Steibtz of the Past
Translated by Esther Libby Raichman
It is not easy to write about the founding of our shtetl, our birthplace, given that the Jewish Stoibtz and its inhabitants do not exist anymore and that there are no documents from which to draw the necessary information. However, we have no choice! The memory of our dear Stoibtz Jews, their good qualities, their warmth and love of humanity, which vibrated with life and productivity - cannot disappear into a gulf of oblivion and be forgotten.
Though I am not a writer, I want to write down what remains in my memory, as well as that which my father, Mr. Eliyahu the Shokhet, of blessed memory, told me. My father was the oldest Jew in Stoibtz. (Born on Rosh Hashanah 5609 - 1848).
The Geographical Situation
Stoibtz is located on the right sandy shore of the Niemen River, 30 kilometers west of its source. In the middle of the 19th century a railway station was established in Stoibtz when the railway line between Moscow and Warsaw was built, eighty kilometers west of Minsk. Until World War 1 the town belonged to the province of Minsk. After the war and while under Polish rule, Stoibtz took on the role of a border railway station. It was in Polish territory fifteen kilometers from the Polish-Russian border.
Approximately 250-300 meters away from the shores of the Niemen River, towards the north, began a hilly terrain and a narrow strip of fertile land that became sandy barren ground. The town's White Russian Christians, the so called Miyeshtshannes (Mieszczanie), cultivated fields in the hilly terrain but their main livelihood was not earned only from the land. They had additional sources of income: working on the trains or in the Stoibtz lumber yards.
Peasants in nearby villages, 2 to 5 kilometers northwest of Stoibtz were similarly employed. They also sought additional work to support their families. In comparison the left side of the Niemen had more fertile land and their inhabitants would, most of the time, fill the marketplace in the shtetl with fresh produce.
The Name of the Shtetl
There is no other shtetl in the whole vicinity with as many variations to its name: Stoibtz, Shtoibtz, Stulbtz, Stulptzi etc. The only authoritative document that attests to the authenticity of our shtetl's name is a divorce document (as is known a divorce document must include the name of the town and its location which cannot be changed for any reason, not even one letter may be changed). In this old divorce document the shtetl is called Stuptzi. Since the town is a white Russian town and in that language the town is called Staauptzi and given that the Slavic ending i is omitted in Yiddish words (compare Ramni - Ramen, Liachovitshi - Lechevitz etc.) I have come to the conclusion that the correct name of our shtetl is Stoiptz. The variant Stoibtz with the letter b has its roots from the time of the construction of the Moscow - Brisk railway line when the station had a Russian name: Stulbtzi. However, in all the documents Stolptzi is written with a p. The variant Shtoiptz with a sh is derived in my opinion from the fact that sometimes Germans used to visit Stoibtz, and Jews used to travel to Konigsberg. And in German, the letter samech before a tet is read like a shin: Shtoiptz.
When did the Jewish community of Stoibtz come into existence? Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer to this question because even in the last century there were no documents. The only document that we have was the Journal (community book of records) of the Chevra Kaddishah (burial society) that started in approximately 1768 when the shtetl stopped using the old cemetery. However, I believe
that in fact they stopped burying in this cemetery before that time because my grandmother passed away in 5736 (1876) and her grave was already located in the middle of the new cemetery. In addition, the fact that the Journal referred to a later period, there were no entries at all that mentioned previous events. The Journal was a kind of protocol book used to register the results of elections in the community or the so-called ballot boxes of the trustees whose elections took place during Chol Ha'moed Passover, to register the sick whose names were changed>, as well as to note the order of the graves, meaning where, and next to whom one is buried. (The only exception were the entries about a mukat etz). There were only 2 monuments in Stoibtz that clearly pointed to the fact that the Jewish community existed there for a few hundred years earlier. They were (a) the cold synagogue and (b) the old cemetery.
The Cold Synagogue
In the summer of 1902 when the Shul burned down, the elders of the community said that the Shul had been in existence for about 400 years. (Understandably this fact was not supported with documents but transmitted orally by the elders
.). Due to its size it is hard to accept the fact that the Shul was already built in 1500; a) because it could accommodate 500 worshippers and b) due to its structure, where the women's sections were added to the sides of the building and the roof that was made in 5 sections, gave the impression of a hen protecting her chicks with her wings and c) because of the wonderful carving of the Holy Ark. It makes sense that such a large and lavish structure could only be built at a time when there was already a larger congregation in need of such a large synagogue and that also had the financial means to build it. For this reason, it is inconceivable that the Shul was built at the beginning of the 16th century but rather at the end of the 16th century or at the beginning of the 17th century when Stoibtz already had an established Jewish community.
The Old Cemetery
If we can't determine exactly when the Cold Shul was constructed or when the Jewish community was established, then the second monument, the old cemetery provides us with a more precise theory. The half-sunken gravestones that stood in the middle of the cemetery were already not legible in my childhood. Even if the inscriptions were legible, they would only be able to provide us with approximate dates of when the individuals passed away in approximately the last 100 years before the cemetery closed but not when they first began to use it. The community elders used to say that the old cemetery was used for 200 years, meaning that it was first used in about 1560-1570, - 200 years before the commencement of the Burial Society Journal in 5628 (1768). It seems that this theory is almost precise as it is supported by the extensive area that the cemetery occupied, as well as the assumption that in the beginning
the Jewish community was small and grew in stages.
My father of blessed memory told me that he once saw a phrase in print Stuptzi is close to Shverzna (Hebrew) (Stoiptz that is near to Shvernze). In other words: when Shverzne was already a Jewish settlement, only then did the Jewish community of Shtoibtz take its first steps. If this is the case then it is logical to assume, that at first the deceased of Stoibtz were buried in the Shverzne cemetery and only later when the Jewish community grew, they built their own cemetery. From this information we will not be mistaken if we assume that the first Jews settled in Stoibtz not later than the first half of the 16th century and possibly a little later but not earlier.
The Development of Stoibtz
As mentioned earlier, Shverzne was older than Stoibtz. It was natural that a Jewish community should be established in Shverzne because firstly, there was a main road that stretched from Brisk eastwards and secondly, the land on the left shore of the Niemen was fertile as opposed to the right sandy shore. This right shore had only one advantage: the proximity to extensive and dense forests on the one side of Artzichi, with Shverinovve to the east and on the other side Derevne and the famous Naliboki Forest, a forest with extensive tracts of land, which during World War II, saved many Jews running from the Nazi beasts. It is understandable that those who settled on the right sandy shore of the Niemen River did so, not because they were attracted by the sandy shores but for quite different reasons that occupied the minds of the settlers when they avoided the existing town of Shverzne and settled in Stoibtz on the barren right shore of the river. There were 2 reasons for their decision: a) the proximity to the forest and b) the flat shore of the Niemen.
Wood was the most important export commodity sold to Germany, a major buyer. The wood was sent on the Niemen River which flowed into the Baltic Sea. As the shore of the river where Stoibtz was established was a convenient port, the wood was brought from the forest to this place. Here the logs were tied to rafts and sent to Germany. All those who made a living from the logging business, naturally settled in Stoibtz: the merchants, their employees, and the guards. The Niemen served not only as a waterway for the logging industry but also for a second type of merchandise: grain and flax that were transported on small boats (called barges) to Germany. Naturally, certain products were brought back from Germany which contributed to the development of regular, intensive trade between Stoibtz and Germany, specifically with the city of Konigsberg. Thanks to these intensive commercial exchanges Stoibtz underwent a major commercial development which resulted in the rapid growth of Stoibtz's population and soon overtook her older sister Shverzne. Stoibtz reached the peak of its development in the 19th century when Russia constructed the railroad between Moscow and Brisk and Stoibtz became a main train station. (Baranovitsh as a town did not exist yet). This contact with the outside world
had a positive impact on the town and placed her ahead of the surrounding towns economically as well as culturally. As Stoibtz was more developed than the other villages in the surrounding areas, the people had great ambitions with regard to the employment of religious officials - they wanted only first-class Rabbis, ritual slaughterers and cantors but the large cities would entice these religious officials from Stoibtz, to join them. In this way Mr. David Tevele, author of the book House of David was taken to Minsk, the official Moshe - to Mezrich, Mr. Meir Noach Levin - to Moscow and after the expulsion from Moscow he became the Chief Rabbi of Vilna. An interesting illustration of this is the fact that until 1904, not one rabbi was buried in the Cemetery in Stoibtz. However, the Rabbi, Mr. Avraham Yitzchak Maskil-Laytan, may his righteous memory be blessed, (the father-in-law of the Chief Rabbi of Petach Tikvah Mr. Reuven Katz, may his righteous memory be blessed) died from a heart attack three to four months after coming to Stoibtz, and was buried in the Stoibtz cemetery.
The Economic Development
As mentioned above Stoibtz was established exclusively as a transport point from where logs were sent to Germany. As Stoibtz was surrounded by dense forests east, north and west, the logging business developed considerably. While the peasants from the villages cut the trees and looked for other work during the winter, the remaining workforce such as hired supervisors, brokers, tree-workers, buyers and horse and wagon owners who brought the logs from the forests to the shore of the river, were all exclusively Jewish. The people who escorted the barges to Germany - a journey that lasted 4 to 5 weeks, required basic supplies such as: bread, groats etc. Storekeepers and bakers appeared in the town and in this way the population grew and at the same time attracted other professions who were needed for the village: blacksmiths, bricklayers, carpenters, tailors, and shoemakers. In this way the community that initially settled on the shore of the river, slowly spread so that the cemetery that was on the periphery of the settlement, more to the north and west, very quickly found itself in the center of the shtetl. To put it more concisely, the cemetery was at the southern edge of the shtetl while the center of town was moved to the marketplace measuring
Sitting 2nd row: Aharon Chait, Feiga Machtei, Gunthart, Leah Rozansky, Isser Rabinovitz, Yosef Tzertzes
Standing: Aharon Chait, Feiga Machtei, Gunthart, Leah Rozansky, Isser Rabinovitz, Yosef Tzertzes
approximately 10,000 square meters. The marketplace naturally became the commercial center of the town and all the tradesmen settled north of the marketplace on Yurzdikke Street, which until the destruction of the shtetl was occupied by the tradesmen.
The Jewish settlement was a dynamic one. It was not satisfied with the log trade only but developed another branch of exports to Germany: grain and flax. In those times (also in my early childhood) small steamboats cruised on the Niemen River and they were used as a means of transport for the trade in grain. They built barges on the shore of the river and the steamboats pulled them to Germany. This development attracted more workers - builders of barges and sawers of wood who used to cut the logs into boards for the barges and for buildings. In this way the town developed rapidly. When the railroad was constructed approximately 100 years ago, it connected Stoibtz with east and west which impacted on the town both culturally and economically. About 200 people worked in the railway yards. They together with their families became good customers for various products and services. Thanks to the railroad connection Nachum Baruch Rozowsky established a match factory in the 80s or 90s of the last century, which unfortunately for a variety of reasons was liquidated in around 1895. With the relocation of the railway yards to Baranowicz at the turn of the last century and the liquidation of the match factory, the economic structure of Stoibtz was like the economic structure of the surrounding villages i.e. based on trade but also with a large element of tradesmen.
Testimony to the considerable development and growth of the Jewish population in the 2nd half of the 19th century, we find in the Yevreyiskaya Entsiklopedya (Jewish Encyclopedia in the Russian language published by Brukhauz-Efron) where it is written that according to the population census of 1847, the Jewish population consisted of 1315 souls. According to the census of 1897, the general population of Stoibtz numbered 3754 of which 2409 were Jewish.
We see therefore, a considerable growth in the Jewish population that reached 65% of the general population however this was already the culminating point. With the beginning of large Jewish emigrations across the oceans to North and South America, South Africa and Eretz Yisrael as well as the World War and the fire of 1915, this percentage dropped drastically.
We don't have exact figures, but we can assume that in 1939, on the eve of World War II, the general population of Stoibtz consisted of about 8000 inhabitants of whom 2500 were Jewish, meaning 31%.
We should accept this fact happily because the emigrations and Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael helped hundreds and possibly thousands of Stoibtz Jews to avoid the end that befell those that remained.
Standing from right: Sarah Tunik, Moshe Esterkin, Leibel Epshtein, Sarah Bruchansky, Yashe Lusterman, Hillel Akun, Sonia Lungin
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