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{Page XVIII}

Some early history and recent memories of Slutzk

By Gregory Razran


The city of Slutzk, originally known as Sluchesk, is one of Russia's oldest cities, founded by the Dregovichi tribe, and mentioned first in 1116 in a "Lavrenty Letopia'." The Letopia' says that: "Gleb of Minesk (Minsk) fought with the Dregovichi and burned Sluchesk" and that "Volodimer (Vladimir Monomakh, famous Kiev Grand Duke) sacked in turn Gleb's Minesk." Slutzk was then a part of the Kiev Grand Duchy. In 1148, it was transferred to the Chernigov principality (knyazhestvo), in 1662 returned to Kiev, and soon after it became a part of the principality of Turov-Pinsk, remaining so for more than 200 years.

Slutzk attained the status of a separate principality in 1395, with Olel'ko Vladimiroch, a direct Rurik descendant, as its first prince. However, by that time the entire region had fallen under the general sovereignty of Lithuania-Poland, and the Olel'kovichy princes were apparently only semi-independent. Their dynasty lasted for more than 200 years – until, at the beginning of the 17th century, a last daughter of the Olel'knivichy, Princess Sophia, married Prince Januez Radziwill and Slutsk became Radziwill-governed.

In 1579, one of the Olel'kovichi princes divided Slutzk into three separate parts, Old Slutzk, New Slutzk (Troychan), and Ostrov, bequeathing each part to one of his three sons. The Crimean Tartars besieged the city in 1503-1504, but could not take it. Likewise, Slutzk successfully beat off a Russian attack in 1655 during the Russo-Polish War when such cities as Minsk, Wilno, Kovno, Grodno, and Mogilev originally fell to the Russians (later retaken). As is known, Slutzk returned to Russia in 1793, after the second partition of Poland in the last years of the reign of Catherine the Second.

A curious fact about Slutzk is that in the last half of the 17th and first half of the 18th century, it was a world center for the manufacture of a special kind of oriental (Persian) belt[s] made of silk, gold, and silver and known then as the Slutzk belts (Slucki Pasi or Slutzkyiye Poyasy). The Slutzk design of the belts was imitated by manufacturers in Polish, Russian, and even German, French, and Italian cities.

The manufacturing was begun in 1758 under the direct supervision of the Radziwill estate and for a long time business apparently flourished. When, however, in 1832, "the business began to decline, it was leased for three years and then for another three years to the Jewess Bluma Liberman, the daughter of the merchant Kantorowicz."

The "Yevreyskaya Entsyklopediya" states that the existence of Jews in Slutzk is first mentioned in documents of 1583, that Slutzk became a part of the Vaad D'Artsoth Lita in 1695 and that the Vaad met in Slutzk in 1761 (its last meeting), and also that the Russian Census of 1897 counted in the city a little more than 10,000 Jews and a little more than 2,000 non-Jews (the exact number of the Census, I now note, was 10,264 Jews and 2,285 non-Jews).

Still, I was very much fascinated when I examined the texts themselves of the Slutzk documents in the Regesty i Nadpisy (vol. i published in 1899 by the St. Petersburg Mefitze Haskalah; vols. 2 and 3 published in 1910 and 1913 by the Yevreiskoye Istoriko-Etnograficheskoye Obshchestvo). The first document, the 1583 one, merely mentions that "Il'ya Lipstitz and Merkel' Novakhovich of Slutzk paid toll in Brest for transportingvarious goods to Lyublin." The second, third, and fourth documents, of the year 1622., relate how "Avram Aronovich, a Slutzk Jew, complained that a Slutzk 'meshchanka' Yaroshevitseva hid her son Karp who stole goods from Aronovich." Later, Karp was jailed, and "Yaroshevitseva, on the advice of her son Stephan, a known Jew-hater, complained that Aron willfully arrested Karp who was innocent and that Aron himself robbed her house."

A 1645 document describ[e]s a complaint of the priest Voskresensky against Itska Abramovich, a lessee of an inn on the Oressa River. Itska's "bakhur-servant" ("bakhur" in Russian text) was drowned in the river and the priest's servants, Ivashko Rachkovets and Sapon Astapkevich, found the drowned and hid a knife and three "osmaks" that were in his possession. As a result, "the Jew tortured the priest's servants in the manner of an enemy of Christian people, brought them to his 'Pan' and incarcerated them in the Slutzk jail." At the trial, the court released Rachkovich when he swore that he had not killed the "Bakhur" but also excused Itska from any monetary fine (nothing is said about the trial of Astapkevich).

Again, a 1659 document tells of a letter from the Slutzk Protopope Yoann Bokachich to the Lithuanian Prince Boguslav Radivil (Radziwill) in which the protopope informs that "a Jew from the village of Doktorovich, who adopted Christianity and was a Christian for ten years, came to Slutzk after his wife died, remarried, and at the instigation of Slutzk rabbis returned to Judaism with his second wife and children who had been born Christian." The document continues that "Bokachich, seeing in this an insult to the Church, complains to the Prince in the name of the clergy, reminding thereat that "a Christian child killed by them in Doktorovici ten years ago still remains unburied."

Then came five letters of complaint against Slutzk Jews from the Slutzk Archimandrite Theodosius Vasilevich to the Lithuanian Prince Boguslaw Radivil (Radziwill) - one written in 1666, two in 1668, and two in 1669. Some of the Archimandrite's complaints are: that the Slutzk Jew, Yakub Davidovich, insulted him and the Glory of the Lord and even threw himself upon him with a knife and that the court freed the accused, not because of legal considerations, but because of special respect for Jews; that while Christians had more than once been sentenced to death on account of Jews, not once had Jews paid such penalty for insults to the Lord, His House, His Holy Objects or His Clergy; and that in Slutzk there were many Jews and Jewesses who were first converted to Christianity and then returned to Judaism.

So far for the early history of the city. As for the Slutzk of my own days, all I need do is to close my eyes, and it all comes back to me. I remember, of course, the two years that I spent in Slutzker Yeshivah, Reb Zundel Meltzer's brilliant Talmudic Expositions and Reb Sheftel Kramer's melancholic Mussar talks in the Sabbath eve twilights. During the day Reb Sheftel's presence was revealed to us, as a rule, only from above, watching us from a high balcony window; a pair of eyes peering and a black beard swaying. But he never managed, however, to detect the "prohibited" books which I avidly read in the Yeshivah outhouse. It is there in the outhouse where, believe it or not, my first serious secular education began, where I first became acquainted with Mapoh, Smolenskin, Byalik etc.

The books had their effect. I soon converted into a full-fledged Haskalah Searcher, left the Yeshivah at 14 and plunged into a world of opposite values and opposing concerns. Brenner, Berdichevsky and Borokhov, Hess and Hertzl, Pinsker and Peretz, and a little later the vast and varied Russian luminaries became my guides and mentors. I joined the Zeire-Zion party and also had a strong sympathy for the Poale-Zion. (I was therefore, happy some years afterwards, when I was already in the United States, that a union between Zeire-Zion and Poale-Zion was effected).

After that the first image that I get is usually that of Solomyak's Cafe with its blend of delicious rum cakes and abstract sociopolitical and philosophical debates; the bald and learned "kazyonny ravvin" and orthodox Marxist and menshevik-internationalist Bronstein; the cynical and quizzically perceptive socialist-Zionist Charney; secular and sympathetic gray-haired "askon" and "Folkist" Feinberg; and worldly Zeire-Zionist Landau; dedicated and oratorical and much-popular-with-the-girls Gabai; pedantic yet highly gifted Mlinsky; bespectacled and studious Solomon Chipchin and the charming and altogether lovely "Bundist" Malke Boruchovich.

My second image is that of the "kalte shul" and the birds hovering and soaring in and out under the lofty ceiling during the prayers on Shevuoth.

My third… well, the clubs of Zeire-Zion: first, the suburban and greenery-covered one on Yuryevsky Street; second, the stuffy and crowded one in the market place; and third, the spacious and modern one, supplied with two electric bulbs, on the chaussee, the property of Mrs. Feinberg. My third really runs to romance. I remember most vividly and with considerable nostalgia the benches of the Broad Street boulevard strewn with chestnut-blossoms on which we teenagers sat and loved and recited to each other Nadson and Shneur and David Einhorn and some of us even Heinrich Heine.

The aforementioned Charney was fond of saying that Slutzk was governed by "Four Lions" Lev Grigorevich, Lev Mikhailovich, Lev Isakovich, and Lev Mironovich. As secretary of the Slutzk Kehilah after the Revolution, and for a number of years secretary, and also president of the Slutzk Zeire-Zion, I knew them all. Lev Grigorevich is of course the almost-legendary Dr. Shildkret, a giant of mind and heart, revered and loved by Jew and non-Jew, poor and rich, old and young. Shildkret was by all tokens the foremost intellect in the entire "uyezd", even if he lost somewhat in popularity after the revolution because of his political conservatism. Lev Mikhailovich is the town "Gvir" and Zionist Leibush Gutzeit. The image created by his material success and alleged industrial and commercial toughness had always puzzled me, contrasting as it did with my impressions of him as a soft and gentle, somewhat blundering, and probably henpecked man much concerned with spiritual values, with self-improvement, and with the acquisition of abstract knowledge in Judaic and general lore. I remember Mrs. Gutzeit, once at a dinner in their home, offering a toast to her daughter studying in Italy - a strange and awesome and far-away land to me, at that time - and of course, the gifted and most democratic Gutzeit's son Yasha.

Lev Isakovich is the name of the "nice" bundist Myshkovsky, and Lev Mironovich of the "Zealot" Bunin. Myshkovsky was married to Clara Mironovna who was not only a very ardent and active Zionist but also one of very strong right-wing tendencies. We thus did not have to argue with Myshkovsky – Clara Mironovna could do it better – but we had to argue a lot with "Leibele" Bunin. In the course of the arguments, our opposition to his sociopolitical position carried over to his personality. Yet in retrospect Bunin appears to me to have been a fine representative of the Bundist and Jewish working-class masses of Slutzk, a highly efficient organizer and leader of integrity and high ideals and principles.

I cannot leave this epitaph without revealing some personal feelings about the charming girls of our Zeire-Zion Organization: Fanya Kreph, a subtle blond of level-headed intellect and deeply felt emotions; Basya Barnak, full of whims, intuitive perceptions, and striking originalities; Mutya Peimer and Besya Chozik with whom I was secretly in love but who never knew it; and others. Where are they all and what has become of them? – -

***


It was a hot day, June 30, 1941. My wife and I and two friends had left New York a few days before on an automobile trip to Mexico. Hitler had invaded Russia, and the day before the war was raging, according to the communique we read in a newspaper bought in Nashville, Tennessee, in the direction of Baranovichi and Luck (Lutzk). We had been motoring all day and stopped late in the evening, strangely, in a city -named Palestine in the state of Texas. We had seen no newspaper all day and could find none in Palestine. The next day, however, we bought a New York Times in San Antonio, Texas, and there I read that "the battle is now in the direction of Bobruisk and Borisov". Slutzk was obviously already in Hitler's inferno. Later, I heard that the remainder of my family in Chaplitsy near Slutzk was drowned in a Polesie river trying to escape. I heard no more.

Queens College, Long Island, N.Y.


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