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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

(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

[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 392]

Memorial to a Life
There was Once a Jewish Town of Swerznie

by A. Rozansky. Ha'aretz[1],1936

Translated by Ann Belinsky

Y. Sh. Katzenelenbogen. The Hebrew community knew him as Yash'ek, a “young author with unparalleled talent”, as David Fishman described him at the time (Yash'ek's main works were printed in HaDor[2]) – he was born in Russia, in the district of Minsk. The complexities of life in his youth in Russia – a life that could not be called a life – caused him to wander afar. For some time, he lived as an immigrant in London and suffered in Berlin. Finally, at the beginning of 1904, aged thirty, he settled in Zurich, to engage in advanced studies in the Law of Economics at the university

Those days were days of great fomentation in the life of Jewish youth in Russia. New gusts of wind began, leading to aspirations for the redemption of the world's underprivileged. Yash'ek belonged to the Po'alei Zion[3] and was one of the few of a group of migrants who found the inner strength to raise the banner of Zionism and even to attract followers to the national concept.

He had many friends who suffered like him, including opponents to his beliefs. His method of debate with them was very original. He fought only with the weapon of irony. In this he had the upper hand.

From the midst of poverty and hunger, in a room that was more dim, than light, he created works, and no one knew of his hardship; he did not allow strangers to intrude on his privacy. He was gifted with amazing insight and his style was animated, alive and varied, without embellishment. His last work was a description of Jewish life in London. During his days in Zurich, he became engrossed in new work, in which he invested the best of his ability. He devoted his nights to his work and in the pauses between chapters – he refreshed himself in nature, in the surroundings of this wonderful city.

On one of the quiet summer evenings, when the waves that washed the lake created a silver spray that was highlighted by the moonbeams, the writer and four of his friends were being carried by a light boat on the clear sparkling water, in the mirror of its waves. Perfect softness and gentleness were spread over the surface. A blue carpet of water stretches out before you, moving with the breeze of the day and saying: Enjoy me!

On the same evening, at midnight, a catastrophe occurred: a cargo ship hit the boat with full force and overturned it in the middle of the deep lake, far from the shore, overturned it and fled the scene. Yash'ek the swimmer saved his friends one by one, but because of his immense efforts, he had no strength left and he drowned in the deep waters in front of those he had saved. There was no saviour, the water swallowed its prey, and his body has not been found to this day.

Yash'ek dedicated his life to refining the soul of the people, and likewise in his death, he saved lives of Israel. Today this beloved, pioneering author, who gave his all to the nation – all his being and his essence, is not remembered. In the archives of the city of Zurich from 1904, it is recorded that a migrant student from Russia drowned in Lake Zurich.

(A. Rozansky, “Ha'aretz”, 1936).

Translator's footnotes

  1. Haaretz - Haaretz is an Israeli newspaper founded in 1918. Return
  2. Ha'Dor was a Hebrew literary weekly, first published in Warsaw in 1901 by Ahiasaf (Europe) and edited by David Frishman. In 1904, Frishman's own publishing company took over its publication. The weekly was published only during two non-consecutive years, yet it left his mark on Hebrew literature, opening a window into not only Jewish life, but also European culture. It enabled him to publish the works of the best authors of the time. Return
  3. Po'alei Zion "Workers of Zion" a movement of Marxist- Zionist Jewish workers founded in cities of Poland, Europe and the Russian Empire at about the turn of the 20th century, after the Bund rejected Zionism in 1901. (Wikipedia). Return


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