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[Page 232]

Institutions

 

Social Activity Before the First World War

by Mordechai Machtey

Translated by Esther Libby Raichman

One of the most important activities of the Jewish community in its long years of wandering, surrounded by hatred on all sides, was its self-reliance. Knowing that they would not receive help from others, or from the state, they established the societies Bikkur Cholim, (Visiting the Sick) and Chonen Dalim (Kindness to the Poor). These societies were active wherever a Jewish community existed. Chonen Dalim assisted poor local families, and its activities were confined to this task. The Bikkur Cholim organized night duty for the seriously ill, in order to lighten the load of the family so that they would not be burdened by caring for the sick person. (There was no hospital at that time.) In addition, the poor sick person would receive free medications and medical attention. The Bikkur Cholim also maintained an ice-cellar, all year round, providing free ice to everyone, to treat those with high fevers.

The new winds that began to blow at the beginning of the 20th century had a noticeable effect on the fabric of society. People were no longer satisfied with the old framework of the Bikkur Cholim, Chonen Dalim and Ma'ot Chitim (Passover aid to the poor), as all these societies remained in the realm of the old generation that followed the old, well-worn ways of mitzvot and tzedakah; but with the awakening of Zionism and Socialism in the cities and small towns of the region, these ideas no longer had any influence. The generation between the old and the young, did not remain indifferent to the new winds of the 20th century. They were dissatisfied with the old activities and looked for ways of using their energies in areas of social activity and in providing constructive aid for the needy masses.

 

The Rise of the Jewish Bank

Of the group of Jews who came to pray in the Chassidic Shtiebl (small Chassidic house of prayer), some were there to pray, while others came to meet people who had crossed the threshold of the old generation and decided to establish a co-operative people's bank that would provide loans for small shopkeepers and artisans, for constructive purposes. They recognized that this was an urgent necessity in the shtetl to improve the conditions of the poorer classes. In 1908, the group established the Co-operative Folk Bank. Among its founders were, Reb Yoel Ginzburg (Zalman Shazar's uncle), a Jew who found himself on the threshold of the old and new generations, prayed three times a day, and at the same time, his Christian servant prepared the samovar on the Sabbath. He belonged to the wealthy group, although he was far from wealthy.

The pharmacist, Mordechai Maharshak, also prayed in the shtiebl, but only for appearance's sake, because not going to pray, was not acceptable, so he would pray only on the Sabbath. He was an intelligent man who officially preached Zionism (behind the scenes, he was a member of Po'alei Tzion[1]). The young people felt at home with him. The group would come to his pharmacy to read Ha'Melitz[2] and Ha'Tzfira[3] newspapers.

Lippa Rozowsky, (Shoshana Gershonovitshe's uncle), was also prayed, only on the Sabbath. As he was employed as an expeditor on the railroad and worked with Russian officials, he no longer read Ha'Melitz, but rather a Russian newspaper.

The pharmacist Leib Munvez, who was not originally from Stolpce, was drawn into the activities of those who prayed at the Chassidic shtiebl.

Alter Yosselevitsh, or Alter the teacher, was born

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in Lubacz. He had studied in Yeshivot and came to Stolpce to study independently. In the synagogue he met my brother Aharon, may G-d avenge his blood, they started a friendship and became close friends. Aharon, a young man of great accomplishments in the full sense of the word, an autodidact, began to study Hebrew with Alter, and together they became involved in Zionism. A short time after Alter left the synagogue, he became a Hebrew teacher, a fervent Zionist, and an authority on Zionism in Stolpce.

Leib Bruchansky, son of Esther, a Jew devoted to Judaism, was at the head of the leadership of the bank, together with a group of middle-class intelligentsia. The Chassidic intelligentsia took him into their ranks as representative of the artisans, something that was not customary in the so-called more elite communal group. One would often hear: “Thank G-d that there are no artisans in my family”. Wolf Feldman, or Velvl Kamenier, who dealt in feathers, was not a rich man. He was childless and devoted himself to activities for the bank with body and soul. His wife devoted herself to their business, so he did not lack an income. He became treasurer of the bank, was the first one to arrive at the bank and the last one to leave.

Although those mentioned above had opposing opinions, they all united in their drive towards constructive activity on behalf of the community. They devoted all their energy to the bank. Not only did they bring in the first full shares of 10 Rubles (a significant sum for a small town at that time) but they also brought in the first deposits, so that the bank could commence its activities even before it received credit from the Jewish Co-Operative Organization. Thanks to this, the bank soon became an important economic factor in the life of the Stolpce community.

The artisans and small shopkeepers freed themselves from the usurers, and each received a loan honorably. The size of the loans reached the almost fantastic sum of 300 Rubles,

a sum that in most cases, was higher than the value of the shopkeepers' entire merchandise, but thanks to this, their turnover increased, and their financial circumstances improved. Above all, the poor shopkeepers and artisans were able to establish themselves. In the beginning, they would receive a loan of 25 Rubles, provided that they could supply a few guarantors who were aware that there was a possibility that they would have to repay the loans. The poorer levels now no longer relied on usurers and improved their situations in a relatively short time. They would then receive larger loans and did not need to be concerned about guarantors.

The relationship of the Stolpce Jews to the bank, was one of deep respect and their loans were repaid on time. Even the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, did not affect the normal activity of the bank.

The large fire that broke out on 25th May 1915, in which more than a quarter of the houses in the town were burned, as well as shops, together with the approach of the German army, had a fatal effect on the bank. The scarcity of residential accommodation and fear of the Germans forced many people to leave for Minsk. By the time people were a little settled and able to repay their loans, money was worthless, and the first bank ceased to exist.

 

Theater in Stolpce

Until the 20th century there was G-d forbid[4], no theatre in Stolpce. The first performance that I recall from my childhood was Achashverosh[5] or, as it was called a Purim Shpiel[6]. After the festive Purim meal, the Purim players would go to peoples' homes and present their performances. As far as I can remember from the past, the troupe consisted of four people under the leadership of Shaul Ber Reiser, the grandfather of Getzl Reiser. These four represented the four main heroes of the Megillah[7]: Achashverosh, Haman, Mordechai, and Esther. Esther was not, G-d forbid, played by a woman, but by a kosher pious Jewish man. The house that the Purim players entered would be besieged by children from the entire street who would accompany the performers in their wanderings as they made their way from house to house in the town.

During my childhood, I heard about a performance of Akedat Yitzchak[8] that took place in the women's section of the Great synagogue. I do not know who participated in this performance. In any case, with this, the theatre in Stolpce came to an end.

In October 1909, Alter Yosselevitsh tried to establish a drama circle with a group of his friends. Everyone supported the initiative, and several people expressed their readiness to take part in the first performance (it was also the last). After reading

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sto234a.jpg
A Purim Performance
Masha Ginzburg, Peshe Charchurim, Mushke Horenkrieg, Avraham Lopkovsky, Rochel Karp

 

a few plays, we decided on Libin's Di Tsebrochene Hertzer (The Broken Hearts). Alter was the director, and he also selected the cast for their roles. Beila, Alter's wife, Roltze Ginzburg (Zalman Shazar's cousin), Shimon Kitayevitsh, Berel Kushner and I, had the main roles. A child, Berel (Boris) Margolin, who was orphaned after the death of his mother, was also included. Berel-Moshe Reiser, a man of great musical talent, who in other circumstances would have grown into a good musician, was appointed as musical director. After many rehearsals, the performance finally took place at the end of December in the largest hall in Stolpce at that time, that also served as a meeting hall for the Justice of the Peace. The success of the performance exceeded all expectations. The hall was packed, and many people remained in the corridors because they were unable to access the hall due to lack of space.

The drama circle, however, could not continue its activities because Roltze Ginzburg left to study, and Beila Yosselevitsh, as a married woman, could not continue to take part. The death of my mother meant that I could not continue my activities. As the circle consisted of only a few people (the so-called intellectual group), it did not have sufficient support, and had to fail. However, the idea was a successful one, and it appealed to the “common folk”[9]. A second dramatic circle was founded that consisted exclusively of the “common folk”. They decided to perform Di Shechita (The Slaughter) by Jacob

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sto234b.jpg
The Drama Circle of the Tarbut School

From right, row 1; Avraham Reiser, Sonia Aginsky, Rochel Ashkovitz, Chaya Milcenzon, Yosef Renzon
From right, row 2: Henye Tunik, Peisl Bernshtein, Reizel Mazze, Mashe Esterkin, Yentl Gurvitz, Yashe Lusterman, Pesya Charchurim
From right, row 3: Chana Akselrod, Chana Lungin, Yehudit Aginsky, Sonia Lungin, Pesya Tunik, Pesya Aginsky, Esther Manker

 

Gordon. The main participants were Chaya Aginsky (Kalman's daughter), her cousin Yakov Inzelbuch, and Shneier Bernshtein (Beila Eshke's son). However, they could not resolve their situation and invited me to be their director. This performance was also a great success. A second performance followed: Got, Mentsh un Taivel (G-d, Man, and the Devil), by Jacob Gordon, but instead of Chaya (Kalman's daughter), the main role was played by Shoshe Frume Tunik; others were also replaced but I no longer remember their names. After this, Jacob Gordon's Shechita was staged again.

All the performances evoked great interest and each one was performed in packed halls.

 

Translator's footnotes
  1. Po'alei Tzion Labor Zionist socialist movement. Return
  2. Ha'Melitz the first Hebrew newspaper to appear in Russia, founded in 1860. Return
  3. Ha'Tzefirah one of the first Hebrew newspapers of the 19th century. Return
  4. G-d forbid Strict orthodox rule that forbid women from performing before an audience that includes men. Return
  5. Achashverosh The Persian King Ahaseurus in the Purim story. Return
  6. Purim Shpiel a Purim play. Return
  7. Megillah - The Scroll of Esther that tells the Purim story. Return
  8. Akedat Yitzchak the binding of Isaac refers to the Biblical story of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac. Return
  9. Amcha -- the common people, ordinary folk. Return


Stoibtz Firefighters

by Mordechai Mirski, Betzalel Baskin

Translated by Esther Libby Raichman

The fire fighting organization in Stoibtz, as in other towns and villages, was a communal one with Jewish and Christian volunteer members who gave up part of their free time to have training in how to extinguish a fire in the shtetl, which often used to wipe out streets, houses and possessions. Many families would suddenly be without a roof over their heads, without a pillow to sleep and remained unfortunate and heartbroken for a considerable number of years. The fire fighters had to extinguish the fire and at the same time, save peoples' lives and possessions in the shtetl. In addition they still had to travel to towns and villages near and far, to fulfil the mitzvah (good deed) of reciprocal help, working together occasionally with fire fighters from the neighbouring towns.

For training sessions they would give up their time mainly in the evening, in their free time, but to extinguish a fire, they were prepared at any time and any hour, day and night. As soon as the alarm was heard in the market place and in the surrounding streets, the agile young boys would immediately appear, dressed in their granite uniforms, with sticks in their belts and the yellow brass helmets on their heads. They would stand at the wooden shed at the edge of the market place, opposite the white church, in straight rows like soldiers and wait for the command from their chief, to go and battle the fire. They took with them pumps, ladders, and barrels of water, that were harnessed to horses that were mobilised by the local Gentiles or wagon-owners.

Almost every fire fighting commando possessed a wind-orchestra that use to wake up, shine upon, and liven up, the fire fighters' spirits. The orchestra would always lead solemn parades of

 

sto235.jpg
Firemen

 

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national character to country-wide conventions of fire-fighters; perform at celebrations and at various other opportunities. The Jewish population always had a positive attitude to the fire- fighters. The Jews always comprised the greater majority of the fire fighting groups.

It is difficult to remember when the fire-fighting organisation was established in our town but according to the evidence that we remember, it existed for tens of years - according to what the witnesses, the old firemen say - Yakov Bruchanski ( the son of Yankel Payshe) and Yosef Borsuk the locksmith. Jews lived for many generations among the Christian population who were often in a hostile mood, and at times persecuted them both morally and physically. It was of significant importance that Jewish youngsters were organized: it created respect, esteem and recognition that a Jew is not only a synagogue attendee with a pale face but is also productive and can carry out physical tasks like his Christian neighbour.

When a fight broke out, the young Jewish man was not downhearted, and showed his proud fist. This created respect and recognition from the Christians. The uniform with the brass buttons on the body of the Jewish young man gave courage and strengthened the spirit of the Jewish community. In a moment of danger it served as an organized Jewish community group of Jewish self-defence. Before the First World War there were two Christian fire chiefs, train officials, Elisevski and Vassilev. The latter lost both legs while crawling in the fire, during the great fire of 1915. Isak Abramovicz who later became the fire chief, was an inspector at the town's school.

The representatives of the government were Christian. They would come down to the parades dressed in beautiful uniforms, adorned, riding on beautiful horses. They made an impression that earned them their due honour. In contrast the Jews occupied a significant place, played an important part and defined the character of the fire fighters' organisation. The burden of organising and managing the finances always lay with a few devoted members among the fire fighters. Still in the years before the First World War there were among the fire fighters, those who distinguished themselves, our Shmuel Tunik, who later reached the highest rung of the leadership.

Shmuel Tunik aroused general attention in our shtetl and became famous in all the surrounding areas for his bravery. He worked for forest merchants as an employee in the forests, almost all his life. He was courageous, tall

 

sto236.jpg
Shmuel Tunik

 

and strongly built, with a handsome, heroic appearance. In those days they used to tell miraculous stories about his courage. He could drive away a market full of Gentiles. More than once they raised the alarm and called him out for help when the Gentiles used to get drunk on market days and wanted to attack the Jewish shops.

Shmuel Tunik was not afraid of anyone and indeed because of his heroism all the Christians respected him and simply loved him.

In 1912 there was a gathering in Petersburg of the Russian Fire-fighters organisation to mark the 300th Jubilee of the Tsarist-Romanov dynasty in Russia. Shmuel Tunik received a personal invitation as representative of the Stoibtz fire-fighters organisation, from Kniaz Lyubov, the chief of the Fire-Fighters organisation in Russia. In those times this was the greatest honour for Jews, to find themselves in the same circle as such prominent Tsarist government people. At the Ball our Shmuel Tunik danced with Kniaz Lyubov's daughter.

Over time Shmuel Tunik was honoured with various medals. In later years he would appear at parades in his uniform that was adorned with medals from the Russian government and later from the Polish government, riding proudly on a beautiful horse. He was

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sto237.jpg
The funeral of Shmuel Tunik

Writing on the photograph: (some illegible) Stolpce S.Tunik
Date 23/2/1936

 

faithful and devoted to the fire fighting- organisation. He often arranged entertainment for his fellow fire-fighters, Jews and Christians, at his own expense.

He died in 1936 at the age of 75. A huge crowd from the entire shtetl, Jews and Christians, escorted him (at his funeral procession). The fire-fighter's orchestra played funeral marches at the funeral. To honour him Hillel Akun the carpenter and trustee of the Chevra Kaddishah (Burial Society), made a coffin for carrying the dead which had been prohibited in the shtetl for many years.

Elderly folk told that Rabbi Tevele strongly forbad the carrying of the dead in a ready-made beautiful coffin for the following reason: the Chevra Kaddishah once wanted to frighten a Stoibtz proprietor for not wanting to contribute to the needs of the town so they put the coffin behind his window and he died of shock. From that time on Rabbi Tevele cancelled the use of a coffin. The dead were carried on a provisional bed, that the Chevra Kaddishah made from boards, for each person separately, and with these boards they used to cover the dead person in the grave.

After Shmuel Tunik's death, Moshe Bogin took his place. He came to us from Baranovicz, an intelligent person, a merchant, highly educated and a community leader. For years he represented the Jews as an alderman on the town council and he was an ardent Zionist. The Poles tried with all their strength to remove the leadership of the fire-fighters from Jewish hands; but thanks to Moshe Bogin with his energetic efforts, they managed to continue to keep the fire fighting organisation in Jewish hands.

The Stoibtz fire-fighters organisation took its greatest steps forward in the 1930's. The magistrate (the town's administration) assigned a large sum of money to modernize and enlarge the inventory. The fireman received a new, special fire vehicle with a motorised pump as well as a large number of rubber pipes that drew water from the Niemen River and could reach the house of Moshe Flaksin (the metal-worker) at the end of Minsker Street. There was also an apparatus with whose help they could divide the flow of the water in two directions - that meant putting out two fires at the same time.

The old “sarai” [1] that for years, beyond its normal purpose of stocking the inventory, also served as a hall for theatre performances, was pulled down in order to

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enlarge the marketplace.

The former barrels had already become unusable. The inventory of the fire-fighters was relocated to the courtyard of the magistrate in a special garage. On the same courtyard they erected a wooden tower with an alarm-siren that would loudly alarm the town in case of a fire. The old alarm system of sounding the bell of the yellow church was abolished.

In 1939, shortly before the war, two underground water reservoirs were dug out on the higher side of the town - one on Minsker Street near the house of Tsippe Rozovsky (the daughter of Leibe Hushess) and the second on Yurezdikke Street near the house of Gittel Manusevicz.

With the arrival of the Soviets in September 1939, the voluntary organisation ceased to exist. The authorities, who took over the entire inventory, formed a professional group of approximately 20 men who kept watch day and night and received a monthly salary. Most of them were Christians and there were very few Jews. Almost no one remained of the former, longstanding, devoted volunteer fire-fighters.

Aside from the above mentioned two Jewish main- authorities, it is worth mentioning the active leaders and fire fighting personnel according to the various periods such as: Elyakum and Elimelech Milcenzon, Doctor Yechezkel and Abrashe Sirkin, Avrom Russak, Berl Tunik. The devoted veterans Yakov Bruchanski (son of Peishe) and Yosef Borsuk (the locksmith), the dentist Doctor Tsaddok Yernburg who kept the flag of the Stoibtz fire brigade depot and at each celebration they would carry it from his house with great parade and honour, with the orchestra playing.

The officers were: Natan Vinaver, Mordechai Borsuk, Eliyahu Neufeld, Mordechai Mirski, Yakov Rubinshtein. The deputy officers were: Hirshl Tunik (the son of Feige), Zolle Reznik, Fyve Aginsky, Idl Dovid Kapelovicz, Yosef Dvoretzki, Moshe Borsuk, Moshe Sar-nov, Betzalel and Dov (Bebbe) Baskin.

The firemen: Chaim Kaplan, Berl Esterkin, Shmuel Leib Aginsky, Getzl Russak, Berl, Motl, Eliyahu and Shmuel Inzelbuch, Yitzchak Borsuk (son of Tsalke), Leibl and Shlome Aginsky, Yakov, Chaim and Nachum Bernshtein, Yitzchak Tshertses, Leibl and Motl Flaksin, Monye Skurnik, Zelig Kantorovicz,

sto238.jpg
Fire-fighters orchestra

Sitting from right: Idl Katz, Sholem Akun, Yosef Tsertses, Leibl Garmizze, Betzalel from the orchestra in the town of Mir, Nachman Ruditzki, a Christian, Idl Kukish, Chaim Kaplan.
Standing from right: Yudl Borsuk, Michl Tunik, Leibtze Rozovski, Hirshl Kushnir, Mulle Kaplan, Yankl Bernshtein, Zavl Slutzok, a Christian, Yochanan Flaksin, Boruch Esterkin, Boruch Russak

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Signalmen: Meir Segalovicz (son of Getze the carpenter), Yakov Riser (the son of Shmerl), Michl Tunik (the son of Chaim), Yochanan Flaksin.

The orchestra: Yakov and Moshe Itshe Bernshtein (sons of Bashe), Boruch Esterkin, Leibl Garmizze, Idl Katz, Yosef Tshertses, Hirshl Kushnir, Boruch Russak, Alter Ruditzki, Idl Kukish, Nachman and Hirshl Ruditzki, Motl Malbin, Zavl Slutshak, Sholem Akun and Yehuda Borsuk.

There were many others who at various times, took part in fire fighting activities and they met the same fate as the rest of the Stoibtz Jews.

 

Footnote
  1. A sarai is typically a barn/storehouse. Return

 

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