by Avrom Ivenitsky of blessed memory
Translated by Janie Respitz
Zhetl now has 4,600 inhabitants of which 75% are Jews. The Christians, with very few exceptions are White Russian land workers. The surrounding land owners are almost all Poles. The state clerks, among whom there are a significant amount of elderly, Russian clerks trying to pass themselves off as Poles, but according tot their names and accents their Polish identity is problematic. Yet they polonized quickly despite the fact it is not easy for them as they speak the provincial White Russian dialect with all the nuances of the entire Christian population.
The White Russian use the White Russian language almost exclusively in all tasks except any written communication with the authorities. That is always in Polish.
Jewish children attend the Talmud Torah, the Yiddish secular school and the Tarbut School. Zhetl's secular Yiddish elementary school goes until the 6th grade, and besides this there are Heders (traditional religious schools) which satisfy more or less the educational needs of the Jewish population. However, there are many Jewish children, mostly girls, in the local Polish public school which does not cost any money.
The high school situation is more difficult. The few children from Zhetl who have the opportunity to attend a high school in another town are almost all students in the Jewish Polish High Schools.
The Zhetl Yiddish Elementary School
The Zhetl Yiddish secular elementary school was founded 6 years ago by the young people in Zhetl. Like all of its sister schools it has to endure cold and warm from inside and out. But the school became naturalized with us and this summer celebrated its first graduation. The graduation showed our parents that pedagogically they were not bad, however financially they had many problems.
Three years ago, the school management with their bare hands undertook the task of building their own building. Given that however, good will is not enough to build a building and from the small amount of money we received from America, we bought part of the lot. The rest of the money we raised among ourselves through small contributions.
For pennies, we erected a nice spacious ruin and laid down a floor.
When the school was founded, children came from poor houses. Now we have 120 children in all levels and it is becoming more and more popular.
From time to time the Yiddish elementary school organizes evenings of amateur shows and lectures on their own. Bringing a lecturer from Warsaw or Vilna is difficult, forget about an acting troupe, since Zhetl is too poor. If a lecturer or an acting troupe would stumble upon Zhetl, we remembered it for a long time. In the winter of 1924 Dovid Herman's studio visited Zhetl. Old and young ran to all three performances and people are still talking about it today.
The Situation in 1929
The situation of the schools in June 1929 was like this: the TZISHO School and the Talmud Torah were barely breathing and were in an unbearably difficult situation of permanent lack of funds. The amount of children (approximately 200) was the same in both schools, with very little fluctuation. Of course the difficult financial situation affects the pedagogic work.
Concerning state subsidies there is not much to talk about. The city hall, over the past year raised the subsidy for the schools to 50%, that is to say, instead of 2000 zlotys
this year, both schools would receive 3000 zlotys. Perhaps we will be able to squeeze another few hundred zlotys from them. 1500 gulden a year, with 200 children and 45 teachers is a weak financial foundation.
Tuition is insignificant in the percentage of our school budget. Our town is extremely poor. They do not pay tuition and the little they do pay is never punctual. This is the reason this is the reason many teachers leave. Here we see the great expansion of the Polish Public School where 30% of Jewish children learn, mainly girls but many boys as well.
Over the last few years there have been two classes at the Tarbut School which exists under the label of Talmud Torah, and is not far away. There is also the Agudah's Ezra school which was founded under the protectorate of the former Zhetl rabbi (now in Lutzk) Zalmen Saratzkin.
There was a cultural battle between the TZISHO and Tarbut schools. And they both had trouble making ends meet. The main competition lay in: very low tuition, or no tuition at all, and the national and religious sentiments of the Talmud Torah and Tarbut schools and on the other hand, the secular approach of the TZISHO School. Meanwhile, more and more children were being sent to the Polish public school where they taught Jewish religion once or twice a week (not in the school, the children would go to a tutor's home).
The building of the TZISHO School was far from ready, inside and out. Summer was not too bad. In the winter they had to heat all day (if there was not a lack of wood), because the interior was not plastered and the exterior was not panelled.
The school was the most important cultural centre for Zhetl's youth. Next came the library which was founded 35 years ago. From 1905 until 1915, due to police persecutions, the library was in private hands. When the Germans arrived in 1915 the Zhetl youth took back their library which functioned normally until 1921 and served Zhetl then what the Yiddish school does now.
That is when the decline of the library began. Firstly because the new school zapped a lot of the energy from the youth, and secondly,
From right to left: Khaim Ganuzovitch, Yitzkhak Leybovitch, Eli Bensky, Shloimeh Khaim Vernikovsky
the difficult economic crisis and the occupying regime killed the vivaciousness of Zhetl's youth.
The school question remained at the forefront, and the library was pushed into the shadows, but thanks to the dedication of our librarian Mr. Yitzkhak Leybovitch, it did not fall completely by the wayside. There is now a resurging interest in the library and there is no doubt it will be revived.
Our library work now falls under the legalization of the merchants union. The book collection is not too bad. We received a small subsidy from city hall, a few hundred gulden. We hope the subsidy will increase.
Zhetl now has a new electricity station with a diesel motor. The electricity station, although a very good one,
with a very good electrical network and excellent light, squeezed city hall making it hard to breathe. This pleasure cost a bit too much. City hall suffered with loans and promissory notes from the state economic bank and so on.
The hospital was transformed into an infirmary where there was a doctor five days a week. You had to pay 1 gulden per visit. We now have two infirmaries in Zhetl: a Polish one and a Jewish one. The Polish one costs 50 groshen. In the Jewish one there is a sunlamp which you can use for a minimum fee.
As in all Jewish towns and cities Zhetl has its Zionist organizations, the united Z.Z and P.Z, pioneers and a mixed professional union. All the dreams of a lecturer or organizer from Warsaw remains just a desire due to lack of money.
Seated in the first row: Musheh Turetsky, Shaul Rabinovitch, Melekh Shvedsky, Avrom Levit, Aron Eliovitch, Moishe Izraelit
Second row: Rivka Breskin, Yehoshua Shushan, Mirl Zernitsky, Hirshl Aron Volfovitch, Etl Man, Boreh Dvoretsky, Khashkeh Ganzovitch, Yakov Dvoretsky
Last row: Yehoshua Dvoretsky, Khane Malkeh Shvedsky, Moishe Mirsky, Hindkeh Mirsky, Menakhem Kaplinsky
The pioneers learned trades and how to work the land and little by little left for Palestine.
Among other cultural institutions we must remember the TOZ Society and the last arrival the Cultural League. All these societies are active. They are comprised mainly of young people who have nothing to do, they were landless and preoccupied with many worries: If you say, what will we eat. The desire to immigrate was very strong. Here and there people were disappearing. Whoever could was immigrating, the majority to South America.
Over the last few years many small shops have opened. The people are hopeful that the guild laws would prevent more shops to open so quickly and easily.
There is nothing to say about White Russian cultural activity. They were Polonizing easily. All the White Russian children have no choice but to attend Polish schools. They do not even wrangle over this. The few that are unhappy go unnoticed.
Zhetl continued to possess all the specific Jewish societies and institutions such as The Society to Spend the Night With the Sick, Society to Aid the Sick, The Interest Free Loan Society, The Firefighter Society, which was already 24 years old and well organized.
The Firefighter Society was created with Jewish manpower and means and until today, most of its members are Jews. In fact it is a Jewish society because besides the Jews hardly anyone is interested in it. All the inventory was bought with Jewish money.
Finally, I would like to talk about the important Jewish communal, economic institution The Zhetl Jewish Public Bank. The bank encompasses the entire economic life in Zhetl and is involved with the Vilna Central Jewish Cooperative Public Bank.
Zhetl's shopkeepers and artisans are organized in the Merchant Union and Artisan Union. Both unions are connected with the Warsaw Central Unions and function relatively well.
What Does Zhetl Live Off?
This is the question that everyone who comes to Zhetl asks, when he is astounded by the amount of stores and small shops which like a rusty chain surround entire spacious empty bare marketplace in the middle of the town and infest all the other streets and lanes. The first and correct reply a Zhetl Jew would give this question is:
What does it matter, what do Jews live off? We live…
Taking further interest in this question you will learn that Zhetl earns its living on market days when the surrounding peasant population come to shop. There are now two market days: Tuesday and Friday. The real market day however is Tuesday. All the other days of the week
are just the antechamber to the market day. In one word: the entire economic financial and to a great extent social and cultural life in Zhetl is dependent and regulated by the market day. Given that the peasants in the region were also very poor gives the market day more noise than substance.
Professionally, Zhetl looked like this:
Industrial enterprise the steam mill and sawmill belonged to four partners.
Shopkeepers 170. Mainly groceries, textiles, iron, leather, haberdashery, shoes, glass, pharmacy warehouses. From these 150 were in the Merchant Union, almost all in the third and fourth category.
Beer Halls 10; Tea Houses 10; hotels 4; restaurants 2; a small ceramic tile factory; a small fur dealer and peddlers all totalling 40 families. Together with the shopkeepers 210 families.
Artisans approximately 250 families. According to these trades:
Needle trade: seamstresses and dressmakers 75 families; furriers 6.
Leather trade: shoemakers 50; cutters and stitchers of shoe leather 10; tanners 10; saddle makers 8;
Lumber trade: carpenters 25; shingle makers 2.
Metal trade: Blacksmiths 15; locksmiths 3; coppersmiths 1; assistant machinist 1; watchmaker 2; tinsmith 2.
Building trade: Glaziers 10; housepainters and artistic painters 4; whitewashers 1; bricklayers 3; mortar makers 2.
Nutrition trade: Bakers 20, butchers 25; sausage makers 6, soda water small factories 2; miller (water) 1; rolling mill (steam) 1.
Land workers: Farming 3; gardeners 2; orchard keepers 7.
Varied trades: photographers 2; electricians 2; coachmen 30, barbers 4; wool brushers 2; stocking makers (machine) 1; potters 3.
Specific Jewish Trades: Scribes 30, parchment makers 3; wig makers 1.
Secular Professions: Doctors 1; medics 1; dentists 3; teachers and religious tutors 15.
Religious Functionaries: Rabbi 1; cantor 1; beadles 3; gravediggers 1; (the same person also inscribed tombstones).
Unskilled labourers 5.
Before the war, even 3 years ago Zhetl was a centre for lumber. The employees (all Jewish) the so called record keepers of the lumber operations, amounted to a large percentage of the Zhetl population.
As in the rest of Poland the Joint prevented many Jewish families from literal ruin during the transitional years from 1920 1922 and helped rebuild the destroyed Zhetl.
The actual aid work of the Joint and from America in general began in 1920. That same year a delegate from the Joint visited Zhetl and left us 10,000 mark which was equivalent to 300 dollars. The delegate, Mr. Lev, enlivened the economic and communal ruin of Zhetl and connected us with Slonim as an independent point. Until then, Zhetl was isolated from Joint activities.
A community council was immediately formed with representatives from various movements who were given the task to distribute the funds which from then on would arrive every month in larger or smaller amounts. The money was distributed, without exception, to each of the community's institutions which were now revived.
A kitchen opened for the poor which served 200 portions daily. The town would partially cover the expenses for the food through taxation. Many also received handouts. Many helped to build workshops and stand independently on their own feet.
Every month there would be a gathering in Slonim to distribute the money from the Joint, as well as food and clothing to the whole county. In 1922 Zhetl joined the Bialystok County with our Rabbi Sorotskin as representative. This is when the well planned rebuilding activity began in our region.
The Bialystok Joint distributed to three headquarters: medical and sanitation, orphans and credit. The Zhetl rabbi was elected to the presidium of Bialystok County. With the help of the Joint the town purchased the bathhouse from a private owner, renovated it appropriately making it a new, modern facility.
The Jewish hospital was reorganized, renovated and given modern equipment and began to function normally. An infirmary was opened at the hospital. They organized school medicine and hygiene for more than 200 children. They also built a town ice warehouse which supplied ice in the event of illness,
not only for Zhetl but for the entire region, for Jews and Christians.
With help from the Joint the Jewish hospital was legalized. There were only two legal Jewish hospitals in the 110 towns in Bialystok County: Zhetl and in Ruzhinoy, near Slonim. A sanitation commission was created which cleaned, whitewashed and disinfected the town. They burned old hay bags and distributed new ones and legalized the Society to Aid the Sick. The poor received medical help free of charge.
A county commission to care for orphans was founded in Zhetl headed by Reb Moishe Ruven Mordkovsky. The amount of war orphans adopted in Zhetl rose from 8 to 20. In actuality, they cared for many more.
With the help of the Central Credit, the aforementioned Public Bank was opened in Zhetl. The restoring and rebuilding work of the Joint in Poland greatly affected Zhetl.
Zhetl also received subsidies from YEKAPO which helped to ease the difficult economic situation in town. The subsidies helped to reinstate the old interest free loan society which was desperately needed.
In the last years the YEKAPO in Vilna sent aid for orphans after the decision was made to liquidate the Joint in Bialystok, Baranovitch and Slonim.
Thanks to YEKAPO, in 1926 an aid committee was founded to help the unemployed. They provided funds to dry out the town's swampy meadows 2.7 acres of pasture was created for Jewish animals. On any given day there were 25 Jewish unemployed men working on this project. In order to reach their goal, the town demanded a day of work from every Jewish family.
On the 25th of August 1926 the General Secretary of YEKAPO, Mr. Moishe Shalit visited Zhetl. Among other things, he visited the Dried out swamp land expressed his joy by increasing the subsidy.
Besides the Joint and YEKAPO, the Zhetl Relief Society in America helped to alleviate the economic need in Zhetl. In the years 19191921, 50 60 percent of Zhetl's Jews lived off this aid. The need for help began to decrease. Today 3035 families regularly receive help from America. From time to time, 30 percent of the town. The amounts however are not less than before.
The General Picture: Lonely and Needy
The economic situation in Zhetl compared to surrounding towns is unsatisfactory. The town has entered a normal framework and exactly as before the war, after the war Zhetl is still poor. The only difference is we now see all the possibilities to escape.
by Moishe Mendl Leyzerovitch (New York)
Translated by Janie Respitz
In 1914 I was mobilized into the Czarist army. In June of 1918 I returned to Zhetl. I lived there under German occupation for 7 months until they left the region. I experienced living under the Germans in those years. If only it did not get so much worse. Our families would still be alive.
When the Germans began to evacuate we felt that our true hell was just beginning. Having survived the Russian civil war and the fall of the Czarist power I anticipated we would now experience the wrath of those looking to take over. It really did not take very long. As soon as the Germans began to leave Zhetl we felt the black clouds approaching.
Zhetl was left without authorities and this was taken advantage of by various dark elements. Seeing that a horrible state of chaos would begin, Yisroel Ozer Barishansky, who was always the first to help Zhetl deal with problems, organized a committee to form a self defence led by Zhetl's firefighters. There were 120 registered firefighters who protected us from attacking gangs which were romping through the forest.
Gangs Threaten Zhetl
When the Russians left our region their armies fell to pieces. As they did not want to be taken prisoner, they hid in the forests and organized partisan groups. They built hideouts in the forests and threatened the village and city. They would capture Germans, kill them and wear their uniforms. At night they would go to the villages and terrorize the peasants and at the same time send threatening letters to the Jews of Zhetl, demanding money from those they thought were rich.
When Zhetl was without authority, rumours spread about 500 armed men who were coming to kill the Jews. The fear was great. However, this did not last long. Within a short time a company of soldiers was sent from Novoredok by the Soviets. They began to administer the town, searched Jewish homes and taking whatever they wanted.
We began to feel what we had anticipated. We began to lack essentials and long lines developed for a piece of bread. Forget about better things. They did however do one good thing for our town namely: together with the town committee they began to negotiate with the bandits. We decided on a point in Mezivetz and negotiated with them for a whole month. We promised we would send them all home and they agreed.
One fine day they entered our town armed with guns, horses and essential supplies. They brought them in as if in a parade to the marketplace. They were led in by the fire brigade orchestra. Speeches were made. Then they were taken to Novoliyenie, put on trains and sent home. A few of them ran back to the forest. Apparently they preferred forest life. This is how the story of the deserters ended.
From Authority to Authority
The Soviet military company held power from December 1918 until March 1919. I will remember that day forever because my son Areleh was born that same day, March 23rd, 1919. It was Purim. At exactly 5:00 in morning gunshots woke us from our sleep. The Poles were attacking the town and the Soviets panicked. Some lay dead in the streets while others ran away.
At night, soldiers attacked Jewish homes and took everything we had. Screams and cries were heard every minute. It continued like this until they installed a civil authority with police and a city commandant. This was in 1921.
The Situation Stabilizes
Things began to improve. The situation began to stabilize. People returned to work. Business revived followed by a few good years.
Money was cheap and everyone had lots of banknotes. The business world was working in dollars. Support began to arrive from America, private and communal; providing necessities for Passover for the poor and funding for the Talmud Torah. Later the zloty stabilized at 5.25 to the dollar. That's when people realized that nothing remained of their money.
Meanwhile they began to raise taxes. The economic situation worsened. This resulted in the merchants creating a union.
At the same time an elementary school was opened and we began to work on culture elements, but we were lacking the most important thing: a bank and an interest free loan society. People were doing business, expanding workshops but there was nowhere to get credit.
This is when, due to Rabbi Saratzkin's initiative, the People's Bank was opened with branches throughout the province. Rabbi Saratzkin devoted all of his energy to this effort and opened a branch in Zhetl. The merchant's union was already in existence and therefore they were represented in the bank. They began to give loans, not that large, but enough to encourage business.
Merchants and Artisans Organize
At this time the authorities raised taxes; both on merchants and artisans. The merchants who were organized would travel to Slonim as in that district there was still a finance office. Merchants who sold books were free of appraisal, but there were very few of them.
Every year they would choose a craftsmen to present to the judiciary. Understandably the merchants were only interested in their class and the craftsmen became the scapegoats, not because the merchant wanted to, God forbid, maltreat them. But when a craftsman refused to be appraised, it was really because he did not know how to go about it. If he was a friend they would put in a good word, but the rest they would leave in God's care.
When we sensed the craftsmen were subjected to the privileges of the office craftsmen bureau and compared to the merchants they were being abused, we decided to organize the Association of Craftsmen.
Such unions already existed in Poland, however there were very few in our region and they were only in the big cities.
From right to left: Alter Bom, Dvoshe Busel, Hirshl Benyaminovitch, Zalmen Gertzovsky, Malkeh Lutsky, Moishe Mendl Leyzerovitch, Soreh Breskin, Avrom Matyuk Berl Arzhekhovsky
Our organizing committee was comprised of 10 people: 1) Alter Bom, 2) Hirshl Benyaminovitch, 3) Yitzkhak Benyaminovitch, 4) Tzaleh Busel, 5) Dovid Berkovitch, 6) Zalmen Getzovsky, 7) Yisroel Zanarotzky, 8) Ruven Nilolayevsky, 9) Moishe Mendl Leyzerovitch and 10) Khaim Velvl Eliyovitch.
We legalized the committee temporarily until an election and began to organize all the craftsmen through an announcement at the Houses of Study, which was common at that time. In the course of one day, all the craftsmen in Zhetl, which comprised 65% of the population, registered. We worked out our status and went to Novoredok, to the Starosta (Russian village elder) for a certificate. The Starosta informed us that soon our status would be worked out by the government.
Meanwhile we began to gather, call meetings, hold elections and choose a board of directors. We began to be independent and
finally felt the craftsmen were a force to be reckoned within a democratic country.
Before long the Starosta called us and informed us the craftsmen were recognized by the government. He then gave us a status which the craftsmen's office in Warsaw had worked out.
At the same time we were informed by the finance office that we must choose six craftsmen. We chose the six men and for the first time we were well evaluated. 70% of all the craftsmen were freed from taxes. We made a big hit with the director of the finance office and he later informed us that we should also go to the merchant's meetings. This made a good impression on all the craftsmen in Zhetl.
We appointed a secretary and a beadle. The first few weeks we worked voluntarily. Dovid Berkovitch was the secretary and I was the chairman. We were the beadles until we were able to stand on our own two feet. We immediately rented a locale where we met a couple of times a week. We later subscribed to a few newspapers and the formerly lethargic craftsman began to be more interested in communal life, reading a newspaper, meet and converse and talk his heart out.
We Fight for a City Administration
This is how life flowed until 1926. Until that year we belonged to the township. Jews were represented only through one representative Motl Man. Understandably he had only problems. He could not do anything for the good of the town. The budget was big. Proportionally, Jews carried the burden of the taxes which the township imposed, but there was no one to shout at as the only Jew was also the spare. In the end they turned him into a communist and put him in jail. After great effort they freed him.
At this time we began a movement in town that included all the organizations, headed by Rabbi Saratzkin. We set out to create a city administration where our money could be used for the welfare of our town. The township had been taking our money to build schools in the villages. No money went to the Jewish institutions.
We began by approaching the higher ups, the Starosta and the governor. It took a few years and finally a mayor was nominated to organize a city hall. When he arrived he invited representatives from the craftsmen association as well as the merchant association. After half a year we finally had elections for a city administration.
The town was excited about the elections. It was one of the most interesting moments in our town in 1928. Jews crawled out of the woodwork to choose a city council in order to take the power away from the non Jews and become our own bosses. This went on for approximately 3 months. Every organization wanted to be represented. In total we had to elect 12 men, 9 for the city council and 3 for the board of directors. The craftsmen association pushed harder than the other organizations as we comprised 65% of the population. I believe there were more Jewish organizations than Jews
When we realized no good was resulting from all this we decided to call 2 representatives from each group to negotiate. According to percentage, Jews were able to send 6 councilmen to the council and 2 to the board of directors as the Jewish community in Zhetl comprised 79% of the population. After long negotiations among the Jewish organizations we arrived at the following conclusion: 2 craftsmen, 2 merchants, one from the Yiddish school, one from the Tarbut School, and 2 independents.
The elections began. There was a great drive to vote. No one stayed home. The Christians hope that due to the amount of Jewish organizations the Jews would fail. However we were very well organized, brought people from their homes, and won.
The joy was indescribable. We were rid of the township, the village. We were now a town with a council and we were in charge! True the taxes were higher but we would benefit from them.
The Zhetl Fire Brigade
For example: the fire fighters. They would take money from the town to subsist. From time to time they needed new machines since after a fire machines would break and have to be repaired. They also had expenses for the annual parade. The wealthier Jews would pay for this from their pockets. However there were those who did not want to contribute. In such a case they would notify the fire fighters and would go onto the roof of such an individual and cause
10 times more in damages than the amount he had to pay.
I must add that the firefighters orchestra which had a great reputation in the entire region was the crowning jewel of our town. When there were large parades in Baranovitch, Slonim and Lida they would invite the Zhetl orchestra to play. When Yosef Pilsudsky, the Marshal of Poland passed through Noviliyenie, the provincial governor invited the Zhetl orchestra with the firefighter section to play. I was at that parade for Marshal Pilsudsky. When Pilsudsky walked by he said we played very well and shook our leader's hand. Our town derived a lot of pleasure from this event.
President Moshtzizky also came to our town. He too was received by our fire brigade and its orchestra.
In difficult times the fire brigade would save us from our problems. They extinguished fires that burned and wanted to burn. Such an institution could not subsist on its own. After the emergence of city hall its situation improved.
City Hall Develops the Town
The budget of city hall was big enough but not much bigger than the township budget. As a result, all the money remained in town. The council would decide what subsidies each administrative body would receive: the Talmud Torah, the Yiddish School, the Tarbut School, and the Fire Brigade. They also placed the electricity station in their administration. We had a special fund for accidents, or if we had to take someone to Vilna, and also for the public school which was open to everyone. Over the next few years city hall built school buildings, rebuilt the streets, tore out large stones from the cobblestone pavement and built sidewalks.
In 1933 and 1935 big fires broke out where more than half of Zhetl burnt down. However, after the fires we planned new streets. Someone from Zhetl who left and returned for a visit would have gotten lost.
The sanitary conditions were satisfactory. Public places like hair salons, bakeries, cafes and restaurants were painted. Every corner smelled good. The sanitation supervision was strict. There was inspection every month and a fine of 10 zlotys for any transgressions.
The streets were clean and the market was moved to the outskirts of town. The sides of the sidewalks were whitewashed and garbage was nowhere to be found. The houses were all surrounded by fences painted the same colour and there were garbage cans in the courtyards with a sewer for dirty water. The toilets were provided with concrete and were cleaned by the city. Trees were planted along the streets and the market place became a place to take a walk.
Transportation was lively. Every few hours a bus would pass through town taking people all over the country.
The town developed in other areas as well. A fine young intelligentsia was developing. We would organize beautiful celebrations on Lag Ba Omer and after exams thousands of children would march through town like angels accompanied by the orchestra. All of this began when city hall became ours.
My Activities as Councilman
I served as a councilman from the first day in 1928 until 1939. There were three elections and I was elected in all three because I devoted my whole life to communal work. I would spend three months a year doing communal work. I would tear myself away from my job and neglect my own family. I would put down my work and run to city hall in order to provide answers for everyone. This one could not afford to pay for a chimney, another for a sign, property taxes or local taxes. Someone else was sick and had to be taken to Vilna. I had influence over the mayor as an older councilman and I would always get my way.
My goal was to get the backward craftsman on his feet. I must say that this was also successful for us. We put so much into the craftsmen society, that when the governor had to make plans he invited me personally as a representative of the craftsmen.
We established a normal life for the artisans. Whenever we knocked on a door it was always opened for us. This was for us a great achievement.
I worked as chairman and organized the Craftsmen Association from 1921 until 1939, however with the arrival of the Soviets the last chapter of Zhetl institutions came to an end.
by Rabbi Elkhanan Saratzkin (Jerusalem)
Translated by Janie Respitz
The uniqueness of Zhetl that set it apart from the surrounding cities and towns lies in the well functioning communal life which embraced all the religious, cultural, economic and political issues. For example, the organized Jewish community owned the electricity station which it took over from the Germans during the First World War.
Zhetl also possessed its own food cooperative, the only Jewish cooperative in the region, which provided food for the entire population after the first war; a bank and an interest free loan society, its own pasture for its horses and cows on land which they were involved for years in lawsuits with the peasants who claimed the land belonged to them because how could Jews have their own land?
The Jewish community held a distinct position on the issue: should Zhetl have a rural administration or a city hall.
The Power of a Ban
The Jewish community council was not elected and was composed of leaders from all social classes: merchants and craftsmen, Talmudic scholars and simple Jews with the rabbi at the head who enjoyed great authority, often more effective than the state laws.
There was great discipline on all sides. Every decision made by the community council, which in Zhetl was referred to as the city, was carried out even if it went against the financial interests of the individual or the group at large. A sort of Jewish State ruled Zhetl whose army and police were bans or prohibitions which were announced by the beadle (the rabbi's personal assistant) in the old House of Study on the Sabbath after the reading of the Torah. The bans had the charming power to stop each dispute and obligated everyone, religious or non-observant, rich or poor, with no exception to obey. The power of these bans was as effective as the state laws.
This is how the Zhetl Jewish community council took care of its poor, making sure they would have inexpensive products for Passover especially eggs, an important product for the holiday. Two weeks before Passover a prohibition was declared forbidding the export of eggs from town until after the holiday. Although the sale of eggs was an important component of the income of many peddlers, the prohibition was respected and thanks to this the prices fell and the population had affordable eggs for the holiday.
Through a prohibition on the sale of yeast, the budget was secured for religious needs such as rent for the rabbi and other functionaries of Jewish communal life. Not one baker or merchant used any yeast except the yeast provided by the Jewish community, which was very expensive.
The Ban on Illegal Distilleries
During the German occupation, 1917-1918 there was great hunger in our town and in the surrounding area. Dozens of Jews died from hunger and epidemics. The shortage of flour and rye greatly increased due to the amount of illegal distilleries in town and the surrounding area where they distilled whisky from rye because the state stopped the production of hard liquor and the prices rose. Rye which was meant for bread ended up in whisky which was sold by peasants and bandits who were rampant in the forests around Zhetl and attacked village Jews and travellers on the road. Besides this, grain merchants exported their goods out of town and the hunger situation increased by the day.
In order to liquidate the illegal distilleries and the export of rye the use of the ban as a weapon was implemented in our town as well as in nearby towns like Novoleniye and Dvoretz. The ban was solemnly declared by my father, may he be blessed with many years, in the old House of Study in the presence of the surrounding rabbis. The solemn sermon which my father, may he be blessed with many years, delivered was published in his book The Idea and the Word vol. 1. He emphasized that those who were criminally transforming bread into whisky, with harmful objectives, were stimulating and encouraging bandits to spill blood, attack and steal often the whisky producers themselves.
The ban was effective and the illegal distilleries and the rye export were stopped. However one baker and grain merchant transgressed the ban and as it was proven through witnesses, exported about 60 kilos of rye from town. This story caused a lot of excitement in town.
He was called to the House of Study and admitted to his crime. On the spot, a personal ban on him was proclaimed, people were forbidden to do business with him, buy from him. The crowd immediately distanced themselves from him and he left the House of Study. No one crossed his threshold. Even Christians stopped buying from him when they learned of the ban that was placed on him…
That same night (Saturday night) this merchant became very ill with smallpox. Two days later his family went to the rabbi asking for forgiveness and mercy and to lift the ban. They had to pay a large fine and promise he would never do such a thing again. The ban was lifted.
The Ban for the Good of the Self Defence
The second time a ban was declared in Zhetl was during the days of the Jewish Republic, after the Germans left and about half a year before the Soviets would arrive. The Jewish council organized the well known self defence which was composed of all militarily capable men. In order to organize and buy weapons they needed large sums of money. The Jewish council decided to tax every Jew a percentage of their income.
In order to prevent abuses and arguments it was decided to threaten a ban which would obligate everyone to give the correct percentage. So that no one had to know the exact earnings of another, it was decided to place a box in the rabbi's house where everyone had to drop off their money. The power of the ban was so great, the entire amount was collected. This was the best proof that everyone paid the correct amount.
A Story About a Robbery
Another interesting incident involving a ban, which shocked the whole town, occurred just before the outbreak of the First World War. One morning the town was shocked to learn of a robbery which emptied the dry goods store of Khienke Kohen in the marketplace. The owner of the shop went from being a prosperous woman to a pauper.
The entire police force was brought in as well as a detective from another town to search for evidence, but to no avail. When the police investigation ended without results the Jewish community council decided to declare a ban on the thieves, and anyone with any information about them.
A few days later, one of the wealthiest women in town came to the rabbi late one evening and told him, her brother, a respected young man, acted stupidly…he committed the robbery and now is scared and remorseful and would like to return the goods. However he would like a promise that this would remain a secret and the police will not be informed. He received the promise from the rabbi and a few nights later all the stolen goods were dropped off beside the store.
The entire town was spinning. No one knew what made the thieves return the stolen goods. The police were particularly interested. After long investigations and demands the police came to the conclusion that the rabbi knew something about it and the superintendent demanded the rabbi tell him who the thief was.
The rabbi categorically refused to tell him, straining the relationship between himself and the police superintendent. The superintendent threatened to bring the rabbi to trial for hiding the identity of the thief, a crime which carried a harsh punishment. My father consulted with an important lawyer in Vilna and for a moment even considered leaving Zhetl for America in order not to have to break the promise he made to the thief.
After long negotiations the superintendent agreed to tone down the incident and not bring the rabbi to trial. The incident has remained a secret until today and will remain a secret until all involved are no longer among the living.
Let these lines serve as witness to the picture of our unforgettable and beloved town Zhetl, its customs, activists, shopkeepers and craftsmen who excelled in responsibility and communal discipline and together cultivated this holy community.
by Soreh Epshteyn Shoer (Natanya)
Translated by Janie Respitz
Life flowed calmly in Zhetl
From my earliest memories until I left Zhetl there were no remarkable changes to the life of our town.
I do not remember the effect of the First World War on Zhetl. Perhaps that is why I remember a calm, beautiful town, enveloped in summer in green and in winter, covered in white snow.
The Jewish community with its communal activists energetically founded institutions, schools and organizations which flourished filling our hearts with joy.
Often a neighbour would come visit my mother and quietly and seriously whisper to her. It was then I understood: someone was in need of help, a poor family, a poor bride, or a sick person who needed someone to spend the night.
I would see deep sorrow on my mother's face which would evolve into a strong desire to help. And help she did!
Practical signs of help could be found in father's cupboard and in the drawer of his desk. In his cupboard his firefighter uniform hung festively with his helmet. In his drawer there was his shiny trumpet and other items that were part of his uniform.
As children, we were not allowed to approach these items. We could only look at them with respect. Until today they have remained sacred in my memory.
The fire brigade was always ready to fulfill its task: sometimes a traditional ball, sometimes a fire drill, and most importantly, to extinguish a fire, to battle the flames, to sacrifice themselves for Jewish possessions and property.
Fires! How often would you visit our town, how often were we terrified by the sound of the alarm which began at the electrical station and ended at Leybe Kaplinsky's sawmill.
Everyone is running chasing and sighing. Tears and cries fill the air. In this strained atmosphere the firefighters appear and the crowd breathes easier.
The fire brigade was the pride of our town because they not only extinguished the flames but the despair as well and the desperation of the burning families.
The work was hard, even more so with primitive means. They harnessed the horses and loaded the wagons with buckets which they filled with water in the lakes. The horses would often bolt, especially at night when the fire was blinding.
My father served as chief of the fire brigade for many years. He would never exploit this position, rather he would serve as an example for others who followed his orders. He would drag water and be the first in the fire to extinguish and save lives.
Unfortunately there were many fires but luckily, localized. Sometimes a portion of a house, at times an entire house or a barn or a stall.
For us kids, it was always an event. We would run to see the fire…
The Fire of 1933
In the years prior to my departure from Zhetl there were two great fires. In the first more than 200 houses burned. This was in June 1933.
At the time I was in Novogrudek preparing for final high school exams.
Suddenly an alarm.
A fire! Who? Where? Zhetl was burning! They were calling for help!
My Zhetl! How do we go home? I say we because Henie Gertsovsky was with me in Novogrudek. We were lucky; the chief of the Novogrudek fire brigade was our Christian history teacher. Knowing we were from Zhetl he took us in his fire truck to Zhetl.
We were on the highway heading home; Henie and I cling to each other, the fear is oppressive, the anxiety is hastening, we would like to be in Zhetl already!
How often we would travel home on this highway, happy and joyful, returning for holidays or vacation.
We are wondering where the fire is. It is hard to imagine from 30 kilometres away.
We continue to travel. We are already at the Nvoleniyie River. Crossing the bridge we are on the Maltchadke. We go up Holelier Mountain. We arrive at Leybe Kaplinsky's sawmill.
I can now affirm: Novoredker Street, where we lived, was not burning…the natural, egotistical feeling is calmed.
But what do I see? Is the mountain burning? No! It was Khaim Koyfman's two storied house; at the time Zhetl did not have higher houses.
We jumped down quickly from the truck. It's getting dark.
I run into my house, it's empty. There's no one there. With one glance I look around my beloved home, how nice it is, how loving; something is stuck in my throat, my eyes become moist…the house has recently been renovated, good that it was not burning…
The Fire Rages
And in the street? The fire rages. The main task of the firefighters is to localize the fire and not allow it to spread.
The left side of the marketplace, coming from Novoredker Street is one big fire. Red flames are tearing to the sky, crackling, the ceilings are breaking, and it looks like a big hell fell from the sky in order to destroy the town. This fire is nothing like previous fires when a house burned, a barn or a stall. Then, we, the children stood curiously, looked at the fire, counted the beams which fell one after the other; the eye concentrated on one small area.
But now the fire was raging without boundaries, excessively!
My little sister Libeleh runs by. A frightened crying little girl. My mother is beside her, and as always, worried. Father has disappeared somewhere. She is searching for him at the fire, watching for him…
My dear, poor father! You were active and encouraging at so many fires. Like a hero you ruled at every difficult situation now you are sick, weak and tired. You are no longer allowed to react like in the past. The symptoms of your disease already exist, but you my dear do not know about it…now you are standing on the side, without your uniform it's hanging in the cupboard. But thanks to your years of experience you are giving practical advice and from time to time a command: Now here! From this side of the street!
You stand at the corner of Khane Gotshikhes' house at the entrance of Synagogue Street. You don't want to allow the fire to spread, and you succeed!
The fire glows in your sick eyes as you slowly extinguish it with your bold glance.
Night. There are still flames which are being extinguished. Here and there are glowing black wet burned out ruins.
We accompany our tired, soaked from sweat, teacher to our home. Mother gives him a warm cup of milk, however he asks for vodka. Well so be it said mother, if he wants vodka I'll give him vodka!
The next day in class he told everyone that thanks to his pupil's mother he did not die in Zhetl, neither from thirst or hunger.
It was good for those who after the fire were able to return home.
But those whose homes burned had to find a place to spend the night and a place to stay until they found something.
Of course many friends took them in. Dr. Kru and his wife were among the victims. We gave them a room in our house.
A New Fire
Slowly Zhetl began to rebuild. Two years later we were startled by a heartrending siren.
It was Saturday before dawn. The fire started in the marketplace. We quickly left our warm beds and ran like shooting arrows toward the marketplace.
I run through the street, people are packing, the fire cannot be trusted. I ran to my aunt Leyke Daikhovsky. She is also packing. I grab a bundle and run to Fantchik's lake.
At the bridge there are a lot of people with lots of bundles. It is noisy. Everyone wants to protect their bit of poverty, although we hope the fire will not reach the bridge.
I put down the bundle and returned. I was now at Khaya Tules' yard.
Quick! I shouted, Give me a bundle! they threw me a bundle and I felt as if the fire was hitting my back. I took the same road, but now I could not return. The bridge on the Pomeraike River was burning making the firefighters' work more difficult.
I run through the rabbi's street and jump to Anna Shapiro's. I help her pack. Who knows if the fire will reach here?
Anna is sadly quite stunned. Among the goods she gives me to save is a full salt shaker. I run with the bundle and I am very careful; making sure the salt, God forbid, does not spill…
This time the fire destroyed our beautiful Manor Street. Black ruins stood on the spot where warm homes once stood.
I did not see the houses that were rebuilt. That autumn I left Zhetl. I hoped I would one day visit. I never imagined that I was leaving forever.
I never returned to you, my beloved Zhetl. Not because I was not attracted to you, not because I forgot you. That would have been unappreciative of me…
There are two large communal graves in Zhetl; one at the entrance of town the other where you exit. You were destroyed, my Zhetl, and I do not want to see you like that.
I will always carry you in my heart, like you once were.
by Moishe Mirsky (Montreal)
Translated by Janie Respitz
After Hitler, may his name be blotted out, came to power, fascism began to spread throughout Europe. It did not take long before anti Semitic waves were infesting Poland, first in the larger cities, later in the small towns. Zhetl did not escape this.
Hooligans arrived in town and organized Christian gatherings and agitated not to buy from Jews and told them to open their own cooperatives. At first the fascism was veiled, but by 1938 39 it was without restraint. The hooligans came on market days, preached to the peasants and hung placards which read:
Do not support business that lies in Jewish hands, don't buy from Jews, just from your own.
They would also picket Jewish businesses. If a Christian would walk out of a Jewish store they would attach a sign to his back which read: Christian traitor.
They hung signs on Christian businesses which said: Christian Business.
There would often be clashes between picketers and Jews which would result in accusations against the Jews for insulting the Polish state.
Once, on a Tuesday at the beginning of 1939, the entire town, including the church wall was plastered with anti Semitic slogans. The Polish priest noticed this early in the morning as he was setting out to the village. He called his congregants and asked them to remove the placards. The following Sunday, in his sermon he called the peasants to order and warned them against being influenced by hooligan adventurists.
Notwithstanding that the priest was beloved by the whole Christian population, his speech was not very effective. The Hitler instructors had a better understanding of this business and their speeches made a bigger impression on the peasants.
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