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[p. 94]

The First World War

The beginning of the Russian defeats (The beginning of the Russian defeats)

Translated by Eszter Andor

Bendet Nisht (Barukh Nib): Aid to the homeless refugees (Relief to homeless refugees)

When the Russian troops started to retreat from Eastern Prussia under the pressure of Emperor Wilhelm's army in 1915, the Russians needed a scapegoat that could be blamed for their defeat. They found it soon: “the Jews!” An order was issued at once to expel them from all settlements near the border and the front lines. Long lines of wagons appeared on the roads, packed with homeless Jewish refugees yearning to find a place where they could shelter with their families. Many of them stopped in our town Krinki and settled here.

A Committee for the Homeless was soon set up to provide them with a roof over their heads, as well as with food and clothes. The committee had several sections and one of them was responsible for cultural matters. Its activists – led by Sonya Fel, Yakov Kirzhner, Bendet Nisht, Pinkhas and Menase Garber, and others – devoted themselves to teach and educate the innocent homeless children so that they would not, God forbid, remain backward in their spiritual development.

With the help of some teachers, such as Leah Nisht, Breyne and Esther Terkl and others who, although still almost children themselves, were unselfish idealists, the cultural committee succeeded in establishing a three-grade Hebrew elementary school for both homeless and poor children of the town. The little voices of the pupils soon rose from the classes and delighted the teachers and the founders of the school amidst their hard work.

D. Selkof: At the end of the summer of 1915 (At the end of the summer of 1915)

Around Tisha be-Av of 1915 during the First World War, the entire Jewish population lived in deadly fear of each new day. One morning the rumor spread that the Jews of Krinki would soon have to leave the town because of the great Russian defeats on the whole battle front and the advance of the German army. The entire region between Grodno and Bialystok was classified as a strategic zone since the Germans concentrated immense forces in the region of the two big fortresses in Grodno and Osowietz. The Germans besieged the Osowietz fortress for six months and the shelling could be heard in our town. It was reported that the Jews of Grodno, just as those of the nearby shtetls, were expelled into the heart of Russia. We feared and expected that it would soon be our turn and we would have to abandon our homes and trades. It was especially frightful to think that the Gentiles would appropriate all our properties after we left the town.

And we would talk among ourselves about the imminent distribution of our property like this: “Look, there is Tzapan, the limping shoemaker from Sokolker street, standing on the marketplace with a band of Gentile lads around him. He is showing his friends with his thick stick which shop and its stock he will inherit when the Jews flee the town. Or take Yurhilo, the wet tannery worker, who walks around barefoot with his feet black and bruised and begs some kopecks from the Jews every Friday. He wants nothing less then Itshe Mostovlionske's brick house!”

[p. 95]

The entire local police force ran away from Krinki one night and abandoned the shtetl. An officer with a group of barefooted soldiers took over the power, declared a state of war and proclaimed himself interim commander. We all feared that he might order us to leave the town.

One evening a whole crowd of Gentiles descended upon us with spades and axes on their shoulders. At first we thought that they were rioters ready for action but it soon turned out that they were sent to Krinki to dig trenches against the attacks of the enemy. We learned from the Gentiles that they came from Sopotzkin where they had also dug such trenches, but German planes flew over them and started dropping bombs and in the end they were forced to retreat. Thus we learned again that the Germans were close to Grodno. Meanwhile Virion's grove was cut down to make room for the trenches. The Jewish youth was not hired for this work even though many of them would have been eager to earn two rubles a day. The Jews were excluded from the war operations because of dreadful false accusations against our brethren, the sons of Israel, which said that we were on the side of the Germans and even supported them in many ways. Naturally, after such rumors the Jews could not expect anything good either from the Gentile population or the Russian soldiers.

The pits were finished, ready to be used in battle but a miracle happened and the Russians had no time to use them. The Germans arrived and the Russian army was forced to retreat. As they were retreating they burned down everything on their way. Flames were blazing in all the villages around Krinki. The Russian soldiers spent a whole night trying hard to burn the great water mill which was not far from the town. But as if to spite them, the wooden wheel, which was thoroughly wet, did not catch fire and the mill remained intact. Later when the Germans came into Krinki the mill became very useful: all the poor Jews could go and grind a pood (a Russian weight of about 36 pounds) of rye there to bake bread for their families.

[p. 98]

The German occupation (From Fall 1915 to Spring 1919) (The German occupation (Fall 1915 - Spring 1919))

Dov Rabin: Under the pressure of the occupier (Under the pressure of the occupier)

Under pressure and in distress (Under oppression and great needs)

When the Germans entered Krinki, the Jews in the surrounding communities sighed with relief. At first the Jews felt liberated from the Russian regime which had discriminated against them and persecuted them, and threatened their physical survival for many generations.

But a harsh occupational regime established itself very soon. There began a series of forced labor on the highways. Food and various merchandise such as leather, metals and chemical products were requisitioned. Unemployment started after the requisitioning of the small piles of supplies and the prohibiting of leather production, which led to the closing of even those few tanneries that still remained in Krinki. Free movement was restricted and a special permit had to be acquired if someone wanted to leave the town for example. It was prohibited to take in and out of town, food an other products of primary necessity, etc.

Commerce came to a standstill. Many shops and businesses had been plundered during the retreat of the Russians and most of the remaining goods were soon requisitioned or bought up and what was left vanished due to all the smuggling and speculations that went on.

Serious food shortage, turmoil and immense scarcity sprang up. The Jews, young and old alike, set out to the nearby villages to get whatever products they could from the peasants, whose cattle and grain had also been confiscated by the Germans. People were lucky enough if they returned home with a little piece of hard village bread, a little barley or rye and the like for themselves and the rest of their household.

Even those who still had some savings soon lost it when the order was issued that all Russian rubles had to be exchanged into the worthless banknotes of the occupying power. An evil decree was also issued which ordered the “selling” of all copper products, (including household articles such as door-handles, frying pans and other tableware), to the German lord for almost nothing. The wind of poverty started to blow soon in the Jewish homes. The time of hunger and need arrived when, as Krinki Jews describe it in their memoirs, “mothers and sisters, wrapped in tatters and with clogs on their feet, poured out of all corners of the town at daybreak and tread the fields for 20 versts (about 13 miles) to find a forgotten stalk of rye or a frozen rotten potato.” Others also went to the nearby woods to gather a little waste wood to cook and warm themselves.

kry098.jpg - Jewish and Christian forced laborers
Jewish and Christian forced laborers loading and pulling trolleys
on the highway leading to Little Brestovitz

[p. 99]

Living under distress (The trades in the destitute times)

Meanwhile the Jews of Krinki did not sit idly. They sought ways to make both ends meet and endure the bad times. They leased orchards and gardens from landowners in the neighborhood of the town and dozens of families made a living out of growing potatoes for years. Others took up impromptu trades of the times: the more adventurous engaged in smuggling forbidden goods from one zone to the other, while the less daring became coachmen who transported these goods and made a living from this. It is true that some of them “would have made a better melamed [teacher of children in cheder] than have anything to do with a horse and a coach”, writes a Krinki Jew, but they did not have an alternative. People also tried to make a living out of other things as far as they could.

[p. 100]

Shmuel Geler: In the abandoned tannery yards (In the abandoned tannery yards)

When the front line approached Krinki during the First World War most of the leather factories evacuated into the heart of Russia. After the entry of the German troops into town, the remaining tanneries were closed, the factory yards were overgrown with wild grass. The “raw materials” were left lying around, the “tanks” were dry, the “rolls” and the benches were covered with cobweb.

The huge abandoned factory yards were a paradise for the cheder youth. There, they jauntily and happily played hide and seek, and Cossacks and robbers. The hundreds of “poles” left there served often as guns, swords and for playing devils.

D. R.-N.: The revival of Jewish culture (Jewish cultural resurrection)

Soon after the entry of the Germans in town, a radical change could be felt in Jewish cultural and social life in the nearby occupied territories. As the front line was approaching Krinki the Jewish members of the Russified circles were the first to leave the shtetl and go to the heart of Russia and those who remained were deprived of their spiritual nourishment. Russian language was withdrawn from circulation. The Germans banned it from the educational institutions and from social life in general and they even prefered Yiddish, which was close to their own language and which they thought could serve as a tool in Germanizing the population.

Yiddish, which the nationalist Jews had always regarded as a shield which protected the Jews from assimilation and as a natural tool for the development of Jewish culture, was maintained for some time, despite the general conditions.

The Jewish public, especially the youth, experienced not only bitter economic deprivation but also spiritual distress. People yearned for opportunities to enjoy themselves and drive away the oppressive mood, hear a little Yiddish and gain some spiritual pleasure.

When the Germans started to allow the organization of various performances the income of which was to be donated to help the needy, the Jews of the nearby towns and shtetls soon set up associations to cultivate Yiddish arts and drama, at first with the above-mentioned aim.

In Krinki, too, a Literary Society was quickly founded by leaders of various social groups, and literary evenings and other events were organized. The association set up a drama circle which ventured to produce plays in Yiddish – a delight that the Russian regime had forbidden and that the Jewish public had not tasted for years. A fresh spirit entered the shtetl and reached even those who had until then been far from Yiddish culture in all its manifestations.

kry100.jpg - German compulsory school for Jewish children
German compulsory school for Jewish children,
with their teacher Potshebutzki

[p. 101]

Beside their activities in the general Literary Society and in the drama circle, the Zionists, especially the youthful Tzairei Zion, which had organized itself undercover in the meantime, also opened a special gathering place, the “Center”. This label served as a disguise under which illegal Zionist activities were carried out as far as it was possible in those times.

Young teachers and activists undertook, with a lot of energy and devotion, the education of Jewish children The Hebrew elementary school was opened again and later a Yiddish elementary school was also established by labor leaders. Meanwhile, however, the occupying forces looked around and opened their own schools where teaching was in German with the intention to abolish Jewish education. The Germans demanded the introduction of German as the language of instruction in the Jewish schools and when the Jews resisted this they closed the Jewish elementary schools, although this did not make the German schools more successful. The Jewish schools opened again later.

The Literary Society also suffered from the occupying power. The situation changed only after the revolution in Germany at the end of 1918.

Yisroel Veyner:The Literary Society and its fight [1] (The “literary society” and its struggles)

It is 1916. We are in the middle of the First World War. Krinki, like all Lithuania, is occupied by the German army. An intensive cultural revival can be felt in almost all the towns and shtetls and Krinki, of course, cannot lag behind. A Literary Society was founded in our town at once under the leadership of the brightest forces, such as the teacher Eynshteyn, Dovid Gotlib, the Potshebutzki brothers, and others.

The society started to develop a wide variety of activities, organizing frequent literary evenings, at which lectures on literary topics and social questions, as well as recitals and recitations, and readings were held. The cultural elite of Krinki Jewish society participated in these events. The evenings always attracted a large audience, which greeted each performance with great applause. This audience, however, started to demand serious programs, such as lectures, recitals and recitations, because it badly needed culture and literature in order to drive away the hunger and poverty, which reigned in the town. An amateur drama circle was formed and it produced plays in Yiddish under the guidance of the Literary Society at the local bank.

[p. 102]

I remember to this day the first play of Yakov Gordin that we staged, Kashe the Orphan, in which Trakhtenberg was played by Eynshteyn the teacher, Matie Shtreykhl by Shmuli Tenor, as we used to call him, and Kashe the orphan by Rokhl Stambler.

The performance was a great financial and moral success.

kry102.jpg - The performance of 'Hertzele the Aristocrat'
The performance of “Hertzele the Aristocrat”

The theatrical evenings were also attended by the German military personnel stationed in Krinki and in the nearby villages, as well as in the Lishk manor and in Alekshitz where they were quartered. The Germans stationed in Krinki were even interested in the performances and they often intervened in the direction of the play. Once at the performance of Hertzele the Aristocrat, they even forced Rokhl Stambler to sing Schubert's serenade at the end of the play.

The Germans are “victorious”

The Germans soon became jealous of the pleasure the Jews took in the performances and the overlord issued a strict decree that the management of the Literary Society should add a dance after each performances to make it possible for the Germans to dance with the Jewish girls. Unable to refuse, the management had to accept the decree against their will and for a few months each play finished with a dance for the benefit of the Germans who were very much attracted to the Jewish girls of Krinki.

However, murmuring started among the Jewish people of the town against such entertainment, at first quiet but getting ever louder. Scandalmongers took the opportunity to “intrigue” and “exaggerate” what really happened. The management of the Literary Society was powerless. They could not put an end to these dances because repealing the decree of the German military power in wartime would have entailed the death penalty or at the very least being sent to forced labor in Heynovke or Bialoviezh. There seemed to be no way out.

Then comrade Dovid Gotlib, chairman of the Literary Society announced in a meeting of the management that he would not allow the dance after the next performance and would assume responsibility for it. All members of the management tried to dissuade him, warning him of the great danger that such an act might bring, but nothing helped. He stubbornly stuck to his own opinion. And so it was: when a new play was put on and at the end of the performance people started making room for the dance, Gotlib got on the stage and gave out strict orders that nobody was to dance and have boisterous festivities at a place where Mendele, Peretz and Sholem Aleichem was recited.

[p. 103]

The Germans were stupefied as if struck by lightening. “How dare that filthy 'Ostjude' [East European Jew] oppose the omnipotent Germans!”, they said to themselves. Comrade Gotlib took advantage of the confusion to disappear from the hall with some of his comrades.

When the Germans recovered from their astonishment, they started to look for Gotlib in order to take revenge on him. Late at night they invaded the house of Dovid's father, Reb Yudl Gotlib, peace to his memory, and other Jewish houses, too. As they did not find him, the German police announced to the Literary Society the following day that if Dovid Gotlib did not surrender himself in six hours, all the members of the society's management would be arrested and the society would be abolished. Precisely six hours later Dovid Gotlib showed up at the police station and he was arrested.

When the authorities tried to decide later what punishment he should get, the police sergeant Grabak, demanded the highest punishment. A series of mediation started then trying to influence the head of the office and other circles, and they finally agreed to just sending Gotlib to Heynovke. But Gotlib was unexpectedly saved by his cousin Batsheba Mordekhailevitz who was on friendly terms with the secretary of the head of the office, Shturmak, a deeply religious German Jew, graduate of a rabbinical seminary. (They got married later.) No effort was spared and Dovid Gotlib was finally rescued from the clutches of the German military.

However, he was freed on condition that the Literary Society would call together an exceptional general meeting at once and not only relieve him of the chairmanship but exclude him from the society altogether. The meeting took place two days later and all members of the society, as well as several representatives of the German occupying forces participated in it. The meeting was presided over by the vice-chairman, Anshl Potshebutzki, who explained to the assembled why the meeting had been convened. For the sake of the continued existence of the Literary Society he asked those present to vote for the dismissal of Dovid Gotlib from the chairmanship and his exclusion from the society by raising their hands. But nobody raised their hands.

Seeing this, the chief representative of the Germans warned the assembled that they must find a way out; otherwise sanctions would be applied against them. Gotlib himself intervened, however, to save the situation and implored the assembly to vote for his exclusion for the sake of the Literary Society. But the second voting could not take place because the firemen sounded the alarm – this had been prepared by the Germans and their servants on purpose – and the assembled scattered.

The Germans were “victorious” . . . Officially Gotlib was considered excluded from the society but in reality no meeting of the management, no discussion, no cultural event took place without Gotlib being actively involved in it. And he received dozens of letters from the nearby Jewish shtetls, which appreciated his courage, daring and fearlessness. This is how the Jewish youth of Krinki fought against the evil German power in 1916.

1From page 101: From the Grodno Echo, Buenos Aires, No. 10. Return

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