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[Page 379]

The Book of Swerznie

(Novy[1]- Swerznie) White Russia[2]

(Novy Svyerzhan, Belarus)

53°27' / 26°44'

Translated by Ruth Murphy[3]

Generously Donated by David Passman[4]

 


Memorial plaque located in the Holocaust Cellar (Chamber of the Holocaust)
[5] on Mount Zion, Jerusalem.

* * *

Plaque translated by Ann Belinsky

In Eternal Memory
Of the Martyrs of the Communities

NOVY SWERZNIE STEIBTZ
(Swerznie) on the Neiman River in White Russia (Stolbtsy)

Who were destroyed by the Bitter Enemies of our People, the Nazi Germans and their Collaborators, may their memory be obliterated during the years of the Holocaust

The Swerznie community on the 15th Cheshvan 5701 (16th November 1940)

The Steibtz community on the 12th Tishri 5702 (3rd October, 1941)

In memory of our fighters who were killed for the Sanctification of the People in the partisan underground and on the anti-Nazi fronts.

Their heroic struggle and their holy memory will never leave us

Dedicated by survivors of Steibtz and Swerznie
in Israel and the Diaspora

The Scroll Of Destruction

 

Translator's footnotes
  1. Belarussian: literally, “new,” thus “New Swerznie.” This name was sometimes used to differentiate it from the nearby village of Stari-Swerznie, or “Old Swerznie.” Return
  2. Now Belarus. Return
  3. Plaque translation below by Ann Belinksy. Return
  4. David Passman has generously donated all translations by Ruth Murphy. Return
  5. The original Holocaust museum, the Chamber of the Holocaust, was built in 1948. Return


[Page 380]

Editor: N. Khinits

Members of Editorial Board:

M. Yossilevski-Yarun; Y. Tselkovits; Sh. Roznik; A. D. Shkolnik

Translated by Ruth Murphy[1]

 

Translator's footnote
  1. Wherever possible, translator has transcribed proper names and names of geographical locations using YIVO transliteration rules and has used the orthography given in Niborski's Verterbukh fun loshn-koydesh-shtamike verter in yidish. Return


 

[Page 382]

First Memorial Service to the Martyrs of Swerznie

by A. D. Sh.[1]

Translated by Ruth Murphy

Jewish children will no longer play in the sand of your streets
And candles will no longer be lit in their homes in honor of the Sabbath
Boys and girls will no longer sing or rejoice in your fields
Because they were exterminated by the Germans and their collaborators.

 


The opening address – speaker is A. D. Shkolnik

 


The audience in the hall

[Page 383]

15 Khezhvn 5614 – Tel Aviv 1953

 


“Eyl mole Rakhmim”[2] on Memorial Day

From left to right: Ch. Goldin, Y. Tselkovits, M. Frotas, A. D. Shkolnik, Sh. Schwarz, Y. Shmushkovitsh, Y. D. Lekhovitski, S. Reznik

 


Members of the Editorial Board
S. Reznik, Y. Tselkovits, A. D. Shkolnik, M. Yossilevski
[3]

[Page 384]

Yossef Tekoa, the son of Dvor Brakhot (Tikutsinski), was named after his mother's father Rabbi Yossef Brakhot, a resident of Swerznie and one of the town's dignitaries. Rabbi Yossef (of blessed memory) was robbed and murdered as he journeyed from Swerznie to Minsk in 1916, during the First World War. Yossef Tekoa is one of the most successful young diplomats [in Israel], and has fulfilled important positions in government service. He was a member of the Israeli–Jordanian Armistice and served as representative to the United Nations. He was also the Israeli ambassador to Brazil, and is now Israel's ambassador to the Soviet Union.


Translator's footnotes

  1. Hebrew: literally “God of Mercy” – prayer said for the deceased during burial and memorial services. Return
  2. Likely variant spelling of [Manya] Yossilevski–Yarun. Return
  3. Most likely the initials of the author, A. D. Shkolnik. Return


[Page 385]

Swerznie, the Dear Town of My Birth[a]

by Reuven Sperans

Translated by Ruth Murphy

In Minsk province, on the Niemen River, lay my little village of Swerznie, with 115 Jewish homes. In the middle of town was the market, with beautiful brick shops. On one side of the market was the Russian church, with a large, magnificent orchard whose fragrance permeated the entire town. On the other side was a Polish church. Behind it lay a beautiful lake with tall, beautiful trees and around the two sides of the lake stood watermills.

On the other two sides of the market were fine Jewish inns, taverns and grain silos were built. In all four corners of the city were large inns with huge taverns. On Minsk Street, behind the city, a long wooden bridge extended over the Niemen River. The bridge was the link between Moscow-Minsk-Brest and Litovsk-Warsaw before the railroad was built. It's told that when Napoleon went to Warsaw and then retreated from there, he had no other option but to pass through Swerznie and his soldiers fell like flies.

As mentioned above, the town had strong ties with the large cities. From there caravans of merchandise passed heading from Moscow-Minsk to Warsaw. Merchants, brokers, travelling salesmen — all had to stop in our town, and all the taverns were full. In winter, timber was brought out of the forests, and in summer it would be sent via the Niemen River to Königsberg, Germany.[1]

The householders were rich, all of them learned and Torah-observant. They usually took as sons-in-law those who were also learned and observant. As the one Mishnah study society was made up of these chosen scholars, another Mishnah study society was founded. People said that one time, during Simches-Toyre,[2] a quarrel broke out between the two societies. One of the well-known householders, Reb Yisroel Lipshits (peace be upon him), the day after Simches-Toyre, decided to construct a besmedresh.[3] And so it was. He built the new besmedresh and took the old Mishnah study society with him, and he paid for the upkeep of the new synagogue himself.

In 1874, the Moscow-Brisk railroad line was built. The horse-drawn traffic came to a halt. The entire town became destitute, and the shops were idle. Several of them burned down. Others were remodeled into residential houses. The only occupation that remained was the timber trade.

The city did indeed become impoverished, but not in Torah. The town produced many rabbis and preachers. Several of them, like Ha'Rav Yossel Rozen and Ha'Rav Yisroel Svernovski, immigrated to America in their old age.

One of the town's most gifted Jews was Reb Eliyahu, the rabbinic judge, who would sit in the besmedresh day and night, wrapped in a prayer shawl and phylacteries and studying Jewish religious texts. His income came from the fact that each Friday, a melamed would go around town and collect kopecks for him and his family. On Rosh Ha'Shana he would lead the Musef[4] service in synagogue, and when he would recite with a loud bass voice, “Behold, I am the one who is poor in good deeds,”[5] it seemed that the walls themselves would shake with fear.

As has been said, the town was a learned and very pious one; suddenly the situation changed. When Kaiser Alexander the Second wanted to increase education among the Jews in Russia (in 1875 - 1876), he opened up all schools and gymnasiums[6] free for Jews. There was one Jew, Reb Natan Minker, who was a cultivated man, somewhat of a free thinker and a bit of a diplomat. He took his two sons out of the yeshiva[7] and sent them off to the Slutsk gymnasium. One can imagine the fury and hatred this brought against him.

Right after this a second householder, Reb Hirsh Freydin, sent his only son off to study, and indeed, his son graduated with such honors that the Kaiser himself, Alexander the Third, granted him a government post as an engineer — the only Jew in Russia with such a position. In those days, he was talked about in every newspaper. After him two brothers from the Grundfest family went off to study, becoming pharmacists. Then a former writer from the Oprave, Reb Avraham Noyekh Schwarz, sent his son off to gymnasium, and his son finished as a “military doctor.”

[Page 386]

Things went so far that the old pious cantor, who had been the cantor in town for fifty years, lived to see the day that three of his grandsons went to gymnasium. They would come home in the summer for vacation wearing their uniforms, and come to synagogue with their old grandfather on Shabes.[8] Even the “candlemaker” (this was my father, peace be upon him), who would sell candles for Shabes, took two sons out of yeshiva and sent them to gymnasium. Many others went to study in other schools. Summer time the town bustled with students, gymnasium students — with golden buttons, silver buttons, and rosettes. The town with its great religious scholars looked upon this askance, although the young people home during the summertime behaved respectably and went to synagogue on Shabes. Yet in the street, on the long wooden bridge, they strolled about and spoke only Russian.

The first person who had sent his children to gymnasium, Reb Natan Minker, had no good luck from this. One son had a nervous breakdown; he suffered from this for several months or more. He was educated and brilliant. He had a sharp tongue and was also a writer. He wrote for the Vaskhod[9] and other Russian newspapers, and even Hebrew newspapers. He was a teacher in the town of Stoibts that, although the town of Stoibts had five times as many families as Swerznie, was definitely backwards compared to our town.

Reb Natan's second son graduated as a pharmacist in Petrograd with great honors. He had to wait several days for his diploma, caught a cold, and traveled home to rest. Coming home, he lay in bed sick for two weeks. I remember that on the last day of his life when his doctors had given up on him, his old grandmother came to the sick son and said to him, “Listen, my son, you've already had all the medicines, now take my medicine. Put on the arbe kanfes.”[10]

The next day, Friday, was the funeral. Religious women murmured among themselves: this was God's punishment.

The little town became even emptier. The old people died, and the young left for America.

Here is a comical story that was told to us in town:

Several years back, the town had burned down. Since in those days there was no home insurance, the government lent out the money to rebuild the houses. The money was never repaid. It happened that several years later the town burned down again, and this time the government refused to lend any money. The town had to turn to the Vilna General Governor, Muravyov,[11] who was known to be very anti-Semitic. As there was no other option, three courageous householders were chosen: Natan Minker, Hirsh Freydin, and Avraham Noyekh Schwarz. There were not yet any trains, so they barely managed to drag themselves to Vilna. Then it was months before they were permitted to appear before the Governor General.

One of the three delegates, Hirsh Freydin, was a wise Jew and a great jokester. When they were finally able to enter Muravyov's administrative office, they were trembling with fear. The Governor sat dressed in his dressing gown with his back to them, and took no notice of the three Jews standing behind him. So Hirsh Freydin quietly said to the others:

“I will tap him on the back.”
The other two stood petrified. They knew what could happen, but he, Freydin, promptly tapped on Muravyov's dressing gown.

The Governor leapt up in fury, his eyes flashing, but Freydin kept his composure and immediately said to him:

“Your Excellency, where did you obtain such expensive merchandise, which around here is nowhere to be found?”
The Governor's rage evaporated and he replied:
“Ha! The merchandise — you are an expert in silk? This was brought from Paris.”
And with this the Jews gained his favor, and were able to receive all that they requested.


Original footnote

  1. First appeared in [the Yiddish newspaper] “Tog”, New York, June 1946 Return

Translator's footnotes

  1. Königsberg, Germany - Now Kaliningrad, Russia. Return
  2. Simches-Toyre - (Hebrew Simchat Torah): Jewish holiday celebrating the conclusion of the annual cycle of synagogue Torah readings, and the beginning of the new one. Return
  3. Besmedresh - (Yiddish of Hebrew origin): a small Orthodox synagogue functioning as both prayer and study house. Return
  4. Musef (Hebrew): additional morning prayers said in synagogue on Shabes and some holidays. Return
  5. Behold, I am the one who is poor in good deeds (Hebrew hineni he'ani mimaas): a personal entreaty to God led by the prayer leader before Musef in Ashkenazi synagogues. Return
  6. Gymnasiums - A type of accelerated secondary school in Europe. Return
  7. Yeshiva (Hebrew): Orthodox Jewish secondary school for boys. Return
  8. Shabes (Yiddish of Hebrew origin): the Sabbath (Hebrew “Shabbat”). Return
  9. Vaskhod (Russian): a Russian-Jewish newspaper (1881 - 1906). Return
  10. Arbe kanfes (Yiddish of Hebrew origin): fringed four-cornered garment worn by Orthodox Jews under their shirts. Return
  11. Muravyov - Count Mikhail Nikolayevich Muravyov (1796 1866). Return

 


[Page 387]

From the Life of the Town Swerznie As I Remember It

by A. Kaplan – New York

Translated by Ruth Murphy

It has already been more than half a century since I left my birth–town of Swerznie. This was in the time of the Russian–Japanese war. I had no great desire to fight for Tsarist Russia, so I decided to go to America. My family had lived for generations–long in Swerznie, and I was the first in my family to decide to leave the town where I had spent the best years of my youth.

 


Avraham Kaplan with his wife, Esther

 

I had built no castles in the air in some fantasy that in America one raked up gold in the streets, and that everyone could easily become a millionaire … as a descendent of a worker's home, I had little fear of the fact that over there it would be a matter of toiling hard and carrying out a bitter struggle for my existence.

My grandfather, the son of Sore, was Reb Yitzak Reytse. In town everyone called him Itshe the Baker. He was a fanatical man who spent his entire life either in the bakery or the besmedresh[1]. Like all the other Jews of his generation, he was not able to adjust at all to the alleged “progress” that the young folk wanted to introduce in Swerznie. I remember an occasion when his son had ordered a new suit to be made for the holiday, and the tailor had sewn on large, beautiful buttons. In my grandfather's eyes these buttons looked too “modern,” and in a rage he tore them out, shrieking, “These are suitable for a bathhouse boy, but not for Itshe the Baker's son.”

Fanatics, zealots – these were the Jews of that epoch, but honest and Torah–observant, full of love for their fellow Jews.

It is hard for us today to even imagine the bliss and joy with which they would receive the Sabbath and holidays in our town, and the reverence with which they would enter the besmedresh to honor the holy Shabes[2]. Their radiant faces shone out from their grey grandfather–beards, like people who came from another world – from a world without a weekday … dozens of years separate me from that day when I left Swerznie for the last time, on my journey to America. Yet even today when we, the compatriots of Swerznie, gather together in New York at our Swerznie Society, or for a joyous occasion for one of our countrymen, it never fails that we recall with a deep longing those childhood years of our long–ago past.

Yet the longing is even greater now, when you live with the consciousness that all has been annihilated by a cruel, murderous hand, by the Hitlerist murderers, and without reason.

Honor to your memory, my slaughtered Jewish Swerznie.


Translator's footnotes

  1. Study house. Return
  2. Shabes – (Yiddish of Hebrew origin): the Sabbath (Hebrew “Shabbat”). Return


 

[Page 452]

Jews in the struggle against the Nazi Occupier[1]

(A chapter from the Memorial Book of Ostrov-Mazovyetsk)

by Alter Rostker

Translated by Ruth Murphy

During sleepless nights when varied images and thoughts about the tragic past come to mind, the whole nightmare of those horrific past years, one can hardly believe that all this actually happened, that it was a reality: that all these people, friends, relatives and acquaintances, each of whom was a world in their own right, perished in such a cruel manner: at that time, two people stand out most distinctly, who through their deeds, deserve to be included in the history of Jewish heroism, in the various ghettos.

My first hero is a boy aged ten, I have forgotten his first name. His family name was Leibovicz, (the son of Ette Yakov, son of Chane Feige, A. D. Sh.). I will tell about him quite briefly.

In 1939, when the German troops occupied our town Ostrov-Mazovyetsk, all the Jews ran in the direction of the Soviets. My family and I lived like many refugees in the White-Russian town of Swerznie, three kilometers from Stoibtz, close to the Polish-Russian border. We lived like this until 22nd June 1941. Part of the White-Russian population and also part of the wealthier peasantry, received the war with joy. They all lived fairly well under the Soviets. There were various reasons for this: the wealthy peasant was afraid

 


A. Rostker, of blessed memory,
Died in America in 1960

 


Esther Rostker, May God revenge her blood,
Perished in the Swerznie ghetto together
with her two children, Yudel and Batya

[Page 453]

of the collective farms; others simply wanted to plunder, they had already tried to do this in 1939, when the Soviets occupied the eastern part of Poland. Then the White-Russian peasant plundered the possessions of the Poles, the so-called “settlers” that the Polish government had settled in the White-Russian areas and given them big concessions, in order to make the area more Polish.

The only ones who looked on in sorrow, pain and fear at the last retreating Soviet military units, were the Jews. With the approach of the German soldiers, true hell began for the Jews. Some White-Russians joined the police with the aim of plundering Jewish possessions. Dark and cruel days and nights began. We were without any legal protection. Any White-Russian peasant could do with us, what he pleased. At night they would shoot into Jewish homes. The children, in fear of death, would cling to their parents. They would come at night to take Jewish girls, supposedly to wash the floors at the police station. There they would torture them and rape them. They would arrange the so-called gatherings of the Jews, chase them through all the streets, without sparing any beatings. Criminals ruled over our lives, the underworld of the worst kind, so that our lives became absolutely wretched. We became degraded and humiliated even by those non-Jewish people who took no part in the torture.

For certain reasons, we had to modify some passages.

In addition, they regarded us as an inferior people with whom one should have no contact. We felt isolated and devastated, surrounded by enemies. It was therefore no wonder that we became indifferent to death. The White-Russian spies incited terrible anti-Jewish propaganda. Dr. Shtshort and Shkutke (two young non-Jewish men from Swerznie - A. D. Sh[2].). These were two Russian characters who fled to Berlin at the time when the Polish Government dissolved the White-Russian party “Hramada” to which they belonged. Hitler cultivated them and waited for the moment when he would be able to use them for his plundering purposes. These were candidates for the promised White-Russian state. In the meantime, they travelled around delivering venomous speeches in all the small towns of White-Russia and poisoned the already polluted air.

On the 10th October 1941, the gestapo arrived and selected 30 Jewish girls and other youth from Swerznie and shot them. After that everyone understood that our fate was sealed. On 5th November 1941, they chose a few people capable of working, and the rest were transported in groups to the cemetery where a huge and terrible grave had already been dug. They forced the victims to go into the grave themselves, and in this way, they shot dead, all the Jewish people in the town: old people, women and children. On that day, the White-Russian women sat at the cemetery all day waiting for the clothing that they would remove from the victims. The little Leibovicz boy, whom I knew, and whose appearance always drew my attention and whose face now bore expressions of stubbornness and confidence mixed with nervousness. I used to see, when he played with other children, that he was an unusual child. That day the 10-year-old boy went with his mother, sister and brothers to the cemetery. He did not want to go into the pit. He tore himself away from his mother's hands, hastily grabbed handfuls of sand and stones and threw them at the murderers. He did this in a flash, until they shot him, but not in the pit. They had to pull him into the pit themselves. This is how David's descendant stood, in the battle against the greatest Goliath of all times, who were armed to the teeth, while the boy possessed only a little sand from the
cemetery . . ..

The second hero was a Jewish farmer from the village of Kisyelavshtshinne, three kilometers south of Swerznie. His name was Fyvl[3], who was known as the best farmer in the whole vicinity. He ploughed, sewed and reaped his fields himself, and lived the life of a farmer.
When the hangmen began to cleanse the villages of Jews, Fyvl met with the same fate. From quite early on, his house was guarded on all sides by White-Russian police, awaiting the arrival of the chief of the police, who was due to come. When he came, they wanted to take Fyvl and his family out to be shot. He did not allow them into his house and firmly closed the door. They then opened fire on his house, killing his wife and two children. Fyvl then opened the window and began a desperate battle with the murderers. He hurled stones at them, bottles, weights and anything that

[Page 454]

came to hand. He hit a policeman on the head with a bottle, wounding him severely. Then he saw that they retreated and opened an even stronger fire. He then poured out kerosene and set his house alight from the inside. He himself exited from a rear window, ran about 200 meters and fell from a bullet that hit him in the fields, that he had toiled with sweat and blood over the course of tens of years. The peasants of his village later boasted that “our Fyvl did not go to the slaughter himself”. For a long time, I saw the German murderer walking with a bandaged head. One person from our camp asked him who had beaten him, and he answered with German bluntness: “what did the Jew have against me? After all it was an order”.


Original footnotes

  1. The author of this chapter is from Ostrov. After the Germans occupied his birth-town, he arrived in Mezritsh after wandering around a great deal, and lived there for some time, until the Hitler gangs captured him in our town and together with all the people of Swerznie, he experienced the entire hell of the ghetto and the resistance army, that he describes in the book of his destroyed town. Return
  2. A.D. Sh. – taken from an article by A. D. Shkolnik). Return
  3. Fyvl inherited the land from his grandfather the cantonist who served in the army of Tsar Nikolai the First, for 25 years. After completing his service, he received as a gift from the government, 10 dyesyatin of land: 100 dunam, as a possession in perpetuity. Even during the time of Stolipin's decree about driving Jews out of the villages, the family was allowed to remain in the village and they continued their village farm work; but what the Tsarist minister and Stolipin, the Jew hater could not do, the Nazi murderers managed to do. Fyvl, may his memory be blessed, was already the 3rd generation in the village on this plot of land. Return

 

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