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Generations and Eras

 

Inquire of the former generation, and apply yourself
to what their fathers have searched out
(Job 8:8)

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Blank

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Ustyluh (Ustylug)

by Rabbi Dov Takatch

Translated by Zvi Kaniel

The following translations were commissioned by Avigail Frij,
whose maternal grandparents were from Ustilug (Kopp and Kultin Families)

Ustiluh is a small town, roughly 10 versts west of Vladimir –Volynsk, on the banks of the Bug River. As the surrounding area is heavily forested, about seventy years ago, Ustiluh residents used to send off wooden rafts down the river toward Danzig. For this reason, people used to call Ustiluh “little Danzig.” Forestry and lumber manufacturing were prominent industries in the area. Merchants, agents, supervisors, clerks, lumber workers, wagon drivers, and all sorts of suppliers came to Ustiluh. People moved to and from the town in large numbers. Many of the local townspeople, as well as those who lived in the surrounding area, earned their living from the lumber trade; quite a few of them did rather well, and some became wealthy. Besides this, many Jews were shopkeepers and tradesmen of various kinds, as in so many other East European towns. This is how they lived for many generations.

In 1847, the Jewish community of Ustiluh numbered 1487. The census of 1897 showed that there were 3,212 Jews, of a total of 3,590 residents. In 1935, there were still more than 3,000 Jews in the town.

Most of the Jews were simple, upright folk, followers of the Chassidic Rebbes of Trisk, Rozhin, Karlin, Neskhiz and Radzin. The Chassidic Rebbes, Reb Mordeche'le, Reb Pinchasl, and Reb Moshele, all descendants of the Ba'al Shem Tov, also resided in Ustiluh. In later years, the renowned tzaddik Reb Leiezerel zt”l, resided there. Tragically, Reb Leiezerel suffered a fatal accident not long after moving to town. He died unexpectedly on his way to immerse in the mikveh. This caused much anguish and a deep sense of mourning among the townspeople for a long time. Over the generations, many other great Torah scholars likewise made their homes in Ustiluh.

The town had a number of shuls. The Danche shul, which was built by the widow of the wealthy Reb Dan. This G–d fearing woman had a reputation for generosity. Besides having built the shul in memory of her late husband, during her lifetime she paid for the upkeep of the shul and the salaries of its rabbi and other officials. She also arranged and paid for the construction of the local ritual bath.

The local Study Hall, known as the “laymen's Study Hall, was located on Vinehauser Street at the foot of the mountain. In this Study Hall the cantor was Reb Wolf from Terestzanska, a pious learned man, who possessed a beautiful voice. Although there was a Study Hall in his hometown where a regular minyan davened, he would come to Ustiluh for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

There was another large Study Hall in the center of town which most of the town's Jews attended. There were also several Shtiblach belonging to the various Chassidic groups that had settled in town.

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Among the many outstanding citizen of Ustiluh were Reb Michel Schwartz and Reb Abba Schwartz, wealthy and generous Jews whose names and fame spread throughout the area. Their homes were havens for all the needy and hungry people in town. Other noted philanthropists in town were Reb Yosef Shamayas, Reb Wolf Jacobs, and Reb Lipa (known as “the great”). These G–d fearing men donated lavish sums to charity and performed countless acts of kindness. There were two ritual slaughters in those days in Ustiluh: Reb Leibush and Reb David.

The Ustiluh community dwelled in peace for many generations, as people raised their children to continue in their forefathers' traditions. However, the First World War had a devastating effect on the Jews of Ustiluh, whose situation was already quite difficult by then.

After the war, when the Allies redrew the border that bisected the Volhynian region between Russia/Ukraine (U.S.S.R) and Poland, the border came near Ustiluh. This change as well had an adverse effect on life in Ustiluh and on the incomes of its Jewish population. The town's fortunes plummeted and many of its Jews moved away. Those who remained suffered from loss of income and unemployment.

It should be noted that the Polish government built a rail line from Ludomir (Vladimir–Volynsk) to Warsaw through Ustiluh, and the connections on the Bug were disrupted.

In time, the financial situation in town improved. The local Jewish school expanded. Its founders named it “The Yaakov Cohen School” after Yaakov Cohen, who was killed in Ramat Hakovesh in Eretz Yisrael during “the disturbances” (1929 Arab riots). The two libraries in town (one for Hebrew/Jewish books, and the second for Yiddishists and others) were managed by the local Zionists throughout that period. The local orphanage, which housed 22 children, was controlled by the Zionists, along with nearly all the town's public institutions.

Most of these public institutions were Zionist–oriented. Ustiluh's “Hechalutz” organization was influential, and the Zionist movement flourished.

During those years, the townspeople invited the Rebbe Reb Piniele, son–in–law of the Belzer Rebbe, to settle in Ustiluh. His arrival was accompanied by great pomp and a regal welcoming. The Belzer Rebbe also came, along with his considerable entourage, in honor of the occasion. The Jews of Ustiluh put on a huge celebration that lasted several weeks. Nevertheless, Reb Piniele resided in Ustiluh for only a short time, because the town's dwindling resources could not provide for his upkeep. He eventually left Ustiluh and moved to Pzemishil in Galicia. Subsequently, two rabbis remained in town: Rav Benzion Reider, a great Torah sage, and Rav Yehoshua Shintop.

The bloody campaign of the accursed Nazis obliterated the Jewish community in Ustiluh. May Hashem avenge their blood.

 

Editor's Notes:

We have cited the honored rabbi's account in its entirety, as it was printed in the first booklet “Volyn Anthologies” (Yalkut Volyn, Nissan 1945), which was the first account published in Israel about Ustiluh. We wish, however, to call attention to what we feel are a number of inaccuracies, and to clarify a number of relevant points.

  1. To the best of our knowledge, already in 1935, the Jewish population in Ustiluh numbered about 4,000 people.
  2. There were two ritual baths in town: that of “Danche” and a second in the bathhouse near the Bug River.
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  1. The Study Hall known as “the “laymen's Study Hall “or “the Rav's” was not identical with the Vinehauser Study Hall. The former was higher up, while the latter not far from it, in the vicinity of the Vinehauser.
  2. The philanthropists mentioned by the rabbi, except for Reb Wolf Jacobs (Yokhenzon) were deceased several decades before the Holocaust.
  3. To the best of our knowledge, the last ritual slaughterers in Ustiluh were Reb Avraham Schlachter, Reb David Blinder, and Reb Nachum Stoliar. Reb Leibush had passed away many years earlier.
  4. The border between Ukraine–Russia and Poland after the First World War did not come near Ustiluh; it lay about 100 km. east, near Austra–Ostrog. It is true, however, that during the First World War, when German and Austrian forces occupied the region, the Bug River served as a sort of border. Although forces of the same armies occupied both sides of the river, even so, to cross the bridge spanning the river, one had to procure a permit that cost 15 gold rubles.

 

Students at the First Hebrew School

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The Northern Bridge on the Bug, the “Golden Bridge” During the Austrian Conquest

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Tashlich on the Bug
In the background the house of R. Liptche Eisenberg

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On the Banks of Rivers
(A Few Sketches on the Town's Way of Life)

by Aryeh Avinadav

Translated by Zvi Kaniel

Note: For privacy reasons, the names of the central characters in this essay are fictitious.)

A. The Town of Rozhe–Yampol, also known as Ustiluh

Only a few select people know the town's ancient name. That is, in any case, what Shmulik thought. How then did he know? He spent much time with the Dayan (rabbinical judge) Rav Hirsch David, during which he became familiar with the laws of marriage and divorce. The divorce document written in town specified: “The City of Rozhe–Yampol, that is called Ustiluh, located on the River Bug and the River Liova, and on flowing springs.”

Shmulik's father Yossel told him how the town's name changed.

“A local Polish noblewoman named Rozhe decided to name the village after herself–Rozhe–Yampol. The fields surrounding the town were fertile, and the local people mostly cultivated wheat there. Over time, many Jews moved to Rozhe–Yampol to take advantage of the economic opportunities that were developing there.

“In those early days, there was no railroad system in the country. So, people built granaries along the lower slope that faces the Bug River basin. Wooden troughs carried the grain down from the granaries to the river's edge, where it was loaded onto rafts and barges.

“Ships anchored underneath the lower mouth of the gutters, and were filled with wheat, rye, and other types of grains, for transshipment to Germany, whose crop yield did not suffice to support its populace.

“After the number of Jewish families of merchants, bureaucrats, and workers increased, they realized that they needed a shul and a ritual bath. Builders and carpenters began arriving, along with tailors, shoemakers, and other assorted craftsmen. Stores opened to furnish the townspeople with their needs, and eventually, the village became a town.

“When, after a long life, the noblewoman died, her children sold off the lands they inherited from her and moved from the area. The town fathers afterward decided to change the town's name to Ustiluh, i.e., “usti luh” – the confluence where the Luga (river) spills into the Bug. The Poles called it “usti Luga.”

The town's new name helped maintain the Luga River's original name as well. People used to refer to the town as “Stav” (lake in Polish), since at that spot,

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because the flow of its waters in the wide river delta was slow and unrecognizable. At that spot stood the mill that belonged to the town benefactor's son.

Years later, the Bug River's importance declined when it stopped serving as a commercial waterway. From that point, people mostly used the river for bathing and washing laundry. While at the same time, the “Stav” (swamp; river Luga) acquired renewed importance. As the river was readily accessible, it became the major source of drinking water for most of the townspeople. Fishing succeeded there more than at the Bug. It provided swamp grass for the festival of Shavuot. And, of course, the mill.

Although the bill of divorce written in Ustiluh only mentioned the two rivers, the fact is that another rather small river ran near the town's southern edge, where some wineries were situated. It flowed by the Constantine Mountains, that faced each other like Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval, and emptied into the Bug. Knowledgeable folk claimed that this smaller river also had an official name: Studianka. However, who would bother with such a troublesome name. Second, how could this pint–sized river be more notable than “the Swamp?”

Regarding the Constantine Mountains, some claimed they were artificial mountains, constructed during the Napoleonic Wars, and served for much the same purpose during the Polish Uprising of 1863. Children burrowing on those hills often unearthed coins dating from different periods.

While it is difficult to ascertain the historical truth regarding the origin of these hills, it was evident that Shmulik was not claiming they were named for the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. Or, the mad Russian Tsar Constantine Pavlovich. The mountains were named after a gentile shoemaker, whose work hut and pigsty were located between the two hills.

Indeed, Constantine was a known personality in town, since he spent most of his time hanging out with some of the town loafers, exchanging jokes in acerbic Yiddish. He bought the Jews' chametz before Pesach from one of the dayanim. Every year for eight days, Constantine owned most of the town.

In fact, rivers encircled Ustiluh on three sides. What about its eastern flank? Turns out that the Creator dug there the “Balboa,” a lake that swarmed with gold–colored fish. It was a favorite of many local housewives, because these fish could survive for a while on dry land.

Adjacent to the “Balboa” on two sides of the road leading to the provincial town of Ludomir lay the Jewish and Catholic cemeteries. Close to the latter was a church, for the most part concealed by the surrounding trees. Only its red roof sporting two crosses was visible between the leaves. From here until the first houses on Ludomir Street in Ustiluh stood rows of old Sumac trees that shaded the entire road.

Approaching the workshop section of town, the noise of the pounding blacksmith's hammer and the racket of the rope maker's spinning wheel could be heard. Here, one passed the Ukrainian Church, whose green, cross topped roofs thrust with impudence toward the clear blue sky, here in the midst of this Jewish town….

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Ludomir Street terminated at a commercial center. From here, to the right, the street veered downhill to the confluence of Luga (“the Stav”) and Bug rivers. To the left were the wineries and the gentiles' houses. Directly opposite stood the town square bound by shops and stands on three sides. On the fourth side stood the large, two story brick building known as “Vogenfeld's Wall.”

Within this area and surrounding it resided the 4,000 residents of Ustiluh, most of whom were Jewish. A small minority of Ukrainian farmers and Polish city people also lived there. The Ukrainians lived on the gentiles' street. Among other things, they served as the town's “Shabbat goy.” They were coarse and deceitful, but forthright people. In contrast, were the Poles, who were scattered all over town. Most of them operated pork shops, while a few of them were skilled workers. They treated the Jews with courtesy, but harbored much malice in their hearts.

At the end of “the Bug” street lived a family who belonged to the Neskhiz Shtiebel. Every evening, when the setting sun turned the sky purple, the children became terror stricken because that signified that “the wicked were being burned in hell. At the same time Jews stood in silent prayer in three of the shuls on that street. All the while, plumes of white smoke and flames arose from the edge of the street. The jarring squeal of slaughtered pigs sliced the air, followed afterward by the pungent aroma of scorched pig hairs.

The Neskhiz Shtiebel had the annual task of housing the army conscripts, who were always exhausted from chronic lack of sleep. This was not surprising since they would sit up night after night playing cards and munching sunflower seeds.

The aforementioned family had a son, Victor, who used to fraternize with the other Jewish youth, reading, writing and speaking in proper Yiddish. To no one's surprise, he was a shrewd card player as well. Victor used to spend time with the other boys in town. But, when the latter finally left to get some sleep or to explore the town's southern streets, Victor enjoyed thumbing through books. The next morning, any book that you might pick up had a bold inscription on its front page: Victor Sokolovsky.

 

B. Holy and Profane

There were twelve shuls in Ustiluh, corresponding to the Twelve Tribes of Israel. There were shuls for the homeowners the craftsmen, the cattle dealers, and the various Chassidic groups.

There were a similar number of Heders (elementary schools) for children. After a time, the local intelligentsia opened a new school –The Renovated Cheder. The Hassidim who frowned on this new school's curriculum called it “HaCheder HaMesukan ” (“The Dangerous Cheder”).

The intelligentsia even formed their own prayer group that they called “Beit Yaakov.” Local wits used to call it “The Goshen Shtiebel,” based on the phrase “And throughout the Land of Goshen where the Children of Israel dwelled there was no barad (hail,) (barad=beard) as all its members were clean shaven.

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In those days, threatening a wind was gusting through the local Study Halls. It closed the Gmara books, and drove the boys out into the “big world.” There were, however, small groups or individuals who maintained their Talmud studies, even continuing to use the traditional soul–stirring tune that the Jewish people passed down from earlier generations.

In the traditional schools, the curriculum remained unchanged. The children sat in their classrooms chanting the Hebrew verses of the Torah they learned, translating them into Yiddish. The sing–song of their studies spilled out into the street. In the winter evenings, throngs of children on their way home from cheder, lanterns in hand, crunched the snow to the tempo of their continued singing.

This sweet melody sung when studying Torah in Heder soothed and restored the soul. However, reciting the weekly portion on Friday according to the cantillation marks, captivated listeners even more. This chanting was as delicious as the special rolls dipped in meat sauce that they received for lunch in honor of the upcoming Shabbat.

The “ma'hapach pashta” asks a simple (“pashta”) question[1]. The “zakef katan” upholds (“zakef”) it. The “meircha tipcha” and “munach etnachta” come to explain the matter until everything is clarified (“tipcha” and “etnachta”). But, the “pazer” and the “zakef gadol” are not satisfied, raising various objections, while the “kadma ve'azla” was perplexed. The “telisha ketana” also complained. In the end, the “telisha gedola” explains the matter to the satisfaction of all.

The vigorous debate continued until suddenly a new sound was heard. “They're grinding spice for the fish and the baked foods.” The sound of the grinder and the aroma of the spices and fish proclaimed the approaching Shabbat Queen. The sounds and smells comingled with the children's vigorous singing ignited a fire of enthusiasm for the forthcoming Shabbat.

The anticipation reached its peak when the tiny flames of the Shabbat candles were kindled with humble yearnings toward the skies of Shabbat, with Hashem's loyal, Chosen People turning to the west, welcoming the Shabbat Bride into their homes.

Along with the Shabbat splendor and charm came a sense of humility. All the Jewish homes became lodgings for the holy Shabbat and her ministering angels. The humble abode of Mott'l the porter along with the wealthy Yokeanzons' grand mansion. The unlearned soldier's shack and the house of the local Rav that overflowed with Torah and exalted Jewish knowledge.

Shabbat stroked the little children's heads as they waited eagerly for their father's Kiddush. The holy day's quiet sanctity refreshed their mothers. Thus, young and old sang the praises of Shabbat with heartfelt joy and reverence.

Ustiluh's populace, in particular the Hassidic groups, knew well how to take advantage of the blessed Shabbat repose. Pleasures that provided reward both in this world and in the World to Come.

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This is not the stuffed geese, fine delicacies and delightful wines that adorned the Yokhenzon family table, and perhaps those of a dozen other well to do Jews in town. It was rather at the morning Kiddush in the Shtiebel over a glass of whiskey and some sesame cakes. The participants usually followed up with stories of tzaddikim and Hassidim, and capped the occasion with some spirited dancing.

This is how the Ustiluh community spend their Shabbat – in the fine manner of Hassidism throughout Eastern Europe. Davening (praying), the Shabbat meals, an afternoon rest, partaking of some cherry wine and delicious Shabbat treats. Later in the day, a lesson from a maggid (town preacher[2]). A communal third Shabbat meal, followed by the evening prayers that concluded the holy day. After all the celebrating, they conducted a Melaveh Malka meal with friends, where stories of the holy Ba'al Shem Tov and his disciples were told. Hassidim considered relating these stories on Saturday night a providential omen for success in earning a living and for increased fear of Heaven.

This is how the Jews of Ustiluh began their new week – brimming with belief and trust.

However, the difficulties of earning a living sometimes seem to intrude on one's belief and trust. “A person's sustenance is as difficult as the parting of the Red Sea” (Masechta Pesachim 118a). This was evident back in the days of the Ustiluh community's daily struggle to earn a living. Most Jewish villages throughout the Pale of Settlement fared the same.

At the crack of dawn, the peddler or craftsman awoke, prayed the Shacharit service, often punctuated by coughs and yawns. Often with his usual bundle of merchandise at his side ready to begin his trek through the area's villages. Occasionally, he arrived at some hamlet, only to discover that others had already visited there. He meandered from one place to another throughout the week. His food consisted of dark bread, some vegetables, herring, and some baked potatoes. At night, he slept on the ground on a bundle of straw. After a week of toil and suffering, he returned home shattered and exhausted with a few coins in his pocket.

When a farmer arrived in the marketplace, half a dozen storekeepers, standing at their stores' entrance:

“Hey friend, come here. At my store you'll get everything for the lowest prices….” The farmer paid a quick visit to each of the six shops one after the other. However, usually he did not buy anything, because perhaps in the seventh or eighth shop he might find even lower prices.

However, not all the shops were identical. In one, David Moishe's condemns a gentile woman for digging through the entire barrel of herring until she found one that she liked. While in the shop across the street, Daniel Feige's sat in his fabric shop quietly learning from a holy book. Apparently, his most recent bankruptcy did not disturb his composure, and in fact, as a result of it, his youngest daughter got married soon afterward.

True, some shopkeepers were relatively well off. But, even the worst off were in a much better position not only than that of the peddlers, but even of those who had “regular jobs”

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Market square

 

such as teachers, scribes and clerks. These, however, were not the lowest income jobs. It would seem that the matchmakers were part of the lowest income bracket. It is difficult in our times to grasp the degree of poverty so many Jews endured at that time (early 20th century) in Poland.

The resident craftsmen – the tailors, cobblers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and others –faced an unusual situation. If they were experts in their fields, they earned a better living. But they were pitiable because they were “craftsmen.”

Ustiluh's Jewish population governed itself according to pedigree. All the town idlers and anyone who conducted business outdoors were all part of this dull pastime called pedigree. So, the craftsmen who were then preoccupied with their work forfeited their share of the pedigree show.

Why was Ustiluh so preoccupied with matters of pedigree? Many years earlier, the town hosted a “big wedding,” in which 70 “white Hassidic rabbis” participated. From that moment on, the town became, at least in the eyes of its Jewish residents, elevated to a special status. Ever since that wedding, they guarded their blue–blooded lineage with intensity. When a local family would engage a matchmaker to seek a match for a daughter, the girl's mother made sure to spell out in detail the family history and its living and deceased members' activities. The matchmaker had to know that there was not a single craftsman in the family!

If this was the situation with a simple groom, when it came to a match involving a contender for the rabbinate,

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pedigree played an even greater part in any proposed matrimonial arrangement. The boy had to have an impeccable pedigree, descended from eminent Hassidic rabbis. Moreover, the boy's outward appearance had to reflect his noble station.

Indeed, the Jews of Ustiluh cherished and respected their marvelous young Rabbi Yosef (“Yossel”) Wertheim. It is not clear if they revered the Rabbi because of his Hassidic leanings. The town's Hassidic residents – who drove the clean–shaven educated people out of their midst – were surprised to find the Rabbi not too sympathetic to their cause. In fact, the Rabbi did his best to draw the educated people back toward Torah observance by involving them in communal affairs.

Neither did the Rabbi's considerable scholarship play a decisive role in the community's admiration for him. Because the town's Jewish populace, save a few scholars, were more involved in Hassidism than in Torah learning.

The Rabbi recognized this from the very beginning of his tenure in Ustiluh. At his acceptance sermon in the Great House of Study, he noted the unique situation in which he found himself. Citing the phrase in Psalms (45:2) “My heart overflows with a good matter; I say: 'my work concerns a king.”, Rabbi Wertheim explained if my words are directed at Kings, an appellation for Torah Sages, then (continues the quote: – my tongue is the pen of a ready writer. I can speak straight without allegories. However, if the situation is– “You are finer than the children of men.” If you must first find favor in people's eyes (i.e., they cannot appreciate the speaker's erudition), then (“grace is poured upon your lips.” Meaning, the speaker has to employ different language, a “graceful” manner of speech that unlearned listeners will appreciate….

The Ustiluh community accepted him. He was a brilliant orator who also spoke fluent Russian. He represented the townspeople to the local authorities when a local business venture needed some permits, or to demand that the government withdraw some cruel, foolish decree.

This position vis a vis the government allows us to understand the behavior of Pinchas the intermediary. when he appeared in the local shuls on Shabbat announcing, “I hereby proclaim by order of the Rabbi and with the agreement of the town dignities, that…. The intermediary would cast a knowing glance toward those sitting along the eastern wall of the shul. His eyes said it all. “Okay, no one had asked their opinion; he just meant it as a form of speech. But I am sure none of you would dare undermine my mission.”

Ustiluh was fortunate. Not only were they proud of their Rabbi but also of their town's patron. Imagine having a well to do, good–hearted son, and a son–in–law a Torah scholar. Such a home had the best of both worlds: that of the good–hearted son's generosity together with the son–in–law's radiant Torah study and wisdom.

A certain school teacher named Wolf Jacobs was a contemporary of Yossel David Chaim's. Years later, he became known as the wealthy Yokhenzon. In his younger years, Yossel's father–in–law, although not considered one of the wealthier citizens of Ustiluh, supported him. Yossel, as he sat and learned Torah in the Trisker Shtiebel, seemed to be a typical Torah student, one of many in town. He stood out, however, by forever reiterating his desire and intention to become wealthy.

The years of support from his father–in–law ended and Wolf Jacobs Yokhenzon began supporting himself by selling lumber. He achieved breathtaking success as his dealings expanded far beyond Ustiluh's town limits. He owned entire forests throughout the region, a flour mill and a sawmill in the city of Ludomir, along with other holdings. Nevertheless, Wolf did not forget his roots, and continued living in Ustiluh.

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He employed dozens of family members in permanent jobs, and hundreds of others in temporary positions. He generously contributed to local charity institutions, and sustained several needy families in town.

Yokhenzon, unlike most other nouveau riche, had a large family. His sons furthered their education in other countries, and his daughters married professional men. But, Yokhenzon himself, like his earlier persona, Wolf Jacobs, wore a small felt cap on his head. Some claimed he still studied Torah on a regular basis.

His wife Sheindel comported herself in a similar, unassuming manner like her husband. She also assisted several communal charity organizations, and distributed cash and food parcels to the needy.

Even the couple's more “progressive” sons and daughters were raised in the spirit of simplicity and restraint

Over all, the Jews of Ustiluh were satisfied with the quality of life in their town. Of course, not everyone was content with their lot, as the case of Wolf Jacobs demonstrated. Some people always seemed to aim for more….

 

C. Protected by Faith

In memory of my father, an exemplary chassid,
Reb Dov ben Moshe Herschels
And in memory of my mother,
the righteous Bat Sheva
May their souls reside in the Garden of Eden

Yossel took leave of his rabbi the day after Yom Kippur to journey home. Early Friday morning, together with a group of Hassidim, he crossed the Russian border, reaching the town of Krilov. He found the nearest synagogue put on his tallit and Tefillin and prayed the morning prayers. One of the local Jewish residents invited him for breakfast. After the meal, as he rose to leave, his host begged him to stay for Shabbat. Yossel refused, as he had to get home that day, since Sunday was the eve of Sukkot. True, he owned a readymade Sukkah. But, such an important mitzvah, in which one's entire body is submerged (in the Sukkah), requires preparation and not just to rush into it straight from one's journey home.

After plentiful thanks and exchanged good wishes Yossel took leave of his hosts. His host accompanied him to the marketplace hoping to find a wagon destined to travel toward Ustiluh. When they did not find any, Yossel began his trek on foot, hoping that somewhere along the road he might meet up with a wagon traveling in the desired direction.

When he arrived at the first village on his route home, he asked about any available wagons that could bring him to his hometown, but there were none. Potato harvesting season and wheat planting occupied all the workers, so not one wagon ventured out of town.

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Attempting to shorten his route, Yossel veered off the main thoroughfare and cut through some side roads. At day's end he still was far from home.

Yossel came into a dense oak forest. Some local farmers assured him that the forest was only three kilometers long, but it seemed to him like he had been trudging without end.

In the afternoon it seemed as if all the forest creatures were napping. Peace and quiet reign throughout the area, save for an occasional lone bird twittering a soft melody, similar to the enraptured singing of some Hassid.

Silence enveloped Yossel as he trekked through the forest. In the background, as if contemplating their fate were the falling autumn leaves. Crunching the carpet of yellow–red leaves underfoot produced a soft undertone of pain of those who have been cut off from the living world. The changing color of those leaves still attached to the branches signified their realization that with every gust of wind, many more of them will fall to the earth…. Thus, each leaf waits in submission for its turn. No one is able to cancel this judgment. Such is the destiny of man as well, and of Yossel.

True, these leaves had seen better days, when they held tight to the tree's branches and drew their nourishment from them. Then, they were a fresh green color, bringing joy to all who beheld them. Whereas he, Yossel, most of his days were filled with heartache and suffering.

Already from childhood, Yossel's life was marred with trauma. His father earned a living from government–regulated products such as tobacco and whiskey. Occasionally, Yossel encountered bushy–mustached policemen entering their home, whose very appearance provoked a sense of dread. The police were checking real or imagined “violations” of the agreement with the government. Most of the time, his father managed to sway the officer's conclusions by means of some carefully placed “inducements” throughout the house. These successful outcomes, however, did not alleviate the constant fear and tension every time these uniformed officials visited their home. One day, an investigating officer caught his parents flagrantly breaking the law. This time, no financial stimuli would help, and Yossel's parents were sentenced to six months in jail.

Yossel did not really have much of a childhood. At his father's behest, he became engaged to Dina when he was fourteen years old. From then on, he had to conduct himself as an upcoming young man. At age seventeen, he married his wife. His father–in–law, who ran a tavern in town, promised to support him for ten years, allowing him to study Torah undistracted. He succeeded in his studies, but, later, tragedy struck when several of his children died young.

In the meantime, the Polish Army drafted Yossel. He tried to maim himself – a common practice in those days – to save himself from the clutches of the gentile army, but, did not succeed.

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As his enlistment day drew closer, and being in good health, he had to flee to far–off Lublin, where he spent a year as a teacher teaching one of the affluent inhabitants' children. When he sensed the authorities were closing in on him, Yossel escaped to Galicia, where he dwelled in the court of the Hosiatin Rabbi for a year or two.

Yossel's recollection of the aged rabbi evoked other, pleasant memories of the early years after his marriage, when he had first discovered his rabbi.

The Shtiebel in which Yossel prayed and studied served all the Hassidim who belonged to the various Rozhin descendants' courts. Yossel's father David Chaim belonged there. He prayed in the Shtiebel and contributed to the annual effort to raise funds for the rabbi's salary. But he did not visit any tzadikim. Hence, Yossel had to choose for himself a spiritual guide whom he would follow. He traveled from one town to another, visiting whichever tzadikim he could find. When he settled on a younger, lesser known rebbe, his friends asked him why he chose someone about whom nothing of note had ever been observed. Yossel smiled, telling them he had noticed and heard quite a bit about this rebbe. He saw the rebbe's holy hand cupped to his ear trembling when they recited Kaddish. He heard his voice shuddering with pure fear of Heaven. He then understood the rationale behind the rebbe's reputation for silence and tranquility fulfilling the phrase “For You (Hashem) silence is Your praise.” (Psalms 65:2)

The pleasant memories had passed and Yossel recalled his latest life experiences.

Upon ascending the throne, Czar Nicholas II of Russia declared a blanket amnesty for everyone who had avoided previous military conscription. This meant no one would be punished for evading the draft, on condition they would now appear at the draft board for enlistment. Yossel returned home and after enduring three grueling years in the army, was finally discharged from military service.

Now, Yossel began working to develop his family's economic resources. He built a windmill in town, and began selling wheat. He did not, however, achieve much success in these ventures. His windmill suffered some large–scale damages, and his other business dealings did not generate much income. Finally, Yossel had to liquidate the remains of his business affairs. He moved into his father's house, and began a “temporary” teaching career until he found some other form of income that suited his nature. For the past fifteen years, he visited the “older rebbe” and now the younger one, requesting a blessing for “ample income.” Each time, however, the response came: “find favor (in men's eyes) and success.” This was the rebbe's way of recommending at least another year as a teacher….

This time, after receiving the rebbe's usual blessing, Yossel mustered up enough courage to request a different source of income, something better….

“I understand what you're asking,” said the tzaddik. However, consider this. “You don't want to be a teacher. Another fellow wants to teach but is unqualified. What will happen to all these Jewish children?”

Yossel could think of nothing to say in response. Accepting the rebbe's ruling and his fate, “finding favor and success” would have to suffice. At least he would not have to ingratiate himself with the townspeople, as did other teachers. He would enjoy a degree of respect from his students, as was the situation had been until now.

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If Yossel had been someone of higher spiritual stature, he would have rejoiced in his good fortune: that of teaching Torah to Jewish children, as the tzaddik insisted. However, Yossel's material needs for income hounded him without end. In particular, he needed to provide for his three surviving children. Three out of ten were left. Their pale appearance and scruffy clothing broke his heart. His wife Dina, was a right–minded woman who never complained why God was doing this to her. Although she accepted God's decree with equanimity, she agonized in her heart over her family's physical condition. Yossel's contemplations ended with a start as he suddenly realized that the path upon which he was walking had disappeared, leaving him lost in the forest. Standing for a moment, he deliberated what to do. He listened for a sound of man or beast, but, heard nothing. Retracing his steps, Yossel turned to the side, and the path indeed had disappeared. He decided to continue walking straight in the hope of eventually get out of the forest. In the meantime, the hour grew later, and he worried that he would not reach any village before dark. The thought of being trapped in the forest at night terrified him. A cold sweat covered Yossel from head to toe, as he was convinced he heard wolves howling and wild boar grunting. Suddenly, a thought flashed through his mind. God has tested him with many challenging situations in his life, and he successfully passed them all; he would pass this one too. He resolved that once darkness settled in; he would not walk beyond the limits of Shabbat.

After he made this resolution, all fear and weakness disappeared. With newly emboldened steps, he continued walking through the forest. A short time later, the blue sky began poking through the trees before him. He was leaving the forest and entering a wide–open area. In the distance, he saw white houses belonging to local farmers.

Trembling with excitement, he hurried forward until he came upon a little stream winding through the bushes and river grass. Several women crouched at the creek's edge scrubbing clothes to the accompaniment of singing and animated chatter.

“Excuse me ladies, what is this village's name?

All at once, they stopped their washing and stared at Yossel with inquiring eyes. “This village is called Veischetin

“How far is it to Ustiluh?

“Six versts.

“Are there any Jews here?

“What do you think? Libka is here.

Yossel headed straight to the water, rinsed his hands, and uttered words of thanks to Hashem. He arrived at Libka's yard, where her husband was cutting hay with another farmer. Yossel asked for some water, over which he recited a blessing and drank. As he put the cup down, he announced: “I'll be spending Shabbat here!”

The master of the house was confused. “Why? There's enough time for you to get home.

“No,” Yossel proclaimed. “I'm not budging from here. All I wish from you is somewhere to sleep. I have my own food.

“That's not what I mean,” Libka apologized. It's just that a Jew such as yourself will be bored on Shabbat at my place

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where you won't find even one book from which to learn.” (Yossel would later learn that Libka had difficulty reciting Kiddush, which was why he did not want outsiders present at his Shabbat table.)

“If I provide you with a wagon and horses, will you continue on home?

“Agreed.”

At once Libka turned to his farmer colleague asking, “Ivan, will you take this man to his hometown?”

“Yes, for five gold coins.”

Yossel did not quibble over the price, and even agreed to pay in advance. Ivan released his horses from the wheat cutting shaft and hitched them to the wagon.

As the setting sun approached the tree tops and its golden rays reflecting on the straw roofed villages houses, they set off for Ustiluh. Soon after leaving Veischetin, Yossel grabbed the whip from Ivan's hands and began lashing the horses to drive them ever faster.

“Are you trying to kill my horses?” stammered the farmer. “Do you think that your five gold coins will buy me new horses?”

As they approached the outskirts of Ustiluh, Shabbat candles were beginning to flicker one after the other in the windows.

 

D. The Fire

Friday night, Shabbat Bereishit, Yossel and his family were awakened from their sleep by insistent banging on the windows. “Fire, help!”

They rushed out in their pajamas to see the baker's house engulfed in flames. Men ran back and forth with buckets both empty and full. Shrieking women wrung their hands in despair. Children stood by weeping in helplessness. Yossel's widowed sister Rachel joined the firefighting effort. Only Dina stood by composed, awaiting her husband's instructions. The children stood near them shuddering with fear. Five–year–old Shmulik sobbed as he clung to his mother. Yossel quickly assessed the situation.

“Dina, take the children to Vogenfeld's house. The flames won't reach there. Rachel and I will try to save whatever we can from the house.”

At that moment, Yossel's friend Pinchas Lichtman arrived. His house was far from the blaze, so he hurried over to see if there was anything he could do to help.

The two of them, Yossel and Pinchas, salvaged whatever they could from the house, placing it all in a pit behind the house. In the meantime, Bieliankin, a Polish aristocrat who lived nearby, arrived with a company of volunteer firefighters. The nobleman barked orders into a megaphone, and the firemen swung into action. All the local water carriers lined up with their wagons delivering water to the rubber fire hose that dosed the flaming inferno. The fire seemed to peter out.

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But, all of a sudden there arose a gust of wind from the direction of the burning house. Along the entire length of the street there were wooden houses, many covered with straw roofs. The structures were built close to one another, and flames leaped from roof to roof and from wall to wall. They engulfed the windows and doorways, soon becoming one huge horrifying conflagration that enveloped entire rows of houses.

The firefighters were unable to control the fire, and soon lost patience with the entire operation. Bieliankin screamed into the bullhorn until he was too hoarse to speak. The firemen dropped the fire hose and instead took up logs to break down the burning houses.

The rest of the town's residents did their best to assist them.

All this time, the houses on the opposite side of the street, including Yossel's, remained unaffected by the fire, the blazing fire reflecting on their walls.

Suddenly, the wind changed direction and came howling down the street. Sheaves of straw and sparks shot onto two of the houses, one of which was Yossel's.

Pinchas Lichtman, who, at that moment, was dragging a large parcel out of the house noticed this and hollered to Yossel

“Quick, bring water. The roof is on fire.”

Yossel shook his head in resignation.

“I'm not doing any more. It's bad enough that I carried all sorts of things not permitted on Shabbat.

“What are you talking about? Will you allow your house to burn to the ground?”

Rachel wrung her hands lamenting:

“Oy vey, just a few buckets of water can save the house.”

“I will not desecrate Shabbat, nor will I allow anyone else to on my behalf,” Yossel pronounced without hesitation. “Two weeks ago, God tested me and I almost gave in. Now, I'm facing a more difficult test, and I will stand strong and not yield!

In the morning, instead of the houses that had formerly stood on the street, they found scorched heaps of bricks surrounded by piles of smoldering embers and ash. Smoke arose from some of the mounds. The downcast townspeople shuffled around the charred remnants searching for anything valuable that might have survived the inferno.

The only structure that survived intact was Yaakov the Wagon driver's shack. It was a small structure covered in dried straw from which some weeds sprouted. It was located a short distance from the spot upon which Yossel's house had stood. It seemed almost as if the simple hut was ashamed at having experienced a miracle and remained standing….

Among the remnants of Yossel's house, his oven stood out whole and undamaged. As if it was honored to have protected the Shabbat foods in it.

Yossel spread a cloth over a table he had salvaged from the fire, removed the Shabbat cholent from the oven and placed it on the table. The fragrant aroma of the cholent mingled with the stench of fire that lingered in the air.

Everyone ate in silence, as if they were in mourning. Every so often, some women muttered with sarcasm,

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Nu, it's forbidden on Shabbat!” Yossel objected to this attitude. He called out, “Asher'l, let's sing some Shabbat songs. “Thank God who saves us…”

 

E. The More Things Change…

“The world runs as it always did.” This statement requires some explanation. Is there only one world? Our Sages teach that in the future, God will bestow 310 “worlds” on every tzaddik. Even on our planet Earth there are many worlds. Furthermore, in little Ustiluh itself there were many “worlds.” The world of the Hassidim. The world of the town leaders. The world of the enlightened. The latter were known as “the group of twenty–five” or “the intelligentsia.” Other “worlds” large and small also existed in town aside from these three main factions.

For Shmulik, however, there was no question. His clearly defined world consisted of three main elements: his father's house, where he lived, ate, drank, and learned Torah with the older students. The house of prayer – the Shtiebel, and the home of Rav Hirsch David, the Dayan. All three provided fulfilling spiritual experiences and pleasure.

The great fire that consumed his father's house and the Shtiebel cast a pall of gloom over Shmulik's world. The family wandered from one small apartment to another, most of which were crowded and uncomfortable. The Heder moved into the large House of Learning while the Shtiebel members rented a private room for prayers.

Neither of these two temporary venues provided a satisfactory solution. These too–small sites cramped the Hassidic atmosphere in town. Within a few years, however, the Shtiebel was rebuilt, this time even bigger and more spacious than its predecessor. The old days had returned.

Twilight on Shabbat afternoon, and in the Shtiebel the participants just finished eating the small piece of challah, and an even smaller portion of herring. As the room fills with lengthening shadows of the waning Shabbat, Yossel leads the singing. Both Shmulik and Yisraelik, the Dayan's grandson, help him, with the rest of the group joining them in song. Even the hoarse voice of Sender the egg seller sounded pleasing within this mellow merger of voices.

The celestial angels accompanying the Shabbat as she prepares to take leave of her celebrants shroud themselves in the darkening Shtiebel. But, the reverberation of their beating wings merges with the elevated but still human singing.

Even the frogs outside that thronged the Bug River banks know the songs and contribute their part to the concert.

The fields beyond the Bug that were owned by Jews also offered up the scent of dried hay in honor of the departing Shabbat Queen.

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From behind Eliezer Tebel's house the rising moon in its splendor began to appear in the Shtiebel's windows. The enthralled choir's melodies affected even the phlegmatic “ruler of the night” as its light shimmered on the faces of all the participants, in accordance with the tempo of their movements.

Shmulik's soul felt as if it were going to burst out of his body. Yet, he was enjoying every moment of this experience.

Every holiday had its own special customs and its own kind of beverage. On the last day of Pesach, everyone gathered in the house of the Dayan for some wine. Whereas during Sukkot they celebrated with beer. They placed a keg of beer in the Shtiebel's huge sukkah that would help get the celebrants into the right frame of mind. But, the Dayan's son Reuvale was nowhere to be found, which would delay the start of the festivities. Yossel volunteered to find his friend Reuvale. Sender the Egg Seller joined him. After Sender joined the search party, Shmulik and Yisraelik also joined up. Sender brought a bucket of water with him, and they began their search for Reuvale.

Reuvaleh's sukkah was attached to his house, and opened on one side to a wood shed. A large wooden chest blocked the doorway. Sender and his companions made their way with tentative steps toward the wood shed. At the same time, Yossel appeared at the sukkah's entrance, announcing Happy Holiday, causing the assembled guests to face him. A fancy embroidered cloth that Reuvale had brought from Odessa covered the table, and two tall candles in silver candlesticks stood on it. A bottle of red wine, a few silver goblets, and fine cutlery graced the table. The guests had not yet finished their meal, when suddenly, Boom! The candles went out; all the participants were soaked with the water in Sender's bucket. From the wood shed, they heard the fleeing “intruders” footsteps and muffled laughter.

“Ah, it's hoarse Sender with his two little mischief makers!” exclaimed Moshe Yudel, Reuvaleh's son.

“Shmulik and Yisraelik,” added Zelig Varsha.

Reuvale and his wife said nothing. “Pouring of the Water” was a long–standing Jewish custom….

The assembled recited Grace after Meals in the dark, and Reuvale and his sons went with Yossel to the Shtiebel.

The leftover water from may not be carelessly discarded without a thought. Thus, pronounced raspy–voiced Sender. Since some water remained in his bucket, he decided to perform another “mitzvah” with Dudi the carpenter, who was sitting in his sukkah. Sender poured the water on his head. The sopping wet Dudi left his sukkah shouting assorted abuses at them as he pursued them.

In the Shtiebel's sukkah, the first round of drinks was poured and downed. The group burst out in song in honor of the Sukkot holiday. Afterwards, the Dayan spoke some words of Torah, as was customary. Yonah, one of the younger men present, cleared his throat several times, indicating that he too, wished to say a few words.

“Nu Yonah, tell us some good words.” Yonah complied and began speaking.

“The common practice during the weekdays is to eat simple foods and drink water.

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On Shabbat and holidays however, we eat tasty delicacies and drink wine. In the Sanctuary in Jerusalem, however, wine was poured on the weekdays, and water on the festival (of Sukkot). Why is this? To teach us that water is more precious than wine, as it is said, “he washes his garments in wine.” (Bereishit 49:11)

“If that's the case,” interjected the elderly Shikel, “why only on Sukkot and not on any of the other festivals?”

“Right, right,” the crowd began to call out. They were not thrilled with this opposing interpretation.

“The reason is obvious,” continued Shikel. “If they would have poured wine (as a libation) for all the bullocks, rams and sheep that were sacrificed on Sukkot in the Beit HaMikdash , there would be no wine left to drink on Simchat Torah.”

This novel explanation was received with enthusiasm by all those sitting in the sukkah. Shikel was honored with another glass of beer. Yonah, the younger man, also received an additional cup of beer. But, not in the conventional manner, but rather it was poured on his head through the cracks in the roof of the sukkah, in the spirit of the aforementioned phrase, “he washes his garments in wine.” The other guests had their clothes soaked with water, again through the cracks in the roof in accordance with the time–honored custom. All this was courtesy of Shmulik and Yisraelik, who performed their jobs with enthusiasm.

All Ustiluh's residents agreed that the spirited service of God that took place in the Rizhiner Shtiebel was way beyond anything experienced in any of the other Shtiblach. This was because in this Shtiebel Hassidim who followed several different tzaddikim prayed together. This led to a mutual influencing of one upon the other. How so? Reuvale the Dayan's son, would relate some of the Torah thoughts from Chortkov . (Reuven was a scholar of note; he published two books on the teachings of the Rizhiner Rebbes). He also brought the tunes and cantorial melodies of Manish the Chazzan in Chortkov to Ustiluh. Yossel, upon returning from Hosiatin would repeat the Torah thoughts and musical compositions of his rebbe. Even hoarse Sender would “tell over,” as Yossel put it (as opposed to actually singing), the songs he heard in Sadigura.

On the anniversary of the death of any of the Rizhiner rebbe's six sons, and surely on that of the Rizhiner rebbe himself, all the Hassidim joined in the commemorative meal .

The celebration of the anniversary and all the preparations for it was an uplifting experience. A few days in advance, Shmulik would prepare huge lanterns that they placed in the eastern windows of the Shtiebel. On the day of the anniversary, Shmulik and Yisraelik would rise early and travel to Eliah Proviznik, who lived on the far side of the river, to buy fish for the meal.

This man, Eliyahu, leased the rights to operate the pontoon bridge crossing the Bug River from the government. He was also a successful fisherman. He was a tough, muscular man whose red face, adorned with a coarse red beard and a long nose advertised his physical strength. On one occasion, Eliyahu punched out a dozen drunken farmers for insulting him. They claimed that he took too long to move the bridge toward them. Eliyahu prayed in the Shtiebel on Shabbat and holidays. On Simchat Torah he was the one who was always called to perform the Reverse Lifting,

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since there was no one else in the Shtiebel strong enough to do it. But, Eliyahu did not feel this was his right, but rather paid a hefty price for the privilege of displaying the Torah Scroll in shul. He undertook to provide over the course of the year ample quantities of fish for all the anniversary meals.

Shmulik's mother Dina, whose house was close to the Shtiebel, was in charge of preparing the meal. He helped her get the food ready. He cleaned the fish, checked the rice and the dried fruits, and chopped wood. Toward evening, all the lamps in the Shtiebel were lit along with hundreds of candles in copper chandeliers and on the window sills. Two large signs in the eastern windows proclaimed “The Remembrance Day of the holy tzaddik …” Above the table for Torah reading, a lantern suspended atop a wooden pole, rotated by the man appointed over the chandeliers.

After learning Mishna for the elevation of the deceased tzaddik's soul, the assembled sat down to the meal. They broke bread and drank “l'chaim” – “may he (the deceased tzaddik being honored) be a good interceder for all the Jews. After eating the fish, a second cup of wine was poured, and Sruli Shifras began chanting an appropriate melody asking the tzaddik to remind Hashem about our difficulties and the constant ordeals we faced.

Alas, Sruli stuttered, and so was unable to pronounce some sounds and words without repeating them several times. When, however, he sang, the words flowed from his lips without effort. For this reason, whenever he had a yahrzeit, he would sing the Kaddish. He also had responsibility for singing certain chants for Shabbat and holidays–all of which he sang using his Kaddish melody. Sruli had a small notebook to remind him of the words. The only way to understand those words was if you heard Sruli sing them. He would begin in a soft voice, “Remind Him, speak before Him the Torah and good deeds learned and performed by those now residing in the earth.” As there was no suitable response, he raised his voice, as if to complain, Remind Him, speak before Him oy, the Torah, the Torah and good deeds learned and performed by those now residing in the earth.” Then, the rest of those present joined in with even more passion, “Remind Him.” Why are we so quiet? We should be storming the heavens. Remember their love (for You) and sustain their offspring so that the remnant of Yaakov will not be lost.” A Jewish community is gathered to eat and drink, yet they do not forget their main reason for coming together: The Memorial Day for the tzaddik, it is in a time of Divine mercy, to beg for compassion for the Jewish people.

Ustiluh's streets were tranquil at this time of night. No light appeared in any of its windows, as if the low houses wrapped in darkness wished to close their eyes during this rest time. Not so the Rizhiner Shtiebel. The light radiating from its windows revealed that it was wide awake even at this late hour. Inside, they danced hands on shoulders, heads lowered, eyes shut, singing a melody without words. Their song poured out into the sleeping town's streets and throughout the world….

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A dog wakes up from all the noise. What nerve, he barked, waking up hard working creatures, disturbing their well–deserved rest. Some annoyed roosters– squawked what was all this celebrating about? Right about now, some Jews are rising for Midnight prayers, and over here they are celebrating?

“It doesn't matter,” calls out Gershon Leib the beadle, as if speaking directly to the Master of the Universe. “We'll make up with You. We are dancing in your honor. You've been angry with us for long enough. Save us and take us out of this exile and You will also benefit …!

The town elders continued striding on their life's journey with confidence, planning to continue this way until their last days on earth. While the children still followed in their footsteps, much of the teen–aged youth were abandoning the Shtiebel and the time–tested traditions in search of an improved life.

One path lead from the Shtiebel to the new life's choices. A fifteen–sixteen–year–old youth traveled to one of the neighboring villages to teach the children of the Jewish millers and bartenders, returning to Ustiluh for the holidays shorn of his beard and side curls, sporting a dapper hat and stiff collar. From this point, it was a short path to forsaking the Torah lifestyle ….

During Shmulik's childhood years, the community distanced such enlightened people from the Shtiebel. They were not fazed by this treatment, and often taunted Yossel and Reuven, “You will yet see Moshe Yudel and Asher with shaven faces.”

Such contemptuous words horrified Yossel.

“May your mouths be filled with dust!” He angrily raged at them. “It'll never happen!” Yossel turned out to be right; Moshe Yudel and Asher were the only ones in their group who remained in the House of Learning until their weddings, with a soft fluff of a beard on their faces.

The fathers of these two managed to save their sons from the “dangerous winds” that blew through town in those days. But, in general the parents lost in the struggle for their children, who mostly just slipped out of their grasp.

The would–be enlightened people reached a cross–road. Most of them left town for the bigger cities where they found movements and ideologies that interested them. Most joined the various revolutionary socialist movements. Some, however, returned to Ustiluh to “spread the light of knowledge” by offering private lessons in Hebrew and Russian. These lessons laid the foundation for the “Renovated Heder” and planted the seeds of Zionism in the town.

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F. Hazardous Times

The Jewish residents of the “Pale of Settlement” viewed the heavy clouds gathering in the political skies over Europe in the summer of 1914. On the one hand was the dread of a nightmarish war. Not like the far–off Manchurian War, this war would be fought in their home areas. On the other hand, they dared entertain the hope that the Tsar would lose the war against the enlightened nations, just as he lost the previous war with Japan. Maybe all or most of the “Pale of Settlement” would pass into the hands of the victorious nations. Ustiluh's location made it likely to be included in Austrian territory, which was ruled by a reasonably benevolent monarch. Even if Germany ultimately took over the area, it would still be a great improvement over Tsarist Russia. From an economic standpoint, it could even be better than Austria.

All these possibilities were explained and emphasized in hushed tones in the Shtiebel, after verifying that no one was eavesdropping on them.

Apparently, the local political “analysts” were not aware of the Polish National Renewal Movement, and the future roles France and England would play. However, when the government announced a general military call–up on the eve of Tisha B'Av, all the great hopes evaporated from everyone's heart, to be replaced with utter fear for the future.

That intuition of imminent destruction was demonstrated on Tisha B'Av night. The night that for generations was “predisposed to calamities” Even the young pranksters in town, who had planned the traditional Tisha B'Av shenanigans, immediately sensed that the situation was serious. The shoes that everyone removed (before reading the Scroll of Lamentations) were not mischievously filled with water, and the watering cans remained idle.

“And the entire assembly raised up their voices…” (Numbers 14:1)

The next day, the first reports from the new war reached Ustiluh.

“The Germans have entered Kalish!”

“They've also taken Czestochowa!”

No one knew what to make of these reports. Only a small number of people in the Shtiebel sat on the floor reading the Lamentations. The rest gathered in the yard awaiting the latest news dispatches that some youths brought from the market place. News items that were irrelevant, even if true.

“Notices were posted not to sell whiskey to the recruits.”

“So–and–so decided to enlist, and his mother is sobbing in the street.”

“A gang of gentiles, apparently draftees, broke the door of X's store, stole a few bottles and disappeared.”

“There's a lot of commotion at the police station; cops on horseback are coming and going.”

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In the midst of this turmoil arose a rumor that the civilian population was ordered to relocate to the district administrative center. Without bothering to verify the reliability of this strange report, people burst into the Shtiebel shouting to hurry up and finish praying now; and to start reciting “Ali Zion.” We have to get out of here!”

Yossel was standing before the Ark, with tears streaming down his face. His choked voice trying to pierce the hearts of the others praying in the Shtiebel. “As the wind shakes the trees in the forest…” (Part of the Lamentations poems).

In the end they learned it was a false alarm. But, the events of the following days were astounding, even amusing.

Some townspeople met a company of Austrian army soldiers in a nearby field. They appeared to be taking a pleasure hike, not carrying out any kind of military maneuvers. The commanding officers spoke to the Ustiluh residents in Yiddish or some language similar to it. When the local Jews were ready to go back to town, the officers handed them bundles of Yiddish leaflets requesting “Our Fellow Jews”, residents of Volhynia to assist the army of the pious Emperor Franz–Josef to banish the “Russian pig” from the region.

One of the Jews present was convinced that he recognized one of the officers as “Pechania Kopika.”

About a year before the war broke out, a strange ruddy faced man appeared in Ustiluh. He spent the days walking through the town's streets selling perfumed paper strips and various children's' toys. With an enchanting melody, he proclaimed throughout the day, “Pechania Kopika,” (“fragrance for a kopek”), “Kopika Pechania.” He occasionally publicized the prices for the other merchandise. When children gathered around him, he would demonstrate how to use the toys, like the inflatable peacock, or the talking rooster. But he never entered into a conversation with anyone. Even when people stopped him to buy something, he would not interrupt his sales message. He handed the merchandise to the buyer, accepted the money, all the while announcing “Pechania Kopika.” Some said that at the inn where he stayed, he would say in German that he is a Jew. But, beyond that, he never uttered a word about himself.

This fellow spent about a week in town. Although no one purchased any more of his merchandise, he continued to smile at everyone whom he met in the street. Questions about this man's true identity persisted until one day he vanished from town. Now, it became obvious this man was a government spy! The Jews of Ustiluh chuckled how they allowed “Old Efraim Yossel” (Emperor Franz Josef) to dupe them. But there was more to come.

Several years back, a certain Hungarian settled in one of the small nearby towns. As was fashionable with Hungarians, he wore an elegant top hat. He began dealing in animal husbandry, specifically raising horses. A few weeks ago, the Hungarian disappeared. Well, just as no one knew from where he came, no one knew where he went. But, lo and behold, yesterday a company of Austrian infantrymen appeared in town, led by their commanding officer, who walked straight into one of the Jewish owned pubs in town.

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“Good morning, Sara! How are you? Can we have something to eat and drink?”

This Jewess was stunned and speechless. The face and the voice were familiar, but from where? An Austrian Army officer?

The officer laughed heartily.

“Sara, don't you recognize Yonders the Hungarian? It all became clear now, but, where was “Punya,” another shadowy figure who hung around town at the same time as Yonders. In fact, not one Russian soldier was to be seen in the area. As if they were embarrassed to show their faces here.

Why did “they” not come?

Not only did “they” not enter Ustiluh, they completely disappeared from the area. In their place appeared “our” (Austrian) army in a full show of strength. It was like a huge beast leaving its lair in search of prey, walking confidently, unaware of the danger waiting nearby.

For several hours, a seemingly endless stream of infantry, cavalry, and heavy artillery with all their equipment paraded down the main street. Where they came from and where they were going no one knew. They faded away in the horizon, along with their confident victory songs that gradually died down as the soldiers vanished into the distance.

At noon, the column halted in its tracks. From the field kitchens arose fragrant aromas that stimulated everyone's appetite. The soldiers were in an elevated mood as they prepared for their meal. As they began eating the steaming hot, tasty porridge, they suddenly heard the thunder of artillery fire. Although the shell landed in an empty field, it was enough to sow confusion among the troops.

“About face!” Came the hastily issued order that was transmitted from one soldier to the other along the entire length of the column. The soldiers turned around beating a hurried and disorderly retreat back to whence they came.

This time, the civilian population did not wait for orders. Large numbers, particularly of women and children grabbed whatever provisions they could and crossed the new bridge over the Bug River. A bridge that was hastily constructed before the war's outbreak.

Dina, Sima, and Shmulik left with the other refugees, while Yossel, like so many others, remained behind to guard, to whatever extent possible, their property

Jews who lived in the villages west of the River Bug, among them many landowners (not like the Jews of Volyn who were not permitted to own land) and assorted people of means received the refugees with great compassion and concern that “perhaps this will befall us too.” They housed the new arrivals in barns and provided them generously with the vegetables that grew in their gardens.

The local Polish and Ukrainian populace's treatment of the new refugees was at best restrained. As if they had not yet decided how they would handle them….

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Dina, however, who was born in just such a village, met a peasant woman at the well. An interesting conversation ensued.

“My friend,” sighed Dina, “look how people are uprooted from their little corner of the world. Who knows what will be left from all their hard work?”

“Yes, it's surely a bitter fate. But, if we (non–Jews) had to leave our places, it would be even worse.”

“Why? On the contrary. At least you have your property, your fields that cannot be destroyed or stolen. But, us Jews, if our houses are burned and the merchandise in our stores looted, what do we have left?”

“What do you mean? You people all have gold and silver sewn into your clothes. You'll be able to manage wherever you go. But, us? Should we take our livestock or the produce of the fields with us?”

Dina smiled as she nodded, thinking to herself, what a waste of time to try to talk sensibly with fools. They really believed that all the Jews without exception had hidden caches of money.

Forced inactivity on a summer's day is more difficult than insomnia on a winter's night. All the more so considering the conditions and the mood of the refugees at that time. Under these circumstances, people try to ease their boredom in any way possible. Strangers become friends and discover common interests. Issues that normally would not concern people in the least suddenly become matters of great important.

Only God knows how the refugees found out that a solar eclipse was forecast for that very day. There was no radio, and newspapers did not circulate in the area. Nevertheless, at the appointed time, everyone stood outside equipped with pieces of smoked–covered glass. The visible disk of the sun suddenly began to darken. Everyone placed the glass pieces up to their eyes, which allowed them to view this celestial phenomenon from start to finish.

As to the significance of the eclipse, many different approaches arose among the Ustiluh refugees. The Torah scholars among them quoted the words of our Sages: A diminishment of the sun (i.e., an eclipse) is a bad sign for the enemies of Israel (some read it: for the idolaters). They interpreted this as a sign that the war will continue. This contradicted the rumors simmering among some of the refugees that the war would end shortly. Others explained it as a purely scientific naturalistic phenomenon, which is how they were altogether able to predict the eclipse in advance. Shmulik tried to make peace between the two points of view.

Some reinforced their pessimistic outlook by employing gematria and allusions they claim are written in the Zohar and other Kabbalistic books regarding the War of Gog and Magog. According to all indications this was indeed what was happening.

[Page 38]

Even Reb Yoel the Elder, one of the village notables who was a Torah scholar and a mohel, proved from some book whose author was unknown, “clear indications” that this was in fact, the war of the End of Days that was part of the Messianic tribulations. A subdued feeling of terror took hold of the listeners over what the future bode.

In the interim, more news from the town reached the refugees. News that in the end turned out to be baseless rumors. But this is what was reported:

On the day they all fled Ustiluh, after the shooting subsided, the Austrian army took up positions around the town. Civilian traffic was severely curtailed, but, in the town itself life slowly returned to normal. Meaning: the shop owners were forced to reopen their stores so that the soldiers could buy whatever they needed. The latter, however, were not satisfied with their daylight shopping. Many stores, particularly those that sold food, clothing, and shoes were broken into at night and looted. On the other hand, it appeared possible to earn some money supplying the army with freshly baked bread.

On the third day of the refugees' flight, a Friday, many returned to town. The remainder, however, were not so quick to go back home, preferring instead to remain where they were for Shabbat. It turned out that their homes did not require that much protection, and so, remaining where they were would not cause them any losses. Yet, when it was time to light candles, when both men and women were wearing their weekday clothing to receive the Shabbat, it seemed as if the Holy Queen herself was peering through the door in a silence bathed in pain and degradation.

Someone found two rolls over which he recited kiddush for everyone present and distributed slivers of bread to all. The meal itself, consisted of dried bread with some fresh vegetables without table and chairs, placed over some paper or a soiled cloth in place of a tablecloth.

That night, fourteen–year–old Shmulik was unable to sleep. A small kerosene lamp hung on one of the columns in the middle of the barn. It lit up only a small part of the room. All around the rest of the barn shadows spread out over the straw lining the floor. It seemed to Shmulik that the darkness was stretching further and further, and would soon penetrate his body. He buried his face in the fragrant straw to escape the struggle between light and darkness around him and tried to fall asleep. A tapestry of bright green dots on a black background flooded his mind as if passing endlessly before his closed eyes. In the midst of this decoration darted murky shadows like small clouds. Whenever he closed his eyes in the dark, he would see this speckled tapestry flowing by silently, as if it were being pushed along by some powerful and invisible force. This empty display always aroused in Shmulik a mysterious sadness. It seemed to him like another existence above the known worlds. Perhaps this was the “World of Chaos” in which, according to the Aggadah, the souls of sinners wandered.

This time, Shmulik had a different idea. Was this not the entire display of all the past generations that God reveals to us at night when we sleep? Perhaps billions of souls come forth from the darkness, pass by in a flash, and return to the darkness.

[Page 39]

Shmulik did not have the strength to watch the frightening presentation. He opened his eyes, trying to focus them on the real objects in the barn. Particularly the other people asleep there, snoring blissfully in their slumber. But now they seemed to him so pathetic. Green dots? He felt sorry for them and for himself. A world war? Many tragedies would occur. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions would die. But, what sort of impression would this make on the ‘spotted tapestry?' On the destiny of the generations? It would be unable to hold back the deluge for even a moment, as if nothing had happened….

Shmulik awoke to the sound of his mother's gentle voice. It was morning, and the others had already left the barn. Outside the pleasant chirping of birds could be heard, along with the giggling of little girls. “The men are planning to go to the neighboring village where there is a minyan,” said Dina. “There's a Torah scroll there too. Hurry up and you can go with them.”

Shmulik got dressed and went outside. A sunny, end of summer day greeted him as befitting a Shabbat morning. The dew drops glistening on the stubbles of grain as if winking to him, Shmulik, all your speculating is nonsense. The world is beautiful despite all the problems.

When the refugees returned to their town on Sunday, there was no trace of the army, and town life had mostly returned to normal. Later, they found out that on that very first confusing day, the Austrians left the area retreating back to their country's border. The sole cannon shot was, according to Ustiluh residents, was intended as a double gesture of greeting and farewell. However, the “strategists” in town explained that the Austrians' cannon fire wanted to hold off the Russians until they could safely retreat in an orderly fashion. Of course, the question remained, what were the Austrians strategy? Why did they invade, and why did they retreat at the first hint of an actual war?

The town's strategists had no satisfactory answers to these questions. For lack of a better explanation, they decided that “Efraim Yossel” (Emperor Franz Josef) wanted to lay a trap for “Punya” (Czar Nicholas). The same scheme was attributed to “Velvel” (Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany), who pulled his troops back from Northwest Poland, allowing “Punya” to enter East Prussia. In the end, the Russian defeat at the Battle of Tannenberg confirmed this.

In any case, it was good for Ustiluh that the war moved away from its environs, and was left to speculating and jokes at “Punya's” expense.

However, when the Russian army advanced toward eastern Galicia laying siege to the fortress town of Pzemishil. Ustiluh' s residents were baffled. These latest developments did not fit with the “entrapment” theory they had promoted earlier. As far as Ustiluh's security was concerned, it was clear that even without the entrapment schemes promoted by some, the situation was more complex than they had imagined.

Pzemishil's stubborn resistance under siege encouraged the local Jews that the situation could change for the better.

However, the more this concealed feeling increased among the Jews, so did the fury of the local Ukrainian farmers increase.

[Page 40]

The latter were convinced that the Jews, using various means, were assisting the enemy; the proof was that they uncovered the secret of Pzemishil's survival.

They never understood why the Jewish peddlers bought large amounts of discarded flax, and … eggs. Now, the matter was obvious to all! For many years, the Jews had planned this war. They sent the aforementioned materials to Austria, who then used them to create an elastic net surrounding Pzemishil. The attacking Russian's bullets and shells simply bounced off the net!

True, nothing lasts forever, and the “wall of eggs” finally collapsed, and Pzemishil was conquered by the Czar's forces. There was, however, the more formidable wall – the Carpathian Mountains that now stood before the advancing Russian army. Those mountains were like a giant altar, upon which a seemingly limitless number of soldiers were sacrificed upon it for many months.

Anyone who had a friend or relative in the army worried about their well–being. It did not matter if the newspapers reported stunning victories for “our” army (Austria), or small tactical retreats “straighten out the front lines….” Ustiluh residents knew how to read between the lines. In any case, everyone understood that the enemy (Russia) was not attacking with peashooters. They were all enveloped in a critical situation.

Regarding military conscription, Ustiluh was not heavily affected, because most draft–age men were able to wriggle their way out of enlistment. From an economic standpoint, the war had no negative effects on the town during those early days of the conflict. On the contrary, most of the town's merchants registered improvement in their finances, some more and some less. As is usual in these cases, the rest of the townsfolks feasted on whatever crumbs were left over.

 

G. Sword, Pestilence and New Masters

From the killing fields of Galicia, as the retreating Russian army approached Ustiluh, a cholera epidemic now erupted throughout the regional towns and villages. The first victim in Ustiluh was Tzertyl, the wife of Simcha Schwalb. A pious and upright woman whose death, just like her life, was beset with heartache. A terrible fear swept through the town when the small funeral procession made its way to the cemetery, along with the report about the nature of the illness for which there was practically no cure.

True, the townspeople managed to provide Tzertyl with at least a respectable funeral. But, when the number of deaths multiplied, the authorities forbade holding funerals altogether. The dead were taken out and buried privately with few people attending, like a funeral for a miscarried fetus.

At that time, the Talmud Torahs were closed. Worker's apprentices failed to show up in the workshops. There were no minyans in the shuls. Movement throughout the town was drastically reduced, and public activity was almost completely suspended. Whoever did not have to go outside enclosed themselves in their homes with the windows shuttered. They drank much whiskey and consumed quantities of garlic, as recommended by medical experts. The community conducted a wedding in the cemetery between Crazy Isaac and Dumb Frieda Patika – a well–known providential omen to ward off plagues.

[Page 41]

But death continued to laugh at these useless measures. It penetrated the sealed windows and hunted down its victims despite all the medical efforts and the proverbial omens. It snatched its victims without remorse or distinction between families' pedigrees. The horror drowned out the mourners' grieving shrieks, freezing the tears on their cheeks.

Like a fox in a chicken coop, the disease might have continued reaping its harvest of unfortunate victims cowering in their houses. But, as commonly happens in times of crisis, some brave souls, people with a sense of communal responsibility rose to the occasion to help their townspeople. The first to lend a helping hand were those volunteers who were skilled in the only known remedy (at that time): massaging the ill person's body. They managed to save the lives of many stricken people, and after a while, the number of those recovering from the disease became greater than those who perished. Next came the dedicated members of the burial society who did their job without respite. Whenever anyone died, they arrived to remove the deceased as quickly as possible, to prevent the germs from spreading and to spare the other family members additional grief by having their loved one's body in their house. Lastly, were the collectors for charity who continued their holy work of providing the needy with food and drink, as needed.

The plague raged through the town for several weeks, its grim harvest laid to rest in the local cemetery. But, just as the cholera epidemic receded, new misfortunes loomed.

One Sunday morning in the month of Av (August), Ustiluh's residents were surprised to see Russian Army units in town. They arrived the previous night and took up positions along the banks of the Bug River. People who lived in the area were ordered to move to the east side of town. The Russians warned the townspeople not to wander in the streets. The relocation began right away: men, women and children, some in vehicles, some on foot, loaded down with bedding, clothes, and food, began trudging eastward.

In the larger courtyards of the older houses, dozens of families gathered, along with their suitcases and bundles, grouped by which street or Shtiebel they belonged. The scenes were reminiscent of waiting rooms at a train station. People who prayed in the Rizhiner Shtiebel found shelter in the warehouse and yard of Reb Koneh Pomerantz. Reb Koneh was a well to do wheat dealer who inherited the business and the large house from his father, Reb Yehoshua. The man of the house, tall, with a pointy white beard and thick eyebrows, mingled among his agitated guests, encouraging the women with comforting words and the men with a whiff of snuff tobacco from his silver case.

Among the refugees were Yossel and his family, and the Lemberger family, whose mother, a survivor of the cholera outbreak, was still recovering from her illness. She was lying on a pile of pillows, a gaunt figure with a yellow tinged face.

Toward evening, Shmulik's mother realized that she forgot a pillow at home. Without telling anyone, Shmulik ran home to get the pillow.

The streets were empty; the cloudy skies fostered a sense of dread.

[Page 42]

Shmulik panicked and thought to flee back to his mother. He stopped when he realized that Maya Lemberger, who worked for his sister Sima the seamstress, would consider him a coward. He made his way to his house that was near the defensive trenches. Even in this part of town not a soul was to be found.

Shmulik noticed plumes of smoke rising above the Bug River Bridge. He grabbed the pillow and prepared to rush back. Out of nowhere the elderly Yisrael Dovrishes appeared before him.

“Ah, Shmulik,” exclaimed the old man. “Come to the Shtiebel; we need a minyan for Mincha.” Shmulik stood there dumbfounded. Is this man sane, he wondered?

“Why are you standing there? Come along!”

At that moment, an explosion resonated in the sky. Although it was a short blast, it seemed as if the world's ceiling collapsed and fell to the earth. “Is this the end of the world?” The thought flashed momentarily in Shmulik's mind.

Heaven and earth, however, did not disappear. Both he and the old man were healthy and unscathed. Even the pillow Shmulik held in his hand was undamaged. He did notice that the Bug River Bridge was destroyed, some of its remnants floating on the water.

Maya was the first to notice his return to the courtyard, and announced, “Here's Shmulik!”

He passed the test….

The townspeople huddled in their houses and courtyards for three days and nights, filled with trepidation for what the future would bring. From time to time, the Russians fired shells toward the river probing for some response from the Austrians, but received none.

In the meantime, the guests settled in to their new lodgings. The custom of Ustiluh's women to bake enough challahs on Friday to last for the coming week served them well. No one lacked bread that week. Some of the more pragmatic women remembered to bring along containers of jelly with them to spread on their bread, something that helped those recovering from cholera.

The barrage of bullets in the background no longer seemed to make an impression on anyone. At any rate, the gunfire did not disrupt the women chatting in the courtyard. Yossel found a quiet corner where he could look into “Chovat HaLevavot (Duties of the heart)”. Menashe, the head of the Lemberger family preferred a more public venue where he studied Midrash in the traditional singsong melody, murmuring to himself while stroking his beard. All the while, Shmulik, along with the rest of the curious group, peered through the cracks in the gate. They were monitoring the activities and movements of the various military units, infantry and cavalry, as they passed quietly through the town's main street.

In those humid evenings lighting any fires was prohibited. People who were worn out from the daytime idle chatter, found it difficult to fall asleep. Many twisted and shifted from side to side, writhing in the darkness. In contrast, the band of the curious were now following the fires that began appearing everywhere, trying to identify which villages were burning.

[Page 43]

The red skies prompted the men to speculate what was causing the sky's change of color. For the young women and girls, it conferred a mysterious, almost magical sensation. They sat clustered together on wool blankets in a circle, whispering in hushed fearful tones about past happenings and even humorous incidents all at once. On life's frustrations and even a few suicides, which promoted the fables of dead people wandering in the night.

Redemption arrived unexpectedly.

Tuesday afternoon, the probing of the Russian artillery stopped, leaving everyone with an uneasy feeling that the quiet was just temporary. The sound of a horse galloping in the distance was occasionally heard. But, when it grew dark, they heard the sound of marching boots and rattling vehicles that continued for some time.

Later on, the evening became quiet, as silence spread its wings over the countryside. Yet, not all living things were at ease. “The Splendor of Creation” huddled behind locked doors, fearful and nervous about what the future will bring, listening to the dark silence.

Suddenly, someone noticed the northern skies became red. A fire was raging out of control as the glow of the blaze grew stronger spreading throughout the sky. Its reflection lit up the faces of the frightened and helpless people strewn throughout the area.

A few brave individuals opened the gate and went out to verify the fire's location. Slowly and quietly, they advanced toward the flames that were rising above the rooftops, indicating that it was close by. In a moment, the fire reached the main town square, through which the main road passed in its descent to the lake (“Stav”). Baruch Hashem, the fire is beyond the town!

From a hill overlooking the Luga River valley, they could see the long bridge and the flour mill engulfed in enormous flames that were reflected in the lake's waters on the right and the Bug River to the left. Not a soul could be seen in the area, yet with that silent backdrop there was an unusual combination of sounds. The sound of the water spilling into the Bug from the Luga along with the popping noise of wood consumed by the flames, together with the swishing sound made by the huge smoldering trees falling into the river.

The people stood transfixed by the awe–inspiring scene. They returned to their courtyard and announced, “The Stav Bridge is burning; the Russians apparently have fled.”

The people were not quite sure that they were truly safe, so a larger group set out toward the defensive trenches located at town's edge. Proceeding slowly and cautiously, they reached the trenches, only to find them empty. By the light of a few small lanterns, they could see evidence of a hasty withdrawal.

Now from the south came the verification for which they had hoped. From their appearance, they were two German Army soldiers, wearing their steel helmets and rifles in hand. Pale and exhausted they made their way to the group, questioning them on the whereabouts of “the Russ.” Are they still in town? When did they flee, last night? Great, thank you.

[Page 44]

They turned around and disappeared into the night.

The following afternoon, a sizeable German infantry unit arrived, staging an ostentatious entrance. The soldiers' cheery eyes matched the smiling sun that joyfully shone that day sparkling on their steel helmets, illuminating the eyes of Ustiluh's citizens.

They truly arrived as liberators, not as conquerors. The soldiers were relaxing and enjoying a light meal. All at once, Jews of all ages approached them in a first–time encounter with German soldiers, and were amazed at what they found. Tall, blond young men in crisp uniforms. And their rations! White bread, sausages, vegetables, chocolate and beer. No wonder they were clobbering “Punya.”

The Jews struggled to express their feelings in Germanized Yiddish. The soldiers, puffing on their pipes answered them, “Ja, ja…” (“Yes. Yes”). Translation: we don't understand what you are saying, but we know that you are well–intentioned and are our friends.

This peaceful scene quickly evaporated the next day when the “friendly boys” began rounding up some of their “friends” for forced labor reinforcing defensive positions and rebuilding the destroyed river bridges. Ustiluh residents, like all the liberated Jews, considered themselves partners with the conquering German forces. They were not particularly interested in performing forced labor. Especially since a more profitable task was at hand.

The local farmers, including the residents of the Gentile Street, abandoned their homes and followed the retreating Russian army eastward. Their forsaken fields were laden with ripe grain, Now, whoever could, went to check the empty villages, large sacks in hand.

The German army remained in Ustiluh for only two weeks. An essential strategic task awaited them: to strike at the Czar's retreating army. The job of maintaining order in Ustiluh was left to various Austro–Hungarian Army riff raff who entered the town afterwards. Slovakian farmers, old stubborn men served as sanitation workers. Young, arrogant Polish boys were deputized as policemen. Appointed over all the above were German and Hungarian speaking officers. All of these were no less anti–Semitic than the Russians.

The military governor resided in the regional capital city Ludomir. He was a villainous type who stood out in his cruelty. All of his underlings throughout the area did their utmost to find favor in his eyes by imitating his brutal conduct.

The provisional government began rationing food. Bread allocation was shrinking from month to month, to near starvation levels, and travel restrictions were throttling the populace. The wooden bridge that the new rulers built over the Bug River was nicknamed “the golden bridge.” The reason was that a permit to cross it required payment of 15 Rubles in gold coins. (In Austrian banknotes, this was a huge sum.)

[Page 45]

On the sprawling lands beyond the Bug, people were telling astounding tales. There was a free economy there, where they sold delicious pastries like in normal times. For sure, no one bought the expensive crossing permit merely for leisure. These people did not complain about the state of emergency, but they were the exception. The general populace suffered great hardship due to the grim conditions. Hunger, however, is a strong motivator. When the supplies and grain from the nearby abandoned villages were finished, the residents, including children, began trying to reach some of the further towns, lugging containers of kerosene, salt, matches, and other goods to barter for grain and beans. Of course, those appointed to uphold law and order did not engage in such activities and tried to catch the criminals. Here was an opportunity for the brave Austrian heroes to level fines, confiscate contraband merchandise, and even send people to jail. This, in addition to various extortion schemes and false accusations that they leveled against the Jewish population while performing their sanitation and administrative duties.

 

H. Famine

If, during normal times, people are challenged by the long, boring, freezing winter months, all the more so was this the case during troubled times. The cost of staple items rose daily, while peoples' source of income declined. So, we may assume that Ustiluh's citizens looked forward to spring 5676 (1916) with greater than usual excitement. At the very least, in the warming weather they would not need to wrap themselves with extra layers of clothing. As to food, whoever had a small plot of land near his house could raise his own vegetables. Someone who did not have a yard could visit the abandoned fields filled with all sorts of after–growth, from which one could prepare all sorts of dishes that fooled one's digestive tract. Despite this, people were constantly seeking more nourishing stuff to eat.

And so, the local authorities found creative ways to utilize these forsaken fields. The military officer who served as mayor arranged to sow vast areas with grain seeds and potatoes. He employed hundreds of Ustiluh's residents for this work, paying them enough to purchase half a kilogram of bread. Those who felt this wage was too low were free to seek more rewarding employment elsewhere.

Only a few brave souls succeeded in this. Shmulik was not one of them. Following the advice of some friends from the Shtiebel, they traveled around the nearby villages to barter goods for different goods. But this required a degree of flattery, deceit, and other outstanding character traits that Shmulik found intolerable. He decided to go back to planting potatoes for the mayor.

Still, even this work involved some trickery to partially compensate for the unjust wages being paid the workers. But, in this case, the methods used were available to all, and almost everyone succeeded at it.

[Page 46]

When the planting was finished, all the workers kept a few potatoes in their buckets, covering them with their jackets. They carried the buckets on their shoulders, with its opening against their backs as if they were empty. In this way, they marched past the soldier guarding the area singing to themselves:

We pass like free people
Ignoring the Memorial Day
Of his father and mother
Without fear and trepidation
We walk slowly and easily
Please, quietly…

When the next shift of workers arrived and began emptying the buckets, the latter hurriedly hid their pickings under mounds of earth, intending to retrieve them later. Although these efforts repeated themselves daily, only a few people were ever able to salvage their booty. This was because the fields were guarded by soldiers. When the smuggled spuds began sprouting the field was covered with circular growths of potato plants. All the field workers recognized the secret of their unusual appearance.

Even before the end of the potato planting season, the “mounding” procedure began. Now, the workers were permitted to take home whatever was found under the circular thickets. These potatoes were transparent like glass, and so they appeared after cooking them. Those who were unwilling to forego them would fry them. Instead of oil, which was unavailable, they rubbed the frying pan with slices of onion…. The taste was beyond description ….

This particular dish usually appeared on Yossel's Friday night table. but with a twist: the potato “omelets” were put into boiling water so they would have soup in honor of Shabbat. The problem was that the potatoes did not survive the hot environment and disintegrated back to their original state. This was the sole cooked food they ate that night, along with a few slices of corn bread, which people considered the main course. Everyone present at the table tasted one spoonful of the soup and without comment did not eat any more. Yossel himself could not restrain himself and remarked, “This is a bit too much!”

No one sang any traditional Shabbat chants that night. The blessing for the Creator was recited quietly over the corn bread.

Alas, Shabbat that week was a dismal one.

Despite the return of winter, the overall situation somewhat improved. Including that of Yossel. This was because Sima's sewing shop that had been closed due to lack of customers now came back to life. People's clothing became worn out, and they needed at least some warm attire for the winter.

[Page 47]

If they could not afford cloth from a store, which were then few and far between– the military warehouses in town were filled with gray–green rucksacks. Although these were made for military needs, when nothing else was available they could be used to sew clothes. Even His Majesty the Kaiser's loyal soldiers agreed. Dozens of men and women earned some income smuggling these sacks by wearing them underneath their regular clothing.

On occasion, however, Gerstel the commandant of the Ustiluh gendarmerie caught a group of unusually fat individuals walking on the road. He ordered them to remove their clothes (the women were permitted to conceal themselves behind the trees) and to hand over all the “excess” clothing. Those caught returned home much thinner, and received fines and were sometimes jailed. Nevertheless, these activities continued since people needed to make some money. In this way, thousands of gunny sacks made their way to the tailors and seamstresses in town.

Even Shmulik finally found some work. The squads that delivered water to Ustiluh residents employed many workers who built defensive barriers made from the wild forest reeds. When this project finished, he learned how to weave wicker baskets for the water squad personnel, which kept him busy until spring. After that, the army–supplied reeds became dried out and were unusable for weaving baskets. But, at that point, the field jobs began until summer's end.


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. This is an imaginary exchange between the cantillation notes (ta'amim or trop) for reading the Torah. The meaning of each note is taken out of its context to serve as a metaphor for “simple,” “broadly explain,” “uphold,” “attack” or “confront,” etc. Return
  2. This was not the local rabbi; it was someone who lectured on ethical topics and self–improvement. Return

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