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[Page 89]

The Volkovysk Fire-Fighters

 


An Appeal to American Landsleit After the Second Great Fire of 1908

 


Ostroger (Kosciuszko) Gasse Before the First World War
On the right side of the picture, the old Firefighters Headquarters Building can be seen

 

Fires, and fear of fires, occupied a prominent place in the lives of the Jewish towns in the former Pale of Settlement in Russia, and in the lives of their Jewish residents.

In addition to all the other calamities such as epidemics, anti-Semitism, czarist decrees, and other tribulations and aggravations, fires belonged to the class of irremediable aggravations in the Jewish shtetl. Often, on a beautiful summer day, in the span of a few hours, such a fire would transform tens and hundreds of balebatim and merchants into paupers, who had no other alternative but to go out into the world with a letter from those who were burned out, in order to beg for a living.

It is necessary to take into consideration, that in those years the concept of insurance “Strakhovka” was not a widespread concept. When a calamity occurred, and a fire broke out during the summer in a shtetl, where most of the houses and stores were constructed out of wood, and they were dried out on account of the summer heat – the cry of “Pozhar! Pozhar!” (Fire! Fire!), alone would instill fear and panic among the residents, because it wasn't possible to tell when and where the fire would be stopped. If a fire broke out at one end of the city, immediately at the other end, people began emptying out furniture, bedding and other possessions from their houses. Mothers would run off to gather to locate their children, and a pall would fall over the city.

In every Jewish shtetl, fires would occur periodically, some smaller, some larger, that would etch themselves so strongly into the memories of the populace, that the resident Jews would use them as the principal markers in reckoning time: “before the great fire,” and “so many and so many years after the great fire”…[1] Volkovysk also had such fires: The first was in 1886 and the second fire in 1908. It is therefore no wonder, that the establishment of the firefighters organization was received by the Volkovysk Jewish populace with great joy and satisfaction. Jews from all classes and walks of life belonged to the fire-fighting organization, and the fire-fighters organization grew from year-to-year, it developed and took over a more prominent place in the lives of the Volkovysk Jewish population.

The story of the Volkovysk Firefighters Organization also provides an insight into the lives of the Jewish people of Volkovysk. Despite the fact that the Firefighters Organization was a general, municipal entity,-- almost all of its members were Jews, and among the approximately two hundred members that the organization counted in the years up to the Second World War, there were barely a handful of Christians. One could also see this in the names of the members who belonged to the Volkovysk fire brigade at various times, who protected the lives and property of the residents. Among the members of the fire-fighters, one could find men from all walks of life and professions: glaziers, musicians, watchmakers, bakers, butchers, storekeepers, barbers, shoemakers, tailors, garment seamers, shokhatim, dry good storekeepers, metalworkers, ironmongers, hired hands, hoteliers, metalworkers, cigarette makers, artists, hat-makers, etc.

[Page 90]

Also, the firefighters' orchestra, which was founded later, consisted mostly of Jews, and during its time developed itself to a high level of quality.

* * *

After the first great fire, Tuvia Fenster tells, Koppel Isser Volkovysky proposed that a fire brigade be established. The proposal pleased the people, and they went to the governor of [the] Grodno [province] to learn about the necessary formalities.

The first meeting about this matter was held in the yard of the elder Jesierski. The town officials came to this initial organizing meeting: the Pristav, the Notary Beyrashevsky, the Postmaster Schwab, the Tax Inspector Zhdanov, and the Doctor Olshevsky. All the details were worked out, but regarding the question of uniforms for the firefighters, there was a difference of opinion. An agreement could not be reached whether the firefighters should wear badges, or could discharge their responsibilities with only a red hat, or perhaps just with an armband, and whether they can wear these emblems all week, or only during the time they were involved in putting out a fire. The elder Jesierski helped to arrive at a compromise, and Koppel Isser's proposal was accepted.

The first firefighter in Volkovysk was Mottel Kilikovsky (who is also known under the name Motkeh Pas).

He was all of seventeen years old when he – the first – came to the office, and volunteered to become a firefighter. Mottel Kilikovsky, who is today in America (Hartford, Connecticut), provided us with a number of interesting details and episodes in the history and development of the Volkovysk firefighters organization.

The first chief of the firefighters was tall Zhdanov. During his time, the firefighters were divided into several sections – bucket brigade, mechanized brigade, and ladder-climbing brigade, the Lazarshchikehs, as they were called in town. Kilikovsky was the leader of the Lazarshchikehs, who would climb up onto the roofs. His ambition was to become the top commander of the fire brigade, and he achieved this.

The fire chiefs, in chronological order were: Zhdanov, Rusanov, two Christian chiefs, Abraham Neiman (with him, the tradition of Jewish fire chiefs began), Abraham Galiatsky (the barber), Motkeh Kilikovsky; the last fire chief was Melekh Khantov.

At the beginning, the fire-fighters command post was in a small house. However, later, a large building was put up with a jail and with stores. There was also a large ‘garage’ called the ‘pozharny serai[2].’ There was a machine in the garage with a wheel which turned itself in all directions in order to spray water in all directions. Eight men would pump, four on each side. Water was carried in 4-5 barrels.


Translator's footnotes:

  1. How well I recall, while trying to fix my grandfather's age, I asked him “When were you born?” He answered: nokh dem ershten Pozhar (after the first great fire). My grandmother was equally helpful, when asked the same question: nokh dem tzvayten Pozhar (after the second great fire). Return
  2. Literally the ‘Fire-fighters abode.’ Return


[Page 91]

Establishment of the Fire-Fighters Organization and Command

 

The Jewish Commandants of the Fire-Fighters Brigade
Vol202a.jpg
 
Vol202b.jpg
Abraham Galiatsky
 
Abraham Neiman

 

Vol202c.jpg
 
Vol202d.jpg
Melekh Khantov
 
Mottel Kilikovsky

 


The Firefighters Organization Under the German Occupation in the Time of the First World War

Right to Left – First Row from the Bottom: Epstein (from the Glass Store), Chaim Galiatsky, Langbord (from the Duners
[1]
Second Row: Mushatsky (the Metalworker's), Shmuel Shkolnik, Essmont (a Christian), Shmuel Kaplan, Tishkevich (the Burgomaster), Abraham Galiatsky Commandant), Marantz, A Christian, Mottel Kilikovsky (Assistant-Commandant), Herschel the Tinsmith's son, Langbord, Yoss'l Pikarsky (Poliak)
Third Row: Leib Ein, Mazya (The one with a limp), Alter Galai, Galiatsky (The Shoemaker's son), Feivel
[2], the Ironmonger's grandson, David (of the Matchases), Berel Epstein (The Metalworker), Ephraim Yelsky, Slutsky, Yoss'l Boyarsky (The Hatmaker), Moshe Winetsky (The Watchmaker), Shchupak (A son of Noah the Shokhet), Langbord (from the Duners), Stein (The Butcher), Shipiatsky (The Garment Seamer), Galiatsky (a second son of the Shoemaker)
Fourth Row: Shchupak, Dubinsky, Shim'keh Levkov (The Musician), Leizer Shiff, Yoss'l Davidovsky (The Garment Seamer), Motkeh Leib Kaplan, Moshe Pripstein, David Pripstein, Langbord (from the Duners)
[3], Mottel Kaplan
Last Row: Shevakhovich, A Christian, Moshe'keh Rutchik, Leizer Sokolsky, Pesach Galiatsky, Israel Yellin (A Musician), A Christian (Yodzhik's son), Epstein (from the Glass Store), Mushatsky (from the Matchases)

 

At the end of the previous century, in 1898, instructions arrived from the governor of Grodno to establish a firefighters organization in Volkovysk. The seat of the municipal government was then found on the Ostroger Gasse, near the “Weissen Ostrog[4]”. The young Jewish people reacted vigorously to the appeal of the city government, and volunteered as members in the newly founded fire-fighters organization.

As previously noted, the first to sign up was the seventeen year-old Mottel Kilikovsky. And here is how it happened:

One fine summer day Motkeh Kilikovsky was taking a walk in the street with a couple of his friends, when they saw a circle of people clustered around Chafetz's stand where soda water and ice cream (marozheneh) was

[Page 92]

sold, and because of this, it was a sort of ‘center’ a place where young people would gather, talk and pass the time. When Mottel approached in order to find out what was going on, he saw a policeman (strazhnik) tacking up an announcement (obyavlenya) onto a telegraph pole, in which it is declared that, in connection with the order of the governor, a Fire Brigade is being established in Volkovysk, and volunteers are requested to come sign up at the “Oprava.” When Motkeh read this over, he immediately went to the Oprava, and signed up for the Fire Brigade. When the young Kilikovsky came into the secretariat to sign up, Bolodkov the secretary went over to the other officials saying with wonder: smotrityeh, gospoda, ietcheh nye viklieli, a uzheh yavlisya adyin vpisatsiya (look, good sirs, we haven't yet posted all the announcements and already someone has come to sign up). He then opened up a new ledger and entered the first volunteer – Mordechai Kilikovsky.

Only a few weeks later, the first meeting of the fire-fighters took place. Approximately forty-five young people, almost all Jewish, joined up. Zhdanov also came to the meeting. He was the city inspector. He was tall, and heavy, he lived on Karczyzna [street] near the white jail. He was responsible for controlling the licenses and permits for the stores – but he would reach an understanding with his clients… he thanked all the members for their interest, and the firefighters organization then elected him as the first chief. The chairman of the firefighters organization was Andreyev, the Volkovysk investigative judge.[5] Shortly thereafter, the firefighters met again, and a special officer of the 16th Brigade (artillery) was invited to muster the firefighters. Zhdanov organized the group, and everyone received an assignment: a group for the machines, a group for water, a group of “Lazarshchikehs,” who climbed up to roofs on ropes. Motkeh Kilikovsky became the leader of the climbers. He oversaw a group of twenty men. He was always the first and fastest one to enter into a fire.

Zhdanov then brought new pumping equipment from Warsaw, the number of barrels was increased to fifteen, and the “Izvoshchikehs” were mobilized who were responsible for hitching the horses at the first fire alarm. Those would arrived first at the scene received a special double reward.


Translator's footnotes:

  1. A Volkovysk Family Return
  2. Possibly a typographical error. More likely, Feivel. Return
  3. Likely counted twice, given the configuration of the rows. Return
  4. Reference to the White Jail building at the corner of Kosciuszko (a.k.a. Aleksandryjska) Gasse and the Poritzisheh Gasse (a.k.a. Dworjanska), as marked on the map in the Wolkovisker Yizkor Book. Return
  5. Possibly a District Attorney, or equivalent. Return


Founding of the Fire-fighters Orchestra

 


Fire Fighters Command and Magistrate's Building

 


A Fire Drill by the Fire-fighters on Poliachek's Building

 


A Drill by the Fire-fighters on the Grodno Gasse
(The house in the picture was the property of Yankel Palteh's father-in-law's parents and lastly belonged to Adin)

 

The commander after Zhdanov was Rusanov. Before this, he was the police inspector's assistant (Помощник Исправник). As a result of his initiative, a firefighter's orchestra was established. He developed an understanding with Mottel Kilikovsky, and gave him the responsibility for the organization of the orchestra. Kilikovsky really took to this task, and he invited many residents of Volkovysk who had musical talent, such as Yisrael Nakdimon, Yankel Hurwitz, Rutchik and select members of the Volkovysk musical troupes. There was no cornet player in Volkovysk, so Mottel Kilikovsky went with Kereyevian, the oldest policeman, to Volp and they brought back a cornet player from there. Yisrael Nakdimon became the bandleader. From that point on, they worked speedily for a few weeks on rehearsals and marching practice. When everything was ready,

[Page 93]

the fire-fighters appeared in the streets, marching and playing. They traversed all streets: Grodno, the Wide Boulevard, Ostroger, and the Schulhof. The city abandoned its normal daily work routine, and the entire population participated in this important holiday of the fire-fighters organization in Volkovysk. The following summer, a special park was rented, near Jesierski's house, behind Chaim Warshawer's abode. The firefighters' orchestra would play there twice a week during the summer months. A buffet was installed there with all manner of beverages and ice cream (marozheneh). Almost all the young people would come to these concerts. The girls would pull the uniform buttons off the fire-fighters…

A few years later, a new place was rented for the fire-fighters orchestra. This was on the Poritzisher Gasse. From there it was possible to walk over to the Volkovysk Municipal Park, on the Piesk road, in the vicinity of the Zamkov Forest, near Bulharin. The Yiddish theater troupes would meet in that park. That was the center of all celebrations in Volkovysk. When the circus came to town, it would arrange to have its shows there. The orchestra developed considerably. All its summer engagements were held there. All this took place during the time that Rusanov was the chief commander.

At that time, the fire-fighters organization had already grown, and consisted of two hundred men. An associate membership program (Членй) was also implemented, that is, apart from the volunteers, who had to participate in fire drills and operations, many balebatim assumed responsibility to act as overseers of possessions that had to be put out into the street during a fire. Several months later, the active fire-fighters received caps with blue bands, and the associates – caps with red bands. There was a drill every week.


The Jewish Fire Chiefs

 


Funeral of the Firefighter Zilberman in the Year 1920
The funeral cortège stretches from the Schulhof in the direction of the cemetery; the stores (to the right), are all closed.

 

After Rusanov, there were two Christian fire chiefs, and then Abraham Neiman became the fire chief – the first Jewish commander of the fire brigade. After him were Abraham Galiatsky (the Barber) and Mottel Kilikovsky, the first fire-fighter in Volkovysk. In the time that Mottel Kilikovsky was the commander, he instituted a stringent discipline and allocated a great deal of time to drills, and the fire-fighters would climb on Poliachek's three-story building. The entire city, young and old alike, would come to observe these drills.

In the time of the Russian regime (under the Czar), Mottel Kilikovsky was the assistant commander, and also during the time of the German occupation in the First World War, and also a short time thereafter (under the Poles) – the chief commander of the Fire Brigade.

The extent to which the firefighters organization was beloved by the city, can be seen from the fact that when in the time of the First World War, a firefighter died, Ephraim Zilberman's son, a large funeral took place, and the entire city came to show its respect for one of its own loyal servants and overseers.

When Mottel Kilikovsky left for America in 1924, the fire-fighters orchestra came to see him off at the train station, together with a large crowd. It was in this fashion that Volkovysk took its leave of, full of love, for its first volunteer member and important activist on behalf of the firefighters organization.


[Page 94]

The Fire Brigade
Under the Leadership of Melekh Khantov

When the merchant, Melekh Khantov (Poliachek's son-in-law) took over the leadership of the fire brigade in 1919, it had altogether, a couple of wooden barrels with a broken machine (e.g. pump). Under Khantov's leadership, the firefighters organization grew vigorously. Thanks to his ever-present leadership, even under the most difficult circumstances, this institution was put on a higher plateau during Khantov's administration. In the year 1926, the Fire Brigade consisted of ninety members with military training, and a well-rehearsed orchestra, under the direction of Mot'yeh Zilberman, who was famous throughout the vicinity. The brigade at that time already possessed a variety of firefighting equipment, among them, five machines of the latest design, ten metal barrels, a larger number of ladders and six horses.

In 1929, the fire brigade acquired a second motor-driven pump, which was significantly larger than the first. It had four nozzles, such that in case of a fire, it was possible to spray water through four separate hoses. This modern pump cost $1,400 on order. Shortly thereafter, the brigade acquired a large reservoir truck, with a capacity of three thousand liters of water, which had two separate pumps with which to spray the streets, in line with the practice of larger cities.


Celebration of the Thirtieth Anniversary in the Year 1929

 


The 30th Anniversary Parade of the Firefighters in the Year 1929

 


Volkovysk Firefighters

Right to Left: Leizer Shiff, Chaim Velvel Klatshkin, Yankel Goldberg (Husband of Shosh'keh Kvachuk), Itcheh Botvinsky, Moshe'l Shakhnovich, Ephraim Yunovich and Melekh Khantov (The Commandant)

 


The Firefighters' Orchestra

Right to Left – First Row, Seated: Yankel Goldberg (Kvachuk), Mot'cheh Zilberman (The Conductor), Melekh Khantov (Commandant), Ephraim Yunovich (Adjutant), Avreml Kilikovsky, Tzal'yeh Kilikovsky, Yankel Pereminsky, Shalkovich, L. Travinsky
Second Row, Standing: Shlitt (A Christian), Yud'l Pereminsky, Yankel Beckenstein, The Barber, Y. Nakdimon, Zapoliansky, Lichter (from the Orphanage), Kossowsky, Podolinsky (The Carpenter), L. Shifran, Mopsik
Third Row, Standing: Rubinstein, Becker, Y. Tkach, Leizer Shevakhovich

 

In 1929, Volkovysk celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of its fire-fighters organization, which had reached a high level of proficiency in these thirty years, under the leadership of Melekh Khantov, who gave this work his entire energy and full time. The adjutant of the Fire Brigade during Khantov's tenure was Ephraim Yunovich. Also, the former magistrate, Mr. Eustakhevich related to the Fire Brigade with great interest. And it was not only in the area of developing a modern and well-stocked inventory that Melekh Khantov excelled. He

[Page 95]

especially focused on the training of the firefighters, and to achieve this goal, he established special training courses. It was during Khantov's tenure that water was transported by motorized truck instead of by horse-drawn wagon, as had been done up to that time.

That the Volkovysk Fire Brigade stood on a higher level and was no ordinary small-town amateur organization, is demonstrated by the fact that it received a certificate of honor from the central organization of Fire Brigades in Warsaw (Volkovysker Leben, June 21, 1929). According to that same publication, the leadership of the Volkovysk Fire Brigade was the only one of the institutions that received such a certificate. The certificate was presented on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the organization. The anniversary was celebrated in an imposing manner. Government officials and representatives of fire brigades from the neighboring towns came to the celebration. The celebration was conducted in accordance with a prescribed program. The demonstration drills and outstanding use of the newly acquired tools and modern equipment to rescue the helpless in the event of a fire, from the highest houses, demonstrated the high level on which the Volkovysk Fire Brigade had been placed.

In the evening of that day, a general richly served meal was provided in the yard of the train station, where individual guests stood up and offered greetings to the magistrate and commandant Khantov for their leadership given for the benefit of the Fire Brigade.

Fifteen people were given citations from the central organization: For thirty years of active service – Commandant Khantov, Essmont, Moshe Pripstein, David Pripstein, Ephraim Yelsky; for twenty years – Berel Weinberg, and Moshe Weiner; for fifteen years – Yitzhak Levin and Myrim Stein; for ten years – Ephraim Yunovich (adjutant), Leizer Shiff, Zaydl Guralnik, Hirsch Orinovsky, Hirsch Gurevich, and Yaakov Pripstein.

Apart from this, the central organization in Warsaw established that gold medals would be awarded to the above mentioned fire-fighters for their service during the ten years of [newly] liberated Poland.

To see how far Khantov excelled as the commandant of the fire-fighters we can see from a news item, which was published in the Volkovysker Leben of May 7, 1937:

“After the exercises of May 3, a fiery decoration ceremony took place in front of the personnel. In the presence of Poviatov, the commandant of police, and an instructor of the firefighters, the magistrate expressed his recognition of commandant Melekh Khantov for his long years of service for the benefit of the local firefighting personnel. Thanks to Khantov's leadership – the magistrate said – personnel were developed with a strong discipline, and well trained in technical readiness, so much so, that they can be considered number one in the district. The population of Volkovysk needs to consider itself fortunate in having such an energetic commandant, who stands on his watch to guard the city from the danger of fire.

Wishing him many more long years of remaining in his post, the magistrate decorated him, accompanied by the sounds of the orchestra, with the highest decoration – a gold medal.

The fire-fighters Zaydl Mopsik and Yaakov Weiner were decorated with bronze medals; Meir Krum, Israel Koss and Shmeryl Minkovich – with service certificates.”

The orchestra also developed very well during Khantov's tenure. Mot'cheh Zilberman was designated as the

[Page 96]

bandleader, and the orchestra would perform at all celebrations and festive occasions. Grandiose balls were arranged in those years by the fire-fighters orchestra every Saturday night, and young people were eager to attend, and took good advantage of these events. Proceeds went to the fire-fighters organization. The orchestra would also arrange concerts and often traveled to the surrounding towns on various evenings, and in this way, it would increase the income to the Volkovysk fire-fighters organization.

It is appropriate to delineate the role the Fire Brigade played during the time of the First World War, when sovereignty turned over, and often the city would remain without anyone in charge, and those individuals who under the thunder of artillery, risked their lives and maintained order and guarded the belongings of the residents, were the fire-fighters.

In the year 1915, when the Czarist regime left Volkovysk, and the German military had not yet appeared to enter the town and take over control – the city remained without government for a couple of days. The only protectors of the city at that time were the fire-fighters, who organized themselves into a militia. They were dressed in their fire-fighting uniforms with white armbands. And also after this, when the Germans entered the city, the fire-fighters remained in the municipal militia.


The Role of the Fire-fighters Organization
in the Unrest After the First World War

 


The Firefighters Organization with the Orchestra in the Year 1929

Right to Left – First Row, from the Bottom: Shevakh, A Christian, Yoshpeh, Yud'l Podolinsky, Mopsik, Avreml Kilikovsky (behind the last person), Mot'cheh Gurevich, Pripstein, Pereminsky (behind the last person), A Christian, Itcheh Rubinovich, Mot'cheh Zilberman (The Orchestra Conductor), Yitzhak Levin (The Medic), Shlitt (A Christian), Mendel Rutchik, Yankel Weiner
Second Row: Goldberg (standing), Mulya Einhorn, Ephraim Yelsky, 'Niomka Solkovich, Yud'l Shpak, Velvel Klatshkin, Motkeh Kilikovsky (Former Commandant), Melekh Khantov (Commandant), Pavensky (Burgomaster), Essmont (A Christian and Assistant-commandant), Nionia Fuchs (Adjutant), Aizik Werner, Ephraim Yunovich, Moshe Yanovsky, Pereminsky
Third Row: A Christian, Yankel Weiner, Stein (A Grandson of Yaakov Abraham the Dayan), Itzel Tchopper (?), Gandz, Zaydl (Bontsheh the Shoemaker's son), Uryonovsky, Pripstein, Moshe'l Movshovsky, Avreml Yunovich, Fishl Goshchinsky, Langbord (Graf), Aizik Pappa, Dodzhkeh Botvinsky (in mufti), Volya Lazarovsky (in mufti), Unknown
Fourth Row: Abba Berman, Pripstein, Shifran, Beckenstein (?), Zaydl, Gabriel Yellin, Nakdimon, Il'keh Lev

[Page 97]


A Group of Volkovysk Firefighters

Right to Left, Seated: Pay'eh Yunovich, Chaim Velvel Klatshkin
Standing: Leizer Shiff, Moshe Yanovsky

 


A Group of Firefighters

Right to Left Standing: Aizik Werner, Yud'l Shpak, Velvel Klatshkin
Seated: Nionia Fuchs

 

At the time the Germans left Volkovysk in the year 1919, when the Polish legions stood on one side of the city, by the Narew River, and the Russian Red Guards stood on the other side at the Shchara River (Slonim), the Volkovysk population found itself in a conflicted position, not knowing which of the two warring factions would take control of the city. News then arrived that Polish nationalists, with the help of Polish peasants, were carrying out pogroms against the Jews, especially in the villages and smaller towns, the discharged Jewish soldiers gathered themselves, along with the members of the Fire Brigade, and they decided to form a private self-defense group in Volkovysk itself. An effective action plan was then worked out. Arms were procured from the Germans, who had left the city, because they wanted the Jews to be able to confront the Poles and not let them take control, in order to make the retreat of the German military possible (the path from Volkovysk to Druzgenik was their only way out). The self-defense organization decided to cache the arms, and utilize them only against the Polish brigands, and not against the regular Polish legions, in order not to endanger the entire Jewish population. The members of the Jewish self-defense group were Jewish youth who came from all walks of life, and was made up mostly of Fire Brigade members.


The Fire Brigade Under Polish Rule

 


The Firefighter Command in the Year 1934

Right to Left, First Row, Bottom: Bassin, Vi'tcheh
[1] Kalir, Mopsik, Itcheh Botvinsky, Noah Fuchs, Yitzhak Levin (Medic), Mottel Halpern, Pereminsky
Second Row: Itzel Tchopper, Moshe Moshkovsky, Yankel Weiner, Nionia Khvalovsky, Ephraim Yunovich, Nionia Fuchs, Itzel Bereshkovsky (in mufti), Viktorovsky (a Christian), Melekh Khantov (he Commandant), A Christian, Christian, Essmont (Assistant-Commandant), Einstein (from Zelva), Yankel Goldberg (Kvachuk)
Third Row: Lisitsky, Kushnirovsky, A Christian (der Struzh), Avreml Podolinsky, Leizer Shiff, Itcheh Rubinovich, Berel Davidovsky, Zaydl, Moshe'l Savuolsky, Shepsel Feitelevich, Katz, Simcha Shevakhovich, Unknown, Langbord (Graf), A Man from Zelva, A Man from Zelva, Herschel Weiner

 

When the Polish regime took control of Volkovysk, it wanted immediately to disband the Jewish Fire Brigade and establish a Polish fire-fighters organization. A significant struggle then ensued. At the head of the fire

[Page 98]

-fighters organization stood Melekh Khantov, and his adjutant Nionia Fuchs. The entire Jewish population of Volkovysk, which knew the unqualified [good] relationship of this institution well, addressed the negotiations. Sholom Barash, a member of the municipal administration, and Mikhal [Zohn]-Mazya, secretary, turned worlds upside down, and did not permit the firefighters organization to be disbanded. The Poles, seeing the great resistance on the part of the entire Jewish population, then were forced to establish a second Fire Brigade on the new side of town (New Volkovysk), which took on the mission of integrating the two organizations, with the sole purpose of such a union being the elimination of a Jewish majority among the firefighters. In the eyes of those not familiar with the situation, this proposal had a very democratic appearance. But the Jewish masses instinctively felt that a danger lurked for the Jewish firefighters organization. Already, at the time of the first fire, which broke out in the city at that time, the Poles felt the strong fist of the Jewish firefighters – the butchers, porters, millers, carpenters and shoemakers – and in the end they were forced to abandon their plan. It was in this fashion that the Jewish Fire Brigade remained independent under its own command, which at that time, consisted of eighty loyal young men of the Jewish faith.

The Fire Brigade and its orchestra occupied a highly visible place in Jewish community life right up to the final years. But it is interesting to note that close to the outbreak of the last [sic: Second] World War, the anti-Semitic attitude toward the Jewish population had begun to affect such issues as the firefighters organization. Thus, the following news item was printed in The Volkovysker Leben of May 6, 1938 concerning the holiday of May 3:

“ At ten o'clock in the morning, prayers of joy emanated from the houses of worship of all faiths. In the Large Synagogue, the cantor and choir chanted the relevant verses from the Psalms, and the Rabbi spoke on issues of the day.

What made a great impression was the fact that the cohort of the Fire Brigade, in contrast to prior years, was this time not led by the Jewish Chief, M. Khantov, but by the former magistrate, Mr. Wolsky. Also, the standard was taken out of Jewish hands and carried by Christian firefighters. In general, it was noted that there was a sudden influx of new faces among the firefighters – a large number of Christians…”

In September 1939, when the Poles retreated from Volkovysk, before the Russians showed evidence of occupying the city, Volkovysk once again remained without rule. And at that time as well, the Jewish firefighters protected the Jewish population from pogroms.

When the Nazis occupied Volkovysk, they also appointed Khantov and Fuchs the leaders of the Fire Brigade, as leaders of the Jews in the Judenrat. Other senior members of the firefighters were also appointed to the Jewish police under the German occupation. All of this is indicative of the significant role that the firefighters organization played in the life of the Jewish community of Volkovysk.


Translator's footnote:

  1. Nickname for Avigdor Return

 

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