Translated by Daniel Shimshak
Chasya Zoller was the daughter of Shlomo Zoller and a teacher in Stepan. She immigrated to Israel in 1933, and nowadays with Kibbutz Negbah.
Stepan my dear town, the despoiled. It is my desire to raise up a few thoughts about you, thoughts from a distant time.
I was born in Stepan and there spent my years of childhood and youth, years of happiness and pleasantness. We lived in an atmosphere of selfless love and good heart. The people of Stepan were good and cordial. Despite the differences in status from namely those who were educated and those who were illiterate, those who were rich and those who were poor, no jealousy or hatred was felt. When one family had a happy occasion all the town was happy; when someone was sick with a serious disease the whole Jewish population was worried; when there was a tragedy, everyone hurt and cried. The well-to-do helped those of lesser means with day-to-day life or during the time of holidays, at the time of sickness, with income, etc.
The name Stepan is a historical name that was taken from the name of Stefan Boturi. So the administrator of the Polish school, Parantzeshik Chodzik, told us. The source of Polish history from the author on the Polish king Stefan Boturi stated that he had palaces and fortresses. He would sometimes spend time in Stepan, and the kind Kazamir Yagelonkski would come there to hunt. This was during the period of brilliance of the Polish kingdom. After the division of Poland in the 17th and 18th centuries and annexation to czarist Russia, everything was destroyed following the wars. Only remnants remained, known to us formerly as a fortress (The Volh) and the synagogue, whose construction used the walls of one palace or fortress. All of these places are known and remembered. The Volh, that served as a place of recreation and meetings between pairs of lovers, was a beautiful place, all covered in trees on two sides, the east and the north, enclosed by two hills forming half a circle. They would tell us that the hills were the graves of brothers from the time of the Polish war with her enemies.
There were occasions when bones of people were discovered in this place, primarily skulls, but they didn't research these things and didn't know to what era these belonged. Also, in my time, there was within the woods a small opening that, according to the story, led to an underground, secret passageway. According to the story the path continued through the whole town until the synagogue where there were many hidden treasures.
It was known to us that below the synagogue were basements, three of them that were used for different purposes. For example, it was used for watching of fruit in the summer by the merchants, ice in the event of sickness in the town, and others. The fourth basement was full of beans and had only a low, very narrow opening, built in the form of half an arch, that remained visible. But it was impossible to enter there.
After World War I, the lands of our city and region returned to the sovereignty of Poland, but no one explored what was told nor carried out any archeological dig to discover the truth.
It appears that the synagogue was built from the remains of a fortress, its walls were very thick and they were made from strong material, and also the ceiling. It was said that the walls were 4 arshon thick (1 arshon = 72 centimeters). The ceiling was very high and in the form of an arch. The part that was called The Grosse Shul was built within the ground and they would step down there. There were other wings, like The Veibershe Shul two floors, and in the same shape there were two beit medrash and a large meeting hall.
In the course of generations, the name of this town was corrupted by the Ukrainian population and changed to Stepan (now with a dot in the Hebrew letter pay; formerly called Stefan).
Stepan was a beauty spot for nature. In the surroundings forests, fields, fruit gardens, and to the northeast side the Horyn River. Many pleasant farms are reminders of the Horyn. In the summer the bathing, since the water was clear like crystal, and fish, fish of all kinds and sizes. When we were small, we would take off the dresses and fish with them. They were very beautiful and silvery. After we satisfied ourselves, we would release them with great mercy. When I got older, I would take part in fishing with a fishing rod (then I no longer released them). We would arrange fascinating trips in boats on the river: guitars, balalaikas, and mandolins an orchestra with the accompaniment of singing. Many boats traveled and the echoes of the songs and the music carried in the distance, and trembling went through your body from so much pleasure. The wide river with the three bridges, the moon spraying its silver light on its waters, the trees bracketed on the river they would instill happiness in the heart and youthful dreams.
Also in the winter we would get enjoyment from the beautiful nature. For example, sliding on the ice on the Horyn, gliding on a sled straight from the hills of The Volh to the river covered with thick ice overturning, receiving hits, the heartening jubilation and laughter all around. Getting up and continuing. Also, sliding on skis or only on shoes. This was a pleasant sport, and until you learned how to do it you would get many hard bruises on the body but it made no difference. The forests they were also like a friend to us. A hike in the forest, in the snow, this was something fantastic and breathtaking. When you entered the forest in the winter, you stopped before the unusual vision of nature. The trees covered with snow and the white surface of the ground all created a picture of majestic splendor. The feeling was as if you entered a holy place. The forest would resemble an enormous, respected old man, quiet and holy. We would not dare speak in a loud voice, not before the sensation of majestic splendor. We would pick common berries on hikes only in winter, and always leave this place unwillingly. In the summer the forests would sprout different kinds of berries and mushrooms for food. But we were afraid of the forest watchmen, because we didn't want them to bring complaints and fines to our parents. Nevertheless we went and really was it not possible to enjoy the abundance of good things and the pleasure of the picking?
But you can't draw a conclusion from the fact that we always spent time and hiked. We would utilize only the free hours for this pleasure. There were lessons to prepare, many lessons; we read books and helped in the house, knitting, embroidering, sewing, and the like.
On holidays and Shabbats almost all of the houses would empty. Families of young people hiked to The Volh or to Hoyfen. The days of the holidays were very pleasant. The atmosphere in the house, courtyard and in the streets was festive. Everything was clean and polished and there were traditional foods for all the holidays: Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Purim, etc. The children enjoyed the additional pleasure always new clothing and types of games.
The adults would converse about worries of livelihood or successes in life, and visit relatives or acquaintances. We also loved the prayer hours, the time when almost everyone went to synagogue, especially the aforementioned holidays, since also the women would go to pray.
On these holidays, our house, close to the synagogue, was full of girls (the boys would go to pray) from every end of the town. Every woman who passed merited a thorough criticism of her outfit, her manner of walking, and her hair-do. A worthy imitation was done and the happiness was great. On Yom Kippur we would restrain ourselves from not desecrating the holiness of the holiday because on this day even the fish tremble in the waters. Our parents were devout in their religion and educated us in this spirit.
It is impossible to tell about Stepan without mentioning the fires that occurred. Stepan was famous for them. As was said before, on every Monday and Thursday a fire would break out. Frequently the ringing of the church bells would wake the sleeping in the night to alert about the fire that broke out. The majority of the population would leave the house and run in the direction of the fire, to help to save what was possible from the burning house. It would happen that at the time that they would be busy with extinguishing the fire from one side of the town, that a fire on another side would break out, and then there was running back. After every fire, there was no lack of excited and thrilling stories about the cause of the fire, its course, its extinguishment and its damage.
Mother, with the name Blumah, who was from the family Morik, was born in Tchertorisk to a large family of students, teachers and merchants. The family was spread among many cities and towns in Wolhynia and Polisia. Also in Stepan she had relatives: Chaim-Simcha Morik and his family, Pinya Goldstein, owner of a flour mill, and the Wachs family, who also owned a flour mill. Who among them remained alive after the Shoah? I don't know.
The Morik family worried that their children should learn and receive a good education. They sent the girls to an outside place, to Russian schools. Despite the limitations on the acceptance of Jews, the girls received, with thanks to G-d, their talents and industriousness. The exception was Jewish customs, prayer, reading Yiddish and the like which they learned in the house. The house was traditional, and in this spirit the children were educated.
The boys didn't learn in Russian schools for religious reasons. They learned in other schools with private teachers and acquired the knowledge for all professions.
The spirit of the learning the will to learn and to know was passed to us by mother. She was devoted to us without bounds. Despite the burden to manage the house with four children, she found much time for us. Father was always busy with his work and carrying out mitzvot for others, and mother bore the burden of our education. For us small ones, she taught the Russian alphabet and the multiplication table. By the age of 4 or 5, we already knew how to read Russian.
Father, Shlomo Zollar, also he, like mother, had a family that very much branched out to Wolhynia, Polisia and the Ukraine.
From the dawn of my childhood, I remember my father in the capacity of a teacher. After the reign of the czars, there were no Jewish secular schools the schools carried the name cheder, as it was called traditional schools. Father could not make do by teaching tanach, gemorah, etc. He was a realist and humanist, par excellence. He had broad knowledge of many professions. He would teach accounting, Russian, geography and also singing. He knew notes and songs on the violin. He would answer and explain the students' questions that pertained to daily life, from a social educational point of view, etc.
From morning until the late evening hours he was busy. After he finished the hours of learning, we ate midday. At the time of eating, he would read the paper. Without getting up from the table, he would sleep a few minutes, and after continue with work. He never prepared the lessons for he knew everything by heart. Without difficulty he was able to point to the place, page and sentence, and the required material was found. He was also able to be devoted to his additional work. He was an insurance agent. They would also come to consult with him on construction matters. They would turn to him to write letters to relatives who were found in outside places, particularly in America. They would write the letter with their own hands but came to father to write the address, since they believed that only an address written by his hand would bring the letter to its destination.
A shidduch was not arranged without the advice of the parents of the bride or the parents of the groom. In the event of this, they would seclude themselves in the dining room and litigate. The children did not have entrée to this room. Only when the parents were outside the house, at the theater, or visiting with friends, would we open it and go wild without bounds. We watched that we would not cause damage or disorder. Frequently the religious judges would invite father to help them with the issue of a Torah judgement, not because he taught defense or prosecution, but because of his expertise and good memory.
In the year after the outbreak of World War I great distress was felt in the city. Many fathers were drafted in the army and the students dispersed. We were left without livelihood. Father turned to trade, and bought two horses, because from Stepan to the train station was almost 18 kilometers. He would arrive at the station, leave behind the horses and continue by train to all corners of Russia, to Kiev and to the Crimea (we had an aunt there, the sister of mother).
Not a lot of time passed and he was supplying wholesalers in a few towns in the area. The livelihood was plentiful. We became rich according to the standards of that time. Seldom would he come home. The education and care of the children fell on the shoulders of mother. She did her best to try for us not to have distress over father's absence. Only now do I understand what she did for us. We yearned for father. The feeling in the house without a man was the feeling of fear and lack of security. As far as I remember, there was never a murder of a Jew in a house by goyem, nevertheless there was eternal fear that perhaps something like this would happen. When night came, the Jews would close their doors and windows; the fear was to such an extent that for extra safety, the men prepared instruments of defense such as an axe or hammer by the bed. The knifes were hid that they should not be ready for the murderers, if they came.
This feeling changed when the army came to Stepan. The houses of the citizens were filled with soldiers and officers who were brought in to live together with the tenants. To our house arrived an officer, a person likeable in his manners and his exterior. Our Russian language was fluent (despite that we were still small). The officers, who were changed once in a while, would play with us, and bring candies and games. To our good fortune, they were all amiable. They never bragged as was customary of people with high rank in the Russian army. Their servants would help mother with the household.
That was the situation until the outbreak of the revolution in the year 1917.
Then started chaos. Father returned home. He seldom traveled, because of the great danger on the roads that he traveled. Our great sums of money remained in places where father received his merchandise. The situation was made difficult. The people lived in tense expectation what would the day bring.
Before I continue with the story of events, it is my desire to briefly review the population of Stepan and the relationships between the goyem (Ukrainians, Chocholem) and the Jews. The population of Stepan at that time was made up of Jews, Ukrainians, and a few Polish and Czech families.
We felt anti-Semitism always and in every place. In the streets, in the offices, in the schools (that was turned with the entrance of the army of Petlura [Simon Petlura, leader of independent Ukraine from 1918-1920] from a Russian school to a Ukrainian school). The teachers were steeped with anti-Semitic feelings; they still mourned for the czar, remained in their places and continued to teach. The administrator Andre Dmedyok displayed his hatred towards us more than they did. More than once did it happen that he honored us with the words Zeyde du Palestini (Jews go to Palestine). And this at the time of the lessons, in the presence of the goyem students who were poisoned with hatred for us Jews, which was absorbed from their teachers. Dmedyok didn't see and didn't hear when the goyem hit us, accompanied with words of shame like Zid Parchati (leprous Jew) and the like. There was not a chance that one of us dared to harm a goy. All of them were filled with rage and vindictiveness. I will tell one episode from the many.
We had in class one student, not a Jew, by the name Zogrolski. He was the worst of all of them. His father was a low clerk in the zamastve (the local council) and he was not liable for any punishment. He was permitted to do with us as he pleased. After he annoyed Itzak Sheinbaum (son of Shroolik), he called him a goy. He, Zogrolski, complained about Itzak to Dmedyok. Dmedyok, as if a snake bit him, spanked Itzak and decided to dismiss him from school. He imposed a punishment on all of the Jewish students in every class. He left us locked in the classrooms after the learning was finished and didn't permit us to return home. The atmosphere was electrified, as if before a pogrom. Itzak claimed that the word goy was not an obscene word, but he didn't know how to explain this. He asked for permission to clarify this with his father at home. Dmedyok agreed. And while we were locked in the classrooms, Itzak ran home, a way of a few kilometers, and returned with a Yiddish-Russian dictionary. After Dmedyok read in the dictionary that the word goy was a nickname for all people who are not Jews, he agreed to leave Itzak in school and released us to our homes.
It was not a good heart that led the administrator to this agreement. Were it not that we Jews were the advanced people intellectually and economically in the school, this matter would not have ended like this. Generally, we would not have the possibility of a foothold there. We were the glory of the school. When the person in charge came, we would be called to the blackboard. We answered questions and not the Ukrainians. They were at a lower level. The good students from among them, were at most a small number.
As I mentioned earlier, these were the years of the rule of Petlura in our area. Fate decreed that there was found in all of this a few tzadikim among the goyem. The generation of age 25-30 years old befriended the Jews, because they earned a living from the Jews, they received advice and guidance in these difficult times and also medicine and medical help. Thanks for this came from the somoboronah (self-defense) from the cooperation of goyem and Jews. Two goyem, representatives of the somoboronah, were Onkah, who lived not far from our house, and Michal, son of Fruska Zadatzki.
The two of them were nice men, tall, and humane. From the Jews, from our street, I remember the first born son of Levi Hashochet (the slaughterer), it appears to me that his name was Yosef. With the appearance of the army of Petlura, the Jews hid in their homes under lock and bolt. They heard the murder and disorders brought about by the Petlurans on the Jews, and their pranks on the Jews. Eye-witnesses told of their sadistic actions. For example, passing a Jew with a beard, seizing him, standing him in the middle of the street, and plucking the hair from one half of his beard with their hands, as he twists in pain. And if he screams out, he receives a severe beating. And another story, that they undressed the Jews of their clothes and shoes and forced them to run naked and barefoot in the streets. Also small children and babies were stabbed to death with their bayonets.
As stated, the Jews were closed in their homes. The streets were empty of people, the stores were closed. The sad Jewish eyes checked the acts from behind the curtains.
We arranged learning tables in the entrance room, a board with chalk, and the door was locked. From outside, the house appeared like a school.
The Petlurans appeared all the time. They approached the houses, knocked on the door, screaming that they should open. No one answered them and no one opened the door. They didn't use force, and they went from one house to another and so on and so forth. They approached our house a number of times, peeked inside, and said: zdyes shkoolah (here is a school), and departed. We watched them closely through the windows in another room.
One day three officers appeared and marched straight to our house. Maybe what attracted them was the pleasurable balcony of benches that was in front of the house. They approached the door, saw that this was only a school, and didn't try to enter. It was the time of the summer holidays and it was understood that schools were closed. Father identified their ranks and said that they were high officers. They sat on the benches to briefly consult. Father and mother told us to listen to their conversation. They were very angry with the Jews and their seclusion in their houses. One of them said: be zydov safsei roosev(beat the Jews and save Russia), and they departed from the place. We passed on to our parents what we heard. They took us out through the window, so that the Petlurans wouldn't see , and they sent us to Onkah to inform him that he should come.
Not much time passed and Onkah appeared armed with a rifle. The Petlurans received him happily and told him what they decided to do. Meanwhile, two other goyem from the defense came, armed with rifles. Without hesitating they informed the Petlurans that here, in this town, there will not be any hostile actions taken against the Jews. Zdyes me vasye bratye (Here, we are all brothers), and the Ukrainian population will defend the Jews. The Petlurans were forced to relinquish their malicious plans and thus we were saved from a great disaster. During this time it happened that the Ukrainians assaulted the Catholic priest and wanted to slaughter him. I don't remember how this happened or who intervened, but the priest remained alive with a great injury to his neck. The Jews hastened to his aid and watched over him day and night. I tell about this event, because with the continuation of my story there will yet be told about the priest who came to our aid in a time of sorrow.
One day a rumor spread that a giant army would come from the direction of the village of Korets, and it was not known who they were. The people went out to the streets to see who this was and if it was necessary to be afraid or not. When they entered the town it became clear that this was the Polish army, Hellertzikim (based on the name of the commander, the Polish general Heller). We heard about this army from time to time from people who returned home from the war, or who visited in other cities. This was an army unrestrained in their hatred for Israel. Upon their entrance to the town, they decided to rob. They entered the house of the sandalmaker, one of the soldiers selected a pair of the nicest and best boots, measured them, took them and turned to go without paying. The children of the sandalmaker demanded that he should pay, and the soldier didn't agree. They took the boots from him by force. The soldier said that he would take revenge on them, and went out. The children fled the house and hid. The elderly parents remained in the house. A short while later the soldier came accompanied by an officer. He took the boots without paying. The officer demanded that the children should come, and if not, they would kill the father. They took with them the elderly man and left. His wife went out to search for the children with the help of the neighbors, but they didn't find them.
For pleasure, the youngest boy of the family was sailing on the river, without knowing what had happened. His mother found him there and he presented himself to the officer. Without a judgment or words, he stood him by the door of one of the stores (the house of Bebtchuk?) that was in the marketplace and a party of soldiers fired at him and killed him in that place. The Jews came from the marketplace square and from all other places and secluded themselves in their houses, all of them, except for a few who remained to take care of the burial of the murdered victim.
We saw the dead person when he was brought to the synagogue (our house was next to the synagogue) in order to eulogize him, as was customary before the burial. Unto this day I can see that picture. He was carried on a board (not a death bed) in his clothes, his right hand hanging down. Great sorrow filled our hearts. Tears flowed over the death of the young boy who was murdered in cold blood due to no injustice from his own hands. But this didn't bring an end to the murderous actions of the Hellertzikim.
After the murder, they imposed a monetary fine of 50 million rubles, of this 5 million in gold coins. They imprisoned a few houseowners as guarantors, among them two religious judges, and they announced that if the money was not paid within 24 hours, they would take out all the guarantors to be killed (it appeared to me to be six men). My father was among them and already I considered him as dead. At night, father returned home. According to the request of the Jews, they released him. The Jews explained to the authorities that father was needed to help in the collection of the money. They knew that father would give from his money a great sum, because he was considered among the rich who were in the town.
As I mentioned before, the financial situation was bad and those with money had hastened to invest it in merchandise, because its value went down day by day. The demand to give 5 million rubles in gold was indeed a nightmare. There were not many gold rubles in the town. Feverish consultation was arranged and in the meanwhile the hours passed. Night came. Nobody closed an eye. It was difficult to obtain the money. Then the delegation turned to request the intervention of the Catholic priest Haksyondz (priest in Lithuanian) on our behalf (Haksyondz, whom the Jews saved at the time from the slaughter by the followers of Petlura). The request was that they should give an extension of 24 hours until paying the money. Haksyondz promised to do everything. In the meanwhile, they prayed, said passages of tehilim, went to prostrate themselves at the graves of the fathers who would request from G-d to have mercy on us and save us. It was announced that there was a general fast. In the morning Haksyondz announced that his request was accepted by the Hellertzikim and they agreed to the extension.
In the meantime, they turned to the non-Jewish population in order to borrow money. One who complied with the request was the Polish sandalmaker by the name Degmont. He agreed to give a great sum of money on the condition that he would receive an expensive pledge in pawn. There was not time to consider too much and there was deposited in his hands the gold crown from the sefer torah (by the way, it remained with him a few years until it was redeemed). With great toil, without a moment of rest, with fasting, exhausted and depressed, they collected the money. The guarantors returned to their houses. The spirit calmed down, but the fear didn't vanish. The Hellertzikim got up and left the town suddenly, in a rush. Their departure was deeply pierced in my memory.
Jews came out from their houses, rushed around and informed one another which army approached the town. I didn't go to buy the meat that I was sent with mother to buy, and I ran home to tell the news. There was great happiness in the whole town. The Jews went out to the streets after days and nights of sitting in the houses. The Red Army the Bolsheviks entered. We saw them for the first time. Not all the Hellertzikim succeeding in escaping, and among them was the officer who commanded the taking out and killing of the boy (so said the adults). Also Haksyondz was frightened of the Bolsheviks and he joined the officer. Together there were six who did not succeed in fleeing (so it was said). Haksyondz turned to the Jews to save them (because the goyem would certainly murder them). All other peoples, not the Jewish, would revenge themselves on them as it is fitting for these dogs, but a Jews, will he be a murderer? Also the fear, that perhaps they will return and make carnage on the Jews, prevented all acts of revenge. The Jews did the opposite of this, and they saved their lives (according to the request of Haksyondz). Despite the fact that the Jews endangered their lives, they hid them in their houses (of Aharon Shlimtzya, and others).
The Bolsheviks made searches for the Poles. They also entered the houses in which they were hid. The Jews told them the horror story about what these people did in the town. Upon hearing this the Bolsheviks expressed their sympathy and they left. It didn't enter their minds that after all this the Jews would save these murderers. With the coming of night (it was very dark) they dressed them in woman's clothes and a number of our young boys led them to the lines of their army. They feared for the lives of the boys, because they suspected that the Hellertzikim would liquidate them. But they returned safely.
The Bolsheviks behaved all right, except for a few incidences of opportunities to take things (not to rob!), such as velour of armchairs (of Rabbi Twersky) and things like this. They heard about the somoboronah (self-defense) in the town and they had regard for it. With all of this, when they tried to enter any house to take things, a few shouts of gevalt were sufficient to chase them away. There were two characters among them that I remember. One Das Rotte Kvittel (the red flower) an officer who always had a red flower on his hat. The second character, a woman whom they called Torishkah Leyova. They always went together and they were the first to visit the houses. Usually they didn't bother us, not even the rich. The Bolsheviks gave the impression of an unorganized army, without uniforms. Each one dressed in his own clothes. They didn't have shoes and they earned the nickname Borvesa (barefeet). After some time the Poles attacked the city from the other side of the Horyn Hakolonia. We experienced the taste of war. Bullets flew like rain. The population started to seek safe places to escape the death.
All the buildings' basements were filled. The synagogue, as I mentioned at the beginning of my words, was in fact a fortress that was used as a place of safety by hundreds of people. Even the echo of shooting didn't enter inside. Thanks to this there were no victims. The Bolsheviks (and after them all other armies) discovered that this synagogue was an excellent place for an army position. It towered high over the bank of the river and from here it was possible to observe in the distance. They stationed cannons and shooting machines and they tried to repel the enemy. The enemy noticed this and attacked the synagogue. Cannon shells injured it, but didn't pass through the ceiling. Stepan suffered from the war for three years, so it seemed to me. Battles occurred, but only in the summer. During the winter, the Bolsheviks always remained in the city. In the summer there were changes, some entered and some retreated, and the opposite. The suffering was great. Things to eat and to wear were lacking. The disease typhus broke out in almost every house, like the majority of the parts of warring Europe. The typhus was rampant, and toppled many victims. This event shook the entire Jewish population. One day Chana died, the wife of Bentzia Yonas (Weitchnodel) and their only son Moshe, and who was the mother and sister of Slobah (Weitchnodel) now Min, who can be found in Israel in Kibbutz Mesilot. As I mentioned, the shortages were great. In the summer they would buy from the goyem a few vegetables or fruit, gather seeds in the forest and collect mushrooms. In the winter, there wasn't even this. The value of money went down or went out from usage (like Hakerenskalach and Hakarvontchki).
My family suffered, in addition to financial hardship, also from war damages. In this sense, we were the only family in town. Already from the first day of the war our cow was killed (the majority of the homeowners in Stepan had cows) in the path from the pasture to the house. After a number of weeks passed a cannon shell fell within the house, exploded and destroyed everything that was inside the walls, the stove, the dishes, clothes, bedding, and furniture. Father repaired the house with his own hands (there was no money to pay for the work), including the roof and the windows, in order that it would be possible to make it through the winter. With the last money we bought another cow. Summer followed, and again everything was destroyed, like the first time. Again the cow was killed from a cannon shell that fell within the house. After this people were afraid to cross by our house at the time of the battles, because the place was prone to hits.
After three summers (so it seemed to me) came the end of the battle for power between the Bolsheviks and Poles. The Poles won ultimately.
New times began. The Poles who suffered during lowly generations and much persecution from their foreign rulers, announced that they would treat us, the Jews, with understanding and tolerance in all the territories. You Jews, they said, you are experienced in suffering, torture and humiliation, and we will not treat towards you any different than towards ourselves. Majorities of your people paid with their property and their lives when they helped us, the Polish people, to fight for independence against the invaders. The Jews believed that this is what would be.
And in truth, at the beginning it was very good. The lives of our society and culture received new character. They were unrestricted, mainly in the cultural area. My father fulfilled his dream of many years and he was the founder of a Tarbut (cultural) school whose language of teaching was in Hebrew. Father invited Esther Tzasys-Halpern as a teacher, and also Borak, a relative of my mother, not a citizen of Stepan. The parents sent their children to learn there. The method of learning was Hebrew in Hebrew. The other cultural area that livened up our lives was the theater. We organized two troupes of amateurs, one mainly of adults, and their participants were Yoel Prishkolnik, Baruch-Moshe Siegel, Yosef Siegel, Mirkah (daughter of Baruch Mordechai), Tzippah Chasias, Chanale, Sosel Bebtchuk. From the repertoire that they came out with was: Das Pintele Yid, Maidele Afrat, and others.
The second troupe was composed of young people who aspired to follow the adults. The participants in it: Tzirel of Yosef Mirles, my sister Panya, Faygel Kagan, Avraham Feirstein, the son of the pharmacist Mendel (he moved to live in another city), Berel Siegel, Zeivel Kopel, the Kerzners, and others. They presented: Koni Lamal, Chassia De Yesoma, and others.
There was not an auditorium fit for a play in the town. The Ukrainians would perform in their schools (two in number), but the Jews were not permitted to perform there. Without a choice they started to perform in the synagogue for women (the Veibershe Shul). For illumination they used kerosene lamps. Of course, there was no electricity. Once it happened that a fire broke out during the play. Apparently, the reason was that the kerosene was diluted with benzene, and only by a miracle were there no victims. Great panic arose. It was hard to flee outside, since there was only one door, and a path through the windows was impossible to take because it was at a height of two stories. Since then we didn't perform there.
After great effort they succeeding in obtaining a license to present in the shack of the pazsharne (from the firemen). For us, the children, a movement named Scout was organized. The founder and guide was a young girl named Bracha Sheckman, the bride of Pinya Gaz. Our meetings were always at The Volh. The Ukrainians didn't give us any peace. Every time that there was a meeting, they would assault us and stone us with rocks. Upon one assault, my brother Leibke succeeded in hurting the head of Pintchuk with a stone that was thrown at him. The assault stopped for a time and was again renewed in a manner that was dangerous to our lives. Since there were no other places fitting to meet, our movement was dismantled.
In the year 1921-22 they opened a Polish school. An order came out that all Jewish children who learn in the Ukrainian school must transfer to the Polish school. The teachers and administrators arrived from Poland. All of them were officers who participated in the war for the independence of Poland. Dmedyok fought with the authorities for freedom of choice. He said that a Jewish student should be able to choose between a Polish or Ukrainian school. He asked that we try to remain with him. Suddenly he saw us as necessary and wanted students. The Poles didn't agree and moved us to the Polish school. So a separation was implemented between students, the young Jewish and Ukrainian. After that, only a few preserved a connection between them.
Father was invited to teach in the Polish school. We experienced the sense of a good, free life, a balance between rights and nationalism. The economic situation was good.
Only with respect to the youth did the situation remain as it was. There was no employment. There were no high schools in the town. There were no factories and no workshops. The youth didn't know what to do with themselves. The situation was particularly difficult for the children of the low-income families. They suffered, because they were not able to help with the subsistence of the family, and every young boy and girl had a yearning to help their parents and to be moderately independent.
In the course of time the relationship of the Poles towards the Jews changed. Anti-Semitism, that was latent, started to be revealed. They started to impose high taxes that were largely passed onto the income and onto the value of property. The police gave tickets for every small thing. Jews were squeezed out of every governmental financial position.
In the year 1924-25 father was transferred to the town of Osovah in the role of teacher in the Polish school. In addition to this he gave private lessons. (Father, despite being religious, founded a cell of the Shomer Hatzair [leftist Zionist youth movement] and was its guide and representative to the authorities).
After father bought a forest besides Osovah, he created a place of work for my brother, Leibke, and he joined father. At the same time father bought a store in Kostopol and the plan was that my two sisters, Panya and Manya, would journey there to work in commerce. The plan didn't captivate them, because they didn't want to separate from home.
In the year 1927 our house was burned by the great fire that punished the town. We didn't have the desire to build life from new in Stepan and we moved to live in Kostopol. We always yearned for Stepan. Sometimes we visited there and also people from Stepan would visit us, primarily our friends. Intentions to immigrate to Israel came to our house. We received our passports in Kostopol, and this was a good opportunity to visit us. Also not just Jews: Ukrainians, Poles, and others who chanced upon Kostopol came to visit us. Both young, who at the time we learned with in the Ukrainian school and we remained friends, and also adults came to visit. Thanks to these visits we knew about things in Stepan. Polish anti-Semitism grew. The Poles utilized every possibility in order to harm the Jews. They also looked for ways to deepen the hatred of the Ukrainians that was, in any case, very much ingrained in them. The Ukrainians were haters of the Poles and Jews together. A Ukrainian nationalistic movement arose when the Poles arrived.
Meetings were arranged in the private home of a Ukrainian family who were friends. They invited me after I promised them not to reveal what I would see or hear. The words of Srootnik were filled with venom and plans of action. His words so influenced me that more than two times I was not able to listen to them. I felt that the sky was going away and darkening.
In the years 1932-33 the organized Ukrainians went out, group by group, to the forests to act against the ruling power. In Wolhynia, their actions were more widespread. The Poles, the police and the army, fought against them. In the newspapers they would publicize that gangs of robbers and murderers carried out actions in the forests and that they had liquidated them. I tell these things because they have a connection with Stepan Judaism.
At the end of the year 1933 (exactly before I immigrated to Israel), two Ukrainians visited me who had been friends from school. They told me, bitterly, about the liquidation of the Ukrainian rebellion by the police and army with the help of the Jews. They treated me with complete confidence and they told me that they were sent by the decision of the organization to secretly research a burial in Kostopol for three of the rebels who were killed in Stepan. I told them that I didn't believed that the Jews of Stepan would have cooperated with the actions of the Poles against the Ukrainian population. So they told me about the event that happened.
A group of rebels were attacked by the armed Polish force in the forest. The rebels succeeded in escaping to Stepan. Despite that they were surrounded, they succeeded in hiding. The Poles placed guards on every road outside from the bridge beyond Stepan. The Poles lacked people, so the Jews volunteered to guard, so goes the story according to the Ukrainians, to watch the bridge and to catch the escapees.
There was no limit to the bitterness of these two Ukrainian boys. They asked: where were the years of the somoboronah, our common self-defense, when we succeeded in saving you the Jews from death? Is this how you repay us?
I, who was surprised by the story of these deeds, lost my thoughts, and didn't know what to answer. It was very unpleasant for me, and I was embarrassed. My poor common sense told me that it was not possible that the Jews volunteered for these actions. I explained to them that this was a provocation by the Poles intending to arouse the two parts of the population, one against the other. After all, you know us, the Jews, I said to them. Did it ever happen that we caused you trouble? Do you know us as people thirsting for blood or for enmity? Please, journey home and explain to your people the truth, that the Poles forced the Jews to help them capture the people, forced them to guard the bridge. I am certain, I said to them, that if they guarded, then certainly they didn't bother them from crossing, if by chance they came. The Jews are not stupid, I said to them, and they aren't cruel and they don't tolerate murder.
To my astonishment and to their surprise, as I had guessed, that was the case. They actually became confused and they admitted that indeed the escapees succeeded in crossing the bridge and hiding within piles of straw, but they didn't know how it happened that the Jews didn't catch them. I don't think that my words helped with anything. Certainly not. The awareness that the Jews helped the Poles in situations like these remained with them. So I know, because we are found between a hammer and an anvil.
All that is written here belongs to the past. What remains is only to mourn and to cry for you, my dear town, the despoiled, the wounded. In my imagination you are buried together with your Jewish sons and daughters and their elderly, who were annihilated by thousands of different and strange deaths by predators in the form of a man the Nazi animal with the cooperation of the animal from the Ukrainian race.
My dear Jews, you who are not still alive. Your bodies are spread everywhere, in the forests, in the rivers, in pits, crematoriums, gas chambers. My dear family, mother, father, my sisters, my brother-in-laws and the children where did the cruel death find you, and where are your holy bones? I will never know. There is not a day, not a moment that I am not reminded of you, the six million who were annihilated.
G-d remember them, and bless and watch them for generations!
Translated by Daniel Shimshak
The author was known in the town by the nickname Minikel. During World War II he was imprisoned by the Soviets and exiled to Siberia. At the end of the war he arrived in the United States. His first wife and his three children perished in the Holocaust together with the large number of his remaining relatives.
As it is known, it was forbidden for Jews to acquire land during the time of the rule of the czar. But, in the town next to Stepan there was a Jewish neighbor by the name the Parantzuyiz. He was known as a well-off Jew. In his desire to acquire many estates, also in the area of Stepan, he was forced to convert to Christianity and to carry a cross on his chest, but this only for appearance sake. In fact, he was a good-hearted Jew and loved to help his people, and once he even dared to scorn the cross and wore it on the neck of his dog. The widespread rumor about him was that he paid a great sum of money in order to be saved from a severe punishment. He was very famous and rich and worked primarily in the production of brandy from potatoes. In order to prevent himself and his wife from being buried among the Christians, he bought himself and his wife a burial place beside his house and requested to be buried there after his death.
In the year 1910 a Polish landlord by the name Golboski acquired all of the plots of land around Stepan. A Jew named the Giller managed the estates of the Polish landlord. In this period the economic situation of the Jews of the town improved. He erected narrow railroad tracks to a sawmill. He issued papers for payment to the non-Jewish workers and concluded with the Jews of the town that they would honor these papers in place of money. After a period of time he would redeem the papers in exchange for money. Once the goyem tried an attempt on his life, but his servant, a goy, revealed it to him when he was drunk, and so a disaster was avoided and his assassin was caught and jailed.
At the end of World War I, a group of Jews organized: Berel Yeluvitzky and Moshe and Itzik the Milner and after they contacted relatives in America, they organized a benevolent charity fund and established a Talmud Torah. This was a kind of progressive school that was managed by Shaul Shachnes.
Berel Yeluvitzky donated his house for the establishment of a Tarbut school that was managed by Mr. Ohrvoch and Mr. Moshe Kaufman and another group of people their age who showed an interest in Zionism and the Hebrew language. The aforementioned donated from their money to the needy for the mitzvot of Passover, for the survival of the poorhouse, for keeping ice in the summer for medicine, and for other things.
At the start of the Polish rule in town, Yitzchak Greenbaum visited with Malviv Brovneh, while he was the Jewish Polish representative in the Sejm (Polish Parliament). This was in the year 1920. The Jews in all the towns met and laid out their complaints. He clarified to the Jews what their legal privileges were and requested that they turn their complaints into writing about every exceptional event, unnecessary taxes, demands for bribes and other troubles.
In the Stepan region lived those released from the Polish army who were called Osadnykas. With the establishment of the Polish government, authorities settled those former Polish legionnaires in these places and they established agricultural settlements and here they were employed in governmental positions, involved with forestry and the roads which were public governmental property.
On every Polish national holiday, the Osadnykas cavalrymen participated in the holiday parade in the town and they demonstrated riding while they were decorated in pennants and sparkling brilliant uniforms.
Settlers who came from Germany also lived in the area of Stepan. In the beginning they worked in nomadism, and they were very industrious in the work of agriculture. The majority had settled on plots of land from felled forests, that they had acquired dirt-cheap. During the years they invested great effort in pulling out the roots that remained in the area and they improved the land. After years of labor they succeeded in developing model farms and in marketing excellent agricultural products. Primarily they were known for clean, excellent milk products, that merited great demand. All of the rulers, the czars or the Poles, treated these Germans with great suspicion and whenever a conflict or war broke out with Germany they exiled them, in the time of the czar, to the depths of Russia. And thus they made things difficult for them and kept them under observation in the time of the Poles.
After World War I, at the time that various armies captured Stepan, it happened once that a Polish army took over the town. Of course the scapegoat was first and foremost the Jews: robbery, beatings, rape and the like fell on our lot. Once, three armed soldiers entered our house and asked to eat. My mother served them a meal fit for a king and also honored them with whiskey. Prior to this my father was worried about hiding my sister in a side room with a disguised opening that was hidden by a swollen clothing closet. While they were eating, the soldiers noticed the hideaway closet from beyond and asked to move it in order to arrange a search. My father stood opposite them and resisted. One of them waived the butt of his rifle and hit him in his head. That led to a big fuss. My father's face was covered in blood and he fell stunned. The Polish soldiers approached to move the closet, but my three brothers and I intervened and we attacked the soldiers, we unloaded their weapons and tied them up. In order that many people would not know about this matter, we brought them down to the basement of the house. After a day, again the Polish army fled the town and the Bolsheviks entered, and then we delivered the Polish soldiers into their hands.
To the Jews of the town it was hard to distinguish between one army and the other. For example, once a group of Bolsheviks overpowered the town. With respect to their clothing, they were identical to the uniforms of the Polish army. And behold, one of the Jews of the town started to converse with one of the officers and complained about the Bolshevik government together with his praise of the Poles. Understandably, in the end he received serious blows from the Bolshevik army.
During the time of the Petluran government (Simon Petlura, leader of independent Ukraine in 1918-1920), 50 ruble banknotes were issued and none smaller were found. This hardened the lives of the town. A Jew named Itzik Marcus-Wastchineh arose and established something like a bank. He issued signed notes with his signature and every note was equal to a specific value. Thus in accumulation of a quantity of notes (kvitelech), 50 complete rubles was given in exchange, thus solving the money problem.
Among the other slaughterers was Rabbi Yoel Hashochet, who came to the city as the son-in-law of Rabbi Yoel Hashochet, who was the son of Rabbi Moshe Hashochet. In addition, in the city was Rabbi Hershel Hashochet, who was accepted in the town as a refugee from Russia and who found livelihood in town as a slaughterer and as a reader of the Torah.
The slaughter house of the town was found in the neighborhood of the goyem. There they would slaughter the animals according to the laws of Israel with the help of the butchers and according to a specific rotation, in order to promise livelihood to all of them. In addition, there was a small slaughter house on the street of the Jews to slaughter fowl. The house servants or their children would bring the fowl there for slaughtering in exchange for payment to the slaughterer. Again the slaughterers would work according to a rotation during the regular work hours. In addition, they would also receive in their houses those who turned to them at irregular hours for the sake of slaughtering the chickens. The slaughter was carried out in the slaughtering corner that was by everyone's house. The main burden of slaughtering chickens was, of course, on Shabbat eve, Fridays, and primarily before Yom Kippur for the sake of kapporet (atonement), and in general before the holidays.
The family of Yitzchak the doctor who was the father of Shmuel Sorkis the barber the Tzyrolnik the Falsher. I remember him because at the time of need of the Jews, and mainly the goyem, Shmuel the barber gave medical assistance for healing diseases: he used leeches for bloodletting, he extracted teeth, etc. And certainly his father was famous for during his time Stepan had no doctor. After all, at the time of the activities of Shmuel, there were general doctors and also dentists, but despite all of this, still people were helped by his good service.
The mother of Shmuel the Tzyrolnik was called Fasya Rochel the Bobbe the midwife. She was famous for taking care of the majority of the town's births, both those with means and those who were very poor. She would answer the call in every hour of the day, in every season of the year, and in all kinds of weather. She was known as a righteous person who visited the land of Israel once for a few years. She accumulated a little money and fulfilled the mitzvah of visiting Israel and she visited besides the Western Wall. On her return, she brought news of Israel to the Jews of the town. In Stepan there was another midwife, who I remember, who continued the tradition of Fasya-Rochel. She was Sosel the Bobbe, who was known for her good heart and good service and that she served all of the needy.
Translated by Daniel Shimshak
Slobah Mann, from the Weitchnodel house, was the daughter of Ben-Zion Weitchnodel. She immigrated to Israel in 1939, and today is a member of Kibbutz Mesilot.The population of Stepan was comprised of Jews from the Ukraine and from Poland. The Ukrainians, who were the majority, worked in agriculture; the Jews worked in commerce and small crafts, and the Poles worked in office work, agriculture and teaching.
In the city council there was a majority of elected Poles, a small percentage of Ukrainians, and very few Jews. The bank was in the hands of the Jews, the post office and the courts in the hands of the Poles. Also, there was a Jewish community.
Despite that our generation descended from devout homes, we were influenced by the currents and the new spirits that were blowing then in the world in general and by the way of the Jews in particular, such as: the revolution in Russia. In the same period the Zionist movement arose and a free Poland was established.
The memories of Stepan, my town, never left me. Different characters arise in my mind, and all of this so alive and close to my heart as if it was the day before yesterday. I ask myself: how and from where did this town produce the kind of people that it produced. There were no schools for high levels of Ulpan, no libraries, motor transportation, electricity, etc. Despite all of this, the adult generation three generations before succeeded in organizing and creating a dramatic group that performed plays before the Jewish population with great success, such as: The Witch, The Dybbuk, and others. Also the primary teachers of the Tarbut school were from this generation: Moshe Kaufman, Esther Kolodny, and others. Also the manager of the bank, the bookkeeper and many others were enthusiastic Zionists who donated to Zionist fund-raising drives with generosity. I found much sympathy among these people, and they willingly delivered their children to our hands for guidance.
We acquired our little education through self-teaching, and even tutorial books for study like this were not found in Stepan, but only in surrounding big cities, and a book like this would be handed over from hand-to-hand with the fear of holiness. Thus we succeeded in acquiring a little knowledge, everyone according to his abilities. Also the Zionist movement gave us very much. During that time we grew and we needed to worry about our physical existence. The boys, after they completed school, joined the profession of their parents, and only three boys left for advanced studies far away, but they never completed their studies because the war broke out. The girls went to study sewing or to become homemakers with their mothers.
We were three loyal and friendly souls. We were together during our studies, and after the finish of the course of studies, with the recommendation of the teachers, we tutored children who had difficulty with their studies something that served us as a source of our livelihood and as financial assistance for our family.
Only death succeeded in separating two of the friends from me. Berta Krakover of blessed memory, who died in the prime of her youth in Nes Ziona and was a member of Kibbutz Negbah, and Bella Geller of blessed memory who was killed in the Shoah. I feel their absence until today in every step of the way.
In the course of time Stepan turned into a household name and a magnet, and children from surrounding villages started to flow to her, in order to study Torah. And so I befriended children from two neighboring villages with Raizel Scheyns from the village of Stodin and with Leah Rodnik from the village of Kosmishtov, now Mrs. Leah Chashvia, and her sister Pankah.
The Horyn River very much served the population of Stepan, who derived great benefit from it. First it was the main transportation artery, it served to float felled trees from the forests, for water for drinking, and for washing clothes. The farmers who lived on its banks would bleach the linen cloth that they produced themselves. How pleasant and interesting it was to see the picture of 100 meters of white linen cloth spread out on the edge of the river. On the warm summer evenings we spent hours in sailing, in swimming, in singing and in playing music.
Especially engraved in my memories is one of the nice events that I observed it was a Polish holiday that they called the holiday of the sea. The Poles would come to the river with big wreaths and would light candles on them, they would sit in boats and they would cast the wreaths into the current, and accompanied by song and music they would return at the time that the wreaths would disappear from sight. We would stand on the shore fascinated with this wonderful sight.
From Thursday until the start of Shabbat the river was bustling with woman and children who were busy with the cleaning and polishing of copper utensils, samovars (tea-urns), candlesticks, plates, and pots. And it was a kind of competition to see whose vessels were brighter. And of course, in meetings like this, it was impossible not to have gossip: who was getting married, who got married, who was getting divorced, who died, and who was dying, who was born, who was going to give birth, etc. And on Sunday it was possible to again see the convoy going to the river with the empty utensils from the cholent in order to wash them in the waters of the river.
Neighboring the town, from the direction of the river, was a settlement and within the settlement was a forest within which we would conduct activities of the cell of Shomer Hatzair (leftist Zionist youth movement), and also carried on interesting conversations while hiking. There was also a convalescent home (Datshe) there, where people of means from the towns would spend time during the hot summer days.
The times were tranquil. Slowly we grew and progressed and integrated into a Jewish cultural circle that was the peak of accomplishment in Poland.
The first of the steps in studying was the cheder, like the rest of the children of the town. After, I moved to the Polish elementary school. There were Polish children there who were happy for Poland's freedom from foreign yoke, and we were certain that they would willingly and enthusiastically receive our outstretched hands in order to help to restore Poland, but our outstretched hands remained hanging in air. And how deep was our visible disappointment over their arrogant patronizing and their anti-Semitic relationship towards us, to their friends from yesterday! And now the idea of a return to Zion penetrated our hearts, and also for us our essential homeland. In addition to this we were knowledge-thirsty, therefore we overcame all the obstacles, and we excelled in our studies and always we were the first in the class.
I especially was impressed with the continuous battle of the Poles over one hundred years to free their land from foreign yoke, and this brought me the idea of our national liberation.
On the Jewish Street there were many different currents. One believed in a strong hand and regal pomp; and there was a current that believed in a dunam (measure of land) here and a dunam there and self-realization; there was a current that believed in the collection of money and in the sending of others to the land of Israel.
My friends and I searched for a society and a movement in order to serve as an outlet for our seething aspirations of youth's excitement, and this we found in the Shomer Hatzair. In it we also found an answer to the Jewish anomaly question, that is to say: without land and a national house the Jewish nation doesn't exist. Joy of youth, dances, singing until the last breath, loosened the daily gray concerns.
The devout Jews did not look upon all of this favorably, and we had a difficult struggle against them. As I already said above: we not only would dream, but also fight, men of action, fulfilling that which was proclaimed. And the action: fund-raising drives, educational operations, and holy work for the sake of the Jewish National Fund, and in addition, the crowning achievement: self-training towards the realization of our dream to arrive in Israel and a kibbutz!
Carrying out the preparation was not an easy thing. Breaking off from the house and resistance of the parents to our side all of this was foreign to their spirit as if we are severing ourselves from Judaism and from the family, but at the time we saw that we were right, and not they. The Shoah that came upon our people proved us to be correct. From the start we chose training the hard way, towards our lives in Israel and in a kibbutz, because we knew what waited for us, and certainly we were not disappointed the reality proved itself.
After my return from training, the remaining family was without any means of livelihood, and I sensed that my first worry was to find a source of livelihood for me and for my family. Very quickly I found a source of my former livelihood, tutoring students having difficulties with their studies.
Slowly I started to prepare to immigrate to Israel, which lasted for two years, owing to the lack of financial means. But thanks to the help of my sisters in Canada I succeeded in collecting the needed sum. These were the last moments and the last opportunity to go out from Poland.
When my dear father saw this tragic reality, he said to me: Slobkeh, there is no choice, go your way and perhaps I will also succeed in going out from this exile! My father was a Zionist, a lover of farming and he never bothered me to follow a way that he chose. Just the opposite, he would say: If only I was able to be like you.
We almost missed the bus, and on the brink of World War II, on August 18, 1939, we escaped from a Poland that faced destruction.
This was an illegal escape, by off roads. The long trip to Israel took more than two months and was on board the famous freighter ship Tiger Hill. After we suffered from hunger and after much flinging about, we arrived on the coast of Israel.
On the way, on board the ship in the middle of the sea, I would allow myself thoughts about finding a way to quickly bring my father and my family to Israel. Even during the most difficult and most tragic moments that I had along the way, I didn't stop from planning and portraying the meeting with my family.
Two weeks after our sailing from the port Konstentz, in which we were confined for four days in very bad conditions, and while we were in the middle of the sea on September 1, 1939, we heard on the radio the horrifying news about the invasion of the German murderers into Poland. All my dreams and plans were smashed into splinters. I would not be fortunate to see my family again.
When finally we arrived on the beach of our motherland and our feet tread on the firm land, the English met us with handles and rubber clubs and escorted us to the detention camp in Sarafond. There we were under guard for about two weeks, and only after this were we transferred to the Jewish Agency, and then we felt ourselves living with our brothers in the land of Israel. At long last we arrived at our destination. I arrived at my kibbutz, Mesilot that is near Beit Shean. Here I built my family nest and here I live until this day.
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