by A. D. Shkolnik Translated by Ruth Murphy
Edited by Esther Libby Raichman
The official name of our town of Swerznie was Novy- Swerznie New Swerznie because four kilometers northwest of town lay a village by the name of Stary Swerznie, that is, Old Swerznie.
But the Jews never made use of the official name of the town, simply calling it in Yiddish Swerznie, and it was by this name that it was known throughout the entire region. Despite the fact that it was called New Swerznie, it was in all probability the oldest of all the neighboring towns, even older than its nearest and much larger neighbor, Stoibtz.
Even though we possess almost no historical documents from which we can determine the exact date of her origins in general, and the beginning of Jewish settlement in particular, it can be assumed that Swerznie was already in existence in the fifteenth century.
In his description of the historical origins of Stoibtz, Mordechai Machtei relies on memoirs, historical fact and presumptions and he comes to the conclusion that Stoibtz already existed in the sixteenth century and that his father had seen an old manuscript where it was written: Stoibtz, which is close to Swerznie. This can serve as evidence that Swerznie already existed from an even earlier period and was better known than Stoibtz. Some are of the opinion that the first corpses from Stoibtz were brought to Swerznie for burial because Stoibtz did not have a Jewish cemetery. This is everything, more or less, that is known to us about the historical establishment of Swerznie.
Without having any materials from which we can extract further information about our town, we must unfortunately content ourselves with the above-mentioned brief historical summary.
Swerznie is located on the left side of the Niemen River. Stoibtz extends for two kilometers on the right side of the Niemen River, northeast of Swerznie. During the course of their existence over the centuries, both towns would certainly have become one town, had the Niemen not, due to melting snow, overflowed its banks every spring for a distance of a few kilometers, and created a natural separation between them. This made the union of the two neighboring communities impossible.
Until 1920, both towns belonged administratively to the Minsk province, and also to the Minsk district. The city of Minsk is located about seventy-five kilometers east of Swerznie. Despite the negligible difference in distance, there was a huge geological contrast between the two nearby towns. On the right side of the Niemen where Stoibtz is located, the terrain is sandy and infertile and therefore, sparsely populated. In contrast, on the left side of the Niemen where Swerznie is located, the land is fertile and endowed with a rare and beautiful landscape, and therefore densely populated; so the town found itself in the lap of nature, truly like in a paradise.
A group trip by the Swerznie youth to Vilna
Sitting from the left: Yoel Aginsky (may the Lord avenge his blood), A. D. Shkolnik, Basye Rechtshaid, Moshe Doktorovitz
Standing: Shmuel Epshtein, Binyomin Shenkman, Yechezkel Goloventshitz, Reuven Rechtshaid (may the Lord avenge his blood)
By the lake
Binyomin Shenkman and Manya (may the Lord avenge their blood)
On the southeast side flowed the Niemen, with its calm stream and clear waters. Very often in the summer months, the river was covered with rafts that had been built from the timber that had been logged from the surrounding woods that existed in the area in a sufficient quantity. The rafts were piloted by peasants from the town and surrounding areas to Königsberg in Germany. The woods and also the land on which Swerznie was located was the private property of Prince Radziwill, so the Swerznie Jews did not pay tax for their sites to the state treasury, but to the castle of the Radziwill's in Nyesvizsh, which was located twenty-five kilometers south of Swerznie.
Almost two kilometers west of the town lay the Silver Woods. This was a young pine forest a few kilometers in length, where young men from the Mir Yeshiva would come to rest in the summer months. The forest would echo with the chanting of the Talmud, which would blend with the happy twittering of the carefree birds, into a divine melody.
Sabbath in the town
The forest appeared quite different on the Sabbath afternoons. Jews, worn out from an entire week of hard work, choking in their four cubits of workspace, this one at the shoemaker's workbench, that one at the sewing machine, and another at the forge by the glowing iron on Friday afternoons they bathed in the Niemen, put on their Sabbath garments, and rushed to the synagogue so as not to be late in welcoming the Sabbath with the congregation.
Coming home, they made the Kiddush Sabbath blessing over two white challahs, specially decorated according to the taste of the housewife, in honor of the holy Sabbath. After eating the Friday night meal, they lay down to rest a little earlier than during the week.
As they were accustomed to rising very early the entire week, they rose early on the Sabbath too and ran to the synagogue to recite a few dozen chapters of Psalms before the service. After eating the cholent and taking into account must also enjoy a little of this world, a couple of neighbors would gather together and went walking in the Silver Woods. Walking along, of course, one did not, G-d Forbid, speak of idle matters because if one of them begin complaining that business was a little slow that week, a second would immediately interrupt and remind him that ‘today is the Sabbath, and it is not appropriate to speak of workday matters'. They wanted to forget the heavy burden of earning a living that pressed like a weight on the backs of Jewish tradesmen and laborers in the small towns of Lithuania and White Russia. With everyone's agreement, they would immediately switch to a completely different conversation, for example, how to interpret a few verses of the Torah portion that had just been read during the service in the synagogue . Or the old cantor, Reb Berl Wolf, would suddenly remember how the tsaddik Reb Binyomin Iser (of blessed memory), who for years was Rabbi in Swerznie, would walk home from the service and Jews who were Torah scholars, would walk behind him in the footsteps of the great tsaddik so that they could enjoy some divine favor from his virtue.
So, in deep conversation, time passed, and they would arrive at the forest. Who knows how long they would have continued were it not for the case that Rafael Mendl, being engrossed in a discussion, stepped on a dry branch that broke under his feet and with a loud crack, which resounded through the forest. This was the reason that everyone suddenly awoke from a sort of sweet dream , and murmured in the well-known manner: Well, oh, the Sabbath, oh, oh! Then a suggestion was accepted that if one does not want to commit any more sins, it is best not to be wandering about the woods, because no good can come from too much loitering. Jews who want to keep the Sabbath as one should, must remain at home. In the house there are also things to be done: recite verses from Ethics of the Fathers, or browse through a religious book. Roaming around is a matter for gentiles. And what can they know about their Sunday, alas? Drinking and fighting. But a Jew … well, so be it, it is better not to talk about it … let us sit down and rest in honor of the Sabbath, under the first, best tree,
all stretched out comfortably, with the joy of the Sabbath, marveling at G-d's beautiful little world with the clear, blue skies. It did not take long before everyone fell asleep, as if they were drunk from the fragrant trees and from the fresh air.
The young people also streamed into the forest on the Sabbath day. By the middle of the week, it had already been arranged that they would meet there on the Sabbath. In this manner, groups of boys and girls from Swerznie and Stoibtz arrived. There were also instances when a boy and a girl met for the first time. They were not yet bold enough to use the familiar du and instead used the formal ir They would blush fiercely when someone passed by suddenly, fearing that the next day their father or mother would be told that their dear son had been seen standing with some girl in the forest on the Sabbath. All in all, they could have been fifteen or sixteen years old. Generally, the Sabbath was spent in the forest singing and dancing, and many married couples have the Sinyaver forest to thank for their first meeting.
Aside from the Silver Woods, the so-called Meytshe's Mountain, which was located not far from the town on the way to the forest, added to the town's special charm. Although Meytshe Goldin was a Jew, already in his old age and had long ago handed over management of the mountain to his son Yerachmiel, the mountain still bore the name of its former owner. The above-mentioned mountain was unique in the entire region, as it was rich in limestone, and with its output, towns and villages throughout the area were built. Scores of families earned their living from it. It was hard to imagine the mountain without Yentl, Maishe's son, with the blue glasses that had a grey appearance from the white dust of the burning lime that fell on them. And how would the mountain look without Itshe Avreml, Bere Bloyme's son, with his two sacks wound around his ailing legs? They had established an eternal link with the mountain, that lasted until the last days of their working-class lives. Both of them, Yankel and Itshke, died a natural death many years before the Second World War. One of the last Mohicans to remain on the mountain was Shlomo Chaim, but there was no harmony between him and the mountain, and something of the earlier harmony was missing.
The mountain also served as a supply point for those specific religious requirements that an Orthodox Jew cannot do without. For example, the branches of the juniper bushes that covered the entire surface of the mountain were used to cover the sukkahs. With their pleasant aroma of fresh pine resin, they added a special significance to the harvest festival, bringing with them greetings from nature and the fragrance of the fields.
In homes where there was neither calendar nor clock and one did not know the precise time of the setting of the sun on the eve of the Sabbath, it was enough to go outside, look to the west, and if the sun was already in the process of setting behind the mountain, this was the best indication that it was time to light the Sabbath candles.
Standing at the peak of the mountain, you could see before you the entire area for a distance of many kilometers. On the south side, one could see a splendid panorama of cultivated tracts that were enchanting in their beauty: wide fields with all the colors of the rainbow sparkling in the sunlight for a distance, as far as the eye could see. A breeze mysteriously enticed the golden heads of the full ears of corn, which bent towards the ground under the weight of the ripening grains of barley, oats, and rye. It created the impression of the waves of the sea, engaging in a playful flirtation with the beams of the rising sun on an early spring morning.
Also found in that region were scores of villages and noblemen's manor houses that were the private property of the Radziwill's, as well as never-ending forests that existed in that area. As the old peasants would tell, it was in one of those manor houses that the great Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz, had written chapters of his immortal poem, Pan Tadeusz. The village populations consisted of White Russian, Russian Orthodox, and White Russian Catholics. When the Polish military occupied the western part of White Russia in the year 1920, the Catholic portion of the population declared themselves Polish.
Until the expulsion decree of the well-known Tsarist minister and anti-Semitic Stolypin, ordering all the Jews out of the villages, there were Jews living in almost every village. Over the course of generations, these Jews had grown accustomed to living among the peasants and somehow managed to eke out a living.
Besides the fertile terrain and large populations of the surrounding villages, until the 1870s an important source of livelihood was the so-called Yekatyerinovsker Highway. Lined with old trees whose branches bent towards the ground, the highway stretched for hundreds of kilometers. At that time it was the central link between Poland and Russia, cutting through Swerznie from east to south. The numerous taverns the town contained
until the fire of 1917, bore witness to its former rich past.
In addition to lime, the mountain contained millions of tons of gravel, consisting of small stones the size of a nut. That was a type of natural gravel that was used mainly for building railroad lines. The stones were poured underneath the wooden sleepers of the railroad tracks in order to prevent them from rotting quickly. The gravel was also used in a variety of concrete work. Because of this, before the First World War, a branch of the regular railroad line was laid, leading to the mountain. The exploitation of the mountain began in full swing. Dozens of peasants were employed to dig out the gravel and load it onto the railroad cars.
Jews did not work there for two reasons: firstly, it was grueling work that was carried out in a primitive manner, with simple pickaxes exactly as in olden times. This required a lot of effort for very little pay. Secondly, the mountain was the private property of the Swerznie peasant farmers, who was considered to be part of their fields. This was sufficient reason not to allow Jews to work there, and in this way, be rid of an extra partner to their earnings. Yet, there were rare exceptions: some of the Khalutsim, the Pioneers were preparing to immigrate to the Land of Israel and wanted to test their strength and see if they could endure the experience of hard physical labor that awaited them in Israel. Thanks to their close acquaintanceship with a few of the local gentile lads, they were smuggled into the workplace and protected from the rest of the peasants. This served as a type of guarantee that they would not be pelted with stones while working.
Despite the fact that the Jews in town considered the mountain work to be a menial occupation, not suitable for a young Jewish man, the work of the Khalutsim was nevertheless tolerated. They even enjoyed a certain sympathy, taking into consideration that they were not doing the work G-d forbid, to earn a living, , but that there was also the ideal of agricultural training preparing themselves for a new, righteous life in their own land. This could perhaps benefit all the Jewish people, the Swerznie Jews among them …
Swerznie Jews who travelled through Poland often encountered railroad cars at various stations loaded with Swerznie gravel. They would say with a certain pride and satisfaction: You see those railroad cars with the stones standing over there? Those are from ‘our’ mountain …
During the time when the Hitlerite murderers reigned, the work was carried out in Swerznie in the same primitive way as before. Yet there was one difference: instead, where there once stood healthy, well-fed gentiles with their pickaxes, there were now hungry, exhausted young men, girls, and old Jews. They were being crushed under the heavy yoke of their super-human effort, accompanied by never-ending blows to their heads and backs by an SS man watching the unpaid Jewish workers.
Here, among the railroad cars of gravel, Rokhel, Reytse's daughter and the wife of Yaakov Kaplan, was crushed to death. From here the first thirty young people were selected and led to the Jewish cemetery. After they finished digging their own mass grave, they were all shot.
After their annihilation, the Germans employed a group of approximately 30 to 40 young Jewish boys and girls from Stoibtz, to do the gravel work on the mountain. In the German language it was called kistl grube [mine work]. They worked there until the last massacre. This is how the so-called tranquil Meytshe's Mountain entered into the history of blood and tears of the Swerznie and Stoibtz Jews.
Faith and Educational Organizations in Swerznie
If we had in our possession today the town book of records that was kept from very early times and passed from generation to generation, where all the important events of Jewish life in the holy community of Swerznie were written we would certainly be informed about many important events concerning all aspects of Jewish life in the town that took place over the course of hundreds of years. Some of the mysteries that confront us are who was the first rabbi in Swerznie, when was the first synagogue built, and how many rabbis have changed over the hundreds of years that Jews have been in Swerznie. It is hard to find answers to these questions.
Thanks to the research of Mr. Tzinovitz, we learn that Rabbi Kukis, who was born in Koidanov one hundred and twenty-three years ago, was the rabbi for a certain time in Swerznie. In 1901 in the HaTzfira, [Hebrew periodical] it was reported that Rabbi Kukis was an active member of the Khibat Tzion movement, and later a follower of political Zionism. Of all the Swerznie people that are here in Israel, not one has ever heard of such a rabbi in Swerznie. A more extensive discourse about Rabbi Kukis will be preserved in this book, in the section: The Rabbis of Swerznie by Mr. Tzinovitz.
Ha'Rav Reb Binyomin Isser Katzenellenbogen (of blessed memory)
More widely known is the name of Ha'Rav Reb Binyomin Isser HaLevy Katzenellenbogen, whom our parents praised and told of his virtues. The President of the State of Israel, Zalman Shazar, writes in his book Kokhavey Boker [Morning Stars]: The old Swerznie rabbi (meaning Rabbi Binyomin Isser, of blessed memory) was one of the most distinguished rabbis of the entire region. After a prolonged illness, he travelled to Minsk to seek a cure from the city's doctors. He died there in approximately 1897 and found his eternal rest in the Minsk Jewish cemetery.
Ha'Rav Reb Chaim Avraham HaLevy Katzenellenbogen (of blessed memory)
After the death of the genius and righteous Rabbi Binyomin Isser, who had made a name for himself with his knowledge of Torah and fear of G-d, the post of rabbi in Swerznie was taken over by his son Reb Chaim Avraham, or as people called him in local terms, Khayfe. He was a young genius and a talented rabbi. Yet he did not derive much joy from being rabbi in Swerznie, simply because he had been raised together with everyone in the same town. Those who had gone to cheyder with him could not get used to the fact that they must call him ‘Rabbi,’ and that he was their leader and Rabbi of Swerznie. This was perhaps one of the most important reasons why, after a few years, he left Swerznie and took over the post of Rabbi in Talatshin , in the province of Mogilev.
Ha'Rav Reb Moshe Leib Roynes (may the Lord avenge his blood)
After Khayfe had left Swerznie before the First World War, Ha'Rav Reb Moshe Leib Roynes, who was then rabbi in Zoskovits, a town in Lithuania, was appointed rabbi. Rabbi Roynes came to us at the height of his powers, a man full of energy, with a stately appearance, who gave brilliant sermons. When he gave sermons in the large synagogue twice a year: on the Sabbath of Repentance before Yom Kippur, and the Sabbath before Passover, people came to listen to him, not only from all of Swerznie, but many also came from Stoibtz. The audience would greatly enjoy his outstanding rhetorical talent. The youth would also come to hear his sermons, which were filled with nationalistic content and love for fellow Jews.
Rabbi Roynes would often be called to the neighboring towns when he was needed to give a eulogy for a righteous or distinguished person. He was also asked to give eulogies at the nearby Mir Yeshiva when an accident occurred, and one of the young men from the yeshiva met an untimely death. A better expert than he could not be found in all the surrounding areas. Every day, between afternoon and evening prayers, Rabbi Roynes taught Talmud , in which all the learned men of the town took part, such as Reb Chaim Matus Blokh (of blessed memory), Reb Yaakov Rubentshik (of blessed memory), Reb Noakh the Shochet (of blessed memory), Reb Chaim Matus Khashes (of blessed memory), Reb Khonn Leib son of Yitzkhak (of blessed memory), Reb Reuven Kliatshuk (of blessed memory), Reb Shmuel the Shochet (may the Lord avenge his blood), and others whom I no longer remember. Rabbi Roynes was a great adherent of Zionism, but for various reasons was never officially attached to the Mizrakhi organization. Yet his devotion to Eretz Yisroel was evident in a variety of different situations, mainly reflected in his magnificent sermons.
He went through hard times in Swerznie during the time of the First World War, when hunger and need were a daily phenomenon in almost every house. He was very active in 1919 when a large portion of White Russia was occupied by the Polish. At that time, he stood at the pinnacle of the Swerznie community and led the organization for the provision of aid for our town contributed by the American Joint Distribution Committee. In December 1919, when he travelled as a delegate to the Congress of Communities of White Russia being held in Minsk, Polish legionnaires beat him murderously and cut off his beard. Around 1914, Rabbi Roynes' youngest daughter, Liebe, died and was brought to her eternal rest in the Swerznie Jewish cemetery. In the 1920s, Rabbi Roynes left Swerznie and took over the rabbinic post in Horodets, Baranovich district. About 1938, he visited Stoibtz in tragic circumstances: his second daughter, Sheyndl, had died in the Stoibtz hospital. She was married to Ha'Rav Reb Lippe Gutman of Baranovich, one of the most brilliant students of the Mir Yeshiva. After the death of the Naliboki tsaddik, Rabbi Roynes was appointed as rabbi in Naliboki. Then, after a number of years spending their lives together, the rebbetsin died, leaving behind their small, orphaned children. Rabbi Roynes delivered a heartrending eulogy for her.
The Rabbi, along with his entire family, perished at the hand of the German murderers. The only member of that extensive family who miraculously survived was their daughter Khayke, who settled in Israel after the Second World War.
Ha'Rav Reb Chaim Avraham Alpert (may the Lord avenge his blood)
It was difficult for Swerznie to find a rabbi who would be a suitable successor to Rabbi Moshe Leib Roynes, although there was no shortage of candidates for the position of the Swerznie Rabbi; but as always in such cases, factions arise and each side
wants to emerge as victor. If one rabbi gave good sermons, the Zionists did not want him because he was an Agudahnik. Should a second rabbi come along who was an Agudahnik, the leaders of the community did not want him because he could not deliver as good a sermon as the previous rabbi. It dragged on in this way for over a year, until both factions grew weary and agreed to a compromise: they drew lots among a few of the rabbis who were candidates for the Swerznie rabbinical position. No sooner said than done. The lots were cast, and the winner was Ha'Rav Reb Chaim Avraham Alpert, who unfortunately would be the last rabbi of Swerznie. Rabbi Alpert hardly experienced any difficult times in the town because a sawmill was built whose directors were religious Jews, and the town residents also had ample income. Consequently, this also made an impact on the material situation of the local rabbi.
Ha'Rev Reb Chaim Avraham Alpert and the Rebbetsin
they were murdered by the Germans
(may the Lord avenge their blood)
When the Hitler - gangs occupied Swerznie, Rabbi Alpert was elected to the Judenrat. He always found a comforting word for his unfortunate Jewish congregation. When the first group of thirty young people was taken out to be shot, Rabbi Alpert was taken along with them so that he would be present at the bloody show, and with his own eyes observe the horrible tragedy. Then he was also shot. The life of the holy Ha'Rav Reb Chaim Avraham Alpert came to an end in this tragic way. He died a martyr. He was the last link in a chain of distinguished Swerznie rabbis. With his death, the golden chain of rabbis in Swerznie was severed forever.
May his blood boil and never rest, like the blood of the prophet Zechariah. Lord may the soil not cover up his blood!
In addition to the Talmud group taught by the local rabbi, a score of so-called Jews of the entire year for whom it was difficult to study a page of Talmud, would always sit at a second table. The old cantor Reb Berl Volf Shpitz would instruct this latter group in Khaye-Adam. It contained laws for daily use that a devout Jew could not do without if he wanted to keep a kosher home with a pure Jewish family life. As Reb Berl Volf was a cantor as well as a Shochet, he was an expert in the domain of Khaye-Adam and his congregation of listeners derived much pleasure from his teachings.
The Psalms society was well-organized, especially when Yirshl the printer was the manager. Most people who belonged to this society were the common folk, Jews who had no great pretentions in life, the only thing they wanted was to be able to pour out their hearts to the Lord of the Universe through a chapter of Psalms. Every Sabbath until dusk, they would seat themselves behind the bimah in the large synagogue and recite psalms. Some of them, like Yirshl the printer, Meyer Fayshes, Refael Mendl, and Zelik Nakhes knew the entire Book of Psalms by heart. The rest recited while looking at the small book of Psalms. This was in summer. During the winter, when the nights were long, happy was he that knew how to utilize Friday nights not only for eating and sleeping this, excuse the comparison, a gentile can also do. A Jew, however, must use the long winter Friday nights for something more important, and aspire to a higher purpose. Therefore, Yashke the beadle would indeed take the initiative every Friday night during the winter and awaken the society members so that they could get up and go to the synagogue and recite Psalms. He would wake them with a light knock on the window, murmuring: Get up! It is time to recite Psalms! He would not knock with a wooden hammer, as was his custom when waking people during the month of Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance for penitential prayers. True, the people do indeed need to be woken but he took into account that on Friday nights he was waking the sons of kings, Sabbath-Jews, and that it must be done in a more delicate and refined manner than during an ordinary weeknight, it is forbidden to knock with a wooden hammer on the Sabbath as one does forgive the comparison, on weeknights. Slowly, the members of the society would gather together, and recite Psalms until the Sabbath morning service was about to begin.
The society, however, did not exist only to recite Psalms on the Sabbath. There was a much higher and more important purpose than this:
reciting Psalms also served as a means of revoking various decrees that affected the town and sometimes even the Jewish people as a whole and often even the entire world when, for example, a war or some kind of epidemic of a certain disease began to spread across the sinful world. It also happened that a Jew of the town became ill heaven forbid and was struggling with death, and whose doctors had already despaired of him, then only the Lord Himself could help and bestow on him the gift of life. Only then did one feel the importance of the Psalms Society in the town. So, the wife of the sick man grabbed her infants in her arms, because together with them she could arouse more compassion and ran to Yirshl the printer's home and broke out in a heart-rending lament: it is a house with small children, and in case, G-d forbid, may it never come to pass….then at least one could one is forbidden to say it go and drown oneself…. Let Yirshl then see to it that they immediately go and recite Psalms, perhaps they will arouse favors in the Heavens, so that a whole family would, G-d forbid, not be orphaned prematurely.
Yirshl, moved to tears by the terrible misfortune, immediately cast aside his work, quickly assembled the society's members for one extraordinary Psalms recital, and they went to the large synagogue. Here Yirshl made use of all of his authority before the Lord of the Universe, for he was not standing before G-d like a poor man at the entrance, but with quite a wealth of virtues that he had gathered in the course of his long life: He fasted every day on the Ten Days of Repentance and every Monday and Thursday, not to mention the six fast days which we were instructed to keep from very ancient times. Besides that, he would quite often suffer from hunger when there was a shortage of work but he never forgot to praise His Beloved Name and to recite Psalms.
It is hard to say who would have lost if there was a lawsuit before a rabbinic tribunal between the two of them, that is, between Yirshl the printer and as if it were possible the Lord Himself. The other members of the society also had nothing to be ashamed of and were not discouraged.
They were all Jews worn out from toil, who labored hard to support their large families and never, G-d forbid, missed praying with the congregation and fulfilling the other commandments that a Jew should observe. Now one can imagine with what confidence they gathered in the middle of a weekday to recite Psalms in order to save a Jew who was struggling on his deathbed with the Angel of Death. On the other hand, for whose sake were they doing all this if not indeed for the Lord Himself, who sits in the Seventh Heaven, so that He may have another Jew on this sinful earth who will fulfill His commandments and praise His Beloved Name? So why indeed should He not want to help and grant a gift to a Jew, of a few more years of life? How can that be? Would He be in need if He wanted to make such a gift? Taking all this into consideration, Yirshl girded himself with courage, and with a broken heart went up on the platform from which services were led, opened wide the Holy Ark, knocked with his fist on the lectern, and the Psalms Society began to storm the gates of compassion with the chapters of Psalms which are indicated as prayers to plead for a sick person. And as they recited with devotion, they fell into a state of ecstasy, and when they had already reached Chapter 69 which begins with the heart-rending words For the Leader; upon Shoshannim of David. [a Psalm], Save me, O G-d; for the waters are come unto the soul. Then all members of the society burst out in heart-rending weeping. Women who happened to be passing by the synagogue to fetch water from the river, stopped in fright and looked at the synagogue's open windows. Each looked at the other with a silent glance, perhaps someone knew what misfortune had happened in the town that led to reciting Psalms in the middle of a bright day? From the synagogue one could now hear the last prayer said for a sick person, O Lord, O Lord, full of compassion and gracious, slow to anger etc… It was recited with full faith that the prayer had been accepted and that the patient would, with the Lord's help, be healed. Then the members of the society began gradually to disperse, each one to his own home, his own work.
And it came to pass, if the Psalms recital did not help either, and the patient died anyway, it was a clear sign that he had no more years left to him, and that the severe decree had been sealed for him on the preceding Day of Atonement. But with the death of the patient, the most important task of the Psalms Society would just begin. A minyan of Psalm reciters would gather and go to the house of the deceased. Yirshl, however, could not participate because he was a Kohen and as such, he must not be under the same roof as a deceased. Only then the real Psalms reciting begins, in order to find salvation for his holy soul a place in paradise, together with the forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, where he will rest under the wings of the Divine Presence, and with the verse Righteousness shall go before Him, and shall make a path for His footsteps. The society members would escort him to his eternal rest.
In this manner the Psalms Society lived and acted in the town, not like the members of the Talmud Society, who studied only for themselves and consisted of respected members of the community. The Psalms Society consisted of common people who were concerned not only for themselves but for the public good… for the whole town.
In addition to the large synagogue in which
all the societies concentrated, and which was also the permanent seat of the town rabbi, there was also the so-called small synagogue, named after the wealthy and generous donor Reb Yisroel Lifshitz. The small synagogue excelled in its cleanliness, which was taken care of by its supervisor, Reb Chaim Yaakov, son of Sholem -- to whom the supervision was entrusted by the heirs of Reb Yisroel Lifshitz, whose permanent residence was in Sosnovicz.
Reb Chaim Yaakov, son of Sholem Goloventshitz of blessed memory
The Jews of Tretshan, who would have had to walk a long distance to either of the above-mentioned synagogue sbote-midroshim, had a minyan of their own with a Torah scroll in the house of Avraham Berel the tailor. This may be the reason that he was called the Rabbi of Tretshan in the town.
Cheyders and Cheyder Teachers
The synagogues were not, however, the only source of Torah, for the town was overflowing with cheyders where hundreds of pupils received a religious education through their cheyder teachers. In these cheyders, they studied from morning until the evening.
Co-educational cheyders of boys and girls almost did not exist. The one cheyder where only girls studied was at the place of Chaim Yaakov, son of Sholem. This cheyder was only for beginners. These students did not reach the level beyond a portion of the Pentateuch, and as they became a little older, they went to the Russian public school. Poor parents at that time did not consider it necessary to send a girl to study in a cheyder. On the other hand, even in the poorest house, there was almost no case of a boy not going to cheyder, at least until Bar Mitzvah, and afterwards he would be apprenticed to learn a trade.
The cheyders, however, were also divided into certain classes, understandably, according to the abilities of the teacher. Thus, for example, Avreml the beadle, who committed suicide by hanging himself in the shtibel of the big synagogue, taught children who started their first term of cheyder. While we're on the subject, I want to mention here that Avreml the shames [beadle] hanged himself precisely in the year that I started to learn the alefbeys, and since this happened in the middle of the school term and another teacher did not want to accept new children in the middle of the term, we [cheyder students] were very happy about the whole matter … because in this way, for a while, we were freed from going to cheyder, for a few months, until the new school term began.
The second teacher of the youngest children was Motte Moshe. May he forgive me, but he himself quite weak at reading Hebrew, and, poor thing, he had to resort to this occupation after he had an accident and broke a leg and as he was no longer a young man, he remained a cripple for the rest of his life. Since he had no trade, he became a teacher. He did not get much satisfaction from his new occupation. As he barely coped with the alef-beys, he suffered much more, poor thing, when he needed to start teaching the Pentateuch to a boy. Here he had to constantly avail himself of the large Yiddish translation of the Pentateuch, that he did not remove from the table all day.
Nokhem Golovenshitz or Nokhem the Khassid as he was called, was a similar type of teacher.
Reb Leib Yitzkhak
One of the oldest teachers was Reb Leib Yitzkhak. A Jew, a learned man, who possessed rare and admirable character traits and kept in mind all the poor people of town that they should not, G-d forbid, be left without candles and challah on the Sabbath and holidays. He also provided them with wood to heat their houses in the winter.
The main subjects of instruction in his cheyder consisted of Tanach with Rashi's commentary, and Talmud. He viewed his cheyder not only as a source of livelihood, but first of all as a great commandment which he was meant to fulfill by educating a generation of honest and observant Jews. He therefore never considered the time he spent or even the money. If there was an intelligent boy from a poor family who could not afford to pay for his tuition, he would teach him without pay so that he would grow up as a Jew learned in Torah. For many years, his name was mentioned among the poor people of Swerznie.
The teachers of a higher level were Reb Eliyahu Ettes, Yankel der khokhem and Shmuel the shochet, at
whose cheyders one studied Pentateuch with Rashi's commentary, Prophets and Writings, and in some cases even Talmud. In addition to the above-mentioned subjects of a religious nature, they also taught the children arithmetic, Hebrew, how to write a letter in Yiddish, and even a little Russian, in order to be able to write an address.
For a little while before World War I, the teacher Yitzkhak Domnitsh directed a coeducational cheyder of boys and girls, but he had no luck and his cheyder had to close a very short time later.
The Talmud Torah
The Talmud Torah, which existed for a few years in the shtibl of the large synagogue, also needs to be mentioned. Here the poorest children of the town learned for a very low price or even entirely for free.
The first teacher who directed the Talmud Torah was a small, thin, tidy Jew with a beautiful silver-white beard, which was always combed wide apart and gave the impression of a Jew who was a Torah scholar. He came from elsewhere if I am not mistaken, from the nearby town of Mir. Nobody knew his name, but he was called the Talmud Torah melamed. In his day, the studies at the Talmud Torah stood at a proper level, but his sudden death interrupted his fruitful activity among the poor children of the town. After him, the Talmud Torah was directed by Bendet, and after him by Yankel the beadle. The last two did not have even minimal teaching skills and were very far from what was called among us a yid a talmid-khokhem.
That, more or less, was what our educational system in Swerznie looked like in the years before World War I.
Meir Yossef Schwartz
A radical change in the entire educational system was introduced with the arrival in Swerznie of Meir Yossef Schwartz. He was a young man very knowledgeable and very well-versed in both religious and modern Hebrew literature. With his idealistic national outlook and Zionist consciousness, he was carried along by the stream of the Second Aliyah to the Land of Israel, but after a period of wandering across the land, he was unable to find a place for himself to earn a bare existence and was forced, like many other idealists of that period, to return with a broken spirit to his poor home in Swerznie, the town of his birth. This happened approximately in 1908.
After his return to Swerznie, Meir Yossef Schwartz or as he was called in the familiar manner of Swerznie, Meir Yossef opened a modern cheyder, which of course, like all cheyders of that time, had to be strictly religious in form, but was Zionist and national in its inner content. In addition to the religious subjects, much time was devoted to Hebrew, Jewish history and Hebrew literature. In this way, the first modernized religious school in Swerznie was created.
At that time Meir Yossef found himself in a very difficult situation. He suffered not so much materially as spiritually because of the isolation that was created around his person. Not, G-d forbid, because he left the Land of Israel and came back to exile nobody was interested in that; but as in every small town, so also among us, there were people who liked to rejoice in someone else's failure. The Bundists very much enjoyed this failure for two reasons: First, because in his early youth Meir Yossef was a member of the Bund, and very quickly he betrayed them and became a Zionist. Hence his return created plenty of propaganda to convince the toiling masses regarding the false Zionist path, which diverts the attention of the Jewish proletariat from its struggle for existence here because of a Zionist utopia called Palestine.
Pious Jews were pleased that for now the Holy Land was rid of another heretic, who wanted to bring the Messiah before his time and thereby would delay the end of the exile. And ordinary small-town clowns had something to joke about, that Meir Yossef had brought great capital from the Land of Israel -- he returned with wooden loafers.
But a man with an iron character like Meir Yossef does not allow himself to fall apart so easily. He stood steadfastly like a captain on a ship in a roaring sea, holding the rudder securely in his hand, and does not lose his balance even among the raging foaming waves. Meir Yossef remained true to his ideals. He continued to struggle against his opponents on the right and the left, and to the last day of his life he devoted all his energy and free time to the Zionist ideal. He entered into a struggle with the presidents of the batei midrashim to be permitted to place a Jewish National Fund charity bowl in every synagogue on the eve of Yom-Kippur. I still remember from my earliest youth, arriving with my father at the synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur for the afternoon prayer; and seeing a large table right at the entrance. Around this table sat the most influential members of the town, each behind his charity bowl, representing various societies, and among them also Meir Yossef. Next to him stood
a tall brass stand with a white sign with large blue Hebrew letters protruding from the bowl, saying:
For the settlement in the Land of Israel to buy land. Straight after Yom-Kippur he would send the money to the Odessa Committee for the Land of Israel.
For many years Meir Yossef sat at the charity bowl for the Jewish National Fund this had become his established claim. Even after Meir Yossef had moved to Stoibtz, the charity bowl for the Jewish National Fund stood on the table in the synagogue every Yom Kippur eve before the afternoon prayer, and Jews, as usual, contributed to the Jewish National Fund and even much more than in former years, because Zionism was no longer a matter for daydreamers and a considerable part of the youth of Swerznie was already in the Land of Israel, so that a living link was formed between the town and the Land.
But something was missing from the earlier idyll which reigned for years between him and the charity bowl. The same note with the inscription For the settlement of the land of Israel, the same charity bowl, the synagogue was also the same, but Meir Yossef was missing. Meir Yossef raised a generation of pupils who remained true to his teaching and observed the values that he instilled in them. Thanks to this, besides the Zionist movement, no party had a foothold in our town and with pride we can call him: Meir Yossef Schwartz the spiritual father of Zionism in Swerznie. The title is well deserved.
In addition to the above-mentioned cheyders and also the more advanced cheyders like those of Shmuel the Shochet or Meir Yossef, where the students already had an understanding of a page of Talmud, some of the parents sent their children to continue their studies in the yeshiva of Mir. Of course, one did not immediately enter the yeshiva of Mir. There too, there were various levels. For example, those who were weaker in knowledge of the Talmud were at first accepted to the Talmud Torah of Moshe Yitzkhak; from him they moved to Reb Zhamme's lower level, then to Reb Zhamme's upper level, and only then did they have to pass an examination before arriving at the real yeshiva of Mir. Large numbers of children travelled to study in the Mir Yeshiva before the First World War, but only a small number managed to enter the yeshiva. Those who were accepted in the yeshiva continued their studies for a long time and left there with deep knowledge of the Talmud.
Besides attending the Jewish cheyders, some of the Jewish children completed their education by studying in the Russian Narodnaya Utshilishtshe and in Ministerskoe Dvukhklasne. Some of the boys studied at the Gorodskaye in Stoibtz. This was a Tsarist school where the studies consisted of three years of high school.
I stress completed because there was almost no case of a Jewish child starting from the beginning at a non-Jewish school. Every Jewish child without exception, began to study in a cheyder where he received an elementary knowledge of Judaism such as praying and reading and writing Yiddish. Woe to such a young man if he were called up to the Torah and did not know how to recite the blessings. Even if he had the highest [Russian] education, he would have been regarded as an ignoramus and uncultured. Therefore, there was no Jewish house where the mother tongue was not Yiddish, as happened in many other regions of Russia. This was the main characteristic of all Jewish cities and towns of Lithuania and White Russia. If there was a house where a foreign language was used or the children were called by gentile names, such a house was despised and labeled as a house of assimilationists and those who show servility to non-Jews.
This is what the educational system in Swerznie looked like until 1914, when the First World War broke out.
A year later, in 1915, when the Germans occupied Baranovich and the front moved to within 30 kilometers from the town, some Jews, mainly those who were well off, moved to Minsk or other regions in Russia. As a result, there remained only a small number of children of poor parents, who did not have the means to pay the tuition fees, remained in the town. The fathers had been drafted or else, being in America, they were cut off on the other side of the ocean and were unable to help their unfortunate wives and children, who frequently suffered from hunger.
There were almost no teachers. Eliyahu Ettes was already old and no longer taught children . Shmuel the Shochet was drafted into the army and Meir Yossef left the cheyder and opened a cosmetics store, which at that time provided him with a substantial income from the many soldiers and officers who were then located in Swerznie and in the surrounding villages. Here they would come to rest from the front lines and form their ranks for the next imminent battles, which at that time took place almost without interruption, for a few years.
A resident of Swerznie at that time was Yossef Shkolnik, who for years had studied in the Mir Yeshiva and had acquired a deep knowledge of the Talmud and the Hebrew language. After being freed from military service because of nearsightedness, a few established residents of Swerznie turned to him and proposed to him that he establish a cheyder for a limited number of children. His cheyder lasted approximately two semesters, because members of the Stoibtz community came and offered him much better terms, and he moved to Stoibtz.
After he left, a cheyder was directed by Moshe Zmudzyak, in Swerznie, or as we called him, Meysl Mininke's [i.e. the son of Mininke], according to his mother's name. His cheyder also did not last long, because he married a girl from Uzd, moved there and from Uzd he left for America.
In the year 1919, when the Poles came to our area for the first time and occupied part of White Russia up to the Berezina River on the east, the Joint began an intensive activity among the population who were exhausted from six years of war and revolutions. Communication was quickly established with associations of immigrants in America. Community Councils were elected in each city and town, and kitchens for feeding children, and free schools, were opened.
Then, for the first time, a modern Hebrew school was opened in Swerznie under the name Ha'tkhiyah. This school included all the children of the town, that then reached a couple of hundred, and was directed by a group of experienced teachers, such as: Meir Yossef Schwartz, Yossef Shkolnik, Shmuel the Shochet, and Khayke the rabbi's daughter. In the shtibel of the synagogue, the kitchen was set up under the direction of Ayzik Sheynkman, Nokhem Shteynhoyz, and as supervisor Sheynke the rabbi's daughter. The cook was Rokhl Itshkes.
It was simply a pleasure to watch the way hundreds of children would seat themselves at the tables after years of hunger and need and thoroughly enjoy the fresh and nourishing foods.
The school was established at a high cultural level, and a splendid children's choir was organized under the direction of Yossef Shkolnik. For the first time the Jewish children saw pictures of Yiddish writers and Zionist leaders on the walls of a Jewish school. They found out that Jews too have a national anthem, and that one should rise for the singing of Hatikvah, The Hope.
An enthusiastic mood prevailed among the children when they were told about the Land of Israel, where the Jewish state is being built. With particular interest they studied the geography of the Land of Israel, especially when dealing with the topic of Jewish villages and Jewish farmers who can plow and sow themselves and do not have to approach a gentile to plow their fields, as they saw in Swerznie. There in the Land of Israel, a Jewish settler goes into his stable, takes out his own horse and plow, and cultivates his field, and when he finishes plowing, he mounts his horse and rides home. Happy Jews are the farmers of the Land of Israel!
Regrettably, the school did not last long. In 1920, the Bolsheviks returned, and because of financial difficulties and for political reasons, the school had to close. I will never forget the moment when the teachers and children said goodbye. When they sang Hatikvah at the conclusion, all the children, together with their teachers, wept bitter tears.
A school of this caliber no longer existed in Swerznie from that time until its destruction.
In the following years, a cheyder was opened by Noakh Abba Rubentshik, a man of much knowledge but with scant pedagogic abilities. For years he instructed the children of Swerznie but saw no fruit from his labor.
After him, a cheyder was directed by Chaim Protas in his old age and by Dovid Leibson, but parents who took their children's education seriously sent them to the Tarbut school in Stoibtz.
It is worth mentioning that during the War, approximately in 1917, a Russian European-style high school was opened in Swerznie at the initiative of Kole Vaskevitch. It was of a high level and was attended by many Jewish students from all the surrounding towns because it was then the only high school in the entire region.
When the Poles occupied part of White Russia a second time and established the border with Russia in Kolosova, approximately 15 kilometers from Swerznie, they proclaimed Stoibtz as a district town, converted the high school into a Polish one, and moved it to Stoibtz.
This, more or less, is the history of the religious and educational system at the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century in Swerznie.
It was interrupted in a cruel fashion by the Nazi murderers in 1941 and this time with a tragic ending.
Yaakov Sholem Katzenellenbogen
In addition to various societies and rabbis, Swerznie also produced a few successful and distinguished Hebrew and Yiddish writers, among them the youngest son of Rabbi Binyomin Isser and the brother of Rabbi Khayfe, Yaakov Sholem Katzenellenbogen, who was born and educated in Swerznie. He was one of the first writers and poets of the new Hebrew literature. In the town he was known under the name Dodl. Yaakov Sholem published his poetry and prose in Frishman's Hador under the literary pseudonym Yashk, stories in Fuks's Hashavuah, as well as essays in the London publication Hadegel.
Aside from being a talented poet, Dodl was a devoted Zionist, and until the Second World War, I still saw stocks and shares of the Colonial Bank that had been distributed by Dodl among the Jews of Swerznie many years earlier.
Yash'k was a new poet. His song was in Hebrew, a language that nobody around me spoke, and his poems were full of images of exalted moods. When seized by the urge to create, he would look like one intoxicated. I can't forget my astonishment at what happened when I walked with him in the forest on the green path that led from the hill to his home. Suddenly both his eyes lit up with a fiery fervor that I had never seen in the eyes of any of my acquaintances. Literally in front of me, he began to passionately recite line after line: new and measured verses which he instantly created. They were artfully linked one to the next, cut out, chiseled…. a miracle: they also rhymed at the end, as if each line was bearing witness to the next.
I recall an evening in Ataliz when connoisseurs of Hebrew gathered in the house. He then pulled out of his box a short story called Mayim Shelanu. These were artistic memoirs of his childhood, how he had at night accompanied his father (that is, the rabbi of Swerznie A. D. Shkolnik) when the latter went to draw water for baking matzo. The story was soaked with holiday holiness, childhood longing, and love of one's elders. He was already perfect in form, new in expression, and he penetrated one's heart.
Later we found out that he had gone sailing on a lake in Switzerland with a lady acquaintance. A wave rose to swallow up the boat. Yashk risked his life, jumped into the water, and saved his companion, but as a result he himself sank into the abyss. Who was she, and where is this acquaintance who saw him in his last moments, and for whose sake, he sacrificed his life? Was his body recovered afterward? Was he brought to a Jewish burial? Is there a mark on his grave? Until now I have not been able to find an answer. (Adapted from Kokhvey Boker [Morning Stars] by Zalman Shazar.)
This was the tragic end of Rabbi Binyomin Isser's youngest son, who was born, raised, and grew up on the soil of Swerznie.
Many years before Yashk, there lived one of the most talented Jewish writers of that period, Moshe Zeyfert, who influenced the youth of Swerznie.
In 1873 M. Zeyfert passed the medical practioner's examination. After his father, the medical practitioner of Swerznie, died, Moshe Zeyfert began to practice in Swerznie and also in the nearby town Stoibtz. Already then, he began his literary journalistic activity. He printed feature articles in Radkinson's Hakol [The Voice] and Zionist articles in Hamagid [The Preacher], correspondences in Voskhod [Arise], Khronika [Chronicle], and Rasvyet [Dawn] (Lexicon of Yiddish Literature by Zalman Reisen).
He died at about 80 and his productive activity, and the 65 years of his life that he devoted to Yiddish literature, came to an end. He also wrote in Hebrew, Russian, and German. The last 17 years
of his life he was affiliated with the New York Togeblatt, where he published some of his best works, novels about Jewish life, which made an impression on tens of thousands of Jewish homes. His work was read by entire families, and each reader admired him both for his excellent Jewish characters and sketches, and for his rich, fluent language.
Here is what the editorial board of the New York Togeblatt wrote in its editorial on the day of his funeral, 10 Shvat 5682, Torah portion Beshalakh:
Happy is the man who can create happiness and pleasure for his fellow human beings.
Happy is he who can make the hearts of his fellow men beat more warmly, who can bring a smile to their lips. Zeyfert was one of those happy ones that can bring happiness and pleasure to their fellowmen. A life of continuous writing, more than half a century of ceaseless creativity, of building worlds with his imagination, of depicting scenes, of bringing to the reader old dreams of his childhood, of reviving in him, or in her, his or her youth what can be more beautiful than a life like that of Zeyfert!
How many happy moments did Zeyfert give to his readers with his rich imagination; and how great are the deeds that he did for them!
One can live a life of greater comfort than that which Moshe Zeyfert, the poor man of the pen, enjoyed. One can have much more pleasure in this world than he had, but one won't have a richer life than Moshe Zeyfert had. A human being that can create so much and for so long lives a rich and happy life even if he has barely enough to get through the day. And when an 80-year-old man dies in the middle of one of his works, dies with his pen in his hand, and with new plans for new creations he surely died a happy man.
Reward? The world does not reward those who create for it, just as you do not reward a flower for what it gives you. But man does not create for reward. He works in order to express what is within him. The creator has true pleasure not in taking but in giving. Zeyfert gave much to the Jewish public.
Zeyfert brought to the Jew in America the breath of air of home. He painted Jewish life for him. He gave his readers a second youth, reminding them of their old home.
Zeyfert lived, created, and gave. More than this no human being can accomplish.
Moshe Zeyfert, in the course of his long creative life, wrote 64 novels and hundreds of sketches and short stories. He also wrote 37 plays and dramas. His most successful plays are Shoymer Yisroel and Malkat Shvo Considered his best novels are Der Turem fun Bovel, Barg Arop and Zishe Farhuleiniker. Although Moshe Zeyfert was born in the year 1845 in Vilkomir, Kovno Province, he is nevertheless a man from Swerznie, for when his father settled in our town as a medical practitioner, Moshe was barely ten years old, and it was in Swerznie that he began his first literary work. His first wife was also from Swerznie, and the rich natural surroundings of the town on all sides had a great influence on his delicate soul.
Dr. Leon Mozkin
The Motzkin family was very closely connected to Swerznie. From this family emerged one of the finest personalities of political Zionism, Dr. Leon Motzkin.
As Yitzkhak Gruntfest (Itshke Yakhke's ) [Note: Itshke is a diminutive of Yitzkhak, and his mother's name was Yakhne.], who for years was mestshanski-staroste of the Jewish community in Swerznie, told me, that during the period of the Tsarist regime the Motzkin family obtained their passports in the Jewish mestshanske-uprave of Swerznie, because according to Tsarist law one had to obtain a passport only in the place where one was listed in the government record books, even if one later changed one's place of residence. By the way, the members of the Gruntfest family were close relatives of the Motzkins and from time to time would visit them in Kiev, where the Motzkins lived.
Few people from Swerznie know that the young talented diplomat Yossef Tekoa, is from Swerznie. He was Israel's representative to the United Nations (UN) and succeeded Abba Eban as ambassador to the UN after Eban retired. He was later Israel's ambassador to Brazil, and now serves as Israel's ambassador in the Soviet Union. His mother is Devorah Brokhes, the daughter of Yossel Leibottes.
The Brokhes family was well-known in the town on account of the tragic death of Yossel, the father of the family, who was murdered on the way to Minsk in 1916. The young diplomat now bears the name of his murdered grandfather. The murder happened as follows. During the First World War, Yossel engaged in trade. Since merchandise had to be brought from Minsk and it was impossible to travel by train because the trains were occupied by military transports, Yossel, like many other Jews
at that time, bought a horse and wagon and transported the merchandise from Minsk by wagon. On one of these journeys, when he was accompanied by Binyomin Bunyes, they were attacked on the way by bandits. After they robbed Yossel, they murdered him in the forest, and Binyomin suffered severe wounds.
Yossel's youngest daughter, Rokhl, with her husband and child
May the Lord avenge their blood
Years later Binyomin recognized Shusharin, a former soldier from Tsar Nikolay's army who was stationed in Swerznie during the First World War, as one of the murderers who carried out the horrendous murder of Yossel on the road to Minsk. A trial took place, and he was sentenced by a Polish court to life in prison together with another gentile. He served his sentence in the prison in Novogrudek. The Germans freed him, no doubt for his heroism in murdering Jews even before Hitler came to power…. Shusharin returned to Swerznie and holds an official post in the Sel-Soviet of Swerznie, that is, in the town's self-government in the Soviet Union.
The Economic Condition of the Jews in Swerznie
To this very day we have in our possession an interesting article, Swerznie, the Town of My Birth, by Reuven Sperans, printed in the American Yiddish paper Tog. This is one of the oldest descriptions of the economic situation of the Jews of Swerznie at the end of the 19th century.
In that period, when there was no railroad yet and the most distant journeys were undertaken by horse and wagon, or in winter by sleigh, Swerznie served as a central point where the east-west roads crossed. Hence it is obvious that Jewish artisans, storekeepers, traders, innkeepers, and big merchants had ample income. This is also apparent from the fact that almost until the Second World War this small town had two ritual slaughterers: Shmuel the shochet and the old cantor Reb Berel Volf Shpitz. This could serve as proof that formerly there was enough work for two slaughterers, and the tradition of having two was preserved [even after the economic situation deteriorated]. It is true that in the last years [before World War I], both slaughterers had no income from slaughtering so both of them actually found supplementary earnings: Shmuel was a teacher, and the cantor Reb Berel Volf occupied himself with religious artwork: His embroidered mantles for Torah scrolls and his carved synagogue lecterns were renowned and were sold in all Jewish cities and towns. From time to time he would engage in engraving gravestones, although in this field he was not a great expert, but what won't a Jew do when he needs a livelihood, and it is a commandment to live? So, one engages in what one can do, and also in what one cannot do.
May the Lord avenge his blood
During the First World War, there were strong disputes in the large synagogue between the afternoon and evening prayers, between the cantor and Alter Hanneles, because the cantor held that Uncle Velvl (he meant Kaiser Wilhelm) would win the war and that Mikolayke [Tsar Nicholas], may his name be erased, will have to run away even from Petersburg. Alter, on the other hand stood steadfastly on the side of Kaiser Nikolay, not that he was such a supporter of the tsar, but of the great Russian army. He was indeed an artisan, but not an ordinary one, and he was also one of the few who would browse through a newspaper, even a Russian one.
He did not send his son to the yeshiva, like most Jews of Swerznie, but to a ministerial school, not G-d forbid
because he was a heretic, but because he hated the dukhovyenstvo. In Yiddish, he called them the crooked backs, meaning the religious ministrants. This, however, did not prevent him from leading the morning services on the Days of Awe. When he came to the meaningful prayers in the prayer book of the of the High Holy Days he would burst out crying like a child.
Since his whole mode of life was paradoxical, the following paradox could also have happened to him that he, Alter the shoemaker, almost a revolutionary, should want Russia to win the war. He was sure that the Russian army, which numbered tens of millions, would destroy the Germans and that no vestige or remnant would remain of the Krauts, and the proof is that Nikolay Nikolayevitsh is already standing with his army on the Carpathian Mountains.
And just in case this argument was perhaps not enough for the cantor, Alter , as mentioned before, was not an ignoramus, and he immediately invoked the Talmud as a partner in his dispute, showing conclusively that the Talmudic sage Shmuel said dino demalkhuso dino. This could also serve as a hint and perhaps even a warning to the cantor that it is better that he keeps his mouth shut and not agitate for the Germans among Jews in the synagogue.
Reb Berl Volf the cantor, on the other hand, was also a stubborn Jew and would, under no circumstances, surrender. He hit back at Alter with such logical arguments as the Kishinev Pogrom, the Pale of Settlement, the Beilis trial, etc.
At this point Yashke Getsel's [i.e. Yashke, son of Getsl], who had been present during the dispute holding a neutral position, could be silent no longer, and stroking his beard he began as follows: In the first place, I do not understand why there is a dispute because, as I understand it, the war is not a war. It is only an attempt by the two monarchs to see who has a bigger army, and here you are quarrelling. Let us not deceive ourselves. Why do Mikolay and Wilhelm need a war, do they do not have enough with which to gorge themselves? eh! So, I'm asking you. But then you will tell me that it is written in the newspapers. So why are you such imbeciles and do not understand that for them it is simply a matter of a livelihood fools are quarrelling, they are getting rich. Then he turned to where the cantor sat and said: You, cantor, I do not understand at all. What do you mean the Russians will lose? If there really is a war, as you all say, it seems according to your opinion, that the German is shooting with bullets and the Russian shoots with potatoes. Believe me, the Russians have such dumplings (euphemistically he meant bombs) that can destroy the whole world.
As if it were a trifle, such a huge population with so much infantry and so many Circassians. Do you know what this means? One Cossack can kill off a thousand Germans. You will still remember my words, what Yashke said, it is not a war. It is hard to imagine what punishment Yashke would have received [from the regime] for taking such a position. Such a minor matter; while the war is raging, Jews are expressing opinions, dividing territories for the Germans or for the Russians, and at the end, his Yashke comes and trivializes the whole thing! But at this point a real miracle happened. Suddenly one heard a slapping against the lecterns a sign that the evening prayers were about to begin. This brought a temporary pause to the raging dispute in the synagogue of Swerznie, where the fate of the world and who would win the war had to be decided….
In this same way, every day between the afternoon and evening prayers, the same dispute was resumed, but thanks to the revolution of 1917 the discussion between the cantor and Alter Hanneles came to an end. True, they both lost the war [the sides each of them was defending had lost], but they never became good friends to the last day of their lives.
In its internal life Swerznie was no different from all the towns of the Jewish exile in Russia. The world was never straight, full of deviations - here up hill and suddenly downhill. One was never sure that tomorrow would be similar to today. In this manner Jewish life in the town went on apparently for years. One married off children, acquired learned sons-in-law, founded societies, prayed every day with the community, and had enough to live on. One aspect of earning a living in Swerznie, differed from many other Jewish towns, and this was the occupation of gardening. I do not mean that almost every Jew had a vegetable garden next to his house and had not only enough vegetables for his own use and his cow, but still had enough to sell. Every summer, during cucumber season, women vegetable traders from Stoibtz would come down every morning: Sore Zlotnik (daughter of Trubtsikhe), Shifre Kaplan (the ritual bath house attendant), Taybe Avrahamke's, and buy cucumbers to sell in the Stoibtz marketplace.
The prices and the mood of these buyers who were purchasing for resale was closely tied to the previous day. If yesterday had been a good market day and they had sold the cucumbers at good prices, each of these resale buyers would come individually, one earlier than the next, in order to secure a fresh cart of cucumbers. But if yesterday had been a weak market day and the prices low, then all three women would come together as one, with a price agreed among themselves, that is, a kind of cooperative, and none of them paid even a penny more than the others.
Naturally, the traders of Swerznie did not agree so easily to lower the price, and at this point
bargaining would begin. The women of Stoibtz swore that never again their lives would they trade in cucumbers, and in response the garden owners of Swerznie swore that even if, G-d forbid, they knew that their gardens would lie waste, they would never again sow cucumbers and have any dealings with the buyers who bought for resale. These conversations were repeated every year and every summer. Both parties forgot their oaths the Swerznie traders again sowed cucumbers and the Stoibtz buyers again came to buy. The issue is not about these little gardens, because none of these garden owners regarded them as their main source of income. It was only a supplement to their regular earnings. Every garden owner was an artisan or a storekeeper, and from that he derived his livelihood.
By contrast, there were many families in Swerznie whose sole source of livelihood was gardening, or as we used to call them, the Prussian ogrodniks [market gardeners/ truck farmers], because after Passover they would go to Germany, mainly Königsberg, together with their adult children, and some would even take along others, not from their families. There they would rent tens of acres of soil from German landowners sow it with vegetables, and after the season, approximately after the Festival of Booths [Sukkot], they would return to their wives and children.
All these Prussians were made up of a special closed caste of elected residents of the town. They were all community leaders with seats of honor in the synagogue, were influential, and considered themselves superior to the storekeepers, and of course, the artisans. Their children studied in gentile schools, and they were looked upon as people who had travelled the world.
The First World War trapped them all in Germany, so the Germans detained all the young men who were suitable for military service as refugees, and sent the older people and girls, back home.
Of the young men who remained in Germany nobody ever returned home to Swerznie. They married there and lived in Germany until Hitler came to power. After the rise of Hitlerism a few of them came to the Land of Israel together with their families: Yechiel and Velvl Shmushkovitsh, Michael Klyatshuk, and Zalman Reznik.
The First World War ended, but the gardeners of Swerznie no longer went to Germany. Some of them continued their occupation in postwar Poland, and some of them stopped working altogether because of their age. Regardless of how it ended, in the fact is that a significant part of the Jewish population of Swerznie devoted itself to agriculture and derived its livelihood from it.
As said, the Jews of Swerznie earned a respectable living, but all this was true until the 1870's, that is, the period before the Moscow-Brisk railroad line was completed and a railroad station was built in Stoibtz. Since then the decline of Swerznie in general and its Jews in particular began.
As each year passed, Stoibtz became bigger and Swerznie smaller. Travel by horse and wagon ceased, the inns remained idle and empty, passing travelers did not come any more, and the Yekaterinovske Highway gradually became overgrown with grass. Only the two rows of majestic old trees remained, helpless, with branches drooping to the ground, which created the impression that they were mourning the economic decline of the Jews of Swerznie.
The trees remained until the last day of the extermination of the Jews as silent witnesses to that glorious and brilliant period in the life of the Jews in Swerznie.
The situation changed a little for the better before the First World War, when a Jewish merchant, Itshe Velye, built a sawmill in Swerznie for cutting timber boards. Gentiles began to work and earn, and as a result the storekeepers earned a living. The Jewish tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, and smiths also began to earn more, but this good fortune did not last long. After the sawmill had existed for a few years, once on a Friday evening a fire broke out and the sawmill burned down completely. It was even said that the owners themselves made the blessing Who creates the lights of fire. Regardless of how it happened, it was another terrible blow for the Jews in Swerznie.
As always in such cases, Jews left their wives and children and started to immigrate to America in the hope of getting rich quickly and very soon be able to bring their wives and children.
The First World War in 1914
How does the Yiddish proverb put it: A persons makes plans, and G-d laughs. In August 1914, on Friday the eve of the Sabbath-Khazon, notices were posted in the streets that war had broken out between Austria and Serbia. Russia was mobilizing its troops and preparing to help Serbia. The Germans were going to help Austria.
A dark cloud descended upon the world, and it was also felt in Swerznie.
Women did not prepare for the Sabbath. Groups of people gathered in the streets. Some tore the hair from their heads, wept, fainted. Everybody took account of the terrible situation. Women in particular understood the new situation. Their husbands, the only providers, would be taken away, and they would be left with a house with tiny children: There were debts everywhere: in the stores, at the baker, and the next day, where would one get bread for the children, since nobody would want to lend? In one house the situation was more terrible than in the next. Women began to assess the situation: How would it be if her husband lost a leg or an arm, which would still be better than going may the evil hour, the moment not come than if he laid down his life for the Tsarist thief. Why, for whom, for the good life here!?
But the real tragedy only occurred the next morning, the Sabbath of Khazon. Very early Jews were already running to pray. The synagogue was overflowing with worshippers. Suddenly the doors of the large synagogue opened swiftly, and tens of women broke in, headed by Ette Khonye, three of whose sons had been mobilized, and Khayele Mordkhe's, from whom two sons were also being taken, and the semi-blind Reshke the daughter of Yankel the printer, who was left with three children of which the oldest was barely eight years old, and Khaye Tsirlye, who was in the final months of her second pregnancy all of them ran quickly and threw open the doors of the Holy Ark, and shouting and cries were heard: Holy Torah scrolls, you stand here silent, go up to Heaven, stand before the Divine Throne, shout to the Lord of the Universe, that He tear up the decree and that our children should not, G-d forbid, be left orphans.
The cries gradually turned into heart-rending weeping. One no longer heard words but a general sobbing, a terrible lament. Everybody wept: the rabbi, the worshippers, the walls of the synagogue, like the cry of Mother Rachel for her lost children. But this was still nothing compared to what happened on the Sabbath afternoon when all those who were mobilized walked to the train. Each draftee with a little bag over his shoulder, was escorted by the members of his household, with terrible howling and screaming. There walked Reuven Getsl's, a strong man who fought in the artillery in the Japanese war there came Moshe Aaron, a sturdy man with broad shoulders and a black beard he too fought in the Russo-Japanese war. Here came Moyshke Hertsl's, who had finished his military service a short time ago and his wedding was to take place on the Sabbath-Nakhamu. And more and more came, all with the same escorts and the same weeping. Christians were also coming with their escorts. Old gentiles followed behind murmuring quietly and crossing themselves, and in this manner the terrible procession of grief made its way the Stoibtz railroad station.
At that time I was overcome by a strange feeling. To my childish mind it did not make sense that Jews would be dressed in weekday clothes on the Sabbath with sacks on their backs. Even then I felt that something extraordinary was happening here. Terrible scenes were taking place all along the way. Every minute another woman fainted, and Ayzik the pharmacist ran around, giving the women something to smell from a little bottle, and they were immediately revived. The railroad station was black with people, a long train with freight cars was ready to transport all the military conscripts to the military commander at the collection point in Minsk.
Suddenly Tsharnyetski, the district commander, appeared, but not as usual in a shabby jacket and patched shoes. This time he was dressed in black low boots, green dengal trousers, and a black overcoat that displayed medals. He delivered a short speech and concluded in tears with the Russian proverb that from a thick cloud a slight rain usually falls and may grant that everyone would return home in good health. When everyone was sitting in the railroad cars and the train began to move, he took off his cap, approached the train, and kissed one of the cars while wiping the tears from his face.
The great hardship of the families
On the way home, everybody walked separately. People no longer wept or fainted, but walked solidly, deep in thought, considering who was worse off, the ones who left on the train or the children who would ask for food and there would be no bread in the house.
The situation of the so-called American wives, was also unbearable. These were women who lived quite decently from what their husbands sent them from the other side of the ocean, from the land of Columbus. The men had hoped that after saving some money they would also be able to bring over their families, and now suddenly all contact across the sea was cut off, and the families remained without any means for tomorrow.
With this hindsight, their situation was even worse than that of the wives whose husbands were mobilized, for finally each woman received, more or less, some payment from the government for her mobilized husband or son if he was the breadwinner.
In contrast, the American wives were left without any welfare, and many of them simply lacked the wherewithal to buy a piece of bread for themselves and their children. Gradually one got used to the new situation. People in the town began to think about what could be done for the American wives. In this respect Yankel Ettes excelled. He simply ran from house to house with a basket collecting bread, that he distributed among the former rich women, the so-called American wives. Let this be noted to his merit, for had it not been for Yankel Ettes, the situation of these women would have literally been a catastrophe.
Less than a year later, i.e. in summer 1915, Stoibtz burned down. There could not even be talk of rebuilding anew. The Russian military on the western front suffered one defeat after the next, and with each day the front moved closer to us. Nobody was sure whether one might have to run away very soon. For this reason, indeed many people from Stoibtz moved over to live in Swerznie. Others, again, moved to Minsk while there was still time. The houses in Swerznie were overflowing with people from Stoibtz. Everybody thought that this was only temporary, but in fact they remained in Swerznie until the war ended.
The Bitter Fate of the Mass Refugees
Shortly after the fire in Stoibtz, the streets of Swerznie were flooded with thousands of homeless, who were driven out by the Russians from the region of Lomze and Grodno, and who were making their way by horse and wagon deeper into Russia.
In the daytime it was impossible to cross from one side of the street to the other, and at night people would rest in the fields, lit fires to cook a little food. If one went out at night and stood on the hill near the church, it seemed that the entire surroundings were alight, just as if heaven and earth had been transformed into one mass of fire. Very early before sunrise, they had already set out again on their way. The evacuation took weeks and months, and among those who were evacuated, various epidemic illnesses broke out. All the fields around us were sown with graves.
From one day to the next the number of crosses around the town grew. Each cross was a fresh grave. People fell like flies. People's belongings were lying around in the fields. Generations of human toil was reduced to nothingness in the course of a few weeks. Almost every Jew purchased a horse and wagon and kept them ready for escaping deeper into Russia, because nobody was sure about the next day. This situation prevailed almost until the end of 1915. The Germans occupied Baranovich, and the battle front stopped approximately 30 kilometers west of Swerznie. This is how the front remained until 1918.
At this point, the material situation of the Jews of Swerznie improved, for the following reason: Stoibtz was covered in ruins from the fire; except for a few barracks made of boards, that some homeowners erected, nobody built. The towns of Mir and Horodzaye were too close to the front, so the most ideal point for military preparation for the front was Swerznie.
After a few months of battle at the front, each military corps would have to rest and be supplemented by new forces to replace those who fell at the front. Such rest would sometimes take a month or longer. Then the corps staff would be quartered in Swerznie in the building of the ministerial school, and all the troops in all the villages around Swerznie. During the war, each corps numbered 80,000 soldiers. Each soldier arrived from the front with money and sought to make purchases with his money, as a result, Swerznie began to live. In almost every house a store was opened, and every kitchen was transformed into a bakery. Regardless of how much merchandise was brought and how many baked goods were prepared, there was never enough to satisfy the needs of the soldiers.
During these years, the following corps came to Swerznie: the 16th, 35th, 5th Siberian Corps, 3rd Caucasian Corps, the 24th and again the 3rd Caucasian and the 9th Corps. So artisans and craftsmen also had an abundant supply of work. Not only did people earn a better living, but the town's external appearance also changed. All of Stoibtz Street in Swerznie, where the staff and the generals were located, had fresh yellow sand poured over it every day, and at night lanterns were burning in the streets.
Well-dressed gendarmes patrolled across Swerznie and preserved order.
The year 1916 passed in this way, without any notable changes except for a few sleepless nights, when a relentless battle would occur at the front, and in the town, one could hear the echo of a distant cannonade of heavy artillery. People were afraid to get undressed and waited with beating hearts for that which they wanted not to happen. Very often a German aircraft would arrive at which
four canons that stood near the old cemetery, would immediately open fire. Each time the plane would drop a bomb on the railroad station, but the bomb would fall into the Nieman River.
But people became accustomed even to this. There were days when the plane did not come, and people walked around impatiently, just as if something were missing.
The February Revolution
Life continued in this way until 12 March 1917. Suddenly a cloud appeared on everyone's face. People walked about engrossed in their own thoughts. Jews started to arrive for the afternoon and evening prayers, and if two people were standing and whispering to each other, they would immediately interrupt their conversation when a third approached. More and more often the following words would be heard from one person to another: Do not talk nonsense, do not babble, do not look for trouble, and the like.
A couple of days later a rumor spread that the regional police superintendent ran away from Stoibtz, but immediately Jews appeared who stubbornly contradicted the information. The tension grew from day to day. It wasn't until the 17th of March that soldiers were seen leading the constable and the guardsmen off to Akintshitz to the commandant of the etap. Only then did people hug one another without fear and exchange congratulations on the revolution, and unhesitatingly pronounced the words Down with Nicholas and Long live Kerensky and the provisional government. Skeptics were still holding back and warned that Jews should not rejoice too much in the streets and not be conspicuous, because one might come to the same end as in 1905….
L. Epshtein, L. Kuznyets (may the Lord avenge his blood), Y. Epshtein
Gradually Jews got used to the idea that the revolution was actually a fact. They began to feel like citizens with equal rights, yet sources of livelihood in the town declined. New military personnel no longer arrived to rest from the battle front, because the provisional government adopted the tactic of not attacking the enemy for the following reasons:
First, they needed to be able to focus all their attention on internal consolidation of the revolution within the country itself. Of course, this could not be done while there was fighting at the fronts and all attention was turned in that direction and every failure at the front was liable to damage the freedom that was acquired with such difficulty. Secondly, the soldiers themselves were tired of wandering around for years at the fronts. When they heard of a revolution in the country and people rejoicing in the streets, they lost the desire to fight and risk their lives. The slogan in the army was to lay down arms and go home. The Entente nations understood this, and all they expected of Kerensky was, that if the Russian army did now not want to attack the enemy, they should not be forced to do so; but under no circumstances should they leave the front so that the enemy would not be able to withdraw its forces from the eastern front and transfer them to the west, where the Germans were then suffering defeat after defeat.
It was obvious that the Germans had also lost their previous enthusiasm for war, and neither side attacked the other. There was therefore no fighting, and no new soldiers came to Swerznie to rest. Because of this, people began to feel a strong decline in sources of income. The high cost of living rose from day to day, and in order to alleviate hardship, a cooperative was opened. For the first time, the sellers were Jews and Christians together. At the cooperative, one could buy flour, bread, cereal, and similar essential articles at low prices, with ration cards.
On 8 May 1917, at 7am, the barn of Alyesh Shtshorsh on Rumov Street caught fire. It started because soldiers were clandestinely making moonshine, brandy, which is brandy made in a primitive manner. The pot caught fire, and immediately the straw roof of the barn began to burn. Because of the strong wind that morning, the fire spread with lightning speed, and after a few minutes half the town was already in flames. There was also no one
to extinguish the fire, because all the youth of the town was in the army, and no fire-fighting organization existed. Everyone saved whatever they could from their homes, and the fire raged unhindered from one house to the next, from one street to another, and ended only when there was nothing more to burn. Both synagogues, the stores in the marketplace and almost the whole Jewish section of the town burned down.
Soviets, Germans, and Poles
The situation became worse after the October Revolution, because of the frequent change of regime on the one hand, and the state of war on the other. There were four different currencies in circulation: Nikolayevske, Dumske, Kerenske, and Sovyetske. As a result the farmers lost trust in all this money and stopped coming to the marketplaces with their products. Hunger intensified from one day to the next. Jewish artisans set out across the villages and began to exchange their labor for products. The peasants exploited the critical situation in the town and paid ridiculously low prices for work done for them; so a tailor received a pud of rye for making a suit and a shoemaker received a couple of puds of potatoes for making a pair of boots. But people were pleased to work in a farmer's house, as they also received food.
The situation was worse for people who did not have a profession. They had to pay the farmers in gold or jewellery, otherwise the farmers did not want to sell any products.
At the beginning of spring 1918, after an agreement with the Germans, the Bolsheviks, left White Russia and went as far as the city of Arshe. Before leaving Swerznie, they distributed rifles with bullets among the adults, and very calmly left the region. Before Passover 1918 the Germans came. Immediately after their arrival, they issued an order to hand over the weapons received from the Bolsheviks. The economic situation stabilized somewhat, but without big changes. The question What does one eat almost never left the agenda.
At the end of 1918, after the revolution broke out in Germany, the German military began to run away from all Russian regions (including Swerznie), in a chaotic manner. The whole region was left without any government; the Germans ran away, and the Russians had not yet arrived. A general meeting of Jews and Christians was convened at the Russian public school, where a decision was made to elect a local people's militia to maintain order until a stable government was installed. Yevgeni Drozdovski was elected commander of the militia, and among the militia were also two Jews: Mayshl Grande and Gavriel Goloventshitz. Shortly thereafter, a certain Tatarin Meyshitovitsh arrived from Minsk to serve as commander and this structure of the militia remained during the entire period that the Bolsheviks were with us.
In the meantime, Polish legions that occupied large areas of White Russia, organized themselves and the Red Army had to wage a bitter struggle against them. The situation became unbearable due to hunger; the Red Army also did not have food to eat. Jewish merchants traveled to the villages to buy grain from the farmers and transported it to Minsk, where the prices were even higher. It was therefore impossible to buy a piece of bread, and the poor Jewish population was dying from hunger.
So, on the Sabbath in the synagogue, the reading of the Torah was delayed. Rabbi Roynes appealed to the traders to stop moving the grain out of the area, because this amounted to trading in human lives. After the end of the Sabbath, the stretcher normally used for a corpse was carried into the synagogue. The stretcher was covered with a black cloth, as if a dead person was being carried. On the platform from which services are led, black candles were lit, and the rabbi agreed to pronounce a kheyrem that it is prohibited to transport grain from Swerznie to other towns. When Shmuel the Shochet went up on the platform to pronounce the ban, some Jews who were either concerned parties or simply honest Jews who did not want to witness the terrifying ceremony, wanted to leave the synagogue . But there were a few embittered by hunger who blocked the doors of the synagogue and did not let anyone leave. When Shmuel the Shochet began to read the ritual wording of the kheyrem, which starts with the words With the agreement of the rabbi and with the agreement of the leaders of the community, women began to faint in the women's section.
The kheyrem was announced, but the traders continued their unscrupulous trade with grain, and those who were hungry suffered more and more. Those who suffered the most were people without professions and the American families, that consisted mainly of women and small children, at a time when their husbands in America were unable to help their hungry families at all. This situation continued until the Sabbath preceding the 9th of Av 1919. Then the Polish military forces entered Swerznie for the first time, reached the Berezina River, and remained there until the summer of 1920. With the Polish occupation, the economic situation of the town immediately changed.
for the better. Contact with America was soon established, and the previously hungry American families suddenly became wealthy. The husbands began to send their families thousands of dollars; after so many years of hunger and need, they began to eat the best food. Their former clothing, which consisted of dyed sacks, was quickly changed to the best fabrics, sewn according to the latest fashion.
In every city and town, community councils were elected who made contact with the American Joint that conducted extensive activity in all areas of economic and cultural life among the famished and exhausted population.
In the summer of 1920, the Poles suddenly began to retreat from the Berezina River, losing one position after another. The retreat of the Polish military through Swerznie took a whole week. In the course of this week they kept looting the town. All the Jews left their houses and gathered near the large synagogue, which was in the process of being rebuilt. The gentiles hung up holy icons outside their houses to make it easy to differentiate between a Jewish and a gentile house. All stores were plundered. Boys and girls ran away to the forests. The pillage continued both during the day and at night. It was not until Wednesday night that they burned the long bridge across the Niemen River, as well as blowing up the iron bridge of the railroad line. On Friday morning, Soviet troops arrived. Quietly and calmly the Red Army soldiers came, behaving decently toward everything and everybody. Every person who offered a drink of water to a thirsty soldier was thanked very politely.
At that moment one forgave them the fear of the Tsheka and even the hunger that was suffered under their regime.
With their torn garments and quite often, sockless feet, dressed in old peasant bast shoes, the Red Army soldiers made a depressing impression on the population. But with a patriotic fervor in their hearts and a self-sacrificing devotion to the revolution and liberation of nations, they set out to move forward -- some on foot and some riding horses without saddles. Is it still far to Warsaw? -- this was the main question that every Red Army soldier asked every civilian he met. The Jewish population acted towards them with a special affection. In every Red Army soldier, they saw a friend and comrade, as well as a protector against the pillaging, dressed-up, and overfed Polish legionnaires.
A few days later a volunteer brigade arrived from Minsk. It consisted of a couple of hundred men, almost all Jews, to erect a temporary bridge across the Niemen. Two young men who were engineers were quartered in the house of Ester Brokhes, the grandmother of the current Israeli ambassador in Moscow, Yosef Tekoa. Both engineers played the violin, so in the summer evenings through one's open window one could quite often hear the melodies of various Hebrew songs, as well as Hatikvah. It was indeed from them that I borrowed the book Our Country by the Yiddish writer Anokhi.
Troops again arrived in Swerznie, with many Jews among them. When Yom Kippur approached, the rabbi, at the request of a few Jewish soldiers, went to ask Colonel Podviz (also a Jew), to free the Jewish soldiers from military duty on Yom Kippur. Podviz complied with the rabbi's request and released all Jewish Red Army soldiers. So, on Yom Kippur the synagogue was indeed overflowing with Jewish Red Army soldiers. Despite there being many troops in the town, they were not a source of livelihood, quite simply because there was nothing to sell. The stores were closed, one could not obtain merchandise anywhere, and if a storekeeper happened to find some dried fruit or textiles in his store, he would hide it in order to exchange it with the farmers for bread. Every day in the firemen's hall , lectures, concerts and quite often shows presented by the military drama circle, would take place. Nevertheless, people yearned for a piece of bread.
Artisans again set out for the villages -- some with a carpenter's plane, some with a sewing machine, some with shoemaker's tools, to workday and night in order to receive a little flour or a basket of potatoes from the farmer.
Jews who were not artisans again went to the villages, some with powdered saccharin, with a bottle of kerosene, or with a couple of containers of powdered paint, to exchange with the farmers for a little flour or some potatoes. Alas, the eye of the Tsheka kept guard over all these activities. It was especially dangerous to sell saccharin; for dealing in this illegal merchandise one was in danger of the most severe punishment . As was reported at the time, Dr. Goldin of Stoibtz was sentenced to death by the Minsk Tsheka because they found him trading in saccharin.
The hunger was torturous, but the fear of the return of the Poles was even greater than the hunger, and so the town teetered between hunger and deathly fear. The stay of the Bolsheviks in Swerznie did not last long, just a few months; and after the failure of the Red Army at Warsaw, or as the Poles labelled it
cud nad Wisłą -- the miracle at the Vistula, which is a distance of close to about 500 kilometers from us, the last Red Army soldiers retreated from the town. With heartbreak each Jew accompanied the departing Red Army and with a pounding heart, awaited the arrival of the Poles, who had been entered into a page of plunder, in the history of White Russian Jews.
The war lasted years. Military forces came and left. Various orders changed, but nobody plundered in Swerznie except for the Polish military, which itself had just been resurrected from the dead. They robbed and raped in Swerznie. They were due to return and be in control of Jewish possessions; it was to them that one had to entrust everything. This thought that the Poles were coming back, weighed like a stone on everyone's heart. The first scouts of the Polish Army appeared. The streets were empty; Jews were sitting hidden in their houses and were even afraid to look out of the windows. Girls dressed up in old rags, smeared their faces with soot, in order to look like old grandmothers, and hid in the corners of their houses to avoid being seen. Others lay down in their beds with wet cloths on their heads, as if they were sick. This is how we welcomed the second arrival of the Polish Army at the end of 1920.
Foot soldiers marched, cavalrymen rode on horses, and behind them dragged remnants of bloody general Bułak-Bałachowicz's gangs, who became notorious for destroying the Jewish community of the Mozzir District. They were loyal partners of Pilsudski's army, who fought together against the communist danger and jointly robbed and murdered Jews.
A few days after the arrival of the Poles, the news came that a peace was signed in Riga between Russia and Poland, and that the border was set at the village of Kolosova, approximately 15 kilometers east of Swerznie.
In the morning of the next Sabbath after the arrival of the Poles, Polish soldiers began to go from house to house, only where Jews lived, and ordered all men to take shovels and accompany them. They led us to the Polish cemetery located in the vicinity of the town and they ordered us to dig a large pit. A strange feeling came over us. They are picking Jews, precisely on the Sabbath, and why do they need a pit? But because the digging was at the Polish cemetery and the soldiers who supervised the work did not behave badly toward us, we calmed down a little. At dusk, when the pit was finished, wagons arrived with about a hundred sealed caskets that contained the bodies of soldiers who fell before concluding the peace with Russia. Since Swerznie was one of the few towns in our area that had a Polish church with a priest and a Polish cemetery, they were brought to Swerznie for burial.
When it became known that there were a few Jews among the fallen soldiers, the rabbi went with a few community leaders to intervene with the Polish authorities to permit the burial of the Jewish soldiers at the Jewish cemetery. The request was rejected on the ground that there should be no difference among soldiers -- all died for the common fatherland …
In the winter of 1921, a cavalry regiment was quartered in Swerznie under the leadership of Commander Zuska, who was a sadist and anti-Semite. If cavalrymen were quartered in a house that belonged to Jews, the owners had to move out of the house. By contrast, the Christians were allowed to live together with the cavalrymen. Every morning Jews were dragged from their houses to clean the stables of the horses and chop straw for fodder.
There was almost no work to earn enough for bread, and if a cavalryman occasionally ordered a piece of work, the workman was for the most part not paid and there was nobody to whom one could complain. It continued in this way until the spring of 1921, when the cavalrymen left the town.
Afterwards the second baan tselni arrived. This was a division of the military with a large percentage of Jews, and the Jewish youth made friends with them and established comradely relations. In the evenings they would gather in Jewish houses and enjoy time together. To some extent this helped to dissipate the fear of the Polish military. A few of the soldiers, such as Kopl Frank and Shlomo Goldshteyn, did indeed marry Swerznie girls and remained local residents. I met a few others here in Israel.
Life gradually stabilized, and one began to get used to the new regime. Contact with America was renewed. The relatives from across the sea began to support their impoverished brothers in Poland with packages and money. Prisoners of war and demobilized soldiers began to return home. Stores opened again. Merchandise was plentiful, and the artisans were overloaded with work. Construction workers also had more than enough work. The town that had burned down in 1917, gradually began to be rebuilt.
The following Swerznie residents fell in the war:
Bendetavitz Borukh, Goloventshitz Zanvil, Tsharni Binyomin, Munbez Mendl, Minnoker Moshe, Stelmakh Zalman, Kuznyetsov Yitzkhak, and Kartsyemni Zalman. The latter left a wife with two orphans. The others were unmarried. Honor their memory.
Berl Grande and Yirshl Rubin returned severely wounded. Later both of them perished at the hands of the Hitler murderers in the ghetto.
19 Years Under Polish Rule
The seven good years passed quickly, and then the decline of Swerznie began: The families whose husbands were in America left Swerznie to join their husbands. Dozens of young people also began to emigrate to countries across the sea, some to relatives in America, a few to Argentina, and the pioneer youth immigrated to the Land of Israel.
Stoibtz was proclaimed a district town. The high school, which had been located all this time in Swerznie, was moved over to Stoibtz. All the residents of Stoibtz who had been in Swerznie since the Stoibtz fire of 1915, rebuilt their houses and returned home. Under the Russians the regular market day took place on Sundays and masses of peasants from the surrounding villages would converge; the Catholics would go to the Catholic church and the Russian Orthodox to the Russian Orthodox church. At the same time, they would sell their products and purchase everything for a whole week. Under the Polish regime, this market day was abolished for the sake of Sunday rest.
Instead, two market days were instituted in Stoibtz, every Tuesday and Friday. The thousands of peasants that passed through Swerznie, were watched by policemen to ensure that they did not stop there, and that they traveled with their merchandise directly to the marketplace in Stoibtz. So, the storekeepers and buyers for resale of Swerznie were merely passive onlookers, as thousands passed by, and they had no source of income.
The military detachments also left Swerznie, so that the town became a village. A radical change for the better in the town's economic situation took place in 1927, when the Anglo-Europe company undertook to build a sawmill in Swerznie that according to its size, was to be one of the largest in Poland. Anyone who had hands and feet was employed. Hundreds of people with various specialties arrived in Swerznie. Each needed a place to live, food and clothing, and as a result everybody had abundant income. Grain merchants could not hire enough hands to supply food for the horses, who transported logs from the forest, from very early in the morning until late at night.
A corner in the yard of the sawmill
But this period of prosperity did not last long. The forests were quickly cut down and swallowed up at the sawmill by four head saws, until the Anglo-Europe company was completely liquidated in 1933, and the sawmill was taken over by Prince Albrecht Radziwill of Nyesvizsh. All the officials departed, and Swerznie was again left without a livelihood. Under the new owner, the sawmill was leased to the Continent company, which worked at a very weak level, and that too, only for a short time.
The whole business of the sawmill was akin to giving an injection to a dangerously ill patient who is dying, opens his eyes for a while, and continues to die. Most of the Jewish houses that burned down in 1917 were not rebuilt. The sites of the burnt-down houses remained empty, like silent gravestones. Young people, after getting married always settled outside the boundaries of Swerznie. In addition to the lack of a livelihood, gentile stores also opened. Antisemitism of the Young Poland variety, led by Priest Sun Zigmunt, canvassed gentiles not to buy from Jews. If the couple of kosher butchers were still earning a little income, a new law was introduced, a decree that severely limited kosher slaughter. The initiator of this decree was the merciful deputy Madame Presterova, who defended the injustice to the cattle.
That was the situation of Swerznie at the outbreak of the Second World War on 1 September 1939. The war (of Germany against Poland) did not last long, and fortunately
there were no victims among the young men of Swerznie. All those mobilized returned home in peace. On 17 September, the Red Army crossed the border and arrived in Swerznie the same day.
In a short time, all merchandise in the shops was sold out, and the stores closed. On the site of the stores, a government store was opened. The sawmill came under the authority of the government and again began to function. People went to work at various jobs, and slowly grew accustomed to the mode of life under which 200 million people had been living for 22 years since the October Revolution. So this is how life proceeded until 22 June 1941, when the dark cloud of the Second World War suddenly descended and brought an end to Jewish settlement in Swerznie.
Political-Cultural and Social Activity in Swerznie
At the beginning of the twentieth century Swerznie possessed a flourishing Jewish intelligentsia. Among them was the journalist Yisroel Minker, who wrote in Russian and contributed to various Jewish-Russian newspapers and journals. There was also the well-known Hebrew poet Yaakov Sholem Katzenellenbogen (known by his acronym Yashk) -- he was the son of Rabbi Binyomin Isser, of blessed memory.
The youth of that period went in two directions. The wealthier in the town sent their children to gentile schools, and the common people, the poor -- to the yeshiva. The tradition of studying and learning continued until the last day of Swerznie's existence.
Leibe Blokh, the son of Chaim Matus, graduated as a pharmacist in 1904 and practiced in Odessa, and his brother is a lawyer in America. This was still in that period when someone who attended a gentile school was viewed as if he were committing a crime. As I recall, Yitzkhak Ruzin studied medicine and after concluding his studies, practiced in Belgium. Yitzkhak Rubentshik was a pharmacist in Riga, and Yaakov Manusevitsh served as the Rabbi of one of the cities in Latvia.
Reading this now, it may seem trivial, for who cannot graduate now as a doctor -- one only needs to have the will and the ability. But if one considers the time, fifty years ago and more, under the Tsarist regime, when a Jew was prohibited from living in Moscow and when a female Jewish student had to hide in Moscow with the passport of a prostitute, only then can one understand what energy and an iron will was required, to decide to acquire higher education.
The above-mentioned were not the only ones. When one reads the article by Reuven Sperans in this book, about the seventies of the nineteenth century, where he lists a whole string of Swerznie intelligentsia with diplomas, and that one of them, the son of Hirsh Freydin, finished as engineer with such distinction that the antisemite Tsar Alexander III granted him a government post. This man from Swerznie was the only Jew holding such a post in the Russia of that time.
Signs of Swerznie vigilance regarding social matters can still be found in our own generation. For example, - a hospitality-to-guests fund existed, of which Shmuel the shochet was the treasurer. In the synagogue courtyard was a special house called Der Hekdesh, so that poor people who were passing through would have a place to spend the night. There was also an institution like a hospice for the poor, a fund for visiting-the-sick, and our own Jewish fire department that had all the necessary tools and a building of its own near the large synagogue. In a much later period, this was the basis for creating a general united fire department in the town, with Jews and Christians working together. Until the last day, the large pump for extinguishing fires that the Swerznie firefighters possessed, was called the Jewish pump, by the gentiles The bathhouse which was used by the whole population of Swerznie was the property of the Swerznie Jewish community.
It is worth noting something that Swerznie possessed that did not exist in many towns that were much larger than Swerznie, namely: the community ice cellar, which was once built by the society for visiting the sick. The cellar was filled with ice in winter, and it lasted the whole summer. When a doctor determined that because of a high fever, a bag of ice should be applied to a patient's head, it would be accessed from the ice cellar, for both Jews and Christians, without being charged a penny. From all this it is evident that many years ago the people of Swerznie already had devoted and caring activists who kept a watchful eye and provided the town with all its needs.
In the area of culture, Swerznie did not lag behind. This could be seen from the selection of books in the old library, which was closed for a certain period and renewed its activity after the February Revolution of 1917. According to the assortment of books, one could see that the library's founders were well-versed in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian literature.
In addition, a dramatic circle already existed in the first years of the twentieth century,
and as there was then still no special hall for dramatic presentations in the town, the plays took place in the empty inn of Chaim Dovid Rozin, with the participation of Yitzkhak Domnitz, Uri Shapiro, Yechiel Shmushkovitz, Hillel Goloventshitz, Aharon Yosselevski, Yente, Etl the Shochet's daughter, Hodl Klytshuk, Mashe Gruntfest, Tybl Klyatshuk, and Velvl Brokhes.
For a certain time before the First World War, free evening courses were organised for working girls of parents with little means who could not afford to send them to cheyder. At the time, people were of the opinion that a woman would be able to bake challah and prepare cholent for the Sabbath even if she did not attend cheyder. The courses were then led by Tybl Klyatshuk and the teacher Yitzkhak Domnitz.
In the year 1905 the Bund was active in Swerznie. It is said that one of the girls, who returned home from a secret Bund meeting and was very angry with the Tsar, opened the chicken coop and exclaimed with full revolutionary fervor: You are free, roosters of the chicken coop! Nikolayke will be not Tsar for me! Upon hearing such terrible revolutionary talk from her grandchild, Grandmother Frume, who was then in the house, fainted from fear.
One of the last of the Mohicans of the former Bund, Reuven Munbez, by trade a furniture carpenter, a very well-informed person, well-read in Yiddish and Russian literature, was wounded by the Tsarist police during a demonstration in 1905 in Kapulye, the town of Mendele Moykher Sforim. He remained an invalid from this injury for the rest of his life. More than once in private conversation with me, he expressed remorse and regret at the foolish thing he had then done. When the Bolsheviks arrived, he told me: Now, that I have lived to see the realization of the revolution, I do not sleep peacefully for even one night, out of fear that as a former Bundist, I will be arrested as a counter-revolutionary and be sent to Siberia. Tears appeared in his eyes. Because he was wounded, he could not work hard, and his family always lived in poverty and need. Despite many negative qualities in his private character, he was still a rare example from a turbulent era that destroyed his private life for public benefit. He perished escaping from the ghetto. Honor to his memory.
An Episode from My Childhood
I would like to relate an event here that took place in Swerznie in the year 1910 approximately. That winter, as in previous years, gypsies would stop over and wait through the heavy snows and frosts in the house of Santshikh, who lived on Mir Street on the sand. Why precisely there? Because Santshikh's older son had married a gypsy. So, the whole summer he would wander about with the gypsies, and in winter they would stay over at his mother's place until the cold passed
At that time, Tsire Yaniks was a neighbor of theirs and she found out that there is an adult Jewish girl among the gypsies. She was not certain about this, but nevertheless she thought it necessary to entrust this information to a few young men. The young men decided to try their hand at investigating the truth of the matter.
On the pretext that they wanted their fortune told, they began to visit the female gypsies. In this manner, contact was established between Berl Klyatshuk and the Jewish girl. The gypsies paid no attention to this. Meanwhile, every evening, the young men gave the gypsies cigarettes, and the gypsies were pleased with their visits. In addition, the Jewish young men spent time with the other female gypsies, so it did not occur to them that the lads knew that there was a Jewish girl among them.
Berl used to bring her chocolate and in this way formed a friendship with her until she quietly confided in him that she was Jewish. When Berl asked her to leave the gypsies, she answered that she understood her situation well, that after she had defiled herself in this way, no Jewish young man would in any case, want to marry her, so it was better for her to stay with the gypsies than to leave them and be despised by G-d and by people.
Berl then proposed to marry her. He arranged that he would wait for her the next evening near the house and send in a note. Then she should come outside, and he would take her to his home.
The next evening a Christian boy handed over the note to her as the agreed signal, and she went outside. At first, she hesitated to take this step, but when Berl was already leading her by her arm, there was no turning back, and she had to go forward. When the gypsies realized after a while that she had not returned, they understood what had taken place here and went out to chase those who had run away with the Jewish girl. Then a few young men came out from a hiding place that had been prepared earlier and blocked the path of the chasing gypsies. A fistfight broke out between the young men and the gypsies, and in the meantime Berl and the girl reached home.
After coming to Berl's home, she said that she had no parents but was supported by her uncle, who had a store, and that she had been helping him to sell his merchandise. Of course, the gypsies who were located around the town used to come into their store to buy various merchandise. One young gypsy used to come in more often than the others, and each time he would stay a little longer to spend time with her. And in this way he cast a spell on her. When they left the place to continue their gypsy wanderings, he proposed that she travel with him, and since the spell was apparently very strong… she felt powerless to resist the will of the gypsy, and once at night she packed her things and travelled together with him.
A telegram was immediately sent to her uncle, and the next morning on Mir Street, a beautiful slim girl with black hair was seen alongside a well-dressed middle-aged man, walking in the direction of Sonnetshke's house where the gypsies were staying. The middle-aged man was her uncle, who was followed by the constable, as well as a few young men from Swerznie, who actively participated in liberating the girl from the gypsies. They went to retrieve the girl's belongings that had remained there. Everything passed peacefully, and the girl and her uncle went home.
In the synagogue the Jewish people said that her uncle had apparently told the following: As soon as the girl disappeared and all searches brought no results, he travelled to the famous righteous man Reb Mordkhele Slonnimer, who was a great Torah scholar, in both revealed and cabalistic lore. The uncle poured out his bitter heart to him and told him what had happened to the poor orphan, his niece that she had disappeared, G-d forbid, without a trace. After Reb Mordkhele, with full grief, had listened to him, he told him to go home, contribute to charity, and light candles on the graves of her parents. On the third day he would receive information about the girl's whereabouts, and that is what actually happened.
Antisemitism in the Final Years of the Tsarist Regime
In the year 1912 they began to chase Jews out of the villages of the Minsk Province, in accordance with the decree of the Tsarist minister and antisemite Stolypin. So a few more uprooted families of Jewish farmers who needed to earn a living, came to Swerznie. They were the following families: Sender Shvarts from the village of Savoni, Hirsh Epshtein from Zatsherevo, and Avraham Dovid Rapoport from Mahilyanke. They had to begin to build their lives anew.
In the same year, a monument was unveiled in Swerznie in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the victory over Napoleon's army in 1812. The monument was magnificent - a great architectural structure. There were only three such monuments in all of Russia.
As there were no trains yet in 1812, the armies had to move along the Yekaterinovski Highway, through Swerznie, which was located on the other side of the Niemen River. The Russians had to cross the Niemen in order to advance their attack on Napoleon's army. The place was therefore an important strategic point where a grim battle occurred. The inscription on the monument read: Under the command of General Lambert an extraordinary victory over the enemy was won in the town of Swerznie. The trophies of our victory: 63 prisoners, two military banners, two cannons, and a military wagon-train. On the other side of the monument, recorded in gold letters, was the manifesto of Alexander the First that ended with these words: I will not lay down arms until not even one foot of the enemy can be found in my kingdom.
But apparently the monument did not have luck, because during the second entry of the Bolsheviks into Swerznie in the summer of 1920, one of their leaders noticed that the Tsar Nicholas eagle with the crowns on its heads that was at the top of the monument did not suit current Russian reality and is truly an eyesore and an audacity. So they immediately brought a couple of Red Army soldiers who cast a rope on the neck of the royal eagle, while reciting a fiery blessing to Lenin, and with the exclamation Down with Nicholas! smashed it to the ground. In the process the upper stone, which had the shape of a pyramid, also fell down. For years it lay around on the ground until it was used as a gravestone in the Christian cemetery in Stoibtz for the nine fatalities of the night assault that took place in 1924.
This is how life flowed with its small-town coziness. The relationship between the Jews and the local White Russian population was comparatively not bad. And if it were not for the inciting sermons in the Russian Orthodox church by the local priest Pyotr Poley, or the agitation of antisemite Tsharnyetski, who was the district commander in Stoibtz, the relationships with the peasants could have been much better.
But even after all the agitation of the two above-mentioned antisemites, it never led to any serious unrest in the town, except for the traditional breaking windowpanes in the tavern of Eshke, who sold hard liquor illegally. Even this was a rare occurrence, except during a large fair, when Vanye Marhun and the Mute One (both local gentile lads) wanted to gain importance in the eyes of the peasants, and to provide a festive content to the event so that the Russian Orthodox holiday would not pass smoothly and uneventfully …
The very next day after sobering up -- and according to the custom of drunkards, to sober up, one must drink at least one small glass the next day so that one's head does not hurt from the previous day. So they would shyly go into Eshke's tavern to apologize for yesterday's adventure and pay for the entire damage.
In case a similar adventure happened in the marketplace, when drunkards wanted to have a good time by hurting a Jew, Meilekh Itshe Srol would immediately intervene. He had a reputation for his strength in the entire area and would beat the adventurers with murderous blows. All the peasants who were present admitted that he was right. First, because peasants naturally like a person who can fight, and secondly because Meylekh was a person who lived among Christians in the village of Mohilanke and therefore had many followers and friends among the peasants. They thought that if Meilekh gives somebody a beating, he is surely in the right, because he was known as a peaceful young man, and Meilekh would not hit anybody without reason.
Until the last day before his departure for America, he came to Swerznie every market day, stood on guard, and taught a lesson to every peasant who wanted to hurt a Jew.
Years passed monotonously, one resembling the other. In the summer months, the main entertainment was to go and observe how the local firemen do their training and climb up to the top of the water mill, which was the tallest building in town. With great interest one would await the time when the Minsk military garrison, on its summer manoevres, would march through Swerznie to Skabalyavskin (Scabbard) Camp, which was near Baranovitch. The main interest was to recognize Jewish soldiers among those marching by …
The greatest sensation in town that was deeply engraved in my childhood memory just before the First World War, was when 13 automobiles drove through Swerznie. From early in the morning, people streamed from the villages and particularly from Stoibtz. Artisans cast their work aside. Women with small children in their arms came to see the amazing sight of how a carriage travels by itself without horses.
Everyone stood in utmost suspense for hours under the scorching sun to catch a glimpse of the wonderful machines that nobody had seen until then. All of Minsk Street with the marketplace was overflowing with people. Everybody was pushing to be the first in line in order to see the wonderful invention more closely. And behold, they were already visible from afar as they were approaching the long bridge with a terrible noise that deafened one's ears. People did not believe their own eyes; the horses in the marketplace started to gallop wildly, evidently surprised by the terrible revolution experienced by the carriage traveling alone without horses. Or perhaps on the part of the horse, this was a far-seeing look into the future, as they feared the danger that would threaten the species of horses when the carriage would become its own master.
It seems to me that in this regard the horses could not foresee it, that although the carriage does actually run by itself, the role of the horse still exists …
For a long time, this topic did not leave the agenda. No matter how a conversation began, in the end the topic reverted to the wonderful invention.
For many years people lived in fear, particularly after the assassination of Prime Minister Stolypin in 1911 in Kiev by the Jew Bogrov, as well as the famous blood-libel trial of Mendl Beylis, that ended only in 1913 and lasted almost three years. These events held all of Russian Jewry in mortal fear, and before they could calm down, the general disaster arrived with the outbreak of the war in August 1914.
Outwardly one might think that the calamity of war was a general one, both for Jews and Christians. But in truth, this general calamity was also exploited by the Russian Black Hundred to create a specific Jewish aspect. It was not enough that hundreds of thousands of Jews were in the army, and on the war fronts, defending the bloody regime of Tsarist Russia with their own lives, yet the antisemites invented various false accusations in order to keep the starving children and wives of the mobilized men, in permanent mortal fear.
This could be felt especially in the year 1915, when the Russian army suffered one defeat after another on the western front, and with every day they moved, or more accurately, ran eastwards, ever deeper into Russia. Then it was noticed that the local peasants were walking around angrily and casting glances of suspicion at their Jewish neighbors without reason. However, when
one managed to draw a peasant into an intimate conversation, only then he would lay his cards on the table and speak up: What do you think, he would start, we know everything. In church on Sunday, the priest told us that all these defeats that the Russian military is suffering on the fronts, is only because of you, because you have sold us to the Germans. For years you have talked us into believing that the wires that you have stretching from one house to the next (he meant the Eruv) is allegedly a religious ceremony. Today it is no longer a secret from anyone that these are secret telephones through which you pass information to the Germans …. All Jewish soldiers, as soon as they are brought to the front, voluntarily pass into German captivity. When one tried to convince him that there are already Jews from the town who were wounded at the front, he immediately replied that this is not true because the Jews are wounding themselves in order to get away from the battlefield.
Such a conversation always ended with the threat that once the war ended, not a single Jew would remain alive and that all Jews would be slaughtered.
In this way the war dragged on year after year. Thousands of Jews fell on the fronts, and even more remained permanent cripples.
This is what the political situation of the Jews in all of Russia looked like. But suddenly a miracle happened with the outbreak of the revolution in 1917. It was as if a heavy stone had rolled off from Jewish hearts. After so many years of slavery, one suddenly felt like a free citizen in a free country, like equals with equals in the multimillion Russian empire of various faiths and nationalities. It seemed that the heavens looked different, that the sun shone more brightly than usual. With each passing day, one became more accustomed to the idea that the revolution was a fact, and the fear that such a deception as with Nikolay's so-called constitution of 1905 might happen again, quickly disappeared. It is difficult for me to assess how, and which organizational activities developed in those days among the adult youth in Swerznie, because I was still only a small boy, I had no access to the adults. The only thing I can ascertain is that in public, there was no substantial activity in that domain, neither by the Jewish nor by the Christian population of the town. Only a few weeks after the rise of the revolution, a group of a score of soldiers carrying a red flag suddenly arrived in Swerznie. At the front, a soldier with three stripes marched that indicated an enterprise commander. As they approached the monument, almost the whole town of Jews and Christians gathered behind them.
Then the enterprise commander went up to the lower stones of the monument and delivered a brilliant speech, emphasizing at the same time, that the most aggrieved in Tsarist Russia were the Jews, whose rights have now been restored and who enjoy full freedom among the extensive family of nations in the free Russia.
After concluding his successful speech, he asked if anyone from the civilian population would like to say something. Then Reuven Munbez, an old Bundist, an invalid from the year 1905, went up and spoke briefly, but to the point, concluding with the following words: Actually the Tsarist throne of the autocrat in Russia was already broken in 1905, but the struggle of the death throes of the Tsarist regime was very difficult and lasted 12 whole years, so the current revolution came as a consequence of the battles at the barricades in that period.
After him Mayshl Grande, a war invalid, spoke and became so confused that according to his words it seemed that the existence of the Tsarist regime in Russia was the fault of the Jewish speculators and the Jewish clergy -- the rabbis.
The meeting ended with exclamations of Down with Nicholas! and Long live Kerensky and his provisional government. After concluding with the singing of the Marseillaise, the crowd dispersed in a holiday mood.
The enterprise commander Yegorov served in a technical-military department, which was quartered in the barracks near Dovid Leib's water mill in Stoibtz. He proved to be a brilliant speaker and a fiery revolutionary. In the later festivities that took place both in Stoibtz and in Swerznie, he was the main leader.
Such meetings took place almost every couple of weeks in the open air and were organized by military people. The festivities reached their pinnacle on 1 May 1917 at 8 in the morning, when the enormous demonstration of Swerznie began to move. Scores of banners and slogans were carried ahead of the crowd, among them, also a blue-and-white flag which was carried by Khonye Grande and Chaim Protas. Behind the flag, walked a delegation of older Jews with gray beards, headed by Meir Yossef Schwartz.
The slogan on the flag was written in golden letters: Long live free Russia! and the Jewish version, in Hebrew, read: Long live the Jewish people! A military guard of honor consisting of twelve soldiers with rifles walked behind the flags. For the first time, various military divisions marched behind them, with the participation of officers.
The massive demonstration was led by Yegorov, the enterprise commander, who was wrapped in a red flag from head to toe.
Throughout the entire march, an enormous military choir sang revolutionary songs. From time to time the kilometer-long demonstration procession would stop, and four soldiers would create a living dais on which they would place Yegorov, and he would make various revolutionary proclamations.
From a distance it gave the impression that a red flag, and not a person, was standing and speaking.
In this way, they walked all the way to Stoibtz. There again various delegations joined with flags, among them also a Jewish delegation with a blue-white flag, headed by Dr. Goldin.
It took hours before they reached the dais which was located on the vacant site near the windmill. The huge mass demonstration extended all the way to the railway station. Speakers went up and down the dais. At the end of this gigantic meeting, Yegorov was so hoarse that he could no longer pronounce a word but waived his cap and moved his hands, to which the huge audience responded with shouts of Hurrah which resounded for a distance of many kilometers.
The festivity of the First of May 1917 ended late at night, with the playing of the Marseillaise by the orchestra.
After the festivities of the First of May, the youth began to express a desire for organizational, social, and political activities, but on 8 May 1917 a fire broke out in which more than half the town burned down, especially the Jewish part of Swerznie. For a while, this stopped all work in all areas.
After the fire some of those whose property had burned down moved to live in the remaining houses of Itshe Velye's sawmill, which had burned down before the outbreak of the First World War. Our family was also among the families that went to live there, and we remained there until 1919 -- until the arrival of the Poles.
The Revival of the Jewish Library
A few months after the fire, the house of Shmuel Dovid Menkhes was built, which was then, almost the only house on Stoibtz Street. In this house the former Jewish library that had not been active for quite a few years, was reopened. Most of the books, which were preserved at Khaye Rozin's place, served as a start for subsequent activity of the library. The books were in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian.
A Jewish soldier also came and brought a couple of sacks of the latest publications of brochures in Yiddish and Russian.
A reading hall was opened in the Swerznie library, in which a group of fine young people would gather every evening. A managing committee was elected, headed by Berl Kaplan.
The library, being the only one serving both Stoibtz and Swerznie, was too small to meet the needs of the readers of both towns. In order to increase the number of books, especially with new publications that would be more suited to the revolutionary period, it was decided to arrange a presentation the income of which would go to purchasing books for the library.
It is worth noting that the library also had many Christian readers, even the three daughters of the local Greek Orthodox priest. In a much later period, already under the Poles, when we conducted a campaign of gifting books in order to expand the library, there were many White Russians and even Poles among those who contributed money and books.
No sooner said than done. A drama circle was created under the direction of Yossef Shkolnik with the participation of the players Sorre Protas, Khaye Sheyne Kaplan, Mina Tsalkovits, Khane Sorke Yosselevski, Berl Kaplan, Moshe Zmudzyak, Kalman Eventsik, and Eliyahu Zmudzyak. After about six weeks of rehearsals and preparations, which took place at Meytshe's tavern, they finally succeeded in learning their parts, and not a moment too soon. They lived to see the printed playbills in Yiddish and Russian, advertising that the Swerznie Yiddish Drama Circle would perform Yaakov Gordin's The Slaughter, a play in four acts, in the barracks of the military technical division in Stoibtz. The entire proceeds would be for the benefit of the library. Responsible supervisor Berl Grande.
The hall was packed with Swerznie and Stoibtz residents. The fact that the barracks were more than three kilometers from the town, did not deter anyone from going to see the show, for many, their first Yiddish show, ever.
To tell the truth, everybody performed with great success, and the people of Stoibtz admitted that the players from Swerznie acted well.
The box office was also very successful. It produced a good income with which over 100 new Russian books, reflecting the spirit of that time, were bought in Minsk.
The success of the drama circle aroused envy among other young people, and they began to organize a second drama circle. Very shortly thereafter they began rehearsals of Gordin's play Khashe the Orphan. The new circle consisted of Batye Inzelbukh, M. Tsalkovitsh, Kh. Sh. Yosselevski, Matus Berl, Kaplan, Yisroel Tsalkovitsh, Tuvye Klyatshuk, K. Eventsik, and Anshl Goloventshitz as prompter. During this time, the hall of the Swerznie firemen became vacant. In comparison with the military barracks, it was a splendid building with a good stage, and the new drama circle performed Khashe the Orphan with great success in Swerznie's own hall.
While we're on the subject, I would like to mention that for a long time the Yiddish drama circle in Stoibtz performed its plays in Swerznie because they did not have suitable premises in their own town.
After the second drama circle in Swerznie poached some actors from the first one, the first drama circle began to reorganize and was preparing to perform Mirrele Efros with the following cast: Yossef Shkolnik, Eliezer Rozin, Moshe Smudzyak, Kalman Eventsuk, A. D. Shkolnik, Sorre Protas, Khayele Rozin, the daughter of Chaim Dovid Rozin, Rokhl Yosselevski, and as prompter Eliyahu Zmudzyak. In the course of a few years, the two drama circles performed the following plays: Yankel the Smith, G-d, Man, and the Devil, Broken Hearts, Where Life Expires, Kreutzer Sonata, At the Jewish King Lear, and various vaudeville performances. The appreciation of the audience could be judged by how much they cried during the performance, and if the public did not cry enough, then the appraisal was that the actors were good for nothing.
The income of both drama circles was only for the library. As a result,, in the course of time, a considerable number of books were collected. The library was directed by Berl Darevski, who was regarded as a good librarian. The reading hall extended its activity, and daily newspapers as well as various periodicals began to arrive. For the youth, who did not know what to do with themselves in the burned down streets of Swerznie, the library and the reading hall were indeed the only gathering places where they could sit until late into the night. Discussions were also held there, on the topic of whom one should vote for, in the elections for the Constituent Assembly.
Berl Darevski, of blessed memory, died in Argentina in 1962, and his wife Khane
The Balfour Declaration
The highest level of youth activity was reached on 2 November 1917 when the Balfour Declaration was proclaimed.
Meir Yossef Schwartz set out through the streets of Swerznie, surrounded by scores of young people, holding bundles of colored advertisements sent from Minsk, which conveyed the news that as soon as the war ends, the British Government of His Royal Majesty would help set up a Jewish home in the Land of Israel on the basis of the Balfour Declaration.
Hundreds of such advertisements were posted on all the streets. Everywhere, small groups of Jews gathered and congratulated each other and cried for joy. At Sabbath services, before the reading of the Torah, Meir Yossef delivered a fiery speech, comparing Dr. Weizmann and Sokolov as the modern Ezra and Nehemiah, and British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour as the King Cyrus of the 20th century.
After him, the rabbi of Swerznie spoke, Reb Moshe Leib Roynes, a great lover of the Land of Israel, who cited passages from the prophets who foretold that in the end Jews would return to their land to renew the kingdom of the house of David.
A holiday mood prevailed in the town. Meir Yossef became the central figure; all eyes were turned toward him.
People were already working out what position he would occupy in the Jewish state. Others believed that he would surely become a governor in the Land of Israel, and some said, perhaps even higher …
Not just at synagogue services but even in the library reading hall, he became more important. People listened to him with more respect. His opinion was decisive in all matters. For Hanukkah, a magnificent Zionist evening was organized in the building of the Russian high school. An adult choir, decorated with stars of David and blue-white ribbons, under the direction of Yossef Shkolnik, performed various Zionist songs in Yiddish and Hebrew, beginning with the oath of the Workers of Zion.
Meir Yossef Schwartz, may the Lord avenge his blood -- perished in the Swerznie ghetto together with his family in the great massacre
We lift our arms toward the east and swear by Zion, its soil, and its holy land, -- these words would have been suitable for every Zionist gathering and especially at the cradle of the Balfour Declaration. Afterwards a one-act play was presented under the name The Debate written by Meir Yossef Schwartz, performed by Yisroel Tsalkovitsh, Matis Berl Kaplan, Tevye Klyatshuk, and Ester Sagalowich. The content of The Debate is a discussion between a Zionist, a member of Agudat Yisrael, and a member of the Bund. When the discussion reached the point where the participants were on the verge of a fist fight, a woman intervened and made peace. Everyone held hands and slipped into a joyful Jewish dance with an oriental little melody that led one's imagination far away to the mountains of the Galilee. The hall overflowed and there were no less people from Stoibtz as there were from Swerznie. The income from the evening was sent to the central office for homeless Jews in Russia.
Under Diverse Rule
At the beginning of spring 1918 the Bolsheviks left the western part of Russia, and with the arrival of the Germans, all party activity ceased. The Germans treated the whole population with suspicion and in every Jew, they saw a Communist. In addition, the Germans were allied with Turkey in the First World War, and the Balfour Declaration appeared on the basis of the defeat of the Turkish-German front in the Land of Israel. In such circumstances it was therefore impossible to carry on any sort of political activity.
To tell the truth, the attitude of the Germans toward Jews at that time was tolerant. The library also continued to exist, and there were still Yiddish performances. I even remember a case during that period, where the White Russians staged a performance in the White Russian language. We found out that during this performance Radkevitsh, the son of the Swerznie bell ringer of the Russian Orthodox Church, would appear on stage, with a declamation. The content of the declamation concerned a Jewish high school student, who, was ridiculed during an examination for the way Jews speak Russian. So, Jews boycotted the performance and did not buy any tickets.
Later it was decided to disrupt the performance. A considerable number of young Jewish men gathered at the fire station. Two young men bought tickets and went inside, and when Radkevitsh began his antisemitic declamation, the two young men inside, opened the windows, and all those who stood outside, instantly jumped into the hall through the open windows, grabbed whistles from their pockets, and began whistling so loudly that one could go deaf. This happened so suddenly and unobserved, that the organizers as well as the entire hall, which overflowed with a Christian audience, were confused and could not ascertain what was happening there. The German commandant, who was also in the hall at the time, found out from his translator Nakhman Protas what was taking place, condemned the action of the Swerznie Christians as a meanness of the worst sort. He even looked for the gentile lad Radkevitsh on
the stage, but the latter escaped via a back door. In November 1918, the German military began to leave the occupied territories of White Russia in a most disorderly manner. With the arrival of the Bolsheviks, the organizational activity of the Zionist youth of Swerznie was renewed, but on a much smaller scale. A few meetings even took place with the permission of the local commissar, but without any success. During the spring of 1919, the absence of a Zionist press, being cut off from the entire world, and the pursuit of a piece of bread robbed everyone of the will to be involved in any kind of social activity.
In the midst of summer 1919, for the first time the Polish army occupied the western region of White Russia, up to the Berezina River. Very soon contact with the outside world was established. Minsk became a strong Zionist center. A daily newspaper called Farn Folk began to appear and was distributed throughout the entire province. We had no communication with Warsaw, only with Minsk. The reading hall, along with the library, renewed their activity again, but they no longer had their former power of appeal. The main work was done in the synagogue, which had been partially rebuilt with the help of Senator Yevelyavski, a member of the Danzig senate. While in Stoibtz for trade matters, he also visited Swerznie, as he was the grandson of the old Swerznie cantor. When he saw that the synagogue where his grandfather had led services stood in ruins, he ordered Eliyahu Yonah Kitayevits to deliver, at his expense, as many boards as were needed to rebuild the synagogue.
As a result, all gatherings were indeed held in the large synagogue They included electing a community council, opening a kitchen for children, distributing American aid items for the needy, providing tools for tradesmen and opening a school for Swerznie children. These matters were all dealt with at turbulent meetings in the large synagogue, and as a result attracted the attention of the entire youth. Finally, there was an end to all the debates, and the community could recommence its normal activity. The local rabbi, Reb Moshe Leib Roynes, was exceptionally active. One could never find him at home, as he was almost always weighed down by community issues. Once, while traveling to a rabbinical congress in Minsk, he was attacked on the train by Polish Halertshikes, who beat him murderously and cut off his beard with a bayonet. Arriving in Minsk, he went straight to the conference hall, where he gave a fiery protest speech, in which, he expressed the outcry of the thousands of Jews who were being thrown off moving trains or, in the best case, had their beards cut off.
Rabbi Roynes' talk had a depressing effect on all those attending the conference, especially the American delegates who were then in the hall. The full text of his speech was published the next day in the Minsk publication Farn Folk. For many months he walked around with a bandaged face, ashamed to show his cut-off beard in the street. In this way, over the course of an entire year, the legionnaires of the Pilsudski's Polish army, enjoyed themselves at the expense of the Jewish population.
Finally, in the middle of summer 1920, after a fierce assault by the Red Army, the Polish army began to leave the captured territories of White Russia. As they withdrew, over a period of a week, they raped and robbed the Jewish population. Despite the fact that people knew that the arrival of the Bolsheviks, would bring a time of hunger and need, it was with a blessing on their lips that the people welcomed each Red Army soldier in whom they saw a human being and a liberator from shame and moral oppression, which over time, is harder than hunger and need.
Fear of Revenge
With the withdrawal of the Polish, a painful event occurred. This happened on the final day of their retreating march when the last Polish soldiers had already left Swerznie. The Jews had begun returning to their houses after having spent an entire week spread out over the fields and woods, and mainly, near the large synagogue. A rumor then spread that the Polish priest had a cellar full of potatoes and everyone could take as much as they wanted. As people were hungry from not having had enough to eat for an entire week, and there was no place to buy food, some set off for the priest's courtyard. However, the whole story turned out to be false. At the entrance to the priest's house, stood a large picture of the crucified one. The picture had been placed there so that the retreating Polish forces would see that it wasn't a Jewish house and would not rob it. Someone had cut the holy picture with a knife, and a Swerznie gentile lad said that he saw how the holy picture was cut by the young Swerznie man Henakh Menakker, the son of Leibe Godl.
It was hard to believe that Henakh, who was known to be a calm and sensible young man, would do something so
foolish, but this did not help. The gentiles took up the accusation, and with lightning speed the word spread that the Swerznie Jews had defiled the holy picture of Jesus of Nazareth. It was talked about in all the villages in the entire area. So be it when the Bolsheviks were present, the locals were silent, but now, when the Polish soldiers come back? So, one can imagine the mood with which the Swerznie Jews awaited the return of the Polish army. Indeed, Henakh had disappeared together with the retreat of the Red Army, but the Swerznie Jews remained, and among them also Henakh's parents, his brother and two sisters.
Everyone was certain that the priest would publicize the entire tragedy about what had happened with the holy picture, and then the cavalrymen who were quartered in Swerznie would inflict a massacre upon the Jews. Yet weeks and months passed, and the matter was forgotten. Years later, when my father leased the fruit garden that belonged to the Catholic church, he entered into a pleasant conversation with the priest. My father said that the Swerznie Jews would never forget the decent manner in which he handled the defamation of the holy picture. G-d would therefore protect him from any harm, as he had protected the Swerznie Jews from serious danger. The priest, touched by these simple words, answered as follows: First I did not see that the young man Henakh Menakker could have done this but even if we should allow this thought for one moment, that he did do it there is still no necessity to blame a community of innocent Jews for a rash step of a foolish youth.
However, the second arrival of the Polish army did not pass altogether calmly. In order to cast fear into the civilian population, a few weeks after their return to Swerznie, they dragged two Jews, Mayshl Grande and Gavriel Goloventshitz, former militiamen in the time of the Bolsheviks, out of their beds in the middle of the night. They took them into the town and each of them was given twenty-five lashes. They were flogged so hard that they lay in bed for a few weeks, during which time they were unable to stand on their feet. In contrast, the Polish did not even touch the Christian militia and the former high ranking official, Yevgeni Drozdovski.
The Renewed Zionist Activity
After the war ended, the border was established near the village of Rusakovitz, about ten kilometers east of Swerznie. We were in the sector that was the closest point to the Polish-Russian border and the small town was therefore overflowing with Polish forces during the first couple of years.
There could be no talk of any kind of official organizational activity because during the first few years the Polish authorities did not legalize any political parties, especially in the eastern borderlands where we were. The central party committees were only the local committees of one party or the other from the city of Warsaw. The library remained locked up in the house of Peshe Hanneles. Rare gatherings took place in private houses or in the large synagogue, quietly, and without the knowledge of the authorities. The main work focused on collecting money for the Jewish National Fund or selling Zionist membership cards. A young talented man, Yossef Sagalowich who was loved by all the youth of the town, threw himself into this work with full fervor. To a certain extent, he replaced Meir Yossef, who was already a father of four children and had enough of his own worries about earning a living.
A group of people from Stoibtz and Swerznie
Itke Protas (below), A. Tunik, L. Altman, Yokhe and Chayenke Sagalowich
In that time, two young students returned from Minsk: Berl Margolin and Avraham Moshe Dantzig. Of these two energetic young men, the first was a General Zionist and the second was a member of the Zionist Labor party Hitakhdut. Their activity had an impact on both Stoibtz and Swerznie. Almost every Sabbath, they would come down to Swerznie together
with Getsel Reiser for a meeting that would take place with the participation of all the youth of the town. It was held in the house of Nokhem Shteynhoyz at the edge of town, far from the eyes of the local police. Despite the fact that Berl was a splendid speaker, the young people followed Avraham Meishel because General Zionism was already unpopular then, especially in a small town where the majority were children of laborers and tradesmen, and generally not wealthy. In praise of Margolin, it must be said that despite realizing that he would not be successful in creating a branch of General Zionism, he did not interrupt his productive work in both towns on behalf of the Zionist movement.
Rabbi [non-orthodox] Heyman, Doctor of Theology
In the streets of Stoibtz there suddenly appeared large placards written in Yiddish, announcing that on Friday night Rabbi Heyman, Doctor of Theology, would speak in the old synagogue in Stoibtz. The old synagogue was packed with people and all the Swerznie youth came to hear him, as this was the first public lecture since our region came under Polish control, and moreover, it was with a visiting speaker. Exactly at the time given on the placards, an extremely interesting personality ascended the dais, well-dressed and a brilliant lecturer, who charmed all the listeners. Yet in the middle of his lecture, a fight broke out between the Zionist youth and the Stoibtz Bundists, and in this way the Bund succeeded in disrupting the first Zionist lecture in Stoibtz. Esther Utyevski then ascended the dais and in tears appealed to the audience gathered there, that they allow the speaker to finish the lecture, but it did not help. Immediately after the crowd had dispersed, we, a delegation of Swerznie youth, went to the hotel where the speaker was staying, and proposed to him that he come the next day, Saturday, and deliver a lecture in Swerznie. We guaranteed him complete calm and order, and he consented.
Knowing that the Stoibtz Bundists would certainly also come to Swerznie, on Saturday morning, we immediately contacted the ten Jewish soldiers, also Zionists, who were then stationed in Swerznie. We asked for their help, that they not allow a repeat of what had happened the day before in Stoibtz, and they agreed. The next day, on the Sabbath, Yisroel Tsalkavitsh and Itke Protas who (later became the wife of Tsalkavitsh), went to Stoibtz to bring the speaker (afterwards she perished in the Swerznie ghetto along with her two children honor to their memory!). At almost the same time as the speaker, those who had disrupted the lecture on the previous evening, arrived from Stoibtz too. They were warned by the Jewish soldiers standing at the entrance that if they valued their lives, they should behave calmly and not repeat yesterday's Stoibtz heroism.
The two-hour lecture proceeded in complete order, for which the speaker thanked us heartily. Who Rabbi Heyman was, and how he received permission to speak at that time has remained a secret to this day. I learnt only one thing about him: that a letter arrived from the Keren Hayesod central office, telling us not to trust him with money. Regardless, the impression that he left on those gathered was a great contribution to furthering the development of Zionism in Swerznie and in Stoibtz.
At that time, the only party that grew quickly and carried on all the Zionist work in both towns was Hitakhdut. Almost all the youth from both places belonged to the party. The students at the Kletsk high school, contributed enormously to spreading Hitakhdut ideas. Close to fifty young men came to the Kletsk high school to complete their last school year, and to take their graduation examinations in the Swerznie Russian high school. The Swerznie high school was almost the sole remaining high school in the entire province where the studies were still conducted in the Russian language. This was in the years 1921-1922. Almost all the high school students were members of the Kletsk Hitakhdut, that was regarded as one of the strongest branches in the whole region. Some of them, like Eliyahu Manyer, Shmerl Perlman, Lippetz and Rabinovitz, devoted themselves to party work almost more than to their studies.
Yossef Sagalowich was then head of Hitakhdut in Swerznie and Avraham Meishel Dantzig in Stoibtz., Both were assisted by scores of activists.
At that time, news came out in the press about the establishment of Hekhalutz, a party that set as its task, the preparation and organization of the youth for emigration to the Land of Israel. Actual contact with Warsaw was still almost non-existent. In order to travel from our town to Warsaw, one needed a special permit from the local authorities. I used my acquaintance with the Jewish soldier Yehoshua Erlikh, who was then
Hitakhdut and Gordonia from Stoibtz and Swerznie,
20 Tammuz 1929 in the woods
serving in Swerznie. I asked of him that when he traveled to see his parents in Warsaw, whether he would also go to the Hekhalutz office, then located on 11 Karmelitske Street under the leadership of the now-famous Eliyahu Dobkin, and ask Dobkin for instructions on how to organize a branch of Hekhalutz. Erlikh (who is now in Israel) returned to Swerznie a short time later and brought with him entire bundles of magazines and newspapers, as well as the required instructions. The author of these lines, as well as my comrade Noakh Rubentshik, threw us into the work of organizing a local branch of Hekhalutz, with great enthusiasm.
Something will be missing from this memorial book, if I do not mention here, at least in a few short strokes, about my comrade and friend, Noakh Rubentshik, who perished in the massacre in the Swerznie ghetto. While still in his earliest youth, he was already proficient in ancient and modern Hebrew literature, as well as having read much in Yiddish and Russian. His daily bread was the study of the theories of ancient and modern philosophy; his favorite conversations were those about the Rambam [Maimonides], Spinoza, Darwin and Kant. This was also the reason for his admiration of A. D. Gordon. It was in Gordon's concept of Religion of Labor that Rubentshik found a little satisfaction for his mystical soul, which rebelled against the basic calculations of historical materialism according to the Marxist world view.
Although in the form he filled out for the HeKhalutz center, in the column asking for party membership, he classified himself as a member of Hitakhdut, but he was never a party man. People such as Rubentshik cannot fit themselves into a narrow Sodom-bed of party dogma and programs. He was a sentimental person. Seeing a poor man going from house to house begging for alms, could move him to tears, because in his religious soul he saw the fact of having to beg for a piece of bread to quiet a person's hunger, as an offense to the Divine Image. After having served as secretary for the local branch of HeKhalutz for a short time, he saw that he would never be one of those who realized the Zionist dream, so he left the branch, but was always ready to help out when needed. A murderous German bullet put an end to this brilliant young mind. It is hard to make peace with the thought that Noakh is no longer among the living.
In quite a short time we were successful in organizing a wonderful branch of HeKhalutz that comprised almost the entire youth of the town, as well as members from Stoibtz, who wanted to immigrate to the Land of Israel, and enrolled in the Swerznie Hekhalutz group. All the work was carried out in private houses, without official permission from the authorities. Seeing that without premises it would be impossible to continue with the activity of the branch, we began lobbying for the legalization of a branch of Tarbut, under whose name we could work in peace. In order to legalize such a branch, the Polish regime required three
responsible persons who were supposed to be eminent community leaders about whom no political defect, G-d forbid, could be found.
Feygl and Ayzik Shenkman, of blessed memory
Of course, it was not easy for us to find three such Jews who would agree to this. Eventually three agreed to the dangerous move: Ayzik Shenkman, Nokhem Shteynhoyz, and Berl Darevski. To our good fortune, the branch Tarbut was legalized in Swerznie. Our joy had no bounds. We immediately rented premises in the house of Eliyahu the scribe, where we opened the library and reading hall which had been inactive since the arrival of the Poles. Under the cover of legalization, we began to carry on normal activities. The branch of Hekhalutz began to grow from day to day and drew into its ranks, almost the entire youth of Swerznie. It administered all branches of Zionist activity in the town, such as Keren Hakayemet Leyisrael, Shkolim, the library, etc.
The Hekhalutz organization in Novi-Swerznie, 1925
First row, sitting from the right: Sh. Lipovski, F. Perelman, G. Botvinik, Y. Epshtein, B. Darevski, A. D. Shkolnik, N. Zshitnitski, Zev Pinnes, R. Perelman, Sh. Protas, L. Rozin
Second row: N. Zshitnitski, F. Goloventshitz, Kh. Shvarts, Kh. Sh. Yossilyevski, R. Shteynhoyz
Third row: Y. Klyatshuk, M. Stelmakh, L. Aginsky, A. Goloventshitz, Sh. Botvinik, M. Grande, R. Brokhes
Fourth row: A. Y. Darevski, Sh. M. Kaplan, A. Bernshtein, H. Movshovitsh, L. Epshtein, Kh. Goldin, A. Kravets, B. Lyakhovitski
A secretariat was selected consisting of the following members: A. D. Shkolnik, chairman; Berl Darevski, secretary; Zev Pinnes, treasurer; Yisroel Epshtein and Natan Zhitnitski as members of the board. This same secretariat, with minor changes, conducted the work until the end of the existence of Hekhalutz. It is interesting that the first to immigrate to the Land of Israel through the Hekhalutz of Swerznie, were all from Stoibtz.
The names of the first pioneers from Stoibtz were: Yossef Machtei, Chaim Rozovski, Feygl Bernshtein, and Bebe
Kharkhurim (Ben Yerukham).
At that time this was the only Hekhalutz in the whole region. Later, when Hershl Pinski arrived to confirm members for immigration [to the Land of Israel], he emphasized that the Swerznie branch was almost the only one whose members he confirmed for immigration without their undergoing preparatory training, because it is the oldest branch in Polyesser Voyevudstve. Others from the Swerznie branch of Hekhalutz who immigrated to the Land of Israel were: Fanye Perleman, Shifreh Lipovski, Golde Botvinik, Aharon Bernshtein, Leibl Doktorovitz, Anshl Goloventshitz, and Rivke Perelman - all from Swerznie.
During the period that the Hekhalutz existed, the following emissaries from the Land of Israel visited us: Yehoshua Manoakh (Deganyah), Friedman (Eyn Kharod), Chaim Shorrer (Nahalal), Dovid Radunski (Warsaw), Hershl Pinski and Aharon Vyner (The Galilee Council in Polyisya). All members of the local Hekhalutz, with two exceptions, were members of Hitakhdut.
At the Departure of Berl Margolin
From right to left:
First row: Rabinovitsh (Kliyetsk), A. M. Dantzig
Second row: M. B. Kaplan, Yossef Shkolnik, M. Y. Shvartz, Alter Yossilevitsh, Berl Margolin, Utyevski
Standing: A. D. Shkolnik, M. Borsuk, Lippetz (Kliyetsk), Rokhl Kharkhurim, M. Manner (Kliyetsk), Itke Protas, Yisroel Tselkovitz
Alter the Teacher
In the spring of 1922 Alter Yosselevski, or as he was affectionately called, Alter the teacher, returned from Minsk to Stoibtz. Until then I had not known him; I would only hear from time to time how the comrades from Stoibtz would, at every opportunity, regret that Alter the teacher was not in Stoibtz. Shortly after Alter Yosselevski returned to Stoibtz, Berl Margolin left Stoibtz and departed for the United States.
Before his departure, a magnificent farewell banquet was arranged in Stoibtz, in partnership with the Zionist youth of Swerznie. In his farewell speech Margolin said that he was now leaving Stoibtz with peace of mind now that Alter had returned. Alter had stood at the cradle of Zionism in Stoibtz but because of the war, had to leave Stoibtz, and like some other Jews, spent some years in Minsk. This information was received with great pleasure by the large crowd that was present that evening at the farewell banquet in honor of Berl Margolin.
From that evening onward Alter Yosselevski was crowned anew as the spiritual Zionist leader of Stoibtz. Regardless of the fact that Alter was a General Zionist, he succeeded
from the very beginning, to create a collegial environment around him, of devoted friends and admirers of the entire Zionist youth, who were then in Stoibtz and Swerznie, regardless of party or political persuasion. At many sessions at which I was present in Stoibtz, where both general and party questions were being dealt with, the question always arose - what will Alter the teacher say and has he already been consulted on the matter. Very rarely would a leader succeed in creating such a reverential approach toward himself, especially in a small town where various conflicts arose, both on party and social matters, and in most cases, assumed a personal character. In the course of many years that I happened to meet Alter the teacher at various Zionist occasions or in private conversations, I had the opportunity to observe at close hand the rare human being and devoted Zionist veteran, who, during the fateful days of difficult struggle in the Land of Israel and in Zionism, never broke down but, on the contrary, found a word of consolation and did not allow disappointment to arise. I will never forget his joy when his son Aminadav and I, traveled as delegates to the regional conference of Hitakhdut in Slonim, that took place with the participation of comrade Yossel Levi, secretary of the central committee of Hitakhdut in Poland. I am happy, he told me then, that I have lived to see how my Aminadav has chosen the right path.
At the end of 1939, after my return from the concentration camp Bereza Kartuska, already under the rule of the Soviet Union, I would often meet Alter the teacher. Once, at such a meeting, under four eyes, he confided in me that he had been called to the NKVD and asked whether it was true that he was a Zionist. To this he replied that he was a Zionist because he saw no other way of solving the Jewish question under the various fascist regimes in the world except by concentrating the Jewish masses somewhere in a safe corner of the earth where they could lead a normal life of work and agriculture like all normal nations in the world. I think, he added, that this is not an injustice. Yes, they said to him, but what do you think now? -- Now, Alter the teacher replied, when the Soviet Union treats Jews like all nations of the great Soviet state, I no longer need to worry about how to solve the Jewish question of Russian Jews…. Well, okay, they told him, you may go home.
How long I will remain at home - I do not know, he added with a bitter smile…. I tried to calm him down, that he should not be afraid because if they did not trust him, they would not permit him to hold a government job as a teacher in a school.
A teacher, he repeated my words with bitterness. It seems to me, he continued, that the devil himself could not think up a greater punishment for me than to be a teacher in a Soviet school and to teach the children according to the new calligraphy of the Yevsektsiya - a teacher who knows that he is turning the children into permanent intellectual cripples and is raising a generation to ignorance of Jewish culture. Imagine that when a child writes the word emet as it should be written, I have to approach him and say that he made a mistake because one should write it with ayin mem ayin samekh [emes] and all the children break into resounding laughter, ha-ha-ha! Where did the teacher see that? Why, you yourself taught us that emes is written with an alef and not an ayin, and they look at me with suspicious glances, as if they regretted that the teacher was, sad to say, not in his right mind…. I, the teacher of culture, who has devoted a lifetime to the revival of the Hebrew language, have to uproot, with my own hands, every trace of the language that was my holy tongue, an integral part of my character. This is the greatest tragedy that could possibly happen in the life of a Hebrew teacher and a national Jew.
The only fortunate thing in his life was that he lived to be able to send off his three children to the Land of Israel, something that he himself did not live to do. He perished in martyrdom together with his congregation of Stoibtz Jews. Who knows what dirty hand of a vile Hitlerite put an end to this rare and fruitful life. Alter the teacher is no more, but his spirit and love for the Land of Israel, which he implanted in his hundreds of pupils, will continue to live and exist for many more years on the free soil of the State of Israel.
At that time, I founded a branch of Hashomer Ha'tsa'ir in Swerznie, that numbered over 60 children. Ha'shomer Ha'tsa'ir was then, not yet a political party, and the children of Ha'shomer, voted for Hitakhdut or for Po'aley Tziyon, in the elections for the Zionist Congress, according to the discretion of the voter. On a summer morning, during a walk of the Swerznie Ha'shomer the police dispersed the group [guards] and warned that the children should not dare to gather again, otherwise the police would arrest the children's parents. We turned to Comrade Vinover in Stoibtz, and he intervened with the Starosta, pointing out that in the statute of Tarbut there is a clause that one is allowed to organize youth sporting groups. The Starosta, however, answered him with a categorical ‘No,’ adding that ‘if you do not like it, you can complain about me to headquarters in Warsaw.’ From then onwards Ha'shomer Ha'tsa'ir ceased to exist in Swerznie.
Meeting of the members of Gordonia from Stoibtz, Swerznie, Nyesvizsh, and Rubeziewicz
Second row, the first on the left: Noakh Borsuk. Sixth one sitting: Henna Borsuk
Third row, sitting on the left: Sh. Milcenzon. Seventh in same row: Sh. Ayznbud
Standing from right to left: A. D. Shkolnik, Aharon Tunik, may the Lord avenge his blood
Sometime later I founded a branch of Gordonia in Swerznie that comprised a significant part of the adult youth and collaborated closely with the Gordonia of Stoibtz, led by the youthful Shmuel Milcenzon (now in Israel). A meeting was convened of all Gordonia branches of the surrounding towns; it was held in Stoibtz under the leadership of Shevakh Ayznbud, a member of the Gordonia branch in Nyesvizsh (he is now in Israel). Both the Swerznie and Stoibtz branches of Gordonia were organized and educated by the Hitakhdut organizations of Swerznie and Stoibtz. In a later period Menakhem Goldberg (Halevi), who married Comrade Khemda, daughter of Alter the teacher, devoted himself a great deal to Gordonia. Both Menakhem and Khemda were graduates of the Vilna Hebrew seminar of Dr. Tsharna (now both in Deganya, Israel).
The center of Zionism in general, and of Hitakhdut and Gordonia in particular, was situated in Mayshke Borsuk's house, where almost every day, comrades of all political persuasions met and discussed various Zionist issues. The central figure in this house was Comrade Khane, who carried out all the Zionist work in the town on her own shoulders with the active participation of her brother Noakh, who was the permanent secretary of the local Hitakhdut. He perished in one of the Balkan countries on his way to the Land of Israel, fleeing from the Bolsheviks in 1940, and did not live to reach the land of his dreams.
It was the will of fate that not one of the Hitakhdut members that remained in Stoibtz during the bloody Hitlerite invasion, would remain alive, and they all perished in the Stoibtz ghetto at the hands of the Nazi murderers. I am the only one left of that impassioned period. I am not in a position, and do not have enough tears to mourn so many comrades and friends. Here I see before my eyes, Yossl Pilshtshik he was always cheerful and participated in every debate; here I see Abbe Bogin, always smiling and good natured who was the authorized person of the Jewish National Fund in Stoibtz for many years.
And how can one forget Comrade Meyyshl Tunik who was so respected by everyone -- and his jovial brothers Aharon, Abrashe, and Pinye Tunik -- Pinye never parted from his violin. And where are the brothers Chaim and Dovid Epshtein, Iddl Dovid Kapillevitsh, Tsivye Sragovitz, Relke Tunik, and Yankel Bernshtein, the photographer Utyevski, and others
whose names I have already forgotten.
The young priests, should be mentioned here, the youth of Gordonia who had just begun to live: The female comrades Freydl Rusak, Tsivye Goloventshitz, Yoykheved Zelivyanski, Gedalyahu Menkhes and Moshe Shteynhoyz, all from Swerznie. Some of them were already married and perished together with their families; as well as the female comrades of Stoibtz: Yente Shapiro, Khaye Machtey, Khavve Milcenzon, Blyume Aginsky, Rivke Machtei, Leah Tunik. The male comrades: Leibe Aginsky, Mordkhy Rozovsky, and Azriel Tunik (the son of Hershl). None of them succeeded in escaping, none of them eluded the bloody hands of the German murderers. May their holy souls unite with the heroes of our nation, of all generations in all times.
With the Arrival of Motl Machtei
A few years later, approximately in 1922, the situation changed radically due to the fact that Motl Machtei organized a seminar of Stoibtz youth who shortly thereafter became the founders of Po'aley Tsi'yon youth Y.S.A.I., the later Fryhite. They even succeeded in drawing Comrade Isser Rabinovitsh over to their side, who had previously been active in Gordonia. The Po'aley Tsi'yon party also became active thanks to the influence of Motl, who was already active when the Po'aley Tsi'yon party had just come into being. Hitakhdut in Stoibtz sensed a serious competitor in Po'aley Tsi'yon, and gradually the former began to lose influence in the town in all areas, that until then, had been exclusively in the hands of Hitakhdut. This, however, had almost no effect on Swerznie. All attempts to organize Fryhite or a branch of Po'aley Tsi'yon in Swerznie, did not succeed.
In the spring of 1924, the Polish police suddenly carried out a search in my home which lasted a few hours. Fortuitously, I was not at home. They took away a large amount of material and brochures as well as my personal legal document, which was in the pocket of my Sabbath suit. Before leaving they issued an injunction that tomorrow at 10 am I should appear at the Pyontke, that is, in the interrogation room of the district secret police. As soon as it became dark, I traveled to Stoibtz where a special meeting was convened in the Tarbut school with the participation of Alter Yosselevski, Meir Yossef Schwartz, Eliakum Milcenzon, and Motl Machtei. All of us together, sought a solution for the situation that had arisen. I was of the opinion that I must immediately flee to Warsaw and from there find a way to the Land of Israel. Motl was against this, reasoning that my escape would cast a bad light on all Zionist activity near the border region, and it would be interpreted that under the guise of Zionism, we are engaging in illegal activity. To go to the Pyontke is no pleasant matter because people have been beaten murderously there, but fate fell upon me to make this sacrifice.
Alter the teacher told me that when I go to the Pyontke tomorrow, I should first come to him at the Tarbut school, and he would send two boys with me, who would wait near the door of the Pyontke during my interrogation, and if they begin to beat me, I should scream with all my might; the children would then run immediately to inform Alter the teacher, and he would already have prepared a delegation who would go to the Starosta and would apply all possible means to free me. With that, I left for home.
It is difficult for me to describe how I spent that sleepless night. I was not thinking as much of myself, but of observing the anxiety of the members of my household, who looked at me with so much pity because I had to go to martyrdom the next day. It cut into my heart, and I barely managed to refrain from bursting into tears. In Swerznie all hell broke loose. From mouth to mouth, cruel rumors spread according to which, packages of communist literature were taken from me. Others added that they had literally taken away secret espionage documents…. Fear also descended upon the houses of comrades from Hekhalutz. Parents reproached their children saying that they should not have been friendly with me, because they knew ahead of time that this would not end smoothly, and that I would still bring misfortune upon the town.
Meanwhile in every house various papers were burned, because no one was sure that they would not be searched tomorrow. For this reason, when I was walking toward Stoibtz early the next morning, everyone who saw me from a distance, entered into a courtyard a few houses before me, so they would not have to stop and speak to me, for no good could come from such an encounter, and with bad luck, a policeman might just happen to pass by, and then one would surely be lost…. This isolation by my own friends burned in me like fire. At last I was already in Stoibtz. The whole way, I kept thinking: For how long would they deprive me of my liberty? I felt sorry for my parents and for myself. Now I was already on the stairs leading to the chief official and taking the last step into the wolf's mouth… .
It is interesting that as soon as I crossed the threshold of the Pyontke,
all my fear left me, just as if I had come to take care of some private matter. An inscription on the wall read: Nye verzh nikamu, boday vshistkikh (Believe nobody, investigate everybody). One of the secret agents recognized me immediately, apparently from the photo on my document that was in his hands. He handed me a chair and told me to sit near him. On the table lay the entire pack of papers that they removed from my house the previous day. I had to explain every little piece of paper and if I touched a piece of paper while explaining, he began to scream, fearing that while holding it I would, G-d forbid, destroy the important document…. The investigation lasted over six hours, with small interruptions during which he allowed me to smoke a cigarette. After the investigation, he asked my opinion about Semyon Kitayevits and about Lusterman. When I said that both of them are known to me as good Zionists, a mysterious smile appeared on his face.
After he arranged the pack of papers that he noted down during the six hours, he proposed to me that I should stay and work for them, motivating his proposal as follows:
You see, he told me, according to your own explanations I can free you, but since we do not have a translator here, to translate from Hebrew and Yiddish, I have the right to arrest you until everything will be translated somewhere, by one of our translators. Sometimes this can take a few months. On the other hand, if you accept the job, you would in such cases, only bring benefit to innocent people…. If it is not pleasant for you to work here, I have another place for you. We will send you to Lidde. We know that a branch of Kombund exists there, whom you as a Zionist hate just as we hate them. So, you will need to enroll in their organization, and as a capable lad they will surely elect you to their party committee. Then you will inform us when a secret meeting is taking place, and we will come and arrest the whole committee. You, of course, will be led into one door and you will immediately be freed through another door. Understood?
This proposal tormented me more than the whole interrogation. Finally I took the courage and stammered: If you really want to do me a favor, see that I get permission to leave Poland, and I will go to the Land of Israel.
I promise this to you, he answered me, after you complete the task in Lidde and help us to liquidate the nest of the Kombund. I was silent and did not answer a single word. Afterwards he said to me: Well, I'm giving you time to think it over. I was sure that he would now certainly detain me until I agreed to become a secret agent.
But after a short silence he told me that for the time being I am free and may go. When I requested my document from him, he at first refused, but when I explained to him that we are located not far from the border and each time I may be arrested anew, he replied: Nothing will happen to you; you won't be taken any further than to us… Nevertheless, he went into another room, and after a short deliberation he handed me my document and ordered that I report twice a week to the Swerznie police until a special decree is issued.
When I left the building of the Starosta, the whole world looked different to me, as if I had risen from Khoni the Circle Drawer's sleep. Now people met me with a smile on their lips, adding ironically: How is the arrestee? Of course, we knew earlier that nothing would happen…. Why should it -- have you killed anybody…. May the murderers be burned -- what business of theirs is it, if Jews want to travel to the Land of Israel?
The next day I was already sitting at a meeting of Hekhalutz. From time to time in the evenings, policemen would visit the premises, stand a while casting a warning glance, and disappear. Half a year later I was again summoned to the Pyontke, which by then was located near the railroad station in Klein's brick building. There they returned all the brochures and papers to me that they had taken away half a year earlier. With false politeness, the official apologized to me for the unpleasantness that was caused me, that it was a regrettable error….
In 1925 Hekhalutz grew in membership so that it was impossible to remain in one room in the house of Elye the scribe. Then we rented a whole house together with the garden from the Christian woman Lyuba Drozdovski on Rumov Street. We tilled and cultivated the garden with our own hands, from beginning to end. This was the most beautiful time of Hekhalutz in Swerznie. But after that, when the more capable members immigrated to the Land of Israel and the emigration of the Fourth Immigration began, when every day worse news came from the Land of Israel, Hekhalutz approached the edge of extinction. Some comrades got married. I was drafted into the Polish
military, and with that, a glorious page in the history of Hekhalutz in Swerznie, came to an end.
In praise of the pioneers of Swerznie, it is worth mentioning that not one of them returned home. Despite all conditions and circumstances, they stayed in the Land of Israel. When I returned home from military service in Vilnius, I no longer recognized Swerznie. During the 18 months that I spent in the army, a huge sawmill was built in which hundreds of officials and laborers worked. In the winter months, when the transportation of logs from the forest began, the number of people who earned their living from the sawmill reached the thousands. All the youth worked there and were remunerated. The town was overflowing with new arrivals from elsewhere. There were many Jews among the laborers as well as among the officials.
We brought in a number of new Jewish National Fund money boxes and distributed them among officials of the sawmill, who had arrived together with their families. The income for the Jewish National Fund rose every month. It is worth mentioning the Vilna University student Yehoshua Telikhanski, son of a high official at the sawmill, who was a faithful and devoted Zionist and who contributed much to the development of Zionism in Swerznie at that time.
The only organization that still existed in Swerznie from before my military service, was the Gordonia, to which Comrade Khane Borsuk of Stoibtz devoted herself enthusiastically during my absence. The youth were attached to her like to a mother.
The Reemergence of Ha'shomer
In contrast to the disappearance of some other Zionist organizations, there developed a fine branch of Ha'shomer Ha'tsa'ir which was led by Getsel Russak, Arye Epshtein, Frume Velitovski (all now in Israel) and Avraham Rubin, who died the tragic but heroic death of a martyr, for smuggling weapons into the Swerznie ghetto.
The Ha'shomer Ha'tsa'ir had its own premises, which they rented in the house of Reb Chaim Yaakov son of Sholem, that then belonged to Yitzkhak Goloventshitz, of blessed memory. In the course of a few years they developed considerable and productive activities among the youth of Swerznie. A branch of Hekhalutz was also established that sent a few of its members for agricultural training and preparation, and some of them immigrated to the Land of Israel. Simche Reznik was the leader of this branch of Hekhalutz s. A branch of Ha'oved also existed through which Yisroel Epshtein, the only member from Swerznie, immigrated to the Land of Israel.
The 20th of Tammuz
The celebration of the 20th of Tammuz 1929, on the 25th anniversary of the death of Dr. Herzl, was most successful. This celebration was arranged through the joint efforts of people from Swerznie and Stoibtz in the Anglo-Europe club, at the sawmill in Swerznie.
The celebration began [on the 19th of Tammuz] with a festive commemorative gathering under my chairmanship. After the opening speech by the writer of these lines, a children's choir, under the direction of Pinye Tunik, in a fully packed hall, performed the mourning song by Leib Yaffe, To Herzl's Grave, which begins with the words:
Choking from mourning and tears,
We escort you to your rest.
We lift our hands, and we swear
To struggle, to struggle like you.
Afterwards the choir performed the song by David Shimonovits Do Not Lament under the brilliant direction of Comrade P. Tunik, that evoked enthusiastic applause from the gathered public. A lecture about the life and work of Herzl was delivered by Comrade Meir Yossef Schwartz.
The last to speak was Avraham Mayshl Dantzik, who had returned from a trip to the Land of Israel. The commemorative gathering was concluded by Comrade Utyevski, and after the singing of Hatikvah the public left in an elevated mood. Throughout the proceedings, Alter the teacher sat behind the presidium, beaming with pleasure, seeing that there were followers upon whom he could rely on…. This was also the reason that he did not want to appear publicly at the commemorative gathering. Enough, he said, for once, get used to implementing things without Alter as a speaker.
It was only the next day, on the 20th of Tammuz, which fell on a Sunday when all the stores were closed, that we organized a grand festive procession at the marketplace in Stoibtz. A group of older Zionists led the procession, regardless of their party affiliation. Members of Gordonia marched behind them, all dressed in grey shirts and colored neckties. The Hekhalutz Ha'tsa'ir marched behind them. The procession was completed by Ha'shomer Ha'tsa'ir, who with their uniforms and exemplary order, made an imposing impression. The procession marched from Stoibtz to Swerznie. All the way they sang Hebrew songs. In Swerznie they passed through Stoibtz Street, the marketplace, and Mir Street and then set out in the direction of the Sinovve forest. The forest was filled with people. Only old and sick people who could not walk, remained in Swerznie and Stoibtz. Even little children in strollers were brought into the forest. The festivities and the amusements provided by the youth organizations lasted until nighttime.
[Page 435] For the first time in their lives, both towns were seeing an imposing demonstration in favor of Zionism, in the lap of nature, between green fields and fragrant pine trees, and regrettably, also for the last time
The events in the Land of Israel in 1929 evoked great turmoil among the Jews of Swerznie. A protest assembly was called in the large synagogue with the participation of all Jewish residents of Swerznie. People could not wait for the newspaper to be brought home, so they ran to the railroad station in Stoibtz to await the train from Warsaw that used to bring the mail and the newspapers. The only newspaper distributor, Mayshke Borsuk, would immediately be surrounded by many people who yearned for news from the Land of Israel. We, a group of ten young men who had recently been released from the army, wrote a letter to the center of Hekhalutz in Poland that we are prepared, as trained soldiers who had completed military service, to voluntarily join the ranks of the Haganah, the Jewish defense force in the land of Israel. We received a reply that such a proposal was now being considered and that we would be informed about it at the earliest opportunity.
After the events, the headquarters of the Jewish National Fund in Poland published a sketch on good Bristol paper with the list of all the names and addresses of those who perished during the unrest in the Land of Israel. The board was meant for meeting halls and other public places. I then turned to the old president of the large synagogue, Reb Sender Shvartz, who was a great admirer of Zionism. He then paid the full cost of the board, which amounted to 15 zloty, framed it in a black frame, and hung it in the synagogue, where it surely remained until the extermination of Swerznie. Seldom was such a thing permitted in the synagogue of another town. This smelled of Zionism and public agitation in favor of the Jewish National Fund, which was like a thorn in the eye of Agudat Yisrael, that then had the upper hand in the synagogues.
Reb Sender Schwartz of blessed memory
After a few years, the sawmill closed, and the Anglo-Europe company liquidated its business in Swerznie. All laborers and officials who came from afar, left the town. The active part of the youth immigrated to the Land of Israel or were in preparatory agricultural training for immigration. The income of the Jewish National Fund fell from month to month, and all activity came to a standstill.
At that time, the Beitar organization of Stoibtz organized a branch in Swerznie. They did not have much success; except for the few young people who joined them at the very beginning, they did not succeed in expanding their ranks throughout their existence. They benefited from the sympathy of a few who became disappointed with the line of political Zionism of that time. It is worth adding that even in those houses where the son was registered with Beitar, the parents continued to contribute to the Zionist funds as before.
The general social work of the town was demonstrated by the charity fund, which gave interest-free loans of up to 50 zloty. At a later period, a branch of the Stoibtz Cooperative Folk Bank was also opened.
The Jewish Colonization Association also opened a branch in Swerznie. They granted big loans to all those Jews who requested it and occupied themselves with gardening and planted fruit gardens in the spaces near the houses. The Jewish Colonization Association also supported Jews who had settled in the villages around Swerznie, they supplied modern agricultural machinery and planted orchards of fruit trees. Throughout the development of these undertakings, they were supervised by an expert agronomist of the Jewish Colonization Association. He would visit Swerznie and its vicinity a few times a year, but all this assistance was like a drop in the ocean, compared to the destitution that reigned in a town of Jews without a livelihood.
In addition, to the difficult economic situation, the antisemitic Polish organization Mlada-Polska,
emerged that was organized by the gentile man Zigmund, who arrived unexpectedly in Swerznie with the new priest. Each day the organization grew bigger and included ever greater masses of the White Russian youth of the town. Public antisemitic insolence and stone throwing through the windows of Jewish homes at night while the residents were sleeping, became a frequent phenomenon. (By the way, I want to mention here that Zigmund was killed together with a group of the Polish intelligentsia of Swerznie, who the Germans took out of town and shot; so, he did not live to see the final destruction of the Jews of Swerznie.)
Suddenly the good neighborliness of the White Russians and Jews and their joint struggle against the common oppressor were forgotten. This joint struggle had been demonstrated in the creation of a bloc of national minorities for the elections to the Second and Third Sejm. Such personalities as Deputy Sobolyevski and Michael Mickievič, the brother of the White Russian Bolshevik poet Yakub Kolas, were not ashamed to occupy high positions during the time of the Hitlerite occupation of White Russia. In this situation of economic and political depression, the Second World War broke out on 1 September 1939. What happened in Swerznie during this short war, I do not know, for the following reason:
Reb Yitzkhak and Yekhezkeyl Goloventshitz, of blessed memory
In the house of my regular place of residence, my brother-in-law Yekhezkeyl was lying on his sickbed. He had become ill with tuberculosis during pioneer training and preparation in a Gordonia group in Dubno and he was struggling with death. He was a loyal and devoted comrade who did not live to realize his aspirations and died at the tender age of 22; but he died in his own bed and did not perish at the hand of the German murderers -- may one at least find some consolation in that. Because of his illness, the doctor said that I must move out of the house because the illness was dangerous for my three small children. I therefore moved to the brick house of Monye Yosselevski. As I sat there on the first evening of the war, when the children were already lying in their beds, I considered the sad situation that had been created where I was waiting to be drafted into the military any minute; then who would provide for my three minor children, the youngest of whom was barely two months old? Suddenly the door opened, and two policemen entered who informed me that they have an order to search my dwelling and immediately began their work. They threw everything into disorder, turned each item over several times, and naturally found nothing. Then they turned to me and said that I had to come with them. The children, seeing that the police were taking me away, jumped off their beds, lay on the floor, clasped my legs with their delicate little arms, and cried in a heart-rending manner, pleading with me not leave the house because they were afraid to remain alone. The children's lament apparently affected the stony hearts of the two policemen, and they agreed to wait for me outside until I calmed the children. After the policemen went out, the children quickly calmed down. I told them that I was going out to buy something to eat and would return right away….
Observing the four walls of the cheerless room and casting a farewell glance at the three frightened little children, I left the house. Outside the two policemen were waiting for me, and all three of us went in the direction of Swerznie's police station, which was then located on Mir Street, in the brick building belonging to Shtshors. Passing by Yerachmiel Goldin's house, I asked them to allow me to go in to buy a packet of tobacco, to which they agreed. At Yerakhmiel's place I found out that in Stoibtz too, arrests had taken place, and that together with others, Motl Machtey was arrested.
To all my questions to the two policemen as to why I'm being taken to the police station, given that they found nothing at my place I did not receive a clear answer. Only after arriving in the police station, they read a decree to me, issued by the security official of the Stoibtz district, that I am being sent out to another district for security reasons, as a politically undesirable element. The decree then specified that I have to take work clothes with me and not have any
rings, a watch or other valuables. The policeman Tkarzshinski consoled me that I should not have heartache about it because it is much better than going to the front….
During the night that I stayed on the floor at the police station, the telephone rang constantly. One of the telephone dispatches received by the policeman on duty, Boshko, who afterwards relayed it to all the smaller police offices, was as follows: The police must be on high alert, because in the area of the border region many spies are hanging around, Germans and Jews! At that time, Poland was infected with such a manic antisemitic fear, that even in the last weeks of its existence it reached such an absurdity, claiming that Jews are spying for Germany. The next day, Saturday, the second day of the Polish-German war, I was transferred to the prison in Stoibtz; there I met many arrested Christians. In a pleasant conversation while lying on the floor of the jail, one young Christian named Kanavalov told me that he was not making a big fuss over the whole matter because only a short time ago he had returned home after serving a 15-year prison sentence for murdering a Polish policeman. Seeing with whom I was paired, I began to grasp the seriousness of the situation in which I found myself.
They kept bringing newly arrested people until late at night. A couple of hours before dawn, a police commissar came in and told us to take our bundles and march outside. At the exit stood dozens of armed policemen. Immediately a decree was issued that we were not allowed to speak to each other, and whoever tried to escape would instantly be shot on the spot. At the railroad station, it was as black as in Egypt [extremely dark]; the couple of electric lamps that were on, had been painted blue. Their weak light cast a mysterious fear upon one's dreary soul and gave the impression that you had suddenly fallen into a mysterious world. This is how the cheerful light-flooded railroad station of Stoibtz, that was always bustling, looked on the eve of the destruction of the criminal Polish government of Beck and Pristerowa.
We were immediately ordered to go into the railroad cars of the train which had already been prepared earlier, for this purpose. Together with us, our police escorts also entered the train. The train moved and began to race with a devilish speed into the darkness of the night. From the racing train I cast a farewell glance at Swerznie. In the dark, one could see the silhouettes of the houses, which were snuggling up to each other as if they feared the fate of the next day. There among the houses, my brother-in-law Khatskl was now struggling with death; there my three little children are snuggling in fear of the darkness of night, afraid of being left in the midst of war without their father; and I do not know whom I should pity more, them, or my own fate, now that I am being transported without knowing my destination. At every railroad station, new prisoners were brought onto the train. In a few places they were brought shackled in irons.
On the way I found out from an acquaintance of mine, Povlovski, who had just been drafted into the police, that we were being taken to the then notorious camp for political criminals Kartuz-Bereze. When we arrived at the Bludni railroad station, we were ordered to step out of the railroad cars. The distance from there to the camp, was six kilometers, which we had to cover on foot. At the station, precisely at that time, we were met by a military echelon that cursed us with the vilest curses. Exclamations were heard of Zabits ikh zdraytsi oytshizne (Kill them, traitors of the fatherland). Some of them pelted us with stones, to which our police escorts reacted with secretive little smiles.
At the entrance to the camp, we were met by the local police who had been waiting for us at the gate. They attacked us like wild beasts and beat us murderously with the bone handles of their rubber truncheons. The screams of the beaten ones reached the heart of the heavens and resounded in outer space: Until when! [will this go on].
What happened next is not related to this book; It is a chapter in its own right which is worth recording. As far as I know, nobody has thoroughly described this island of tears, suffering, and pain through which thousands of people passed, people of the progressive intelligentsia of all nationalities in OZN Poland.
About one thing, however, I can assure the readers of these lines: The Hitlerist murderer, Himmler, could still learn a lesson from the Pole Kostek-Biernatski about how to torture people. Kostek-Biernatski was the commander of Polyesie and the person actually responsible for this camp. He had become notorious even earlier, with his cruel torture of the so-called Brisk arrestees who consisted of ministers and deputies of the Polish tsentralyev.
I Go Home
After various trudging and wanderings, more on foot than by vehicle, because by now there were no Polish trains and the Russian trains could not travel on the narrow Polish rails, I finally arrived in Stoibtz on the 22 September. On the way home I met Simme Treshtshenyetski, who became so frightened upon seeing me that she could barely stand on her feet. When I asked her to explain her fearful amazement, she barely stammered: You're alive? Young men of Swerznie are planning to dig up the grave where you lie buried because a gentile woman came and said that, from a distance, she herself saw how the Poles shot you dead and buried you near the Sinyavve Forest; she was even prepared to go and point out the spot.
A few minutes later I met Binyomin Velitovski, who came toward me riding a bicycle. Seeing me from a distance of a couple of meters, he merely cried out as if in a voice not his own Shkolnik! and directed his bicycle with extraordinary speed toward Swerznie. As I came close to the town, I met a mass of Jews and even Christians from Swerznie running towards me. I could not imagine that all of them were rushing to welcome me, the corpse who returned to life….
Only a couple of days earlier Swerznie had been occupied by the mighty Russian army and was then overflowing with Russian troops. Everybody was happy and joy and delight shone from everyone's faces because the people were liberated so quickly from the terrible specter of war. Everyone tried to adjust to the newly created reality, as quickly as possible, consoling themselves with the fact that 200 million people had already been living under the same conditions and the same regime for 22 years. The storekeepers sought to divest themselves as quickly as possible of their stores and change to whatever government work, they could get. The sawmill began to operate again, timber began to arrive from Russia that was cut into boards in Swerznie, and hundreds of people worked at this task. Almost all previous officials remained at their posts.
In the winter of 1940, the Soviets moved out all Osadnikes, that is, former Polish legionnaires with their wives and children, who were settled on the land of noblemen landowners around Swerznie under the Polish regime. Together with them the strazshnikes, the police who guarded Prince Radziwill's forests, were also moved deep into Russia. From then on, panic seized the civilian population, both Jews and Christians. Everyone lived under the hypnotic idea that he would be the next candidate to be moved out to the white bears, as people pretended to joke, with a bitter smile, fearing to sleep through a night. During the entire period, not a single Jew was moved out of Swerznie. Gradually each one adjusted to some work and began to live like all citizens in the great Soviet Union -- so to speak, they became proletarianized…
To travel from us -- that is from the territories that previously belonged to Poland -- to go to Russia, could only be done with a special visa. The border near Kolobova was guarded as before, when there were still two separate states, Russia and Poland. My last place of employment was with an organization that was engaged in building an asphalt road from Brisk to Minsk, for which the well-known Meytshe's Mountain of Swerznie served as the main source of materials. Therefore, many new wooden barracks were built there, and it was the gathering place for auto-transport that transferred the materials excavated from the mountain to the new road.
Thanks to this work I succeeded in saving myself and my whole family from death. On 22 June 1941, when the Soviet-German war broke out, I turned to the director of transport and asked, that if, G-d forbid, it would become necessary to escape from Swerznie, that he takes me along with him, because as a former political prisoner under the Poles, I would be the first victim under the Germans. The director, a very decent person, promised me that he would do so.
By the 24th of June it was already impossible to work. From quite early in the morning German airplanes were circling over Swerznie, especially over the area of the sawmill. They flew so low that they fired at the sawmill with machine guns. We were all sitting in the barracks near the mountain. Suddenly someone came to inform us that 40 German airplanes were flying and that we should leave the barracks immediately. We all ran away and hid in the field among the rye. There the drivers (all from Russia) decided that they would demand of the director that we leave this place. After noon it became known to us, that the director was now at the NKVD office in Stoibtz and was awaiting directives. At three p.m. the chief engineer approached me and informed me that we were leaving Swerznie. He told me to take the horse and wagon immediately and hasten to bring my family and our belongings. By the time we prepare the automobiles for the road, you must be back. How shocked I was when, after returning about three-quarters of an hour later, I found no trace of the entire auto-transport.
Everything was open, the barracks empty, and I had to return with everybody. The whole way back home, I walked behind the wagon as if I were walking to my own funeral. Everything looked strange to me, the empty streets, the frightened faces of people who were now slinking like shadows from the other world. My own house seemed strange to me, and I was now afraid to enter.
I Become a Refugee
I stopped in the yard near the house, my head full of ominous thoughts: How does one find a solution? How can one set out on foot with three children the youngest of whom is two years old, and how can one stay here, when I know that certain death awaits me? Standing like this in a hopeless, desperate situation, seeing no way out, an automobile suddenly raced past my house at the speed of a bird; I recognized that this was a vehicle of the auto-transport with which the director had promised to take me along. The automobile drove up to the house of Kole Gareymovits and stopped. I ran after it with my last bit of strength, and when I entered Kolye's dwelling, I could no longer speak. Once I caught my breath a little and told the driver the course of the whole story about my coming along, he answered with regret that he understood my situation, but he could not help me at all because he had to return to Stoibtz immediately where he would be occupied with transporting the Stoibtz NKVD. I took my watch off my wrist and offered it to him as a reward for his effort. He thanked me politely but refused to help me. Then I turned to Kole Gareymovits, who was on very friendly terms with him. Take him! Kole said, and do a human being a favor -- one cannot know what can happen in life. Okay, the driver said. I know where the transport has halted behind Stoibtz, I have to drive there to get gasoline, but I insist on two conditions: that we stop no more than three minutes at your house, and if, after I bring you to the transport, they refuse to take you along, I will leave you in the middle of the field. A couple of minutes later we were already near my dwelling, I threw in the bundles that had been tied before, seated the family, and set out on the road.
Oh, that my head were water,
My eyes are a fount of tears!
Then would I weep day and night
For the slain of the daughter, of my people.
(translated Jeremiah 8:23).
That day a wind was raging, and with a weeping roar, like the wailing of a hungry beast, it shook the tops of the trees. The air was mixed with fine dust, and the sun was immersing itself among the light summer clouds, as if it did not want to be present at the misfortune of the world. It shone a little and hid again, just as if it were ashamed to show itself in its full summer splendor at a time like this. The heavens looked full of secrets and mysteries. My head was full, as if filled with lead, and it was hard to concentrate on my thoughts. The only one near the vehicle, my sister Rivke-Leye, kissed the children, whispering at the same time, G-d knows whether I'll ever see you again…. Everything was done with lightning speed, and when the vehicle moved, my sister broke out in a heart-rending lament, dissolving into tears.
This is how I left Swerznie, the little town of my birth. But I did not imagine then that I was leaving it for the last time, that I would never again stroll in the green fields on summer evenings, on the mountain, and among the fragrant trees of Sinovve forest, where the most beautiful playful years of my childhood were spent. I also did not imagine that I would be one of the few survivors who would have to write down the lamentations of the Holocaust and eulogize a community of Jews who have a history of hundreds of years of life and creativity behind them.
Is it possible, my little town, that you were left without Jews?! Is it possible that candles no longer burn in Jewish houses on Friday evenings? Is it possible that among those who walk in the streets, one no longer hears the Yiddish language?! Is it possible that little Jewish children no longer play with sand in your streets, and that a Jewish bride will never again be led on the pure synagogue courtyard to the wedding canopy?!
You have been emptied of your Jewish inhabitants, the vacant sites of the burned Jewish houses have remained orphaned, in each of which a typical Jewish life was vibrant. True, quite often a life with worries and anxieties about earning a living, but there was also the holiday and Sabbath spirit of storekeepers and craftsmen
who experienced the uplift of the Sabbath, who had the strength to cast off the yoke of weekdays on certain days and enjoy the festivities.
Standing also in desolation were the remaining walls of the synagogues, like sad monuments for an annihilated community of Jews. This was all that remained of the hundreds of years of history of Jewish Swerznie, of people who lived and worked and are no longer here. In the ruins of former lives, the local murderers now rummaged around, like hordes of jackals who love to live among the wastelands and ruins. When I sometimes want to revive my dear town in my memory, I see only tongues of fire swallowing up one Jewish house after another, one street after the next. A thick smoke envelopes the light of the day in darkness, because the jungle cannot tolerate the light, because jackals hate the brightness of the sun.
The streets were full of murder victims, the marketplace littered with dead bodies, bodies that not long ago were alive and were now drowning in their own blood. And all this, for the one and only sin, that they are Jews.
Two students from the Tarbut School
M. Goldin, M. Tsalkavitsh
Murdered at the hands of the Germans
(may the Lord avenge their blood)
They lie around, the old, they lie around the young, all with contorted faces from their last death throes. Among the dead, the little hand of a suckling child was clasped to the cold breast of her dead mother. The great national poet Bialik said that for the death of a small child, even the devil himself, has not found a punishment.
And You, merciful and gracious G-d, you sat in your heavenly heights and looked on indifferently as the despicable ones annihilated your People of Israel. The children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob their screams did not reach your heavenly kingdom; those who have already been tested so many times with martyrdom, for your one and only name.
Standing peacefully on both sides are the two Christian churches. The crosses on their spires look down with arrogance they, that should symbolize mercy and forgiveness.
Near the dead, the local gentiles were dividing up the plunder from the holy ones that was tossed down to them by the German murderers: a pair of torn pants, a pair of old boots, and a bloodied blouse that had just been torn off from a dying Jewish woman.
In these clothes they will dress themselves up on Sunday and go to church to pray and kneeling before the holy image, with upraised eyes they will murmur the well-known prayer: Forgive us, ruler of the world, and forgive us our trespasses, as we pardon and forgive those who live among us …
This all happened openly, in broad daylight, in the twentieth century, at the pinnacle of civilization and culture in the heart of Europe.
Alien you have become to me, Swerznie, alien to me are your fields, alien to me is your mountain, alien to me is your forest, alien to me is the place where my cradle stood alien, everything is alien! Your air is permeated with the smell of death; your soil is stained with spilled innocent Jewish blood. Blood is beautiful when it flows in the veins of a living person and nauseating at the moment that it pours out of human bodies. That's why all of you are so revolting to me because everyone's hands are stained with Jewish blood.
The only place that still remains near and dear to me there, is the mass grave at the new Jewish cemetery, where the remains of the massacred Jews of Swerznie, rest. The grave screams and demands vengeance for the lives prematurely cut down, for the years never lived.
Dear holy ones of Swerznie, do not rest in your grave. Awaken the holy forefathers, wake up the solitary mother Rachael, as the prophet Jeremiah did at the destruction of the Temple.
Gather together with all the tormented ones, of all times and from all generations. Storm the heavens, storm
the Divine Throne, place yourselves (as if it were possible) before the Eternal One Himself and demand vengeance!
May the world have no rest, may your murderers have no rest, just as your tortured holy souls, that hover around in the void of the world and ask, why? No one even remained there to place a gravestone for you.
We, here in the State of Israel, stand in the basement of the Holocaust Museum on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, at the stone that has been laid in memory of your extermination.
We stand and bow our heads before the holy sands of your mass grave that lies solitary, alone in the gentile world, where there is not even one who could at least wet it with a warm tear.
We give a solemn vow to remember you forever, and never to forget as long as the pulse of life beats in our hearts.
We will never make peace with the thought that this is how it had to happen , and it is therefore hard for us to say, Blessed be the True Judge.
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