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[Page 131]

The First Jewish Commune in Russia

Moishe Faerman z”l

Translated by Sarah Faerman

It happened in the year 1919, in the month of April. The Bolsheviks occupied Ukraine for the second time; the first time being after the outbreak of the October Revolution at the end of 1917. It must be stated that it was not without joy that the Jews greeted them – especially those from the villages on the banks of the river Dniester who were in great danger of being massacred by the passing hordes of Denikinsts, Petlurists and other lesser bands on their way to the borders of Poland and Romania. Yells of celebration accompanied the Bolsheviks' rifle shots as they sped after the retreating bands through our town Dubossar that lies in a valley very close to the banks of the Dniester.

The joy did not last long. The honey moon was soon over as the new regime tightened its grip on every part of the land instituting the well known militaristic Communism. The regime leaned heavily on the farmer who was already impoverished from the war with the Germans and Austrians. Greater though, was the oppression of the Jews as they were barred from all economic pursuits. As heavy as that burden was, an additional financial misfortune was imposed: “contributions” were demanded from which the other populations were exempt.

The following episode will serve as a small example of the tragic circumstances of the Jewish folk. The regime imposed a mobilization of the youth for the Red Army. Members of various families were concripted into the army and in our family alone, three brothers were taken in one day. That was apparantly not enough as the parents and the Jewish community were also forced to provide the horses and wagons to transport the conscripts to their military posts. It did not help to complain that the Jews did not own wagons and horses; that quite often not even a piece of dry bread was found in their homes and certainly they could not affort to hire wagons. More than a few young men were obliged to go to their military billets leaving behind parents who were arrested soley for the sin of being unable to provide the stipulated wagons.

In those days of unheard of desolation, after having just escaped with our lives from the Petlurists, the Denikinsts and the other bands, we were now surrounded by a sea of militant Communists. In spite of this, the youth did not lose their heads and did not give in to despair. On the conrary, they thought clearly and earnestly about their predicament, seeking solutions to untangle themselves from this terrible situation. The answer was clear: to become productive workers. However, how does one become a productive worker if there is no work to be found? Industry was totally ruined, the land was aflame because of the civil war and yet, one must live. I, affiliated with Poalei Zion (Labour Zionist organization) but not officially for well known reasons and my friend David Layb Granovsky, the secretary of Tzeirei Tzion (Zionist Youth organization) unofficially held a quick consultation and decided to organize a Kvutza (Communal farm) and become field workers with the permission of the authorities. We would work and serve no-one. Communist principles – yes. Communism – no.

Immediately, a larger group than we had expected joined us. At first there were fifteen young people but due to circumstances this number, in time, shrunk. Aside from us two, the others in the group were Natan Tshereshna, a wise, older man. He was a tobacco farmer, experienced in agriculture; David Gurovsky; Simcha Granovsky; Moishe Granovsky; Motl Netzkaner – a teacher; Yudl Schwartz (went to America); his brother who later joined a well established collective in the Crimea; A. Litman (also went to America) and others.

After the group was formed, we worked at formulating guidelines to regulate our communal living arrangements. One rule was that if someone was called up to serve in the army, he would not lose his rights and his share in the venture. (The writer of these words did actually have to serve in the military later). We immediately went out to find a suitable piece of land and farm equipement, both items being very scarce in these times.

By then it was quite late in the spring. Thirty-five viorst from Dubossar and ten viorst from the village Okneh, in the Podalya province, we quietly rented a small piece of land in a secret deal.

On an open field, far from any habitation, there was the neglected house of a German colonist who had been shot after the Germans left. The walls bore the marks of bullet holes and on the floor were still bloodstains – reminders of the murder. We feared no danger. Even later, when we had to sleep outside, spread out, some in the field, some in pits – all in hiding from marauding bandits who roamed the surrounding villages killing Jews – even then we applied ourselves to our work.

The greatest difficulty was in obtaining the necessary animals and farm equipement. The small amount of money we put together was worth very little. Aside from some food, we bought seven horses at a fair. With our horses harnessed to two wagons, we drove happily to our new “kingdom” were we were about to begin a new chapter in our lives. However, it was our 'luck' that just as we were leaving the fair, the sky darkened and suddenly rain, like a flood, poured down upon us. Half alive, we arrived to our land the next morning with only six horses.

We gave the horses one day to rest up. On the second day we went out to our work. As there were only six horses and two people worked with one horse, there were several of us without work. It was with some envy that we saw how proficiently some of our comrades could plough straight furrows walking behind the horse and plough on the fresh, soft earth. Many a time we would remember (much later, in 1921, when I was already in Canada and working alone with six horses harnessed to a plough on the fields of the “Montefiore Colony” in Alberta) when the playful and naive David Layb Granovsky suggested that we, who had been 'left over' with no horses to work with should take our shovels and dig the earth and if not – plough with our noses. And we young fellows jumped at the idea and began digging at the hill, from bottom up trying to dig out the whole hill.

We were not lacking in courage and idealism. Not a little self-sacrifice was bound to the principle of working on the land in our isolated kvutza at a time when all around us pogromists were raging. We heard rumours that in Elizabethgrad, Gregoriov rose up against the Bolsheviks. Machna and others were also skulking in our area. All this did not frighten or discourage us. We were determined not to leave our new home.

The following episode was characteristic of our group: as pioneers and Zionists, we decided that our day of rest would be Saturday and not Sunday. Unfortunately our neighbours under no circumstances would allow us to work in the fields on Sundays. They also refused to believe that we were working according to Communist principles. They couldn't believe that a Communist would work on his own with no-one over him. In their view, a Communist was one that plundered and confiscated.

Our endeavour did not have a very happy ending. After all of the harships, troubles and work we had invested, the land repayed us with a good crop. However we did not benefit from this. Exactly at threshing time, in the middle of August, The Denikinsts captured Odessa and the wheat that we gathered from the fields remained unthreshed. During the winter, the wheat was requisitioned and confiscated.

Thus, all the hard labour of the first group of chalutzim in Ukraine was for naught. Still, the kernel that was planted was not in vain. Our attempt and our success in overcoming so many obstacles encouraged thousands of others who came in our place.

[Page 140]

Memories of my town Dubossar

by Leon Rubin

Translated by Sarah Faerman

In the days of the Baylis Trial

In the year 1913 the famous Baylis trial took place in Kiev. The group “The Black Hundred” that had great influence in Czarist Russia, had accused a Jewish man, Mendl Baylis, of murdering a young Christian boy in order to use his blood for ritual purposes. Prominent liberal lawyers – Jews and Gentiles – like Gruzenberg, Moklakov and Korabchevsky took up the defense of the accused Baylis and with scorn rebutted this outrageous blood libel. Pious Jews were not satisfied with the the arguments and parries of the jurists and experts alone and they used other means. They flocked to the graves of the Tzadikim (the Holy ones) praying for their intercession in the battle for justice and the Jewish reputation. I would like to describe one event connected to our town Dubossar that psychologically bolstered the courage of a certain segment of Jews who prayed for a just outcome of the process.

In the old Dubossar cemetary was the mausoleum of the Tzadik, Reb Mendele, the Baal Shem Tov's nephew who had been sent to live in Dubossar to fulfill an important mission that only the initiates of the Kabala could understand. Reb Mendele had made it known that in times of woe for Jews, they should come to his grave and he would intercede for justice on their behalf.

I remember one day in the morning, two middle aged, well dressed men came to see my father in the Bet Din (court of law). They presented themselves as emissaries of the Kiev community. In reply to my father's questioning as to the purpose of the visit, they replied that they were sent to visit the grave of Reb Mendele so that he would intercede for justice for the Jews in the trial of the innocent Mendl Baylis. My father quickly gathered a minyan (quorum of Jews for prayer) and hurried off with them to the old cemetary to the grave of the Tzadik Reb Mendele. When the trial was over and Mendl Baylis was exonerated, there were many Jews who firmly believed that it was thanks to Reb Mendele in his appeal to The Almighty that the trial was concluded in favour of the Jews.

My first community endeavours and my father's slaps

The “Sturm and Drang” that enveloped Russia at the turn of the century did not by-pass our town. The youth were divided along the whole spectrum of “isms” and were heatedly engaged in all manner of arguments and debates in closed quarters or out in the fresh air. Summertime, on Sabbath in the afternoon, while our parents were taking a rest, we would go off to the stalls of the old market and there we would discuss and dispute Jewish and worldly issues. My involvement there was of a very brief duration for the following reason: One Sabbath whilst at prayers in the synagogue, my father, in front of all the others, asked me if it was true that during a discussion in the market place I had uttered atheistic ideas. My father did not wait for my answer that some antagonists of mine were slandering me. Instead, he lifted his hand and delivered a couple of resounding slaps on my cheeks. Henceforth he did not permit me to go out of the house on Sabbath afternoons.

When I was older, I started to work in the newly established “Savings and Loan Fund” established by JOINT (Jewish charitable organization) with the goal of improving the conditions for small grocery and business owners in establishing credit,etc.utilizing liberal and fair terms. While describing this co-operative institution, it is my duty to mention the dedicated and honest community activist, Velvl Bendersky, who held the office of director of the co-operative for a period of time. He was always an advocate for the poor, made allowances for those who were late in repaying their loans and also would cover the promissary notes from Kishinev for the grocers. He worried about them defaulting on their loans and thereby damaging their credit. He personally went to the storekeepers to remind them to keep their accounts up to date and would borrow from some to cover others' debts allowing them enough time to pay out what they owed.

I worked in the “Savings and Loan” together with my friends Joseph Mishniger (who died in Syracuse) and Velvl Vaynberg. Together we organized the group “Hatchiya”(Revival) whose goal it was to present nationalist and cultural activities to the Jewish youth. Many were the numbers of boys and girls who would attend our cultural events every Sabbath afternoon where we would read and analyze the works of our classics of both languages – Yiddish and Hebrew. We organized our own cultural evenings presenting renowned speakers, both local and from other places. Of the former, the following presented papers: Yosef Visoky (Ram), Tzvi Kris (who lives in New York) and Laybl, Berl Shochet's son. When Chaim Greenberg organized a branch of the “Tzeirei Tzion” (Young Zion) movement in Dubossar, most of the members of “Hatchiya” joined up with that Zionist folk party.

The Tzeirei Tzion party did not involve itself exclusively with Zionist work but also took part in local issues in the surrounding communities. We were the initiators and organizers of elections to ensure a democratically elected leadership of the community that would put an end to the regime of those who would put taxes on kosher meat and who ruled with an iron fist over the Jewish community in other areas as well. We visited schools and synagogues, explaining the principles of a democratically elected leadership and its importance for our society. The party nominated four candidates of which three were elected: Yosef Visoky, Misha Diner and the author of these lines. Although our candidates comprised not more than 20% of the councilmen, together with the general Zionists and with Rabbi Abel at the head, we were able to influence many aspects in the governing our community.

The members of the Tzeirei Tzion youth movement were the pioneers in practical Zionist work. We distributed Keren Kayemet (Jewish National Fund established for buying land and trees in Eretz Yisrael) collection boxes and emptied them out periodically; every Friday, we would go to the Jewish houses and sell Zionist stamps; on the eve of Rosh Hashana (New Years) we organized our own “Post Office” and delivered Rosh Hashana cards, which incidentally, also had its Zionist educational aspects.

We founded a club that attracted many youth each evening. There we held many lectures, discussions and concerts. We also frequently invited th gifted brothers, Velvl and Faivel Kazatzker, of the Socialist group (not Zionist) for talks as it was a pleasure to have discussions with them.

When the Bolshevik regime prohibited any and all Zionist activity and in Odessa the Zionist Centre was liquidated, the main activity was transferred to Berlin. We were the conduit for smuggled Zionist literature via Romania to Odessa and back. Thanks to us, the contact with the other side of the border was maintained for a long time.

Women's activities

The women in Dubossar were very active in a wide variety of community affairs and institutions. In particular, there was a group of women heavily involved in philanthropic causes. These women – Sarah Bendersky, Rachel Kazatzker, Rosa Rosenberg, Malka Katz, Mindl Polaver, etc. made sure that nothing would be lacking for newborns whose parents could barely afford the necessities. For the poor children that went to the Talmud Torah schools, they prepared hot meals and in in general supervised their health. For working girls, they organized classes in the evening to teach them to read, write and other elementary subjects. These classes were held in the private school of Rivka Shochat, Yosef Feller's grandaughter, the future wife of Raphael Sverdlov, a teacher in the Herzlia Gymnasia (high school). Of great importance was their work on behalf of the Jewish hospital.

I would like to relate the following episode: When we were preparing for the elections of the community leaders, the women who had voting privilages decided that they would like to present to the community their own separate 'Women's List'. We men became very frightened. We feared that the women, who worked so energetically for the community, could conceivably gain more votes than the men and we would end up with a “Female” community… That's all we needed! We hastily started to negotiate with them and convinced them to join us on one candidate list. At first they refused but eventually they agreed not to present their own list.

In the days of the revolution and Civil War

Since the turn of the century, Dubossar was famous for its Self-Defense organization. This became particularly apparant during the Civil War when many diverse bands raged throughout Ukraine sowing terror in the Jewish settlements. In those days when Jewish life was worth nothing, Dubossar was relatively quiet. True, bands did sweep through our town demanding 'contributions' but there were almost no human sacrifices.

In the year 1918 there were bloody slaughters between the Bolsheviks and the Denikinists. The latter were forced to retreat and they fled to the Dniester River in order to cross over to the Bessarabian shore which was part of Romania. Rumour had it that among the Denikinists was a division called “The Black Death”. This division left death and destruction in every place they entered.

On a certain Friday, word came that eighteen Jews in the neighbouring town of Grigoriopol had been murdered and that the perpetrators were on their way to Dubossar which is right next to the River Dniester. Outside there was a bitter frost and the newfallen snow hindered one in hunting for a place to hide. I, my fiancee and her parents, Velvl and Sarah Bendersky, decided not to wait passively for our death and instead fled out of town to a Gentile acquaintance where we hid out in his garden. With fear and trepidation we strained to hear what sounds we could from the town in order to figure out what was happening. Thus, we sat anxiously the whole night. At dawn we heard a huge tumult, wheels turning, horses hooves, people shouting. “What did this mean?” The Gentile went off to town to find out and soon came back with the happy news: The Denikinists who had settled themselves overnight in the Jewish houses preparing to launch a pogrom the next day, were themselves forced to flee lightning fast, as the Bolsheviks who had been pursuing them were hot on their heels. In great haste, leaving behind all of the pillaged loot, the Denikinists made their way to the Dniester and on to Bessarabia. That time Dubossar was saved by a miracle.

When I, my bride and her parents fled out of town, my parents remained as they did not want to abandon their house. They relied on miracles. They told us that the two soldiers who had stayed with them in their house treated them with great courtesy. The soldiers heated the stove for them; they took the candlesticks off of the table and warmed ujp water for them to make glasses of tea. They weren't people, they were angels…

As mentioned, this time the Jewish folk were saved by a miracle. The Denekinists army was too big and powerful for the Dubossar Self-Defense organization to grapple with. However in those days there were very many other occasions where, thanks to the Self-Defense, the slaughter of the Dubossar Jews was prevented. I will describe one such event.

One night, two of Petlyura's men rode up on horseback. They circulated around the magistrate's office to survey the town. In a suburb called Lunke, there were another 120 riders, Petlyura's men, waiting for the signal to attack. The two riders chatted amiably with the people who were gathered in the street and then they rode off to Lunke. We were suspicious of them and prepared ourselves to greet them. All night we stood guard, waiting. In the morning, very early, the Gentile owner of the flour mill came running, calling out: “Jews! Save yourselves! A squadron of riders are on their way into town.” He ran to the church and started to ring the bells – a signal to mobilize against the attack. The Self-Defense sprang into action and stationed themselves on the main road leading in from Lunke to head off the pogrom.

They had barely placed themselves in strategic places when the Petlyurists galloped in and were immediately peppered with rifle shots. Bewildered by the sudden onslaught, they tried to turn away into the other narrower street but there also were they greeted with heavy fire. They tried to push their way through. One of the Self-Defense men, Yosl Barbarash, decided the outcome of the battle. He lept toward one of the riders that was shooting to the right and to the left with a machine gun. Hitting him over the head with the butt of his gun, he dragged him off the horse, grabbed his machine gun and proceeded to fire at the Petlyurists. Amidst great confusion, the Petlyurists made a hasty escape leaving behind two dead.

* * *

When the Bolsheviks gained power, their first action was to “make order” of all the economic institutions. The “Savings and Loan” where I was working was shut down. In its place they established a huge co-operative with merchandise that serviced all the surrounding areas. The farmers were obliged to send in their produce as 'taxes'that were required for covering various expenses.

I worked in this new co-op as the bookkeeper for starvation wages which often were not paid. The hunger as well as my oppostiotion to the new regime made me realize that I should leave this Communist “paradise” as soon as possible. Leaving behind my wife and year old child with her parents, I stole across the border to Bessarabia. Not long after, my wife and child joined me and we made our way to Argentina where we found a warm and happy home.

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