by Mr. Aryeh Mordosh
Donated by Howard Freedman and Michael Hirschfeld
Twenty-six years have passed since I left her, facing east with the hope of an early return to my town, my home where my parents and grandparents lived, and to the streets I roamed with my friends.
It was on the night of the 26th of June 1941, the night Elkena Weitzman and I stood watch on the bridge of the flour mill belonging to the Reich family. The commotion that night upset us, because we saw an army retreating eastward and members of the Communist Party hastily evacuating their families on wagons. Everybody was milling around that night, sensing that something was about to happen. We had a short consultation and decided to leave the bridge, go home, and then head east before it was too late.
I remember that when I reached the clearing near the Ackermans' house, a group of people were assembled, including my teachers I. Ackerman and Mundra (of blessed memory), and discussed what to do and where to go. Nobody had a clear answer.
Early in the morning, I, my sister Leah and her husband, and the family of Alter Reisman (of blessed memory) left town in the direction of the village Surge. The border guard would not let us pass, but we detoured and moved eastward. My mind was made up that under no circumstances would I stay among the Germans. Vivid in my mind were the pictures from the press of burning synagogues in Berlin in 1933, and my father Leisel's stories about the cruel Germans and their actions against the Jews. We did not imagine anything yet about the Holocaust, but we decided to escape the systematic and planned cruelty.
The parting from Shumsk was hard. I remember well when we reached the hill before Surge, and we looked back with tears in our eyes and asked ourselves when we would see our dear hometown again.
That day when we crossed the border, we felt we had to draw a line separating from our past life in the town. We marched with a heavy heart toward an uncertain future.
We had a hard childhood. We were sensitive to the hardships of eking our a livelihood that rested on our parents' shoulders, and we were grateful for everything. We respected our parents and counted our blessings. We made do with a ragball and a circle around the kitchen stove. Modest were our needs, and even more modest were our demands from life. But the happiness and the familial closeness and the intimate ties to our town exacted a loyalty to Shumsk. Especially pleasant were the intimate family gatherings for the Sabbath and the Seder evenings that foretold an end to the mud, etc. The town was like one big family--we all knew each other, and everybody knew about a happy or sad occasion in a family. We lived in the present and did net give a thought to the future. Nevertheless, we gathered in the Young Halutz, Betar or Hashomer Hatzair clubs in the evenings and embroidered dreams about a distant land for which we yearned.
Responsible in large measure for our yearnings for Palestine was our beloved teacher Israel Ackerman, who devoted a large part of his lessons to Eretz Yisrael and Zionism.
The war years were hard, and in 1944 Shumsk was liberated without her inhabitants. My company commander in the Red Army read aloud the announcement about the destruction of my family and called for revenge. In 1951 I first returned to Shumsk. It is hard to describe the feeling, when you return after ten years to your hometown where you were born, grew up, learned, and had a family and friends. You want to see them again, feel their closeness, exchange a few words and impressions, be again a Shumsker among Shumskers, and all is gone...You walk the narrow streets, look at the few remaining houses, and it seems the people you knew are still living there, but it is all a mirage. The awful truth is revealed when you stand in front of the large mass grave where the townspeople were buried, the awful silence all around, and you try to comprehend, try to believe that all this happened. This is the bitter truth.
By Aharon Lokaczer
Translated by his son, Joshua Lapid
Donated by Mel Werbach, who is researching his Kanfer family of Shumsk
|Note: Aharon Lokaczer was born in Shumsk in 1903. He emigrated to Palestine in the early 1920s, working in road construction and agriculture and later in the immigration department of the Jewish Agency. He passed away in 1979. His parents, Alexander Sender Lokaczer and Rachel (Kanfer) Lokaczer, and his sister Raisel were killed in Shumsk in August 1942. His sister Yehudis Szomsztejn was killed along with her husband and little daughter in Kremenets.|
It was the years 1918-1919, a period without government in southern Ukraine in general, and in our little town of Shumsk in particular. The rulers changed almost on a daily basis. Sometimes you went to sleep under the reign of Petlura1, and woke up under the reign of Bolsheviks, Makhno2 or somebody else.
One day it happened that the town was left with no governing body. The guards of the town -- three policemen and a commanding police officer -- disappeared. No one knows what happened to them. Were they killed by one of the armies or did they decide to run away while the going was good? Whatever the reason, Shumsk was left with no one in power and under no government authority.
Here the story starts. During one of the summer days at noon on Friday, the Jews were busy with preparations for the Shabbat. The marketplace was almost empty although it was only noontime. Even the gentile farmers, who used to walk around the shops hoping to obtain a little salt (which was very expensive in those days) had returned to their villages, and the quiet atmosphere of Shabbat Eve descended on all the streets. The children played in front of their homes, exempt now from the burden of their cheder studies, the women were busy putting chulent3 into the ovens, and the men hurried to the bath house. Everywhere it was quiet and unworried. In spite of the turmoil that was all around Shumsk, here it was quiet.
Suddenly four horsemen appeared riding on their horses, wearing, as was the custom in these days, Russian army uniforms so that you couldn't know which warring faction they belonged to. Armed with rifles and submachine guns, they appeared from out of nowhere and ordered everyone to disperse and get into to their homes.
People panicked and hurried to closet themselves in their homes and close the shutters tightly. In a few moments all the streets had emptied and the horsemen rode their horses through the town and did as they pleased: robbing, stealing and raping. The first victim was the Akerman family (from the New Town4). Aharon, the father, was killed and his wife Rachel was wounded while holding a baby in her arms. Her arm had to be amputated. (Two of Rachel Akerman's children later immigrated to Israel: a daughter residing in Kiryat Motzkin and a son who is a senior worker in the Haifa branch of the Hamashbir Hamerkazi.)
Their next victim was an elderly man, Prilucki.5
The nameless horsemen seemed to enjoy themselves, and so they returned once in a while, and every Friday became a disaster-prone day with nobody to prevent the attacks. The whole town, including the men and the youth (some of whom were soldiers), were afraid to show any sign of resistance.
Who knows how serious the situation would have become if the horsemen hadn't wanted one day to tamper with one of the villages in the area. Here they did not wreak havoc in the way they did to the Jewish community of Shumsk. They only wanted free food for their horses since they had become used to surviving by theft. Here, however, they raised the wrath of the farmers of the village, who proceeded to surround and catch them and then put them on public trial.
Somehow, in the middle of the trial there was a change in their favor and they were going to be released. However, the head of the community, who was one of the leaders of the group who had caught the horsemen, was afraid that once freed, they would get even with him. He opened his shirt, bared his chest and said: If you release these robbers, shoot me.
His words embarrassed the local community, and so the verdict was the death sentence.
Before the execution, the elders of the village asked the horsemen what their final wish was and they asked for a large plate of verenikes.6 The women of the village volunteered to prepare this dish and immediately afterward they were executed.
Finally our town of Shumsk breathed freely.
Later on it was discovered that the four horsemen didn't belong to any of the warring factions fighting in our area. One was a Christian from our town, born and raised among Jews, and the rest were also from the surrounding area.
When I reached Israel I joined the Haganah.7 During nights while I was sometimes alone on guard duty in dangerous places, I remembered this incident in Shumsk and compared the differences in the situations and in our reactions. Then I fully understood what the Jewish homeland has given us. Here we stand tall. Here it would not be possible for even the smallest village to live in fear of such a small number of thieves.
by Chana Rosenberg
Translated by Sandy Bloom
I happened to find out that you are working on publishing a book commemorating the martyred people of Shumsk. I would like to contribute my tiny part to this collection of memories.
Shumsk was a shtetl like dozens of other shtetls scattered throughout Poland and Volhynia. What set it apart from the others is the fact that it was a Zionist shtetl and very aware of what was going on at the time in the world in general, and in our Jewish world specifically. At the time, I was a member of Histadrut Hechalutz,1 with strong ties to our pioneering youths in the area, including Shumsk, which I often visited. I have lovely memories of the period, and of one special visit I made one evening that connected me to your town.
It was a wintry Friday night when I went out to visit my friend Manya Sztejnman.2 It was quiet outside; snow covered the town in white, making Shumsk look like a bride waiting for her bridegroom. Since I was alone, I had time to look around me and think. I passed low houses, where in each and every house the lit Shabbat candles seemed to greet me warmly; how precious were these candles to the Jews. I felt as if the town itself was resting and had wrapped itself in the Sabbath cloak after the trials and tribulations of the week. I wanted to hug all this, which suddenly became so close and dear, and I felt as if I belonged. I don't understand why sadness gripped me suddenly and would not let go. Perhaps it was some kind of subconscious sixth sense.
There is another reason that Shumsk stands out in my memory: It was in this specific town that I first inhaled an Israeli atmosphere. (The Tzoref and Gejlichen families were on a visit at that time.) We, the youth, hungrily swallowed their words about life in the Land [Eretz Yisrael] and what was taking place there. I recall the stormy discussions regarding the Histadrut, lectures given by Herzog, M. Segal and others My heart aches for the Sztejnmans, the Wilskiers and the rest of the dear Jews in Shumsk. Despite their Zionist yearnings, fate prevented them from realizing and fulfilling their dreams.
My heart aches for those who refused to leave their town and were later wiped off the face of the Earth brutally, without any reason. I am not able to accept their fate; however, deep inside my soul, their memory lives on forever.
by Frieda Bendman
Translated by Sandy Bloom
|Note: Frieda Bendman, a daughter of Leib and Etil Bendman, was born in Shumsk in 1910. Two of her brothers and their families perished in Shumsk in the Holocaust.|
We, former Shumsk people, now live in Haifa and we organized a party for all former Shumskers. This event inspired me to write about a similar kind of party I had helped organize many years ago in Shumsk itself.
I was a pupil in the Tarbut school1 when we rehearsed a play, Chana and her Seven Sons. I was supposed to be Chana. The other actors were: Yisroel Wilskier,2 Dov (Barish) Geler, and Zeidel Zilberg,3 who all died in the Holocaust. It was directed by Monica Tzoref (now living in the U.S.) and by Mirmelstztejn;4 the latter was the one who created the drama club.
Everything was ready for the performance, except for one important thing: The town's mayor, who of course was not Jewish, refused to dispense a permit. Thus it was a sad and flustered Mirmelstztejn who returned to tell us the bad news: that the voyt5 refuses to dispense a license, and the play was canceled.
When I heard this, I was shocked and furious. My blood boiled, and I said, I'll go to him; let's see if he'll refuse me. I was only 12 years old at the time. But my father, may he rest in peace, had good contact with the town's higher-ups, and the local council members used to frequent our home. So I went to the Gemeinde (Council), stood in front of him and argued, We have worked long and hard on preparing this play for Hanukkah, and everything is ready. Now you refuse to approve it, and our play won't take place? I can't believe that you are such a terrible person to disappoint us like this. I invite you to join us at the play.
My words had an effect. He stroked my head and said, Take this permit, girl, and may you be successful! I returned, happy and cheerful, with the permit in my hand. And, yes, the Council people came to see the play, as well as a few others we invited from Oistoptzok, and the local doctor. The light defeated the darkness!
By Shlomo Bahat
Donated by Howard Freedman and Michael Hirschfeld
Translator's note: The author immigrated to Palestine in 1934 or 1935 and Hebraicized his surname from Bat or Batt to Bahat.
Shumsk was a simple little town, out of the way like the small towns in the district of Volhynia--cut off from cultural centers, without good roads, and thereby separated from other small and bigger towns in the district. The majority of the Jewish townspeople supported themselves through retail trade. Only a small segment did menial work like carpentry, shoemaking, or haircutting, and barely eked out a living. The majority of the people were self-supporting, except a few unlucky ones. But there was some unearthly quality in these Jews, a source of wonderment and admiratlon to this day.
Nearly everybody in town was like one big family. They shared joys and troubles in spite of class differences; they formed a cohesive unit.
Until the First World War there was no school in Shumsk. The children were educated in cheder and only a few parents dared send their children to the Russian government school in town. There were some that left to study in the world beyond their town, but they were very few.
An important turning point, I think, was the experiment of the teacher Dickstein from Lutsk who founded the private school. I do not remember who his supporters in Shumsk were.
The special thing about this school was that it gave parents an opportunity to advance and enrich their children's lives and futures. From that point on there was regular secular education, with considerable influence on the whole town. The parents had a different perspective on the education of the coming generation, and it later helped greatly toward the establishment of a Hebrew school by the name Tarbut in which we were privileged to get an education.
This school was the catalyst for the genesis of Zionist youth groups, and brought new life to the town.
The majority of the townspeople were dedicated Zionists, in words as well as in deeds. Workers for the public good had emerged. They volunteered and were very dedicated.
There were social, economic, cultural and Zionist institutions in town, as in other small, outlying towns in Poland that had a generally low standard of living. There were some heads of family that were fully self-supporting, and there were those who barely made a living and were in need of community support from time to time. Some support was organized, like money for heating wood in winter, Passover money, and bridal dowries. These were small steps, but they established the direction towards more organized mutual aid institutions like Linat Tzedek and home visits to the sick, that were organized by the young people of the town. The latter institution was organized when typhus broke out. The epidemic affected whole families and, without the help of this institution, many more people would have succumbed. I remember Dr. Jacobson making the rounds everyday, and there was not a house that escaped. Abraham Shochet and his son Mendel accompanied the doctor, and were given instructions. They worked twenty-four hours a day to take care of everybody that needed help, and all of this without any pay.
This institution remained, and grew later under the direction of Leibzi Woskavonik, who was very dedicated. It extended medical help to the needy and raised funds. A plot of land was bought with the plan to build a hospital.
Later, a bank was founded through the initiative and dedication of Rabbi Israel Sudman. He devoted many years of effort to overcoming the townspeople's fear and suspicions. It was not an easy task, but once the bank opened, it was a blessing, and many availed themselves of its services.
Parallel to the bank was a charitable agency founded with money sent from the United States, under the leadership of Mordechal Chazen, who acted as the cashier, and a small committee for public scrutiny. This agency fulfilled its mission with extraordinary honesty and dedication. I remember when I was elected the director of the library. I took advantage of these agencies with small loans for the acquisition of books. It was hard to convince Mr. Chazen to give us a loan for that purpose, but Hershel Milman and I succeeded after long discussions in convincing him that the purchase of books was worthy and for the public good. At last he agreed, and I was in charge of repaying the loan, and renewing it.
The Bahat Family
Translator's note: The author immigrated to Palestine in 1934 or 1935 and Hebraicized his surname from Batt to Bahat
Translated by Shulamit Berman
Note: The author of this piece is not named in the Shumsk Yizkor Book.
I surely remember my town, Shumsk. It will always be my chief joy. Every stone, every wall cries out at your destruction. You are bereft of your sons and daughters. You have fallen into the hands of defilers.
Your houses were not lofty, they were small, our town was humble, but noble in its humbleness.
The life of your inhabitants was hard. They did not enjoy the luxuries and pleasures of the world. They struggled to make a living. Yet despite their difficult lives they did not give up their dreams. Their one great dream was Eretz Israel. Who stayed home when an emissary arrived from Eretz Israel? Young and old, men and women, all hastened to hear tidings from over there From over there
You remember the day the university was inaugurated. It was a great holiday. An ordinary weekday, but all the stores were closed. Everyone hurried to the Great Synagogue. You remember the synagogue with the two golden lions at the entrance. Mottil Segal rushed to wash his face and hands, to rid himself of the bakery flour that clung to him. He ascended to the podium. He spoke briefly, and I still remember his words: For out of Zion shall go forth the Law and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem. There was latent strength in his words, devotion and faith inherited from his forefathers. We were all infected by the spirit of his faith. We believed and we hoped.
Here's a different picture. An ordinary evening in the fall, mud, rain and puddles everywhere. The wooden sidewalk sways. It's slippery. An old woman, swathed in a shawl to protect her from the wind and the cold, makes her way with a walking stick. She has just closed her shop. All day she sells colored ribbons, bits of color, pins, assorted knickknacks and haberdashery. Now she's in a hurry. She's visiting the sick. A woman is sick and has nobody to care for her. So she's collected a little money and some food and she is hastening to help. And there many, many more like her.
I remember the cultural life of my town, Shumsk. It was unbelievable, how you persevered to ensure spiritual development. During the pogroms in Ukraine, while gangs roamed in the vicinity, your sons and daughters found the way to enrich themselves culturally by borrowing and reading books from the Tarbut library. This spiritual ray of light stimulated -- even addicted -- large numbers of thirsty, passionate readers. Was this just a fairy tale?
But none of them remain alive. My town has been demolished. Your children have been slaughtered.
And oh! Your drama groups, my Shumsk. I am filled with pride when I recall the dedication of your sons and daughters. Every evening they got together and applied themselves to learning their parts, to give the public a taste of culture and literature, and also to add money to the Jewish National Fund. How hard they worked, how much effort they invested. How much of their time and leisure was dedicated by the finest of your sons and daughters for the sake of the Jewish National Fund?
The Sudman family home was crowded. Collection boxes were being emptied. Even on market day. And all this was because your children always wanted to be at the top of the list, untiringly. They toiled day and night, going without sleep, with only one goal in mind: to collect money for the Jewish National Fund.
I surely remember the dedication of our comrades and how much effort they put into this. Everything was for the sake of the JNF. We are all the inheritors of these sparks of light.
by Chaim Livne (Yukelson)
Translated by Shulamit Berman
|Notes: Chaim Avraham (Yukelson) Livne was born in 1913 to Rivka (Berezin) and Alter David Yukelson. Chaim graduated from the Tarbut School in Shumsk, studied at a vocational school in Kremenets, and became active in the Zionist youth movement. In 1933 he moved to Palestine. He was a member of Kibbutz Messilot in the Bet Shaan Valley, where he lived until his death in 1991. Further details of his life and family are in the introductory notes to Schools in Shumsk on page 267 of this yizkor book.|
As fate would have it I had the opportunity to glimpse our town, Shumsk, two years before World War II, four years before the murder of its good Jews at the hands of the Ukrainian Nazi beasts of prey.
I sailed on a small Romanian ship from Haifa by way of Constanţa. Quite a few of my shipmates were originally from Poland. For some, like me, it was a nostalgic journey. Nevertheless there was a difference between those who had absorbed Israeli manners, speech and conduct, and those who reverted to Polish as soon as they set foot on board, swiftly adapting to the homeland they had left behind … and to which they were now traveling as tourists or returnees. Our mosaic of travelers included a small number of Jewish communists from Poland and Romania who were being deported, escorted to their countries of origin by British police agents.
I recall a distressing incident upon my arrival in Poland. Apart from my personal belongings, my suitcases contained some small gifts for my family a few bottles of wine and several hundred cigarettes for my father.
At the border the Polish customs authorities levied a sum of money that would have paid for dozens of such items in Eretz Israel, despite my pointing out that they were for personal use. The wine was confiscated, and I had two options: either leave the bottles at the customs office until I returned, or donate them … to the customs officials and railway employees. I angrily chose the former, but once my traveling companions had calmed me down somewhat I changed my mind, and the bottles of wine were instantly emptied by the customs officials and railway employees, who were summoned by a shout of drinks. And that's how I was prevented from bringing Carmel wine for the kloyz table and for my father's enjoyment.
I arrived in Shumsk by bus. The other Jews on the bus paid me no heed; maybe they didn't know I was returning after four years in Israel, although my attire was a giveaway. Apparently it made no particular impression and did not elicit any response. They were all occupied with their own affairs, between one bankruptcy and the next … They sat with wrinkled brows, worried, calculating their accounts.
I had not notified my father that I was coming, so of course nobody was expecting me when I got off the bus at the stop next to the Polish church. Soon many Jews appeared, some coming to meet travelers and others simply out of curiosity, because this was their favorite pastime …
The first person to see me was Nusin Finkelsztejn, the local eccentric. In those days he was regarded as someone who had lost all touch with reality to the point that he had absolutely no common sense. Let me explain who he was, as far as I remember his story.
His father was one of the most important merchants in Shumsk. The family home was one of the few two-story buildings in town, its style and elegance testifying to the prosperity of its owners.
Nusin lived there with his mother, Chantze, whom everyone called Laytzka (after her late husband Laytze). It was said that after studying hard for his exams but not succeeding because of the hostility towards Jews, something burst in Nusin's brain and his mind became addled. He became sensitive to injustice, grieving for the sorrow in the world. He wrote letters to world leaders: Churchill, Pilsudski, Hoover, Stresemann, Clemenceau, and to politicians and scientists, railing against injustice and offering his ideas, suggestions, criticism and comments. In this way he squandered part of the income he obtained from renting out apartments in his building money that was supposed to support him and his elderly mother. He was a terrific chess player, but between games he would declaim in Russian and Yiddish, to God and the Messiah. His speech was clear and sharp and his childish brain retained endless monologues. He wasn't often seen in town. At night kids made a game of peeking through the windows of the second floor where he lived, to watch his shadow pass, regular as clockwork, trudging around the table in his room. In the course of time his path became etched in the painted floor that testified to better times long ago. He was always deep in thought on his endless orbit, speaking either to his mother or to himself. We judged him to be crazy, or perhaps just cynical, fleeing from life or perhaps grieving for the world.
He greeted me with a loud Sholem Aleichem. He then he asked about the quality of my Eretz Israel cigarettes and naturally he required a dozen cigarettes as proof. He announced to his listeners that it's a mitzvah to smoke Eretz Israel cigarettes on the Sabbath. So far so good, but then he took me aside and as a good friend of my father he warned me to watch out for the Polish authorities and their Jewish servants, who arrest innocent people and imprison them in Bereza Kartuska and other prisons from which there is no return. They would not be impressed by my foreign citizenship. Once they knew I was a Jew they would do whatever they liked with impunity. He also warned me to beware of spies working for Polish security, pointing to three Jews, one of whom was a friend of mine … I was told that Nusin had lately been seized with a fear of imprisonment. A bunch of jokers and mischievous kids had taken to leaving signs outside his home. As far as he was concerned, this was proof that he was being followed by the Secret Service and he was constantly tormented by this conviction, to the amusement of those who were playing tricks on him …
Other Jews swiftly gathered around, greeting me joyfully. Soon my father and brother-in-law heard the news and they came too. I was escorted home by friends, acquaintances, and others who just happened to be there, all of them curious to know about over there, the land of our forefathers, and to hear my replies, as one who came from over there.
Skating on the frozen pond
In the course of time I noticed changes in town, although there weren't many. What struck me most was the contrast in the standard of living between the well-to-do and everyone else. This had always been the case, but during my visit it grew markedly. Some Jews had telephones in their homes, their parlors were filled with elegant furniture from the big city, and their radio sets filled the air with music and discussions in Polish, which, although unclear and unreliable, had more or less become the trademark of the upper class. Meanwhile the lives of the small merchants were becoming harsher. The shelves in their stores were bare; they spent their days hoping for some turnover, however small. The village cooperatives were run by Ukrainian and Polish associations that supplied the farmers with all their needs. Consequently, the farmers rarely came to town except for fairs, which they did not want to miss because of the entertainment.
Jewish youth knew that they would be unable to get on in life. The pioneer movement was unable to help those who wanted to make aliyah (settle in Eretz Yisrael) after spending years on hachshara (training farms), toiling away and living on meager rations. Many were discouraged by the obstacles and opted to remain in Shumsk. Although there were very few opportunities, at least they would not be uprooting themselves from their families. As I noted earlier, some people were even successfully trading in grain and fodder with Nazi Germany, which had begun stockpiling food in preparation for the coming war. Unwittingly they were helping those who would later destroy them.
During vacation families would leave the town for nearby villages and pine groves. This was a new custom, dictated by fashion.
There was hardly any cultural life in the town. No longer did people gather to debate and argue world issues. No longer were there perpetual polemics, no longer did everyone have an opinion about the future of the nation and its place in the world. Apathy reigned. Young people preferred to spend their time dancing to the strains of the local orchestra, drinking and wasting their money.
The younger workers were secretly drawn to communism, expressed in anti-Zionist talk and a lifestyle that barely differed from everyone else's, although the paradise of communism was within their grasp.
The appearance of an Israeli in their midst was nothing new. A number of former Shumskers had preceded me, so I was not an object of curiosity. It seemed that the radiance of Eretz Israel had faded, and so had the luster of its pioneers.
I remember when L. Tzoref arrived in our town, how I spent hours gazing at him … his lined face, his body emaciated by fever, how I identified with him and his chosen path. I was invited to address the Young Pioneers and tell them about Eretz Israel. I had plenty to say about the riots of 1936, the bravery of the Yishuv, the heroic deeds of the Haganah, the new settlements, and so on. But to my great surprise none of this captured their attention. For the youngsters, the clubhouse was a refuge from the hardships at home; they were not interested in what was happening in Eretz Israel. The adults were concerned with the problem of emigration. They wanted to escape the hell that Poland had become, so all they cared about was the economic situation in Eretz Israel, work opportunities, and so on. The words of Nachum Katz rang in my ears: Vi azoy antloyift men fon danet? (How can we get away from here?)
It was Zionist Congress election year. The home of Hasia Roichman in Roichman alley was the town's center of Zionist and cultural activity. My father supervised the voting, greeting everyone pleasantly with a jest or a riposte. Representatives of the factions sat by the ballot box, trading opinions and taunting one another. The day was overcast. The heavy rain of the past two days discouraged the voters. Suddenly Yehoshua Heshel Wajsblit appeared, drenched to the skin. He lived in a distant village and proceeded to describe his difficult journey:
All my property will be in Eretz Israel, so how could I refrain from expressing my opinion? He seemed to be talking to himself, as he continued: Of course I'm going to vote for the pioneers, the true builders of the Land. My father warned him against breaching protocol, which prohibited any propaganda in the vicinity of the ballot box, but at the same time he seemed very pleased with the sincere words of this Zionist voter. He announced that no harm would ever befall a shaliach mitzvah (one doing a good deed) and wished Yehoshua Heshel a safe journey home. He also suggested that he stop by the kloyz to say birkat hagomel (the blessing after experiencing danger) and perhaps donate a liter of brandy …
A small incident highlights the absurdity that enveloped Shumsk townspeople: I was in Mordechai Chazen's pharmacy discussing Eretz Israel when he said: I would never dream of going to a place where you have to carry water on your head a distance of many kilometers. I tried hard to explain that nearly everyone has a water faucet in their homes, but he didn't believe me. He thought it was a trick that everyone from Eretz Israel was instructed to play on Diaspora Jews. Thirty years have passed since that day and I still recall the pity that filled me for those who remained in Shumsk, steeped in their narrow-mindedness, their insignificance, and their pursuit of their miserable existence.
I was stunned by his acceptance of fate. It stemmed either from a lack of possibilities, a lack of initiative, or unwillingness to uproot himself, despite the fact that many had a foreboding that something very bad was about to befall them and they had no way of preventing it.
Those three months seemed very long, although I was home with my family and I was fully aware that this would be my last visit.
I was seized by the sense of helplessness and the feeling of horror that screamed from every part of Shumsk. I could not rouse them to save themselves; I could not help the townspeople, particularly my own dear family. I fled back here, to my home on my kibbutz what else could I have done?
Shlomo Bahat (Bat)
Donated by Howard Freedman and Michael Hirschfeld
Translator's note: The author immigrated to Palestine in 1934 or 1935 and Hebraicized his surname from Bat or Batt to Bahat.
I was told of an incident that involved my grandfather, David Hirsch. It happened before the First World War, when Shumsk did not have electricity. The police decided that the streets should be illuminated for their convenience. There were places designated for kerosene street lanterns, and the homeowners next to whose house a lantern was installed were responsible for lighting them each night and guarding them.
My grandfather's house was in the center of town. A lamp had been installed there, and he was responsible for it. It happened that he forgot to light it one night. A policeman passed by and called my grandfather outside and yelled at him about why had he not lit the lamp. Grandfather explained that he had simply forgotten, and that he would go and get a chair and light it. The policeman followed him with curses and obscenities. Then my grandfather got angry at this rude treatment by the policeman, raised his hand, and slapped him. The policeman took him to court. Of course, he was sentenced to three months In jail, but the sentence was not carried out.
About a year after the beginning of World War I, when I was approximately seven years old, an incident occurred that I remember distinctly. I was at that time a student at the cheder of Simcha Melamed. He lived on the hill. In the wintertime we stayed late into the evening and then all the children went home together singing and carrying their lanterns. My father had given me a small, beautiful lantern as a present. One evening when we went home singing and swinging the lanterns, we were near my house and a soldier grabbed me and yelled at me to extinguish the lantern. I did not understand his order and was frightened, screaming and crying, but he did not let go of me. This was not far from Pasya Lerner-Gertzfeld's store. She was still in the store with her mother. She apparently recognized my voice. She came out, saw me crying, and took my hand. She talked and argued with the soldier about why he was mishandling a small child like this, and said she would report him to his superior. He got mad and broke my lantern. I continued screaming but Pasya took me home. This was the first antisemitic incident that happened to me as a child.
In the later part of World War I our town was right on the border. On one side stood the Russians and Ukrainians, and on the other side the Germans. Many essentials were scarce under these conditions. My father used to go and buy kerosene, and he had to cross the border. To his misfortune, some German soldiers apprehended him and brought him, wagon barrel and all, to their officer. The officer was busy and let him wait. After several hours he came out. My father got up and approached him, but apparently forgot to remove his hat. The German officer yelled at him and was very abusive. For about an hour he screamed at him, Hatoff, Hat on, etc. and my father, who had not eaten the entire day, fainted. This enraged the officer even more and he struck my father's head with his whip, hitting his left eye, which swelled and turned blue. He ordered his soldiers to put Father back on his wagon and see to it that he crossed the border. Father returned home late at night. I opened the door and saw his condition and cried out, but he told me that everything was going to be all right and not to wake up Mother.
When Hitler gained power in 1933, Father told this story to everybody and foresaw the bad times in store for us all. At the end of the War there was no stable government in our area. Sometimes the Bolsheviks ruled for a while, sometimes other rulers, and sometimes criminals and murderers descended on the town. There were many deaths during this period. Nearly every Friday several armed riders appeared in the square and commanded everybody to disperse. When the square was empty they went to the Rabbi's house and gave him a list of items to be collected for them within a few hours, with threats of dire consequences if the list was not complete. The Rabbi and some of his followers made the rounds of all the houses, and, with tears of fear and humiliation, begged the householders to contribute. Everybody gave to the best of their ability, but the list was never completed, and the Rabbi had a hard time negotiating with these murderers.
One Friday the same thugs gave an order to disperse and they went to Prelutski's house. They knocked on the door, and when it was not opened, they broke the door down, beat Prelutski, and demanded his money. He gave it to them and they still killed him. On the same day they also killed Millman. My friend Zanvel Ginsburg and I went to the center of town to find out what was going on in order to tell our parents. We climbed on the gate of my grandfather's house that faced the square, and we saw the riders riding away fast. We heard crying, and we arrived at Millman's house and saw the tragedy.
One day two armed soldiers caught Leizel Mordosh and demanded tobacco. They led him to the square and told him that if he could not supply them tobacco, it would be bad for him. Suddenly my father passed by and saw his friend Mordosh, who pleaded with him to help. The soldiers grabbed my father, and he took them to our house and gave them the tobacco my mother was saving in a drawer from butts. They also demanded some linen, but when my mother found only dirty linen waiting to be washed, they turned on my father and wanted to beat him. We ran to the house of our neighbor, Joseph the butcher, and he gave us some clean linen. They were satisfied and left.
There was a small police station in Shumsk, as in the other small towns, with one officer and a few policemen who considered it their duty to oppress the Jews. One Sunday evening we heard voices outside and did not know what had happened. I ran outside, opened the door, and found Herlich wounded and bleeding. I took him into the house, set him at the table, and he told us:
I met two people with clubs passing near the house. I recognized them and they said hello to me and told me to get in the house. They continued to the pharmacy of Motel Chazen and sat on the fence. They were the policemen in civilian clothing. When I turned to go back in the house, I heard some noise. Several brave Shumskers grabbed the pair and beat them up, in spite of the fact that they recognized them as policemen. Then they marched them like hoodlums to the police station. On the way one gentile came out and also recognized the policemen, and, since he had suffered at their hands too, he grabbed a pot and smashed it into the face of one of the policemen. The officer saw immediately who the hoodlums were that had been brought before him, so he started to negotiate with the young Shumskers to leave the pair and let him handle it. First the young men did not agree, but later went along.Later we heard that the pair underwent medical treatment and were dismissed from the Police. This incident stuck in our memories when we think of the Poles that suffered and were oppressed for many years and the antisemitic feelings that caused them to act irrationally.
One summer the Polish army held maneuvers in our area. The officers wanted to celebrate the conclusion with a special meal for all the officers. They asked the Polish Mayor and he recommended our restaurant. They came with the mayor's representative. My father was not too eager because there were more than fifty officers and it was short notice to prepare so much food. By chance my uncle Sholom Wechsler was visiting and he promised my father he would help. it was harvest time and business was slow, so we agreed and started the preparations. We planned to hold the affair in our new house not our old one where the restaurant was. We arranged tables and chairs in the large room. The walls in this room were hung with pictures of Herzl, Weitzman, Sokolov, Balfour, etc. that my sister and I had cut out from magazines and newspapers.
The day of the affair, two high ranking officers came to see if everything was okay. They went to our house and were satisfied. The officers came and were seated, and my sisters and I and Uncle Sholom started serving them. When we went for the second course, we heard noise and laughter and did not know what had happened. When we came back, we were stunned. All the pictures were ripped off the walls and strewn on the floor. I already knew how to speak Polish and I wanted to make a fuss, but my parents did not let me. When everybody left and the two officers settled the bill, they told my father to forget the whole thing. But I did not forget. It was one more proof of the attitude of the newly freed Poles to the nationalistic stirrings of another nation. I knew that antisemitism would not let up and I drew conclusions.
In Shumsk there was no courthouse, and it was necessary to go to Kremenets to stand trial. Later it was arranged that once a month the judge would come for a few days to take care of judicial business. With him also came some attorneys, and all were patrons in our restaurant. The judge loved gefilte fish. Once a young Polish attorney came with his clients in the morning. They ate, drank, paid, and left for court. At lunch time they came back, and he ordered for everybody. He showed me that he had plenty of money, assured that it would be all right, and also reserved a place to stay overnight for himself. I added up the bill and was assured that the client would pay. I went to sleep and left the bill for my father. In the morning the attorney got up, drank tea, and paid, and when my father presented him with the big bill from the previous day, he refused to pay and left. At that time the stop for the bus going to Kremenets was near the Polish church. My father awakened me. I ran to the bus and saw the attorney boarding. I went up to him and asked why he had not paid in spite of the fact that he had shown me plenty of money and promised to. He started screaming Dirty Jew at me and boarded the bus.
I did not give up, and went around the bus. He sat down near Yehoshua Duchovna. I jumped on the wheel, spat in his face, and called him a dirty Pole. Duchovna, who was my godfather,bawled me out and said he would tell my father. The bus left and I went home and told my father what had happened. A few weeks later the attorney passed our house, told my mother she had a fresh son, and paid his bill. The whole thing left a bitter taste in my mouth.
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