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[Page 20]

They Exalted the Name of Dereczin

by Chaim Zvi Miller-Sinai

(Original Language: Hebrew)

Time marches on, and with its passing, incidents come and go in our memories both from private and community life that caused me a terrifying disturbance. There is apparently no refuge from the ravages of time, and since there is no escape from these memories, we cannot ask for respite from the Lord of Forgetfulness. We must therefore be active in taking advantage, yet now, and immediately, the opportunity to enter our memories into this Book about Dereczin, and her Jewish residents. Let this be the solitary monument that will be raised by the remnant that survived from our town, who were privileged to have survived among the living, and from this marker, the coming generations will be able to read about the experiences of its people, and its history over the course of the hundreds of years of its existence.

Our Sages said: “Everything depends on luck, even regarding a Torah scroll in the sanctuary” – one is used for reading on all occasions, and the second sits in the corner, neglected, and is not used for reading. Millions of people are born into anonymity, and their birth is known only to the most immediate members of their family. And they leave this world equally anonymous, as their influence is felt only within the narrow confines of the immediate family. Only those, who were privileged to be people of accomplishment, thanks to their outstanding talent, became well-known, either as great scholars through the important books that they left behind, the discoveries that they made – preserved themselves in the memories of ensuing generations.

And this is the case with the cities and towns, the towns of the Diaspora, in which the bereaved people of Israel dwelt, and in which the Jewish population was eradicated after the Holocaust. For many of them, no trace will remain in [Jewish] folk memory, unless there was one of the following:

  1. A famous individual who was referred to by the people in connection with his city of origin, such as, The Maggid of Dubno, The Rebbe of Gur, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Reb Menashe of Eiliyah. All of these were small towns, and were it not for these noted personages, who knows if anyone would know or hear of them;
  2. By yeshivas of note, who brought [the towns] recognition for many decades, like the Yeshiva of Volozhin, which was a center for the study of Torah for more than a hundred years, the Mirrer Yeshivah, and others, which also were in small towns, but thanks to the yeshivas, who in their time were famous throughout the length and breadth of the land of Russia, would draw [students] from the greatest distances, who came to them to study Holy Writ. And their names have also survived in the folk memory of our people after the destruction of the towns themselves;
  3. Because of scholarly Rabbis, Gaonim, who held pulpits, who during their tenure, published important books, and in the frontispiece of the book, the name of their town appears, and those people who have a fondness for such books, will recall, upon opening such a book, the name of the town from which the author came.
Dereczin belongs to the third of these categories.

There was an extensive period, during which Gaonim of renown resided there, and during their tenure, became well-known through the important scholarly works that were widely studied, and it was because of this, that the Rabbinate of Dereczin was viewed as a prize pulpit, and a young Rabbi who was appointed to that post could harbor expectations of advancement up the ladder of the rabbinate, higher and higher, such as was the case with the Gaon Eliyahu Chaim Meizel, who began his career in Dereczin, and in his later years was the Rabbi of Lodz, and there were others like him that held the [Dereczin] pulpit and then afterwards went on to serve in the larger cities.

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The Maggid of Dereczin

However, there was one individual who, one hundred and eighty years ago, to his credit, caused the name of Dereczin to be on the lips of tens of thousands of Jews, even in faraway places, and even beyond the borders of the vast Russian homeland. This was Rabbi Yehezkiel Feivel, who was called the Maggid of Dereczin. He was born in 1756, [well] over two hundred years ago, in a small Polish town on the edge of the Baltic Sea, to his father, Reb Zev Wolf, who was one of the respected residents of that town. While he was still a young boy, his intellectual gifts were already apparent at those times when he would discourse in public, because when he was about five or six years old, he would wrap himself in a tallit, and would mount a 'pulpit' of his own making, and would discourse [literally, 'drip'] words as if he were an accomplished lecturer, and as he matured, this skill coalesced in him to the point of causing the listeners to be in awe. At the age of eighteen, he was accepted as a Maggid in the town of Dereczin. After occupying this position for three years, he became ill with rheumatism, and traveled outside of the country to seek a cure by taking mineral waters, and when he held forth in the larger cities, such as Prague, Lemberg (Lvov), Brody, and others, the Rabbis and distinguished scholars there, would publicize his wondrous lectures, and would invite the populace to come and hear “The Maggid of Dereczin” from whose mouth, pearls would fall, young in years, but whom the soul of the Lord inspires. Everyone who heard him would wonder, “is it possible that such a person even exists!?” This was the kind of fame and respect accorded him by the distinguished scholars of that generation.

In 1798, he moved to Vilna, where he had the privilege to speak before the Gaon , Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna k”mz, and it was in this fashion that he preached for twenty-four years in all the synagogues of Vilna under the name, “The Maggid of Dereczin,” until [the year] 1812, when he was accepted as the Maggid of Mata, which at the time was considered a prestigious appointment, and he remained there until his passing in the year 1836, for twenty-two years. He was seventy-eight years old when he died[1].

From this story, we obtain an insight into the spiritual and temporal state of mind of the town of Dereczin more than one hundred and eighty years ago, that apart from having a Rabbi and a Dayan[2], who served as official clerics, the needs of the community demanded a Maggid, and indeed, the most famous of that era.

Up until eighty years ago, in addition to a Rabbi, there was also a Dayan in Dereczin. The last of the Dayanim was Rav Michal Berkowitz, the head of the Berkowitz family, from this it is possible to deduce the material circumstance of the community in those days, that it was able to support three families, apart from the expenses for other institutions, such as the Talmud Torah, Taharat-Mishpocha,[3] and others.

 

The Youth of the Town of Bayki

There was another person, who some sixty or seventy years ago, contributed to making Dereczin a household name on the lips of many people, even among non-Jews. I write about him as if he is one vanished, because I do not know his name, and it is in this capacity, as one who has vanished, that I wish to memorialize him in this book.

In my youth, I heard people whispering, that in the village of Bayki, which was in the Dereczin environs, A Jew lived, who had an unmarried son, aged thirty years, withdrawn and bedridden, who was racked with pain, and all too familiar with illness. Simply, afflicted by God, but from another perspective, also blessed by God, because he had a 'gift' that a covenant consummated with regards to his lips: whomever he gave a blessing, was blessed, and whatever he predicted came to be. In the area, he was known as “The Youth of Bayki,” but in faraway places, he was known as “The Good Jew of Dereczin” – “Der Derecziner Guter Yid.” And they would travel to him from hundreds of miles away,

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even non-Jews. He would take no money or donations for this, even though his parents were poor people. On a table in his room, was an alms box to support settlement in the Land of Israel, and all who visited him would drop their contribution in it.

When I grew up, and studied in yeshivot and returned home occasionally for holidays,-- I was not interested enough to know about the welfare of this 'wonder youth' or from what source he drew his capacity and expertise in Holy Writ. Later, when I married in the city of Shavill, which was far from my birthplace, – he lapsed entirely from my consciousness, and I forgot the entire matter. But, after a few years passed, I had the opportunity from a story told by an eye witness to stand at the center of his insight, apart from his other skills.

It was the summer of 1912. I was traveling to Lodz in connection with my business, and at one of the stations between Grodno and Bialystock, a Jew boarded the train, who was of mature years, and he sat down next to me. Here, in our land, we were already accomplished in the habit that was quite common among all the Jews of Poland and Lithuania when they meet during travel for the first time – one starts immediately to ask one another first, “Where are you from? Where are you going? Why?” [One asked about] where he lived, where he was born, and about his family. In most cases, they would arrive at a conclusion that if they were not [directly] related, there was some family connection between them through marriage of relatives.

When this Jewish man had introduced himself, he asked me where I was traveling to, and I answered – to Lodz, it was no longer necessary to ask for what reason, because it was evident that whoever was traveling to the city of the weavers was a merchant of woven goods. Afterwards, he asked me where I lived, and I said: Shavill, he hadn't said enough yet, and he then asked me where I was born. When I told him that my origins were in Dereczin – his face changed, and he became very emotional, as if a wave of memories suddenly crashed through in his head. “Ho! From Dereczin! And how is the Guter Yid there?” I had become engrossed in reading an interesting book, and wanted rather to avoid getting involved in a long conversation that would disrupt my reading. Secondly, I had completely forgotten the connection of the Guter Yid to Dereczin. I answered him emphatically, “I don't know!” From the tone of my voice, my message was quite clear: leave me alone, and stop talking! But he didn't stop, and with greater force he said: I will tell you something about him, to which I was an eye witness. This will not only interest you, but you will be impressed with it, and it will remain in your memory for many days. And he begins his tale:

He himself was from Volkovysk. In the 1890's, the draftees into the [Czar's] army from the SlonimVolkovysk area were taken to the Lublin gubernia, to centers in Chelm, Krasnystaw and ZamoϾ. He served in the army with a contingent that was bivouacked in a village not far from Krasnystaw. In that village, a Jew owned a saloon where he sold strong drink. This was in the period prior to the release of the Monopoly Decree in Russia. There was a Catholic church there, whose priest was a virulent anti-Semite. For some time, he tried to contrive schemes to get rid of this Jew, and one day, he sent his servant to buy a bottle of whiskey [from him]. When it was brought to him, the priest opened the bottle. He put poison into the bottle, and resealed the cork, as it was, and he returned it with the excuse that it was for guests that didn't show up, and that was why he was returning it. The Jew did not pay attention to the appearance of the seal, and when a farmer came to buy whiskey, he gave him the poisoned bottle, and the buyer who drank from it died a painful and excruciating death. It goes without saying, that when this incident became known to the authorities Рthey came and seized the Jew, handcuffed him and threw him in jail. All his pleading, that the bottle had been returned to him by the priest, who had put a poison in it, in order to incriminate him, was to no avail, and after he had sat in jail for several months, he was released on bail until the day of his trial.

The Jew, who was telling me this story, used to travel back and forth to that location, and he saw the great pain and anguish written on the faces of the man's family, as they waited in the court of law -and he advised them to travel to see Der Derecziner Guter Yid. He told of how other people had benefitted from his advice and blessings under similar circumstances. When he received notice

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from the court as to the day of his trial – he took his advice, and departed on the trip. When he got off the train, and asked the wagon driver how he could find Der Derecziner Guter Yid, the driver answered that he could be found in the village of Bayki that was nearby. A Jew in Poland sixty and seventy years ago would visit his Rebbe several times a year, and they would accord him all the appropriate protocols: first he would have to approach and 'grease' the shamash, and then afterwards give a 'consideration' to the gabbai, and then wait, until he had the opportunity to pass his note [to the Rebbe]. Yet here, he was able to enter without all these gifts and payoffs, although he was quite put off by the shabbiness of the place that unfolded before him: a rundown rural shack, whose windows lacked panes of glass, without shutters; in a bed lay a pale scrawny man, a pile of bones. Is this the person from whom he was to expect salvation? Was it worth having made a trip of such a distance? He related the story of what had transpired from beginning to end, and the Youth, after hearing him out, told him to return home, and at the train station in Zelva, he should buy himself a ticket to ride in first class, which he didn't think would cost more than three times the usual fare. This strange answer, which in his view, did not seem to have any connection to the impending judgement, caused the man even further confusion. But the Youth, perceiving his confusion, repeated himself another time, and implored him to follow his advice. Without having any recourse, he did as he was advised, paid more than twenty rubles for the ticket, and entered one of the first class compartments, where he found people there, who by their dress and their facial appearance, were among the important personages of the area. The sun was already tending toward the edges of the sky, twilight time, and very shortly, the hour of the Mincha service would pass, and because of this, he immediately rose to pray. His concern over the trial which did not leave him for even a moment, in addition to the thought that he had wasted money and time for no good reason – pained him in spirit and broke his heart. He tarried over his prayers a long time, poured out his bitter discourse to his Maker, and his eyes were a veritable sea of tears. His tears melted the hearts of the people who sat near him, and one of them asked: what terrible tragedy had befallen him that has caused him to weep so? The Jew related the whole story, about the priest who had connived against him, and that in only ten days, he would have to stand trial, and he was terrified by the possible outcome of the trial. These people attempted to soothe him, and they asked for the names of the friends of the priest. The Jew gave him these names exactly, and he wrote them down.

It subsequently became evident that this was a famous Christian lawyer. A few days before the trial, he came to visit the priest in the company of another person. They represented themselves as devoted and faithful 'friends of a friend' of the priest, and that this friend, when he found out that they would be traveling by this village – asked that they stop off to the priest and convey regards from him.

The priest received them with much dignity, and ordered the table to be set for them with all manner of good food and drink. In the middle of this feast, when they were all into their cups, the lawyer confided to the priest about his substantial wealth, that he has several parcels of land and forests, but that all of this is worth nothing to him, because a Jew continues to operate a saloon in one of the towns that belong to him. It was at this junction that the priest saw an exceptional opportunity to reveal his connivance and cleverness and he told him that, in this town too, there was a Jew who owned the saloon, and all these years he sought a way to get rid of him, and he couldn't, however, now, after he told him what he had done – he was certain that [the Jew] had reached his end, and the priest showed him the notice from the court where he was to appear as a witness, and that he didn't have a shadow of a doubt that the minimum sentence that the Jew would receive, would be exile to Siberia for life. After spending several hours, they parted, after conveying their thanks for the warm reception and good advice that they had received.

On the day of the trial these two guests appeared in the courtroom at the time that the court bailiff was reading the charges. After the prosecution completed its case, the legal counsel for the Jewish man began to attack the basis for the charges, and proved that the priest put the poison into the bottle. At the end of his defence, he called the two 'guests' as witnesses, and the Christian lawyer told

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everything [that he had heard].

What happened on that day, was as we read in the Megillah of Esther, 'and he was upended,' the punishment that he had intended for the Jew was meted out to the priest: hard labor in Siberia.

In this we see the great insight of Der Guter Yid fun Dereczin , as our Sages say, 'who is the wise, he who sees the obvious.' He knew that in the first class compartment, there would be important people, and among them would be people whose inner drive was to seek the truth and to rescue the pursued from their pursuers. And he understood, that a Jew who awaited such a terrible trial in a fortnight was certainly broken-hearted and driven, and when he would pray – his prayer would be full of deep groaning and endless weeping.

This would pull on the heartstrings of the people around him, and that they would then ask him the reason for his tears, and once the reason became known, it would be possible that one of them, whose conscience would not give him any rest, would be prepared to do anything in his power to rescue him, and indeed, this is precisely what happened.

I asked several older people from the Dereczin and Slonim area if they knew the name of Der Guter Yid, details about him, and when he died. To my disappointment, I received no further information. Many people were helped by the advice and blessings of Der Guter Yid fun Dereczin, as related by many. It is fitting that he is memorialized as someone who has disappeared, in a book that records the history of Dereczin, as a 'wonderworker' of a man, even though anonymous, let his memory be blessed.

 

Translator's Footnotes
  1. There is a slight discrepancy here: the computation shows eighty years of age. Return
  2. A Dayan is a judge. Return
  3. Family purity. Return


My Grandfather Occupying
the Rabbinical Seat of Dereczin

by Eliyahu Herenson

(Original Language: Hebrew)

From my childhood memories, I recall several dates in the life of the Dereczin Jewish community the texture of its life, and the nature of the changes that took place there in the course of more than thirty years between date milestones.

At the outset, let me open my remarks by noting the year 1873, the year in which my grandfather, the Gaon Sholom-Rav Herenson, of blessed memory, known from one of his publications as the 'Heykhalei Shen' accepted the summons of the town of Dereczin to assume the rabbinical seat and serve as the spiritual leader of the community.[1]

In those days it was not the accepted practice for a community to accept the Rabbi, but rather the opposite. Summonses went out to my grandfather the Gaon, as one of the judges and lawmakers, because of his well-known publications in the Torah literature: Heykhalei Shen, which consists of questions and answers and fresh viewpoints on matters from the Shas,[2] [books] in which he was revealed as an incisive thinker, an innovator, and his book, Darkhei Noam [as well] which deal with many issues that are relevant in our time, both in the diaspora and in the land of Israel. My grandfather published his book, Darkhei Noam at the time that he occupied the pulpit in Dereczin.

He was one of the well-known Gaonim of Lithuania, born in Slutsk to an established family of note, which according to the family tree in my parents home traced its lineage to the royal line of the house of King David. In his youth, he became well known for his intellectual prowess, and at age 19 reached a decision point. It was not his desire to make a career out of Torah scholarship, but his in-laws urged him to pursue the rabbinate.

When he was considering the pulpit in Dereczin, he

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reviewed the community, in which there sat before him distinguished rabbis, whose names were very familiar, and who had world-renown reputations, such as the Rabbi Gaon Eliyahu-Chaim Meizel, who subsequently occupied the pulpit in Lodz. The Dereczin community was noted as a place where one would find distinguished rabbinic scholars. And so he took consideration of the Jews in Dereczin, which was a small town in physical size, but outstanding and significant in the quality of its [scholarly] reputation, in which there were about four hundred Jewish people [but they were] well schooled in Torah, and among them scholastic leaders and Gaonim.

My grandfather used to say, that it was an astonishing thing that a community like Dereczin felt a need to have a rabbi formally designated as their leader, given that the town had in its midst so many distinguished Torah scholars, many who were teachers of [rabbinic] ordination in their own right – despite this, his explanation to this question was that it was just because of this, that these great scholars could not work out a compromise among them as to whom the Cantor would wait for before beginning his recitation of the Amidah prayer in front of the Ark, and that he was appointed as 'official' Rabbi and community leader, in order to avoid undue delay in the conduct of daily prayers.

During my grandfather's tenure in Dereczin, there were three senior rabbinic teachers and Dayanim (among whom were Rabbi Gaon Moshe ben Isaac Rabinovich, who subsequently taught in Slonim, and the Rabbi, and Tzaddik the Gaon Rabbi Netah). My grandfather's custom was not to sit continuously in the Bet-Din himself, but came to depend on these three scholar-teachers, because he himself was deeply involved day-and-night in providing answers to issues that came from far distances, ands also with the dissemination of Torah to the masses. When he arrived in Dereczin, he brought with him thirty young men who were Torah scholars, and founded a Kollel-Yeshivah , under his supervision, in which young men studied, and nearly all of whom went on to become ordained rabbis.

In that era, the majority of the Dereczin citizenry, from all walks of life – merchants, storekeepers, laborers – were Jews of ardent faith, adhering to Jewish customs and law, its commandments, schooled in the Shas, Ein Yaakov, and the Mishna, and who came to pray at the synagogue three times a day, and placed value on Torah study.

All would come and go in the Rabbi's house which was held in great esteem by the members of the community. In my father's house, they used to tell about a simple, modest Jew, Zadok the Milliner, and from the Hasidim loyal to my grandfather, that he was responsible for livening up and creating merriment on the holiday of Simkhat Torah. Once, a rabbi from another city was invited to give a guest sermon, and after giving the sermon, it didn't satisfy Reb Zadok, who summarized his critical opinion of the speaker with the following few words:

I do not grasp or understand the sermons of our resident Rabbi, Rav Sholom-Dov, but before he finished, I thoroughly grasped and understood the sermon of the guest Rabbi...”
My grandfather [himself] was a modest man, and did not make distinctions between the great and small, between the rich and poor. He would say that every man is created in God's image, and therefore there is something important (hidden perhaps) in each and everyone's soul.

In 1881, my grandfather took the pulpit in the city of Kletsk, where he was invited by a delegation from that city, who brought with them the contract for the rabbinate of the community. ii

Twenty-five years passed. In the year 1906, when the pulpit in Dereczin was vacated, my father, Rabbi Gaon Chaim-Shimon Herenson, of blessed memory, was invited to become Rabbi, and spiritual leader of the community, where he served as the Rabbi and spiritual head of the community as did his father, 'Heykhalei Shen.'

My father was born in Mezrich-Podolski. He, as well, became renown as a scholar while still a youth, and at the age of twelve, he would render judgements on issues under his father's guidance, and from whom he also drank in the study of Torah. My father also did not have an inclination to the rabbinate, and sought a vocation in commerce, however the majority of his time and interest were in matters of Torah scholarship, as well as other

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intellectual pursuits, which brought him to become a spiritual leader in the city where he dwelt, in Mezrich.

In the end, he took the advice of his great father, and undertook to study for rabbinic ordination. And this is how he came to Dereczin.

He became a guest in the house of one of the distinguished citizens of the town, Reb Joseph ben Moshe Rabinovich, of blessed memory, (who in time became his father-in-law), and then accepted the pulpit. It did not work out for him to stay in the pulpit [at Dereczin] at that time. It was at that time that my grandfather passed away, and my father inherited his post with the community in Kletsk, and he remained in that pulpit.

I recall my father's account of the changes in Dereczin from 1881, at which time my grandfather left that town, until 1906, when my father returned there. In the course of a quarter century, many significant and profound changes had taken place in the customs and the way of life of the Jews of Dereczin. The generation of Torah scholars and men of faith had given way to a generation of the Haskalah (Enlightenment) and the rise of a new culture in the life of the community.

ii

Twenty years later, in 1926, I came to live in Dereczin, where I remained until 1933. I will describe those seven years in a separate chapter, specifically dedicated to that.

I do not know if there are Derecziners today in all of the lands to which they emigrated from their hometown (certainly not in the destroyed body of Dereczin itself) apart from one handful who knew the town about which I write here and now. This is Dereczin of 75-80 years ago, and the memory of those years and of that town which to this day, stand before my eyes.

 

Translator's Footnotes
  1. The abbreviation, אב״ד, stands for Av Bet Din. Also sometimes rendered as אבד״ק, when the word kodesh is appended, indicating a holy court. Return
  2. Hebrew abbreviation for the six major divisions of the Talmud. Return


The Dereczin of My Youth

by Shlomo Yudson

(Original Language: Yiddish)

I do not know if there are Derecziners today in all of the lands to which they emigrated from their hometown (certainly not in the destroyed body of Dereczin itself) apart from one handful who knew the town about which I write here and now. This is Dereczin of 75-80 years ago, and the memory of those years and of that town which to this day, stand before my eyes.

My childhood years stream past in my memory, my life as a young boy in loving, homey Dereczin, until circumstances forced me to forsake my hometown, and move to Lodz, where my father already was living. I knew then, that I would long for Dereczin. And I long for the town of my birth until this day. Believe me that I am not making up a story.

Even as a child, I loved to outline and describe those things that interested me, and it is in this fashion that I depict the harmonious portrait of our Dereczin.

I recall the layout of the principal streets that stretched out from the well-constructed marketplace: Zelver Gasse, and the Deutscher Gasse, along the length, and Slonimer Gasse and Yatkeh-Gessel, along the width of the town. All of our streets and byways exuded warmth and “homey”-ness, especially in the sunny summer days, when Jews both small and grown would be seen in the streets.

The one discordant thing that stands out in my mind from those childhood days, was the tall church that stood at the edge of the marketplace on the Slonimer Gasse, even though during the middle of the week, one seldom saw gentiles there.

In those years, the concept of a wealthy man in Dereczin was unknown. The population that amounted to more than one thousand souls, consisted of homeowners, who owned their own houses and stores; laborers, who were self-employed, or hired themselves out to others; and a small number of people whose livelihood was unknown, nor was it known from whence they derived their sustenance. Fundamentally, if one saw a Jewish pauper going from house to house, one knew that he was not from Dereczin, but rather someone who had come from somewhere else. And, if occasionally, one saw a man or woman finely

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dressed, they were known to be from the Hof on the other side of the river, about a verst from Dereczin.

* * *

In Dereczin, in those years, there was no lack of Heder schools. We already had a Talmud-Torah, but never had a [fully-fledged] Yeshiva.

The pride of the pious Jews of Dereczin was the remarkable Schulhof that consisted of a beautiful synagogue, and four Batei Midrashim: the Alter Mauer, the Neuer Mauer, the Hiltzener Bet Midrash, and a Hasidim Shtibl at the side. In the midst of this imposing collection of sacred buildings, the Rabbi's manse was located, where the Rabbi [of the town] and his family lived, and also served as a court for adjudicating disputes among the Jewish townsfolk, who would come there with their various complaints and demands – issues that were never in short supply in Dereczin.

In the years about which I write, the spiritual leader of Dereczin was the renown Rabbi, Rav Joseph-Zundl Hutner, the author of significant books, who bequeathed yet two more generations of outstanding Rabbis: a son who occupied a prominent pulpit in Warsaw, and a grandson – the son of the Warsaw Rabbi – a formidable rabbinical authority, who together with Rabbi Meir Berlin, of blessed memory, worked on the production of a new edition of the Shas in Israel.

About the Rabbi of Dereczin in those years, I have something interesting to relate, but [I will do this] a little later, after I complete the portrait of my birthplace, which I have been composing continuously for 75-80 years, as it appeared in my eyes as a child at the time, when Dereczin was [yet] 'in order,' that is to say, and when those born in Dereczin did not yet venture into the larger world [around them]. In later years, when individual Derecziners did leave, and go to faraway cities and countries, a few became well-known, however not always in a good light.

In general though, the Jewish community of Dereczin did produce famous scholars, thinkers and writers, among them the highly acclaimed Hebrew writer Bershadsky, who wrote Neged HaZerem (Against the Tide), and other novels, that enriched the budding Hebrew literature of the time.

And it is hardly any wonder that Dereczin served an inspiration to spiritually endowed and emotionally sensitive young people. I am, to this day, full of awe and respect for my birthplace, especially as that feeling was strengthened after I had become familiar with other towns in our area, such as neighboring Zelva or Zhetl, where I studied for a time at the Yeshiva. First I have constructed for myself an image of beautiful Dereczin, with all its satisfying twists and turns, its unifying places, and nooks and crannies which hearken back, apparently, to those olden times when the Duke Sapieha selected Dereczin as his residence during the years of his rule in Lithuania.

Thanks to the Sapieha family, large parts of Dereczin were built to be more comfortable and attractive [than they might have otherwise been], but the project with the greatest impact made by the Duke, which lasted well into our time as evidence of his handiwork and industriousness, were “the palaces,” whose construction he sanctioned at the end of the Deutscher Gasse, and on the Puster Barg, opposite the palaces (about nine years after I left our town, when I returned in to address my issues with military service, the palaces had been transformed to Russian military barracks, from which the odors of a military environment emanated...).

The Puster Barg, very clearly intrigued the children and young people of Dereczin. This was a hillock with a large, roomy cellar, with walls and floor plastered over with concrete, with a strong door covered with cement, which according to local stories and legends, led to a long tunnel that had been dug to reach all the way to Ruzhany.

The most attractive location in all of Dereczin was the Agrest-Sod,[1] at the front side of the Deutscher Gasse, bordered by a solidly built barrier.
It was not for nothing, that this section of Dereczin,

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with its old botanical garden, with the palace and the hillock covered with old trees, served as a magnet for the young people of the town, and was a place that they favored for their getting together.

* * *

When one speaks of Jewish Dereczin, it is worthwhile to become acquainted with its spiritual leadership, even though it is of the recent past.

In the rabbinical world, it was once well known that a goodly number of rabbis who were privileged to attain special prestige and recognition, had their start in Dereczin, and that one of the greatest of his generation, Rav Eliyahu-Chaim Meizel, who in the second half of his life occupied the position of Chief Rabbi of Lodz, was not the only rabbi to have had his start in Dereczin.

Returning now to more contemporary times, about which I am writing, I cannot refrain from telling my Dereczin landsleit who will read this Dereczin Yizkor Book, a noteworthy story about an experience that I had as a youngster, in the eleventh year of my life, with the Rabbi of Dereczin of that time, which has become etched into my memory more than any other experience in my hometown.

At the beginning of my tenth year, my father, may he rest in peace, who was known as Yudel der Schreiber, left small, Lithuanian, Dereczin and went to Lodz. He sought out, and found better opportunities to take advantage of his extensive knowledge of Hebrew and German. Our (no-evil-eye-intended) large family remained behind in Dereczin, until such time as our father would be in a position to send for us.

His departure, caused a problem for me, the oldest of the children,. I had just finished schooling at the Zhetler Yeshiva, and I didn't know what to do with myself.

As a relative of Rav Joseph-Zundel, my uncle, Shlomo Rosenberg, an accomplished Talmud scholar, and a self-educated rabbi in those years, proposed a good idea as to what should be done with me: as the Rabbi had two sons, the older one, Leib, a boy of thirteen, and the second, Hertz-Mendel, a boy of my age – both brothers with sharp intellects for learning, my uncle proposed that an accomplished scholar be retained who, during the summer, would study with me and with Hertz-Mendel at least a couple of hours a day. The Rabbi agreed to my uncle's plan, and since it was not possible to find an appropriately qualified teacher in the town itself, they brought a rabbi from another town and they arranged for a suitable room in the home of a widow for two students to study for two to three hours in the afternoon.

During the third week of this private tutoring, one day, Hertz-Mendel came in excitedly with a request from his father, the Rabbi, that I come to see him after the study session was over.

I began to feel 'peculiar.' A little shy, I always had sought out opportunities to be drawn into a conversation with adults, particularly on subjects that were not specific to children of my age – and who would have thought of a conversation with the Rabbi himself, whom my uncle Shlomo held was the very embodiment of the Torah itself! But I understood that my hesitance and shyness would not help me at all, so I fortified myself, and immediately after the study class, I accompanied my friend Hertz-Mendel to find out what his father, the great Rabbi, wanted with me.

When we arrived at the Rabbi's manse, my friend ushered me into his father's presence, who sat in a deep chair, with his prominent large head bent over a large folio of the Gemara, which he was continuously scanning with his darting eyes.

Feeling that someone was standing nearby, the Rabbi raised his head, and seeing me, he said: “It is good, Shloimkeh, that you have come.” He rose, and started to head for another room, motioning to me with his hand that I should follow him.

The small room into which the Rabbi led me, was furnished with armoires full of books, with a table which was covered in sheaves of paper, already written on, and various writing implements, and a couple of comfortable stools.

The Rabbi, Reb Joseph-Zundel beckoned to me to one of the stools in front of the table, and after I had

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seated myself, he took the top written page [from the pile] and he handed it to me, in order to determine if I would be able to read [sic: understand] what had been written.

At my first glance at the handwriting, I thought I saw only clumps of circuitous and random scrivening of Talmudic language, and thereby I felt the Rabbi was standing next to me and waiting for an answer. I did not, however, give up. My [eager] young eyes flew over the text a second and third time, until I was certain that I could read it [sic: decipher the handwriting], and to a good measure understand what the text dealt with as well. But, I still did not understand to what purpose the Rabbi had sent for me. But, at this point, the Rabbi, while still standing, began to speak to me: “Do you think, Shloimkeh, that you will be able to read this handwriting, and copy the text so that it will be easier for others to read it?”

“I think so,” – I replied, acting like an adult, although I still did not fathom why I was required altogether for such an undertaking.

The Rabbi then knowingly began to expound on what he was thinking, and began to explain: “The handwritten pages that you see on the table are a part of a book that is to be published. As my penmanship is a little difficult [to read], [and] for typesetters in the publishing house to work from, a scribe who studied in the Alten Mauer [Bet HaMidrash] until recently would copy for me. Up till now, he has transcribed my handwritten manuscript for my first book, Hevel Joseph,[2] prior to its going to press, and of late, he began working on the transcription of my second book, Hevel Joseph Tanina,[3] but his circumstances were such that he was compelled to return to his home [sic: in another town].”
The Rabbi went on to relate that he was unable to find anyone in town who could undertake this sort of work, and my uncle Shlomo advised him to give me a try, and see whether I will be able to perform the duties of a scribe and copyist.

In order to be certain, right on the spot, that I was capable of copying from his more difficult handwriting, the Rabbi immediately asked me, right then and there, to sit down and demonstrate to him what I was capable of doing (the salary paid to a copyist to transcribe one double-sided page of manuscript was five kopecks).

Finishing with me, after making me aware of certain notations and writings, where there were added remarks made in the wide margins, the Rabbi returned to the room in which he was studying the Gemara at the time of my arrival, and I buckled down to my work, not being entirely certain that I would succeed.

It took me a full three hours to transcribe two and a half pages on that first day, into a more legible handwriting. That is to say, that on that first day as a wage-earner, I was able to earn twelve and a half kopecks.

I was not, however, discouraged. I was pleased with my work, and it is entirely possible, I would have done it for nothing.

By the third day, in the afternoon, the work was going much easier, and I transcribed a full four pages, which means that I earned twenty kopecks for the three hours of work. But when it came to the fourth day, we were able to complete our study session an hour earlier than usual, and as it was a beautiful day, and I hadn't been to the Agrest-Sod in over a week, I thought that I would want to run over there, for an hour or so, which would still leave me plenty of time for my work at the Rabbi's. No sooner said than done – I strolled off to the Sod. Other than myself, no one else was in the area, and it made me feel like the entire orchard belonged to me. I ran and jumped from one place to the next; the springlike air caressed me from every angle, as if to thank me for coming at this special hour, when no one else was in the orchard. Enraptured with such thoughts and emotions, I suddenly realized that

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[time had flown by, and] there was no time left for me to go do my work for the Rabbi, and I went home.

The following day after lessons, when I should have gone to do my work for the Rabbi, I felt that under no circumstances could I go, because what sort of an excuse could I give for not having come the prior day? So, once again, I left the Heder, and went to the Agrest-Sod, thinking that the Rabbi would most certainly have found someone else to take my place. But the following afternoon, Hertz-Mendel came into the classroom, and in his monotone voice said again: “Shloimkeh, father asked for you to come.” Having no choice, after class, I went to the Rabbi's manse, being completely certain that this would be the last time ever that I would ever go to see the Rabbi.

I was, however, quite mistaken. Entering the large room both shamefacedly and slightly lost, where the Rabbi usually sat bent over a large volume, I was astonished to see the Rabbi rise, and lead me right into the small room, all the while speaking to me softly and patiently, his words measured: “Shloimkeh, if you mean [by your action] that five kopecks a page is insufficient, I will give you ten kopecks for each page.” I was profoundly touched by the sincerity with which the great Rabbi, Rav Joseph-Zundel spoke to me, a young boy, who was not yet eleven years old. I girded myself, and swore that I meant nothing by the fact that I had not come to work the past two days; that I had not even begun to think about money,-- but the Rabbi did not permit me to continue speaking, and from that day on, I would receive ten kopecks a page.

The result was that the speed of my work doubled from that day onward, until I earned more than three rubles a week. This continued for seven months, until the last page of Hevel Joseph Tanina was transcribed in my handwriting.

* * *

At the end of my recollections, I wish to stress that I have always carried with me, everywhere, [an image] of my birthplace Dereczin in my memory. And as I wrote these lines, that image of my shtetl
was before my eyes, just as it was in those days, in the light of a beautiful summer day, from Yoshe der Schmid's blacksmith shop to the tannery, and Hekdesh on the other side of the river, across the width of Dereczin and its length – from the end of Zelver Gasse to the 'palaces' and the Agrest-Sod on the Deutscher Gasse.

 

Translator's Footnotes
  1. Seemingly a botanical garden or orchard. Referred to by Chaim Rabinovich & Malka Alper as the Ager-Sod. Return
  2. Literally “The Halyard of Joseph.” Titles of these books were often allegorical, and may, in this instance reflect the author's sentiment of having 'tied things together.' Return
  3. Tanina - A further commentary. Return


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Three Tales from Dereczin of Yore

by Shlomo Yudson

(Original Language: Yiddish)

 

 

[Biographical Note: Shlomo Yudson, born in Dereczin, emigrated to America early in life, and for many years was an employee of the Forverts and Der Tog-Morgen Journal. These three tales are excerpted from his first book, From Three Worlds, published by Kletsker-Verlag in Vilna, 1929.]

 

1. Fear

I would have considered myself the most fortunate little boy in the town, were it not for the fear, which embittered the choicest years of my upbringing.

As quickly as night would fall, I would be seized by a peculiar feeling of terror. Everything about me acquired a terrifying meaning, and in the air, the essence of the cemetery, funeral shrouds and the cleaning board for the dead seemed everywhere.

I did not fear demons as much as I feared the dead, even though in town they would tell the most terrifying tales of demons and other evil creatures, who burrowed themselves into the Khotcha's stodola; in the old wreckage behind the bathhouse, and in Itcheh Kalman's travel house; I feared demons no more than any living creature that was capable of inflicting harm or causing a difficulty. The most fundamental fear I had came from the idea of death. Death, for me, was the wellspring of all fears.

If it happened that someone died, I became obsessed for weeks at a time and nights filled with terror. During the day I would stew over it myself, seriously thinking about all those deceased people that I had known while they were alive, as if it really didn't bother me at all. But at nightfall, an ominous silence would envelop everything, a creepiness would pervade my skin; the all-encompassing dark terror would press down over my eyes, and Death would parade in front of me in his white shroud.

– Only one – I would pose the question to myself during the day – why are not the other children afraid? There is Moishkeh, who lives right by the very bathhouse, and it doesn't bother him in the least; there Yoshkeh lives right by the moihilkehs, and he walks home in the wintertime at night by himself; and Hertz-Mendel, the Rabbi's son, Can chase cats across the cemetery in the middle of the night, and it doesn't even occur to him to be afraid, and you, almost a grown young man are afraid of the shadow on the wall?

That was during the day. But as soon as it got dark outside, my thought processes became paralyzed. Regardless of what I sought to distract myself with, it didn't help. I think of climbing up a tree, jumping over the pits near the barracks, or playing at war; here, I have practically worked out an entire plan for a maneuver for this coming Friday. – When I come to the end of it, and I want to review it, suddenly, a World of the Dead swims out from my eyes which my emotions have woven out of the darkness.

I would go to bed while others in the house were still awake, in order that the fear not dominate me, and I would awaken in the middle of the night, feeling the dark air against my bare face, immediately covering myself with the blanket, rolling myself up, as if I would feel safer with all my extremities closer to me, and toil at trying to fall asleep again, until I was drenched in sweat. If anyone snored, or coughed in their sleep, this calmed me down, I would draw in a deep breath, and feel more relaxed in heart.

And when I would vigorously address the matter, and attempt to force my mind to get closer to this issue, bit by bit, my fear would entwine itself in something for which I could find no name. It was not that same terror which unwittingly tortures and shakes up the nerves, when one is surrounded by the

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dark, rather, a gestalt would appear standing before me, clear and distinct, which I did not dare to look directly into its face – Oh my God, Death itself! – I would think, how can one avert this misfortune? How can people live in peace, while at the same time knowing that somewhere or another, Death lurks after them? And at this point, the images of elderly people of my acquaintance loom before me, and my heart sinks. Just, just soon, how much longer can they possibly live? And my fantasy progresses further, and conjures up an image of these selfsame people in a pale deathlike yellow face color, and a tremor crawls across my skin, as I try to find a way to avoid and forget these faces, so that later, after their death, they will not stand so distinctly before my eyes.

But slowly, a time arrived when I felt that to a greater degree, I had achieved a standoff with my fear. Then, discovering the correct reason for my fear, my night demon did not manifest itself any worse than in my day, that is, my fear was not a foolish weak one, but the opposite, [it] was a strong assault from the inevitability of human mortality.

And once, on a nice, mild winter evening, it occurred to me that I should put myself to the test.

Our entire family had their places in the Hiltzener Schul. It is understood, that this was also my Bet HaMidrash, and was, by my reckoning, the most important one in the town, despite the fact that the Rabbi used to pray at the Alter Mauer, and the wealthy man, Reb Moshe [also] in that schul. It was definitely livelier at the Hiltzener Bet HaMidrash than at the others, because since the inn had been closed, itinerant people of little means would find their lodging there. There, on the warmed benches, one could always count on seeing a new face, and hear a witticism from faraway places. Today, the “Little Orphan” and Old Man Reshkess would disport themselves by performing their tricks when the townsfolk would present themselves: jumping over barricades, and tossing packages at the students under the bimah; taking a mouthful of kerosene and spraying it out of their mouths at burning havdalah candles, from which would stream a veritable rain of flame, and other such tricks, and it would truly get quite merry, and one simply didn't want to leave the place.

But counteracting all of these attractions, the Hiltzener Bet-HaMidrash had one shortcoming, that offset them all ten times over – there, in the foyer, at the right entrance, the Burial Society stored the board on which it prepared the dead for burial.

Year in, and year out, it stood in the same corner, in the same position, the top fastened to the wall, and the bottom pushed out till it reached the stairs, where they meet the wide door of the Bet-HaMidrash, so it would not fall down. Its left side was fastened to the west wall, and gave the impression of a booth standing in an orchard.

At no time did I pass it by that a shudder didn't seize me as if someone had hit on a nerve. It could have been in the middle of the day, in the strongest sunshine, and I still could not open my eyes fully, and bring myself to look at it directly. Even on the Sabbath, or holidays, when it came time for reading the Torah, and when the foyer was full of people, this self-same board deterred me from fully participating. And don't even mention evenings. In the evening, I wouldn't walk past that place even if I would be showered in gold. And if, on occasion, I would notice that the corner was empty, my fear would oppress me even more, because I knew that later, or the next day, it would be back again, standing in its usual place, covered with damp stains.

It was well into [the month of] Adar already. Nights no longer made the same stern impression that they did during the middle of winter. They became somewhat shorter, and with that more bearable, for [my] fragile nerves. The air was full of Gift-Giving, Hitting Haman, and a heartfelt participation in the festivities of the Purim holiday.

Sitting thus, on one of these evenings in the Bet HaMidrash, I suddenly felt like someone else entirely, not myself, and I immediately said to myself: today, I'm going home alone! And barely had I uttered this, when an echo replied from the innermost chambers of my being: today, I am going home alone! I could not re-live this moment. Too bad!

I screwed up my courage, and hoped for a miracle.

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It was after Maariv. The congregation had already dispersed. Apart from the few students, who were tucked in under their stands in the corners, and the few paupers on the bimah, there was no one else in the Bet HaMidrash. Yerachmiel der Tcheshler, with whom I used to walk to our house, had just left the Bet HaMidrash, and I immediately saw, that whether I wanted to or not, tonight I was going to have to be a hero.

A half hour went by, then a whole hour, and I still had no stomach for carrying out my plan.

I thought well about the very last second, when I would have to leave, and I got an entirely ill feeling in my heart, and I wished that someone would happen by, with whom I could at least get as far as the Schulhof. But to my misfortune, nobody came, and I lost all hope.

Suddenly, I see through the window, how a person is crossing the Schulhof carrying a lantern. I hastily sprang up, and began to sprint to the door, taking large steps, and something is intruding on me, as if I really wanted to get involved just at this moment.

As I approached the door, I felt myself getting warm all over, as if something had grabbed hold of me by the suspenders. – Lost! – I said to myself.

I opened the door wide. A pale red light fell in the bend of the foyer. It fell precisely on the board used to prepare the bodies of the deceased.

I felt my heart sinking inside of me. But – I'm lost!

I left the door open, and quickly sped through the foyer. My eyes furtively glanced at the accursed corner, where the Board stood (like the escapee looks at the wild beast after slipping out of its cage). I trembled in every one of my extremities.

– Close that door, you rascal! – a voice was heard from behind the Board.

I didn't close the door…

Half dead with fear, I barely was able to run all the way home. A couple of days later, the “Orphan” meets me.

Wagging his finger at me while he spoke, the “Orphan” said – If you leave the door to the Bet HaMidrash open again while I am having fun with Beilkeh the Bath House attendant's daughter, you'll get a ‘black year’ from me!

 

2. An Eclipse of the Sun

As quickly as the news of the solar eclipse spread, that is how quickly the whole town began to percolate. No matter where one went, that is all people talked about, and late into the evening you could run into clutches of people in the marketplace, or at Khacheh's on the square, talking about this very news item that had been reported in HaTzefira.[1] Do you imagine that a solar eclipse was some insignificant event? And when do you suppose there will be another one? In HaTzefira it was stated that there hadn't been a solar eclipse since the year 1724.

At the home of Shmuel, Joseph Nakhass, the only person in town to subscribe to HaTzefira, the doorstep had been totally worn down. People wanted to see what HaTzefira had to say with their own eyes about this event, and when a new edition arrived, with a comprehensive article that described a solar eclipse at great length, and in general about these rare occurrences, people were literally transported: Wow! Will we live long enough to see this? An event that occurs once in a hundred years!

I was still too young – a year, no, entirely – to be able to grasp what a solar eclipse was, and even when I had read the article in HaTzefira, I didn't extract any meaningful understanding from it. The whole story held me in a dreamlike pensive state. In the inner recesses of my mind, a picture of sorts, comprised of the heavens, of suns, moons, and plain planets did take shape, that rotate through the great void of space, and occasionally get in each others'

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way, but when I tried to grasp this with my intellect, the image began to melt and blur. I envied the adults, who spoke about this event with such certainty, just as if they had it right in front of their eyes.

As the designated day approached, one could see in the various houses of worship, especially the Hiltzener Bet HaMidrash, how the students, and ordinary young men from established families, smoking pieces of glass, which was known to be a requirement in order to be able to look through [the glass] at the sun.

Townsfolk provided large vessels of water, a remedy that was thought to be wise to have for any circumstance.

I had already smoked a couple of large pieces of glass, for which I had to brake a window in the attic; I had my viewing apparatus ready, and waited impatiently for the event-filled day to arrive.

I simply could not fathom how, in the middle of a bright, clear day, when the sun is red-hot in a clear sky, that it should suddenly fall dark, as if it were night, as if you could bring this on by reading the Shema. But the entire world isn't going to allow itself to be played for a fool!

According to the article in HaTzefira, the solar eclipse was supposed to start a few minutes after 6:00AM, right after the first minyan, and end late in the day. Well, what does one do to get up so early? Many times, I had wanted to get up in time for the first minyan, but I could not. And what, really, would happen if I overslept?

The young man from Skidel, the oldest of the students at the Hiltzener Bet HaMidrash, proposed a plan for spending the night prior to the solar eclipse, a “vigil,” thereby assuring that nobody would oversleep. Everyone eagerly subscribed to this plan, and wherever there was a youngster in town, he [was sure] to subscribe to the vigil.

I was barely able to convince my father to let me participate as well. For this, I had to promise to “listen to my mother” for a least one continuous month.

Finally, the time arrived.

After Maariv, the participants in the vigil began to assemble at the Hiltzener Bet HaMidrash, and little by little, almost all the young people of the town assembled at that point. Initially, a vigil was also planned for the Alter Mauer, but as there were rather few young people there, they had to abandon their plan, and join with the Hiltzener Bet HaMidrash

The entire town was already fast asleep. Everyone went to bed early, in order to be able to get up before dawn. The little houses stood silent and lifeless. They looked like they would be absorbed in the shadows of the night. The pale white light of the new moon, which hung like a silver light fixture behind the “Rad” stores, fell on their roofs. From time-to-time, one would hear how Fyvel. ‘Krivool[2] the old, lame night watchman, would play a note on his flute.

In the Bet HaMidrash it was lively. It was immediately apparent that this was no ordinary vigil. Nobody was studying, even Berel Masmid,[3] sat in the corner near the Ark, his reading stand pushed up against him, with his hand on the closed Gemara volume, and looked sunk in thought about the world. A lot stood around, or sat in little groups, absorbed in conversation about this important moment, that imminently would arrive. Others told ordinary stories, while yet others rode around on the benches, and carried out maneuvers around the bimah. I went from one group of people to the next; I got up on the benches and rode around a couple of times. However, none of this really appealed to me. Something about the whole vigil struck me as sacrilegious. I wanted this moment to be one that was quiet. Every person should be alone with himself, and to individually absorb within themselves the divine majesty, that causes the suns and planets to follow those orbits which had been prepared for them in the heavens.

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As dawn began to break, the assembly turned to the smoked glass. Each person sought out a spot unobstructed to the east, and prepared themselves for the spectacle. One group went to the rear of the town, to the Puster Barg. I would have gone with this group, even though I would have preferred to be alone. However, it was not light enough outside, and I felt uneasy.

As we approached the Puster Barg, the day became lighter. The east was reddish, lined with violet-rose stripes, which spread out like a fan to the middle of a mixed green and blue sky. A silvery dew covered the grass, and big drops hung like cold tears on the leaves, peering out anxiously for the day to arrive.

A thin, penetrating mist covered everything. I felt the entire breath of nature. It was so cool, so mysterious!

And soon, soon the great, perhaps the greatest wonder of all would occur.

The light became gradually stronger, one could see how it would become lighter and lighter. The surface of the land became wider and more spread out. On one side the hamlet of Alekshits swam out of the mist and on the other, the forest began to appear more distinctly with its deep granite-like coloration. Birds awoke, and refreshed, and not sensing anything special imminent, chirped a welcome to the new day.

Thoughts flitted through my mind:

– One hundred sixty five years have passed since the last time this event occurred, which is about to occur again. Oh, how vast is eternity?! – And as many years will pass again, before once again the same event will occur that is about to occur today. Where will a memory of our existence remain at that [distant future] time? Who will then bring us to mind? Who will remember us?

My heart was filled with heavy and sour emotions. I felt it impossible to remain with the group, and I resolved to find a place where I could be alone.

I thought of going to the Krenitsa[4] in the orchard. I thought: if it is possible to look at the solar eclipse in a vessel of water, then it should be certainly possible to look at it in the Krenitsa?!

I immediately rushed to that place.

The Krenitsa was very deep. Its surface glinted with a quiet sheen. On one side, where the little retaining wall was lower, a thin streamlet ran down, coursed through a washed out pebble bed and clear sand, until it came to the brook, at the foot of the hill. It shone like a peaceful mirror, just as if nothing was going on, as if its continuous flow were an eternal peace. The sky above, and a crooked branch were reflected off its surface.

I sat down on a nearby flat stone and waited.

Suddenly the tips of the trees were bathed in the pale light of the just rising sun.

And the shine [of the sun] became ever stronger, and the higher the sun rose, the light fell on more and more of the tree branches. The old green oaks were already half in the sunlight. Finally, I saw them reflected in the krenitsa. Its color was like freshly poured satin.

And shortly, the image of the sun's orb began to flatten itself out on the left side. The flattening eventually became more distinct, assuming the shape of a half circle. The appearance of the sun continued in this fashion, assuming the shape of the moon, when it begins to wane. Slowly, and a little bit at a time, the sun was entirely extinguished, leaving only a trace of its surface [visible] – a round thin strip of light in the sky. All around it became darkened, just like the night, and a great uneasiness fell over me. I was afraid to move from the spot where I was. I sat petrified. A breeze blew from branch to branch, passing on still secrets of the air. The leaves rustled in the great darkness, and an aura of mystery pervaded the entire orchard.

My skin crawled. I felt as if the proverbial six days of creation had returned, when God says one Word,

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and an entire world is created.

Suddenly, a half-circle of light appeared in the place where the extinguished sun had been, and the orchard once more became distinct.

A little bit at a time, the strip of light became wider and lighter, a little bit at a time, the light returned, pouring itself over everything about, until the last blemish disappeared from the sun.

I entered the town by way of the Deutscher Gasse. The marketplace and the Schulhof were full of people. In the wide street drains, water was flowing like after a heavy downpour. All the water vessels had already been emptied.

 

3. To the Hakafot

For the entire year, we barely saw the young people in the synagogue, superficial prayers all of them, who came with the objective of getting their praying over with, and then fly off. On the Sabbath, when in the houses of prayer, the portion of reading the Torah was reached, or the beginning of the Musaf service, it was usual in Schul to fold up the prayer shawls, and rush home. Even on the Sabbath that the New Month was blessed, or on a Yom Tov, when the Hazzan performed together with a choir, people did not leave any later than from any other synagogues, because the ‘core worshipers,’ from time immemorial, always arrogated certain ‘privileges’ to themselves, the style of the davening was constantly subject to debate; and no big thing was made out of the Shacharit service either. They would send up Shlomo der Tchesler, and he would grind through [the prayers] like milling flour, and during Yom Tov, whole sections of the Piyyut were entirely omitted, to the point where one simply had to take pity on the Makhzor. During winter, in the middle of the week, the Schul wasn't even opened, because it was as cold as an icebox, and in the summer, it was impossible to get together a minyan. Early in the morning, the air was biting cold there, even in the month of Tammuz,[5] and when one rolled up a sleeve in order to put on tefillin, a chill would pass over the skin of the exposed arm, and cause it to break out in tiny goose bumps. And from the floor, which was below the level of the Schulhof, and whose boards didn't quite fit properly together, the cold air of the earth seeped in, and from up above, from the unfinished soffit, a peculiar cold emptiness emanated downwards.

The long, stretched out windows were set quite high in the walls, much closer to the heights than the lower part of the structure, and the sun, shining through them could never reach the congregants. The best one could do, was to look into the window from the south side, at the gray, raw, unfinished north wall, or to shine a lamp from the high, unfinished wooden bimah, which was situated in the dead center of the Schul. The only place where the sun could reach a person, was in the women's section, which was to the rear and west, elevated, over the foyer. However, it was seldom that there was anyone there for the sun to shine on.

First and foremost, the Schul did not have the dedication, and the fundamental courtesies[6] the way the Bet HaMidrash had. The schedule was run chaotically, when on one Sabbath, one person would be in charge, and a week later, someone else. It looked communal, but it was only at the time of the High Holydays that one could see who really was running the show.

But when it came to the eve of Simkhat Torah, the cold, ordinary appearance of the Schul would suddenly vanish, and it was as if a warm, happy, animated breeze, would have streamed out from every corner, and filled [our] hearts with life.

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On Simkhat Torah, the Schul was the center of life and merriment in the town.

Wherever one could place a candle in a hollowed-out potato, a candle burned; wherever there was a balcony, an attic, or an overhang, hanging lanterns and candle decorations were affixed there, in hollowed out gourds or potatoes, in which lit candles were inserted. They twinkled above like stars in the sky, and the great chandeliers with the large wax candles, and also the four large lighting lamps filled every corner with light.

Every face shone. It was possible to see how full of happiness everyone was. Young and old, observant or not, everyone felt full of life.

It is a custom in town that on the eve of Simkhat Torah, services in the Schul are led by the Rabbi. This is the one time of the year, that the corner to the right side of the Ark is occupied. And accompanying the Rabbi, comes his whole entourage, and just plain pious Jews from the other Batei Midrashim, who otherwise would not be coming to the Schul.

On this day, it is possible to see red, blue, white, and all sorts of other colored clothing, that assault the eyes among the monotonous, dark and subdued color of clothing that men wear.

Girls, little, somewhat older, and those of marriageable age, all come downstairs, right alongside the men. True, they don't come any further forward than the bimah, but up to that point they mingle with the menfolk as if they were at a songfest.

They come here to see the Hakafot[7], to kiss the Torah scrolls, and to take part in the happiness of the evening.

For the young people, it is total joy. Whoever can, tries to get as close to the bimah as possible; one divides oneself up into groups, ogling the girls. Others, more bold, have no shame in trying to cop a feel from the girls quite often.

When the time for Hakafot arrives, and the girls try to get near to kiss the Torah scrolls, an aggressive young man will sometimes put out his hand to intercept the girl's kiss. The girl blushes, the little boys and youngsters make a big deal out of it, exclaiming, Oh! Oh! Oh! She kissed a boy on the hand! The girl is not, however, scared off, and simply finds her way to a different Torah scroll. And the more the girls press upon the Torah scrolls, the more the boys stick out their hands in order to intercept a kiss, and if this doesn't work, they look for a chance to touch a girl, by the hand, the forehead, or at least by the blouse. These were the most joyous moments for the young boys.

* * *

This year, the Schul was even more lit up than most years. The new chandelier, donated by Reb Moshe der Geveer,[8] hung over the right center of the bimah, and all three of its candle holders were filled with half-pound candles, which together provided for a large, central flame. Everyone stood in wonderment at this powerful source of illumination.

– Well, look what we have lived to see in Dereczin! – a young homeowner was overheard to say – a chandelier of this kind should only be suitable for a synagogue in Vilna!

– Not bad – someone answered from the side – We have no reason to be ashamed of our synagogue. I have seen something of the world, but I haven't seen many synagogues like this one.

I used to dedicate my entire attention with the greatest interest to comments of this nature. But this time, I felt like it was going in one ear and right out the other. I hear the names of cities, people, things, and so forth, but I feel that right now, for me they have no meaning. My entire attention is riveted on the bimah. Every couple of minutes, I glance over there. It is, however, too early.

– Will she come to the Hakafot too? – a question

[Page 38]

that had been nagging at me for several days already.

My eyelids fluttered tiredly, just as if a weight was continuously pulling on them. My heart beat wildly, and my thoughts were mixed up, as if in a stew.

I hadn't seen Chaykeh since the Fast of the Ninth of Ab, from that day on, when my child's heart first imbibed its first love, and my mood suddenly acquired a peculiar quality, which enveloped me in nebulous secrets. But from that time on, she didn't leave my fantasizing for one minute. Her pale complexion, her coal-black shining eyes, and her black curly hair, cut short, entranced me; I could not get her red blouse, and her rose-striped short skirt, which she wore at that time, out of my mind. Wherever I would look, I would see Chaykeh first, and then she became the reason I would look. Especially her eyes, they didn't let go of me for a minute. – I'd be studying, reading a book, and they would intrude between the lines, between the words, and totally addled my senses. My happiest moments were when I would go to sleep. No sooner would I lie down, than my imagination would begin to construct a picture of a paradise in which she and I were the only living beings.. – we are both sitting in the forest, in the same spot where on the Ninth of Ab we gathered berries. We are sitting close to one another, much closer than at that time… and are looking at one another with wide-open eyes. Not the same as then, when our eyes met, and then hastily were lowered to the ground; – I take her hand, and try to imagine in my mind, what it would feel like to hold her soft, warm hand in mine. I take her other hand, and look deeply into her eyes. She looks at me ashamedly, blushes, and shudders confusedly. Her lips part, she wants to say something, but doesn't have the capacity… My ardor grows stronger as a result. “Oh, Chayelkeh!” I call out to her lengthily, “Do you love me as much as I love you?” She turns pale. I let go of her hands and throw myself face down on the ground; My eyes fill with tears, and my heart beats so strongly and quickly. My head is so disoriented, and so pained. I try to find a place to lie my head. I put it here, and then there, until I crawl over with it to the hem of her dress. – The smell of the new cardboard box strikes me full in the nose. A fresh stream courses through my heart: I feel as if a new world is opening up for me, with a new life that not long ago I had no hope to aspire to. I literally get hot. – I want to press her to me, to feel her warm, fresh body, to kiss her every part of her body. But I become ashamed of my own thoughts, and I lower my hands in inaction, and I give her a look that asks for pity.

That is the way I used to start this dream sequence, from the same scene. Quite often, I would try to invent new versions, new positions, but naturally feeling, that in this very scene – at that spot in the forest where we really at one time sat together – I could not come up with any variation. I would often get very confused, not being able to come up with a completely original fantasy sequence. And so, I would return to the same, familiar scenario, which I had so well rehearsed, that it seemed to me that we actually lived it, and in this manner I would put myself to sleep every night.

* * *

A loud slap was heard over the ammud, and the voice of the gabbai, that the “bidding” for Atah Har'Eta,[9] was starting.

It started with “three gulden and ten groschen,” and gradually rose, ten groschen a turn, until it reached thirty-six gulden. Two of the settler families bought it together in partnership. They allocated four of the readings as follows: to the Rabbi, to Reb Moshe,[10] to two other prominent homeowners, and the rest they kept for themselves. They mangled the Hebrew, and yet the congregants followed repetitively, and smiled at their provincial accents.

Standing with my uncle, and reading with him from one Makhzor, I noticed a couple of youngsters starting to move towards the bimah. I understood that there must be girls there already. Oh, did my heart start to beat wildly. It told me that Chaykeh was certainly there already, but I couldn't decide to go there; I was afraid that she wasn't there yet. It was more pleasant for me to stand here, and imagine that she really was there – so near to me…

[Page 39]

Finally, I found some will, and went nearer to the bimah. I situated myself between two pillars, from which vantage point I could see the entire company of girls, who were all to one side. There were, however, so many, that it wasn't possible to see any single individual clearly. I searched for a red blouse and a rose-colored dress. But, there was none to be seen.

As I came closer to the girls, acting as if I was just walking by, I hear one of the girls say: – Chaykeh, look! Here's Shloimkeh! I didn't hear an answer, but I sensed the predicament that she found herself, and from which my face burned.

Chaykeh was sitting on a bench with a friend of hers, at the rear of the company of girls. She was wearing a white dress with a folded over black edging on a sailor's collar. The outline of her bosom showed the onset of womanhood. She looked much more attractive than at the time of the Ninth of Ab in the forest. Her eyes looked bigger and more sparkling. I looked at her, and she at me, and instantly our glances were diverted to the surroundings.

Oh, if she only knew what I thought of her, especially when I go to sleep, what would she think of me? – A thought ran through my mind that warmed me all over. She knows already that I'm not as shy as I'm made out to be. When I took her hand in the forest that time, she looked at me with an expression as if one said: “Feh!” This doesn't become you! Today, after such things, what I permit myself to think of her…

I started to get all confused. I thought everyone was staring at me, and they see everything that comes into my mind. Every second was for me an eternity. I didn't know how all of this would end.

Fortunately, one of my friends approached me, and we started to talk about other matters. I felt a little distracted.

This self-same friend knew Chaykeh well, and also the second girl that sat with her. He went over to them, and I barely tagged along with him.

A general conversation started up between us immediately, and I detected an embarrassed satisfaction in Chaykeh's eyes. I took that into account.

In the meantime, the Hakafot had commenced.

The young people at the rear of the synagogue made a move to get closer to the bimah. A complete mishmash ensued. Boys, girls, all together. Everyone sorted themselves out in two lines and aligned themselves, deciding who would use their hands to touch the girls, and who the Torah scrolls.

I came out standing in the second line, opposite Chaykeh,-- every time my glance met hers, I felt like some new magic enveloped me. I stood in thrall, hoping that she would not look at anyone else in the same way. I began to wish that it would have been better had she not come at all…

I stood as if addled in the senses. Three of the Hakafot had already been finished, and I hadn't kissed even one Torah scroll. Chaykeh also had not touched a single Torah scroll. Palpably, my restlessness had also made an impression on her.

Suddenly the fourth Hakafa procession begins to arrive. Someone had given Chaykeh a shove, and she practically fell with her mouth on the Torah scroll. She couldn't so anything else but give it a kiss.

All at once laughing burst out Berel, the carpenter's sleepy-headed son stuck his paw under her mouth, and the kiss fell on it.

My mind became inflamed.

– You boor! Lout! – my voice rose up out of my throat. If I had the capacity to at that moment, I surely would have killed him.

Chaykeh reddened, looked at me with moist eyes, and went out.

I thought my heart would break.

 

Translator's Footnotes
  1. A Jewish periodical of the times. Return
  2. The Russian word for a thief, used to characterize the job of the individual, who might have to shout, ‘thief!’ Return
  3. A masmid is one who is continuously dedicated to his calling (i.e. scholarship) Return
  4. A body of well water. Perhaps a decorative pool of sorts, found in this botanical garden. Return
  5. Jewish month in July/August. Return
  6. The author uses the Yiddish word, balebatishkeit, for which it is difficult to find an accurate translation! Return
  7. The ritual marching of the Torah scrolls on Simkhat Torah. Return
  8. A rich man Return
  9. The opening recitation of the first Hakafa. Return
  10. Presumably der Geveer Return


[Page 40]

The Sinai Colony

by Chaim Zvi Miller-Sinai

(Original Language: Hebrew)

(Translated preface supplied by Sol Phillips without attribution)

Dedicated to my gentle daughter, Dina, of blessed memory, chaste in thought and deed, who was taken from us in the prime of life, during Passover of 1955.
Ch. Z. M-S.

 

Introduction

Myriads of cities and towns in the countries of Eastern Europe and in its center, in which the Nazi Asmodeus exterminated the Jews who lived there for centuries, continue to remain in their place. In some of them isolated [Jewish] families still reside. But even those that were completely cleansed of a Jewish presence, where no Jewish foot treads any longer – their names have not been erased, and their existence will not vanish from Jewish memory, since many of them were places renown as centers of Torah scholarship, such as: Volozhin, Mir, Radun, Slobodka, Telz, and others; or that they produced people [of repute] such as: The Gaon, Rav Eliyahu of Vilna, Reb Levi-Yitzhhak of Berdichev, Rav Yisrael Salanter, and others; or because rabbis lived there who authored books during their residence, and by virtue of such authorship, the name of the town was preserved through their writings.

Only the place where I was born, a Jewish village comprised of thirty farming families, called “Sinaiska” was completely eradicated from the face of the earth, and from which there remains no trace [memory] at all.

I was jealously possessive of my birthplace, where members of my family lived for more than a century – they plowed, spread seed, planted, and earned their livelihood with the labor of their hands, and there remains no memory even of the beautiful name, “Sinaiska,” that only with tremendous energy and effort was extracted from the ruling authority. Now, in the sunset of my life, when I am the only one left, who knows about the undertaking of those who founded the village from its very beginning, I said that I would set down my recollections in these few pages, which I absorbed from firsthand sources, from my father, of blessed memory, from my grandmother, my father's mother , of blessed memory, who were among the original founders of the place. This feuilleton will serve not only as chapter and verse on the village – it will tell of its history to my progeny, and to all those who emigrated from Sinaiska, wherever they are, and from it, they will understand the trials and tribulations endured by their ancestors in subduing and possessing the place, and those of them that live in the Land of Israel will recognize, when they come to it, the difficulties associated with absorption and the conflicts with neighboring peoples in the early days of the settlement of Jews in the Holy Land.

 

Preface

(Supplied with Translation)

Chaim Zvi Sinai-Miller was born in 1885 in the Sinaiska area of Slonim. He studies in the Yeshivot at Slonim and Volozhin. The following is an account of the settling of this village, and the trials and tribulations of its settlers as related by him.
I was inspired by the great events of the outside world (the Dreyfus trial, etc.). The Dreyfus trial influenced me greatly. I came to the conclusion that the only solution to this problem of the Jewish nation was Zionism: and this became a driving force and an integral part of my life. It was very important that I settle in the Land of Israel.

During World War I, I left Lithuania and went to Poltava in the Ukraine. I talked about Zion ism constantly. We all suffered greatly du ring the [Russian] Revolution. My only goal was to settle in Palestine. From Poltava, I went to Dereczin, where

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I was a Hebrew School teacher and taught many students. In 1926, I emigrated to Palestine, with my wife and three children, to a village called Moriah. We were subjected to great hardship there. In 1929, the village was attacked by neighboring Arabs. We were saved by an Arab leader, who lived in a nearby village, whom I had previously befriended. We left this village and moved on to settle in Ramat HaSharon, where I taught Torah.

Note: In Ramat HaSharon, he was a member of the governing municipality and Chairman of the Religious Advisory Committee. A boulevard in this suburb was named after him. There is a plaque on this boulevard, which reads as follows:

“Chaim Zvi Sinai-Miller, may he rest in peace. He was a pioneer of Ramat HaSharon, a man of Torah and keeper of the eternal spark of God, whose light many follow.”

 

The Jewish Settlement of Sinaiska
(This is Kolonia-Sinaiska)

In the expanse of White Russia, among the gentile villages and Jewish towns, there was to be found a slightly unusual village. In many ways it was a village like any other village: [it had] barns, stables, vegetable gardens and fruit trees. Surrounding the houses – wooden houses with straw thatched roofs – were fields for growing grain, and fields of pasture; and the farmers – farmers obviously experienced in cultivation, harvesting and threshing. But they have a different appearance: [the grown men] are bearded, their heads are covered, and they don't have the [same] Russian features as the other farmers in the area. These were Jews. On every door a mezuzah was hung, And in the middle of the [village] street, a synagogue stood, built of brick with a slate roof, which in comparison to the wooden houses of the farmers was a beautiful building indeed; and they had their own Rabbi, and also a ritual slaughterer, and they would retain teachers for their children by invitation from out of town. Jews lived here, good and straightforward workers, and they died here. Here, children were born to them, and here they married them off, and with the rest of world Jewry, they awaited the Final Redemption that would come in the future. It was in this manner that the village existed for more than a century, until the Holocaust, a calamity unprecedented since the destruction of the Second Temple. The town was erased from the face of the earth, all the houses were burned down, the synagogue was razed to the foundation, and the land was divided up among the farmers in the surrounding area.

The name of this town is “Kolonia-Sinaiska” which was in the Slonim area, seven kilometers from the town of Dereczin. Even though the name “Kolonia” is a general name, and the name “Sinaiska” – a specific name, it was the accepted practice in the area to refer to the town as “Kolonia” only.

This Kolonia, in which I was born, and among which my ancestors were founders – was established approximately in the year 1835. This parcel was one of the possessions of Prince Sapieha , leader of the rebellion against Russian rule in 1831. After the rebellion was put down, and when the prince fled the country to exile, the government confiscated all his property. In those times, there was a plan formulated by the rulers of the state and Czar Nicholas I to convert some part of the Jewish population of Russia into farmers. It is possible that the motivation came from a desire to cause the Jews to become assimilated into the Russian nation, and for related reasons, to transform the Jews into a productive element of the population. Let us, however, leave the clarification of this point to historians. One of the properties of Prince Sapieha was allocated to this Kolonia. In those days, in the period of the Cantonists, the khappers spread through the villages like beasts of prey, they seized Jewish children, and turned them over to the [Czarist] Army for a twenty-five year tour of duty. A part of them were lost[1] among the gentile population, and a portion died in childhood. Those who adhered to their Judaism suffered terribly. The poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik, in his ballad, Jonah the Tailor, described that era:

[Page 42]

Like one carrying a nursing lamb,
Or a suckling sheep from the flock,
So the orphan was snatched from a house,
A child from the room.
And the government, in order to attract the Jews to working the land, excused those who became homesteaders and became farmers – from having their sons taken to army service for twenty-five years.

And families who had largely male children, and were perpetually engulfed by the terror of having their offspring grabbed by these kidnappers, they were attracted to the concept of 'productivity' and abandoned their homes, their commerce and livelihood, in order to take up agriculture. They gave no thought to their talent to undertake land cultivation under harsh conditions, with no help from the government or any other organization. And in an area of hostile people who looked with derision and contempt on these Jewish farmers and there agricultural labor.

My grandfather, Reb Ze'ev who was blessed with many sons, on whom the fear of kidnaping weighed heavily, was also captivated by this idea. He lived as a man of means in the town of Novy Dvor, near Grodno. He sold all of his possessions, pulled up stakes in order to settle in Kolonia in order to work his [parcel of] land. My grandmother, Chaya Sarah, of blessed memory, was gifted with a good memory, and descriptive skills. In my childhood, I very much enjoyed listening to her stories of how this little agricultural spot was established, and how enchanting the place was in its [natural] beauty, there being majesty and glamour imbedded all over. The palace of the prince, where the settlers first came was eye-opening. Large windows, doors made from precious woods, worked with etchings and carving, a spacious orchard with choice fruit trees around the palace. Stables set up with all needs for cows, and even a pool of water to bathe them with. Additionally, with every pail of water that was drawn, you would bring up live fish.

The settlers came from various places, and at the outset, there was no connection between them. When they all came in to occupy a single house, and with every family having a lot of children, this was disruptive to the creation of an orderly community life. This settlement was quite different from the settlement in the Land of our Forefathers. Here, in our land [sic: the Land of Israel] [the concept of] settlement stems from an idealistic objective, of a Return to Zion, from a deeply seated longing of two thousand years to free ourselves from the chains of the Diaspora, to cast away forever the walking stick of the wanderer, to rejuvenate the ancient homeland, to re-awaken ourselves, and to live an ordinary life like any other nation among the nations of the world. Secondly – this marvelous ideal united the olim[2] and made a single family unit out of them, 'with one heart and one mind,' before they even became familiar with one another. Third – those who came to possess the land took limitless encouragement from the fact that they were neither alone nor forsaken. Behind them stood the Makhon[3] to help them, so they won't fail, with an eye out to ensure their success, and shepherding them along with the blessing, “may your hands be strengthened.” But those there, in that settlement, in those days in the wide expanse of Russia – they had no shred of an ideal around which to rally. The fled out of fear of the kidnapers, they went onto the land without any skills or direction. Without any form of help or support, into the middle of a gentile community, saturated with hate and full of jealousy, over the good portion, this beautiful asset, that had been turned over to these Jews. On top of this, there was a completely negative attitude from the Jewish communities in the surrounding area toward these farmers. They were perceived to be prodigal sons, who had abandoned the way of life of Jews in the Diaspora, and were taking up the ways of gentiles by working the soil, and on that count would fall away from the Torah, and its commandments, thereby ultimately assimilating into the larger gentile fabric. They related to them as people of a lower station, and of lesser worth, – they were 'peasants' in their eyes.

[Page 43]

A half century after the establishment of the town, I personally experienced this attitude. I recollect, when I was a youngster, about age nine, I was studying in the adjacent town of Zelva, and the boys in the Heder distanced themselves from me. They tagged me with the name, 'son-of-the-peasant' from Kolonia, notwithstanding the fact that I excelled in my studies.

It is understood that under such circumstances, a significant portion of the settlers became disappointed with the hasty step that they had taken, when they had abandoned their businesses, and their homes in order to come here. They gave evidence that they had consumed their remaining resources, and returned, regretting that they had come, and having left behind bitterness and resignation. From all the ranks of the settlers, a small clutch of people stayed behind, whose conviction was focused on staying, and to come to grips with all the circumstances that lay ahead, and they were prepared for every trial and sufferance that lay ahead of them. It was in this fashion that eight families remained, that formed a pact to establish this Jewish village, and these are the families:

  1. Miller - from Novy Dvor
  2. Becker - from Knishin
  3. Kresnovsky - from Sokhobolya
  4. The Spector family
  5. Stein - from Brisk
  6. Dlugolansky
  7. Sirota - from Yashinovka
  8. Cohen
They left the palace. Over time, as people passed through, the palace became a guest house, seeing as it was not appropriate for use as a dwelling. For this they selected a parcel that was centrally located to their farmland. This was [also] close to the road that led to the nearby towns. Apparently, those that remained were the ones who were people of means among them, because the money they brought with them was sufficient to sustain them during the time that they built houses, stables, barns, household goods, and work implements, primitive though they were. My recollection is that my grandmother, of blessed memory, expressed herself in this way:
“Mir haben gebracht a gantzen zekel mit gelt.” [Trans: We brought a whole sack full of money.]
I don't have any idea exactly how much money this was.

Even before the farmers began to construct their homes in the location of their choice, the Russian [governmental] administration took no interest in them. It [the administration] was aware of the rate of abandonment on the part of many in that area, and thought that even this remnant would not be able to hold on, and in the end they would all leave. But after the houses were built, along with the remaining structures, and the place started to look like a real village – the government took notice of it, and the first thing they did was give it a name, and of all things, after one of the church saints: this colony was designated to be called Konstantinovka, after St. Constantine. When this became known to the farmers, they sent a delegation to the district officials and presented their objection, explaining that since this was a Jewish town, they proposed to call the village by the name, Sinaiska, after Mount Sinai, on which the Jews received the Torah, which is a light unto all nations. After [many] explanations and entreaties, the regime agreed to their recommendation, and from that time on, the settlement was called Kolonia-Sinaiska. It is appropriate to emphasize the nationalistic and religious feelings of the peasantry in those years. The settlers felt that the era of contention and bitterness had ended, to groping along an endless path, and that they were entering on an ordinary life trajectory of a people who worked the land. With hearts full of hope, they approached the preparation of the land for seeding. The land was rich, from among the choice parcels of the surroundings, and it had been left fallow for several years, and was rich with [agricultural] potential. With an enthusiastic attitude, they put in a great deal of energy into their work, in the expectation of excellent crops which will improve their circumstances, and will help them to forget the bad experiences that they had to date.

They sowed their seed with great joy, and a blessed rain came and wet Mother Earth. The fields grew green and were a feast to the eyes, and they thought surely they would see the words of a song of Israel come to fruition: “a crown of the year of your

[Page 44]

goodness.” But alas! The gentiles from the adjacent villages deliberately let their sheep and cattle onto the green fields of the Jews, and these animals devoured everything, literally ' in the manner of hungry oxen.' These few Jews, who saw their joy turn to sorrow, literally wept when they saw what these wicked neighbors had done to them. They attempted to get compensation, but nothing resulted from this. It was in this manner, that several years went by, of suffering and disappointment, in which they barely sustained themselves with the meager yield from those parcels that were closest to their homes, or the ones that were at a goodly distance. Even when they sowed, there was nothing to reap. The surrounding villages, who covetously cast their eyes on the land held by the Jews, were certain that after the trouble and heartbreak that they were causing them – the patience of the Jews would give out, they will forsake the place, and then the gentiles will be able to move in and take possession of their good fields. But how true are the songs of Israel:

“For like arrows in the hand of the valiant, so are our youth;
Fortunate is the individual who has filled his quiver with them.”
The sons of the farmers, who grew up as children of the countryside, in the expanses of nature, were fired up, confident and focused on returning a fitting retribution while still young, being only sixteen years of age. The depredations of their wicked neighbors kindled a vengeful fire in their hearts, and they waited for that day, when they would grow up and feel that they had the might in their hands to take revenge upon the gentiles.

At last, the hour arrived. They spoke among themselves, and arrived at a decision: This is the end of it! From tomorrow on there will be no hoofprint from the herds of these uncircumcised infidels on their land! They fashioned whips of intertwined barbed wire, with a round stone stuck at the end of the whip. Impatiently they waited for daybreak, and very early in the morning, when one could not yet distinguish white from blue, they set out, imbued with an heroic spirit, riding on their horses to the grain fields that bordered on the fields of the gentiles. As usual, they found the herd of cattle grazing in the midst of the grain stalks. The shepherds were dozing peacefully, without an inkling of what was about to happen. Only the barking of the dogs – so they thought – awoke them from their slumber. Only when they saw the youths mounted on their steeds did they become alarmed, and they yelled for help to the villagers who were working the fields nearby. They sped from all sides, and the battle was joined. The gentiles, who were surprised by the strength of the “Young Israelites,” and their courage, were alarmed, they became victims of the ensuing pandemonium, and they did not have the will to continue the fight. After sustaining some pointed beatings from the young men, who smote them hip and thigh – they fled. The young men seized the herd, and brought it back to their settlement where they penned the animals up, until such time as they were compensated for the damage caused. The Jewish farmers did not stop at this point. They killed two roosters, and poured the blood on the scratches and lighter wounds that they had sustained, in order to intensify the impression of their ordeal. They quickly mounted the better of their horses and thundered off to the town of Dereczin, the location of the local government office, and they submitted a complaint regarding the incident and the attending damages. The impression made was quite strong, reinforced by the appearance of their wounds and the copious amount of blood on the clothing. And if, in connection with complaints that they presented from time-to-time, they received no response because they could not provide witnesses, this time the bruises and the many bloodstains on their clothes were like a hundred witnesses, and the authorities could no longer refrain from discharging its duty. An order was issued, at the behest of the municipal authority, to immediately summon five of the elders from the nearby town in order that they be flogged. And they were publicly flogged on that very same day (in those days, flogging was a common punishment). And they were further warned in this connection, that if they allow their herds once more to tread upon the land of the Jews – they'll get double lashes, and with that they levied a monetary fine on them for the damage they had caused. The beating they got, the lashing they received, and the money they had to pay – these three things together with the intervention of the authorities on one hand, and the Jews on the other, made an impression. The relationship went from one extreme to the other.

[Page 45]

The neighbors came together because of this, and established cordial relations as befits equals. There were, among the gentiles, those who looked upon the Jews with respect: I recall, that when I was a little boy, when a gentile from the surrounding area would enter our home, he would take off his hat, and didn't have the temerity to draw near until my father, of blessed memory, told him that he had permission to approach.

From that day on, a transformation occurred in the temperament of all the residents of the settlement, rooted in the recognition that everything that had gone on in the past had evaporated and vanished, and from this day forward, they would not reach destitution, and will see a return for their labor. Nonetheless, they never achieved great wealth, but they had bread to eat and clothing to wear, and they were content with their lot. They had a ritual slaughterer at all times, who also served as a teacher for the youngest children. They would retain the services of two [additional] teachers from nearby towns during the school season. They would pay them a set amount of money for half the year, apart from the meals they would take at the homes of their students. They did not have a permanent Rabbi, because thirty families did not have the means to support a Rabbi who was also a family man.

About twenty years before the First World War, a young Rabbi came to this place, and resided there permanently until the outbreak of the War, this Rabbi, who subsequently became well-known as one of the Righteous Men of his generation, was far removed from worldly experience, from its tumult and hubbub. Having found a quiet little retreat where he could study Torah and say his prayers among straight and simple people who tilled the soil, who live by the labor of their hands, he was able to fulfil that which is written:

And he saw tranquility, that it was pleasant;
So he put his shoulder to it, that he might take part of it.
He injected the love of Torah and the fear of God into that place, and brought more suitable teachers, and stimulated parents to send there children to centers of Torah scholarship. And he influenced the parents of scholastically gifted young men, who demonstrated an ability to master advanced Torah study, to send them to the great Yeshivot, such as Volozhin, Radin, Slobodka, and Telz. I recall, that in comparison with nearby towns, where one [student] would be enrolled in one of the afformentioned Yeshivot, – from our community of thirty families there were five. And there was no bounds to the affection of this Rabbi for a Torah scholar. When I would return home from the Yeshiva for the holidays, he would embrace me with great joy. It was through his many initiatives that a synagogue was built, a stone structure made of brick, with a slate roof in the center of the settlement, which amidst the wooden houses of the farmers, thatched with straw, took on the appearance of a magnificent castle.

This Rabbi was HaRav HaGaon & Tzaddik Rav David Yitzhak Magen זצ"ל, who went to the Holy Land in 1927, and took up residence in Jerusalem. He was known there as the Rabbi of Dereczin, and he passed away at the onset of the Second World War, but was privileged yet to be interred on the Mount of Olives. He was survived by two married daughters: one married to Rav HaGaon Aharon Weinstein, a Rosh Yeshiva and author of books on the Halakha, and a second, married to the great Rabbi, Rav Hillel Witkin, a worker and Headmaster of the Beth Joseph Yeshiva of Novogrudok. His son is Rabbi V.M. Magen, Principal of a state-run religious school.

It was in this manner that several decades went by, and the farmers of Kolonia-Sinaiska conducted their lives as if on still waters, raising their children to lives of Torah and honest labor. Those who were scholastically talented – continued to learn, and those skilled to work – went into agriculture or other forms of labor. Idlers or shiftless individuals, which was common to the urban middle class – were not to be found. Nonetheless, they worked hard, although their demands from life were not many, and they made do with what was given to them, and most were content with their lot. After the Russian pogroms of 1905-6, a noticeable change began in the settlement; most of the young people immigrated across the ocean, especially to the United States. The settlement lost almost all of its young people, and only the very old and very young remained. The

[Page 46]

central reason was this: the farmland had already been subdivided into thirds and quarters of the original land holdings of the settlers, and didn't lend itself to further subdivision, in order that it be adequate to provide any sort of a livelihood. In those days, Jews were forbidden to accumulate land assets.[Under these conditions] Young people did not see any future in working the land. An additional factor was the wave of immigration, that swept over the entire Jewish Pale of Settlement like a powerful tidal wave, which took up many in its wake, and among them were the youth of the settlement. This was a bad turn of events for the settlement, whose results were emotional, and immediately recognizable: the gentile neighbors from the surrounding villages, on seeing the outflux of Jewish youth, reverted to their old behavior, and began to permit their herds to graze the Jewish farmland. As it was during the early years, they took advantage of every opportunity to do so. And once again, the thought entered their hearts that sooner-or-later, the Jews would leave, and they would be able to take over their lands. The spirit of the farmers weakened under the influence of these forces. The force of creativity was undermined, and the farmer, even as he walked in the furrows behind the plow, would have the following question constantly burrowing in his mind: “whom am I working for?”

They continued to carry on in this way, without much expectation for the future, until the outbreak of the First World War. The retreating Russian Army put the town to the torch, setting fire to all four corners, and all of it went up in flames, up to its synagogue. The Jews, who were driven for several weeks already to an adjacent village, returned and entered a nearby village to take up residence, all the residents of the village, who were Russian, fled to the interior of Russia for fear of the invading Germans, and the villages were emptied of their occupants.

The Jews took this opportunity to work the abandoned fields of the gentiles in addition to their own lands. And in light of the fact that the price of grain rose during wartime, buyers were found, and they were able to earn a significant enough sum of money, to rehabilitate their property in Kolonia-Sinaiska after the war ended. And yet, it seemed that conditions would continue to improve, a new cadre of young people came of age, with an inclination to do the work, with the lot of the farmer in those first years after the War coming together rather nicely, without suffering at the hands of their gentile neighbors who had returned to their places, because at the end of the War, that vale was annexed to [the new republic of] Poland, and the village peasantry was Russian, and they were afraid to raise their heads. The ruling of a Polish judge was so abhorrent to them, that the most virulent invective one man could hurl at another in the heat of an argument was : “I hope you have to stand trial before a Polish judge!”

Years of quiet returned to the settlement. They built houses much nicer than the ones they had before the War, the roofs were slated, and even the synagogue was renovated and repaired, and returned to its normal place. However, not many years went by before the price of grain plummeted disastrously. Even dairy manufacture did not bring in much income, and the economic circumstances of the farmer deteriorated. When H. Sitkov, the emissary of the “Farmers Cooperative” in the Holy Land came to Poland in 1924, with the consent of the Palestine Mandate government, to recruit experienced farmers and their families to come to the Holy Land, people sped to him, and enlisted as eligible for aliyah, and in time, twenty families, consisting of about 100 souls made the journey. Most of them, as did most [at that time] settled in Rishon LeTzion, and a few families went to Petakh-Tikvah, and Netanya. All eventually attained a measure of peace and land entitlement. Those left behind in Sinaiska, about five or ten families, were as if orphaned, and they were left forsaken. Smitten by a loss of spirit, and emotionally pained, they continued to reside there until the outbreak of the Second World War. The terrifying Holocaust engulfed them. The filthy Nazis razed the settlement, and transferred its Jews to the neighboring town of Dereczin, and threw them with the rest of the Jews of that town into a ghetto. And on that bitter and overzealously prosecuted day, which was the Tenth day of the Month Menahem-Ab[4] 1942,

[Page 47]

they were exterminated together with the Jews of Dereczin. And this is how the end came to the settlement of Sinai, a Jewish agricultural settlement that existed for more than a century. Everything was destroyed. The land is now worked by the gentiles of the surrounding area. No trace remains of the settlement, as if a Jewish foot never had trod the earth. Of the families that founded the settlement, more than twenty families live in Israel, and several tens of families are scattered in lands overseas, especially the United States. All are established, and a number of them have achieved great wealth. Her sons – among them are those of high intellectual accomplishment, including talent in engineering, that are recognized as inventors.

In order to preserve the name and memory of my birthplace, I changed my family name from Miller to Sinai, and I have raised a marker to my forbears who walked after the plow, and whose beads of sweat

moistened the furrows of black loam, and whose prayers called down the rains of heaven on their fallow land. Let the sons [of coming generations] read this chapter, and read about it to their sons and tel them this tale, and their children to the generation after them.

 

Translator's Footnotes
  1. An interesting choice of Hebrew metaphor: the writer uses the root for 'becoming ritually unclean.' Return
  2. I choose not to translate this word as 'immigrants' so it retains its special meaning for those who 'go up' to the Land of Israel, i.e. make aliyah. Return
  3. Referring to the agency land cooperatives. Return
  4. This is significant insofar as it is one day after the Ninth of Ab - Tish'a B'Av, which commemorates the destruction of both Jewish Temples in Jerusalem. Return


[Page 48]

From the Mouth of My Mother, of Blessed Memory

by Yaffa Prozbol

(Original Language: Hebrew)

I am a native of Dereczin, the daughter of Haya-Esther & Yaakov-Raphael Salutsky. To this day, the stories of my mother, of blessed memory, come to my mind, about our town, and its way of life.

Distinguished rabbis were leaders of the Dereczin Jewish community, and among the lay community there were also many who studied and learned, among them many who sat and learned days at a time, from one prayer session to the next in the Bet HaMidrash on the Schulhof. Among these was numbered my grandfather, Abraham ben David, who would rise in the dead of the night, at about three-thirty AM, go to the synagogue to pray, to learn and to teach a page of the Gemara and to read for those gathered a chapter from the Mishna. This was the way those in town who studied would 'sit on the Torah' until noon, the hour at which they would go home to eat and rest, in order to return after their rest to prayer and to the Gemara.

And additionally, my mother who bore me, may she rest in peace, told me about the handshake agreement between my grandfather and grandmother: grandfather, as I said, spent his entire day learning and teaching, while grandmother took care of household affairs, occupying herself with the preparation of wine and honey mead, and supervising the work on the parcel of land that was in the control of the family, raising and supporting the entire family, consisting of her six sons and single daughter. On the occasion of the marriage of their eldest son, there was much joy, and in honor of this festive occasion, the two of them, my grandfather and grandmother agreed on a handshake, that half of the benefit earned by my grandfather (who occupied himself solely with prayer and good deeds), in the World-to-Come, after his allotted One Hundred Twenty Years, would accrue to my grandmother, who was the provider and took care of household affairs. They formalized this agreement legally...

It was from my mother that also heard stories and legends about the house of the Duke to which Dereczin belonged. The duke, who ruled at the beginning of the last century,[1] was a good-hearted liberal man, according to my mother, who heard this from her grandmother, and she from her mother before her, and so it was handed down from generation to generation. Once, coming through the door of his palace, and spying the decrepit house of the mother of Hasia-Faygel in the distance, which appeared to him to be “standing on chicken's feet,” ordered it taken down, and a two-story dwelling put up in its place.

The duke had a son, and in the days of the uprising of Poland against Russia, he was promised dominion over his liberated possessions, if he will lend his support to the rebellion. The son came to his father, and attempted to persuade him also to join the rebels against the Czar, but his father refused to take heed of his son's advice. Legend has it that the son poisoned his father. After the Polish rebellion was crushed, the son fled into exile, and the Russians confiscated the assets in the duke's home, and converted his palaces to royal use.

My mother, of blessed memory, told me, that when I was still a little girl, my father took me in his arms, and brought me to the market square to see the great miracle that had first come to our town – a horseless carriage. It was said, at the time, that the driver of the car that he was the grandson of the duke, owner of the palaces, the beautiful orchard, and possessed of the good heart.

 

Translator's Footnote
  1. This was likely a Sapieha, and the reference is to the early 1800's. Return

 

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