by Yerachmiel Moorstein
During the Second World War, (1939 - 1945) The Abrogator descended on the Jews of Europe. Six million lives were destroyed in the most terrifying Holocaust of our history, perpetrated at the hands of the Nazi beasts of prey and their allies, who subjected their victims to torture and transported them to gas chambers and crematoria in extermination camps.
The Holocaust did not pass over our town of Zelva. Our dear ones, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, with children in their arms, were taken like sheep to the slaughter, to Treblinka. There, they were suffocated, and burned because their one sin was that they were Jews, and no trace remains of this Jewish community today. In this town, located in Byelorussia, (White Russia) which was captured by Poland in the First World War, our fathers and forefathers lived for hundreds of years.
Our youth today in the Holy Land is not sensitive to the role of Diaspora Judaism from which we came. The concept of the Diaspora to our young people, conjures an image of the persecuted Jew who is weak, and lacking any initiatives requiring strength, a Jew who fears all gentiles, and seeks to alter events by reading the Psalms, and who closets himself away from danger, and hopes for the coming of the Messiah. It is our duty to convey to coming generations, that this Diaspora Judaism spawned proud warriors who knew how to take the battle to the enemy in trying times and under the most difficult circumstances.
Behold, I am one of the survivors from Zelva, a member of its last generation whose roots run deep in the soil which is damp with martyr's blood, one of the last witnesses of the life that went on there until its earth-shattering eradication from the map of Jewish life. The memory of our martyrs gave me no surcease in these last years, and I decided that I will not be able to rest, or be still, until I was able to preserve their memory, and together with other people from the town, we decided to approach the creation of this book, and to preserve in it what was known to us, for the sake of future generations. Our efforts have been fruitful, and we are in the midst of implementation.
We do not have official appointees, nor a community portfolio to describe the variegated life of the Jews who entered all aspects of economic and cultural life through work and art. We are witnesses that all those who left this town were -- and still are -- pioneers: kibbutzniks, reclaimers of the desert, workers on building the Holy Land and its security, and wise and educated people who contribute importantly to all walks of life.
I was born at the beginning of the twentieth century, and on the strength of personal memories alone, I present in this Memorial Book, with trepidation and a sacred sense, and with no small concern, what is known to me of life in Zelva in this period up to its destruction.
Community life in Zelva was not solely based on commercial considerations. Everything was done with a charitable sense, beginning from small groups up through organizations. Despite want, economic pressure, and the concern for food during the war years, Jews, especially the youth, organized themselves principally in Zionist groups, but also in the Bund as well as others.
While a social welfare office did not exist, a Jew who fell on hard times, or into difficult circumstances, received assistance from other Jews who made donations in many forms. Many were in dire straits, but no one was abandoned. Even widows and orphans who preferred hunger to a
handout, were served through anonymous charitable donations such as Maot Hittin and Kemhah Depaskha. Even the donor did not know to whom his donation went. Everyone had faith in the integrity of the facilitators.
Jewish unity and identity filled life with substance and interest. When a Jew was born, all of the members of the synagogue participated in this joy. If a Jew died, all stores closed during the time of the funeral. All Israel, as the saying goes, felt responsible for one another. No occasion, happy or sad, was ignored. News flew through the town like an arrow loosed from a bow. On the Shabbat, or on a holiday, the town rested, and the stores, mostly Jewish owned, were closed. No one came or went, apparently, because of a dominant Jewish presence affecting religious and educational matters. But for those who come after us, it is important that they know there was a second side to this, with difficult encumbrances on Jews. In all aspects of life, the Jew was denied opportunity and rights. It was forbidden for a Jew to be elected as Mayor. A Jew could not even be a street cleaner. If a Jew served in the armed forces, he was denied the opportunity to achieve the rank of an officer. When Jews were finally permitted grudging entry to universities, they had to put up with harassment and embarrassments from all sides. Jews were forbidden to own land or real property, and there was no opportunity to improve one's lot in life. In the absence of industry, the future looked bleak to the young people of the town. Anti-Semitism reared its ugly head and denied any peace of mind in the life of the country.
The only conclusion, which became apparent at the beginning of the century, was to emigrate. Tens found the strength to overcome their difficulties, crossed boundaries, and succeeded eventually in reaching the United States. Among these were three of my father's brothers, and a maternal uncle. During the years of the First World War, these emigrants were a source of support to whole families with no means in a little town, which during the war years was overrun by many armies and changed hands to the detriment of its inhabitants. When the Balfour Declaration was announced, many Jews saw in that act, the beginning of the period of Messianic redemption. The yearning for Zion strengthened, and the youth who were members of Histadrut, and He-Halutz began to make preparations to go to the Holy Land.
Most of the young people of Zelva did not have the means for such an undertaking, because they came from poor families with many children. The He-Halutz organization created a facilitating system that found these young people manual labor in order to qualify them to emigrate to the Holy Land when the time came. However, the Mandate administration that governed the Holy Land at the time, made a very limited number of entry certificates available, and therefore, many were unable to go. A second means was to attempt illegal entry. This effort which was organized before the onset of the Second World War, also claimed precious lives, as many were lost at sea.
And so, a random handful of about fifty souls from Zelva managed, one way or another to reach the Holy Land. The British Government in Palestine refused entry to the others, and so to our great pain, our parents, brothers and sisters were sacrificed, and nothing remains except for us to preserve their precious memory. The one thing we could do in memory of our martyrs was to create this memorial which will stand for generations to come. In addition to this Memorial Book, we have erected a marble memorial list in memory of these martyrs in the Holocaust Cellar in Jerusalem, and a second list in the Forest of Martyrs. Also a memorial scroll for Volkovysk in the cemetery of Nahalat-Yitzhak contains a memorial for Zelva as well.
In memory of the martyrs of Zelva, 22 former members of Zelva gathered on January 18, 1983 from all parts of Israel. Because of my effort, and the effective participation of Yitzhak Shalev and Dora Geiger, everyone present took on the objective to produce this Book. Donations of up to 1000 shekel were received to meet this goal. The committee was enlarged to include Menahem Levin, Mordechai Loshovitz and Sala Koyat.
by Yerachmiel Moorstein
|To remember and not forget,
The legacy of those beloved,
Who by girding themselves with strength,
Trod their way under great tribulation.
|In enlightened Europe, an advanced
nation, with educated people,
Are occupied with the technology
Of how to exterminate Jews.
|To Treblinka - to crematoria,
Because their sole crime,
They were taken without resistance,
For being a part of the Jewish people.
|And to these beasts of prey,
Thirsty for blood,
No one cries: Stop!
You are destroying a people !!!
|On this, their last journey,
To sacrifice their unsullied souls,
Their eyes raised, seeking salvation,
But raised in vain.
|Let the memory of the marauding Nazis
Who brought to an end
All our beloved people
Be an eternal shame and abomination
[Note: This historical excerpt was taken from an entry at the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, and can also be found in the Jewish Encyclopedia]
Zelva (Pol. Zelwa), town in Grodno oblast, Byelorussian S.S.R. Jews were accustomed to visiting the Zelva fairs from the end of the 15th century. A Jewish community, under the jurisdiction of the Grodno Kahal, was established in the late 16th century. During the 18th century, Jews traded at the local fairs, dealing in horses and in furs imported from Moscow. The lay and rabbinical leaders of Lithuania met at these fairs and after 1766, when the Council of the Four Lands was disbanded, Zelva became the customary meeting place for Rabbis of the region. Excommunications against the Hasidim were publicized here in 1781 and 1796, and a plan of action was drawn up to suppress the movement. In 1766 there were 522 Jews who paid the poll tax. In 1793, Zelva was annexed by Russia. There were 846 Jews in 1847, and 1,844 (66% of the total population) in 1897. Between the world wars, Zelva was part of independent Poland, and possessed Tarbut and Yavneh schools. In 1921, the Jewish community numbered 1,319 (64%). The community was annihilated in World War II.
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