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Once there was a Town

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Map of Western Byelorussia showing Dereczin and its Environs

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Dereczin of the Past

by Chaim Rabinovich

(Original Language: Yiddish)

Between the borders of Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, in the opening years of the second half of the Middle Ages, there was a broad, half-desolate land, flat, with much water, marshes and forests, with poor soil, and a sparse population, fortified cities and towns, and poor villages around formidable palaces. These were the broad tracts of what was later to become White Russia, whose boundaries were never precisely set down, and which achieved independence only after the Russian October Revolution, as a part of the Soviet Union's array of fifteen republics.

In the course of the past six or seven centuries, White Russia belonged to several different countries of Eastern Europe, beginning with the Lithuanian monarchy, then to the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom, and remained within Polish borders until the partition. After the partition of Poland, White Russia found itself under Russian hegemony, and remained there until the end of the First World War, in which the Germans occupied almost the entire area, remaining there until the end of the war. After the brief occupation by the Red Army, the entire western part of White Russia is incorporated into the new Polish Republic, and this continues up to the outbreak of the Second World War. The area remains in White Russian hands for barely two years. The Soviet forces are overrun after the invasion of the German military, at which time, the Nazi murderers are in control of the entirety of White Russia from the very first weeks of their attack, and carried out their agenda there, just as they did in all occupied territories of Eastern Europe. In 1944, they retreated from the area, under the pressure of the [advancing] Soviet military machine, leaving behind an impoverished, starved out and plundered land, devoid of almost its entire original Jewish population that inhabited its cities and towns. From that time on, the half-empty area once again reverted to White Russian rule.

The true rulers of these tracts of land were, until the beginning of the 19th century, not the countries which held sovereignty, but the noble families who acquired both the lands and the towns therein, as either [royal] gifts or inheritances, with thousands of hectares of land around them, and they ruled over this and the resident population under their oversight.

 

Dereczin at the Beginning

Dereczin can be found in the western part of White Russia, near the Polish border. Historians are inclined to accept that the first settlements in Dereczin took place approximately at some time toward the end of the 1400's to the beginning of the 1500's. Dereczin was then built along a commercial road that led from Slonim to Grodno. The town is barely 32km to the northwest of Slonim, and 46

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versts[1] north of Ruzhany. The Shchara River flows to the northeast of Dereczin, emptying its waters into the Neman [River]. Dereczin itself, abuts the [Shchara] river, which older maps show as Zelva, but later ones took the more appropriate name of Sapaya, which in time, became die Shihpeh in Yiddish. It is both understandable, and assumed that the name Sapaya does not stem from the original times of Dereczin, but from the later [times], when the Sapiehas were the landholders of the town and its environs.

Dereczin residents, and along with them, many others who have familiarized themselves with the town, and have thought, spoken and written about it, link the origin of the name of their hometown to the name of the ruling noble Sapieha[2] family. From many historical and chronological sources, one could obtain the impression that Dereczin, from the start, belonged to the Sapieha Dynasty.

However, if one delves into older books and documents, one learns that Dereczin, along with large tracts of land around it, went through many changes of hand before the Sapiehas took control of it.

In the second half of the 1500's, the Lithuanian Polish King Casimir Jagiello gave Dereczin as a present to his faithful vassal Vasil Kapaczewicz. Casimir's son, Aleksander Jagiello, later confirmed the gift, and formalized this fiefdom, which had already passed by inheritance to Vasil's son, Jaczek Kapaczewicz.

It might not be so important to set out all these details, were it not for those descendants yet to come, with no direct link to this area, or so think the Jewish historians about the history of the Jews in

Lithuania and White Russia, and equally so about Dereczin. Here is an interesting fact about the reign of the aforementioned noble, Aleksander Jagiello. In the year 1495, he decreed the expulsion of all Jews from Lithuania. Commerce, and the development of areas under his rule, became so weakened as a result of this decision, that he was forced, eight years later in 1503, to invite the expelled Jews back, and return them to their former places of residence. Once again, they were invited back to fill the emptied purses of the anti-Semitic King. Later, as the Polish Lithuanian king, he appointed individual talented Jews as finance ministers in his royal bureaucracy. Needless to say, Dereczin Jews suffered too, from the expulsion, and the repatriation during which they rebuilt their wrecked houses, stores, and places of work. For the Lord of Dereczin, for Kapaczewicz, he certainly secured a goodly number of new Jewish residents.

At the dawn of the 1500's one has to look for Jewish origins in Dereczin among single families of menfor-hire, who were there at the outset along with a number of Jewish craftsmen.

An interesting fact is established in the historical record about the crisis, which reigned the area covering Lithuania and White Russia, from which the Jews were expelled: In the year 1501, a few years before the Jews were recalled to settle again in these areas, the sister of Jaczek Kapaczewicz, the wife of the nobleman, Michal Sanguszek, willed a large portion of her estate and serfs to the Church, but this will only became known after her death. Once she died, all her assets once again reverted to her heirs:

To her son, Anzhei Sanguszek,
Son-in-law, Semen Bohdanovicz, Lord of
Andiczewicz, husband of her daughter,
Nastasia, and
Her second son-in-law, Lord Ivan Anzhiewicz Poluvinskii, husband of her daughter, Nievidana.

The Poluvinskiis later bought out the share of the Andiczewicz's. It was bought by Lord Aleksander Poluvinskii, the Castellan[3] of Novogrudok, who in this manner, became the sole owner and ruler of all Dereczin and its surrounding territory.

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It is only at the end of the 1700's that Dereczin falls under the control of the Sapiehas. The daughter of Aleksander Hilari, the Marshalek of the Grand Duchy of Greater Lithuania, married Lord Jerzy Stanislav Sapieha, and he received Dereczin and its estates as a dowry in the year 1686.

From then on, Dereczin belonged to this famous noble dynasty, which did a great deal to develop the town as the ‘capitol’ for the Sapiehas. They helped to build a great deal of the housing, in which both Jews and Christians alike were invited to live and work in Dereczin. They also donated building materials to erect stores and synagogues.

Exactly a hundred years after Dereczin passed into the hands of the Sapiehas, and possibly to commemorate this important date for the ruling family, in the year 1786, a family palace was built. Over time, the Sapiehas moved hundreds of paintings, books, and all manner of precious gems, into their new Dereczin palace from their Ruzhany residence. It was in this manner that Dereczin became the principal residence of the Sapiehas. The foremost of the Sapiehas who was instrumental in building the palace and the town itself, was the great Hetman[4] and Chancellor of Lithuania, Aleksander Sapieha. In 1831, after the Polish rebellion against Russia was put down, the palace, and all of its contents were taken by Czarist forces from the hands of Aleksander's son, Franciszek. Thus the Sapiehas were driven out of Dereczin, but their name endured for many long years in the memory of the Dereczin population, who saw them as the builders of their town.

 

Jews -- The True Builders

Were the Sapiehas the real builders of Dereczin? Officially, that is what is written in historical books and chronologies. But if one delves deeper, and finds a variety of facts from the later Dereczin legacy, everything becomes clearer, that the true builders of the town were the Jews.

The method by which Poland chose to develop its cities in the Middle Ages is known to us. They invited Germans, and settled them with special rights and privileges to develop industry and commerce. This entailed a substantial migration of German citizens to Poland on the basis of the A.G. Magdeburg Rights. But the German settlements were largely concentrated in the Polish cities, and very few of the Germans settled in White Russia.

The fact is, that in Dereczin, there was a street called Deutsche Gasse, which suggests an almostcertain hypothesis about the Germans, that they came, many hundreds of years ago, to Dereczin, very likely at the invitation of the ruling nobility, to attempt to establish somehow, small businesses. It appears that the efforts of the German colonization in Dereczin did not take. In the past decades, there was only one known German family in Dereczin, that engaged in the weaver's trade. With the passage of centuries, the Germans moved away from Dereczin, and the town was left largely Jewish in character and population. After the Germans, and until the last World War, there was only one piece of evidence of their sojourn -- the name of a street.

It is also reasonable, according to the opinion of the historian Dr. Raphael Mahler, that German settlers were imported to Lithuanian and White Russian cities after the 1495 expulsion. It is possible that this happened in Dereczin as well. This was negated, however, after the repatriation of the Jews to Dereczin, and the development of the town then fell on the backs of the Jewish populace.

From an old document we know, that in the year 1550, Dereczin, together with Zhetl and Dvorets, belonged to the community of Slonim. It is clear that in every respect, the Jews of Dereczin were already organized.

The first document that tells of Jews in Dereczin dates from the year 1619. From a second document, dated 1766, we learn that the number of Jews in Dereczin at that time was 404 souls. By the year 1847, that number is reported at 542. On 01 January 1878, the total population numbered 2,269 residents, of which 1,725 were Jewish. In 1897 there were 1,887 Jews in Dereczin. Then came the years of the great emigration over the ocean, migration to large urban centers, and aliyah to the Holy Land. Consequently, the number of Jews in 1921 stood at

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1,396, and their percentage of the population also fell from 71% to 61.7% at that time.

In 1897 there were 227 Jewish craftsmen and tradespeople, represented for the most part as follows:

71 - Shoemakers
46 - Day Laborers
28 - Factory Workers
Six families engaged in vegetable farming.

Then comes the long list of organizations and aid societies, which were already established in Dereczin as early as seventy years prior to 1897, and which bear witness to the highly-developed sense of community responsibility for: good deeds, helping the unfortunate, clothing the naked, meting out justice, accommodating guests, visiting the sick, etc.

Even more instructive is the number of institutions established for learning -- a Talmud Torah with fifteen classrooms. The Jews of Dereczin were always concerned, and looked after, the education of their children.

It is therefore appropriate to describe more thoroughly and tell about the establishment, growth, development -- up to the tragic destruction of Jewish Dereczin.

 

The Origins of Dereczin

As previously mentioned, for many years, Dereczin was the principal residence of the renown Lithuanian-Polish noble family, Sapieha. They constructed large, two-story palaces, by the small river, Shihpeh, surrounded by a magnificently beautiful orchard park. Large paths cut through the park both along its length and breadth, and along their sides, old, high trees grew, among them many fruit trees. The Sapiehas cultivated a special breed of pears, which bore the name of the noble family -sapiezhankas.

Near the park, at the beginning of the town line, and opposite the great palace, where the Deutsche Gasse began, was the Puster Barg, overgrown with old linden trees.

In the park, and on the Puster Barg, the Dereczin Jews, their wives and children, would come to spend the Sabbath days during the summer. There was a legend that circulated in Dereczin, and was handed down from one generation to the next, that the passages of the hill once extended underground from Dereczin to Ruzhany. Both towns once belonged to the Sapiehas. The distance from Dereczin to Ruzhany is about 50km. The legend said that the tunnels were dug as a security measure.

The same legend has it that hundreds of years ago, it pleased the ruling noble of the period to construct a small town around his personal residence. To accomplish this objective, he imported thirty Jewish families from Lithuania, specifically manual tradespeople, such as tailors, builders, carpenters, and artisans, and a select few business people. He provided them with construction materials from his forests, and they built themselves houses. In accordance with his orders, an arcade of stores was constructed in the center of the town, in the form of a three-sided plan (the Hebrew letter Het), and about thirty stores were located in this arcade. Later, he helped to build the large, walled synagogue, where the old cemetery was eventually located to one side. By the end of the nineteenth century, the lettering on some of the stones in the cemetery were so badly eroded, that it was no longer possible to decipher them. It was estimated that this cemetery was about four hundred years old.

From this handful of Jews, brought to reside in Dereczin, grew the population of Jews in the town grew to a size where it numbered about three thousand souls prior to its destruction [in the Holocaust].

It was often told in Dereczin, that the two-story house at the head of the Zelva & Slonim Gasse, was especially built at the capricious whim of one of the Sapiehas, who was dissatisfied with the view from the windows of his palace, at the head of the Deutsche Gasse, and at the end of Zelva Gasse, of two streets stretching in a straight line from one end of the town to the other, cutting through the marketplace. Zelva Gasse was the only street where a majority of the population were Catholic Christians, Mieszczanii, interspersed with a few Jewish households.

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I etched the stories and legends, as well as the raw facts about the olden times of the Jewish community of Dereczin, into my memory from the days when I studies the Gemara[5] with the oldest of the Dereczin Rabbis, Rabbi David Chaim Shmeuns, a true Jewish scholar, who at the end of the nineteenth century was already a man in his eighties. He would tell us, his students, all manner of things that he had heard from his grandfather, and that were handed down from generation to generation. A portion of his storytelling can be corroborated in the scarce documents and works of historians.

The first Lithuanian Jews, practical folk people, who, in time were able to provide for their material well-being either through their own labor, or through trade and commerce, also concerned themselves with the spiritual nurturing of their children. That is how the Talmud Torah came to be build, housed in the structure between the synagogue and the old cemetery. Other houses of worship were built, two of stone, and one a wooden structure, as well as a separate synagogue for the tradesmen and laborers, the Hayyat [Schul]. Some of the townspeople sent their children to study at the Yeshiva in Slonim.

For young (sic: unmarried) daughters, the Jews would customarily obtain from far away, sons-in-law, who were scholars and students of the Torah, whom they would financially support for many long years, to afford them the opportunity to pursue their religious scholarship.

It was in this manner, that the study of Torah, and the pursuit of doing good deeds became the hallmark of Jewish family life in Dereczin. The town shone with its renown Rabbis, Gaonim,[6] and great scholars during all the years of its existence.

 

The Rabbis of Dereczin

Our memory teems with the names of prominent Rabbis, from olden times, from the past four hundred years, which Dereczin took pride in, and from which it obtained a reputation:

Rabbi Eli' Chaim Meizel, of sainted memory, who later became the Rabbi of Lodz[7];
Rabbi Joseph (Yosseleh) Shluffer, who became Rabbi of Slonim;
Rabbi Sholom Ber, who became the Rabbi of Kletsk;
Rabbi Joseph Zundel, Rabbi of Eishyshok;[8]
Rabbi Leib Bialyblatzky, Rabbi of Luneh, and who passed away in Dereczin;
Rabbi Plotkin, who became the Rabbi of Smargan;
And the last, Rabbi [Zvi-Hirsch] Bakalchuk, who was killed by the Nazi murderers, along with the remainder of the Jewish community.

All of the aforementioned rabbis occupied positions of great respect in the rabbinical community.

The procedure of selecting a rabbi used to involve the entire community, especially the leadership. Knowledgeable members of the community leadership would travel to become familiar with the available candidates, and those that stood out as being more accomplished were invited to give several sermons either in the large main synagogues, or some of the other houses of worship. All of Dereczin, merchants, storekeepers, workers and

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laborers (who in the daily idiom were called “the mass”), lock, stock and barrel, would come to hear these sermons, and took an active part in the process of voting for the final candidate. The selected rabbi was then received with a big parade, and after the execution of the rabbinical contract, there usually ensued rather extensive celebrations.

The following characteristically rabbinic story about Rabbi Sholom Ber is told by his grandson, Eliyahu Herenson, the son-in-law of Rabbi Joseph Rabinovich, who lived in Dereczin for the longest time, and has lived in Israel since 1932: Rabbi Sholom Ber was a great scholar and wise man, and in addition was renown as a unique Baal-Tefilah (leader of religious services, perhaps a Cantor). He would always lead prayer services during holidays, and was greatly beloved in Dereczin.

In those days, each town used to also retain a Cantor, who had to be proficient as a ritual slaughterer as well. Rabbi Sholom Ber, as an expert cantor himself, did not permit a slaughterer to be retained who could also perform as a cantor. He did not accept remuneration for leading services during the High Holy Days, but over a number of years, he caused the stipend to be applied to build out the rabbinical residence which was on the Schulhof, and which served for many years as the Bet Din (religious law court).

One time, the community voted to retain a cantor who would also serve as ritual slaughterer -- against the will of the Rabbi. This irritated the Rabbi greatly. As luck would have it, at that precise time, a delegation of Jewish townsfolk from Kletsk arrived, and offered Rabbi Sholom Ber the pulpit in their town. As he was in a state of anger with the town, which retained a cantor/ritual slaughterer without consulting him, Rabbi Sholom Ber accepted the offer, and left to go to Kletsk.

Later, after the death of Rabbi Leib Luner, there was a desire to appoint Rabbi Sholom Ber's son, Rabbi Chaim Shimon (the father of Eliyahu Herenson), but as it transpired, Rabbi Sholom Ber himself passed away in Kletsk, and Rabbi Chaim Shimon left for Kletsk to take his father's place.

One of the last of the [Dereczin] Rabbis, Rabbi Plotkin, took the Rabbinate [of Dereczin] after the death of Rabbi Leib Bialyblatzky, called Rabbi Leib Luner. Rabbi Plotkin had a broad network of contacts in the higher echelons of Polish society, and when Dereczin went over to Poland, the one time Polish foreign Minister, Sapieha, great grandson of the Dereczin Sapieha dynasty founder, upon finding out that the former family residence of his grandfather was being used by Rabbi Plotkin as a Rabbinical Residence, summoned him to Warsaw, and sent him as a delegate to America to negotiate for financial assistance on behalf of the new-born Polish regime.

During the time of the first Polish occupation, from which Dereczin Jews suffered much misfortune, Rabbi Plotkin used his connections and authority to rescue certain young people from arrest and punishment. A story is well-known of a young girl from Pinsk, who was accused of spying for the communists, and was sentenced to death. Rabbi Plotkin put all of his authority on the line, and personally travelled to the prison in Slonim, and rescued the innocent, wrongly-accused girl, guaranteeing to the higher authorities that he -personally-- was certain of her innocence.

The Rabbis were much more than religious leaders of their community. In olden times, the Rabbi was the leader of the community, both internally and externally. He not only passed judgement on matters pertaining to kashrut, but also ruled on a wide variety of matters arising in disputes between the Jewish residents, [he was] the spiritual leader, and the one who provided oversight for the religious schooling [of the children]. He would teach the Talmud to the qualified youth and the Club of men who studied Talmud regularly (i.e., the Chevra Shas), giving appropriate sermons in the various houses of worship, and causing his spiritual force to be an influence over all aspects of Jewish life.

The salary of the Rabbis was very meager, and they would supplement their income with sales of yeast for Sabbath Challah and candles. It was the Rabbi's wife, the Rebbetzin, who was concerned with these matters, because the Rabbis themselves were preoccupied with scholarly pursuits, and dealing with community matters.

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Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Jewish community of Dereczin was administered by a system of rotating “Monthly Magistrates.” [The town] would select twelve respectable townsmen, each of which would serve [as an executive] for a month. The “magistrates” dealt with all manner of community issues, and also had the right to impose punishment on a guilty Jewish resident, to the point of holding him in “arrest” chained to a post in the corner of the Great Synagogue.

The Rabbis did not confine their judging to disputes among only Jews. More than once, Christians who had serious monetary disputes with Jews, would decline to use the court system of the land, preferring to come to the Rabbi of the Jewish community. In most cases, they were quite satisfied with the rulings handed down by the Rabbis in these situations.

The nobility, in the Dereczin environs, who used to plant specially set-aside fields with wheat to be used for the shmura matzoh on Passover, customarily would invite the Rabbi into the fields, in order to assure that the necessary work was conducted under his oversight, and that all matters would be carried out within the letter and spirit of Jewish law. A few of the nobility would also send the Rabbi donations, for Maot Chittim,[9] potatoes, assorted vegetables, to be divided among those needy members of the Jewish community for the holiday. The noble landowner of Alexandra, an estate near Dereczin, on every Yom Kippur Eve, would send in a few large bales of straw (hay?) and spread it out in the Schulhof. The children would then come, and each of them would gather up some of it, and carry it to their father's house of worship, spreading it on the floor, so it will ease the burden of the worshipers who would be standing for the entire next day in their stockinged feet without shoes on.

 

The Bet-HaMidrash – A Spiritual Center

The synagogue and houses of learning became concentrated on the Schulhof. There stood the large stone-walled synagogue, two similarly walled study houses, and one wooden study house -- this last being the property of the Burial Society. In the foyer of the wooden study house, stood the planks on which the dead would be carried out. To this day, I can recall the fright we used to experience as youngsters about going into the wooden study house, because of these planks.

The study houses, in those olden times, served as spiritual centers, and focal points for the gathering of the entire Jewish population. Apart from the fact that almost all the Jews of the town, and their children, would come to pray three times daily -Shacharit, Mincha, and Maariv, -- tens of students, native and from out of town, and many sons-in-law, who were supported by their wive's parents, studied the Gemara, all day long there. These self-same students would eat “days[10]” with the local residents. Every Jew, whether poor or rich, accepted it as a good deed --a mitzvah -- and a privilege, to provide such a student with a meal of food and drink, or several such meals, during a week. This is how we dealt with the poorer Talmud-Torah students who came to us from surrounding towns and villages -- they would obtain a place to sleep from the native Jewish residents, and also food to eat without any charge. Jews held that they were responsible not only to have the Torah taught to their own children, but also to provide for those children who want to learn, but [whose parents] could not afford to obtain the services of a Rabbi-teacher for cash. Do understand that there were those among these youngsters who would take meals in two homes. The Jewish community knew about this, but it didn't raise any concern. Jewish mothers used to say: let a poor Jewish child enjoy himself, perhaps he remained hungry from another of his “days.” Pious Jewish women, and they constituted the majority in those days in Dereczin, considered it the greatest mitzvah to provide food for a poor Jewish child to eat, in order that he be able to pursue the study of Torah.

The study houses were also centers for initiatives aimed at helping the itinerant Jewish needy, who would often come into Dereczin for the Sabbath, or

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a place for itinerant preachers who used to come to give sermons -- all of these were provided with lodging and food, along with the cadre of students and yeshiva scholars. The praying members of the congregation would always take such an individual home as a guest for the Sabbath, and there was never an occasion where someone was left without a place to [go and] eat. There was always a worshiper to look after such an individual.

There was also a military garrison stationed in Dereczin, stationed at the former palaces of the Sapiehas. There were always 20 to 30 Jewish soldiers in the garrison. The circumstance of the times was such, that the Rabbi would work out an arrangement with the military command to give leave to the Jewish soldiers on the Sabbath. Then, they would attend synagogue, and be able to eat in the home of a Jewish family. It was a special mitzvah, and honor, to be able to host a Jewish soldier for the Sabbath.

In those days, before libraries were established, and also newspapers appeared rarely, the study houses served as centers of culture. In the winter season, during the cold months, various craftsmen, small business people, and laborers would gather there at nightfall after work. They used to stretch themselves out on the warm, long lezhankas[11], and those who could, would study a page of the Gemara, and others -- a chapter of the Mishnah. Those less gifted in scholarship would recite a chapter from the Psalms [of David], and afterwards, all would carry on a conversation about all sorts of civil and communal issues, and also listen to all sorts of news that may have been brought from whatever area.

Every study house was built in the following manner: in the center, surrounding the Bimah, was a large podium, and around it were long benches -these were the lezhankas. In the winter, they served as warm sitting places, and in the twilight hours, between Mincha and Maariv, it was sort of a folk club for the general public. The students would sleep on the lezhankas during the wintertime if they had no warm lodging elsewhere in town, as well as wandering and lost paupers who chanced to arrive in town late at night, and had no other place where to spend the night.

It was in the hours between Mincha & Maariv that the itinerant preachers [sic: Maggidim] would hold forth with their rousing sermons on all manner of religious themes, always touching on general problems in Jewish life in the larger sphere of communal existence.

Almost every such study house had its club for the study of the Talmud [sic: Chevra Shas], and its adherents would come together every evening to study a page of the Gemara. They would come after a hard day's work, because they were all laborers, smiths, tailors, shoemakers, weavers and storekeepers: they were all good and tired, but in the study house, they took pleasure to sit and listen to the discourse over the Law, to learn a little themselves, and to carry on a conversation with others [like themselves]. These were hours of tranquillity that they could find in only one place -in the study house. There they befriended other Jews, expressed what was of concern to them personally, and listened to the troubles that others had, taking comfort and solace from the soothing words of other sympathizers. This was the way the study house became the physical and spiritual resting place for the Jews of the town. I remember to this day, those evenings in the “New Building” where I would come to study every evening with the Chevra Shas, and after that, studying the Talmud with the aged Rabbi, Reb David Chaim Shmeuns, a Jew who was a formidable scholar and God-fearing individual. Many townsfolk would come there to study in the evening, among them tradespeople and craftsmen of every kind. When we concluded the study of a volume of the Talmud, we would have a great feast at the home of Reb Areh [sic: Aharon] Menzheh's. We would eat and drink, dance and make merry until late at night.

The study house provided the continuity for the Jewish people to remain the “People of the Book.”

It was in the study houses that the entire communal life was concentrated. It was there that [public] assemblies took place to discuss various issues; it was during one such meeting that a Bikur Cholim

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Society[12] was established, and a practical program was also worked out as to how each and every one of the members would visit and attend someone who was seriously ill; it was there that the Hekdesh, or “guest house” was [also] established, where various poor people, or itinerant preachers would have a place to spend the night without charge. The town also had a communal bath, with an attached mikvah, naturally, which were located on the same street as the “Guest House,” not far from the small river, Shihpeh. It was during these town meetings at the study houses that decisions were taken regarding all manner of town affairs.

In between the study houses, there was also to be found a shtibl[13] of the Lubavitcher sect, with several tens of adherents [of that movement].

Apart from being the center for both the social initiatives and [the resolution of] communal issues, the study house was the center of Jewish belief, in all the concepts with which the Torah is imbued, as well as the religious and ethical writings of the Jewish people. It was there, that the solidarity of the Jewish community became cemented; it was there that belief in miracles that would lead to the liberation of World Jewry were nurtured, there hope for a better future was strengthened, and there, Jews sat and studied, and dreamt of the coming of the Messiah, and of the Redemption that would come for all the Jewish people.

 

Older Residents Emigrate to the Holy Land

In those years, the last decade of the previous century [sic: nineteenth century], the ideals of modern Zionism were still not well-known, that is, to colonize the Land of Israel. Observant Jews placed their hope in the coming of the messianic era, and believe that only a Messiah would lead them out of exile and return them to the Land of Israel.

But even at that time, at the end of the nineteenth century, there were a few older Jewish folk who emigrated to the Land of Israel from Dereczin. Naturally, they were not making this journey to undertake building the land, but rather to live out their final years, and be assured of interment in the soil of the Holy Land, in order that when the Messiah comes, and the dead are raised to join the living, that their bones would not have to roll all the way to the Land of Israel…

Over a hundred years ago, Reb Ber, the father-in-law of Rabbi Moshe Rabinovich (the founder of the well-branched Rabinovich family), a fellow townsman from Dereczin, left to go to the Land of Israel with [a family of] eight sons and four daughters, all born and raised in Dereczin. From these twelve children, the son of Rabbi Moshe, Rabbi Aryeh-Leib Rabinovich [also] went to Israel in later life, and he was accompanied by several other Dereczin townspeople, among which were, Reb Ahareh Menzhe's, Reb Avreml Henia's, and Reb Itcheh Elateh's, the sexton of the “New Synagogue,” and a number of other elderly Jews.

 

The Old and New Cemeteries

The ‘old’ cemetery, it appears, was in Dereczin from the first time that Jews settled there. Its headstones were already sunken in the ground and overgrown with old moss [presumably at the time the author saw them - Ed]. It was practically impossible, already, to read the lettering that had been carved into them. When it was first established, hundreds of years ago, it understandably lacked access from the residential streets, but we recall it sitting in the middle of the Schulhof, adjacent to the wall of the stone-wall constructed synagogue, not far from the Talmud Torah and the Bet-Din building. The “newer” [sic: contemporary] cemetery, was on the way to Zelva, and further from town. It was opened for use in the early part of the 19th century, and was surrounded by a stone wall. Towards the end of the 19th century, due to the generosity of the tenant farmer of the Alexandra estate, Reb Moshe Maleticher, donated before his death, a larger sum of money in order to build up [sic: enhance?] the stone-walled perimeter wall [of the cemetery].

It was the Chevra Kadisha that concerned itself with burial of the dead. This work was performed

[Page 12]

voluntarily by noteworthy townspeople, members of the Chevra Kadisha, who even had their own study house close to the old cemetery. The support of the cemeteries and payment for the grave diggers was covered by burial funds that the Chevra Kadisha raised from the families of the deceased. The process of raising burial funds often caused incidents to break out, since it was the custom to request larger sums from those individuals thought to be capable of giving, but had not been particularly generous during their lifetime. In the end, an understanding was reached with the family of the deceased, and life in the town would return to its normal quiet course, after having been roiled up over a burial fee incident.

The entire town of Dereczin would participate in a funeral. The more prominent among the deceased would be carried all the way to the cemetery; while folk of more modest stature would be taken there by wagon. It was on the Schulhof that the deceased would be eulogized, and from there the funeral cortėge would wend its long way to the cemetery.

 

Town Leadership

As told [to us] by the older people, by the middle of the 19th century, oversight for all community matters was handled by a rotating system of monthly “magistrates” that is, twelve selected leaders, each of whom served a specified one-month term during the year. They were also recognized by the Russian authorities as spokesmen for the [official] point of view concerning Jewish life in the town.

Those were the years of the [infamous] forced conscription ukase[14]. Annually, each Jewish community was required to provide a quota of young boys between 8 and 10 years of age, who were taken away by the Czarist authorities for mandatory army service of 25 years, deep in the Russian heartland, in order that they develop into soldiers loyal to the Czar. They were called “Nikolai's Soldiers.”

Needless to say, this gave rise to many injustices.

The magistrates were from the more substantial families in town, and they conducted [these] community affairs with a firm hand. Kidnappers[15] would forcibly take the children of poor people and put them in the hands of the Czarist ruling authority. There were instances where children were bought for money from poor parents. The first victims were usually the orphans. Very few of the children remained true to their Jewish faith after spending 25 years living deep in Russia among gentiles. Only a very few would return home after performing this service in the Czarist military. It is in this way, that I recall two such “Nikolai Soldiers” who lived with us in Dereczin -- Gershon, “The Greek,” and Shamurka. The first one used to stand with a gaming table at the marketplace, and also served as an armed guard; the second served as a hired crier for Russian merchants, who every Sunday would walk the streets and announce the schedule for the sale of pigs at the marketplace. They both were estranged from Judaism, but nevertheless they retained their Jewish identity. The greater part of “Nikolai's Soldiers” were lost, or settled deep in Russia, in white Siberia, because as a consideration for their service, they had the right to live anywhere in Russia that they chose to. For the most part, those who did remain in the distant Russian cities and towns, were good and hearty Jews, and those that prospered were generous in offering support to their Jewish brethren.

 

Starostas[16]

Later, in the second half of the 19th century, and in the beginning of the 20th century, we find in the Jewish towns within the Pale of Settlement, and also in Dereczin, the Starostas, who were the representatives of the Jewish community to the various organs of the Czarist government.

For an extensive period, the Starostas of Dereczin was the eminent townsman named Jacob Shayeh's. I can still recall his children -- skilled and intelligent young people (their house was later occupied by the

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Alper family, which we know).

After Jacob Shaya's, the popular grain merchant, Leib, the son of Moshe Rabinovich was selected as Starosta towards the end of the previous [sic: nineteenth] century. He was selected against his own will, and he appointed Sholom Mansky, the son-in-law of Reb Jacob Rabinovich, as his secretary. After his official term of two years as Starosta, Reb Leibeh, Moshe's resigned the position, and Sholom Mansky became Starosta. He served until the year 1915, until the time that the Germans captured Dereczin during the First World War.

Mansky was a skilled and able representative of the interests of the Jewish community before the Russian authorities. He conducted his work with much common sense and tact, and not only once was able to assist Jews who found themselves in trouble.

The objective of the Starostas was to carry out the family-mission for the town community, providing passport documentation for each citizen, carrying out a formal military registration of the town youth who had to report for military service at age 21, to order with designated Jewish merchants the provisioning of kosher meat, for which a special price was a charged in order to defray the costs associated with government levies against the Jewish community.

Yet another special task that the Starostas had to perform was in the time of the priziv, that is, the time when he had to present the roster of drafteligible young men in the regional town [headquarters] at Slonim. Usually, and understandably, these were sad and tragic days for the Jewish families, who used to stretch out their farewells with their designated children -- young Jewish boys, raised in a traditional Jewish lifestyle, with no knowledge of Russian language, limited in their rights as citizens, “stepchildren” of “Great Mother Russia,”-- who went away to serve the Czar someplace far from home for three whole years and eight months. And there, they were in a strange and hostile atmosphere, being unable to lower themselves to the lowest common denominator. It is no wonder that this parting was a tragedy not only for the sons, but also for their parents, sisters and brothers.

Jews, therefore, demanded of the Starostas that they research all forms of combinations [sic: stratagems] by which it might be possible to avoid military conscription. Gentiles would accuse the Jews of being disloyal citizenry, cowardly, and being frightened of military service, etc. -- but the deep and true reason why they wanted to avoid military service for the Czar, was the feeling of Jews that they were treated as citizens of a lower rank, having no right to live outside the Jewish Pale of Settlement, being pursued and harassed by the decrees of anti-Semitic rulers -- why, and for whom, should they give up years and personal energies in military pursuits?

Consequently, it was common to inflict a variety of bodily injuries [to create defects], in order to be discharged from the priziv. Or, one would emigrate over the ocean, to distant lands, despite the fact that the family would have to pay a penalty of 300 rubles. There were many other stratagems that were used to free oneself from having to serve the Czar.

Many of these things, and the efforts they entailed, were carried out by the Starostas, and Sholom Mansky was their designee, as the representative of the Jewish community to the Czarist authorities.

 

How Jews Made a Living

There were three principal thoroughfares in Dereczin -- the Deutsche Gasse, Zelver Gasse, and Slonimer Gasse. The market square was in the middle of the town.

These streets, and the market, were inhabited mainly by self-employed people, jobbers, storekeepers, saloon keepers. In the center were also found the store complex, 30 in number.

Grain merchants and millers occupied the first houses on these streets. The farmers from the surrounding hamlets used to immediately sell their grain produce to the Jewish jobbers on arrival in town on the market days.

The storekeepers from the complex would service the entire Christian community of tens of little

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towns, and the landed estates of the nobility, with a wide variety of merchandise. On market days, the saloon keepers would earn quite a bit from the farmers for a variety of [strong] drink.

There was a significant number of craftsmen in Dereczin, such as bakers, shoemakers, tailors, bottlers, carpenters, artists, milliners, and laborers. We also had a few tanneries.

Tuesday was the official market day. Thousands of Christians form the environs would arrive, binging their produce, along with their wives and children, and bring grain, fruits, eggs, chickens, and other products of the barn, nest, garden and field.

The Jewish craftsmen would lay out their products and handiwork lengthwise along the market square. First, the farmers would sell their produce, and then they would come to buy those things that they needed for their house or work.

From those years, I recollect only one Russian jobber, who came to the market days with a large platform covered with all sorts of merchandise. And also among this, religious articles such as crucifixes, prayer books, etc.

Sundays were a day of business for those many farmers who came from the surrounding towns to go to church, and thereby permitted themselves the opportunity to go out and make purchases and to have a little to drink “in honor of Sunday.” Strictly speaking, it was not permitted to do business on Sundays, but the Jews had an “understanding” with the single constable in town, who also needed to “make a living”….

It was often the case that the farmers would get drunk and create a scene. Before journeying back to their hamlets, young non-Jews would fall upon the bakery establishments, and grab bagels, rolls, and cakes. But the Dereczin constable was always on duty, watching, and calmed down the hot-headed perpetrators.

This is the way Jews in Dereczin derived sustenance from trade and labor. Constantly working, constantly fretting, and exhausting themselves in order to make a living. But Jews didn't think only about eating and a roof over their heads -- they also reared and raised children, sent them to be educated by teachers in yeshivas, and later also in the gymnasiums. In former years, Jews were in the habit of subsidizing their sons-in-law, in order that they should devote themselves to [sic: religious] scholarship. Jews gave charity for the poor, fed orphans, yeshiva students, visitors, organized holidays, celebrated happy occasions -- with one consideration: lead a Jewish family life; seize every free moment to hear, or study a page of the Gemara, a bit of the Shas; a little of Ein Yaakov[17]; etc. One groaned, and belly-ached, one asked of the Master of the Universe that the Final Redemption come, and hoped for the arrival of the Messianic Era.

 

Settlers

A separate chapter [of history] is put forth about the settlers that lived in and around our town.

Around Dereczin, there were tens of tiny hamlets and the estates of landed aristocracy. Between two and three Jewish families were to be found in almost every one of these places, who held a kretchma[18] as a grant, inherited from their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers. In the [early] times described, Jews were invited to settle in these hamlets, and only those who took over specific undertakings from their parents, were able through protection [e.g. of the ruling classes] to work out rights of residence in the hamlet, and that passed down as an asset from father to children.

These settlers had their gardens and orchards around their homes, with vegetables and fruits, but their principal source of income came from trade with the peasantry. They were typically the only merchants in the town, and they especially took up the sale of alcoholic beverages. Little by little, they diversified their trade, and sold other products to the peasants, that were needed in the house, and for agricultural labor, such as oil, axle grease for wheels, matches, salt, tobacco, etc. For his own field work and commercial activities, the settler had a horse and

[Page 15]

wagon. Also, each settler [typically] had a couple of cows, and raised chickens.

The kretchma, a large house, was a place that the peasants would gather, a place where they would get together in the evenings, drink on credit, and the peasant could pay off his debts after the cutting, reaping of the wheat from the fields, and the harvesting of vegetables from the gardens. It was in this manner that the kretchma became a necessary source of credit to the peasant.

They would come to drink a little whiskey, talk with their neighbors and the saloon keeper, discuss a variety of town issues and questions, and find out when and where a great fair would take place. Insofar as any news of world-level significance, they would rely on the owner of the kretchma, the Jew, who invariably knew more of what was going on in the world at-large than the peasants. Even when it came to matters in the gentile world, the Jew was typically better informed than the peasant.

One should not forget, that in those years towards the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the Byelorussian peasantry was almost one hundred percent illiterate, led a poor and primitive existence, so that the [Jewish] settler, was in their eyes, a “formidable” individual, and therefore they concluded that he was wise and all-knowing. They related to him with respect and friendship -- except for those instances when an anti-Semite, a priest or an instigator of a pogrom, would tell them once, and then again, that the Jews killed Jesus.

There were instances when a settler would deceive an unwitting peasant. The few instances of this kind would besmirch the reputation of all Jews in the eyes of the peasantry. By and large, these settlers were good people, Jews who adhered to their faith, observing the mitzvot, and a number of them were scholarly as well. Not only once, were there times when a learned settler would expound to the peasants on something from the Gemara. Often, the peasants would bring disputes that arose between them to the settler, and the Jew would find a compromise, thereby bringing an end to the conflict. It was in this manner that the settler occupied a unique niche in his little town, and the peasants had respect for him.

Most of the time, settlers were referred to according to the town that they came from, and this nomenclature was handed down from one generation to the next: Moshe Daraliner, Yoshe Milevitcher, Mordechai-Binyamin Natzkever, Moshe-Jekuthiel Vanilevitcher, Avraham-Yaakov Lantzevitzer, Zelik Mankevitcher, Alter Mikhuisker, Leizer Krupever, Zelik Ostrover, Shachna Ostrover, Berel Falizhiner, Israel Uriner, Shmuel Labzovner, Yitzhhak Alekshitzer, Binyamin Rabever, Yochanan Zolotsheyever, Zalman Repnitsher, Herschel Korolevitcher, Chaim Halubiver, Shimon Zamoscher, Shapiro der Kleinvolyer, and many others.

Two towns were not far from Dereczin: Volya[19] and Shchara, in which the transport of forest products from the Shchara [River] to the Neman [River] had become concentrated. A goodly number of Jewish families lived in both of these towns, who dealt in the forest products business, and surrounding them there lived hundreds of peasants, in the surrounding towns, who brought the logs from the forests to the river, and then driving the lumber rafts down the water.

As a result, in Volya lived Litman Ohreh's extensive family, Simcha Rabinovich and the children; in Klein-Volya [sic: Little Volya]-- the Shpiras [Shapiros?]; in Shchara -- Zalman Shcharer, Leibeh Shtein, Simcha-David. In the three towns, hundreds of Jewish merchants would gather during the summer, as well as the representatives of the German companies who would buy the lumber from the Jews, which afterward was transported by way of the Shchara and Neman [Rivers] to [the port city of] Memel. There, in those years, the distinguished forest product merchants, Noah Yosselevitch, the Chaikin brothers, and others were well-known.

All the settlers, rich and poor, adhered to their Jewish tradition in those years. Several neighboring settlers would have a minyan for Sabbath services using a Torah scroll that they owned. The larger

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part of the settlers had teachers for their children, and those that lived close enough to Dereczin sent their children to school in town.

The more prosperous of the settlers allowed themselves the luxury of having a Torah scholar as a son-in-law, and provided him with continuous support over many years, to enable him to remain in the small town and pursue his scholarship.

The settler families produced Rabbis and Emissaries. The renown Hebrew writer, Bershadsky was a son of Shimon Zamoscher, Domashevitzky, Shimon himself being a well-educated Jew, and a wise person. A second son of his was well-known as a mathematician, and was retained by the Russians as a land surveyor.

A son of Yoshe Milevitcher became the Rabbi of Memel. Mordechai-Binyamin Novick, from Natzkev, had grandchildren who were teachers -- one of them, Hannah Novick, was a teacher for many years in the school system of the National Labor Farband in the USA, and was popular among the Jewish intelligentsia in New York.

The settlers also produced well-known industrialists and forest product merchants.

In general, the homes of the settlers were wide open to guests, itinerant scholars, and Jews in general. Everyone, through the [kindness of the ] settler and his family, was taken care of, and was provided with food, drink and a night's lodging. Itinerant paupers and laborers, who worked in the surrounding towns, always found a warm home [sic: refuge] with the settler's family.

Miscellaneous sextons and religious functionaries would come to visit the settlers from time-to-time, in order to collect contributions for a variety of charitable causes. For the holidays, especially the High Holy days, settlers would come to town, and celebrate the occasion either with relatives or friends.

It was in this manner that the settler was connected to his hamlet and peasants on one side -- and to the town and its Jews on the other; from the hamlet, he had his secular life, his livelihood, and from the town -- his spirituality, his spiritual satisfaction, and his sense of security in a world to come.

 

Tenant Farming[20] & Jobbing

As was the case with the settlers, the tenant farmers and jobbers also occupied a respected position in the eyes of Jews and Christians.

On almost every nobleman's estate, one could find a Jewish jobber in his employ. He [the jobber] would buy the nobleman's entire milk production, and produce butter, cheese and other [dairy] products. Most often, the jobber, or “factor” would be allocated a house with a yard on the landlord's estate, or not far from it, and together with his wife and children, would produce the various dairy products, especially all manner of cheeses, and sell them in the city, or send them for export. The majority of these jobbers lived on their property much in the same pattern of inheritance as the settlers. The right was passed down from a father to his children.

The jobbers were in good standing with their bosses, the landowners. They made a good living, and retained good teachers for their children. They were the constant intermediaries between the noble, and the merchants of Dereczin and the workmen with whom the landowner needed to do business. The jobbers would recommend a variety of Jewish tradespeople to the nobleman, for whom he had a need, bringing him butchers, and grain merchants, who would purchase from him cows, calves, or grain.

The nobleman, from his part, whether Russian or Polish, treated his jobber/factor as a trusted advisor, with whom he would consult on a wide variety of issues.

There were also Jewish tenant farmers who would rent land and gardens from the nobility for a number of years, for which they would pay an annual rental.

There were nobles who took on government and

[Page 17]

military personnel, and ordinary Polish people, who were not particularly skilled in managing their parcels, and thereby suffered chronic deficits. The Jewish tenant farmers generally managed their parcels well, and were able to extract sustenance from their land for themselves, and other dependents of the nobles. The Jewish farmer used to keep a number of cows, and used their manure to fertilize the less fertile fields, and was able to reap good crops of grain. There were tenant farmers who built mills on the land holdings of the nobility, and weaving facilities from which they were able to manufacture finished woollen goods.

In this manner, the Jewish tenant farmers dominated the noble land holdings, and aligned their skills and energies with the needs of the market, and the surrounding Jewish and peasant populations.

 

Jewish Initiative

If one wishes to summarize the totality of the various Jewish occupations in Dereczin and its environs, one can from the outset establish that there were significant Jewish occupations in the branches of commerce and labor. But if one researches the local industry, and its development over a long period of time, it becomes immediately clear that only the Jewish initiative contributed to the development of Dereczin and the surrounding area, in all branches of production and commerce.

Limited in their [civil] rights, and opportunities for all manner of secular education, and access to the educational institutions of the [Russian] Empire, as well as rights to live in large parts of the Russian homeland, always under the despotic rule of the Czarist monarchy – the Jews nevertheless managed to build cities and towns, were skilled craftsmen and workers, initiating industrious undertakings, developing many branches of industry and commerce. Although the law forbade them from engaging in tilling the soil, they were able to find ways, both direct and indirect, to engage in this work as well, and demonstrated their initiative and skills in this line of endeavor as well.

Thanks to the energies of the Jews, Dereczin was built out, along with its community life, its institutions, with its industrial role for its environs.

Jews helped a great deal in the development of the peasant population.

[It was the] Jews who developed markets for the entire production of the surrounding villages, whether the produce of the peasantry, or that of the landed estates. Almost the entire production of consumables, grain, vegetables, lumber, the output of mills, weaving, factories – was in Jewish hands.

A small town like Dereczin, with its couple of hundred Jewish families, serviced the entire area with its tens of thousands of peasants, hundreds of nobles, and provided them with a greater part of their needs. Jewish craftsmen and laborers, shoemakers, tailors, construction workers, blacksmiths, etc., used to go on the road for weeks at a time, to the villages, and carry out all the necessary work needed in those villages, and also in the estates of the nobility. Over the course of hundreds of years, close ties were forged between Christians and Jews in our area. Quite often, even a peasant would immediately know which work he could bring to a Jewish craftsman, who would then carry out that specific work.

When nobody would incite or instigate the White Russian peasantry [sic: to riot, or pogroms], these peasants would conduct themselves in a friendly fashion to the Jews, with whom they shared a great deal in common.

However, it was a little different with the landed nobility. In general, each nobleman had his coterie of Jewish merchants and craftsmen, and he got along well with them. But, anti-Semitism was deeply rooted in the nobility, almost like a tradition, where it was necessary to despise the Jew in general, even when it could not be logically justified. It was only his “own Jews” that the nobleman befriended, and he exhibited loyalty to them more so even that to his close Christian friends and allies.

In Dereczin, there was a Christian physician and a Jewish feldscher – the Christians from the villages preferred to be treated by the Jewish feldscher, that is, Shmuel-Moshe Wolfowitz, or his son, Meir-Shia, who were more popular among the villagers than Dr. Nowicki.

[Page 18]

The official Russian authority in those years in Dereczin consisted of a pristav[21] and an uradnik.[22]

The two were the ruling authorities over the life of the Dereczin citizenry. They were big “takers,” and that was helpful in a variety of circumstances. Many [unfavorable] decrees were buried or quietly ignored through many combinations and diversions, aided by these authorities whose “palms had been greased.”

Over the course of generations, Jewish communities developed a skilled readiness and a rapid orientation to respond to all manner of situations, which the Czarist regime would impose with regular frequency, and their experience in mitigating the potential tribulations grew, or they would find the means to minimize the impact of these laws and decrees. And even in the event there was a “bad” official, a mean bailiff, or an anti-Semitic governor, the Dereczin Jews would not become flustered. They would offer prayer to the Almighty, and hope that He would rid them of their angry ruler.

 

The Children Study the Torah

And it was in this fashion, that the Dereczin Jews in those years, and also in later years, toiled for their economic viability, but in doing so, they did not neglect, even for one day, their spiritual lives.

This small-town community had not only the continuing oversight from a permanent Rabbi, [who was also] a scholar and righteous person, who served as the spiritual leader of the Jewish community – but also a goodly number of teachers, in whose classrooms the Jewish children of Dereczin became imbued with the Torah, Yiddishkeit and wisdom.

My childhood memories return to me, yet again. By the time we reached five years of age, we were already under the tutelage of a melamed. We were a group of boys, and we were instructed by Reb Avraham-Chaim, the dardekei-melamed[23] whose classroom was in a side street, in a modest house with a straw roof. He would hold us in class for a whole day, drilling us with ‘kometz-aleph, oh; kometz-beyz, boh,’ etc. The melamed barely earned enough to buy bread and water, but he put his entire life into teaching the children. It was with him that we learned the Hebrew language.

After studying with the dardekei-melamed, we studied Pentateuch with Rashi commentaries [in the class of] Reb Alter Deikhess. After a couple of years of studying Chumash,[24] we went over to the class run by Reb Shlomo the Kazianer[25] Rabbi. Apart from scholarship, Reb Shlomo, who counted himself to be fluent in Russian, also was the bookkeeper for the Dereczin Jews. In his class, we already learned Tanach,[26] and a little Gemara. In this class, we also studied for two years, and from there, advanced to more intense study of the Gemara, with the likes of Rabbi Velvel Meitess, a Jewish scholar with rabbinic ordination, Reb Avraham Yitzhak-Meir, Reb David-Chaim Shmeuns, and a variety of other teachers.

In all these classrooms, children studied from early in the morning until dusk, and in the wintertime, in the evenings as well. The teachers used to impress Torah study and common sense into the children, inculcating them with the understanding that a Jew has to have the capacity to learn, be pious and righteous, have respect for their elders, and have a love for their own people.

The teachers, on the Sabbath Day, would visit the parents of their students, and over a Saturday glass of tea, poured from the lyak,[27] they would examine their pupils, to see whether they had retained what they had learned during the entire week.

Apart from the Melamdim,[28] Rabbis, and their

[Page 19]

respective classrooms, by the end of the 19th century, there were already in Dereczin specific teachers who taught the children Hebrew, Yiddish, and a little Russian. More that the others, I recollect from those years, Dokhkeh der Schreiber,[29] a teacher with a magnificent penmanship, and he really taught the children fine penmanship. From some faraway location, a teacher named Razvilovsky came to Dereczin, who subsequently directed a school in Warsaw.

In time, the more general [sic: formal] school was founded by the outstanding teacher and pedagogue, Avraham (Avrohmeh) der Mikhoisker. This was a school with a more modern approach to the teaching of the Tanach and Hebrew language, and it was from here that the beginning of the infusion of the Haskalah[30] was initiated among Dereczin's youth.

In those years, a couple of young teachers also appeared from the Vilna community, who undertook to teach Jewish children the Russian language.

But these new influxes of learning, the Haskalah, and the study of Russian, were in those years only available to the more well-to-do children who came from families of economic substance. Needless to say, the children who came from families of lesser means, craftsmen, laborers, or just plain paupers, obtained their instruction in the Talmud Torahs or from teachers who charged a lesser amount for their instruction.

One has to recall, that in those years in Dereczin, as was the case in all cities and towns in the Pale, a distinct dividing line existed between the homeowners and “people of worth,” and the general masses, those of lesser economic status. The balebatim, lived on the nicer streets and in the better houses, and in the houses of worship, they took possession of the better seats, near the Ark, and they used to be called for the more “prestigious” readings of the Torah on the Sabbath. When there were community meetings, the balebatim would be seated around the long table, while the rest of the hoi polloi, Jews of more simple means, would just stand around.

Indeed, the children from these “better families,” used to be embarrassed to associate with the children of poorer families, and in those years those were two different worlds, with a tangibly visible difference in class.

This age-old distinction began to break down first at the end of the nineteenth century, and the beginning of the twentieth, when new, fresh winds began to blow in the Jewish streets and in the larger broadened Russian land.

It took several years until the new thinking, the ideas behind socialism, reached the smaller towns and cities, among them also Dereczin.

A new, modern era then opened up in the lives of Dereczin youth.

 

Translator's Footnotes
  1. The verst is a Russian measure of distance. Return
  2. The Sapieha (or Sophia) family is an ancient White Russian-Lithuanian noble family that traces its origins to 1413, in Smolensk, and Polock. Return
  3. Roman Catholic spiritual leader with temporal powers as well. Return
  4. An Eastern European title of authority Return
  5. The Talmud and its commentaries. Return
  6. A title accorded a scholar of exceptional intellectual capacity. Return
  7. Later text indicates that the full first name is Eliyahu. Wrote a letter of praise in support of Beyt Yehoshua, the second book authored by Rabbi Yehoshua Freidin, Rabbi of Ozernitsa, son of Tanhum Yitzhak Freidin of Zelva. At that time, he was Rabbi of Pruzhany (birthplace of the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Rav). Return
  8. Rabbi Yossef Zundl Hutner (1844? 46? 1919). See Yaffa Sonenson Eliach's landmark history of Eishyshok, There Once Was A World. Return
  9. Charitable sustenance distributed to the needy for the Passover holiday. Return
  10. Taking donated meals on a rotating basis. Called essen teg in Yiddish. Return
  11. A low stove, with a bench on it, on which one would recline. Return
  12. A ritual committee whose purpose was to provide assisted visitation to the sick. Return
  13. A small prayer and study house Return
  14. Promulgated by the notoriously anti Semitic Czar, Nicholas I. Return
  15. Called khappers in Yiddish, from the word, “to grab.” Return
  16. Equivalent of a county sheriff Return
  17. A noted Jewish commentary. Return
  18. A large gathering house. Return
  19. Spelled Wola in Polish. We will continue to use the Yiddish rendition, probably close to the Russian pronunciation, unless otherwise dictated by the context. Return
  20. Undertaken as part of a system called the arenda, hence the Yiddish name, arendaren, for these people. Return
  21. A bailiff, or police inspector. Return
  22. A magistrate Return
  23. Elementary Teacher. Return
  24. Hebrew, for the Pentateuch Return
  25. Possibly refers to the Kazan. Return
  26. Hebrew for the complete Holy Writ, including not only Pentateuch, but Prophets and Hagiographica. Return
  27. Presumed, a vessel of sorts. Return
  28. Religious teachers. Return
  29. A writer, or scribe. Return
  30. Jewish Enlightenment. Return

 

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Updated 18 Apr 2022 by LA