by Yakov Ilitowitz
Translated by Roslyn Sherman Greenberg
|These are fragments from a handwritten diary by our eminent fellow townsman, Mr. YAKOV ILITOWITZ, who described from his wonderful memory, personalities, families and happenings from the old and modern Lida. He also describes his experiences in the Second World War under the Soviet rule, earlier in Lida, and later, as an exile in the Far East (shown in B'Zchus as an ardent Zionist and in addition a merchant that is called a Borshoi). In our historical research, we extracted a lot from this rich informative material, but because of the goal and program of our book, we couldn't print it in full, and we have to be satisfied with a small portion thereof.|
The old Lida, the Market and Lida Householders
Lida has a long history of hundreds of years. The Jewish population does also. The castle in Lida was built, as history shows, more than 600 years ago under the Lithuanian King Gedimin. The old Lida synagogue, which burned down 75 years ago, existed, as they used to tell, about 300 years. Among the children, there were many legends concerning the castle, which they certainly had heard from their parents. They used to say that under the two old trees on the castle hill, were buried a king and a queen. They also told that in the castle were buried big treasures, but one mustn't dig for them because the treasures ere cursed. Those who tried to dig them up were pulled down into the earth
From olden times, Lida had three central streets: Vilna Street, Kaminke Street and Crooked Street (Krume Street) (later changed to Suwalke Street, 3rd of May Street, and Mayer Moskowitz Street under the Polish rule). Where does the name Crooked Street come from? This is hard to understand. It seems backwards since the street from the market all the way to the farm is really a straight one. After the big fire, a new street, Sadove Street, was carved from the Synagogue Square to Kaminke Street. On the whole site there used to be a big fruit garden that belonged to the pharmacist, a Christian. Behind a fence of small wooden blocks, stood the pharmacists' apothecary and his house. After the fire, the pharmacist lost the garden, and sold building lots to Jews. The pharmacist bought out the Pole Stavinsky and she moved to Vilna Street. Later she sold to BERGMAN (Stara Pharmacy).
In the center of the city was the large marketplace, and in the middle a deep well, from which the residents of the marketplace and from the surrounding streets used to draw water. Before the fire, almost all the houses in the marketplace were wood. After the fire they built brick houses. The first houses in the marketplace were taverns, the principal things for the peasants who used to come to sell their farm products.
The owners of the taverns were the most respected people in the city. In olden times the tavern of MOSHE ELAZAR was well known. He was a relative of the old RABBI MORDECAI MELTZER. Later, BERE MOSHE BARAN, a Jew with a big influence in Congregation matters, himself not a scholar, at least wanted to keep the company of rabbis. His son-in-law, ROSOVSKY, was indeed the son of the well known Svianke rabbi, a scholar and an enlightened man, who sat in the store, which his father-in-law had given him, and looked in a book or a religious text. In the same house, there was later a SKLAD PHARMACY of BERE MOSHE's son, YAKOV. There was a tavern owner named MAYER. He was a short Jew, with a small beard. Most of the time he sat in the Bais Midrash, not so much out of piety, but because his three daughters ran his tavern.
Not far from him was the tavern of HIRSHE MORDECAI NECHOMS, a talented and energetic Jew. In a corner of the marketplace on Crooked Street was the tavern of DAVID-YUDEL KAMENIETSKY, a brother of YASHE ELIE the Judge. He was a tall, lean Jew, with a handsome beard and a stately appearance. Besides keeping a tavern he was also from time to time a wood merchant. In another place was the tavern-restaurant Zayod, which was established in the fifty years before the last century by ISAAC LANDE, from the Vilna scholars (who did not want to be rabbis). In our times, the owner was ISAAC LANDE, a third generation later than the other ISAAC. In his wife's name, LIEBE LANDE, was a guest house. A Zayod with a stall for the horse of the wagon drivers, later also a hall for celebrations, and even later a stage for theatrical performances.
A little further on a side, near the Red Street (Krasni Pereolok), was the tavern of ETEL NATHUM LEIB'S, the wife of NOTTE LANDE (a grandson of the aforementioned ISAAC LANDE). The wife was the tavern keeper, and her husband, NOTTE, from time to time worked part-time. In the market days he sold glasses, before Succoth he dealt in esrogs and lulavs, and the rest of the time he sat in the Bais Midrash, occupied with the Talmud and Torah and the like.
There was a tavern keeper on the marketplace, CHAIM PINKUS. No one knew him by and beer, Passover he would make wine from raisins (the skilled master in his employ was Mayer, who used to squeeze honey for my father, JEREMIAH ILITOWITZ, i.e. separating the honey from the wax). There were three kinds of wine: a pot for under half a ruble, , for a ruble and for 75 kopeks. According to the price, Chaim would order to be poured: from vat number one, from vat number two, or from vat number three. But conjecture was that all three sorts were from one vat, which stood in the cellar…. Thus, at any rate, the wine-maker Mayer confided in my father his big secret.
Besides taverns there were other establishments on the marketplace. For instance, MOTTYE CHAIM BER'S (RABINOWITZ), whose house with the courtyard stretched up to Red Street. A very pious Jew, he used to pray with so much religious fervor, that he never prayed in public.
A neighbor of MOTTYE's place was SHMUEL STEINBERG, a rich Jew with a strong character. Between both places there was a small passageway which each claimed belonged to him. They both argued and fought all their life long. And markedly, they both died within an hour of each other, an early afternoon on Simchas Torah (about 1912). Jews learned a lesson that human arguments are foolish. The heirs submitted the matter to judgment.
Avreml, the Water Carrier
AVREML THE WATER CARRIER also had a relationship to the marketplace where he used to take water from the well. You can't talk about the marketplace and not mention AVREML. He was middle height, broad shouldered and strongly built. Children used to say that AVREML was born with iron rods around his body, which gave him strength. A fact is that even a grown man had a difficult time picking up AVREML's two big wooden buckets encased in iron hoops, even empty, not talking about when they were full. AVREML was an honest Jew and used to give full buckets. There were other water carriers, but no one had such big buckets. They simply did not have as much strength.
Winter or summer AVREML used to wear boots with high legs up above his knees. It looked as if the rest of his body was short. When he walked with the yolk over his neck, it seemed as if he was walking on stilts. He spoke with a loud voice and it seemed as if he was screaming. His wife would stand at a table on the marketplace with soft bread. This was a seasonal income. When AVREML went by her table, carrying water, he used to take off the full buckets, and chat with his wife.
On Sabbath, after the third meal (Shalosh Seudos), AVREML was a prayer leader in the small house of worship near the big synagogue.
Personalities from old Lida
It's a natural thing that my first memories are tied up with my own family, whose name was a password in Lida like the PUPKO family.
My father JEREMIAH ILITOWITZ, belonged on his mother's side to the PUPKO family the Hanchik's, from the name of the founder of the family whose name was HANA. The Hanchik's were all advisors in congregational matters. Because of his pedigree my father was able to elude the Chappers (catchers) who used to snatch Jewish children to become soldiers for 25 years. This was the story:
When my father was still just a young boy, he once came out of the Bais Midrash where he was learning, on a late winter evening. Suddenly the Chappers, who had just come into the city, encircled him. The oldest Chapper lit his face with his lantern, and said, Let him go. He is one of the Hanchik's.
NAFTALI SALTZ was an old Lida householder, from before the fire, but he came originally from Vilna, from the well known SALTZ family. His business was the horse post. In those times when there was not yet any train (and also later, in the places where the train didn't reach), the passengers used to rent horses from one horse-post to the next, where they would again change horses.
A middle sized man with a salt and pepper, not very long beard, he used to walk around his big courtyard, which stretched from Vilna Street almost to the river, with his hands stuck in the belt of his pants. He loved having a little cup from time to time. He had clout with the authorities. If he was asked to work something out with the government in a matter of business, or in a private matter (if this didn't hurt anyone) he didn't refuse. He didn't, however, mix into congregation matters. He built a small synagogue in his own courtyard (SALTZ's synagogue), but he himself was not a frequent visitor.
NAFTALI's son, a lawyer, was greatly beloved in Lida. He died young from an appendix operation.
The Proizinisher Judge
The Proizinisher Judge or shortened to The Proiziner (who remembers his name?) had a brilliant mind. He wasn't only a great student of Talmud, but also a wise man and full of humor. He also had a weakness: He loved brandy (and a liqueur, until the weakness shortened his life).
This was in the time of the Russian liquor monopoly. One day the Proizinisher came home to his wife with news You hear, Sarah, there is salvation and consolation for all Jews. What is the salvation? asked his wife? You will hear. Until now when one bought a flask of brandy in the Monopoly, one had to bring each time an empty flask. Now there is something new: Whoever brings in five empty flasks will receive one free.
Itche the Tshlen
A password in Lida was ITCHE THE TSHLEN, a son of NATHAN SHIMEON PUPKO, founder of the first beer brewery in Lida. The name The TSHLEN comes from the fact that he was a member in the city management, a very smart Jew, one of the dedicated city social workers. One of his sons married a daughter of MOTTYE THE CHALERNICK (where the surname comes from, no one knows).
A second was the son-in-law of YOSHE THE GOY, called this because he lived in a small town among goyim. ITCHE used to joke about his two in-laws, that the Chaleria (bad one) will take the goy.
GERSHELE KAMIENIETSKY was a Proshene writer. He was called GERSHELE, not GERSHON, his real name, because of his short height. One used to joke that once he woke his wife, REITZE, in the middle of the night with a nightmare: he suddenly felt that he grew so much that he took up the whole bed. They lit the light and saw that he had turned around and lay in the width of the bed. But without joking, he was an intelligent man, clear in the Russian Laws and thus so scrupulously honest that he never made a good living. It was a miracle that his wife, REITZE, dealt with manufacture.
He also was Tsheln in the city Council. If it would happen that the Jewish members didn't take part in a session, and the city officer, JAKOBOVITZ, would bring the official report home to be approved, GERSHON would study the document one time and again another time. Then the rest would approve without reading it. JEREMI, JAKOBOVITZ would say to my father, who was also a councilman, Sign it. GERSHELE already signed, in other words, if he signed, there's no need to read it further.
First Steps in organizing Zionist Activities
It was in the days when the largest part of the Jewish Worker-Youth, and with them also wide circles of the Jewish Student Youth, in Russia and Poland, and also in Lida, were dominated by the ideas of the Revolutionary Movement in Russia. A group of well-brought up young people who were nationalists, caught up in the general enthusiasm which formed the first Zionist Congresses in the Jewish world, decided to stop being passive and to organize themselves.
The first who joined were: MORDECAI KRUPSKY, WOLF SOKOLOVSKY, NACHUM ROSENSTEIN, ISRAEL AARON SHELIOVSKY, GILINSKY (not from Lida), the brothers YAKOV and BROINE ILITOWITZ. Also a group of girls joined the activities: STERNA LEITHOUSE (later KRUPSKY), GITL LEVIN, RIVKA PUPKO, FRUME (FRUMTSHE) YUDELEWITZ, and others.
With the assistance of Vilna Zionist worker, SHEINIUK, who was then in Lida as head worker at PAPEIRMEISTER's brewery, a Zionist Youth Organization was founded known as Tzeirai Tzion (Zionist Youth). As far as I know this was the first Zionist Youth Organization in Poland that used that name. When more young women belonged, they separated under the name Daughters of Zion, as a section of Tzeirai Tzion.
SHEINIUK also worked it out that PAPERMEISTER (whose son-in-law, KANTOR, was also a lover of Zion) should rent the organization the large wooden structure in his courtyard. It had three large rooms and a kitchen. The local was called Chinaya. This means a tea house, since Zionism was then not legal. But tea drinking was allowed! Thus, it became Chinaya or in Yiddish China.
The Zionist China
The number of members of Zionist Youth grew. Every evening there were many members in the China. Friday and Saturday evening the China was packed with visitors. Speakers would come from whom you could hear lively speeches.
In 1902 a new strength arrived in Lida, MOSHE COHEN, who was invited through RABBI REINES, Secretary of the young Mizrachi organization. He became the regular speaker at the China.
In 1904, the China had as its guest VLADIMIR JABOTINSKY. This was his first appearance in Lithuania.
The young Zionist movement in Lida had to overcome a great struggle, from one side with the Bund (the Socialist organization), and from the other side with the fanatical religious people, who said that one shouldn't rush to destruction, but to wait for the Messiah. The main struggle was with the people from the Bund who tried all kinds of things to hinder the Zionist activities.
In 1900 when the Colonial Bank was established, the Zionist Youth spread 1000 activists in Lida.
With the establishment of the Keren Kayemet (benevolent fund) for Israel, the collection of money began by various means. First, there was the Keren Kayemet coin box, which was put in every Jewish business and home, both among the rich and landowners, and also among the craftsmen. This again started a struggle with the Bundists who had young hangers-on in the craftsmen's houses. The young Bundists would throw the coin box somewhere so the mother could not put in her groschen (pennies) for Eretz Israel before she lit the candles on Friday night. A second means of money collection was the Zionist Post, which had its center at FRUME YUDELEWITZ's. Rosh Hashana wishes, invitations and congratulations for weddings and other happy events, were sent through the Zionist Post instead of through the government post, and the income went to Keren Kayemet.
The Tarbut School
A separate dedication that the Lida Zionists showed was for education of their children. Their ideal was a full Hebrew School.
The pioneers of the Hebrew School were: a young student, MATATHIAS RUBIN, a son of RUBE-HANA RUBIN (now a lawyer in Haifa) and his later-to-be wife, NOITE, at that time, RABINOWITZ. They opened a Hebrew class. They had no money for a place, so they taught in a room in the burial attendants' house of worship, with the approval of the trustees of the synagogue. From that class a Hebrew Gymnasia grew, which went up to sixth grade. It didn't go further because of financial restraints. The main effort was concentrated in strengthening the situation of the Folk School classes.
The seven-grade TARBUT school grew from year to year and the number of students went up to 500. The structure of CHANAN ILITOWITZ, on Sadove Street, became too small, and they began to think of a building of its own.
A building committee was chosen, consisting of representatives from TARBUT and the parents. The first one to volunteer to work for the undertaking was our friend BERL DWORETZKY. A building site was acquired by the committee free of charge from the Magistrate, not far from the Polish Government School. The Jewish population of Lida imposed large and small taxes upon itself. The SEGALNY's taxed themselves with bricks, the TARTAK's with wood material, and the iron business of CHERTAK-STEINBERG with iron products. Because of the endeavors of the merchants SHIMEON PUPKO and PINCHAS RABINOWITZ who were their customers, the cement factories gave cement.
After great strain, a three-story building was finished with a hall for calisthenics, and a warm toilet. There was a big housewarming to which were invited many guests. A separate cake and brandy party was arranged for the parents of the students, many of whom had taxed themselves, each according to his ability. It was a great celebration.
This was in 1939. The joy did not last long. When the Soviets captured Lida, the TARBUT School was closed.
When we, the Lida inhabitants who had been sent to Siberia, returned after the war when the echelon stopped in Lida, I ran to take a look at the devastated city. I didn't have much time since the echelon had to leave. I just ran to take a peek at what happened to the building of the TARBUT School, if it had the same fortune as all Jewish buildings. But no, the structure from the TARBUT School remained whole, not touched, and I noted there was already a Soviet Government headquarters there. It broke my heart.
by Itzhak Genozovitch (Ganoz)
Translated by Hadassah Fuchs Virshup
Daughter of the late Jenia (neé Muller) sister of Shmuel-Yaakov Muller
(murdered on June 28th 1941)
I hereby pay tribute to my late father and teacher, Mosheh son of Israel, who was born in Zshetl, a shtetel near Lida, a teacher and a Zionist activist whose personality had an everlasting impression on me and his character, manners and gentle speech shine on me over time and space. He was taken by the Soviet police and never heard from ever since.
Our school was all-Hebrew with Polish taught as a second language since grade 2, as well as Polish history and geography. All the other subjects were taught in Hebrew by our devoted teachers who, through their daily efforts, bequeathed to us love of the Hebrew language, the nation's everlasting values and a longing to Eretz Israel as a real, living place, a land that was meant for us and we were meant to inhabit. Dream and reality were thus magically merged together. Only masters of the art of education could have combined this vivid magical existence.
Our first grade teacher was Mrs. Miriyam Stutzki. In her class we learned the alphabet, the intonation of the Hebrew words and language, about the Keren Kayemet (National Fund) box, a kids' song about the cucumber that grew in the garden, Alei Giv'a (Yosef Trumpeldor's song), hands on shoulders during gym classes - all flew over us like the gentle waters of a spring brook to prepare us for absorbing thirstily the experiences of this new world - the world of Eretz Israel.
In 1935 the teacher Sternberg arrived in our school and was appointed the headmaster, replacing Mr. Bernholtz who moved to Vilna. Our second grade teacher, Miss Efron, who was well liked by us, married him later.
Some years later we became Mr. Sternberg's pupils. He knew how to impose perfect discipline in class without raising his voice or punishing us. The most daring, un-disciplined and noisy among us subsided at his piercing gaze and his quiet, measured speech. He organized the Ben-Yehuda society at school - the members undertook upon themselves to speak Hebrew and nothing but Hebrew when you sit at home and when you travel, when you lie down and when you rise (Deutronomy 6:7). Each member got a small notebook, each page of which was divided into squares, one for each week. With his own hands he used to stamp the letter ע in the appropriate square, indicating that the society member kept his pledge. Sometimes we, the pupils, were in the middle of a loud, noisy argument in Yiddish while his steps were heard in the corridor or the playground. Abashed, we immediately switched into Hebrew.
Mr. Sternberg (his first name escapes me, I may have never known it, but his person is so near and dear) was murdered by the Nazis during the first days of the occupation, together with a whole group of the Intelligentsia who were put to death near the local airport. Among them were the teachers Haim Itzhak Persezki, Haim Kravitz and many others.
Mrs. Sternberg (Efron) was left with a baby-girl and moved later to Ghetto Piaski. She had no means of providing for herself and my classmate, David Boyarski of blessed memory (see his words later in this book) used to bring her provisions from time to time. She was murdered with her daughter on the 8th of May, the mass-murder (2nd akzia).
The teacher Haim Itzhak Persky taught us Hebrew. He was a scholar and an activist combined. He took part in the founding meeting of the region's Vaadey Khilot (community committees) that took part in Vilna in the late twenties and contributed quite often to the local newspapers.
The school was located in a brick house belonging to Mr. Illutowitch on Sadova St. until the end of the 1938 school-year. This is where the venerated Rav Reines of blessed memory Yeshiva used to be. It was a two-story building with a basement housing a carpenter shop and a sewing workshop plus some lodgers. In the yard - a small playground, a soap factory and behind it an area with ice-blocks holes, old wooden huts with black-green boards which were kept closed so that we, the pupils, never explored them. Close by were the outdoor lavatories. In the main hall, referred to by us as the Big Hall or the Big Recess Hall there stood a big book cabinet along the wall from floor to ceiling. The classrooms were on the second floor, as was a tiny room filled with the laboratory tools, various maps and stuffed animals. The narrow corridor, along which walls there were boards with nails for the pupils to hang their coats on, was crowded with noisily playing kids during recess time. The little kiosk at the entrance to this corridor belonged to Mrs. Reizl, a hearty woman who sold the kids a glass of tea and a slice of cake during Big Recess, accompanied by a wide smile. Needy kids, mostly from the orphan-house, were given a glass of milk and a slice of cake daily free of charge. In the same corridor, near the kiosk, was the place of the janitor (called by us storozsh) - our big friend Yechiel. Together with his wife he was in charge of cleaning the classrooms, heating the stoves in winter and ringing the bell at the right times.
The Vaad Kehila (community committee) and the parents association dreamt and planned many years of erecting a new building for the school. Money was accumulated Zloty by Zloty by way of fundraising campaigns, collections and selling tickets to school-plays. The cornerstone for a new, three storied building, a modern and up-to-date building by that time's standards, was laid in the new weigan neighborhood near the town's entrance. When the building was almost done there was not enough money for the roofing. Then started a special collection for tin sheets among the community members and everyone, even the poor ones, donated half a sheet or less to ensure that the Hebrew school will be finished and open its doors as soon as possible,
The pupils produced a special play and preformed it in the Edison cinema theater with all the revenue going toward the completion of the school. Special postcards were printed with the picture of the school under construction, surrounded by scuff holders and topping it the text From floor to ceiling - but what of the roof? Donate money for the roof now.
By the end of the summer vacation, on the 1st of September, the war erupted before the townspeople, teachers or pupils had the chance to celebrate the completion of the project. A week earlier the school equipment was transported from the old building to the new one. I remember how my classmates (we were the older pupils of the school - just graduated to the seventh grade, the highest and last class). We helped moving the laboratory tools, the maps and various other pieces of equipment which we carried by hand and hung from our shoulders for quite a long distance.
As long as the war lasted the school did not open its gates. When the Soviets occupied the town on September 7th, we came under a hostile rule that outlawed the school and made an end to it. Thus ended the magnificent chapter called the Tarbut School in Lida. Most of its teachers and pupils did not survive, with no one to tell their story. For us it was a veritable spring of fresh water that we enjoyed while young and its vitality is with us until this very day.
Our Pentateuch and Bible classes were taught by Mr. Portnoy and Mr. Kahana. Mr. Portnoy was a very religious Jew who observed all commandments. He joined the stuff from the Yavneh school and was our teacher for about three years. When the town was occupied by the Soviets the school was incorporated into the one run by the Bond in which the teaching language was Yiddish. The united school was directed by the Soviet authorities and housed in the new Tarbut building .Mr. Portnoy refused to teach in this school and was left without any means of livelihood. He commenced giving unofficial underground classes of Jewish subjects to a group of pupils. The first class I attended was in an apartment in a wooden hut on the 3rd of May St. Soon after we moved to study in his home near Palkovska St. behind the stream that passes nearby. To avoid being seen by a detective or an informer or drawing the neighbors' attention we arrived one by one with no fixed hour. He taught us the Bible, Talmud and Hebrew Literature. Unlike regular school classes in which he found it hard to maintain discipline while the young pupils frolicked and fooled around, these classes were conducted in perfect order. We resembled soldiers undergoing their basic training with full commitment to their task and mission. Each week he gave us books from his private library, and upon return he expected to hear the reader's impressions. In the last week before leaving my home and my town I received a binding of a Hebrew magazine for the youth in which he showed me a story he had written. I forgot the name of the magazine, but I remember to this day the story's title The Timepiece - and some of its content.
The poet Dov Chomski taught us Hebrew and the Pentateuch. The teacher Bloom - Polish. Our teacher Haim Kravitz taught us Polish and general Geography and Natural Sciences. He and his whistle were in charge of our gymnastic classes in the Maccabbi Hall and the volleyball games in the schoolyard. Mrs. Kravitz , his wife., taught us Polish History.
Our class numbered 43 kids (including the writer) - 10 girls and 33 boys. Here are their names:
Barbada YaacovOut of these 43 children there survived but a few. Most of the students were murdered together with their parents on the mass murder 8th of May 1942, while the rest were led to the crematoriums of Majdanek.
Kaminitzki Naftali (survived)
Niselevitz - (fron the town of Niman)
Shepshelevitz (from the town of Zheludok)
Stolovitzki Michael (survived)
Teper Yosef (survived)
One of these students, Yaakov Shklerovski, excelled as a courageous fighter among the Partisans in the Bielski camp. In April 1944, during the big Nazi siege on the Partisans'' camps in Naliboki forests, he was surrounded by Russian Partisans who demanded his weapon a French rifle he obtained with great difficulty together with his boots. When he refused they murdered him on the spot. His was a hero's death, and he no older than eighteen years old.
The Tarbut school consisted of seven classes, and had about three hundred pupils at the outbreak of the war. Out of those there survived but few, less than a Minyan Whole classes, students and teachers were murdered without a trace. Our heart will forever bleed for the tragedy and there are no words to describe the scope and depth of the devastation.
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