by Borukh Kaplinsky (Tel Aviv)
Translated by Janie Respitz
Between Slonim and Novogrudek, surrounded by forests, lay our town Zhetl. We were born in its houses and played in its yards. This is where we were raised. Some went to Yosele Mendes' Heder and some studied with Noyekh Eli the tutor, some attended the Talmud Torah at Yudl the ritual slaughterer and some went to the Yiddish school where they were taught by Lieberman and Frenkel. The younger ones went to the Tarbut Hebrew School where they were taught by Kokiel, Blokh and Vilensky.
Here in Zhetl we were mature and learned a chapter of Zionism. Some through Hashomer Hatzair and others in the Poalei Zion, some in Hechalutz Hatzair and others in the Revisionist Betar.
Here is where we took our first steps into communal life: the board of the Jewish National Fund, the board of the Tarbut School, TOZ Jewish Welfare Organization and Child Protection.
In Zhetl we also vegetated without a future. In this regard, we were all the same, no differences. Yosele Mendes' students and the Yiddish school pupils, the Jewish National Fund volunteers and the TOZ activists.
We immigrated to the Land of Israel from this town. Some with a certificate in the 1930s and others with a number tattooed on their arm in the 1940s, some from the Lipichansk partisans, and others from Siberia.
The town of Zhetl ceased to exist 14 years ago, destroyed by the terrible enemy down to its foundation.
From far away, from Tel Aviv in the State of Israel, I often want to remember Zhetl, our birthplace, and together with you, remember our fathers and mothers, relatives and friends, neighbours and acquaintances, those who went like sheep to the slaughter and those who fought like lions in the forests.
When you travelled home to Zhetl from Novolenyie, from a distance, many kilometres away from Zhetl, you saw the spires of the Catholic Church. That cross did not set the tone in Zhetl. It did not decide the character of the town. The tone in Zhetl was set in the synagogue courtyard with the three Houses of Study and the four cornered marketplace with its circle of shops.
You can be convinced of this as soon as soon as you get off the bus at the marketplace. People from town would immediately surround you to check your pulse: Who are you? Are you a Tarbut person or do you belong to the Yiddish School? If you were a Tarbut person they would take you to Berl Rabinovitch's hotel and the door would not close. All the Tarbut people would come by led by the old man Hertz Leyb Kaplinsky.
Zhetl's Communal Activists
The old Hertz Leyb stands before my eyes, a Talmudic scholar and a good spirit, religious yet tolerant, a grandfather who found a common language with his grandchildren. I see his stately appearance and his white beard. He walks straight and doesn't even lean on his cane, sits down, clears his throat, rubs his bald spot and begins a philosophical conversation.
After him my father arrives, Shaul Kaplinsky, educated in Torah and a devoted Zionist, knowledgeable in Hebrew and a communal activist. For many years he served as chairman of the Zionist Organization in Zhetl. He built the Tarbut School and was active in the National Fund. Feyvl Epshteyn arrived with him, the youngest of the group, a devoted Zionist, and enlightened Jew ready to help reach all Zionist goals.
Of course I remember Khaim Levit, the chairman of the merchant's union, energetic, impulsive and bubbling with initiative. He calls meetings, travels to Novoredok to repeal edicts and is the breath of life of the Zionist pack in Zhetl.
This picture would not be complete if I did not mention Yisroel Ozer Barishansky, a small man, detached, but with a warm Jewish heart, a shrewd brain and a sharp tongue. He built the electricity station in Zhetl and received all the women's curses every time there was a power failure. He built the Talmud Torah and helped build the Tarbut School. He was the landlord of the bathhouse, ritual bath and hospital, and took care of poor women in childbirth, unfortunate widows, and the very sick who had be taken to Vilna. He was the one who initiated a delay in reading the Torah as a protest over the rise of the price of yeast and ritual slaughter. He was the one who went from house to house with a red handkerchief to collect money for a wagon driver with a lame horse.
It would be an injustice if we would not mention the following community leaders: Tzale Mashkovsky, Dovid Senderovsky, and Ruven Mordkovsky. They devoted a lot of time and energy to Zionism, Tarbut and the funds.
You could meet all of the at Berl Rabinovitch's hotel if a Tarbut volunteer or a Zionist activist arrived in town.
If an activist from the Yiddish Folk School arrived the following would visit him in the hotel: Avrom Moishe Barishansky, Shike Ovseyevitch, Khaim Ganuzovitch, Khaim Mikhl Roznov and all the other Yiddishists.
For years they were our political opponents. We fought each other, tormented each other but all idealistically. Each one of us believed in our cause. Although we headed down different paths we were united with one goal: to improve our lives.
Today we can say with assuredness that our Zionist path was the correct one. I would like to stress that there were areas where the Yiddishists surpassed us.
They were the pioneers of stage theatre in Zhetl as well as the pioneers of a secular school.
It would often happen that both sides would be greatly disappointed: the guest arriving in Zhetl would not be from Tarbut or a Yiddishist. He would simply be a voyageur from a Lodz stocking factory.
Two Revolutionary Forces
However neither this nor any other failure managed to cool the heated positions on both sides. On the contrary. For example the Tarbut School organized a successful bazar for the Jewish National Fund with the participation of the director of the Hebrew School in Lida, Bernholtz at the same time as the Yiddish school staged a successful performance of Mirele Efros: the Yiddish school activists built a building near Tcherne the miller, and the Tarbut people built another building, no smaller, near Yudl Khaim Rashkin's house.
This is how Zhetl ran. Two rival forces fought over grabbing more positions.
No sign of these struggles have remained. The cruel Hitler boots annihilated everything, not respecting any child or elderly person. All that remains from Zhetl is a bundle of memories. Therefore we want to keep these memories eternally so they can serve as a memorial for what was and will never return.
Sunken in my memory, in front of my eyes are the youngsters from Zhetl. It is Friday evening after supper. The streets are filled with groups making noise and shouting. I remember them as if it was today with their ringing little voices, cracking nuts and drinking soda water at Yosl Gertzovsky's or Khaya Leah Katz'.
Right after that I see them sitting on balconies, laughing, joking or walking down the highway toward the palace.
This is what Zhetl's youth were like: if someone learned a new dance, all of Zhetl would dance. Sometimes there would be soccer mania and all the boys would kick the ball around at the horse market.
Later on, when the political parties heated up all the boys and girls in Zhetl would dance the Hora and carry on discussions in their locales. Later their bubbly moods brought them to Klesov and Shkahriya where they chopped wood and drew water in preparation to immigrate to the Land of Israel. Those who did not make it excelled in Lipichansk forest where they fought like lions in order to take revenge for the lives of their brothers and sisters.
The Sabbath in Zhetl
Do you remember the Sabbath in Zhetl? The dust from the swept streets still hangs in the air but the stores have been closed for a while. Soon the lights are lit. There's a holiday feeling. People dressed up in their Sabbath best walk slowly to greet the Sabbath queen. From the small prayer house you can hear the hoarse voice of Hirshl the blacksmith. Yudl the ritual slaughterer leads prayers in the Hasidic prayer house.
A little later night falls. The Sabbath queen soars over the Zhetl houses. Each family sings the Sabbath songs. Soon you can hear the clattering of spoons, forks, plates and bowls. Zhetl is eating Sabbath supper. Soon you can see those who have finished eating. They are strolling, eating sunflower seeds and drinking soda water.
Neighbours gather on stoops and balconies telling stories like this: What more do you need, I'll tell you a better story. The conversation is mixed with the laughter of children and teens. They walk in groups to the palace or on Novoredok Street. I can still hear their laughter ringing in my ears. I hear it now fresh and lively.
Now I ask myself, how was that laughter so cruelly silenced?
Saturday morning. The House of study is full. Our grandmothers and mothers are praying in the women's section. When the Torah reading begins, Yisroel Ozer jumps out of the corner, bangs his lectern and demands a delay in the reading as a protest.
On this Sabbath he's agitating against the butchers who don't want to pay the tax on kosher meat. A week earlier he demanded the community agree to a 5 groshn price rise on yeast in order to raise the salary of the rabbi. Another time he went against the doctor who billed the sick poor.
At first the crowd listens calmly, but then reacts either for or against Yisroel Ozer. Sometimes, people got upset, raised a hand and shouted curses.
A little later. The congregation reaches the closing eighteen benedictions, but Yisroel Ozer is still standing in the anteroom. He's ranting excitedly.
After the Cholent (Sabbath Stew)
After the Cholent the meetings begin. Both at the Tarbut School and the Yidddish Folkshul. At the Talmud Torah the managers and the commission discuss the salary of the doctor. The Zhetl community activists sit all around town bickering and losing their tempers, shouting and ranting, often until the third Sabbath meal.
Zhetl would never forgive me if I did not mention the Mutual Aid and communal institutions. They were primitive but they had very good intentions!
Do you remember the old people's home and its founder Yisroel Ozer Barishansky? The Society to Visit the Sick and Aid to the Sick? Do you remember the Societies to Spend the Night with the Sick, Upholding the Fallen, Supporting Poor Brides? Do you not see before your eyes the men and women who collected money in red handkerchiefs for poor brides, orphans and lamenters?
And on the other hand Zhetl can be proud of its modern institutions, such as the TOZ Welfare Agency, The People's Bank, YEKOPO (Jewish Relief for War Victims) and the Merchant's and Craftsmen's Unions.
Who could possibly list all the institutions created in Zhetl to help the poor, sick and needy?
I can see Zhetl's communal activists before my eyes and it would be a sin not to pass down these stories to our children and children's children in Israel. Our children have nothing to be ashamed about, our Israeli Sabras and half Sabras compared to the children in Zhetl. Also our school and institutions in Israel have nothing to be ashamed about in comparison to Zhetl's schools. We have more than one Tarbut School and more than one Folkshul and no fewer devoted communal activists. However my heart gnaws and longs for Zhetl and can't be consoled: why was such a colourful and intensive life so pitilessly eradicated?
We will live out our years with this wound and a stranger will never understand why hearts cry so much in silence.
Greetings From Zhetl
A letter from Zhetl. Regards from the old home. Fresh and lively, dated October 10th, 1956, 14 years after the destruction of Zhetl. On this day the greetings were still in Zhetl. An experienced hand of a postal worker quickly stenciled the stamp: Diatlovo Gradnienskaya Oblast. And then carelessly, a second stamp: Diatlovo Baranovitzkaya Oblast. The postal worker did not understand that by then Zhetl was practically ridden of Jews, but we, Zhetl's former sons want to know exactly: which Oblast (Province) after all? And the main thing: why did he confuse us? We are sure he did not imagine how his postal stamp would cause such a shiver for Zhetl Jews all over the world. For them it is a loving greeting, although scant.
by Mordechai Dunetz, Flint United States
Translated by Janie Respitz
Between White Russian forests and fields, by the quiet flowing waters of the Nieman and Satshare, lay a small town.
The town lived and breathed, pulsated and squirmed, generations of Jews wove the thread of their ancestors which took them far from the depths of our ancient past.
Rabbis, enlightened Jews, functionaries of religious and communal life and ritual slaughterers, craftsmen and merchants were born there, lived quietly and died quietly. Their places were taken by their inheritors who continued to pull at the ancient thread.
The House of Study and Hasidic Prayer House, the poorhouse and the anteroom of the synagogue, the bathhouse and the slaughterhouse, the small shops and market were filled to their essence.
They mourned on the Tisha B'Av, danced Simchat Torah and did business every Tuesday and Friday.
Wagon drivers from dusty sandy roads, shoemakers from three cornered low tables, carpenters with burning scents, and grocery merchants would all with a stately appearance, go out with their prayer shawls under their arms through the Jewish streets on the Sabbath, praise God for the past and pray for a good new week.
Hostels and inns would receive guests, brokers and matchmakers would count their revenues.
Between school terms the boys from Mir and Volozhyn, Kletzk and Rodin, would come to rest at their father's table and gather strength for the next term.
The 80s of the previous century
New winds began to blow through Jewish cities and towns. Winds of enlightenment and renaissance.
Among the first supporters of the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) were grocers, shoemakers and tailors from the small town: Zhetl.
They threw themselves into this holy work with burning enthusiasm feeling the responsibility of the hour which was arriving.
Zionist circles, books and newspapers, congresses and meetings became the content of their lives, the atmosphere they breathed. Young people left their parents, their warm homes and set out on the long journey which would take them to their destination: Zion!
Difficult years arrived for the Jewish communities in this region. Years of invasion and siege.
Thousands of Jewish sons fell in the battlefields of the First World War. Thousands of Jewish boys gave their lives on the sacrificial alter, as they battled against tyranny, slavery and for national freedom.
The small town of Zhetl can also write a heroic page in the history of the First World War.
A standstill on all fronts. Tired, with vestiges of blood and dust, these young heroes return from the front to a wife and child, parents.
Life continues. Things appear to be normal again.
It is a time of progress. There is a thirst for life and knowledge among these trench heroes. They turn to the pen and book in an attempt to make up for the four years lost at war.
The youth prepare themselves for their greatest mission to become the builders of our new land.
A small town is after all a corner of light and knowledge, a centre of Torah study and wisdom, a gushing source of singing, happy youthful joy. A school and a Heder, a Tsisho school and a Tarbut school have hundreds of children within their walls, forming the character of the new generation.
The town is quiet at dawn…
Everything around is wrapped in a deep sleep. Only the trees and grasses, which grow densely around the small low houses with moss covered roofs, rustle quietly. The small lake which distills its waters on the large wheel of the collapsed little mill allows its noise to be heard far off in the small narrow streets.
Somewhere in a corner an old Jew appears as he heads in the direction of the House of Study Street.
A small non Jewish shepherd drives the hungry cows out of every Jewish stall, gathers them all together and leads them to the field.
A peasant's wagon rides over the cobblestone street waking the sleeping inhabitants.
The town was quiet at dawn.
Suddenly!…The soil shook under our feet.
The foundation of this old Jewish settlement was shaking. However the building stood strong. We must firmly hang on to the roots of the birth town of the Chafetz Chaim and the preacher of Dubnov.
Echoes of canon shots and bombs got young and old up on their feet. Sulfur, gunpowder and blood filled the air of the small town.
Three at a time were thrown into the dark wagon. A loud bang forced them to look at the round marketplace for the last time, which on that day was filled with Jews with yellow patches on their clothes.
The first 120 Jews, the leaders of the community, left their small, old town, wives and children, the future they dreamed about, never to return.
Days of suffering and humiliations. Discouraged, depressed, you could hear the steps of people over the bloodied stones of the small town's streets.
With heads bent from toil and despair they return to the ghetto.
A quiet spring morning over the valley where Zhetl is situated.
The inhabitants of the ghetto are resting after work. Also resting are the blood thirsty drunken vampires after their noisy rampage.
Like a heap of meat covered with rags shining with the six cornered yellow patch, stands the Zhetl ancestral community. Bloodied spears hold the masses in a motionless, frozen state. Brows furrowed. Lips are bitten. And the screams are suppressed before they are even released.
The old cemetery is too small to receive everyone at once.
Behind the town, in the thick forest, a group of ten, one beside the other. Squeezed together are mothers and daughters, fathers and sons.
Little Khaiml clings to his mother's breast, hiding his small emaciated body from the whip.
I want to continue living, after all, my name is Khaim (which means life)!
The poisonous bullet passed through his mother's breast into his jerking little body which was quickly tossed into the mass grave.
by Mashe Rozovsky Shvartzman
Translated by Janie Respitz
Zhetl was a small town, but her streets were beautiful and bright. Life and learning gushed from its source. I see before my eyes scenes of Friday nights, Saturdays and holidays. Children are running around happy and dressed up. Jews go to pray, some in the old House of Study, some in the new one, some to the small prayer house and others in the Hasidic prayer house. A spiritual pleasure swept through every house. More than anything, I remember my father's Kiddush (prayer over the wine) and his Sabbath songs. I will never hear them again. Everything is gone.
I remember the eve of Passover. The preparations for the holiday. Everyone ran around, flew by, cleaning and washing. No small thing! The holiday of spring, Passover is coming. Everything is white and bright. Every corner is sparkling whiteness.
We prepare for the Seder. My mother, aunt and sisters are busy in the kitchen, sweating and talking. Suddenly the door opens and my father and brothers return from prayers with a broad: Good Yontev! (Happy holiday).
A wave of joy and warmth embraced me. Soon we will sit down at the table for the Seder and I will hear my father's beautiful Kiddush. The air in the house is filled with love and joy. The mood is great.
My father puts on his white long linen coat, spreads out on two white pillows and waits for my mother and aunt to come from the kitchen. Meanwhile my father turns the pages of his prayer book to find the Kiddush for the holiday.
There is a dead silence in the house. Father takes his wine cup in hand and begins to sing his resounding Kiddush. After him, my brothers recite the Kiddush and we read the Haggadah. I, just a small child, begin to fall asleep. I can barely wait for the Matzah balls and after I eat them I fall into a sweet sleep.
These happy childhood years are ingrained in my memory like a beautiful dream. The town, the street, my parent's house, our warm home, are all the things I remember with love and longing.
by Sarah Gal Begin (Jerusalem)
Translated by Janie Respitz
All the towns in our region looked the same. The marketplace in the centre, sometimes with a river, sometimes without. Every town had its matchmaker, a badkhn (a rhymester who entertained at weddings and other celebrations), a crazy person and a Shabbes goy a gentile who did things for the Jews which they were forbidden to do on the Sabbath. Strangers who read about Zhetl will recognize their own towns.
A week in Zhetl is a reflection of an entire year.
Clang clang! Bells ring on both sides of town from the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. The streets are filled with wagons. Every farmer pulled up at his Jew's house and every nobleman, at his Moshke (a humble Jew without status).
The nobleman stops amiably. His Moshke greets him with a warm good morning (in Polish) and helps the coachman unharness the horses. The nobleman rests for a bit in his Jew's house, like a boss.
Young Christian boys and girls come out of Church, the girls wearing colourful dresses with colourful ribbons carrying bouquets of flowers. They walk through the streets chewing on sunflower seeds. This was their greatest entertainment: strolling through town.
For Jews, Sunday was not an easy day. They could not do business openly as the businesses were closed. The police: Badovsky, Botok, Kaspshak and Motchok ran around like poisoned mice making official reports. Children stood guard to tell their parents when they saw the police coming. However, if you gave one of these policemen a bribe he would pretend he didn't see and Jews could continue doing business with their doors half open.
The best business was done at the taverns or beer houses, especially at the old Abdzhirak's and his son Sholem.
When a farmer would meet his friend he would ask him:
How are you? Let's have a drink. No matter how much water they put in the whisky, the farmers got drunk.
The day passed quickly. In the evening the farmer's wives would harness the horses and take their drunk husbands home. All was quiet. Here and there you could see a wagon with a bell who was delayed in his return home. Women storekeepers tallied up their sales, men went to evening prayers and teenagers gathered in the fire brigade's orchard where the orchestra played dance music and we, the little ones watched through the slats in the fence.
The following morning, very early, Jews swept up the garbage on the streets from the previous day. They would have gladly had dirt everyday, but unfortunately they had to wait until Tuesday. On Mondays the women did not work in the stores in order to organize their households. The men would gather in a shop and take care of communal matters.
On a quiet day they paid attention to the small things like Leah the Baby walking in the streets, knitting socks and talking to someone about a betrothal all at the same time, or Baylke and Khaim Meir selling currants, or the loafers from the organizations would go to the post office to pick up the mail, since there really wasn't anything else to do. The only noise would come from the children running home from school and fighting. This is when people would say: Thank God it was a good day.
People waited for Tuesdays like one waits for the Messiah. From 4 o'clock in the morning the farmers would begin to arrive to grab a spot at the marketplace. Each farmer brought something to sell, cows, pigs or a horse. Their wagons were filled with lots of fruits and vegetables.
Across from Sonia Yosef Mushe's was a large scale. This was the regular spot of the grain dealer.
The middle of the marketplace, across from Rabinovitsh's hotel, was the regular spot of the flax and linen businesses headed by Ziamke the Vilner.
The saddle makers were bit further down and the following leather dealers were concentrated around the circle of shops: the Breskin brothers, Alter Bom, Yakov Meylekh Dvoretsky, Hirshl Butkovsky and at the end Eliezer Eliyau Slutsky. They would display their goods on tables at the edge of the circle of stores, near the sidewalk.
They would compete against each other and pull the farmers away from the others. On the opposite edge of the circle of stores were Khienke Malke Motke's daughters and beside them, Bashke the tinsmith competing against Khane Esther the glazier.
Higher up on the steps near Avrom Moishe the old clothes dealer was Babel Goldshteyn and other saleswomen all ready to sell to a customer.
Not far from the Krigl, near the church, Musher stood with his three daughters selling old clothes.
The furriers would stand near Mikhal Roznov, all ready for the market to open.
The farmers began to unload the grain from their wagons and plead:
Weigh honestly. So that the farmer would believe he's not being deceived he would be given half a zloty for every pood (16 kilos) of rye. By nature, the farmer is a thief. He would steal a few half zlotys and then receive payment for his rye according to how many half zlotys he had in his hand.
After his sale the farmer would go shopping in the stores.
A female farmer walked into a store with a bunch of children and began to try on clothes. Lots of haggling back and forth.
The area around the furriers was always busy. What gentile does not need a hat? The furriers attracted the farmers with their jokes. They would often, intentionally switch things around. They would place a small hat on a large head and say:
It will stretch, and then place a hat that was too big and say: it's perfect, because trying things on wasted a lot of time.
The cattle market was behind the church in the empty lot near the pharmacy .The farmers would tie the cows to their wagons, throw down a bit of hay so they would stand still, lift the carriage shaft to create more space and wait for customers.
Then a bunch of butchers arrive, headed by Kalmen the butcher. They spread out among the wagons, each one examined a cow or a calf and asked the same question: (In Russian)
Uncle, how much for this cow? They would immediately make an offer 2030 zlotys cheaper, of course without reaching an agreement. The butchers would then walk away from the farmers, tell one another what they saw at what price and how much they offered. Then each butcher would go to another farmer and offer the same price.
In the course of bargaining the butcher would mention Vodka. When the farmer heard the word Vodka, and was tired of standing around, he would clap his hands and the sale was made.
In the evening all the butchers would gather at Tuvyie the butcher's house, sit around the long table on the long benches, still in their blood stained clothes from the slaughterhouse, and tell about the miracles that took place at the market.
There was another market in town: the horse market. All week this was the sports field. This is where the TOZ would play football (soccer), the cyclists would exercise and the youth organizations would hold tournaments.
However on Tuesdays, horses stood there. The farmers would buy and sell and the wagon drivers would exchange their nags for better ones.
There was unity among the horse dealers. They would go examine the horses together.
Seated: Mayrim Lusky, Moishe Levit, Avrom Rashkin
Second row: Hirshl Kaplinsky, Mordkhai Zakarysky, Veve Kravets, Leyb Zelikovitch
Last row: Noyekh Alpert, Pinkhas Mayevsky, Mikhl Kivelevitch, Yishayahu…., Avrom Alpert
One would hold the horse while the other would look into its mouth. One would whip the horse from behind, giving the horse courage to run, while a fourth would hold the reins and run about 100 metres with the horse. If they were pleased with the horse they would begin to bargain over the price.
Market days were also visible on the side streets. The greatest merchant on our street was Yoel Dovid Dunetz who competed with Khaim Levit.
A large group of farmers would come to Slonim Street. They would come from Khadielan, Yurevitch, Mizevetz, Mirayshchine and Nakrishok. The first thing they did was go to Hirshl the blacksmith to sharpen their sickles and scythes.
How are you Sorke the gentile would say to my aunt Soreh Rokhl as he stretched out one hand and with the other put something secretly into his pocket.
It was more difficult in the winter. Shopkeepers would stand all day with their hands congealed with kerosene and herring lacquer and they would run to the fire pot every free moment.
Tuesday was considered a lucky day. The majority of weddings took place on Tuesdays. Everyone would forget how tired they were. They would get all dressed up, be comparable to the in laws, dance to the beat of Arye the potter's drum and hear a few of Mayshke the Ox's jokes.
After the excitement of Tuesday, Wednesdays were the calm after the storm. At dawn we could hear the whistling of the shepherds taking the cows out to pasture.
In the summer we would not see a gentile all day and we had to in some way, pass the time.
Every street had its clown or someone to make fun of. On Novorodok Street the Khlebnik boys would converge on Mitzl, the eldest, and try to talk him into a betrothal with every girl that walked by on the street, although they were all older and single. In the marketplace there would be a circle around Ruven the Smoker and on Hoyf Street people would be entertained by Gershon the Smoker.
On Wednesdays during the winter there was more traffic in town. Farmers were free from field work and were busy chopping wood or coming to the record keepers of the lumber operation who worked in the offices.
When a farmer would steal a tree from a nobleman, he would chop it into firewood and sell it in town.
Maytchke Khane Gatchikhe's profited the most from these farmers. They would come to him to warm up and from the window keep and eye on their horses. Meanwhile they would buy herring and a piece of bread and drink a glass of tea. As usual, Maychke would be stingy with the sugar.
One gentile would say: Maytchik, it is not sweet. It will be sweet, replied Maytchke.
Maytchik, it's still not sweet, he swore.
You probably stirred it too much, Said Maytchke.
For kids, Wednesday was the best day. We could barely wait until four o'clock when we would run to the library in Yisroel the watchmaker's yard. Half of Zhetl's children were already standing beside the door at three o'clock waiting for Itchke Leybovitch or Motke Rozovsky.
Motke, I want Jan Kristof someone shouted from a corner.
You are too young for that book, answered Motke.
Motke, I want Crime and Punishment a girl with a squeaky voice shouted. I ordered it three weeks ago.
Then Motke would ask the children to tell everyone, in short, what they read. He found each one an appropriate book for their age. He had a lot of patience for children.
Wednesdays, late in the evening the marketplace was filled with wagon drivers who brought Mikhal Sovitsky bags of salt, bottles of kerosene and herring from Novolenie. Yoshke the wagon driver distributed more than the rest. He was a specific wagon driver. He had broad healthy shoulders, and a leather belt with a brass buckle which he had from his days as a soldier in Nikolai's army. With his jokes and lexicon, no other wagon driver could be compared to him.
Standing beside his wagon beside Mikhl's store he was always searching for a receipt. Never remembering which pants pocket he put it in he would complain:
When my Malke puts it away I can never find it.
Thursdays were shopping days for women. Beginning at dawn women would start to prepare for the Sabbath. In order to buy everything, you had to go through the whole town.
The women would begin at the marketplace to buy their fish from Yakov Shimen the tinsmith and Tzalie Vinarsky. They would attack the tubs searching for the largest fish.
Touching costs money, Yakov Shimen said with his hoarse voice. In saying this he meant don't kill the fish.
Women stood in the streets with full baskets.
Reb Meir, Reb Meir, bring me sixty eggs, one women said as she caught Meir in the street.
On the way home they would go to Gershon the Smoker to buy flour to make dumplings. His flour had the best reputation.
Good morning Gershon, how are you today?
All's good as long as I can earn a living he answered with his speech impediment.
All the butcher shops were filled with women, but fuller than the rest was Tuvyie Idl the butcher's. You could not even fit a pin into his store. A woman came running, out of breath shouting from a distance that she had no time to wait.
Tuvyie Idl, if you have a stomach, save it for me.
Thursday afternoons the peddlers would return from the villages where they exchanged soap, soda and chicory for eggs and rags.
By evening every house smelled of oil challah and rolls. The scent poured out like a fine perfume.
Later, women went with their children and bundles under their arms to the bathhouse. Yakhne, the bathhouse attendant greeted each woman with a friendly good evening, especially the women who gave her the biggest tips.
Friday at dawn while God still slept the women were on their feet. Smoke snaked out of every chimney. They cooked hastily and placed things in the oven. By seven o'clock in the morning everything was ready.
On Fridays there was a smaller market, with hopes for large earnings. Daughters would help their mothers clean the house, wash the floors, clean the brass candlesticks with sand or wash the smaller children's hair.
By Friday afternoon, the Sabbath was ready. The table was covered with a white tablecloth. The challahs were covered with an embroidered cover across from the candlesticks and candles which were ready to be blessed. The only thing they waited for now was the whistle from the Liesopilnie sawmill.
Thank God, the Sabbath has arrived our mothers would say as they sighed heavily.
The town now had a holiday appearance. Candles were burning in every window. Men walked to synagogue dressed up with their children. Everything looked different, the candles, those walking, as if they had thrown off the yoke of the difficult week. Women would sit on the porches and balconies and gossip a bit. But in order to clear the conscience they would say: May God punish me for what I'm saying.
Girls would walk to and fro, not too far from their houses because their fathers would soon be returning from prayers.
Good Sabbath! father would say as he entered the house and all the children would respond in chorus: Good Sabbath!
Father walks back and forth singing his Sabbath song Sholem Aleichem… The children sit at the table with their cute little faces in their hands waiting calmly, as if they owed their souls to God.
Yom Hashishi, on the sixth day, (the beginning of the Kiddush, the blessing on the wine) could be heard from every house and everyone sang in symphony.
Friday after supper, all the organizations were full. You could also hear people singing, especially the Revisionists.
A little further on at Leah the Queen's street, in Krupnik's house, the Bundists met. They sang:
England promised Palestine to the Jews,
The little Zionists run around happily.
The professional union was situated in the small house behind the bathhouse. Through the half opened window you could see the picture of Karl Marx with these words:
Proletariat of all nations, unite. There, Niame Kaplinsky, with a kerosene lamp, would give a lecture on historical materialism.
Late at night, when a couple in love would return from the Slonim highway, one could hear singing and dancing from Felix's house,
on Khazrish Street, the locale of Hashomer Hatzair.
On Friday nights a little more was permitted because tomorrow is Saturday, the Sabbath, and we can sleep in.
Saturday morning our mothers would take the pitcher of chicory off the ceramic tile and bring their husbands a glass of chicory and a roll so he does not have to wash. Men were careful not to take, God forbid, superfluous bites before praying. They took their prayer shawls under their arms and left for synagogue.
After prayers the women would hurry home and the men would walk slowly, step by step with their hands behind their backs chatting about town issues or general politics. On the street they would meet the children carrying the pots of Cholent (Sabbath stew). After eating the Cholent one could hear Sabbath songs coming from every house.
On our street you could hear Itche the butcher singing Tsur Mishelo with his grandchildren, and Hirshl the blacksmith singing Ribon Haolam even louder. After singing, they would say the blessing after the meal and go to sleep. A Saturday afternoon nap is such a pleasure.
After the evening prayers you could hear Hamavdil from every house, the prayer to end the Sabbath and welcome the new week. Little boys would hold the candle and help with the singing.
A good week, a good week! and women would respond: a good week, a healthy week and lucky week.
Jews would come from the surrounding towns like Bielitze, Dvoretz, and Kazlaytchine to attend theatre or a ball and as they would leave Zhetl they would say to one another:
Long live this city!
by Rivka Valdman (Paris)
Translated by Janie Respitz
Winter. In the morning children were already running to school. They would cut through Mayontek's alley, go into a good bakery and buy a cake, pudding or a roll.
The small street still appeared to be asleep with the houses squeezed together. From under shared roofs, squinted eyes peeked out of the small windows and winked at one another with weak flames.
A melody emerged from a small little window which seemed to be growing out from the ground. This was Mayontek preparing to lead services somewhere for the holidays. This was acceptable. There were towns smaller than Zhetl that did not have their own cantors. He sat in his shoemaker workshop lost in a melody and to the beat of his song pulled the thread through the patches on the shoe. He sewed with large nails and hammered the patches into the shoes. The hammering accompanied by his singing carried through the streets, reaching as far as the Houses of Study.
On the other street the children met Avrom the recluse. He sat in the synagogue day and night and studied. Sometimes during the day he would tear himself away from studying when the women would come to exorcise the evil eye. He would calm a frightened mother, eat a piece of bread, and a hard boiled egg and return to his studying. He did not need anything else.
In the mornings he performed a good deed. He ran through the street to the well. A na´ve smile covered his face. He said good morning to every child, felt embarrassed and lowered his eyes.
He went from the House of Study to the well at the Pomerayke River near Leyzer the butcher's. He remained standing there beside the footbridge. To every woman and child who came to draw water he put out his hand and said:
Allow me. I will pull out the bucket he mumbled quietly.
The children ran further. You could already hear the shouts from the marketplace. Jews who went to pray with the first morning quorum quietly winked at each other and said:
Bunye's sons are whispering already…
And this is how it actually was. The Barishansky brothers fell upon a handcart filled with wood that a farmer had brought to town. The farmer barely made it to town. The road was difficult to travel with wheels or sleighs.
The younger brother, the already grey haired Avrom Moishe, shouted so loudly the whole town heard him. It did not bother him that people came running out of their houses.
Yisroel Ozer, you will not buy that wood, even if you explode. You can die here. This time you will not succeed. There is not a piece of wood in the Yiddish Folk School the children are sitting in their coats.
That's what I'm talking about his older brother Yisroel Ozer shouted even louder. The children in the Hebrew Tarbut School are also freezing. I am after all the older brother. So what if you saw this gentile first? I have been hanging around here since dark.
Now they were both shouting at the same time. One louder than the other. Avrom Moishe cursed his brother. People started to gather around. The circle grew and people began to take sides. Who knows how this would have ended if Yosl Khemes had not appeared.
Where did you get hold of this? Yosl Khemes the ritual scribe happily recounted:
I could not sleep. I got up in the middle of the night and started to work. I wrote a page but my eyes began to hurt. I tried to bring the paper closer to the lamp but it did not help. I wanted to write more, but it wasn't going well, so I went out on Slonim Street. It was very cold in the school. The children are freezing. We must do something!
We must do something, repeated Avrom Moishe shouting loudly as usual and looked at the wood with joy.
The bell rang for the first recess. When the cart of wood was brought to the school the children ran out to the street, surrounded the farmer, and tried to get close to the horse. They were excited with the wood, the horse and the cold…
It's not cold! they shouted, and without their coats on,
began to chase one another.
The teachers stood on the porch and called the kids to come inside, they shouldn't God forbid catch a cold. It was so noisy the children could not hear them. Then they realized they could ring the bell. Recess was cut short.
Come study! You must come study!
It was quiet around the school. In the stillness you could clearly hear the voice of the teacher Leybl Frenkel. He was reading If Not Higher by Yitzkhal Leybush Peretz. A song from the Hebrew Tarbut School could be heard from the marketplace: Little boy come to the window, a beautiful bird flew by.
This all poured out in chorus together with the Talmud melody coming from the Yeshiva.
Late at night Avrom the recluse walked home from the House of Study. In the streets you could still hear echoes of the last songs sung by the teenagers who walked through town like flocks of birds.
Soon all was quiet. Only Shneour the night watchman walked through the marketplace guarding the circle shops. He walked with heavy steps. He held a lantern in one hand and a thick stick in the other. He soon became bored and was chilled to the bone. He banged his stick on a metal sign which echoed through the entire marketplace.
Let the entire town know that Shneour is guarding the circle of stores. He is not being paid for nothing…
A person appeared on the sidewalk near the houses. Maybe someone from the Society to Spend the Night with the Sick was going to spend the night with a patient?
Who's there? asked Shneour, bored with nothing to do.
It's me, Tzalie!
Tzalie the barber, the clown, already thought of a prank.
How many pranks did he already pull?
He already woke up Leyzer the butcher in the middle of the night and informed him that his mother in law died as he stood in the corner laughing watching Leyzer run around for no reason.
Sitting beside his barber shop, he told a woman farmer who came to town to see a doctor to come into his shop first for a haircut in preparation for the doctor. When she finally took off her fifth petticoat he explained his mistake. She needed a doctor and he is only a barber. He explained he did not properly hear what she was looking for…
Tzalie was not lazy. One summer night he secluded himself in the new cemetery and lay there in a white shroud until late at night. When the teens calmly lay on the ground beside their horses, Tzalie crept out from behind the graves and slowly trudged toward them.
The next day Tzalie told everyone how the kids abandoned their horses and ran recklessly to town.
Now, he quietly approached Reb Avrom's house and saw through the window how he sat by the light of a candle and studied. Tzalie quietly climbed up on to the roof and shouted down the chimney:
I'm here replied Avrom (in biblical Hebrew as if responding to God's calling), in a quiet frightened voice. Tzalie could not believe it.
Reb Avrom stood there, pale with his eyes closed. He raised his trembling hands in the air as his lips quivered.
Tzalie was overcome with fear.
Are there still miracles? Is this the Abraham I learnt about in Heder?
Tzalie did a lot of thinking that night. He decided he should not pull pranks on such religious people as in the end, he's the fool.
Zhetl's scribes supported the revolution with the same passion Avrom had for religion. With the same fervent belief Jews prayed in the Houses of Study and Yenkl the Hasid danced in the Hasidic prayer house. With this passion they built the Yiddish School, the Tarbut School and the library.
Friday nights, while the Sabbath candles burned in all the windows, the teenagers went behind the town, to the Novogrudek highway.
Saturday nights, when the first stars appeared in the sky and the Havdalah prayers were said to end the Sabbath and begin the new week, there was singing on the Slonim highway. Boys and girls, set free from school, would gather in the political party locales and sing out their longing and faith.
These songs carried over the fields and gardens, back to town where their grandmothers were murmuring: God of Abraham, the prayer to usher in the new week.
This is how I see you, my small town of Zhetl.
This is how you have remained alive in me.
by Khaya Alpert (Kvutzat Hasharon)
Translated by Janie Respitz
A quiet summer morning. The sunrise is in a hurry, it's Friday in town.
Zhetl's Jews still have to earn a little, but God forbid not to be late for candle lighting or receiving the Sabbath with honour.
At Maytchik the baker's you can already smell the fresh Challahs and the tempting sweet smell of the rye bread. You can see Maytchik's mother standing with her hunched back, her kerchief over her eyes and her clothes covered in flour. When you look at her you realize she also works.
She looks into the street, maybe she'll catch a bargain, a wagon full of birch wood from the gentile farmer. She's always rushing, but today the holy Sabbath will arrive and she will be able to rest her weary bones.
A little later. Avrom Moishe slowly opens his middle door. With a bright proud look he greets this summer Friday morning. He thinks:
Perhaps today I'll have a customer for the two coats that Khaya Sorke sewed. At this time he can't seem to get rid of them. Later, he takes his prayer shawl and goes to the House of Study.
A little further on, Feytche's son stands with his hands in his pockets and looks out onto the street. There are already a few gentile women shopping in Khienke's store.
In the circle of stores. Dovid and Mariashke opened their store and first thing in the morning they were already jealous that Khienke already had customers. What could they do?
Mikhl, with his greasy pants, a newly rich man, runs with enthusiasm to open his shop. A rich man has luck.
Ida Leybke's children run to sell leather, but unfortunately, in the summer, the earnings are weak. The gentiles walk barefoot. The daughters, thank God are all ready to be married, we need a lot for dowries, but here are no prospects.
Arkin the iron dealer, bent over, skinny, with his glasses on his nose, walks without any enthusiasm to his iron shop, even though it is the season for his products. But he has no luck. On top of this he is a man burdened with many children.
Libitchke opens her store with ease. A broad fat woman with hanging fat cheeks and eyes looking greedily for sales. Her husband Zaydl, with his eye glasses, is short and thin (he is writing a Torah scroll) looks like he is her servant. She is never lacking customers in her store.
The stock exchange is always on Hendl's stoop. The gentiles from nearby villages sit there and wait for work.
Slowly all the stores open and the daily struggle for existence begins. All the tables are set up and the wagons arrive from Slonimer, Novoredker and Hoyfisher Streets.
Today is a bit of a holiday. Its' noisy and everyone is shouting: Come on in! It seems that all the voices are shouting together: May God grant us livelihood.
Slowly the market place is filled with the smell of the Sabbath fish. The sun begins to set and the Gentiles leave. The marketplace is empty.
Jews sweep the streets for the Sabbath and lock up their shops. They hurry home, some with their Haynt newspaper under their arms, others with Moment. They will forget about the bleak weak.
The circle of shops is covered with darkness and the other side of the street the balconies are filled with the Divine Presence of the Holy Sabbath. Sabbath candles are flickering from every corner. Reb Moishe Tentzer with his beautiful beard hurries to the synagogue, Yisroel Ozer catches up to him to chat before prayers begin. The blond Kalmen, Yosele Mendes and Reb Avrom the Pious all go to the House of study, and they all pray together for good health and subsistence.
It is quiet in town. It is a Friday night of those Jewish Fridays which will never return.
by Sarah Gal Begin
Translated by Janie Respitz
The first Jews in Zhetl settled on Slonimer Street, the road which led to Slonim. This Jewish settlement began like all others with a Jewish steward of an estate, an innkeeper, a lessee, a shopkeeper and a blacksmith.
Over the years the street grew and almost one third of the street was inhabited by the Krakhmolnikes (Starch makers) family. The great grandfather of the Krakhmolnikes leased the estate and one of his children opened the first starch factory in Zhetl, which was passed down through inheritance from one generation to another.
In time, more Jews arrived, the settlement grew and they began to think about a House of Study.
The first House of Study, which by the way existed until the last days was the place of worship. From a distance, from the other side of the lake, it looked old and tired, bent over, as if it were about to collapse. The established men from Slonimer Street protected it like a precious piece of jewelry. Every year they repaired the old walls, inside and out, just like you dress up a beloved old grandmother.
Although over time the residents of Slonimer Street changed, people married and left the street, sons in law came and went, they still protected this house of worship.
Slonimer Street stretched from Shushnen far far until Khadzhelaner Road almost until Glovotzken. It was the liveliest street in town. Everyone in Zhetl had to go through the street every day because all the following institutions were situated there: city hall, the electrical company, the post office, the court house, the public school in which 50% of the children were Jewish, as well as the locales of the Poalei Zion (Labour Zionists) and Hashomer Hatzair (Zionist youth group).
In the evenings the street was filled with teens who would go out walking to the palace or the Slonimer Highway.
Fantchik's bridge divided the street from the town, therefore giving it the character of one large family which began with the Busel sisters and ended with Mordekhai Payshes (Dvoretzky).
The street functioned as a large collective. Neighbours shared their problems and celebrations. People looked after each other as if they all had one mother. However the focal point of the street was at Hirshl the Blacksmith's.
Everyone loved Hirshl the Blacksmith. His word was as certain as his scythe and sickle.
Hirshl said was enough for everyone. (His word was good enough for the gentile farmers as well)
When the Gentile's asked: Hirshko, how are you doing? He responded in Russian: All's good thanks to Bokh Batko, Father in Heaven.
On Fridays there was a lot of traffic at Hirshl's. Women would come to put their Cholent (Sabbath stew) in his large oven.
It was quiet on Slonimer Street. You didn't hear the banging of the anvil. It was the Sabbath eve. Hirshl the blacksmith returns from the bathhouse dressed for the Sabbath and fills all the charity boxes, without counting how much he is putting in. You can soon hear the sweet melody of the Sabbath songs.
At the beginning of the new month Hirshl would bless the moon. Before the High Holidays you can hear Hirshl get up every night for prayers of repentance.
Fate took revenge on him. The sparks of iron burnt the light from his eyes. Yet Hirshl the Blacksmith continued in his ways, as before, with faith and belief and these Russian words on his lips: Bokh Batko.
This was Hirshl the Blacksmith from Slonimer Street, which 15 years ago pulsated vigorously with life. All that has remained today is a page of memories.
by Yehudit Ostrovsky (Tel Aviv)
Translated by Janie Respitz
In 1928 I left Zhetl for good. I remember they organized a farewell evening for me where I read my work: The Small Town in the Big World.
Parts of Zhetl are alive before my eyes. I see the synagogue courtyard across from the old cemetery and the firefighter's tower. The synagogue yard experienced many celebrations as well as sadness. All of Zhetl's brides and grooms stood under the wedding canopy there accompanied by joyful musicians. This was also the place where coffins stood accompanied by the wailing of widows, orphans and the heart wrenching mournful prayers.
I remember the sad High Holiday melodies and the happy Hasidic dances on Simchat Torah. The beautiful voice of our cantor Eliyahu Ber left a deep impression on me. He prayed so gently but cruelly slaughtered chickens.
I cannot forget the firefighter's orchestra. They played every Sunday, beginning in Berl Mirsky's garden, then in the hospital garden on Lisogure Street. Zhetlers would gladly attend these concerts and pay for a ticket of admission.
Reb Arye the musician stands before my eyes with his fiddle. His brother Berl plays with him, also the fiddle: his sons Kalmen and Khaim on other instruments. Two other people played in Arye's band but I don't remember their names. One played an instrument they called a Bandura and the other banged a drum. Their playing always impressed me.
I must recount an episode. When I was a child I loved to dance. A woman from Vilna taught me how to dance the Kakbuk. Reb Arye the musician did not have the musical notes for this dance. My friend and I went to his house, sang the song and danced and he wrote out the music.
If I'm already talking about dances and musicians I must mention the happy and joking Reb Avrom Moishe the Badkhen. (Rhymester and entertainer), who worked all year as a hat maker, but would entertain and make everyone happy at weddings. I can still hear his voice. He would call out the wedding gifts from the bride's side and the groom's side as he clanged together the silver spoons and forks making a deafening sound.
I remember those delivering gifts on Purim on trays covered with clothes. The boys carrying them would hope that whoever removed a gift from the tray would replace it with something of the same value. The Purim performers would run after them shouting:
Today is Purim, tomorrow its over, give me a groschen and throw me out!
When the excitement of Purim was over they began to build the Matzah bakeries. For an entire month in Zhetl they baked Matzah for their own use as well as export.
I also remember market days in Zhetl. This was on Tuesdays. Wagons, horses, farmers and goods were displayed in the length and breadth of the marketplace. It was noisy and impossible to get past the wagons and farmers.
If I'm talking about the peasants I have to mention a horrible murder the peasants carried out Reb Leyb Khabadkier's daughter and her little girl. This incident shocked Zhetl and until today, I cannot forget it.
All these memories awaken in my heart feelings of sadness and longing. I often just want to look at Zhetl, our beloved town but then I quickly remember its soil has soaked up so much Jewish blood.
by Shmuel Rabinovitch (Herzliya)
Translated by Janie Respitz
The organization of Zhetl Jews in Israel did a very good deed and made a great effort in putting together this memorial book to remember the martyrs from Zhetl. Let this be a memorial for future generations so they can learn what happened to the Jewish community of Zhetl which excelled in its Jewish way of life, love of the people of Israel and love of Zion: with its rabbis and scholars, community activists and volunteers, with its Houses of Study, learning and charity institutions.
Zhetl was well known in the Jewish world thanks to its great righteous men, spiritual leaders who were born and raised in this small town. Among others we must mention: The Preacher of Dubno, who was born and raised in Zhetl 200 years ago. The great righteous man, the Chafetz Chaim who was also born and raised in Zhetl around 150 years ago.
Besides them, great men sat as chief rabbis in Zhetl who were renowned in the Jewish world. It is worthwhile to mention the rabbi Reb Borukh Avrom Mirsky of blessed memory who fifty years ago supported the rebirth of Jewish life in the Land of Israel.
Among the rabbis who lived in our days Rabbi Zalmen Saratzkin who lives now in Jerusalem: the last rabbi of the Jewish community of Zhetl, Rabbi Yitzkhak Raytzer who died a martyrs death at the hands of the Nazis, may their names be obliterated. Rabbi Tzvi Khurgin was head of the yeshiva and a great teacher.
Zhetl was well known and had a great reputation because of the youth who graduated from the Talmud Torah and went on to Yeshiva under the administration of Rabbi Tzvi Khurgin of blessed memory. They continued their education and became rabbis in Israel.
Among others it is worthwhile mentioning Rabbi Elkhanan Saratzkin who became a rabbi in Zholudek and lives today in Jerusalem, Rabbi Yisroel Senerovsky, son of Yasha Leyb and Soreh Rivka who became the rabbi in a large Volhyn community; and Rabbi Yitzkhak Markus son of Shmuel Lobensky who was rabbi in Smorgon and others. All these names will help our children appreciate the holy elders of past generations.
The Jews of Zhetl were kosher, na´ve people. They were always preoccupied with their businesses and worked hard. Some were in business, others in trades, but when it came time for evening prayers the Hoses of Study were with busy Jews.
The majority of Zhetl Jews were not satisfied with praying. They continued to study Talmud and take time to read a chapter from Ein Yakov (Talmudic commentary). All the tables were occupied by Jews who came to listen to the daily teachings of Reb Moishe Tentzer, Reb Aron Hershl Langbart, Reb Moishe Beres and others.
There were artisans who worked hard all day and in the evening would come to the House of Study to learn with others.
Besides the four Houses of Study in the Synagogue courtyard, the old House of Study, the new and the middle, and the Hasidic house of worship there were two other quorums. One on Novoredker Street which was called: Meir Moishe Kalmen's quorum and the second, the small prayer house on Slonimer Street near Fantchik's mill. All the Jews of Zhetl would go to these places of worship immersed in worry about existence. Here they would forget all of their worries and unite with God.
I remember them, these dear Jews. I see them going to the sacrificial altar with a heartfelt, soulful melody of psalms. With the pleasant songs of the people of Israel on their lips, they fell into graves which they themselves dug.
by Lize Rozvosky of blessed memory
Translated by Janie Respitz
I would like to give a small review of our small town Zhetl. Disregarding that I was not born there, when I talk about my town, I mean Zhetl. When I arrived with my husband, Berl Moishe Rozvosky in Russia in 1920 I warned him that I would not live in a small town.
The First Meeting
We arrived from Baronovitch. That day was a Polish holiday and the Zhetl musicians, Khaim Levit, Hirshl Aron Volfovitch with the commandant Mirensky were invited to Baronovitch. We met them on their return to Zhetl.
It was a happy journey. When we arrived in Novolenyie, Pinkeh the wagon driver was waiting for us with his beautiful coach.
Finally we were able to see the first building in Zhetl: Leybe Kaplinsky's saw mill. When we arrived in town we stopped at the marketplace.
There were shops on both sides and behind them there was a large white church with a bell on top. I remember a short, stout woman came up to us, with dark intelligent eyes and introduced herself as Libetchke Mosieh Bere's and invited me to shop at her store. Then a tall man approached, Maytchke Khane Gatshikhe's the baker. He looked into the wagon looking for a cheap bag of flour. A fat man came out of the coffee house across the way and welcomed us warmly:
What's doing in the big cities?
Then a woman came up to me and whispered in my ear that she is called Big Sonia.
I liked the small town expressions and pronunciations and how they received me and we remained in Zhetl.
Our Companions in Zhetl
My husband introduced me to a fine social network, not lagging behind as I had imagined. These were people with a desire to see films, go to the theatre, read books and acquire knowledge. With time I forgot I was in a small secluded town in White Russia called: Zhetl.
On Holidays we would get together to sing and have a good time. I remember Simkhas Torah. We were a group of 20 friends, Motl Vilkovsky, a lively guy, Notte Moishe Lusky, Hirshl Busel and Lize, Isar Gertzovksy and Roze, Khaim Levit and Alter Zernitsky.
I was then living at Yosl the painter's near the Pomerayke and Hoyf Street. We enjoyed a drink as Jews do on Simkhas Torah and spent the whole day singing, reading and reciting. For me it was new to see Jews enjoying themselves so freely. I really felt connected to Zhetl and forgot about the big city.
The Yiddish Folkshul in Zhetl
Now I will tell you a bit about the Yiddish Folkshul in Zhetl. It had a difficult existence and was not supported by the state. They had to support themselves. The majority of the children came from worker's families but thanks to the devotion of the parents and the board, the school managed to crawl out of its difficult situation.
Regardless of its difficulties the school invited the best teachers: Gite Zaks, Stul, Olitzky, Hornshteyn, Feygl Goldman, Libke Yerukhomovitch and together we bore the yoke. The school was on a higher level than other schools in the surrounding towns. The children were well educated and devoted to the school with heart and soul.
I remember an incident when the school burned. It was a Friday evening in 1935. All the children cried like babies. Khaya Mera ran into the fire to save some books. When asked what she was doing she replied:
If the school does not exist, my life is worthless. There were many children who felt like this. The school was like a second mother for them and often even more because they felt a lot freer at school than at home;
by Rachel Rabinovitch (Tel Aviv)
Translated by Janie Respitz
We received the news that the Slonim Rebbe was coming to town. There was a great commotion among the Hasidim. There was great joy. And as usual the Rebbe will stay at our house. Although this was a lot of work for my mother, my father gladly accepted this honour.
The Rebbe and his assistant arrive on Thursday. The Hasidim met them in their car and they came to us.
The Rebbe is dressed in his long black coat, fur round hat and white socks. He enters our home happily, greets everyone warmly and blesses every child individually. He does not look at the women and he goes into the room prepared for him while his assistant watches over him like a hawk.
My mother starts working, preparing various delicacies, a few types of Kugl (pudding), fish, meat, Cholent (the Sabbath stew), kishke (stuffed sausage) and cuts up the leg of the animal. The Rebbe is ready to help but mother tells him everything is already prepared.
When the Rebbe returns to his room there is already a long line of men who want to see him. Some are waiting to be blessed by the holy Rebbe, others are seeking advice. Not everyone manages to come due to lack of time. It is Friday and they must prepare to receive the Sabbath.
When the Sabbath is ready: the Rebbe, his assistant, my father and some other honourable Hasidim go to the Hasidic synagogue. Everyone in the street is curious to see the Rebbe. A few succeed in seeing him on the street while those who are late run to the footbridges and stare, like at a miracle.
Later they return from synagogue singing and dancing. The Rebbe sings the Sabbath song Sholem Aleichem Malachei Hashalom with his sweet voice, and they sit down at the tables. The Rebbe at the head recites the Kiddush (the blessing on the wine), says all the blessings and the Hasidim repeat after him.
It takes a bit of time before they begin to eat. The Rebbe hands out the kugl with his hands. The table is long and the Rebbe cannot reach everyone. He hands it from one to another and says:
Yenkl give Berl, Berl give Motl, Motl give Khaim and so on.
I stand by the side and observe. I then pushed my way quietly to my father and whispered in his ear not to eat the kugl as it is not hygienic, since everyone had touched it. The Rebbe heard my secret and said to me angrily:
Go away already, go, it's none of your business!
My father saw my embarrassment and quietly assured me he was not eating it. Embarrassed, I moved away from the table.
The Rebbe and the Hasidim continue to eat with great appetites. All the while they sing Sabbath songs and enjoy themselves.
Meanwhile there is a throng of kids. One tells the other that the Hasidic Rebbe is at Motl Tules' house. They came to see this wonder, how the Rebbe and his Hasidim rejoice, and there really was something to see.
At our house you can see two worlds. The Rebbe and his Hasidim and the town's youth.
The house becomes very crowded and the courtyard is filled with the curious. They climb up in the park so they can watch and listen to the singing and dancing.
Among the large crowd I see my teacher Herman Frenkel. He is angry with me because I did not tell him the Rebbe was at our house. He told me he had great sentiment for the Rebbe and all the ceremonies. He comes from a Hasidic home. This is all very familiar and reminds him of home. He watches with great interest, tells me a few stories about his home and remains among the last guests.
Saturday, time to go to synagogue. The street, from the Hasidic synagogue until our house is filled with people. Everyone is curious to watch the Rebbe and Hasidim come from synagogue.
The tables were prepared with all good things. They sit around the table eating and drinking until dark when they have to say the evening prayers.
For the rest of the town, this is entertainment. Everyone spent the entire Sabbath hanging around the courtyard under the windows, swallowing the curious Hasidic melodies.
by Mordechai Dunetz, Flint United States
Translated by Janie Respitz
The Small Prayer House at Lake Pontchiks
Compared to the aristocratic Houses of Study in the synagogue courtyard, Zhetl's small prayer house was modest and unassuming. This was because of its location and its congregation.
The small, half collapsed little house stood on the shore of Lake Pontchiks behind the large stable belonging to Shepsl Vikhnes Zayezd. The ceiling was so low, Asher the Prisadnik (Deputy) could reach it with his elbows.
The women's section was in the beadle's room. During the week this was his cobbler's workshop. His last and pieces of leather were strewn all over the room. Behind a thin curtain was the cobbler's bedroom. There were always a few children playing on the bed whose little voices could be heard during prayers.
Up high on the little wall, which separated the cobbler's room from the prayer house, there was a small window. Through this window the women were able to hear the reading of the Torah, look down at their husbands when they were called up to the Torah and toss candies, peanuts and nuts at a bridegroom.
During the summer a cool wind would blow in through the little window from the lake. In the evening the frogs would ribbit along with the prayers.
During the eighteen benedictions we would run outside and compete in throwing stones into the river.
In the winter, the boys would sneak out of the prayer house and go sliding on the ice.
Those who worshipped at the small prayer house lived on Slonimer Street, Lipover Lane and a few on Hoyf Street. They were:
Dovid Avromches, Mordkhai Eli Kalbshteyn, the peddlers: Yoshke Makhesron and his sons, the blacksmiths: Hirshl, Sholem his son, Artchik the blacksmith and Ayzl the blacksmith. The grocers: Mayrim Mnuskin, Zalmen Mirsky, Nakhman Mertches. The dry goods merchants: Yoel Dovid Soreh Rokhe's, Khaim Yudl the blond and Kalmen the starch maker. The carpenters: Khaim Leyzer Levit, Yosl the carpenter and his sons (Kaplan), Yisroel the rat (Kaplinsky). The wagon drivers: Khaim Dovid the baby (Medvetzky) and his sons, Yoshke the wagon driver (Gankovsky), Hilke the wagon driver (Shalkovitch). The butchers: Itche the butcher (Razovsky), Shloime Khaim Goldshteyn and his sons, as well as a few shoemakers, tailors and bakers.
For these poor labourers and small businessmen the prayer house was not only a place to pray but also a place where neighbours would gather three times a day to talk about day to day tasks as well as world politics.
Reb Hirsh Gives Me a Sniff of Tobacco
On the Sabbath in the winter, between afternoon and evening prayers, Jews would sit around the small oven, place their hands on the warm bricks and listen to a lesson on the Ethics of Our Fathers. At dusk, when shadows filled the prayer house, Hirshl the blacksmith would recite psalms. His voice penetrated with sweetness and piety which could move even the hardened hearts of the wagon drivers, blacksmiths and peddlers.
Reb Hirsh recited psalms his whole life. When a spark from his anvil blinded him, he recited the psalms by heart.
The other boys and I loved to go to Reb Hirsh and ask him for a sniff of tobacco. He would offer us some snuff with a smile on his lips and pitch black beard. We really enjoyed when he let us close his bone tobacco box with the wooden cover and leather string.
Nakhman Mertche's the Manager of the Prayer House
Nakman Mertche's was the manager of the prayer house for many years. On the Sabbath he stood by the table and handed out honours. During the week he was the cashier and bookkeeper of this small synagogue.
He came to Zhetl from Crimea, from the city Yevpatorai. He presented himself as a scholar. His stories from Yevpatoria enchanted everyone, myself included, as they were vividly exotic.
I also love to listen to his memories of Mendele, Bialik and other Yiddish writers he met while in Odessa…
A pinch on my cheek from him for explaining a story from the Pentateuch well was for me a great compliment.
Itche the Butcher the Crying Torah Reader
Our prayer house did not have a cantor, however, there were Torah readers who when they led prayers, could make stones cry… When Itche the butcher would rise to sing Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur everyone in the packed prayer house knew they would not leave with dry eyes.
His bitter deep wailing moved all the worshippers deep in their hearts and brought everyone into the atmosphere of today the world stands as at birth. The kids stood trembling beside our fathers and with our slender notions and rich fantasies ascended together with Reb Itche the butcher tearing through the heights to reach God's verdict.
The large candles in the sand pots dripped their milk, the women's cries from their section and Reb Itche's tears all came together in one big heart wrenching, imploring wail which cut through the dark night of Kol Nidre with a resounding echo over the still waters of the lake.
Asher the Prisadnik  from Upwards Street
Asher the Prisadnik was also known in town as a good Torah reader. He was tall with a long grey beard and walked proudly, more like a Russian aristocrat than a Jewish peddler. He lived at the edge of town on the Slonim highway in a small house next to Shmuel Nakrishker.
All week he would stand on the road which goes from Khadielan, Hiritch and Yatzevich and buys up chickens, eggs flax and dried mushrooms from the farmers.
He was a learned Jew. At dusk he would study a page of Mishna with other Jews in the House of Study.
All year long he prayed at the middle House of Study but on holidays he would lead prayers in the small prayer house. His lyrical voice and sweet interpretation of the prayers excited the worshippers instilling in them a sense of great spiritual pleasure. Reb Asher's praying brought a light breeze into the prayer house with scents of fir and oak trees among which he lived for years, up there on Upward Street on the Slonim highway…
Khayke the Patroness of the Sabbath
She was an institution in her own right. They called her White Khayke. Her personal life was lonely but she found comfort and pleasure in helping the poor and needy. She was the provider of Challah for the Sabbath for those who did not have the few groshen (pennies) to buy flour and yeast.
She was devoted to this charity work with a special love. For her, it was a holy mission to ensure, God forbid, no Sabbath would be desecrated due to lack of Challah.
The women in Zhetl knew on Thursday nights when they made their dough they must take into account a few Challahs for Khaye.
Every Friday morning, winter and summer she would walk around carrying a large basket. For us kids, this was the announcement the Sabbath was arriving. We always waited for her as we took great pleasure in putting our little hands into the basket with the warm Challahs. Her thanks and heartfelt blessings filled us with pride and made us feel we earned a portion of her good deed of helping the poor fulfill the Sabbath requirement of blessing the Challah.
No one in town knew how many families enjoyed Khayke's challahs. We did know however, that as long as Khayke could carry that basket, it would be filled and the poor would not have to violate the Sabbath.
Although Friday was a market day in Zhetl, and Jews were very busy with receipts, there was still a strong feeling the Sabbath was approaching.
Housewives were busy preparing for the Sabbath with all the details. Just as dawn was breaking you could already smell the Sabbath delicacies.
Women had to hurry to prepare for the Sabbath as they also had to help their husbands in the shops. Around nine o'clock in the morning, in most Jewish homes, the table was covered with a tablecloth and warm challahs and baked goods were placed on the tables. They were good enough for the king to eat…
Guests for the Sabbath
Tired and half asleep the wagon drivers returned home from their long trips from Slonim, Baranovitch and Lida, urging on their thin mares who dragged the heavy loads for Zhetl's shopkeepers, shoemakers and tailors.
Wagons filled with poor people would arrive in town to work the houses before the Sabbath. Entire families would besiege the town
sending their members from house to house begging for alms.
The Jews of Zhetl had a reputation in the region for being kind hearted and gave alms generously. To that end there was a special Hotel, a part of the old people's home that was called the poorhouse. In that community house which was located behind the hospital on Lisagura Street, the wandering poor had their headquarters where they could spend the night. However the place was too small to accommodate the great influx of guests so the rest had to sleep on the benches in the Houses of Study.
Friday after evening prayers they would stand in the anteroom with pleading eyes and watch the householders walk by, hoping they would bring them home as guests. The Jews of Zhetl were happy to fulfill the good deed of hosting guests.
The Bathhouse Gentile Announces the Sabbath
Candles were lit after the resounding signal the bathhouse gentile sounded from the bathhouse on Hoyf Street. Later, the mission to announce the Sabbath was given to the gentile who was the custodian of Kaplinsky's steam mill.
There were two signals given. The first was to close the stores, the second to bless the Sabbath candles. Peasants who arrived late knew that after the first signal they could not even buy a pack of matches.
There were however shopkeepers who did not hear or pretended no to hear the first signal. But when Reb Avrom appeared on the street with his patriarchal stature and Sabbath clothes, everybody showed him respect and closed their shops accompanied by Reb Avrom's call: Jews, it's the Sabbath!!!
The Neighbour's Potato Cholent (Sabbath Stew)
Cholent was cooked in the houses in Zhetl that had large ovens, or in the bakeries that heated their ovens on Fridays especially for this purpose. From all the neighbouring houses you could see women, men and youngsters carrying large clay pots with their names written on the lids. Bakers charged a certain amount to heat the cholent however Zhetl's matrons would do it for others for free as a good deed.
The first pots would be placed on the top of the oven. Late comers had to find a spot near the oven door. Often the names would rub off due to the heat.
The following day, Saturday after prayers, women would run with rags in their hands to bring the steaming good smelling cholent home to their Sabbath table. Often the barley cholent would be transformed into a potato…Then neighbours would begin running from house to house in search of their barley cholent, before it was enjoyed in a neighbours' house.
Sabbath After the Kugl (Pudding)
After the cholent the Jews of Zhetl liked to fulfill the good deed of enjoying the Sabbath. They would lie down to nap for a couple of hours and enjoy a good rest.
The streets were empty and calm. The peasants did not come to town since everything was closed and locked. A peaceful stillness ruled the town, the true Sabbath rest.
In the last few years, Asna Gertzovsky, Shike Berl's soda stand and Mordechai Kikes' cafeteria operated behind closed doors. This is where the more progressive element, those who did not want to barricade after the cholent would gather to play billiards, read a newspaper, or merely joke around and peel dried kernels.
Yosl Gertzovsky was a religious Jew and did not want to take money on the Sabbath. Therefore he devised a borrow board where he had a list of his customers. Beside each name he placed a nail where he hung a note with the amount the customer spent for a glass of water with syrup, chocolate or ice cream. You could also play billiards on credit and pay the few groshen Tuesday after the market day…
When the first star appeared in the sky and people were in the Houses of Study praying, the lamps were lit in the Jewish houses. Through the dark windows you could hear the sounds of God of Abraham and Hamavdil (prayers to end the Sabbath and begin the new week). People removed their Sabbath clothes and returned once again to the difficult yoke of the weekday with a prayer in their hearts that God will grant them a good, healthy new week…
by Pesieh Mayevsky (Petach Tikva)
Translated by Janie Respitz
My town is no longer, no remnant of you charm,
Your past magnificence has disappeared.
You wail over graves of destroyed worlds;
Death is spread over your mountains and valleys.
The stones of the bridge, your sandy paths,
Your dew on the meadows that glimmered
The clear river, which greeted me
The familiar forest on the outskirts of town,
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