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[Page 248]

Novo-Vitebsk

(Novo-Vitebsk, Ukraine)

47°58' 33°54'

(Nehora, Lakhish District)

Translated by Moshe Kutten

Edited by Yocheved Klausner

To Gideon Hausner

“We need to mention the Jewish kolkhozes as a unique phenomenon. Between Krivoy Rog and Dniepropetrovsk there were Jewish kolkhozes, which consisted not only of Jewish managers but their entire manpower was Jewish”

…Unit no. 6 operation command decided not to kill these Jews, but allow them to continue their work, and only annihilated the Jewish leadership and replaced it with a Ukrainian one”.

  / Report no. 81 of the operation- command (from the opening speech of Israel Attorney General in the trial against Eichman)

Lucky is he whose work is done by others!

Hitler's hordes were “lucky” since they did not have “to kill by shooting” the Jews who worked the Ukrainian land with their sweat for five generations. The Ukrainian “management” did that for them. With its own hands it annihilated tens of agricultural colonies with Jewish population, who enjoyed autonomy like no other Jewish communities did: the local authority, the police and the state education were handled by Jews. These were the Jews who were revered by the hero of the book by Hazaz – “Daltot Nekhoshet” [Copper Doors] who asked, at the time of the collapse of the Jewish life in Russia at the beginning of the revolution: “Where would the Jews find salvation in their fight? Who would lead them and who would help them?” The hero turned to “the Jewish colonies in the south where I would find the youth I am looking for, wholesome and healthy workers of the land, who are like the sons of the gentiles”.

These colonies, in which an established Jewish folklore existed for generations, were named after the native cities of the settlers who came from Lithuania – Novo Vitebsk, Novo Kovno, Novo Podolsk etc. The same way, the people who sailed in the ship Mayflower named their new settlements with their origin names - Plymouth, Boston, New Bedford, New London etc.

There were also some other names, which looked strange written in Latin letters and heard in gentile pronunciation. These were the Hebrew names – “Sdeh Menukha”, 'Nahar Tov” etc., a testimony to the yearnings of the settlers towards the land “where the spring lasts forever” [Bialik – “El Hatzipor”].

These colonies, whose population was tiny compared to the enormous population

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of the Ukrainian farmers, kept the tradition diligently; however, new terms and unique holidays were added – “Kosovitze” – the harvest time, “Dreshtzeit”– the threshing period, “Noye Broit” [literally “new bread”] – the new harvest, which is also the time for paying off debts and laying down plans for next year. This is how an old settler of the Jewish settlement in Israel recalls her childhood in the fields of Ukraine:

“I am a native of a Jewish colony in southern Russia. My parents had only girls, and from an early age, we had to shoulder the burden of every hard work that was done by boys. When I was only six years old I would drive out the gentile's pigs and chickens, which penetrated our plot from all directions. During the harvest and wheat transportation, my father would wake me up at 2 o'clock at night, when I was only 10 years old to travel to the field, which was located 20 versta's (25 kilometers) away from the village. Wrapped in my sleep, I would curl on the stiff wagon, while all my bones ached from the jolting. When we arrived at the field, my father would hand me over the sheaves and I stood on the wagon and arranged them so that they would not fall out on the road back. How pleasant was it, on the way back, to cuddle on the sheaves and allow the tired body some rest. Soon the sun rose slowly and her golden rays were dancing pleasantly and graciously”.

“Our father was proud of our agility, when we met some Jews on our way back, who were late going out to their work. My father and mother were probably anguished about waking us at midnight to work, however, it was a real necessity, and it was my sacrifice to the life on the land, the flora and fauna, and roused in me the strong desire to excel in the work on the farm just like the gentiles. Indeed, our farm in the Jewish colony was exemplary. We were attached to the farm with all of our heart and many (including gentiles), would come to ask for Father's advice” – (from an article by Leah Lev, Collection of sayings by female members – “Beit Moshav”).

The Jews, who knew how to work, also knew how to celebrate. Shaul Tchernikhovski describes a wedding in “Khatunata shel Elka” [“Elka's Wedding”] as if it was told by a settler, similar to what I remember from my childhood days. The traditional celebration, which was planned and organized to its last detail, lasted a week and all of the colony residents as well as many outside guests took part in it.

The boys studied in a “kheder” and Lithuania provided most of the melameds [Torah teachers]. However, in parallel to the many “kheders”, there was a four-year state school, and in the big colonies a six-year state school, whose teachers were Jewish. Among the exceptional teachers was the famous poet Shimon Frug. He served as a teacher in my native colony for many years. My teacher, Moshe Izaackchik z”l, who arrived in our colony from Riga when he was young, resided in the colony until his last day. He taught in the “zemstvo” [district] school and was its principal for 42 years. I was fortunate to be a teacher under his management, in the same school where I studied in my childhood, and found in one of the cabinets a report card of my father when he was a student, signed by Moshe Izaackchik.

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That teacher was a man of culture. He founded several public enterprises in the colony such as a public library, a credit union and more.

In the neighboring colony of Novo Kovno they had another wondrous teacher – Arie Nekhemkin, who possessed a wide agricultural education and he guided the farm owners with his advices. He also introduced new agricultural sectors such as bee keeping and fruit trees cultivation.

Only a few natives of the Jewish colonies left the colonies to the city to continue their studies, since working the land required the participation of all members of the family, and the studies in a high school and beyond required substantial financial means beyond the ability of the farmers. However, several boys graduated a university. For girls, leaving the house was even more difficult; however, with the new times some girls left to study in the city. In my colony, I was the first girl who left to study in the big city. I still recall the warning of my grandfather to my father: “She will finish the high school and would want to be a doctor. Potential grooms would demand a dowry of 10,000 rubles from you. Where would you take it from? She would stay single in her old age”.

However, in actuality, those who studied outside, were the cream of the crop in the small colony. They brought with them a flow of fresh life, ideas and new thoughts. They brought the news about the political movements and organized clubs of the Bund [the General Jewish Labor Federation in Lithuania, Poland and Russia] and Zionist movements. In our colony, we organized an amateur theater group. In one of the shows, the role of the suitor for the daughter of the “rich man” in the colony was given to a very timid and shy youth. The poor “lover” would have never dared to approach the pompous girl even in his dream, and the names and nicknames given to both of them, stuck to them for the rest of their lives.

The idol of our youths in that period was a young student, a native of the colony, who graduated from his medicine studies in Switzerland. He was the first in our area who received higher education. When he would appear in his native village, once every two years, and would pass in the street, tall, and nice looking in his blue uniform and a student's hat, the village elders would welcome him with affection and respect. The girls would stop breathing when he passed in front of them…

When he returned home as a “doctor with a diploma”, a cholera epidemic raged throughout southern Russia, which could not be restrained due to lack of medical manpower and the horrible backwardness of the Russian population. People got sick in our colony as well, and there were several death cases. I recall the strange sight when I woke up one Shabbat morning and saw smoke rising from the chimney of one of the houses. In the winter, the “Shabbat gentile” would go around and light the furnaces. However, that happened in the summer. I was told that a woman got sick with cholera in that house, and that they ordered her to take warm baths.

In the nearby Christian village, with a population of thousands, the epidemic raged without any restraint. The melon and cucumber season was approaching, and with no medical help,

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the peasants used quack medications. The angel of death took victims without any pity. The young [Jewish] physician, who had just arrived from Switzerland, volunteered to fight the epidemic that spread in the neighboring village. One can just imagine what happened next. The rumors about the revolts against the physicians, known to have erupted that year, must have reached that backward village. Perhaps just the fact that the physician was the son of “Zhids” from the nearby colony, known to them well, angered the gentiles. One Sunday, some people gathered near the tavern and from there they went to conduct a “pogrom” in the “zemstvo” [district] clinic claiming that the “Zhid” is poisoning the sick. I recall well the event when they brought him back home. I learned since then, how dangerous was the situation of one enlightened person among a crowd of ignorant people, and that a person in such a responsible position should not be left alone in such circumstances.

Generally, the life in the colony was not very stormy. There was joy in the peaceful life at the colony. Honest working people, whose life stretched in front of them, lived in the colony. There were people with some original characters among them, who entertained and amused the public with their jokes and their witty inventions. There were also welfare organizations such as “Hakhnasat Kalah” [literally “Marrying a Bride”] or “Ma'ot Khitin” [literally “Pennies for Wheat”] and others. However, one could not find in the colony, which was poor to begin with, local beggars and panhandlers. Very rarely, Jewish beggars from the outside would arrive in the small remote colony and their appearance would become an “event” in the colony.

I recall a story that was told by our neighbor in Novo Vitebsk, a mother of many children whose husband was a “unique character” in that he was endowed with a pleasant voice and a tendency to cantor singing… During the “Days of Awe” he would be invited by small communities, who did not have a cantor of their own, to pray and stand in front of the synagogue's “bimah” [podium where the Torah is read from]. When the summer would reach its end, and the “Days of Awe” were approaching, his “artistic yearnings” would overpower him, and he used to neglect the field work during “the burning season” and visit his friends' houses in order to sing “pirkei khazanut” [cantor songs].

The harvest was completed but not yet piled up. Signs of the approaching rain would be seen, while the mind of that “singing lover” would be completely distracted from the harvest, which could rot in the field if it got wet. All of a sudden, two strangers knocked on the door and asked for a handout. The woman saw that these two beggars were young with undiminished vigor, and offered them to go with her husband to pile up the harvest. There was not much work, and they could complete it in only two hours. She promised to pay them nicely for their work.

The beggars consulted with each other. Was it worthwhile to change from their “clean” work of collecting alms with gathering harvest, and which occupation would be more profitable? At the end they relented and all three of them went.

They were late to come back, and the woman started to sense trouble. She went out to see for herself how the work was progressing. When she arrived at the field, she was horrified. The guests were lying down comfortably on a fragrant pile of hay, and her husband was standing in front of them, curling his voice with songs of the “Days of Awe”. He acquired listeners and the hay was left scattered in the field.

The smart woman did not say anything and called them back home for dinner.

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At home, the guests had a serious talk with her and offered to take her husband with them to collect alms. Why should he soil his hands in gentile's work? A person with such a voice! People would throw gold at him if he would become a beggar…

When I said that the Jewish colonies were only populated by Jews – I was not accurate. In fact, there were some colonies, among them my native colony of Novo Vitebsk, where tens of German families resided from the start. They belonged to the Anabaptist denomination, and were persecuted, at the time, in Russia. When Alexander the First tried to settle the Jews on the land of the infinite and entirely desolate prairies of Novo-Russia [southern Ukraine] he decided to attach ten German families to every colony, to teach the Jews agriculture. As agriculturalists, the Germans were much superior to their Jewish neighbors and their farms were beautifully developed. The family structure, the unlimited authority of the head of the family and their innate discipline, enabled them to build exemplary farms. They did not mix with the Jews. In our colony there was the “Germans' Street” with straight fences, nicely painted, with spacious houses, which hid behind huge trees, with large families of tall blond residents. They did not usually leave their confine. We knew that they celebrated Christmas and that they brought a beautifully decorated fir tree to their houses. We also knew that they would gather every Sunday to pray and sing in a chorus, whose members knew how to play various musical instruments. However, all of that was and remained foreign to the colony's Jewish residents during the period of more than one hundred years of their existence as neighbors.

The First World War fell on the agricultural population of Russia and the Jewish colonies like a hard blow. While it was like a disaster for a family when a son would enlist to the Czar's army during peacetime, during the war, the sons and the husband were taken together and the farm remained in the hands of the women. My father z”l, also served three years, during his youth, in the regular Russian army, and was called to the reserve corps during Russia-Japan war. In 1905 he arrived to the swamps of Manchuria. He was recruited again in August 1914, and participated in the battles of Lvov and in the siege of Pshemishel.

After three years of poverty and suffering during the war, the March 1917 Revolution [“February Revolution”] took place, which displaced the regime of the Czars. A few months later, the “October Revolution” followed, and following it, the Civil War. The state of the general Jewish population during those days is described faithfully in “Sipurei Ha'Ma'hapekha” [“Stories of the Revolution”] by Hazaz. However, the destruction of the Jewish colonies has yet to be expressed in our literature. Every new regime tried first to take revenge against the Jewish population, which served as a “scapegoat”. During a very short period the colonies dwindled markedly and the robbing and looting did not cease even for one day. The regime passed from one hand to another, many times.

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On top of that, the plague of the “bandas” [gangs] made things worse. These were gangs of Kosaks, partisans, or members of the neighboring villages whose aim was robbing and taking revenge against the Jews, whom they considered as the “enemies of the Russian people.”

I remember well the day of Yom Kippur 1919, when the army of “father” Makhno retreated through our colony. They cleaned our houses from any item and then set them on fire. Early in the morning we were told about the dreadful event: Makhno's people killed the head of the village - Meir Gilbof, after horrible tortures. People who dared to approach the place, hearing the cries of the house members, were shocked. As they were standing, a new wagon, shining in its fresh paint and pulled by two healthy horses, passed. These were the residents of the “Germans Street” who went to their daily work upon sunrise, as if nothing had happened. The murderers treated the Germans favorably and entirely passed over their houses.

When they heard the cries, they stopped the wagons and one of them came down, looked at the body lying in a puddle of blood and said in German (they never talked in any other language): “You wanted a revolution? Its all yours – enjoy it!”

I spent the rest of that Yom Kippur, which I will never forget, with another dozen of young girls in the attic of the synagogue. The Makhno gang left the colony by noontime, and in the rear, a few additional groups of bandits roamed. They delayed their departure with the malice intention to look after girls. This fear forced the youths to search hideouts in places that one could not think about. When we were lying in the attic, we heard shouting and shooting beneath us inside the synagogue. We did not believe anybody remained alive in the entire colony. When the sun set, the street quieted and emptied out of the horse riders. We dared to go down from the attic to the women's section of the synagogue to listen to the closing prayers of the day.

The bandits had rioted during the whole day in the synagogue, hit and drove away the people who prayed. Only some very old men, less than a minyan, stayed behind fulfilling the commandment of “Kidush Hashem” [martyrdom], their clothes and praying shawls were taken away. The girls' cries seeing the elders in that condition, were heart breaking.

The years that followed were years of oppression, poverty and hunger. We forgot what the sight of a human garment looked like. Even young girls wore sacks. During that period, I was studying in the city, and my father came to visit me, dressed in garments made of rough sack. The woman of the house, who opened the door for him and saw him standing at the entrance, mistook him for a beggar and gave him a piece of bread as a handout. A long time following that incident, she could not calm down, and was asking for our forgiveness, saying that at times like that, she could not recognize people by their clothing.

In the summer of 1920, I walked in the field with my boyfriend, whom I married later, at the end of the year. Walking outside the colony was dangerous, and Jews did not go out of the colony alone, even when they went out to the field. When we approached the colony, we saw a strange sight. An old man, who had a long white bird, was standing near a wall,

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fully naked as in the day he was born. Our sudden and unexpected appearance surprised him and he fell down flat on the ground.

I was horrified since I recognized him as one of the village old men. There were rumors that his family, which had many children, was penniless, and that they were left with only one pair of pants in the house, which was shared by all members of the family. The person who would leave the house wore it. Rumors said that they all slept on one mattress filled with feathers covered with sacks, since the linen had worn out a long time ago. The old man, who was always locked at home without clothes, probably wanted to breathe some fresh air and warm himself in the sun, at a time when everybody was immersed in their Saturday afternoon nap, and did not expect that a couple of impudent people would suddenly frighten him.

Many people participated in my wedding that year. I am sorry that I do not have any photograph left from the event, since the attire of the distinguished guests was very strange. The people in the colony would buy their clothing from the city folks who would travel huge distances to exchange their “luxury” items with essential commodities, such as bread and potatoes. It was no wonder, therefore, that a woman appeared at my wedding wearing a fancy gown, fashioned in the style of one hundred year ago, with wooden slippers on her feet. One of my uncles wore an open lace shirt under his old kapoteh, with his wide beard covering his bare chest. Nobody mocked or even noticed that attire, since there were many other things to worry about. There was a horrible tragedy associated with my wedding as well. My cousin, an 18 old youth, who wanted to get me a wedding gift, found out that in Krivoy Rog he could find a pair of used towels (a very rare product during those days). He insisted on travelling there despite the warnings and pleadings and was murdered along with another six of the colony youths immediately upon leaving the colony.

Upon the establishment of the stable Soviet regime, we were initially happy and many of the people in Jewish colonies tended to support the Communists. The hope was that the new regime would fight anti-Semitism, since everybody was considered equal in the country of the Communists and everybody had the right of self-determination. However, these hopes were soon proven false. The “Yevsektzia” people arrived at the colony and their first action was to close the “kheders” where Torah was taught, and to convert the state school into a Yiddish school. Despite the fact that Yiddish was the spoken language in every home, the new arrangement was not liked by the residents.

When I came to visit the colony, parents of students complained to me that the children are learning nonsense instead of Torah and Rashi, and that the teachers are telling the children not to obey they parents.

After I made Aliya to Eretz Israel, the colonies became kolkhozes. They wrote to me from home that they “nationalized” the house of the wealthy farmer, the same wealthy farmer whose daughter was forced to hug a “proletarian”, even though just in a show… This was an amazingly diligent and organized family, whose sons and daughters managed to acquire education and at the times pf trouble scattered all around.

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The Soviet authority began to incite hatred among the population to the “kolak's” [the wealthy]. As it turned out, the fear of the wealthy people was justified. When they announced the conversion of our colony to a kolkhoz, only two old people were left in the house of the wealthy man.

People wrote to me that they were not allowed to take with them any property. They had to return all the property they “stole” from the public during all of their life. They were driven away from their home in the evening, and they did not know where to turn. Nobody dared to offer them a place to sleep, for fear that they would invoke the suspicion of the authorities. The only one that dared to do it was the old melamed, since he himself was left without sustenance and protection and was not afraid to take a risk. As they wrote to me, early in the morning the two “wealthy people” went out on foot to the train station, which was twenty kilometer away from the colony. The same melamed did them another favor and gave them a small wooden stool, so that the old woman could rest along the way. In order to satisfy the censor, the person who wrote the letter to me, ended his description with the words: “That was how they got what they deserved!”…

There is no chance or hope that I could find the cemetery where my parents and grandparents are buried. Only a few natives from the colony survived. I do not know whether there is anybody from our colony who currently lives outside Russia, except for the Yiddish poet - Ya'akov Glantz, who became a citizen of Mexico and was involved in Zionist activity. The small group among us, who was brought up under the ideas of the Zionist movement, made Aliya to Eretz Israel and integrated in its existence. Among us, there are some well-known public figures who serve in important roles in the country. However, most of the colony natives took roots in our country, in the Izre'el Valley, Jordan Valley and in settlements in southern Israel. The devotion to the land and the love of work, which they brought with them to our ancestors' land from the Jewish fields in Ukraine, they bequeathed to their descendants here in our motherland.

Rivka Guber[1]

 

Translator's Note:
  1. Rivka Guber was a famous social activist and educator in Israel. She was known as the “mother of the sons” after losing two sons in the War of Independence. She was a recipient of the Israel Prize for her life activity in the education and absorption of new immigrants. Return

 

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