by A.D. Shkolnik
Translated by Ruth Murphy
The official name of our town of Swerznie was NovySwerznie New Swerznie because four kilometers northwest of town lay a village by the name of Stari Swerznie, that is, Old Swerznie.
However, the Jews never made use of the official name of the town, simply calling it Swerznie in Yiddish, 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 neighbouring towns, even older than its nearest and much larger neighbour, 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Even though we possess almost no historical documents from which we can determine the exact date of her origins in general, and the beginning of Jewish settlement in particular, it can be surmised that Swerznie was already in existence in the fifteenth century.
In his description of the historical origins of Stoibtz, Mordechai Machtey relies on memoirs, historical fact and presumptions, and he comes to the conclusion that Stoibtz already existed by 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 abovementioned brief historical summary.
Swerznie is located on the left side of the Niemen River. Two kilometers northeast of Swerznie, on the right shore of the Niemen, lies Stoibtz. During the course of their existence over the centuries, both towns would certainly have become one town had not the Niemen, 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 seventyfive 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
A group trip by the Swerznie youth to Vilna
Sitting from the left: Yoel Aginski (may the Lord avenge his blood), A. D. Shkolnik, Batia Tershtsinski, Moshe Doktorovits
Standing: Shmuel Epshteyn, Binyomin Shenkman, Yekhezkl Goloventsits, Reuven Tershtsinski (may the Lord avenge his blood)
found itself in the lap of nature, truly like in a paradise.
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 sufficient quantity. The rafts were propelled to Konigsberg in Germany, by peasants from the town and the surrounding areas. 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 Radziwills in Nyasvizh, which was located twentyfive kilometers south of Swerznie.
Almost two kilometers west of the town lay the Sinyaver 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 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 Sabbath Kiddush 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 that as long as one lives one must also enjoy a little of this world, a couple of neighbours would gather together and go walking in the Sinyaver Woods. Walking along, of course one did not, God Forbid, speak of idle matters because if one of them began 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 Isser (of blessed memory), who for years was a 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.
Thus, in deep conversation time passed and they would arrive at the forest. Who knows how long they would still have continued were it not for the case that Refael Mendl, being engrossed in a discussion, stepped on a dry branch that broke under his feet with a loud crack that resounded through the forest. This was the reason that everyone suddenly awoke from a sort of sweet dream, and murmured in the wellknown manner: Well, on 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 honour of the Sabbath, under the first, best tree,
all stretched out comfortably, with the joy of the Sabbath, marveling at God'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 Sinyaver Woods, the socalled 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 Yerakhmiel, the mountain still bore the name of its former owner. The abovementioned mountain was unique in the entire region, as it was rich in limestone and its output was used to build towns and villages throughout the area. Scores of families earned their living from it. It was hard to imagine the mountain without Yenkl, 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 the mountain would look without Itshke 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 proletarian lives. Both of them, Yankl and Itshke, died a natural death many years before the Second World War. One of the last Mohicans to remain on the mountain was Shloyme 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 that 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 Radziwills, as well as neverending forests that existed in that area. As the old peasants would recount, it was in one of those manor houses that the great Polish poet, Adam Mitzkewicz, had written chapters of his immortal poem, Pan Tadeuz. 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 wellknown Tsarist minister and antisemitic 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 1870's an important source of livelihood was the socalled 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, that 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, 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 God 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 Hitlerist 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, wellfed 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 superhuman effort, accompanied by neverending 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 they had perished, the Germans used a group of approximately 3040 young Jewish boys and girls from Stoibtz to do the gravel work on the mountain In the German language it was called kistl grube. They worked there until the last massacre.
This is how the socalled tranquil Meytshe's mountain entered into the history of blood and tears of the Swerznie and Stoibtz Jews.
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 twentythree years ago, was the rabbi for a certain time in Swerznie. In 1901 in the Ha'tsfirra, 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 Katzenellenboigen (of blessed memory)
More widely known is the name of Ha'rav Reb Binyomin Isser Ha'levi Katzenellenboigen whom our parents praised and told of his virtues. The president of the State of Israel, Zalman Shazar, writes in his book Kokhvey Boker: 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 Ha' Levi Katzenellenboigen (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 God, 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, that 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 son of Khashe (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 Horodishtsh, 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 not 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'rav 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 socalled 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 KhayeAdam. 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 KhayeAdam and his congregation of listeners derived much pleasure from his teachings.
The Psalms society was wellorganized, 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 who knew how to utilize Friday nights not only for eating and sleeping this excuse by 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, SabbathJews, 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 one felt 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 heartrending lament: it is a house with small children, and in case, God 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 favours in the Heavens, so that a whole family would, God 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 God 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, God 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 bimah, opened the Holy Ark wide, 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 heartrending words: For the Leader; upon Shoshannim, a Psalm of David: Save me, O God; for the waters are come into my soul then all members of the society burst into heartrending 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 socalled small synagogue, named after the wealthy and generous donor Reb Yisroel Lifshitz. The small synagogue excelled in its cleanliness, that was taken care of by its supervisor, Reb Chaim Yaakov Shlomme's [son of Shlomme] to whom the supervision was entrusted by the heirs of Reb Yisroel Lifshitz, whose
Reb Chaim Yaakov Shlommes (son of Shlomme Goloventshitz) of blessed memory
permanent residence was in Sosnovicz. The Jews of Tretshan, who would have had to walk a long distance to either of the abovementioned synagogues, 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.
Coeducational cheyders of boys and girls almost did not exist. The one cheyder where only girls studied was at the place of Chaim Yaakov Shlomme's [son of Shlomme]. 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 BarMitzvah, 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 shtibl of the big synagogue, taught children who started their first term of cheyder. While we are on the subject, I want to mention here that Avreml the 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 alefbeys, 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 Chassid 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, God 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 poor parents 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 Swierznie.
The teachers of a higher level were Reb Eliyahu Ettes, Yankl the wise and Shmuel the shochet, where one
studied Pentateuch with Rashi's commentary, Prophets and Writings, and in some cases even Gemarah. In addition to the abovementioned 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 that 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 silverwhite 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 Yankl 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 talmidkhokhem.
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 wellversed 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 Yossel 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 Yossel 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, God 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 Yossel 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 smalltown clowns had something to joke about, that Meir Yossel had brought great capital from the Land of Israel … he returned with wooden loafers.
But a man with an iron character like Meir Yossel 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 Yossel 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 synagogues to be permitted to place a Jewish National Fund charity bowl in every synagogue on the eve of YomKippur. 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 Yossel. Next to him stood
a tall brass stand with a brass bowl from which a white sign with large blue Hebrew letters protruded stating: 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 Yossel sat at the charity bowl for the Jewish National Fund this had become his established claim. Even after Meir Yossel 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 Yossel was missing. Meir Yossel raised a generation of pupils who remained true to his teaching and observed the values that he instilled in them. Thanks to this, no party other than the Zionist movement had a foothold in our town and with pride we can call him: Meir Yossel Schwartz, the spiritual father of Zionism in Swerznie. The title is well deserved.
In addition to the abovementioned cheyders and also the more advanced cheyders like those of Shmuel the shochet or Meir Yossel, where the students already had an understanding of a page of gemrah some of the parents sent their children to continue their studies in the yeshiva of Mir. Of course, one did not immediately enter the Mir yeshiva. 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 were they required to pass an examination before entering the real Mir yeshiva. Large numbers of children travelled to study in the yeshiva of Mir 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 Utshilishtshea 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 nonJewish 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 be 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 nonJews.
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 in the town only a small number of children of poor parents, who did not have the means to pay the tuition fees. 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 [Ette's son] was already old and no longer taught children. Shmuel the shochet was drafted into the army, and Meir Yossel 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 in Swerznie by Moshe Zmudzyak, or as we called him, Meysl Mininke's [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 Hatikvah. 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 shtibl 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. [the daughter of Itshke].
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 Hatikva, 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 by 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 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 Europeanstyle high school was opened in Swerznie on the initiative of Kolye Yarusevitsh. 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 Katzenellenboigen
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 Katzenellenboigen, 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 a short story called Mayim Shelanu out of his box. These were artistic memoirs of his childhood, how at night he had 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. Yash'k 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 Yash'k, 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 and Zionist articles in Hamagid correspondences in Voskhod, Khronika and Rasvyet (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, that made an impression on tens of thousands of Jewish homes. His work 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 Togeblat wrote in its editorial on the day of his funeral, Beshalakh is the Torah portion of 10 Shvat, 5682.
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 fellow men. 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 80yearold 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 a taste of home [der heim]. 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 Zushe Poulanker.
Although Moshe Zeyfert was born in the year 1845 in Vilkomir, Kovno Province, he nevertheless is a man from Swerznie, for when his father settled in our town as a medical practioner, 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 Motzkin
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 ) [Itshke is a abbreviation of Yitzkhak, and his mother's name was Yakhne.], who for years was mestshanskistaroste of the Jewish community in Swerznie, told me, during the period of the Tsarist regime the Motzkin family obtained their passports in the Jewish mestshanskeuprave 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 would from time to time 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 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 wellknown 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 SelSoviet of Swerznie, that is, in the town's selfgovernment 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 Der 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 eastwest 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 art work: 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.
Alter Munbaz. 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], may his name be erased, will have to even run away 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 God forbid
because he was a heretic, but because he hated the dukhovyenstvo [clergy]. 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 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, that 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 keep 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 logical arguments such as the Kishinev Pogrom, the Pale of Settlement, the Beilis trial, etc.
At this point Yashke Getsl's [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 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 last this 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 sonsinlaw, 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 they he had not only enough vegetables for his own use and for 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 [daughter of Avraham] and they would 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, God 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, because after Passover they would go to Germany, mainly Kvnigsberg, 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 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, 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 MoscowBrisk railroad line was completed and a railroad station was built in Stoibtz. From 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. There remained only the two rows of old majestic trees, 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 to be able to bring their wives and children.
The First World War in 1914
How does the Yiddish proverb put it: A person makes plans, and God laughs. In August 1914, on Friday the eve of the ShabbatKhazon, 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, that 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 Mordkhes [daughter of Mordkhe], from whom two sons were also being taken, and the semiblind Reshke the daughter of Yankl 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, God forbid, be left orphans.
The cries gradually turned into heartrending 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 Getzls [son of Getzl], 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 RussoJapanese war. Here came Moyshke Hertsl's, [son of Hertsl] who had finished his military service a short time ago and his wedding was to take place on the SabbathNakhamu. 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 to 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 God 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 socalled 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 Yankl Ettes excelled. He simply ran from house to house with a basket collecting bread, that he distributed among the former rich women, the socalled American wives. Let this be noted to his merit, for had it not been for Yankl 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 from 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 Grodne, 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 for cooking 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 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.
Welldressed 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, the bomb would fall into the Niemen 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.
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