesmen, as
storekeepers, or by using a horse and cart. Several families owned small
stores in the surrounding villages. They were not wealthy, but they made a
Education was most important for all parents. Torah teachers were brought in
from great distances. The first one was Berl Gluzman from Sloveshnia, near
Kiev. He would become easily enraged and did not spare the rod. Our parents
permitted this corporal punishment as if beatings were a necessary part of our
Eventually, he was replaced by a new teacher, also from Sloveshnia, but
completely different from the first one. His name was Leibl Shleifman. He was
modern, nice, easy-going and good to the children. He never lifted a finger
towards us and treated us with respect. He was a slender young man with the
spirituality of a poet. He was a wonderful violinist and when he poured out
his heart while playing it was as if the Holy Spirit rested on his shoulders.
Before lunch he would stop our class and would play a concert to
please his students. He was also a nature lover. At around 4:00 P.M., he
would take his students for a walk along the river bank. He knew the names of
all the flowers. The Jews thought this was a waste of time, but we, the
children, enjoyed these walks tremendously.
World War I Threatens
The skies of the world and of Rokitno darkened. In the summer of 1914, WWI
broke out. The teacher, Leibl Shleifman, announced: Conscription,
children! The war has broken out. I am going home. He left the village
immediately. The violin was silenced and we had no school. We were happy,
relieved of our studies. Little did we know that this day, the day our teacher
left, was not a day of rejoicing but a day of deep sorrow. We would be subject
to hunger, pogroms and other misfortunes resulting from war.
Youths were conscripted into the army and their parents ran around trying to
get them out of it. One became deformed, another was bought out and a third
ran away from the front and went into hiding. The police were paid off.
We, the children, roamed in the village. We were full of mischief even though
these were difficult times. We were starving and our existence was in danger.
We expected to be attacked by our neighbors and only by a miracle were we
The November Revolution In Rokitno
One afternoon in 1917, when I was a young boy, as I stood near the railway
station the train from Olevsk arrived. The locomotive was decorated with red
flags and fir trees. When the train stopped, young revolutionaries jumped off
dressed in leather jackets and began to remove any signs of the tsar's regime.
There was not much to remove since there were only a few policemen, some clerks
and the manager of the post office. These people were dressed in uniforms and
were decorated with various insignia. The revolutionaries tore the insignia
from the uniforms of the tsar's representatives and yelled out loud: Long
I also recall from my childhood the first day of the November Revolution in
Rokitno. I remember the beginning of that period which we hoped would bring us
great freedom and equality. However, after the honeymoon of the
Revolution our eyes were opened and we saw that we were only daydreaming.
In the streets of Rokitno there was an atmosphere of fear and helplessness.
The civil war broke out and Petlura's rioters appeared. They were battling the
Bolsheviks, but they always began by slaughtering the Jews. David Zunder, the
owner of the glass factory, was the first victim. He was killed because it was
rumored, incorrectly, that as an employer he exploited the workers. He paid
for this lie with his life.
The Synagogue And Its Leaders
A magnificent synagogue stood in a corner of the village. It was one of the
tallest and most elegant buildings in the village. There was space for 100-120
worshippers. There were many Torah scrolls in the Ark. Among the worshippers
stood out Rabbi Shraga Feivish Levin, the Shohet. He was a learned Jew who was
also well versed in the every day world. He was involved with the lives of
many people. He would visit our home often and would spend time talking to my
father about world events. On the High Holidays he led the services. When his
booming voice was heard, the worshippers were moved. The rural Jews who were
honest and simple and worked hard with the sweat of their palms during the rest
of the year would be lifted from their simple existence. They were thrilled to
listen to such expert chanting.
Next to Rabbi Feivish the Shohet, always stood Hershel (the yellow one) ready
to announce the order of the shofar blowing. He too was a scholar. He led the
morning services on a regular basis and read the weekly portion. He was a
kind-hearted Jew who dealt in honey and wax. However, during the war years,
when business was slow, he would gather the children who were out of school and
he taught them Bible and Rashi. The older children were also taught Gmara. He
did not even charge a fee, for it was important to him that Jewish children
should not forget their Bible studies.
On Yom Kippur, these two men were joined by David Grinshpan who led the Kol
Nidrei service. He was a tall man with a long beard. He was handsome and
possessed a beautiful melodious voice. Before Kol Nidrei, he would stand clad
in his Kittel, the synagogue packed with young and old. The candles were lit
and shone like a forest on fire. Then David would lift his head and look out
the window on the western wall, towards Osnitzek. When he saw that the sun was
in on the tops of the trees- that was his signal to begin the Kol Nidrei
prayer. His soft and melodious voice would be heard: Happy are the
The Opening Of The Cemetery
The village of Rokitno did not have its own cemetery. For many years the Jews
of the village were used to the idea that Rokitno was meant for live Jews only
and that the dead ones had no place in it. Those who died were buried in
Osnitzek or in Olevsk, in spite of the difficulties entailed.
Towards the end of World War I, the Jews of Rokitno were dying of hunger or of
disease or they were being slaughtered. Only then did the Jews understand that
the dead had to be cared for and that a cemetery was needed in Rokitno.
One day we, the children, found out that a plot of land was being designated as
a cemetery. The children did not know what a cemetery looked like because they
had never seen one. Unfortunately, I knew about it since my mother was buried
in Osnitzek and on the eve of the High Holidays, I used to go to her grave with
my older brothers, Noah and Ephraim, to say Kaddish.
All the village children gathered and waited impatiently for the big event. An
area on the way to Snovidovich was fenced off, not far from the Christian
cemetery. The day of dedication was declared a fast day. All the Jews of the
village and the town met in the field and circled it many times while reciting
the appropriate Psalms. A long time was spent there and at the end they all
wished each other not to need the place too soon.
When the first grave in the cemetery was dug, a major problem arose. It is
unlawful to leave a lone grave without a guard and it is necessary to watch it
until a second grave is dug. However, time quickly resolved the problem.
As I previously recounted, we lived through bad times and Jewish blood was
spilled. A Jew was killed in Olevsk. The community helped us by burying him
in the Rokitno cemetery. This death saved the situation.
The settlement was destroyed and not all its Jews were even buried according to
Jewish law. For this reason our hearts are heavy.
Rokitno during World War I
The declaration of war in August 1914 came as a shock to the Jews of Russia,
among them the Jews of Rokitno. Since many of the farmers and other residents
of the town and its surroundings were conscripted, the economic situation of
the Jews worsened. The work in the forests stopped almost completely and it
was limited to chopping wood for heating purposes or for the war effort.
The recession was already felt at the beginning of the war and became worse as
the war continued. The movement of the passenger and freight trains stopped
since the trains were needed to transport soldiers and military equipment to
the fronts. The Rokitno train station stood on the important Kiev-Kovel-Warsaw
line. This was an essential route that led to the battlegrounds. Packed
trains went through the station to the front while the wounded and the
prisoners (mainly Austrians) were transported in the opposite direction.
The lack of supplies caused a rise in their price and the area farmers often
accused the Jews of speculating and of hiding the supplies.
When the war broke out, the authorities began to persecute the Jews. As a
result, several families of commercial representatives were hurt because the
representatives were accused of being in contact with the Germans. The
representatives had to be in correspondence with the Germans regarding the
export of lumber products. Avraham Golod was exiled to Siberia. The families
of Aharon Litvak, Avraham Shapira and Zeev Zelikovsky, who were to be exiled,
quietly left Rokitno and settled in Tzaritzin (Stalingrad, now Volgograd).
After the conquest of Poland by the German army in 1915, a flow of Jewish
refugees began to arrive. These were refugees who had been expelled by the
retreating Russian army. Many of these refugees settled in Rokitno. The local
Jews gave a helping hand to their poor brethren.
At the beginning of 1916 the front moved closer to the Stir River and the
Stohod River - about 100 kilometers from Rokitno. Again, refugees arrived in
Rokitno from the villages closest to the front. As the front came closer,
several military plants were transferred to Rokitno. These plants were used to
repair weapons and for garage space. As well, a military hospital was
installed in the Rosenberg Palace (opposite the railway station). These plants
slightly improved the economic situation of the Jews of Rokitno.
In March 1917 the Tsar was defeated and Russia became a republic. This happy
news reached Rokitno and caused much excitement. It warmed the relationship
between Jews and Christians. Local government institutions were established
headed by the Committee of Workers, Farmers and Soldiers. A local
militia was also founded and it replaced the tsarist police. It was headed by
David Shachnovski, a resident of Rokitno. A special department for the supply
and apportionment of food was managed by Moshe Freierman and Betzalel Kokel.
The main clerks were Yakov Wolfin and a farmer by the name of Prohor from the
village of Rokitno. When the revolution broke out, many young people from
Rokitno went to study in the high schools in Kiev, Katerinsolav and Odessa.
In the summer of 1917, elections to the All Russia meeting were held and the
local Jews participated. At that time, branches of all of the Jewish
organizations, headquartered in Kiev, were founded: Zeirei Zion, Poalei Zion,
Bund, Ahdut, Mizrahi, General Zionists. In November 1917 we were happy to hear
about the Balfour Declaration. It encouraged the Zionist movement and raised
our spirits. When the Bolsheviks took control of the central government, a
civil war broke out. By the end of 1917, Rokitno had changed hands several
times. At the end of 1917, the Ukrainians announced the formation of an
independent republic. It was led by Vinichenko (Prime Minister) and Petlura
(Minister of Defense). In the beginning, the authorities were friendly to the
Jews. As proof of this Moshe Zilberfarb, the representative of the Territorial
Zionists, served as Minister for Jewish Affairs.
This government lasted only until April 1918. After the signing of a separate
peace treaty between Soviet Russia and Germany in March 1918 in Brest-Litovsk,
the Red Army attacked the independent Ukraine. The Ukrainian government asked
the German army for help. The German army conquered the whole Ukraine (up to
the Black Sea) in April 1918 and a new government was formed, headed by Pavel
Skoropedsky. The Minister of Industry and Commerce was Mr. Gutnik, the
son-in-law of Mr. Gelfand.
The Germans also occupied Rokitno. Although their headquarters were in the
Rosenberg Palace, they did not interfere in local government. All was calm,
but not for long. In November 1918, a revolution broke out in Germany and two
days later the war ended. The German army in Ukraine prepared to return home.
At the same time, the Ukrainian army organized itself under the leadership of
Petlura. He quickly took over the whole of the Ukraine and deposed
Skoropedsky. Petlura soldiers reached Rokitno - the descendants of the
Haidamaks. When they arrived they shot to death David Zunder, the owner of the
glass factory. His workers had libeled him. There were other Jewish victims
whose names we do not remember. The Petlurists ransacked Jewish homes and
punished the Jewish population with harsh taxes. The Jews met in the synagogue
and collected the necessary funds, which were given to the rioters.
Fear and depression fell on the Jewish population. There was no traveling to
and from the city and there was a great shortage of food. In January 1919, the
German army left the Ukraine and the Red Army quickly moved in. Petlura's army
was soon defeated and the Bolsheviks came in April 1919. The Red Army advanced
to the Bog River. During that time, the Polish army was reorganizing in a
rejuvenated Poland. While they were advancing east they defeated the Russian
army and reached Olevsk.
That year, a Polish unit from General Haler also arrived. These soldiers
immediately began to ruthlessly attack the Jews - to cut the beards of the
elderly and to force Jews to do hard labor. They were told to dismantle
military equipment that arrived by train and to repair railroad tracks and
bridges that had been destroyed by the retreating Red Army. The railroad to
the village of Kisorich was built by the Jews at that time.
In the summer of 1919 Yosef Lerner was killed by the Poles. He was the oldest
son of Herzel Lerner, who was then on his way to Rokitno.
The Polish - Red Army front moved near the Oobort River (in Olevsk). In spring
1920, the Poles attacked the Red Army all along the front and they quickly
conquered Kiev. The Red Army recovered and attacked. Led by Budionov, it
defeated the Polish army and quickly reached Warsaw.
Rokitno again became part of the Soviet Regime, but this lasted only three
months since in September 1920 the Poles returned to Rokitno and again reached
Olevsk. During the transition of governments the Jews of Rokitno organized
themselves in civil defense, especially night watch. The Jews and the local
Poles cooperated in this endeavor.
In October 1920 a cease-fire was announced by both sides and peace talks were
begun in Riga. According to the agreement the Polish army retreated to
Tomshgarod. The area between Tomshgarod and Ostoki was declared no man's land.
A small Soviet occupation force arrived in Rokitno since the area was divided
among the different armies.
The Soviet occupation lasted until the end of March 1921. On 21.3.1921 a peace
treaty was signed in Riga. As a result, the border between Poland and Russia
was placed near Ostoki and Rokitno became part of Poland.
During the changes of government there was a great lack of food. The Jews of
the town - at great personal danger - went to surrounding areas to look for
food. Not once were they robbed on the road, but nothing stopped them.
When the Polish rule was established in the town and its vicinity, life slowly
returned to normal and the economic situation improved. Again, the lumber
industry was thriving and the glass factory was reopened after a long stoppage.
The old sawmill was again in operation.
The Zionist and cultural activities were revived. The Tarbut School was
founded and the pioneers began to go to Eretz Israel.
The fallen tree
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