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Social Activity Before the First War

by Mordekhai Machtey

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

One of the most important activities of the Jewish community in its long years of wandering, surrounded by hatred on all sides, was self-help. Its awareness that it did not receive help from others or from the state brought about the organization of the societies Bikkur Choylim[1] and Choynen Dalim[2]. These societies existed wherever a Jewish community was located. The Choynen Dalim gave help to the local poor families and limited its activity to this. The Bikkur Choylim arranged night tours of duty for the very sick and consequently made things easier family so that they would not be burdened by taking care of the sick person as there was no hospital then. In addition the sick poor would receive medical help and medications at no cost. The Bikkur Choylim also supported a lodownia[3] where there was ice from winter to winter. Thus, in cases of great fever, each received ice without cost.

The new winds that began to blow at the beginning of the 20th century had an effect on the communal-social area. There was no longer satisfaction with the old form of the Bikkur Choylim, Choynen Dalim, Maot Chitim [4], etc. All of the societies were in the realm of the old generation, which followed the old well-worn ways of miztvot[5] and tzedakah[6]. But with the awakening of Zionism and socialism in the cities and shtetelach[7] of the Pale of Settlement, [the older generation] did not have any influence. The middle generation did not remain indifferent to the new winds of the 20th century because the old forms of activity were not satisfactory, and they looked for ways to use their energy in areas of social activity and constructive aid for the masses who had need of it.


The Rise of the Jewish Bank

A group of Jews would pray at the Hasidic shtibl[8]; some [came] to pray and others while there became acquainted with people who had crossed the boundary of the old generation and decided to find a cooperative people's bank that would give loans to the shopkeepers and artisans for constructive purposes. They recognized that this was an urgent necessity in the shtetl in order to better the condition of the poor strata. In 1908 the group founded the Cooperative People's Bank. Among its founders and leaders were Reb Yoal Ginzburg (Zalman Shazar's uncle), a Jew who found himself on the boundary between the old and the new generation, prayed three times a day and, simultaneously, his Christian servant prepared the samovar on Shabbos[9] . He belonged to the wealthy group, although he was far from wealthy.

The apothecary shopkeeper, Mordekhai Marshak, also prayed in the shtibl, but for appearance's sake, because not going to pray was impossible, would go to pray only on Shabbos; [he was] a Jew, a clever man, who officially preached Zionism. (Quietly, he was a member of Poalei-Zion[10].) The young felt at home with him. The group would come to his apothecary shop to read HaMelitz[11] or HaTzefira[12].

Lipa Rozowsky, also one who prayed [only] on Shabbos, (Shoshanna Gershonowich's uncle), his newspaper was no longer HaMelitz, but a Russian one because he mixed with the Russian officials as a result of his employment as an expeditor on the railroad.

Those who prayed at the Hasidic shtibl attracted the apothecary, Leib Munwez, who was not originally from Stolpce, to their activities.

Alter Yosselewich, or Alter the teacher, was born

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in Lubacz. He studied in yeshivot[13] and he came to Stolpce to study. In the synagogue he became acquainted with my brother, Ahron, may G-d take revenge for his blood, who befriended him, and they became very good friends. Ahron, who was a young man, a man of great accomplishments in the full sense of the word, an autodidact, began to study Hebrew with Alter and was bound with him to Zionism. Alter left the synagogue in a short time and became a Hebrew teacher, a fervid devoted Zionist and the Zionist authority in Stolpce.

Leib Bruchanski, or Esterke's son Leibe, a Jew throughout the year, was at the head of the leadership of the bank along with the middle-class group of the intelligentsia. The Hasidic intelligentsia group took him into their ranks as a representative of the artisans, something that was not then customary in the so-called higher communal group, as was often heard: “Thank G-d that there are no artisans in my family.” Wolf Feldman, or Welwl Kamenier, not a rich man, would deal with feathers. Himself childless, he devoted himself to activities with body and soul. He became the treasurer of the bank. As he did not lack income and his wife was involved with business concerns, he would be the first one who came to the bank and the last one to leave.

Besides the fact that those mentioned above had opposition opinions, they all united in the desire for constructive activity on behalf of the population. They dedicated all their energy to the bank. Not only did they bring in the first full shares of 10 rubles (a significant sum in a small shtetl at that time), but they also brought in the first deposits so that the bank before it received credit from I.K.A.[14] could begin its activities. Thanks to this, in a short time the bank became an important economic factor in the life of Stolpce.

The artisans and small storekeepers freed themselves from usury, usurers. Each received a loan honorably. The size of the loan reached almost fantastic sums of 300 rubles, a sum that reached higher than a shopkeeper's entire amount of goods, but thanks to this his turnover of goods increased and bettered his material circumstances. Principally, the poor among the shopkeepers and the artisans [had their economic circumstances improved]. In the beginning it was this category [of poor shopkeepers and artisans] that received a loan of 25 rubles, and this only with several guarantors, who knew that it was possible that they would have to loan. So as a result the poor strata, who no long relied on the usurers, rose economically in a proportionally short time. They would then receive larger loans and did not have to be concerned with guarantors.

Stolpce Jews were drawn to the bank by their great concern with default and the loans were repaid in time. Even the outbreak of the First World War, in 1914, did not disturb the normal activity of the bank.

The large fire that broke out on the 25th of May 1915 in which more than a quarter of the houses were burned along with the shops, and the approach of the German army, had a fatal effect on the bank. The scarcity of apartments and the fear of the Germans forced many people to leave for Minsk. Until the people settled a little and had the ability to repay their loans, the money became completely worthless, and the first bank ceased to exist.


Theater in Stolpce

Until the 20th century there was, G-d forbid, no theater in Stolpce. The first performance that I remember from my childhood was Achashverosh[15] or as we called it Purim Shpil[16]. After the Purim banquet, the Purim players would come to the houses and give their performance. I remember from the past that the “troupe” consisted of four people under the leadership of Shaul Ber Reizer, the grandfather of Getzel Reizer. The four represented the four chief heroes of the Megilah[17]: Achashverosh, Haman, Mordechai and Ester. It should be understood that Ester was not, G-d forbid, played by a woman, but by a kosher, pious Jew. The house in which the Purim players would enter, immediately would be besieged by children from the entire street who would accompany the “troupe” in its farther wanderings through the houses of the shtetl.

During my childhood, I heard about a performance of Akedat Yitzhak[18] or Mechirat Yosef[19], which took place in the woman's section of the Great Synagogue. I do not know who those were who carried out the performance. In any case, the “theater” in Stolpce ended with this.

In October 1909 Alter Yosselewich tried to find a dramatic circle and drew into it 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 becoming acquainted

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A Purim Performance
Masha Ginzburg, Pesha Charchurim, Mushka
Horenkrig, Avraham Lapkowski, Ruchl Karp


with several plays, we decided on Libin's Di Tsbrokene Hetzer[20]. The correct title is Gebrochene Hertzer[21]. Alter was the director, and he also distributed the roles. Bayle, Alter's wife, Raltse Ginzburg (Zalman Shazar's cousin), Shimeon Kitayewich, Berl Kushner and I took part in the main roles. A child was also brought, an orphan, Berl (Boris) Margolin, who became an orphan at the death of his mother. Berl-Moshe Reiser, a man of great musical ability who in other conditions would have grown into a good musician, was drawn in as musical director. After many rehearsals, the performance took place at the end of December in the largest hall in Stolpce at that time, which served as a meeting hall for the justice of the peace. The success of the performance exceeded all expectations. The room was packed. Many people remained in the corridors because they could not enter the room due to the lack of space.

However, the dramatic circle could not continue its activities because Raltse Ginzburg left to study and Bayle Yosselevicz as a married woman could not take further part. The death of my mother drew me away from activities. As the circle consisted of a few people (the so-called intellectual group) and did not have any large base under it, it had to fail. However, the idea was successful, and the “common folk” took to it. A second circle was founded that consisted exclusively of the “common folk.” They decided to perform Di Shchite[22] by Jacob.


Dramatic Circle from the Tarbut [Zionist Hebrew language] School

From the right row 1; Avraham Reiser, Sonia Aginski, Ruchl Ashkovitz, Chaya Milcenzon, Josef Renzon
From the right, row 2: Henya Tunja, Feitl Bernshtein, Rayzl Moza, Moshe Esterkin, Yentl Gurwitz, Yasha Lusterman, Pesya Charchurim
From the right row 3: Chana Akslrod, Chana Lungin, Yehudis Aginski, Sonia Lungin, Pesya Tunik, Pesya Aginski, Ester Manker


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Gordon. The names of the main participants were Chaya Aginsky (Chaya, Kalman's daughter), her cousin, Jakov Inzelbuch, Shniur Bernshtein (Shniur, Bayle Eshke's son). However, they could not cope, and they invited me as director. This performance was a great success. A second performance followed:  Gut, Mentsh un Teyvl[23] by Jacob Gordon. But instead of Kalman's daughter, Chaya, the main role was played by Shasha Frume Tunik; others also were changed, but I no longer remember their names. After this, Jacob Gordon's Der Shchite was again staged.

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


  1. Bikkur Choylim: (Yiddish, Hebrew): a society to visit the sick. Return
  2. Choynen Dalim: (Yiddish) those that contribute to the poor. Return
  3. Lodownia is an ice cellar. Return
  4. Maot Chitim: (Hebrew) assistance to the poor for Passover. Return
  5. Miztvot: (Hebrew) commandments, good deeds. Return
  6. Tzedakah: (Hebrew) charity. Return
  7. Shtetelach: (Yiddish) villages, little towns - shtetl is the singular form. Return
  8. Shtibl: (Yiddish) a one-room synagogue, typically in a private home or business. Return
  9. Shabbos: (Yiddish) Hebrew Sabbath. Return
  10. Poalei-Zion: (Hebrew) Workers of Zion, a socialist Zionist movement. Return
  11. HaMelitz: (Hebrew) The Advocate, a Hebrew daily newspaper. Return
  12. HaTzefira: (Hebrew) The Siren, a Hebrew daily newspaper. Return
  13. Yeshivot are religious secondary schools. Return
  14. I.K.A. is the Jewish Colonization Association. Return
  15. Achashverosh: (Hebrew) King of Persia in the Old Testament. Return
  16. Purim Shpil: a play performed during Purim. Return
  17. Megilah: (Hebrew) the scroll containing the Book of Esther. Return
  18. Akedat Yitzhak: (Hebrew) the Binding of Isaac. Return
  19. Mechirat Yosef: (Hebrew) the Selling of Joseph by jealous brothers (Book of Genesis). Return
  20. Di Tsbrokene Hetzer: (Yiddish) The Broken Hearts.  Return
  21. Gebrochene Hertzer: (Yiddish) Broken Hearts.  Return
  22. Di Shchite: (Yiddish) The Slaughter.  Return
  23. Gott, Mentsh un Teyvl: (Yiddish) God, Man and the Devil.  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




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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


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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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 Aginski, Idl Dovid Kapelovicz, Yosef Dvoretzki, Moshe Borsuk, Moshe Sar-nov, Betzalel and Dov (Bebbe) Baskin.

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

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.


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


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