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[Page 365]

Volozhin Memories

Shoshana Nishri – Berkovich

Translated by Rivka Matz (Shoshana's daughter)

Edited by Mike Kalt

At the beginning of the 1930's Volozhin became the district (poviat) town of the region with close to six thousand inhabitants, among them four thousand Jews.

One part of our town was located on a hill. It was called Arooftsoo (uphill). The other part, located on the descent, was called Aroptsoo (downhill). The market square, on the town's center, was in the upper part. It was a spacious square area, which contained mostly Jewish stores and the Catholic Church. All the national ceremonies of the non- Jewish population took place there. (See map in the section “Volozhin Childhood”)

The Christians celebrated their holidays in the city streets. The Polish Independence Day, May 3rd, was very impressive and I don't have enough words to express our sense of jealousy when we saw the joy and happiness on the faces of the celebrants.

Close to the Market Square, on its northern side, were located the Etz Hayim Yeshiva, the Hebrew Tarbut School, and the main Synagogue. The public Christian school, the government offices, and military barracks were located on the its southern side

The market place was filled every Thursday. with harnessed horse carts in which the farmers brought their peasant products, fruits, and hand made fabrics to sell.

The farmers were White- Russians (Orthodox), primitive in their way of life and education. Their garments were unique. The women had long wide skirts, one on top of another. Obviously the nicest was the outside one. They banded their hair with colorful kerchiefs. The men wore embroidered shirts (known in Israel as Russian shirts) and trousers tucked in high boots.

They spent the market day earnings buying holiday clothes and other necessities. They ate their meals on the carts. The main nutrition was pork fat, bread, milk, and potatoes, accompanied with strong vodka.

During market day there were many drunkards who could hardly stay on their feet. Most of them kept quarrelling and cursing. Many times these exchanges ended in fights.

White Russians lived also in the suburbs; most of them in Ponizhe on the eastern side of the town. They were influenced by the city atmosphere and were more educated. The bureaucracy was composed of local and western Poles.

Most of the houses were single floor buildings constructed from wood. The houses were surrounded by vegetable gardens. Many houses had cowsheds in the yard and the cow's milk was consumed by the owners. The vegetables were stored in caves, kept fresh by the cool temperature. There were also a few two-story houses near the market. There were some buildings with a room in the attic. In one of them dwelled the musician Mr. Ratner, with his wife. He organized a string orchestra in the Tarbut School and the firemen's wind orchestra. In the other house lived my family. The nicest buildings in town were the Government and Military buildings. They once belonged to Graf Tishkevitsh, whose estate included Volozhin.

There was no running water in town. Water was carried in buckets from wells. A pair of buckets attached on a rod, which was carried on the shoulders, and brought home. The water was kept in barrels, which stood near the entrance during summer. In winter the barrels were placed in the kitchen, to prevent freezing. There was no bathroom, no bathtub, and no shower inside the house, so people bathed in the municipal public bath house. Once my father tried something unusual--he ordered a bathtub made of tin and we filled it with hot water from the stove. This procedure was very tiresome and long. That is why a few family members bathed in the same water, first the women, later the men. Finally we decided that it wasn't worthwhile and for the time being, we continued to visit the public bath-house.

Market Square South-West corner in the nineteen thirties

Market Square South-West corner in the nineteen thirties
Berkovitsh's (author parents) house the fourth from left

The stoves were built from bricks. One stove “Aristocrat” was covered with china, and was used to heat the appartment. The second, a simpler one, was in the kitchen and was used for cooking and baking. The housewife, even though she dedicated much time to raise the family and contribute to the income, found time to bake during the end of the week. A special homemade bake was the “Bonda” kind of bread made of chopped potatoes with flour and yeast. They baked the “Bondas” in special baking boxes, and to prevent sticking, they used to spread big yellow leaves at the bottom.

My Mother Keyla Berkovitsh

My Mother Keyla Berkovitsh, the loving wife
and mother, the beautiful, energetic,
hard working housewife of our family

Some families baked regular bread. The ingredients they baked with were eggs, flour, milk, butter and sometimes jam. We never knew chocolate or cream cakes. The jams were made by the housewife herself. In the forest fruit seasons, the female farmers came with buckets full of raspberries and black berries, which they picked in the forests.

In those times the housewives stood near the stoves in front of the “Mednitzes” (wide, flat brass bowls specially made to fry jams). Those bowls had a stand (Dreifus) ,and they stirred the fruit mixed with sugar.

We didn't know about refrigirators or ice coolers. It was necessary to cook daily. Truly our mothers' lives were tough. We, their sons and daughters, often wonder about their diligence and work ability.

Electricity was introduced only in 1925. Before it, the houses were lit by kerosene lamps, and the main streets were lit by kerosene lanterns. Hand lights were made with candles and only few had battery-operated lights.

The city had a large public park; a large part of it contained fruit trees. A small shallow creek ran through the city, it was called Volozhinka. The townspeople enjoyed dipping and swimming in it. The bushes around it were used as “changing rooms”. On the side of the main street was a nice lake which was frozen in winter; its surface was used for ice skating. People skied also on the surrounding hills. Sleds were used at the crossroads of the streets that connected the upper and the lower part. It filled the Jewish youth with joyous occupation. It was a small low sled for two riders with their feet outside from both sides of the sled. The feet guided the sled like oars of a boat. A third person pushed the sled down.

The main street was called Vilna; it started from the center in the direction of Vilna, the nearest big city. The streets were covered with irregular unpolished cobblestones and walking or riding on them was difficult. The sidewalks were made from wood. The building owners themselves kept the sidewalks and the adjacent roads clean. The public places, like the market, were cleaned by workers. The shopkeepers who sat in their open stores got warm by the “fire top“ - a pot full with burning coals.

Few buses and cars appeared; and then only in the thirties. Before that, the horse cart was the only means of transport. The train station was 17 km away, and people went there by horse carts. Any ride to the near cities and villages was by cart, because there was no train or bus service.

The climate was almost northern. Rain fell also in summer. Fall rains were heavy. In winter snow fell frequently. Deep snow covered the earth. People wore warm leather boots to keep their bodies warm.

Commerce was the main source of Jewish income. Most shops were owned by Jews. The trade in linen was important economically. Flax grew in the fields near Volozhin. The businessmen sent it as raw material to the big cities.

Cultural life in this time was scarce, despite the thirst for knowledge. Youth education usually ended in elementary school; only a few went to Vilna to continue their studies, because tuition and life in the city were expensive, far beyond the possibilities of many.

Very pleasant memories are bound with the Matza baking. The baking took place in private homes, which were evacuated during the days between Purim and Passover. In one room was prepared the dough. In the big room of the apartment, girls sat on two sides of a long table and used to round the dough and cut it into Matzot. The Matzot were baked cooperatively. The work was done precisely and the Matzot were tasty. A part of the Matzot was prepared to make Matze-Mell (Flour) mostly for kneydlakh (dumplings). These Mazot were crushed with a pestle in the “Stupe”, a wooden recepticle of conic shape. The ones who were lazy were threatened by not having Kneidleich.

Volozhin Jews were united in times of mourning and trouble. As I said before, the houses were built of wood. The roofs were made from wood tiles. Some roofs were of straw. When a fire broke out (a most difficult and frequent disaster) it spread quickly. Its location and extinguishing was difficult. It required quick action of many people. Our city people always acted with devotion to save human life and property.

When a person died, almost all the town inhabitants participated at the funeral. Crying and wailing, they accompanied the dead. As much as mourning was everywhere, so was also the joy. A wedding in the town was a source of joy for everyone. The wedding started generally in the big room of the bride's parents. The bride would sit in a chair, on her head a white veil, and on both her sides stood women who were relatives and friends. The groom, who waited at his parents' house, went to the bride's place accompanied by his nearest men. There they greeted him with “Mazal Tov”. After that, the bride and groom walked at the head of the crowd, accompanied by musicians (Kleizmers) to the chupa ceremony. At the end of the ceremony, the couple went to the “party house”. At the entrance, two women raised trays above their heads. On each tray were candles and large cakes. Inside the house, tables were set with all kinds of homemade delicacies. Food and delicacies were also distributed among the kids who gathered around the house. On Saturday, the bride went to the Synagogue. In the evening there was a dance ball; most of the young people participated in it. They danced until dawn. For seven days (”Seven Blessing”) the participants continued to celebrate among the family.

The feeling of a common destiny and mutual assistance was one of the most admired qualities which our parents possessed. Their descendants desire to imprint those superb qualities among their children.


[Page 381]

Volozhinka – the town stream

By Yakov Kagan

Translated by Moshe Porat

Edited by Mike Kalt

The source of the stream comes from the Brilki hamlet, three kilometers from Volozhin. Crossing the fields of the towns of Hordinovo and Shapoval, the creek arrives inside the town to separate the town's eastern and western areas. On its western side were situated Mostisitski Street (Polish name), now Oktiabrskaya (Russian), the “Arptsu” Synagogue, and the Count's Estate. M. Polak's and Rapoport-Perlman's saw & gristmills extended on its eastern shore.

The Minsk-Vilna trail passed over a wooden bridge constructed over the stream. The creek continued to flow southwardly between Ponizhe on its left and the Military sports stadium on its right side, then through the Kelvitsh hamlet until it emptied into the Yislotsh River, fifteen kilometers from town.

Every year the shtetl's inhabitants used to say the “Tashlikh” prayer on its borders

The dwellers of Volozhin and hamlets in its vicinity used to wash their laundry in its water. There, peasants used to beat the flax crop from their fields.

On its northeast side extended a large meadow covered with opulent grass, called Veehon (“Drive away place” in Russian), to which the town dwellers' cows were driven each morning for pasture.

The stream was shallow. There was no danger of drowning. Each summer, town youngsters would cut pieces of sod from the Weehon meadow grass and throw them in the stream. The barrier blocked the flow, creating a small swimming pool to the great joy of the Shtetl's children.

Near the sources at Hordinovo were some sections deep enough for adult bathing. The high wild shrubs on its shore served as places to change clothes. A young woman, Dvora Perski, drowned in such a place in the late twenties.

An additional water environment, a small lake, the so-called Sazhelk-pond was situated near Vilna Street

The town authorities renovated parts of the Volozhinka and the Sazhelke borders during the late thirties. They framed some segments of the creek in regular, one-meter wide channels, leveled its elevated sides, and removed the wild vegetation on the western border, replanting it with cultivated grass.

The authorities arranged also the Sazhelke. They framed the water pond in rectangular borders. It became suitable to serve as an ice-skating rink in winter and as a pleasure-walking place and a place for rowboat cruising in summer.

The Volozhinka and the Sazhelke–pond were quiet for the most part of the year, with cool calm water in summer and autumn, and covered with ice in winter. Nevertheless, it was completely different in springtime. Generally, on the eve of Passover, when the earth defrosted, large quantities of snow melted and flowed from the surrounding hills into the Volozhinka dale. The waters flooded the valley, creating a large lake in the Veehon-meadow. The quiet stream, usually passable by foot, became a large, deep, and dangerous torrent.

The grist mill in Youzefpol (1929)

Pleasure walk on the Sazhelke borders – Volozhin 1936

Mr. Yani Garber, the first Volozhin Judenrat head, the first victim shot on the first mass slaughter –October 1941, walking on the Sazhelke borders with his son Dania (the pianist) his sister in law Etia Perlman and her daughter Sonitshka. Behind them, Yani's mother in law Malka Perlman -Itskhakin (Rabbi Itsele's G. Granddaughter) with her son Yossif Perlman


The three mass slaughters on the Volozhinka borders -Translator's note

The Nazis created the Volozhin Ghetto on the western shore during the summer of 1941. They accomplished the first mass slaughter at the Sport Stadium on the same shore to the south in the autumn of the same year.

The Volozhin Jews spent the winter of 1941 in relatively quiet conditions, enclosed in the Ghetto, where from they could see the last snow-thawing flood of their life.

Some days after that flood, when the roads became passable, an SS team did a reconnaissance tour in Volozhin. They looked for a place for the “Great Execution”. They found it near the ancient Jewish Cemetery, on the Volozhinka's rivulet. The main mass slaughter of 2,000 Volozhin Jews took place on the Volozhinka western shore a month after the spring flood, on May 10, 1942.

In the third (last) mass slaughter, the Nazis executed the remaining 300 Jews from the second great shtetl near the Veehon, on the east shore of the Volozhinka streambed, in August 1942

The Volozhinka stream carried away with its waters a large amount of innocent Jewish blood and ash.

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