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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 381]

Table of Contents[1]

Translated by Ruth Murphy


Reuven Sperans (New York) – My Birthplace the little town of Swerzshne 385
Avraham Kaplan (New York) – Swerzshne as I Remember It 387
M. Tzinovitz – Rabbis of Swerzshne 388
Rabbi Yosef Kukis , Rabbi Reb[2] Binyomin Isser Katzenellenbogen, Reb Chaim Avraham, Reb Yosef Ruzin  
Y. Sh. Katzenellenbogen 389
(YSh”K)[3] – The sounds of the past  
A.   Rozansky – Memorial to a Life 392
A. D. Shkolnik – There was once a Jewish Village called Swerzshne 393
Rabbis: Ha'Rav Reb Binyomin Isser Katzenellenbogen 396
Rabbis: Rabbi Reb Moshe Leib Roynes (may the Lord avenge his blood) 397
Rabbis: Rabbi Reb Chaim Avraham Alpert (may the Lord avenge his blood) 397
Religious Schools and Teachers: Reb Leib Yitzchak, Reb Eliyahu, Reb Yaakov Rubentzik, Reb Shmuel the Ritual Slaughterer 400
The Talmud Torah[4] 401
Meir Yosef Schwartz 401
Y. Sh. Katzenellenbogen, Moshe Zeyfert, Dr. L. Motskin, Yosef Tekoa
The Economic Situation of the Jews in Swerzshne 406
The First World War in 1914 409
The February Revolution in 1917 411
Soviets, Germans, and Poles 412
Political, Cultural and Social Activity in Swerzshne 416
The Balfour Declaration 422
Hitakhdut[5], HeKhalutz[6] 426
Alter the Teacher 428
Ha'Shomer Ha'Tsa'ir[7] 430
Gordonia[8] 431
Betar[9] 431
Kartuz-Bereza[10] 437
I Become a Refugee 439
* *
Yechiel Shmushkovitsh – Prussian Market Gardeners 441
Minya Protas – Memories of Our Little Town of Swerzshne 441
Simche Reznik – Social Life and Youth Movements in the Town of Novy-Swerzshne 443
Chanah Vineberg (Łódź) – Refugees in Swerzshne 447
Alter Rostker – Jews in the Struggle Against the Nazi Occupier 452
Peisach Epshtein – Memories of the Nazi Occupation 454
Yisroel Tzelkovitz – Swerzshne in Her Agony 456
Michael Grande – The Last Night 463
Munye Yossilevsky-Yaron – Not Like Sheep to the Slaughter[11] 464
In Memory of Those Who Fell as Heroes
Aharon Yossilevsky 477
Natan Goldshtein 478
Ruvah Vilitovsky 478
Yitzchak Pertzovitz 479
The Final Liquidation of the Svershzne Jews 480
In Memoriam
(Photographs and lists of those from Swerzhne who perished and appear at the end of the book)


Translator's footnotes
  1. This is an accurate translation as it appears in the original Yizkor book. Return
  2. Yiddish: Mister – Yiddish title of respect used before a Jewish man's first name. Return
  3. Y. Sh. Katzenellenbogen was known as Yash”k, a name composed of his initials, yud-shin-kuf. Return
  4. Yiddish of Hebrew origin: traditionally, the tuition-free Jewish elementary school that the local Jewish community provided for poor children. Return
  5. Hebrew: literally “union” – A Labor Zionist party, established in 1920, that united the Palestinian Po'el Ha-Tsa'ir (Young Workers) party with members of Europe's Tse'irei Tzion (Zionist Youth). Return
  6. Hebrew: literally “the pioneer” – A Zionist resettlement pioneering movement was founded during the beginning of the twentieth century. Return
  7. Hebrew: literally “the Young Guard” – Zionist socialist youth movement was founded in Galicia in 1916. Return
  8. The Socialist youth movement founded in Galicia in 1923. Return
  9. From the Hebrew acronym BIT”R (Brit Yossef Trumpeldor – Yosef Trumpeldor Alliance), a youth movement founded in Riga in 1923. Return
  10. Most likely a Yiddish variant of the Polish name for the village of Bereza-Kartuska, now Byaroza, in Belarus. Return
  11. Reference to Abba Kovner's manifesto to the Jews of the Vilna ghetto. 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 “G-d 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 G-d'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 G-d 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

The Rabbis of Swerznie

by M. Tsinovitz

Translated by Sara Mages


A. HaRav R' Yosef Kukis and his activities in Swerznie

He was born in the town of Koidanov in the year 5601[1841]. In his youth he served the Gaon, R' Simcha Shmuel (writer of Mesharet Moshe[1]), in Steibtz and was ordained by him to teach. Thanks to the recommendation of his aforementioned rabbi, he became the Rabbi of the town of Proposik [Slawharad] (Mogilev District), a place where he worked for the blessing for several years, and later became the Rabbi of Shatsk (Slutsk District). From there he moved to the rabbinate in Swerznie, to Cherikov (Mogilev District) and Svislach, and in 5662 [1902] to Byerazino (the aforementioned district), and there he passed away during the First World War.

HaRav Yosef Kukis, apart from his vast knowledge and his great strength in teaching, was also an excellent preacher who captured the hearts. His two books, Edut bi-Yehosef on Talmudic sugyot[2] and Alei Higa'yon on sermons, are well known. He left behind his writings “Investigation of the Testimony” in the sermon.

HaRav Kukis joined the Hibbat Zion movement and also Political Zionism[3] at the beginning of its emergence. He wrote in praise of Zionism in the Hebrew press of those days, and also willingly agreed to conduct propaganda in favor of this important idea in the Jewish towns in the Pale of Settlement[4] in Russia.

[Page 388]

In 5662 [1902], he also visited Steibtz for this purpose and preached in praised of Zionism. This matter is brought in the newspaper Ha-Tsefira from that year (No. 253[5]) in such words.

“When HaRav HaGaon, Maran[6] Yosef Kukis, president of the court in the city of Cherikov, passed through our city and saw the great neglect in the Zionists activities here, he spoke in the Great Beit Midrash, which was filled to capacity, and explained in words of taste, spiced with Torah verses and proverbs of Hazal[7] the magnitude of the value of the Zionist idea, and that the duty of every Jew, ultra-orthodox and enlightened, is to lend a hand to the Zionist activity and to volunteer to do the Zionist work. The words of HaRav HaGaon made an enormous impression on all members of our community to volunteer to do the Zionist work in our city. The number of new members, who purchased the Shekel[8], increased and many notes were also sold.”

(Y.Y. Kahan, Ha-Tsefira, issue 253, 5662 [1902])

It is also known that he established a local yeshiva in Swerznie, which was a kind of a preparatory school and a branch of the great yeshiva of HaRav Reines. And at one of the celebrations in honor of this yeshiva (in 5672 [1912]), Rabbi Meir Berlin (who was then staying as a guest in this town, when he came to visit his Rebbetzin mother, the wife of Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, who lived there) gave a speech.

On the Zionists activity in Steibtz, two years after the visit of the aforementioned HaRav Kukis, we find in the Warsaw's newspaper HaTzofeh from 1904 - these words:

“Last night, after the termination of the Holy Shabbat, 11 January, our Zionist association here called for a general meeting. Almost all the members of the association gathered and discussed various questions concerning this movement. Many speakers talked about strengthening the idea and spreading it. On this evening a new chairman was also elected to our association, in place of the chairman who resigned from his post.”


B. HaRav Katzenellenbogen and his son R' Avraham Chaim

R' Binyamin was the eldest son of HaRav Shaul Katzenellenbogen (of the Epstein family), president of the court of Kosava and Kobryn. He was born in 5605 [1845] in Hrodna [Grodno]. At the age of thirteen, R' Binyamin renewed Torah innovations and corresponded in matters of the Torah with the Rabbi of Syalyets of those days, HaGaon, R' Yerucham Leib Perlman (later president of the court of Pruzhany and the Rabbi of the city of Minsk, who is known in the rabbis' world by the name “The Great One of Minsk”).

Over the years, R' Binyamin Isser became the Rabbi of Swerznie near Steibtz, He passed away in 5657 [1897] in Minsk where he went to seek medical advice. It should be noted, that after the death of his father the aforementioned R' Shaul, HaGaon R' Yitzchak Elchanan president of the court of Kovna [Kaunas], recommended the two sons of the deceased rabbi to the leaders of the community of Kobryn, R' Binyamin president of the court of Swerznie, and his younger brother R' Avraham Meir Rabbi of Snov and Lahoysk (writer of two religious books - Mincha Balula (Vilna 5641 [1881]) and Imrei Noam (there 5645 [1885]), because both as one deserve to be rabbis in this large community. However, for some reason, this matter did not materialize (see in HaMelitz 1892, No. 154).

It is necessary to mention the two sons of the aforementioned R' Binyamin Isser, who were raised and educated in Swerznie. One is R' Avraham Chaim, who continued the tradition of his ancestral home (this family is related to the kabbalist genius, R' Arye Leib [Epstein] writer of Sefer HaPardes[9] - president of the court of Konigsberg[10] and “high in holiness”) and he became a Jewish rabbi. He excelled as a great Torah scholar, a preacher, a man of manners and nobility.

After the death of his father he filled his place in the rabbinate in Swerznie. Later, he was appointed Rabbi of Talachyn (Mogilev District), from there he moved to Smalyavichy (Minsk District) after Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky - the rabbi of this community - was appointed president of the court of Slutsk in 5682 [1922], when HaGaon, Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer left Slutsk.

From Smalyavichy, R' Avraham Chaim was appointed Rabbi of Nizhyn and Saratov, and was one of the famous rabbis who held a certain position during the Soviet rule.

It is worth mentioning that he was the son-in-law of HaGaon, R' Eliyahu Baruch Kamai - president of the court and head of Mir Yeshiva near Steibtz and Swerznie.

One of the sermons of R' Avraham Chaim is included in SeferMaasaf Drushi[11] of HaRav Yakov Meir Sagalowich - president of the court of Haradzishcha and Danzig.


HaRav R' Yosef Razin

Was born in Swerznie in 5627 [1867] to his father, R' Avraham David. He was a student in yeshvot Mir, Volozhin, Slobodka and Radun. In 5657 [1897], he was elected to Rabbi of Kastsyukovichy (Mogilev District), and in 5663 [1903] to Rabbi of Svislach (Grodno District). He excelled as a prominent scholar and in his simple and orderly academic teaching.

In 5683 [1923], he immigrated to the United States. He served as a rabbi in Shomrei Emunah synagogue in Borough Park [Brooklyn, New York], and later in Chevra Thilim synagogue. He moved to Passiac, New Jersey, near New York City, and worked there for twenty-six years. He was privileged to reach a ripe old age and passed away on 16 Tishrei 5714 (1953). In the years 5697-5698 [1937-1938], he was the president of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis in the United States and Canada, and in the years 5702-5708 [1942-1948] the president of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis in Jersey City, New Jersey.

R' Yosef Razin is described as having an imposing figure, tall in stature, and a face that expresses kindness. He was clever, knowledgeable in world affairs, and for that reason people, who used to turn to the court houses of gentiles, came to him for trial by a rabbi. He tended to follow the path of compromise, and in his persuasive power he mediated between the litigants. He was not a devout extremist and adapted to the spirit of the times.

He was also a Hovev Zion. He was interested in the new settlement of Israel and was very active for the redemption of the country. He visited Israel three times and invested his money in Jerusalem. His last visit in Israel was in 5709 [1949] as a guest of the State of Israel, and was privileged to see, with his own eyes, the independent State of Israel to which his soul longed for all the days of his life.

After his death an obituary appeared in his memory in HaPardes, a rabbinical journal published monthly in New York.

[Page 389]

R' Yaakov Shalom(Yaakov Shalom Katzenellenbogen-Yashak)

About the youngest son of the “old Rabbi of Swerznie, one of the most respected rabbis in the area and gentle in spirit” (referring to the aforementioned R' Binyamin Isser), Mr. Zalman Shazar in his well-known book “Morning Stars,”[12] notes among other things, the great influence that the son of the aforementioned rabbi had on him:

“This Yaakov Shalom, a former yeshiva student (in the musarnikim[13] “group” of R' Yozel in Novardok)[14], became a member of the Haskalah Movement and a Hebrew writer. In his youth he already published poems and prose in David Frishman's Ha-Dor[15] under the name Yashak. Later, he moved abroad. In London he published stories and articles in the weekly Hebrew periodical, HaYehudi (published in London), edited by Yitzchak Suwalski.

To the great sorrow of his relatives and his admirers, Yashak died in the prime of his life in a tragic circumstance - he drowned in a lake in Switzerland. He received an obituary and appreciation from David Frishman.

His story from the London period, “A Winter Night,” was reprinted in a special edition (after his death) by Y. H. Brenner, and was published by the Agudat Dovrei Ivrit [Hebrew Speakers Association] in London.

Mr. Zalman Shazar defines this story of Yashak as “a swallow that heralds the ‘modern’ Hebrew novella.”

Regarding the affiliation of Yashak to Swerznie, a special mention should be made to his sentimental and interesting article on the Jewish cemetery in this town. Because of its importance we bring it again in this book of remembrance, in memory of the Steibtz- Swerznie community.

Translator's footnotes

  1. Mesharet Moshe is on the Mishneh, Torah, Zemanim, Nashim, and Kedushah, including numerous halakhot and many related issues in the Talmud, clearly explaining the positions of the Rambam. In the chapter text, the Hebrew name of the author is given mistakenly as Simcha Moshe, but in fact should be Simcha Shmuel. Return
  2. Sugya (pl. sugyot) is a passage from the Gemara discussing a specific issue in the Mishna. Return
  3. Political Zionism is linked to Theodor Herzl who considered the Jewish problem a political one. Return
  4. The Pale of Settlement - the territories of the Russian Empire in which Jews were permitted permanent settlement. (YIVO). Return
  5. The newspaper issue should be 253, not 243 as is written in the Hebrew text. Return
  6. Maran is an honorific title for exceptionally respected rabbis who are considered influential teachers and leaders. (Wikipedia) Return
  7. Hazal - acronym for ?akhameinu Zikhronam Liv'rakha - “Our Sages, may their memory be blessed.” Return
  8. The Shekel was a certificate of membership in the Zionist Organization. Return
  9. Sefer ha-Pardes, in three parts: (1) on the Shema and the observance of Shabbat, (2) sermons, (3) funeral orations. (Wikipedia) Return
  10. Konigsberg was the name for the historic Prussian city that is now Kaliningrad, Russia. Return
  11. Sefer Maasaf Drushi - a book of a collection of sermons. Return
  12. “My First Poet”, Pages 75-78, in: Shazar Z, 1967. Morning Stars. English Translation, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 234 pp. Return
  13. Members of the Musar Movement founded by Israel Salanter in nineteenth-century Lithuania with the aim of promoting greater inwardness, religious piety, and ethical conduct among traditionally minded Jews. (YIVO). Return
  14. Rabbi Yozel Horowitz, known as the Alter of Novardok [Novogrudok], was one of the Mussar movement's outstanding personalities. Return
  15. Ha-Dor - The Generation. Return

Sounds of the Past[1]
(Impressions of the way of life in Swerznie)

By Yaacov Shalom Katzenellenbogen

Translated by Sara Mages and Ann Belinsky

I sit in my lonely room, on the fourth floor, in a dark and sad corner, alone and abandoned, isolated and secluded from life and far from light, happiness and beauty, in the noisy and gay capital of the world, London.

In my life there is no light, no sun, no moon, no stars, no nature and the splendor of nature. I just sit inside high smoky walls and above my head is a dark sky with an angry sun. Around me slavery, darkness and silence, inside a sparkling and flashy freedom… Around me tens of thousands of people secluded from life, while life is bustling, exciting and sparkling around them, stimulating in them the desire and appetite…

Around me are beautiful vineyards, flowering orange groves, a banquet of happiness, and by them wander around and dance tens of thousands of unfortunates, hungry and thirsty, looking with appetite at the abundance of fruit of the gardens and their splendor, and only the saliva of desire dribbles down their shriveled chins… Their eyes shine with unending hungriness, in terrible jealousy of those who are satiated and happy, who vomit out of satiety, from all the abundance…

And I am one of those tens of thousands!

And in my lonely room, in my dark corner, I sit and sigh in grief… I am sad, sad for the thousands of unfortunates, the abandoned and lonely who, against their will, secluded themselves from life, like me!…

Under the window of my room, the wind howls and sings melancholic and dark songs in the darkness of my life… it announces the approaching autumn!…

The heavens are dark, the moon and the stars are enveloped in black, the wind knocks on my window, shakes its glass making melancholy, sad and secret sounds in the stillness of the night…

In my heart a terrible stress, my eyes desire to burst into tears, in my throat I feel a sort of bitterness… my tired head is bent over some old book and my hungry and tired eyes seek in it words of encouragement and comfort for my wounded and tired heart, a little happiness. Ha! Just a little light in my dark life, a little freshness for my heart which is drying up under the blow of scarcity, poverty and worthless life…

And outside the wind howls like many flutes, melancholy, sad and swaying, and in my sad heart strong, burning and very bitter longings arise…

Oh, longings - how awful you are! How terrible, miserable and devastating is your melody!… And the winds roar under the window of my lonely room, burst out through the many cracks, shaking the flame of my dark candle and tell me about my past, about the sounds of the past… and completely other worlds upon which a spirit of innocence is poured out, grace and kindness, and a thread of the Holy Spirit is stretched over them.

Then I was free, happy and contented. The candle of life was on my head, I enjoyed life, loved nature, relished the sun, the moon and the stars… And when these memories suddenly come to me, gangs, gangs, burst into my heart, into my head, I feel as if I am being carried by the wings of the wind to that life, and then a single ray of light will penetrate my dark and murky life, and my heart will long to die from all the pleasant and sweet bitterness…

I will clear a room for the sounds of my past in my book of memories, which is full of sadness, slavery, poverty and humiliation.

It is Friday night, after midnight.

I am released from the room, lying on the banks of the Nieman [River], which twists in its wonderful zigzags, watching the noisy and whistling waves playing under the hot rays of the sun, and frolic like happy children. On both sides of the Nieman are fields, small tree groves and bushes, and on the grass the cattle graze and moo with great satisfaction from the abundance that nature has given them, at no cost…

Not far from me lies a nut grove, on a low sloping hill ending at the Nieman, where young people bathe and have fun swimming in its pure waters. On the right lies the city's new cemetery, but all around there is no trace of death.

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Around, life, beauty and cheerfulness.

The cattle moo and chew the grass slowly and at rest. The shepherds play the flutes and thousands of birds, gliding in the bright blue air, sing songs for the eve of the Holy Sabbath… And the Nieman, this young river, which boasts of its beauty, the grace and splendor of youth, and the genius of the young people hovering above it, pours its water on the pebbles with pleasant, magical and playful whistles.

And indeed, wonderful, impressive and terrible is the Nieman on a beautiful summer half day! The sun ball, in its position in the half-sky, is reflected entirely in the clear and pure water like a coin of innocent beautiful eyes. Its rays are reflected in the water, frolicking and dancing on its transparent surface like small strips of gold. And when a light breeze passes, the water moves a little, rising and making a pleasant sound like the sound of whispering lovers. The sun ball trembles in the water and the broken gold runners will come out with beautiful and endearing dances.

I am lying on a bed of grass under a small pistacia tree, which shields me with its green branches, enjoying this wonderful scene.

Around light, cheerfulness and life.

The pleasant and cool wind is playing with the hair of my head which is full of childhood hallucinations and imaginations. It will pass over the plot of water and bring in its wings sweet, delicate and caressing coolness, like a kiss from the lips of roses…

The clear water laughed, the waves gave their voices in song, and all living creatures came out dancing. The calves and the foals danced mischievously, and frolicked without any “good manners”. In contrast, the horses and the cows walked in moderation and self-awareness, as befits cultured elders… The birds circled the space of the blue sky in group dances special only to birds hovering in the air…

And in my heart a pleasant and cheerful holiday.

Then, in the period of my innocent childhood, before I knew what life is, I tasted all their wonderful sweetness… my heart pounded in me from the abundance of pleasure, from the abundance of light and happiness.

In this manner I lay on the sand for a long time, until the sun began to set into the lake, the shepherds walked slowly home after their flocks, the red sun was reflected in the water as a red pillar of fire… and when a fish passed in the river, the water swayed and the pillar of fire moved.

And I lie on the beach and bathe in a sea of pleasure. In the distance lies the new cemetery in which only a few graves are visible.

This pit suburb was given as a gift to the residents of my city by Graf[2] Radziwill to bury their dead. The old cemetery was disqualified for burying the dead by the government because it was already inside the city. In the opinion of the government it was appropriate to set aside a special place for the dead, without involving the people of the next world in matters of devious life…

For a long time a great storm stood in the swamps of the Holy Community of Swerznie, and the members of the Chevra Kadisha[3] wondered and feared for their dead. And indeed, what would a holy community do without a cemetery? And dead people, with G-d's help, will not be lacking in the Holy Community of Swerznie as in other holy communities in the world. What did they do? The city's elderly stood and wrote a letter of request to the above-mentioned Graf, to say: please have pity on us, master of mercy and pardon! Give us a place to bury our dead because, what can we do with our dead?!

The request was justified. The Graf, in his great goodness, donated a large area to the Jews of Swerznie to bury their dead, and since then that empty hill, which had never agreed to take on any attributes, has become the cemetery for the dead of Swerznie. This cemetery, which has not yet had time to wear a cover of mourning, and the spirit of death has not yet come to it, will now be immersed in the redness of the sunset and rejoice like a tall and rebellious young man who does not know life and its hardships. He laughs, accepts the abundance of sunlight, and does not want to see signs of death either.

And this cemetery will show me only the amusement of death, not a real death, and the few fresh graves do not belong here at all: they are as uninvited and unwanted guests.

Everywhere, joy, light and life.


In Swerznie

In Beit HaMidrash[4] in Swerznie they are already getting ready to pray the “First Minyan”.

At sunrise there is some special charm to Beit HaMidrash. An atmosphere of sleep still hovers on its walls, the columns stand as if they are dreaming, and the tables and the books scattered on them, as if yawning. The walls seem to be trying to get the sleep out of their eyes, and bundles of light are already crawling on the western wall…

Those gathered walk seriously here and there and stuttering Ma Tovu.[5] They are also yawning: for it is not pleasant for the inhabitants of Swerznie to get out of warm beds.

Their lives are one formula, one color, a struggle for existence and wandering the streets to find a piece of bread. Sad and monotonous is the life of the inhabitants of Swerznie, there is nothing of interest in them, besides the pursuit of a piece of dry bread.

A few poor beggars are still lying on their backs on the benches around the stoves enjoying their deep sleep. These poor, who are supported by others, meaning, on the table of their Jewish brothers and at the expense of the place, Blessed is He, also sleep in Beit HaMidrash. These poor are only passers-by and in Beit HaMidrash they are only guests tending to stay overnight, today they are here and tomorrow in a another city. There are not ten idlers in this city. And really, what will idlers do when most of the townspeople are idlers? Because all the things that idlers are expert in, from reciting Psalms for the wellbeing of the sick or for the soul of the dead, sleeping at the home of the dying, walking after the coffin and singing, praying in the mourning house and other kinds of services of such idlers, were done by the people of Swerznie, by idlers who were excellent in their craft. Only one poor man, crazy Izik, is a resident of Beit HaMidrash in Swerznie. As a child he was a prodigy and was fattened like a bull with Gemara and Poskim until he went crazy. For two years he was overcome with melancholy, but afterwards he recovered. He was from a privileged and wealthy family and, as long as his ancestors were alive, they supported him and provided all his needs. His ancestors also married him to a woman and he bore sons and daughters and lived at their expense. Even after he became a little smarter he still carried the nickname crazy. True, even when he was in good shape, traces of insanity were sometimes seen in him: he joked more than was allowed to a Jewish man, cursed and took sacred things lightly,

[Page 391]

and only because they thought he was abnormal they forgave him for it.

This is how he lived until his fiftieth year. But now, his ancestors died on him, his source of livelihood dwindled, and since he was unable to do any spiritual or physical work, he got up and divorced his wife, distanced himself from his sons and daughters, and retired to Beit HaMidrash.

His retirement to Beit HaMidrash was not, of course, for worshiping G-d, or for the purpose of studying the Torah, because Izik, no matter how genius he was, despised the Torah and the prayers, and treated all kinds of mitzvot and celibacy with the negligence of a genius philosopher. But, why did Izik decide to retire to Beit HaMidrash? Simply, for the reason that its gates were open to all the poor and, the Holy One Blessed be He, to whom the house belonged, does not require rent… and Izik made a living from various and strange sources:

He had an existing fund, loaned it with interest to the safe people in the city and every Sabbath eve received the “weekly fees”. At night he slept in the house of a dead person to protect him from the mice, and the next day walked after the coffin and sang to collect charity that would save from death. When an important poor man came to the city, Izik walked with him to the doors of the generous people of Swerznie as a witness to their so-called importance, and for this he received an agreed amount from the poor man.

This Izik got up early in the morning, before the worshipers arrived, and went to the house of Smerke the doctor, which stood next to Beit HaMidrash, to talk about current affairs and drink a glass of hot water. He took the sugar out of his pocket and, while doing so, sold Smerke's wife the bread he bought from the poor beggars at a cheap price. This, too, was a respectable branch of his many livelihoods.

Also on that morning Izik was not in Beit HaMidrash, the worshipers were already dressed in their tallitot and tefillin, circled Zundel Pashtida and hurried him to the reader's stand, but suddenly the door opened with a noise and Izik came home. His face was flushed and his laughing eyes expressed strong joy: he was getting ready to tell interesting news.

Izik really liked to tell interesting news. Izik was the “cooking spoon” of the city of Swerznie. He knew everything and told everything to everyone, with his own additions and exaggerations. All the worshipers had already gathered around him and he opened his mouth and said:

-- Oh! Have you heard? Smerke's cow died in one…

-- How could this be possible? -- asked R' Moshe Aharon the baker, a very curious person who loved to delve deeper into the simplest matter -- How do you know? -- What is this matter about one cow?

And when he finished his questions he returned to his prayer: a man will be G-d-fearing forever… He tilted one of his ears towards Izik's face to pick up from the air the things that came out of his mouth, raised his eyes to the heavens and prayed…

Izik waited until all the worshipers gathered around him so he could explain his riddle:

-- The matter is simple, she was fed only once a day and she died… Some laughed and some, who did not like the joke at all, sighed at the disaster that came upon on their friend, Smerke. They knew full well that the death of his cow also robbed him of the source of his livelihood. They knew full well that he would not be able to support twelve mouths only from his work as a doctor.

In the meantime, Smerke came to Beit HaMidrash to pray with the tallit and tefillin bag under his arm. His eyes were serious and sullen, and when Zindel the shoemaker approached him to ask him questions and talk to him, a sort of condolence, he did not say anything. Now he was privileged in his eyes, now when disaster struck, no Jewish man would dare to ridicule him. Now, even the wealthy homeowners turned to him with questions about the cow and the means to buy another. Throughout the prayer Smerke was considered the hero of the day. All the worshipers were very happy about this incident, despite their desire to join him in his grief. The life of the inhabitants of Swerznie was so dark, so colorless, that the death of a cow was considered interesting and heavy news in their lives. Somehow, there was a holiday eve atmosphere in Beit HaMidrash. A small matter! Not every day such news will occur.

Good morning - said the gentile when he came - this is where Mr. Smerke the doctor lives?

-- Here, here, please enter, His Excellency - Smerke mumbled in embarrassment.

-- Please sit down, His Excellency - asked his wife Chana - handing him a chair.

-- The demon knows him…

-- Who, this person? Smerke asked in astonishment.

-- His leg, Mr. Smerke, It's been hurting for two weeks… I put all the medicines and nothing helped… The sorcerer Patrush also put a spell on it, and it hasn't been cured yet. Also Alozota, may the spirit will enter her mother's mother, has done her thing, I wish that this witch would die, and all in vain… now I am told that I should use Karnei D'umna[6]

Yudka, the shopkeeper, says that it is good… also his father was cured by Karnei D'umna

-- Right now, His Excellency, right now I will place Karnei D'umna on it…

Chana put the pot on the stove to heat water, Smerke lit a candle and gave a signal to Chana to leave, the gentile lay on the table with his legs and arms outstretched, and Smerke took his scalpel. He drew blood and placed the Karnei D'umna. The farmer got off the table, pulled up his underwear in the correct order, paid the healing fee and left the house.

When the farmer left they saw a pouch full of rubles on the floor… There was no limit to the joy of Smerke and Chana. For a while they could not comprehend the magnitude of the happiness which came upon them. The question of possession was well resolved. Of course, the heavens had mercy on us… What will you say, Chana, it seems to me that he is one of the Lamed Vav[7], or maybe he is Elijah the Prophet… It is possible that he is just a Jew… They can when they want…

-- I know - he certainly was not a simple gentile…

-- Still, do you know what he said?

-- And yet it is necessary to walk around the market, see the gentile and keep an eye on where he will turn, and what he will do? And you, Chana, you will cook potatoes for me and the children…

He left, and half an hour later returned home, his face flowed with joy

[Page 392]

and kindness and his eyes twinkled in the same glow that was special to him only on Sabbath morning.

I wandered all over the market and did not find the gentile, for sure, he was Elijah the Prophet. My heart tells me so… You see, Chana, thanks to my mitzvot… and what will you say now, Chana? Ha? And what a strange pride filled his heart. He felt that he, too, was not a simple Jew, Elijah the Prophet also visited his house. At that time he considered himself, to some extent, a good Jew… I, thank G-d, have good advocates in the heavens. But, Braka? I hope this goat would die…

-- Chana, now gives us your potatoes…

On the table stands a large pot full of potatoes. The children, Smerke, and his wife Chana who are sitting satisfied next to him, eat them: some of the children are singing and dancing with cheeks full of potatoes, and in Smerke's house there is a cheerful celebration.

Translator's footnotes

  1. The material is taken from HaYehudi [“The Jew”] 5662 [1902] - a weekly Hebrew newspaper that was published in London. Return
  2. Graf or Gräfin is a historical title of the German nobility, usually translated as "count". (Wikipedia). Return
  3. Chevra Kadisha - burial society. Return
  4. Beit HaMidrash - The Study Hall. Return
  5. Ma Tovu - (“O How Good”), is a prayer expressing reverence and awe for synagogues and other places of worship. Return
  6. Karnei D'umna - the surgeon's horn in which he collected the blood. Return
  7. Lamed Vav Tzadikim - “36 righteous men” - the number of anonymous men living in the world in every generation. They are privileged to see the Divine Presence, and the world exists on their merit. Return


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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