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).
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:
There was double material evidence in Stoiptz, which served as a proof that Jews had settled in the town hundreds of years earlier:
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.
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.
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
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.
by Reuven Levine, Kvutzat Geva
Translated by Ann Belinsky
My narrative is dedicated to the memory of my family members: My mother zl [zichrona levracha = May her memory be a blessing], Rosa Levine. My father zl Dov Levine who died in Eretz Yisrael Tammuz 5696 (=June/July1936), buried in Gedera. My sister Sarah Beyla Eizenberg and her three children who were killed: Batya, Tzvi, Ida. My sister was Mina Levine. My wife in my youth Leah Levine zl (nee Bernstein), who died in Kvutzat Geva on the 20th Tevet 5718 (=12th January 1938)
The location of Steibtz in the Geography of Russia
The town of Steibtz (in Russian Stowbtsy), in the Region of Minsk, was located on the banks of the River Neiman. Its railway line was named MoskovskaBrestestika until 1913 when, for the celebrations of 300 years of the Royal House of Romanov the Russian rulers, the name of the line was changed to Lalksandrovskya.
In the spring, the width of the Neiman was 1.5 kilometers; in summer it decreased to a width of 75 meters.
On the other bank of the river was a large meadow, belonging partly to the Christians, farmers in the town, who in the summer they would reap the hay, there in aBundance. The ground was almost flat and because of this (with the melting of the snow and ice in spring), the river would overflow and flood a large part of the town.
Communication of the town with the surroundings, on the other side of the river, was via a wooden ferry called Parom, which would change its shape according to the time of the year. In spring when the river was wide, it was like a bridge in the shape of a raft and would float from one end to the other with the help of a rope, which was stretched across the width of the river: in the summer when the width of river had decreased, the bridge was set permanently in place. (See also Page 221 for a description AB)
People crossing the bridge in vehicles had to make a special payment. Next to the bridge was the house of Noach Paraminik who leased the Parom from the town and took money from those passing through. I remember well that more than once, when the snow was melting, the house was surrounded by water and Noach would get to his house by boat.
There was also a high iron bridge across the river for the railway line. Below, rafts and also small tourist boats (in Russian called Parokhodim) would pass.
The land around was mostly sandy, extremely barren. I also remember that also then, without organic fertilizer or green manure (tormos), there was not even a mediocre yield. On the other hand, the area had a lot of forests, mostly pine trees, covering an area of kilometers around the town.
The forests were partly government property and partly private property of the estate owners. Sometimes a forest belonging to the village was shared, used in the summer for flock grazing and in the winter logs for heating and for building.
Inhabitants of the town and their occupations
The town numbered several thousand inhabitants. The town was planned lengthwise. In the center was a square the market place, from which, the streets went in all directions. The Jews lived in the center, in the market and around it. The Christians lived at the edges of the town. The occupations of the Jews were mainly trade and crafts. Commerce also was divided: Large commerce the forests, that is to say, the trees of the forests…
Sale of government forests was different from forests owned by estate owners. According to the law, the government forests were sold to traders for felling, on condition that the cutdown would be replanted the same year. The aim was to maintain the forested area. The forest trees were felled in the winter and brought to the area of the Neiman River, where they were arranged in rows. In spring with the melting of the snows they would be lowered into the river, tied to rafts with soft plaited wooden ropes, called twigs (grazlim). On market day the farmers would bring carts full of this produce. The rafts would float with the current to Germany (to be sold). Most of the work with logs such as felling, transport, tying to the rafts and their transport to Germany, was done by the farmers of area and partly by the Christians of the town.
The Jews dealt mainly with buying forest trees and selling them in Germany. I remember a unique episode about organization by the tree traders in the town. The government forests were sold by public auction and the highest bidders would win. The bids were made secretly. In the following case, the town traders had spoken previously and made a cartel, in other words, they would not go beyond an agreed maximum and in order to camouflage this agreement from the eyes of the authorities, each made a different bid.
Naturally a wellknown trader in the town won, and he gave the money (about several thousand rubles) to the town. The town was happy and the money was divided among the institutions in the town: Gmilut Chassadim, Chevra Kadisha etc. with active participation of the town Rabbi.
In the spring with melting of the ice on the river, the town became full of life with traders who came to buy and with workers who were occupied with the rafts and their transport. This movement affected the trade in a good way, as the workers who accompanied the rafts would stock food for several weeks until they reached Germany.
In 1906, Eliyahu Yonah Keitovitz set up a sawmill. Some of the logs were sawn to platters and boards and were sent by train to southern Russia. There were Jewish secondary contractors who received rights from the forest traders to replant the cutdown areas. From the uprooted roots they would make tar. From the other parts of the trees that were not suitable to be sent they would prepare firewood that was brought to the town to be sold.
The tar and logs for heating were a secondary part of the trade. It was an internal trade within the town, especially in the market. In the middle (of the town) there was a square marketplace completely surrounded by shops: grocery, fancy goods, etc. and there were also shops within the houses which framed the market square.
Market day was usually on Sunday, the rest day of the Christians. Peasants from the area would bring their produce to sell and at the same time would collect their weekly wage for their work in the forest and for transporting the logs to the river. Also here the log trade had a big effect on commerce, because in return for their work, they would buy goods in the town.
The main professions were also connected to trees, since most of the town houses were made of wood, and built by the Jews. I still remember (before the mechanical sawmill) how two workers, usually longbearded old Jews, would lift a log two meters above the ground. One would stand above the log and the other below and with the aid of a handsaw they would saw the wood into planks. The Jews also were carpenters, building furniture and wheels for the wagons and other work. They would make the above from wood which was harder than pine.
The Jews also worked as tailors, bootmakers, blacksmiths etc. As well, there was one Jew, Shlomo Chayyim der Shlosser, who lived in Yurodka Street next to the yellow entrance, a locksmith who made door locks, door hinges etc. About 10 men worked for him, and they would send their produce to the regional city of Minsk. The impression of the locksmith factory in the town then was like the Ford factory in Detroit, USA. The Christians lived on the edges of the town and their barns (Shayaren) delineated the town, and behind these were their properties.
Because most of the land was barren, the peasants could not subsist on agriculture. Thus some worked in the forests, other on the railway line and some were government clerks. The Jews were not allowed to work in governmental services.
My Parents' Occupations
My forefathers and my father's parents, Grandfather Herzl and Grandmother Itka, all lived together. I remember that my grandfather told me in my childhood that he had achieved a governmental diploma as a Tradesman in woodworking. In Russian: Ramaslanilki a certified craftsman.
My father and grandfather zl were builders of large boats (in Yiddish Batlak). The length of a boat was 15 meters and its width was 5 meters. The boats were built during the winter and in the spring they would be lowered into the river and loaded with various wares, as well as barrels of tar, and sailed to Germany. In the spring, the Jews from Grodno and the area would come and buy these boats from my parents and would also buy various merchandise to load onto the boats.
When I reached the age of 1213 my parents zl changed their occupation. My father began to trade in the forests and my grandfather leasing estates. In our area there was a landowner, not married. His name was Vasilivski and he also owned forests. My father bought a forest from him for felling and my grandfather leased the estate from him. The estate was young and established mainly on land that been forested several years earlier. The name of the estate was TriLas (in Russian: Three Forests).
My grandfather and grandmother zl lived on the same estate with four families of annual workers, several unmarried annual workers and an old Gentile the night watchman. All in all, maybe there were 20 souls. Close to the estate was the holding of the forest keeper of the same landowner. He was a tall Gentile named Ivan. In his yard there were several beehives. I remember well how in my childhood I was attracted to see the hives up close. Once I crept in through the fence see how the watchman, using smoke, pulled the honeycomb out. The watchman felt my presence, shouted at me and I was expelled while being warned of beestings. Neither the Gentile watchman, nor I, knew then, that in Israel I would become a beekeeper.
In the summer, I would come to be a guest of my grandfather in the estate. Next to the forest flowed a river (much larger than the Jordan) called the Sula. It was a tributary from the Neiman. In spring with the melting of the snows, the felled logs would be sent on the water and flowed with the current to the same place where the Sula joined the Neiman. Here they would bind the logs to the rafts. Next to the Sula there was a large flour mill, three stories high, belonging to a Jewish family. The name of the place was NovoFolia. The family had eight sons and a daughter. The distance from the estate of my grandfather to this family was 3 kilometers. An Eruv was set up around them and my grandfather would go there to pray with a minyan on Sabbaths and Festivals. I too, accompanied my grandfather, whenever I happened to be at his place on a Shabbat or Festival.
After several years, my grandfather left the above estate and leased a different estate called Ottmot, which belonged to a Polish widow. She had several daughters and a son of my age, approximately 14 years, called Yatchek. The estate owner had a luxurious building, a fruit garden and 4 horses for traveling and trips, and also several servants.
Grandfather's house was more modest. From the estate owner he purchased the entire live inventory: 40 cows, 7 pairs of horses and the inanimate inventory: plows, carts and various other agricultural implements.
The area of land was about 2000 dunams (500 acres). All the agricultural automation was a harvesting machine with wings, a threshing machine activated by 4 horses and a handsower. On this estate too, the population was small. There were several annual workers with families, and single men. The annual workers worked in summer in the fields, and in the winter they worked in threshing. The threshing area was a large building, where they would bring in all the harvest from the summer: rye, barley, oats, buckwheat, clover and more. The threshing machine was primitive and only separated the straw from the grains. In order to get clean grains they would pass the threshed grain through a winnowing machine. To harvest the crops and the hay in the summer workers would come in their hundreds. Men reaped the hay in the field with sickles; women reaped the grains with scythes.
My parents z'l lived in the town. At that time, when my father dealt in forest trade, he would travel all the week to the forest. There he had a hut which served as his office. In the evening he would sleep at my grandfather's home (the forest bordered the estate). My father had a special horse and every Friday he returned home. Usually my grandfather and grandmother would come to us on Sundays market day. They would remain with us all day, take stores of food and other supplies for the whole week and return towards evening to the estate, which was 15km away from the town. My mother z'l, managed the grocery store in our house, and the Gentiles with their wages from work in the forest would buy various goods in her store.
The Fires in the Town
Since most of the houses in the town were made of wood, fires would often break out. And in every such fire, large parts of the town went up in flames. In my memory is etched a picture of the place after one such fire. From the remnants of the houses, only the stove, the chimneys and the charred bricks remained standing. The sight was horrendous, and I myself was really a brand snatched from the fire as my late mother would tell me. When I was a baby of only a few days old, a fire broke out and did not spare our house. On the first night of the fire, my mother slept with me in the cemetery, outside of the town, on the way to the village of Zimnoya.
I remember the period when our house in Vilna Street (Vilna gass) burnt down. In fires, if people managed to save household goods, they would generally drag them outside the town. Since our street ran parallel to the second street of the Neiman River, all the family left with large Bundles to the banks of the river.
When we dragged the articles to the river, a frightened and astounded Jew met us (in Yiddish it is called A tzetumleter Yid) and asked us where we were going with the Bundles we were holding? We answered to the river. When he heard this, a shout escaped from his lips Robbers, the river is burning! In relation to the fires, I remember the Fire Brigade Society. The Commander of the fire brigade was a husky Jew named Shmuel Tunik. A good Jew, but in his appearance and especially in his official dress as commander of the fire brigade he looked more like Kotozov (the Russian general during the time of Napoleon's invasion of Russia), than a Jew.
Many events which happened in the town were not remembered by the date they occurred, but according to the number of fires. This event happened after the big fire that… etc… As a result of the above fires, they started to build houses of bricks, called in Yiddish Moyers stone houses.
|The family of Reuven Levine|
When I left the town we lived in a brick house in the marketplace. But they wrote, that in the first summer after I left the town, a huge fire started there and our house too, was burnt, that is to say, only the roof, because the house was made of bricks.
After this fire, my late father built a log house in Minsker Street, but this house I never saw. Only members of the town, and my parents zl, who came to Eretz Israel, told me that it was a large and beautiful house.
Swimming in the Neiman
When I studied in the heder with Avrameleh the melamed, we would run in the summer in the afternoon break straight to the river. In order to save time we would start pulling off our clothes while still in the streets of the town. Most of the townspeople knew how to swim. We would swim by the wooden bridge, the Parem, where the farmers of the area would drive past with their carts on the way to the market day in the town. The gentiles would cross themselves when a child jumped into the area of deeper water.
A special experience was to swim under the high iron bridge, on which the trains and tourist trains passed. More than once they threw us, the swimmers in the river below, sweets from the tourist train. When I got older, we would enjoy ourselves with boating. At first we would be exerting ourselves and rowing with oars against the current. Returning we would enjoy ourselves as the boats floated with the stream. Also in winter the river had a place as an entertainment area for ice skating.
Places to walk
On Sabbath afternoons, we (the youth) would walk in the forests, around the town. On both sides of the railway line to Minsk, was a pine forest (zadboriya). We would spend our time there playing games: collecting wild strawberries to eat. By the forest there was a village of the same name. We would buy food from the peasants: black bread, butter, cream and cold sour milk. The other forest was also by the railway line, towards Warsaw, and was named Der SiniaverWald. On the way to this forest we would deviate to visit the neighboring town of Szverzne. There we had friends.
On Sabbath towards evening, the place of our walk was in the marketplace opposite the landowners who lived in the market, such as Malbin, Chernogovovski, and others… from the market we would continue past the white church (Dem veissen cloister) to Minsk Street and from there to a narrow street named Di Birzsheh and to the railway station. We would look at the passengers, who were passing by in luxury trains, and we were especially impressed by the Asian peoples: Japanese and Chinese, whose hair at that time was in long plaits.
The Zionist Movement until 1913
I was born in the town of Steibtz in the spring of the year 5655 (1895). When I was several years old, R' Velieh zl started teaching me calligraphy. Any manuscript written by one of his pupils which he liked, he would put into his hat. In Yiddish this was called Afir, that is an example of calligraphy. Thus R' Velieh accumulated many pages of beautiful handwriting in his hat, and since he was bald, the pages became yellowed from sweat and age. At the age of 10 approximately, I began to study in the heder of Avrahmel the melamed, who was our neighbor in Vilna Street.
I remember that I studied Chumash, Tanach and even Gemarah BabaMetzia until Bar Mitzvah. For more than a year I received private lessons with a private teacher. Afterwards, in hederMetukan (Ivrit bIvrit) I received lessons. Unfortunately I do not remember the name of the Rabbi, only that he was a badtempered Jew and he had an unbalanced daughter.
When I reached 13 approximately, a Russian governmental school (Garadaskoya otzilishtza) was established in the town. I was accepted to this school and finished after four years. I remember that I studied Latin and that I helped my father at the same time with bookkeeping and writing letters in Russian to the estate owners.
My friends in the town were mostly those who learnt in the secondary schools in the district city of Minsk. I remember several of their names: Valia Rozovski, Leibeleh Chana Sara's, who both learned at the commercial school. Another, Hirshel Shayndl's (Danilevitz) learned at a school in Nesvizh. In general we were far from any youth movements and especially from the Zionist movements, which were still very weak. I remember well how the members of Poeley Tzion forced the gabbay (beadle) of the old synagogue (where my family had a permanent place) to hold a remembrance ceremony there for Dr Herzl, who had just died.
Among the activists in the Poeley Tzion movement in the town, were: Pina with the long name: Pina YoskeBarka Henia's, der bekker (the baker), and the other was Zalman Robashov (Shazar). Much energy and work was invested by these two, who stood at the head of the Poeley Tzion party during the first revolution in Russia in 1905, and on their initiative, founded and organized the Jewish selfdefense in the town (in Russian Samo'obarana).
In our town rumors would spread. On market day it was known that when the peasants come to the town, they would try to cause pogroms with the Jews. And indeed, there was an attempt like this, but a single gunshot scattered all the peasants from the market and they ran crazily back home.
With regards to Zionistic education, the Hebrew teacher Yossilevitz worked hard. He educated and taught a whole generation of Hebrew speakers and several of them are now in Israel, including his children. One of the sons and a daughter are members of Kvutzat Degania Bet.
At the head of the Bund movement in the town was Hirshel Simkes der Bundavetch, as he was called in the town. Members of the Bund would illegally hold their meetings in the forests around the town.
We were two brothers. In the family I was accepted as a youth liking agricultural work and because of this I was called der goy to differentiate from my brother Yitzhak, may he rest in peace, who they hoped would be a Rabbi in Israel. And he indeed studied at the Mir Yeshiva.
In the summer sometimes and also in the winter, during a school holiday, I would spend time at the estate of my grandfather. I loved to work in the field and learned from the gentiles how to do agricultural work; I know how to reap with a sickle, to plow with horses, I learnt how to pile sheaves of rye onto the wagon, know how to reap/cut with a harvesting machine with wings. The Gentiles were amazed and would say: How can it be, that the Jew knows how to reap with a sickle?
My grandfather's estates provided me with a place for agricultural training. Also I knew how to ride a horse. My grandfather valued my help very much, and because of this he bred for me a beautiful young horse and decorated it with a very nice saddle,
so that I could ride on it and help him with bringing the workers in the summer. He would wake me at first light and I would ride to one of the villages to bring from there women workers to reap with scythes. I would return to the estate riding at the head of a camp of several hundred woman workers, and if necessary I would also bring hundreds of male workers.
In the area there were many landlords and in the villages I was in tough competition to buy agricultural workers in the high season. But they were willingly attracted to my grandfather's estate, as he did not cut their wages, and paid on time.
In the winter of 5673 (1913), a former resident, Dov Epstein, (today in Rishon Letzion) arrived from Eretz Yisrael. In the town they called him Berl Yitzhak Shmuel's. At the same time in our house there was a family consultation and it was decided that I would go to EretzYisrael in order to purchase a plot of land for my parents for their old age.
Dov Epstein married a woman from the town and at the beginning of 1914 the four of us went to Eretz Yisrael: Dov Epstein, his wife, his brotherinlaw and I. By the way, I was the third young person who had gone there. Before us went Yitzhak Bernstein, (Bar), now living in Moshav Kfar Yehoshua. And after him, Dov Epstein.
In the summer of 1914 the First World War broke out and upset all the plans. My parents, may they rest in peace, lost all their money, because the Soviet authorities confiscated all their possessions and when they came to me to Eretz Yisrael at Geva in 1934, they arrived penniless.
My father, may he rest in peace, lived in Eretz Yisrael two years, died and was buried in Gedera. My mother zl, who pined so much for their daughter in the Diaspora, returned to Poland in 1938 and there she was killed by the Nazis with all her family and the townspeople.
by Mordechai Machtey
Translated by Ann Belinsky
The first proclamation of war and the general order of enlistment that affected our town like all the other towns and cities in Russia was a heavy blow to Steibtz. The economy of the town, directly and indirectly, was based on the logging industry with Germany. This branch was a source of livelihood not only to the heads of trade, but also to all the workers in the accompanying work around it, such as: twig traders, the raft binders, the wagon drivers transporting the trees from the forests, etc. For all these, their ship foundered and their source of livelihood was cut off. The Neiman, which was a source of succor for most of the people of the city town, daily, except for the winter months - this Neiman was suddenly paralyzed. The rafts lay like unturned stones. The bustling and joy of activity disappeared from its banks and only the tree traders, whose entire fortune was invested in the now abandoned rafts, came to the river to weep on their past.
Despite this, there were relatively few families that were affected by the enlistment to the war.
A short time passed and people got used to the new situation that had been created and began to adjust to the new conditions. The optimism rooted in the hearts of most of the people, where the well-chosen expression saying "This too will pass", made its impact. Wounds began to heal and the hope for a fast ending of the war gave courage and energy to open other sources of livelihood and to continue with social and cultural life as before the war.
The Fire in 1915
As always, almost from the day of its creation, the fires were an inseparable part of the picture of the town - even the account of the years and the events of this house or that quarter, were according to the fires. But a terrible tragedy such as this had never been seen in Steibtz. At approximately 11 in the morning, a fire broke out in the saw-mill of Kitivitz, outside the town, by the new cemetery. I was busy teaching my pupils, when suddenly I heard the church bell ringing, calling for help during a fire. Like many others, I immediately ran in the direction of the fire, for about an hour we toiled until we managed to find the source, and we began returning home when we saw in front of us a terrible picture: all the town was in flames. A strong wind took the fire from house to house, which were wooden buildings with roofs of thin boards. Three fire brigades from Minsk, Baranovitz and Mir, came to help and could not control the fire, for the wind overcame all the efforts. Within three hours, almost all the houses of the Jews in the middle of the town and around it were destroyed. Only a few houses of Jews and Russians on the edge of the town were spared. Many had taken out their chattels from their homes to the Neiman River, but those too had been touched by the flames. About eight hundred buildings were burnt down and their inhabitants remained homeless. Even over the shops in the heart of the market, that were a distance of sixty meters from the houses, the fire did not pass and they with all their merchandise - were eaten up by the flames. Most of the people in the town were cleaned out of their possessions.
Since the houses which remained could not contain all the inhabitants of those whose houses were burnt, these people found a home in the neighboring town of Swerznie. Economic life was almost completely non-existent. No less worse than the economic crisis was the cultural crisis. With great difficulty Alter Yosselevitz found a room for his school, but this was short lived. In the cramped conditions of the emergency situation, the room could contain 20 pupils at the most.
Asher Akselrod, without an ability to find a home for his school, was forced to leave and search other sources of livelihood. The Talmud-Torah that was in the women's section of the Great Synagogue, also remained homeless, because all the synagogues, except for the one at the end of the town, had gone up in flames. And the women's section of that synagogue was given to the rabbi to live in. Instead of about 200 boys and girls who learnt in all the schools, only 20 were now absorbed and the rest were idle. If we add that the library, the pride of Steibtz, was also completely gutted, we see that the spiritual abandonment was more serious than the economic crisis.
One Trouble Follows Another
The insurance agencies had paid the amounts of insurance for a short time and plans had already been made for rebuilding on their ruins, when suddenly an obstacle came from an unexpected direction.
During the days of its existence, Steibtz had passed fires and reconstruction without a need for building permits. The fact that within a few hours a whole town had gone up in flames apparently reached the authorities of the Minsk District, who decided to forbid building with wood without a license. But giving these permits was frozen until preparation of a whole new general plan of the town. As is known, the wheels of the Tsar's regime moved slowly and committees came and went and the town building plan was still not finished. A chance to rebuild the town was missed, for in the meanwhile the big retreat of the Russian army began and the German army advanced, reaching Baronowitz. On one hand, there was devaluation of the ruble; on the other hand, this meant that nobody thought about restoration. Taking this situation into consideration, the permit was given, to the joy of the townspeople, to build temporary wooden buildings. Many exploited this and built shacks, even if they were small and miserable. They made life a little easier during the housing difficulties, because otherwise the town would have emptied of most of its inhabitants.
While we were shrouded in our unhappiness, thousands of refugees began swarming east from the western regions of Russia. They arrived in Steibtz with their wagons and horses, which were left here without buyers. They didn't remain for long in the town, and continued their way by train. Their miserable appearance and their fast dislodging from their settlements and destroyed status raised in the heart of the people of Steibtz the fear of the same terrible fate wandering and abandoning their toil and property - and that also our town might turn into a battlefield.
The advancing front and the actions of Nikolai Nikolaivitch, the chief commander of the Tsar's army, in proclaiming a decree of expulsion of the Jews within 24 hours from the area of the front, in an alleged plot of spying for the Germans, terrified the Jews of Steibtz. Added to this was the fear of the Cossacks, infamous for their cruelty.
The above three factors brought many to conclude they must leave the town and the sooner the better. This they decided and acted upon. But quite a large number sent only their wives and children to Minsk and they themselves remained in the place until it would quieten down again.
The abandonment after the fire was nothing compared to the people swarming eastward now. Only a very few remained in the town and from the enlightened group, not a single soul was left. Those who left never thought that Steibtz might become cut off from Minsk by the new boundary lines between Poland and Russia, and only a very small number succeeded in returning, such as my brother Aharon and his family, Alter Yosselevitz and his children, the Kitivitz family, the Margolin family and several others whose names I don't remember. Those who did not take the opportunity before 1922 could not return, as the borders were closed.
The situation got worse, when the Rabbi of the town, R. Joel Sorotzkin of blessed memory was exiled to the town of Sartov in Central Russia. With the Rabbi's exile, and the sickness from which he never recovered of the second ritual slaughterer R' Shlomo Liberman of blessed memory, all the worries of the town (spiritually speaking), were on the shoulders of my father (of blessed memory). It was too heavy a burden for him at his age of seventy. He encountered difficulties in finding a spiritual leader. It was impossible to invite someone else, because the Rabbi Sorotzkin had not willingly left the town, and all his efforts were in vain.
"God anticipates all troubles" this saying was engrained in us. In late 1915 a refugee from west White Russia, a young Torah scholar, modest and shy came to Steibtz. This scholar was called in the town by the nickname "the scholar from Kosova" and was afterwards known as Chazon Ish, of blessed memory. The worry of livelihood was on his wife's shoulders, who worked in their dry goods shop while he sat day and night on Torah study and on service to God. Despite his modesty, and maybe because of this, he attracted my father's attention and when he examined him carefully and saw that he was great in Israel and of distinguished character, and with his [my father's] desire to continue the rabbinical tradition in Steibtz that great rabbis of Russia should always sit on the chair of the town's rabbinate, my father began to persuade him to receive the chair of the rabbinate but encountered a definite refusal.
After the revolution in February 1917 in Russia, father turned to Rabbi Sorotzkin, requesting him to return, but the Rabbi evaded him with various reasons. Even though the chair of the rabbinate remained empty, the Chazon Ish stood on his refusal and clarified that he did not want to make the Torah as a source of income. With difficulty, my father of blessed memory managed to influence him to help restore the mikveh that was burnt down in the fire and only because "family purity" is one of the principles of our religion.
With no choice, my father of blessed memory continued to carry the burden for about two years. When the second religious slaughterer R' Shlomo Liberman died, some of the townspeople crowned his son R' Yehoshua Liberman, may God avenge his blood, as the Rabbi. For my father this was desirable, as he was released from this heavy burden.
The October revolution, that in its footsteps every soldier and sailor was given the right of conducting a fast trial and using his weapons as he pleased, caused unbelievable fear in the townspeople, Because of this, they received with almost open arms the conquest of the town by the army of Wilhelm the Second, despite that previously they had been scared to death of that army. It turned out that this was a groundless fear. The German conqueror of that time, a complete contrast to the Second World War conqueror, behaved politely, did not occupy the population in wartime work, did not impose taxes and contributions and did not interfere in the life of the population.
The advance of the Germans east was fast and after a short time they conquered Orsha, near to Mogilev. With this conquest, the road connection was opened with Orsha and Minsk - two destinations that traded with Steibtz before the war.
Also the restrictions on Jews from the days of the Tzar were cancelled and thus the economic situation of the town improved and became orderly.
Those who moved to Minsk temporarily, returned. And the town began to fill up, although not yet to the degree that it was before the war. The townspeople were satisfied with the change of government, as it liberated them from the restrictions of the Tzar and from the fear of the red terror that was raging then in Russia.
Poland An Independent State
With the defeat of the Germans in 1918, the Polish state arose. In the summer of 1919 the Polish army advanced east and in a lightening operation conquered the districts of west White Russia with its capital of Minsk at the head. For about a year the Poles ruled and apart from enforcing the Polish language, did not add in anything new.
In the summer of 1920, Russia began a counterattack. At the head of the army stood the Tzar's General Brustov, who published a national declaration (not in the spirit of the revolution) to soldiers of the Red Army and called them to expel the Polish invader from the lands of Russia. This attack succeeded above all expectations and the Red Army began pressurize the Polish, who retreated and moved west to where they had come from. In their retreat, the Polish soldiers were very unruly and many brutally treated the Jews whom they came across. Thus for example, they harmed my brother Aharon may God avenge his blood, taking a pocketknife and cutting off half of his beard. Afterwards they went into the house of Mordechai Bernstein, robbed and took a basket of eggs. When the last of the Poles left the town, the Jews breathed easily again.
The Russian pressure was so strong, that for several weeks they stood at the entrance of Warsaw and had already prepared a communist government in Poland. At the very last moment the Polish army recovered from the big blow that the Russian army had delivered. On the banks of the Wisla (Vistula) river, the Red Army was defeated and retreated at the same speed that it had advanced, and on the 3rd of October 1920, on Hoshana Rabbah, they arrived at Steibtz.
This was a very difficult day for the Jews of Steibtz. They had not yet managed to forget the rampages of the Polish soldiers three months earlier, who in their retreat had robbed everything they got their hands on. Now the Jews were afraid that the retreating Russian soldiers would follow their predecessors' footsteps and the little that remained would also disappear. The fears were dissipated with their retreat. Instead of robbery and looting, the Russian soldiers entered the houses and asked for something to eat. My memory my mother-in-law brought in a large cauldron full of potatoes and every soldier who came in received 2-3 potatoes and left expressing thanks. One of them, who I think was very hungry, when receiving his serving of potatoes, requested more. But the others said to him:" Friend, you need to leave something for those coming after you."
On the other hand: When the Polish army started coming into the town, their first actions two hours later were to look for the houses of the Jews- the Bolsheviks. They searched in the drawers and the stoves and anything that they liked they took. For about a week people lived in fear of the pilfering visits that took place, both day and night. Afterwards, when the people of the advance front moved east, those coming after them were already more disciplined and we breathed easier.
With the end of the war
The last quarter of 1920 did not introduce changes into the life of the town. The armistice agreement was signed in November. It gave only a temporary respite. But the tomorrow was unclear and the fear of renewal of the hostile activity caused a situation of permanent stress.
A change for the better began only with the signing of a peace treaty between Poland and the Soviet Union. According to this treaty the boundary was determined 12 km east of Steibtz, while the towns of Rakov, Velma and Rubiezevich were really on the border. The access of these towns to the train via Koidanov was cancelled, because the latter was over the border.
As a result of the above boundaries, the only railway connection for those towns was in Steibtz. Steibtz was determined as the District Center, where the government authorities had their seat. The inhabitants of Rakov, Ivnytch, Velma and Rubiezevich needing the district authorities would come to Steibtz. The situation helped to raise Steibtz to a sort of small scale trading center for the above towns. Opening of the warehouses for merchandise by Zimel Khitovitz and Asher Axelrod (may God avenge his blood) allowed the merchants of these towns to make their purchases in Steibtz and to almost completely cut off themselves off from dependence on Baronowitz, which had taken the place of Minsk, now over the border.
The first years
Although in the areas of ethnic Poland the soldiers of General Heller from Poznan, known for their anti-Jewish activities, went on rampages, the situation in Steibtz was fairer. I think that this was thanks to the District Governor, Count Huten-Tchipsky, a resident of Koidanov, who had a liberal outlook and who mixed with Jews. So it seems to me that he didn't find his place in administration during the Reaction. His liberal relationship enabled him to help hundreds of Jews to escape the Red Terror that dominated then in Russia. Hordes of people (read: Jews), fled the border and reached Steibtz. The Governor of Steibtz had many authorities, including giving temporary sanctuary to refugees and giving them passports to go overseas.
The governor behaved liberally, with all these wretched people, who were forced to leave their homes and property. If they declared that the State of Poland was just a transit station, he would give them a token fine for crossing the border and two days later they would receive a passport for travel overseas, with the right to remain in Poland for several months for an average of four to six months. Thus they could be in contact with their relatives concerning tickets for travelling.
To prevent complications of bribery of the administration, the District Governor decided that the refugees would deal only with trustworthy institutions. In Orsha a committee was established for dealing with Russian and Ukrainian exiles, named "The Ukraine Committee" for Noach Prilutzki of blessed memory. I was named the representative in Steibtz and in that role I managed to help hundreds of refugees. Within a few hours I released them and they were free. Even in cases where the police caught these miserable people and brought them to the district office in order to receive an expulsion order, I managed to free them.
In Steibtz there was a Municipal Board (of three people), appointed by the District Governor, the Mayor and a member of the Board Poles, and a Deputy Mayor White Russian. In a conversation with the governor, I expressed the discontent of the Jewish population, which was not represented on the City Board although they were more than a third of the inhabitants. After a short time he called me and announced that he intended to appoint me as a member of the Board. I explained to him that my words were not spoken personally and that a representative of the Jews would have to be chosen by them. The only organized group was the branch of the Union of Jewish Merchants. The governor turned to me in this matter and since the board did not want to decide on its own opinion, it called for a general assembly of all the Jewish citizens of the city in the Great Synagogue and I was unanimously voted to this role. After several days I received the official appointment. The fact determined a precedent that in the Municipal Board there must be one Jew. This precedent was held up in all elections, until the Second World War broke out and with it the Polish rule was destroyed.
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