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.
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,
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
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 45 day visit?
I can jot down a few details about the German occupation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
by Efraim Hermoni of blessed memory
Translated by Judy Montel
This is not a joke, not one of the republics of Shalom Aleichem, but an actual republic, i.e., independent government, that was elected by all of the Jewish inhabitants in secret elections, according to all of the rules of democracy with an armed force at its side. This republic was established in Zhetl after the First World War in 1918. And this is how it happened!
After the German Revolution, the military arm was broken. The Germans rapidly left the occupied countries, even though their military strength was still strong and the front was still holding. Overnight, fortune changed! The German gendarme, who just yesterday was walking the streets of the town with Prussian arrogance with a large hunting dog at his side, casting fear on the Jewish and Christian townspeople, overnight became helpless.
The great flight of the Germans from the occupied areas began. The Russians, who advanced after the retreating Germans, for some reason didn't dare to conquer Zhetl and the area around it. Also, the Poles, who were advancing from another direction, stayed a certain distance from the town. Thus, in Zhetl no ruler remained. The townspeople began to feel the lack of food and other supplies. On the one hand, it was not possible to travel to the villages to buy food, because deserters from the Russian army, who hid in the forests and in the nearby villages during all the years of the war, would attack passers-by, steal their belongings and at times also their lives. Fears of deserters and thieves attacking Zhetl itself grew as well, and the situation was very bad.
The Jewish townspeople talked amongst themselves about setting up local government, but the Christians in the town would not participate. Eventually, the Jews decided to elect a municipal government without the participation of the Christians. The elections took place according to all of the rules of democracy. The campaign was mainly between the United Zionist list and the United-Israel list. The spiritual leader of the United-Israel (Achdut Yisra'el) list was the rabbi of Zhetl at that time, Rabbi Reb Zalmen Sorotzkin who now lives in Israel. Rabbi Sorotzkin later became one of the pillars of the Agudat-Yisrael party in Poland. Besides these two lists there was also a list of the Yidishist circles and those who opposed Zionism.
The electoral campaign was very fierce. Dozens of meetings were held with speakers from all of the lists participating. Especially notable was the success of the speakers from the veteran Zionists: Reb Menachem Vernikovski OBM and Reb Aharon Herschel Langbort OBM.
The first was, in his time, a member of Bnei Moshe, sensitive of spirit and of elegant thought, learned in Torah and wisdom. The second was an outstanding speaker, erudite and educated. These two veteran Zionists had a decisive influence on the townspeople. From the younger generation, especially successful were the sons of the two veteran Zionists: Shlomo-Chayim Vernikovsky OBM and Avraham Langbort OBM. From among the people of Achdut Yisra'el the group of younger men, certified to be rabbis, students of Reb Yozel, the Mussar teacher and amongst those, Reb Yitzchak Vaynshtein, currently living in Jerusalem.
The elections led to victory for the Zionist list,
which received the largest number of votes proportionally. In second place came Achdut Yisra'el and in last place the bloc of the YIdishists and anti-Zionists.
The Zionist Yisrael Kaplinsky was elected as chairman of the municipality. Moshe Bitenski, today (mid-1950s) the director of the Burea of the Keren Kayemet in Tel Aviv, was elected as treasurer. And I, author of these columns, was elected as director of the Municipal Economy. (All of these three were not long-time residents of Zhetl, but people who had recently come to the town due to the circumstances of the time. Bitenski, who had gone through the revolution in Russia, was considered an expert at elections and therefore was elected to be the chair of the election committee.)
The municipality received control of the power station there, got it working and promised light to the townspeople. We also did the preparatory work to take over the flour mill there. But our main concern was to ensure the well-being of the townspeople by setting up a municipal militia. By buying from the retreating Germans we were able to get hot and cold munitions for it. The militia, unlike the municipality, also included several Christians. Over time, we sent messengers to the closer and more distant villages to purchase supplies for the townspeople. Every delegation had several militiamen attached to it to protect it from attacks by the deserters and thieves. Once such an attack did take place on our convoy and in the battle, one of the attackers was killed. In order to take revenge for their loss, the deserters sent us notice that they would carry out an attack on the town. This forced us to strengthen the militia even more and to arm it. At the same time, we succeeded in ensuring supplies needed by the townspeople and first and foremost the distribution of bread that we had baked from the flour we had obtained in the villages, and life began to go on its usual course.
However, the days of our government did not last long. The Red Army approached Zhetl in the meantime. As it drew nearer, the leftist circles in the Jewish community began to transfer to the Communist Party. Also, a leader appeared for the Communist Party a Christian who had operated underground for a long time and now appeared in the open and took over leadership. He was called by all The Chairman. Communist power continued to grow. The main sign of this was the municipal militia going over to the communists and changing its name to Battle Company.
Then we received an announcement that an Association of the Representatives of the Workers and Farmers had been formed in Zhetl, and that it demanded transfer of the town's government to it.
One of the evenings, a large Communist procession marched with red flags and the Battle Company at its head. With songs and shots fired in the air, the procession approached the municipality. The chair of the Communist Party, accompanied by several militiamen, entered the municipality and demanded that the governing of the town be transferred into their hands.
The Chairman of the municipality, Yisrael Kaplinsky, declared in response to this demand: We were elected by the townspeople in democratic elections, and we see ourselves as responsible for this town and no one has the right to take from us the duties that the townspeople have assigned to us. However, since we cannot withstand your armed force, therefore we surrender to you and with strong protest hand over the governing of the town.
And indeed, after the militia our armed force went over to the communist side, in any case the government became concentrated in their hands, even without our official surrender.
And thus the Jewish Republic in Zhetl came to an end.
Translated by Judy Montel
It was a very interesting episode that went on for about half a year. The German occupation forces had already left Zhetl, but no other ruling force had yet appeared in the town.
The first question that came up was: Who will protect the town? This question did not just concern the Jews of the town, but also the Christian population. In the forests surrounding Zhetl, Russians had gathered who had escaped being German prisoners of war and threatened the town with attack, robbery and looting.
This situation forced us to organize a defense that over time became the ruling force in the town. It is not easy to explain how a defense force came to be organized in a small Jewish town that was headed by a Christian, who, it became clear later on, was not a lover of Israel. However, this is a fact. The defense force numbered 40-50 members and was equipped with several dozen rifles, a few hand-guns, a box of grenades, and hundreds perhaps even thousands of bullets.
Interestingly, the defense force in Zhetl did not become a dictatorship, on the contrary, it allowed the Jews of Zhetl, according to all of the rules of democracy, to elect a town council, which is worthy of praise for the arrangements they put in place.
Everything was going nicely until the Soviet Army appeared on the horizon, planning to conquer the town. Youth who had just a day or so ago become friends, turned their backs on one another. And those who hoped to benefit from the new government raised their heads especially high.
On an uncomplicated morning, the defense was reorganized, those who were not enthusiastic about Soviet rule were removed from its ranks and it declared itself as a revolutionary force whose job it was to serve the Council of Workers, Soldiers and Farmers. Armed and singing the Marseillaise, the armed show of force marched to the city council. The town council surrendered to them and Zhetl began preparing to receive the Soviet Army.
The town did not take this change with a light heart, and confusion was especially strong amongst the Zionist youth. The revolution in the town council had raised the question for them: what next?
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,
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.
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.
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,
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
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 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.
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
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.
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
Reb Avrom and Reb Noyakh Eli
Yisroel Ozer accomplished
If you were poor or sick
These kind people
When there was
Then the music
In our town
When we held a parade
The orchestra played
Our fire brigade
Each and everyone
Now after such destruction
Translated by Judy Montel
During the period between the two world wars (1921-1939) the Zhetl community enjoyed great progress. While the Polish government didn't grant the Jews much favor, the freedom of association that Poland granted, as opposed to Tsarist Russia, was used in extensive public activity.
In the twenties, two modern schools were started in Zhetl. The Zionist parties founded the Tarbut school with Hebrew and the language of instruction and the Yidishists and anti-Zionists established the Tzisha school. The two schools were the axis around which all the public and political activities clustered. Although they divided the Zhetl community into two warring sides, they concentrated all constructive thinking and together moved the point of gravity away from the study hall.
Besides hundreds of graduates who acquired knowledge and modern education there, the two schools started two drama troupes, organized celebrations, balls and bazaars.
Along with the cultural and political associations, professional associations arose as well. To begin with, the tradespeople started their association, afterwards, the artisans and finally, the workers started a professional association. Each organization focused on the interests of its members, protected them from over-taxation and looked after their social and professional representation.
Charity organizations that were rebuilt after the war also increased their activity. Alongside the traditional institutions, for example: Linat Tzedek and Aid for the Sick, the Popular Bank was founded, the Committee for the Care of Orphans, TOZ and so forth.
The town's municipality improved the views, installed sidewalks, paved the streets, painted fences, took care of general cleanliness and added charm to the town.
In this period, the Zhetl community also rebuilt its economy. The tradespeople developed their shops and the artisans expanded their workshops. Of course, their livelihood was not abundant and the quality of life was modest, but compared to the period before the war, noticeable progress had been made.
The highlight of this period was the youth. In Zhetl alert and vibrant youth arose who dreamt and realized their dreams. They trained to a life of work, moved to the Land of Israel and built a bridge between the diaspora and the homeland. This interesting development, full of potential, was tragically halted with the outbreak of the Second World War.
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