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[Page 99]

The First World War


Zhetl During My Rabbinate

by Rabbi Zalmen Saratzkin (Jerusalem)

Translated by Janie Respitz

I took over the position of Chief Rabbi of Zhetl in 1912. Before I discuss the events of my rabbinate, a few words about Zhetl.

Zhetl was a poor town largely because the peasants in the surrounding villages were poor. They worked a sandy soil and did not enjoy success.


Rabbi Zalmen Saratzkin


Understandably the financial situation of the villages had an effect on the Jews of Zhetl who primarily worked in retail and trade, as there were no factories in Zhetl.

Despite the poverty Zhetl excelled in Torah study and wisdom. The rest of the world referred to people from Zhetl as the Sages of Zhetl. If a Jew in Zhetl would arrive late for prayers he would not find an empty lectern even though the Houses of Study were large for such a small town. When I took over the rabbinate I was told that throughout the world there were close to 100 rabbis from Zhetl as well as great Talmudic scholars from Zhetl who were worthy of becoming rabbis.

I would like to mention a few: Reb Shmuel Rabinovitch – Rabbi of Moscow, Reb Moishe Leyb Lusky – Rabbi of Sventzian, Rabbi Shmule Khaim (I don't recall his last name) – Rabbi of Genitzesk, Reb Avrom Alpert – Rabbi in Shverzne, Reb Shabsai Alpert – Rabbi in Polonke (now in America), Reb Zelik Kaplinsky (Reb Hertz Leyb's son) – the Loykev Rabbi M. M. Lidsky – Koretz Rabbi Reb Yisroel Senderovsky (Yasha Leyb the pelt seller's son) – judge in the Jewish court in Rovno, Yakov Yankelevitch (Lyubtcher) – judge in the Jewish court of Kovel and Reb Yehoshua Lidsky – ritual slaughterer in Derevne.


Reb Zalmen Yoel Kaplinsky


From among the great scholars it is worthwhile to remember: Reb Zalmen Yoel Kaplinsky and his son Reb Avrom, Reb Avrom Leyb the teacher, Reb Aron Shatzkes, Reb Avrom the recluse, Reb Mikhl Berniker, Reb Yakov Ostrovsky (Yakov Moishe Ayzhes), Reb Yisroel Avrom Sokolovsky and his son Mordkhai (now a ritual slaughterer in Johannesburg), Reb Moishe Tentzer, Reb Noyakh Eli the teacher, Reb Shaul the teacher and his son Reb Leyb Khabadiker, Reb Feyvl Skidler, Reb Aron Hersh Langbart and Reb Moishe Gertzovsky.

Those who occupied the position of chief rabbi in Zhetl had great reputations throughout the world. I will mention a few beginning with: Reb Yosef Zvi Hirsh Dvoretzky, of blessed memory. He was a great Talmudic scholar. He was rabbi in Zhetl for 40 years. Jews of Zhetl often spoke of his intelligence and sharp mind.

After his death he was succeeded by the rabbi Reb Borukh Avrom Mirsky of blessed memory, a great scholar and among the first Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), and the author of “Shmatat Deraba”. However a dispute over two slaughterhouses had an effect on him and shortened his life.

After his death, in recognition of their beloved deceased Rabbi Yosef Zvi Hirsh Dvoretzky, Zhetl hired his son Reb Mikhl Arye as chief rabbi.

Rabbi Mikhl Arye Dvoretzky was only a rabbi in Zhetl for 30 days when he died of a heart attack. People said the same dispute over the two slaughter houses shortened his life as well.

Since two rabbis died as a result of this dispute I must tell you about it.


Slaughter Houses

A few years before the First World War a wealthy man from Zhetl Berl Dvoretzky built a slaughter house with the permission of the government. The butchers in Zhetl were suspicious of this slaughter house from day one. They were afraid of larger slaughter taxes, and most important, they knew they would be required to slaughter only in that slaughter house. Both slaughterhouses had its supporters and violent quarrels would break out which the rabbis could in no way appease.

In those years I was rabbi in Voronove. Zhetl invited me to eulogize the deceased Reb Mikhl Arye Dvoretsky, and right after the eulogy offered me the position of chief rabbi. I told the men that as long as there is a fight in Zhetl, I will not take on the rabbinate. These established men understood

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and turned to me, to Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch of Moscow and Rabbi Kalmen Levin of Dvoretz and asked us to solve the conflict.

We remained in Zhetl for a few weeks and succeeded in bringing peace.

According to our verdict Berl Dvoretsky received compensation from the butchers and agreed to close his slaughter house. Later he opened a cotton factory in that same building. The butchers were obliged to give 10% of their slaughter house income to the Talmud Torah (religious school).

Once this conflict was solved I agreed to take the position.

A few months after my arrival in Zhetl another conflict ensued: a large portion of the population, mainly common folk, demanded another doctor in Zhetl. The only Jewish doctor, Shapiro had many opponents and they demanded a second doctor. I had to solve this dispute.

I would like to emphasize that during my time at the rabbinate in Zhetl I enjoyed a general trust which allowed me, with God's help to solve almost all disputes.


The 300th Anniversary of the Romanov House

In a similar fashion I succeed in untangling a dispute which arose in connection to the 300th Jubilee celebrations of the royal dynasty in Russia.

The year was 1913. An anniversary committee was created in Zhetl composed of the Russian Orthodox priest, the regional police superintendent and both tax collectors: Yakovlev and Pranyevitch. Yakovlev was a very honest respectable Christian with higher education and liberal tendencies. He gladly worked together with the Jewish intelligentsia in the fire station.

According to his plan, the firefighters orchestra, which was composed mainly of Jews, would be present at prayers at the Russian Orthodox Church and later play at the head of Christian procession with icons. Berl Mirsky, the head firefighter informed me of this plan.

I invited the important man Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky, a member of firefighter's administration to come to me and I asked him:

How is this possible? A Jewish orchestra in church and leading a Christian procession?

I warned him, if this takes place, I will leave town before the celebration and will not deliver a sermon in honour of the Jubilee in the House of Study. Zhetl was shocked by this news.

Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky promised me he would meet with Yakovlev and present my standpoint. A few days later Yakovlev came to me. He asked me to give my sermon in the House of Study. I thanked him and explained that if I am their rabbi they must listen to me and a Jewish orchestra is forbidden to lead a Christian procession. At first he wondered: the entire Christian intelligentsia will be present at prayers in your House of Study, so why can't the Jews be present at Christian prayers?

In place of an answer I told him the following story: in a certain city there was a liberal ruler. He allowed the publication of newspapers without censorship and meetings without restrictions.

Suddenly a state of war was declared in town and the liberal leader became strict. He instituted censorship and cancelled all freedoms. The same is with us Jews. We have been living for 1800 years in a state of war and must restrict our people otherwise folk life will be threatened. It is forbidden for us to look at your icons. However you, Russians, are not threatened by any danger and nothing will happen to you if you attend our prayers.

My example made an impression. Yakovlev promised me to cancel the Christian procession with the Jewish orchestra. He did however ask me to send a letter to my colleague, the priest. I agreed to write the letter, but I explained that it would take a long time before a rabbi will be a priest's colleague.

My conversation with Yakovlev and my letter to the priest helped. The orchestra did not play during the Christian procession, did not enter the church, and I gave a sermon in honour of the anniversary.

After the celebration Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky asked me why I didn't really want to give the sermon. I told him the following story:

Tolstoy recounts that Alexander the First did not die of a hemorrhage as described in the official sources. During his royal funeral they buried someone else and the Czar left for Siberia to lead a life of wandering and deprivation disguised as a simple man. The Czar agitated against priests and challenged them causing great upheaval. One day he was asked:

How could a believer not go to confession?

The Czar replied: if during confession I tell a lie, the sky will tremble. If I tell the truth,

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the earth will tremble. Therefore, I don't go. The same is with my sermon. If I go up to the podium in the House of study and tell the truth about the Romanov House the earth will tremble. If I lie, the skies will tremble. Therefore I did not want to speak, but if I must, I have to be sure not to cause the earth or sky to tremble. Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky of blessed memory told this story to Yakovlev and even though he was a liberal, he was not happy with it.


Zhetl During the War

The First World War broke out during my third year as chief rabbi in Zhetl. Many refugees arrived in Zhetl, among whom were my wife's family. The mood was stressful. Wagon trains loaded with military dragged through Zhetl and the Russians dug trenches in the area.

During that time we had twins and one died. This greatly disturbed my wife and she left with the children and her family to Minsk. I remained in Zhetl.

After her departure Reb Yeshayahu Moishe Pilnik lived in my house. Every night the military wagons would wake us to ask directions. Reb Yeshayahu Moishe Pilnik would dress and go with them. I would go crazy until I saw him return safely.

Meanwhile I received letters from my wife asking me, with God's help to come to Minsk. However, I was busy collecting money for the Cossacks. They demanded money in return for not burning down the town. Thanks to the money we collected Zhetl was spared the fate of many other towns and cities.

I told the householders of Zhetl I would remain until the last Russian left. It was evening, then morning and I received news the last Russians were leaving. According to the agreement I should have left, but who would take me?

Coincidentally it happened, a gentile was travelling to Novoredek and I went with him.


In Minsk

The road swarmed with military wagons and Cossacks. I cannot say I felt comfortable in their company. Just think what a Cossack would do to a rabbi. While thinking about this I noticed a Russian officer. I felt a bit better. I tried to strike a conversation with him and succeeded. He told me the Russians were leaving their trenches around Zhetl and no battles will take place there. This was a great relief. I thought: if this news could reach Zhetl, the Jews would be thrilled.

Finally we arrived in Novorodek. I went to Eli Ber, the cantor's son. I rested at his home and thanks to him I got a wagon and continued on my way. On the eve of Sukkot 1915, barely alive, I arrived in Minsk.

There I found groups of refugees. Thousands of people roamed around depressed and despondent. I decided to help and began working for the refugee committee.

We would distribute 7 to 10 thousand ruble daily. We received the money from Jewish and state sources and we often had to travel to St. Petersburg to get the money for the refugee committee.

I enjoyed a general trust, even when the Bolsheviks demanded removal of the leaders of the committee, I remained at my job.

I used my stay in Minsk for broader community work. I organized a branch of Agudas Yisroel in Minsk which had around 10 thousand members. I opened a Talmud Torah and a school for girls. I also succeeded in freeing Russian rabbis from military service.

Among the 30 thousand Jewish refugees in Minsk were 300 rabbis. One fine morning they were mobilized, myself included.

That is when I went to St. Petersburg, stirred up all the Jewish businessmen and reached the Czarist Ministry of War. The Minister of War received our delegation which consisted of me and the rabbi of St. Petersburg, Rabbi Katenelnboygn. We argued:

When did you ever hear of spiritual leaders being taken to the front?

I spoke Russian fluently and with great pathos convinced him of our point of view. At first the minister wanted to evade the issue. But I stood up to him and finally he ordered the release of acting rabbis from military service but not the rabbis who were refugees. After much intervention we succeeded in releasing the refugees as well, but this happened under Kerensky's regime. Thanks to our intervention, among others, the great rabbi known by the title of his work Khazon Ish was released as well. He passed away not long ago in Israel.

During Kerensky's regime we held elections throughout Russia for a Jewish constitution. I organized all the religious Jews and in the Minsk region and we acquired 11 mandates out of 17.

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At the end of 1917, when Minsk was occupied by the Germans, the linen merchant Avrom Avigdor Obershteyn came from Zhetl and took me and my family home.


We Bought the Electricity Plant

During the war the Germans installed an electricity plant in Zhetl. Now that they were retreating they decided to take it with them. I called a meeting and we decided to buy it from the German county department. We collected the money, bought the plant and chose Yisroel Ozer Borishansky as manager.


The Bandit Plague

Meanwhile Russian deserters were gathering in Liftshansk Putche. We later learned there were not as many as we thought. In total around 90 men. However they spread fear as if they numbered in the thousands. They would pitilessly rob and kill peasants, Jews living in the villages and people passing through.


The Polish police liquidating a gang of robbers active around Zhetl


One day, Shmuel Kovesdky from Nokrishok brought me a letter from the bandits. In the letter they demanded Zhetl pay them 120 thousand ruble within the week. If not they threatened an attack. I immediately called a large meeting which was attended by Reb Avrom the starch maker, Reb Zhame Dunetz, Reb Moishe Tentzer, Reb Moishe Ruven Mordkovsky, Reb Yisroel Ozer Borishansky, Reb Hertz Leyb Kaplinsky, Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky, Reb Avrom Moishe Kravetz, Reb Yosl (the painter), Reb Mordkhai Leybovitch, Reb Shabsai Shushan, Reb Wolf Izraelit and many other important householders whose names I do not remember. We decided: 1) to mobilize all the Jewish retired soldiers. 2) to call for a Jewish excommunication with black candles and blowing of the shofar, and to oblige every Jew in Zhetl to pay into the community fund 10% of his cash and 6% of his merchandise.

In order to achieve this we put out a box and every Jew in Zhetl had from 8 in the morning until 8 at night to put his payment in an envelope and place it in the box. We also warned people to calculate the true amount they owed before God. We ordered poor people to throw in empty envelopes.

This act brought us a colossal amount because there was not one Jew who did not pay his share. We sent Alter Bom, Nakhman Gal and a few others with this money to buy weapons. We distributed the weapons among 300 Jewish retired soldiers and ordered the Christian Gruner, a former Russian officer with Gypsy roots, to do military exercises with our armed “army” every Tuesday and Friday.

Peasants who came to the market saw everything and informed the bandits who then sent me a second letter, where they demanded an answer to their first letter. I answered them like this:

Actually, you should all be home. The war ended a long time ago. The least you can do is go home. Anyone lacking money can come to us and we will help him with expenses.

As an answer to my letter the bandits attacked Bielitze and robbed their stores. Right after they sent us a third letter and threatened we would face the same end as Bielitze.

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Also this time we were not afraid. We divided the town into four regions, placed 30 of our soldiers in each region, and they did tours of duty all night. We organized a headquarters with a telephone and were ready for battle.

We lived in this atmosphere all winter. The bandits declared a blockade on us and would not allow any agricultural products into town. We, understandably, were afraid to go to the villages to make our purchases.

Salvation came faster than we imagined. It happened like this: the Bolsheviks were nearing Zhetl, they were already in Novoredok. The Poles were stationed in Dertchin. The bandits calculated that if the Poles would be victorious they would kill them as Russians and communists. So they reached an agreement with the Bolsheviks. A political instructor went to the bandits in the forest and advised them on how to retreat.

A few days later, accompanied by Bolshevik authorities, they marched through Zhetl. They prepared a meal for them in the community and then sent them to Novoredok where they were beaten with chains and shot. This is how our story of the bandits ended and the admirable self defence of Zhetl's Jews. Immediately after our army disbanded.


The Audacious Attack of the Poles on Zhetl

It was Purim. The Bolsheviks were stationed in Zhetl. At dawn I heard violent shooting in town and right after a knock on my door. A Jewish militia told me Poles and Bolsheviks were shooting at the marketplace and the Polish commandant ordered I should come to the marketplace. If not he will order shooting in the Jewish homes.

I immediately went to the marketplace and found the Polish commandant at Wolf Dvoretsky's hotel. The commandant ordered me to get him 50 wagons and breakfast. When I asked how many men we needed to prepare breakfast for he did not respond. Later I learned there were only 12 men. They attacked suddenly, and chased out 200 Bolshevik soldiers who were staying in garrisons in Zhetl. In order not to divulge the secret of their strength, they did not answer my question about how many men needed breakfast.

Meanwhile, I sent our beadle from the old House of Study, Reb Leyzer Mordkhai to mobilize the wagons in which the Poles loaded the ammunition they captured from the Bolsheviks.

They did not eat the breakfast we prepared, and in the midst of great chaos and confusion decided to leave Zhetl. However, before they left Zhetl they ordered me to call for a prohibition and oblige Zhetl Jews to surrender the weapons that belonged to the armed Jewish defence.

I attempted to clarify the matter, but they did not want to hear my arguments and threatened me that if I didn't obey their order they would take me together with the loaded wagons. I knew very well what that meant.

I escaped their hands and went to the House of Study. Even though it was Purim, the place was empty. Jews were not praying and not eating. Meanwhile the Polish soldiers left and we breathed more freely.

When the wagon drivers returned they told us the Poles took Bolshevik prisoners with them. They released the Christians but shot all the Jews in the village of Khadzhelan.


Zhetl Without a Regime

In the meantime Zhetl was left without authorities. We lived in great fear. Who knows who will attack us next? We called a large meeting and decided to collect money for problems that were sure to arise. We also ordered everyone who had wine, whisky or weapons, to bury them. Everyone was also ordered to hand over the decided amount of cigarettes. If a soldier would ask for cigarettes, he should be sent to the rabbi.

In those days, groups of Polish soldiers would come to Zhetl every couple of days. One of these groups, due to a denunciation, arrested the daughter of Reb Shmuel Mirsky allegedly because she was a communist.

Wolf Dvoretsky explained to me she could be released through a bribe. I went to the Polish commandant. Life then did not play a role and I dared to give the commandant an envelope with money. He took it and left.

A few hours later Reb Wold Dvoretsky returned and told me the commandant was talking about releasing the girl, but he wanted me to come back.

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When I came to the commandant he honoured me with his moralizing as to why Jews are Bolsheviks and wanted my opinion of the Mirsky girl.

Before I had a chance to respond he explained that if I signed a document stating that she was not and will not be a Bolshevik, he would free her. I had doubts if I could commit myself to the fact that she would never be a Bolshevik, but I obliged and saved a Jewish daughter.


The Black Passover Seder

We managed to observe the first Seder in 1919. During the second Seder Polish legionnaires marched through Zhetl. They planned an attack on the Bolsheviks 12 kilometres from Zhetl. While marching through Zhetl the soldiers demanded whisky and cigarettes. Our police, who were placed on all the streets told them we do not have whisky but they can get cigarettes at the rabbi's. Understand, after this announcement, the soldiers did not allow me to conduct the Seder. A row of 100 soldiers snaked around my house. Each one received 6 cigarettes for one ruble. The price was symbolic and I wanted to emphasize that Jewish property is not arbitrary and we don't give it away for free. A cashier sat in my house and a second person distributed the cigarettes.

That night I ran out of cigarettes. I sent for more, but getting to my house was not easy. The cigarettes were passed down the row from hand to hand until I received them. From time to time a soldier rebelled – complaining – only 6 cigarettes? I would explain it would be unfair if one would receive a lot and another, nothing.

And this is how, instead of leading a Seder I spent the whole night handing out cigarettes. At dawn, the Poles ran away. On their way out they broke window panes in a few houses on Novoredok Street and shot Yenkl Ebes.

This case left a difficult impression on the town. The next morning a Polish officer came to me to ask forgiveness for this act. Of course I had to forgive, but I did give the officer a little taste of my moralizing.


We Organized a Bread Action

Until this time the record books of Zhetl were looked after by Reb Moishe Shatzkes. After he died the Jewish community council decided I should now be responsible. Controlling the record books I now ascertained that during the German occupation 350 Zhetl Jews died of stomach typhus. As you know, stomach typhus is a direct result of hunger. I then decided to alleviate hunger in Zhetl.

To achieve this goal I set up a cooperative whose goal was to distribute 4 kilograms of bread per person every week for a cheap price. I placed Yakomovitsky, the owner of the mill in Shilevonk as head of the cooperative. Together with him and Yisroel Kaplinsky, I would go to the surrounding villages to buy wheat at cheap prices, mill it into flour, and bake and distribute bread. This is how I alleviated hunger in Zhetl.

At the same time an office opened in Slonim to distribute American help for the starving population. I became friends with the manager (I don't recall his name) and began to bring goods to Zhetl: wheat flour, potatoes, rice, sugar and oil. Twice a week I would travel with the wagon drivers Hilke and Notke to Slonim and return with wagons filled with goods. With the produce I brought we opened a children's kitchen and served warm tasty food to Jewish children.

The Christians in town grew jealous and sent the priest to Slonim for produce. He did not agree to go and in the end they asked me to bring products for them as well and allow their children to enjoy our kitchen as well.

One fine morning I received news that there were two wagons of wheat flour for us in Slonim. Fetching two wagons of flour was no small feat. Firstly – where to find the required amount of money? And secondly – how do we mobilize so many carts?

Finally I collected money from Jews and Christians, organized the carts and set out for Slonim. With me were Reb Shmuel Mirsky, two militias and the priest.

It was a difficult trip. From Kazlayshchine we travelled accompanied by Polish soldiers who were shooting recklessly. When I asked the priest to calm them down he replied he was also afraid of them. We finally arrived in Slonim, devastated and exhausted.

On our return home, peasants were stealing our bags of flour. I stopped the wagons, climbed up on a cart of flour and said to the peasants in these words:

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I understand you are hungry and haven't seen wheat flour for a long time. But understand, this flour is for children. I ask of you, return the flour and we will, here on the field, cook a big pot of “Zatcherke” (noodles like farfel) for you. And that is what we did. The peasants returned the flour and we cooked a “Zatcherke” for everyone.


We Fought for a City Council in Zhetl

When the Poles took power in Zhetl, they felt embarrassed. On one hand they wanted to show they were democratic, on the other hand they did not realize that we comprised the majority in town. They also could not count on the Christian population as they were Belorussian and a minority in Zhetl.

Therefore, in principle they were forced to nominate a city council with a Jewish majority. This Jewish majority was like a thorn in their side and they decided to incorporate Zhetl into the township. And that is what happened.

We however decided not to switch to their agenda on this decision. We went to Slonim and stated our case that we didn't want our taxes to go to the surrounding villages. We wanted our money to support our city. Our complaint was heard and Zhetl was declared an independent unit headed by a magistrate within the framework of the township. The magistrate nominated was a local Pole by the name of Yaroshevsky along with a council. We however, did not relent and explained to the authorities we would like to elect a magistrate and council and don't approve of a nomination. Our candidate for magistrate was Motl Man.


The Defamation of Motl Man

In order to discredit our candidate the Poles devised a false accusation. They found witnesses who said that during the war between the Poles and the Bolsheviks, Motl Man and two other Jews disarmed Polish legionnaires.

On the basis of this statement, Motl Man was arrested and threatened with a severe punishment. I travelled to Warsaw and with the help of Senator Mendelson from “Agudas Yisroel”, I brought it to the attention of the Polish liberal Professor Kanopke and he agreed to take on Motl Man's defence. The Jewish lawyer from Vilna, Yosef Tchernikhov also agreed to participate, free of charge.

The trial took place in Slonim. Under cross examination from our defence the accusers became confused and in the end admitted this was a false accusation. Our lawyer Yosef Tchrnikhov renounced the accusers and Motl Man was freed.

I remember in his closing remarks Tchernikhov said the following:

“They say Bismarck falsified documents in order to unite Germany. For something important, everything is worth the effort. However, it is far from important and undistinguished to devise a false accusation in order to avoid the election of a Jewish magistrate. I believe, the time will come, when a Jewish president will be elected in Poland and no one defame him.”


We Fought Against Grabsky's Methods

The period when Grabsky was finance minister in Poland is well known. In those years Poland wanted to choke Jewish business with taxes. There was also a little “Grabsky” in Slonim. He totally ruined Jewish business in the region and there was nothing we could do to him.

One day he came to Zhetl for an inspection. He went from store to store inspecting finances and inventories. One storekeeper was not prepared. The inspector wrote an official report. When the storekeeper, on one foot, in the presence of the inspector prepared a statement (just imagine how much merchandise he had), he rejected it due to an inaccuracy and charged him a heavy fine which he had to pay on the spot.

This was not the only case. Thousands of such cases happened all over the country and there was a huge outcry. The central merchants union in Warsaw organized a convention of all merchants in order to offer advice on the situation.

The Zhetl merchant's union lead by Yitzkhak Kaplinsky asked if I would represent them at the convention. I was the only rabbi and the only Yiddish speaker at the convention. In the presence of Polish minister of commerce and the leaders of Jewish businesses Vishnitsky and Shereshevsky I explained:

How does a rabbi come to business? The reason is in order to permit Yiddish to be spoken at a Jewish convention. Then I told a story about a Jew who came to his rabbi with an emergency.

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He had eaten dairy immediately after meat. The rabbi said to him:

“How can you do such a thing, young man”.

The person in question replied: “Rabbi, I came to you for something completely different: I need to know if I am now considered meat or dairy?”

I want to know the same thing about my poor little store in Zhetl. Is it meat or dairy? If he did not have his list of inventory, how could he be punished for an inaccuracy? And if he had it, then why is he punished for not having it? And secondly: I understand, taxes are demanded straight from the citizen as he is evaluated, however the solution is not incumbent on a punishment. Punishment should not be demanded if it is submitted in a reclamation.

My speech made a great impression. It was immediately translated into Polish. The next morning I participated with Vishlitsky and Shershevsky in the delegation to the finance minister.

Our intervention was successful. A few months later a decree was published saying fines can not be demanded before considering the reclamation. What made us even happier was the fact that we got rid of our own little Grabsky.


We Renovated the Bathhouse

At first the bathhouse in Zhetyl belonged to the burial society. At this opportunity I will say a few words about the society. Belonging to the burial society in Zhetl was a great distinction. This honour was inherited, passed down from father to son. A Jew could snot simply join. The society was known for its banquets. I believe throughout the year they would hold 7–8 banquets. I did not like this very much and once during a banquet I gave a sermon with a bit of moralizing. I will not repeat it here, but anyone interested can read in in my book “Ideas and Words”, part A.

The burial society sold the bathhouse to a village Jew named Yudl from Podvelik. Besides a one time down payment, the burial society promised him at a banquet he would have to pay a yearly payment of 50 ruble and the rabbi Reb Yosef Zvi Hirsh Dvoretsky of blessed memory made a declaration prohibiting the building of a second bathhouse.

When I became chief rabbi of Zhetl, Yudl from Podvelik was already running the bathhouse. Understandably, he was not concerned with modern installations, comforts or sanitary conditions.

While I was chief rabbi I was inundated with many complaints about the sanitary conditions, but there was nothing I could do. Had there not been a prohibition I may have decided to build a new bathhouse.


A Story of Swamps

Just off the highway to Lida there was a meadow overgrown with weeds. The peasants in the area knew the meadow belonged for many generations to the Jewish community of Zhetl, and only Jews were permitted to have their horses graze there. However because of the swamps the pasture was really bad. People and animals would often sink.

In those years I became a member of YEKAPO's (a Jewish social service agency) central office in Vilna. Among other things they supported Jewish farmers. At one meeting I put this issue on the agenda. YEKAPO showed interest and decided to send engineers who worked out a plan to drain out the water through canals. Unemployed boys from Zhetl carried out this work. We achieved a few goals. Firstly, Zhetl now had a good pasture for its animals; secondly we dried up the swamps which would spread plagues; and thirdly, we provided work for the unemployed.


We Planned to Move Zhetl

During my time as chief rabbi I saw Zhetl Jews were suffering greatly from tuberculosis. The reason was clear. Zhetl is situated in a valley, on the filthy small Pomerayke River.

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I never understood why that spot was chosen for settlement. However the fact is I decided to look for new healthy territory to build new homes. Such land existed on the sandy hills behind Zalmen Green's house.

I decided to bring this to the attention of the Polish authorities and suggested they divide up the land into housing lots. The authorities liked my plan.


Directors and pupils of the Zhetl Talmud Torah 1921


They asked us to work out the division plan. We invested a lot of money and with the help of YEKAPO worked out the plans we had agreed to supply. The authorities approved our plans but to our great disappointment decided to distribute the lots among Polish legionnaires. Only two Jews obtained lots on this property, Moishe Ruven Mordkovsky and Leyzer Mordkhai, the beadle's son. This is how this fiasco ended after we invested so much money and energy.


We Renovated the Talmud Torah

The Zhetl Talmud Torah was situated on the bank of the Pomeryake River near the old Jewish cemetery. The old Talmud Torahs were very different from todays. Firstly, wealthier Jews would not send their children there as they believed the Talmud Torah was for poor children; secondly, very little was taught.

The situation was the same in Zhetl, although the teachers were very good. There was an excellent teacher for beginners, Yosele Mendes. He had a special method. He would teach each boy separately for half an hour resulting in great success. For the older boys the teacher was Yudl the ritual slaughterer's son in law, Yenkl. He taught the bible and succeeded at this work. In those years wealthier families would send their children to a private tutor. Those tutors in Zhetl were Reb Yisroel Khonen and Reb Noyekh Eli. They both produced great results, a generation of well prepared boys who went on to study in Yeshivas.

However the Zhetl Talmud Torah had another disadvantage. The building was sinking and was neglected. I made use of my work at the Medico Sanitorium in Bialystok and got them interested in our Talmud Torah and actually received a large sum of money from them. We also received help from the rabbi Reb Khaim Ozer Grodensky from Vilna and the Mrs Reding, formerly from Zhetl, now living in Australia. With their help it was decided to rebuild the Talmud Torah.

Since the construction cost a lot of money I decided to organize people to help with the work.

One day, during prayers, I called everyone together from all the Houses of Study and announced the poor condition of the Talmud Torah and our plan to rebuild. Actually, many of those praying came with me to help with the work.

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A short time later the Talmud Torah was renovated and we now had four large rooms.


Evening Courses for girls in the Talmud Torah

First row: Eliyusha Lusky, Soreh Levoranchik, Peshe Dvoretzky, Frume Shilovitsky, Yekhezkl Garber
Second row: Sonia Shilovitsky, …Frume Gankovsky, Etl Mordkovsky, Teacher Golda, Leah Rabinovitch, Eltshe Kogan, Khane Rashkin, Soreh Mayevsky
Third row: Khaya Rokhl Senderovsky, Libe Yoslevitch, Roze Daykhovsky, Dvoyre Rashkin, Shayna Berman, Feygl Lidsky, Etl Rozenfeld, …
Last row: Hirshl Rabetz, …Yehushua Lisky, Krinsky, Motl Mirsky, Yudl Lusky


We also hired new teachers: Ginzburg and Eliezer Rozenfeld.

As a result of this reorganization, Reb Menakhem Vernikovsky and Reb Moishe Tentzer registered and taught many boys. I would come to test the boys. This stimulated the teachers and encouraged them to keep their teaching at a high level.

At the same time the problem arose about educating girls. There were not yet any Beys Yakov schools (religious school for girls). I decided to organize evening classes for girls in the Talmud Torah. From 4 o'clock in the afternoon until 8 o'clock in the evening 180 girls received a Jewish traditional education.



This is a short and partial summary of events in the communal life in Zhetl during the 18 years of my rabbinate.

I am happy that all the memories and events have found a deliverer and will reflect the suffering, the unity and the communal undertakings of the small, poor but spiritually rich Jewish community: Zhetl.


Evening School for girls at the Talmud Torah

[Page 109]

During the German Occupation[a]

by Yosef Vinyetzky of Blessed Memory

Translated by Janie Respitz

As it is known, during the German occupation the population was in great need of food. In this respect Zhetl did not lag behind other cities and towns that were occupied and it is possible they suffered more as the breadwinner of Zhetl, the German county supervisor, was the type of person who spoke a lot and did nothing. Due to these traits the local Jews crowned him with the name: “Miracle Worker”.

On the first day of every month he was supposed to distribute to the local citizens' committee a set amount of rye and other products for the population that should have amounted to a half pound of bread daily per person. But instead of distributing these life sustaining goods on the first of every month he would delay it by a few days and would deduct the amount of food for the days missed claiming the people already survived those days and no longer needed those portions.

Naturally the members of the citizens' committee opposed this and they would begin to bargain with the supervisor. However, given that the amounts were previously established, he would bargain a bit.


The Spiritual Life

As a result the Jewish population was satiated with spiritual nourishment. The Jewish population had never before shown such an interest in cultural matters as during this time of hunger. The German authorities distributed for free German books, and a newspaper from Bialystok (published in German, Polish and Yiddish) which people read with great enthusiasm.

The Jewish youth opened two locales: a dramatic – literary club and a Zionist group. The members of the first one were mainly young workers. The second, besides Zionists, included almost all the wealthier residents in town. Both groups had their own libraries which were filled every evening with Jewish male and female readers who would either take home books or read there. Besides this, they held meetings, literary discussion and the like.

Most people went to the Zionist locale which was right in the middle of town. Every Friday night local intellectuals would hold lectures on many issues, but mainly on Zionism. The evenings ended with the writer of these lines reciting his own humorous poems for the audience.

Saturday night would be a checkers evening. The leaders of the Zionist group would distribute a weekly journal called (“The Friend”) which contained literary articles, stories in Hebrew and Yiddish and a humour section. That section mainly reflected life during the occupation.

Due to technical issues only one copy of “The Friend” was printed and it would be read aloud to the audience. During a fire which was set by the Polish authorities, all editions of “The Friend” were burned together with the desire of the local youth for a cultural life.


Zhetl's Enlighteners and Writers

Our town produced doctors, engineers (the Namiyat brothers), authors of enlightened books, moral teachings and journalists. The following were among the enlightened: Menakhem Mendl Merlinsky, (the father in law of the Bialystok writer Peysakh Kaplan), who was a teacher in Zhetl for many years, Avrom Shalkovitch (Ben – Avigdor) – the founder of the publishing houses “Toshiah” and “Central”, Yehoshua Aysnshtat – Barzilay.

I would like to mention a local writer Asher Vikhnes' (Shushan). His wife Vikhne was a woman of valour. She would run their store and their inn while he sat in the House of Study learning all day, allowing him to become very knowledgeable in bible and Hebrew grammar. In his older years he became a teacher and taught his pupils bible and grammar which he explained in an original manner. Not long before he died he published a book called “The Story of Shushan” –containing biblical explanations.

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Saniye the teacher (Natanel Patzovsky) in our town excelled even more with his writings. He was an exceptional teacher of young children who later in life wrote books of moral teachings, particularly dealing with the after life. He was also a preacher who travelled from town to town giving passionate sermons in Houses of Study, offering moral teachings. He would sell his books which after hearing him speak, the audience would buy enthusiastically; in many towns, artisans would form groups that would get together between afternoon and evening prayers and read his works.

His brother Mikhl Dantchik's (Patzovsky) also taught young children. He devoted himself to reading books on Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) of which he had a large library. For many years he wrote with beautiful calligraphy handwriting, in half rounded lines, books about Kabbalah, but due to poverty they were never published.


Four Old Men

From the 4 old men in our town, Meir the Stagecoach (Orlinsky – 100 years old), Areh the carpenter (Namyiat); Noyekh Eliyahu the teacher (Levit) and Aryeh the musician (Levit), who had lots of sons, daughters, daughters in law, sons in law, grandchildren and great grandchildren, Arye the musician deserves special recognition. In his nineties besides being a musician he also worked in masonry, he built almost all the walls in Zhetl.

He also understood the so –called musician's language (as seen in Sholem Aleichem's “Stempenyu” chapter 3) which had its own unique expressions. For example: a soldier was called a “cop”, and they had their own words for hat, meat, girls, brides etc…they even had their own expressions not used by others.


Editorial Board of the Zhetl Journal “The Friend” 1918

Seated from right to left: Efraim Kharmoni, Solomon Lubtchansky, Yosef Vinyetzky, A. Sideransky
Standing: M. Bender, Mikhl Rabinovitch, Nekhemieh Razovsky, Yakov Zimelevitch, Shmuel Shapiro, unknow, Shloimeh Khaim Vernikovsky


Original footnote:
  1. This article was published by the author in “The YEKAPO Chronicle”, 1926. Return

[Page 111]

An Appeal to Zhetl Jews in America

by Menachem Vernikovsky

Translated by Janie Respitz

Citizens of Zhetl now in America!

By chance I am now in Vilna and with the permission of our citizens' committee I am reaching out to you with this appeal:

Whomever among you has parents, children, a wife, sisters, brothers or extended family – help them!

A small portion of us have enough bread, but the rest, mainly those who earlier received their livelihood from America are suffering from outright hunger. Those who are well off – and there are very few – have to support their families that live in other cities (for example, I am one of the few who has bread but I must send it to my father in law in Vilna who is suffering from hunger).

Also try to help our charitable foundations which have been organized and are controlled by department representatives and the regional supervisor, namely the Jewish People's Kitchen which distributes more than 200 hot meals a day (one meal costs 10 fenig and the poorest receive it for free).

We also designated a weekly handout for the poor which gives financial aid every week to more than 150 households (the aid consists of 2 – 10 marks a week per household); we are also supporting many homeless people from the nearby evacuated cities: Lubitch, Karelitch and others, the Jewish Folk School (the former Talmud Torah), where more than 100 children learn bible, the holy tongue (Hebrew), commentaries, translation of the bible in Yiddish, arithmetic and other subjects, (poor children do not pay tuition). Don't forget brothers, many of you studied in this Talmud Torah.

Until now the Jewish Aid Union in Berlin helped support us with 100 marks per month. Last month we received only half that amount and do not have the means to run our foundations. Every week our donors decrease and the number of those in need increases.

Soon it will be Peysakh (Passover) which demands extra expenses. Just as we did last year, this year we will also have to supply over 60 workers in the region around our city with food as we cannot let them eat food that is not kosher for Peysakh.

Whomever among you will be called up to the Torah, to pray in the synagogue on the Sabbath should awaken the others spiritually.

I hope my words will not be lost.


Sponsors of Zhetl's Children's Kitchen during W.W. I

Seated in the first row: Mordkhai Sokolovsky, Zvia Kovensky, Mirl from Lubitch, Eli Bensky, Khaneh Lifshitz, Soreh Rabinovitch
Seated in the second row: Yente Kaplinsky, Efraim Rabinovitch, Soreh Moindl Kaplinsky, Berl Dvoretsky, Etl Man, Dovod Savitsky, Khaneh Rozhke Roznov, Yehoshua Dvoretsky
Standing in the third row: Gdalia Shvedsky, Yisroel Binyamini, Libe Kastilansky, Khaim Kaplinsky, Henia Veynshteyn, unknown, Yitzkhak Leybovitch


You can send money to my address or to the address of the greatest businessman who does so much for our charitable foundations, Hertz Leyb Kaplinsky.

May God protect you and your families,

Your fellow countryman,

Menachem Vernikovsky

My address: (Written in Polish) Manachim Wernikovsky Kreis Zdzieciol Slonimer Str. 120

The address of H. L. Kaplinsky: (Written in Polish): Hertz Leib Kaplinski Rohotner Str. 5526

This appeal was published by Menakhem Vernikovsky in “Di Letste Nayes” (The Latest News), no. 32, issues for the year 1916, published in Vilna.

Published by: Moishe Tzinovitch

[Page 112]

Only Memorial Books Have Remained

by Avrom Zak (Buenos Aires)

Translated by Janie Respitz

You have asked me to send you my memories of Zhetl, but is this at all possible after a 4–5 day visit?

I can jot down a few details about the German occupation.


Avrom Zak


I was living in Grodno at the time. In those times Grodno was somewhat of a cultural centre as we were practically cut off from Vilna and Warsaw due to social restrictions.

Together with me in Grodno was my friend Leyb Naydus, the magnificent poet who brought so much newness and beauty to Yiddish poetry. He was extremely creative during these years in Grodno, but unfortunately he died in December 1918.

In those days we were both active in the society of “Yiddish Art”. This is where literary evenings and concerts took place. They also published a Yiddish newspaper and there was a library. We would give lectures in Grodno as well as in other towns in the area.

I was invited to Zhetl through a communication with the local young leadership, one of the Dvoretzky brothers. On that same tour I visited Sokolke, Skidl, Luna, Novogrudek, Iviye and Lida.

Before this I gave my lectures in Grodno at the “Yiddish Art” club.

One lecture I gave,“Yiddish the Language of our Culture” caused a heated discussion. It took three evenings until all those opponents registered had a chance to be heard. People came from all political movements, Zionists, Bundists and ordinary Jews: Hillel Issar Yanovsky, Noyakh Bas, Yosef Lipnik and others. My lecture was a bit aggressive against the fanatics who dreamt of Hebraising the diaspora and against the deniers of Yiddish and Yiddish culture. There were such people when the dream of the State of Israel was still so far away.

In Zhetl I had one or two opponents. One was a young man with fine diction whose name I don't recall. The discussion was not drastic and we had a calm conversation.

My second lecture in Zhetl was on a purely literary theme: “About Modern Yiddish Literature”. (About Avrom Reyzen, Y. M. Veysenberg, Yoine Rozenfeld and others).

The lectures took place on holidays. It was Sukkot 1918, in a primitive hall, with a large audience, mostly young.

The town left an impression on me like most Lithuanian small Jewish towns. There was a sincere group of young people who longed for and wove dreams. A youth who were attached to secular and religious learning.

Where are they now, my young dreamers?

My reception was warm. The group of activists and organizers took care of me. They took me for walks through the streets in and around town. I felt as if I was in my home town, Amdur.

How similar each one was to the other, these Lithuanian Jewish towns. Similar with their streets, wooden huts, and their poverty. Even the landscape was of the same genre with no extravagant surprises.

My farewell evening left an impression on me. It took place at the end of Simkhas Torah in a private home of one of the community activists. There were many people. Food was served on a long table without a tablecloth: herring, black bread, and bottles of beer. This was during the days of the occupation where dire poverty could be felt everywhere and black bread and herring were considered a feast…

But the holiday spirit was there. The crowd sang a vast repertoire of folk songs. I particularly remember the heartfelt sadness of the melody of one song, which everyone around the long table sang:

“As the joyful festival is over and leaving us”

The next day I left Zhetl and that melody was stuck in my head.

Now, after the Holocaust, we repeat those lyrics but now in mourning. Gone are the “Joyful festivals” together with those beautiful, sincere young people, together with the poor Jewish towns, together with the Jews.

Only memorial books have remained.

[Page 113]

During the First World War

by Moishe Mirsky (Montreal)

Translated by Janie Respitz

The First World War broke out at the end of July 1914. I remember it fell on Tisha B'Av. There were red posters hanging in the streets to mobilize the reserves. The next day, which was Saturday, when families would normally go out for a stroll, they went instead to say goodbye to the young men who were being mobilized and had to leave for their meeting point in Slonim that same day.


Moishe Mirsky


The day evolved into a sad day. The parting of two families left a particularly difficult impression on me; Motl Medvetsky and Moishe Mendl Leyzerovitch. Their families wailed as they said goodbye. That day is difficult to forget.

A few weeks later there were already notices in town about fallen soldiers. I don't remember all the names but those which have remained in my memory are: Feytl Sokolovsky, (Itche the cripple's brother), Khatzkl Solomansky, Abbe the carpenter's son, and Shmuel whose last name I don't remember. I do remember he had a nickname. They called him Shmuel with the nasal voice.


Before the Evacuation of the Russian Army

In the fall of 1915 when the Russian army was already in East Prussia, near Goldob, the Germans began their offense. The attack happened quickly. The Russian authorities mobilized the Jews of Zhetl to dig trenches near the Nieman River, in Peskovtzi on the road to Slonim, in Latushi, Shundri and other places.

A terrible panic captured the town. Many Jews and Christians left their homes for central Russia. Over the next few weeks, train wagons full of refugees arrived in Zhetl. Every day there were more and more soldiers on the streets. They drove away herds of cows and horses they didn't want to leave behind for the Germans. Many refugees remained in Zhetl too afraid to travel any further. The front was nearing, they were digging hide outs, frightened of the battle.

Yom Kippur fell on the Sabbath, and the following morning, Sunday, the last remnants of the Russian army departed. The Cossacks appeared that night. They wanted to have some fun and set fire to the town. However among us there were bold Jews who knew how to handle the Russians. They managed to appease them with a bribe of a few hundred ruble. The mediators were: Yisroel Ozer Borishansky, Mayrim Epshteyn and my father Dov Mirsky. The Cossacks then tore up the bridges, set fire to the sawmill and left town. Monday morning, September 1915, Zhetl was occupied by the Germans.


The Germans Occupy Zhetl

The Germans did not treat the Jews too badly. The town commandant Kretchmer organized a civilian militia and according to the proportion of the population, the majority were Jews. The police commander then was Mayrim Epshteyn, the mayor was Leyb Lusky (Leyzhe Feyge Mirke's son) who immigrated to Argentina before the last World War and died in 1951.


Leyb Lusky of blessed memory and his wife Beyleh


Due to Germany's heavy fighting in France, in Verdun, they withdrew their main forces from the east and the front remained between Lyubich and Minsk, approximately 100 kilometres from our town. All the towns such as: Lyubich, Kareliych, and Novoyelne were forced to evacuate. Our town was the first on the front line to establish a civilian authority. The aforementioned towns belonged to the front line and their Jews moved to Zhetl.

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Zhetyl then had ten thousand residents plus two thousand Germans, a hunting regiment and a power column who transported products twice a day in trucks from Novoyelne to the front. Food products in Zhetl were cheap because free business was forbidden and the train traffic was restricted. Therefore all the products from the big cities were very expensive and extensive smuggling began.

The Germans said the Russians allowed this to happen and accepted bribes. We obviously did sweet business with them. People from Zhetl supplied products to: Novogrudek, Slonim, Baranovitch, Bialystok and Vilna. This is why the Jews of Zhetl did not live too badly during the occupation. The youth of Zhetl organized very active, benevolent and cultural work. Two inexpensive kitchens were opened in town where food was distributed three times a day to refugees. We also founded a committee which distributed food products to the poor.


Zhetl members of the German administration during the First World War

Seated: Peshke Izraelit, Mikhl Rabinovitch, Hidnke Mirsky
Standing: Dovid Savitsky, Eli Bensky, Dovod Vilner…Khaim Dvoretsky…,…,…


After the Resignation of Kaiser Wilhelm

At the end of 1917 news arrived in Zhetl that Kaiser Wilhelm resigned. Our town experienced stressful days. The military took over the authority and a soldier's council was formed which took away swords and epaulets from the officers.

The situation in town was very difficult a few days prior to their evacuation. I remember on a market day the Germans took out the horses to sell. The peasants began to rebel and shout that the horses belonged to them. The peasants angrily accused the Germans. A local town dweller agitated. Frightful shooting ensued. Within minutes the marketplace was empty. The dead were lying in the marketplace. Among them was the agitator, a big anti Semite whose name was Kostush Kovalevsky. There were no Jewish casualties that day.

The next day the Germans left Zhetl. The town was left for a few weeks without authorities. A self defence was organized. Later, a small group of Bolsheviks arrived.

The Bolsheviks stayed for a few months. The Polish nobility chased them out of the region. The leader of the Poles was a guy named Syemosheko who was a known anti Semite.

Syemoshko first arrived with his gang in Zhetl on Purim at 6 o'clock in the morning. They gave an order forbidding anyone to go out into the street. Syemoshko himself shot a Jew on Novoredok Street. He had no idea what was going on in town and left his home to go to the synagogue to pray. This was Yakov Senderovsky, a butcher (Yenkl Ebes). Later they went to Jewish homes looking for weapons and communists in hiding. They captured a few young people (the majority managed to hide), and brought them to Shabsai Shushan's stall where they were beaten and tortured.

The well known nobleman Stravinsky lived not too far from Zhetl. A delegation of Jews went to him and Mrs. Stravinsky brought a letter to Syemoshko. She then sent her estate director together with Yisroel Ozer Borishansky with a larger sum of money and the harassment ended.

I would like to mention that in the vicinity of Zhetl there were very wealthy estates with whom Zhetl Jews carried out many business transactions. They would also, when necessary help us out with large donations. However the most respectable and honest friend was the old nobleman Stravinsky from Nokrishki.


From One Authority to Another

From 1919 until 1920 we endured many problems. Our town went from

[Page 115]

one authority to another a few times, from the Poles to the Bolsheviks and back. We did not suffer under the Bolsheviks but the Poles lived it up.

Bandits arrived in Zhetl. They stole from homes and shops and beat up Jews.

A little later the Bolsheviks began their offensive on Warsaw. The Poles withdrew but continued to rob and steal from Jewish homes. When the Bolshevik military intelligence was at the entrance of the Novolyenie highway, two Polish soldiers remained at the other end of the highway near Slonim still rummaging through Jewish houses. Our youth made good use of this moment and disarmed the not yet satisfied robbers, honoured them in a fine way and let them go.

The Bolshevik army marched through our town on their way to Slonim – Bialystok, and we are again without authorities. However we were already well oriented on what to do under these circumstances. Our self defence was well organized however we were not left alone for long.

Pilsudsky organized an army in central Poland which defended Warsaw and began a great counter – offensive. In 1920 we were occupied by the Poles. The army went through. Only a city commandant remained with a sector of field gendarmes and this is when our new troubles began.


The Bandit Plague

As our region was often left without any authority, bandits would attack nearby villages at night. The attacks would take place on the Novolyenie highway where Jews from Zhetl would travel to the train and get robbed. Once during such an incident the bandits stopped the passengers but the driver managed to escape. Two Jews, Shmerl Feyvuzhinsky (the wagon driver) and Yudl Khaim Rashkin were severely wounded.

A second incident occurred when the bandits led the Jews off the highway into the Shelvanker forest, took their money and brutally attacked two girls. The money victims were: Avrom Moishe Kravetz and Yitzkhak Kaplinsky. There was another incident when they wounded Feyvl Zabitch who lives today in America.

The Jews of Zhetl reported these attacks to a higher authority. They sent in a punishment battalion headed by a certain Major Relsky. The city quickly befriended Major Relsky and he got rid of the bandits. I must say they did a masterful job and thanks to Major Relsky, within a few months our town was free of the bandit plague.


Under Polish Rule

The military authority left and was replaced with a civilian authority: a city high official and a police post. It was decided by a plebiscite if the town will be led by the township or by city hall. The Christians preferred the township since this meant they would pay less taxes. The Jews preferred a city hall. Since the Jews comprised a majority, the plebiscite decided to organize a city hall.

Due to their failure, the Christians could not rest and one of them, Francishek Reginievitch (the worst anti Semite in town) thought up a false accusation against the Jews. The victim was Motl Man (Avrom Patsovsky's grandson). In his accusation Reginievitch claimed that a few Zhetl Jews whose names he could not recall disarmed and killed a Polish soldier during their retreat. What he could confirm was that Motl Man was the leader and murderer. In addition he provided two witnesses: Leonard Burdun and Hulnitsky, the two biggest drunks in town. A few days later Motl Man was arrested and sent to jail in Bialystok where he sat for a year until his trial.

The Jews of Zhetl could not calm down. Our rabbi, Reb Zalmen Saratzkin made some noise in Warsaw, calling for legal help. They sent the best lawyers for his trial.

One thing remained: to prepare the witnesses. This is when the priest in Zhetl intervened. He was a very fine man. He invited the two Christians over and made them promise they will handle themselves honestly, will not falsely swear on the bible and will tell the truth.

Yisroel Ozer Barishansky spent a week with these two drunks at Krashinsky's restaurant. After browbeating them he touched them up with a large sum of money.

The trial took place in Slonim. For two days they guarded the witnesses so the accuser could not browbeat them. Due to lack of evidence, and thanks to the defence, Motl Man was freed.

Later he became ill from grief and aggravation, and a year later, barely forty years old he ended his life.

[Page 118]

The Transition from Ruler to Ruler
(An interesting episode from a small town in the big world)

by Nekhemiye Aminoakh
son of Reb Noyakh Ha Kohen Rozvosky (Kfar Avraham)

Translated by Janie Respitz

This was a time of chaos and fear of the next day. The town was still under the authority of a city administration which was chosen from among secret, direct, professional and free elections during the time of transition after the German occupation.

This was a very interesting episode which lasted half a year. One fine winter day the German military occupation authority left Zhetl, but no new authority appeared. A dead stillness took over the streets while we waited for a new authority.

The first question was who would be responsible for life and security in town? This was not only a question asked by the Jews, but the Christian population as well. The Germans took everything from Zhetl that could be considered a weapon. All that remained were a few rifles, revolvers and a box of hand grenades. We also worried about who would organize the authority.

Around Zhetl, in the forests were many Russian soldiers who had escaped German captivity. There were rumours spreading that these prisoners were planning to rule our town with the intention of stealing all Jewish property.

In the region around my town gentiles were never ready to risk their lives for Jews. They were more inclined to seize the opportunity to enjoy Jewish possessions. This was however in “ancient times” before Hitler poisoned the world against the Jews, who were not yet abandoned. The gentiles in our town were afraid of the Jewish population as well as the prisoners who were not a regular power, but rather a gang of thieves.


We Organized a Self – Defence

In the first days when our town became its own state, a self defence was organized which became the ruling authority of the town.

It is hard to understand how a small town, which was abandoned like a ship in a stormy sea, organized a Jewish self defence, which was led by a Christian who we later learned was not overly friendly to the Jews…

The self defence which was composed of 40 – 50 young men had around 20 rifles, a few hundred or even one thousand bullets, very few revolvers and as I mentioned earlier, a box of hand grenades. The leader of the self defence was a Christian from a nearby village. He was about 40 – 45 years old and participated in the First World War and after the Russian revolution joined the Social – Revolutionary party in Russia. His deputies were Jews from our town. At another opportunity it would be interesting to recount how the self defence governed the town.

The most important thing about the history of the self defence is the fact that it did not become a dictatorial authority in town. On the contrary, they organized a democratically elected city council which led by example.


The Soldier's Council Takes Over

Everything went well until we felt in the air that the Soviet military authority was approaching and preparing to occupy our town. Our youth who just yesterday were united and woven together with one intimate thread were suddenly strangers. It raised awareness to those who hoped and believed a new authority would be built.

The Zionists were also split. Their foreheads were wrinkled and faces clouded over and everyone waited to see what tomorrow would bring with a different thought in their heart.

One morning the self defence suddenly regrouped and excluded from their ranks everyone who did not show hope for the new authority.

Under these circumstances the local self defence transformed into a revolutionary power, which was prepared to help the new local authority which was called the “Socialist Workers – Peasants – and Soldier's Council”. With rifles, grenades and revolvers, accompanied by youth and artisans who put hope in the new authority, singing the Marseillaise on a beautiful evening just after sunset,

[Page 119]

they marched demonstratively to city hall and demanded they give over authority to the council of workers, peasants and soldiers. The town council led by Yisroel Kaplinsky gave in. The authority and atmosphere in town was “Soviet” and the town readied itself to receive the new occupiers.


The Mood

In general, the town embraced the new situation with a heavy heart. The Zionist youth were most disturbed. Under the German occupation they were unified as they did not partake in political work, which by the way the German authority prohibited. In this short time the Zionist youth had not yet crystalized who they were and where they were going. The upheaval that took place that evening at the doorstep of the city council posed this question to the youth: What next?

Understandably, the majority of youth in town were not well enough informed to take a stand for or against the Soviet authority. Many had material questions about the future: how will every day life normalize, will there be enough food, livelihood, bread, meat, kerosene and wood? Those who had an inclination for community life knew they must take a stand in support of the new regime.

A portion of the youth were worried, as if faced with a riddle or a mysterious event. For another group the Soviet feeling grew like yeast. Not all were so idealistic, many were focused on building their careers. Be that as it may, many awaited the new authority with fear and curiosity.

Truth be told, most of the Zionist youth were sympathetic to the new authority, where they saw the new revolutionary Russia. However there were a few who were aware and well oriented and quietly examined their own conscience and assessed the reality of what lay ahead.

This is where I enter this episode. I want to tell you about the false steps which I myself took part in. It is difficult for me to offer an assessment as to what brought about my decision to welcome the new regime with ceremony and pomp. It is interesting that those who had spoken out against Bolshevism decided the Zionist youth should partake in the ceremonies on the day the Soviet authority would officially arrive in town.


Three Opponents

Who were the active members of our town's Zionist youth who were ideologically against the Soviet regime and yet decided they should be welcomed in a friendly manner in order to be able to continue with our Zionist activity?

The three leading ideological opponents were: Khaim Ganuzovitch, the strongest opponent, who was the only one to vote against the fact that we should celebrate the dictatorial and extreme – socialist regime which must in time bring down Zionist thought and Zionist work. The second was Efraim Belagolovsky and me – the third. Before I describe what transpired I must present the three “heroes” I just mentioned.

Khaim Ganuzovitch was around twenty years old, not too tall, with a clever look with penetrating black eyes which looked at everything with doubt and a certain anger. Doubt and disdain were the best friends of the Zionist youth in our town. His ideas deviated to the right. His arguments were built more on nationalism than socialism.

He was the son of an enlightened Jew, an iron dealer, whose main concern earning a living, yet he was interested in science, new the history of Zionism, belonged to the Zionist movement in town and raised his children in this spirit.

The older son, Moishe Ganuzovitch, studied with me in the Lida Yeshiva and later became a Hebrew teacher. The younger brother Khaim, worked with their father in his shop and in my day, belonged to the right wing young Zionists in town.

Efraim Belagolovsky was actually a son in law in Zhetl. It is worthwhile at this opportunity to mention that Zhetl did not only excel with its sons, but sons in law as well. This was not only true in the days that I remember, about 50 years ago when these sons in law were old men, but my old grandfather (who was known in town as Old man Yehoshua) would tell me about many sons in law, exceptional young men,

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great religious scholars (like the “Beautiful Eyes”, the Talmudic scholar who later became a rabbi in Bielsk and Reb Avrom Tiktinsky – the head of the Yeshiva in Mir, Reb Shmuel Rabinovitch – chief rabbi of Moscow, and Reb Shmuel Khaim – rabbi in Genitshesk and others). There were sons in law who held important positions in Zionist or literary history (Yehoshua Barzilai – Ayznshtat). Apparently, Zhetyl had a magnetic power, or perhaps Zhetl's daughters were no less exceptional then its sons.

Efraim Belagolovsky was full of life, with a smiling face always with an affable and optimistic expression. He had grey eyes and parted lips which always seemed ready to say what he felt in his heart, helped by gestures, with a gentle, correct somewhat coquettish manner, always ready to serve others who considered themselves students of his ideas.

Belagolovsky carried with him many ideas and ideals. He was a first class speaker, on more than one occasion people gladly listened to him speak for hours. He was an expressive substantial member of the young Zionists a few years before. Although in my time the Zionist association in Zhetl was a young Zionist group without an avowed political platform, Belagolovsky always tried to give it young Zionist colours. His inclinations were toward the left, and his devotion to Zionism was undoubted.

I met him in Zhetl when I returned from Russia after the First World War in 1918. The Germans were still ruling and we began brotherly work with the local Zionist youth.

I did not have any great sympathy for the German authority. I left home in 1915 as a soldier in the Russian army and was sent to Russia. I lived out the war years in Russia and Finland and later experienced the Russian Revolution and pogroms in the Jewish towns.

In general, the Russian Revolution enchanted me, however I did not feel sympathetic to the Bolshevik regime.

Observing the first steps I already had the impression that Jewish life was declining materially and spiritually. Everything preached and declared by the Bolsheviks went against the Jewish religious and national character.

On the other hand I did not have any special inclination toward the S.D nor to the social – revolutionary justification of the revolution in Russia. Being in Russia, I lived under such circumstances that did not allow me to form my opinions concerning the national Jewish youth and while in a Russian village I helped out with the agitation of the S. R.

I must admit that other spiritual ideas influenced me which I absorbed in the “Yeshiva”. I was greatly influenced by Jewish anarchism, and from the Zionists, Gordonism. I struggled with different ideas. I was filled with life, energy and spiritual power which I will not here and now dedicate to any particular opinion. The truth is my inner struggles often bothered me more than the outer circumstances, to take a clear, sure stand. I held leftist tendencies, but was drawn by an unknown fear to the right, perhaps due to religious motives.


The Zionist Deliberation

E. Belagolovsky and I spoke and called for a restricted deliberation dedicated to the ceremonies. Those who were left leaning did not invite me. However even among those present there were divided opinions.

The first to speak was Khaim Ganuzovitch, who in a nice way substantiated that we should not participate in the ceremonies. I must say his words were prophetic. He clearly foresaw everything.

E. Belagolovsky recommended we do participate. If my memory serves me correctly, Belagolovsky justified his opinion by saying this was not a central authority and if we show support they will allow us to continue our work. The other members were silent. The mood was solemn. Then I said we should go with all the splendor to this celebration and show our positive attitude toward the new authority. I remember I was motivated that the new authority should liquidate the gangs and this necessitated our support.


Our Participation in the Ceremonies

The ceremonies took place a few days later. Understandably, every group walked under their own flag. The Zionist youth carried a white and blue flag

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and looked like the fifth wheel on a wagon. There was no shortage of red flags. Communists, workers, soldiers and all the youth were decorated with red bows in their lapels. The entire crowd was happy, lively, contradictory to the inner fear which totally took over from the start. We wanted to believe a miracle could happen and the devil would not be as terrible as we thought. It is after all a regime whose idea is equality and fighting against injustice.

Not a lot of authorities arrived in town. A small group marched with great pomp and assembled in the marketplace. Various groups began to enter from all the streets, each under its own flag. Besides our blue and white flag, all the others were red, however even our flag was decorated with a red band. We wore blue and white bows braided with a small red ribbon in our lapels.

We were met and greeted by the chairman of the local workers and peasant's council. He was the former leader of our self defence. He spoke in the spirit of the social revolution and welcomed the authorities with mutual ideas of the S.D (Bolsheviks) and the S.R. He underlined the country awaited the new regime and expressed his gratitude to the new authorities with whom the workers and peasant's council would soon be working with in a brotherly fashion.

This gentile did not forget the Jews in his greetings to our town, some of whom, even after the victory of the new regime, did not forget the old reactionary feelings. He regretted and asked forgiveness and believed that time would heal and convince the people.

This was the content of his speech. We felt its effects immediately, like a cold wet rain that gets into your bones.

The activities of the young Zionists were interrupted. Each one of us carried two spiritual passports and thought about the future. More than one of us thought about the Land of Israel or immigration in general.


The Split

The first split among the Zionist youth happened immediately, the same day. After the ceremonies, many felt they were returning from a funeral, broken and filled with resentment. A small group led by Shloimeh Vernikovsky who was loved and respected by many in the movement, was more of a leftist and expressed resentment that from the start we did not carry the red flag or wear red bows in our lapels like all the other “Revolutionaries”. They quickly organized themselves as left wing “Labour Zionists”. The rest would have declared themselves right wing “Zionist Youth” but were afraid.


The New Authority Lets Itself be Felt

The new authority began to rule our town. We immediately felt its impact on our daily lives. They requisitioned businesses and merchandise. They brought in a civilian authority and chose a commandant, a Jewish guy. They brought young people into the new administration who were previously far from these influences, but now they had the nerve and audacity to rule with the power of the new authority.

The Zionist youth still attempted to work in harmony, but with heavy hearts. We tried to receive opportunities within the framework of the new authorities. This proved to be very difficult.

The workers and peasant's council which was the ruling authority became the central power, not just for Zhetl but for the surrounding villages and they admitted representatives from among the peasants. The Jews involved were not from the Zionist youth. It seems to me in general it was composed on the basis of parties and from the right, only the “Young Zionists” were able to participate.

Soon after there was a huge gathering of the Professional Union. There was practically no one from the Zionist youth who had the right to be admitted into the professional union because we were our parent's children, the native “dear children of the regime” which already ruled all matters with all its strength and let this power be felt by the members of the white and blue flag.

Zhetl was always a revolutionary town…I was the only one that received full rights as a member of the Professional Union of Land Workers, although they kept an eye on me.

With the support of the “Young Zionsts” Moishe Bitensky and I were admitted into the workers and peasant's council. However we were slowly approaching the day when remaining with the new regime would become more and more impossible.

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The Transition Period
(Recollections From My Childhood 1918 – 1920)

by Yitzkhal Epshteyn (Kfar Neter)

Translated by Janie Respitz

“The hoods are already here” shouted Khane Gatshikhes at the marketplace.

“What hoods, it's summer, why do we need hoods?” wondered the old man Berl Fishkes.

“Not hoods, Bolsheviks” some young guys corrected him, (Translator's note: the word for hoods in Yiddish is Bashlike which he mistook for Bolshevik), as they ran breathless from Lisagura Street toward Novoredok Street, across the street from the Red Army.

A stampede, great noise – the Bolshevik cavalry under Marshal Budyonny was chasing out the Polish Legionnaires from Ukraine and reached as far as Zhetl.

The red flag was already waving at Khaim Koyfman's house along with a large banner which read: REVCOM (Revolutionary Committee).

Meylekh Shvedsky, Hirsh Ivenitsky, Yisroel Rabinovitch and Yakov Komay stood in the middle of the marketplace and shouted three times: Hurray! Hurray! Hurray! Welcome (in Russian)! Long live the Red Army!

Meylekh Shvedsky rode through the streets of Zhetl on a white horse. He was the commissar of the town.

The girls stood by their windows and watched Meylekh Shvedsky on his horse with a dagger in his hand and head haughty. They could not take their eyes off him. Each one wanted to Meylekh to stop by her window and smile.

The Red Army passes through on their way to Warsaw!

The Bolsheviks set up their headquarters in my grandfather's house. They sat around the tables smoking cheap tobacco and the only words you heard them say were: “Lenin and Trotsky; this is what Lenin said: we will take over the world!”

Alexander Yefimke who led the Red Army into Zhetl was seriously wounded in the battle of Shtshareh. They brought him wounded to Zhetl and all the efforts made by Dr. Shapiro to save him did not help, Alexander Yefimke died from his wounds.

The commissar in Zhetl, Meylekh Shvedsky gave an order that the fire brigade should take part in the funeral.

They organized a solemn funeral. The funeral procession was led by the fire brigade orchestra. Avromcheh the blacksmith led the orchestra and Pinkeh the wagon driver accompanied them on his drum.

Next came the leaders and high officials of the fire brigade: my father Mayrim Epshteyn of blessed memory, Berl Mirsky of blessed memory, Shmuel Shvedsky of blessed memory, and other important people in town. Meylekh Shvedsky, Yakov Komay and Alter Gertzovsky carried the red flag.

Our neighbour Bunia Goldshteyn (Moishe the tinsmith's wife) comes from Zhetl “aristocracy”, supported the Poles and was against the “barefoot tramps” – the Bolsheviks. She did not like the whole scene; that such a “nothing” who comes from “simple folk” like Alter Gertzovsky is leading this group and carrying the red flag. She went out on her porch and shouted:

“Nu, can you even compare? There (that means the Poles) are all the noblemen and magnates and here, among the Bolsheviks is Kikeh (Alter Gertzovsky's nickname was Kikeh). Nu Jews, tell me, can there be justice in this world?”

“Have you seen my husband? My darling Alter disappears every day” shouted Alter Gertzoksy's wife Khayke.

“Ha, you're looking for your ‘darling husband’”? Answered Bunia with an ironic smile, “I saw him carrying the red flag”.

For us kids, this was all one big celebration. Our teacher Yosef Mutchnik dismissed our class, it's wartime and we, the kids, are wandering the streets and talking…politics. My friend Avromke is a great supporter of Budyonny. He said that Budyonny will not only capture Warsaw quickly, but Berlin and Paris as well.

Pinkeh Kaplinsky and Motke Rozovsky think differently. And as we walked we arrived at the Talmud Torah. What a noise. Suddenly, Yudke Khlebnik jumped up on the table and shouted:

“Just what the Jews need, politics. The Poles will defeat the Bolsheviks, or the Bolsheviks will defeat the Poles, they will capture Warsaw or they will not capture Warsaw, – the main thing is the army of the Zhetl Talmud Torah, when they go to war, will defeat the Poles with the Bolsheviks together.”

My friend Itche Kravitz became a businessman. He wore a Jacket with five pockets. In one pocket he had Russian Czarist imperial rubles, in the second

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pocket – Kerensky's money. In the third pocket – Bolshevik rubles, in the fourth pocket – dollars, and in the fifth pocket he had a small notebook and a pencil. All day he wandered through the marketplace and made deals. Everyone was jealous of him, especially the women.

“He has so many “Tollars”!”

His brother Veveh became a cantor. He wandered through the streets all day singing cantorial pieces. Veveh discovered a few things. For example, the meaning of their family name Kravitz; the Hebrew letters stand for: The Voice of the rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous.

One day I went walking in the fields with Veveh. As we walked we approached the priest's fields. Veveh went up to the peasants and began to sing, in his High Holiday voice, Unetana Tokef (Let us speak of the awesomeness, a prayer from Yom Kippur). At the same time he turned his head, lifted his hands, sighed and cried.

At first the gentiles were frightened, then they lifted their scythes and began to shout:

“What? You came here to cry?” Then they came at us with their scythes. But Veveh was not afraid, and he shouted: “Shir Hamaalot (Song of Ascent) on your backs!” this is what he would shout to the gentiles when he wanted to frighten them.

The gentiles were frightened and began to check their backs. Meanwhile we ran away.

As we were running back to town we began to hear shooting. Rafael the tailor ran while shouting to his wife:

“Soskeh, they're shooting, Soskeh they're shooting!”

“Who is shooting, where are they shooting” Veveh and I shouted. Coming toward us was Avromke and my uncle Hirsh of blessed memory, and told us Budyonny was retreating from Warsaw. Avromke became very sad. He could not imagine Budyonny retreating.

We all ran to Avromke's yard. His father Mordkhai of blessed memory advised us to talk to his worker Maxim. He said Maxim had a Jewish brain and had he had the opportunity to study, he would have become a minister.

Maxim had a thick hidden book which described the end of the world.

We all ran to Maxim so he could show us his book and tell us what was happening in the war.


Lag BaOmer festivities in Zhetl 1920

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This is How I Remember You, Zhetl

by Soreh Medvetzky (Buenos Aires)

Translated by Janie Respitz

One marketplace and one circle of shops
Also one fair,
From this alone lived
The businessman, artisan and every Jew.

Tailors, shoemakers, businessmen
Lived a delightful life,
Even though there was not
One single factory.

Reb Avrom and Reb Noyakh Eli
And Reb Tzalieh the blacksmith
It was an honour
To have such Jews.

Yisroel Ozer accomplished
Everything quietly,
A favour and a kind word
All with humanity.

If you were poor or sick
Or needed a bridal dress
You went straight to Etl Man
And to Peshke Izraelit.

These kind people
Never turned you down
Although they were inconvenienced
By day and by night.

When there was
A wedding in Zhetl,
Our own Reb Moishe
Would entertain with charm.

Then the music
Played with feeling
A beautiful march
Would be played.

In our town
It was very special
Our own artists
Our own music.

When we held a parade
It was very joyful
As if a king
Was about to arrive.

The orchestra played
Beautifully at the marketplace
With our own bandleader
Abrashe Levit.

Our fire brigade
With four barrels
And Kalmen Yoshe Maytchiks
As the commander.

Each and everyone
Was always prepared
As early as the
Sun appeared.

Now after such destruction
See what became of our Zhetl
This must be inscribed
In everyone's memory.


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