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[Page 29]

History of the City

 

The History of the Jews in Stoiptz

by Mordechai Machtey

Translated by Osher Birzen

It is not an easy task to record the history of our town now, at the time when the Jewish Stoiptz no longer exists. In addition to this, we do not have the source material that could be used to obtain the information necessary for this job.

Remembrance of Stoiptz Jews, people of good virtues and warm hearts that exuded love, life and creativity, will never disappear from our memories, and it is untenable that they will be forgotten and descend in the abyss of oblivion.

Even though I am not a writer, and perhaps because of this, I have no choice but to record whatever I was able to dig up in my memory, as well as what I heard from my father, Reb Eliyahu of blessed memory, a long time Shochet (ritual slaughterer) of our town (born 2nd day of Rosh Hashona
5609 - 1848).

 

Town Geography

Stoiptz is situated on the sandy right shore of the Niemen (Nemunas, Memel) river, 30 km west of its source, and 80 km west of Minsk. Until WWI Stoiptz was part of Minsk Gubernia (Governorate). After the Moscow-Warsaw railroad was built, in the middle of the 19th century, Stoiptz became a railway station.

After WWI, under Polish rule, Stoiptz served as a Polish-Russian border station, 15 km inside Polish territory.

Approximately 250-300 meters north of the river shore starts mountainous terrain, and a strip of fertile earth becomes sandy and totally infertile.

The Christian population, the Belarusians, worked their fields in the mountainous terrain, and since this alone could not sustain their existence, they took additional jobs at the railway and sawmill in Stoiptz. So did the peasants living in the neighboring villages, approximately 2 to 5 km North-West of Stoiptz.

At the same time, the peasants living on the left shore of Niemen, for the most part were supplying the town markets with their agricultural produce, since their fields were very fertile,

 

Name of the Town

There was no other town in the area whose name had so many versions:

Stoiptz, Shtoibtz, Stolbitz, Stolptzi, Stolbtzi, etc. The only sort of reliable document was a GET [Jewish divorce contract] (as known, the (non-Jewish- not in the original) name of the town has to be registered in a GET, without a single letter in the name of the town changed).

In the GET, the name of the town was registered as STUPTZI, and if we take into consideration that it was one of the towns of Belarus, and that in the Belarusian language it is called STAUPZI, and that the final “I” is dropped in Yiddish (i.e. Romni - Romen, Liachovichi - Lechovitz, etc), it appears that the correct version is STOIPTZ.

STOIBTZ, with the letter Liachovichi - Lechovitz, etc), it appecow-Brest railroad was being built, and in Russian the train station was called STOLBTZI. In all documents, however, STOLPTZI (with a P) is used.

I believe the version SHTOIPTZ, with the [Hebrew] letter Shin [sound SH], started to appear because Germans used to visit Stoiptz, and Jews used to travel to Koenigsberg, and in the German language, the letter S in front of the letter T is pronounced as “SH” - STOIPTZ.

 

When Did the Jews Settle in Stoiptz?

Unfortunately, it is difficult to give a clear answer to this question, since no documents are available from the previous century. . The only document is the Register of Chevra-Kadisha [book of the Burial society] from approximately 1768, when the Old Jewish cemetery ceased being used. In my opinion, burials there were discontinued even earlier; when my grandmother passed away in 1876, she was already buried in the middle of the New Jewish cemetery.

The Register does not record or mention important events, not even in passing. The Register is like a ledger of protocols recording elections of the Gabboim, which took place during intermediate days (Chol HaMoed) of Passover.

Other things recorded in the book:

(Curiously enough, the only event recorded had to do with accidental loss of virginity.)

There was double material evidence in Stoiptz, which served as a proof that Jews had settled in the town hundreds of years earlier:

  1. The Cold synagogue;
  2. The Old Jewish cemetery.

 

The Cold Synagogue

When the Cold synagogue burned down in the summer of 1902, the town elders claimed it had stood for approximately 400 years. (This, of course, was not based on any documents, but rather on an oral tradition).

Neither the size of the synagogue, which could accommodate 500 congregants, nor its architecture, could determine that it was already built in 1500. The Ladies section was built on two sides, and the roof had 5 sections, giving the impression of a hen hovering over its chicks. The Holy Ark was a work of art.

It is clear that such a large and expensive building could only have been constructed when a large and wealthy community needed it. One can assume that the synagogue was erected at the end of the 16th or the beginning of the 17th century, when Stoiptz already had a well-established Jewish settlement.

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Old Jewish Cemetery

While it is impossible to determine precisely when the Jewish settlement was established in Stoiptz from the Cold synagogue, the Old Cemetery allows us to make this determination with greater clarity.

I remember, as a child, that the few gravestones in the middle of the cemetery were already half-sunk in the ground. The inscription on these stones and their design were erased and blurred. If it had been possible to decipher the etched letters and years, we could have learned something. For example, when did the people die 100 years before they stopped burying the dead there, but even then it would still be unclear to us when they started using the cemetery?

The elders of the generation used to say that the beginning of the Old cemetery was approximately between 1560 and 1570, two hundred years before the Register of the Burial Society was started in 1768. That assumption is almost certainly accurate, as attested by the large area of the cemetery, along with the assumption that the small settlement had expanded over the years.

My father, of Blessed memory, told me, that he himself saw a manuscript, where it was written “STUPTZI [situated] near Szwierzne”. This shows that at the time when there was a Jewish settlement in Szwierzne, the Jewish community of Stoiptz was taking its first steps. It is reasonably plausible, that prior to that time the Jews who died in Stoiptz were buried in the Szwierzne cemetery, and as the Stoiptz community grew it established its own cemetery. Based on the above, we will not be mistaken to conclude that the first Jews settled in Stoiptz in the first half of the 16th century, and perhaps even earlier.

 

Growth of the Town

As mentioned above, Szwierzne was older than Stoiptz. A Jewish settlement had existed there for years. Szwierzne was located on the major road that lead from Brest to the east and the left bank of the Niemen, which was very fertile, as opposed to the right bank - sandy soil, it's only advantage being proximity to the large forests, on one side ARTSUKHI, SHVERINAVA to the east, and on the other side DEREVNA and the famous “NALIBOKI PUSHCHA” (during WWII this huge wild forest, within its vast territory, saved many Jews from the claws of the blood-thirsty Nazi beast).

Those settlers who decided to skip the established town of Szwierzne and continue on to the empty and exposed right bank of Niemen, had two reasons for doing so: (a) the nearby large forests; b) the flat bank of the Niemen.

Trees were an important item of export to Germany, and were shipped and transported via the Niemen which flowed into the Baltic Sea. Since on the bank of Niemen (where Stoiptz was established), , there was a natural “port”, suited for storing all kinds of materials, trees were brought here from the forests. They were assembled into various rafts and floats, and sent to Germany. All those who dealt with this: the merchants, their representatives, their clerks, their guards and their Jewish workers settled in Stoiptz.

The Niemen served as a waterway not only for the trees. Grain and flax were also hauled and towed to Germany using towboats (called BATN in Stoiptz). From Germany, of course, various goods were brought in, and thus normal and intensive commerce developed between Stoiptz and Germany, especially with Koenigsberg. Thanks to this, there was tremendous development in the settlement of Stoiptz, and its population grew far more than the population of Szwierzne. The growth peaked in the 19th century, when Stoiptz became the first station on the new, Russian built, Brest-Moscow railroad (Baranowicz did not yet exist as a town).

Relations with the outside world greatly affected Stoiptz and placed it ahead of other neighboring towns not only in terms of economy; culturally it was more developed than other towns in the area. Stoiptz appointed and invited to its community outstanding Rabbis, Cantors and Shochtim (ritual slaughterers). As a result, representatives of large cities came to Stoiptz and hired them to serve in their communities. Rabbi Dovid Tevele became a Rav of Minsk, Rabbi Simcha Shmuel “Meshores Moshe” - Rav of Mezrich, Rav Meyer Noach Levin became the Rav of Moscow. After the Jews were expelled from Moscow in 1891, he was invited to Vilna to serve as a Preacher. An interesting fact: not a single Rabbi was buried in the Stoiptz cemetery until 1904. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchok Maskileison (father-in-law of Rav Reuven Katz, the chief Rabbi of Petah-Tikva) also passed away from a heart attack 3-4 months after moving to Stoiptz.

 

Economic Development

Since Stoiptz was surrounded by vast forests, the trade of lumber developed. While the trees were felled and cut by the gentile villagers, the rest of the work was done by clerks, merchants and wagon drivers, who brought the trees to the river's edge and almost all of these, were Jews. Those who transported the rafts to Germany had to be provided for and supplied with bread, cereals, etc. in time. Such a trip took about four to five weeks. This is how shopkeepers and bakers, metalworkers, builders, carpenters, tailors and shoemakers appeared in Stoiptz - the urban community grew and developed in strides.

As the town expanded, the Jewish cemetery, which was then situated in the northwestern corner of the town, found itself at the southern edge of the town. The market became the commercial center, and all craftsmen settled to the north of the market, in the Hiorzdika neighborhood, which was populated almost exclusively by artisans, until the destruction of the town during WWII.

The Jewish community was not content with lumber trade alone; a new branch of export was developed - grain and flax. In those days, as in my childhood years, small steamboats were used for grain commerce. Barges were built on the banks of the Niemen; the steamboats towed them to Germany. Building these boats required builders, wood and plank cutters.

With the arrival of the train and the establishment of workshops for the repair of locomotives and wagons (depots), another 200 workers were added. Together with their families, they became serious customers in the town.

Thanks to the railroad transportation, in the 1880s or 90s Nochum Boruch Rozovsky founded a match factory which, for various reasons, was closed in 1895. With the closing of the factory and transfer of the railroad workshops

[Page 31]

to Baranowitz, at the end of the 19th century, Stoiptz economy was based more on commerce, along with a large class of craftsmen.

We find information on the development and growth of the Jewish population in the second half of the 19th century, in the Jewish-Russian Encyclopedia of Brockhaus-Efron. It is said among other things: according to the national census of 1847 the Jewish population of Stoiptz reached 1315 souls. According to the 1897 census, the general population of Stoiptz reached 3754, of which 2409 where Jewish.

We can see that the Jewish population reached its peak of 65% of the total population. A great decline began with the emigration to North and South America, South Africa and Palestine. To a large extent this was caused by WWI and the Great Fire of 1915.

We do not have precise numbers, but it is estimated that in 1939, on the eve of WWII, the total population of Stoiptz was about 8,000, of which 2,500 were Jews, i.e. 31%.

We must note with great satisfaction, that thanks to the large emigration overseas and to Palestine, hundreds and perhaps even thousands of Stoiptz Jews managed to avoid death and a terrible fate in the years of WWII, and managed to remain alive and witness the defeat of the enemy of the Jews.

 

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