55°38' / 27°03'
55°38' / 27°03'
[Page 14 = Blank in the original]
By Yaacov Levin
Translated from the Hebrew by Jerrold Landau
Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch
The history of Braslav [Braslaw] lies hidden in the mists of the distant past. According to information in our possession, Braslav was first noted in 1065, almost 300 years before the founding of Vilna.
In the 11th century Braslav belonged to the principality of Polotsk, in the borderland between what's now Poland, Russia and Lithuania. It appears that its name derives from Duke Bryachislav [Bryachislaw], who ruled the area at that time. We can assume that Braslav originated as a border town, with all that this entails. Its geographical location was well suited to protecting the border, due to the hills and bodies of water around it, with marshland to the east, lakes and a ridge of consecutive peaks. Its proximity to the Dvina (Daugava) River [some 28 kilometers to the north and flowing east-west], an artery for transportation and commerce and a link to the Baltic Sea, also contributed greatly to its development.
During the 13th century, Braslav belonged to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and was under the rule of the renowned Grand Duke Gediminas.
During the time of union between Poland and Lithuania, in the era of the Jagiellonian rulers in 1410, Braslav was annexed to the Vilna district, and it was one of the five administrative areas (powiaty) in the district. Incidentally, the name of Braslav appears as Braslaw Litewski [the Braslav of Lithuania] in all official documents, to distinguish it from the Ukrainian (Moscovite) Breslov near Uman. Braslav suffered greatly from battles and fires due to the continual feuds and disputes between the rulers of Poland and Russia (known at that time as Moscovia). The Tatar invasion also left its mark on the town: residents had to pay heavy taxes to the conquerors, whose flag was raised atop the mountain [Castle Hill], the fortress mountain upon which the Tatar army was stationed.
In the 16th century, the town was under the guardianship of the Polish prince Sapieha. Braslav passed from hand to hand, from one prince to the next through the years, as a result of the sale of the land and its residents.
The fortress mountain that stood in the heart of Braslav served as the town center in those days. The military barracks for the local troops was built on it, and it was also the center of the Christian faith, site of a church and monastery.
During the 17th century, the town suffered from a flood that damaged and destroyed the majority of the buildings. The damage was so great that the central authorities in Warsaw freed the town from all taxes and duties for the next 40 years, through a special decree.
A proclamation from the year 1792 testifies to Braslav's strategic importance --- a special edict of the Polish King Stanislaw August [Stanislav August Poniatowski, who ruled from 1764 to 1795] noted the town's uniqueness and its contribution to the crown. In his proclamation, the king designated the town's emblem as a radiant triangle with an eye in its center --- the Eye of Providence (oko opatrznósci) [pictured on page 13]. We have no additional information on the town's development for several centuries. As one historian noted, the lack of information is due to the many wars, and particularly to the invasion of Vilna [in 1812] by Napoleon's army, which burned most of the historical documents of the region.
|Excerpt from the Newspaper HaMelitz, 20th Year, 12 Shvat 5644 [February 8, 1884, in Hebrew]:
From Braslav: (Kovno District). Mr. Shlomo-David Sherman states that an edict was issued by the authorities to close three Hebrew houses of worship, as they were built without government permission. They were given a period of grace of one month only. The writer urges his townsfolk to rise up against this travesty through intercession before the time passes --- after which they will be like those who cry out and are not answered.
|Excerpt from the Newspaper HaMelitz No. 39, 20th Year, 9 Sivan 5644 [June 2, 1884, in Hebrew]:
From Braslav (Kovno District) --- Previously I published in HaMelitz something on the great dispute in our town between the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim [opponents of the Hasidim], in which people are causing ruin to each other and bringing petitions to government officials. It is because of this that all the synagogues in the town have been closed. And is it not serious that nine people involved in the strife have been sentenced to six months in prison for signing a request to the district minister? For all the houses of worship in the town had been built through permits from imperial officials, and they [presumably the Hasidim] still requested to open their own special house of worship (for the Hasidim), whose opponents have said that they're building without government permission in the year 5639 (1879). When it became known to the district minister that this was a lie and that people had sworn falsely, they were sentenced to six months in prison.
I hereby inform the public that all the houses of prayer that had been closed have now been opened, not through the edict of the imperial officials but rather through the great fire that afflicted the town for many days. Approximately 100 structures, including houses of worship, some 150 years old, were burnt.
--- David-Shlomo Sherman
Jews of the Town and Its Environs
The few documents we have show that Jews were mentioned in Braslav in the 16th century. For example, a document dealing with the census of 1559 [sic] listed several Jewish families, including those named Byk, Nemirovitz [Nemirowicz] and Kravitz [Krawiec].
In general, the primary occupation of the Jews was commerce. Some of them were also tradesmen, such as tailors, saddlers and shoemakers.
According to the document, the Jews of Braslav and its environs were organized into [main] communities and secondary communities. The independent communities were Braslav, Druya and Vidz [Widze], while the smaller, secondary communities were Opsa, Slobodka, Drisviati [Dryswyaty] and Druysk.
It appears that at the time the Jews enjoyed the same rights extended to the rest of the population. We can assume this from a report published by a researcher from the royal office of King Stanislav August, who wrote that the Jews of the community enjoyed conditions similar to those in England and Holland.
|Excerpt from the Newspaper HaMelitz No. 13, 25th Year, 12 Adar 5645 [February 27, 1885, in Hebrew]:
Braslav (Kovno district) --- The extent to which the level of Torah and its upholders has declined in these years can be understood by anyone who sees the notices posted on the walls of the synagogue in our town by the local rabbi. From his soul he pleads, like a pauper at the door, for people to think of him and have mercy on him, so that he and his family members do not die of starvation. Whose heart would not be moved when it hears of the condition of such a person, who is visited by many people and asked for words of Torah from his mouth! The people of our town, who would find it easy to collect 20 silver rubles weekly for their far-off tzaddikim [righteous ones] and rebbes [Hasidic spiritual leaders], find it difficult and do not gather five silver rubles weekly for their rabbi who lives among them, to keep him from being afflicted by hunger . . . Where is the money from their tax that they imposed on the poor of the town: from meat, salt and yeast? Great men of the town, if you are dissatisfied with the rabbi and complaints against him, it will still be considered a great sin if you turn your eyes away from him, he who has occupied the rabbinical seat here for some 20 years and is now old and weak, and can no longer travel around. You have the duty and obligation to guide him with bread, even if you appoint another rabbi in his place.
I will now use this place to alert the Hasidim of our town to not stand in castigation against the Mitnagdim in building their own Beit Midrash in place of the Beit Midrash that was burnt last summer [in 1884]. If that which is heard in the town is true, that hundreds of Hasidim petitioned the district minister to not grant the Ashkenazim (as the Mitnagdim are known) a permit to build the Beit Midrash, it will be considered a great travesty on your part, especially at such a bad time in our country for the House of Israel. We must band together as one and not incite one against the other. Only through peace, the vessel that holds blessing, can we stand up and exist without allowing our enemies to harm us.
--- David-Shlomo Sherman
However, the report [from the royal office for King Stanislav August mentioned on page 16] may not have been objective. Other documents show that the lives of the Jews under the Polish and Russian governments in those times were not at all comfortable. There are documents that include complaints and libels accusing the Jews of being spies and haters of Christians, especially during the times of change in government. One historian wrote that he simply couldn't put on paper a description of the lowly conditions the Jews endured in those places. It's possible to understand the Jews and their feelings in those times and explain some of the accusations against them as follows: On account of the continual wars that afflicted the district, given that Braslav was a border town and there were frequent changes in government (Poland, Russia, Lithuania, the Tatars), the Jews always found themselves between a hammer and an anvil. Each of the new rulers could accuse them of disloyalty, spying and the like.
Innkeeping (karczma) was one of the sources of the Jews' livelihood. Innkeepers were scattered along the roads, in the villages, and even in the town, with some of them leasing businesses from the estate owners.
We have no verified information about the exact number and status of the Jewish population, but there are
several written testimonies stating that there was an attempt to settle Jews on the soil, in independent villages, some of which carried on until they were destroyed during the Holocaust that overtook Polish Jewry in general.
For example, in the years 1847-48 the government of Russia allotted lands to the Jews and set up village settlements such as Druysk, Plissa [Plusy], Dubinovo [Dubinowo, a.k.a. Dubina], Yaisi [Jaisi], Ikazn and others. We can surmise that this succeeded, for these settlements later developed into small towns focused on agriculture and existed up until World War II.
The rapid development of Braslav and its surroundings began during the first years of the present century. The number of families increased, after declining following pogroms and the Russo-Japanese War [in 1904-05], which had caused a portion of the town's population to move to Danzig, and even to far-off America and other places.
After World War I, many families that had moved to places in central Russia began to return. The returnees both increased the Jewish population and were a factor in the town's development.
Between the Two World Wars: The Image of the Town
The houses of the town were scattered among the sand dunes, nestled between the large Lake Dryviaty [Drywiaty, a.k.a. Driviata] (40 square kilometers) and the small Lake Noviata [Nowiata] (three square kilometers) --- like mushrooms, nestling against the mountain --- the fortress mountain [Castle Hill], like a hoop. The main street used to be called Large [Bolshaya] Street. After World War I [when Poland regained its independence] its name was changed to honor Marshal Pilsudski, the leader of the new Poland.
The street was long and straight. On its eastern side, from the hill on which the windmill stood silent like a statue, the street descended below over a wooden bridge over the banks of a nameless rivulet joining the two lakes. The street continued, paved with uncut stones. There were sidewalks of wooden boards on both sides that shook with every step. All the houses were wooden, except for two or three white brick houses. There were houses that looked as if they'd been swallowed in mud from age: low and grayish brown, with their squashed roofs covered by greenery. There were houses that stood out with pride, as if boasting of their thick pine walls and tall windows. Between the houses there were stores for haberdashery, linens and oils, as well as butcher shops and small workshops. There were also a few general stores that carried all sorts of merchandise, including food as well as merchandise for the farmers of the area such as harnesses, saddles, plows, sickles, ropes, wagon grease and so on.
The Catholic church jutted out on one side, at the entrance to Third of May Street (named for the day in 1791 that the Polish constitution had been issued), on a low hill. It was built of red bricks and pierced the skies with its thin crosses. Opposite it, on the other side of the street, on the banks of the large lake, was the Pravoslavic [Eastern] Orthodox church. It was situated between green lawns, appearing short and modest with its five onion domes.
All day, it would sound as if the church bells were competing with each other, calling out to their listeners for prayers morning and evening.
Not far from them, on the slope of the street, was the synagogue courtyard. There were four synagogues in the town, and for some reason they were referred to as minyanim [prayer quorums]: the New Minyan, the Old Minyan, the Sandy Minyan, and the Beit Midrash [all of them between Castle Hill and Lake Driviata]. The Sandy Minyan was located farther away from the other synagogues --- on a side, sandy street [around one side of Castle Hill], from where it received its name. The three minyans were for the Hasidim; only the Beit Midrash was for the Mitnagdim.
The street continued on until Bik's flourmill. There was located the local power mill, which provided electricity and light to the town.
The main street was paved as a narrow strip along the large lake, whose waters irrigated the vegetable gardens of the householders. Sometimes during winter storms, when the strong winds blew, blue hailstones fell noisily upon the town, striking the houses at the edge of the lake like a thirsty beast without restraint. Then tumult arose as the residents of the town gathered, firefighters and ordinary people, armed with rods, bayonets and other such vessels, fighting the forces of nature for two or three days before the eyes of the curious onlookers.
The two lakes that surrounded the town, as if grasping it from both sides, were among the most beloved places for the residents, especially the youth, as places for enjoyment and meeting each other. On clear summer nights, they'd go out in boats. Loud singing could be heard, now approaching, now moving away, until the early hours of the morning.
The lakes served mainly as places for bathing and swimming. Each year, there were drownings. When this happened residents would gather at the banks, and swimmers armed with fishing nets and other implements worked day and night searching for the bodies, as heavy mourning enveloped the town. The lake drowns our relatives, people whispered through tears.
At the western edge, the street merged with the road, paved with limestone and gravel, that led to Vilna through Jewish towns, villages, estates of landowners, sand dunes, and oak and fir forests.
Several streets and alleyways branched off from the north side of the main street. Third of May Street wound from the Catholic church, passed opposite the small lake, and connected with the Gentile suburb of Gumnes until the small railway station that traveled from the nearby town of Druya to the intersection of the Warsaw-Zemgale international train. There, opposite the narrow railway tracks, a sandy road meandered to the small Jewish settlement of Dubinovo, whose residents were occupied in agriculture, trade and commerce with Braslav.
Several secondary streets crossed the town's length and breadth, passing by the central market, the post office, the Magat Brothers Printing House, toward the old cemetery, and further on in the direction of the neighborhood of the government officials --- a green, cultivated neighborhood, with new houses and paved roads. The neighborhood was surrounded by the Karpovitz [Karpowicz] pine forest --- one of the places where the town residents went for excursions and enjoyment. However, because of its proximity to the neighborhood of the officials, Jews didn't particularly like that forest. They preferred the Dubkes Forest, which was situated on the shore of the large lake, with golden sands on the shore. Young people and children would spend time there on Sabbaths and festivals. Later, during the time of the Nazi occupation [1941-44], the forest, spread over a large area, was one of the important places for partisans to gather.
Paths covered with limestone led from the town to the surrounding villages. One of them was the Jewish village of Yaisi, which was populated by several tens of families who earned their livelihood from agriculture --- primarily from raising goats and selling their products to the town.
Unlike other towns, most of the shops in Braslav weren't concentrated in and around the marketplace. Instead, nearly all were on the main street. The market was situated in a large area, not paved or fenced off. Houses bordered it from all sides. The only place empty of houses was the entrance, opposite the post office.
On Wednesdays and Fridays, the days designated as market days, the area's farmers streamed into the town. Amid bustle, noise and the neighing of horses, the town merchants wandered about, negotiating, conducting business and shaking hands. All types of products were on the wagons: fowls, pig bristles, hides, flax, animal fodder, hay, firewood, fruits and vegetables.
Business was especially vibrant and loud during the autumn, when the town residents went out to buy
provisions to store during the winter. Then the market was filled with housewives, and children wandered among the wagons to search for what they wanted.
In the bustle and din, the chinomi always called attention to himself. He got this nickname because he was always shouting, Chinom, chinom, hakol chinom! [Free, free, everything's free!] . . . as he stood on his wagon laden with brushes, creams, cheap perfumes and colored kerchiefs. He'd demonstrate the strength, benefit and usefulness of his products with his teeth and hands, as he called out his motto in a hoarse, cracked voice, Free! Free! Everything's free! The village women, old and young, gathered around him, enjoying and imitating his clownish movements. Sometimes, when he was unsuccessful at publicizing his merchandise, or when a comb broke or a kerchief tore, they'd gather around him and burst out laughing. With an embarrassed look on his face, he'd laugh with those around him, wiping the sweat from his brow.
At times, two or three chinomis would come to the market. Then a dizzying competition, accompanied by mutual mocking and insults, would break out. This was one of the most beloved spectacles for the market-goers.
The farmers of the region, especially those whose lands were divided between Poland and Latvia after World War I and whose relatives lived on the other side of the border, also occupied themselves with smuggling. One of the most lucrative products for this was sugar, which was protected due to government taxes and duties. Sugar was brought to town [by the smugglers] and sold to the shopkeepers at a price that was much cheaper than the government price. On market days, farmers would arrive in wagons laden with fodder or hay, with sacks of sugar buried beneath. The shopkeepers knew the smugglers by sight and would purchase the contents of the entire wagon, including what was hidden inside them. Sometimes a farmer would be caught by the police with his load and forced to drive from the market to the police station. The distance was sufficiently far that the farmer, knowing the hidden goods would be confiscated in any case, would secretly cut open the bags. The sugar would spill on the route without the police realizing it, since they were traveling in front of the wagon holding the reins of the horse --- all to the general amusement of the shopkeepers and onlookers.
Employment and Economy
Not a small number of heads of households earned their livelihoods by driving wagons. The closest large city was Vilna, 180 kilometers away. Shipping merchandise to and from Vilna by train was complicated, due to the transfer stations between the small train and the regular one. It was easier and more comfortable to transport merchandise and loads directly from seller to purchaser through a caravan of wagons. Loading and unloading was also more comfortable and cheaper. In the winter, the autumn mud was frozen and snow covered the routes. Giant sleds hitched to horses of burden would transport fish, flax, wool and hides to the big city and would return with cloth, salt, haberdashery and groceries.
The most important branch of business, in which tens of families earned their livelihood, was fruit. A significant number of town residents were employed during the summer and autumn in guarding, harvesting and transporting apples and pears
from the orchards and estates to the town [Braslav], for export to the large cities as well as for sale in the local market.
Fishing played an important role in the livelihoods of the town residents. The residents themselves were involved directly in it. In other words, since they were close to many surrounding lakes, they were able to earn their livelihoods from the purchase and sale of fish, and the transport and marketing.
Several individuals directed this business. Shneiur Aron, the primary lessee of fishing permits [in Braslav], was at their head. He maintained fishing staff in nearly all the villages of the area, equipped with nets and boats. The main fishing activities took place in the winter months, when the lakes froze and were covered by a thick layer of ice. Then the workers would go out, bore holes through the ice, and cast their fishing nets into the water. They'd remove the nets after two or three days with a bounty of silver fish.
Among the [Gentile] farmers, those adhering to the old group of the Eastern Orthodox religion stood out; they were tall, thin men with long, thick beards. They'd gather and come to the town from all corners of the country, as well as from outside, to celebrate their traditional festival, which was unique to them, the Gromnitsa [Candlemas] holiday celebrated annually on February 23 [sic]. They'd arrive in decorated sleds, hitched to fine horses decorated with bells and colored ribbons tied to their manes. They'd travel through the town streets throughout the entire day. Maidens dressed in expensive furs and shiny, leather boots would stroll through the road in pairs. Sturdy lads in hats and sheepskin coats paced behind them.
Suddenly a lad would appear, sitting on a sled, snatch one of the girls, and disappear with his beloved as quick as an arrow. Of course, all this was organized from the beginning, according to the accepted custom as a form of courtship leading to marriage. This was a performance that everyone waited for; it was an enjoyable attraction.
During the early afternoon hours, a horse race took place on the ice of the frozen lakes. Many residents of the town were present at this competition.
The relations between the Jews of the town and the farmers of the area were generally proper and polite. In many cases, they were also friendly. On more than one occasion, they stood up to the wild incitement from anti-Semitic factions, especially after the Endeks, the Polish national fascist party, a racist party, increased its activity. This organization was set up with the help of the Nazi government that had then started its rule in Germany [sic]. Later, during the time of the Nazi occupation, it became clear that several leaders of the party, residents of the town, were Nazi infiltrators who assisted the deeds of murder and annihilation. However, there were also demonstrations of strong bonds between the Jews and the villagers. For example, in the village of Zahoria on the shore of Lake Ukla [about 18 kilometers southeast of Braslav], the Kagan family was attacked by Polish agitators, who wished to pillage their property and murder them. The head of the family was the lessee of fishing on the lake. All the people of the town, armed with pitchforks, sickles and axes, repelled the attackers and saved the Jewish family.
Religious, Social and Cultural Life
A yeshiva with several tens of students functioned in two of the four synagogues of the town: the New Minyan and the Old Minyan. Approximately 60 students, some from the nearby settlements, studied in the yeshiva until the Russians came in 1939. A kitchen was set up for the students alongside the yeshiva. Some of the yeshiva lads ate their meals on a daily rotation basis, an old, accepted custom at most yeshivas. Of course, the portion of the lad depended on the economic situation of the host family. No small number of verses and humorous sayings have been written on this topic.
The head of the yeshiva was Rabbi Chaim Tarshish of the village of Yaisi near Braslav. From an economic perspective, the situation of the yeshiva was very difficult. This is confirmed by the extensive correspondence between the principal of the yeshiva, Henech Veinshtein, and the yeshiva committee. The correspondence is full of requests and complaints about the situation of the yeshiva. The yeshiva's circumstances declined further with the opening of the Yavneh school, which led to a drop in donations to the yeshiva by local residents. The complaints of the yeshiva activists increased, growing bitter and more urgent.
Despite this, this Torah institution added to the character of the town. Many of its students went on to acquire Torah in the large yeshivas of other cities.
[the sign in the photo says the year is 5690, that is, October 1929 to September 1930]
Questionnaire on the Yeshiva's Condition and Quality
The Yeshiva Committee Center of Vilna
Questionnaire on the situation and quality of the yeshiva
a. Distance of the place from the railway line: Station[?] Braslav [the original is hard to read]
Signature of the yeshiva head and principal: Henech Veinshtein, Braslav
[sitting in the group are two leaders of the town's Jewish community: Rafael-Yaacov Munitz at left and Shneiur Aron at center-right; they also appear on page 30]
There were two rabbis in Braslav, who led the community for many years. The rabbi of the Mitnagdim was Rabbi Hershel Valin, a tall, strong man, with a thin, black beard, streaked with gray hair. He was a fine orator. He busied himself with matters of religion and Torah, and served as the prayer leader on festivals and the High Holy Days. In the 1930s he left the town to move to the neighboring country of Latvia, where he was appointed rabbi of one of the communities there [Goldingen; see pages 66-67 of this memorial book]. The second rabbi, Rabbi Abba Zahorie, a very old man, served as the rabbi of the congregants of the Hasidic minyanim. He was quiet and introverted. His blue eyes always appeared as though they were scanning the surrounding world and caressing those to whom he was speaking. He was as innocent as a child. During the great disaster that overtook the town [on June 3-5, 1942; see pages 68-69 of this memorial book], he went to slaughter together with all of the people, as if accepting the judgment of the Creator with faith and love.
The synagogues served not only as a place for prayer and Torah study. The Yiddish school was also housed there. Classes took place in the women's gallery of the minyanim. Of course, this caused friction between the students of the yeshiva and the school on account of the different modes of dress, the wearing of head coverings, and other such things.
At the beginning of the 1930s, it was decided to set up a school [the Folkshul, with education in Yiddish] with the help of the TSYSHO, the Central Yiddish School Organization, and with the participation of the parents and supporters of the school.
The school was set up in a large yard on the slope of the fortress mountain [Castle Hill] next to the Jewish bank, whose director Levi-Yitzchak Veinshtein was a supporter of the school. He not only assisted in its establishment but also did a great deal on behalf of the graduates when they continued their studies in the high school in Vilna. In essence, the Folkshul in Braslav was the workbench upon which the intelligentsia of the town was forged. Graduates of the school went on to study in secondary and post-secondary schools in other towns. Some graduated from gymnasiums, real schools and technical schools, and returned to become teachers. They became the primary channels for disseminating knowledge and progressive ideas among the youth.
Aside from the activities in the classroom and the gym, the school organized various clubs. One was the drama club, which on occasion put on enjoyable performances, naturally in Yiddish. The chief bookkeeper of the bank, [Gershon] Viderevitz [Wydrowicz], as well as Shayke Deitch, were the living spirits of the drama club. Both were highly skilled actors; many of the youth gathered around them. Shayke Deitch would be murdered in Ponar during one of the German Aktions in Vilna.
Wide-ranging party activity began to sprout in the town during the early 1920s. Through the influence and direction of the Hebrew teacher Reb Rafael Munitz, a veteran lover of Zion, the first HeChalutz [Pioneer] group was established. It began practical work, such as the preparation of land for agriculture, fishing, study of Hebrew and the Tanach [the Hebrew Bible], and especially disseminating the idea of a return to Zion among the young people. Several young people received certificates and made aliyah to the Land of Israel, including Moshe Valin, a son of the town rabbi. He was an actor in the theater and performed in Ansky's The Dybbuk, Uriel Acosta, Yehudit and other plays. Later, in Israel, he became active in the Li La Lo Theater [in Tel Aviv] and a well-known impresario.
The Revisionist movement arose later, headed by deputy defense attorney Shimon Gelishkovski [Geliszkowski].
Supporters and friends of the Yiddish school were known as Folksists (populists). Their ideology tended toward the Bund Party [the Jewish socialist party in Poland, which was anti-Zionist], which had a great influence in metropolitan centers in those days. Its influence weakened, however, with time. The only thing that testified to its existence in Braslav
was the daily newspaper Folks-Tsaytung. The more accepted and read newspapers were generally Der Moment and Haynt from Warsaw and Vilner Tog from Vilna.
Despite the shortage of manufacturing enterprises and a civic proletariat, activities of the Communist Party in the town and area were not lacking. Following World War I, a large part of the lands of Belorussia was annexed to Poland, along with a rural population numbering approximately one million. The lack of agricultural land for village farmers, the enslavement of entire villages in semi-permanent work for landowners and the Russian and Polish nobility, and the lack of work for rural youth who abandoned their villages due to poverty and government neglect --- all of these factors were fruitful ground for the growth and development of revolutionary ideas, as well as the desire for connection to the large land --- Soviet Russia. In the 1920s, an underground revolutionary group called Gromada was organized in the villages of the region. Jewish youth of the town also played an active role in it until the organization was crushed by the Polish police, and its heads and activists were arrested and given long prison sentences. From among those arrested, I'll mention Mantzik Balonov [Balonow] and Efraim Amdur, who was later appointed mayor when the Soviets entered Braslav. He fell as a fighter in the battle for Leningrad during the time of the Nazi occupation.
[In the years before World War II] the Communist Party continued to operate. Its primary activities included the dissemination of revolutionary announcements, issuing proclamations and providing flags for revolutionary holidays, collecting money for prisoners, and so on.
Despite the political divisions, there was no strangeness or actual split among the youth groups. Only on occasion, during factional assemblies, did debates or disturbances take place. In general, the atmosphere was proper and warm, marked by joint entertainment and parties.
In September 1939, the community of Braslav, like others, fell within the boundaries of Soviet occupation. This led to a decline in cultural, religious and communal activities and marked the beginning of the end.
Slowly, one by one, echoes about the fate of the Jews who were trapped in the German-occupied areas began to reach the eastern areas of the country. The few refugees who succeeded in crossing the border told of the difficult situation and uncertainty that afflicted the Jews of central Poland [under German occupation in 1939-1941]. In contrast, the situation of the Jews to the east of the Bug River [under Soviet occupation in 1939-41 and including Braslav] wasn't bad from an economic perspective, even though the way of life had changed radically --- as if the vitality of their lives had been taken away. Slowly the cultural institutions, schools, chederim [Hebrew primary schools] and yeshivas were closed. No small number of people were deported to distant areas and separated from their families. Even members of the local Communist Party, who'd had great hopes that with the Red Army's entry they'd be able to help establish a local Soviet regime, were thrown into confusion and not greatly trusted by the Soviet Communist Party.
This existence in limbo continued for nearly two years for the Jews of Poland [in 1939-41], Braslav included, as they lived through this whirlwind of events that ended in destruction and obliteration.
Reb Shlomo-Itza [Shlomo-Yitzchak] Eidelson
Reb Shlomo-Itza [Shlomo-Yitzchak] Eidelson
He was a stocky man, as if hewn from the root of a tree. His white beard flowed over his chest and highlighted his short stature even more. He walked very cautiously between the houses and shops of the town, with a red handkerchief in his hand.
He neither begged or urged, but everyone knew: If Shlomo-Itza had come, it was a sign that someone needed immediate help. He was a type of charitable and benevolent institution --- whether to help bring a poor bride to the wedding canopy, assist a family whose head had fallen ill, buy a horse for a wagon driver whose animal had died, or simply aid someone in need.
Nobody asked the reason he was collecting the money, or for whom. With an expressionless face, he didn't even glance at the sum of money placed in his handkerchief, as if he understood the power of silence. Only on rare occasions, if someone asked whether he'd collected the needed amount, would he answer with a quiet voice and shy smile, The needs of our nation are great, but I don't pass over anyone. I'll grant everyone the merit of giving charity, I don't want to embarrass anybody. Then he'd continue on his way.
At times, he'd be summoned for help in the dark of night. Then he'd go only to the wealthy people of the town and explain the reason for his visit, without mentioning the name of the person in need.
The residents of the town were accustomed to his figure. When they saw him walking on the side of the street, day or night, they knew that someone was in trouble, and they'd whisper and wonder, Who, where, what happened?
Nobody knew where she came from or who she was. They didn't even know her name. She appeared one snowy, winter day, covered in rags, wearing torn overshoes, tied with rope. Her hair was cropped short, covered with a netted shawl wrapped over her shoulders and arms. Under them, she carried a small package attached to her shoulders.
Her prominent eyes testified to her insanity. She'd walk in the middle of the street, trampling through the deep snow, quietly muttering words that nobody understood. Toward evening, approaching a shopkeeper who stood wondering at her appearance, she'd utter in a hoarse voice, The girl is hungry, the girl wants to eat.
She remained in the town for many years. Everyone got used to her, and no one bothered her. Many people, especially women, tried to meet her modest requests. She accepted everything in silence, occasionally uttering, The girl, the girl.
At times, benevolent women took her to the bathhouse. They removed the rags that were covered with lice and insects, burned them, and dressed her in clean clothes. But she'd toss them away, find new rags, and cover herself in them once more.
At night, when quiet fell over the town, she'd wander through the streets with her small sack in her hand, singing a long, bright tune, wailing some sort of cradle song in her hoarse, cracked voice. At times she'd stop and raise her head toward the star-filled sky. With tears flowing
down her wrinkled face, she'd ask, Where are you, where?
Someone said that she was from a faraway town, had once been married, and had lost her mind when her children died. She then wandered from place to place, filled with illusions and longing for her lost children. Finally she disappeared as she'd come; nobody knew where she'd gone. Only her voice remained as an obscure echo to her existence as the girl . . .
The mountain [Castle Hill] that rose up in the center of town was much loved by all the residents as a place for excursions, games and enjoyment, especially for the children and young people. From the mountain it was possible to look far away, over the entire area, with its dense forests and blue lakes scattered around, to the gray horizon.
There were no buildings on the mountain, only dense, aromatic greenery. At the western side, literally at the end of the slope, a tall monument, thin as a needle, jutted out, fenced in by thick chains. This was the grave of Dr. Narbutt, who'd been buried there at his request.
Already in his lifetime, Dr. Narbutt was a legend. It was rumored that he was a Jew and this was why he'd asked to be buried on the mountain instead of the Christian cemetery. He didn't want to be buried in the Jewish cemetery, it was said, to avoid causing problems for his son and daughter, who were considered to be Poles.
He limped slowly, holding a knotted cane in his hand, as he walked along the streets, mingled with the people of the town, and often took part in their conversations. At times, as a joke, he'd approach a group of students and join in their games. He'd jump on one foot and laugh, chatting in Yiddish with the children and giving them candies. Sometimes on summer evenings, he'd dive discreetly into the blue waters of the lake, suddenly emerging unexpectedly among the bathing women, before disappearing again into the water at the sound of their screams of surprise.
He took payments in a roundabout way for tending to the sick. He not only avoided taking money from poor people but also would sometimes give them a note for the pharmacy to provide the medication on his account.
He served as physician of the town for many years, and took part in all that happened there. He often visited the homes of Jews and spoke Yiddish like a Jew.
His death in 1928 [sic] was a heavy loss for the Jews of the town, who regarded him as a friend and intermediary.
In general, good relations obtained between the Jewish population and the surrounding villages, with the exception of isolated incidents that demonstrated hidden anti-Semitic feelings among certain segments of the population.
During the times between regimes, when the town was left with no ruling authority --- such as happened during World War I, when the Czarist Russian Army retreated but the army of the German Kaiser hadn't yet entered the town --- the villagers and run-of-the-mill hooligans attacked with the aim of pillaging and killing Jews. In response, the town established a defense force of young Jews who got even with the perpetrators. There were injuries on both sides. In one case, a lad from the local self-defense force was even killed ---
Yerachmiel-Mendel Meirson. The pervading atmosphere was difficult and oppressive. Then a brave, strong man arose, Shmuel-Yosef Milutin. Riding on a horse, with a gun in one hand and a sword in the other, he burst into the group of hooligans, striking with his sword to the right and left, and firing his gun. He chased off the attackers, scattering them in all directions. After this, the town quieted down until the arrival of a permanent government.
He was of the stock of the nephilim. His son Chaim was among the first to be murdered by the Germans before the eyes of all the Jews of the town [in late June 1941], and many of his family members were active in the anti-Nazi underground and the partisans.
[Hachshara, from the Hebrew word for preparation, referred to organizations/programs that prepared young Zionists for settlement in Palestine; the one pictured here was affiliated with Betar, the youth movement of the Revisionist-Zionists.]
[Revisionist-Zionist Association of Jewish veterans of the Polish army]
The town of Braslav, said to have been founded by Duke Bryachislav, who ruled the Kingdom of Polotsk from ca. 1001 to 1044, was originally called Bryachislav. Return
The Jagiellonian dynasty would rule the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1386 to 1572. (Rulers after 1572 were from other dynasties, during which Poland became the dominant power over Lithuania.) From the Jagiellonian period the commonwealth was a great power in Europe, with ethnic diversity and a high degree of religious tolerance compared to Western Europe. This made the commonwealth an attractive place for Jews from other lands.
As the U.S. scholar Harold Segel noted in his book The Stranger in Our Midst (1996, page 3): In the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth . . . the political structure of the state, with its decentralization and powerful noble class, acted as a virtual guarantee of Jewish security. Jews were allowed into the country in ever greater numbers in the wake of the Inquisition in Spain, the plague . . . and the frenzy of religious conflict in the German world. Not only were Jews [in the commonwealth] given legal protection . . . but they were permitted the free exercise of their faith and free conduct of their own affairs. What this meant, in effect, was that the Jews were allowed to live as Jews in a Jewish environment. Return
It's true, however, that during the 1812 invasion the area of what's now Belarus suffered a heavy loss in population and severe economic damage. Modern-day estimates of civilian deaths in and around Belarus run as high as one million, about one-quarter of the regional population, and it's said that several decades passed before the population recovered to its pre-invasion level. The disastrous invasion is reflected in the steep decline in the Jewish population of Braslav, which fell from 329 in the 1811 revision list to 205 in the 1816 revision list. Return
In the Hebrew original, in the three excerpts from HaMelitz that appear here, Mr. Sherman's name was given in the first excerpt as Shlomo-David and in the second and third excerpts as David-Shlomo; it isn't clear which version of his name is correct. Return
In the original Polish, Hedemann's book said that the three Jews were Byk, Joszko Niemirowicz and Joszko krawiec [Joszko the tailor]. But (1) here Byk could be a first name or a nickname and wasn't necessarily Jewish; (2) Niemirowicz was typically a Christian name, not a Jewish one; and (3) here krawiec described an occupation (tailor), not a name. Also, (4) if the three people mentioned by Hedemann were indeed Jews in the Braslav census, it's strange that they weren't mentioned in exhaustive collections of old documents on Jews in the Russian territories that were published in Russia between 1899 and 1913. For these reasons, the assertion by Hedemann that several Jews were mentioned in the 1554 census should be regarded as mistaken, and the three people Hedemann mentioned shouldn't be considered to have had Jewish hereditary surnames. Many thanks to Dr. Beider for this analysis.
What surviving documents for the Braslav area suggest instead is that Jews in the Braslav area didn't have hereditary surnames until the early 1800s. In 1784, the government poll tax for Braslav listed 242 Jews in the Braslav kahal (community) --- men, women and children --- none of them with surnames. (From lists for other areas besides Braslav, it appears that informal surnames were in use at this time, such as Shlama Shmerkovitz, meaning Shlama son of Shmerka; but such surnames weren't hereditary and changed with each generation, since they were formed from the first name of a person's father.) In 1784, at the time the poll tax list was compiled, Braslav was in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; in 1795, the territory was taken by Russia in the third partition of Poland and Lithuania.
In 1804, the Russian government required all Jews in its territory to adopt a hereditary family name for use without change in all registers and transactions. However, it appears that some years passed before the requirement was widely obeyed. For example, in 1811 the Russian revision list (census) for the town of Braslav showed 329 Jews, of whom 144 --- fewer than half --- had surnames.
In 1816, the Russian revision list (census) for the town of Braslav showed 205 Jews, of whom 201 had surnames. This suggests that the adoption of hereditary surnames by Jews in the Braslav area had become near-universal by 1816, after becoming compulsory in 1804. Return
Typically, a Polish nobleman would establish one or more taverns at a crossroads on his estate --- comprising villages or towns that he owned --- and put Jews in charge of the tavern as well as the provisioning of spirits. The Jews, who were preferred for their sobriety and reliability, had to pay the nobleman for the privilege. The nobles held a monopoly on the production and sale of alcohol, which meant that the surrounding Gentile peasants had to buy beer and vodka exclusively at landowners' taverns and were banned from importing these items from the estates of other lords. Because the taverns, frequented by the local Gentile peasants, tended to draw criticism for encouraging drunkenness and wasteful spending, over the decades local governments imposed fees, restrictions and bans in attempts to counter the taverns. But nobles frequently helped their Jewish operators to circumvent such regulations, sometimes by installing a Gentile as the face of the operation.
In Russia (which took over the Braslav region in the third partition of Poland-Lithuania, in 1795), a law was passed in 1804 prohibiting Jews from holding leases on taverns and selling liquor. It's uncertain how strictly this ban was enforced by government authorities in subsequent decades, given the opposition of nobles as well as concern that zealous enforcement would send a flood of rural Jews into cities and towns. In 1840 and 1843, laws were passed in Kovno calling for Jews to be removed from all village taverns, which suggests that the ban of 1804 was being circumvented. Coincidentally or not, agricultural settlements for Jews were set up by the government soon afterward in the Braslav region, in 1847-48. (For more information on the settlements, see page 18 of this memorial book.) Return
According to a memoir by the Vilna educator Hirsz Abramowicz, Profiles of a Lost World (published in Yiddish in 1958 and translated into English in 1999), beginning in 1835 the Russian government of Czar Nicholas I encouraged the establishment of Jewish agricultural colonies in the northwestern territories of the Russian Empire, a large area that included the Braslav region. Unfortunately, the soil in these colonies was often poor and sandy:
Buckwheat was the only crop that could be sown in these sandy fields. Summer rye and other grains yielded very small harvests. Potatoes could only grow if the fields were well fertilized. It was some of these spartan fields that the government of Tsar Nicholas I found possible to spare for the Jews . . . .Return
The sandy fields did not provide enough for a living. The Jewish colonists had to supplement their incomes by working as drivers, peddlers, or working in some cottage industry, such as spinning, dyeing cloth, making harnesses, and the like. Still, they lived in poverty. It was impossible to develop their cottage industries to any considerable extent. They lacked money, raw materials and, most of all, community support. (p. 109)
TSYSHO was administered by a central office in Warsaw and a central education committee in Vilna (which between ca. 1920 and 1939 was part of Poland, as was Braslav). According to the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, the curriculum consisted of Yiddish language and literature, Jewish history and culture, the sciences, math, music, physical education, arts and crafts and, in some cases, Hebrew. In addition, Polish language, literature and history were taught in Polish.
At its peak in the late 1920s, TSYSHO maintained 219 institutions with 24,000 students spread across 100 locations. These included 46 kindergartens, 114 elementary schools, 6 high schools, 52 evening schools, and a pedagogical institute in Vilna. The Vilna Realgymnazye, the crown jewel of Yiddish secular education in Poland, was the first modern high school in which Yiddish was the language of instruction. The pedagogical institute (the Vilna Teachers' Seminary) played a major role in the secular Yiddish school system, as both a training institute and a center for communicating new ideas in Jewish teaching. Return
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